Against all expectation, I am keeping one of my New Year’s resolutions. Most of them have gone by the wayside. By February most of us have given up but one of my resolutions stays intact. I am still trying to learn more.
That’s true of most of us. We tell pollsters we want to learn more. Half of us apparently feel we’re not reaching our full potential.
We know that because we ask our audiences. Ten years ago only half of us thought that entertainment should be about learning as well as having fun. Today, that’s grown to two thirds.
Fake news is a serious concern but we should not be too despondent because today’s media is also the greatest educational resource the world has ever seen.
Fifteen years ago, if you’d listened to Radio 3’s CD Review and wanted to hear the chosen version, you’d have to take a trip to a classical music shop. Today, most of the picks are available instantly on Spotify on the ‘Building a Library’ playlist helpfully curated by someone calling themselves ‘Camembert’. (Or you can listen to the piece in full on Sunday Morning on Radio 3.)
People are taking charge of their learning and this is about more than learning new skills to stay employable. Learning is not just a means to an end. It’s about meaning — about asking and answering the big questions. Not in an FR Leavis kind of way — there’s no canon, no set texts, nobody is handing down tablets of stone. It’s about working out what we want from life, and learning the empathy that, as Peter Bazalgette argued recently, “is the glue that enables families, communities and countries to function in a civil and civilised manner”.
Yet our viewers and listeners tell us they’re frustrated. They love the range of knowledge available today but they are worried about filter bubbles, where algorithms guess what we want to read and thereby separate us from information that disagrees with our viewpoint. They often spend more time searching through social media than they do reading. They want to know what it adds up to. They want to be able to reflect, share, challenge, create. They don’t know what they don’t know — and want someone to point them towards the big questions and the new answers. They don’t just want what customers like them bought; they want what citizens like them thought. And sometimes intriguing challenges to what citizens like them thought.
When there is so much information and misinformation, the BBC can be a trusted guide through that abundance.
This summer, in science, the BBC will be asking how the world is changing. Or, rather, we will be finding the right scientist to answer the question which will actually be asked by audiences. We’re working with the Science Museum, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society and many others. It will be the biggest conversation around science the country has seen.
This autumn Neil McGregor will present a new Radio 4 series on Faith and Society. Through a partnership between the BBC and the British Museum, Radio 4 will tell the story of humankind’s search for meaning, and the role and expression of belief in the lives of communities around the world, over the last 40,000 years.
Then, in our spare time after solving the meaning of life and the future of the world, we’ll turn to civilisation. Well, Civilisations — inspired by Kenneth Clark’s seminal documentary series, but in many ways the opposite of the original. Rather than a single view of civilisation, we will have three presenters. Rather than looking at Western civilisation, we will look at many, and question the very concept of civilisation.
The BBC’s new Charter started on the 1st of January. So we also had a new year’s resolution — to reinvent public service broadcasting for a new generation. Some asked whether, with young audiences having so much more choice, the BBC would have to lower its standards to chase younger audiences.
But that’s to misunderstand what younger generations want. OFCOM surveyed them and found that they want the same things from broadcasting as their parents. We just have to achieve those goals differently. That means new types of programmes and new ways of distributing them.
Most of all, the new generation wants to be involved. So this series of programmes is also an experiment for what the BBC makes, how we work with other organisations and how we involve the audience.
This new Charter will last for 11 years, and will take the BBC to its centenary. The BBC that turns a hundred will have come a long way from its beginnings. It won’t be the Auntie that dispensed culture from on high. It will be much more of a thoughtful friend. Prodding us to keep our resolutions, helping us ask and find answers.
Just as any friendship, it will be mutual. With our audiences asking the questions, helping choose and curate, reflecting and taking part.
And with our partners, the great intellectual institutions of the UK, providing most of the expertise.
In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, a ten year old girl meets the eponymous hero, a bus driver who writes modernist poetry. “A bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson!”, she shouts in delight but also unintended slight. Why shouldn’t a bus driver like Emily Dickinson? Culture and knowledge are for everyone.
Paterson doesn’t carry a smartphone, because it distracts him from his listening and his writing, from the timetable of his life. It’s a nostalgic film, for a time of more deliberate pursuits and stable lives.
We can’t turn the clock back and we would not want to even if we could. We can try, though, to get the best of both worlds. The best of the notebook and the smartphone. A wider range of knowledge, better understood. Expertise, without the elitism.
In the next year, the BBC is going to try. That is the BBC’s resolution not just this year but every year.