Monday, March 19, 2012

Trust in the BBC at an all time high: Thompson

Trust in the BBC is at an all-time high – and the gap between trust in it and trust in other news providers is wider than it's ever been. When the readers of Britain's newspapers are asked to name the news outlet they trust most, in almost all cases the majority chose the BBC – not just over newspapers in general, but over the newspaper they themselves read. And this despite the fact that in recent years the BBC has been through one media storm after another, all lovingly documented by many of those same newspapers.
These remarks were made by BBC DG Mark Thompson at the Royal Television Society. His speech was called 'The BBC in 2012 and beyond'. "We listen carefully to the audiences of all of these and other BBC services and their reliance on them and their passion about them are exactly the same as in the case of Music and Local Radio. The simple truth is that approval for the BBC and its services are higher today than at any time since records began."
He offered three explanations. The first is that the public have maintained a sense of proportion about the BBC. They have typically seen failings – like the competitions, the Queen documentary and The Russell Brand Show – for what they are, namely serious but isolated mistakes in what are usually very dependable services with high standards and values.
"Second, in recent years I believe we've got better at reacting quickly and publicly to shortcomings, apologising promptly when it's clear we've got things wrong, but sticking resolutely to our guns when, as with Jerry Springer - The Opera, the DEC Gaza appeal or the appearance of Nick Griffin on Question Time, we believe we're right.
"Now this second point is often disputed. We were heavily criticised, for example, for being too slow to respond to The Russell Brand Show. Yet within four days of the story breaking in the Mail On Sunday, we'd completed an investigation into what had happened, two senior editorial leaders had left the BBC, one presenter had resigned while the other was suspended, and we'd announced how we intended to ensure there would be no repetition of such a failure. Compare those four 'slow' days with the long years of phone-hacking.
"When things go wrong at the BBC, the public can hear us admit it and can see us striving to put things right."
The third point is that the modern BBC does everything possible to report on itself objectively. Although Sky News' coverage of phone-hacking has been excellent and latterly the Times has also made real efforts to report the story properly, no other British media outlet has come close to us when reporting on themselves.
"The BBC's reach and influence in news, together with our privileged funding, mean that we should be held to a higher standard than others. But I believe that the fact that we try so hard not to let ourselves off the hook helps to account for the fact that, at a moment when trust in so many British institutions has been falling sharply, trust in the BBC has actually risen."

He aded that in his time as DG, he has tried to do four things:
One: to help focus the BBC on a rather traditional, even classical view of its mission and the kind of programmes and services the public expect from it. "We laid it out in Putting Quality First: the best journalism in the world, outstanding children's content, investment in outstanding British drama and comedy, a strategic commitment to knowledge and culture of every kind and to those big moments that bring people – and the whole country – together. More important than listing it though, is that I've tried to bring this view of the BBC's purpose to life and to shift investment towards these five key priorities and towards quality and originality."
Two: to recognise that if you want the what of the BBC, that unchanging purpose, to survive and thrive, the how – the way you express that purpose – has to undergo a revolution. "Thus my total commitment to digital in all its myriad guises. To sum it up in a single, rather startling number, in my time at the helm the amount of data the BBC streams over the web each month has increased by 13,000%.
"Three: to realise that the BBC should be a BBC for the whole of the UK and, in some of what it does, for the whole world, and to act on that realisation in how we invest, where we find our talent, where we make and broadcast. For me, this has never been a piece of political correctness, but a creative and competitive opportunity, a chance to enrich and broaden the content and the appeal of BBC.
"Four: to open up the BBC and its privileges and advantages to others. When we started talking about partnerships, most people rolled their eyes because their – sometimes justified – folk memory of the BBC was of the partner from hell. Well every week now we're proving how much we've changed with literally hundreds of partnerships that stretch across broadcasting, technology, the arts, sport and many other fields.
"2012 is the year when these four central goals come to fruition.
