The BBC – where we go from here

Date: 26.11.2012     Last updated: 15.10.2014 at 11.05
Category: Speeches
Chairman's speech to Voice of the Listener & Viewer's annual Autumn Conference

Every time I've made a speech in the past two months I've ended up talking about the grisly business of Jimmy Savile, Newsnight and the crisis that has afflicted the BBC.

And obviously I want to talk some more about that today, if only to reflect on what lessons we can draw from it, now that we have new leadership on its way in the form of Tony Hall.

I then want also to look up from current problems and talk a little bit about what will hopefully a better, brighter, long-term future for the BBC.

The past two months

The biggest crises always seem to come out of a clear blue sky. 

Over the summer, I felt confident that the BBC was in a pretty good position: we had stable finances, a clear strategy and the politicians were, by and large, leaving us to get on with it. 

Our aim to make BBC programmes more ambitious and more distinctive seemed to be bearing fruit with successes like the Hollow Crown and Parade's End.  On top of all of that, the Olympic coverage was a triumph both editorially and technologically.  It seemed like the perfect inheritance for the new Director General, George Entwistle.

It also seemed like the right time for a new DG to look at some of the management problems which, beneath the surface, were still bedevilling one of our greatest institutions.  I was struck on my arrival as Chairman by the number of people inside and outside the BBC who told me it was successful despite its management culture, not because of it.  George was determined to try to deal with the problems of disparate siloes and of warring tribes.  He wanted to establish a culture of self-criticism and self-awareness – essential attributes if the BBC is to reach new peaks of creativity and deal with continuing questions about efficiency and waste. And he set all those objectives out in his first speech as DG.

It obviously saddens me that it was partly these failings, which he was about to tackle, that helped undermine George Entwistle in his brief time as Director General.  It further saddens me that he is now written off by large sections of the press as some sort of hapless or inadequate figure, his reputation regularly trashed.

I don't remember very many people saying that when we appointed him.  The man we appointed was and remains a strong creative and editorial leader, with a reputation built on 23 years of outstanding service to the BBC.  Given everything that went wrong, it was the right thing for him to go when he did.  But that should in no way justify the way his reputation is now being traduced.

I don't want to wallow for too long today in the details of what has gone wrong in the past couple of months, on which I have been pretty clear and forthright elsewhere and on which I'll have the chance of talking tomorrow on in front of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.  But there are a few points worth drawing out.

First, we know that public trust has been damaged. Not, I believe, fatally or beyond repair. But it will need to be re-built, as it has been before.  Second, we have been reminded that journalistic credibility is right at the heart of the BBC, and that it is when there are journalistic failings that its reputation really suffers.  Third, it is more important than ever that we unpick some of the tangled knots of management and bureaucracy that appear to be holding the Corporation back. 

It was a BBC journalist who said to me in my first months as Chairman that they thought the organisation was both over-managed and under-managed. 

Reflecting on it now, admittedly with the organisation at a rather low ebb, I think that it's a pretty fair assessment. 

The tendency towards over-management comes from the sheer weight and numbers of senior people, their pay, their titles, their jargon.  I worry that this means those at the top of the organisation can become distracted - diverted from the job in hand and the central question of whether the programmes are good enough.  This will be a fairly familiar concern to BBC-watchers and is often frustrating for our friends.  We're on the case, progress is being made, but we need to do more.

The risks of under-management are harder to spot but nonetheless important.  They are questions about what's missing.  Is there enough collaboration and co-operation between the different baronies? Do managers seek and take responsibility for things that are going wrong, not just things that have gone right?  Is there an iron grip on the detail of what money gets spent where? Is there enough self-criticism, or enough of a focus on self-improvement?  

The first step towards a brighter future for the BBC is to acknowledge these issues and the need to work at them.

