If our media became dominated by a few American companies, however innovative and well-intentioned, how would that affect our culture, and its ability to evolve?James Purnell, Director, Radio & Education
Date: 01.03.2017 Last updated: 01.03.2017 at 20.00
James Purnell, Director, Radio & Education, gave the following lecture at The Speaker's House on 1 March 2017.
Check against delivery
I want to thank the Speaker for his kind invitation to speak tonight. And Maria for the thoughtful way she looked after the BBC brief.
We welcomed the Government’s White Paper because it reaffirms our mission and gives us stability, with five years of guaranteed funding and an 11 year Charter.
From Maria to John Whittingdale to the current Secretary of State, we also had interlocutors who were courteous, interested in the BBC’s success and the public interest, and I want to thank them for how they conducted the whole process.
It’s a pleasure to be back in Parliament.
I once tried to explain to an American what a Member of Parliament does. I struggled for a while, but then a light of recognition came on and she said – “oh, yes, I watch you on C-SPAN. I love that show!”
This speech is being broadcast on BBC Parliament on Saturday. It’s remarkable that it’s less than three decades since Ian Gow made the first televised speech in Parliament.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time we’d heard live speeches from the chambers. Radio went in first. But only ten years before.
Nye Bevan was perhaps the first to argue for televising Parliament, in 1959. Robin Day followed a few years later.
Few people had been able to resist either of those individuals, let alone both, and yet it took another 30 years for the cameras to arrive.
We were warned that MPs would start fighting in corners to attract attention.
That members of the public would jump from the gallery.
Most worryingly, in 1979, a Conservative MP named John Stokes cautioned that “television would ruin the character and the intimacy of the House… Every idiosyncrasy will be seized upon, and if an Honourable Member should be asleep - and sleep is sometimes the best thing when some of our colleagues are speaking - the cameras will not fail to want to have a close-up.”
Perish the thought of disturbing the great Parliamentary tradition of the post-prandial nap.
Yet, far from ruining the character of the House, the cameras have brought the Parliament to the country.
It’s hard to imagine our recent history without sounds and images from Parliament – Robin Cook’s resignation speech, surrounded by friends and rebels. Margaret Thatcher visibly enjoying herself at her last PMQs. Or at his first PMQs, David Cameron winning his encounter with Tony Blair, by leaning forward to say “he was the future once”.
Technology’s advance has been culture’s boon. Parliament has embraced technology, and now offers a first class website. And we are extremely proud of our Paliamentary reporters and production teams, with Yesterday in Parliament reaching three million people a week and the Parliament Channel at a record level of two million a month.
That is the simple argument I want to make tonight. I want to welcome how technology is changing broadcasting and how broadcasting is changing our culture. But then I want to issue a warning: we will only get the best for our culture if we have the right regulation.
The Future of Culture
British politics has always had a complicated relationship with culture. Culture was what politicians did after voting, outside working hours. Or it was thought to exist in the past, curated by a Department for National Heritage. We seemed proud of our cultural past but lacked confidence that we had a thriving culture in the present, let alone in the future. We had cameras in Parliament almost a decade before we had a Ministry of Culture.
Culture sounded too European. Well, too French really. And we did cultural policy differently from the French.
In France, mayors and ministers choose artistic directors. They intervene in the cultural direction of theatres and operas. President Sarkozy named the Director General of France Television, over-riding the regulator who was supposed to do it.
Britain started from a different place and so took a different road. We started with the BBC, and with the Arts Council.
John Maynard Keynes established the Arts Council in the shadow of the Second World War, when culture mattered perhaps more than it ever had before. The Council was formed at arm’s length from government. Cultural decisions were taken away from ministers and officials.
The BBC wasn’t set up on such a basis – during the General Strike, Churchill believed he could phone up the Director General to tell him what to broadcast. But Reith managed to resist that pressure and over successive generations, the independence of the BBC was established. By precedent as much as by regulation.
In creating the BBC, Britain gave an example to the world of how the right application of new technology could democratise culture. There are still people alive today who can remember what it was like before the whole country could hear the King. Reith himself said that, before broadcasting, “most of the good things of this world [were] badly distributed and most of the people [had] to go without them.”
