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The Two BBCsBy Norman Lebrecht / May 20, 2004
With the BBC split into the dumb and the good, the new chairman has a fight on his hands to save the licence fee.
Take a trip to White City and you'll see how the BBC has gone to the dogs. The former sports stadium and all the land around was reconsecrated last week as a 17-acre BBC Media Village, sandwiched between the unsightly old Television Centre and the rampant commercial empire of BBC World. The architects are the fashionable Allies & Morrison. A 600-seat concert hall is planned, miles from the nearest audience.
Now hop on the Central Line to Oxford Circus to see John Reith's great Broadcasting House, enwrapped in a five-year redevelopment. At the Birmingham and Glasgow premises, hardhats are likewise obligatory. The BBC maintains 500 properties around the country and reconstruction is booming.
Do not mistake the BBC for what was once the British Broadcasting Corporation. It has become an uncontrollable conglomerate whose activities extend from urban regeneration to webcasting in America. These enterprises were never envisaged in its limited public licence. The BBC is an organisation that has lost its sense of direction, stumbling hopefully into virtual incoherence.
The new chairman, Michael Grade, had trouble finding his office on Monday morning on the third floor of the Media Village, and that was no surprise. The village is built as a ghetto, turned in upon itself around a Starbucks-fringed courtyard. Where the BBC once adopted Isaiah's vision that 'nation shall speak peace unto nation', it now talks introvertedly into its own cupped hands.
It is 16 years since Grade quit the BBC, ahead of John Birt's ice age, and the institution has changed beyond recognition. A cigar-chomping son of showbiz merchants, Grade served the BBC when it was the nation's main window on entertainment and information. Birt reconceived it as a spaceship full of management consultants. His successor, Greg Dyke, led a reckless chase for ratings. So profoundly did these two men blur the BBC's core purpose that no two members of its Executive can define the meaning of 'public service broadcasting' in the same words.
The dialect they adopt is Orwellian doublespeak. Outside the chairman's office, a foot-high slogan proclaims 'Governance and Accountability'. Passing executives give the wall a knowing wink. The BBC likes to keep its nominal governors on minimum information rations.
All that is about to change. Grade is the first television professional to become chairman, a former BBC1 Controller who knows all the twists and excuses. His first task will be to reconstitute the board of governors which failed the BBC so abjectly during the Hutton debacle. Up to one-third of its 12 members will go. The governors will start to act less like regulators and more like the board of a major public company, with an independent staff and secretariat. Grade will become, de facto, an executive chairman, engaged in decision-making rather than rubber-stamping. Ofcom will take over some of the governors' watchdog responsibilities.
Redefining the mission will not be easy, for what Grade has come into is not one BBC but two. There is the BBC of Birt and Dyke, several of whose proteges are contending for the director-general vacancy, and there is the tiny voice of BBC conscience which bleats away unheeded at the walls of the Media Village.
The dichotomy is spotlighted by a vicious internal row over the Last Night of the Proms. This chaotic jamboree is generally presented by a music expert, such as Radio 3's amiable Stephanie Hughes, whose lightly-worn authority keeps the jingoistic hilarities in perspective. But this year Lorraine Hegessy, controller of BBC1, stipulated that she would show the Last Night only if it were fronted by her presenter of choice, the grinning gardener Alan Titchmarsh. Her victory typified the dominance of the dumbing tendency within the BBC. Titchmarsh may love a good tune, but he has no sonata form. On the night when one BBC aims to elevate the nation, the other BBC attacks its presumption with a chatter-patter pruning fork.
Dumbing down has severely disabled the BBC's claim to charter renewal. A panicky reversal has just been signalled with a cobbled-together Summer of Opera and the appointment of a highbrow controller of BBC2, Roly Keating . That will not be enough. Grade needs to rebuild artistic confidence practically from scratch. He should do so without difficulty. Flamboyantly seen at opening nights, he summons respect and affection from the creative community. Several cultural luminaries banged on Tony Blair's door in support of his candidacy. Many regard him as the only man who can reunite the BBC with its distinguished educative past.
His director general, to be announced next month, will need to enforce that aim. Media insiders have been touting Mark Thomson, head of Channel 4 and formerly of BBC2. Thomson, however, is tainted by his Birtian past and Big Brother present. A heavy hint from Grade on Monday suggests he will not be considered.
The best public service credentials belong to Jenny Abramsky, motherly head of BBC Radio which she has preserved from mongrelisation while rejuvenating its audience. A former Today editor and founder of BBC News 24, Abramsky has the track record to restore the most battered parts of the BBC, its news gathering and presentation, its editorial authority and political independence. Stubbornly principled and politically adroit, Abramsky would represent a return to chartered sanity and institutional unity. She is profoundly mistrusted within the Media Village, a hostility that may be her strongest selling point.
Time is short. There are only two years left to convince this government and the next that BBC has earned the unique right to exact a license fee for the next ten years. The first submission must be made this summer. Senior figures on both sides expect a close fight.
The basis of any application must define the BBC's role in a multi-channel world where terrestial stations no longer command a viewing majority. The BBC's involvement in digital broadcasting has been unhappy. Youth-oriented BBC3 has yet to gell and BBC4 has succeeded only insofar as art and intelligence were eradicated from BBC2. Both channels, along with seven radio bands, need to be rethought if the BBC is to lead us to an ever-drifting analogue switch-off.
Chasing ratings has weakened the BBC's monopoly on the licence fee. Commercial competitors want a share of funding for public-spirited programming. Greg Dyke, bouncing back in all probability as head of ITV, will lead the clamour. Rupert Murdoch, with his award-winning news and arts channels, will not prowl far behind. Grade has stated that defending the license fee is his first priority, but what arguments can he muster in the face of the BBC's prolonged dissipation?
His manifesto will need to read something like this: We are the one BBC, the nation's only public service broadcaster. We will use the licence fee to educate, inform and entertain. It will serve to shield us from the pub appeal of Footballers Wives and allow us to deliver the best of British into every home in the land. We are not the other BBC, the one that builds media villages and commissions home improvement programmes. We serve the nation, not the media village. We are politically impartial and scrupulously truthful. We submit transparently to public scrutiny. Give us the licence and the BBC will stick to what it does best.
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]