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Mark Thompson

Speeches

Mark Thompson

BBC Director-General


Speech given to Royal Society for Arts (RSA), Manchester University


Thursday 9 March 2006
Printable version

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Good evening everyone.

 

I'm delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you tonight – not least because it seems to me that the RSA's objectives, above all its conviction that focused and systematic application of the arts, sciences and technology can improve and enrich life for everyone, that conviction is very close to what we at the BBC believe about public service broadcasting.

 

I also think that some of the RSA's Manifesto Challenges for the 21st Century have rather direct relevance for the BBC and its agenda over the next decade, but I'll return to them a little later.

 

Next week we expect the Government to publish a White Paper about the future of the BBC, together with a draft Charter and Agreement.

 

Not surprisingly then, it's a period of intense debate and discussion about what the BBC should do and what it shouldn't.

 

Tonight I'm going to talk about one important part of our plans. But the BBC and its role in the UK's regions and nations is only one of a bewilderingly large number of subjects that turn up regularly in my post-bag.

 

"Dear Director-General, are there no longer dress regulations at the BBC? Like many others, I am appalled at the tieless habit that has suddenly invaded our screens. How scruffy the open-necked community appear!"

 

As another correspondent was kind enough to note: "the middle-aged male neck is not a thing of beauty!"

 

Sometimes the letters include essential information.

 

"Dear Sir, There was a time when I would have liked to be King of Britain. Now I have come to realise that Prince Charles is more suitably qualified for the job. I hope you will communicate this fact to all concerned."

 

But of course often the letters refer to one of those big storms which seem to hit us every few weeks – storms as various as they are unpredictable.

 

Here's two about our two most recent imbroglios – utterly different, in fact almost two bookends, one a reminder of the rather wonderful world the BBC is coming from, the other a letter which demonstrates all the tensions and complexities we face as a broadcaster to a Britain and a world of 2006.

 

Here's the first: "Dear Mr Thompson, Insomniacs and fishermen rejoice! No more of that bloody awful dirge at 5.30 every morning. A splendid decision!".

 

I have to admit, by the way, that not every letter I got about Radio 4's decision to drop the early morning sea-shanties was quite as enthusiastic as that one…

 

Just below it in the pile of post was this letter: "Dear Sir, we were shocked to see in your news programme of the 2nd February the offensive cartoons of the Prophet (peace be upon Him).

 

"We wish to express our shock and disturbance for showing the same cartoons which offended the Islamic religion and Muslims in the UK as well as all over the world".

 

In fact, the BBC had not published the cartoons or shown them beyond the most fleeting glimpses – the minimum we thought our audiences needed to understand the story. That of course doesn't stop rumours flying around…

 

What unites these two apparently wildly different arguments is the centrality of the BBC to so many different aspects of our national life.

 

People continue to care passionately about the BBC and what it broadcasts.

 

They own it and they want it to respond to their needs and concerns. They want it to reflect their values and the way they live.

 

And that brings me to my theme this evening. I'm going to talk about the BBC in the North of England.

 

It's a story which is going to start and finish in Greater Manchester, but it's really a story about the whole, not just of the North-West, but of the North.

 

I'll begin with a little history, but I'm going to focus mainly on the future.

 

And, despite what some London commentators claim about our plans for this part of the world, I hope that this is not going to turn out to be a story of political correctness or corporate expediency, but one rather of audiences and creative opportunity.

 

History first

 

People often assume that the BBC began strictly as a London institution and that regional broadcasting followed as a kind of after-thought.

 

In fact the consortium of electrical manufacturers who created the British Broadcasting Company always had a regional system in mind and Metropolitan Vickers put their Manchester station 2ZY on the air only one day after the London station 2LO, on the 15th November 1922.

 

Interestingly given our present plans for Manchester, that first day's broadcast included one of the BBC's very first ever children's programmes: Kiddie's Corner, presented by the "Lady of the Magic Carpet" or Miss A. Bennie as she was more prosaically known in her BBC contract.

 

As Children's Hour developed, a 'Radio Circle' was created which attracted over 15,000 members in and around Manchester within its first few years.

