Speech given to the Royal Television Society, London
Thursday 20 September 2007
Why Knowledge Matters
Check against delivery
Last night, preparing for this event, I googled "knowledge". I got 377 million hits – the first, inevitably, being a Wikipedia entry. Rather a good one too, cantering through Aristotle, Plato and Wittgenstein and making me wish I'd paid more attention at my university philosophy tutorials.
But the process – the search engine, the 377 million hits, the wiki entry – also reminded me forcibly of the necessity of the journey we've been on at the BBC for the last little while, the journey I want to share with you this evening.
Once upon a time knowledge was the privilege of the few.
Now, information has been democratised. That's undoubtedly a good thing. But it raises big questions for the BBC which has traditionally seen itself as one of the leaders of the national conversation about knowledge and what it's important to know.
In the world of the wiki and the intelligent search engine, that traditional belief has begun to seem rather presumptuous. Who needs the wisdom of Auntie when you have the wisdom of crowds?
What I want to argue tonight is that the BBC should be a leader in stating what it's important to know – not led by consumer need alone. In other words, our role as a public service broadcaster is not defined by what the audience already likes; we have a responsibility to establish bridgeheads into new worlds of knowledge on the audience's behalf. We should embrace the need to disseminate knowledge, but also play a role in defining the canon.
Knowledge and the BBC mission
The traditional mission of the BBC, as defined by its first Director–General, John Reith, is "information, education and entertainment" – the three great pillars on which the BBC is built.
But when Reith came up with that formulation, he was surprisingly unhappy with the label he gave the second of those pillars – education.
More than 75 years ago he wrote that there was a problem with the word education.
The problem for Reith was that the word education conjured up visions, as he put it, of "hard benches in schools ... cramming knowledge in order that certain tests may be passed."
Reith said he wished someone would invent some other way of describing what he was really after in the BBC's education output – what he called: "the sort of education which makes life so much more interesting and enjoyable than it otherwise might be."
Well, I think there's a better label for the second of those three great pillars – knowledge-building.
What I want to talk about this evening is:
- how we define that mission;
- why we believe it is so central to the overarching BBC mission;
- and what we propose to do to ensure we deliver our knowledge-building mission in as compelling a way as possible for all our audiences – you could call it our Knowledge Manifesto.
First of all, the definition.
Knowledge-building includes education in the formal sense, but it covers a much wider field.
It includes not just the BBC's formal educational output – Blast, Bitesize, and so on – but a much wider range of output too, everything from Watchdog to Tommy Zoom to Tribe, the India Pakistan season, Imagine, Who Do You Think You Are?, Rain In My Heart, Manchester Passion.
But what binds it all together is a sense of enabling personal growth. A sense of audiences opening unfamiliar doors, and by doing so, enriching their lives, discovering their potential and setting out on the road to achieving it.
knowledge-building is not just about giving our audiences accurate and impartial information.
The truth is that in the 21st century we live under a permanent torrent of information. But most of us would willingly trade a Niagara of information for a cupful of understanding.
The BBC's knowledge-building mission is to offer audiences not just information, but a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit and an understanding, too, of the possibilities for all of us to engage with the world.
What this means for the BBC
Certain important things flow from this.
Firstly: knowledge-building is not just for a section of our audience. It is for all our audiences. This cannot be an elitist mission; it has to be a universal one.
Secondly: we cannot hope to enable our audiences to understand the world better unless, to the best of our abilities, we understand it better ourselves. And that implies a continued investment in specialist knowledge within the BBC.
How can you hope to open the doors to a greater understanding of, say, the world's religions unless you bring to the task real specialist knowledge of the world's great faiths?
Thirdly: the BBC's knowledge-building mission implies a certain degree of intellectual self-confidence among the BBC's programme makers. Not intellectual arrogance, but intellectual self-confidence, built on the firm foundation of that specialist knowledge and tempered with an openness of mind and a willingness to debate, to respond to the questions our audiences and experts raise.
Our knowledge-building mission implies a sense of the BBC as curator, as editor, as author – and as mediator and translator of the specialist world to the generalist world of our audiences.
That, in turn, implies the intellectual confidence and curiosity to identify areas of specialism – what it is important to know – and the passion to share those insights with our audiences, using the best communicators we have.
It also implies a willingness to explore with our audiences not just the easy options in the universe of knowledge, but some of the difficult areas too. Our audiences want us to surprise and delight them –and that applies just as much to knowledge-building as it does to any other genre.
When I worked in commercial television and tried to prod programme makers into unexplored areas, the answer would come back: Why? Do what works. Do what we know wins ratings. What we know they'll watch.
But natural history programming is more than beautiful polar bear cubs – however ratings-winning they are. European History, as many people have pointed out, is not just World War II. Science is not just medical miracles – it includes cosmology and genetics and physics and maths.
