John Whittingdale was "motivated by tribal instinct to cut the BBC in favour of its more politically reliable commercial rivals" ©Carl Court/Getty Images

Why Britain needs the BBC

In a post-truth world, there is a hankering to hear from a trusted voice
December 7, 2016

This year the BBC’s audiences sent a clear signal about the kind of corporation they want. Nearly 200,000 made their voices heard in the public consultation on the renewal of our Royal Charter. The government described the response as “unprecedented,” second only to their consultation on gay marriage. The message was simple: the BBC’s public service mission—to inform, educate and entertain—is as pertinent today as it has ever been. Our audiences want us to do what we have always done best, but they want us to do it even better, and in new ways.

This is our challenge for the years ahead. And it comes at a moment when a strong, confident BBC has arguably never had a more important role to play for Britain—at home and around the world.

It is now approaching four years since I returned to the BBC as Director-General. Throughout the Charter renewal process, and with the essential support of our audiences and programme makers, we were able to make a strong case for the BBC. But first of all, we had to win the right to be heard.

We had to take a long look at our culture.  The public’s faith in the corporation was profoundly shaken by the Savile enquiry. The BBC badly failed the survivors of abuse. Thanks to the challenging and important review by Janet Smith, we have the policies we need as safeguards for the future. And we continue to take every possible step to make the BBC more open and collaborative.

We had to make tough decisions on our efficiency. In response to failings over executive pay-offs, excessive bureaucracy and stifling management layers, we have delivered a programme of reform. We have reduced management, taken money away from support areas to direct it towards creativity, and brought down overheads to industry-leading levels: just 6 per cent of our total costs.

And all throughout, we had to keep delivering the world-class programmes, content and services that together the country chooses more than 150m times each day. From the very best impartial, independent news and analysis to the very biggest global sporting events. From World Service radio across the globe to BBC iPlayer.

And when it comes to programmes, instead of being the year the BBC was distracted by Charter, 2016 was the year when The Night Manager became must-watch TV; when The Archers hit new heights after 65 years, and began a national conversation on domestic abuse; when, as Bake Off departed the BBC after building to 14m viewers, Planet Earth II became a hit of Bake-Off proportions. Each of these—the strengthening of our culture, our focus on reform and efficiency, the creativity and quality of our programmes and services—is a process, not a destination. There is still much to do to consolidate this progress, and to make sure that the BBC is stronger than ever.

But if the last few years have been about restoring faith in the BBC and rebuilding its foundations by securing a strong Charter, the next few years are about delivering on a bold vision for the future.

We are sure of our budget for the years ahead and this represents a major strength. I believe our new Charter offers us the stability and confidence we need to be able to plan ahead with real ambition and to challenge our organisation to deliver like never before.

Why is this so important? First, in the “post-truth” era, the BBC’s trusted, impartial news services have never been more needed. Many of us are old enough to remember the halcyon days when politicians only ever dealt in facts and never broke promises (“Read my lips: no new taxes”). But—jokes aside—the real truth is, it has never been more important to be able to separate opinion from fact, prediction from certainty, heat from light.

I always recall during the Gulf War other news outlets were reporting a chemical attack on Jerusalem. Later it turned out that legitimate sources were wrong, but I remember standing in the gallery, considering how to respond. It was Charles Wheeler—the great correspondent and a hero of mine—who made things clear: Let’s tell them what we know, and let’s tell them what we don’t know. It’s a simple precept, but is there a more straightforward reminder of our role? The BBC exists to be a trusted voice in a crowded arena. In today’s political and digital context, this is more vital than ever.

Second, the role the BBC plays for Britain in the world has never been more important. Not just economically, as the cornerstone of the UK’s creative industries, but also for British identity. We know that the country is forging a new relationship with Europe and the world. Our scope—local, national and global—means that we have a unique role to play in reflecting the views of the whole country, bringing it together, and representing it abroad.

It is a responsibility we take very seriously. That’s why I was proud last month to be able to announce the largest expansion of the World Service since the 1940s, enhancing one of the UK’s biggest sources of international influence.

It is one of many ways we are looking to strengthen and expand those areas in which we really lead the way globally—news, natural history and drama, but also education, science and the arts. Our goal is for the BBC to help carry the full weight of Britain’s culture and values, knowledge and know-how to the world in the years ahead; for our journalism to be a beacon of trust and impartiality, and our programmes to be the global benchmark of quality and creativity.

I want the BBC to work harder for the country than ever before in the new Charter period. And, in doing so, I want it say something really important to the world about modern Britain.