What are we telling the nation?

David Edgar

  • Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC by Georgina Born
    Vintage, 352 pp, £10.99, August 2005, ISBN 0 09 942893 8
  • Building Public Value: Renewing the BBC for a Digital World
    BBC, 135 pp

When my father, Barrie Edgar, joined the BBC in 1946, its television service consisted of two studios at Alexandra Palace, and two outside broadcast units. Rising quickly from studio manager to the rank of outside broadcast producer, he spent his early years, in London and then in Birmingham, producing anything and everything: from seaside summer shows and circuses to race meetings and general election counts, from Muffin the Mule to the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. Rejecting a good financial offer to move to ITV in 1955, he saw many of his programmes hived off from outside broadcasts to specialised (and centralised) BBC departments; over the years, he lost the King’s College Christmas carols to Music, Songs of Praise to Religion and Come Dancing to London. He spent the last years of his 33-year BBC career producing a programme that might have seemed a broadcasting backwater, but which anticipated the trend towards the lifestyle shows that have dominated BBC2 for ten years: Gardeners’ World.

My father’s career bridged the first great transformation of television: from a witness of existing events to a creator of new ones, from a site to a medium. This transformation made it harder (but not impossible) for the generalist producer. The existence of multiskilled all-rounders was an important element in the esprit de corps of a corporation that inspired and relied on loyalty. My father turned down ITV’s blandishments partly because his father had worked in the BBC before him (my grandfather Percy created the Midlands region of the BBC five days after the company was founded), but mainly because he believed in the institution. A week after he retired, he voted in the 1979 general election. It is an index of the change which that election wrought that a fervent believer in public service broadcasting saw and sees no contradiction between that belief and voting Conservative.

The change in the perceived role of the public service and the public realm from a patrician enemy of progress to the principal site of its defence has touched many institutions, from the Health Service to the universities. But the BBC, influential and plural, is perhaps the most representative. A corporation financed by the only tax the government raises but can’t spend, a large-scale employer with a public service remit, a reporter and creator of fashion and culture, a purveyor of news, information, education and entertainment operating at the cutting edge of technological change, the BBC exemplifies or touches almost all the important sectors and structures of public life. Now, like so many public bodies, the Corporation and its funders face a choice: should it have remained a great patrician institution, dedicated (in Huw Weldon’s Arnoldian formulation) to making the good popular and the popular good? Or should it continue in the direction of the 1990s, becoming less an institution and more a business, responding to the demands of the popular marketplace? Or is there a third way, which remints the public service ethos for a post-deferential age?

Because the BBC was not and has not been sent to market in the most obvious way – by abolishing the licence fee – people have tended to assume that the transformation which occurred in the 1990s was self-imposed. But as Georgina Born makes clear in her definitive analysis of the John Birt and Greg Dyke eras, the consistent impetus came from government. It’s no surprise that Margaret Thatcher wanted to take on the BBC – if anything, the surprise is how long it took her. (In her first term, Thatcher’s main concern was with BBC coverage of Northern Ireland.) By the time of her 1983 re-election, she had succeeded in taming Labour local authorities and public sector unions by selling off their assets and indeed their industries to private owners. The sworn enemies of this policy – the elites of the postwar welfare state and what she saw as the spoilt brats they had spawned in the 1960s – were disproportionately represented in the BBC. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, the cultural contest within the BBC had been between the guardians of the Reithian heritage and provocative young producers in drama and satire who sought to turn the BBC into a site of political and cultural opposition. During most of that time, there was a fragile armistice – even sometimes an alliance – between satirists, drama producers and documentary makers and their overlords. By 1985 (when Alasdair Milne was sacked as director-general after an IRA member was interviewed on Real Lives) it was clear that Thatcher would use the same populist, market mechanisms to undermine the BBC as she had used in her battles with the unions, the town halls and their apologists in the liberal establishment.

First of all, there was pressure from the government for the BBC to maintain its audience share in the face of market fragmentation. This trapped the Corporation in a contradiction: the more it met its public service remit the more it risked losing the mass audience that paid for it. One alternative to the licence fee, that the BBC be funded by individual subscription, was proposed by the 1986 Peacock Report, well-regarded in government. But it was the 1990 Broadcasting Act that transformed the BBC’s position by opening the ITV franchises to competitive bidding, allowing Channel Four to sell its own advertising (and thus inclining the channel to schedule programmes that would most readily attract it), and exposing the BBC’s programme makers to external competition. In 1992, the governors (then under the chairmanship of the Thatcher appointee Duke Hussey) made the former LWT director of programmes John Birt – the inventor of Weekend World and Blind Date – director-general.

