Why the BBC matters
15 min read
No other institution is woven so deeply into the fabric of British national life as the BBC. We undermine that at our peril, writes director general Tony Hall
There has been much debate about the BBC in recent weeks, with commentary on everything from our role to our relevance to the future of our funding model. And, I might add, some fantastic feedback on our programmes too.
My view is that the role the BBC plays for the UK both at home and abroad is perhaps more important today than at any point in our near hundred-year history. But that doesn’t mean we do not need to change – and change quickly.
The BBC welcomes a debate – we always do. But as with any debate, it is important that it is informed by two things: the facts, and what is at stake.
Let’s start with the facts. Right now, the BBC is the most-used media organisation in the UK, by around 40 million people every day. We reach the most people – more than 9 out of 10 adults every week, and more than 8 out of 10 children.
We are used for the most time, over 17 hours per week on average. And we are by far the most trusted news brand, more than 40% ahead of anyone else.
That says something important about the BBC’s relevance to the lives of the people we serve. It says something equally important about the central role we play as the cornerstone of the UK’s creative economy.
Our creative industries in this country are worth over £100bn per year. They are growing at twice the rate of the wider economy. And our film and TV are the jewels in our crown, helping us punch way above our weight worldwide.
At the heart of this ecosystem is the BBC. We have long been by far the single biggest investor in original British content and talent. For every £1 the BBC spends we generate £2 for the UK economy.
When the BBC invests more in UK content, others do too. When we have less to spend – and what we can spend on our UK services has fallen by a quarter since 2010 – overall investment in British content falls.
The reality is that the BBC operates as an engine of ideas, risk-taking and ambition that powers the whole of our creative industries. We are the leading incubator of the UK’s story-telling talent, and what we do to back British ideas and content beyond the mainstream helps define the success of the whole sector.
This role should never be taken for granted. The industry certainly doesn’t. It has repeatedly warned against any move to disrupt the creative ecology that has grown up around the BBC, warning that it is crucial to the UK’s creative success.
That’s why the Commercial Broadcasters Association has stressed that this mixed ecology, built around PSB, should not be undermined. And in the words of the recent House of Lords report into the future of Public Service Broadcasting: “If the UK is to continue to be a world leader in the creative industries, public service broadcasters must be enabled to thrive in the digital world.”
Some argue that, with Netflix and others investing more in UK content, the role of the BBC is less important. It’s true that some of the global streamers are now doing more to invest in some British content. But it comes nowhere near matching the BBC, and is there any guarantee it will continue? I wouldn’t like to bet on it.
As Andy Harries, Chief Executive of Left Bank Pictures, which produces The Crown, has said: “How quickly do you think Netflix, or indeed Amazon, will roll back the spend in the UK if the world changes…? We have no idea.” He also raised another crucial point: “The BBC provides shows that you will not see anywhere else, from documentaries to talk shows to news to dramas that are specifically British.”
Even where the big global streamers do invest in the UK, there is no evidence that they will support the breadth of British content that UK audiences rely on. Nor is there any guarantee they will make content that truly resonates with the lives of British audiences.
Look at Last Tango in Halifax, rooted so clearly in a community we recognise. Or A Very English Scandal and The Trial of Christine Keeler, steeped in our political history. Or shows which take on issues that matter in our society right now, like Michaela Coel’s exploration of sexual consent, January 22nd, or our new drama on the Windrush scandal, Sitting in Limbo. Or the very British humour of This Country, Inside No. 9, Famalam and Two Doors Down.
Cultural influence from across the Atlantic is great if it adds to our choice. It is less great if it comes at the cost of our own, distinctively British culture.
This matters at home, but it also matters for Britain in the world. Hit shows like Sherlock, Luther and Doctor Who are loved by international audiences in their millions. Formats like Strictly are sold to dozens of countries worldwide.
Our natural history programmes set the global gold standard: Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II have been seen by over a billion people. Outstanding British success at the Emmys and Golden Globes served to highlight again everything the BBC does to champion UK talent and ideas to a global audience.
But it isn’t just the BBC’s creative strength that carries the UK’s influence across the planet, it is also the strength of our global news services.
Today the BBC reaches around 430 million people outside the UK every week, with all-time record audiences for both World Service Radio and BBC World News. We are one of Britain’s strongest and best-known brands, synonymous with trust and British values of quality and fairness worldwide.
