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BBC Chief Mounts Defense of Public Broadcaster’s Values, Performance

LONDON — Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, delivered a rousing defense of the publicly owned U.K. broadcaster’s values and performance in a statement Tuesday.

Hall’s statement, issued together with the network’s annual report, claimed that the BBC’s output in the past year justified its existence. He cited programs like “Wolf Hall,” “The Honorable Woman,” and the week of live broadcasts of popular soap “EastEnders,” which marked the show’s 30th anniversary, as highlights. “It’s a year we can be proud of,” he wrote. Other standouts included the series of programs linked to the anniversaries of the start of World War I and the signing of the Magna Carta, and its “consistently brilliant and brave coverage” of events in the Middle East.

Hall’s defense of the BBC comes at a times when it has been the subject of a series of attacks from its pay-master, the right-wing Conservative Party government. In the past two weeks, the government has forced the BBC to absorb a cut in its income of £650 million ($1.01 billion), and alleged that the broadcaster was acting in an “imperial” manner with regards to its digital operations, threatening the operations of commercial rivals.

In his statement, Hall responded: “The case for the BBC doesn’t rest on ideological arguments — it rests on this — what we do day in and day out. Great programs and great services. That’s why people like the BBC. That’s why they enjoy the BBC. That’s why they trust the BBC. That’s why they value it.”

Hall claimed that the BBC’s viewing figures reflected public approval of its performance. “When people have so much to choose from, it’s testament to the quality of what we produce that 46 million people in the U.K. choose to use the BBC every day. And they choose to stay with us for over 18 hours per person, per week, on average,” he wrote.

Hall claimed that the public wanted a BBC that “informs, educates and entertains,” but it wasn’t in favor of a “significantly smaller” BBC.

Hall then turned his attention to the challenges of the future, including competition from “global media giants, who own more and more of the U.K.’s media sector,” and underscored the fact that the “Internet is changing audience habits,” especially among the young. “We must reinvent public service broadcasting for young audiences,” he said.

Hall stated that in the future its online operations would take priority. “We must make the transition to an Internet-first BBC, across all our genres and services. This is vital if the U.K. is to continue to punch above its weight as one of the most creative nations in the world. And grow Britain’s commercial success, and its global influence,” he stated.

The BBC leadership and the government are entering a period of negotiations that will culminate in the passing into law of a new 10-year charter for the broadcaster, which will come into force at the beginning of 2017. This charter protects the BBC’s freedom, and imposes on it a requirement to be politically impartial, but also restricts the scope of its operations and defines the way it is funded. It also sets out how the BBC is governed.

Hall stated that during the negotiations, and the debate that surrounded it, several points were “non-negotiable.”

First, the BBC should be “for everyone.” “The BBC is a profoundly democratic force. Universal usage of BBC programs that inform, educate and entertain is central to our democracy and our shared culture,” he claimed. This is in response to those critics that have said the BBC should become a high-quality subscription service like HBO.

Second, he said that the BBC’s independence and freedom from political interference must be protected. “I believe in giving creative people creative freedom, and trusting them to get on with it. I have real difficulty with the idea of artificial restrictions on creativity,” he wrote.

Third, Hall claimed that the BBC’s commercial division, BBC Worldwide, was “an integral part of the BBC,” and must stay part of the publicly owned broadcaster, and could not be privatized, as has been suggested by some. BBC Worldwide handles international licensing of programs, international co-productions and runs BBC subscription channels around the world.

He stated: “To fund great programs in an era of global competition for talent and ideas, we must work even harder at the partnership between the license fee and our commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. Seventy-one per cent of the funding of BBC One’s ‘Life Story’ was commercial funding. The license fee paid for less than half the budget of some of our biggest dramas last year.

“BBC Worldwide makes its money by taking BBC programs and exploiting them commercially. It’s an integral part of the BBC and gives license fee payers better content for less investment. So, any proposal to remove it from the BBC simply doesn’t make economic sense.”

The BBC annual report illustrates the importance to BBC funding of the universal license fee as it contributes the vast bulk of the broadcaster’s revenue. At present, every household in the U.K. that owns a TV set has to buy a TV license, which costs £145.50 ($227) a year. Some critics have claimed it is anachronistic, and should be abandoned. For the financial year that ended on March 31, license fee income totaled £3.74 billion ($5.82 billion). Other revenue, mainly from commercial activities run by BBC Worldwide, totaled £1.07 billion ($1.67 billion). The BBC’s revenue totaled £4.81 billion ($7.48 billion).

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