Faced with a reduction in the real value of the licence fee, Birt proceeded to change what he described as the ‘sprawling command economy’ of the BBC into an internal market, in which different bits of the organisation traded with each other. Birt’s first innovation was ‘producer choice’ (recommended by a Major government White Paper in 1992), which required BBC resource departments to charge producers the ‘real’ costs of their services, giving producers the complementary right to shop where they liked. This reform propelled cost-conscious producers into W.H. Smith, where buying CDs was cheaper than renting them from the BBC music library, and away from the BBC’s fact-checking services, where checking pronunciation was charged at £12 a word. As a consequence of producer choice, the BBC closed down its scenic, make-up and costume departments (and the radiophonic workshop, where the Dr Who theme was composed): moves justified by a BBC spokesman on the grounds that the BBC ‘cannot ask the licence fee payer to continue to subsidise loss-making activities which are available from the freelance market’. Meanwhile the BBC’s accounts departments expanded in order to administer a process dismissed by many as ‘playing shop’.

Second, in the spirit of producer choice, channel controllers were required by the 1990 Broadcasting Act to buy at least a quarter of their programming from independent producers, who (unlike in-house producers) could sell their wares to anyone and weren’t charged a proportion of the BBC’s Central London accommodation costs or a 15 per cent surcharge to fund the burgeoning Corporate Centre (one of Birt’s first acts was to bring in no less than five management consultancy companies, at an estimated cost of £22m a year). Even without this skewed market, producer choice created further redundancies, which led BBC employees to join independents and hire their services back to the BBC at higher rates.

The biggest change was the logical outcome of the government-encouraged producer choice policy and the government-imposed independent quota, a restructuring known colloquially as ‘Hong Kong’, the ‘Big Bang’ or ‘Year Zero’. Hitherto, the BBC commissioning system had been a somewhat ramshackle but plural affair, in which channel controllers had negotiated with department heads and their producers to provide a balanced raft of programming. On 7 June 1996, the BBC split into two main divisions: BBC Production, which developed and made programmes, and BBC Broadcast, which commissioned them, scheduled them and put them out. As Born argues, BBC Broadcast’s self-description tended to the sanctimonious and self-evident: ‘We will constantly and publicly monitor our performance in all areas to ensure that we become the industry leader in good commissioning behaviour.’ More revealing was the booklet which described the mission of BBC Production ‘to win maximum levels of commissions for in-house production through creative excellence, efficient working and competitive pricing’ and ‘to win, through enterprise and entrepreneurial behaviour, a major place and role in the new UK and worldwide markets’. In a tone which implied no other view was possible, the booklet moved on to discuss necessary savings in expenditure: ‘The major effort will have to be in the programme making process, if we are to bridge our funding gap. The time spent on set-up, the shooting and recording of programmes and the length of time in post-production is where the key savings will have to be found.’

In essence, the Broadcast/Production split transferred power from the setter-uppers to the putter-outers: a microcosm of a wider power shift from the producer to the consumer which defined the last quarter of the 20th century. Its context was a perception that the BBC was a producer-dominated organisation which had lost touch with its audiences (the early 1990s was the era of A Year in Provence and Eldorado), leading to a drop in audience figures that revived government concern about the legitimacy of the licence fee. The new head of BBC Broadcast, Will Wyatt, spoke of his department as the link between ‘the creative community’ and the audience. An independent producer put it more bluntly: ‘The controllers of BBC1 and BBC2 don’t trust the producers to make the series they want,’ he told the Guardian in February 1997. ‘You can’t force them to eat in the staff canteen if they want to eat in a restaurant. They think the in-house cook offers up the wrong things. We deliver what they order up.’

The consequences of this change for the culture of the BBC were profound. In one sense, producers found their new role as salesmen invigorating. What Born describes as a ‘new seduction, a collective hallucination’ took hold, holding out to BBC producers the giddy prospect that they too could ‘play the market’, and that ‘to do so, to be seen to do so, and to be seen to be successful in doing so, was sexy.’ But just as there was something faintly risible about white-collar public sector workers in the 1970s evoking the language of the proletarian struggle, so, in the 1990s, to hear employees of a huge publicly funded establishment talking of ‘pitching’, ‘cutting deals’ and ‘slicing up the action’ had a slightly tinny feel. For what Born describes as the ‘libidinalisation of entrepreneurialism’ (and what others refer to as a trahison des clercs) masked the reality of disempowerment. And as concept-pitching and action-slicing producers saw their power to commission programmes removed and centralised in the hands of the controllers of BBC1 and BBC2, so those controllers quickly realised their own limitations in providing programming that would attract ‘Mavis from Grimsby’, the mass-viewer with whom so many lordly BBC producers were out of touch. For in truth the controllers didn’t know much about Mavis either, and so the real power moved on once more, to the market researchers and the focus groups who increasingly influenced not just the editing of completed programmes but commissioning. The very language (‘meeting controllers’ needs’) implies an abdication of control and a shrinkage of choice: in the old days, channel controllers wanted to give the public what they felt it needed; now they needed to satisfy its wants.

