Helen Boaden, Director, BBC News
Speech given at VLV Annual Spring Conference
Tuesday 12 April 2011
Check against delivery
When I enter Broadcasting House, my eyes are often drawn to the BBC's motto, inscribed beneath its coat of arms.
It reads, of course, "nation shall speak peace unto nation."
Our motto goes back to the BBC's formation, on 1 January 1927, when it was adopted by the new Corporation to signify its purpose.
(Incidentally, it's said to be an adaptation from the Book of Micah: "nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Not a message for today's news agenda!)
I occasionally find myself wondering about that motto at this difficult time for the BBC. If we were to try to write a new one for the BBC of today, could we do any better?
You all know the great Wilkins Micawber quote about money. He opined to David Copperfield:
"Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 pounds 19 and six, result happiness.
"Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pounds ought and six, result misery."
Perhaps we could change our motto to "Micawber was right"?
Except I'm not quite sure that "happiness" or indeed "misery" describe the atmosphere in the BBC as we seek to live within our new means.
Last October we agreed a new licence fee settlement with the Government to freeze the licence fee until April 2017. We also agreed to take on new obligations. From 2013/14 we take on the funding of BBC Monitoring and majority funding of the Welsh language channel, S4C. And we will provide some support for local television outside the BBC.
From 2014/15 we also take on the funding of the BBC World Service.
With the licence fee frozen at £145.50 we will also have to absorb and budget for inflation, no easy matter, although this will be offset to a small extent by rising licence fee income as a result of household growth. Unlike Micawber, we have to bring our expenditure in line with our income which means that we'll have to find new savings.
16 per cent efficiencies will balance the books, but would leave us nothing left to invest in new content. So we're aiming for 20 per cent efficiencies in the parts of the BBC which create the content. That means we will have the flexibility to invest in programmes and content and ensure the BBC can meet rising audience expectations.
It's going to be tough. Those expectations are high. Gone is the day when Lord Reith could comment:
"Accused of setting out to give the public not what it wanted but what the BBC thought it should have, the answer was that few knew what they wanted, fewer what they needed."
Our audiences are at record levels and mostly they know what they want. Certainly, one way of discovering the popularity of a service seems to be suggesting that we shut it!
The other day I heard Roger Bolton joke on Feedback that the way to secure the programme's future – not that it's under threat – is to say it's going to be cut.
Any organisation that's funded by the public purse must look rigorously at its spending. And the BBC is fortunate enough to have the security of a guaranteed income for the next few years. That brings us stability that would be the envy of many, if we can get through the choppy waters. To do that, we have to understand our purpose in life.
There's no point in cutting indiscriminately. We have difficult decisions to make. I can't pretend otherwise. But journalism will remain at the heart of the organisation – the keystone of our strategy.
Above all, we aim to preserve the public's trust in our impartiality, its belief in our independence. Independence from political and commercial pressure is a vital part of BBC News in this country.
In a robust, deep-rooted democracy like ours, I think our relationship with politicians is a bit like a tug of war.
It's right that each side should pull. In fact, it's part of the democratic process. Testing those in power but being accountable for it.
So when it came to the government's comprehensive spending review, it was right that we set out to examine the policies and the consequences – and right that our coverage came under scrutiny.
Scrutiny comes in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes it's a polite letter from an MP. Sometimes it's a phone call from a Government Special Advise, or even a Minister – to an Editor. Those calls are often at varying degrees of volume and politeness. We've even had very public advice from the Opposition!
As I say, it's their prerogative to complain. But it's ours, to defend our independence and make the case for our coverage.
In the example of the spending review, whilst not being complacent, we're confident that we have the balance right between explaining the government's plans, why it says they're needed – and examining their impact.
That's why we ran wide coverage – across the whole of BBC News, in the nations and the regions – under the heading "The Spending Review: Making It Clear."
It seems to me that all politicians, of whatever party, embrace the BBC's independence in theory – but have occasional difficulties in practice, especially when they're in power. So I'm afraid that as Director of News, I've got used to the sound of incoming fire.
We had plenty of it when we ran a Panorama programme alleging corruption among FIFA officials – ahead of the World Cup vote. We were accused of being "unpatriotic." But afterwards 80 per cent of the public backed the BBC for broadcasting the programme. And even a member of the 2018 bid team said we'd been right to do it when we did.
