BBC's Thompson warns of news quality decline

The decline in quality of commercial broadcasters’ news and current affairs output strengthens the case for the renewal of the BBC’s public funding in 2012, according to its director general Mark Thompson.

Speaking to a Westminster audience yesterday, Thompson defended the BBC’s £3 billion a year license fee, saying: “Market failure in the supply of quality news and current affairs is growing.”

Thompson said that market failure crossed popular content areas like comedy, drama, learning and children’s but he placed particular emphasis on the ability of the BBC to fill the quality gap in news left by commercial broadcasters.

He said commercial media such as Sky News could deliver public value and acknowledged that they did, but they were not obliged to. He referred to Bskyb’s decision to remove Sky News from cable and plans to remove it from Freeview homes as indicative of how its business considerations might override public service considerations.

He added: “The claim for PSB – and for the BBC – is not that it seeks to correct some absolute market failure. It is that it delivers far more public value than the market would on its own. It conditions the media market as a whole, promoting more quality and more choice and encourages creative risk taking which could not be justified on purely commercial grounds.”

Thompson said that investment in news worldwide was in crisis but that imagining that taking away the licence fee would not open up the market to a new news and current affairs tradition. He said that in most countries investment in foreign reporting was being cut back – so much so that the global significance of BBC News and its coverage has only heightened.

‘Around the world as in the UK, take away the BBC and you will take away much of the coverage – it’s as simple as that.

Thompson reiterated the need for the BBC to become smaller, suggesting ‘a revolution’was on the way, ‘not all of which will be popular’- a hint at the further job cuts from which BBC News is unlikely to be exempt.

But he added there are ‘promising’opportunities in journalism through technology through multimedia production.

Thompson said that the BBC must change in other ways if it is to meet the challenge of 2012. ‘It must become more open. Open to criticism. Open to external perspectives. Open to the public.’

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