Director General Mark Thompson's introduction to the BBC Strategy review

Mark Thompson's foreword and overview from the BBC Strategy Review. The full review is attached.
2 April 2010

Director General Mark Thompson's introduction to the BBC Strategy Review:

The BBC and Public Space

The BBC’s mission is constant and enduring: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. It strives to fulfil this mission not to further any political or commercial interest, but because the British public believes that universal access to ideas and cultural experiences of merit and ambition is a good in itself. The BBC is a part of public space because the public themselves have put it there.

Public space is an open and enriching environment. There are no pay walls in public space. No barriers between the public and the information they need to form their own judgments about the great issues of the day, or between them and the educational and cultural resources which could enrich their own and their families’ lives. While commercial media companies have to assign different values to different target audiences—favouring the affluent, for example, or the young—in public space, everyone is as important and valuable as everyone else.

And public space is independent space. There is no place in it for censorship or bias. In public space, citizens have the right to receive impartial and accurate news, to encounter and engage with the full range of opinion. Government and state perspectives are there to be explored and scrutinised like everything else, and do not enjoy special privileges or vetoes.

The BBC is a part of public space, but public space is far bigger than the BBC. It certainly includes other public service broadcasters like Channel 4, as well as many other public institutions: art galleries and museums, public libraries, universities, artistic and cultural bodies, national parks, urban parks and green spaces, great national houses and monuments held in trust, churches, charities and voluntary bodies. Commercial broadcasters, newspapers and websites contribute powerfully to public space when they offer accurate and impartial news free at the point of use, or universally available content to deepen knowledge and broaden cultural experiences.

Public space in the digital age The digital age should be a golden age for public space. The means of creating and disseminating content of every kind have been democratised. The barriers to entry to the global conversation have collapsed and every day individual citizens reach thousands of others with their ideas and opinions. New categories of public content providers have emerged at community, national and international level, driven more then ever by their users. Wikipedia, Twitter and many other websites broaden and enrich public space in new ways which can be very close to the spirit of public service broadcasting.

But digital also threatens to disrupt traditional public space. Fragmentation of audiences and consumption is weakening traditional media business models, including their ability to support quality content, from international newsgathering to indigenous drama and comedy. Traditional subsidies that enabled commercially funded broadcasters to make socially and culturally valuable content are failing. When, as a result, a piece of valuable content is lost—consider, for instance, the ending of The South Bank Show—the effects are multiple: audiences lose a precious connection to the arts world; the UK television industry loses an important documentary platform; but at the same time, many artists and cultural institutions lose a significant pathway to the public. Public space is diminished.

Nor is the global democratisation of opinion and argument as straightforward as it appears. Above the vast and unruly world of the blogosphere, professional media power may actually concentrate in fewer hands. Individual plurality may increase but collective, effective plurality decrease—with societies around the world left with fewer reliable sources of professionally validated news. The risk of bias and misinformation and, in some countries, of state control, may grow. Again, public space is threatened.

The BBC and public space

What should the BBC’s role be given this emerging pattern of civic and creative opportunity and risk? First, the BBC should act as one of the main guarantors of public space. It should use its public purposes and the privilege of the licence fee to ensure an uninterrupted flow of investment into high- quality content and into the development and success of the best British talent. It should ensure that the combination of its resources and its values means that audiences at home and around the world always have access to news and information that they can trust. Its programmes and services must reach as broad an audience as possible, creating value for all sections of society and serving all licence fee payers. The BBC’s mission to ‘make the popular good and the good popular’ should continue.

The BBC should also help guarantee the technological underpinnings of public space. While technology and distribution must always be means and not ends for the BBC, it has a special role to develop and back open platforms and standards. It should defend the public’s right to choose rather to have choices made for them, and will therefore continue to make sure that open broadcast platforms (like Freeview, Freesat and proposals for internet-connected television) succeed.

Second, the BBC should concentrate more than ever on being a creator of quality. It should focus even more than it does today on forms of content that most clearly build public value and which are most at risk of being ignored or under-invested in by commercial players. It should take significant further steps towards building the distinctiveness and uniqueness of its programmes and services. It should make the universal availability of its archive a key objective over the next ten years, creating an engine for new public value—connecting audiences with the best of everything the BBC has ever made.

Third, the BBC should become a catalyst and connector within public space. It is uniquely well placed to help other institutions and groups reach and enrich the public, and to help the public find and get the most out of those institutions themselves. Partnerships with other cultural and civic institutions should no longer be peripheral and ad hoc, but strategic and central to the BBC’s idea of itself. The recent collaboration between the BBC, the British Museum and hundreds of other museums across the UK to create A History of the World in 100 Objects shows the way. The BBC should use its reach to help illuminate wider opportunities for the public to discover and learn, and its technologies to help other institutions open up the riches of their archives. It should also learn from those other institutions, opening itself up to them and collaborating to find new ways of serving the public.

But the BBC can only achieve these goals if it becomes much clearer about the limits of its own public space. In the analogue era, the BBC’s limits were set by the spectrum available to it and the clear separation between different kinds of media. Given the convergence of technologies, the BBC’s limits need to be demonstrably based on its public purposes and to be spelled out to a greater extent up front. Clearly the BBC needs the space to evolve as audiences and technologies develop, but it must be far more explicit than it has been in the past about what it will not do. Its commercial activity should help fund and actively support the BBC’s public mission, and never distort or supplant that mission. Where actual or potential market impact outweighs public value, the BBC should leave space clear for others. The BBC should not attempt to do everything. It must listen to legitimate concerns from commercial media players more carefully than it has in the past and act sooner to meet them. It needs the confidence and clarity to stop as well as to start doing things.

