The BBC in a Changing World
Wednesday 31 March 2004
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
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
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
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
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
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 whats 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
They say they appreciate us acknowledging that we made
errors. They say they respect our determination to learn and to put
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
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
It's their enduring strengths which our audiences recognise
- those values demand independence, accuracy, fairness
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
That's why I welcome the debate that Charter Review
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
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
Our ability to deliver this kind of value is becoming more rather than
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
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
- 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
- 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
Our vision is for a strong, independent, creative powerhouse,
that serves audiences with an outstanding portfolio of programmes and
The most creative organisation adding great public
value to life in Britain.
I started off talking about my passion for the BBC and
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
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.