 

Then as now, of course, they wrote in; not just with prose, but with poetry.

 

Here's one early sample from a young Mancunian called Hilda: "Uncle Humpty Dumpty is most queer/ He's like an egg from ear to ear/ His life must be rather bitter/ As he has to talk down a transmitter."

 

Schools broadcasting was also pioneered by 2ZY with experimental lessons and talks broadcast from 1924 with support and encouragement from the University of Manchester.

 

Within a year 160 local schools had wireless sets installed. And over the next few decades, radio flourished creatively in Manchester.

 

Violet Carson was a star children's presenter – "Auntie Vi" – on radio years before she became Ena Sharples on the Street.

 

There was Wilfred Pickles and Have A Go, Gardener's Question Time still one of our most popular shows on Radio 4, which began as an OB from Ashton-under-Lyne in 1947.

 

And Morecambe and Wise who were given their first radio series, You're Only Young Once, here, in Manchester.

 

But ITV is also of course an enormous part of the story of broadcasting from this part of the world.

 

There were other strong regions in the system but nowhere quite like Granadaland.

 

The BBC had a presence – from the 50s in TV as well as radio – but for the majority of households in the North West, Granada was their broadcaster.

 

BBC Television modernised in the 60s, 70s and 80s and found a more popular voice.

 

Network television production grew and local radio arrived. But when I arrived at the BBC in 1979, Granada's ascendency in the North-West looked unassailable.

 

What both Granada and the BBC found in Manchester and the North-West was extraordinary creative talent: in writers probably most of all – I don't think any other part of the UK has produced so many distinctive, memorable writers for broadcasting.

 

Writers with such a determination to share the textures and flavours of the lives of their cities and their surroundings – but actors, directors, producers, journalists too.

 

Technologists and broadcast engineers; the critical craft skills of camerawork, editing, design and the rest; all of the building-blocks of a major centre of broadcasting and of the wider creative industries came together.

 

And from Z-Cars to Jewel In The Crown, World In Action to Brass Tacks and File On 4, Granada and the BBC and Manchester delivered some of the best programmes ever made.

 

The tide ebbs…

 

So far so good. But then, through the Nineties and the early years of this decade, the tide turned. Granada became ITV and its priorities changed – for commercial reasons which, I should add, I recognise and understand.

 

The range of genres on the network narrowed to some extent, and the creative opportunities likewise.

 

There were still dramas of real brilliance – Cracker for instance – and there still are, but fewer opportunities for some of the large scale projects, the Bridesheads which had once taken the BBC on at its own game.

 

The balance of advantage was shifting in regional programming too.

 

On television around the year 2000, the BBC's North West Tonight overtook Granada Reports – something unimaginable when I was a researcher in regional output – and now its lead is a comfortable one.

 

The BBC got closer to its local radio audiences too. It turned some of them – in Blackburn and Liverpool for example – into open centres where the public could come in, log on, make their own radio, plug into the BBC's vast educational resources.

 

It launched websites alongside the radio stations, sent BBC buses loaded with digital kit into some of Lancashire's toughest estates, put giant screens with BBC output in city centres.

 

But the BBC faced, or rather faces, very big issues here too.

 

Approval for the BBC, a sense that the BBC is relevant to me, understands my needs, reflects my issues and the way I live in its programmes and content, is lower than it should be and lower than it is in most of the rest of the UK.

 

Use of key BBC services, including our main television networks, is not as high as it is elsewhere in the country.

 

And the BBC's track record in commissioning and making outstanding network content in the North of England, in developing and nurturing outstanding creative talent in the North, in investing in and supporting the wider creative industries in this city and across the North: in all these areas, our track record is not good enough.

 

And they're all connected. Audiences are astute. They can smell authenticity. They know when a writer or an actor understands and empathises with their life, their experiences.

 

I've been involved myself, both at the BBC and at Channel 4, in commissioning dramas and comedies rooted in the North-West of England.

 

The comedies The Royle Family and The League of Gentlemen and Tony Garnett's drama The Cops when I was Controller of BBC2. Peter Kay's brilliant Phoenix Nights and Paul Abbott's Shameless when I was at Channel 4.

