BBC Chief Defends UK Public Service Broadcasting Values

Submitted by edg on Sat, 28 Aug '10 11.01am

Last year, News Corp's James Murdoch used the keynote speech at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh Television Festival to lambaste the BBC.

This year's MacTaggart lecture gave BBC chief Mark Thompson a chance to turn the tables on his arch critic. The Beeb's director-general's speech was a robust defence of public service broadcasting, epitomised by the BBC, which was punctuated by warnings against pursuing an overly market-driven broadcasting model in the UK as it would be detrimental to quality content creation.

Thompson argued that the BBC is still an essential part of the British way of life, in spite of the fact that "the scale and intensity of the current assaults (on the BBC) does feel different."

"I don't believe that decline – creative, financial, institutional decline, above all, a decline in the quality of British television – is inevitable," he said. "In fact, I believe that the real dirty little secret about British television is about how good it is, not how bad."

He pointed to the fact that the BBC is a top 10 provider of programmes in the TV section of iTunes.

Issues of shortfalls in funding for British productions and global digitisation "are more likely to be solved by collaboration and united action than by amateur dramatics".

Thompson referred to four "pillars" of British television. Firstly, he talked of the mixed funding model - in particular, the licence fee - paid by every UK television owner - which provides much of the BBC's funds.

"In a year or so's time, there will be a debate about the future level of the licence fee," he said, "... do not believe anyone who claims that cutting the licence fee is a way of growing the creative economy or that the loss in programme investment which would follow a substantial reduction in the BBC's funding could be magically made up from somewhere else. It just wouldn't happen. A pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of the UK creative economy. Once gone, it will be gone forever."

Thompson's second pillar of British public service broadcasting was its unique culture: "The clue actually is in the title – public service broadcasting. It's about services as well as individual programmes"

He quoted an earlier MacTaggart speaker:

"In that fiery MacTaggart lecture back in 1993, Dennis Potter connected public service broadcasting with a belief in the possibility of a common culture. One that could transcend differences of class, wealth, geography, identity. One that would not segregate the public into attractive high-revenue households and the rest. One that would not put anyone the wrong side of an encryption wall. One that would treat everyone as being of equal value. Neither state-controlled, nor focused solely on profit maximisation."

"That's what we mean when we talk about public space, and it's one of those cultural quirks that's created programmes of such high quality and richness that they have intrinsic value outside the UK. Not programmes commissioned and produced either to appeal only to a cultural elite or to bring in the biggest commercial audiences. But programmes that provoke the mind, challenge and inspire. Programmes that are open to all."

The third pillar, which "seems secure", Thompson described as "editorial independence from political and commercial influence".

His fourth pillar, which "underpins everything", is the support of the British public. Again secure: "The purists have spent a generation making the free-market case for abolishing the licence fee and the British public agrees with them less now than they did when they started," he said.

There was little surprise as to what the "real and immediate" problem is:

"The real pot of money available to invest in original TV production is shrinking and, unless something changes, may shrink further," he said.

He outlined various ways in which the public corporation is addressing this, with reductions in pay, jobs and pensions.

"By the end of next year, the total senior management paybill will reduce by at least a quarter...many of the BBC's top managers – including myself – will see their total pay fall, not by five or 10 per cent, but by much more.," he said.

He talked about the BBC's strategy review "Putting Quality First", published in Spring, and building on partnerships with other stations like STV, cultural institutions ("we know that we share the same public space"), and the potential of IPTV through its partnership with Canvas.

Having reiterated that content and protecting funding for programme-making was vital Thompson rounded on Sky.

"It's time that Sky pulled its weight by investing much, much more in British talent and British content." He pointed out Sky does provide "quality British television", such as Sky News and Sky Arts, just not enough of it.

"Sky is already a far more powerful commercial counterweight to the BBC than ITV ever was. It is well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country. Moreover, if News Corp's proposal to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky goes through, Sky will not just be Britain's biggest broadcaster, but a full part of a company which is also dominant in national newspapers as well as one of the Britain's biggest publishers."

Thompson called for Sky to pay a retransmission fee, which could be around £75m per year, for broadcasting ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 on its satellite platform.

"James may quibble with Rupert's logic. I find it curiously compelling," he said.

Thompson finished with a call to rally around British broadcasting.

"If we want a strong industry, if we want the resources and the collective will to go on producing the best television in the world, it's time for us to agree what really matters and then to take a leaf out of the public's book. They care about British television and, if necessary, they will be prepared to fight for it in their thousands and perhaps their millions."