Tony Hall: The BBC is perfectly set up for future challenges
In yesterday's Observer, Director-General Tony Hall explained how the BBC will still be a hub of creativity and innovation after last week's Licence Fee negotiations with the Government. The article appears in full below.
As the dust settles after a challenging week of negotiation over funding and debate about the future of the BBC, three things are clear.
First, the BBC has negotiated a strong financial settlement from the government that gives us stability and clarity, but we should be in no doubt that the charter process will be tough.
Second, despite noises to the contrary, the BBC is as independent today as it has ever been. There has been no fundamental change in the relationship between government and corporation. Nor will there be under my watch.
Third, although the BBC used the pre-budget window of opportunity to reach a fair deal, it is not a process we would have chosen and it is not a process that should be repeated.
So how did we get here? Nearly two weeks ago, the government approached us about taking on the cost of funding free licences for the over-75s. If this had been imposed on us without compensation, we would have lost nearly a quarter of our funding.
So we went into intense negotiations with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Treasury.
Our objective was a strong deal for our audiences – the millions of people who use the BBC every day. I made it clear that I was not prepared to do the wrong deal or a deal on any terms.
But recognising the financial priorities of the government, I saw this as the chance to agree some important changes that have helped secure the BBC’s future for the next charter period. As a result of this, the BBC will be funded by the licence fee for the next charter and the government will modernise the way we define a TV licence so that people will need one to use services such as BBC iPlayer. This continues the journey of modernisation that began with the first radio licence in the 1920s; we have a commitment to return the ringfenced £150m a year being used to support broadband rollout back to BBC programmes and services; and we have a commitment to increase the licence fee by inflation in the next charter. This increase is something we have not had for seven years.
The chancellor gave me his commitment to these changes. The way this financial settlement is shaped gives us, in effect, flat funding for our content and services for the first five years of the next charter. But even with this certainty, major efficiency savings will have to be found and difficult decisions taken.
Some have said that this transfer of a welfare obligation compromises the BBC’s independence. It does not. Successive governments have used the licence fee in different ways to fund priorities that are only indirectly connected to BBC output, for example, to support broadband rollout. So this is not a new debate and last week did not mark some seismic shift in the relationship between the BBC and the government. Our independence is precious and will never be negotiated away.
However, for people to have confidence in the country’s most important news organisation, they must know that its journalists will ask the difficult questions without fear or favour. So I believe that in future the debate about the BBC’s scale and funding should be taken out of the political cycle.
Now we have fixed the funding settlement, the debate moves on to what the BBC does with that funding.
We have never been afraid of debate about our future. I am proud of what the BBC does and the quality of our output. Every day, 46 million people in the UK use our services. Every week, virtually every adult in the UK uses us for, on average, 18 hours a week. The World Service is one of Britain’s greatest exports. We are the cornerstone of the UK’s world-beating creative economy.
So what is most important is that the voice of the audience and the voice of people who care about the BBC are heard in the debate. The public are our shareholders. Their view will always be the most important.
We should be under no illusion that this is a period of high risk for the BBC. While no one wants to abolish the BBC, there will be some who want to diminish us for their own narrow interests. We must remind them that the British public do not share their views.
There will be others who want to join in the debate about public service broadcasting with ideas for reform. We will listen and learn and reflect on what we hear. We have our own plans for adapting the BBC further to become a truly internet-first organisation over the coming years, which we will set out in the autumn. I believe that they will open up even greater opportunities for our audiences and for our creative industries.
This charter review matters much more than most. It’s about something bigger than the BBC – it’s about the future of public service broadcasting, British creativity and the success of our creative economy. We face big choices. But with public support, this is the chance to renew and enhance an organisation that we all deeply care about.
It will be a tough fight ahead. But I am confident that – at the end of the process – the BBC will emerge stronger, re-energised and with its best days ahead of it.
Tony Hall is the BBC Director-General