That needs strong, clear, stable leadership and the Trust's first priority was to move as quickly as possible to put a new Director General in place.  In the circumstances, we decided we needed to bring in someone with an outsider's perspective, we needed someone who would be able to run a big creative organisation and we wanted someone who could bring a sense of calm, relief and reassurance both to BBC staff and to the public. I am hugely confident that Tony Hall, the incoming Director General, fits the bill.  Even in a short few days, he has already understood the challenge and thought hard about the team he will need around him.  He has the advantage of both knowing the BBC well and observing it from afar. He will put us back on an even keel.  

He's got some experience of turning things around, having done that both at the Opera House and on the Cultural Olympiad.  He knows BBC News inside out, having been Chief Executive for five years. He was there at the outset of the BBC's digital expansion, launching BBC News Online.  And he has stayed in touch with the fast pace of changes in the industry more recently, as Deputy Chairman of Channel 4.  So he is ideally placed to take a long, hard look at the BBC of today and to make the changes that are needed to steer it through the months and years to come.  In the circumstances we face, it was quickly clear to me that Tony was the outstanding candidate for DG.

I must also say that I am enormously grateful for what Tim Davie has done, at a very difficult time, to step in as Acting DG and to steady the BBC's nerve.  He has been honest, direct and skilful in handling the situation he faced and we need him to continue to be so.  He will I know be working closely with Tony in the coming months to ensure a smooth and calm transition.

The next important moment will come when Nick Pollard completes his Inquiry, which is looking at the BBC's management of the Newsnight  investigation into Jimmy Savile.  In fact, what with Leveson and Pollard, the next few weeks are going to be pretty heavy going for any citizen with an interest in heavyweight Inquiries.

Once we get the Pollard report, it will I hope be much clearer to the Trust what went wrong and how.  There may well be consequences for some of the individuals involved.  And we will want to make a clear statement about where we think there were management failings – both within the news division itself and, later, in the corporate handling of the crisis. We will then need to roll our sleeves up and work alongside the new Director-General to put things right.

If we can do that quickly, it will help us to separate the really serious issues from other, more extraneous criticisms that have spread around this crisis.  It will also allow us to move on to focus on the far more serious historic issues around Jimmy Savile himself and the BBC culture he inhabited.

The Pollard Inquiry has been thorough and as a consequence it has been expensive.  Like the Leveson Inquiry, it will only be worth the expense if we can act decisively to make clear improvements on the back of it. 

In any walk of life, it's important that we confront our failings honestly and directly and do whatever is necessary to deal with them and move on with confidence.  I firmly believe that we can do that here. Because the BBC is not rotten.  The vast majority of its staff have had nothing whatsoever to do with recent revelations.  They have nothing to be ashamed of, and they continue to produce many hours of fantastic content.  They know, and you know, that the moral purpose of the BBC remains strong.  We need to stick to it now more than ever.

The longer-term

I'm sure people will use the current crisis to question the future of the BBC and the case for its existence.  They will also use it as an excuse to prolong the never-ending debate about different systems of governance, which enthuses the expert commentators to a degree that I find slightly surprising.  I saw Peter Bazalgette the other day describing the BBC's governance as'baroque', a term that I think originally derives from a Southern European word meaning a'rough or imperfect pearl'.  So maybe that was meant as a compliment.  Who knows.

I don't mind having a debate about governance, although I think there are more important things to focus on at this very moment. I suppose it's inevitable that when something goes wrong people look to the top of the organisation and to questions about what structure would or should work best.   As I've said, I think the failings in the past year have tended to be more down to individual judgements, behaviours and the management culture around them.  I'm not sure a different regulatory or supervisory structure would have made a difference. 

No doubt there will continue to be sniping about governance from some of the armchair experts on the sidelines. In some cases I might question their claim to'expert' status. But really these are questions for the Government to look at when they come to the moment of Charter Review.  In the meantime, I would like to hope that the success of the Trust will be judged, in large part, on the basis of results. On what we do to help the new DG change the culture and put the BBC back on track. On the success we have in removing waste in the back-office and investing in the most ambitious and intelligent content possible.

