CHAPTER 2: The importance of the BBC |
7. The vast majority of those who gave oral or
written evidence to us were united in wanting to see a strong
BBC. Even the BBC's major competitors spoke of its value. ITV
told us "As competition for audiences and commercial revenues
intensifies, the BBC's role at the heart of Britain's public service
broadcasting ecology may become even more important than in the
past" (p 114). Channel 4 described itself as "a
strong supporter of the BBC as the cornerstone of public service
broadcasting" (p 61). Channel five agreed and described
the BBC as "a benchmark for quality in programming"
which "acts as an exemplar of Britain in the wider world"
(p 129). Richard Freudenstein, Chief Operating Officer of
BSkyB, stated that BSkyB has "a great deal of respect for
the BBC" (Q 593). The Satellite and Cable Broadcasters
Group, the trade association for satellite and cable programme
providers, told us that "the BBC should remain strong, independent
and the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in the UK"
8. Moreover, there was a strong political consensus
on the BBC's importanceas representatives of the Conservative,
Labour and Liberal Democrat parties testified to us. In her foreword
to the Green Paper, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture,
Media and Sport states that "Government recognises the enormous
contribution that the BBC has made to British life and culture,
both at home and abroad. We also agree with the majority of British
people who want to see that contribution maintained into the multi-channel
May, the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport,
told us "a strong BBC is important both for the UK and indeed
for the broadcasting industry" (Q 1096). Don Foster,
the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport,
agreed and stated that his party "want to see the BBC being
strong, independent and well and securely financed" (Q 1142).
9. In spite of such support, there have been
occasions when governments have sought to use their powers over
the BBC to influence its editorial decisions. In his memoirs,
the late Sir Robin Day recalled that Harold Wilson threatened
the BBC over its reporting of the 1965 Labour Party conference
stating that if the BBC did not mend its ways the government would
see that it did. In
1971 a Conservative Government, concerned by the BBC television
programme "The Question of Ulster", subjected the BBC
to what its Editor of News and Current Affairs described as "the
most sustained attempt to keep it off the air" the BBC had
yet experienced. And
both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, when Prime Minister, rattled
their sabres when vexed by BBC editorial decisions.
10. There is also public criticism of the BBC.
In early 2004 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
commissioned a company specialising in qualitative research and
consultancy, Cragg Ross Dawson, to investigate public attitudes
to the BBC. Focus group discussions showed that there was a marked,
but not universal, perception that the quality of BBC programmes
had declined. "Dumbing-down" is not the only criticism
levelled at the BBC. It has been suggested that the BBC is not
always impartial in its radio and television reporting. A number
of respondents to the Government's initial consultation thought
that the BBC "had a high level of biased reporting".
Nevertheless although some people do criticise
the BBC for having its own agenda it is fair to say that the nature
of the perceived agenda tends to vary to suit the complainant's
11. In spite of these criticisms, national surveys
of BBC viewers and listeners show BBC services are rated exceptionally
highly. The BBC's news and current affairs programmes are generally
both highly regarded and trusted. A MORI survey for DCMS showed
that 77per cent of the UK public believe the BBC to be independent
and impartial, 80 per cent trust BBC News and 82 per cent consider
BBC News to be accurate. And 84 per cent of people in the UK listen
to or watch the BBC news each week. Abroad, the BBC World Service
is seen as the most objective international radio broadcaster
in almost every country surveyed (p 389)
and at home it has an overall satisfaction rating of 75 per cent.
The BBC's reputation is particularly impressive when considered
in light of a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Press Gazettee.
This asked a representative sample of more than 2,000 members
of the public to name one newspaper, magazine, broadcast news
programme or news website that they considered to be trustworthy.
The BBC was mentioned five times more than its nearest rival.
12. The BBC is also important for its role in
developing national talent in broadcastingmany directors,
scriptwriters, actors and technical staff owe the opportunity
to develop their skills to the BBC. And its importance is underlined
by the fact that it is one of only two UK television companies
that cannot be bought out by foreign investors (the other being
Channel 4). Until very recently, there was a restriction on UK
commercial terrestrial television companies being taken over by
companies outside Europe. The Communications Act 2003 changed
that position and as a result an American company could now take
over ITV or Channel five (currently majority owned by the German
company Bertelsmann) although no reciprocal arrangement exists
in respect of UK companies taking over American broadcasters.
There would be a risk, if ITV or Channel five were taken over
by an American company, that they would be used as an outlet for
even more American produced programmes than are now screened on
13. The BBC is more than just a provider of public
service broadcasts in the sense of American Public Broadcasting
Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) channels. Unlike
PBS and NPR in the USA, the BBC is funded by licence fee payers
from all walks of life. Therefore the BBC rightly seeks to inform,
educate and entertain everybody. The BBC is an all-encompassing
public broadcaster not simply a provider of public service broadcasts.
MORI's poll showed that 72 per cent of licence fee payers would
miss the BBC if it were not there.
