THE BLOG

The Future of the BBC

05/05/2016 15:17 | Updated 05 May 2016

You may need for a moment or two to readjust your head-sets. This is one of the few speeches this Spring that will not offer you a Sellar and Yeatman history of sovereignty, or denounce the latest Brussels hammer blow to our liberties which seeks to outlaw the brushing of your teeth from left to right. Or maybe, come to think of it, it is the other way round. Nor will you hear a speech which galumphs along from one conceivably relevant classical tag to another. So, as Horace suggested, "Carpe Diem". Let's take time out to discuss a subject that itself provokes little controversy among members of the public while exciting orgasms of fury in some media organisations (for reasons which it might be impolite to subject to forensic examination), ideological frenzy in parts of a dogmatically juvenile political fringe, and occasional anger among other politicians who do not always comprehend that the BBC does not regard its primary role as being on their side of every story.

A reasonable point of departure is the wise cliché about the hole. When in one, it is often said, the first response should be to stop digging. This advice becomes ever more sound if, scratch your head as you may, you cannot quite understand why or whether there is a hole in the first place. As a country, we face our fair share of apparently intractable problems - but it's by no means obvious that the BBC is one of them. Britain has a crippling lack of affordable housing; a strikingly sub-optimal secondary education system; a health service into which government after government pours more cash without ever it seems satisfying either medical staff or patients; a low productivity, low wage workforce: all these problems and more warrant urgent political attention. But why obsess about something Britain already does strikingly well, something other countries envy us for, something the public appreciates, enjoys, and trusts us to do well? The thing I have in mind today is, of course, public service broadcasting, which stands at the heart of a broadcasting culture, embracing commercial operators and creative industries, that is as good as or better than any other in the world.

No-one would invent the BBC today. But thank God our predecessors did. The BBC is one of this country's greatest institutions: it developed organically, almost accidentally, but it's become a central part of the public realm without being part of the state. Edmund Burke, presumably still read by a few Conservatives, would have celebrated the point. The BBC is not a way of making up for market failure. It is a core part of our civic humanism and of our shared, multi-ethnic and multi-racial, citizenship. Its role is underpinned by a common British set of values and a shared sense of mutual responsibility. It is a key part of the dialogue in our common British conversation.

Since I stood down as BBC Chairman almost two years ago, I have said very little in public about the Corporation's future. But it seems appropriate that I now make one - and perhaps only one - intervention as we approach the final few days before the government will outline its plans for the next Royal Charter. Now, and in the run-up to the time when Parliament debates the White Paper is the time when everyone who cares - cares about the role the BBC has played, and may or may not be able to go on playing, both in our national life and in the way the world sees Britain - everyone who cares needs to stand up, speak up, and make our voices count.

We need to say the things about the BBC that its many commercial enemies would prefer you not to know. Things they won't report tomorrow if they cover this speech at all. Like the fact that the BBC's real income has fallen over the past decade by more than 15%. Like the fact that in the past five years alone BSkyB's revenues went up by more than 16%, and ITV's increased by 21%.

Like the fact that the BBC, once a giant in the communications market, is as the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications recently argued, "a comparatively small player", now dwarfed by multinational platforms who drive up the cost of content - of acquisition, of talent, of production, and of ideas - but have no interest in the UK except as a market. Like the fact that this supposedly fat-cat BBC keeps losing key executives because rivals offer twice the salaries. And this supposedly bloated, top-heavy, bureaucratic BBC now has its overheads down to just 7.6% - way, way below the public sector average of 11.2

No wonder the BBC sometimes feels besieged. By Government. By the Press. By Sky. By Google. By Apple. To survive it needs to negotiate and strike bargains with all its giant competitors. And yet here is a minor miracle: in the minds of British audiences, the BBC somehow remains bigger than all of them. It retains the overwhelming confidence of the British people, and the admiration of millions around the world: a unique cultural force with a weight of talent and ideas behind it. The UK's leading commissioner of new writing, and of new music too. A principal pillar of the UK's creative economy.

