The BBC is "the world's most famous cultural institution," writes Georgina Born. It practises "public service broadcasting". But, as she comments, all three words are now contested. Why should the BBC be "public" and financed by licence fee? Isn't "service" a notion from grandpa's world, which should be replaced by "choice"? And why stick to the old "broadcasting" term in the broadband age of multiple interactive communications?
As Born shows, much of this "contesting" is no more than hostile competitor garbage, wrapped in pompous language by the BBC's enemies at Westminster or in the Murdoch empire. All the same, every generation rightly asks what the BBC is for, and every BBC ruling dynasty has to reinvent the corporation. Some of these reinventions succeed on their own terms. Some are farcical flops. Others, such as the Birt reforms, seem mad and destructive at the time, but prove their worth later.
Born is, as she claims, an unusual social anthropologist: her speciality is western cultural institutions. This book is the result of nearly ten years' fieldwork in which the BBC - astonishingly, given its secrecy culture - allowed her to sit in on meetings at all levels and take notes. "Ah, Georgina!" said Alan Yentob. "Shall we stage a sacking for you?" She responds with a half-page deconstruction of the subtexts - "multiple, rich in meaning" - of Yentob's remark. And she is right: they are many and rich and, at moments, scary.
The book's structure has annoyed some readers. Extracts of fieldwork diary and notes alternate with pages of analysis and reflection in bolder type. It is the raw material of the thesis, not the thesis itself. But so much the better. Left in this form, the sharp-eyed wit of Born's notes is not homogenised in order to flow into the generalisations. Another complaint is that the book isn't up to date. The main research was done in the late 1990s, and the BBC asked Born not to publish for some years - a condition she decided to accept. Again, this does not much matter. This is a study of a particular episode - the reign of John Birt. The next period, the reign of Greg Dyke, in which the BBC hit the most damaging crisis in its history over the Hutton report, is well covered in a final chapter of narrative and criticism.
In meetings of the BBC Drama Group, Born recorded the chaos of Birt's "producer choice", the introduction of a mimic internal market. To helpless laughter, Charles Denton, head of drama at the BBC, announced: "The idea is that in future we will be expected to offer for our projects electronically against a matrix of in-house cost drivers." The Central Pronunciation Unit began to charge £12 per foreign name. Programmes nervous about their budgets left the pronunciation of Przewalski or Karjaleinen to guesswork.
Marketisation led to an outrush of sacked production and technical staff, who simply pitched up outside the BBC gates as the new independent producer sector; their most powerful members were soon able to dictate extortionate terms to the corporation. Television had to juggle its duty to buy 25 per cent of its output from the independents with its other duty to take a third of its output from the BBC regions (whose own output in turn had to be 25 per cent "indie" in origin). Consultants formed an invasive species colonising this damaged ecology. "They borrow your watch in order to tell you the time!"
Born totals up the damage done by Birt's reforms (most of them scrapped by Dyke when he took over in 2000): he stood, she writes, on the wrong side of the struggle between creativity and organisation. The energies of BBC values were "diverted into tangential demands - pitching, selling, accounting, auditing, marketing, politicking". Birtist management knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. And yet Born also suggests that the astounding spectacle of pseudoentrepreneurial change staged by Birt probably "saved the BBC from death by privatisation" in the Thatcher/Major years. And he left the corporation far better prepared for digitalisation than its commercial rivals. Dyke reaped the benefit of this achievement, much as the Chancellor Gordon Brown was already reaping the benefits of Tory economic policy.
After reading this book, it is easy to conclude that the BBC is an organism so peculiar that it has no general significance. Born certainly convinces me that the old cliche that "the BBC is a microcosm of British society" is quite wrong. But it is a limb of that society, with a deeply accepted function to which no commercial broadcaster could pretend. Born proposes her own reforms: an independent self-regulating body to replace the governors; an independent broadcasting finance commission to set the licence fee; and, not least, a legal definition of "public communications". She asks what public service broadcasting can mean in an age of "conflictual pluralism", and she agrees with Stuart Hall that it should not seek to reimpose unity. Rather, it should become a "theatre" in which Britain's diversity is displayed and a "forum" in which "the terms of its associative life" are negotiated. Broadcasting, she says, can show that there is no one who is beyond our compassion and humanity, but also that there is no one who is exactly like us.
Theatre? Forum? So is the BBC merely adapting its historical function of promoting national unity to 21st-century conditions - welcoming all kinds of social diversity while using drama and documentary to highlight common human values and emotions? That would be a banal job compared to its function in the big world, which is to maintain the expectation that at least one broadcaster habitually tells the truth. How strange that such an enormous duty can be fulfilled only if London politicians, bureaucrats and creative artists keep their squabbles under control.
Neal Ascherson's latest book is Stone Voices (Granta)