Purposes and Principles in Public Broadcasting
13 November 2003
The first in a series
of four public lectures held by the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy &
Public Affairs on Practices, Policies and Principles, exploring
issues facing those in public life and service
hoping to persuade you tonight is that the BBC has a role in our national
public life, which I will argue is needed more rather than less in a
want to tackle some of the issues of alleged bias in news, and mark
out the position where I believe we have to stand in this era of limitless
I want to invite your views and respond to them because if there's one
thing the BBC should stand for it's listening to our audiences and responding
to their views.
expect nothing less than vigorous feedback from an audience at St Andrew's
I am 45
years old. On all those annoying market research questionnaires I've
just moved into the category 45-54, which - believe me - gives a real
sense of the passing of time.
But I am
of a generation which can, just about, remember two-channel TV.
was very small we had BBC Television and - in my part of Yorkshire -
Granada and ABC sharing the ITV button.
my early childhood there was the launch of BBC TWO; but it wasn't until
I'd been through university and started working that we got the fourth
tv channel - Channel 4 which launched in 1982.
only been in the past decade that we have seen the spread of multichannel
television: cable, satellite and now Freeview, bringing dozens or hundreds
of channels into people's homes.
and the spread of Broadband, is also fuelling the explosion of choice.
is possible to overstate the effect on people's lives: almost half the
population still don't have multichannel TV, and even those who do sometimes
add only a few channels to their viewing portfolio.
have been massive changes to the broadcasting market, with companies
having to come to terms with the digital world; and the fantastic developments
in technology - interactivity on television, 3G phones, MP3 players,
I-Macs or whatever - mean we know that the pace of change will continue.
has to be that you will be able to watch or listen to what you want,
when you want, wherever you are.
means that we're living in a world with few boundaries, where content
and information can zap around the continents instantly.
two-channel world of my childhood you could see the dim outline of this
possibility: we watched our black and white screens as we saw the first
satellite reports, the first international hook-ups and the first live
broadcast from the Moon.
want to ascribe thoughts to a little boy in the 1960s, but my recollection
is that all this seemed to be about noble purposes: to use technology
to share information and understanding, to enhance television as the
medium which educated as well as entertained.
up with the BBC: Blue Peter was my favourite children's programme, and
in the 70s Monty Python were my comedy heroes - but I also watched Raymond
Baxter on Tomorrow's World, Jacob Bronowski on The Ascent of Man and
I listened to pioneering radio current affairs programmes like The World
might have assumed that a market which can support hundreds of channels
would remove the need for the BBC.
could be seen, if you were so minded, as the outmoded product of the
nanny state broadcasting era: the paternalistic voice of the age of
monopoly or duopoly.
these days: anyone can do news? Anyone can do great British drama? Anyone
can make strong regional current affairs programmes?
is no sign of it being done on the scale the BBC can achieve; and the
BBC is still unchallenged as a patron of the arts, the place where the
nation comes to debate its big issues or even as a testbed for new comedy.
partly, I think, because we face a genuine disappointment.
of the technology of the digital age is not matched by the content which
years ago we would have been surprised that so many of the applications
of the Internet are to distribute pornography, and even out-and-out
libertarians might be a touch disconcerted that video phones appeal
to some people as a means of distributing pictures of their (or other
people's) bottoms rather than as devices for downloading the latest
isn't hugely more encouraging in television.
I pay unalloyed
tribute to Sky Sports for its range of sport and the way they revolutionised
its coverage; we should recognise that Sky pioneered 24-hour news in
the UK; and I like the fact that I can get movies on demand at home.
you zap around even the more generalist channels on the Sky platform
at a certain time of night, some common themes emerge.
and Temptation Islands jostle with The Villa Uncut - and a whole channel
Men and Motors which besmirches the Granada name.
more worrying is the way this has affected traditional broadcasters.
to be a public service broadcaster with high-profile current affairs
shows like This Week and World In Action and documentary series like
Survival and Disappearing World.
did disappear; and now only the occasional ghost flickers on the edge
of the schedule.
what ITV does is, of course, good and right for the audience: there
is enjoyable drama, I like Pop Idol when I catch it - and Coronation
Street is a rattling good soap.
there's some hope the channel is pulling back from the brink; but it
was ITV1 and ITV2 which broadcast a show a year or so back called Wudja?