But the world of electronic media is changing faster than ever, driven not, as it once was, by BBC investments in brave new technologies like colour TV or Ceefax, but by the extraordinary evolution of connectivity and data transmission, of mobile devices, set-top boxes and internet TVs - a jungle of new platforms inhabited by the big beasts of the tech world. They want to get their hands on as much of the BBC's content as possible, to slice and dice it for their own convenience. But if the BBC is to retain a direct connection with the audiences that pay for its creativity, it will need both investment and perhaps added legal protection if its publicly-funded, UK-produced content, is to maintain due prominence as we stride into a new connected world.

These changes have begun, but still the BBC remains pre-eminent in British broadcasting. It remains faithful to the three part mantra spelled out in its Royal Charter - "To enrich people's lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain."

It is perhaps unpalatable to some critics, but when ICM asked people across the UK to put the BBC's purposes in order of importance they said clearly that first they wanted a BBC that entertains, as well as informing and educating us all. At its best the BBC manages to do all three at once.

During the next Charter period the BBC will mark its centenary, having enriched the lives of successive generations in ways John Reith could barely have dreamed of a hundred years ago. A hundred years. If it were any other cultural landmark we wouldn't talk about cutting it down to size: we'd want to have it listed.

The BBC tells us things we didn't know about the world, including things we probably didn't want to know but should. It makes us think, even when thinking is uncomfortable. I am not one of those who denies that the media have an effect on the way society sees itself. How could they not? But I look at modern British society, more comfortable with diversity of opinion, of gender, of race, of religion and lack of it, of sex and sexuality, more comfortable perhaps than any other major nation in the world. I don't know whether that has been merely reflected by the media or influenced by the media - I think probably both - but Britain is a better place for it, and I'm proud that a Conservative Prime Minister is unflinching in his support for the diversity of modern Britain, even though it stands in such contrast to the England of my youth. We are all enriched by a BBC that reflects this new face of Britain back to itself - as it is, not as some of us may choose to remember it, and not as politicians might wish it to be. A BBC that brings the world into our living rooms and onto our mobile phones, and a BBC that shows the world both the truth about Britain but also the values that Britain stands for. To do these things requires a BBC not just free of political control but free of political threat; a BBC with stability, free to take decisions only in the public interest; a BBC with confidence in its future; a BBC that can stop looking over its shoulder and waiting for the next White Paper.

But what should happen when the BBC makes mistakes, which it sometimes does? What should happen when it is smug, as it sometimes is? What should happen when it occasionally gets too big for its boots? In those circumstances, it does need to be called to account. We cannot and should not expect politicians to sign up to a vow of omerta about the BBC's failings. But they need to exercise their oversight with almost monastic self-denial. Politicians may represent the people who own the BBC, but they do not own it themselves. We all own it, because we all pay for it - not through our taxes, but through our Licence Fee. This is not just another tax. It is payment for a service. We don't pay the Treasury: we pay the BBC.

So I am clear that although the BBC must report to Parliament about its performance, it must answer to the public when things go wrong. But MPs as well as Ministers must take care. In my last year as Chairman of the Trust, the BBC was summoned 22 times to appear before Parliamentary Committees.
Lord Reith must have been spinning in his mausoleum. The DG and the Chairman appear more often before Parliamentary Committees than most Secretaries of State! The BBC needs to be regulated - a point to which I will return - but it doesn't need to be intimidated. The crucial regulator of the BBC is the trust that its viewers and listeners have in it. Maintaining public trust, not Parliamentary favour, should be the BBC's constant concern. When she wrote about the war-time BBC in her work "Human Voices", Penelope Fitzgerald noted that it was "dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that of telling the truth". If the public were to come to believe that the BBC was falling short of that gold standard, we would have the beginning of the unravelling of its greatest asset.

But forty-eight million adults monitor the BBC each week, and by an overwhelming majority they want it to go on doing precisely the things it already does - plus a bit. When asked to choose just ONE source of News they trust, the British people overwhelmingly choose the BBC - five times ahead of its nearest rival and out of sight of any of its newspaper critics. When asked to choose at ten pm between the BBC and the newly-reinstated ITV News, audiences nightly plump for the BBC. What an irony then that some politicians, there to represent the public interest, question whether the audience should even be allowed that choice, claiming the BBC should vacate the space to ITV. What twisted definition of public service is that?