The hard sciences are aptly so-called – they are hard. But that doesn't mean we can't find ways to bring them alive for our audiences, find ways, as Reith put it, to turn them from the stuff of hard school benches into projects that make life so much more interesting and enjoyable. Take Science You Can't See on television – seeing it was hard, but enjoying it was not.
The BBC as a builder of literacy
As we start the new charter period, and with the formation of BBC Vision, I believe the BBC has an opportunity to instil real confidence about the future public value of knowledge. knowledge-building is one of the greatest sources of distinctiveness for the BBC in a world of increasingly commercial broadcasting. In the course of thinking about this we've involved some of the most passionate, best thinkers about knowledge-building – many of them are in the room tonight.
But what we also realised is that, apart from some regulatory stipulations, there's not much set in stone about the kind of knowledge output the BBC should focus on. There are all sorts of paths we could follow if we chose, some of them leading a pretty long way away from a mission for knowledge-building towards a consumer driven only future. We found that a bit alarming. But we went back to asking first principle questions – why do we do any of it?
I passionately believed we needed to draw up a statement of intent about these next ten years – a knowledge manifesto putting down some clear markers about what the BBC is for in this area, and why it's so important for the future.
It was a way of making sure that we don't rely on a kind of folk memory in defining what the BBC is for, or place over-reliance on a regulatory regime.
I wanted to set out clearly and boldly where knowledge-building sits in the BBC over the course of the current charter, to ensure we don't one day look up and find it's not there.
We can no longer rely on other broadcasters – even Channel 4 – providing external competition across the range of specialist factual. We have to rely on ourselves to retain these commitments. If you don't write it down, it might fall away.
In our discussions we came up with shorthand for all this: the idea of the BBC promoting literacy.
Now literacy can carry the narrow meaning of knowing how to read and write – and building those skills is certainly part of the BBC's knowledge-building mission and will continue to be so.
But literacy carries a deeper meaning too.
It means possessing enough knowledge of a particular subject to begin to feel at ease in that territory, to have the confidence to navigate unfamiliar paths, to feel sufficiently empowered to take part in the debate. Literacy opens the door to further experience and enjoyment.
Thus scientific literacy includes an understanding of the way our planet works; of the natural world and man's relationship with it; of the scientific method, and of the key technological advances that have shaped our world.
Civic literacy would include an appreciation of the major issues of the day, a working knowledge of the democratic process and of the justice system. It would encompass a sense of how business works, of citizens' rights and responsibilities.
Cultural literacy would include an understanding of key historical events; an appreciation of aesthetics; some comprehension of religious belief and of the key religious – and, indeed, anti-religious – themes in history.
What I might call "life literacy" would include knowledge of parenting, health and nutrition, of getting along with others, and making the most of the world of work and money.
And, of course, media literacy – enabling all our audiences to make full use of information technologies, to build skills in judging the accuracy and trustworthiness of content and to use it to create the communications they want.
Building literacy on this scale will not be easy.
But it is one of the main reasons the BBC exists.
Why we are doing this
The word everyone comes back to when they talk about what the BBC ought to offer is "distinctiveness".
Distinctiveness implies a particular way of doing things, but also a particular kind of heartland territory.
News is one of those BBC heartlands.
The BBC simply has to have a commanding reputation in the provision of news. If it didn't, then the BBC would no longer be the BBC.
In my view, knowledge-building is one of those BBC heartlands too. If the BBC doesn't have what Mark Thompson has called a commanding reputation in the field of knowledge-building, then it's not the BBC.
If you look at the BBC's Public Purposes as they are spelt out in the new charter, what strikes you is how central knowledge-building is to all of them. Not just "promoting education and learning". But sustaining citizenship; stimulating creativity; bringing the world to the UK; and so on, right through the list.
Through them all, like the watermark in a banknote, runs the indelible stamp of knowledge-building.
So we have a duty laid on us by Parliament to carry out our knowledge-building mission.
But that's not the only reason – or even the main reason – why I believe we should put our heart and soul into this mission.
No one gets out of bed because a regulator tells them to. We do what we do in this area because we believe profoundly it is the right thing for the BBC to do for its audience – and because knowledge-building lies deep in the DNA of the BBC.
Just for a moment recall the way factual television was virtually invented by the BBC and British programme makers – from roots in speech radio to the creation of BBC Two under David Attenborough's Controllership, setting out specialisms never before attempted by television. Britain has a great factual programme making history which is world class – we were lucky.
Greater coherence in knowledge commissioning
I want audiences to feel a greater sense of coherence about our knowledge output. I want it to feel less ad hoc. I want audiences to feel that we make the commissioning choices we do it because they reflect a sense of putting in place a missing piece of the intellectual jigsaw. Not just a declaration of intent – a mapping out of ambitions for the coming years. I like maps.