The BBC’s collapse of faith in its own judgment had a predictable effect on programming, which immediately became imitative of what was seen to have worked for the competition. This process can be seen in drama, documentary and even history programmes, but reached its climax in the cloning contests of reality TV. According to research by Steven Barnett, in 1955 the BBC devoted 10 per cent of its schedule to arts programmes and nearly 25 per cent to children. Over the course of the last decade, the time devoted to soaps has almost doubled (approaching 10 per cent of peak output), current affairs programming has halved, while leisure and lifestyle shows have quadrupled, to more than 8 per cent of the schedule.

As it became impossible to question the apparently self-evident prescriptions of management consultancy, or evade the language of marketing, so the supremacy of ratings as the sole index of success became unquestionable – the brand leading the bland. This was exacerbated by the appearance of the previous night’s ratings on BBC computer screens at 8 a.m. The power of viewing figures to constrain sequential thought was demonstrated by a spokesperson who, responding to John Tusa’s accusation that arts programmes were being dumbed down in the interests of ratings, answered with a tautology that confirmed Tusa’s case: ‘If the millions of viewers’ – nearly six million enjoyed Rolf on Art – ‘find our presenters’ enthusiasm appealing enough to have tuned in to learn more about art, ancient civilisation or global treasures, then how is the BBC failing?’

The traumatic effects of the populist assault were most striking in drama. Drama was important for three reasons. First, it consumed a great deal of the BBC’s money: three to four times as expensive as factual television, drama had at one time absorbed nearly three-quarters of BBC2’s entire budget. Second, it had been an example of the essentially plural nature of BBC commissioning, with power divided between controllers, strand editors and regional department heads. Troy Kennedy Martin’s 1985 anti-nuclear six-parter Edge of Darkness was commissioned by the head of serials, Jonathan Powell, produced by the Birmingham regional drama head, Michael Wearing, and scheduled before Martin had finished the scripts. Third, as a result of its plural structure, the department had gained and kept its reputation as a producer-led, oppositional space, not just for Edge of Darkness, but for Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff (1981), Dennis Potter’s sexually provocative and formally challenging Singing Detective (1986) and Richard Eyre’s film of Charles Wood’s anti-Falklands Tumbledown (1988). When a newly aggressive ITV, freed from its franchise limitations by the 1990 Act, decided to make popular drama its flagship audience puller, BBC drama was faced with an unprecedented challenge. Harried by the imperatives of the licence fee justification, BBC1 felt it had no choice but to follow. And while Boys from the Blackstuff had attracted seven million on BBC1 (and Edge of Darkness a million more), nobody doubted that the only way to match the ten million that ITV was regularly gaining for series like Soldier Soldier was to reanimate a rather different kind of animal, ‘BBC popular drama’.

Born charts the struggle between Corporate Centre and the drama department. The first battle was over financial autonomy: accountants were sent in to oversee the department’s own finance staff – the two sides sitting, glowering at each other, at separate tables in the canteen. The accountants insisted on projects having individual, ring-fenced programme budgets, challenging the drama department custom of using surpluses on popular dramas to help out with under-financed higher-risk productions. Similarly, BBC Broadcast was keen that the drama department shouldn’t slip co-production money between projects, or get its hands on the profits from commercial sales of popular BBC dramas abroad. This war of attrition ended with Corporate Centre withdrawing its battered bean-counters in 1996, and pursuing a much more draconian policy of casualisation instead. In effect, the permanently staffed drama department became little more than a development agency.

The department was then pressured by its clients in BBC Broadcast to imitate the kinds of drama that were proving most successful on ITV. This led to some obvious mirrorings (the soft-toned police drama Hamish MacBeth echoing ITV’s Heartbeat, Dalziel and Pascoe clearly shadowing Inspector Morse) and some rather desperate attempts to find new angles on old formats (writers of the series Dangerfield had to ring increasingly ingenious changes on the only two procedures for which police surgeons are legally required). Then there was an increasing homogeneity of casting (the ‘anything with Tara Fitzgerald’ syndrome). Andrew Davies withdrew his adaptation of Angela Lambert’s A Rather English Marriage from the BBC when Alan Yentob insisted that an aristocratic ex-Battle of Britain pilot be played by David Jason; ITV loved it, but made similar demands. Eventually, back at the BBC, the play got its perfect casting – Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Joanna Lumley – and was ‘bought’ in 1998 by the then BBC2 controller Mark Thompson for broadcast at Christmas.