First and most importantly, the public will want every aspect of the great public events of the year to be brought to them with the depth and quality they've expected from the BBC since its earliest days. We will do everything we can to make sure we meet that expectation.
The same will be true of all of the associated programming and particularly of the way – within and around the London 2012 Festival – the BBC shows off this country's amazing cultural and creative strengths to audiences here and around the world.
"With our London season and with the colossal contribution we'll make to celebrating music within the Cultural Olympiad – from Music Nation a few days ago to the Olympic Proms to Radio 1's Hackney Weekend – the BBC is this year mounting the largest festival of music and arts in its history."
But 2012, he noted, will also see a dramatic leap forward in BBC's digital capability. "For the first time, we will broadcast live from every venue from the start to the finish of each day's action. At peak we will be offering 24 simultaneous HD streams on the BBC website – compared with just 6 from Beijing. We're looking at distributing those across a wide range of platforms - including to Youview and other connected TVs as well as, of course, via iPlayer to PCs, tablets, smart-phones and other digital devices.
"Digital means new advances in quality. We'll broadcast the Games in HD as well as SD of course, but we'll be collaborating in trials both of 3D and Super Hi-Vision. But it also means dramatic advances in choice and depth.
"Our website will automatically assemble on demand a detailed web-page devoted to every one of the thousands of athletes who will be taking part. Someone once described our connected TV plans as the Red Button on speed, and that's pretty apt: we're building on the familiar experience of pressing the Red Button to access more information or an alternative video stream to deliver what will be the richest interactive experience any broadcaster has ever offered.
"Like iPlayer, Youview has taken time to get right. But like iPlayer, I believe that Youview will launch at the right time with, I hope, significant numbers of boxes available in time for the Olympics. We've often been told that Youview would miss the boat, that by the time it was ready, its thunder would have been stolen. That hasn't happened. Youview is based on a radically different philosophy than most of the existing connected TV standards, with simplicity, ease-of-use and a determination to make the user-experience as TV-like as possible.
"The BBC backed digital terrestrial broadcasting when it looked like a no-hoper. There are now 20 million households using Freeview plus more than a million using Freesat. I believe that a connected TV standard backed by all the public broadcasters and internet service providers serving more than half of this country's broadband homes and which offers consumers a simple, low-cost way of powering their TV with power and choice of the internet will prove a compelling proposition.
"And there's more to come. The BBC's iPlayer is the most successful and most intensively used catch-up service in the world but it's true that, after that seven day public service window, a large proportion of what the BBC makes and broadcast is never seen or heard of again. On television, despite all of our existing forms of public service archival and commercial windowing, the overwhelming majority of what the BBC commissions and broadcasts becomes unavailable when that iPlayer window expires.
"We want to change that and have started to talk to our partners, including the independent sector and PACT, about a proposal which we will formally submit to the BBC Trust later this year which – for reasons which escape me – we call Project Barcelona.
"The idea behind Barcelona is simple. It is that, for as much of our content as possible, in addition to the existing iPlayer window, another download-to-own window would open soon after transmission – so that if you wanted to purchase a digital copy of a programme to own and keep, you could pay what would generally be a relatively modest charge for doing so.
"This is not a second licence-fee by stealth or any reduction in the current public service offering from the BBC - it's the exact analogy of going into a High Street shop to buy a DVD or, before that, a VHS cassette. For decades the British public have understood the distinction between watching Dad's Army on BBC One and then going out to buy a permanent copy of it. Barcelona is the digital equivalent of doing the second.
"The window would be non-exclusive. The BBC would open up one digital shop, but the expectation would be that all this content would also be made available for other existing providers to sell if they wish and that producers could exploit this download-to-own window in any way they wanted. But the important point is that the window would be open-ended – in other words, the programmes would be available permanently.
"Our ambition would ultimately be to let our audiences have access to all of our programmes on this basis and, over time, to load more and more of our archive into the window."
He said that if Barcelona gains the support of the UK's producers and, of course, the approval of the BBC Trust, it potentially adds an important new source of revenue for producers and rights holders. It could also mark an important step in broadcast's journey from being a transitory medium into a growing body of outstanding and valuable content which is always available and which persists forever.
