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

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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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London