Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General

Date: 05.10.2010     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.14

Public Media in a Digital Age – speech given at the New America Foundation, Washington DC
Tuesday 5 October 2010

Check against delivery

A few months ago I had a chance to visit the studios where one of the BBC's most popular dramas is made.

Love interest, family feuds, social commentary – it's got nearly all of the features you'd expect to find in a soap opera made here or in the UK. Indeed it's based on The Archers, the BBC's famous domestic radio drama which charts life in and around the fictional English town of Ambridge.

Yet this drama takes place, not in Worcestershire, but in Afghanistan.

It's called New Home, New Life. It's made by the BBC World Service Trust in both Dari and Pashto, it's funded by a number of development agencies, and for the past 14 years it's been broadcast every week by the BBC Afghan Service.

New Home, New Life tells the story of life in a cluster of villages in rural Afghanistan. Some of the story-lines – especially the agricultural ones – really could have been transposed from rural England. Others not. One of the characters, for instance, recently lost his leg to a mine. The drama of how Jandad and his family raised the money for an artificial limb and then how he retrained as a tailor kept our listeners gripped for months.

HIV and AIDs prevention, children's health, the controversial topic of dowries, how to vote – these are some of the underlying educational themes and messages New Home, New Life has been able to deliver. The skill of the writers and producers has been to encapsulate these messages in a vivid and unmissable drama, which is why New Home, New Life reaches 11 million listeners each week, around two-thirds of all radio listeners in Afghanistan.

And it's become part of Afghan national life. The characters are so well-known that real public figures sometimes compare each other to them. When the Taliban controlled the country, they allowed New Home, New Life to continue – though a group of them did turn up at the studios in Kabul, demanding to see what was going on. When it was explained to them that the BBC's commitment to impartiality meant that we'd really prefer it if they didn't barge in, they grew angry. "Every week you let cows, goats, chickens into the studio – we've heard – so why not us?"

Given the Taliban's well-known view about recordings of any kind, we thought it best not to explain that what they'd been listening to was a sound effects disk.

New Home, New Life is only one part of what the BBC does in Afghanistan. There are many other programmes of music and culture and discussion for the Afghan service, including some groundbreaking output made by and for women. And of course – centrally in Afghanistan, just as it is central in the UK and in every other country where the BBC operates – there is news. News for Afghans. News for the wider region, for instance through the BBC's Urdu and Persian services, including our new Persian TV service. And news for Britain and the world.

The British way of public broadcasting

I've begun with the BBC's operations in Afghanistan because it's a good example of what you could call the British way of public broadcasting.

When public broadcasters here and in other countries look at the BBC, often what strikes them as unusual, if not unique, is the sheer scale and consistency of the public intervention.

At home, a universal licence fee or charge for having a television which costs each British household around $230 a year and which means the BBC stills reaches some 97% of the UK population each week and still occupies a central role in national life, from network television to local news on radio and the web to the BBC Proms. Those licence fees add up to around $5.5 billion of revenue. The BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, brings in another $1.4 billion on top of that.

Abroad, more than $400 million of government funding allows the BBC to maintain radio stations in dozens of languages, as well as Persian and Arabic television. Now all this is true. In the 1920s, our two countries took very different paths in broadcasting. In America, it was taken for granted that the market would deliver the lion's share of services made possible by the new medium of radio. Many people argued that the same should be the case in Britain.

But in the end, a different argument prevailed and the British Broadcasting Company – which had begun as a commercial JV between wireless manufacturers – became the British Broadcasting Corporation, a not-for-profit organisation set up with a Royal Charter guaranteeing its independence, a licence fee to fund it, and at first at least, a monopoly to broadcast to the British public.

And, although the model has come under increasing ideological attack, and although the BBC today operates in a world of extraordinary media choice and competition, that basic proposition – of a large, broadly-based public broadcaster funded by all and with a mission to inform, educate and entertain all with services that are free at the point of use – has proven both surprisingly adaptable and resilient.

In the UK, support for the BBC and for the licence fee is as high, if not higher, today than it was a generation ago. Internationally, the BBC is more widely accessed on the web, radio and TV than it's ever been. Our news, for instance, reaches more than 240 million people globally each week. Even more unexpectedly, it's turned out that the BBC's funding model and its particular preoccupations – with culture and knowledge, and especially with journalism delivered in real time by any means possible – are peculiarly suited to digital media. As a result, instead of dismissing the British model as an obsolescent historic curiosity, at least some policy-makers in other developed and developing countries have begun to wonder what it would take to start going down this road themselves.

But I want to say that, although significant public funding is certainly a necessary condition for what we do, it is not a sufficient one. What matters just as much, what in the end creates the public support on which acceptance of the funding model rests, are the values which the BBC's founders brought to the institution, values which in a resolutely cynical world we still try to live up to today.

