UK Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Secretary of State Oliver Dowden has suggested the BBC needs to be closer to, and understand the perspectives of, the whole of the UK and avoid providing a narrow urban outlook.
Delivering a keynote speech at the Enders Media and Telecoms Conference setting out why the UK’s creative and media sectors are crucial to the country’s success, Dowden suggested that to be a truly meritocratic nation, the delivery of nationwide full fibre and gigabit capable broadband is “an imperative”.
He also sought to assure delegates that he would be driving a coherent and pro-innovation approach to governing tech, so innovators everywhere can be assured that the Government would be on their side.
He said that in the midst of technological change, “we need to make sure that we don’t lose the benefits of the media ecosystem that we already have, including of course our public service broadcasters. And when it comes to public service broadcasting, we should firstly recognise the unique contribution that the BBC and others have made to our cultural heritage. From Dad’s Army to Fawlty Towers, from Gavin and Stacey to Strictly, and from Blue Planet to Blue Peter, they have brought generations together. And helped frame our uniquely British sense of self in a way that no international or commercial broadcaster has come remotely close to replicating.
However, he admitted that as a Conservative, he also understood that for institutions to retain support and relevance, they have to change. “And in the coming years we will of course be taking a proper look at our public service broadcasting system and the BBC’s central role within it. This will start with the consultation on whether to decriminalise TV licence evasion. That will be followed by the process for agreeing the next licence fee settlement. And then, the mid-term review of the BBC Charter. All of this will be in the context of a licence fee based charter that runs until 2027.”
In doing so, he said the Government would need to consider a number of questions.
“First, does the BBC truly reflect all of our nation and is it close to the British people? If we’re all honest, some of our biggest institutions missed, or were slow to pick up, key political and social trends in recent years. The BBC needs to be closer to, and understand the perspectives of, the whole of the United Kingdom and avoid providing a narrow urban outlook. By this, I don’t just mean getting authentic and diverse voices on and off the screen – although of course this is important. But also making sure there is genuine diversity of thought and experience. And this matters, because if you don’t have that, you miss what’s important to people. And at a time of proliferating content, being relevant matters more than ever.”
“And the second question is does the BBC guard its unique selling point of impartiality in all of its output? I’m sure you’ve all seen recent Ofcom research that shows the perception of news impartiality is currently lower for some public service broadcasting channels than commercial channels such as Sky and CNN,” he noted.
“Ultimately, if people don’t perceive impartiality, then they won’t believe what they see and what they read and they’ll feel it is not relevant to them. In an age of fake news and self-reinforcing algorithms, the need for that genuine impartiality is greater than ever,” he stated.
Dowden’s final question was: “Is the BBC ready to embrace proper reform to ensure its long term sustainability for the decades ahead? We know that half of all UK households have a subscription to a major streaming service, while under 18s now spend over an hour a day on YouTube,” he observed.
“My generation is no longer just turning on the TV when we get home, but is consuming different types of content through the likes of iPlayer and Netflix. While younger generations are favouring self-generated content on platforms such as YouTube. When there is so much choice around, the BBC and our public service broadcasters need to think boldly,” he asserted.
“So, the BBC is an institution to be cherished. We would be crazy to throw it away but it must reflect all of our nation, and all perspectives. And it must rise to the challenge of how it will ensure its sustainability as a crucial service in a rapidly-changing world. This work, and the work we are doing as a department, is crucial,” he declared, suggesting that there are “so many chances to demonstrate that we are a nation that is fizzing with creativity, openness and ambition. And to boost our economy and soft power as we do so.”