Of course, enriching our lives goes far beyond journalism. The BBC is at the cultural heart of this Nation. In fact, it is the cultural heart, and I welcome the measures taken by Tony Hall to forge closer partnerships with the nation's other great cultural institutions. And cultural enrichment is not just about the Arts. It's about Science, and Philosophy, and History too. It's about Ideas and Enquiry: it's about thinking the unthinkable. Here I fear the BBC has lost some of its ambition and needs to find it again. We need more programmes that are, frankly, slightly above our heads. Not inaccessible, but programmes that make us stretch to reach them. The BBC should remember the great auto-didactic tradition in British culture, not least in working class communities. BBC2 once offered that degree of challenge, but the tough stuff has largely gone to BBC4 and there, because of budget cuts, it's sometimes made with glue and string. The long-term security that licence fee funding is supposed to bestow on the BBC should give it the confidence to challenge us all. But every time politicians grab an easy headline at the BBC's expense; every time they question its scope, chip away at its funding and occasionally swipe great chunks of it; every time they seem to doubt its very future - they erode the BBC's confidence to make bold decisions about content. A former colleague noted the other day the tiny handful of elected representatives whose rent-a-quote swipes at the BBC guarantee them a mention day after day in a sympathetic press, and he posed the question: where are these constituencies where the voters worry more about the BBC than they do about having a job, or getting a home, or putting food on the plate? I can tell you the answer: they don't exist. No-one actually lives there. Like Old Sarum, they are rotten boroughs with grandiloquent names. Old Murdoch; Great Dacre-upon-Thames; Lesser Desmond.

The big buzzword around the next Charter debate is said to be Distinctiveness. The Secretary of State, Mr. Whittingdale, is said to want a BBC that's more distinctive. Now, you might well think that the BBC is pretty distinctive already: in its commitment to News, to services for Children; to natural history; distinctive in its commitment to each Nation and region and locality of the UK; distinctive in its provision of serious speech radio and its commissioning of new music; distinctive in its dedication to UK-productions; and distinctive in bringing Britain's values to almost 80 nations in 29 languages across 6 continents - all of them, in fact, bar Antarctica. Poor penguins.

The World Service has been a bulwark for free expression and democratic ideals over eighty years, now sharing its own experience and expertise daily with UK audiences too and - with new and very welcome additional funding from the Government - now able to expand its services in Africa and Russia and launch anew for North Korea, Ethiopia and Eritrea too. The World Service is the very best form of soft powers setting, as a recent citation noted, "the gold standard" in broadcast news. Its benefits to Britain are literally immeasurable. And it's reach continues to grow impressively.

But distinctiveness means different things to different people. Some use it as barely-disguised code for market failure. And there is absolutely no evidence that BBC licence fee payers want a BBC restricted to doing only those things the commercial broadcasters won't. Let's take the most competitive of all television genres: drama. Once mainly the preserve of ITV and the BBC, now every major broadcaster pours money into expensive drama - Channel 4, Sky, Netflix, Amazon. But in the past two or three years - partly, I should say, at the insistence of the Trust - BBC drama has risen to that challenge with a wonderful series of productions that are distinctively BBC. It isn't simply the absence of ad breaks that tells you where they come from. That's true of the extraordinary Peaky Blinders; true of the world-beating Sherlock; true of award-winning Wolf Hall; true this year already of War and Peace, The Night Manager, Happy Valley and Line of Duty. True also of Downton - ah no, that's a mistake. But the exception proves the rule.

Ask people in almost any country around the world whether they think the BBC is distinctive and they'll look at you as though you're mad. They recognise it as the No 1 universal quality broadcaster. So much so that when one of the BBC's competitors at home scores an international hit like Downton, it's generally assumed abroad to have come from the BBC.

Drama has the power to stir the heart perhaps more powerfully even than music or poetry. Audiences clearly want the BBC to bring them great drama - the classics certainly, but drama too that's challenging and contemporary and reflects their own lives.

