Sunday’s World Cup Final was watched by 17 million people on BBC1 and only 3.5 million on ITV. When you take John Motson into account, there can be no clearer sign of the central place Auntie occupies in the life of the nation.
Yet the following day the Commons debate on the BBC’s new Charter was tinged with sadness, because it may not be so central in the future. Will the licence fee survive when it becomes impossible to say where television ends and the Internet begins? As Paul Holmes said, we will be in a different world.
Back in this one, there are two words that sum up the BBC’s current difficulties: Jonathan Ross.
Their problem is not his crass question to David Cameron, which still exercised several Tory MPs, but the dilemma he symbolises.
For the BBC is funded by the nearest thing we have to a poll tax. This clearly needs to be justified, but does it justify it through quality or through winning a mass audience? It is tempting to say that it cannot do both, except that the BBC has managed precisely that many times over the years.
Yet the huge payments that Ross and lesser figures like Chris Moyles receive suggest BBC managers are in thrall to people they think will deliver a large youth audience. Ross is not without talent, though the best thing he does – his Saturday morning radio show – owes much to the musical tastes of his producer.
But it is hard even to begin making the case for paying him £6 million a year when most BBC staff are suffering a pay squeeze. Their managers defend huge salaries for performers (and themselves) by appealing to the market. If we don’t pay them this sort of money, someone else will.
The answer to that is simple. Let them go. The backwaters of British broadcasting are teeming with people who thought that life would be better away from the BBC. Just ask Des Lynam. “I’ll have another consonant please, Carol.”
Or as Oliver Goldsmith put it:
Princes and Lords may flourish, or may fade:
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed can never be supplied.