The BBC For the Next Generation
This is not the first speech I’ve delivered to you, here in Oxford. Although some of you may be delighted to hear that it will be my last. Nevertheless, let me open with a spoiler alert. If you’re hoping for barbed comments or sniping from me today, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. It was Stanley Baldwin, I think, who said:
“As you leave the ship, never spit on the deck.”
A little indelicate perhaps. Not quite the form of words I’d choose. But it’s advice I have every intention of following! Unlike possibly some departing BBC captains or ship mates. So this speech is not an attempt to grab headlines. But I hope it will be helpful – both for this audience and for the new Board – if I highlight some of the key issues which I believe they need to grapple with most urgently.
If you think back to 2015, a time when I was relatively new in post, you’ll remember that I made the case for intelligent reform of the BBC’s governance structure. Retaining the good but also changing where necessary. I believe the new structure set out in the Charter achieves just that.
Last year, we were knee-deep in Charter Review, fighting to ensure the views of the public were heard. Today, I’m here for the last time as BBC Trust Chairman. With a new Charter in place. A new governance structure I believe will deliver clarity and accountability. And a clear mandate from the public about the BBC they want in the future.
The BBC’s strengths
It has been a busy two years or so, so, let’s take a look at where the new Board is starting from.
The public is clear they want no fundamental change to its mission – they want the BBC to inform, to educate and yes, to entertain. And they totally support its broader public purposes. 95% of licence fee payers still use the BBC every week, for an average of over 18 hours, despite all the other available competitive offering. And it’s not just in the UK – the BBC’s international services now reach nearly 350 million people across the world every week.
Now, I knew much of that before becoming Chair. But what has impressed me the most is not so much the stats or the facts of the BBC. It’s the People. Specifically, the values and principles which they hold so deeply. They really do believe in its public service mission.
Soon after joining the Trust, I attended the Editorial Standards Committee. As you know, this hears complaints at their final stage of appeal. The complaint was that a BBC reporter, commenting live from an incident in a disputed territory, had said rockets had been fired at a military establishment. The complainant believed this was untrue, and that it was residential. On the ground, they found that it HAD been a military barracks, but that it had been sold to a developer for residential flats. However, some space had been retained for military training and the yard was still used for that purpose. As a result, the complaint was not upheld.
At first, I remember thinking “Was it really worth all that time and effort to investigate?” Of course it was. Because that’s precisely the point of the BBC. It’s all about finding the truth. Doing whatever it takes – as far as the BBC is able.
Or take another quite different example. Cost efficiencies. On the set of EastEnders, I remember being struck by the team’s focus on making money go further. Even props weren’t bought from high street stores, they were from local charity shops because they felt it was the right thing to do.
I’ve been hugely impressed, too, by the BBC’s resilience. You’ll remember, I’m sure, the rather ‘dark days’ of 2012 and 2013. From the outside, the institution really did look vulnerable. But the DG and his team, supported by the Trust, worked through these difficult times. And just look at how the organisation has bounced back.
It’s been a privilege to lead the Trust. The weaknesses in the structure itself have been well-articulated, not least by ourselves. But despite this, I believe we’ve made a huge contribution to the stabilisation of the BBC since 2013:
- We’ve held up a mirror and challenged the BBC to do better – and they have
- We’ve drawn clear tramlines for the commercial market and stopped expansion where there was a risk of damaging market impact.
- We’ve protected distinctive services, such as 6Music or local radio – much loved by the public.
But above all, the Trust has been the voice of the public who pay for the BBC. It’s been our job to ensure their voice is heard the loudest. In that sense, the new Charter is a validation of what the British public told us and the Government that they wanted – a strong BBC; universal; broad in its ambition; distinctive; and, vitally, independent of Government and vested interest.
A word or two on independence, because it’s so important. 80% of the public told both us and the Government that independence matters. But there was a time when independence felt threatened. This Charter enshrines the framework to protect it.
There is no scope for second-guessing editorial or commercial decisions. Sensible boundaries are in place around the work of Ofcom and the NAO. Scheduled reviews of commercial subsidiaries fall to the Board, not to Ministers. This must be a good thing.