So when you hear politicians call for a more distinctive BBC, remind them of outstanding British drama made in every corner of the U.K. Remind them of The Fall from Northern Ireland. Remind them of Shetland and of Hinterland. Ask them where else they'd find network drama made and set in Scotland. Ask them where else they'd go for network drama made and set in Wales. Only the BBC.

Some politicians take an excessively ascetic view of what the BBC is here to do. Yes it really would be "distinctive" to strike Strictly or Bake-Off from the schedules because they're too good and too popular. It would also be ridiculous. A BBC1 that's not popular wouldn't be the BBC that licence payers demand. The BBC needs to stretch and challenge us but it also needs to bring people together to watch shows that are BOTH popular AND distinctive. If the Government doesn't trust the public to judge the BBC for themselves and it aims for the new Charter to include some quantity surveyor's measure of BBC distinctiveness, please God let it not be devised in Whitehall. Believe me, I have a lifelong respect for the skills and ingenuity of Britain's top civil servants, but when it comes to scheduling BBC-1 I'd rather have Charlotte Moore.

I have always been proud to describe myself as a One-Nation Tory, though I have sometimes been surprised by the identity of some who claim to be part of the same tribe. My principles haven't changed. My politics haven't changed. But my time at the BBC convinced me that in the modern UK I need to be a Four-Nation Tory. The process of Devolution has grown by what it fed on. The people of Scotland spoke a year and a half ago about their wish to remain within the UK, but no-one should doubt that they also want a greater recognition of Scotland's own national identity. In broadcasting there is a clear demand - and it comes from Wales and Northern Ireland too - for their own nations and histories and cultures and politics to be better reflected to audiences across the UK. I agree with them. Whether you live in Orkney or Osterley, Portsmouth or Portrush, Stockton or Swansea, everyone pays the same licence fee and they deserve equally to see their own communities and interests and concerns and achievements on their BBC. Frankly, they will see them on no other broadcaster, because the market will NOT provide. The strength of One United Kingdom comes from the strength of its four Nations, and the strength of One BBC must come from utilising and reflecting and celebrating the talents and ideas and heritage of each of those Nations. I would no more split up the BBC than I would split up the Kingdom, but any UK institution that claims to serve these islands must embrace that duty fully.

In my time as Chairman of the BBC I didn't feel overburdened with good luck. No complaints: in public life luck comes and goes. But looking back I can see that at least I arrived after the Government's first smash-and-grab raid on the licence fee and I left before they tunnelled back in one weekend to grab a few hundred millions more. The effect of last summer's heist is now becoming obvious on our screens - or rather, in the case of BBC3, no longer on our screens - and there's much more still to come. At least the turmoil of the recent Budget means we won't again be hearing that "we're all in this together". Whatever the truth about fiscal policy, in the broadcasting world we are NOT all in it together. Sky isn't in it. ITV isn't in it. The Murdoch press isn't in it. Just the BBC. Last July the government decided that, instead of tax-payers paying for tv licences for the elderly, licence-fee payers would foot the bill instead. They are of course one and the same, and the result is that they will lose BBC content amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds a year by 2021.

The Government like to call this a deal. But it was a fait accompli. "Agree, or things could get even worse: Charter is just around the corner. So watch your step!" What a way to treat a Corporation whose independence from government is supposed to underpin everything it does. I agree with the 2010 John Whittingdale who warned that these night-time raids must never happen again. I don't agree with the 2015 John Whittingdale who drove the getaway vehicle.

The forthcoming Charter is the one chance we have to stop the BBC becoming more and more the plaything of the government of the day. First priority: we must break the link between Charter renewal and the new fixed term Parliaments. How ridiculous it is that, because the Charter expires eighteen months after a general election, the BBC is bound to become a priority for any incoming government. A one-off eleven- or twelve-year Charter will break that link. Second priority: the public pay for the BBC, and the very least they deserve is a proper chance to influence the debate about what it will cost and what they'll get for their money. So we should let an independent body advise government - in public - on the appropriate level of the licence fee; let those who will pay it be told where the money goes and asked what they're prepared to pay for. Give Parliament a proper chance to debate the audience response. And let's enshrine that whole process in the new Charter. The House of Lords Select Committee was absolutely right to say that the licence fee should be set in a transparent way.