We have to keep focused on that agenda.  We need to guard against the risk that we lose our confidence or our creative edge because of any of the current difficulties.  We have inherited something unique in the BBC's capacity to combine broad popular appeal with new, inspiring talent and ideas. The Trust will continue fighting to add an additional edge of boldness and experimentation to our output: to put the best new writers, artists and presenters into the spotlight on our biggest channels, our boldest schedules.

I remain confident that this is what matters most to the licence fee payers. 

And if we can sustain the BBC's creative track record, if we can demonstrate that the BBC is distinct from the rest of the market, if we can show it is using all the advantages of its scale and funding for the right ends, then we should be confident about any judgement that is made about the BBC when it comes to Charter Review.

Because the big arguments for why we need the BBC remain strong.  In fact, as some newspapers decline, as the world goes digital and as the big media companies go global, those arguments may grow even stronger.

Globalisation has made the world more connected than it used to be.  If that promotes the free exchange of ideas, technology, and culture it can only be a good thing.  But it does mean we need to think carefully about how to preserve and protect some sense of national culture and conversation and the media play an important part of that.

We have to engage with a changing world and a changing market on its own terms, rather than hoping things will stay the same.  That is I think an important dimension to whatever conclusions are drawn from Lord Leveson's report, since he is examining, among other things, the options for protecting what is called'plurality' in media ownership and media consumption.

Plurality is an ugly word but a noble concept.  It is about ensuring citizens have a choice of different opinions, different perspectives, different ways of looking at the world.  Nonetheless, the government faces a dilemma if it wants to legislate to protect plurality in any future UK legislation. Because if we want growth, investment, competition and success it will be dangerous to ignore global market shifts and giant digital companies and obsess too much about regulating the success of more traditional, home-grown companies.  If we are not careful, we could end up regulating them into irrelevance.  We can't afford to be too parochial.

The debate about plurality has a tendency to start with a presumption that there is a major immediate problem to be solved.  It's really not for me to judge what amount of plurality is sufficient – although someone, presumably at Ofcom, will have to.

Looking at international comparisons, the number of reputable providers of broadcast news and print journalism doesn't seem too unhealthy at present, and of course the internet has broadened the range of available news sources.  

But the problem may be one further down the road, as the market changes.  If giants like Google and Apple continue to grow at their current rate they will become more and more powerful and will acquire more and more influence over the way people use different media on a day-to-day basis.  They may come to control the so-called'gateways' that people use to get to news and other programmes. 

The BBC, with its particular public service mission and its commitment to impartiality and a spread of different opinions, is a positive addition to the plurality of our media.  But it can only fulfil its mission if BBC services remain prominent and readily available to the public on new digital platforms as well as older ones.

And that in turn will require a degree of scale: the BBC needs sufficient heft to be able to argue its corner with big global corporations.  If it has that scale, it can also help support a range of other UK creative companies.  Directly - through the links it creates to other UK news providers and through partnerships such as 'The Space'.  And indirectly - by helping to maintain an open market, open standards and some non-proprietary platforms like YouView.  A strong BBC can, in this way, promote both pluralism and a greater prominence for public service content of other kinds. 

Conclusion

I'm keen that the Trust should start to debate big questions of this sort, about the long-term future for the BBC, well in advance of whatever Charter Review process the Government chooses in due course to run.  In fact we will make a first step on that path in January when, together with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, we will run a seminar examining the future economics of the broadcasting market.

More immediately, the only way to work towards a long-term future is to get a strong grip on recent failings.  The blue skies have certainly clouded over in recent months.  But strong leadership will see us through to the other side of the storm.

The BBC has been and, I think, still is, despite our occasional awful mistakes and our occasional failings, the BBC has been the greatest public service broadcaster and arguably the greatest broadcaster in the world. And that is something that we should hold on to.