It's important to do the right thing – whatever the pressure. That way, you build your reputation for independence and impartiality.
Last year, the BBC News channel had record audiences for many major news stories.
It recorded the highest reach of any UK news channel – 7.4 million – on the day that Gordon Brown resigned and David Cameron became prime minister. The day after the general election, 7 million watched, and 6.9 million watched the rescue of the Chilean miners. More recently, on 11 March, the channel reached a new record of 8.5 million for the Japanese earthquake. On the same day, the BBC website, too, had record traffic internationally with 15.8m unique users.
All our audience research suggests that our ratings for trust and impartiality have also improved over the last three years. As the perception of trust and impartiality increases, so, it seems do our audiences. Is there a connection?
Well evidence collected by the BBC Trust shows impartiality to be an important factor in determining an audience's choice of broadcast news provider.
And in a major survey published last year, Ofcom found that 91 per cent of people thought it was important or very important that "news in general is impartial".
So if partisan reporting is allowed under a new Communications Act – and there are detailed arguments for and against – then the BBC will do everything it can to maintain and strengthen its tradition of impartial journalism.
That's our guiding principle for the future. But as I have made clear, there's a more immediate challenge – money.
You've probably read in your newspapers about the different ideas we've had about how we might live within our means. That's because – in the jargon of the day – we have nine different "workstreams" – or groups of staff, who are examining how we might balance the books. It's a fairly open process which is why some it makes it to the newspapers.
In the modern management way, there are two Strategic phrases that guide us in this process, neither of which would look quite right above the portals of Broadcasting House.
The first of these is "Delivering Quality First."
That means a bit of getting back to basics. Like many large organisations, we've grown piecemeal as technology has enabled us to produce our journalism on many different platforms.
Now, with less money, we need to row back. We must make difficult choices between what matters most and what matters least. Last year we closed a small BBC Two programme, Working Lunch, because we felt that although it was doing a good job, we were over providing on personal finance issues. That was one very modest example of making difficult choices.
Of course we are never going to give up on the big stories that matter: covering the uprisings in the Middle East and Africa for example, with a team of specialist journalists. Ensuring we have the best possible Specialist Editors like Nick Robinson, Robert Peston, Stephanie Flanders and Jeremy Bowen.
But this year, to cut our cloth, we only sent one person to the Oscars rather than a full team – and used specialists in London for background coverage on the website.
Let me give you an idea of the sort of questions we're asking ourselves about the future of News under Delivering Quality First.
Local radio audiences vary significantly during the day. For the past year, we've been improving the resourcing of all our Breakfast shows on local radio because we know this matters to our audiences. They want consistently high quality local news, sport, weather and information.
That work has paid off with stations stabilising their audience numbers or seeing a rise in listening.
With less money, how can we protect those Breakfast shows and the other vital parts of local radio like the news bulletins? Should we get radio stations to intelligently share output in the low audience periods of the day like mid-afternoons?
Across all of radio, are we doing too much on too many services? What is the role of the News Channel as we head to 2016? How does it fit with our mobile and online news services?
We often share our best current affairs journalism across more than one platform and with different audiences – that's why you will hear a short item on the Today programme about a File On 4 investigation for example. But should we do much more of that?
How can we create one, integrated, newsgathering operation: regional, national and global?
At the moment, there are genuinely many more questions than answers and that will continue for some time to come.
Some of the answers – and we don't have them yet – may not be popular. There is very little that the BBC does which someone doesn't care about and want to retain.
But we can't continue to do everything in the way we are currently doing it and save the money we need to save. We have to try to match our journalism to our budget and to our audience's expectations. And that will be hard.
Of course, doing more for less in tough financial circumstances isn't new for the BBC – in fact since the Nineties when the BBC started moving into the digital era, we've brought the BBC's running costs down from 24 per cent of the licence fee to around 12 per cent today – and to 9 per cent or less by the end of the Charter period in 2016.
These savings have been invested back into high quality programmes and services for the public, including the BBC News website and the development of the iPlayer.
Now I mentioned two Strategic phrases which are mottos for the way we are thinking about living within our new means.
The second is "Fewer, Bigger, Better."
It's inevitable that we will have to do fewer things – but the quid pro quo is that we want to be in a position to do them better. That's true of BBC News both at home and abroad.
Let me talk about "abroad." The World Service will be merged with BBC News in 2014. We believe that the protection of the Licence Fee will be of benefit to the World Service.
