Outgoing BBC director-general Tony Hall has defended the place of all pubcasters in a streaming age, saying they have a key role in bringing the public together. Speaking at the first public session of the British government’s department of culture, media and sport committee hearing on the work of the corporation, Hall said the BBC’s strength laid in operating linear and on-demand services side-by-side.
“The strength of the BBC versus streamers is doing those two things,” said Hall. “There is too much doomsday stuff about ‘in an era of streamers what role is there for public service broadcasters?’ Streamers do certain things extremely well, I’m a fan of Netflix, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a role for public service broadcasters to bring us all together, to add content that is uniquely British and bring those to British audiences. I think that’s why the creative economy is so strong and I hope in the next decade that will continue to grow at the pace it is now with the BBC at its core.”
Hall said he believed that “creatively the organisation is on fire.” “Look at our news services,” challenged Hall. “We are the most trusted news source in the U.K.; globally we are used each week by around 430 million people, that’s bigger than twitter.”
Speaking about his decision to stand down as director-general, announced in January, Hall said no confirmed date for his departure had yet been set as he was willing to stay “as long as is necessary to make sure there’s a proper handover.” The BBC is currently looking for a replacement to take Hall’s place from the summer. BBC chairman David Clementi said if the new appointee were an internal candidate the changeover would likely be earlier in the summer than if it were an external candidate.
The committee challenged Hall on a range of issues including reaching younger audiences; diversity; and license fee changes.
Speaking to the challenge of how younger audiences chose to consume content, Hall said the BBC was diverting resources into programs for younger audiences; looking at how it could schedule programming on flagship channel BBC One that younger people would go for; and whether it could divert more resources to its online youth channel BBC Three. “The most important thing is mix and what you commission.”
“Seventy percent of young people are using our news services each week,” said Hall, who announced a planned overhaul of the BBC News app would take place this year. “That’s our big investment priority.” He also said the BBC was utilizing platforms YouTube to reach out to younger audiences, as well as working with social media platforms like Google and Facebook, alongside other partners, to look at ways to improve media literacy.
“The BBC is the British global media brand and I hope we can grow that with government support in the next 5-6 years,” said Hall. “Every time I go abroad people keep saying they want more BBC news not less. As we define ‘global Britain’ I think this is one of our strengths. I think we need to do more to explain what trust means; we are trusted, but why you should trust us. As journalists we should be more open to talking about how we determine what is right, how we stand back. These are things we need to be more upfront with the public about.”
On the issue of diversity of thought within the BBC, Hall said diversity was a really important issue at all levels, including on diversity of background. “At the core, if you’re going to have an organisation that will function well, then you need diverse teams that think differently, including social diversity,” said Hall. “I believe that makes for better shows and better ideas. The make-up of the BBC should reflect the diversity of the U.K. Equality of expression and people’s ability to say what they want to say is important.”
Hall said the BBC was hopeful it would be able to institute a creative diversity festival, led by creative executive lead June Sarpong, this summer but that plans for that would obviously be dependent on the continuing coronavirus outbreak. He also revealed that the BBC is making sure every key management group across the corporation would have two independent people from diverse backgrounds able to challenge what the pubcaster was doing. “I don’t know any other organisation in the U.K. that are doing that,” said Hall, stating the implementation of that policy should be in place by the end of March.
Following the 2015 decision by the U.K. government that the BBC would have to take over the cost of providing free TV licenses for over-75s by this year, the BBC announced in June 2019 that from June 2020 only low-income households where one person receives the national pension credit benefit would still be eligible. With that deadline looming Hall was asked if there had been any “meaningful discussion” with the U.K. government in recent months to come to an agreement that could avoid the situation. Hall said there hadn’t, “although we’ve had meaningful conversations with the government about the role of the BBC.”
Clementi pointed out that since the decision was made in June 2019 there have been three British secretaries of state. “We’ve spoken to each of them about exactly where the BBC is. There’s not much more we can do. We’ve explained clearly why we reached the decision we did and each secretary of state has appeared to accept that.”
Hall agreed with a suggestion that the pubcaster should shift its communication with license fee payers to explaining the value they received from the BBC. “We need to find ways of telling people much more clearly what they get back, as any company would.”
BBC director of policy Clare Sumner pointed out that nine out of ten adults use the BBC every week. “The audience evidence suggests people really value our programs and want to pay the TV license. I think we’ve got to be careful not to look at this through the lens of one group of people. The BBC is watched and consumed by over 91% of the population and they are not forced to do that.”
Hall said he hoped that after the government had concluded its consultation on the principal of decriminalizing non-payment of the license fee it would consider a second consultation on the practicality of how it would work. He and Sumner both pointed out that under a civil system penalties could become fixed, disadvantaging those on low income, rather than being at the discretion of the court. “It would be longer and more painful and your credit rating would come under review as well,” said Hall.
“The BBC is different from a utility. You can’t switch it off,” added Sumner. “A civil model would lead to higher evasion and cost the BBC more. The government doesn’t say why it thinks civil would be better.”