Andrew Davies symbolised the great success of 1990s BBC drama: the reinvention of the classic serial, whose high points (including Davies’s Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch) were produced under the wing of Michael Wearing. BBC singles and serials both separately developed adaptations of Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre. In fact, as producers ruefully admitted, the upsurge of dramatisations of 19th-century novels was itself a response to ITV’s massively expensive, all-film versions of 20th-century novels such as Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown in the 1980s. (The culture secretary Virginia Bottomley praised the role of the classic serial in promoting ‘our country, our cultural heritage and our tourist trade’.) For Wearing, contemporary drama (the ‘journalism of the imagination’) was the loser. Even Peter Flannery’s triumphant mid-1990s nine-parter Our Friends in the North was shown despite rather than because of the prevailing BBC ethos. Michael Jackson, then head of BBC2, described the serial as ‘without doubt the contemporary drama event of the year’ (not least because it took half of BBC2’s entire drama budget to make), but he never warmed to what he once dismissed as ‘some history of the Labour Party’, feeling, like many BBC strategists, that the social-realist tradition it represented had run out of steam.

Much more typical for that tradition was the fate of Trevor Griffiths’s 1997 film about Aneurin Bevan, Food for Ravens, shown untrailed on BBC2 at 11.15 p.m. on a November Sunday. The self-fulfilling prophecy that Ravens was ‘only a three-million player’ was echoed when a hapless BBC spokesperson had to explain to the Sunday Telegraph why an attractively cast series of Easter week monologues (Helen Baxendale as a servant girl, Joss Ackland as Barabbas) was also consigned to the small hours: ‘It was felt that because these dramas are considered, thoughtful pieces, they suit the later evening slots when the audience has time to sit and enjoy them.’ At the same time, paradoxically, the BBC’s public service remit seriously restricted its capacity to emulate ITV’s tradition of hard-hitting documentary dramas, which had, for example, explained how the RUC suppressed the truth about its rules of engagement (Shoot to Kill, 1990), and contributed to the release of the Birmingham Six (Who Bombed Birmingham?, also 1990). Faced with vociferous complaints about the representation of real people in drama-documentaries, the BBC’s Producer Guidelines direct that persons portrayed in a drama (or ‘their surviving near relatives’) should be consulted, and ‘where their co-operation or approval is withheld on reasonable grounds the portrayal should not proceed’, which would have knocked out all the ITV docudramas at one fell swoop.

Even the long-running soaps began to lose their edge. Although EastEnders was founded in 1985 to challenge ITV’s headlock on the ratings, the early years of the Albert Square soap had a clear social agenda: indeed, there was a good argument that the soaps had stolen a march on singles in confronting issues like Aids, schoolgirl pregnancy and rape. By the late 1990s, however, faced with the task of producing five episodes a week, EastEnders had fallen prey to melodrama and sensationalism. Similarly, when Casualty began, its hostility to Health Service cuts and the bureaucrats who made them led to rumours that it was a mouthpiece for the Militant Tendency; the programme suffered a wholesale purge of its writers after an episode in which anti-cuts rioters trashed Holby General, and the result is the Casualty of today.

That the limited range and ambition of BBC television drama was by no means inevitable is clear from what was happening elsewhere. As in TV, the commissioning of what remains a vast Radio Four drama output had been conducted on a reasonably informal, decentralised basis, which was overturned in Year Zero, when power was transferred upwards from producers and strand editors to the controller and five commissioners. In the same period, James Boyle, Radio Four’s controller, had undertaken the dangerous procedure of restructuring his channel’s slots, which reduced the weekly 90-minute play to 60 minutes (at the same time moving it from Monday to Friday) and rationalised the daytime drama output in the form of five 45-minute slots, every weekday at 2.15. Although, with classic serials and the like, the number of hours of drama was probably about the same, the new slots were seen as restrictive (not all good radio drama is either 45 or 60 minutes long). Luckily Boyle appointed a former head of drama, Caroline Raphael, to the post of commissioner for weekday afternoons; Raphael opened up the dry and dusty afternoon slot to genuinely innovative drama. One reason so many avant-garde, non-linear, experimental single plays inherited one to two million listeners from The Archers may have been that, unlike TV drama, radio drama doesn’t face direct commercial competition. But the success of radio in resisting homogenisation also applied to sectors which faced determined competition, and which nonetheless succeeded in rejuvenating and reinventing themselves without betraying their remit, as Radio Three did with its coverage of world music, Radio One by putting ‘New Music First’, and Radio Two with pretty much its entire output.

By contrast, in television drama, the ‘needs of the controllers’ for ratings trumped any social, political or artistic ambitions to which writers or producers might aspire. During script meetings about a BBC adaptation of my stage play Destiny in the late 1970s, the producer Margaret Matheson would test each scene by asking: ‘What are we telling the nation here?’ The question was ironic, as well as containing an element of wishful thinking. Yet to ask what a drama is telling the nation may be preferable to asking what it’s selling it.

