Inside Story

BBC at a crossroads

National treasure to be defended or imperial behemoth to be tamed? A war over the BBC’s future is taking shape, says David Hayes

David Hayes 7 August 2015 6938 words

The chill was palpable: Broadcasting House, the BBC’s London headquarters. David Jones 大卫 琼/Flickr

BBC under fire. Health crisis. Labour split. Europe choice. Union crackdown. Scottish question. English dilemma. Welfare cuts. Migrant fears. Defence worries. Terror threats. Enemies within. Judging by the lead stories of the day, any time–space traveller from the 1970s–80s would find contemporary Britain instantly familiar. That their prominence coincides with a Conservative government in the flush of election victory, breathlessly intent on implementing a bold reform program, might confirm the picture of a land of eternal recurrence. Add Prince Philip gaffe and Royal Nazi row, and the circle is complete. Welcome back, stranger! You must be dying for a cuppa? We haven’t changed a bit!

For a media that enjoys raiding the past as a means of domesticating the present, the traveller’s return (“just passing through,” he tells me) is a welcome opportunity to reprise parallels with former battles over class, nation and ideology in the United Kingdom. For a political cadre on unfamiliar post-election ground (Conservatives dominant, Labour bewildered, Scottish National Party buoyant, Liberal Democrats near invisible), the earlier era offers a useful reference point. For both, it is the high tide of Thatcherism in the 1980s that transmits the loudest signals to the present, although they see plenty of overlaps with the tempestuous 1970s too.

Take the BBC, whose future has jostled its way to near the top of the political agenda since the 7 May poll, with remarkable speed against stiff competition. This is not entirely unexpected: the ten-year requirement for renewal of the organisation’s “royal charter” –which defines its remit and governance – becomes due at the start of 2017, and was always going to include a long lead-up. The Conservative manifesto promised (or threatened?) “a comprehensive review” of the charter, “ensuring it delivers value for money for the licence fee payer.” The annual fee itself – currently £145.50 (A$307), exacted from every TV-owning household, amounting to £3.72 billion (A$7.8 billion) in 2013–14 – would continue to be frozen and “top-sliced” for digital infrastructure.

The bare commitment sounded a touch ritualistic. During the campaign, a renewal of the party’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats (who were pledging to “protect the independence of the BBC”) seemed more likely than an outright Tory win. That could mean unhappy compromise. After the miracle –a majority of twelve in the 650-seat House of Commons – the Tories’ glint turned towards the glass palace on Portland Place, London W1. The chill in Broadcasting House, “the iconic home of the BBC reinvented for the digital future,” was palpable.

The post-election lull was a chance to reflect on the fundamental issue. The BBC’s mission, as defined in 1926 by its founder John Reith, was to “enrich people’s lives with programs and services that inform, educate and entertain.” The aim has long attracted perfunctory agreement; but in serving it today, is the BBC – with its nine TV channels, ten radio stations and vast online presence, its College of Journalism and Future of News projects, its 7000 journalists among 17,000 staff – the right size and shape? If not, what is, and how to get there?

Never was a space to think so precious. For July brought an astonishing blizzard of reports and proposals, editorials and advertorials on the topic. Together they form a pulsating overture to the coming duel.

Days after the election, the new culture secretary John Whittingdale – who served for a decade as chair of the Commons’ select committee on culture, media and sport – announced that a “green paper” on the BBC would soon be published. On 16 July, after two months’ gestation, Whittingdale, a sharp brain behind a ponderous facade, was as good as his word. It was a time for “hard questions” about how the BBC should “evolve,” among them “whether the BBC should try to be all things to all people, to serve everyone across every platform or whether it should have a more precisely targeted mission.”

Behind the scenes, some decisions were already being made. A deal had been announced on 6 July whereby the BBC agreed to pay (gradually, from 2018–19) for the free television licences given to over-seventy-fives, an exemption introduced by the then Labour chancellor Gordon Brown in 2001. The annual cost in 2013–14 was £608 million (A$1.28 million), about 12 per cent of the BBC’s annual income of £4.8 billion ($10.1 billion), but that will soar to 20 per cent by 2018 in line with an ageing population. The quid pro quois a licence-fee increase to match inflation and a phased end to BBC funding of the government’s broadband program (goodbye, manifesto), as well as possible payment for catch-up services such as iPlayer. Tony (Lord) Hall, the BBC’s director-general had been bounced, but was upbeat. The agreement “gives us room for investment in the first two years of that charter. This will help us to manage the transition we all know is coming to an online world.”