This is important. Independent research shows that there is an exceptionally high correlation between places where people are aware of the BBC and places where people think positively about the UK. More than that, the BBC helps UK trade.
Recognising the role the BBC plays in enhancing Britain’s reputation and influence around the world, the Government gave the BBC additional funds four years ago to increase our World Service.
Thanks to that expansion, we now operate in 42 languages from Korean to Punjabi to Pidgin. We reach millions more people via digital and mobile. We have opened new and expanded bureaux in locations from Delhi and Nairobi to Bangkok and Belgrade. Our global reach is on track to hit half a billion people by 2022. I want us to get to over a billion by the end of the decade.
All this has taken place against the backdrop of a growing battle for global influence in which news provision has emerged as a key weapon. The BBC’s main competitors are the well-funded, state-backed actors of Russia and China who see news as an extension of state influence and a tool for democratic disruption.
The next few years will decide which competing vision of the future of news will triumph: the state-controlled or the fair and free. It’s a competition the UK is well-placed to win. In the BBC, we have the pre-eminent provider to the world of facts you can trust.
What we have achieved with our World Service expansion has shown how much we can do to deliver for communities across the world, as well as to broaden Britain’s reach and deepen our influence. We are ready to do even more. It’s a role that could prove particularly vital as Britain seeks to reshape its relationship with the world in the years ahead.
It is not just at global level that the role of the BBC has grown in importance, it is at local level too.
The BBC has always had responsibility to serve every part of the country and make sure all voices are heard. The recent storms and flooding were a reminder of how essential this can be, with everything our local radio teams were doing for local communities up and down the country.
One BBC Hereford & Worcester reporter was out there for 16 hours straight while her own home was underwater, trying to keep flood-hit communities safe, informed and prepared. The response from audiences was overwhelming. One local MP was quick to pay tribute, saying on air that he had never heard a better example of public service broadcasting.
I have visited nearly all our local radio station over the past few years. I have so often witnessed the same thing: BBC local radio is a lifeline.
I have seen something else too. Increasingly, with all the pressures on local media providers, when so much local journalism has fallen away, the BBC is the only place left communities can rely on. At least one MP described us recently as “the fourth emergency service”.
That’s why, as the commercial sector pulls away from local radio, we’re making sure our local radio stations do even more for local communities. And as local newspapers decline and fold, we’ve funded a new network of local democracy reporters to cover local councils.
Launched two years ago, this Local Democracy Reporting Service has already had a remarkable impact. It’s a partnership with regional newspapers and the local media sector more widely, with the goal of supporting a network of 150 local democracy reporters – managed by local media, but funded by the BBC.
Their job is to hold local politicians and public institutions to account across the UK, and so far they have produced more than 100,000 public interest stories which might not otherwise have been heard.
The former Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, called the scheme “a shining example of what can be done”. Dame Frances Cairncross – who last year wrote a report into the future of UK media – has called for it to be extended.
At the BBC we know the challenge of a fragmented society demands an even bigger response. That’s why our goal is to be the organisation that is most fully embedded and distributed around the UK. A decade ago, a third of the BBC was based outside London. Today it is half. And we’ve doubled the proportion of programmes produced in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
At the start of this year, I set out my ambition for the BBC to go even further, and raise the proportion of the BBC that is outside London from half to two-thirds. Already we have announced more of BBC News and BBC Sounds will be based in Salford, up to 150 new roles in Bristol and a brand-new tech hub in Newcastle.
We know what an impact this can have. Our base in Salford is now home to around 3,500 people. Our big shift to BBC North meant employment in Manchester’s media sector tripled in a decade. The number of media businesses tripled too.
It’s a similar story in Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham, where BBC hubs act as magnets for the whole creative sector. Our new BBC Wales HQ is already on course to bring almost a billion pounds of economic benefits to the region over the next 10 years.
No one does more than the BBC to serve the UK’s nations and regions. At the same time, no one does more to bring the whole of the country together.
It could be for national events like royal weddings or jubilees, the Olympics or Wimbledon. Or to commemorate what matters to us most, like anniversaries of the Armistice, the start of the Troubles or Holocaust Memorial. Or it could simply be for shared cultural moments like the Strictly final and Bodyguard finale, the last night of the Proms or an extraordinary 18.5 million people watching Gavin & Stacey over Christmas.