Cudja? paying cash rewards for behaviour which was either unpleasant
was paid £1,000 to be stripped to his underwear and tied to a
lamp-post before being pelted with fruit. Then worms were tipped over
segment, a host who achieved nerve-tingling levels of awfulness ran
round a market town trying to persuade shoppers to show her their bare
4 joined in the trend towards pointless smut: it was refreshing the
other day to hear Mark Thompson, the Chief Executive of Channel 4, say
he wanted a change.
have fewer than half the numbers of programmes with a strong sexual
theme than a year ago," he said.
little bit in the past sometimes Channel 4 has been guilty of slightly
cynical choices, like buying Temptation Island from Sky. That's not
what Channel 4 was put on earth to do."
I wonder what a recent new programme - Dirty Sanchez, bought from MTV
- suggests about Channel 4's mission on earth.
from the Channel 4 website:
Three mad mates from the Welsh valleys and one warped Londoner, all
united by a total disregard for their own personal safety and a burning
desire to destroy the boundaries of taste and decency.
Not only will you see the team embarking upon foolhardy ventures such
as rolling in stinging nettles, playing naked paintball, lying on beds
of drawing pins, drinking their own urine, challenging professional
wrestlers and downing four litres of water only to deny themselves lavatory
relief - but, rather worryingly, you'll also be taken inside their deranged
And if you've ever wondered why someone thinks it's a good idea to nail
their genitals to a piece of wood, Dirty Sanchez will reveal all!
is there is a lot of it around. I would include in 'it' programmes which
say they're about reality but which concentrate on sex, drinking and
boobs and bums in abundance, with varying levels of pretence at a real
narrative: so the programme Club Reps is a good example, with the odd
story about a missing passport to occupy the time before we get down
the club at night and the birds get their kit off while the lads are
vomiting into the hedge out the back.
then mildly surprised as a nation when the Greek authorities take action
against British anti-social behaviour, and television producers say
it was nothing to do with them - honest.
is the kind word to use about that sort of disingenousness.
say: if people want to watch this stuff after the pub, why shouldn't
do genuinely welcome the freedom of choice which the digital age has
brought us: choice inevitably means there are things some people don't
But it matters because we are in danger of leading the world at putting
this sort of thing on mass-market television.
and programmes exist across the world but usually on minority cable
on ITV1 or 2, or Sky One: so we're in the uncomfortable position that
a nation with a dodgy record on hooliganism and loutish behaviour is
bringing just that onto our TV screens.
too, because television is becoming an agent provocateur.
to know how the producers who give money to people to take their clothes
off outside Sainsbury's would explain to their kids why flashers are
a bad thing.
suspect the easily-led are more likely to behave badly if a camera crew's
around and they may get on television.
those who've done so have, indeed, said they did just that and regretted
it once they got back from sunny climes with cheap booze.
points to another factor which should make us queasy.
of this is middle-class producers and commissioners who use less-educated
and less-sophisticated 'real people' (the phrase drips with condescension)
to make bad television programmes in the hope of getting ratings.
is poisonous all the way through: people are encouraged literally to
let it all hang out in a way that looks unappealing even to them.
same material works its way insidiously into the national consciousness
as 'typical' or 'natural' behaviour.
BBC will make a series of arguments in the next year or so about why
its Royal Charter should be renewed.
seems clear to me that one of them should be that we should never do
the Dirty Sanchez or similar genres of programming ourselves; and our
existence means there are flood-defences against it becoming the norm
across the TV spectrum.
the negative way of putting it, but the positive way is that the BBC
should still be an avowed standard-setter - still a place where there
is an expectation of quality, and the hope that we might broaden people's
horizons and stretch their imagination.
As it happens,
there is plenty of proof of that this week on BBC ONE which is both
Britain's most popular channel and the place where there is the richest
mix of television.
at 9 o'clock we showed the Festival of Remembrance.
at 9 o'clock we broadcast a special edition of Panorama about war reporting.
at 9 o'clock: Holy Cross, about a community riven by sectarianism in
TWO on Saturday evening, The Big Read - the latest multimedia project
after the brilliant Restoration.
be the first to concede that not every programme on the BBC reaches
these peaks, and there's the occasional show we wish we hadn't commissioned;
but it is also undeniable that no other broadcasting organisation is
currently offering what we do.
who argue the market can provide all this - and BBC Scotland and Radio
4 and BBC Local Radio and BBC Online and a multitude of other services
- should explain why it is not doing so now.
day in day out the reality of a commitment to public service broadcasting,
while our enemies want to throw it all away in the unproven hope that
somehow someone somewhere might concede Greece Uncovered isn't really
a documentary programme and commission something that is instead.