Take the canon of David Attenborough and the Natural History Unit – in particular the Life portfolio.
David and his teams have explored mammals, birds, plants and insects. Which is why reptiles – Life In Cold Blood – are coming soon – their turn in the sun this winter.
It may be that scaly creatures get pipped at the post by furry animals in ratings terms. But it isn't a ratings beauty parade – reptiles are part of the canon. There is a sense of completeness about this. It's about looking at the world in a way that adds up. It's not ad hoc and it's not all about ratings. It is about innovation yes, and stunning beauty but also deep research.
That's why, after Planet Earth, we're planning Frozen Planet, and a major anthropology series about human life on earth. Imagine if we applied this same thinking to our future history output.
This is the opposite of the "do it because it works" approach. This is not starting with an established format and working out how to refresh it, a little tweak here, a little tweak there, important though that is. It's starting with a hard question (what is it important to know) and trusting in the creative genius of programme makers to come up compelling answers.
For example – in what ways can we explore the information revolution that's exploding all about us? We definitely need to do more here. Or navigate our way round developments in the material sciences? Hard stuff. Or examine the nature of fundamentalism and faith?
I don't have the answers. But we can map out the areas.
But I do believe that expert programme-makers among BBC Vision's in-house producers and among the dedicated indies have the creative capacity to come up with the experts, the specialist knowledge and creative insights to make areas like these sing.
Not everything will change
In the world of the licence fee settlement we will have to make some tough choices.
We want all our knowledge projects to matter and that means greater concentration on what is important to know. That certainly doesn't mean a retreat from the kind of leisure or lifestyle factual that's deeply relevant to peoples' lives, and certainly not from general documentaries that can so brilliantly capture the texture of modern life in all its diversity. But it does mean a greater focus on serious factual – from arts, to history, natural history, business, science and religion – to consumer journalism.
However, individual subject areas are one thing. The task of innovation, enjoying the exploration of subjects, are essential qualities. Our portfolio of television channels is another.
I believe profoundly that BBC One, Two, Three and Four work exceptionally well together to offer our audiences a complementary service.
Taken together they provide a really solid foundation for our knowledge-building mission alongside CBeebies and CBBC.
BBC One: inspirational and accessible – programmes like How We Built Britain, Mountain and Palin's exploration of Eastern Europe.
BBC Three: public service broadcasting recreated for younger audiences hungry for relevance: programmes like Baby Borrowers or Kill It Cook It Eat It.
BBC Two: now as always, the very centre of the BBC's knowledge mission – a unique service at the heart of mainstream broadcasting but with serious factual programming at its heart. The power of the channel to deliver broad audiences to a demanding series such as Andrew Marr's History Of Modern Britain – or indeed Michael Wood's current Story Of India – proves that David Attenborough's vision of a broad-based, ambitious BBC Two remains as potent as ever.
But we can do more. If BBC Two is defined by the breadth and appeal of its factual offering, BBC Four has brought added depth and specialism, expanding hugely the range of subjects we can cover: look at the sheer diversity and richness of The Edwardians season earlier this year.
What the new Knowledge map adds is a whole new level of sophistication in the way the two channels can work together, using their distinctive positioning to give added scale to some of our biggest ambitions in knowledge. If you want an example, think of the kind of cross–channel impact we achieved with seasons like Abolition and India Pakistan '07.
In future, I'll be looking to the commissioners in Knowledge to be more strategic than ever in crafting projects and seasons that make the most of the special relationship between the channels – often with a shared landmark series at the heart – I would rather have one, special piece of content delivering impact on both channels than risk ending up with two indifferent programmes which were underfunded. Together, BBC Two and BBC Four will form a unique space in British broadcasting devoted to making the BBC's Knowledge mission really count.
So I see great value for the licence fee payer in all four of these channels, and in the rich scheduling mix they create. Adding to the factual and learning programmes and interactivity delivered by Cbeebies and CBBC.
And yes, I have said I would rather commission less but more impactful output than lose a channel from this rich mix.
Fewer, bigger, better
The imperative to achieve greater impact means we can't afford to dissipate our effort over too wide an area at any one time. "Fewer, bigger, better", is a bit of a cliché, but it captures the general idea we're moving towards. And reducing current output should be kept in perspective – we will originate 1,600 factual hours in 2008-9 which is an increase of 36% when compared to the time before BBC Four and Three were launched.
So you can expect to see a concentration on some of the most distinctively "BBC" programme brands and genres.
As you know, the BBC is in the closing stages of a big reprioritisation exercise.
There is still plenty of detail to nail down and plenty of arguments to be had – as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys have been demonstrating ... Indeed we toyed with commissioning them to do a follow-up to Badgerwatch called Two Rats In A Sack. But we couldn't square the format with our violence guidelines.
