Trust, universalism and funding the BBC: video highlights of a debate with Greg Dyke

Video highlights of a debate over the future of the BBC with Greg Dyke, Lis Howell, Liz Forgan, Helena Kennnedy, David Elstein and Anthony Barnett, on trust, legitimacy, universalism and how to pay for them regarding Britain's public service broadcaster. 

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
9 June 2012

The BBC seems to be losing its way. It suffers from a loss of self-belief in what a public broadcaster should be doing. But does it believe in the public which it is duty bound to serve? In the first of the public exchanges that will be hosted here on ourBeeb, members of the Steering Group that I chair tried to probe the future of the Corporation with one of its most dynamic and controversial Director Generals, Greg Dyke.

It was planned to be an hour discussion to open up the debate. We got bogged down in technical and somewhat defensive arguments. Then, on the hour, the debate took off on the issue of trust: why the public trusts the BBC and whether this is connected to it having non-commercial, non-subscription funding. The whole session lasted 90 minutes. The video provides 16 minutes of some of the best of the exchanges over, legitimacy, accountability and what Greg Dyke calls the BBC's "universalism" and whether these can be retained in the digital era.  

We aim to publish a summary of the whole session and a full transcript and, if possible, make the entire video available.

Future conversations will be announced shortly. 

I want to emphasise one point. The BBC conducts immense exercises of self-scrutiny. Yet this exceptionally important institution does not share the debate over its future. It consults, of course. It creates feed-back mechanisms. But in what ways does it belong to the public or feel accountable to its users?

At present a new Director General is being appointed. An initial short list of candidates has been drawn up and there are apparently well-based rumours as to who is included. But out of habit if nothing else the BBC has not and will not announce who these candidates are. Naturally, this stifles coverage of the different directions they might represent. It appears they will be assessed initially by Chris Patten and Diane Coyle the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Board. This is worrying because Diane Coyle was a member of the  Browne Review of Higher Education which stated as one of its principles (p 25),

We have looked carefully at the scope to distribute funding by some objective metric of quality; but there is no robust way to do this and we doubt whether the choices of a central funding body should be put before those of students.

I am a strong believer in the role and importance of choice as one principle in the provision of public goods - but not the only one. To make individual choice the sole measure of quality is to abandon all values to the short-term demands of the market-place (which will inevitably be shaped by the drive for profit). The Vice-Chair of the BBC needs to understand how a democracy can believe in, and invest in, quality in its publicly funded broadcaster, even if she can't see any way of doing this when it comes to higher education.

Which is not to say that such values and qualities are obvious or 'go without saying' in an era marked by the profound transition from the analogue to the digital. On the contrary, far-reaching debate is needed. The best way to have this and to test the robustness of any conclusions is by conducting it in public with an open mind. This is what ourBeeb is attempting.  

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