Regulating the BBC for everyone - Speech by Sharon White to the Nations & Regions Media Conference, Salford, 29 March 2017
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak this morning about the role of broadcasters in representing every part of the UK. There can be no better place to speak than here at the Lowry – a world-class venue, at the hub of a regional economy whose creative and cultural achievements are second to none.
The occasion, too, is pertinent. Much of today’s discussion involves the BBC. And on Monday, Ofcom will become the first external, independent regulator of this special institution; one that lies at the centre of our collective cultural identity.
We understand the scale and importance of our new role. To meet it, we will apply our long experience of the broadcasting industry, and a track record of regulating hundreds of commercial TV and radio stations over many years.
For the first time, one regulator will oversee the whole UK broadcasting industry. One set of programme standards will apply to each broadcaster. This will give confidence to audiences, who sit at the heart of our broadcasting regulation.
And we believe that the BBC – with its proud heritage of public service, independent of Government and commercial interests – will be stronger under the watch of an equally independent, external regulator.
As part of our final preparations, this morning we announced detailed plans to hold BBC to account for meeting the high expectations of its audience. These plans include new rules to ensure the BBC shows a high volume of original programmes, and shares its production investments fairly across the UK’s nations.
Today, I want to explain how those plans will work, and why we believe they matter.
Through its public funding, history and ability to bring the nation together, the BBC occupies a special place in UK society, and our creative economy. We want to see a healthy BBC, held to the highest standards, editorially independent and free to inform, educate, entertain and innovate.
As the broadcasting regulator, we already oversee much of the BBC’s output. We are acutely aware of the BBC’s importance, of course, but no less so of the commercial sector.
We have the most vibrant, creative and innovative broadcasting industry in the world. The British public have never enjoyed programmes of such quality and diversity, live or on-demand, across so many devices, catering for every age – from Hey Duggee and Rillington Place to Mrs Brown’s Boys and In Our Time.
Our country is home to some of the most respected, creative and technical talents in the world. The BBC alone generates hundreds of millions of pounds overseas. ITV is one of Europe’s leading independent producers. Major global broadcasters, such as Discovery, Viacom and Disney base their European networks here.
Ofcom understands how valuable that is. We hear every day from viewers and listeners about the programmes they enjoy, the services they value, and the protections they expect.
Those views inform our regulation. Many here today will be familiar with our existing approach to regulating the commercial sector: upholding standards, promoting competition, prioritising the audience.
But of course, the BBC attracts a particular level of scrutiny and expectation – and rightly so. People feel passionately about its plans, priorities, programmes and presenters. Most of us see, hear or read its output every day of the week.
I want to explain what we have announced today to hold the BBC to account for meeting those high expectations.
First, a reminder of the new roles and responsibilities under the new Charter.
The BBC’s new unitary Board will ensure the BBC is well run, and decide how it meets its obligations – set by Parliament – for high-quality, distinctive programmes. The Board is responsible for strategy, budgets, salaries and management issues. Separately, the National Audit Office will assess the BBC’s finances and value for money.
As the BBC’s new regulator, Ofcom has three broad roles.
First, we will uphold standards in all the BBC’s programmes. Here, we want to build on our proven track record of protecting audiences. We already regulate standards across the commercial sector, and some of the BBC’s output. Now we will also consider the accuracy and impartiality of BBC programmes.
The BBC will handle initial complaints, but the public can come to Ofcom if they remain unhappy. Whenever it’s required, we’ll step in.
Audiences must have confidence. We won’t hesitate to intervene if we have concerns. And we’ll monitor how the BBC handles its own complaints, to make sure people are treated fairly.
Programmes must be accurate and impartial. That means holding the BBC to clear, immutable standards of truth and balance. At the same time, content should not cause unjustified harm or offence. Here we must listen to viewers and listeners over time, to take account of their changing tastes and expectations.
Second, we will protect competition in the market. Our job is to make sure the BBC’s services don’t unfairly stifle competition, or prevent other broadcasters from launching valuable new services.
The BBC will initially consider the public value of a planned service, against the potential effects on wider competition. Ofcom will then take a final decision on whether those effects are justified.
