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Michael Grade


Michael Grade CBE

BBC Chairman

Connecting to Communities, BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast

Tuesday 22 February 2005
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Ladies and Gentlemen, it's a great pleasure to be here in Northern Ireland.

I'd like to thank you, on behalf of all the BBC Governors who are with me tonight, for the very warm welcome we've received.

BBC Governors are, as you may have heard, high on the list of endangered species these days.

That puts us right up there with the giant armadillo, the lesser rabbit bandicoot and the Queensland hairy-nosed wombat.

I won't say which Governor most resembles which of those threatened beasts.

But these days I sometimes begin to feel like the chap who started each day by reading the obituaries in The Times - and only if he didn't see his own name there did he know it was safe to get up.

We expect the Government's Green Paper on the future structure of the BBC within the next few weeks.

In the meantime it's very nice to be among friends. Northern Ireland, of course, has a special place in the chronicles of the BBC.

Asa Briggs, in his official history of the Corporation, refers to it as the BBC's "most contrary region."

Many of the trickiest issues that the BBC has had to deal with have had their origins here.

My own broadcasting career is testimony to this. Twenty years ago, as Controller of BBC ONE, I had to deal with the fallout from a documentary called Real Lives which made waves because it contained an interview with a youthful Martin McGuinness.

A few years later, as Chief Executive of Channel Four, I had to cope with Mrs Thatcher's broadcasting ban forbidding the transmission of the voices of representatives of a list of named organisations.

As you may remember, it produced a lucrative windfall for actors with an Ulster accent and a talent for lip-synched voice-over.

Times have changed since then. But Northern Ireland remains a place of unique sensitivities - and therefore of unique challenges for the BBC.

One of the biggest of those challenges for the Governors is keeping our eyes and ears open to the many different voices and communities that make up BBC audiences here.

It's our job as Governors to represent the public interest, to be the voice of the licence fee payers, to ensure that their concerns are fully taken into account when the BBC makes its decisions.

This is not just a matter of steering deftly through the traditional Northern Ireland minefields of politics and religion, but of recognising that there are many other things around which our audiences cohere as well as religion and politics.

People may be political and they may be religious. But many also belong to other communities too - communities of age, place, ethnicity, leisure-interest, language or work.

The BBC needs to keep in touch with all those communities too.

And since those communities are not always as well organised or as vocal as, say, a political party, we can't always rely on them knocking on our door.

Keeping in touch with them demands that we proactively seek out their opinions on what we do.

Colin Morris, the former Controller of BBC Northern Ireland, is fond of quoting a BBC pamphlet from the Sixties about audience accountability: "The BBC has to be alert to silences as well as clamour, to have a skin thick and sensitive, to step boldly and delicately."

One of the key ways we keep in touch with our audiences here is through the work of the Northern Ireland Broadcasting Council.

The BBC's broadcasting councils do really remarkable work. That work isn't always as well recognised as it should be. So I'd like to take the opportunity to pay tribute this evening.

Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own council, and in England there's the English National Forum.

Each one is chaired by a member of the BBC Board of Governors and together they act as a set of extremely sensitive antennae, keeping the body politic of the BBC alert to the concerns of its audiences right around the UK.

Their primary role is to assist the Board of Governors in ensuring that the BBC fulfils its public purposes and potential and that its services properly reflect the needs, interests and concerns of audiences in the nations and regions - assisting and evaluating the BBC's two-way relationship with local audiences.

They also provide advice to BBC management on the strategic direction and effectiveness of local programme output.

The National Council for Northern Ireland is chaired, of course, by Fabian Monds, in his capacity as National Governor for the BBC in Northern Ireland.

There are 11 other members of the council - every one of them recruited through open advertisements and an independently audited process.

They spend a great deal of time keeping in touch with interest groups across Northern Ireland to make sure that their voices are taken account of as the BBC makes its decisions.

Over the past 12 months, Fabian and his team have consulted viewers and listeners representing older people, people with disabilities, people with an interest in the environment, young people, ethnic minorities, people with an interest in health provision and representatives of sporting organisations.

And that's in addition to wider public meetings on Charter Review and digital switchover, and regional consultation events in Coleraine, Strabane, Newtownards, Armagh, Londonderry and Magherafelt.

It's an impressive record of proactive accountability. Summaries of every meeting are published on the BBC Northern Ireland website - and attract 6,000 hits a month. The summaries make for what I can only call bracing reading.

The people who come to these events are knowledgeable, engaged - and they don't pull any punches.

When the BBC fails to live up to their expectations they say so and they don't mince their words.

Some of them want less stereotyping of the old, others want more positive coverage of the achievements of the young, greater sensitivity in the portrayal of disability, less reactive reporting of the voluntary sector, more in-depth analysis of environmental issues, new guidelines on minority ethnic communities - and better coverage of bowls!

What's so encouraging as you read through these accounts is that people do have high expectations of the BBC.

Even the most critical start from the position that the BBC is where it ought to be: at the heart of the many communities of Northern Ireland - bowls players included.

They do feel it is their BBC. So of course they want it to do more, to do it better, to present their particular community with more sophistication and more understanding. And they are right to want that.

But of course the question you are all asking yourselves is: does it all make a blind bit of difference? Do all these meetings and consultations actually change anything?

Well, yes. They do. Let me give you an example. One of the recurrent complaints at the recent regional events that Fabian has hosted has been the restricted availability of the BBC's digital radio services on its national multiplex in Northern Ireland.

Coverage is just over 40 per cent, compared with more than 80 per cent elsewhere in the UK.

