Mark Thompson speech at the Cardiff Ambassadors Dinner
Thursday 3 November 2011
It's a real pleasure and privilege to be here tonight to celebrate the work of the Cardiff Ambassadors – indeed to celebrate the success and the potential of this great city.
Now, given the time of night, I'm not going to give you forty-five minutes on the BBC's future digital strategy or Delivering Quality First, but there are just a few serious points I wanted to make about the BBC and Wales – and, in particular about the Welsh creative industries.
The first is the most obvious one. The BBC is not a public broadcaster for London or England but for Wales and every other part of the UK. The Welsh public pay for the BBC, they rely on it and, quite rightly, have strong views and high expectations about the services that we provide to them.
Consumption of BBC services and approval of the BBC have both been traditionally high in Wales – overall approval of the BBC, for instance, is close to a historic peak across the UK, but it's highest here in Wales.
But it would be quite wrong if our response to that state of affairs was one of complacency. Anyone who visits them regularly can see that both Cardiff and Wales are on a journey of ambition and growth and that creative talent and the creative industries in this city and country want to reach out not just to UK audiences but to audiences and markets around the world. Answers about BBC services and BBC investment in Wales which passed muster ten or twenty years ago no longer feel adequate.
The investment story
So how have we responded? Well firstly, after decades of leaving the question of network television production in this country to the vagaries of the commissioning process, we decided to take a tough-minded strategic approach which combined hard and binding numerical targets with genuine management commitment at the very top of the BBC with inspired leadership at Llandaff and across BBC Wales.
The name of one well-known science fiction show trips easily off the tongue nowadays, but the story of the renaissance of network TV production in Wales was never just about one lucky commission or about a handful of brilliant writers and producers – though, Goodness knows, we've needed them.
The question for me was never – is there enough talent in Wales? This country is teeming with world-class storytellers and performers, with traditions of music and poetry and drama which any TV or film studio would kill for. The challenge has always been to pull it all together, to put it fairly and insistently in front of the commissioners, and above all to give it critical mass.
Critical mass in media production doesn't mean something airy-fairy. It means returning series – programmes so compelling, so able to renew themselves that networks commission them again and again. It means building up a creative and craft capacity which allows your production base to win out against stiff international competition. And it means partnership.
The days are gone when the creative industries can afford petty rivalries between broadcasters and producers when it comes to the task of building a world-class creative hub. All over the UK, we are either already sharing facilities and craft skills with other broadcasters – as we do in Glasgow and Salford – or looking for ways to do so. Both MediaCityUK in Salford and the Pacific Quay development on the South Banks of the Clyde were planned from Day One with collaboration and co-siting with our traditional rivals in mind.
How the world has changed. If you look out of the window at BBC North in Salford Quays, you can see the new Coronation Street lot going up, right next to the BBC. And no one could be happier about that than we are.
But we've been thinking big here in Cardiff as well. 18 months ago, the land around Roath Basin – just a stone's throw from the Assembly – was barren, nothing more than wasteland.
Today, just over a year after construction started on the 38 acre plot, almost 400 people are working on site. That will rise to 600 when it's full. There are nine studios, three external filming lots – Casualty, Pobol y Cwm and Upstairs Downstairs – all that talent mingling, working, arguing, creating new networks and new ideas. Together with that drama which features Gallifrey's biggest celebrity and the outstanding new Steven Moffat franchise Sherlock, we've already had a hint of what such collaboration can bring about.
And the effect on the wider TV and creative industries has been electrifying. An independent study of the supply-side impact of the Licence Fee across the whole UK suggests that, quite apart from the benefit for audiences of our investment, every pound of Licence Fee investment creates more than two pounds of economic value.
Here in Cardiff, it's opened up the prospect of a genuinely world-class concentration of creative and media firepower, and potentially an engine for wider economic growth for Wales.
There are many people here who believe that the BBC drama village at Roath Lock should only be the start of a much bigger vision – for a media capital either alongside this or on another site, along the lines of what we and others are creating in greater Manchester.
And here just as there, the thought is that the BBC would be at its heart as an anchor-tenant and creative guarantor, but perhaps sharing a common site with other Welsh broadcasters, producers and indeed people working in quite different, but complementary disciplines. The vision for Salford began with the BBC but now includes not just ITV, but independent producers, broadcast resource companies, universities, academies and many others.
Well, to state the obvious, this is a moment when money is tight at the BBC as it across the rest of the public sector and our ability to embark on major new capital spending any time soon is very limited. But we should be sitting down with other stakeholders over the coming months and years to explore whether there are ways of building on what we've already achieved here to create something even more transformational.
