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Mark Byford

Speeches

Mark Byford

Acting Director-General


The BBC in a Changing World


Wednesday 31 March 2004
Printable version


Speech given to the Foreign Press Association - the Gladstone Lecture

 

Last time I was here with you at the Foreign Press Association was two years ago.

 

It's fair to say that quite a bit has changed in the world since then.

 

Little did I realise what fate had in store for the BBC - or for me.

 

I knew at the start of this year that Lord Hutton's report would focus attention on the BBC. But I certainly had no idea then that the whole BBC would find itself under such an intense public and media spotlight or that we'd lose our Chairman and Director General within 24 hours.


When I became Acting Director General, I knew I'd be the subject of some press attention myself. Boy was I right.

 

This summer I'll have worked at the BBC for 25 years. I've devoted my whole professional life to the BBC. I've seen first hand what it means to people, the difference it makes to their lives.

 

It's for this reason that I believe now's the time for those who share my belief to stand up for the BBC... to recognise it as one of Britain's greatest assets, enriching people's lives here and around the world with an outstanding portfolio of programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.

 

Tonight I want to explain a bit more about why I believe the BBC matters – and not just to life in this country but also to audiences around the world.

 

And in doing so I'd like to share with you some of the thinking which will underpin our approach to the review of the BBC's Royal Charter which is now underway.

 

But first, I recognise, that given recent events, many of you will be interested in the Hutton report and it's impact on the BBC. So let me spend a few minutes on that now.

 

An independent BBC

 

It's two months since Greg Dyke left and I became Acting Director-General of the BBC.

 

During this time, some people have asked me whether the pressure's getting to me...

 

I say to them: Of course there's pressure at the top of the BBC.

 

But what I feel when I get up in the morning is a sense of privilege leading the world's most trusted and respected broadcaster... the creative powerhouse of Britain.

 

Some people have asked whether BBC journalism will lose its bite as a result of Lord Hutton's report.

 

I say to them – where's the evidence of that? I see no loss of journalistic rigour or vigour in John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman – or anyone else at the BBC for that matter.

 

Just look at the programmes from the last few days:


• Jane Corbin's brilliant Panorama, Saddam on the Run, telling the story of the capture of Saddam Hussein - on air just a fortnight after Hilary Andersson's courageous investigation into the killing camps of Zimbabwe – an extraordinary watch


• Or BBC TWO's uncompromising documentary – Police Protecting Children – on the trail of Britain's paedophiles


• Or John Sweeney's follow-up to his award winning investigation into the Angela Canning case, asking tough questions about shaken baby syndrome


• Or Radio 4's insight into the miners' strike 20 years on


• And coming up this Sunday we've Fergal Keane back in Rwanda – a harrowing account of the horror of genocide ten years on.

 

Let their journalism fly is what I say. I've spent my whole career championing this kind of journalism.

 

As someone who had overall responsibility for our reporting in Northern Ireland in the 1990s on the long road to the Good Friday Agreement and around the world during Kosovo and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I understand its value.

 

My job may have changed but my beliefs have not.

 

Right across our services I see so many programmes to be proud of. I see the same clear commitment to tough, rigorous, independent journalism which forms the foundation of any free and fair democracy.

 

I see this commitment in Brian Rowan, our chief security correspondent in Northern Ireland – one of the toughest jobs in the BBC.


I see it in Caroline Hawley in Baghdad and James Rogers in Gaza.


And I see it in Kirsty Wark's challenging interviews with people in power.

 

The idea that I or anyone else in the BBC would do anything to undermine the integrity of these people or our journalism is utter nonsense.

 

Anyone who believes otherwise doesn't understand the BBC and certainly doesn't know me.

 

But I do recognise that the whole Hutton affair has offered the chance for just about everyone to have their say about the BBC.

 

I've never witnessed so many people from all walks of life engaged so passionately in debating our rights and wrongs.

 

What's struck me most has been the shared passion about the BBC that unites critics and supporters alike.

 

I believe this is because people in this country have been brought up on the BBC and rightly believe it to be theirs.

 

They pay for it through the licence fee and feel a sense of ownership that doesn't extend to our commercial counterparts.

 

As owners of the BBC, the public trust us for our independence. That above all else remains sacrosanct.

 

It's the foundation on which the trust of our audiences rests and is a non negotiable today and always will be.

 

This is what makes the BBC special, indeed unique.

There are people out there who thought by admitting mistakes in the course of the Hutton Inquiry, we may be somehow compromising that independence.

 

Admitting you've made a mistake isn't a sign of weakness. It's actually a sign of strength.

 

And when things do go wrong, attempting to find out why by reviewing what happened is not throwing in the towel.

