Tony Hall Speech at VLV Conference 2016
I want to start by taking you back a few months, to May of this year. Britain was a different place then. The nation was about to experience a shock.
I’m not talking about Bake Off going to Channel 4. I’m not even talking about Ed Balls on Strictly. I’m talking, of course, about all the upheaval and debate that has followed the public’s Brexit vote.
But back in May – as you know – the BBC was caught up in an important, difficult debate of our own.
We were right in the thick of negotiations around our Charter renewal. And I remember, I was appearing at an event where I had to face questions from a whole audience full of people, all with passionate views on the BBC.
So before you do these things, you think through the toughest questions you might be asked… What’s the future of Public Service Broadcasting? Is the licence fee sustainable?
But in fact, the first question they asked was: “What’s going to happen to Helen in The Archers?”
It’s not true to say that the whole country was following the storyline about the psychological abuse that Helen Archer suffered at the hands of her husband, Rob. But certainly the whole country was talking about it.
On one day alone, I read two editorials in the national newspapers. And when it came to the week of Helen’s trial, the verdict was front page news in virtually them all – complete with courtroom sketches from one of the country’s leading court artists!
The scale of the national debate that it opened up on domestic abuse was extraordinary. But – most importantly – so was its impact.
The Archers team spent a painstaking, two-and-a-half years researching the storyline, working closely with Women’s Aid and Refuge. And in the wake of the story, these two charities reported around a 20 per cent increase in calls to their national domestic violence helpline.
Great drama… A national debate… A genuine impact…
It’s a really good example of what the BBC can do at its best. And of what we can achieve when we combine our traditional public service mission, with a constant commitment to finding new and better ways of carrying it out.
How we plan to do this in the years ahead is what I want to talk about today.
In the next few weeks I will be setting out our ambitions in detail, as well as the projects that will make those ambitions a reality.
But for now I want to reflect a little on what we have learned from the Charter process. And to set out five ways in which I believe we need to measure our future impact, and gauge our success.
A pivotal moment for the BBC
As you’re all aware, the start of a new Charter marks a pivotal moment for us. It’s an opportunity to look back at the journey we have been on over the past few years, as well as forward at where we are heading.
I believe that the whole of the corporation can take great credit from what we have achieved together over the past three years.
Throughout the Charter – and with the incredible support of our audiences – we have been able to make a strong case for the BBC.
But first – and this is crucial – we had to earn the right to be heard. We had to take a long, hard look at our culture…
Faith in the corporation was profoundly shaken by the Savile enquiry and a BBC that badly let down the survivors of abuse. Thanks to the important and challenging Dame Janet Smith report, we now have the policies in place we need as safeguards for the future.
And we will continue to take every possible step to make the BBC more open, challenging and collaborative – one of the very best places to work.
We had to take tough decisions on our efficiency. In response to failings over executive pay-offs, excessive bureaucracy and stifling management, we have delivered what is – by any standards – a huge programme of reform.
We have reduced management layers and brought down overheads to industry-leading levels – just six per cent of our total costs. And we have taken money away from support areas to direct it towards creativity.
And all throughout, we had to keep delivering world-class programmes, content and services. It’s what our audiences rely on us for, and the very best case for the BBC.
Of course, we have plenty more work to do. Each of these is a journey, not a destination.
We’re not perfect, and there is always a lot to do. We can never be complacent.
I always remember what the great brand guru, the late Wally Olins, said when we were working together at the Royal Opera House. Watching us, he said we stood for excellence without arrogance.
Well, you don’t become a guru for nothing. I couldn’t express better what a public institution should try to achieve, and what I want the BBC to stand for.
But if the last three years has been about restoring faith in the BBC, and rebuilding its foundations by securing a strong Charter the next three years is about renewing it by delivering on a bold, ambitious vision for the future.
A traditional mission in the digital age
And thanks to the Charter process, we know what our audiences want from the BBC in the years ahead.