Supplemented by case-studies drawn from other TV forms (particularly news, current affairs and documentary), the story of BBC TV drama is central to Born’s argument that, together with fierce competition, ‘Birtist management was responsible for eroding the BBC’s creativity.’ For Born, the capacity of competitive spirit to trump the best intentions is demonstrated by the salutary tale of Channel Four. Founded in 1982, it arose out of the 1977 report of the Annan Committee, which had in turn been influenced by left-wing critics, theorists and programme makers, who saw the new channel, with its pluralist structure, experimental ambitions and minority remit, as an ideal site for a new alliance, in which the provocative would make common cause with the popular market against the paternalistic BBC. For a while it worked. It was the decision to allow the channel to sell its own advertising which inevitably led to the decline of the democratic in favour of the demographic. Michael Grade programmed Paula Milne’s The Politician’s Wife, Bleasdale’s GBH and Jimmy McGovern’s Hearts and Minds (as well as importing Hill St Blues, ER, Friends and Frasier), but the decision to concentrate on the 16-35 age group led the channel to spurn programmes about quilts in favour of The Girlie Show, a change of direction which was accelerated under Grade’s successor, Michael Jackson, whose principal target audience was young men. To those who believe that market forces will usher in a new era of pluralism, diversity and experiment, Born says: ‘Look at Channel Four.’

There are at least three contrary views of the Birt period which put marketisation in a different light. The first sees the changes as a necessary corrective to a BBC that had grown fat and complacent, whose departments were operating as competing, self-righteous and ossified baronies beyond central control. Creative and often brilliant some BBC departments might have been, but they were run by small, exclusive and overwhelmingly male hierarchies (once you were a runner, you stayed a runner). In drama in particular, there was a clear hierarchy of prestige (from single plays at the top to series and soaps at the bottom), which meant that by the early 1980s producers were chasing Bafta awards for the next cutting-edge six-parter, rather than providing the bread-and-butter police and medical series needed to retain a mass audience for BBC1. Without Birt’s reforms – the savings they made and the increase in audiences they enabled – the BBC might well have lost the licence fee. Once the unruly barons had been tamed, and the BBC had demonstrated its capacity for financial probity, the Corporation could return to its core public service values, most obviously demonstrated in its coverage of great national events and quality comedy, documentary, classic serials and single plays.

The second view was articulated by Dawn Airey, the former head of Channel Five, in a pugnacious Royal Television Society lecture delivered on 17 March this year. Airey argues that technological changes have brought about an irreversible shift in the balance of power and knowledge away from the establishment and towards the people. Huw Weldon’s good-popular/popular-good formulation might have been ‘a good maxim for its time’, but now that audiences are no longer reliant on what the BBC serves up on a handful of channels, they ‘can determine what is good with an independence of judgment that was unimaginable in Weldon’s day’. As in the Health Service and education, consumer choice has succeeded in transforming the television service where the diktats of public servants failed. No longer bound by the tyranny of the schedule, tomorrow’s viewers will see television as a library, in which they do the selecting. For Airey, the digital revolution (which substitutes channel abundance for the scarcity of analogue frequencies) is democracy in action, ‘breaking down mass conformity in order to liberate individual choice’. Technology has set the viewers free.

Some of the programming consequences of this argument are evident in the case of Channel Five, with its proverbial diet of ‘films, fucking and football’. There is, however, a third position, which seeks to recast the public service remit for the digital age. In this view, the ‘balanced diet’ model of television consumption is now outmoded. In particular, the remote control and the digital box have so eroded channel loyalty that hammocking (hanging a serious programme between two popular ones, the technique by which the old BBC sought to make the good popular) no longer works. Already, viewers are constructing their own schedules, across channels and between broadcast and increasingly user-friendly forms of recording. In this universe, as Mark Thompson pointed out in a speech in Banff in 2000, the mixed-schedule channel logically gives way to segmentation, channels ‘with a pretty clear proposition or flavour: clear strong colours, in other words, from which viewers can mix their own palette’ (BBC1 entertainment, BBC2 lifestyle, BBC3 comedy, BBC4 the arts). As an enthusiast for makeover programmes, extreme sports, World War Two documentaries and The Simpsons cherry-picks her way across the hundred-plus niche channels, she becomes her own controller.

While the producers of arts programmes and serious documentaries can no longer hang happily hammocked between sitcoms and sport, there is evidence that the multichannel universe can deliver quality, and that quality can trickle across channels. Following Steve Bochco’s reinvention of precinct drama in legal and police series like LA Law and NYPD Blues, and ABC’s bold decision to broadcast David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, American TV drama now regularly outguns the British equivalent, both on the networks (NBC’s West Wing) and on subscription channels such as HBO (which invented The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City). And those who register the success of niche-marketed American drama have been known to question the wonders of the BBC Golden Age, noting that, despite Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, a lot of the Wednesday Plays and Plays for Today won tiny audiences then and would look embarrassingly crude today. Those who believe that all drama aspires to the condition of the single play should note that, by the early 1980s, the giants of TV drama had themselves left the single play behind in favour of serials (Potter, Bleasdale, Martin). And while there was a period in which the best new writers appeared to be limited to writing within popular genres (though neither Jimmy McGovern nor Lynda La Plante looked desperately constrained by Cracker and Prime Suspect), the new generation of TV writers, trained in soaps, have now set about rejuvenating non-genre drama, in serials like Russell T. Davies’s Queer as Folk for Channel Four and The Second Coming for ITV.