 

All of these programmes work because they come from a place, from a particular, personal perspective, a certain kind of humour and the audience knows it.

 

These programmes work for viewers in the North – of course they do – but their truthfulness and pungency mean that actually they work for viewers everywhere.

 

But, despite some real successes – and despite the move of a couple of BBC departments, its religion and youth entertainment departments, from London to Manchester in the Nineties – the BBC's base of network operations, its connectedness to Northern audiences, its investment in the creative talent pool here and across the North, it's all been too modest.

 

… and flows again

 

Which is why, first under my predecessor Greg Dyke and now with me at the reins of the BBC, we've developed a much bolder plan for the BBC in the North of England.

 

We want to create a new, state of the art broadcasting centre for the North in Manchester.

 

We want to site some of the BBC's most strategically important services there:

 

  • CBBC, including our two children's channels, CBBC and CBeebies plus children's radio
  • All of BBC Sport
  • Radio Five Live, plus the digital channel 5 Live Sports Extra
  • Our New Media and Technology division, including Research and Development
  • Formal Learning, including the new Digital Curriculum, BBC Jam

 

Put it together with the network TV and radio production we already do in Manchester – and we have substantial operations in religion, current affairs, entertainment, music, radio drama as well as our regional TV and radio teams – and you're talking about a broadcasting centre of around 2,000 people, working in all media, commissioning as well as producing and generating content to be consumed not just across the UK but around the world.

 

The BBC's Governors support this new vision for the BBC in the North-West, but they've always made it clear that, given that it involves substantial upfront costs, it must be subject to an affordability test once the BBC knows what its future licence-fee will be. We expect news on that this summer.

 

In the meantime, however, we've been turning the headline strategy into a practical plan – and we've been doing that in partnership with many stakeholders in this part of the world.

 

We've whittled the shortlist of possible sites down to two very strong candidates: Quays Point at Salford Quays and the Central Spine in the City of Manchester.

 

Working with both Manchester City Council and Salford City Council and with the North West Development Agency, what is emerging is not a plan for a stand-alone BBC operation – that's the way the BBC would have approached this challenge ten, twenty years ago – but for a Media Enterprise Zone which we will all actively encourage other broadcasters and other partners in the creative industries to locate to and use.

 

We hope that broadcast and other technical facilities will be shared. We also want to share some of the media research and development work we will do here – work which itself will involve partnerships with Greater Manchester's formidable universities and other regional players.

 

By the summer – by the time, in other words, when the BBC's future funding is clear – we will have a detailed proposition and business case to go to the BBC's Executive Board and Governors.

 

The reasons why

 

So what do we think the benefits of this new centre and the Media Enterprise Zone will be?

 

First, we believe that this initiative could have a transformational impact on the creative industries and the media talent base across the North of England.

 

The proposed moves will create the UK's largest concentration of broadcasting outside London. The world-class services and production divisions we are proposing to move mean that it will have an impact not just in Britain but far beyond.

 

The NWDA believes that the new centre will create an additional 4,400 jobs in total and add a further £1.5bn to the regional economy over 10 years.

 

These benefits should be very long term.

 

In considering which BBC operations to base in the new centre, we've consciously chosen genres which are not subject to the short-term vagaries of audience taste and commissioning.

 

We know we will have a significant position in children's output and sport, for instance, ten and twenty years from now.

 

But we also want to make sure that the economic and supply-side benefits of the BBC's new focus of investment in the North goes beyond Greater Manchester and the North-West.

 

We've recently created a new BBC Television region for East Yorkshire and Humberside with a new open centre and TV news operation in Hull.

 

Subject to scrutiny and, approval from the new BBC Trust, we hope to add a tier of local TV news, delivered via broadband and satellite, to audiences across the North.

 

In addition though, we want to work with the independent sector and with other local stakeholders to develop more opportunities for network TV and new media production in other parts of the North-West, across Yorkshire and in the North-East.

 

We would not claim that 'trickle down' from the Manchester project is all we need to do to ensure adequate investment in network production in other parts of the North.

 

Alongside the economic benefits, however, there are the creative and cultural ones. Benefits, as I've suggested, for the creative community here and across the North, but even more importantly benefits for audiences.

