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Mark Thompson

Speeches

Mark Thompson

BBC Director-General


Speech to the Churches' Media Conference 2005, The Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire


Monday 6 June 2005
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Last Sunday we celebrated the 500th and last edition of Breakfast with Frost and marked the passing of a rather remarkable television institution.

 

The very last guest on this very last show was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Towards the end of the interview, Sir David said this to him: "With all these problems facing the world, not just poverty, but the environment, the clash of cultures or religions which some people talk about – it's pretty hard to be optimistic. But I've always thought of you as an optimist."

 

"David," Archbishop Tutu replied, "I've never been an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope, which is different."

 

And what an interesting and resonant difference it is. An optimist I guess is someone who, by dint of personality or experience, believes that most events tend to turn out for the best. It's a choice or a trait: it springs from the self.

 

Not so the prisoner of hope. It's not really about choice, at least not human choice. The hope is grounded in something outside the self, something which brooks no objection.

 

"I have no doubt myself," the Archbishop said a few moments later by way of explanation, "that this is a moral universe and goodness and love and caring are ultimately what will prevail."

 

Now that's a pretty big thought for ten o'clock in the morning, even from Breakfast with Frost. Perhaps in a few households up and down the land there was a split second when the Cocopops hovered between bowl and mouth.

 

But you may still find yourself wondering: what has any of this to do with broadcasting? Well, for a start, it's a good illustration of the fact that religion and broadcasting are about a lot more than the category of programme we call religious broadcasting.

 

Religion pops up all over the schedules: in drama, comedy, reality TV. It produces surprise hits, our recent BBC TWO documentary The Monastery being a case in point – a programme which has rather gratifyingly thrashed Celebrity Love Island over on ITV. Habit trumps bikini shock.

 

Religion ambushes audiences and – as we discovered during the Jerry Springer saga – sometimes ambushes broadcasters too!

 

Interestingly, in my first year as Director-General of the BBC, between Popetown, Springer, the service to celebrate the marriage of Charles and Camilla, the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI, there have been more difficult judgement calls to make about religious subjects than about political ones.

 

Pace Lord Hutton, it turns out it's not politics that puts the security guards outside the homes of BBC executives: it's religion.

 

Many people worry about the marginalisation of religion in modern life. Let me tell you, from where I'm sitting, it's front and centre stage: dynamic, complex, potentially explosive.

 

How appropriate that Breakfast with Frost, which has captured so many global events and interviewed so many world leaders, should end with a specifically religious perspective.

 

But Desmond Tutu's words also got me thinking about broadcasting itself.

 

The BBC was founded on the belief that broadcasting could be a transformational force for good in the lives of people in this country and around the world. A force for enlightenment and enrichment.

 

The word 'optimism' doesn't begin to capture the sense of conviction and belief with which John Reith and his colleagues began their journey.

 

So where do we stand today? Is it still possible to be a prisoner of hope when it comes to broadcasting? And again, when we come to consider the place of religion on TV and radio, how much confidence can we muster?

 

Creative renewal, fresh audience engagement, new ideas, new departures. Is that what we see when we look into the future?

 

Or do we hear Matthew Arnold's 'melancholy, long withdrawing roar'?

 

Well, I have to say that I feel full of hope about broadcasting's ability to be a positive force. Full of hope too about the potential for broadcasting to do justice to religion and the spiritual life.

 

I'm going to try to explain why this afternoon. But I want to begin by spending some time on what I take to be the opposite of hope: that complex and pervasive pessimism about popular culture which contaminates so much of what's said about broadcasting.

 

Not all pessimists are the same

 

I get many thousands of letters and e-mails from the public. A good number are simply asking for information, whether it's about a programme or about DTT or DAB reception.

 

Quite a few are from people who have taken the trouble to write to thank us for something they've enjoyed or found valuable.

 

But of course there are plenty of complaints as well. And what is striking is the form most of these complaints take. It is quite rare to get a letter which takes issue with a single programme and leaves it at that.

 

Most complainants are determined to connect the particular enormity to what they take to be a deeper and more systemic trend, whether it's dumbing down, falling quality, the denigration of traditional values or just plain old depravity.

