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24 September 2014
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Gavyn Davies

Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors

Sound and Vision - BBC History Seminar

10 September 2003
Printable version

Opening address given at Fyvie Hall, Regent Street Campus, University of Westminster

Someone who heard radio for the first time in 1922 commented: there is nothing new under the sun. Well there was. Broadcasting was entirely new, and it rapidly changed the world.

It is hard to view the history of the 20th Century without concluding that the existence of broadcasting, like many new technologies, changed the course of that history for both good and ill.

In stable western democracies, broadcasting was as important as universal education in creating a well informed and active participatory electorate.

But in the dictatorships of the 1930s, broadcasting was the essential tool by which the people were brainwashed.

Even today, any tinpot dictator, mounting a coup d'etat, will take over the television station before worrying about the parliament building, or even the power stations and munition factories.

So I believe that most historians would accept that broadcasting can contribute to our national life both for the better and for the worse.

But I hope also that they would accept that, in the case of the BBC, our contribution to Britain's national life has been almost entirely for the better.

Not only has the BBC become, and has firmly remained, the most trusted source of news, information and comment in the UK in the past 80 years. It has also become one of our greatest cultural treasures. I am sure that this will become clear during Nick Kenyon's session on the Proms later this morning.

The BBC is probably the only one of the world's great cultural organisations which has maintained weekly contact with over 90% of its potential national audience - a unique measure of the extent to which the BBC still brings information, education and entertainment not just to a privileged minority, but to the whole of Britain.

I would be fascinated to know whether the distinguished historians gathered here today can identify the fundamental reasons why the BBC, almost alone among the public service broadcasters of the world, has managed to combine a distinctive offering on radio and television, along with a mass audience presence.

Is it simply the legacy of a truly great founder, John Reith? Is it the wisdom of successive generations of political leaders, who have seen the profound benefits of a mixed broadcasting ecology, involving the best of both the public and private sectors? Or is it the basic constitution of the BBC, which has stood the test of time?

My own view, which I have expressed on many occasions, is that two fundamental bedrocks have been essential for the success and longevity of the organisation.

The first was the way the BBC was established, based on a Board of Governors and a Royal Charter.

This has made programme makers immune from day-to-day political interference - a key ingredient in building audience trust.

The second was that the licence fee provided the BBC with a secure form of funding, again at arms length from the political process, and one which has forced the BBC to build a direct relationship with its ultimate paymaster, the British public.

Change either one of these foundation stones, and you might bring the whole edifice crashing down around your ears.

Remarkably, for an organisation operating from a medium sized European economy, the BBC has not only done well in its home market, but has also become the largest and most trusted voice in international broadcasting.

Kofi Annan has described the World Service as Britain's greatest gift to the world in the 20th Century. Anyone who grew up in the remote bush of central Africa – as I did – would agree with him.

And now we are combining the radio presence of the World Service with our BBC World television service, and our global website, to reach more of the world's citizens than any other international broadcaster.

When John Reith established the old Empire Service of the BBC in 1932 – against some opposition, it must be said, from the Foreign Office and of course the Treasury – he had a remarkable insight.

The BBC's foreign services, he said, must not be used as a propaganda weapon to spread the views of the British government, but must be seen as an independent voice, seeking only to speak the truth to its listeners.

To this very day, that simple insight remains the most profound reason why so many millions at home and abroad place their trust in BBC news.

It is the core reason why the BBC has such a long history of its own to celebrate, and why the BBC has contributed so much to the history of others.

It did not take long for historians to recognise that the BBC was an institution worthy of careful study.

Arthur Burrows's first history of the BBC appeared just two years after the British Broadcasting Company began. And the third edition of Sidney Mosely's history of television came out in 1933 - three years before the world's first television service began.

The extraordinary range of the books and studies that have been produced about the BBC since 1922 speaks volumes for the eclectic tastes of historians.

Many of you will of course be familiar with Cattle at the Crossroads, a book about the impact of the BBC's farming output on cattle-breeding. And The BBC and the Danish Resistance Movement will, I am sure, be on many of your bookshelves.

