Chairman of BBC Trust opposes top-slicing

I’m at the Oxford Media Convention and Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the BBC Trust, has just given the opening keynote. He looked at Ofcom’s imminent review of public service broadcasting and used the time to try to undermine the suggestions that the Licence Fee should not all go to the BBC – ‘top-slicing’. Here are my notes, untidied:

++Lyons notes++

Sir Michael Lyons, BBC Trust at Oxford Media Convention
Nice to be here. Public service broadcasting review – coming along pretty regularly these days.
Might think a crisis is about to hit us but PSB ecosystem is ‘vibrant and productive’
Lots of good stuff from the BBC over Christmas – dance picked out as a good example.
BBC News kept on top of Kenyan politics and Bhutto assassination.
[pauses to welcome News at Ten
Spent Christmas watching The Street on DVD, Cranford (a wonderful, delicate exploration of a social system coping with change – a metaphor, he wonders?)
Challenges are real – multichannel, public expectation.
PSB has just won a new friend – Sarkozy says France needs a BBC
Approach review from pov of audience – they pay, they come first.
So it’s a debate about the interest of audiences.
Concerned that in one area this is not the case… will come back to it.
Rapidly changing nature of audiences is a challenge – audiences are more complex. Trad nuclear family is in decline, people more individualistic, minorities more assertive (!), britain culturally diverse, people identify with multiple communities. Personalisation and customisation demanded.All providers of public services affected, BBC more than most. Can’t change audience can’t change public purposes – has to find ways to reach out to all audiences in all complexity.
NOT saying that all output must appeal to all – though some should be widely targetted. But everyone must find sufficient value in the BBC.
Challenge for BBC set by trust – public value, set standards for public service
Trust service reviews are an important tool. Look at every one of 27 services at least every 5 years – (he says ‘ currently being done. Next will be children/young people across all platforms. They are part of the audience and need to make sure that they are properly engaged – don’t want to retreat as commercial competitors have done. Applies to children but also as they grow up and into adulthood.
Raise issue of public purposes – esp citizenship – among this audience. Therefore want rigorous review that draws on extensive research to ensure they get best service from BBC.
Wants to approach PSB review like this – identify issues, collect evidence, assess audience needs, have debate, produce proposals…
But concerned that this isn’t happening. Top-slicing for example is being held out as solution before debate has happened.
Trust is open to energetic debate but doesn’t like decisions being made in advance.
Top-slicing: would change ecology of PSB and affect current system severely. Commercial PSBs and BBC compete for AUDIENCE not REVENUE- creates incentives for competition through high quality content. But downturn in TV ad revenue and licensing fee limits has put system under strain through significant change?
Is this the right moment to put the system under further strain by changing?
Ofcom has identified some issues eg plurality. Lots to be done BEFORE we consider changes to funding arrangements including top-slicing.
BBC does not want to be monopoly PSB supplier after switchover.
BUT what will audiences value after switchover? What range of PSBs or public service content will they want?
Public like choice but not having to pay for it.
Is plurality of institutions, channels or sources of funding?
Can BBC do better to offer broader range?
Answers will not be simple. PS content not just provided by PS broadcasters – eg Sky News and Arts offer PSB for own interests.
Need to think of this before we think about funding [he says]
But assume that research calls for plurality? Leap to direct funding and then top-slicing the license fee would be a significant one.
Sec State will carry out own review once Ofcom one done – his decision – so a long way to go. But he sees lots of questions before top-slicing can be defended.
What of risk that is might pose to BBC’s accountability to audiences? License fee to BBC relationship is clear to audience – we should think clearly before diluting its clarity/
Could BBC deliver public purposes with less money? Role goes beyond producer/commissioner/transmitter of ‘wonderful programmes’. BBC shapes future of UK – education, civil society, creativity, represent regions etc. These purposes matter – BBC far more than public version of ITV (duh!)
Proponents ‘tend to talk about an enhanced license fee’ [do they?] but that’s unlikely and the public will not like it.
Would weakening bBCs ability to deliver PSB mission in order to enable other broadcasters to deliver theirs really be a good idea?
Need to think of the consquences for the ecosystem.
Offers these only for debate (!)
“The Trust has no interest in blindly defending the status quo”
I hope this debate does not end up in more regulation. At the audit commission he learned that its hard for regulators to resist temptation to extend scope of their regulation.
In an over-regulated economy the regulated can believe their job is to satisfy the regulator not the audience.

Final Message: audiences are at the heart of the debate and their interest sneed to be reflected.

Later: Secretary of State James Purnell, speaking later, takes the top-slice elephant for another ride around the room and expresses his view that the BBC will still be there after al the changes.  Of course, he doesn’t say what it will look like or do…

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