Friendless at the seat of power, rudderless at a time of critical danger. What a difference 48 hours can make. I have no idea how things came to this. A year ago the BBC was certified golden – officially untouchable. The talk was all about how to rein in Dyke’s resurgent, inflation-protected juggernaut. Now, after (surely?) the most torrid two days in her history, Auntie has apparently lost every friend she ever had in all three branches of State. Executive – any mates there? Are you kidding? Legislature? No, not for years (thank you, Mr, Kaufman). Judiciary? Er, apparently not.
Governments of every colour have an instinctive dislike of the BBC – one they usually acquire pretty soon after gaining office. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this one has now reasserted its ancient right to kick the Corporation around. It’s the extraordinary means chosen – an independent inquiry by a respected Law Lord – that takes the breath away. No one – surely – expected the BBC to get off without at least a warning but only a very subtle thinker could have forecast the outcome of Hutton’s complicated mixture of ignorance (of journalistic practice, of accountability in media), deference (towards ministers and civil servants) and suspicion (of scruffy hacks and media luvvies).
Here’s the thing, though: despite the grievous damage done to the BBC, there’s still no reason why this nasty affair shouldn’t be resolved to benefit everyone. All it needs is some genuine humility and a real eye for the future from the Government. The big thing, the really noble thing (and the properly third term thing) to do right now would be for Blair, Jowell and the rest to roll their sleeves up, set aside their resentment of media loose canons (and their glee at the Beeb’s humiliation) and make a serious effort to rebuild public service broadcasting in Britain. This would mean putting the independence and strength of the license fee-funded media before their narrow political interests and worry more about their legacy than about the next election.
This Government, like many before it, has engineered an opportunity to break and diminish the BBC. They’ve made a depressingly good start but the question is: do they have the strength of character to refuse this opportunity and to leave behind something strong, autonomous and useful to British electors?