At the other end of the scale, though, there is a very great historical work – the five volume history of the BBC written by Asa Briggs, whom we are honoured to have here with us today.

The first thing that I did when I became a Governor of the BBC, in common with the practice of most of my colleagues, was to read the Briggs' history from cover to cover.

The only frustration was that the work ended in 1974, but I am happy to say that Jean Seaton is now hard at work on the next volume. Jean, you have massive shoes to fill, but I can think of no one better able to rise to the task.

Anyone reading the history of the BBC will be struck by how similar today's issues are with episodes which have arisen in the past.

The first campaign against the licence fee was launched in 1923 by the Daily Express, which of course realised that a diminished BBC would leave more room for the Beaverbrook business empire to launch its own radio stations.

Soon after the launch of ITV in the 1950s, many people believed that the licence fee would become untenable as the BBC's share of the national television audience dwindled.

Yet the audience share of BBC ONE was exactly the same in 2002 as it had been in 1959 – a quite remarkable fact, given the launch of a few hundred extra television channels in the meantime.

And, I am bound to say, there have been periodic disputes with the government, in the course of which the Governors of the BBC have been required to stand up for its independence. So maybe, after all, there is nothing new under the sun.

The fact that we have a great history certainly does not mean that the BBC should become smug and self-satisfied.

If the BBC is to survive, then it must always reflect the nation it serves.

The present Director-General, Greg Dyke, is striving to create an organisation that reflects British society, with its many cultures and faiths, in its entirety.

Our new values place audiences at the heart of everything we do. That may seem obvious. But in fact we were broadcasting programmes for 14 years before we did any systematic research on what the listeners thought of our programmes.

And even then we were reluctant to bend to their needs. In the 1950s a series of tests showed that many of our radio talks were incomprehensible to the listener. Our first response was to challenge the data. We argued - and I'll read this slowly so you understand it:

"[It is not] possible to discover, through comprehension tests, which talks have a good structure without making your definition circular, and saying that good structure is that factor which correlates positively with comprehension when all other known factors correlating positively with comprehension have been held constant."

We were still learning some of the fundamentals of audience behaviour in the 1970s and 1980s.

Will Wyatt, in his gripping and impish account of his 30 years in the BBC, describes how it came as a shock to the producers of our leading documentary strands to discover that viewers do many things, including going to sleep, during their programmes.

Will will be speaking to the conference later about the value of autobiography. I am sure he does not mean pecuniary value, since my observation is that a good number of BBC autobiographies end up as remaindered copies in the bookstores.

But that just goes to show that not everything in life can be valued solely in terms of short term popular acclaim.

A key to our new culture is greater collaboration. We are determined to create an organisation that works as One BBC.

That is a challenge for a concern with so many outlets, but we have come a long way since the 1950s, where a state of war existed between the Tonight Programme and Panorama.

Sir Paul Fox, former head of BBC Television, remembers how Tonight staff were banned by their editor, Donald Baverstock, from sitting with Panorama staff in the canteen.

Folklore has it that Baverstock would try to find out what Panorama was working on in a particular week, and spike its guns by running his version of the story ahead of the Panorama transmission. I am sure that no such thing would ever happen today.

So history is also of great value to those whose decisions guide the BBC - the executive board, the governors, and also the politicians and opinion-formers who have a part in deciding its future.

Of course our history, like the BBC itself, does not belong solely to us. Everyone has a right to understand the BBC, and the role of the historian is to provide an independent and definitive judgment.

That, in part, is what this seminar is about.

We are aware that the number of people who want to study BBC history is growing. Every year scores of schoolchildren, students, authors and historians approach us for help on their various projects.

We are also becoming aware of many other studies, conducted independently and without our help.

This seminar is to enable you, the historians, to identify new ground and, perhaps, new partnerships with others, who may share similar areas of interest.

And for our part, it is to create a dialogue between the BBC and those whose studies could be of value to the BBC of today.

We are particularly grateful to the University of Westminster, who are hosting today's conference, but this is intended to be an inclusive event, and at the end of the seminar we will ask everybody to contribute thoughts on the right way forward.

I very much hope that all of you will have an enjoyable and fruitful day.


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