Scotland there, and it's worth underlining that our commitment is to
high quality production across the United Kingdom.
British programmes in massive numbers, using the talents of the people
of these islands; but we also do more for Scotland (and Wales, and Northern
Ireland) than anyone else.
hard these days to come to Scotland without getting into a conversation
about the cost of the new Parliament building, and it's evident that
it will take some time for devolved government to win all hearts and
BBC's commitment to defining Scottishness for the 21st century - to
recording its events and celebrating its culture - is absolute, whatever
the political climate of the day.
to talk now in more detail about our role as a provider of news.
say here first I'm not arguing that only the BBC is capable of doing
news in the digital age: Sky and ITN are fully-fledged competitors.
the case of Sky News I wouldn't want to mortgage the future of British
television news provision on something partly owned by Rupert Murdoch;
and ITV has already shown itself unfit to be a guardian of news by its
disastrous handling of News at Ten and its cavalier treatment of the
excellent ITN brand.
in the market we see the same gap as in other genres: nobody else is
doing the Today programme or Panorama or the Ten O'Clock News or the
news programming on Radio Five Live or services like News Online.
role brings responsibilities.
is by far the most-watched and most-listened to news provider in the
United Kingdom, and it therefore has to be committed to serving its
audiences with independent, impartial and honest journalism.
is, unquestionably, made harder by the noise of all the rest of the
have to look at recent days to see how unsubstantiated and flimsy rumours
about the Prince of Wales become the currency of international tabloids
and websites; and the joy of the technology which brings us live pictures
from across the globe instantaneously is also its curse as lies and
disinformation spread at the same speed.
never want to go back to the era in which working men doffed their hats
at the mention of The King; but it cannot be of benefit to our public
life that one of our biggest selling newspapers prints the screaming
headline "Is Charles bisexual?" - only to say within the small
print that the answer is an unequivocal "no".
this hubbub, the BBC's role is to be a voice of calm.
years we have unashamedly modernised some of the things we do, including
our news provision, because it can't be the case that only the broadcasting
style of the 1950s is appropriate for the BBC.
we have to ensure is that our values underpin all our journalism in
whatever voice it speaks, whether it's on 1Xtra or BBC TWO - and the
right of our audience to trust what we say, whenever they see or hear
the letters "BBC", is absolute.
point a number of thoughts may be swimming through your heads. Are we
half-way through, at least? Answer, yes.
may be some names: Lord Hutton, or Andrew Gilligan.
may be some recent newspaper articles: Beebwatch in the Daily Telegraph
or pieces in The Sunday Times criticising our journalism or arguing
for the end of the licence fee.
could even be some comments from politicians about our bias against
them or areas where we haven't done as well as we could.
common with the rest of the BBC, I'm not able to comment on the Hutton
Inquiry until it comes to its conclusions.
already admitted there are some things we could have done better; and
the right way to see criticism is as a spur in continuing to seek excellence.
probably been true in the past that we have been defensive on occasion
about criticism, not least because our critics often have axes of their
own to grind.
trick for us in the future is to respond to feedback more effectively:
to use it to make us better, and to enlist the support of our audiences
to deliver services of which they and the nation can be proud.
want to tackle head-on the question "Is BBC News biased?"
- mainly because that's the most damaging accusation made by our opponents.
take the easy route here and say we're criticised from left and from
right, and (for instance) from Palestinians and from Israelis - which
has traditionally allowed us to say that we must be do something ok
round about the middle.
I'll go on to argue, I don't think a position in the soggy middle of
everything is necessarily the right place to be.
knock down the easiest target.