Last July the DCMS launched a public consultation on the BBC's future. More than 190,000 people answered, making it the second biggest response ever to a consultation exercise, beaten only by that for same sex marriage. In that case, the Government backed the tiny majority - 53% - who were in favour of change.

In the case of the BBC, the Government's decisions should be so much easier than that! Public support for NOT changing the BBC has been overwhelming. 81% said it serves its national and international audiences well. Three quarters said BBC content is high quality and distinctive. Any commercial business getting scores like that from consumers would be cock-a-hoop. More than two thirds think the BBC should expand to offer more choice and keep pace with new technologies. Two thirds said the BBC had a positive effect on the rest of the market - only 3% disagreed with them. And more than three quarters say the BBC has done enough to deliver value for money. It's clear there are absolutely no grounds, other than uninformed ideology, on which the Government could conclude that the BBC needs to be cut further down to size.

Even the argument that the BBC's breadth of news coverage - for example the terrific local radio stations which MPs defended so strongly when cuts were proposed - has driven local and regional papers to the wall - even that does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Local and regional papers have died in the United States and Western Europe too, and no one presumably blames the BBC for that.

The consultation exercise plainly failed to provide the answer Mr. Whittingdale wanted. The non-existence of that hole in which he is still digging was revealed. So the DCMS first of all sat on the consultation responses, and then they claimed the consultation had been swamped by "Lefties", already fed on the success of Mr. Corbyn's election. Then, presumably in an effort to prevent the publication of even more unwelcome news from the public, the Department took no account of a large survey of opinion by the Radio Times - a publication long since independent of the BBC. All these tests of opinion have one thing in common: the audience wants to keep the BBC pretty much just as it is. That must stick in Mr. Whittingdale's craw, because - if you want to make your mark as Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, and there's not a cat's chance in hell of another Olympics in your lifetime - your best chance of being remembered is to mess about with the BBC. What would take real statesmanship is to leave it alone.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the huge response to the Government's consultation, or non-consultation, is the extent to which people demand an independent BBC. No fewer than 73 percent of the public told the DCMS they want the BBC to be independent of Government, independent of Parliament, and independent of Ofcom too.

So let me finally talk about governance.

A couple of months ago, Sir David Clementi presented his report to government on the way the future BBC should be run and, to no-one's surprise, he said that regulation should pass wholly to Ofcom. In doing so, he brushed aside concerns at the prospect of an ever-more powerful communications regulator - at only arms-length from Ministers - and which has already swallowed up postal services and on-demand video, now about to swallow up the whole of the BBC too, taking it firmly into online territory. Interestingly, though most of the respondents to the Government's consultation had no view about regulation, those who did preferred a standalone regulator rather than Ofcom.

Mention of the word governance brings to mind the old saw "for people who are interested in that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing in which they are interested". I am afraid, however, that there are dark and dirty ponds in which we must for a while submerge ourselves without fishing up any old rows and personality problems; I will leave the dredging up of those old tin cans and sodden boots to others.

For years the BBC operated under a Chairman and Board of Governors. They were admittedly sometimes a bit rum; a list of BBC Chairmen and Governors was a roll call of British establishment history in all its exotic tribalism. But by and large, they protected generations of broadcasters from external interference, with only occasional blood baths and calamities. With just the odd blip, the BBC maintained a fine record - it was viewed, listened to and trusted. BBC independence was unquestioned.

What was thought to go wrong with this model of governance?

First, it was feared the executives had captured the Board, and the main evidence was the support the governors had given the then Director General over the infamous Gilligan broadcast. Second, the governors were thought to have failed to contain the BBC's expansion into the broadcasting market. Third, it was argued that the BBC's interests and the public interest were not always the same: the interests of the public as owners of the BBC were poorly represented.

To try to correct these alleged failings, in the 2007 Charter the governing body and the executive were formally separated; a new public value test mechanism in association with Ofcom was put in place to balance public service and market considerations, and a new focus in public representation was established with extensive consultation on output issues (as reflected in the public value tests) and a new service license regime.