Freeview, Freesat, DAB, Youview, iPlayer, Radioplayer and Barcelona are really all part of one strategy and one big idea – which is that free access to high quality content matters more now than ever and that the BBC must constantly seek new ways of keeping that door open, not just for itself, but for the industry and every household in the country.
"People thought that digital fragmentation would mean the BBC would deliver less value to the public. Actually digital means we can deliver more – another reason why approval for the BBC has risen the further into the digital revolution we go.
"We're also determined that the great events of 2012 should be not just seen but should be celebrated across the entire UK. This is the year when our new broadcast centre in Salford and our drama village in Cardiff come fully on stream, both on time and on budget. We'll hit all our commitments on out of London spend, but, more importantly, I believe we will broaden the talent base of the BBC and the perspectives and creativity we can bring to our audiences. It's inevitably been a disruptive process, but I believe that a BBC which is visibly stimulating and the creative sector in cities across the UK will be a stronger BBC.
"Finally, 2012 is a watershed year for our partnership agenda. We're celebrating Shakespeare across the BBC with content of every kind including new TV versions of four of the English histories – I've seen the first, Richard II, and believe it's a breakthrough in bringing Shakespeare to the screen. But our season is part of a much larger national project involving the RSC, the Globe, the British Museum and professional, amateur and school drama companies all fully engaged. Meanwhile, in partnership with the BBC, Arts Council England is launching The Space – an entirely new digital environment which aims to connect artists and artworks of every kind with the public. It's part of a wider collaboration with the Arts Council to leverage the BBC's critical mass of expertise in technology – and our access to mass audiences – to build digital capacity and impact across the cultural sector."
The dark side of 2012: Public space is disputed and in many ways – though none is as troubling as the multiple threats that freedom of speech and good journalism face around the world.
"Of all the developments of my time as Director-General of the BBC these have been the most negative and the most disturbing. This, if you like, is the dark side of 2012.
"The economic pressures that face print journalism in almost all developed countries are an important and complex topic in themselves, one that I don't propose to cover in detail this evening – except to say that I recognise that a free-to-air public broadcaster like the BBC needs to think carefully about its boundaries, especially in digital environments, given the scale of the challenge facing our colleagues in print.
"But what affects us all is the growing threat to journalists in many parts of the world. I talked about 'blackest moments' at the start. The real blackest moments have all been about BBC journalists in peril: the death of colleagues in Somalia and Afghanistan, for instance, or the long months of Alan Johnson's captivity in Gaza.
"There was a real sense of shock and pain a few weeks ago when we heard the news of the death of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik and those other journalists who were injured in Homs. Many of our correspondents had worked alongside Marie over the years. They admired her as a brilliant reporter and loved her as a friend.
"A few have suggested that, in the age of user generated content, the risks of deploying professional journalists to conflicts like Syria outweigh the benefits – why not simply broadcast the smart phone footage posted by activists?

"At the BBC, we do make use of such footage, though we always carefully explain to the public what it is. But we believe that there is no substitute for eye-witness journalism carried out by professionals on the ground. We constantly review safety – and are doing so again in the light of events in Homs – but, when we believe the risks can be identified and managed, we will deploy BBC teams to Syria and to other dangerous places because we believe it is the only way of bringing the truth of what is happening there to the world.
"But you don't have to be reporting on the frontline to experience threats and intimidation. As we made clear last month, the BBC's Persian Service has been made the subject of a sustained attack by the Iranian authorities. Unable to get directly at members of the Persian team themselves – because the whole of the Persian Service is based outside Iran, much of it in London – elements within the regime have taken to the tactic of arresting and intimidating relatives of team-members who still live inside the country. Arrest without charge, solitary confinement, threats and inducements to persuade their relations either to leave the Service or to inform on it secretly to Iranian intelligence: this is how the Iranian Government is trying to undermine the BBC Persian Service.
