Exactly the wrong thing to ask for 

3 July 2009 tbs.pm/1075

ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart calls for ‘Beeching’ inquiry into BBCGuardian

ITN newscaster Alastair Stewart attacked the BBC at a CBI NW region dinner last night, suggesting that it would benefit from a “Beeching style enquiry” to assess whether its services are all really “necessary and viable”.

A “Beeching”-style enquiry into the BBC? You must be joking – look at the damage Beeching did that will hit us even harder as we enter the age of climate change. Taking the country’s major assets and willfully destroying them is not an answer to the question of why people aren’t watching the competition.

Calling for a “Beeching-style” enquiry is equivalent to calling for a hatchet job. In fact the suggestion is very revealing of true intent.

Only someone working for a competing media producer could think of such a thing. Go out and do a better job than the BBC and then you can talk from a position of strength instead of one of desperation. Make the investments in new technologies, innovative programming, stuff that isn’t dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator. Make some interesting programmes that are worth watching. And yes, cover the news better.

Everyone and their friend who still works on a newspaper wants to get at the BBC, but it is still doing a brilliant job. It just lost its nerve back in the days of the Hutton Enquiry. Yes, everyone has something to say about the licence fee – it’s the worst way of raising money for PSB except for all the others – but by not being a tax it is not so much able to be influenced by a government annoyed at criticism. We need ring-fenced funding for quality broadcasting to ensure it doesn’t all go the way of ITV – down to the bottom.

Yes, we also need other PSB providers, doing innovative things. We have at least one, in the shape of Channel 4 with its remarkable development initiatives like 4ip, but we need more. Is top-slicing the answer? No. Unfortunately there’s a precedent for that so no doubt we’ll see more, but at least keep it in the PSB arena.

We need a BBC that is free to make the programmes and deliver the services that commercial operators can’t, or won’t, provide. Look at the world-leading BBC web site; the world-leading BBC documentary and factual programming; the popular BBC News channel. These all offer amazing value at half the price of a daily newspaper and half the price of an average Sky subscription.

Of course there will be areas of the BBC that can be improved. I have no doubt that a bit of transparency would go a long way – a process already started. How about transparency on the commercial side? No doubt we would like the Corporation to pay less for celebrities – which is fine as long as everyone else does the same and it’s not in breach of contract. There’s room for improvement for sure – but a slash-and-burn dismemberment is not even slightly an answer.

Being unable or unwilling to compete is not a good reason for dissing the opposition. It sounds a lot too much like sour grapes.