 

On a good day, of course, it's all of the above. What's interesting is that very few of the correspondents actually ask me to do anything about these trends.

 

I'm not sure they believe I could do anything, even if I wanted to. It's as if they feel they've identified ineluctable and deterministic historical forces which have the BBC and much else besides in their grip.

 

There may be a certain grim satisfaction in pointing them out but it's futile to imagine you could somehow arrest or reverse them.

 

Nor is it just my postbag. Every week, newspapers print leaders and columns which take it as read, as a proven scientific fact, that we are living through a catastrophic collapse of standards.

 

If you believe that, how could you not believe that the BBC – that litmus of national cultural life – and the rest of broadcasting were in some profound and suspicious way bound up and implicated in that wider collapse.

 

And if someone said to you that broadcasting could be a force for good, you'd probably laugh in their face.

 

Now this kind of despair is catching. I hear it often from former broadcasters who contrast what they see and hear today with what they remember – or at least think they remember – from their own time. I even hear it occasionally from people working in the BBC today.

 

So it's certainly fashionable. But is it justified?

 

I imagine cultural pessimism as a kind of trench system with one set of arguments ranged behind another. In the first trench are claims about the stupidity of contemporary culture and broadcasting, its mindlessness, its pandering to under-achievement, its lack of intellectual challenge. Exhibit A: The Ascent of Man. Exhibit B: Celebrity Wrestling. Enough said.

 

Well be careful – and get hold of a copy of Steven Johnson's new book Everything Bad is Good for You. In it, Johnson makes a compelling case that, far from a decline into stupidity, the main movement in popular culture over recent decades has been towards greater sophistication and cognitive challenge.

 

He compares current dramas and comedies like The Sopranos and The Simpsons with their equivalents 30 years ago and finds more layering, more complexity, greater not lesser demands placed on viewers. The same with feature films, the same with video games.

 

I believe that, although of course there are counter-examples, the same trend is visible in this country as well. They used to say that sex sells newspapers: right now it's more likely to be Sudoku.

 

Compare the architecture and complexity of the Harry Potter books with Biggles or Bunter. Compare – though I'm treading on hallowed ground here – the plotting, the characterisation, the wit, the cultural references in our new Doctor Who with the linear simplicity of the original.

 

Or look at two really great BBC comedies: Yes, Minister and Armando Iannucci's recent political satire for BBC FOUR, The Thick Of It. Now Yes, Minister is an enduring and sophisticated masterpiece: we'll still be watching and enjoying it ten or 20 years from now.

 

But it's instructive to consider it alongside this more recent comedy. The Thick Of It makes the viewer work harder. The weaving of character and plot is more intricate and more fast-paced, the political and cultural allusions more intricate and delivered more quickly.

 

You're not told when to laugh. You're not told who to sympathise with, who to despise. It's a switchback of mood-swings and reverses. You just can't look at The Thick Of It and think there's been a loss of creative or intellectual nerve over the past 20 years.

 

Some people will object, of course, that there's been a fall-off in the volume and impact of some serious genres: arts and religion would probably top the list. And there's some truth in that.

 

But other serious genres are in the ascendant. History has enjoyed a famous revival over the past decade. There are more specialist factual programmes – science, natural history, religion, documentary – on BBC ONE today than there were in the Eighties or Nineties.

 

On Radio 4 Melvyn Bragg and his guests on In Our Time are exploring intellectual territory – mathematics in the high Renaissance last week – which has probably never been covered before by the BBC.

 

There's no doubt that public attitudes are changing. When Ofcom asked the public to rank genre in terms of the public service importance, respondents put religion and arts at the bottom of the list, even when they were told to think in terms of citizen value rather than simple consumer value.

 

But I think that just means that viewers and listeners no longer feel deferential towards particular programme categories. Our experience of arts and religion on both television and radio is that when the programme itself has creative energy and conviction it finds an audience.

 

Has there been a glut of reality and leisure on TV recently? Yes, though it's not as if these programmes replaced documentary and current affairs – they took over from other forms of light factual and entertainment output.