The concerns were perhaps best summed up by a radio fan who came to one of last year's accountability events. This is what he said: "It is wholly unacceptable that the BBC has not committed to any timetable for the roll-out or enhancement of DAB coverage in Northern Ireland and that the new BBC digital radio services are not more widely available."

The Broadcasting Council were on the case. They had identified this 'digital deficit' as a major policy issue.

They pressed the BBC hard to speed up very significantly its roll-out of DAB in Northern Ireland. They made their case with vigour and persistence.

And it worked. I'm very happy tonight to be able to announce that the BBC is commissioning three new DAB-enabled transmitters in Northern Ireland at Brougher, Limavady and Sheriff's Mountain in Londonderry.

These will effectively double the DAB coverage and bring benefit to large numbers of people in the north-west and west.

The first two of these transmitters will come on stream in late spring. The third will follow in summer.

So you see, we do listen to what our audiences tell us.

Underneath all the critical engagement that comes through the reports of the accountability events is an extraordinary strength of connection between the people of Northern Ireland and BBC Northern Ireland.

Here are some figures.

Sixty thousand people attended BBC Northern Ireland recordings or other events last year.

Two thirds of the population experienced last year's Music Live - either by attending the concerts or through the broadcasts.

Some 40 per cent of the population listen to Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle.

It was good, incidentally, to see Radio Foyle's sustained excellence down the years recognised by a Sony award for station of the year in the latest set of awards.

It's the fourth time it's won this prize - the most prestigious the industry has to offer.

In the words of the Sony judges: "Always engaging and informative, BBC Radio Foyle really connect with their audience and do a remarkable job of speaking with one voice for all the people of their complex community."

You couldn't ask for a finer testimonial than that.

And while I'm on the subject of testimonials - I've quoted some of the more critical comments from the accountability events, but the BBC does get praise too.

Here's what one of the people who came to the event in Newtownards last May had to say about Music Live: "Music Live 2004 was absolutely exceptional. The large-scale concert in Belfast was a positively joyous occasion and the BBC is to be congratulated."

And I wasn't even working for the BBC when it happened!

As you know, we're in the closing stages of the Charter Review process. Our current Charter expires at the end of next year.

The forthcoming Green Paper will translate into a White Paper later this year.

Right now, we really don't know in any detail what the future holds for the BBC.

The case we've made for a new BBC Charter hinges on the idea of 'public value'. By which we mean that the value created by the BBC is more than simply the sum of its output.

Great output - on radio, television and the internet - is crucial. But this output must support wider public purposes.

So, for example, the BBC can be said to create 'democratic value' through its provision of trusted and impartial news and information that help to underpin and sustain an informed democracy.

Or the BBC can be said to create 'cultural value' by bringing together talent and audiences to break new ground together.

We've identified other values too: educational value, social and community value, and global value.

Our services to the nations and regions contribute to all of these.

Our news services are a prime example. The BBC has 3,000 journalists stationed across the UK outside London, reflecting communities to themselves, but also feeding into the main news machine to reflect those communities to the whole of the UK.

On the cultural front, the BBC showcases specific regional talent - and also nurtures new talent for UK-wide exposure.

Last year BBC Northern Ireland produced 255 hours of network radio - including music, drama and documentaries.

Educational value is created by providing materials for the unique curricula in each nation. For example here in Northern Ireland the BBC provides unique material for the history curriculum, while in Wales it is the only provider of Welsh language schools materials.

Global value is created by, for example, injecting local content into international news coverage - telling the Northern Ireland story to the world for the last 30 years.

And social and community value is created by, for example, bringing communities together to celebrate, or to share, concerns.

Audience debate and interactivity are key parts of the schedules of BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru.

And there's more to come here. The BBC has been doing some very interesting research recently about the way people actually live their lives.

One of the things that leaps out is that despite all the talk of globalisation and the huge growth in foreign travel, most people in the UK still spend most of their time within 14 miles of where they live. And where they live is within 13 miles of where they were born.

One result is a hunger for really local news and information. News at the city or county level.

The BBC has long been able to deliver this on radio. But high costs have made it impossible to bring that degree of localness to television news.

But with the low-cost digital technology now available, that's all changing. So the BBC has now begun to experiment with ultra-local television. Taking a small geographical area and producing ten minutes an hour of truly relevant local news and information, available on digital television and broadband.

And because it's digital, it's available on demand, around the clock, whenever viewers want it.

The BBC hopes to start proper pilots soon - and if it works out, it's proposed to develop up to 60 such areas around the UK.

By the end of the year Northern Ireland will be the first region of the UK to have nearly 100 per cent broadband coverage and BBC Northern Ireland will be piloting local TV on broadband in the Coleraine area.

The BBC is committed to bringing the localness to television that we've all learned to take for granted in radio.

It's part of the Corporation's commitment to provide unique services that fully reflect the lives and concerns of local communities.

Of course, in order to do that the BBC has to survive as an institution in a form that allows it to continue to flourish.

Those decisions are not in our hands, but in the hands of Government.

But ultimately the survival of the BBC depends not on government, but on our own ability to win the support of the overwhelming majority of the population of the United Kingdom. That's not something we can ever take for granted.

I'm so proud to be leading the BBC at this time of change and - I hope - of renewal. And I really am delighted to be here in Northern Ireland.

The popularity of the BBC's work in the nations and regions is proof that the BBC is continuing to connect with people in every part of the UK.

And the quality of the BBC's work in the nations and regions is one of the key justifications for the continuance of a strong and independent BBC able to deliver public value to licence fee payers wherever they live.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for listening.


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