It will destroy once and for all any idea that because the World Service is funded directly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is somehow not entirely independent. It will protect it from arbitrary cuts as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review when it can lose out to louder voices at the Foreign Office.
Last year, the Government decided that World Service funding would decline by 16 per cent in real terms over four years. These cuts will bite deeply. There's no point in pretending otherwise.
Over the next three years we've said that we expect around a quarter of the World Service workforce – 650 posts – will go. It is worth reminding everyone that this is about government funding and its impact. We need to find savings of £46million. We can't do it all through being more efficient. We need to stop doing things – and that's why we've reluctantly called a halt to five language services. There are programmes we are cutting too. This is not being done indiscriminately, however painful it might be. There is a rationale behind the decisions we have made.
You might call it the "Berlin Wall principle." Put simply, the world does not stand still. It's hard to remember that it is little more than 20 years since the Wall came down. But we shouldn't forget that throughout the long history of the Cold War, the BBC World Service was broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain to a people denied the basic right of freedom of speech.
When the Berlin Wall collapsed, the world changed, and so did the BBC's role.
Today, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, are not only independent, but full members of the EU, with – to a greater or lesser extent – an adherence to the principles of free speech.
The world is still changing. So with the World Service cuts, we have tried to focus on parts of world where the BBC is needed most; where access to free and impartial news is most limited; where our global perspective is not offered by local news providers.
The cuts to our funding have accelerated these changes much more quickly than we would have wanted and forced others on us that we would never have wanted to make.
Overall, the changes will result in loss of audience – we estimate that there will be an immediate drop of several million.
But we decided that the only way to sustain our services, and to cope with the savings, is to share content more effectively across the BBC – and to invest where we can in the distinctive journalism that audiences most want from us.
For many of our audiences – for instance in Somalia and Burma – we will continue to produce a highly localised offer. But in other markets, the BBC delivers global newsgathering and expertise – which local news providers can't do. So a significant shift to a greater proportion of global journalism makes audience and economic sense.
Let's be clear: We are absolutely committed to protecting the World Service. It's only three years before it will be funded by the licence fee.
When that happens, the Director-General has said he intends to restore some of the funding it is now losing. In the immediate, our concern is whether the cuts are the right ones?
The world, of course, is not a predictable place, as events in the Middle East have shown. Few here could have foreseen that the Egyptian people would overthrow President Mubarak; or that the Libyan people would rise up against Colonel Gaddafi and precipitate military intervention.
It doesn't mean that any of our proposed cuts are "wrong" or "ill judged" – simply that no-one can gaze into a crystal ball and predict what will happen next – any more than we could foresee the end of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The skill, I think, is to be fleet of foot and adapt to changing circumstances.
It would be wrong to preserve the BBC in aspic, but it would be equally misguided not to recognise that plans sometimes need to be modified. So to that end, you may have seen that we are sustaining our short- and medium-wave broadcasts in the Arabic region more than we originally intended.
We may be able to reinstate short-wave broadcasts on a short-term basis to regions where major events are taking place.
The cuts to the Hindi service on short-wave – listened to by 11 million people in rural India – are also on hold while we look for a private partner. We've agreed to fund a one-hour short-wave news programme each day while we attempt to negotiate commercial funding.
But as the Director of the World Service has said, overall, there isn't significant room for further flexibility within the resources we have available.
What won't change, however, is our determination to remain the world's best-known and most trusted news broadcaster – offering a uniquely global editorial agenda. Nor will we give up on bringing the BBC's distinctive expertise to the largest worldwide audience of any international news provider.
So to end where I started – with the BBC motto: "nation shall speak peace unto nation."
What does it actually mean in practice?
Peace, of course, depends partly on the application and acceptance of truth, of discourse and debate, of not needing to "learn war any more", as the Old Testament saying put it – which is why our motto was adopted, in the shadow of the First World War
For me, the motto means "nation shall speak truth unto nation" – because impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC.
The continued need for news of quality and impartiality will be our guide in our decisions about the future shape and scope of the service.
So long as we hold fast to the principles that have guided the BBC since 1927 – to tell the truth as we see it, to the people who need it, independent of government and commercial influence – then BBC News should be in the right shape to meet the difficult challenges of the future.
Thank you very much.
Search the site
Can't find what you need? Search here