Credit: BBC/Guy Levy. © BBC.
To understand why independence is so fundamental to the BBC’s creativity, it is first worth looking at how creativity at the BBC works.
Because we are funded by the licence payer, we have the privilege of being able to start with what creativity can do if we let it.
We want people to come to us to find a home for ideas they can’t find the freedom to develop elsewhere: to work with great creative teams and make programmes that might not otherwise get made.
For example, people like Peter Kosminsky, who directed Wolf Hall, and Hugo Blick, who wrote and produced The Honourable Woman.
Of course that means taking risks and pushing boundaries – The Honourable Woman was a hugely ambitious and challenging project.
Of course, it means being exposed to criticism or potential failure.
When Bake Off first hit our screens in 2010, one review said that the cameraman could have been forgiven if he’d decided to “commit hara-kiri in a giant pool of egg and flour”.
It suggested that, by half-way through, the narrator would rather be elsewhere, and guessed that the audience already were.
Six series later and with over 15 million viewers for this year’s final, the show has now been sold to 20 countries. A Sun editorial recently called it “a national institution,” and said, “No commercial channel would have invested in a show about making cakes in a tent.”
It is an extraordinary success story, one that no one could have predicted.
And as John Lloyd – the genius behind hits such as Blackadder and QI – tells me, success always catches us by surprise. It can never be measured in advance. The next big thing is always unexpected.
Even Blackadder and The Office might never have made it. But both got the backing they needed and the time and space to evolve that the BBC allows.
That support is there today with The Detectorists – backing Mackenzie Crook as a first-time writer and director, with total creative freedom to pursue his passion piece.
And with Car Share – offering Peter Kay full creative control over his first BBC series, even to the point of opening up iPlayer to premiere the show the way he wished.
Because creativity at the BBC should not be afraid of failure. It must recognise that you can’t find the next Blackadder or Bake Off without taking risks.
And it is independence that should allow us that creative freedom.
Aware of the market, but not led by it. Answerable to parliament, but free from political influence.
Not having to navigate 'no-go' areas or define 'good' in advance. But allowing programme-makers to focus on making their programmes, and letting risk of failure be the price of success.
It is independence therefore – from the market and from government – that ultimately should allow us to act as a magnet for creative talent, an incubator for creative ideas, and an engine for the UK’s creative growth.
Creative freedom and the future of the BBC
Why then is so much of the debate around the BBC’s Charter Review not about how to nurture that independence, but how to contain it?
Not about what we should be allowed to do, but what we shouldn’t?
Now, people want and should have effective regulation of the BBC – I want it myself.
I was the first Director-General to propose full external regulation. I want a system that holds our feet firmly to the fire on distinctiveness.
That’s why I welcome an external regulator reviewing the delivery of the BBC’s remit. And having the power to impose remedies if we fail to meet our purposes or breach our service licences.
But when it comes to regulating creative freedom, there is clearly a careful balance to be struck.
I don’t want a system that stifles us - that tells us how to do our job, rather than the job we should be doing - that freezes today’s BBC in aspic so that we can’t respond to tomorrow, or says that our services should be scheduled by our competitors rather than for our audiences.
Some think that the BBC should only be able to produce what the market doesn’t - that our creativity should begin only where others fail, always second-guessing and backing away from the most promising ideas.
Some want every part of the country to have an exact proportion of the licence fee spent on it, regardless of where the best ideas are found.
Or they want to choose how to ring-fence our spending. Or even simply reduce our audience, regardless of whether – as in the last Charter – we got there by becoming more distinctive.
Regulation must be effective, but not prescriptive.
And it must not become paralysing.
Today we operate under 26 different service licences, running to more than 200 pages - with around 160 statutory and non-statutory quotas and separate conditions.
But the call is for even more. And while I’m confident we could have an organisation that ticks any number of boxes, I’m not confident that it would deliver anything of genuine creativity and innovation.
Because for all the BBC’s social and economic contribution, if we overload it with overlapping objectives, bind it with inflexible regulation, we will smother what makes it special: the inspirational and unexpected.
If we had set out to open up a nationwide conversation on diversity, for example, then I’m not sure we would ever have come up with the final of a baking competition in a marquee in Berkshire.
If we’d wanted to promote Cornwall as a tourist destination then I don’t think we would have arrived at an Irishman, scything with his shirt off.