Healthy competition is important for viewers and listeners. It can increase the choice of programmes they are offered, stimulate investment in the sector, and encourage broadcasters to find new ways to serve their audience – like the catch-up services, launched within months of each other, and now attracting hundreds of millions of viewings each month.
And the BBC’s role in the broadcasting market is critical. People are passionate about its services, and how they might evolve. As the BBC seeks to reinvent itself for the digital generation, some of its ideas may spur others on; others may harm competitors’ plans.
When it comes to the BBC’s commercial arms, such as Worldwide, we’ll put in place safeguards to ensure these don’t distort the wider market, or create an unfair advantage for the BBC over its rivals.
So as BBC Studios becomes a commercial subsidiary next month, with bases across the nations and regions, we want it to deliver on the Charter’s promise of reflecting and representing the UK’s diverse voices and creative talent.
Our third role is to ensure that the BBC delivers for viewers and listeners. At the heart of that is a new ‘operating licence’ . This seeks to translate the BBC’s Public Purposes, set out in the new Charter, into a clear framework for the BBC.
The Charter requires the BBC to make distinctive, high quality programmes that reflect the whole of the UK. The BBC should be discernibly different from the commercial sector. This applies both to its overall approach, and to the quality and nature of its content.
Of course, the BBC already does many things that are distinctive – prime-time current affairs shows; film-quality drama; radio plays; Planet Earth; 6 Music; the Asian Network and many more.
Many of the BBC’s most popular shows are also distinctive. Take Today, Tellytubbies and Taboo. The BBC has the right to remain relevant, and we do not seek to reduce its reach.
Ofcom’s job is not to assess the merits of individual programmes. We will not surround the BBC in red tape, hamper its creative freedom, or interfere in its commissioning, scheduling or programme making.
But we will ensure that each of the BBC’s channels, stations and services provides something different. Taken overall, each one should offer content and character that distinguishes itself from what’s available from commercial rivals.
The BBC will publish its creative plan before the summer, explaining how it will provide high-quality, distinctive programmes across genres and services. We will then revise our framework to reflect the BBC’s commitments.
Our approach will be rooted in evidence – research into public service broadcasting over many years; and new research, conducted this year for our BBC responsibilities, into how the public view distinctiveness.
One very clear message from all the research is that viewers and listeners feel that programmes made for UK audiences are very important to them. As part of the BBC’s role in British society, they told us it should offer original, UK-produced shows, on both TV and radio, that support our writers, actors, musicians and presenters
Original content can also help the BBC meet its duties under its new Charter, which include being creative and distinctive. But the BBC currently spends 30% less on original UK programmes, in real terms, than it did in 2004. So we’re proposing that around three-quarters of all programme hours on the BBC’s most popular TV channels should be original productions, commissioned by the BBC to be shown first in the UK.
One crucial area where the BBC sets itself apart is its children's programmes, where others are spending less. The BBC is now virtually the sole investor in new UK children’s programmes. To protect that role, we propose that CBBC will be required to show at least 400 hours of new UK productions each year, and CBeebies at least 100 hours. We also want to see CBeebies providing content in a number of genres that support pre-school children’s learning.
In recent years, public service broadcasters have also shown fewer arts, classical-music and religious programmes. The BBC can help arrest that decline; these genres feature highly in its new Charter. In fact, as our audience research bears out, they are totemic to distinctive public service broadcasting.
So our draft licence sets stronger safeguards for arts, music and religious programmes on BBC One and Two, including in peak time. It also obliges the BBC to reserve a significant proportion of music on Radio 1 and 2 to new and emerging artists, to set these stations further apart from the competition.
For many viewers and listeners, news is central to how they see the BBC. They see its duty to provide impartial news and information as its most important purpose in society. Of those who follow the news, more than three quarters get some from the BBC. One in five rely exclusively on the BBC for news.
So we plan to increase the previous requirements for news and current affairs – including on BBC One and BBC Two – to safeguard this important genre. During peak listening periods, Radio 2 would be required, for the first time, to air at least three hours of news and current affairs per week, and Radio 1 to broadcast an extended news bulletin in peak-time listening each weekday.