Nearly 200,000 people responded to the public consultation. The Government described it as “unprecedented”, second only to the consultation on gay marriage.
I want to say thank you, here, to all of you at VLV. You made a huge difference in the outcome of the Charter debate. We’re very grateful to you for getting the voice of the listener and viewer out to the people who needed to hear it. And the message we heard was clear.
Our traditional public service mission – to inform, educate and entertain – is as pertinent today as it has ever been.
But what audiences actually said was: “Do what you have always done best – but do it more, do it even better, and do it in new ways.”
It’s a challenge that, for me, can be summed up in the words of the historian R.H. Tawney: “Only those institutions are loved that touch the imagination”.
The digital age – and all the technological tools at our disposal – mean that the BBC now has the ability to touch the imaginations of our audiences like never before and, in doing so, to dramatically expand our mission’s reach and impact.
Traditionally, our role was simply as a broadcaster – sending out information and not getting any back. Now we can listen to our audiences, and get them involved in shaping what we do. We can encourage them to take part, and take action.
What we want to create is a BBC that doesn’t just talk to the country, but opens up to it as a partner, enabler and friend.
So that we don’t just inform, but engage… Don’t just educate, but enable… Don’t just entertain, but inspire.
Something good, for everyone
This is our challenge under the next Charter.
And the first way in which I believe we will need to measure our success is something very simple: Great public service content, for everyone.
My earliest experience of the BBC, growing up, was The Sky at Night – Patrick Moore navigating the heavens and opening up all the mysteries of the cosmos. I loved it so much I managed to persuade my parents to get me a telescope for Christmas, so I could explore for myself.
But what I loved most was that the BBC was not simply allowing me to explore the skies. It was offering me access to a whole new world of knowledge. And not just me. All of us: every boy and girl in the country. Regardless of where we were from or what was our background.
A few years later, along came Kenneth Clark and Civilisation. And just as The Sky at Night offered access to a whole world of scientific knowledge, here was the whole world of the arts. A personal tour guide through the churches, museums and galleries of Europe. A whole history of Western arts, architecture and philosophy since the dark ages, crammed into the corner of my living room on Merseyside. Because Kenneth Clark had a firm belief that art and culture were life-enhancing, and that everyone should have access to them.
That was the driving spirit, too, behind the Third Programme – which didn’t just give me a lifelong passion for classical music, but helped set me on the path to the Royal Opera House.
It highlights something that has always been right at the corporation’s core. That’s a very simple, very important, very democratic idea: everyone should have access to good things, to things of the highest quality, to the very best. It was my guiding principle when I was in charge of the Royal Opera House, and it’s my guiding principle today.
That’s why, when I came back to the BBC, I put such a major focus on drama. Because great drama is our lifeblood. It helps us define who we are. And we know audiences love it and value it, because you tell us.
This year, I’m proud that we have gone from strength to strength. We followed up Wolf Hall and The Honourable Woman, with The Night Manager and War and Peace. And now there’s all the excitement that is building around our Christmas schedule – not to mention the new series of Sherlock.
But I’m also proud of what we are doing across all our genres. Reinventing Civilisation to inspire a new generation… Reinventing Planet Earth…
I have to say – and I’m sure anyone who has been watching the extraordinary Planet Earth II would agree (and by the way, watch out for several billion locusts this Sunday – one of the biggest swarms we’ve ever seen – not to mention a golden mole, the size of a ping-pong ball, pouncing on its prey in the Namibian desert…) there is no one who better embodies our commitment to bringing the best to everyone than David Attenborough.
He’s been doing it over more than half the lifetime of the BBC – pushing the boundaries of natural history programme-making from black and white to colour to digital, to 3D, HD and 4K. And, at the age of ninety, he’s doing it still.
What could be more distinctively BBC than David Attenborough diving 1,000 feet beneath the pacific in a submersible. Or hanging in a hot air balloon high above the Alps?