Many were unhappy at the over-seventy-fives fix, on the grounds that it set the bad precedent of the BBC being made to deliver government’s social policy. That is radical indeed, though arguably (as few recalled), no less so than the exemption itself, both deeply political and a gash across the canvas of universality. How, after all, can the licence fee be justified in a context of multiple ways to deliver and access content, and the disassembling of audiences that makes universality more conceit than reality?

Whittingdale’s other démarche had come on 12 July with the appointment of a panel to “provide expertise, innovation and advice for the process and policy” of the charter review. Its eight members include Dawn Airey, former head of the commercial Channel 5; Colette Bowe, former chair of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom; Ashley Highfield of the local newspaper group Johnston Press; and Stewart Purvis, former chief editor and executive at the news provider ITN. Its composition will do little to allay BBC fears. Chris (Lord) Patten, former chair of the BBC Trust and himself the very definition of a panjandrum, called the panel “a team of assistant gravediggers” who would help “bury the BBC that we love.”

The pendulum then swung the other way when, on 14 July, Hall delivered a notably sharp speech at the launch of the BBC’s annual report. “I believe the BBC should continue to make programs for everyone… The great majority are happy to pay the licence fee. The BBC belongs to this country. The public are our shareholders.” And, referring to an expensive, shallow mega-project of the early New Labour years: “The last time politicians got creative, we ended up with the Millennium Dome.” Hall continued, “There’s a clash between two very different views of the BBC. There is an alternative view that prefers a much-diminished BBC. I don’t support this view. Nor does the British public.”

The themes were reprised in a Guardian interview, during which Hall warned, “Let’s not be dominated by commercial interests and what they say about the BBC” (a remark the paper said was aimed “at the BBC’s critics in the right-wing media”). In the corporation’s defence he also invoked a vast shadow army: “the people who pay for us, people who love us, the 97 per cent of people who use us each week; there are forty-six million people who use us every day.”

The next day, 15 July, brought further evidence that this time, the BBC too would be playing hardball. A letter championing the BBC, signed by twenty-nine of its top “talent” – from Judy Dench to J.K. Rowling, David Attenborough to Michael Palin – appeared in the Telegraph and was then reported and broadcast widely. “The BBC is trusted and loved at home by British audiences and is the envy of the world abroad… [N]othing should be done to diminish the BBC or turn it into a narrowly focused market-failure broadcaster.” And again that, by now, teeth-grinding word: “A diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain.”

The BBC’s director of television, Danny Cohen, was soon revealed as the orchestrator and drafter of the missive. The same day, an expensive self-promotional corporate advertorial in the approved oleaginous style (coated, naturally, in a friendly “regional” accent) began to appear on all formats, interlacing clever shots of the BBC’s top presenters and shows with a maudlin homily of insinuating schmaltz. The BBC is for our “hopes and dreams… for not just watching but living too… for all the days of our lives… for all of us.”

The BBC Trust, the corporation’s oversight body, was itself stung into action on 15 July. It demanded “clear boundaries” for the government’s role in BBC affairs, a fixed eleven-year period between charter reviews, and legal safeguards (including public consultation) before any future change to the licence fee. Striking a now familiar note, Rona Fairhead, chair of the doomed body, said, “It is the people’s BBC, not the politicians’ BBC.” The corporation should remain a “universal and independent broadcaster, which aims to provide something for everyone… [W]e see no evidence whatsoever that the licence-fee payer wants a small BBC.”