Editorial freedom and the future of the BBC
But creative freedom is not the only freedom that our audience depends on us for.
There is our editorial freedom too: the freedom to speak truth to power.
Nowhere can independence matter more than in the provision of news. And today the BBC remains by far the single most-trusted source of news in the UK.
It’s no surprise, then, that nearly nine out of 10 people believe it important that the BBC is impartial, and independent from the government of the day.
It is clear that, if the BBC is to fulfil its mission to ‘inform’ – something that the public overwhelmingly supports – then it must continue to be, and be seen to be, independent of any political influence, interference or pressure.
When I was working in news and current affairs in the Nineties, the independence of the BBC was protected by a set of quiet customs and traditions. And, though they were informal, they were understood and respected on all sides.
Back then it was thanks to Willie Whitelaw that we had the certainty of a 15-year Charter, underpinning our independence by allowing us stability through the political cycle.
When I returned to the BBC as Director-General, I was struck by a major change.
The foundations of the BBC’s independence had become weaker. The traditions and informal arrangements which protected it had been eroded.
Politicians had not done this deliberately – it happened under all parties.
First, the licence fee was spent on things other than BBC services. On digital switchover. On rural broadband and local TV. Then twice it was settled without a full process.
Now the era of fixed-term parliaments has brought the BBC’s five-year funding reviews firmly into the political cycle.
Some have even suggested – though let me stress this, not the current Government – that the Charter Review should follow the same rhythm.
The truth is that a five-year Charter would effectively dangle a Sword of Damocles over the BBC’s head – calling our future into question at every election and stopping the Corporation from planning or investing in any long-term, sustainable way.
Safeguarding the BBC’s stability and independence
Now, I’m not saying that the BBC’s independence is in direct and imminent danger.
But it has suffered 20 years of gradual erosion, and there is a risk that this could continue.
I believe that we can offer our audiences a better BBC within the budget we’ve been set.
But not if we are bound down with tie after tie. Not if the Charter also cuts our creative freedom to reinvent our services, or our commercial freedom to make up the shortfall.
Letting this happen would not just have unintended consequences for the BBC, but for the UK’s creative economy as a whole.
Some might think, for example, that a call for us to focus only on content sounds reasonable. But 10 years ago, that kind of prescriptive regulation would have prevented the BBC from investing in Freeview or creating BBC iPlayer.
And it would have meant none of the ripple effects of that investment, which helped to create a new market for video-on-demand and benefit all players.
As Netflix have said, “the iPlayer really blazed the trail.” And now the UK has by far the largest on-demand video market in Europe.
So how should we respond?
I know we have a set of politicians who understand the importance of the independence of the BBC.
And this Charter offers us an opportunity to start building back up the safeguards.
Already we and the Trust have said that the most important starting point is to take the BBC firmly out of the electoral cycle by moving to an 11-year Charter period.
And, as we have already said, we must ensure that, next time, licence-fee payers have a formal role in the process for setting the licence fee, alongside the BBC’s new external regulator – whoever that will be.
Now I would like to propose that we debate a ‘dual lock’ for the next Charter. Under this proposal, any fundamental future changes to the BBC, such as non-renewal of the Charter or a new funding mechanism would be subject to:
A resolution of each House of Parliament, with two-thirds majority – as is already the case for changes to the new Press Charter.
And, building on the public’s extraordinary appetite to engage with us directly in the digital age – the Government’s recent consultation brought nearly 200,000 responses – an online vote by the people who ultimately own the BBC: the licence-fee payers.
Opening up the BBC to its audiences
It is this direct accountability to the public that is vital.
Despite being publicly funded, the BBC has always been a public service broadcaster, not a state broadcaster.
In the next Charter we want to serve the public better than ever before.
In September, I set out my plans for creating an ‘Open BBC’ for the internet age. Open in a way that will allow our audiences to shape our services.
And I did this because the single most important question we need to ask in the debate about the BBC’s future is not about our relationship with government or politicians, but with our audience. Our overwhelming responsibility is to ensure that the BBC of the future will serve their best needs and interests.
Today, the BBC’s relationship with its audience has never been closer. Since the last Charter, the BBC Trust has made real progress on involving audiences in BBC decision-making.
Their voice has been heard in crucial debates from service licence reviews to public value tests to evaluations of impartiality.
But in the next Charter we need to go even further.
It is not enough to turn to audiences for one-off decisions and opinions.