In divided times, the role the BBC plays in reminding the whole country what we have in common could hardly be more important.
These are the facts, but what about the stakes?
The truth is that everything the BBC does for Britain is underpinned by one thing: the universality of our funding model. In other words, because everyone pays, everyone must get something in return.
That’s why we have a responsibility to our audiences to provide news that is independent and committed to the principle of impartiality. It’s why we must invest in the full breadth of British creativity and take risks to back homegrown ideas, talent and content that others simply won’t.
It’s why we offer services that others wouldn’t such as safe, ad-free children’s channels, BBC Bitesize and local democracy reporting. It’s why we have a duty to serve every part of the country and represent the whole of the UK to the world.
All this is only possible because the BBC exists to serve audiences, not shareholders. It’s a reality that must be recognised in the current debate, which has expanded from the question of decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee to questioning the licence fee itself.
When it comes to decriminalisation, it is worth remembering that the Government last commissioned an independent review into this matter in 2015, led by David Perry QC. The conclusion was that the current system is fairest, most effective and should be maintained.
There is a myth that the current system clogs up the courtrooms. In reality, the Perry review found that non-payment cases accounted for 0.3% of court time.
Nor can you be jailed for not paying the licence fee; you can only be fined. It is only later, as a last resort if people wilfully refuse or neglect to obey court orders – often to pay many fines, including the TV Licence – that judges might impose a custodial sentence. Even then it’s rare: it happened to five people in England and Wales in 2018.
The Perry review highlighted that, under any alternative civil system, evasion would go up, more people could be penalised, and the poorest in society could be hit hardest with higher fines. And it would impact people’s credit ratings.
The review also found that the cost to the BBC was likely to be hundreds of millions of pounds, making licence fee payers the ultimate losers. It highlights the fact that, if the current system were to change, it must be done in a way that protects the public’s much-loved services. A decision of this scale – taking hundreds of millions not just out of the BBC but out of the UK’s creative economy – must not be taken lightly.
I want to be clear: we are never complacent about the need to adapt and modernise.
The former Culture Secretary, Nicky Morgan, wrote recently that the BBC needs to accept that no change isn’t an option. I couldn’t agree more. A BBC that fails to change with the times is a BBC that fails its audiences.
The BBC is not a perfect institution. Like everyone else, we can and do make mistakes. But we always strive to be better, and we are always looking to reform.
That’s why we have been working so hard to modernise our organisation. Driving down efficiencies to industry-leading levels, with overheads just 6% of total costs. Reshaping and reprioritising what we do to meet the needs of today’s audiences – in news, on screen, on air and online.
We know we must do more to serve young people in particular. It’s something we’re determined to be radical on, and we’ll be setting out our plans very soon when we publish the BBC’s strategy for the year ahead.
The changes we have made to iPlayer are already making a real difference, with requests up 12% over last year. BBC Sounds is also growing quickly, and we will soon be introducing specialist curated music streams, bringing together existing programmes and making it really easy for listeners to find their favourite BBC content in one place.
The focus is on curation not expansion; helping audiences better discover the full breadth of what’s already on offer.
But don’t let anyone tell you that this will come at the expense of older audiences. We know they are often the people who value and rely on us most. They are our super-users and they will always be super-served.
Big change at the BBC will need to continue. We will need to go further to switch spending from activities that no longer serve audiences towards those that serve them better. We will need to make more difficult cuts and more tough choices.
This will require a broader debate involving all audiences. We will also be ready to debate our funding model when the time comes – remembering that the current licence fee model is guaranteed until 2027. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s first decide what kind of BBC we want for this country, then work out how best to achieve and fund it.
Above all, in seeking to change, let’s not risk undermining what makes the BBC such a priceless asset for Britain. Today the country faces a broad range of challenges, and it’s part of our public service mission to help the nation respond.
Whatever your view of the BBC, no other institution is woven so deeply into the fabric of British national life. No other British brand resonates so strongly as a cultural force around the world. No one else has the potential to serve the UK so powerfully in the years ahead, helping to unite us a nation at home and represent global Britain abroad.
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