A year ago, the former Secretary of State spoke to this conference and lasted precisely seven days in the job before being sent on a tour of job centres. The temptation therefore is to play safe. But I can’t do that.
The world today is very different from a year ago.
Old certainties have broken down. That much is clear in global finance, but it is equally true in media. And this change is happening on many fronts.
The change that was coming in the multi-channel, online age – the structural threat to the advertising revenue funded model – has accelerated with the change in the world economy.
And, of course, how viewers are consuming content is also changing – with viewers increasingly consuming online as well as through the set in the corner of the room.
The old media world has ended – and the sooner we say so the better. With it must go old thinking.
But the difficulty we all have is this: it doesn’t yet feel like an era of new possibility, and change we can all believe in, but one of threat and decline.
My main message today is: we need to break out of this thinking and we can – but only if we look beyond our own backyards and see the bigger picture.
So here is our collective challenge now: can we articulate a shared vision and forge a path to the future for British public service content, however difficult it may be?
That vision is more likely to stick if it is done with goodwill, holds the broadest possible consensus and, crucially, represents a good deal for the public.
But achieving it means two things for everyone without exception: change and compromise.
In 2009, we will find out what appetite and capacity we each have for both. Whatever happens, this needs to be a year of decision.
This should not be a debate about winners and losers. If we believe in the bigger picture – preserving and building Britain’s creative strength – then everybody should have the courage to stand outside long-held positions.
We will only succeed if at all times we are guided by the viewing and listening public whose voices, at times, are dangerously excluded from fevered and inward-looking industry debates.
In my view, the public reaction to the Ross-Brand episode was a raw articulation of what Ofcom has found: that quality and standards matter in a world of fragmenting media experiences.
Content made primarily for TV in the public mind still stands for quality and higher standards.
And those who don’t take the fatalistic view of TV can find further encouragement in the fact that, when all this change was going on, TV itself was often a big story in the second half of 2008.
X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing offered a timely reminder of TV’s vital social role – the ability to unite the generations in shared moments that, in time, become reference points in British culture. Interestingly, though, both are programmes very much of the new era, able to work hard across many platforms.
This ability to unite – and to define and reflect national life and culture – still sets public service broadcasting apart from other sources. The challenge is to keep that important social role in the future.
So today, I want to set down the foundations that will underpin our approach to do that and our emerging thinking for supporting high-quality content for citizens and consumers in the online age.
At its heart must be two separate, but mutually reinforcing, objectives: a primary aim of serving the British public with high-quality content; and then exploiting this creative strength to the world.
So where are we now?
Recognising the speed of change, the Government moved up a gear last autumn. In my speech to the Royal Television Society in September, I outlined plans for a twin-track approach, with Ofcom’s conclusions being taken forward without delay. Shortly after, Stephen Carter was appointed to carry out the Digital Britain review.
Yesterday Ofcom completed its second public service broadcasting review. I would like to thank Ed Richards and his teams for carefully guiding us through a necessarily exhaustive process and for rooting this entire debate where it needs to be – in the views of the public.
The Government will shortly outline its emerging thinking when Lord Carter publishes his interim Digital Britain review. There will be no time to draw breath – the next phase of intensive work will begin immediately as we ask Stephen to produce a final report by the summer.
So we are only weeks away from clear decisions.
The challenge then is to take options and turn the best into hard-wired solutions that don’t just feel right but deliver real, not imagined, value into balance sheets – laying the foundations for quality, public service content in the digital age.
But we will only get to the right answers – and take public opinion with us – if we make no assumptions.
So I go back to the beginning. In a multi-channel age, does more than one organisation need to provide public service programming?
Every Secretary of State talks about the importance of plurality. I’m no different, but what is so different this time around is that the words will soon require action.
Sound public policy reasons – especially in these hard times – need to be laid out to justify a decision in favour of it. Here are my reasons.
Plurality provides the range of voices and perspectives that citizens need to hear to give balance and reflect life from all communities in all parts of the country. This is crucially important in news and current affairs, and underpins a healthy democracy at a local and national level.
Plurality in public service provision creates competition – driving down costs, improving quality and increasing choice – essentially good news for the viewer.
