Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mrs Joan Darwent


  Of the matters which the Committee proposes to examine, I wish to address the media market, access to high quality diverse services and the defining and provision of public service broadcasting, with the BBC particularly in mind.

  I believe that only the BBC, funded by a license fee and fully independent, can guarantee high quality and diverse public service broadcasting because commercial broadcasters must tailor their output in order to bring in the number and type of viewers and listeners required by the advertisers who supply their funding. Consequently, their programmes must appeal to the great majority of the public and this excludes programmes of an intellectual nature or cultural nature which are more demanding and require a longer attention span than the majority is willing to give. This, of course, has serious implications for the cultural and political life of the nation, for an ill-informed public can be easily manipulated by commercial or political interests.

  It is reported that the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, has hinted that the BBC may be fined if it fails to meet standards of taste and quality. This seems to me to be ill-thought out. It implies that the BBC has to maintain different standards from commercial broadcasters. Yet, at the same time, there are demands that it shall be subject to the same regulator as commercial broadcasters.

  The BBC cannot be judged by the same criteria as the commercial sector if it is to meet the demands of high quality and diverse programming. Such programming is, by definition, more expensive to make than popular entertainment. Nor can the BBC be judged by the ratings it secures compared to commercial broadcasters. By definition also, such programming will never attract a mass audience.

  I believe—and wrote nearly ten years ago—that it was wrong to oblige the BBC to enter the commercial field, but it cannot now withdraw. It was bound to cause conflict with the commercial sector, leading to attacks on the Corporation intended fatally to wound it—and I believe also that was the intention at the time. But its commercial activities are a source of continual danger for the Corporation because they lay it open to the charge of unfair competition and create a minefield which must be safely negotiated in order to protect its unique public service status.

  I believe it to be essential that the BBC's most demanding programmes must be available on Channels other than a specially dedicated cultural one. This is vital if they are to be seen by viewers who would not normally seek them out.

  The demands made concurrently on the BBC—that it maintain high standards in programming, which will never be provided by a commercial broadcaster, and that it shall achieve ratings which compare favourably with the commercial sector—are incompatible. The BBC should continue to occupy its traditional position as an independent public service broadcaster funded by a license fee. Only thus will the public have access to programmes of the highest standard across the whole spectrum of entertainment, culture and information. Unless this happens there is no doubt that broadcasting as a whole—the multiplicity of channels notwithstanding—will rapidly descend to the lowest common denominator.

2 January 2002

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