The extraordinary war of position continued with the green paper’s publication. It announced a “process of consultation that will inform our decisions about the future of the BBC,” set to conclude on 8 October. The “vast choice that audiences now have” makes a case “that the BBC might become more focused on a narrower, core set of services.” The paper discussed governance issues (including an external regulator, possibly Ofcom, to replace the BBC Trust, which itself replaced the former Board of Governors) and raised the prospect of selling the lucrative BBC Worldwide, where the corporation’s real commercial action is. On funding, it outlined five potential models: advertising and general taxation (which it rejected), a reformed licence fee, a universal household levy (following Germany’s reform of 2013, which covers online and on-demand as well as TV and radio), and a mix of public funding and subscription (for example, adding a top-up for premium content or a paid-for iPlayer).

The pace remained frenetic. So much so that the publication – also on 16 July – of an independent report under the lawyer David Perry, which supported prolonging the “sanctions regime” that makes non-payment of the licence fee a criminal offence, passed with barely a mention or comment. By this stage, even the most dedicated fulminators against the BBC – the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Times (the last two part of Rupert Murdoch’s stable) –had a whiff of being maxed out.

The BBC’s counterattack on the green paper came on 18 July. First, an artful defence of the corporation as part of the national brand. “The BBC is a creative and economic powerhouse for Britain. The starting point for any debate should be, how can a strong BBC benefit Britain even more at home and abroad?” Then, a confirmation that it will make its audience and its history weapons in the fight. “[This] green paper would appear to herald a much diminished, less popular, BBC. That would be bad for Britain and would not be the BBC that the public has known and loved for over ninety years. It is important that we hear what the public want.”

The choreography around this shadow play – or was it just the market’s invisible hand? – was so dizzying that suspicion fell even on the presumed innocent. Diane Coyle, an economist and former vice-chair of the BBC Trust, questioned the premise of much of the debate in a Financial Times article on 18 July. The BBC’s pivotal role in Britain’s creative industries (as purchaser of output and platform for talent), its competitive benefits and export success, its training and educational contributions, were all vital. “The debate we should be having is whether to increase its size not whether to diminish it.”

That proposition will not persuade the government, whose chancellor George Osborne had said on 5 July that the BBC was “becoming a bit more imperial in its ambitions” (referring specifically to the website, which costs £174 million per year, and its effect on diversity in news provision). Nor will it even rouse many BBC supporters. But it’s made with vigour and invites thought. Compare Whittingdale’s Labour shadow Chris Bryant, who has long played BBC cheerleader with default histrionics. “Would it not be profoundly unpatriotic to seek to diminish the BBC and thereby diminish Britain?” he squawked on 18 July. And, in another phrase flogged from TV studio to Commons’ chamber: “The BBC is our nation’s cultural NHS [National Health Service] and the golden thread through it all is that it provides something for everyone.” Seeking to link the sentimental aura of two flawed public institutions and enrol them in the Labour Party cause was routine hucksterism, though few were looking.

Make that three flawed institutions: in the midst of its self-destructive leadership contest, the third – Labour – has almost nothing to say about the future (of the BBC or anything else). While Conservatives vs BBC is top billing, Labour is left playing far away in some draughty hall, the equivalent of the one-legged tap-dancer in Broadway Danny Rose.

The time–space traveller is looking restless. “There’s something wrong with your story,” he says, blinking with distaste at the cover of the Radio Times, the BBC’s listings magazine. “That looks nothing like me. And I hear he’s Scottish. Which reminds me. After that ad I need a whisky – and a bucket!”

The problem, he continues, is that “it’s always been as you described. When was the BBC not under fire from government? It’s the way things are in Britain, and – as long as checks and balances are in place, and people are on solid ground – not necessarily a bad thing. What’s more, compared to the last time I passed through, these skirmishes look pretty minor. It’s hardly the Spanish inquisition, is it?”

I glance nervously at the door, and ponder his words. It’s true that since the 1960s, there have been many spats involving the BBC, more or less constant criticism from the press, periodic disputes over management and money, and intermittent eruptions from the government of the day over perceived bias or disloyalty, irreverence or profanity. That represents well over half the BBC’s life since its formation as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922 (and “Corporation” in 1926). Even in the radio days of the 1930s–40s there had been complaints about stuffiness and censorship, and the coming of its brash commercial rival ITV in 1955 made the BBC look staid to the first mass generation of television watchers.

