Though the boundary between public and private provision has become the epicentre of our politics, its course has remained strangely unchallenged. Labour shrinks from renationalising the railways; the Tories dare not threaten the NHS. Suddenly, however, a real shift is in prospect, on hitherto uncontested territory. Britain's mix of public and commercial broadcasting long attracted general assent. Now this consensus is breaking down. Decisions about to be taken could lead to the wholesale commercialisation of the sector. Will this mean the departure of quality, range, diversity, originality, information and education from our airwaves?
Well, it is our public broadcasters' disregard of these very things which has put their survival in question. Meltdown began with last month's announcement that, for the first time, BBC1 had consistently attracted more viewers than ITV. The Director General Greg Dyke and his henchpersons sat back to enjoy the plaudits. Instead, they were reviled. Their triumph was achieved by deploying the proceeds of a regressive, compulsory poll tax to pit programmes such as Celebrity Sleepover (D-list star spends the night with fan) against a self-financing but cash-strapped channel trying to meet public service obligations of its own. For example, in December, ITV dared mount a two-hour, experimental reworking of Othello at 9pm on a Sunday. The BBC moved the high-rating but formulaic schlock-show Holby City against it, winning double ITV's audience. Trebles all round at TV Centre, maybe. But nowhere else.
In the past, BBC bosses managed to hide their public service nakedness with a fig leaf of worthy programmes. Their triumphalism over the defeat of ITV seems, however, to have finally blown their cover. A wave of pent-up impatience has broken at last. Just why should pensioners and single mums pay £109 a year for the BBC to mimic what commercial broadcasters offer for free? People whose support the BBC might have expected to take for granted, such as the art critic Brian Sewell and the former BBC deputy chairman Lord Rees-Mogg, are now demanding the end of the licence fee. Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the Commons media committee, is urging a rethink of the corporation's funding and structure. Commercial broadcasters have piled into the attack, arguing that unfair and possibly illegal competition from a state-funded rival is destroying their business.
Disgust at the BBC's behaviour is rubbing off on our other publicly owned (though advertiser-funded) broadcaster, Channel 4. It, too, has chosen to build audience share at the expense of its public responsibilities. It, too, has put more effort into building an empire of unwatched digital channels than in attending to its remit. The Tories have proposed that the channel should be privatised. Gordon Brown is believed to agree with them.
This is a dangerous time for public broadcasters to risk looking dispensable. The government is to reshape the broadcasting environment with a Communications Bill, now being drafted for publication in April. Since the public broadcasters' case has become clouded, commercial lobbyists are making the running instead. The bill will accommodate demands from global media giants such as Rupert Murdoch for a relaxation of ownership rules which will allow them to extend their UK presence. It will create a unified regulatory regime, whose writ will embrace all broadcasters except, perhaps, the BBC. In fact, Dyke and the BBC's new chairman, Gavyn Davies, Labour cronies both, look like winning their battle to continue to regulate themselves. But their victory may prove Pyrrhic.
Tough external regulation, forcing the BBC back to its core purposes, might provide the best hope of redeeming its repu-tation. Left to themselves, BBC bosses seem certain to plunge further into populism and empire-building, just as the opinion-forming classes blow the whistle ever more loudly. Their claim to have renounced croissants and consultants, bureaucracy and waste, is also bound to be rumbled. By 2006, when the BBC's charter comes up for renewal, they may well have dug the grave of the licence fee. Free access to the airwaves, a privilege as valuable as the licence fee and one on which Channel 4 as well as the BBC depends, may also seem unmerited.
The stage will be set for a more straightforward regime, under which the public broadcasters are privatised (creating a useful windfall for the Treasury) and invited to compete with commercial rivals on a levelled playing field. Should we care? Only, perhaps, if we confuse public sector with public service. The BBC and Channel 4 have succumbed to the temptation to put their own institutional interests above their duty to the public. The Third Way solution to such public-sector problems was supposed to be "steering not rowing". The state would ordain, but delivery would be down to companies subject to the disciplines of the market place.
This notion is being introduced into the margins of the NHS and being forced on to the London Underground. The justification offered is that, now ideology is dead, the choice between public and private should be a matter of what "works". Whether the market will work in hospitals or the Tube remains to be seen. But we already know it beats the state at public service broadcasting.
In the past, the best serious programmes have been created by commercial companies obliged to meet social goals in return for their licences. This was the condition of the ITV companies before the 1990 Broadcasting Act put their franchises up for auction. In those days, News at Ten easily outclassed The Nine O'Clock News; World in Action wiped the floor with Panorama; The South Bank Show overshadowed Omnibus; and Credo's theology and ethics found themselves up against little more than Songs of Praise.
This model would work again. All broadcasters, whether financed by advertising or subscription, could be allocated public responsibilities and forced to discharge them on pain of losing access to the airwaves. Once their licences were at stake, companies would soon develop a taste for public service. We might be surprised by who performed best. Already, Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting backs the respectable Artsworld, while the BBC's idea of arts coverage appears to be Rolf on Art. Sky News often seems sharper than BBC1's Ten O'Clock News. BSkyB, not Channel 4, has created the Community Channel for the voluntary sector.
Once freed from corruption induced by dependency, the BBC and Channel 4 might, however, raise their game. They would certainly have to extend their horizons beyond putting bums on couches. Let public broadcasters die. And long live public service broadcasting.