The BBC shouldn’t be afraid to admit having a cultural purpose

In the public space everyone is as important and as valuable as everyone else

So says the BBC’s director general Mark Thompson, about to unveil the first ever BBC cuts. It sounds true, right and democratic. But how does it work out in practice?

The BBC should concentrate more than ever on being a creator of quality. It should focus even more than it does today on forms of content that most clearly build public value and that are most at risk of being ignored or facing underinvestment.

Platitudinous or what? The BBC has to come out with a stronger defence than this. The danger is that small slices set a precedent for more emboldened attacks on a broader front.

“Public value.” the buzz phrase of the Thompson regime. This is a marketing person’s attempt to create a public sector equivalent of profit in the private sector, as the key indicator of “distinctiveness,” transcending other measures like audience size and appreciation. At one end, it’s easy to say that public value embraces high culture that needs subsidy to survive, like live orchestral performance. But at the other end, the word “public ” also implies big numbers. And so public value accommodates TV’s sporting “Crown Jewels” Wimbledon, the FA Cup final and the Boat Race, which even in the digital age are said to be national collective experiences that viewers expect to watch subscription free mostly on the BBC, even though Sky could easily show them. It turns out that public value is such a flexible definition that it has justified more or less unlimited expansion. Now in a switch of emphasis, Thompson talks about ensuring “an uninterrupted flow of investment into high-quality content and into the development and success of the best British talent.” This appears to be code for doing a bit less, doing it better and going slightly upmarket. But is this supply side definition a better guide than public value? Thompson should not rest on these minor adjustments. He should be quite a bit more aggressive over value for money comparisons with Sky. Furthermore, if his pitch is mainly to the Conservatives, an appeal to their cultural patriotism would serve the BBC better. He should move the debate on to home ground by insisting far more clearly that it’s the duty of the BBC to develop British culture in all its diversity ( also embracing quite a lot of the Irish variety). This would convey the sense of purpose lacking in Thompson’s BBC far better than resting on the dismal economics term “market failure.” The complex debate about the media’s future is not soley defined by economics. It rests on neglected values that the economic debate leaves to one side. The time to revive them is now.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Lets be honest…the BBC is fixated with…….the BBC.
    Just watched the news a few minutes ago and its actually the main headline…….ahead of Chilean Earthquake, ahead of Ashcroft, ahead of a British death in Aghanistan, ahead of Paisley standing down.
    What kind of narcississtic insular editors are the BBC employing that they believe that news from the bar in the BBC Club is of any earthly interest to people in the real world.
    Of course even Sky News think its a “story” part of what one contributor might describe as the “wider freemasonry of journalism”.
    Basically this belongs on the Guardian Media pages on Monday but no doubt Jeremy Paxman will be hosting an in-depth studio discussion on how bad for civilisation all of this is…the salaries of the Newsnight production team could pay for a small hospital.
    Apparently there is a radio station called Radio 6……to be frank I didnt even know that….and its getting closed down and big BBC salaries will be affected. Boo hoo.
    Did anyone in BBC give a toss for the miners and steelworkers?
    I suspect not.
    “Gin and tonics all round”

  • DerTer


    I saw the 6 news – before I read your post. On just this question, I thought it was replete with interesting, balanced and sane reporting – and not at all platitudinous. As a fairly consistent defender of the Irish and British media in general, I am forced to ask myself what is it that I am missing that makes others so critical?

  • DerTer

    …that makes others so consistently critical

  • Framer

    The licence fee is a poll tax while the BBC does not have the discipline of internal checks and balances. That explains so many managers earning more than the PM.

    As the man said on Radio 4 this morning the BBC is a spending organisation which is why it is killing newspapers with its subsidised website and undermining publishers by bringing out travel guides and magazines.

  • jtwo

    Have the regional press done much with local video since the Trust said the BBC shouldn’t be getting involved in that?

    Your super-soaraway Bel Tel seem to have cornered the market in school concerts and interviews with ‘beauty queens.’

  • Neil

    You said it jtwo. Yesterday we had an exclusive – top of the page, first headline you saw on the BelTel’s web page was a thrilling piece on a carelessly disposed of cigarette that landed on a child in a push chair.

    The parents demanded that there were more litter patrols to deal with the scourge of people throwing fags at babies, by accident or design. Pure pish. It’s a total rag, the only time there’s any news in it is when they lift it directly from Steven Nolan or on occasion, slugger.