 

On the contrary, it's about strengthening the organisation. It would be a travesty if after everything that's happened, the BBC simply carried on as normal.

 

We owe it to everyone who cares about the BBC to learn the lessons from what’s happened - and learn them well.

 

I'm sure there are those who think that after a torrent of Hutton headlines, the public's faith in the BBC may have been shaken.

 

Not a bit of it.

 

Eight out of ten people say their view of the BBC has either not changed or has actually improved since the beginning of the year.

 

They say they appreciate us acknowledging that we made errors. They say they respect our determination to learn and to put things right.

 

There's no complacency at the BBC but I do see figures like these as a valuable reminder that the hot house atmosphere of medialand and the Westminster village is not always the best barometer of public opinion.

 

And it's to the public that the BBC must listen. It's their faith in us that we must honour.

 

That means sticking to the values on which our journalism rests.

 

It's their enduring strengths which our audiences recognise and demand:

- those values demand independence, accuracy, fairness and impartiality
- they demand that we tell the truth; that trust is the foundation stone
- that we always act in the public interest
- that we test the arguments on all sides of any debate
- And, of course, that we won't shy away from admitting that sometimes we could do better.

 

I was reminded of these values just last week when I attended an awards ceremony in Cardiff.

 

I sat next to a man called Roger Bufton. He was the man who 25 years ago gave me my first job with the BBC in Leeds.

 

For me Roger and his standards remain an inspiration. It was Roger who taught me...
- that accuracy is everything
- that impartiality is much more than a nice idea
- and that the reality for BBC journalism is that every word in every report in every programme must stand up to scrutiny.

 

Twenty five years on, those beliefs have lost none of their relevance. They guided me then and they guide me now.

 

So next time you hear the BBC clarifying or correcting a story, don't fall into the trap of thinking we're swallowing spin or caving in.

 

We're striving to be fair, honest and accurate in a tough and challenging environment.

 

We're determined to be straight with everyone we deal with – and most importantly with our audiences.

 

We remain totally committed to delivering reliable news; expert analysis, intelligent debate and courageous, ground-breaking original journalism.

 

And we will provide those precious commodities – independence and impartiality in all we do.

 

These are the hallmarks of the BBC's journalism. This is the heart of our public purpose now and in the future.


Building bridges in an unstable world

 

So let's talk about the future.

 

It's the future of the BBC in this country and around the world that we should be most concerned with.

 

It's that, rather than the past, that I want to focus on. Let's start with our role on the international stage.

 

The bombings in Madrid two weeks ago were a grim reminder of the violence, mistrust and hatred that are flourishing in many parts of our world.

 

The roots of this hatred run deep. They are bound up with politics, religion and history.

 

At a time when globalisation is pushing our world closer together, other forces are pulling us further apart.

 

So in this world, what is the role of the media? And in particular what should the BBC be doing to bridge the divides which ultimately feed global instability?

 

The first and obvious start point to make is that technology is fuelling an information revolution.

 

It wasn't that long ago that we worried that there wasn't enough information in the world. Shortwave radios, unofficial newspapers and sometimes word of mouth were the primary sources of news for many.

 

Economics played its part but so too did politics. Poverty doesn't just deny people access to food and water, it starves them of the chance to be informed.

 

Repressive states throughout history have sought to control the media, to garner support but also to foster ignorance.

 

Today the information famine has turned into a growing feast.

 

Digital broadcasting and the internet are sweeping away the limitations of the analogue world and weakening the grip of many though not all repressive regimes.

 

Even so, there's still plenty to concern us all:

- The recent Russian elections saw many broadcasters taking an unashamedly pro-government line

- In post 9/11 America audiences are increasingly served up a patriotic, one sided view of the world

- And around the world we are seeing increased opportunities for those bent on fostering prejudice and harnessing hate.

 

It's against this backdrop that I see the BBC's international role taking on a new and greater significance.

 

The BBC's reputation around the world was built by the World Service which for 70 years has set the global standard for delivering news which is accurate, objective and impartial.

 

It's these same values we live by today and that have helped make the BBC the most trusted of all international broadcasters.

 

But our international broadcasting has in the past tended to be a one-way process with audiences.

 

We were based in London, listeners tuned in from all over the world. We spoke, audiences listened. We were a bit remote in every sense of the word.

 

Today there's an opportunity – and a pressing need – for the BBC to use our unrivalled reach of 180 million people across our radio, television and online services in new, exciting ways.

 

We need to explore ways to use these assets to strengthen our connections with our global audiences and between our global audiences.

 

In doing so we can start the kind of global conversation which can be an antidote to ignorance, hostility and hatred.

 

That antidote is based on a belief in openness, tolerance and mutual understanding.

