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Coinciding with publication of the Corporation’s Annual Report and Accounts 2014-15, BBC Director General Tony Hall has issued a strong defence of its role in society, its creativity and its independence. He also dismissed calls for BBC Worldwide, its commercial arm, to be removed from the BBC, suggesting it is “an integral part of the BBC” which gives licence fee payers better content for less investment.
In a Statement, he said:
“When I look back at last year’s output, I see a BBC on top creative form. We all have our favourite moments, but this was a year of highlights like Wolf Hall, The Honourable Woman and EastEnders’ live 30th birthday week. Our World War One and Magna Carta output. Actually our consistently brilliant and brave coverage of the Middle East. And the FA Cup and Commonwealth Games – among many others. It’s a year we can be proud of.
The case for the BBC doesn’t rest on ideological arguments – it rests on this – what we do day in and day out. Great programmes and great services. That’s why people like the BBC. That’s why they enjoy the BBC. That’s why they trust the BBC. That’s why they value it. That’s what they pay us to do.
This argument is powerful because it is so simple. We enhance the lives of everyone in the UK, in more ways than ever before, and more often than ever before.
When people have so much to choose from, it’s testament to the quality of what we produce that 46 million people in the UK choose to use the BBC every day. And they choose to stay with us for over 18 hours per person, per week, on average.
Like any big organisation, of course, there are always things we can do better. But, on any measure, this is a world-class organisation, hugely valued by our audiences. And any debate about the BBC must start with that undeniable fact.
Of course a broader debate about the BBC has now begun. That’s taking place against the background of the arrangement agreed between the BBC Trust, the BBC and the Government two weeks ago on the BBC’s future funding.
I agree with [BBC Trust Chair] Rona [Fairhead] when she says that this was not a good process, or one that met the public’s expectations. But that agreement has now been concluded.
The debate now moves on to what kind of BBC we want in the future. And I’m much happier starting that debate from a shared agreement around flat cash funding for BBC services, rather than starting off down around three-quarters of a billion pounds.
This debate matters hugely because we face a big choice about the kind of BBC we want in the future.
Alongside the BBC’s great strengths, we of course – like all broadcasters in this country – face a set of challenges.
Our competitors are now global media giants, who own more and more of the UK’s media sector.
The Internet is changing audience habits – we must reinvent public service broadcasting for young audiences, whose behaviour is changing the fastest.
We must make the transition to an Internet-first BBC, across all our genres and services. This is vital if the UK is to continue to punch above its weight as one of the most creative nations in the world. And grow Britain’s commercial success, and its global influence.
These are the questions the Charter process must answer.
But this debate is also shaping up to be a clash between two different views of the future. Because there is an alternative view: that prefers a much diminished BBC. It’s a view that is often put forward by people with their own narrow commercial interests or ideological preconceptions.
I don’t support this view. Nor does the British public. Nor do programme-makers across the creative sector.
So in the debate to come, I will be arguing for a number of things, which to my mind are non-negotiable.
First, I believe in a BBC for everyone. The BBC is a profoundly democratic force. Universal usage of BBC programmes that inform, educate and entertain is central to our democracy and our shared culture. It is part of what makes Britain, Britain. No other country in the world has anything like it – and the rest of the world envies the UK for having the BBC. And because we all pay, we all pay less: the cost for each one of us falls to the lowest it can be for the best and most universal service.
Secondly, I believe in protecting our independence. Rona has already spoken about this. From my perspective, I believe in giving creative people creative freedom, and trusting them to get on with it. I have real difficulty with the idea of artificial restrictions on creativity – after all, the last time politicians tried to be creative, we ended up with the Millennium Dome. So it will be hard to support any proposal that stops us finding the next Strictly, the next Bake Off, or – dare I say it – the next Top Gear.
Thirdly, to fund great programmes in an era of global competition for talent and ideas, we must work even harder at the partnership between the licence fee and our commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. Seventy-one per cent of the funding of BBC One’s Life Story was commercial funding. The licence fee paid for less than half the budget of some of our biggest dramas last year.
Worldwide makes its money by taking BBC programmes and exploiting them commercially. It’s an integral part of the BBC and gives licence fee payers better content for less investment. So, any proposal to remove it from the BBC simply doesn’t make economic sense.
Let me be clear. Rona has said, and I agree, we want proper public debate about the future of the BBC and how it adapts to that future. I welcome it.
We face huge change, and have already announced a radical programme of reform to match. We’ll be increasing competition hugely by removing in-house quotas. We’re reinventing BBC Three online. We’re personalising the BBC. We’re making its overhead costs as lean as any comparable company.
But the fundamental question remains. What does the British public want from the BBC? As Rona said, they consistently want a BBC that informs, educates and entertains.
Our audiences are not asking for a significantly smaller BBC. Properly tested, the public shows no appetite for that. Top of mind, the great majority are happy to pay the current licence fee, or more – and we know when they experience life without the BBC the great majority of those who don’t want to pay change their minds.
The BBC does not belong to its staff. The BBC does not belong to the Government. The BBC belongs to the country. The public are our shareholders. They pay for us. So it is their voice that will matter most in this debate.
And what the public wants is a continually better BBC. So that will be our test for any future proposals. Will audiences be even happier with what they get from us? Is the BBC still able to give them the best output in the world? Have we helped the creative industries grow?
That, to me, is the real debate – and the only debate that really matters.”