Further, those who believe that only the BBC can do great drama have to accept that there are all kinds of plays that the BBC currently appears unwilling to do; the BBC turned down The Second Coming, and Channel Four’s winners at this year’s Baftas included Peter Travis’s film of Guy Hibbert and Paul Greengrass’s Omagh, which the BBC certainly would have turned down for Producer Guideline reasons (as, along with ITV, it would have rejected last year’s Bafta-winning single drama, the Stephen Frears/ Peter Morgan dramatisation of the Blair/ Brown relationship, The Deal). Despite Born’s claim that recent British TV drama had ‘a low tolerance for formal innovation’, many of the innovative devices associated with high-art drama are now staples of mass-market popular serials, from flashbacks, ghost sequences, straight-to-camera address, alternative realities and trick beginnings and endings to irony, metatextuality and self-referencing. And if Golden Age social realism no longer speaks to a fractured, post-ideological world, isn’t Michael Jackson right to see television’s most popular drama form – polyphonous, open, multifocused, with no dominant narrative line or voice – as speaking more effectively to our times, confirming that the serial has been conclusively transformed from the poor man’s single play to the rich man’s soap?

These three perspectives imply three possible directions for the BBC. It’s hard to see a role for a public service network funded by a licence fee in Dawn Airey’s version of the multichannel universe; and even harder in the adjacent universe proposed by the government digital television adviser (and Channel Four deputy chairman) Barry Cox, who sees the future distribution of television as not a library but a bookshop, in which we will pay pro rata for everything we see – the logical outcome of subscription. And the third-way thinkers who welcome the rise of the niche channel see it as preserving a site for public service broadcasting – when people want to watch something on BBC4, they seem to be able to find it – lending support to Lord Burns’s idea of a top-sliceable licence fee, in which the public service product of all existing terrestrial channels is met by licence fee money, divided up by a regulator. (Burns was an independent adviser on the Charter Review.)

For the group that regards the Birt reforms as a regrettably necessary but temporary upheaval, to be followed by a calm reassertion of public service principles, what’s happened since provides little comfort. It’s true that Greg Dyke found a demoralised, over-managed organisation and immediately undertook reforms that were, for Born, ‘necessary, well-judged and highly productive’. Using the ‘jacuzzi of cash’ he inherited from Birt’s licence fee increases, Dyke unpicked the Broadcast/Production split, scrapped the Corporate Centre and the policy and planning division, increased spending on programmes by an unprecedented £450 million, pledged to reduce the costs of running the BBC from 24 per cent to 15 per cent of its budget, identified it as ‘hideously white’, and resolved to do something about it. Most of all, Dyke made the BBC feel good about itself again. His five core BBC values (trust, audiences, quality, creativity and respect) might seem anodyne and arbitrary, and the constant feelgood meetings and courses to discuss improving the work environment may have proved tiresome to programme makers. But the outpouring of anger at Dyke’s sacking after the Hutton report showed that ‘One BBC’ was well and truly back.

Getting the market out of the BBC didn’t get the BBC out of the market, however. On the supply side, the rush towards populism accelerated. It was Dyke who pushed the Nine O’Clock News on an hour to make way for peak-time drama programming, and moved Panorama into its graveyard slot after ten on Sunday night. It was on his watch that Lorraine Heggessey’s BBC1 overtook ITV1 in the ratings (to wild celebrations) by essentially cloning its product, echoing The Bill wih Merseybeat and recladding Pop Idol as Fame Academy – a copycat strategy her successor, Peter Fincham, has refused to rule out. It was Dyke who presided over a BBC2 of wall-to-wall lifestyle, with The Weakest Link stripped across the week like EastEnders or Big Brother, and who banished several documentary strands (and much serious drama) from BBC2 to BBC4. Dyke was also spending over £100 million a year less on radio when he left than when he began. In terms of BBC morale, Dyke may have been Deng Xiaoping to Birt’s Mao Zedong. But in terms of the rush to market, he was Yeltsin to Birt’s Gorbachev.

It becomes increasingly clear that BBC reform exemplifies those elements of Thatcherism which New Labour was happy to inherit. As Born puts it, the Birt reforms exemplified ‘New Labour’s wider attempts to rein in the public sector’. Birt’s own ‘intimate identification with New Labour was concretised following his departure from the BBC’, when he gained a Labour peerage and became Blair’s blue-skies thinker-in-chief. Of course, Blair’s culture secretaries have spoken passionately about the public service principle. But in crucial respects the government has continued to encourage marketisation. The 2003 Communications Bill set up Ofcom, a new regulator oriented towards competition. Last year, Ofcom issued a report into public service broadcasting, conceived by the former Blair aide Ed Richards, which proposed a £300 million digital ‘Public Service Publisher’, which would show two to three hours of independently made public service broadcasting a day. Further, it recommended relieving ITV of some of its public service obligations in order to prevent it abandoning its analogue frequencies ahead of time. And Lord Birt was a keen supporter of Lord Burns’s proposal for a top-sliceable licence fee, which now has Ofcom’s support.