14. The BBC thus remains fundamentally important
to UK culture and the UK's reputation abroad. We want to see its
position strengthened. But we also want to ensure that the BBC
continues to respond positively to increased public expectations
of openness and accountability. To advocate such a change is not
an "attack" on the BBC (as some inside the organisation
may believe) but a recognition that the public provides more than
£3bn a year in public funding to the BBC and has the right
to be assured that such monies are well spent. There may be different
views on the importance and cost of different programmes but there
is no reason why external scrutiny should compromise the editorial
independence of the BBC and its broadcasters and producers.
The context of the digital revolution
15. We are also anxious to ensure that the BBC
responds appropriately to the rapidly changing media market. The
advent of digital television, digital radio and broadband internet
access is fundamentally changing the broadcasting market and the
way people watch and listen to programmes and access news and
16. 60 per cent of UK households now have digital
television and Ofcom, the industry regulator, projects that this
will rise to 80 per cent by the date set for final analogue switch-off.
Digital television makes an increasing array of channels accessible.
But this increase in choice has already led to a fragmentation
in audiences. Between 1993 and 2003 the audience share enjoyed
by non-terrestrial channels nearly quadrupled (from 6 per cent
in 1993 to just under 24 per cent in 2003). This shift has mainly
been at the expense of ITV and BBC1.
17. Digitalisation means more than just increased
choice in television and radio channels. Digital television brings
interactive "red button services" which allow viewers
to determine their viewing experience. With a touch of the remote
control a digital viewer can choose from an array of screens which
can be used for a range of civic and commercial applications.
Viewers are now able to learn more about a particular subject,
whether a product promoted in an advertisement or a topic covered
in a programme. "Red button services" also allow for
increased interactivity. During certain programmes digital viewers
can choose which camera angle they prefer and can use their remote
controls to vote in live polls and competitions. And new routes
for participation via "red button services" are still
being developed. For example, in May 2005 the Media Trust charity
enabled digital satellite viewers of the Community Channel to
use the red button to search for volunteering opportunities in
their locality. Digital radio eradicates the interference that
can spoil analogue radio transmissions. In addition digital radio
transmissions may carry data information which can be displayed
on a small screen forming part of the radio receiver.
18. New technologies are also affecting how people
access programming. It is now possible to watch and listen to
programmes on a home PC, a laptop and even a mobile phone. And
at the same time Personal Video Recorders, which enable people
to avoid advertising and to create their own television schedules,
are becoming more commonplace and may soon be in most homes.
19. Traditionally television was a "push"
medium. Broadcasters were in charge of people's viewing experiences
and people watched what the broadcasters provided, when they provided
it. But now television is becoming a "pull" medium,
where viewers choose what they want to watch and when they want
to watch it. Television is not the only medium affected. The BBC
acknowledges that digital radio, podcasting and broadband internet
"are all technologies that have the potential to transform
the relationship the media have with their audiences".
The internet in particular broadens the global range of suppliers
accessible to UK viewers and listenersone can now download
podcasts from all over the world and listen to internet delivered
radio from scores of different countries. The internet also broadens
the range of possible audiences for BBC services across the globe.
20. These changes present challenges for the
BBC and the broadcasting industry as a whole. The BBC states that
"The digital world, and the BBC's vision of its mission within
it, calls for profound changes to the BBC as an organisation".
This Charter Review provides an opportunity to equip the BBC with
the tools it needs to survive and thrive in this time of change
and to drive that change for the benefit of viewers and listeners.
21. The BBC has suggested that the Green Paper
understates the importance of digital technologies.
This is true. Ten years ago it was impossible to imagine the internet's
importance in the lives of many people in Britain. How can we
therefore predict what the broadcasting world will be in another
ten or twelve years, except to say that it is likely to be vastly
different from today? Nevertheless some needs and values endure
and these include the need for independent, accurate and impartial
broadcasting which engages with people across the United Kingdom
and the world. The BBC should be a beacon for these values.
2 Of course as chapter six illustrates the BBC's competitors
had different views regarding the role that the BBC should play. Back
Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Review of the BBC's Royal
Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government, March
2005, p. 2 Back
See Sir Robin Day, Grand Inquisitor: Memoirs (1989), Weidenfeld
& Nicolson Back
See inter alia Michael Leapman, The Last Days of the
Beeb (1987), Coronet Books, p. 95. Back
33% of consultation respondents made reference to the BBC's news
coverage, of these 39% thought that the BBC had a high level of
biased reporting. See Department for Culture, Media and Sport,
Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: What you said about the
BBC, July 2004 (para 5.21) Back
The only exceptions are Russia, where Radio Liberty is ahead on
trust, and Saudi Arabia, where Radio Monte Carlo leads on objectivity.
In Egypt the most trusted international broadcaster is Al Jazeera
(TV) (54%); 3 points ahead of the BBC (radio and online), and
10 points ahead for objectivity (48% against BBC 38%). Back
The research was conducted online by YouGov Ltd. Fieldwork ran
from 7th to 10th January 2005. A sample of 2,178 GB adults aged
18+ were interviewed. www.YouGov.com Back
Ofcom review of public service television broadcasting, Phase
2 - Meeting the digital challenge, para. 3.20. Back
Ibid, para. 3.19. Back
Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: BBC Response to A strong
BBC, independent of government, p. 3. Back
Building Public Value, Renewing the BBC for a digital world,
p. 5. Back
Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: BBC Response to A strong
BBC, independent of government, p. 3. Back