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28 November 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 9:46am

The BBC behemoth, renationalising energy and energised by Cambridge

The merits of the Channel 4 model and the Cavendish Laboratory.

By Roger Mosey

It has been liberating to exchange the BBC bunker in Portland Place for the bracing air of Cambridge. Some colleagues asked whether I’d miss the newsroom on a busy day and the answer is emphatically no. As a newcomer to Cambridge, I’m knocked out by the city and its people and by what the university achieves, and it’s impossible not to have a song in your heart as you cross the bridge from the Backs into King’s College on a fresh autumn morning. I can say what I think now, too, which is cheering after 30-odd years of friendly corralling by BBC minders.

Licence to shrink

That was the spirit in which I wrote a piece for the Times a couple of weeks ago suggesting that in tough times the corporation could still do its job while being slightly smaller. Deviation from past orthodoxy is as welcome to some former colleagues as a cat bringing in a mangled sparrow but there was plenty of support too, including some from unexpected internal sources. The brickbats seemed to be about the principle of criticising the BBC rather than the argument itself.

So let me be clear: I believe wholeheartedly in the BBC. But it’s daft to assume you can only be counted as a supporter if you think the corporation should expand still further or that it should have the whole licence fee forever. The best long-term strategy may well be for the BBC to concentrate on doing its core mission very well indeed, funded to the level of at least £3bn a year, and to foster plurality. A small additional slice of the licence fee could support other public-service media.

Energy for change

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It’s pretty obvious that there’s a risk of homogeneity when one broadcaster, however good it is, has so much of the news market. The BBC is estimated to have around 70 per cent of both television and radio news consumption, and the question may not be about veering to the left or to the right but simply whether too much of the output has the same world view. Earlier this year a report for the BBC Trust raised a number of themes it suggested had been under-represented on the BBC airwaves. Most were from the right of the spectrum, but two were: “Britain was a better place to live when the trade unions were stronger and more able to represent the views of working people” and “electricity, gas and water are essential services which should be compulsorily taken back into government ownership”. With the latest poll reporting that 68 per cent of the British people favour renationalising the energy companies, has that opinion been conspicuously enough represented across the multitude of BBC platforms and services?

Familiar Patten

So Chris Patten was right in last week’s NS to say the BBC isn’t run by a bunch of Trots, though it’s not exactly a Ukip convention either. Patten was described in the piece by Ed Smith as finding himself “in a peculiar position: as both watchdog and cheerleader in chief”. Just substitute “impossible” for “peculiar”. The Grant Shapps case illustrates the point. Patten as cheerleader rightly swipes away the Tory chairman’s criticism of a piece by Mark Easton; but Patten is presiding over the regulatory body that has to rule on complaints about that report that are brought by Shapps or anyone else. This points to the challenge in the BBC’s current review of the relationship between the trust and the executive, and the corporation’s friends should hope it is capable of radical recommendations.

One simple solution would be to transfer the chairman from the trust to the executive board so that he becomes what Patten has always seemed to want to be: unambiguously chairman of the BBC. The trust or Ofcom then become equally clearly the regulator, in line with the Channel 4 model – and in the same way that the chairman of Thames Water is embedded within the company and not sitting forlornly over at Ofwat.

Yes, we Cam

Thoughts about BBC governance are happily far removed from the new day job. I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than meeting new generations of students and getting a sense of their potential, both here and at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln, where I chair the council. For people like me who had the free tuition and student grants of the 1970s, it’s sobering to see the scale of the financial burden today’s 18-year-olds are facing. Yet as I’ve visited parts of Cambridge on familiarisation tours, it’s impossible to miss how valuable a university like this is to the country.

I’ve been to a lecture about pioneering treatments of breast cancer, seen nanotechnology creating better solar panels at the Cavendish Laboratory – and I became a “born-again” historian wandering through the Churchill archives and looking at the original text of the “Finest Hour” speech. If you’ve been used to enthusing about the value of a Saturday night television programme, stepping outside the media bubble gives a perspective on what really matters.

Transport of dismay

Having sung the praises of Cambridge, I can’t avoid one criticism. Buses seem to be an endangered species in the city. I assume that’s partly because of the hordes of bicycles but there’s no bus journey for what’s otherwise a 35-minute walk from Selwyn College and its nearby university buildings to the railway station; and the one bus that does trundle outside doesn’t operate at weekends.

By way of compensation, however, Cambridge seems to have more minicabs than anywhere else on earth. Certainly when you phone for a taxi and they say “five to ten minutes”, this is one place where they turn up in three or less, defying all known rules of minicab phone operators and prompting speculation that fleets of minicabs are lurking just out of sight and waiting for the call to come. This is fine, except for those who can’t afford a tenner a journey or for anyone worried about carbon emissions. Perhaps it’s time for the bright minds here to reinvent public transport?

Roger Mosey is master of Selwyn College, Cambridge