One TV channel and three radio stations, that’s all the BBC needs

Few things in life are simple. That’s partly because humans are not just problem-solving but also problem-seeking creatures. We seem to be driven to make mountains out of molehills. However, there is one thing in our national life that is extremely simple, and that is what to do about the BBC. Last week, after lengthy and worthy debate, MPs rejected by two votes to one a Conservative proposal to freeze the TV licence fee for a year. David Cameron had suggested this in March, saying the BBC and other public bodies must in these hard times try to do more with less. The BBC itself was naturally opposed to any such self-denying ordinance, calling it a “recipe for curbing the BBC’s editorial independence”; though it is difficult to see quite how such a disaster could be brought on by such a modest suggestion. And in the Commons, the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, warned that “ripping up the licence fee settlement” would undermine the BBC and “take away its creativity and stability”. So our MPs voted in favour of the licence fee rise as planned in the current six-year settlement, in line with inflation. All this is nonsense. Both sides are quite wrong. The BBC should not have its licence fee put up at all, in line with inflation or with anything else. On the contrary, the licence fee should be savagely cut back, permanently. I am not saying this because I resent or dislike the BBC. On the contrary, I trained there, worked there for several years, watch it regularly and regard it, for all its glaring faults, as a national treasure. It does many important things superbly well. You could almost say the BBC is, or was and could again be, a light unto the nations. The BBC is, however, far too big and it does far too much, in a pointless and vastly expensive frenzy of misguided activity. It fills the airwaves almost round the clock with programmes it should not be making and it fills its corridors with people it should not employ. It wastes millions on layers of management and on unnecessary salaries, initiatives, away days and jollies. All this should stop. Leave it all to commercial media producers, if they can make money out of it or want to waste their own money on it. What the BBC should do is what commercial producers don’t do, can’t do, can’t do equally well or won’t do properly, and only that. For that it deserves protection from the rough winds of commerce and competition, and only for that. Everyone knows what the jewels in the BBC crown are. Audience numbers don’t matter; the BBC should be aiming at the highest quality in everything it does, from news, science and drama to education, arts and minority programming. There is no reason a public subsidy should be used to make low-level chat shows, populist lifestyle programmes, asinine breakfast-time witterings, dumbed-down pop music channels, undistinguished cooking and travel shows and all the rest. Other producers can do these undemanding shows just as well, or better, and the BBC shouldn’t waste its resources on something that has strayed so far from its Reithian ideal and its national-treasure status. The problem, of course, is not just that the BBC is wasting our money on programmes we can see elsewhere and on programmes that aren’t much good. It is not just that in its misguided attempts to compete with the commercial sector for mass audiences the BBC has consistently dumbed down what it has always done best, often for smaller audiences – viewers of the BBC’s more serious political programmes must agree that many of these have gone down noticeably in quality. The really important problem is that it’s both daft and wrong in principle to pay a public institution public money to compete directly with the private commercial sector. It is illogical and unfair. The more the BBC tries to compete with commercial producers, the more illogical and unfair it is being, to them and to us, the licence-fee payers. As with all principles, there can be exceptions. The BBC’s website is a glaring exception: its established existence and its dazzling superiority make it difficult for other media organisations to develop in this hugely important market of the future. In this the BBC is doing exactly what commercial competitors are desperately trying to do and must do successfully to survive. Yet I believe it is in the national interest to have this website, because it is both wholly independent editorially and wholly accountable to the British public. So, too, it is essential to have truly independent news-gathering of the sort the BBC can and mostly does provide – something hugely expensive to do and so tempting to abuse that the protection of the fee-paying public must be a public good. There are other public goods the BBC has always provided. One is its excellent training. Film and video editors, lighting and set designers, make-up and costume artists, floor and studio managers, special-effects experts, IT wizards and technicians of every kind have been trained by the BBC and sent out all over the world: the commercial sector depends on this tradition. Another public good is the World Service, which is so good that BBC supremos are constantly tempted to cut it. Yet another is the great benefit of watching programmes without the mental damage done by constant advertising. And it is quite reasonable to expect the public to pay, one way or another, for a great public good; the advantage of cutting back the BBC is that we would get this national treasure for a lot less. This simple and glaringly obvious idea is not new. Antony Jay, creator with Jonathan Lynn of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, and author of Corporation Man, one of the best management books I’ve read, has thought so for some time. Last year he wrote a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies, suggesting the BBC should reduce itself to one national television channel and one speech radio channel: judging by the cost, then, of BBC1 and Radio 4 combined, this would reduce its annual budget by about 65%, a saving of around £2.7 billion a year of our money, or 80% of our licence fee. I don’t think such a scheme is unreasonable, though I’d hang on to Radio 3 and the World Service as well. Nor do I think it would damage the BBC: harsh and radical pruning leads to re-invigorated new growth – another simple idea that could well be considered by other public institutions in these hard times.