Tony Hall: Scrutinise The BBC – But With Facts, Not Myths

I believe we should always face tough questions but there are five myths we must take on, writes the director-general.
The Guardian

Were you entertained by Bodyguard or thrilled by Killing Eve? Were you gripped by the news in yet another year of political drama – one that even the best fiction writers would struggle to match?

On screen and on air it’s been a remarkable year for the BBC – five Golden Globes, 16 Baftas and more than 150 other major awards are testament to that. It’s been our best ever year in television.

On Tuesday we will publish our annual report for 2018/19. Our successes will no doubt be drowned out in some quarters by debates about pay or whether the BBC is efficient. This debate will be heightened after our recent decision to link free licences for the over-75s to receipt of pension credit. I’m more than happy to debate whether the BBC is doing a good job and whether we are an effective organisation. But there are five myths about the BBC which I want to take on.

First, on pay, the BBC was rightly criticised for a lack of female representation when we first published details of our highest earning stars two years ago. But the reality is that on pay we have come a long way to becoming a fairer organisation since then. For our top stars, this year’s report will show that in 2019/20 we expect 45% of our highest earners to be women, and 55% to be men. Three years ago just 25% were women. That is a huge amount of progress but there is still more to do. I want to get to 50:50.

Second, there’s a regular debate about whether we should pay what we do for the biggest stars like Gary Lineker, Graham Norton, or Zoe Ball. I accept they get big salaries – in total around 1% of our content spend. But they also front some of the biggest shows on TV and radio: programmes that account for 40% of viewing and listening to the BBC. They would earn significantly more elsewhere - and recent departures to commercial rivals show this argument isn’t hollow. The simple truth is we have spent more than ever on content, but the amount we have spent proportionally on talent has come down. But more importantly, whenever we ask the public whether they want big stars on the BBC they say yes. They say yes because they are talented and entertaining. They also say yes as it means they are getting big value from the BBC.

Third, we also always get debates about the number of people we employ. People ask why aren’t your staffing numbers smaller, don’t you employ too many people. The truth is we don’t. We have actually reduced numbers in support, administration roles, and management, but in some areas we have expanded – but with good reason. One is that the Government has given the BBC extra funding for the World Service. That means we have to hire people to run and work on those services. Another is that rather than hiring external companies to provide services to the BBC, we have increasingly saved money on those contracts and hired people internally to do the job. Overall that means we have saved money. With increasing numbers of people watching and listening through apps or online we’ve also had to invest in people with those vital digital and technology skills.

Fourthly, far from the claims you’ll read about the BBC being wasteful, the truth is that our Annual Report will show that we made over £150million of efficiency savings last year. The BBC is rated in the top 25% of global media and telecoms organisations when it comes to efficiency. 95% of the money we control goes on programmes, services and getting them to you – and only five per cent on running the BBC. That’s at record levels. The fact that we’ve become more efficient – cutting hundreds of back office roles – means that as we look for future savings any cuts will increasingly be felt on air and on screen.

And finally, we are often told we should be helping ourselves more. Our commercial operations have always been important, bringing in extra money for the programmes you love most. This year I’m delighted we’ll be able to show record returns from our commercial operations. We’ve also announced plans to launch a subscription streaming service, Britbox, with ITV. In a world where global competitors like Netflix and Amazon are pushing up costs significantly, commercial revenue will be increasingly important for the BBC’s future.

I of course believe the BBC should always be under heavy scrutiny. That comes with accepting money from the public. Where we get things wrong we need to make changes and be better. We aren’t perfect. But I do think the BBC is part of what makes this country special.

Lord Tony Hall is director-general of the BBC


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