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The BBC Helps Shape Britain But It Must Change With the Times

30/11/2015 21:11 GMT | Updated 30/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Every 10 years Britain indulges in a national excitement known as BBC charter renewal. We're mid-tournament with the level of the licence fee from 2017 having already been agreed amid much sabre-rattling.

Interestingly, though little observed, this is an implicit guarantee of a new charter and of the continuance of the licence fee as the BBC's principle method of funding. Neither of these could have been taken for granted before the general election. So everyone who wants to see a strong and healthy BBC should muster at least two cheers at what is probably half-time in the contest.

The BBC has agreed to taking on the cost of licences for the over-75s. This, director-general Tony Hall says, was agreed with the chancellor, George Osborne. But culture secretary John Whittingdale is insisting on a caveat: that if, on the completion of the review, it was decided materially to limit the BBC's scope or remit, the licence fee would shrink further.

As this negotiation plays itself out, there's something we should all do: remind ourselves of the BBC's purpose. Acres of newsprint devoted to Jimmy Savile, Newsnight and Lord McAlpine, the excesses of Jonathan Ross, the over-the-top salaries and pay-offs of senior management, and the failure of an expensive digital technology scheme have tended to obscure this critical subject. So, what's the purpose of the BBC?

There's more than a whiff of motherhood and apple pie to the wording of the current charter. Don't look for specific outcomes because you won't find them (with the exception of the switchover to digital). So the things I treasure the BBC for are, at best, only hinted at.

First and foremost, for me, comes the corporation as a source of trusted news and information. In the digital age, where the internet often resembles nothing more than a Tower of Babel - teeming with rumour, gossip and paranoia - we need BBC News more than ever before.

There's much opposition to its online services from newspapers trying to establish commercial subscription services. They understandably regard a free service as unwelcome competition. But you have to balance that against the value of BBC News and the fact that a modern service is unthinkable without an online iteration. Its ambit is quite another question and that will be looked at closely. But it must exist.

The second critical purpose of the BBC is to make a massive investment in original programming, the largest of any British broadcaster or platform. Programmes made by us, about us, help define our culture and enrich our national conversation.

Another crucial purpose of the licence fee is the BBC's investment in new talent. The licence fee (currently exceeding £3.7billion) represents the single, largest intervention in the creative industries. The corporation's curating of the next generation of creatives - directors, producers, actors, composers, designers, writers - lays a foundation for the continued growth of the sector. It would be good if the new charter tied these outputs down more specifically.

The BBC provides a remarkable social glue, reaching more than 90% of the population every week. Our identities, our entertainment, engagement and access are all things we see delivered by the BBC's orchestras, by its network of local speech stations and its public campaigns. The BBC World Service, now funded by the licence fee, is the single biggest influencer of our international reputation.

The BBC also puts seed-corn investments into our film industry and trained most of our independent producers (I was one of them.) So, before we descend into the detail of charter renewal, let us remember the 'big picture' first.

But talking of the detail, there's much heat and little light around the vexed issue of BBC governance. The BBC Trust, itself a rather weak compromise by the last Labour government, is discredited. I've served as a Channel 4 trustee in the past and their unitary board reporting to the media regulator, Ofcom, works very well.

While Ofcom already oversees elements of the BBC's activities, it is clearly loath to become its overall regulator. This is partly a question of resources - 250,000 complaints about the BBC annually compared to 25,000 for all the other broadcasters put together. But I suspect Ofcom also sees little upside in such an onerous, controversial and high-profile task.

As a result of this reluctance some are talking of a tripartite system: Ofcom, a unitary BBC board and an 'Ofbeeb' to pick up the pieces in between. The answer must be to abolish the BBC Trust, certainly, and then twist Ofcom's arm to play the senior role. If properly defined, and based on a well-laid out charter, this should work well.

So is this a rose-tinted love letter to the BBC? No, I am a critical friend. I agree with its director-general that it still has too many layers of management. I agree with the BBC Trust that its programming could be more distinctive.

It should certainly still make popular entertainment (particularly while the licence fee remains compulsory), but this should always strive to be fresher and more original than what's available elsewhere. The BBC I joined as a news trainee in 1977 may have been arrogant and unaccountable by comparison with today's corporation. But it still has a long way to go.

As the digital disruption of our times continues to rip through the media with all the force of an unspent typhoon, there are many changes to come for the BBC. It will do more things with fewer staff. It must forge even more multilateral partnerships with our civil institutions. It will become more of a distributor as well as a producer - a 'ringmaster' for wonderful content made by others such as the arts and science organisations.

Since the credit crunch and the beginning of austerity many sectors which relied on public funds have had to reinvent themselves. This also applies to the BBC and I believe its leadership understands this.

Sir Peter Bazalgette is chair of Arts Council England and a non-executive director of ITV. He was an independent TV producer for 25 years and served previously on the boards of Channel 4 and DCMS.

A longer version of this article is published on IPPR Juncture (@Juncture_IPPR)