I do not
believe the BBC is politically biased. This is an organisation made
up of around 40,000 people - and the idea that they could all be made
to follow a single political line is obviously nonsensical.
worked for the Today programme, my deputy editor went off to be head
of communications at Conservative Central Office; another deputy editor
was a former Labour Party researcher; and one of the senior producers
became a press office for Paddy Ashdown.
had a Newsnight output editor who was a former SNP parliamentary candidate.
the BBC there are people of all parties and none.
who are at the sharp end of journalism see it as their role to challenge
politicians in the interests of the voters, and I have never come across
anyone who wanted to pull a punch.
they did, their colleagues wouldn't let them.
just my view about political impartiality: it's supported by years of
research in which an overwhelming majority of the population (usually
around 80%) think the BBC is fair.
footnote is that, of the minority who do think we're biased, this was
interpreted during years of Conservative Government to be a bias towards
the Tories; and now under a Labour Government it's seen as a bias towards
the Labour Party.
the question, then, of whether we edge towards being a tool of Government.
As I said,
I can't comment on the Hutton Inquiry; but I'd suggest, ever so gently,
that events of this year make it unlikely that the Government sees the
BBC as being under its control - and nor does the BBC see its central
function as being to secure the re-election of whoever happens to be
been true across the decades. The Thatcher Government, for instance,
was cross about a programme called Real Lives which interviewed community
leaders in Northern Ireland; it tried to ban a radio series - My Country
Right or Wrong - about the security services; and it vigorously criticised
our news coverage of events like the Libyan bombing.
always been a tension between Whitehall and Broadcasting House, albeit
with the common thread that successive governments have seen the value
of the BBC to the country and have recognised that its independence
is a national credit - despite the irritation it causes to them.
to what is rather more the charge of the moment.
according to some of our critics, pursues a liberal agenda.
I think, we need to identify three things: the overall purpose of the
BBC; the nature of the organisation; and the function of BBC News, which
I'm going to detach from the other two things.
As I said,
we shall hear a lot about the purposes of the BBC in the next year;
but my personal view is that we should be open about wanting to make
Britain a better place - a country which appreciates the arts, which
has opportunities for lifelong learning, which nurtures an interest
in our democracy.
itself, meanwhile, is 'liberal' in the classic sense in that it is a
lively, disputatious, free-thinking place where we put an ever greater
emphasis on creativity and where we encourage our staff to celebrate
one of the reasons why it could never follow a political line: managing
in the BBC does have a refreshing element of trying to herd cats.
said that we should be unambiguous that it is not an aim to pursue a
liberal agenda in our News coverage or indeed in any of our output.
perhaps try to define what our critics mean by a liberal agenda.
If I read
the Daily Telegraph correctly, it would include attitudes such as support
for abortion; opposition to the death penalty; belief in a ban on fox
hunting; a yearning for the Euro; advocacy of devolution; and 'inclusive'
perspectives on topics like asylum and gay rights.
see in that list that there are people in all political parties who
would buy that agenda: the left of the Tory Party, and swathes of the
Lib Dems, Labour and the SNP.
But I can
say at the start that it doesn't include every member of the BBC.
of times in recent years we've had a straw poll in my office to check
the thesis, and in one of them a clear majority of my immediate team
were against the Euro while they split 6:5 against the death penalty.
charge is that our journalism does reflect these underlying attitudes.
hope it doesn't.
is indivisible, and where there is genuine debate within the UK we should
reflect it fairly without any underpinning of an attitude of our own.
should not be pro- or anti-Euro. We should recognise that there are
strong cases for and against fox hunting, both honestly held.
It is a
fact of our national life that a majority of voters would like to bring
back the death penalty while an overwhelming majority of the people
they elect don't want to. This
doesn't make the voters wrong and the politicians right - or vice versa.
is about recognising these challenges and putting the facts as clearly
line is this. It is a legitimate aspiration of the BBC to make Britain
a better place.
cannot do this by reflecting through its journalism or factual programming
a world which liberals or anyone else wishes would exist: rather, it
has to be clear-sighted about the truth and about reality.
not a function of social engineering.
did raise some of these issues in an interview recently in The Independent.
I believe we should engage in the debate and listen fairly to the criticisms
made of us.
think in my job I need to be accountable for what we do right and what
we get wrong.