It makes the content that commercial public service providers offer across all platforms better – by providing a bedrock of quality that influences the character of the whole broadcasting system. Sky News is the excellent service it is because it grows out of the British tradition.
Lastly, all this sustains Britain’s reputation around the world for quality, innovation, creativity and excellence, promoting our creative industries.
So, in answer to my first question, I can say today that the Government will make a firm commitment to sustaining PSB provision including and beyond the BBC.
My second question is therefore: in a multi-channel age what should this provision be?
I’m not in the business of wish-lists. Now is not the time to be unrealistic or expansionist. We must be clear on our priorities.
For me, the core list of priorities is clear: high quality, impartial news at local, regional as well as national level; original high quality British content, including but not limited to children’s programming and drama; current affairs, international analysis and factual programming.
Underpinning these priorities are some fundamental principles for delivery:
– Voices and talent from across the UK secured in part through significant production outside London – reflecting life and accents from across the nations and regions.
– Supporting and promoting independent producers. We don’t celebrate enough these British indies, whose flow of good ideas has made such an impact on viewing in the UK and exports around the world.
– Provision of quality content across multi-channel platforms in the form consumers want.
– Encouraging risk taking and innovation. Everybody has their own favourite example of taking risks on new talent – what is vital is the need to make sure the system continues to take risks, to discover the next Hanif Kureshi, the next Danny Boyle.
But let me also be clear: public service broadcasting should never be box-ticking; always challenging of itself – prepared to reinvent and revisit.
And this leads me to ask, has it done that enough in recent times? As the media climate gets harder, is it easier to retreat to a comfort zone?
I ask myself: where is the coverage of women’s and girls’ sport and smaller sports not covered on subscription channels? Should there be more programming for minority communities? Are older audiences being served properly? Should there be more Shakespeare? Where are the new music shows in prime-time?
This brings me to the crucial final question – how do we best deliver these priorities and how do we pay for it?
Since James Purnell spoke to this conference last year, there has been a healthy and vigorous debate about this precise question.
James was right to table an obvious option: using a portion of the licence fee to support other broadcasters in the digital age.
Top-slicing raises a trade-off that helps illuminate this debate: whether the public interest is best served by plural provision or an ever-stronger BBC.
But for me it shouldn’t have to be an either/or choice – I believe the public interest is best served by maintaining both, if that can be achieved, and that some of the interesting options emerging hold out that hope.
A strong BBC
In any scenario, this will mean a greater role for the BBC as an enabling force of digital Britain – using its talent, facilities, resources and the BBC brand value to add to public service content production as a whole.
In the week that we have given another great national institution – the National Health Service – a Constitution, it is a good time to talk of building a long-term broad-based consensus around a well-funded BBC’s role in a changed world that can grow into something of enduring value for this country.
A bigger force in the land as other media powers wane. But using that greater power to put a supporting hand under others, rather than build itself ever bigger.
I know I am not the first Secretary of State to suggest additions to Lord Reith’s founding trilogy. But, seriously, is it time to add a fourth – to put partnership in the BBC DNA – ‘educate, inform, entertain’- and ‘enable”.
Ed Richards said yesterday that to respond to current challenges, key broadcasters need to ’embrace a broader public interest, not only corporate self interest”.
This applies to everyone. But the BBC has been the first to respond to the challenge I have set and I welcome that.
But we must also recognise that the BBC can’t play this enabling role unless it too has stability at the core. We have to treasure and protect the strength of the BBC if we are to ask it to transmit its value to others in new and innovative ways.
The BBC Trust and the BBC management should be praised for the spirit in which they have embraced this potential new role – exploring the ways in which all licence fee payers can benefit from the BBC working strategically as an enabler, releasing the talent of commercial partners.
Local and regional news
Talk of partnership always sounds good, but is harder to turn into bankable value.
But one of the key elements of plural provision that I identified when I took up this post is regional TV news. Indeed, I proposed a new system of partnership – and there are encouraging signs of how this new approach can deliver valuable outcomes for the public.
If secured the proposals being developed by BBC and ITV would be groundbreaking, and would go a long way towards securing a future for regional news on ITV, as well as build confidence that further public-private partnership models can deliver real solutions.
