Tony Hall was right to invite the public to contemplate a world without the BBC and to see the gaping hole that would leave in our national life. But I'm not sure that they would regard with such horror one of his other scenarios in which there might be "less BBC". Tony as an astute operator must be considering not just the old BBC question — "How big do we need to be to do all the things we'd like?" — but the austerity age version too: "Could we be any smaller while still delivering our core mission?"
The dilemma for the Corporation is that in some areas it is genuinely hard-pressed: network television in particular feels the heat of competitive pressure, though the solution might be to do two channels very well rather than spread content thinly across four.
But in other spheres — notably news and radio — it still has a market position which even long-term loyalists find uncomfortable. It's currently estimated to have around 70 per cent of all news consumption on both television and radio — which is partly a tribute to the quality of what it does and its continuing relevance in a digital age. The problem is when the BBC's editorial voice speaks too much as one to the exclusion of others.
Co-ordinating the editorial content across the organisation is generally a good thing for the BBC. I don't only say this because I did it myself, but it's right that deployments should be made to deliver value across multiple outlets and that there's a shared understanding about stories within a framework of editorial guidelines across the BBC. But it means that more of the same core content plays across even more platforms.
Co-ordination can therefore lead to homogeneity; and that can be intensified by regulation that sees there being "right" and "wrong" answers. The BBC Trust speaks the language of diversity but in its edicts it promotes conformity, whether it's about an agreed approach to the science of climate change, "correct" terminology in the Middle East or the way a documentary about benefits should be constructed.
This has obvious risks when compounded by editors' judgments that are naturally influenced by like-minded peers — or by the single boss accountable for the whole of the BBC News empire. On the BBC's own admission, in recent years it did not, with the virtue of hindsight, give enough space to anti-immigration views or to EU-withdrawalists; and, though he may have exaggerated, the former Director-General Mark Thompson spoke of a "massive bias to the left" in the BBC he joined more than 30 years ago. I share Mark's view that there was more internal political diversity in recent times, but that isn't enough unless it's evident in a wider range of editorial views on air.
None of this is an argument for taking a wrecking-ball to the BBC. Its strengths remain manifest. But it does suggest there should be a debate about how the next licence fee settlement helps pluralism and diversity. Some interesting precedents exist already: the current deal brought the Welsh-language broadcaster S4C within the licence-fee family, and the BBC is providing financial support for the new generation of local television stations by a commitment to buy some of their content. In both these cases it's taken as read that the BBC continues to exist as a powerful force and that the non-BBC broadcasters maintain their distinctiveness, so the question is whether this kind of initiative could go further.
For instance, Channel 4 tried a few years ago to launch a suite of radio services to rival the BBC. Their prospectus for the speech-based Channel 4 Radio still reads as an exciting challenger to Radio 4 if it could have avoided the leftist tinge of their television service. If that couldn't work as a commercial enterprise, might it enrich the nation if similar bids were open to funding by the licence fee? A properly resourced service independent of the BBC could provide bracing competition and increase choice for audiences. There may be other ideas across all media that should be given a go too.
The debate about "top-slicing", as it's unromantically known, played out to no particular conclusion a few years ago. It's obvious that there are dangers, but there may be some big wins to be had too. It's essential that it doesn't mean decisions on what to transmit are taken away from broadcasters and given to bureaucrats, which is why the BBC should not have to contest its funding year-by-year and should have a guarantee of the dominant slice of the licence-fee pie. But the hard question for the corporation is why in a digital age it should have the whole pie to itself forever – when doing something different might be better for the public good.
Originally published in The Times (8/11/13), cross-posted by openDemocracy with permission