A brief “satire boom” in the early 1960s, when sharp young graduates mocked complacent establishment figures on the late-night revue show That Was the Week That Was, caused apoplexy. It was more a stink bomb than a grenade, though its greatest achievement – the fortnightly Private Eye, founded in 1960 – retains a singular pungency. The decade’s social revolution, though it spread far more slowly and unevenly than media-popular memory allows, had a friend in the BBC’s director-general Hugh Carleton Greene, whose liberal instincts found an adamantine adversary in the moralising campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

That put the BBC at the heart of Britain’s incipient culture wars. For many involved, including in the innovative drama of the period – notably The Wednesday Play– that heart beat strongly and on the left, and wore the petty outrage of its opponents as an emblem. A war-tempered generation’s patrician liberalism and its successor’s fiery radicalism briefly aligned and fed each other’s self-belief. (The sparks were even brighter on the commercial channel ITV, whose federative structure and comparative lack of deference incubated a golden period of regionally produced current-affairs programs such as This Week, First Tuesday and World in Action, the last from Sidney Bernstein’s “Republic of Granadaland,” radiating from Manchester.)

The Labour moderniser Harold Wilson – the “optimist in a raincoat” who ended the Conservatives’ “thirteen wasted years” in 1964 – initially looked a good bet to surf the era’s waves, and won re-election in 1966. Soon, however, crisis and scandal, party division and personal suspicion made him look another of “yesterday’s men” – the title of a damning BBC documentary in 1971, a year after Labour went down to surprise defeat, which sparked a furious row between the broadcaster and the now opposition leader and his party.

But Wilson’s Tory replacement, Edward Heath, found his own modernising agenda (free-market rather than technocratic) vaporised by strikes and inflation, while his blundering policy in Northern Ireland exacerbated an already murderous conflict. It was here, in the terraced streets of Belfast and the hedgerows of south Armagh, that a low-level but unremitting three-way war (Irish Republican Army, “Loyalist” terrorists and British forces) would face both BBC and ITV with their gravest tests: to report and explain an intimate and ever-contested reality, but also to maintain independence from political pressure and censure.

Wilson and Labour’s return in 1974 carried none of the hopes of a decade earlier. An uneasy class compromise prevailed, and Scottish and Welsh nationalism put broadcasting devolution on the agenda. (Though, as Thomas Hajkowski shows in his book The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 192253, published in 2010, radio programs had celebrated these nations’ distinctiveness, albeit in “folkloric” terms, since the late 1920s.) Britain seemed both unstable and stuck, yet many recall this as a BBC golden age, not least in comedy (Fawlty Towers, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Porridge, Morecambe & Wise and, on the “other” channel Rising Damp). Did the laughing have to stop? The avuncular James Callaghan, succeeding Wilson in 1976, projected a reassuring solidity that contrasted with the abrasive new Tory leader Margaret Thatcher. But he delayed calling an election until 1979, and lost. A possible future didn’t happen, and Britain took a sharp right turn. For its part, the BBC was exposed to a government that saw it as exemplifying the failed post-1945 consensus. This time, the moderniser seemed really to mean it.

Thatcher’s new government had political authority but lacked cultural depth. Its early “punk monetarism” (a coinage of Denis Healey, another of Labour’s lost leaders) was no remedy. Its luck was its enemies – the Argentine junta, Labour’s hapless Michael Foot, a vainglorious coalminers’ boss, infirm and then reformist Soviet leaders. Each struggle was brutal, with the first, the brief Falkland Islands/Malvinas war of 1982, cementing Thatcher’s status as the “iron lady.” The victory, heralded by the prime minister and her followers as a moment of national rebirth, also put the BBC in her sights over its insufficiently patriotic coverage. Re-election in 1983 enhanced her power, which she used to install more amenable figures at the corporation. (“Is he one of us?” was the decade’s defining question.)

There were bitter rows over Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth. But the licence fee survived, as did John Cole as the BBC’s political editor (1981–92), a pained Ulsterman with Labour leanings and a strong journalistic background at the Guardian and Observer. So, too, until 1996, did security vetting of employees, a practice whose risks included poor research that blighted or at least skewed the careers of some free of what even MI5 on a bad day would regard as suspect affiliation. Isabel Hilton, a serious young multilingual journalist who had studied in China – just the sort of person to add lustre to the BBC when she started out in the 1970s – was one.