 

People forget that a generation ago the spine of BBC ONE was mainstream American entertainment: The Virginian, A Man Called Ironside, Kojak, The Thorn Birds. Yes, Kenneth Clark was on BBC TWO with Civilisation, but so too was an alarming amount of Demis Roussos.

 

A second line of attack

 

So – at least to me – the head-on form of the dumbing-down case doesn’t stack up when you examine it in any detail. But the convinced pessimist has plenty of other arguments to fall back on.

 

Next comes the slightly more sophisticated charge of cultural levelling. Once there was a clear national culture and a hierarchy of excellence with a canon of great works at the top: Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and so on.

 

Now that's all been chucked in the skip in the name of youth culture, post modernism and political correctness and we're all meant to bow down and worship Tracy Emin and Victoria Beckham: or something like that.

 

Well, again leader-writers and columnists have made good money out of this one. And again it feels like a very good reason for abandoning all hope in broadcasting as a force for good.

 

Because the charge is not just that we've deserted the natural order of culture, it's that we’re actively spreading a subversive, destructive alternative.

 

But is it true? Is it true, first of all, that we've turned our back on what you could call our collective cultural inheritance?

 

I would argue that on the contrary at the BBC over the past decade there's been a progressive rebalancing of the cultural agenda to include more of the classical canon.

 

This is Beethoven week on Radio 3: we're playing every note he wrote. On BBC TWO on Friday Charles Hazlewood began a three-part exploration of Beethoven's life and work. Three hours, nine o'clock on Friday nights.

 

I chose the word 'rebalancing' with care. This is not about putting the clock back or denying the importance or value of new work, of new, popular forms or of the artistic products of other cultures. But it represents a change.

 

For much of the Sixties and Seventies, Radio 3 was uncompromisingly committed to contemporary classical music – no dumbing down this, quite the reverse – and the idea of a week of Beethoven would have been dismissed by at least some of the controllers of that time as hopelessly populist.

 

Today Radio 3 is still commissioning new works, still bringing today's most serious and challenging composers to its audience, but it also feels much more comfortable with the canon. And its horizons have broadened further – into world music, into serious and experimental forms of popular music.

 

Meanwhile in television classical music we're seeing a straightforward creative renaissance. A new channel – BBC FOUR – and new digital technology means that we can capture and broadcast far more of Proms, for example, than we did ten or 20 years ago.

 

But we're also seeing a higher profile for classical music on BBC ONE and BBC TWO than in recent years. Again, the canon – the famous dead white European men – are playing a prominent part in this revival, but we're also seeing classical music exploring new areas and environments. Think of the remarkable Auschwitz concert on BBC TWO this January. Or Flashmob – the Opera on BBC THREE.

 

When people involved in other art-forms – or in other fields like religious broadcasting – wring their hands and tell me that the TV commissioners' doors are closed to them, I gently point out to them what Peter Maniura and his team have achieved. Goodness knows, they even brought us Jerry Springer.

 

Is our culture exchanging some depth for breadth? It's possible. I spent 13 or 14 years being educated in Catholic schools and got a formidable grounding in Catholic theology and thought. But in all that time I don't suppose I had more than a couple of hours about non-Catholic Christianity and probably less than that on all world's other religions put together: whatever progress I've made on either score I've made on my own as an adult.

 

My own children will probably end their schooldays with a weaker grasp of the finer points of the Councils of Nicaea and Trent, but a far better working knowledge of Islam and Hinduism.

 

Broadcasting too has seen a multiplication of subjects and perspectives. We take the cultures and concerns of minorities and different groups more seriously than our counterparts did 30 or 50 years ago. The experience and perspective of women here and around the world. The perspective of ethnic minorities, the disabled, the marginalised.

 

This broadening and opening of the airwaves to all these new voices and ideas probably has meant less space for received majority culture but from Start The Week to Newsnight to The Antiques Roadshow majority attitudes are also continuously proudly on show – as they should be.

 

Again, I know some people suspect dilution or adulteration: they see themselves on the wrong end of a zero-sum game. And we do need to make sure that we don't regard the new voices as the only voices that should be heard – traditional and mainstream perspectives should always have an important place, often pride of place, in the canvas we're trying to paint.