The Trust, largely thanks to a way of working established before my arrival, did some things conspicuously well. The Executive did not much care for it. But the clear focus on audiences and the push for quality and distinctiveness in the service licences and ad hoc reviews were definitely advances, so too the public value test rejection of executive proposals on local radio, the Asian network, and 6 Music, and BBC1+1, among others.

The problems, I think, stem from a confusion of roles. Was the Trust a regulator or cheer leader? This was partly a matter of rhetoric. The Trust was supposed to be both. But this exemplified a bigger problem. The Chairman of the Trust could call her-or him-self Chairman of the BBC, but was he or she really in the chair? The Director-General was left to chair a BBC board, containing both executives and non-executives. So who was the real Chairman? Who decided on editorial issues? The DG - absolutely correctly. Who decided on money and broad strategy? Good question. The DG's board had a remuneration committee, chaired when I became Trust Chairman by the senior independent director, a distinguished banker who also chaired Barclay's, a bank whose views on remuneration were well-known. The Trust had for some time been fighting to contain pay awards and to cut costs, but while it could say "yes" or "no" to the aggregate budgets, its say over how they were built up was more confused. Eventually the Trust got a reasonable grip on pay and budgetary matters, partly because we appointed a Director-General, Tony Hall, who battled for the same objectives. In retrospect, for the present governance model to have worked better would have depended crucially on the Executive not running for cover and hiding behind the Trust when stormy weather arrived, and for the Trust to have avoided drilling down into too much detail about what the executives were doing.

So what should happen next? There is plainly no perfect answer to the three question test. Who will represent the public in future in setting strategy for the BBC? Who will hold the BBC to account? Who will protect the BBC's independence?

I am sufficiently Burkean to think the most sensible way forward would be to make incremental changes within the existing model, to respond to specific problems. Yet I doubt whether this will be politically acceptable given the amount of hoohah surrounding these questions, and there's every sign that Government will go for a new Unitary Board - along the lines of a Plc. It's hoped this will lead to a BBC more responsive, agile, adaptable and better held to account, because in the Clementi plan there will be no fewer than eleven non-executive Board members from the outside world, alongside the DG and just two of his lieutenants. But the presence of so many outsiders raises very serious questions about how to protect the BBC's independence. So I would go for another big bang too.

I would establish a new, small Commission to guarantee the independence not just of the BBC but of all broadcasting. It would have three main roles. First, it would appoint the Chairman and non-executive directors of the BBC. Second, it would recommend and publish proposals for future levels of BBC funding. Third, it would appoint the Chair and deputy chair of Ofcom, which it seems will end up regulating all UK broadcasting.

Such a Commission would make it much more difficult for future governments to raid the licence fee. It would put at least a little more distance between an ever more powerful Ofcom and the government of the day. And it would avoid a BBC Board overpopulated with Government appointees. Because, however honourable their intentions, (and I put this argument very delicately) Ministers of all colours have a genetic predisposition to put in place their ideological fellow travellers, and no supposedly independent process has ever prevented that from happening. I wouldn't lose much sleep about that - if we were talking about the White Fish Authority. But this is the BBC, damn it!

So let me be clear. A team of non-executives, all put in place by the government of the day, would be simply unacceptable. I am confident that Parliament would take this view too.

There has been no golden age of governance at the BBC, and to be frank I have long believed that personal relationships and qualities are often more important than any precise institutional structure. But if gold has been often
absent, it is only too easy to see how it could be replaced by a far baser metal. That matters hugely to the future of a great organisation which still has a central role to play in nurturing the creativity, enhancing the solidarity and protecting the informed democratic integrity of Great Britain.

I realise - how could I not? - that there are even greater issues
commanding attention this summer than the future of the BBC. We will decide in June a question that will have as big an impact on our own present and future as a country (including the nature and identity of the Conservative Party) and on our relations with our closest friends abroad, as any we have taken since 1945. But it would be a calamity if the future of the BBC were to be put in peril because political and public attention was understandably distracted and focused elsewhere.

This all brings me back to where I began. Now is the time to speak up for the BBC and its independence before it's too late.

This blog post was delivered as a speech on Tuesday night as the Reuter's Institute Lecture at St Anne's College, Oxford.

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