Ministers in Thatcher’s government were not all from the template of Yes Minister, the cherished comedy of her period. They facilitated the appearance of Channel 4 in 1982, a pathbreaking advance in broadcasting and cultural diversity. ITV’s factual coverage was often bolder than the BBC’s, a prime example being Thames TV’s Death on the Rock in 1988, which demolished the official account of the killing of three IRA members (on mission, but unarmed) in Gibraltar. It was this program that occasioned the most acute media quarrel of Thatcher’s reign.

High-tide Thatcherism was imperious in style, though again there were countervailing tendencies. A report on the BBC led by the market economist Alan Peacock in 1986 marshalled a strong case against the licence fee and for subscription but came out against immediate change. The founding of the literate, foreign-affairs-rich Independent newspaper in 1986 was another landmark media event. In the same year, Michael Leapman’s excellent book The Last Days of the Beeb, based on dozens of confidential interviews, documented a vessel afloat amid a decade’s sea of troubles.

The prime minister’s growing misjudgements were capped by the foolish poll tax to pay for local services (the BBC’s critics today apply the term to the licence fee), which led proximately to her replacement in 1990 by the emollient John Major. The BBC, like everyone else, breathed again, though was soon to undergo fresh trials under a new director-general, John Birt, whose managerialist passions and “producer choice” reforms proved divisive. After his election win, Major’s promise of a country “at ease with itself” turned to buyer’s remorse, internal Conservative disarray and a late (though not yet last) stand against 1960s liberalism. A fractious seven-year trudge ended in a landslide for Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” and the Major period entered history as an interregnum. By 1997, Britain knew it needed shaking up, and a moderniser with a “project” – New Labour’s vocabulary was sourced from IKEA – was just the ticket.

Blair’s political and cultural authority was off the scale. His early reforms – a settlement in Northern Ireland, devolution in Scotland and Wales, legislation on human rights and freedom of information – carried the BBC in their wake. The death of Princess Diana saw him conscript the monarchy into the spontaneous popular mourning, a stunning coup that again gave the BBC its narrative. Media management was never so controlled nor so welcome. But the corporation’s new order had its downsides. By the end of the 1990s, says the anthropologist Georgina Born in her singular study, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC, changes at the BBC had contributed to “a risk-averse broadcast culture in which imitation, populism and sensationalism have become rife.”

The short war over Kosovo in 1999 was premonitory. It had all the ingredients of a modern media row: stiff opposition from left and right (the first outing for what would become a potent alliance), military blunders, and government criticism of the BBC’s man in Belgrade, the pompous John Simpson. Two years on, 9/11 pitched Blair, Britain and the BBC – to name only those – into a new world. The invasion of Afghanistan initially was popular and that of Iraq had majority support, but popular dismay at the terrible fallout helped pitch the BBC into both less credulous and (in parts of its output) less professional mode.

The consequences included a bitter dispute over reporting of the government’s case for war in Iraq, different aspects of which produced three independent inquiries or reviews (referred to by their lordly chairs – Hutton, Butler and Chilcot – with the last still ongoing). The first, in 2003–04, stemmed from an early morning report on Radio 4’s flagship Today program alleging political manipulation of intelligence. In tracking the chain of events that followed, including forceful intervention by the prime minister’s press spokesman and the suicide of the chemical-weapons expert who had been a source for the story, Hutton’s report severely criticised the BBC’s journalism and management. The corporation’s chair, Gavyn Davies, and director-general, Greg Dyke, resigned in its wake, in the latter case reluctantly.

“Hutton” became engraved on the BBC’s heart as a byword for carelessness and lack of oversight, and more broadly as signalling the way that a brasher, more confrontational style might compromise the journalistic authority on which the BBC’s reputation is ultimately founded. The establishment of the College of Journalism – part of the BBC Academy – was one result. Dyke himself, a Labour supporter (as was Davies) who had made his career in the commercial sector, never accepted any of this. His breezy egalitarianism, and his efforts to restore the BBC’s creative impulses post-Birt, had been popular among the staff (making them feel valued and himself accessible), though were inevitably coloured by the manner of his departure; despite being today installed in another top job, chair of England’s football association, he remains embittered and uncomprehending about the experience. (Stewart Purvis has three chapters on the BBC, including one on the Today mess, in his fine book When Reporters Cross the Line, co-written by Jeff Hulbert and published in 2013. These may have informed his selection to the new advisory panel; they certainly suggest he will play an important role on it.)