Every one of the scores of BBC people I met in Afghanistan knows exactly what the BBC, and in particular BBC journalism, stands for at its best: accuracy, impartiality, independence, seriousness.

And they strive to uphold those values day in, day out, covering one of the world's most difficult and dangerous stories. Sometimes they're injured or die as a result. I think of our friend and colleague, Abdul Samad Rohani, a stringer for the BBC and other international news organisations who was abducted and found shot dead in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province in 2008.

The combination of these founding values, the scale of the resources available to us and the range of outlets by which we can reach audiences means that we can stay on the ground longer and offer broader coverage than almost all other news-providers. We were one of the first news teams into Haiti after the earthquake this January – and we're still reporting on the story today. We've reported it not just in English but in dozens of foreign languages. Indeed, in the first days of the disaster, we launched a Creole language service out of our BBC Mundo newsroom in Miami. It became a vital source of information to Haitians and rescue and aid teams on the ground, relaying critical updates about water supplies, food drops and the location of temporary hospitals. This service, and the knowledge that the BBC will still be on the ground long after the rest of the media pack have departed, should we hope further strengthen the trust which the people of Haiti place in the BBC and the value they derive from it.

The BBC and its international audiences today

Indeed, multiple surveys suggest that the BBC is the most trusted source of news and information in the world. But that's the whole world – I want to focus on some of the countries which arguably have a particular need for access to accurate, impartial news, free at the point of use. We recently commissioned research to test attitudes among opinion-formers to the BBC and other international news services in four countries: Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey.

There are some interesting and important lessons to learn from the survey. Some of the respondents, for instance, complain that our delivery of the news is sometimes too formal and can lack the energy of some of our rivals.

But overall the strength of support for the BBC is very striking. When asked how much they would miss the BBC, CNN International, Voice of America and Al Jazeera, in all four countries respondents said they would miss the BBC most. Egyptian respondents, for example, said they would miss the BBC much more than Al-Jazeera.

Then the opinion-formers were asked how important it was for the UK to continue to provide international news services to world. 43% of respondents in Turkey thought it was either essential or very important. In Pakistan, 88%. In Egypt, 91%. In Kenya, 94%. In fact, in Egypt and Kenya we couldn't find anyone among the opinion-formers who thought it was either "not particularly important" or "not important at all".

A changing mission

The BBC World Service grew out of the Empire Service, which was launched before the Second World War. It's a very different world today – and a different mission for us.

Radio still matters – indeed in the US, increasing rebroadcast by NPR means that the radio World Service is, if anything, growing in influence – but increasingly important are our international television and web services. Overall, BBC reaches around 23 million in the United States each week. I'm particularly proud of the success of the nightly newscast from DC on BBC America hosted by Matt Frei.

Despite the growth of the web and social media, TV remains a critical means of reaching some audiences. Last year we launched a new Persian Television service. Within weeks, its value was demonstrated during the 2009 Iranian elections and their bloody aftermath. It is not that the BBC Persian TV was on the side of the demonstrators – like every other BBC service, it aims for strict impartiality and, indeed, during the demonstrations made every effort to ensure that the voice of the authorities was properly represented on the air – but this very even-handedness was itself exactly what many Iranians had found lacking in their existing television choices, both on the state TV services and on other Persian-language international services.

Today we estimate that the BBC Persian TV service has 3.1million viewers each week inside Iran, and millions more beyond – the reason, I suspect, why President Obama chose it two weeks ago as the channel through which to reach the Iranian people with his response to President Ahmadinejad's remarks at the UN.

I believe that, despite the many changes and advances in media around the world, the BBC's global mission remains not just relevant, but vital.

Sparing Francis Fukuyama's blushes, history did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Repression of free speech, suppression and sometimes the persecution of local and international journalism has not disappeared. Far from it – if anything, it is on the rise, and not just in failed or marginal states but in many advanced societies.

The jamming and blocking of BBC and other international services. The harrassment of our journalists and the local staff who work for us. These are facts of life in 2010 in some of the most influential and sophisticated societies in the world. In some countries – Iran is a good example – there has been a significant deterioration in recent years.

And journalism faces another threat. You might have thought that the arrival of digital would have led to a golden age in the provision of, and access to, high quality journalism as the barriers to entry and national boundaries fell away. But although the barriers to entry for citizen journalism and opinions of every kind have collapsed, the impact of the new technologies has been to undermine many traditional print and broadcast commercial business models around the world and the effect has been a drastic cutting back on investment in international journalism.

Once, for instance, the US networks encircled the globe with their newsgathering operations. I ran the BBC's news operations in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crisis – and when the American networks arrived, it was like watching a series of carrier groups sailing into harbour.

Today it's a different story. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated a few years ago in Islamabad, the networks covered from Baghdad, because that was the closest place in which they had a correspondent. "There's not much call for international news," one network executive told me shortly afterwards, "frankly, our audiences find it rather dispiriting".