So I said,
for instance, that I thought we were slow to recognise the strength
of feeling in the country about asylum - and during the 2001 election
campaign it did not figure as much as it probably should have done as
a broadcast journalism issue.
not, emphatically not, a problem only for the BBC; but there was a chattering
class view that fears about asylum were either completely irrational
or were engendered by the Daily Mail or the BNP.
has passed, this opinion looks ever more unlikely; and we have tried
in our programming to make sure that the voices of middle Britain have
been heard on this issue.
an excellent film on the Politics Show which revealed the worries in
black and Asian communities about the damage to race relations caused
by record numbers of asylum seekers; on Newsnight we brought ordinary
voters in Gateshead face-to-face with the Prime Minister to put their
concerns about the issue direct to him; and we examined all the issues
in an Asylum Night on BBC ONE in which there was a particularly robust
Panorama which challenged what the Telegraph would see as the liberal
an example of the way we learned from what I concede was a weakness
in our journalism (and in Sky's and ITN's, I suspect) a couple of years
made the point that there is a risk across all journalism that we're
driven by a consensus - not necessarily liberal, but even worse: a slab
of conventional wisdom which deadens our journalistic instincts.
as an example détente in the 1980s, where most of the chattering
classes favoured dialogue with the Soviet Union and were uncomfortable
with the hardline attitudes of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher.
suggests, of course, that the strategy of conceding little and driving
the Soviet Union into arms-fuelled bankruptcy was an effective one.
arguably the hard line rather than the soft one which delivered millions
of people from the tyranny of communism.
today we have to be fair and impartial about President George W Bush,
despite his unpopularity in this country and in most of the world.
agenda may be right, it may be wrong: I honestly have no conclusions.
But I stand
by what I said in The Independent: the editorial assumption cannot be
that President Bush is automatically wrong in everything he does.
stressing here that I don't think we do fall into this trap in the BBC,
thanks to our excellent correspondents in Washington and good editors
however, a risk of journalism in general that it picks up a popular
mood and turns in lazy pieces which make partisans feel warm and cosy
- all comfort, in other words, and no challenge.
be explicit about one other thing too.
where there might be a gentle tug of the liberal agenda, the answer
is not to substitute a conservative agenda or any other kind of agenda.
for the BBC is that it should have no agenda in its reporting.
why I described the Daily Telegraph's Beebwatch feature - which scrutinised
our journalism for liberal/lefty stuff - as "mean-spirited".
to discourage us from being partisan, which is a laudable aim, it was
unabashedly partisan itself.
only came from the right, when actually there can sometimes be equally
valid criticism from the left.
look back, Tony Benn would argue the BBC has never exactly followed
his agenda either).
As an illustration
of the Telegraph problem, going back a little further this year, the
paper wrote an editorial on April 12th to mark the end of the war in
BBC", it said, "has had a terrible war. Despite the undoubted
courage of many of its correspondents, it has failed in its task, and
it has failed in many ways. The first is bias. Throughout the conflict
and before it, the BBC gave disproportionate coverage to opponents of
read the rest of the editorial, though one later charge against us was
that we were implying the Americans were still in trouble in Iraq.
now know that that accusation number one is untrue.
research by the Cardiff School of Journalism has shown that BBC News
was broadly in line with its competitors in the amount of airtime given
to those for and against the war, and if anything all of us defaulted
too much to pro-government speakers or sources of information.
words, what the Telegraph was trying to encourage us to do was not move
in what is now revealed to be the correct direction: to ensure that
we reinforced scepticism about some of the pro-war arguments.
castigating us for not being as partisan as the Telegraph, which had
an unshamed and unabashed pro-war agenda.
of course, the Telegraph's right and it's a newspaper I admire; but
it cannot be the answer for the BBC.
note, by the way, that the new editor of the Telegraph has just dropped
Beebwatch - though they say they'll still be watching the issues it
raised; as, of course, will we).
me finally pull one or two thoughts together.
will only be distinctive in the future if it remains absolutely impartial.
agenda, no axes to grind, no wishful thinking: just facts, fair analysis
and an understanding of the needs of our audience amid the din of a
multichannel hi-tech world.
this sounds like an austere diet for our news coverage, it feeds into
an organisation as a whole which still has the power and the will to
shape this country for the better - to use broadcasting as something
which liberates, something which opens new perspectives.
in particular, is at its best the greatest medium.
two-channel world which I watched in Bradford in the 1960s I saw a glimpse
of the future: both ours as a nation, and mine as the first generation
in my family to go to university - and to end up working for the BBC,
which wasn't anything my grandparents and their families, who were carpenters
or train drivers or farmers, would ever have contemplated.
So we have
a choice before us now: just more stuff, more Wudja Cudja, more tittle-tattle
about royals, more noise - less understanding.
Or we can
say the BBC is something not just worth preserving, but something we
can make better still.