EDITORIAL: The BBC must still be told what to do

It's hard to accept an absence of malice in the Tories' attempt to bring the BBC to heel by ending its reliance on what is effectively a compulsory tax - the licence fee.

Everybody knows there's no love lost between the BBC and Conservative Central Office, which is convinced the corporation is packed with New Labour fellow travellers.

This is of little consequence at Broadcasting House. With the Tories looking as unelectable as ever and Labour likely to retain the BBC's current funding arrangements when its Royal Charter comes up for renewal in 2006, the BBC feels able to treat the Tories' huffing and puffing with lofty distain.

No doubt the BBC will regard the taskforce being set up by the party to investigate whether it should show advertising as another excuse to give it a good kicking and that its findings will have built-in bias.

Nevertheless, that it will have to carry out its work within such an acrimonious atmosphere shouldn't detract from the importance of the issues being investigated and their impact on the future of advertising and UK public service broadcasting.

David Elstein, the former chief executive of Channel 5 and the head of the taskforce, has enough experience as a broadcaster to know that the BBC's privileged position is no longer sustainable. He will know also how easy it would be to put both commercial TV and public service broadcasting in jeopardy through a blunt instrument approach. But change there must be. The BBC's has paid scant regard to its public service remit for a long time. So much of what it does generates revenue and profit.

Little wonder the Tories see parallels in the way Sky TV operates - only a tiny proportion of its revenue comes from advertising, the rest is from subscriptions-as a template for the BBC of the future.

But the BBC isn't like any other commercial operation. Its unique position would give it a tremendous advantage over ITV as a magnet for advertisers but the real gains would be short-term ones. More advertising airtime would bring down the cost of TV advertising, but this is certainly no guaranteed long-term benefit. What is almost certain is that opening up the BBC airwaves to advertising would have a detrimental impact on the type of programming the Corporation broadcasts; ratings would be more important than ever and ratings all too often can mean lowest common denominator schedules. Above all, though, what mustn't happen is that the BBC is allowed to do what it likes, free of Ofcom's control.

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