In a world where in-depth international reporting is increasingly restricted to a handful of agencies and to news providers who are directly under the influence of sovereign governments and who have no tradition of editorial independence, journalism of the kind the BBC stands for, objective and impartial, with the means to put dedicated correspondents on the ground and keep them there over years, is more, not less, important than it used to be.

But the immediate future of the core of the BBC's international mission will be decided in the next few weeks. The budget for the BBC World Service is fully in scope for the UK Government's Comprehensive Spending Review – a review which is expected to lead to deep cuts across virtually all areas of government spending. We believe that that value which these services provide to international audiences and the benefit which the UK derives from them is out of all proportion to their costs and would make major retrenchment feel like a false economy. We'll have to wait to see whether the British Government reaches the same conclusion.

The fight for public broadcasting

But I don't want to suggest for a second that the BBC is perfect. In journalism and beyond, we have our frailties and have had our fair share of mistakes.

In the UK, as in America, anxiety about standards and values and "dumbing-down" have steadily grown in recent years. And, although I believe that both at home and abroad, the BBC still stands firmly on the side of enlightenment and that its editorial and creative direction in recent years has been away from the market and towards distinctiveness and ambition, you'll find plenty of people in the UK who'd take a different and opposite view.

Cultural anxiety is nothing new of course. Critics were accusing the BBC of debasing national culture as early as the 1930s.

What does feel new – and is a phenomenon we're seeing across Western Europe and in other developed countries, Japan for instance, with a tradition of large-scale public intervention in broadcasting – is the concerted attempt by commercial media interests to undermine the model.

You may have heard about James Murdoch's tirade against the "Orwellian" BBC at last year's Edinburgh television festival. It's part of a pattern. In France, the government has listened to the commercial broadcasters and effectively slashed the budget of the public broadcaster, while Nicholas Sarkozy has decided that the right person to choose the Director General is the President of the Republic. In Germany and Japan, the public broadcasters are prohibited from significant activity in the web – something which everyone recognises may turn out to be a death sentence in the long-run. And in Italy, where the Prime Minister also rather handily owns the most powerful media company in the country, the public broadcaster RAI is on the rack in a dozen different ways.

In many ways, the critics look to this country. Why can't our public broadcasters be more like the American ones, they say – occupying a place principally defined by market failure, concentrating on those kinds of programmes and services which commercial players are likely to disdain.

Now that's severely to under-estimate the continued influence and creative power of American public television and radio, but you take the point. In the UK, the BBC has a third of all viewing and more than half of radio listening. The German public broadcasters have more than 40% of viewing between them. There are commercial operators in both countries who would be much happier if the public broadcaster's share of viewing was under 10%.

And the fact that, in a number of countries including Britain, the public broadcaster is making a smoother and more confident transition to digital than many commercial players, only strengthens the sense of resentment.

So public broadcasters everywhere face the fight of their lives. But I want to say to you this afternoon that it's a fight we can win.

Public service broadcasting is an idea and, in the UK at least, support from the public themselves for that idea remains rock solid. This summer the average person in the UK spent just under 19 hours a week in the company of the BBC – we are part of the soundtrack of their lives. They use us, they value us, they trust us in large measure because we are neither part of the state, nor are we motivated by profits or the interests of shareholders or by anything other than our mission to serve them.

The same is true of our World Service. It's paid for in large measure by the British Government, but audiences around the world have learned by listening to it over the years, that it is not government-speak but the product of an independent institution with its own mission and its own values.

Public service broadcasting is founded on a belief in public space, in other words on the belief that there is room for a place which is neither part of the state nor purely governed by commercial considerations, which everyone is free to enter and within which they can encounter culture, education, debate, where they can share and swap experiences.

The great British television writer Dennis Potter once connected public service broadcasting to 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 on the wrong side of an encryption wall. One that would treat everyone as being of equal value.

That's what we mean when we talk about public space, and it's one of those cultural quirks that's created broadcasting of such high quality and richness that it has an intrinsic value not just for people in Britain but for global audiences. Programmes and services not commissioned and produced either to appeal only to a cultural elite or to bring in the biggest commercial audiences. But made instead to provoke the mind, to challenge and inspire, to be open and available to all.

Right now even the idea of public space is being challenged, especially on the web, as commercial media struggles with the immense challenge of monetization. In fact it seems to me that digital media and its open, democratizing spirit, represent an almost perfect fit with what I mean by the term "public space", and that if the BBC and other public broadcasters can migrate successfully into this new world, that – far from slipping to our audiences' peripheral vision, our eye and ear contact with them can grow deeper and more valuable. Much of what we are doing at the BBC right now is directed to this end.

That's why when I read about how embattled public service broadcasting is in the UK and elsewhere, I take it all with a big pinch of salt. Public broadcasting has a wonderful heritage here, in Britain and in many other countries. With the right values and the right values, it can have an equally wonderful future too. Thank you.