MEDIA SOCIETY LUNCH

JUNE 27 TH2001

Sir Christopher Bland

INTRODUCTION

Would all of you with mobile phones please switch them off.

MEDIA SOCIETY LUNCH

JUNE 27 TH2001

Sir Christopher Bland

INTRODUCTION

Would all of you with mobile phones please switch them off. And for all of you with Cellnet, feel absolutely free to leave them on. We need the revenue.

Good afternoon and thank you Donald both for your kind words of introduction and the invitation to speak here today. When you originally issued the invitation we had both expected a rather different context for my remarks.

We had all expected to be addressing the issues raised by a recently published and much presaged Communications Bill. We now know of course that our wait will have to be somewhat longer - until the next Parliamentary session, 2002/2003.

Our industry, genuinely taken aback, doesn't know how to react to the delay. It all depends whether you thought it was going to be good for you or bad for you, I suppose. For some it is an undoubted blow, hampering the implementation of long term development plans.

From a BBC perspective, I think we'd be more sanguine. The issues are so important and so complex that it is better to get it right than do it quickly

The extra year does gives us all an the opportunity to pause for thought and consider some of the issues we face more carefully, immune from the hurly-burly of pursuing a bill through its Parliamentary processes.

But I remember Howard Davies' striking description of legislating for the Financial Services Authority. "Having a bill in parliament," he said, "is like having a skip in front of your house: other people put their rubbish in before you have a chance to fill it with your own."

In any case all is not silence. We are promised a paving bill which will enable the creation of a shadow Office of Communications or OFCOM. Shadow Chairman, Shadow DG.

They sound to me perfectly loathsome jobs and I think a lot of very careful thought will have to be given to how the Shadow organisation interacts with the substantial but separate bodies responsible for the real work of regulation during that period. The idea that this will be seamless and flawless needs to be very carefully cross-checked against reality and against the personalities involved.

It was the Fabian Society who earlier this year devised a new catchphrase to describe the broadcasting future, "the OFCOM Era". It's a welcome relief for those of us who visibly wilt when we have to talk - yet again - about The Digital Age to have a different sobriquet - although no doubt it's charms will also have palled within a matter of months!

The Old Left, of course, would have approved of OFCOM - provided it was headed by an OFCOMMISSAR. Although in passing I should point out that New Labour dearly loves, and may in the end prefer, a Tsar.

OFCOM AND THE BBC

I would like to talk briefly about OFCOM and the BBC .It is worth reminding ourselves, if only because it is frequently ignored, that OFCOM does have important and appropriate powers in relation to the BBC.

Like the other public service broadcasters, the BBC will be subject to OFCOM's basic content standards (Tier 1 of the White Paper); the same higher programming obligations and quotas (Tier 2); the requirement to account against Statements of Programming (Tier 3) and all aspects of competition law, regulated by OFCOM/OFT.

In addition, the Secretary of State will have backstop powers to ensure the delivery of the BBC remit, just as OFCOM will have backstop powers in relation to its licensees.

And the BBC is subject to obligations and constraints which do not apply to other broadcasters, for example, the need to seek the Government's approval to launch new services. In reality, the plans in the White Paper impose more regulatory oversight on the BBC than ever before.

The White Paper was right to distinguish between the light touch content regulation of the ITV companies, and the more demanding programme obligations of the BBC quite rightly should have imposed on them. But I think the commercial lobby are making a fundamental mistake in longing for the BBC to be subject to the same form of content regulation because that regulation cannot be, by definition, 'light touch'. And if you want the same organisation to apply a touch, that is going to be the heavy touch that has to be applied to the BBC spreading, spilling over, into the regulation of the ITV companies and I don't think that's the way to argue - if I was them and, of course, I once used to be.

I would like to use this opportunity - and I don't go until the end of September - but it does concentrate your mind once you see it advertised in the public print - I am actually going after all.

I'd like to give some advice to the new Secretary of State and in passing I think we were well served by Chris Smith. I think he had his heart and mind in the right place. He was convinced of the importance of the media in the nation's life. He recognised the importance media in the nation's life and the value of public service broadcasting . He made a major contribution to the licence fee settlement and although he and I will both be 'Yesterday's Men' in broadcasting, we owe him quite a debt of gratitude.

To the new Secretary of State, I would say 'Listen to the sound of grinding axes'. You will hear them from the BBC as well as the commercial lobby but you have to identify where people are coming from when they are using elaborate but not very effective analogies like the 'level playing field' and you need to aim off.

Don't interfere with the schedules. I don't think Secretaries of State have any place in deciding the timing or the nature of the schedules in ITV, the BBC or anywhere else. God knows it's hard enough to do if you are paid to do it; if you know nothing about it, you are best to keep away.

I'd urge her to watch a lot of television, including of popular television on BBC1 and ITV and to listen to as much radio as you can.