For me, it sums up what distinctiveness is all about. Original thinking. Risk-taking, creativity and confidence. Audiences saying, again and again: “Only the BBC would do that.”
Because audiences recognise distinctiveness when they see it or hear it – they certainly let you know when they don’t. And they always reward you for getting it right.
Do you know how many viewers are tuning in for Planet Earth II? Around 13 million. That’s a hit of Bake Off proportions.
But whether it’s Planet Earth or In our time or Strictly, the goal of the BBC is to be the highest quality. To set the standard, and make sure that everyone has access to the very best.
A trusted voice in a crowded arena
The second important role I want to talk about is the BBC as a trusted voice, in a crowded arena.
Increasingly – in a world of infinite information online, where a rumour can travel the globe in the time it takes to type 140 characters – people need to know what they can trust.
We’re told that we have now entered the “post-truth era”. Where presentation can override facts, and where it can be hard to separate truth from conjecture.
Of course, many of us have been around long enough to recall the halcyon days of the pre-post-truth era. When politicians only ever dealt in facts and never broke promises
Remember this one?: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
But the real truth is, it has never been more important to be able to separate facts from opinion, prediction from certainty.
Our coverage of the EU referendum was a good example. Of course, many had their views on both sides of the debate. Some thought we got it right, some didn’t – but this is what public service journalism is all about. You have to have the debate.
But what we learned from our polls was that people trusted the BBC more than anyone else. In my view, that was because we could offer something distinctive, and a breadth of coverage that was unique:
- We offered specialist expertise from correspondents on the front line – in Westminster, around the UK, across Europe and the whole of the world;
- We offered in-depth analysis and fact-checking from trusted voices like Laura Kuenssberg, our Political Editor, or Katya Adler, our Europe Editor;
- And we offered the Reality Check team online, running the rule over every single claim and counterclaim, trying to separate the heat from the light.
On the day after the referendum, 53 million browsers came to us to see the result online and discover what it meant.
It underlined, yet again, that we are the UK’s most trusted source of news by far:
- 58 per cent of people say they trust us the most – with our closest competitor from any other media company on just 11 per cent;
- And 58 per cent say they turn to the BBC for accurate coverage – they are five times more likely to come to our news website to check something is true than go anywhere else.
I always remember, when I was working on Newsnight during the Gulf War, and another international broadcaster was reporting a chemical attack on Jerusalem. Later it turned out to be one of those cases when legitimate sources were wrong. But at the time I remember standing in the gallery, considering how to respond.
It was Charles Wheeler – the great correspondent and a hero of mine – who made things clear. He said: “Let’s tell them what we know, and let’s tell them what we don’t know.”
It’s a simple precept. But is there a more straightforward reminder of the role of the BBC?
The British public put a premium on authoritative, impartial news coverage. And that’s exactly what we’re here to provide.
Bringing the country together
But we are not only where the country comes to find out the facts.
We are also where the country comes to celebrate the big, shared nationwide events – an Olympics, royal wedding or jubilee. And this is the third thing I want to talk about this morning: the role the BBC plays in bringing the country together around national issues and national moments.
Now, I mentioned Strictly… It’s hard to argue that how well celebrities can dance is an important national issue. But you could certainly describe the former Shadow Chancellor doing the Salsa on primetime, ‘Gangnam Style’, as something of a national moment.
And I’m proud that the BBC is able to produce shows that bring the whole family together on Saturday and Sunday nights – and that still have the whole country talking at school or at work on Monday morning.
And the fact that we are able to reach more than 95 per cent of the population across all our services, means we are also able to inspire big national conversations – whether about dancing or baking, history or politics, science or the arts.
At the start of last year, we broadcast a special Democracy Day to mark 750 years since Simon de Montfort’s first parliament – a turning point for democracy in this country. Awareness of the anniversary shot up overnight – from 19 to 34 per cent of adults across the UK.
The next day, we aired the first episode of Wolf Hall on BBC Two. Public awareness of Hilary Mantel’s novels more than doubled – helping readership to increase by 40 per cent.