 

Cultural diversity across Britain is probably more marked than it has ever been.

 

Creative and cultural energy in cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham is palpably higher than it was five or ten years ago, part of a wider story of regeneration and a growth in confidence which is obvious when you spend any time in them.

 

We want to draw on that energy and to channel it into the content we make for audiences wherever they live.

 

Now we could and should do more – that's my theme to you tonight – but you might be surprised to learn just how many of our liveliest, most original programmes even today are made not in Soho or Shepherds Bush but in some of the UK's other great creative cities.

 

Sometimes that's a result of serendipity – a great writer or great producer or director with a great idea who just happens to be based in Bristol or Glasgow.

 

But often a strong sense of place, a rootedness in a particular culture or way of looking at the world is itself part of the reason that the programme works.

 

I'm going to show you a short film which tries to capture this point both through some programmes we've already transmitted and a few more which have yet to hit the screen.

 

Run DVD

 

My focus for the past few minutes has been on network television.

 

But broadcasting itself is changing.

 

We do still expect the public to want high quality filmed drama and comedy and documentaries from the BBC, alongside great local and national radio stations, but we expect them to want to consume this content in a host of different ways: traditional TV and radio of course, but increasingly on demand as well, to set-top boxes and PCs or on the move through their iPods or their mobile phones.

 

Even today we can see a revolutionary shift in areas like news and music towards the web and the pod-cast.

 

To quote just one statistic, at the end of 2004, 8% of opinion-formers told us they turned first to the BBC news website when a big story broke. One year later, it was 32%.

 

Our website now gets more than three billion page impressions every month and it's still growing strongly. Again our plans for Manchester are about this new world of broadcasting and media as well as traditional TV production.

 

The vital work we will need to do developing the media of the future – and developing the sophisticated search, navigation and distribution functionalities we will need to help the public find and enjoy the content they want – we want to do all of that here as well.

 

And when I think about the BBC's own future, I see our vision for the North as an opportunity to create a multimedia digital broadcasting factory from scratch with new, more flexible, more creative ways of working, far greater porousness and collaboration with partners and external providers, and a workforce developing entirely new skills to meet the challenges of the next decade and beyond.

 

The final benefit of the Manchester proposal is about our relationship with our audience in the North of England.

 

As ITV's priorities change, we have a competitive opportunity to get closer to viewers and listeners here. But there's a more important point.

 

Our audiences own us and they have a right to expect the BBC to deliver services which are relevant to their needs and which are close to them, as individuals and families and as communities.

 

That's partly about fair inward investment – licence-payers in the North could reasonably expect a decent share of the licence-fee to be invested in broadcasting and production here in the North.

 

It's also partly about visible presence.

 

But it's also about an attitude of mind inside the BBC and about a relationship between the BBC and the audiences it serves.

 

We believe that all these things will be significantly improved by the move to the North. We will draw on more northern talent. There will be more northern faces and voices on the air.

 

A generation of children will grow up watching children's channels and websites that clearly come from Manchester rather than London – tens of thousands of them will turn up in studios here to take part in children's programmes as participants or audiences.

 

Stepping back, I also hope that over time and across all of our output, whether it's made here or not, northern audiences will feel the BBC giving their experiences and their perspectives more weight.

 

The digital age is going to be an age of great opportunity, the opportunity for far greater creative self-expression and self-development.

 

We hope that in many different ways the BBC can be one of the ways in which the people of the north of England can seize that opportunity.

 

At the start, I mentioned the RSA's manifesto challenges. In many ways, they are all good challenges for the BBC as it embarks on the next chapter in its history.

 

But there are three in particular – encouraging enterprise, fostering resilient communities and developing a capable population – which are directly relevant to what I've said tonight.

 

I believe that our emerging vision for the north could make a material difference towards all these goals. But it's not something the BBC could or should attempt to achieve on its own.

 

From the start, we've recognised that the vision is actually a vision for partnership and participation.

 

It has our enthusiasm. It needs your support as well and the support of all our creative partners and audiences across the north. If we get that it will succeed.

 

Thank you.



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