The problem with top-slicing – and the concept of the Public Service Publisher – is that identifying a particular section of any channel’s programming as its ‘public service output’ ghettoises some sectors and liberates others from public service obligations, a Faustian bargain which allows the popular to get really popular in exchange for keeping the good really good. On the other hand, it’s clear that a return to a universal public service remit is unrealistic. For Mark Thompson, in his Banff speech, the idea of public service television has become tired and dusty, promoted by ‘people out there who believe that the whole purpose of public service television is not to change’. If ‘elite culture is just one more niche, and one which appeals to a diminishing minority’; if, indeed, ‘public service’ means patronising, does it have any role at all?

In the multichannel digital universe of the future, the purpose of public service broadcasting is not the setting of gold standards or the preservation of elite culture but the provision of choice. In the same way that the problem with bear-baiting, fox-hunting or capital punishment is not so much what it does to its victim as what it does to the rest of us, the problem with a television industry run on exclusively commercial lines is not the homogenisation of the product but the homogenisation of the viewer. The proverbial hundred channels are broadcasting to the same kind of person, the customer who sees his or her relationship with what they watch in the same light as his or her relationship with Currys or Tesco.

The overwhelming case for the public sector (and the public service) is that it refuses to accept that we are all – inevitably and unarguably – only one kind of person; it provides a site for different kinds of relationship between us and the world. My relationship with my doctor is not the same as my relationship with my grocer; entering a theatre or a concert hall is a different deal from entering a football ground. Some relationships have implications that go way beyond those of the parties directly involved. The pernicious effect of assuming that we are first and foremost customers is not the rights it grants – often, in the case of local authority services and the Health Service, not before time – but the rights it removes. In the case of local authorities, they include the right to have and express an interest in services which a person may not directly use (such as education, if they have no children at school). In the case of the Health Service, it means that citizens can legitimately express concerns about how hospitals are financed and administered which go beyond their own treatment. My interest in education and health is not restricted to my wish for well-educated teachers, doctors and nurses, on hand when I need them. It results from my awareness of the much wider benefits – quantifiable and unquantifiable – of living in a society in which rich people don’t always get better medical treatment and education than poor people, which is why I’m willing to make sacrifices (notably paying taxes) to keep such benefits in being.

My experience of television is impoverished if it’s about nothing more than what happens to me when I switch on. Well over half the population failed to watch the 1966 World Cup, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t touched by it. Market researchers note that far more people support the idea of regional, children’s and arts programmes than actually watch them, as if this undermined their place in the schedules: in fact, it demonstrates that people understand they are paying for a service that goes beyond their own wants to address other people’s needs. Adding the language of needs (which is, after all, the language we use with, say, our doctor) to the language of wants is to change, in a subtle but profound way, the kind of person we are when we turn on the TV or leave it off.

One characteristic of that person is a willingness to be jolted. Dawn Airey’s claim that new serials have bridged an old gap between ‘serious and miserable’ and ‘popular and enjoyable’ is belied by popular and enjoyable Golden Age comedies by Jack Rosenthal, Alan Plater, Potter and Bleasdale. In its various showings, Cathy Come Home was seen by 22 million people, not all of them watching because there was only one alternative. But a non-genre drama is inevitably a more demanding experience than a genre drama. The audience-broadcaster relationship is not a one-way street, particularly when television is open to oppositional and provocative voices, which it was in the restricted 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and, for all the claims of diversity and democratisation, is less so now. One of the reasons for that is cultural: since the mid-1980s, innovation has tended to be self-referential, finding ever more ingenious mechanisms for hybridising television’s profusion of forms. In the 1960s, there was much less inside to refer to, so programme makers (satirists as well as drama writers) had to bring the news in from the street.

There is also the responsibility of a public service to give a voice to those who aren’t heard. Born argues that broadcasting represents a stage on which Britain’s new plurality can be performed, as well as providing ‘astonishingly powerful expressive and imaginative forms which underpin the growth both of empathy and of unified experience’. Yet the BBC has failed ‘adequately to respond to the cultural interests of Britain’s working class, its youth, its black and Asian populations’, a failure which is justified in terms of ‘market-based consumer sovereignty’.