When the BBC hosted a Year of Science – on air and on screen – in 2010, it actually led to an increase in the numbers of people applying to study science at university. This is what the BBC can do, and the impact we can have.
In fact, the latest data we have tells us something really interesting:
- Over the last three months, more than 90 per cent of audiences we surveyed say that they have learned something from BBC TV.
- And more than half say they have done something different as a result of watching.
- And when the public were asked to grade media companies and organisations according to the impact they have on their lives, the BBC came out top – ahead of newspapers, ahead of Facebook and Twitter, ahead of Apple and Google.
It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.
And, for me, one of the biggest messages we need to take from the Charter process is this: we should be even bolder in telling the public about the things we think they need to know.
That’s why we have put so much effort into our raft of programmes to commemorate the centenary of World War I:
- Around three-quarters of people in the UK consumed some of our content to mark 100 years since the war began in 2014, including over half of those in the 16-34 age group – the hardest to reach;
- And, far from getting tired of our programming, more than 80 per cent of people remained interested. And half of those who’d consumed BBC content still wanted to know more.
It’s also why, this year, we pulled out all the stops to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by celebrating his life and work across all our platforms. Our goal was to make Shakespeare accessible – and irresistible – to everyone, of any age. As they like it.
When I was at school I had to travel 150 miles to Stratford and stand at the back of a theatre for nine hours to watch three of the Henry plays in succession.
Today it’s the latest instalment of The Hollow Crown at the touch of a screen. Or a Horrible Histories special on CBBC. Or Russell T. Davies’ brilliant interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at primetime on BBC One.
But it’s not enough for the BBC to offer people access to history or science or the arts. We need to get them involved, enable them to take action and take part.
One of my favourite projects is called Ten Pieces. It’s a programme we have been running for the past two years to introduce a generation of young people to classical music and to encourage them to develop their own creative response.
Not just in music, but art and animation, poetry and dance, movement and composition. And anyone who witnessed our Ten Pieces Prom this summer will be able to testify to how extraordinary their response has been.
Watching nearly 500 children from schools right around the country performing Dies irae from Verdi’s Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall… I can tell you, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
One mother wrote to us afterwards to say it was one of the proudest moments of her life – and one she’d never forget.
But we are reaching every school in the country with science too. Many of you will remember the incredible impact that the BBC Micro had back in the 80s on driving computer literacy in this country. Adopted by 85 per cent of secondary schools, with many of today’s most influential technological leaders saying that it was crucial to their computing careers.
So I was very proud in March to launch BBC Micro’s little brother: the Micro:Bit. This summer we gave every child in year 7 one of these coding devices – that’s up to a million young people, all around the country. Because we want to inspire them to get coding, and to develop the future skills the UK needs.
It’s incredibly ambitious. But then so are the young people who we are giving the Micro:Bit to.
Already one schoolgirl from West Yorkshire has managed to turn hers into a temperature sensor and send it up into the stratosphere. It’s great for skills in this country – though not so great for the air traffic services who had to re-route all aircraft around Nottingham as it came back down to earth.
And it’s a perfect example of what the BBC can do when we mobilise others around our mission:
- We can produce an educational project on an unprecedented scale, conceived and convened by the BBC, and delivered with more than 30 partners;
- We can bring together organisations such as ARM, Barclays, Microsoft, NXP, Samsung and Lancaster University, contributing everything from hardware, software and design to manufacture and distribution;
- And we can act as ringmaster, taking the lead and enabling others to achieve things that none of us could do on our own.
Our goal, with this project and others that we have planned in 2017, is to encourage more young people – especially girls – to see science and technology as a natural choice as they continue their education.
And to play our part in helping make the UK the very best place in the world to do science, and the world’s leading knowledge economy.
Supporting the creative economy
This brings me to the fourth way we measure the impact of the BBC: supporting the wider economy.