 

So sometimes we need, as I said, to re-balance and correct. Nonetheless, when I look at the way the range of our agenda has developed over the past quarter century, what I see most of all is enrichment, a thickening of the human cultural pot.

 

Amorality – or worse?

 

But again, let's imagine we had convinced our pessimist that their fear of cultural levelling were overdone. They could still fall back to the last trench in the system: which is the set of charges around moral as opposed to cultural bankruptcy.

 

Under this view, either contemporary popular culture and broadcasting along with it are amoral – denying the existence of any moral order whatsoever – or they promote a system of morality which is somehow different and hostile to traditional moral perspectives.

 

Moral pessimists often make common cause with dumbers-down and cultural pessimists. It's very easy to nest each of the three varieties of despair into a broader analysis of civilisational slide. There's also comfort in a crowd.

 

But actually they're distinct, as was demonstrated during the Springer affair. Neither dumbers-down nor cultural pessimists had any particular problem with Jerry Springer The Opera. If anything, the cultural pessimists actively welcomed the BBC's decision to put a piece of essentially serious avant-garde musical theatre on BBC TWO.

 

Freedom of artistic expression remains a high virtue for many cultural pessimists – it's one of the values they see threatened by modern mass entertainment – and they are also keen not to be mistaken for reactionaries.

 

But for moral pessimists, and especially those moral pessimists who charge today's broadcasters with having a specific agenda of denigration of organised religion in general and Christianity in particular, Springer was beyond the pale.

 

As a result of this split, newspapers rather struggled with how to react to Springer. In the end, while the Telegraph and the Express sided with the moral pessimists, the Mail printed a long op-ed piece from Melanie Phillips which, on balance, supported the BBC's decision to show the piece and warned of the danger of allowing a minority of religious extremists to dictate what could and could not be shown. The Times wasn't quite sure what to think. William Rees-Mogg was strongly against the broadcast, Libby Purvis strongly in favour: the leader writers for once kept their silence.

 

So what are we to make of moral pessimism's particular claims? Well of course – and particularly if you've got the benefit of multichannel satellite and cable TV – there is a great deal of apparently entirely amoral and hedonistic materialism out there.

 

There are whole channels which seem to be devoted to one endless and endlessly ribald Ibiza pub-crawl. TV – though not radio – has become more like a bookshop or a newsagent and if it's a bit of amorality you're after, there's bound to be something under the counter.

 

So – yes, if the charge is that broadcasting as a whole is no longer functioning to the extent it once did as a moral gate-keeper, I think that's probably true.

 

But don't make the mistake of assuming that all TV is equally amoral. If you look at mainstream British television, if you look at the moral universe, say, of EastEnders or New Tricks or listen to the way moral questions are debated, say, on Question Time, I think you'd have to conclude that traditional Judaeo-Christian morality was not just alive and well, but central – even if often not connected explicitly to religious belief.

 

In our dramas and documentaries, even I'd argue in reality shows like Fame Academy and Big Brother, the qualities audiences are finally invited to empathise with and admire are honesty, integrity, constancy, kindness.

 

Of course there's any amount of dishonesty and cruelty on show – that's been true of Western drama since the time of Aeschylus – but it generally takes place in a moral framework that any Victorian novelist would have recognised.

 

I'd go further. 2005 began with an intense concentration by the BBC and other broadcasters on the human consequences of the tsunami. Among other firsts, it brought independent local radio together for the first time and helped inspire the British public to donate many hundreds of millions of pounds. Comic Relief followed. We were warned that charity fatigue meant that Red Nose Day was bound to raise less money than in previous years: in fact it hit a record high.

 

A few weeks later, the BBC opened up TV, radio and online so that millions of Britons could witness and, if they wanted to, feel a part of the process by which the Catholic Church said farewell to one Pope and elected another.

 

Now we're planning a major season of programmes across our services about Africa: reflecting on its terrible challenges but also celebrating its life and culture – and doing this much of the time on BBC ONE. A few days later we'll be broadcasting the Live8 concerts from Hyde Park and other cities around the globe.