We need to embed a two-way, truly collaborative relationship within the fabric of the BBC itself, so that they can work with us directly on how we run the Corporation and how we shape its services.
Not a consultation, but a permanent conversation.
And to do it successfully, we need to harness the full power of the internet age.
Just this month, I was in Birmingham visiting one of the digital innovation teams that are working on getting younger and more diverse audiences engaged with the BBC, offering them a place to tell their stories and produce their own BBC content.
Content like the video one young woman produced for the Asian Network, sharing her experience as part of our My Ramadan season. Last year, she was annoyed that she started to bite her nails again after Eid. This year, she said, she was “determined not to fall off the wagon”.
At the start of the month, we launched Weather Watchers, a crowd-sourced weather club for people all over the country to create personal reports and help us tell the story of the nation’s favourite subject. More than 40,000 people signed up in less than two weeks – sped on by storms Abigail and Barney – and posted over 100,000 updates.
It’s almost as if the BBC Weather team knew that the storms were coming…
All across the BBC, we are inviting audiences in to be part of our services.
But our ambition goes much further.
The Ideas Service as a pathfinder for the ‘Open BBC’
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be at Jodrell Bank with the Stargazing Live team to witness 40,000 viewer volunteers joining forces with top scientists and astronomical institutions to scan the skies for unidentified celestial objects.
What they achieved was astounding. They managed to classify two million heavenly bodies, including five supernovae. And in the process, they managed to offer scientists new insights into the age of the universe.
It was the perfect example of what the BBC can do when it opens up fully to its audiences.
This is the concept behind the BBC’s Ideas Service, which I announced in September.
We want to establish it as the new home of knowledge for our most passionate audiences – ranging across arts, science and culture. An open platform focusing on the biggest questions there are, drawing on content and knowledge from across the whole of the BBC - bringing it together with the expertise of Britain’s best cultural and scientific institutions and the active participation of our audiences.
We want the Ideas Service to move beyond the traditional 'broadcast' model to become a new destination in the digital landscape, where audiences can not only consume, but also contribute, share and celebrate ideas and content. And, like Stargazing Live, we want it to benefit from having thousands, maybe even millions, of people involved.
That’s why we’re going to make it a pathfinder project for the new, Open BBC.
We want our audiences to help create the service, so that they are not just collaborating with us after its launch, but also helping us develop the concept.
And we’re going to start in Cardiff in the New Year by bringing together a specially recruited citizen jury to tell us which questions matter, how we can explore them together, and how best they can work with us to create and curate content.
Putting the BBC in the hands of its audiences
But this Open BBC approach is not limited to the big new ideas.
Because, during the course of the next Charter, I want us to become the most accountable public service in Britain.
To have a direct relationship with pretty much everyone we serve.
By the end of next year, 10 million people will have signed in to our apps and website. By the end of the next Charter, I would not be surprised if practically the whole country had signed in – looking not just for personalised recommendations, but ways of helping to shape their BBC.
We know it’s not going to be easy to find the right ways of systematically involving audiences in decisions.
That’s why we will be piloting a range of ideas for direct collaboration to discover what works best.
Our aim, during the course of the next Charter, is to put the BBC firmly into the hands of its audiences.
Within five years, we want to have engaged the public in assessing and shaping every BBC service.
And within 10, we want to have built a strong enough relationship with a genuine cross-section of the public to involve them directly in making the biggest decisions about the BBC’s future – its scope, scale and funding.
My goal is simple.
Open up the BBC to its audiences as far as possible as the best way of guaranteeing the independence and accountability they need, to ensure the quality and creativity they trust and rely on.
I began by talking about the remarkable economic benefits the BBC confers on the UK - the incredible competitive advantage that our approach to creativity offers this country around the world.
I believe that the next Charter can offer the BBC a chance to do even more to secure that growth dividend for Britain in the decade to come – by making our fundamental independence secure.
An effective regulatory regime, not a prescriptive one, that moves from informal to formal guarantees of creative and editorial independence, allows us the freedom of movement to build a stronger BBC for the internet age, and establishes a fully collaborative relationship with our audiences all across the nations and regions, putting them right at the heart of our services and our decision-making.
That is the vision I am working towards.
A truly Open BBC. Approaching its 100th birthday with its best days still to come.
This is part of a speech by Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, at the Cardiff Business Club on 23 November 2015.