Not just as the cornerstone of the UK’s creative industries – though one thing the Charter has highlighted once again is just how important a strong BBC is at the heart of a media sector that punches well above its weight worldwide.
But also creating jobs, skills and opportunities, at local and regional level, right around the country. And it doesn’t happen by accident.
At the start of the month I visited the BBC teams in Cardiff, where our Roath Lock Studios are a world-class powerhouse of drama production – the permanent home of flagship shows like Casualty and Doctor Who.
Only a few years ago, we were told that it was too much of a risk to open up a centre of excellence for drama in Cardiff. Yet today, BBC Wales’ success in network production has been a catalyst for the remarkable transformation of the creative industries in Wales a sector capable of attracting the big names like Pinewood, Hartswood, the makers of Sherlock, and Fiction Factory, makers of Hinterland.
World-class innovators – and digital entrepreneurs – all now located near us, because we’re there. And when BBC Wales relocates to a new building near Cardiff’s Central station, we will be helping to kick-start one of the biggest regeneration projects in Cardiff’s recent history, spreading yet more benefits.
In fact, it is estimated that our decision to move will unlock more than a billion pounds of economic value over the next ten years. It’s something that only the BBC can do as a magnet for creative talent, and a powerful catalyst for economic activity.
And it’s an impact we’ve already had elsewhere around the country – acting as an ‘anchor tenant’ to build creative media hubs in Glasgow with Pacific Quay, Bristol with the Natural History Unit, and Salford Manchester with MediaCity UK.
For example, our decision to relocate a major chunk of our operations to Salford in 2011 meant not only that other media organisations were attracted to join us. But also that, within a few years, our activities in the north were worth more than 275 million pounds each year to the UK economy, not to mention more jobs, skills and training for the region.
And this is a real priority for me: the role of the BBC in training and skills development.
We’re not just the biggest provider of media and creative skills training in the UK, we’re the biggest in Europe. In fact, we’re one of the biggest in the world.
But it’s not enough to train and employ the same kind of people we’ve always trained. The BBC needs to represent the whole country – it’s here for everyone.
When I was at the Royal Opera House, I made it my mission to open our doors to new and different talent, from the widest range of backgrounds. When I came back to the BBC, I wanted to do the same.
Back then, the BBC had just 37 apprentices across the whole organisation. I set us a target of reaching 1 per cent of our workforce within three years. I’m proud to say that we hit it two years early – and we’ve now gone well beyond that.
And one of our best schemes for helping to achieve this was in local radio. Too often there’s a sense that these kinds of opportunities end up going to people with connections… Or only to people who can afford to get to London or the big cities.
The idea with this scheme was to give young people the opportunity to work for the BBC – wherever they live. I met the first 46 local radio apprentices in their first week of training, and I met them again when they were graduating a year or so later. What an incredible transformation – for them and for our local newsrooms around the country.
One of them was a young woman called Aileen, an apprentice with Gaelic-language Radio nan Gaidheal. She kept telling me I had to come to Stornoway, and so I made it up there a few weeks ago and saw her again.
She told me that she has now beaten off competition to get herself a full-time job in broadcasting – in her home town. And when I spoke to her boss and asked how she had done it, the answer was simple: “talent”.
Defining Britain’s identity – local and global
But the impact of the BBC at local level is also the starting point for the fifth and final important role I want to highlight this morning.
And that’s the role we play for British identity.
The impact that our unique status – local, national and global –allows us to have in bringing the country together, reflecting it to itself, and representing it to the world.
A few weeks ago I was in Hull, to launch their programme of events as the UK’s City of Culture for 2017.
Out of all the fantastic announcements that day – from the city, from us, and from other partners – there was one small promise from me that got the biggest cheer. And that was to say that we’d give Hull a permanent home on the BBC weather map from next year.
Twitter went wild, the story made headlines for days… It’s not every day you get the chance – quite literally – to put a city on the map.
It was a reminder of just how much the BBC can mean at local level.