With the wireless, suddenly, the best of everything was available to everyone. Churchill, smoking a cigar while recording his finest hour, spoke to the nation as the Battle of Britain began.
And through the BBC, with the Third Programme, and then the Arts Council, Britain made sure the funding of the best culture was also secure.
So, even without a ministry of culture, Britain managed to develop a model that had the best of all worlds.
A thriving market alongside ambitious public provision.
An openness to American imports made possible by our confidence in our own creative industries.
We never tried to keep Hollywood out, because we were confident that our stuff was good enough to compete - and it was.
That success was built on two foundations - investment and distribution. We funded wonderful work. And we made sure audiences could find it.
But today, we have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that both of these are under threat. The good news is that there’s a way to rescue them.
The Future of Content
Let’s assess the nature and the scale of the threat.
Spending on British television programmes has fallen by a quarter in ten years.
Newspaper revenues have halved.
So have those of the British music industry.
That’s the view from one side. But there is another perspective. The Economist reported last month that this is a golden age for couch potatoes.
Netflix’s revenues have tripled in five years. Its annual content budget is more than the BBC’s entire income.
There are 350,000 podcast strands available on iTunes. 13 million individual episodes. It would take around 50 lifetimes to listen to them all.
So, this is a Golden Age for consumers.
British talent benefits, as well. The BBC’s House of Cards got remade as Netflix’s first blockbuster drama, while the Night Manager and the Crown shared five awards at the Golden Globes.
But here is the rub. The Crown cost over £100 million. That could have funded BBC2 for three months. Sky and BT spend as much on the Premier League rights every year as BBC One and Channel 4 do on programmes.
As The Economist also said “entertainment has in some ways become less democratic, not more. Technology is making the rich richer, skewing people’s consumption of entertainment towards the biggest hits and the most powerful platforms. This world is dominated by an oligarchy of giants, including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix and Disney.”
Every single one of them American.
If our media became dominated by a few American companies, however innovative and well-intentioned, how would that affect our culture, and its ability to evolve?
Because for all their riches, Netflix and Amazon Video have so far only made a handful of programmes that reflect British society.
So, yes this is a golden age for British industry and talent. It is a golden age for consumers. But will it be a golden age for our culture?
The Future of the Audience
It’s not that our stuff is no longer as good as Hollywood’s.
In December, the Guardian chose the best 50 television programmes of 2016. More than half were British, with Planet Earth first, Fleabag second and Happy Valley fourth in their list.
British radio is the best in the world.
For all the explosion in podcasts, the BBC is the leading provider in the UK and the second largest in the world.
And public service broadcasting hasn’t fallen out of fashion. In 2016, OFCOM surveyed young audiences, and found that they wanted the same things from public service broadcasting as the rest of the audience - high quality programmes, made in the UK.
They want the same things, but they consume in different ways. Where older audiences turn on the television and surf through channels, younger ones search the internet first.
The BBC responded by moving BBC Three online. It was a painful decision, but is helping the BBC learn skills that will in time transform the whole organisation.
Radio 1’s transformation started even earlier. Its YouTube channel now has 3.5 million subscribers with over 1.1 billion views since launch - it’s by far the biggest radio service on YouTube.
The Future of British Content
So this is by no means a counsel of despair. But the position is precarious.
If investment in British content continues to fall, our cultural success will be in jeopardy.
How do we avoid that? How do we get the best of all worlds again?
First, we need to grow. That will be mainly down to us, the industry. And it’s starting to happen.
The British music industry returned to growth in 2015. Radio industry revenues are the highest they’ve been for 10 years.
The children’s sector is changing too and is likely to grow in the near future. Netflix, Amazon, Sky, the Cartoon Network, and Disney are all ramping up their commissioning from British producers.
Newspapers face the biggest challenge, so platforms like Google and Facebook need to help find models that will fund journalism, as Mark Zuckerberg recognised last month.