 

Now it's hard to connect any of this – the public interest in all of these morally or even spiritually serious topics, the broadcasters' willingness to clear the airwaves for them – with the picture that's often painted of the modern media as a moral desert, barren of meaning.

 

You don't have to believe in what Desmond Tutu called "a moral universe" to be engaged by causes like the tsunami or the question of global poverty, but nor are these issues purely secular ones – indeed they speak to classical Christian virtues.

 

I think the answer to the moral pessimist is that it depends what your moral yardstick is. If it's swear words and sex and not much more, then yes – things probably have slipped both on screen and in society since the good old days, though even here the watershed, that in some ways anachronistic sign-post to family viewing, seems to be holding up rather well.

 

But if you define moral and social concern more broadly, then things look rather different. Whether it's Africa or Iraq or Terry Schiavo, broadcasting has become very interested in moral questions again and broadcasting's ubiquity means that those questions are projected into pretty much every household in the land.

 

Life in digital city

 

So: three different sets of reasons for despairing in broadcasting – none of them wholly convincing. But before I get accused of complete Panglossianism, I think there is something to worry about as we stand poised on the edge of the famous fully digital world: a cultural change which is at once more amorphous but also more real.

 

Here's William Wordsworth writing in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads in a passage which caught Susan Sonntag's eye: "the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies".

 

Wordsworth imagines a kind of negative feedback loop where the craving and the growing speed of transmission of information lead to a kind of cultural scrambling: in his words blunting "the discriminating powers of the mind" and reducing it "to a state of savage torpor".

 

It's as if Wordsworth had woken up in a sweat one night at Dove Cottage with the world of Big Brother, Bladerunner and CNN running somehow in his head. There's two layers to the nightmare: first the anxiety that urbanisation and the industrial revolution would tear a hole in the traditional cultural order; and below that, a more elemental fear that too much information delivered too quickly will drive everyone mad.

 

Looking back, we can see that the industrial and social revolution which Wordsworth was living through did profoundly change the culture.

 

But while Wordsworth and Arnold and many others mourned the passing of the old order and new words like alienation and anomie came into use to try to describe the dark side of city life, the new age also produced astonishing new peaks. In Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Joyce, the city itself became a central subject, a kind of hero.

 

But it's that second fear, "the craving … which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies", that blunting of the "discriminating powers of the mind", the "almost savage torpor" which strikes one as so telling today.

 

Because we're clearly living through a second revolution in the building of the human city. In Wordsworth's time, you had physically to move to London or Manchester or Glasgow to be exposed to that hourly information flow. The city we're building now is virtual and the information and entertainment it contains is continuous, relentless and is expanding and accelerating all the time. The city is in our heads and it's open 24 hours a day.

 

Now you'll find everything in this city – specialist arts and literature to cheer the most jaded cultural pessimist, religious websites and blogs to hearten the most doom-laded moralist, and if you preferred the books and programmes of yesteryear, well they'll all be available online as well.

 

Nonetheless I believe the fully digital world poses enormous new challenges for public service broadcasters. How can we begin to help our audiences make sense of this new all-pervading digital environment?

 

And if we think that broadcasting can still be a force for good, how can we make sure that that good actually gets through?

 

Because I think it is possible to imagine at least a couple of elements of a dystopia in the future: of an information overload so overwhelming that it's easy for the best ideas and best content to get lost or to be restricted to privileged minorities as they arguably were before the advent of broadcasting; and of a growing restlessness and dissatisfaction which leaves some members of the audience never settling down to fully absorb anything – channel-hopping and browsing for ever.

 

It won't be enough for public service content to exist. Unless it also cuts through and connects in the end it will vanish.

 

A hopeful future?

 

Again, though, our history and our instincts tell us not to despair. It was once widely claimed that the greater sensory stimulation of television was bound to kill radio sooner or later. In fact radio – and BBC radio in particular – is as healthy, both creatively and in terms of its audience, as it's ever been.

 

Indeed one recent success in BBC radio points to a very different and more hopeful vision of that digital future. Every month listeners are using the web-based Radio Player to make nine million downloads of BBC Radio programmes.