At the start of the year I was up in Carlisle in the wake of the devastating floods there.
Not only was I able to witness at first hand the incredible job that our local news teams were doing in helping to keep people informed and on the move after the national media was gone. But I could also speak to locals who told me that it is actually BBC Radio Cumbria, more than anything else, that helps unite and define Cumbria as a region.
Once again, it really brought home how important the BBC is to our sense of identity. But not just at local and regional level. Globally too.
For nearly 85 years, the BBC World Service has been our voice to the world – one of the country’s biggest sources of international influence, carrying our cultural and democratic values across the globe.
It is a gift to the world, from the BBC, on behalf of Britain.
Nearly 70 per cent of UK opinion-formers say that it does the most to serve our interests abroad and it is ranked second by the public, after the armed forces.
The Government recognised this again last year when I went to them with a proposal for more funding. They decided to commit nearly £290 million to enhancing the World Service between now and 2020.
It’s the biggest expansion since the 1940s, allowing us to reach millions more people around the globe – in places where it is needed most, in innovative new ways.
That means making the most trusted source of news and information worldwide available in 11 new languages, taking us to over 40 in all.
And it means enhancing our existing services – with more digital content, and a greater range and depth than ever before. Helping us well on the way to our target of reaching half a billion people across the globe by our centenary year in 2022.
But it’s not just the World Service that carries the country’s cultural wealth and influence to the world. It’s the world-class quality of our programmes.
Huge international exports like Sherlock… In China, it’s an absolute phenomenon. Around 100 million fans can’t get enough of the adventures of the pair they’ve nicknamed, not Holmes and Watson, but ‘Curly Fu’ and ‘Peanut’.
Nearly 2 million people turned out to see our New Year’s special on the day it opened in Chinese cinemas. And that was up against the latest Star Wars. David Cameron was even asked, during his official visit, to commission more episodes – which perhaps suggests a bit of a misunderstanding of the relationship between government and the BBC.
It’s the same elsewhere, with huge international successes like Doctor Who, The Night Manager, Wolf Hall and War & Peace. I’m not sure what the TV equivalent is of selling coals to Newcastle, but selling Tolstoy to Russia has to come close.
And of course, it’s about much more than just drama. Strictly is one of the most successful TV shows in the world, with the format sold to around 50 territories. While David Attenborough’s landmark natural history series have been seen by more than half a billion people worldwide.
And what we know is: where the BBC is strong, countries are more likely to trade with Britain.
That’s one of the reasons we’re thinking really hard about the things that the BBC is most famous for around the world. And why one of my goals in the years ahead is to strengthen and expand those areas in which we really lead the way globally. News, natural history and drama, yes. But also education, science and the arts. And audio.
In fact, one of the big challenges I have set my teams is just that: to enhance our global audio offer. The BBC makes the best radio in the world. It is one of our crown jewels, and we have an extraordinary wealth of audio riches at our disposal.
But, with the level of excellence we have, are we doing enough to push the fantastic drama, arts, comedy and entertainment we deliver on the world stage?
With our world-class content, we could use our current output and the richness of our archive to create a Netflix of the spoken word. It’s one of the things that will help the BBC carry the full weight of Britain’s culture and values, knowledge and know-how to the world in the years ahead and say something really important about modern Britain.
I began by saying that the BBC’s public service mission is as important today as it has ever been.
The truth is – you know as well as I – it is much more so.
Firstly, because only the BBC can do all these things at the same time. No other British organisation has our breadth of ambition and impact – local and global, economic and social, traditional and digital.
But secondly because the stakes are now higher than they have ever been. We know Britain is going to have a new relationship with the world. More than ever, the country needs the BBC’s trusted, impartial journalism to help cut through the noise and discover what is really going on.
It needs the BBC to help it listen to, and understand, itself, to reflect the views of the whole of the country and help redefine our identity.
And it needs us to be the outward-looking face of our country, to help carry our cultural influence across the globe, and be the voice of our values worldwide.