The BBC is playing its part too. We have launched a partnership with the newspaper industry to support 150 local reporters.
And so is government. They’ve recognised the creative industries as one of the key sectors for the UK economy in its Industrial Strategy. Thanks to tax credits, an extra £2 billion has gone into films and television programmes. And last month, OFCOM announced it was going to deregulate commercial radio.
The Future of the BBC
These moves are welcome because they grow the overall cake.
I gather Housman may not have been writing about the BBC when he wrote these lines which, if we are not careful, will apply to us anyway:
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.
The Government are currently consulting on creating a contestable fund, and then piloting it over the next three years.
But if my analysis here is right, then the policy goal should be to grow the industry, so we can increase investment. We hope that any such fund would eventually be financed from an extra revenue source, rather than from slicing up the licence fee.
A New Charter
The BBC’s role is the same today as it was in 1922. It is to bring the best of everything, to everyone.
To do that, as Tony Hall said in January, we need to reinvent public service broadcasting, for a new generation.
Over the last six years, the amount of time young people spend watching and listening to the BBC has fallen by a fifth.
This not just a problem for the BBC. It is a problem for our culture. It’s hard to ban fake news – but we can support real news. Today, 65 per cent of young people consume BBC News every week – with Radio 1 reaching twice as many as News at Ten.
To continue to deliver our public purpose, we need to stop this decline by investing.
Over the last 5 years, the BBC has found nearly £700 million in annual savings.
We’re now starting to deliver another £150m. This is on top of savings which have already brought our overheads down to 6% - in contrast to 9 per cent amongst our private sector competitors.
These savings will also be invested.
In my division, for example, that will mean CBeebies and CBBC experimenting with helping children be creative. Rather than just watching programmes, we want to help them explore their world. That’s always been a BBC tradition, right from the start of Blue Peter. Now we will be taking those traditions into digital.
We’ll invest in Radio 1 to reach more young people with new music, news and documentaries. And we’ll update our iPlayer Radio app so that we can personalise what we offer you – your favourite radio shows, at the touch of a button.
And in education, we’ll explore new ways of reaching audiences too.
We’ve got many of the world’s best cultural institutions. Our museums and universities. The RSC and the National Theatre. The Manchester and Edinburgh Festivals.
The BBC is their loudhailer.
Last year’s Shakespeare Season reached 23 million people with more than half saying they liked Shakespeare more as a result.
This Autumn’s Blue Planet 2 has already led to 15 new scientific papers, pushing technology to its limits to explore the depths of the world’s oceans that no human has ever seen before.
We want to build on that great tradition.
Digital audiences love ideas. They are hungry for self-improvement, and want to learn about the world - but they want that on their mobile as much as on their TV or radio set. They're hungry for knowledge, but at the same time they want entertainment. Just as the Home Service emerged as a way of informing and entertaining an audience with a new appetite for knowledge driven by technological change, so this new audience is seeking new ways of being entertained, educated and informed.
We're going to try to reach this audience in a lot of new ways. As a first step, we want to expose our best short- and medium-form content to them in a mobile environment that's easy to use and built for audiences on the move. We're also going to be working with our partners inside and beyond the BBC to create thoughtful content aimed at this audience. And we're going to see how the BBC can help people consuming that content make even more of it, by learning more about themselves and showing them onward education journeys.
We call this scheme of work Ideas Service, and like the old Home Service we see it emerging from the technology of our era. Whether it will be a fully-fledged Service like the Home Service is not yet clear - it may look quite different to that. But our mission is the same: to educate, entertain and inform using the latest technologies in the most creative ways.
Like all experiments, we don’t know what the results will be.
But we think it's interesting, exciting and important, because of what we’ll learn about what the audience wants from content that is internet-first rather than a transfer from radio or TV.
Throughout we will be confident enough to know that if it doesn't work, we will admit it and try something else.
The one thing we do know is that if we get it right, the future of our culture will be supported. Because we will have British institutions, telling British stories, so that we continue to be able to shape our way of life, our customs, ideas and beliefs.