These commitments are affordable and achievable within the current licence fee. In many cases, they form new baselines to maintain the BBC’s current performance. And what matters is not only the headline spending, but also the quality of the programmes. The BBC has already shown how it can deliver high quality with less investment, through third-party funding and co-production deals.
We also recognise that our requirements must evolve over the course of the Charter – to reflect the BBC’s commitments, changes in technology, and the shifting needs of its audience.
Finally, I want to address the BBC’s role across the UK. The Charter requires the BBC to portray the whole of the UK as it is today. So every part of the UK should be accurately reflected, and invested in, by the BBC.
We believe that stable, sustainable production and investment outside of London, across the nations and regions, is vital – so that the full economic and cultural benefits of commissioning are realised in every part of the UK.
Clearly this matters for the health of our local creative economies. When regional productions succeed, they can stimulate jobs, attract talent, and cement an area’s reputation within the industry.
The BBC has made strong steps in this area, boosting the proportion of its network spending outside London – from around one third in 2006, to more than half in 2015. But its out of London spending and programming hours have slipped back since.
So we are proposing new minimum network quotas for each UK Nation, reflecting their population size. And we will ensure at least half of all network hours and spending are on programmes made outside London – whether by the BBC, ITV Studios in the north, or regional indies.
We also want audiences to see a stronger focus on original production in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the English regions. That might be new nature commissions such as Wild Ireland, or original dramas such as Hinterland in Wales. It could be news, sport or programmes in Gaelic, Welsh, Irish or Ulster Scots.
Recent years have seen variable levels of broadcasting hours and spending on programmes that are tailored to where they’re shown. We are proposing new targets to ensure they don’t fall back again.
When it comes to production, Salford and Pacific Quay stand as examples of what can happen when the BBC engages away from the south-east. Relocating Breakfast, Sport and Children’s to MediaCity was a significant move. Six years on, it has become a vibrant creative hub. The Government itself highlighted the importance of cultural centres like Salford in its recent industrial strategy. And last month, the BBC set out a number of new commitments to the nations. A 50% increase in spending on new drama, comedy and entertainment shows for Wales; a BBC Scotland channel running each evening, including a nightly news programme. The BBC is also planning new commitments to Northern Ireland.
Separately, Ofcom is reviewing our guidance on programmes made outside London, to ensure that all broadcasters meet both the letter and the spirit of the rules.
That means programmes made by people who live and work locally, rather than travelling from London. And shows that truly represent their local area.
The BBC’s centres of excellence in different parts of the UK demonstrate progress. From celebrated music and drama shows in Cardiff, to world-class factual and natural-history productions in Bristol.
But of course Doctor Who hails from Gallifrey, not Cardiff Bay. So we also need shows – in different genres – that represent and champion their local area.
The Charter makes clear that the BBC must reach all communities in the UK, its nations and regions. And all broadcasters can play a role in shaping and reflecting our society, culture and values.
When we spoke to viewers, one fifth of those in Scotland, and a quarter in Northern Ireland, said they felt negatively portrayed on TV.
People from a minority group – whether a distinct region of the country, or a particular ethnicity – felt they were neutrally portrayed at best, or negatively at worst.
These are challenges for the whole industry to address. But we think the BBC should set a leading example, with programmes that reflect the UK’s rich culture, and showcase all its talents.
So today we have announced that the BBC will have to agree with Ofcom a new Diversity Code of Practice. This will set out how the BBC will commission programmes that authentically portray the whole UK population.
And the BBC will have to report annually on how it reflects, represents and serves the diverse communities of the whole UK.
These are our plans. As we finalise them, we will seek to ensure our regulation befits the outstanding quality of our whole broadcasting industry.
When we assume our BBC duties in five days’ time, we promise to hold the Corporation rigorously to account on behalf of viewers and listeners. We will ensure it delivers to a high standard, across every service, for each part of its audience.
We have listened to viewers and listeners, but we want more people to have their say. From today, we are inviting your views, and those of the public, on how the BBC’s performance should be upheld.
We want to hear how the BBC should serve, reflect, enhance and invest in every part of the UK.
The BBC is for everyone. So we’d like to hear from you, too.