And the Charter strikes a good balance on appointments. Yes, Government has a role. But the majority of the new Board is appointed independently from Government. The Board must be a robust protector of the BBC’s independence. And that robustness will be challenged. One example will be the next financial settlement. Especially given the very sudden, opaque and unsatisfactory process that was used to decide the last two settlements.
Now as any teenager knows, independence is worthless without financial independence. And the Charter provides some improvement on this, including requiring the Government to consult with the BBC on any future funding deal. What it does not yet do is provide any public transparency from the Government before those funding settlements are decided.
To me, that’s a concern. I’m glad it’s a concern that’s been picked up in the House of Lords as the Digital Economy Bill is put through its paces. I hope the Lords will continue to push this point, and that the Government will reconsider.
My main message to the Board is this. Take full advantage of the clear structure you now have – enshrined within an 11 year Charter – to govern, challenge and guide and also protect the BBC.
Because it is a good Charter. And the BBC is in a very different place to where it was back in 2012. But there are some significant challenges that lie ahead.
First, in governing, the Board must hold the BBC to account and ensure it continues to deliver value for money. £800m needs to be saved, £400m of it to come from efficiency gains. This means motoring on with the process of simplification. It also means continuing to be a better partner… to make its money go further. But there will also need to be significant cuts. And this will involve some hard choices and firm handling.
Second, the Board must challenge and guide the BBC to continue to be outstanding creatively. To make world class, creative content which is at the heart of the BBC’s appeal to the public. And in so doing it must also challenge and guide the BBC towards making good on its commitment to represent and portray the whole of the UK.
The Trust has been encouraging the Executive to do more in this regard and I was delighted to hear the Executive’s announcement of new investment for audiences in Scotland and Wales – creating a new channel for Scottish audiences; Delivering a 50% increase in English language programming from and for Wales. These are positive steps.
But there is so much more to do if we are to reach under-served communities such as 16-34 year olds and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic audiences.
This is a challenge not just for the BBC but for the whole industry. For those under-served groups, the bond with the BBC is probably weaker than it was in the past. They have fundamentally different patterns of usage and an infinitely greater choice of media than just 20 or 30 years ago. To stay relevant, action is imperative. Developing a strategy focused on 16-34 years olds and maintaining impetus on delivering the diversity action plan – for both on and off screen talent
The Board must also guide the BBC through competitive and technological challenges. As a successful guide, the Board can help ensure the BBC avoid its own Kodak moment – focusing on what it excelled at in the past, and not keeping pace with change.
And while the BBC feels like a big player on the domestic scene, on the world stage it’s dwarfed by the big global players. That’s why it’s so important for the BBC to continue to innovate technologically – it can’t be left behind
But it’s not just technological innovation alone. I still think part of the answer here is about regulation and legislation – to make sure that public service providers get the sort of prominence on new platforms that they have always been granted in the past. But the BBC is also responsible for its own success, and for keeping itself at the forefront – in distinctive, creative offerings – which feed in to everyone’s day-to-day lives.
And board guidance will also be needed on the commercial strategy of the BBC. The Charter imposes a clear obligation on the Board to undertake a detailed view. I am delighted that this remains under the control of the BBC. It surely makes sense. And I am clear that if BBC Worldwide and Studios, operating within proper fair trading rules, can succeed – both in the UK and overseas, then this will shore up the BBC’s long-term sustainability. And what’s more, the public will have a good return on the investment they have made.
Thirdly, the Board must protect the BBC’s independence from Government and vested interests. To do this it needs to ensure the BBC has confidence. The crises of the past inevitably had an impact and sometimes the BBC appeared to lack the necessary confidence, that it developed a pre-emptive cringe.
In my very first speech here as Chairman of the Trust, I noted the importance of re-establishing confidence. I’m glad to see that confidence has returned. And importantly it needs to continue to be confidence without arrogance.
Looking ahead, the BBC’s nerve will be tested as it deals with structural changes in the industry, as it works out what concepts like ‘universal’ and ‘distinctive’ should mean over the next ten years.
It will take confidence to admit errors quickly, and to fix them without waiting for Ofcom to point them out. It will take confidence to look for new ways of doing things, rather than simply trying to sustain the tried and trusted. And as the Board governs, challenges and guides and protects the BBC, the voice of the public will be key.
