Brian McNair: Slimming down essential to maintaining Auntie as No 1 British broadcaster

THE story of the BBC has been one of continuous expansion. BBC 1 and 2 were joined by 3 and 4. Radios 1 through 4 were added to with Five Live and 6.

There was 24-hour news, and a proliferation of websites, print publications and joint ventures with the private media sector. It got into big screen film production, and the Lonely Planet travel guide.

Most of that expansion has been beneficial to British culture, and indeed to the wider world, with the BBC signifying excellence almost everywhere you go. In the face of private media moans about unfair competition, therefore, or the electioneering of the parties as they strive to please their respective media cheerleaders, one's instinct is to close ranks round Auntie and say "hands off".

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That would be the wrong response to the BBC's latest Strategy Review, with its promise to "put quality first," and in the process to cut away large chunks of what it currently does, including half of its websites, two radio channels, and BBC's Switch and Blast.

Wrong, not because Rupert and James Murdoch say so, but because the world is changing, and so too must the world's biggest and best public service media organisation.

The BBC was established to ensure that a scarce and powerful resource – analogue broadcast spectrum – could not be monopolised by private interests, or commandeered by the state.

Financed by a modest licence fee (less than the price of a daily newspaper), the BBC was joined in due course by commercial broadcasters on analogue, cable and satellite platforms. The public-private mix worked well, maintaining the standards and governance of British broadcasting at a level seen nowhere else on the planet.

But the world has changed. Broadcasting is dying. TV and radio are merging, converging with print and online, to form a multimedia environment in which the old boundaries between platforms and content categories are melting away.

In this world, private media find their revenue streams and business models collapsing and a publicly funded, commercially insulated BBC begins to look too big, too powerful, too distorting of the media landscape for its own good. It has become a victim of its own success.

Self-inflicted crises and PR disasters haven't helped, and now the BBC has accepted that it must cease expansion for its own sake, cut its very luxurious budgets, simplify its systems, and focus on its core cultural work – impartial journalism for the nations, regions and localities; arts and educational content which the commercial media sector can't or won't provide; content deemed important for the health of British society and culture.

It must continue to be popular, in all genres and on all platforms, because quality is as important in the sphere of entertainment as anywhere else.

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It should, as the review insists, continue to take risks with drama and comedy, and to support emerging creative talent.

All else is negotiable.

Not everything proposed in this review will come to pass. But one senses a timely resolve by the BBC's managers to slim down, muscle up and make themselves loved again in a world where only the fittest will survive.

Admirers of Auntie should wish them well and hope that it works.

• Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism and Communication at the University of Strathclyde.

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