Providing a service which meets people’s needs as well as their wants, which seeks to expand as well as echo the experience of its users, which is prepared to jolt and disturb as well as confirm or sustain, which provides a site for public conversation and which acknowledges and articulates our collective as well as our individual affinities and identities, is a pretty good mission statement for a public realm communicator. Ofcom is right to define public service in terms of purpose and function rather than institutions, but it is the purpose of institutions to provide conditions in which such purposes can be best pursued. The difficulties that purely commercial operations have with public service is well put by Geoff Mulgan, the former Downing St policy unit head, who notes how ‘excessive marketisation limits the collective innovation that comes from a free flow of information. In the market paradigm it is assumed,’ he writes, ‘that competition will fuel innovation. Now we know that it is much harder to create an innovative environment and much easier to destroy it than anyone imagined.’ The casualisation of labour in the television industry over the last twenty years – a casualisation which Mark Thompson is set to accelerate, not least by his pledge to reduce in-house production to 50 per cent of BBC output – reduces the skills base now and in the future. It is hard to see why a casualised, untrained workforce, working in organisations with short histories and high turnover, wholly dependent on the tastes of a very small number of people, is going to be more inclined to creative risk-taking than people whose jobs are reasonably secure.

Then there is the question of experience and track record. There have been periods when BBC television drama has been bettered by other channels, but over time it is unrivalled in terms of its ambition, its influence and its range. News and current affairs also went through considerable changes during the Birt period, but the BBC remains the largest news gathering organisation in the world, its presentation of news was incomparably better, livelier and clearer at the end of the 1990s than it had been in the early 1980s, and for all the jokes about its audience not filling the bar at the Groucho, Newsnight continues to enjoy a latter-end-of-primetime slot throughout the week.

Finally, there is comedy, the form with which the BBC has had the surest touch over the longest period. In That Was the Week that Was, The Frost Report, Not so Much a Programme More a Way of Life and Not the Nine O’Clock News, satirists were at the leading edge of the assault on hierarchy, authority and tradition. In Albert Steptoe, Alf Garnett, Basil Fawlty, Edina Monsoon, Victor Meldrew, Alan Partridge and David Brent, sitcom writers and performers not only created enduring characters but identified and named social phenomena (as Little Britain has with Vicky Pollard). If one was looking for an example of how, challenged by provocateurs, an establishment institution can provide a site for opposition and contest, BBC comedy is probably the best of all.

All three of these forms – drama, news, comedy – emerged from the Birt/Dyke eras winded, wounded and insecure. The popular success of Big Brother has enabled Channel Four to make highly provocative drama; at the BBC, by contrast, populism has all but eliminated the provocative spirit. Hutton’s judgment on Andrew Gilligan allowed executives to move BBC News gently but firmly back towards its traditional caution about breaking stories.

Finally, Born’s vision of the BBC as a platform which enables ‘counter-public to speak to counter-public’ seems a distant prospect. On the other hand, as she points out, the technology that has done so much to individualise the broadcasting marketplace is beginning to demonstrate how television can genuinely interact with its publics, in initiatives like the BBC’s iCan website, cross-platform events like the 2003 Asylum Day and Black History Month and the partnership plan for Hull to be the first entirely wired British city, giving internet access to every household.

Much of this is celebrated in a manifesto published last year: Building Public Value: Renewing the BBC for a Digital World. As befits a document that commits the BBC to encouraging active participation in civic life, its case is argued, as opposed to stated as self-evident truth. Among the proposals are the development of iCan, the elimination of ‘derivative programmes’, more frequent revivals of radio and television drama (including singles), giving culture a more prominent place on BBC1 and BBC2, and launching ‘one major social action campaign each year’, the first being literacy. This document was launched by a director-general who is making one in five of the workforce he inherited redundant, but who also, earlier in his career, commissioned The Death of Klinghoffer for Channel Four and Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past for BBC2.

Tessa Jowell’s March 2005 broadcasting Green Paper (‘a strong BBC, independent of government’) echoes the tone and content of Building Public Value, and she is hostile to the top-slicing of the licence fee. But although committed to sending what jobs are left to the regions, the government remains as convinced as its predecessors that the BBC is overmanned (Norman Tebbit used to count the crews that came to interview him), and supportive of the transfer of employment from the BBC to undertrained and casualised independents. What the government has not yet done – but could do – is to declare that the value of having a public service broadcaster at the heart of the system outweighs the need for the BBC to receive a certain audience share (it should pay attention to the BBC’s reach – the number of people who use any of its services – which was 92.7 per cent in 2002-3). It could open up a genuine debate about the future of the BBC’s funding, even exploring the pros and cons of financing the BBC out of general taxation. Most important, it should encourage the BBC to free its programme makers from the constraints on its product (including revising the Producer Guidelines), to consign the Gilligan affair to history, to rescue Ofcom from the top-slicers and to welcome a renewal of the provocative in drama, news and comedy.

The BBC television service that my father joined in 1946 had to invent itself from scratch. To reinvent a public realm which provides a public service which the market can’t offer, without imposing uniformity or demanding deference, is surely one of the main tasks for a modern social-democratic government.