Every generation adopts its technology so that the community can tell its stories. Benedict Anderson located the birth of the idea of the nation in the invention of the printing press which allowed people to realise that they shared a way of life in a shared territory.
We are in the midst of a new technological revolution and we are inventing again the way we tell our story.
The Future of Regulation
Some of the responsibility for that reinvention lies with us, the BBC.
But you can help.
You can help by giving the BBC permission to innovate.
The White Paper confirmed the BBC’s mission.
I know some of you here worried about the government’s requirement that the BBC become more distinctive.
But actually we want to do that too, as long as distinctiveness is properly defined.
The definition in the Charter is fine.
But the small text of the Charter and Agreement slides into micro-management.
It contradicts OFCOM’s general duty to minimise regulation where possible by assuming that all the BBC’s quotas should be kept or increased. In doing so, it risks making the BBC less distinctive, particularly by harming our ability to reach young people.
Take news for example. The Charter small print suggests increasing the amount of news, current affairs, information and social impact on Radios 1 and 2. That’s a good creative challenge. But it’s a lousy regulatory one. If you just increased the amount of news, our audience would fall, and fewer people would listen to news. Better to challenge the BBC to increase the number of young people hearing the news, and let us find the creative solution.
Or take social impact. Last year, Radio 1’s Million Hours Appeal got its audience to volunteer over a million hours for charity. But that was achieved by making appeals within programmes, rather than making programmes about the appeal. Regulation should focus on impact, on how many people we get to take part, not on how many hours we make. Scheduling more hours of social impact programming risks reducing our social impact.
One of the reasons we embraced external regulation is that we respect OFCOM’s record of taking decisions on evidence.
We trust that OFCOM will therefore focus on giving the BBC permission to innovate, so that we can have more impact.
Tightening quotas would make that harder. I can’t tell you how – that’s the risk of excessive regulation: it imposes an opportunity cost. It closes off avenues you didn’t know you might take.
Nor should this just concern the BBC. There’s no guarantee that listeners lost to Radio 1 will end up on Capital. Much more likely they will go to Spotify or Apple. We all need to reinvent radio, to make sure the next generation grows up with a radio habit.
But there is one more urgent thing Parliament can do.
In the 2003 Communications Act, Parliament took a far-sighted decision. It insisted that the Public Service Broadcasters should be at the top of the programme guide on satellite, cable and DTT. That reform has worked well.
But as audiences move to on-demand services like iPlayer that provision risks becoming less effective. New TV set-top boxes and Smart TVs only have a limited number of slots on their front page. If those places are filled by the content from the platform owners or from Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, or Spotify , that leaves little room for the Public Service Broadcasters.
That matters for our culture and OFCOM should have the power to intervene in on-demand environments, not just linear ones, as now to secure prominence for public service content. An amendment was put down to the Digital Economy Bill that would do just that, and we would urge Lords to support it later this month.
The future of broadcasting isn’t the only thing that will shape the future of our culture. But it matters.
Since the wireless, Britain has always had the best of all worlds. Broadcasting brought the best of everything to everyone.
It can continue to do so, but only if we innovate as broadcasters, and you regulate effectively as legislators. By far the greatest share of responsibility falls to the industry – but by thinking about how you can increase how much gets spent on journalism, original programmes, music, connecting people and projecting the cultural life of the UK, you lay the foundations.
By regulating to support innovation, rather than restricting it, you can make sure that money gets spent to ensure younger audiences are as well served as their parents have been.
And by making sure audiences can find British content, you can make us part of a shared culture, telling stories about the whole country, representing everyone.
On the 12 June 1945, Keynes made a speech introducing the Arts Council. In it, he said that he doubted the public “realized what an important thing has happened. State patronage of the arts has crept in. It has happened in a very English, informal, unostentatious way - half baked if you like”.
It was time for policy to finish the pie by creating the Arts Council.
Seventy years later we run the opposite risk - that we may not realise what an important thing we could be losing. That in a very English, informal, un-strategic way we lose control of our culture. No one wills it. Nor has it happened yet. But if we don’t act soon our culture could soon be mostly baked on the other side of the Atlantic.