Mark Thompson, Dyke’s eventual replacement, brought internal stability while accelerating the BBC’s digital turn during his eight years in the post. Three years in, Blair gave way to Gordon Brown, who scuffed every chance as prime minister bar the biggest: looking the global financial crisis in the eye. But Brown’s period in office also proved convulsive for the BBC, as stories of high salaries, bloated pay-offs, celebrity excess, and waste (a “digital media initiative” cost £98 million before being abandoned in 2013) acquired added toxicity amid a squeeze on credit and living standards.

Much worse came towards the end of Thompson’s reign with confirmation that Jimmy Savile, whose decades as BBC DJ, television host, fundraiser and court jester to the elite gave him an odd status of licensed impunity, had been a pathological sexual abuser of countless young women and children. The BBC’s burden was reinforced by the late cancellation of a thorough exposure of Savile’s crimes by its topical analysis program Newsnight, two months after he died in October 2011 (even as it broadcast elsewhere two tributes to him), and compounded by ITV’s getting there first with an award-winning documentary on the subject.

The embarrassment to Newsnight, whose authority was further drained by staff departures and its crass libelling of a Tory politician, both amplified and fused the BBC’s multiple failures over Savile: of duty of care, judgement, oversight, management, accountability and journalism. In parallel, the abuse scandal mushroomed, with revelations about and trials of several former BBC stars, making the retrospective light cast on sections of the corporation even less flattering. The BBC is not alone in this: its sins of omission and commission are shared with many other institutions and authorities.

The transition from Mark Thompson’s reign proved messy. The long-term insider George Entwistle, promoted to director-general in September 2012, was soon caught up in Newsnight ‘s successive fiascos. He resigned after two months following hapless appearances at a parliamentary inquiry and on the Today program, receiving a pay-out of £450,000 (A$950,000). The episode brought the corporation even lower in public esteem, until Tony Hall (chief executive of the Royal Opera House, and before that head of news at the BBC for eight years) arrived to steady the ship. Now he too has caught the cabin fever evident in chief lieutenants such as Danny Cohen and director of strategy James Purnell (a former New Labour cabinet minister). The balanced media observer Steve Hewlett, freelance presenter of Radio 4’s excellent The Media Show, referred to Hall’s “unusually aggressive and combative performance” in rebutting the government’s proposals.

With inquiries ongoing and many testimonies still to be heard, a comprehensive reckoning of “Savile” awaits. Yet some might hope and others fear that by the time its moment arrives, the chance will already have gone – that all the horrific damage will have been refiled as unpleasant background noise and the thousands of victims left once more, as they have been for decades, to live with their pain. Amnesia is already the most powerful force in modern British society, made more so by the inexorable “presentism” of endlessly cascading 24/7 media. The BBC, which should be a prophylactic, is part of the onrush.

The traveller shifts uneasily in his comfy chair and looks pensive. “Dark matter, dear boy, dark matter,” he murmurs, and waves his empty glass. “There are some corners of the universe…” Then, “We always knew. But we didn’t want to know.”

On their own account, recent disputes and scandals around the BBC are serious enough. But a lethal edge is provided by the coincidental transformations in technology, finance, society and governance that make it ever harder for the BBC to go on operating in the old ways. In a world in which almost 60 per cent of British households already subscribe to commercial broadcasters such as Sky and Virgin, and with Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and other competitors seeking to increase their impact on the way consumers access and purchase content, the status quo is not an option; rather, the key decisions will be over how much and what kind of change the BBC should embrace, and how to achieve it. These are also political questions that will be answered through the engagement of leading players over the next year.