And finally, although I know she won't do it because I know no Secretary of State ever has, abolish these dreadful people who ring you up at half past nine and say the Secretary of State will ring you up and ten to four and at ten to six you are still waiting around wondering what's going on. And those snotty-nosed young men who ask you 'Can you tell me what it's about?' when you ask to see the Secretary of State and you suppress that urge to say, 'It's none of your bloody business', or in my case, you don't and not surprisingly, you don't get in the diary.

My second piece of advice would be to the Chairman of the Select Committee for Culture Media and Sport, whoever he or she may be. I hope it's a good appointment - I hope that the Chairman ensures that his committee is properly briefed and really understands the very complex industries that they are involved in. I hope they set and this applies to all Select Committees but it's particularly important for the CMS, proper criteria for success and I don't think the success of those committees should be judged by whether they get a headline in the Mirror or the Mail.

To the politicians, I'd say 'Cherish the BBC and don't abandon ITV's public service broadcasting role and recognise there is more to life and more to media life than the markets alone.

To the ITV companies, I would say that the downturn in advertising revenue isn't terminal although it feels like at the moment. Those of use who have been around longer than the jolly-come-latelies in Granada and Carlton know that these things pass. They've never been through a recession but those of us who have know it is very painful at the time, there's absolutely nothing you can do about it at the time because most of your costs are fixed - and the caravan will move on.

In particular, I offer advice to Charles Allen that he ought to keep his mouth shut. Rather than trying to persuade the Government that he should be immune from take-overs - I thought it was particularly ironic for Granada to advocate a take-over-free-zone for television companies. He seemed to be pinning this view somehow on the idea that Johnny Foreigner might not be a suitable owner of an ITV franchise. Well I remember that at London Weekend, we thought that Gerry Robinson was Johnny Foreigner and it didn't do us any good so I think he ought to drop that line of argument and get on and sort out the basic problems which are considerable, in his business.

To my successor, I'd say, "Keep close to the DG." Beware of those who suggest that the relationship between the Chairman and the DG is to keep a lot of clear water between the two. That isn't the case. They need to sing, broadly-speaking, from the same hymnal and it's very important that that relationship keeps well.

Cancel your subscription to a press cuttings agency and grow a second skin.

My next advice is to the Prime Minister - and it's very brief. It is you appoint a Chairman about whom there is no row, then you've appointed the wrong man or the wrong woman. Anybody worth the candle in this particular job will have some defects as well as some advantages. I plainly had none of the first but people like me don't come along more than once in a lifetime. But there are defects attached to any real people and this is a job that deserves and needs a real person. So there will be a row; there should be a row and again, you have to bite the bullet and make the best possible appointment.

And finally, advice to myself. The advice is not to look back and to recognise, unlike Paul Fox, John Tusa and Bill Cotton - and I would have included Michael Grade but as he's here, I've struck him off the list - you have to recognise that the BBC can survive without you, will change, probably for the better, and that if you are invited to comment on anything about the BBC, unless you can, with a clean conscience, give it nothing but unadulterated praise, keep your mouth shut. And I will.

CONCLUSION

Looking ahead to Charter Renewal at the end of 2006, I believe that during that period, and beyond, the role of the BBC will be more important than ever in maintaining universality, quality, distinctiveness, diversity and real programme innovation. To survive and prosper, the BBC faces a number of crucial decisions and challenges.

  • Foremost is managing creativity within the organisation. The BBC looks rather well-funded at the moment, particularly when compared with ITV. But it needs to spend that money wisely, get real value on the screen and I think that's especially important in what are going to be turbulent times for the ITV companies in terms of their ability to maintain programme quality and programme spend.
  • We publish our Annual Report next week. That's a major milestone in the BBC calendar and I think it reflects the major strides the BBC has made in accountability to its licence fee payers. We present it to the House of Commons and the Lords; we present it to the public; we present it to the Secretary of State and we present it to the Select Committee and we do as much as we can online and in the papers and on radio to give as clear and as factual account and as self critical account of the BBC's performance in the last year as it's possible to do. There's still a lot more that we can do but I think we've moved a long way in the five years I've been there.
  • The next challenge is to striking the right balance between public service responsibilities and the opportunity offered by commercial operations. The BBC will never be a commercial animal; nor should it. The commercial tail should never be allowed to wag the licence-fee paid dog.
  • As part of the programme process, we have to win approval from government for our new services and then, more importantly, from the public who on digital, we hope, will watch them.
  • And finally, we need to develop and strengthen the BBC's role in helping education and citizenship and particular in promoting citizenship at a time when the polls showed last time, interest and participation in politics is on the wane.

I'm sure the BBC can rise to all these challenges. At its best, the BBC is quirky, it's creative, it's innovative, it's maddening, it's unpredictable; it has some of the most demanding but also some of the most enjoyable people it's possible to work with and at it's best, it's a public service broadcaster that we can all not only be proud of and feel justified in paying our licence fee to maintain. Thank you.