Delivering Quality First
Let me spend a moment on the BBC itself over the next five years. As I've said, we face a period of constrained funding. I can't pretend that that is entirely welcome, but I also don't believe that it would be right for a national broadcaster to ask to be let off or to be made somehow exempt from the economic challenges which virtually every other enterprise, both public and private, is going through at the moment. The fact that the BBC has shared in the experience of the British public over decades, through tough times as well as good ones, is one of the main reasons that the public trust it and support it so strongly.
Nonetheless it does mean some difficult choices. As far as possible, we've chosen to cut non-content spend – overheads, support costs and the number and cost of senior managers – so that we can concentrate every penny we can on programmes and services for the public.
And we've made sure that we've left a small investment fund, both to put money back into critical programme areas – more money for children's output, for instance, for Radio 4 and for the Proms – and to go on investing in the digital future. Services like bbc.co.uk and the iPlayer have shown our ability to serve audiences in entirely new as well as traditional ways and we're determined to continue with that growing digital confidence.
So what does all this mean for BBC investment in Wales? Well, the savings we're asking colleagues to make here are, at 16%, lower than the 20% average between now and 2017 we're asking from the BBC as a whole. But they will mean painful choices. Here, as elsewhere, we've tried to protect core programmes and services – core news output, for instance, from Wales Today to Post Cyntaf? – and to find the savings elsewhere. I hope that viewers and listeners will not notice a substantial loss of service anyway, but we have to confront the fact that there will be a significant impact on jobs, both inside BBC Wales and also indirectly among our suppliers, be they independent producers or companies who deliver other goods and services to us.
But the BBC's long-range strategy of shifting spend from inside the M25 to the rest of the UK and to the nations in particular – a strategy which I have always believed is the right one for the BBC as well for the nation – will continue. We will hit our overall target of 17% of network production from the three nations early and expect to end up with a proportion of network spend from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ultimately even higher than this.
In practice that means that we would expect the proportion of the Licence Fee spent by the BBC to grow slightly between now and the start of 2017. It's going to be a smaller cake – that's a fact of life. But we expect the slice of investment that comes to Wales to end the period slightly larger than it is now. One of the questions in front of us now is how to work with others to leverage that investment to deliver the highest possible economic benefit for Wales' creative industries and economy as a whole.
Partnerships – and S4C
From A History Of The World In 100 Objects, our collaboration with the British Museum, to Roath Lock and to Freeview and Freesat, we've made a lot of partnerships in recent years and that's a story which is set, not just to continue, but to become the default way in which the BBC does business.
I want finally to turn to one very important partnership here in Wales, that with S4C. It's not new of course – S4C has had a spine of BBC output on it since Day One – but it is clearly entering a new, and I believe potentially exciting phase.
When it was first announced that, from 2014 onwards, responsibility for the lion's share of the funding of S4C would pass from the UK Government to the Licence Fee and the BBC Trust, there was understandable anxiety, even anger about the idea – especially among those who feared it might compromise S4C's independence.
Well I want to say that, at the BBC we understand the importance of independence. The BBC has had to fight for its own independence many times over the years – and has sometimes lost its DGs and Chairmen as a result. And we believe, and have always believed, that Wales wants not just an independent and strong BBC, but an independent and strong S4C as well. Far from trying to undermine that independence, the job of the BBC Trust and the BBC itself in the future will be to defend it.
I believe that the agreement that was announced a few days ago will secure exactly that and I want to pay particular tribute to the BBC National Trustee for Wales, Elan Closs Stephens and Huw Jones, the Chair of the S4C Authority for their great and constructive efforts to get us there. I hope the agreement will usher in a period where colleagues at S4C and BBC Wales work even more closely together than they've been able to do so far, and that we can open up some of the unique scale advantages of the BBC – our worldclass research and development capability, our global sales and distribution and international commercial exploitation businesses, to help S4C and the Welsh independent sector take advantage of new technologies and new ways of reaching audiences here and around the world.
I've talked almost entirely about one industry this evening. I know that the people in this room are trying to stimulate growth and investment in many different industries.
I want to end by paying tribute to what you do. Our experience in Wales – over decades, but especially over the past decade or so – is of a country with an immense reservoirs of talent and which is raring to go.
We believe in Wales and increasingly we've been putting our money where our mouth is – and, I hope, raising the profile of the Wales of 2011 across Britain and around the world. We're here in such strength, not as an act of political correctness but as a way of tapping into great talent and great ideas. I'm sure that many other companies, both national and international, will beat exactly the same path to your door and for the same reason.
So many congratulations on your achievements so far and the best of luck for the future. You're backing a winner.