New Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, firmly signalled the British Government's intention to reform public service broadcasting (PSB), including the BBC, at a conference at which, co-incidentally, a fellow-speaker was the BBC's departing director-general, Tony Hall, whom, equally forcibly, defended the corporation's role as a public service broadcaster. I have given both of their speeches a fair bit of space as Dowden and Hall are key figures at an increasingly critical period for British broadcasting, and the BBC in particular.
Dowden, 41, speaking at the Media Telecoms 2020 and Beyond conference, which brings together leaders from the media, technology and telecoms industries, fired off his first detailed shots in this highly contentious debate since taking over his new Cabinet post, declaring: 'In the coming years we will be taking a proper look at our public service broadcasting system and the BBC's central role within it'. He explained that the Government would 'need to consider a number of questions' in deciding on the next BBC licence fee settlement and the BBC's charter when it comes up for a mid-term review.
Dowden asked the delegates: 'Firstly, does the BBC truly reflect all of our nation and is it close to the British people? If we are honest, some of our biggest institutions missed, or were slow to pick up, key political and social trends in recent years. The BBC needs to be closer to, and understand the perspectives, of the whole of the United Kingdom and avoid providing a narrow urban outlook. By this, I don't just mean getting authentic and diverse voices on and off screen – although this is important… but also making sure there is genuine diversity of thought and experience. And this matters, because if you don't have that, you miss what's important to people, and you seem distant and disengaged'.
He stressed the importance of impartiality in this 'age of fake news', asking: 'Does the BBC guard its unique selling point of impartiality in all of its output?' Referencing recent Ofcom research, the Culture Secretary said it showed that the 'perception of news impartiality' is lower for some public service broadcasting channels than commercial networks like Sky and CNN, adding: 'Ultimately, if people don't perceive impartiality, then they won't believe what they see and read, and they'll feel it is not relevant to them. In an age of fake news and self-reinforcing algorithms, the need for genuine impartiality is greater than ever'.
Dowden questioned if the BBC was 'ready to embrace proper reform to ensure its long-term sustainability for the decades ahead', pointing out that the likes of Netflix and YouTube meant people were 'no longer just turning on the TV when they get home. When there is so much choice around, the BBC and our public service broadcasters need to think boldly. The BBC is an institution to be cherished. We would be crazy to throw it away but it must reflect all of our nation, and all perspectives. And it must rise to the challenge of how it will ensure its sustainability as a crucial service in a rapidly changing world. This work, and the work we are doing as a department, is crucial'.
Tony Hall, 69, who leaves the BBC in the summer, after seven years as director-general, to become chair of the board of trustees of the National Gallery, emphasised that there was no way Netflix could replace the BBC, pointing out that the streaming service does not provide news coverage or distinctive regional British content. He explained: 'The thing about the licence fee being paid by everybody is that you have to be universal. The BBC is not Netflix. It is something that is in the absolute fabric of this nation. Netflix doesn't do sport, it doesn't do news – they don't do a whole raft of things'. The Government should be careful not to damage British society, he said, and 'throw the baby out with the bathwater', pointing out: ‘The case for public service broadcasting is the recent floods. In Hereford and Worcester a reporter had her flat under water but broadcast for 16 hours because she cared about getting the story'.
Hall said that a subscription-style BBC would require both traditional radio stations and the Freeview service to be shut down as they could not currently be encrypted or password-protected. 'Are you really going to put a barrier between radio and people?' he asked. 'Same with free-to-air television.' He said the corporation needed to also become less patrician in its attitude towards its audiences – moving away from the image of it as 'Auntie', while finding other sources of revenue in the future. He believed the licence fee would still exist in some form after the BBC's royal charter runs out in seven years' time, declaring: 'The licence fee beyond 2027 will still matter and will still be phenomenally important for the BBC'.
Paisley-born Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, is standing down in May after 17 years in the post, but will remain at the public service broadcaster for another year as editor-at-large. This new role will see her developing a factual podcast strategy for Channel 4, mentoring staff across the entire organisation, and helping to implement a sustainability strategy. She says: 'The last year has been one of great success for Channel 4 news and current affairs, and for me personally, so it's the perfect time for me to step aside and give someone else the pleasure of the best job in television'. Byrne was made a fellow of the Royal Television Society in 2018 for her 'outstanding contribution to television' and last year was honoured with the BBC Grierson Trustees' Award at the 2019 British Documentary Awards for achievements in factual filmmaking.
Channel 4's director of programmes, Ian Katz, said: 'No British media executive has done as much to shape the coverage of news and current affairs on television as Dorothy. She has a laser-like eye for a story, huge creative flair and Channel 4 DNA running through her like rock'.
Earlier in her career, Byrne worked for World In Action
and was editor of ITV's The Big Story
before joining Channel 4 in 1998 as commissioning editor of current affairs and editor of Dispatches
. She hit the headlines last year, following a lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, where she called Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn 'cowards' for dodging television interviews, and compared Johnson to Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin. She also spoke about being 'the oldest female TV executive working for a broadcaster' and the struggles she has faced over the years working with 'sexist bastards' in news and current affairs.
The Scottish pro-independence daily newspaper, The National
, has notched up a record daily sale in running for a second time a special edition on the McCrone Report – a 'secret' British Government report, written in 1974, giving a highly favourable projection for an independent Scotland's economy. It was never published at the time and only came to light in 2005 as a result of an FOI request from the SNP.
, which has a 95p cover price, had a 41% increase in circulation when it first published the McCrone Report in full on 27 February last year. This time round, the daily more than doubled its average daily sale by hitting the 21,915 circulation mark – again on 27 February. The report, accompanied by an exclusive subscription offer, was published in full across eight pages. Advance orders meant that 8,000 copies had been sold before it hit the news stands. Editor Callum Baird commented: 'Our readers have responded incredibly to this latest campaign – and there will be many more like this to come'.
Congratulations to Borders freelance photographer, Gareth Easton, who has donated the profits from his photographic coverage of firemen tackling a blaze at Peebles High School, to the school. The pictures appeared in several newspapers including The Scotsman
and the Daily Record
. Gareth's children attend Peebles High School, and he decided to use the revenue raised from his photographs to enable the school to invest in new photographic equipment to help replace equipment lost in the blaze.
Gareth told the Border Telegraph weekly newspaper: 'My daughter, Olivia, is presently studying for her higher photography. She was clearly affected by the fire and distraught by the damage it had caused to the art department, and the loss of the school's valuable photographic equipment. I decided that I would use the revenue generated from the publication of my images to the benefit of the school, and it's an absolute pleasure to be able to fund the purchase of a new Canon Digital SLR camera'.