 

We have already seen the value of providing a global forum which brings people and world leaders together.

 

We've seen how multi-media programmes like Talking Point, which broadcasts on BBC World, the World Service and the web can create a different kind of dialogue.

 

This programme alone has recently hosted global conversations with Vladimir Putin, Hamid Karzai, Pervez Musharraf and Tony Blair, generating thousands and thousands of contributions.

 

During the Iraq war a quarter of a million emails came into the BBC from virtually every corner of the globe.

 

Nation really can speak unto nation via the BBC in the 21st century.

 

And this kind of global conversation must extend far beyond the confines of conflict and terrorism.

 

This is an increasingly interdependent world. Water, trade and illegal arms have an impact on all our lives – though rarely in equal measure.

 

And then, one of the biggest challenges of all – Aids. A disease which has claimed 26 million lives around the world.

 

It is impossible to ignore HIV and Aids. We've all tracked its progress and told the tragic human stories.

 

But as the world's leading international broadcaster, I believe we should do more than simply write headlines and wring our hands.

 

That's why at the end of last year the World Service commissioned its biggest and most ambitious season of programmes ever devoted to examining the whole HIV and Aids issue.

 

It was a truly global idea, bringing together stories from countries such as Brazil, China, Indonesia, Russia, India, Romania, Nigeria and southern Africa.

 

This was a prime example of what a better connected approach can achieve.

 

We built listener participation into the heart of the season – bringing them together with politicians and policy makers.

 

We looked at the social, medical and economic aspects of the disease.

 

And most importantly we heard from those living with HIV and Aids in places like Kabul and Tehran where the subject remains a taboo.

 

They logged on in their thousands to tell the world their stories – with many expressing relief and gratitude that a debate had finally started.

 

I personally was enormously proud of what we achieved – but, then, that won't surprise you.

 

What perhaps matters more is the recognition we received from people like Kofi Annan – who invited me to speak to the UN in January about what the BBC had been doing.

- or from Richard Feachem, head of the Global Fund fighting Aids who said our Aids season was "probably the biggest, boldest and most impactful broadcasting response ever to the global challenge of Aids."

 

... Not bad...

 

So let there be no doubt on our global role in the future; as well as providing trusted, reliable information, our goal must be to bring that big, bold, joined-up approach to issues old and new.

 

In doing so, we can broaden and deepen the dialogue that ultimately brings about change.

 

But to create a truly global debate, we must draw more people from more places into these global conversations.

 

For the BBC that means building our presence on the ground and our impact in key regions – and in particular across the Islamic world, creating new production bases and raising our local profile.

 

We also need to get closer to our audiences by developing the interaction between our services.

 

As well as the flexibility and companionship of radio, BBC World, our vastly improved international television news network, and our international facing news websites will all be crucial to increasing our impact on the global stage as audiences' habits change.

 

Our global news offering must be a multi-media one for a multi-media world.

 

We must harness the reach of radio, the impact of television and the flexibility of online to build our presence and strengthen our impact with audiences everywhere.

 

And that impact is already significant today:

• In the US, 40% of opinion formers in Boston, New York and Washington turn to the BBC for news every week;
• In Nigeria, the World Service has a bigger share of listening than Radio 2 in the UK;
• In Kabul, six out of ten are listening to the BBC every day.
• In India, BBC World is the top international news service;
• And our worldwide web traffic has grown 100% in just a year.

 

Building on these strong foundations we will help make the BBC more rather than less significant in the future.

 

I see our reach and reputation providing the platform for a deeper, wider dialogue among and between different cultures.

 

This is how we will encourage tolerance and understanding.

 

This is how we can make a difference to people's lives around the whole world.

 

Building Public Value

 

But of course, it's in Britain that the BBC has the biggest role to play.


In spite of the multitude of channels and services now available here, the BBC remains the cornerstone of British broadcasting.

 

So finally, let me broaden my comments beyond journalism and say something of the BBC's wider role in British life.

 

And in particular, I'd like to consider that future in the context of the review of our Royal Charter which is now underway.

 

I daresay BBC executives through the ages have stood on platforms and declared that this Charter Review was the most important in the Corporation's history.

 

Well, I've no intention of breaking with that tradition tonight – not out of any desire to continue a custom – but rather because the challenges and opportunities we face today really are of a magnitude not seen before.

 

This Charter Review takes place in the context of enormous increases in choice and fragmentation of audiences.

 

Competitors are turning up the heat on the BBC as never before.

 

At the same time digital services, the internet and broadband are offering new opportunities to serve audiences in really exciting and creative ways.

 

As I said earlier, one thing which hasn't altered amid all this change is the ownership of the BBC by the people of this country.