"Its crime? Well, the Iranian equivalent of Ofcom put it best when they compiled a report about the BBC's new service a few months after launch. In summary, the report acknowledged that the Persian Service seemed to be making every effort to be truthful and fair-minded. That, they said, is why it is so insidious.
"It now looks as if those who seek to disrupt or block BBC Persian may be widening their tactics. There was a day recently when there was a simultaneous attempt to jam two different satellite feeds of BBC Persian into Iran, to disrupt the Service's London phone-lines by the use of multiple automatic calls, and a sophisticated cyber-attack on the BBC. It is difficult, and may prove impossible, to confirm the source of these attacks, though attempted jamming of BBC services into Iran is nothing new and we regard the coincidence of these different attacks as self-evidently suspicious.
"The cyber-attack on the BBC is not the first we have experienced. For millions of Iranians, BBC Persian is a precious source of reliable information about what is happening in the world and in their own country. I don't want to go into any more detail about these incidents except to say that we are taking every step we can, as we always do, to ensure that this vital service continues to reach the people who need it.
The road to 2016: The other immediate challenge facing the BBC is coming to terms with the licence fee settlement of 2010.
Thompson said: "It's certainly challenging for all of us – though, given what the country is going through, that doesn't feel inappropriate. The national broadcaster needs to stay in step with the nation.
"And the settlement is allowing us to plan the BBC's future with more certainty and confidence than anyone in commercial media. We presented our proposals to the BBC Trust last autumn and they in turn asked the public what they made of them. As I've already noted, the level of proposed cuts and productivity targets for Local Radio proved controversial – as did some of the plans for English regional current affairs on television. In both cases, we plan to go back to the Trust with amended proposals.
"But it's worth noting that, taken together, these proposals in their entirety amount to less that £20 million in a total proposed package of £700 million of changes – the other £680 million, representing 20% of the BBC's annual budget by 2016, are being accepted more or less in full and without further debate. I believe that's true at least in part because we had spent the best part of a year discussing them with thousands of our colleagues inside the BBC as well as with external partners and our audience.
"The plans won't be easy to implement. Over the past eight years we've already taken nearly a billion of costs per year out of the system in productivity gains. Overheads are a fraction of what they once were and the cost of the production of many key genres is already well under the market.
"Further efficiencies are getting harder to identify. By 2016, the opportunity of additional productivity gains without damaging quality will be limited at best.
"Of course if the ideological opponents of the BBC conclude that an overt campaign to cut the scope of BBC services is a non-starter because of public support, they'll be forced to base their campaign for a smaller BBC on efficiencies. So expect a return of some of the old chestnuts. Couldn't the BBC live on a much smaller licence-fee if only it fired its senior managers and top stars?
"Starting soon after I got this job, we've reduced senior manager numbers by a third and have taken more aggressive and more rapid steps than any other public organisation to reduce our senior management paybill – and I've not doubt the BBC Trust and BBC management will continue to bear down on these costs.
"But let's get things in proportion. The pay-bill for the BBC's entire complement of senior managers represents less than 2% of the BBC's costs. Even if you stripped out every single senior manager and tried to run it without programme editors or channel controllers or anyone else, you would have achieved less than 10% of the BBC's immediate savings challenge – and there would be nobody left to organise the achievement of the remaining 90%.
"And the public still expect the best entertainment and the best stars on the BBC. Delivering that means confronting some market realities. Here too though we've made progress in containing and, where we can, reducing costs.
"And the BBC is changing in other ways. We're far more open than we once were, routinely publishing all sorts of information, including senior pay, expenses and registers of interest. As a result, the quarterly disclosures are usually a non-event, but the more important point is that the openness is always the right answer for the BBC. It doesn't damage, but strengthens us.
"We're living at an intrinsically cross-disciplinary moment where, around the world, the media organisations which find ways of bringing different talents and skills together – radio and TV and digital media, content creativity and technology, local, national and global journalism – are the ones who will succeed."
[ 19/03]