A collection edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Keeble – The BBC Today: Future Uncertain, to be published in September– promises a range of discriminating answers, its very title a reminder that the corporation’s turbulent modern course could be intuited from a select bibliography. Asa Briggs’s indispensable five volumes of official history, published between 1961 and 1995, end with Competition, 195574. Fear and Loathing at the BBC is the subtitle of Chris Horrie and Steve Clarke’s 1994 assault on “Birtism,” followed by Leapman’s The Last Days of the Beeb and, in 2004, Born’s Uncertain Vision. The right-leaning 2007 effort of Robin Aitken, Cole’s successor as political editor (1992–2000), was called Can We Still Trust the BBC? The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins has just delivered a lyrical portrait, This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC. Also this year, Jean Seaton’s Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation, 1974–1987 takes up Briggs’s baton. (A pacy read, the book is also unsound in method, indifferent to the wider broadcasting ecology, and littered with errors, as the historian David Elstein shows in a forensic and at times grimly hilarious review.)

Add to such resources numerous academic studies, memoirs and biographies, specialist forums and think-tank reports – one of the best being Truth Matters: The BBC and Our Need for It to Be Right by Financial Times journalist John Lloyd for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, published in December 2012 – and many of the ingredients exist for a healthy dialogue. Instead, much public discussion of the BBC’s future tends to be conducted in formulaic terms, with only slender reference to either its history or the world beyond. A particular trope of the corporation’s defenders – the stuff of a zillion columns – is to declare that the BBC is “the best public broadcaster in the world” (or a similarly grand phrase), cite Sherlock or The Great British Bake Off (or another current favourite) as a clincher, denounce nefarious commercial interests intent on destroying the BBC (the “Murdoch empire” featuring strongly), and conclude with a rousing call to arms in defence of the status quo. By that stage, any substantial change has been made unthinkable.

The mindset at work recalls a remark about the NHS by a Conservative chancellor of the Thatcher era, Nigel Lawson, that has found a secure niche in Britain’s political lexicon. The health service, he wrote in his memoirs, “is the closest thing the English have to a religion, with those who practise in it regarding themselves as a priesthood. This made it quite extraordinarily difficult to reform.” The same reverence hangs over the BBC, investing it with a transcendent quality that no failure, scandal or mere mundane reality can be allowed to tarnish.

The BBC is “a peerless institution: one that expresses and shapes our national temperament. It is envied all over the world. I always imagine it as a fragile golden bowl handed from generation to generation.” Jean Seaton’s conclusion well captures this strain of quasi-mysticism, as does Charlotte Higgins’s: “like a church, it must earn, and cannot wholly take for granted, the patience of the faithful,” and even the Mirror’s class warrior Brian Reade: “Lose it and we lose our identity.”

All this is understandable, if also alien to non-believers. After all, both the BBC and NHS are cradle-to-grave institutions with a powerful grip on English-British imaginaries. But the side effects can be bizarre. The papers are full of people saying they would die in a ditch for the licence fee and feel grateful for the privilege. Sometimes it’s hard not to see just about every episode of love-bombing in this country – the BBC, NHS, Scottish National Party, Corbynmania – in terms of the retreat of Christian belief. Or as the survival of an even older religion. The poet and critic Tom Paulin once said that the British instinct is to erect a totem pole and then dance around it.

This wicker-man world has its own logic. Take the regular, trump-card flourish that the BBC’s superiority is exemplified in its freedom from advertisements. That, like a lot of praise of the BBC, always reminds me of Walter Bagehot’s comment that the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it. For the BBC is wall-to-wall cross-promotion, both in-your-face and hope-you-don’t-notice, its operating slogan lifted from Norman Mailer: Advertisements for Myself. A single example can stand for, well, another zillion. Newsnight on 31 July featured a cosy chat to tie in with Life in Squares, a new and heavily trailed primetime series on the Bloomsbury Group’s lives and loves beginning on the same channel two days later. In any other context this would be called “product placement,” though from the BBC it goes completely unremarked. But what if your tastes run to serious, informed criticism of the work in question – as art, as history, as television? You must be joking.

(Deborah Ross, a smiling assassin, has already said of the first episode: “It is, in fact, quite a feat that a drama about a group of people who were meant to be so spirited could prove so entirely dispiriting… Hand-held cameras were employed, presumably to avoid that inert Downton look, but otherwise it was a box-ticking exercise. Over-exposed backgrounds? Tick. Soft filters to effect a misty miasma? Tick. Washed-out colours? Tick. Women talking while brushing out their hair? Tick. Plinky, tinkly piano? Tick, tick, tick. And also: tick.” But that was in the Mail, so it doesn’t count.)