 

It's their investment through the licence fee which has created the organisation we have today – a broadcaster free from commercial and political influence whose sole purpose is to serve the public interest.

 

This has not happened by accident. Successive governments, while sometimes disagreeing with the BBC, have recognised its role as a vital public service and have acted accordingly.

 

And that's still the case today.

 

But there are others who'd like to see a smaller BBC, a less successful BBC.

 

Some commercial rivals think weakening the BBC will make them stronger, impoverishing the BBC will make them richer.

 

Well, you won't be surprised to learn that I don't agree with that course.

 

In fact the BBC remains absolutely vital to the continuing health of broadcasting in the UK.

 

We are the biggest single investor in TV and radio production in Britain

- the biggest provider of training
- and we're playing a key role in digital take up.

 

But this in itself isn't enough to justify the BBC's existence.

 

That's why I welcome the debate that Charter Review is creating.

 

It's a crucial opportunity to decide on the kind of BBC we want at the start of the 21st century.

 

In the past we've sometimes been positioned in terms of what others do rather than what we can offer.

 

All too often the BBC has been presented as the alternative to commercial broadcasting or simply a correction to market failure.

 

This is no longer enough in a world of hundreds of channels and more choice than any of us could ever fully exercise.

 

The BBC of the future must express its value to Britain on different terms.

 

We must begin building a new consensus about the BBC's purpose.

 

This isn't about tearing up what's gone before.

 

The BBC must always pursue with vigour, energy and creativity its clear, core purposes:

- contributing to a well informed democratic society with independent, trusted news, context setting and analysis

- enriching the cultural life of Britain through a range of ambitious, innovative and original programmes which delight, entertain and stretch audiences

- providing both the impetus and opportunity for everyone to learn throughout their lives

- and connecting communities locally and globally through dialogue and debate.


And it will also mean being unafraid to take on key roles and responsibilities which we're uniquely placed to deliver:

- helping ensure that no one gets left behind as Britain makes the transition to a fully digital nation

- creating connections in an increasingly fragmented society. Celebrating a sense of place

- and using our presence on the international stage to build those bridges between countries and cultures that I talked about earlier.


Our ability to deliver this kind of value is becoming more rather than less important.

 

Consolidation and competition in commercial broadcasting increasingly emphasise the private value of broadcasting:

- its value to the individual
- to advertisers
- to shareholders.

 

Our role must be to focus with equal energy on delivering the public value of broadcasting – something everyone can share in.

 

And by public value I mean the difference we can make to the quality of life in the UK through what we can deliver to people as individual consumers of our services but also as citizens.

 

In other words, our contribution to society as a whole.

 

It's this public value that the BBC is uniquely equipped to deliver and which should underpin the coming debate about our future role:

 

- The public value of our role in supporting democracy with independent, high quality news and current affairs which across our services reaches eight out of ten people in this country every week

- The public value of our cultural role as creator of original, ambitious British programming across the board... programmes like The Office and The Canterbury Tales and State of Play... or our role as the world's biggest investor in new classical music... or as a partner with others creating programmes like Restoration and the Big Read which have a reach and impact far beyond conventional television

 

- And the public value of a broadcaster committed to education for everyone across all its services, from the special courses we run alongside programmes like David Attenborough's Life of Mammals to Bitesize, our revision services, used by seven out of ten GCSE students every year

 

- There's also the public value of our global role in supporting the UK's role in the world, as a showcase for our journalism but also for British creativity and talent in comedy, drama and entertainment


Building on these achievements and offering greater value in the future is the challenge the BBC must now rise to.

 

So I don't see Charter Review as a time for the BBC to retreat to the battlements to fend off those who would weaken or cheapen our contribution.

 

We want to meet the challenge of Charter Review head on.

 

Our vision is for a strong, independent, creative powerhouse, that serves audiences with an outstanding portfolio of programmes and services.

 

The most creative organisation adding great public value to life in Britain.

 

I started off talking about my passion for the BBC and its values.

 

Let me finish by emphasising that this is not a blind passion - I'm under no illusions that the BBC is perfect.

 

But I fundamentally believe in the BBC – in its core purposes and its commitment to independence, integrity and public service.

 

I believe it's these values which underpinned the value of the BBC in the last century and will be every bit as important in the one ahead.

 

So, alongside the inevitable debate about what's wrong with the BBC, I hope we don't lose sight of what's right with it.

 

I hope as well as fondly recalling its past achievements we all imagine its future role and potential.

 

This is how we'll get the best from the BBC – not just for this generation but for generations to come.

 

This is how the BBC can go on enriching people's lives with programmes which inform, educate and entertain.

 

In doing so we can make life better, not just in Britain, but throughout this ever-changing world.



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