James Heath speech at the Westminster Media Forum
I’d like to cover two things.
First, some reflections on the Charter Review process.
And, then, some thoughts on the BBC’s future and what we plan to do with the new Charter.
Charter Review story
The new Charter has been approved and should be published shortly. I’m told we are waiting for the Charter to be recorded on vellum.
How quintessentially British that the BBC’s digital future is dependent on a thousand year old tradition!
The start of a new Charter marks a pivotal moment for us. The process to get here may have been long and, at times, challenging – but we have achieved a positive outcome for the BBC and, more critically, for licence fee payers.
Throughout, we have been able to make a strong case for the BBC. The public have been incredibly supportive. As have the creative sector. And I’d like to thank Des and the inquiry for their contribution.
The debate about the BBC has moved a long way. The question in this Charter Review wasn’t whether we needed the BBC. It was what kind of BBC we needed.
It was clear in the 200,000 responses to the Charter consultation that the public, on the whole, wanted more BBC, not less.
I’d argue that this is because the BBC has managed to pull off the very difficult trick for UK public services of combining genuine world-class quality with serving everyone.
Despite huge media choice, the BBC still reaches over 95% of the UK public each week for an average of 18 hours.
And we reach people with programmes that touch their imaginations, whether that’s the Archers, great TV drama, Strictly, Planet Earth II, or my own personal favourite of recent weeks – BBC Two’s Railway Nation: A Journey in Verse, where six of Britain’s best poet captured, in verse, the human stories of those aboard the West Coast mainline journey.
To borrow a headline from another media organisation, “it’s the programmes wot won it.”
We have reached agreement with the Government on most of the big questions facing the BBC:
- On the need for an 11 year Charter to 2027 to take the BBC out of the election cycle
- On securing the licence fee as the BBC’s main funding mechanism during this period
- On maintaining the scope and scale of the BBC, including our commercial arm
- On establishing a strong unitary Board to run the BBC. Alongside Ofcom as the BBC’s first external regulator, the new governance arrangements are a major reform
- And on retaining a broad-based remit for the BBC with the creative freedom to deliver it
- There are, of course, aspects of the new Charter that we don’t agree with and we’ve said so – but, overall, we have achieved a positive outcome
The Charter backs the BBC as a great British institution at the heart of the creative sector. One whose mission is to inform, educate and entertain all its audiences:
- To fulfil a set of Public Purposes
- To reach the most people with high quality, distinctive programmes and services
- To create services that enhance public value and choice in the marketplace
- And to help carry the UK’s cultural wealth across the globe.
This is a big, bold mission. Universality, Quality, Distinctiveness. All these goals are important. We will not sacrifice one in the pursuit of the others.
Often, these goals will align. Services like BBC One, Radio 1, Radio 2 and BBC Online are popular precisely because they are both high-quality and different to the market. If our programmes are distinctive, we want more people to watch them, not less.
But sometimes these goals may be in tension. Different mixes of genre, for example, may be more distinctive but less effective at reaching diverse audiences with the content they value the most.
The BBC should make high quality programmes that might not otherwise be made. But BBC commissioners and programme-makers should not start with a gap in the market and then try to fill it. They should start with the creative idea and then decide how to create the best programmes they can.
Assessing these goals in meaningful ways will be challenging. Distinctiveness and quality are often in the eye of the beholder and tastes change over time. There needs to be sensible balance between input quotas on the one hand, and actual audience output and outcome measures, on the other. We need a system that encourages creativity and risk-taking, which are themselves pre-requisites of distinctiveness.
It will be the BBC Board’s job to decide how to balance these goals, in setting the BBC’s strategy and performance measures within the resources available.
As Ofcom set out in its statement last week, its job is not to second-guess the BBC on creative decisions but, rather, to hold the BBC to account as its external regulator.
The BBC’s Future
This new framework will, to a degree, shape the BBC’s future – so it’s important that we get it right.
If the last few years have been about restoring faith in the BBC and securing a solid foundation with the new Charter, the next few years need to be about reinventing the BBC.
The internet age presents enormous opportunities for the UK’s creative industries: new routes to global markets, new collaborations and new forms of creativity, to name a few. But it also throws up new risks and challenges.
The BBC is well-placed to help the UK seize these opportunities. We want our influence on behalf of the UK to grow in the next Charter period.
If I had to capture the BBC’s contribution in one phrase, it would be: ‘great British content, and a trusted guide – for everyone’.
This role makes the creative sector as a whole stronger. Whether in music, TV exports or news, the BBC is one of the main causes of the UK’s competitive strength.
We need to use the freedom of an 11 year Charter to fulfil our mission in new and innovative ways. We will continue to serve broadcast audiences with great British programmes – but at the same time, make the BBC more open, more personal, more mobile, and a pioneer in internet content. We need to work out how to reinvent PSB for the next generation of younger audiences.
The BBC is a platform for the country’s best creative ideas and talent – connecting them with audiences at a local, national and global level. This role is underpinned by the licence fee as investment in British creativity.
We’ve proposed the creation of BBC Studios to ensure we remain one of the best programme-makers in the world. BBC Studios – and the removal of the quotas associated with it – will increase the level of competition in the market and guarantee the BBC’s access to valuable Intellectual Property.
The investment model works online, too – where it is easier to make content but often harder to find the financial support for high-quality work. BBC Online is the only British website in the world’s top 100.
What do I mean by a trusted guide?
In a world of endless choice, global distribution platforms and, what some have called, post-fact news, the BBC provides a trusted, authoritative place where audiences can go to find out what is really happening and why. On the day after the EU referendum 53 million browsers came to us to see the result online and discover what it meant. This underlined, yet again, that we are the UK’s most trusted source of news by far.
And the final part of our role – for everyone
The BBC is probably the most used public service in the UK. Universality cannot mean doing everything for everyone. It does mean reaching everyone with things of value – of public value, but also of personal value.
Every media organisation is using technology and data to serve people better as consumers. We also do need to get better at helping audiences discover more of the programmes they love from the BBC. At the same time, the BBC should be bold in telling the public about the things they need to know, or the things they don’t yet know they are going to love. Public Service Broadcasting matters because we don’t just want what consumers like us have bought.
The fact that the BBC is still able to reach more than 95% of the population, means we are still:
- Able to inspire big conversations – whether about dancing or baking , history or politics, science or the arts
- Able to tell stories about how we live today and reflect the diversity of the UK
- And, on occasions, able to bring the country together around national moments.
Few other institutions have the power to do all these things at the same time. This is why the BBC’s public service mission is as relevant today as it ever has been.
Thank you for listening.