So my final urge to the Board is to build on the legacy of the Trust. To continue to speak to and on behalf of Licence Fee payers. Under the new structure, the Board is the people’s representative and I fundamentally believe it is their responsibility to ensure the public get the BBC they want and deserve.
Nowhere is the relationship between confidence and the public more important than in News and the so-called Post Truth environment It is at the heart of the argument for a publicly-funded broadcaster. For this, maintaining public confidence and trust in the BBC’s reporting is critical.
The BBC starts from a good place. It remains the most trusted news organisation in both the UK and worldwide. Ask people in the UK to name the one source of news they trust most and 57% name the BBC. The next highest score is 11%.
Thinking back to the terrible night of the Paris attacks, people turned to Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere for up-to-the-minute live updates. But they turned to the BBC in their tens of millions to get a sense for the true picture. Sustaining that level of trust will not be straightforward.
It is no surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2016 was ‘post truth’. Today, the debate about fake news is noisy and divisive. This is not a new phenomena. There is a long history of individuals who lied or bent facts in order to win power and influence. But social media gives them a new potency and creates new risks.
Firstly, the immediacy and speed of circulation; a story, rumour or even an outright fake piece of ‘news’ can be right around the world before the story can be checked or double sourced. As Mark Twain said, “before the truth has got its boots on”.
Secondly, our news content is increasingly driven by algorithms. News is filtered to reinforce our existing views – creating the risk of echo chambers. I am in no doubt that the transformation of news provision has brought many positive things – immediacy, vibrancy, expanded reach. Today you can go to scores, no – hundreds, of places to find your daily news. But just as we’ve become spoilt for choice, we may also risk being spoilt by choice. The irony is that it’s become more, not less, vital for me, for my children, for future generations – to have a source of information we can have absolute trust in.
What does the BBC need to do?
Clearly, respond to the basics: – provide a service anytime, anywhere. It needs to connect, interact and engage, to use the full range of technologies available to us. But above all, the BBC must be an arbiter of truth. A platform for a national conversation. To fuel open debate and the broadest possible exchange of ideas. For that to be possible, the BBC will need to…
Check and correct
Firstly, check and correct. Maintain a relentless focus on accuracy. Double-checking sources; scrutinising stories; Applying judgment rather than just accepting at face value.
The BBC has said services like Reality Check will be a permanent feature – and they have to continue to build and strengthen these over time. But what of material stores circulating in social media? Well, the BBC has a role here too. James Harding, Director of BBC News, is creating a dedicated team to to expose fake news stories being shared around the world. As he said:
“The BBC can’t edit the internet. But we won’t stand aside either.”
The BBC must also explain, not merely report. Because facts alone do not equate to truth. People’s views and beliefs are shaped by values, beliefs. So the BBC needs to go deeper to provide more analysis and more context about issues affecting the public
This is well understood at the highest levels of the organization. Earlier this year, Tony Hall announced a stronger emphasis on “slow news” rather than just breaking news. Drawing on expert voices from both within the BBC, for example in the World Service, and from outside, to complement and add depth to the BBC’s News reporting.
Moderate – create place for national discussion
Finally, the BBC needs to be a moderator, to champion diverse opinions. That means addressing head-on the echo chambers it’s so easy to fall victim to. Get past prejudices. Expose them. Subject them to challenge. In the world of algorithms and parallel universes this has become both much, much harder, and yet more important than ever before. When the human instinct is to seek out opinions closest to your own.
The BBC needs to find creative ways to be more appealing and entertaining in a world where simple slogans and hashtags can appear to trump statistics and experts. Helping audiences understand the rationale behind the rhetoric and the basis of the opposing view is key.
So to conclude, the BBC today really is a different place to when I joined 2.5 years ago. That’s not just down to the work of the Trust – or the BBC. Government has also listened and responded. And the public have emphatically shown what the BBC means to them. The point is that together, we’ve achieved something that many said we could not. Funding is secure. Independence has been safeguarded. A clear governance structure is in place. And crucially, there’s a clear mandate from the public to deliver a bold and ambitiousmission.
These are achievements in which I – in which we all – can feel so very proud.
When you list out the challenges, as I have today, the task can seem daunting. But the BBC has the platform it needs to make a success of it. It’s now up to the BBC, with its new Board to use it.