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24 September 2014
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Caroline Thomson

Director of Public Policy

The Mission for Public Service Broadcasting in a competitive digital environment

Wednesday 15 January 2003
Printable version

Speech made at the Oxford Media Convention, Oxford University

On this panel this afternoon we are asked to think about the role and remit of public service broadcasters in a competitive digital environment.

This seems to be a question that comes up about once every decade in a big way – usually associated with a new piece of legislation or with the renewal of the BBC's Charter.

Each time the merchants of gloom – from my perspective, perhaps of joy if you work for News International – say that the time has come to stop intervening in the broadcasting market, that the market alone will provide all that everyone needs and that only minimal competition regulation is needed.

Or, at the most, they concede only that PSBs should exist but with a very tight, narrow remit.

Without wishing to appear complacent, each time the argument has been lost and indeed public service broadcasting – whether in the BBC or in ITV or Channel Four and now Five - has gone on to flourish.

"Aha", everyone says, "but this time it is different" - digital will remove the raison d'etre for PSB if not now then at least by the time of digital switchover since by then market failure will no longer exist. As in the publishing world, all tastes will be catered for.

And in one way they are right. Some of the old arguments are more difficult as the number of channels proliferates. For example, one of the things which has struck me most forcibly since I took over this job is the opposition there has been to new digital BBC services which we felt were undeniably at the heart of our traditional Reithian remit.

Everyone expects there to be problems with getting consent to launch BBC THREE or the new Children's channels, but the controversy surrounding BBC FOUR – traditional heartland in the mould of Radio Three and Radio Four – took us all by surprise. As did the strength of feeling against our plans to launch the digital curriculum – approved, I'm happy to say, last week.

Yet, I would argue that opposition to these services is based on a view of the public purpose of public service broadcasting which is not only too narrow now, but has always been too narrow.

The case for public funding for the BBC, or regulatory intervention to support ITV and Channels Four and Five, has never been based on a simple market failure argument relating to certain genres of programmes.

The tradition of public service programming in the UK has, since its inception – and this has been its great strength - always been a broad one, not one based on particular genres. Coronation Street and EastEnders have always lain at its heart, as much as Doctor Zhivago and Daniel Deronda.

And it's within this broad tradition, however much it may irritate our opponents, that the case for public service broadcasting will continue to be made, even in the age of television plenty.

Let me be clear, the licence fee is an enormous privilege and an enormous responsibility. It is right and proper that we should have to justify our continued access to it, and that that access should only come if we are seen to be living up to the obligations it brings.

Equally ITV and Channel Four have to justify their privileged access to spectrum and in C4's case the great responsibility of having neither shareholders nor Governors to whom they are answerable to ensure they serve the public interest.

So, how would I justify our privileged life?

To my mind the answer lies in what until recently had been two rather unfashionable words but ones which have now come much more into their own. It comes down to 'citizenship' and 'society'.

At the start of the 21st century, I believe that PSB continues to have a central role within the UK's broadcasting ecology to deliver content which serves British society by meeting the fundamental needs of UK citizens.

What commercial broadcasters without PSB responsibilities (and here, to be clear when I talk of PSBs I am including ITV and Channels Four and Five), what they do is deliver principally to audiences as consumers because that is the way in which they best (and rightly) serve shareholders' and advertisers' interests.

PSB doesn't work like this – yes, it aims to deliver to audiences as consumers but it has a raison d'etre beyond that, it has to serve their needs as citizens, too.

How does it do this? I would argue there are three main ways. It serves the interests of citizens in UK society, in UK democracy and in UK culture.

First society:

First and foremost this is about supporting communities locally, nationally and globally. At our best we help them to connect and communicate.

Locally – through radio and now through online. Local radio used to be the Cinderella of the BBC, when times got hard it was the thing we always thought of axing.

Not now. Now it lies increasingly close to the heart of what we should be doing. For example in Hull, where the local radio station has been turned into an open centre, offering people an internet café, but also where we have teamed up with Kingston Communications to run a really exciting local broadband pilot linking local schools and providing scope for community drama and other activities.

In online, the BBCi Where I Live sites are really coming into their own. For example, at the time of the countryside march all the sites with an interest did their own features and message boards, then BBC hosted a joined up chat on the day after the march between communities across the country with interests in the issues raised, with a Government minister, official of the Countryside Alliance and someone opposed to the CA case to answer queries.

15 sites took part. Finding local communities with an interest and linking them up with other local communities with the same interest – that's one of the key things we are about.

Beyond the local community we have a role in bringing the community together nationally and last year of all years was an illustration of this.

Over half the population of the UK watched at least one of the special Jubilee programmes on the BBC, then there was the World Cup coverage by us and ITV and of course the Queen Mother's funeral.

But PSBs also have a key role in serving the full diversity of British society – explaining ourselves to ourselves and even encouraging us to laugh at ourselves.

Channel Four has a particularly honourable track record here. But on the BBC the BBC TWO Islam season would be a case in point as would the Kumars at Number 42, and of course our recent launch of BBC Radio 1Xtra and the Asian network.

