Select Committee on Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review First Report

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" (p 232).[2]

8.  Moreover, there was a strong political consensus on the BBC's importance—as 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 future".[3] Theresa 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.[4] 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.[5] 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".[6] 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 viewpoint.

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)[7] and at home it has an overall satisfaction rating of 75 per cent.[8] 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.[9]

12.  The BBC is also important for its role in developing national talent in broadcasting—many 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 UK television.

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.[10]

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 information.

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.[11] 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.[12]

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".[13] The internet in particular broadens the global range of suppliers accessible to UK viewers and listeners—one 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".[14] 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.[15] 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

3   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government, March 2005, p. 2 Back

4   See Sir Robin Day, Grand Inquisitor: Memoirs (1989), Weidenfeld & Nicolson Back

5   See inter alia Michael Leapman, The Last Days of the Beeb (1987), Coronet Books, p. 95. Back

6   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

7   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

8   Ibid. Back

9   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. Back

10   Ibid. Back

11   Ofcom review of public service television broadcasting, Phase 2 - Meeting the digital challenge, para. 3.20. Back

12   Ibid, para. 3.19.  Back

13   Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: BBC Response to A strong BBC, independent of government, p. 3. Back

14   Building Public Value, Renewing the BBC for a digital world, p. 5. Back

15   Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: BBC Response to A strong BBC, independent of government, p. 3. Back

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