The mind-numbing wasteland of standard BBC television drama and documentary – ostentatious sets and yacking mannequins, ponderous ideas and clunking scripts, manic presenters and pietistic voiceovers – does have to be seen to be believed. And yes, so vast and varied is the BBC that output of quality can readily be found. A riveting portrait of the Soviet spy George Blake in BBC2’s Storyville strand; the voice programs on the classical music station, Radio 3; journalists such as Jim Muir in Beirut or the Sydney-born Caroline Wyatt who report, not emote; the archival resources accessed via iPlayer and the Parliament channel; above all the exemplary World Service, still just breathing freely on The Fifth Floor of Broadcasting House – these would be among my own selections for any encomium. But a list of where the BBC falls short, or what it should be doing to meet the bloated claims made for it, and isn’t, would be far longer.

The problem really is structural. There are more good current affairs documentaries on Al Jazeera English in a month – on Syria and Iraq, on Egypt and Greece, on the Baltic states, on global migration and climate change – than are on the BBC in, well, years. That they dispense with presenters is half of it (cull the BBC’s arm-waving, vowel-strangling hams and its costs would plummet at a stroke). The Qatar-based station also has a walkover in covering a host of places, from Burundi to Guyana, that the BBC is too busy with petty sports, celebrity or royal stories to notice.

The critic Michael Church, in a scathing Independent article on his experience of watching the BBC News channel (formerly News 24), also sees Al Jazeera outpace the sluggish corporation:

To spend any length of time with the BBC’s rolling news is to be assailed… by a terrible creeping blandness, because BBC News has its comfort zones where it dwells whenever possible. It likes to go big on anniversaries, and it loves an excuse to put on mourning garb – viz those soporific miles of First World War coverage last year and the wall-to-wall coverage of the Churchill commemoration…[The] most serious weakness of BBC News is its parochialism. [Apart from flashpoints such as Ukraine, Syria and Iraq], other countries tend to be noticed only when Britons or Hollywood celebrities are involved.

Church sources the rot to the BBC’s “loss of nerve” following the Hutton inquiry, which led the corporation to become “pathologically risk-averse.” Editors are undercut, journalists constrained, investigations curbed. He quotes a director: “The BBC has become frightened of its own journalists and sees them as the enemy.”

The time-space traveller is pensive. “A wise empire adapts,” he muses. “That means a vehicle and a console. A sense of direction. A voice that can persuade. And companions to keep it honest. Which reminds me. I must be getting along.”

Any diagnosis has to recognise that the BBC’s predicament is not wholly of its own making. The corporation is buffeted by deep history’s tides – the same ones that are remaking Britain – as much as it is steering through them. Both economic and social forces, and changing landscapes of identity and allegiance have made the “nation” defined by the BBC more fragmented than ever, both as between its constituent parts and in terms of people’s cultures, tastes and outlooks.

The institutional response has included expansion to embrace new audiences (such as Asian and specialist radio stations, Welsh and Gaelic TV channels, and a BBC3 targeted at sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds, though in face of protest this will become digital-only in 2016), as well as relocation of some services and staff outside London. These initiatives, welcome as they often are, serve more to highlight than to solve the BBC’s core strategic problems. In an age of particularities, a “universal” obligation involves a lot of fast running. But to what end? Today’s BBC is in the same position as the individual consumer faced with the plenitude of the archive: it will never be able to catch up with everything. The only option is to prioritise and focus.

The BBC is a long way from that, and believes the public is on its side. “Serving everybody with a range of content delivered in new ways” sets the tone of the annual report. Tony Hall himself, writing in the Spectator, wryly invokes James Bond: “world-renowned as a quintessential British cultural icon; an underappreciated force for good with his very special licence. Sound familiar?”

A battle for the future that recruits the nation’s brand leaders: that goes with the cultural grain, and nobody does it better than the BBC. But those who seek change might learn to play the same game. Regeneration, perhaps? •