And then finally globally - the motto above the World Service of 'Nation shall speak peace unto Nation' is now uncomfortably apt. And just a month after we have celebrated the World Service's 70th birthday with a broadcast, which illustrated just how powerful a medium of communication radio still is.

We had a day of special programming presented from the site of the World Service's first re-broadcast – the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town.

Thousands took part from around the world through phone and e-mail and their birthday party concert linked five countries across four continents and was broadcast on all 43 language services including in Afghanistan, a country where music could not be heard two years ago.

So we have a major role in bringing communities together at all levels, but we also serve the interests of citizens in society in a plethora of other ways – not least through lifelong learning opportunities.

Our recent experiments with online and interactive back up to our big landmark factual programmes have been a stunning success and show how if you harness the new technologies to the old television skills you can really make a difference.

To accompany The Blue Planet, some 1,000 viewers undertook a formal course in marine biology; and 8,000 fans of Alan Titchmarsh's How to be a Gardener were able to sign up for a course created in conjunction with the Royal Horticultural Society.

The second way in which PSBs serve the interests of all citizens is in UK democracy:

By empowering citizens with the information with which to make informed democratic choices through authoritative, impartial news.

It is no accident that on 11 September 33 million British citizens watched, listened or accessed a BBC news bulletin.

But beyond that in the last election we started some very interesting experiments. For example, Vote 2001 online material – the Why Vote? site, which provided a forum where those who were not intending to vote debated with those who were.

But the thing the BBC is most proud of is its absolute determination to bring news to all audiences, through specially produced bulletins and services designed to attract people whatever their tastes and age.

Our children's service carries three bulletins of Newsround each day. Radio 1 has an honourable tradition through Newsbeat, which was carried a step further at the election when it acquired its own specialist politics reporter. Radio 1Xtra is continuing in this vein with a dedicated and newly recruited news team and when it launches next month BBC THREE will not just have its own news service but current affairs and satire shows as well.

No purely commercial service could ever justify this sort of investment. It plays a key part in making our democracy work.

And finally we serve the interests of all citizens in UK culture:

This has long been a crucial component of all PSBs, however, it may be in the future we are coming to a parting of the ways between the BBC and the commercially funded PSBs as the competitive climate and the ownership changes allowed in the Communications Bill will undoubtedly make it more difficult for those companies to invest in UK content in the way they have done in the past.

Already, after all, we have seen Channel Four move its reliance on US imports from the margins of its existence to almost its USP, to such an extent that when it launched a digital channel to make money it was E4, a channel heavily dependent on US imports.

In contrast the BBC's tradition of investing in UK content is, if anything more pronounced than ever. Gone are the days of the seventies and eighties when Dallas and Starsky and Hutch graced our peak time schedules.

Last year the BBC spent around £1.2 billion on new British programmes, over £100 million more than the year before.

CBeebies is a good example: we are committed to making around 90% of its output in the UK/EU. This compares with the other children's channels, most of which have less than 10% of their schedule made in the UK. And, of course, the key point is that audiences in this case love the British output. Within a year of its launch CBeebies is already the number one UK children's channel.

Our support for UK production means we are able ourselves to run a flourishing in-house production business. But more than that, it means we can invest in independent productions too. In 2001/2 we increased our overall investment in independent productions to £257 million spent with 151 different companies. This year we'll be investing even more.

Our in house production base helps us unearth and train new talent.

Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais had a programme commissioned which Stephen first made when he was taking part in a BBC trainee assistant producer scheme. That programme became the hit comedy series The Office.

Last year we invested £40 million in 3,700 training courses for over 18,500 people inside and outside the BBC. People trained by the BBC can now be found throughout UK broadcasting.

And of course we are absolutely at the forefront of UK cultural expression above all in our support for music and the performing arts.

The BBC spends more each year on the arts in the UK than the Arts Council itself. In classical music we support five national orchestras and the Proms but our remit runs wider.

Radio 1 organises live open air concerts throughout the UK every summer and the Music Live festival this year brought concerts to literally hundreds of towns and villages throughout the UK.

I could go on and on, we have taken over Channel Four's role as the patron of the UK film industry for example.

But I know just how aggravating long lists of the BBC's virtues are to audiences.

The point here is that this is what I understand Tessa Jowell to mean when she talked of the licence fee as "the venture capital of the creative industries". We have an absolute obligation to use it to support a wide range of UK culture and this is not only what we are proudest of doing, but what we intend to do even better in the future.

For the BBC the crucial phrase is that we exist 'to make great programmes which enrich people's lives'. Enrich. In other words our task is not just about eye balls watching a flickering screen – it must help people connect, make them better informed, offer them opportunities to acquire new skills, help them relate to their neighbours but also extend their horizons to the rest of the world. By doing this I would argue it plays a significant role in UK society. Not least in supporting and promoting our cultural base.

Not so much the Himalayan heights of market failure, more the broad, well watered Savannah on which much else can flourish.


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