Press Office

Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

Speeches – 2010

Caroline Thomson

Caroline Thomson

Chief Operating Officer

Public service content – funding and the changing scope of the PSBs

Westminster Media Forum

Check against delivery

Of all the acres of coverage following the publication of the BBC's Strategy Review last week, I thought I would start this speech by highlighting one particular comment piece.

It was David Mitchell writing in Sunday's Observer. In it he talked about the BBC "existing in a nest of paradoxes".

It was an odd sort of nest he was talking about, since his piece also compared the BBC to a frog or a bicycle.

Rather to my disappointment, perhaps because I've always been secretly revolted by them, he concluded that we were a frog. To him it meant we were a perfect whole, cut a bit off and we would no longer be croaking and leaping by the pond. For me, the BBC is more like a bicycle – one of the great inventions of the last 100 or so years; an efficient, sustainable way of delivering a service (be it transport or broadcasting); a machine which has a range of essential features – wheels, brakes, a saddle, handlebars, a chain – and others which could be added or updated or even replaced as necessary – gears, lights, milometers and so on. A superb machine which does what it says on the label – in our case, public service broadcasting.

But if a bicycle is easily recognisable, public service broadcasting hasn't always been. So when we do a strategy review, as we announced last week, we start not with questions like: how big should the BBC be or where are we in the political cycle? We start with: what is the BBC for? Get the answer to that right and everything else – editorial priorities, size and scope, role online – everything else flows from it.

The BBC has a constant and enduring mission: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. That is not up for debate. It does that by delivering public value, serving audiences as citizens as well as consumers.

It is owned by the public and it carries out its mission within a public space – independent of pressures from commercial considerations or from government.

The BBC's public space is one where everyone can enter, no matter how wealthy or poor they are, and within which they can share ideas, cultures, experiences and debate the great issues of the day.

There should be no pay walls in public space, no barriers between the public and the news, services and information they need. This space is also inhabited by other organisations – libraries, universities, museums, national parks – a whole plethora of institutions without which Britain would not be Britain.

This public space means that over almost 90 years the BBC has established a unique relationship with the British public. The key is the extent to which it is valued and trusted – it looses that at its peril.

So the BBC, like the bicycle, designed for one age, has remained and is remainining even more relevant in the next. From radio, through television, from analogue to digital. The widespread prediction that we would lose relevance amid a new ubiquity of content has proved false. Indeed, our role as a trusted guide and setter of standards may even have become more important – more of this later.

But because the external environment has changed beyond recognition over the last two years – explosive growth in digital, big changes in audience behaviour and a commercial sector facing real strain and new pressures – we must respond. We need to articulate our public service mission and our values more clearly and consistently than ever before. We must be prepared to define the boundaries of our own public space – know our limits.

One of the most intense areas of debate over the last 18 months has been the BBC's market impact. It's a debate with a broad range of views.

First, there is a small but influential group of critics and vested interests for whom whatever proposals we make will never be enough. These critics aren't interested in a healthy, flourishing BBC – their underlying objective is death by a thousand cuts. But secondly, beyond them, there is a far, far bigger group who support the principle of public service broadcasting and even the BBC itself but have reasoned and legitimate concerns both about the BBC's existing boundaries and about its future ambitions.

We are right to stand up to the first group – the public expect nothing less. But the second group deserve answers, and changes in behaviour.

We need to listen more closely than we have in the past to these legitimate concerns and be more sensitive to the pressures this group faces.

For too long the BBC has been in the world of "both/and". But we can't do everything and, after years of expansion of our home services, we are right to propose some reductions. We need to create more space for others. We need to move to the world of "either/or".

Our new strategy to address all these issues is built around four key principles.

First and most importantly it recognises that our public space has to be populated with outstanding output.

We will refocus licence fee investment around five clear priorities: world class journalism; inspiring knowledge, culture and music; ambitious UK drama and comedy; outstanding children's content; and events of universal resonance.

We will focus on the areas which most clearly build public value and which are most at risk of being ignored or under-invested in by commercial players.

We will curtail our spending on acquired programmes and invest in UK production.

We know that audiences feel quality in television has declined in recent years. That there's a lack of fresh and innovative ideas. The BBC must rise to this challenge – as the Financial Times put it last week: the BBC is "a vastly positive influence on British cultural life. Not only does it produce much excellent programming, it also forces commercial rivals to live up to its own standards". To continue to play this role will demand a relentless focus on quality.

Secondly, our strategy review will deliver a BBC doing fewer things better.

The review is ambitious in its aim to set boundaries and leave space for others. In local media it makes commitments about the limits of our online presence and promises we will never launch services more local than we are now. But it's around digital radio and online that most argument so far has centred.

The recommended closure of 6 Music was a tough decision and one we haven't taken lightly. We were aware, even before the Twitters set in, of the love there was for the network amongst its devoted band of enthusiasts.

6 Music is quite simply a good station – unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps!), however, all the BBC's services are loved by some, and none, I'm pleased to say, are poor quality. For us, as managers, defining the BBC's boundaries and releasing resources to drive quality, there isn't the luxury of closing something no one cares about. We have to look at issues like: how many people listen to this station and none other, how does the service relate to the rest of the market (for 6 Music the answer is that the average age of its listeners at 37 is at the heart of the demographic served by commercial radio). Should the BBC really have three popular music stations? And could the money be better used elsewhere? In 6 Music's case, the funds released will be kept within radio and specifically within digital radio to build quality in the remaining digital stations and drive digital take-up. Building a policy of a closer relationship netween digital stations and their mother ships – Radio 7 moving closer to being Radio 4 Extra. Fewer, bigger, better.

Online is a different matter. The BBC online site is universally admired – and we will remain absolutely committed to free online news as a core feature in our public space. However, lacking physical limitations like spectrum and studio space, our online services have grown in too many directions for their own good. Their quality and coherence have sometimes suffered.

Our critics have a point when they say that the limits of what the BBC will and won't do in the online space are unclear.

Excellence and quality are as important online as in TV and radio. Online content has to sing. Our proposals are about delivering this by imposing a clear remit on BBC Online, and re-shaping the service with a focus on the five editorial priorities, and those alone.

This will re-balance BBC Online with an emphasis on distinctive content and services which provide greater, long-term value to the audience.

Thirdly, and finally, to revert to the bicycle metaphor. We will make this machine work better not just by removing some parts which have served their time and not just by modernising and updating other parts to ensure excellent performance. We will deliver greater value by making the bicycle go faster – we will make the licence fee work harder for the wider economy and reduce the cost of running the BBC by a quarter: from 12p in a licence fee pound today to under 9p by the end of the Charter in 2016.

We will also strive to make every licence fee pound benefit the wider UK economy by at least £2, and spread that value more evenly across the UK. Whilst quality will be our number one priority, we can also better share the benefits of stable licence fee investment in the creative economies.

These proposals are our answer to a set of challenges laid down last summer by our governing body, the BBC Trust.

The Trust will now take the proposals and consult the public about them before arriving at its own view about the strategic way forward for the BBC.

But the strategy review is part of a journey. Over the last five years we have been changing the BBC, and we want things to change further at the BBC. Our ambition is for us to be confident and proud, yes. But also open and welcoming. To recognise where we have gone wrong and what we could do better. To be a good partner and as we change ourselves to be a catalyst for change in others.

The British public want us to remain central to their lives and the life of the whole UK – accurate, impartial, creative, original and passionate about what we do.

Thank you very much.

BBC Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thomson's speech to Westminster Media Forum on Wednesday 10 March 2010: Public service content – funding and the changing scope of the PSBs.

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