This strategy establishes clearly what we believe the BBC’s priorities and limits should be, and what actions (in content and services, as well as in the way the BBC conducts itself) need to flow from them. This strategy is, above all, a proposal to the BBC Trust and, through it, to the nation. Consultation may alter its provisions but its essence will, we hope, find strong support: a BBC focused on high-quality content and enduring values, keeping open a public space for all.

Mark Thompson, Director-General


Putting Quality First—overview

The BBC’s mission is to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. Its constitutional and financial independence, its heritage and its relationship with audiences give it a unique opportunity to enrich and sustain public space here and around the world. The public expect the BBC to be a wholly reliable source of accurate and impartial news; a tireless supporter of originality and excellence; a guaranteed investor in British talent; and an upholder of the highest values and standards. In uncertain times, they want it to remain central to their own lives and to the life of the UK—a constant companion in moments of crisis and celebration.

But media is changing profoundly, and the BBC must change too. It must articulate its public service mission more clearly than ever before. It must explore new ways of delivering that mission—and of ensuring that the benefits of digital can be enjoyed by all. But it must also recognise the challenges facing other media, and address legitimate concerns about its scope and ambitions.

This strategy directs the BBC to put quality first; do fewer things better; guarantee access to all; make the licence fee work harder; and set new boundaries for itself.

PUTTING QUALITY FIRST—focusing the licence fee on five clear priorities to provide:

• The best journalism in the world • Inspiring knowledge, music and culture

• Ambitious UK drama and comedy

• Outstanding children’s content

• Events that bring communities and the nation together

Putting quality first means, on this strategy, delivering these five clear content priorities at higher quality across all of the BBC’s services—including by:

• Reprioritising nearly £600m a year, around a fifth of the BBC’s cost base, to higher quality content by 2013 and, on a continuing programme, across everything the BBC does

• Investing £50m a year from within this total to raise quality and originality including across BBC Two, children’s output and journalism

• Committing from 2013 not to spend less than 90p in every licence fee pound on high-quality content and getting it to audiences.

DOING FEWER THINGS BETTER—making tough choices to improve our services

Doing fewer things better means, on this strategy, significant changes to the BBC’s service portfolio:

• Focusing the BBC’s website on the five content priorities

  • Halving the number of sections on the site and improving its quality by closing lower- performing sites and consolidating the rest
  • Spending 25% less on the site per year by 2013
  • Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites

• Increasing the quality of local radio: boosting investment in local news at breakfast, mid-morning and drivetime using resources released by sharing content at other times

• Recommending the closure of Radio 6 Music: focusing popular music output on Radio 1 and an increasingly distinctive Radio 2, using the resources released to drive digital radio in other ways

• Recommending the closure of Asian Network as a national service, and using the resources released to serve Asian audiences better in other ways

• Recommending the closure of teen offerings BBC Switch and Blast!

GUARANTEEING ACCESS—working to ensure that UK audiences can always:

• Get BBC services free at the point of use, in ways and on devices that suit them

• Catch up on programmes for free on the BBC’s website, at home and on the move

• Access the best of the BBC’s current and future library of programmes

Guaranteeing access means, on this strategy:

• Making internet-connected television a reality and a success, and continuing to support other partnerships for free-to-air platforms

• Guaranteeing free access to independent, impartial news including online

• Opening the BBC’s current and future programme library, as well as working with partners like the British Library, BFI and Arts Council England to bring other public archives to wider audiences.

MAKING THE LICENCE FEE WORK HARDER—reducing the cost of running the BBC

Making the licence fee work harder means, on this strategy, focusing the BBC’s spending on what matters most to the public by:

• Reducing the cost of running the BBC by a quarter: from 12p in a licence fee pound today to under 9p by the end of the Charter in 2016

• Reducing senior management numbers, freezing pay and suspending bonuses

• Reinvesting savings in new UK programmes serving the five content priorities

• Striving to make every licence fee pound benefit the wider UK economy by at least £2, and spreading that value across the UK.

SETTING NEW BOUNDARIES—accepting clearer limits and new behaviours for the BBC

Setting new boundaries means, on this strategy:

• Reducing spending on imported programmes and films by 20%, capping it thereafter at no more than 2.5p in every licence fee pound

• Capping sports rights spending at 9p in every licence fee pound

• Recognising the lead role commercial radio plays in serving popular music to 30-50 year-olds

• Recognising the lead role other broadcasters play in serving younger teenagers on TV

• Never more local: undertaking not to launch services more local than at present in England

• Defining publicly which areas of activity BBC Online will not undertake.

Clearer BBC behaviour means, on this strategy:

• Prioritising quality over quantity whenever a choice is required

• Making the BBC the most open and responsive public institution in the UK

• Making explicit the BBC’s commitment to consider the market impact of major decisions

• Making partnership the BBC’s ‘default setting’ for most new activities

• Ensuring the tough limits set by the BBC Trust’s recent review of BBC Worldwide are fully implemented, with new limits on acquisitions and a drive towards non-UK activities.

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