A few weeks ago, I read on Coffee House that someone at Number 10 suggested that if the BBC appointed me director-general they’d bring in a chairman to sack me. I found myself in a unique position: too right wing to lead the Labour party, too left wing to run the BBC.
I don’t want to run the BBC. I love my job running radio and services for children too much. But the freedom of not wanting to be DG combined with my life in politics has encouraged me to take a risk and have a go at making the right-wing case for the BBC.
Nicky Morgan recently wrote that the future leadership of the BBC needed to accept that no change isn’t an option. She’s absolutely right. That’s why we tried to set up a British Netflix before Netflix existed. But the competition authorities blocked us.
It’s why, in the last charter review, we were in favour of reforming the licence fee. We supported a household fee, as did John Whittingdale, but that was vetoed higher up.
The BBC has always embraced change. We were perhaps the original tech company – the first big disruptor – pioneering the wireless, TV, colour broadcasting, high-definition, the transition to digital with DAB, iPlayer and more. Reed Hastings credits iPlayer with blazing the trail for Netflix, creating a whole new market for video-on-demand.
More recently, BBC Studios has been created to move the production of television programmes into a separate commercial subsidiary, receiving no subsidy. This has benefited audiences but also helped create a thriving creative sector. The BBC creates £2 of growth for every £1 of public subsidy. We are the largest single investor in UK original TV and radio content, and help sustain thousands of suppliers up and down the country. Our move to Salford is one of the most successful regeneration programme in Europe. Employment in Manchester’s media sector tripled in a decade. The number of media businesses tripled too.
Since our charter was renewed, we’ve kept on changing. BBC iPlayer is growing and is the second biggest video-on-demand service in the UK. BBC Sounds is growing too. A recent independent report found it was the second biggest platform in the UK for podcasts. It now has three million listeners a week, up from 1.3m in June. We’re also opening Sounds up to include podcasts from The Spectator and others and have offered to do the same for Kiss, Capital and Talk Sport.
The last charter review also saw us accused of expansionism. In fact, since 2010, what we can spend on our UK services has fallen by a quarter, while the income of our big tech competitors has grown exponentially.
That we’ve managed to continue to improve services and we remain the biggest provider of media for young people in the UK is because of as radical an improvement in efficiency as any I’ve seen in the public sector.
It’s hard to prove you’re efficient. For every comprehensive report showing we’ve saved money, people will always be able to find their favourite example of an expense that shouldn’t have been incurred. But the reality of being at the BBC is taking out money year after year, as anyone in the private sector does, and in our case being able to reinvest some of it in modernising our services to meet the way audience behaviour is changing.
It’s thanks to that record of efficiency and reform that the BBC is one of the best public services in the UK and one of the best broadcasters in the world.
Go and visit those other countries; they simply don’t have anything like iPlayer, Sounds or indeed, in most cases, a broadcaster that brings the country together, reaching nine out of ten people every week. They certainly don’t benefit from a trusted media brand that reaches around 430 million people worldwide every week.
We’ve played our part in that change, but so have this Government. They put in place a charter that gave the BBC the certainty to plan. It guaranteed our scope and funding through the licence fee until 2027 and put the ball in our court to show we could stay relevant.
That doesn’t mean a BBC that tries to be everything to everyone. It does mean a BBC that gives enough to everyone. To do that, we will need to continue to change, investing in new content and ideas so that we can deliver our strategy. That will mean difficult decisions on how we spend our finite budgets. But it’s the only way we can deliver a BBC that continues to be relevant to everyone. And it’s only by serving everyone that we can fulfil our public purposes: reflecting British lives, supporting British creativity, fighting fake news and disinformation, explaining the UK to the world and the world to the UK.
It will then be for the government in 2027 to decide whether the BBC should thrive for a second century and if so how to fund it. We are up for a debate then about what that reform should be, as we always are. I’m confident the case for continuing – indeed growing – the BBC will win out.
Michael Oakeshott said that for a person of “conservative temperament a known good is not lightly surrendered for an unknown better”. That the BBC works today is a good argument for not ripping up its foundations. The BBC works, in part, because of the licence fee: it gives us a moral duty to serve everyone as well as ensuring that everyone benefits. A BBC that didn’t reach everyone would no longer be able to bring the country together and play its part in ensuring our culture is in our hands, not those of tech billionaires in the US and China.
The licence fee may well need to be modernised. But my conservative instinct is that some form of universal fee will continue to be the best way of funding us. That, however, is an argument for another year.
James Purnell is director of BBC radio and education