At last. After several years of hearing the BBC and its public service remit being picked away at by the people who hope to benefit (financially, at the very least) from its decline, the Director General, Mark Thompson, has struck back with a powerful defence of the culture, ethos, purpose and performance of the Corporation.
In the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh last night he talked tough and he challenged those who wish to see the BBC weakened. Predictably, the instant response from representatives of Sky and other independents was to claim the lecture amounted to little more than ‘a plea for the licence fee’. Why predictable? Because it is easier even for professionals to sneer than to engage with the debate on reasonable terms.
First of all, Thompson was not defensive about the BBC (in a protectionist way) and openly described the challenges facing the organisation in the next few years. One of these challenges is the deliberate negativity within the media industry (and politics) regarding the BBC:
The purists have spent a generation making the free market case for abolishing the licence fee and the British public agrees with them less now than they did when they started. Nor is there any evidence that the public have any enthusiasm for the privatisation of Channel 4, the Arts Council of the Air or any of the other schemes which the hardliners have come up over the years. But of course you wouldn’t know any of this if you based your assessment of public attitudes to British broadcasting on the evidence of most of the UK’s national newspapers. Systematic press attacks on broadcasters, and especially on the BBC, are nothing new of course ⎯ the first hostile campaigns began back in John Reith’s day ⎯ but the scale and intensity of the current assaults does feel different.
He then goes on to ram the point home:
Often the reporters freely admit to us that they know the story they’re working on is going to be ramped up, distorted or just plain nonsense. But as one journalist said to one of my colleagues recently: ‘It doesn’t matter about the facts, they just want to trash you.’ Now that’s what I call refreshing honesty. Not the public interest. Not accountability. We just want to trash you.
Now, hurting the feelings of BBC leaders is not the issue here. The issue is why there is such a strong agenda of negativity in sectors of the UK media against an institution revered around the world and (as every poll seems to suggest) loved by the public? (Read the report – he quotes figures.) By the time he has a go at Sky and the Murdoch Empire, it is clear that he is suspicious of the motives behind criticism from certain quarters.
Secondly, Thompson talks up the wider broadcasting field and stresses the need for a strong Channel 4, a strong ITV and a strong independent sector. Yet, he sees that strength lying in the commissioning of and investment in excellent British creative programming. Why? In order that all people have access to the best and that we are not reduced to a lowest common denominator culture in which we simply buy in – regardless of quality – what everybody else is making abroad:
Exceptional per capita investment in new production has meant that we have a far bigger position in the most expensive forms of TV drama, comedy, landmark factual not a sufficient condition for producing the best TV in the world, but it is a necessary one.
As everyone knows, much of that investment derives from direct and indirect public intervention. Free market purists claim that, if you reduced or eliminated this intervention, the market would simply fill the gap. But look around the world. There are plenty of countries where public intervention is on the wane – licence fees cut, public broadcasters in decline – but in no country anywhere has the market stepped up to replace the lost programme investment.
But do not believe anyone who claims that cutting the licence fee is a way of growing the creative economy or that the loss in programme investment which would follow a substantial reduction in the BBC’s funding could be magically made up from somewhere else. It just wouldn’t happen. A pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy. Once gone, it will be gone forever.
Thompson makes his case strongly, but the speech needs to be read as a whole and only then addressed critically. The BBC faces significant challenges, but it needs people at the top who believe in it, are not afraid of fighting for it and can articulate a vision for its confident role in the emerging digital world. It feels to me like we have heard a strong first strike. We need more.
I didn’t realise I felt so strongly about the value of the BBC in this competitive world until I heard James Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture last year. The brazen amorality of his case and the deliberate omission of anything that confounded his argument (News Corp says it wants competition, but actually wants to be dominant across the media platforms, eliminating the competition it doesn’t like…) was shocking. The massive progress led by Murdoch Senior in changing the way the media operate were undermined (in my view and that of some others who are interested in media policy) by Murdoch Junior’s arrogance – the arrogance of those who have power and know they have the money to increase their concentration of power. As Thompson observes:
Sky is already a far more powerful commercial counterweight to the BBC than ITV ever was. It is well on its way to being the most dominant force in broadcast media in this country. Moreover, if News Corp’s proposal to acquire all of the remaining shares in Sky goes through, Sky will not just be Britain’s biggest broadcaster, but a full part of a company which is also dominant in national newspapers as well as one of the Britain’s biggest publishers.
According to Enders analysis, it will be a concentration of cross-media ownership which would not be allowed in the United States or Australia, News Corp’s other two most important markets.
Compare the ethical assumptions behind these two statements:
There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.
People say to me ⎯ ‘aren’t you afraid that Sky is going to start spending more on original British programmes and will therefore be competing head-to-head with you?’ But that’s what should happen. It would be good for the BBC. It would be good for the industry. It would be good for the public… What would success look like? Strong creative and commercial revival at ITV, 4 and 5. A Sky which was as proud of spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new British programmes as on the HBO archive. British producers succeeding in international markets, not at the expense of quality but because of it.
The former was James Murdoch’s conclusion, the latter Mark Thompson’s.
Mark Thompson has taken the debate to the nay-sayers and has raised the rhetorical stakes. There are interesting times ahead.