 

Nor are these downloads extracts from the Radio 1 Chart Show – rights issues mean that we can make virtually no popular music available on the Radio Player – but a broad range of output, including some of the most challenging programmes on Radio 3 and Radio 4.

 

In a sense this is the opposite of the Wordsworthian nightmare: instead of losing the most valuable material in a haystack of ephemera, this is using the potential of the new digital media to make permanently available programmes which once would have more or less disappeared after first transmission.

 

As you may know, we hope to harness on-demand technology both to open up as much of the BBC's TV and radio archive as we can, for the public to use whenever and wherever they want – as well as letting broadband-enabled households pick from an entire week's current output at any moment.

 

Now all this amounts to a virtual redefinition of what broadcasting is: no longer necessarily rooted in a single moment; no longer to the same degree an intrinsically and necessarily shared experience; but with the possibility of the same kind of permanence which other cultural objects – literature, for instance – have always enjoyed.

 

This all presents the BBC with major new challenges. Navigation and sign-posting become key. We can no longer assume that the public will simply bump into great programming, that the mere act of real-time broadcast will guarantee big audiences.

 

Developing projects which have a connected life across channels and media, which present a series of stepping stones for viewers and listeners seems more important than ever. Our Beethoven project is a good example of this, not just across radio and TV but across different channels in our portfolio: viewers on Friday night could move straight from the documentary-drama on BBC TWO to a fascination dissection of the Second Symphony by Charles Hazlewood on BBC FOUR.

 

The big events – the genuinely shared moments – will become all the more important: and it's one of the most interesting (and counter-intuitive) developments of the past few years that the really big events, whether it's Euro 2004 or the D-Day anniversary or even the return of Doctor Who, seem to be getting bigger, not smaller.

 

Finally I believe that creative integrity and conviction will become all the more important. This is age in which the exceptional can stand out more and for far longer than ever before. The half-hearted will disappear without trace.

 

How will religious broadcasting fare in this exhilarating but uncompromising new world? Well, we've seen some encouraging developments over the past few years – the return of the religious landmark to BBC ONE with more ambitious pieces like Robert Winston's The Story of God still to come; a significant commitment to religion from BBC TWO for the first time in its history and a special focus on religion as it is lived in programmes like Seaside Parish; a growing recognition, I think, of how central religion is to our relationship with radio audiences at both local and network levels; and a rich and developing presence on the web.

 

Nonetheless, this is a moment to raise our sights. We need the big cross-media ideas which are transforming other specialist subjects. We need more confidence in mixing genres and in particular drawing on drama and comedy techniques. We need more boldness in what we cover: we've rather fought shy of theology even though experience tells us that when we do take it on – I think of two Channel 4 programmes, Testing God and Tom Wright's exploration of the Resurrection – audiences come with us.

 

At Channel 4 and the BBC, we've brought considerable flair to our treatment of the UK's minority religions. We need to direct more of that creativity and sense of freedom to Christianity as well.

 

But not only is all of this possible – I would say that some clear signs of renewal are already visible. It will need a rather different, richer relationship with the UK's faith communities: one in which we show more consistency and commitment than we have sometimes done in the past; one in which the communities themselves focus more on creative potential than on old battles about entitlement.

 

Conclusion

 

So I'd urge you to look to the future of broadcasting with a rather unfashionable – almost subversive – degree of confidence.

 

The traditional values of public service broadcasting haven't changed, and don't need to change. We have the best educated and most sophisticated audience that the BBC has ever had the privilege to broadcast to. Our cultural perspectives are wider and more inclusive than ever. Issues of moral seriousness are central in our news programmes and many other places as well. Technology is enabling us to direct outstanding content far more effectively to people who will enjoy it and treasure it.

 

So Desmond Tutu's closing remarks on the last Breakfast with Frost don't feel too out of place. It's not really possible to be optimistic about the future of broadcasting: optimism implies that you have some idea how the future is going to turn out, and we don't – we can identify themes and directions, but where this revolution in media will end, if it ever ends, none of us can know. But we can be and should be hopeful. Thank you.




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