Ex-DG: BBC ‘hobbled’ by policy makers
September 25, 2019
By Colin Mann
Mark Thompson, President/CEO New York Times, has suggested that the BBC, where he was Director General between 2004 and 2012, has suffered at the hands of British policy makers over the last decade or so, limiting its potential to bring British talent and British ideas to the world’s audiences, calling for a fundamental change in direction of government media policy to save the nation’s cultural sovereignty.
“Our culture comprises much more than media. Language, literature, education, theatre, music, dance, the visual arts, much else besides. But I doubt anyone would dispute the centrality of media – digital media, regular TV and radio, movies, newspapers and magazines, local and national – in British life,” he declared.
Delivering the Royal Television Society’s Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture in London, Thompson, whose topic was ‘A Question Of Sovereignty’, suggested that British cultural sovereignty was now under economic and audience threat from a process of digital disintegration and reinvention and particularly from its globalising effects, driven not just by the borderless character of digital distribution, but by its intrinsic scale economics.
“It’s hard for anyone other than the US or China to produce global digital platforms” he asserted. “The UK hasn’t produced one. Nor has any other European country, with the arguable exception of Sweden and Spotify. British creators make first-class programmes for Netflix, Amazon and the other American streamers, but there’s a crucial difference between producing great content to fit someone else’s creative agenda, and commissioning and controlling it yourself. It’s the commissioners who decide what gets made – and reap most of the economic upside. If real scale is what it takes in digital content distribution, we don’t have a horse in that race either,” he contended.
“Indeed one of the triumphs of British policy-making over the last decade or so has been to hobble the chances of the UK’s only credible global contender – the BBC – of fulfilling its full potential to bring British talent and British ideas to the world’s audiences,” he declared.
“Sky – another transnational broadcaster with a strong track record of digital risk-taking and innovation – won’t face the same obstacles,” he noted. “I’m sure it will continue to commission plenty of outstanding British shows. But it’s also a fact that Sky is no longer an independent publicly-quoted British company, but itself a unit within Comcast, another of those US megaliths, which quite understandably has global ambitions and priorities of its own.”
Thompson said the media world had changed greatly in the seven years since he moved to New York. “Local and regional media has its back to the wall, the long-term future of national newspapers and public service and ad-funded commercial TV is in question. What hasn’t changed much, if at all, is British public policy about media,” he said.
“Policy-makers have largely concentrated on tightening the funding pressure and other constraints on the BBC further, refining technocratic regulatory theory, and pondering such weighty matters as whether the Times and Sunday Times of London should be allowed to share some editorial resources, the answer – after much deliberation – being a cautious yes. One can be forgiven for wondering if that is a complete solution to the crisis threatening to engulf British journalism,” he remarked.
“No doubt the relevant government departments and regulators do plenty of good work too across this difficult and rapidly evolving terrain,” he suggested. “I want to say to them: policing the beach for litter is a virtuous activity, but it’s time to glance out to sea. That grey band on the horizon is a tsunami,” he warned.
He suggested that conventional broadcasters –including conventional cable and satellite players – who do not have a compelling pure-play digital strategy of their own risk being priced out of the best talent and best content. “Even in their hey-day, they’d have struggled to compete with these giants. Now with ad revenue – and in the case of the BBC, licence-fee – squeezed, their financial firepower is waning,” he noted.
According to Thompson, the UK’s established broadcasters still have deep roots in the national consciousness. “They still command big audiences. Their current schedules – and extensive libraries – still speak to many of those aspects of collective identity and national self-expression I mentioned at the start. But none looks strong enough to be a true contender in the coming global contest. All are seeing adverse trends which are familiar from other digital disruptions – trends that can quickly turn from disquieting to terminal,” he said.
“The BBC as a whole should be a shoo-in as a probable global winner,” he suggested. “It’s the only British media brand with truly global recognition and potential. Its international audience runs in the hundreds of millions. Its indispensable presence in the lives of most British households is a testament, not just to its heritage, but to the talent it still attracts, and the creativity and excellence it still fosters. But – at a moment when Britain contemplates setting out on a brave new voyage in search of new friends and new global markets – we can’t put Britain’s media flag-carrier on the list,” he added.
“That’s because of an essentially hostile public policy stance on the BBC, which began to coalesce more than a decade ago but has hardened notably in recent years. One of its fruits was the 2015 settlement which included the disastrous withdrawal of Government funding of free licence-fees for the over-75s,” he noted.
According to Thompson, the threat of the global TV streamers, not just to the BBC, but to every British broadcaster and channel operator, wasn’t just foreseeable, it was foreseen, he contended, revealing that he returned from a 2007 meeting with Netflix’s Reed Hastings and others on the West Coast with the clear conviction that streaming would change consumption of TV out of all recognition; “that we absolutely must double-down on the iPlayer; and that we should also urgently find a global streaming solution not just for the BBC but the whole of British television,” he added.
“Why shouldn’t the UK’s broadcasters develop their own collective worldwide platform to project British talent and British content to audiences everywhere? This idea – which we named Project Kangaroo – quickly gained the support of the other UK PSBs, but was blocked in early 2009 by the UK Competition Commission which cited domestic market competition concerns. Another eight years would go by before the launch of the altogether more modest Britbox,” he noted, suggesting that In the breakneck rush of digital transformation, eight years is “an eternity”.
“I’m not suggesting that Kangaroo could have achieved the scale of a Netflix,” he admitted. “I do believe it could have given the UK far more agency and economic upside in the world streaming market than it enjoys today. Its fate speaks to a peculiarly British approach to the BBC and media policy more broadly: which is talk global but act parochial. Indeed in our blinkered discourse about media, the more extravagant the talk of global opportunity, the more narrow and inward-facing the true worldview tends to be,” he said.
“If we’re serious about opening up new international market opportunities, why wouldn’t we unleash our only truly global media brand and exploit it, not just to bring a British perspective to audiences everywhere, but to introduce and project the work of the rest of the British creative sector as well,” he pondered. “Because it might offend local political influencers. Because our approach to digital competition regulation hasn’t caught up yet. Because moving quickly and boldly is rather un-British and probably best left to Americans and other foreign types,” he contended.
“All these controls and obstacles have a similar effect: which is to discourage and punish innovation and, as far as possible, to keep the BBC locked up in its traditional broadcasting box. This despite, or perhaps because of the fact that everyone knows that linear broadcasting is time-limited and will one day come to a full stop,” he said.
Thompson claimed that the BBC had proven itself more adept at digital innovation and broad transformation than most private media companies – the iPlayer being only one example. “Give the Corporation greater freedom to accelerate its own pivot to digital, but look to it to build digital products and platforms which can be used by the rest of the industry too,” he recommended.
“Government should encourage the whole media industry to play a bigger role in growing national capabilities in digital technology and infrastructure,” he suggested. “We need a multi-sector partnership – to include the UK’s universities – to develop and train many more data science and applied machine learning specialists, digital product UX and design professionals, and to build on existing British strength in many of the creative digital crafts.”
In summary, Thompson said it was vital that British audiences still get access to great news, drama, comedy, documentary made first and foremost for them. “But it won’t happen if we carry on like this. It won’t happen if public policy keeps its head down, or maintains a set of hackneyed free market assumptions about the digital future which haven’t changed much since they were articulated in the 1980s. If we want to save our cultural sovereignty, government media policy needs a fundamental change in direction,” he asserted. “Instead of the policy of no – no, you can’t – no, that’s too dangerous – no, one of our political backers wouldn’t like it – it needs to turn to a policy of yes. Yes to the power of British creativity. Yes to the future,” he concluded.