When the reprioritisation dust settles, some things will have changed. But as far as knowledge-building on television is concerned, this I can guarantee:
- Horizon will be with us for a good while yet.
- So will Watchdog and The Natural World and Imagine, The Culture Show, Storyville and Arena.
- The Money Programme and This World will be there too.
- We shall maintain the sweep of our natural history output and strands as well as widening our history coverage still further.
- And we shall continue to take religion seriously with landmarks planned on the Bible, world religions and more.
We are developing a new science strand for peak time on BBC One. We will have major BBC Two authored landmarks from Andrew Marr, following on the acclaimed History Of Modern Britain – with more series being planned now beyond that. BBC Two will be home to new series on business – telling the story of the city and international capital, and of how technology is reshaping business. World religions are on the map, China will be big – and not just sport.
Arts: following on from Play It Again, embracing music education is an important theme and big projects on British music and literature are all in the works, and investment in expanding our understanding of architecture.
Many of these will be cross channel events – stretching from Children's to BBC One.
As I said, I like maps – they help provide the springboard for creative development and strategy without being prescriptive about the 'how'. But with less money we have to clearer about why we are doing this rather than that, because it is more purposeful.
There's a big map for science. We will be – from 2008 – broadcasting some of the biggest science landmarks we have ever done, covering some of the most important fundamentals of scientific literacy.
These will include, to coincide with the anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species:
- Human Race – the first time we will have done the comprehensive story of what happened to homo sapiens as they came out of Africa;
- Human Planet – the biggest series we have ever done on anthropology and vanishing peoples;
- Life – the story of evolution on life on the planet.
As well as these landmarks, we will broadcast supporting programmes, all of this will be pan-platform, and we will deliver all of it in a way that can be used by schools.
And following up, in the following year, 2010, to mark the anniversary of the founding of The Royal Society, we will for the first time create a landmark series telling The History of Science (BBC Two) – the first time since The Ascent Of Man that the BBC has attempted to tackle this subject in a comprehensive and definitive way.
And incidentally, while I'm talking about science, here's something else I can guarantee.
As part of our knowledge-building mission, the BBC will continue to make a considered examination of the science and impact of climate change.
In doing so, we will not confuse a spirit of properly sceptical scientific inquiry with misinformation masquerading as scepticism. The subject is too important for that. And anyway we must leave room for the big debates around climate. If knowledge-building means anything it means giving the public the facts they need to take part in the debates that matter.
But this is not just about television.
The reason BBC Vision was created was to allow us all think more creatively about multi-platform opportunities.
The web enables us to fulfil our knowledge mission in new ways. As we all know, Web 2.0 offers boundless potential for engaging with our public not just as audiences but as partners in the creative process.
Project Earth is a case in point. This is a groundbreaking Web 2.0 initiative now in development – an online gateway enabling all our audiences to engage with the BBC's nature, wildlife and environment content.
You'll be able to find archive from the Natural History Unit, plus feeds from wildlife hotspots, field reports from production teams, and content related to big landmark series like Planet Earth and Springwatch.
Although global in reach, there will be a strong emphasis on British nature and wildlife. The project will also enable users to share their own experiences of nature through user generated content.
So, to return to the theme of "fewer, bigger, better."
Fewer is obvious. But if we aren't going to commission as many ideas, the ones we do commission better be the right ones – another reason for continuing to invest in a real depth of specialist knowledge at the BBC to help us steer ourselves to the right commissioning decisions.
Bigger implies bringing all our platforms and channels into play where appropriate – on TV, radio and the web – and working with external partners to increase the impact of what we do and to reach out further into communities and public life.
Increasingly we will use the web to build a rich legacy of broadband content for future generations. That programme on dealing with the terrible twos may not mean very much when you don't have a two–year–old – but what a great resource to be able to call on at the click of a mouse when the terrible two has arrived and is driving you to distraction. The BBC parenting website already gives us a glimpse of what is possible here for individuals, families and communities.
Better implies more imaginative, more creative, more exciting, more profound. In short, more distinctive.
Let me end by painting a picture of what the BBC's knowledge output will look like in five years time from our audiences' point of view.
Audiences feel the BBC is delivering to them knowledge and learning resources they can trust across a very wide range of knowledge genre, which they can use to engage fully and creatively with culture, society and others.
Some of this is inspirational. All of it can lead to a deeper understanding – and the spread of channels offer different approaches to understanding.
Alongside the channels, our web output offers a resource audiences can return to time and again – and to which they can contribute their own insights.
Together, the BBC and its audiences will embark on a journey of understanding.
Our ambition is to put knowledge at the heart of the BBC offer; to make clear its massive contribution to the BBC's public purposes; and to reassert its centrality to the BBC–ness of the BBC and most importantly to the audience and their lives.
Thank you for listening.