It's close to crunch time for the BBC, whose royal charter runs out in December 2006. Its recently announced charter submission, Building Public Value, heralded the start of a campaign to convince the Government that the £121 licence fee is justified. But in a world of pay-per-view, multi-channel, digital TV, the licence system is under fire. The BBC, accused of chasing the ratings, is working hard to re-emphasise its role as the upholder of public service journalism. It's got some way to go. After the Hutton report came the BBC's internal review into editorial operations. Couple this with low staff morale and a protracted period of uncertainty, and Auntie looks a little green around the gills.
New chairman Michael Grade and director-general Mark Thompson have to steer the BBC through choppy waters. Grade led the offensive: 'The bigger and more intensely competitive market-led broadcasting becomes, the more necessary it becomes to have the BBC.' Thompson is busy talking up the benefits that the Beeb delivers, promising a new test of public value for all programmes, packing hacks off to journalism school, expanding its regional coverage and imposing a clear separation between governors and management. There's even talk of cost cuts involving the possible sale of £1 billion worth of its commercial assets.
THE STRAIGHT TALK
The Beeb is suffering from the 10-yearly charter review nerves, made worse by the soul-searching precipitated by Hutton. It has to prove its 'public value', turn its £249 million loss into a profit and convince its audience that it has not abandoned Reithian values. But in the words of Wireless Group boss Kelvin MacKenzie: 'Where does the word (sic) 'public service' come in EastEnders, the Lottery or Strictly Come Dancing?'
At the 1986 charter review, Sir Alan Peacock's report suggested that the licence fee could be spent by an 'Arts Council of the Air'. The debate rages on, with commercial broadcasters questioning why the BBC should have a funding monopoly when many of its programmes, they claim, are indistinguishable from their own. Should the fee be replaced by subscription? The BBC would consider that a fate worse than death. Grade admits: 'Our task over the next year is to convince the British public that the BBC's role in the new digital age of plenty is both justified and necessary.' It's likely that Auntie will pull it off, but the outcome might be different in 2016.