Mark Thompson: 'Don't cut us because others are weaker'

BBC director general Mark Thompson insisted last night that commercial news providers becoming weaker was not a good enough reason to cut resources for the BBC.

Thompson delivered the inaugural Charles Wheeler memorial lecture at Westminster University just hours after a Commons bid by the Conservatives to curb the BBC licence fee increase was defeated.

Thompson said: “The fact that others are economically weaker does not of course mean that the BBC is bigger or stronger in absolute terms. We’re not: in headcount and property footprint we’re far smaller than we used to be.

“We stopped the expansion of our network TV and radio services years ago and have no plans to add any new ones. Although there are some who argue that the right answer to the crisis in commercial media is to withdraw funding from the BBC as well, it’s hard to see how that would do anything other than reduce the range and quality of content available to the British public even further – and further damage this country’s creative industries.”

Answering questions, Thompson expanded on the BB’sC embryonic proposals to make its studios, outside broadcasting vehicles and video footage available to other broadcasters as a way of subsidising them.

He also said that the BBC could offer direct financial help to rival broadcasters by being a subscriber to a new regional news consortia where video is pooled.

The formation of new regional news consortia – comprising local newspapers, radio stations and other news providers – is one idea which the Government is looking at as a way of saving regional broadcast news outside the BBC. ITV has signalled its intention to abandon regional news because it says it is too expensive.

When asked whether the BBC’s new “partnership agenda” will signal the end of plurality in regional broadcasting, Thompson said: “It is perfectly possible to imagine a world where some of the facilities are shared but editorial judgement can vary from provider to provider.”

He said: “If you take Plymouth – that studio is in use for maybe three hours a day. There is 20 hours a day when that studio is not being used. To provide TV news to the West you probably don’t need two studios and two satellite trucks for every single story. I think it’s an idea that will win through.”

Concrete proposals on the future of public service broadcasting outside the BBC are expected to be included in the Government’s Digital Britain report due out some this summer.

Thompson insisted that despite recent cuts in editorial headcount at the BBC, the corporation remains a formidable journalistic force. Director of news Helen Boaden explained earlier in the day at Westminster University’s Journalism in Crisis conference that 350 journalistic posts have been cut at the corporation over the last two years and a further 80 are to go this year.

Thompson said: “In recent years, we’ve reduced the total number of posts in the BBC by some 7,000. Some of those posts were in journalism, but it’s worth noting that, even when the present changes are complete, 40 per cent of the total workforce in the BBC will work in journalism.

“We will still have an unrivalled global reach, enormous strength-in-depth in specialisms like politics, economics and business, an extraordinary talent-pool from which to draw the editors, producers and senior news managers of the future. Our ability to direct resources to major stories over time will exceed almost all news providers. And, in addition to all of that, we will have made a major stride into the world of total digital news.”

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