With hard work on both sides, these could be good offers. And, at that point, ITV’s challenge will be to decide whether they are in the game or not.
It is sensible and constructive to release more value from the BBC’s physical resources to maintain our culture of different voices and impartial news gathering and presentation.
Ofcom’s analysis shows the specific importance audiences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland attach to news in the Nations.
It is one of our top priorities to ensure that there is a plurality of voices for news in the Nations. As part of Ofcom’s review a number of ideas have been put forward. They will be a key consideration in reaching decisions over the coming months.
There is a further front that now needs to come to the fore and that is the provision of local news. I would like to signal today that the provision of local news – and the plight of local newspapers – has to rise up the political agenda.
It is time to develop a sensible strategy that uses the converging nature of journalism to sustain a vital local media. There is a potential here for new partnerships which might include local media businesses, private sector partners, and communities, and may be – with proper safeguards- the public sector.
There might even be potential for a national network of local consortia. The prize here is the opportunity to create entry points to the creative industries at the local level by providing apprenticeships, skills training, work experience and jobs. We must break a culture where jobs in the media go to the people whose parents have contacts for internships or where they can afford to support people in unpaid positions.
The wider PSB agenda
There are, of course, more partnership ideas to secure extra public value and deliver on the wider PSB agenda. The climate demands us to extract more value from existing public investment in PSB. This is only the start, and can be taken further.
We should remember that Channel 4, Five and ITV serve us well and we should not start reading their obituaries whilst they continue to offer the public much appreciated services.
I welcome the commitment from Five to remain a public service broadcaster.
Similarly ITV is still much loved, its brand still has great value – especially in the regions. I understand and acknowledge that the level and the form of their public service obligations have to change to reflect the changes in the media landscape. But I do believe ITV has an important role to play in delivering public value, and I welcome their commitment to retain investment in original British production and core public service values.
As ITV pursues a different course – as pointed out by Ofcom – we will need another public service broadcaster of scale, capacity and vision to provide balance to the BBC in core public service programming.
We should build on our strengths – and an important strength of the British system in this regard is the publicly-owned Channel 4. Today, as we anticipate the Oscar nominations and British success we hope that Channel 4’s brand will feature strongly.
At this point the clearest path forward is to see Channel 4 as a major contributor to a new reservoir of high quality public service content, which offers scale and reach and ambition to match the BBC.
I have today set challenges for everyone, but Channel 4 has the greatest challenge of all: can they rise to deliver on this bigger vision?
It is time to consider whether a new structure can evolve which will enable a new more specific remit for Channel 4 – building on its distinctive position as an innovative broadcaster while broadening its core public purposes.
A body with public service at its heart, but one which is free to develop flexible and innovative partnerships with the wider public and private sector.
But let me be clear, the Channel 4 brand for viewers is here to stay.
There are still many options as to what this might look like.
It makes sense to begin by looking at public sector bodies – Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide. Of course it is early days, and any successful partnership model needs to continue to meet the needs of the BBC as well as releasing value and resource to create a new model with Channel 4. I welcome the BBC Trust’s statement yesterday to commit to examine this.
Whilst it makes sense to begin here, other options must remain on the table, including exploring the value of any surplus in the licence fee pre or post switchover, and top slicing. We have to be open-minded about the organisational solutions currently proposed, and to any others that may come forward in the next weeks.
So my conclusion is this: that the investment the public already makes in broadcasting can be made to work harder on its behalf – and secure more public goods.
This means change for everyone, and hard work for everybody in this room and beyond to achieve Stephen’s timetable for the final Digital Britain report.
We want British citizens and voters to continue to be the best informed in the world. We want children to continue to have quality programming. We want all the voices of our country – and life in all parts of the country – to be reflected on our screens
In short, we must build on the British tradition, redefining it for the multi-platform digital age.
There is a scenario in which we can’t secure a broad consensus on the way forward and the Government, advised by Ofcom, lays down the way forward. That must remain in play throughout this process.
But there is a more attractive route where we step outside our own self interest to secure a radical new model. I hope we can.