Speech given to Royal Society for Arts (RSA), Manchester University
Thursday 9 March 2006
Check against delivery
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.
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.
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…
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.
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
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.
People often assume that the BBC began strictly as a London institution
and that regional broadcasting followed as a kind of after-thought.
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.
was a star children's presenter – "Auntie Vi" – on radio years
before she became Ena Sharples on the Street.
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
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
Writers with such a determination
to share the
textures and flavours of the lives of their cities and their surroundings – but
directors, producers, journalists
engineers; the critical craft
skills of camerawork,
and the rest; all of
of a major
centre of broadcasting
and of the wider creative
And from Z-Cars to
The Crown, World In Action to
and File On 4, Granada and
and Manchester delivered some
of the best programmes
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.
of genres on the network narrowed to some extent, and the creative opportunities
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
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
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
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
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.
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
of network operations, its connectedness to Northern audiences,
in the creative talent pool here and across the North, it's
… 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
- 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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
diversity across Britain is probably more marked than it has ever
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.
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.
My focus for the
past few minutes has been on network television.
But broadcasting itself
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
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%.
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.
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.
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.
partly about visible presence.
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.
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.
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
has our enthusiasm. It