MEDIA: The BBC faces fundamental questions over its future

The hullabaloo surrounding the Davies Committee’s report on BBC funding has raised issues more fundamental than whether viewers of digital television should have their licence fee bumped up by pounds 24.

The hullabaloo surrounding the Davies Committee’s report on BBC

funding has raised issues more fundamental than whether viewers of

digital television should have their licence fee bumped up by pounds

24.



With its proposals to streamline and partly privatise the Corporation’s

moneymaking activities, the report represents one more attempt to

resolve the contradictions inherent in the role of a huge

publicly-funded body in an increasingly competitive commercial

marketplace.



The central question that the committee was asked to answer was how a

public body can survive and prosper in this fast-changing

environment.



Some of the most interesting responses to its report, though, have

changed the ’how’ into ’whether’. More and more people are wondering

whether the BBC has a long-term future role.



Gavyn Davies, the report’s author, thinks it has. In an interview in the

Guardian this week he said that at the core of his inquiry was ’the

whole question about market failure in broadcasting’. By this he meant

that, left to its own devices, the market would not provide the range of

programmes that go to make up ’a rich television ecology’.



Most of us, except the hardest-line believers in the supremacy of market

forces, would agree with that proposition, and that means recognising

the need for the continued existence of a publicly-funded

broadcaster.



The critical question is whether that broadcaster should be confined to

operating in areas the market cannot or will not support, or whether it

should cover the waterfront, as the BBC finds it ever harder to do.



Like the others who have reported on the BBC before him, Davies cannot

find it in himself to challenge the sacred cow of the BBC’s funding -

the licence fee. The existence of the fee skews the argument about the

BBC’s future role. ’We all pay,’ goes the parrot-cry, ’so there should

be something on the box for everyone.’



If the BBC was funded out of general revenue, we would find it easier to

accept its becoming the broadcast equivalent of the National Theatre. It

would be limited to making expensive, high-quality television, with a

bias towards news and current affairs, leaving soaps and game shows to

broadcasters who can make money from them. The BBC will doggedly resist

such a development, but logic leads remorselessly towards it.



There are many in the industry who hope and believe that when Greg Dyke

takes over from Sir John Birt he will prove to be the best

director-general since Sir Hugh Greene in the 1960s. He may also be the

last to preside over a BBC remotely resembling anything that Sir Hugh

and his other predecessors would recognise.



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