Creative thinking

DenisTunnicliffe2015.jpgDenis Tunnicliffe on the many ways in which the BBC delivers for our country

For most people, the BBC is woven into the fabric of their daily lives. So, in some sense, it is the quintessential ‘public good’ – the value of which is only really quantifiable if it were to disappear or be harmed. Labour certainly doesn’t claim the BBC to be perfect. We are critical friends, but what we will do is fight hard against politically motivated attacks by the Conservatives.

In the coming months, as the Royal Charter renewal process reaches its climax, the key question to be settled before all others is: ‘What is the BBC for?’ The ‘Reithian principles’ – to inform, educate and entertain – are widely understood and recognised as forming the BBC’s mission, and should remain embedded in the Charter.

Structures need to be renewed but this must be done in a way that does not hamper the BBC’s creativity or flexibility – and crucially, its independence. This means that plans to allow government to appoint all non-executive members of the new unitary board – which will set editorial strategy, make key decisions on content and services, and ensure impartial journalism – must be abandoned. The new Charter should set out a clear and transparent process for appointments to the board, at arm’s length from Ministers and Whitehall officials. And while OFCOM should be the independent regulator of the BBC, it must be given the staffing and other resources it needs.

Culture and Media Secretary John Whittingdale has on several occasions suggested the BBC should be restricted to ‘distinctive’ programmes, without spelling out what it means. (Other than to hint that it should not produce programmes offered by other broadcasters.) But the BBC has a clearer idea about what it regards as distinctness. Charlotte Moore, BBC Controller of TV Channels and iPlayer, has said this is about quality and a promise that all its programmes, across all genres, should aspire to be best in class.

Distinctiveness is about ambition – backing the country’s best creative talent and giving them the freedom to pursue their ideas, take risks and push boundaries. To innovate, to challenge, and to surprise. Distinctive means range – accepting and celebrating the fact that the BBC has a duty to serve everyone, every licence fee payer – whoever they are, wherever they come from. Finally, distinctive means home grown – producing a high level of first-run, UK originated content and taking those great, British programmes to the world.

There is concern that the BBC could do more to better reflect the lives of young people, those with a disability and those within BAME communities. Something else that ought to be considered as part of charter renewal.  

Turning to the wider audience, it is clear that from the recent consultation that the public overwhelmingly value the BBC and care about its future. Over 192,000 people responded, which goes to show the strength of feeling for the BBC and the scale of concern for its future.

The BBC is the cornerstone of our creative industries – the powerhouse of our future prosperity, representing one in 11 jobs and bringing in £76bn a year. These industries enhance our reputation overseas and are intrinsic to our whole added value economy. Indeed, they have seen growth year on year well ahead of the rest of the economy.

But the truth is that the creative industries cohere as a balanced ecology with the BBC at its heart.  You can’t axe the tallest tree in the middle of the forest and not expect to do serious harm to the forest as a whole. Let us hope that the government’s White Paper builds on where we are and allows the BBC to make progress in its mission to inform, educate and entertain.

Lord Denis Tunnicliffe is a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords

Published 21st April 2016

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