In his first speech to media bosses, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has raised the question of whether the BBC “truly reflects all of our nation” after it “missed” key political changes in recent years.
Although Dowden did not mention Brexit, he appears to be making reference to failures to call the outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum.
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The Tory MP sent a clear signal of Government intention to reform public service broadcasting when he addressed the Media Telecoms 2020 and Beyond conference this morning.
“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 said.
The Government is currently seeking views on whether to decriminalise the BBC licence fee, which brings in close to £4bn in funding for the broadcaster every year. The public consultation closes on 1 April.
The Culture Secretary, who was given the role last month in a Cabinet reshuffle, told attendees that the Government “will need to consider a number of questions” as the next licence-fee settlement is agreed on and the BBC’s charter comes up for mid-term review.
“Firstly, does the BBC truly reflect all of our nation and is it close to the British people?,” Dowden said.
“If we’re 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.”
The conference, hosted by Deloitte and Enders Analysis in London, brings together leaders from the media, technology and telecoms industries.
Dowden is also spoke of the importance of impartiality in the “age of fake news” in his speech, asking: “Does the BBC guard its unique selling point of impartiality in all of its output?”
Pointing to recent Ofcom research, Dowden said it shows the “perception of news impartiality” is lower for some public service broadcasting channels than commercial networks like Sky and CNN.
“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,” he said.
“In an age of fake news and self-reinforcing algorithms, the need for genuine impartiality is greater than ever.”
He also raised the question of whether the BBC is “ready to embrace proper reform to ensure its long term sustainability for the decades ahead”.
Dowden said 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,” he said.
“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.”
BBC director general Tony Hall was due to take part in a Q&A session directly after Dowden’s speech at the conference, its agenda shows.
Writing in the Daily Mail on Tuesday, Lord Hall said: “The BBC is not a perfect institution. Like everyone else, we can and do make mistakes.
“But we always strive to be better. And we are always accountable to our audiences, who are quick to highlight our weaknesses but equally quick to praise our strengths.”
The director, who leaves in summer, also promised a “big listening exercise” offering “a chance for audiences to speak to use directly and tell us what they want us to be” which would be set out in full in spring.
“I want this to be one of the most significant pieces of public engagement the BBC has ever undertaken,” Lord Hall wrote.
“I won’t tie the hands of my successor, but I want them to have all the insight they need from the people who matter most: the public.”
Added Lord Hall: “So yes, let’s have a debate about the BBC. Let’s even debate our funding model when the time comes.
“But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s first decide what kind of BBC we want for this country, then work out how best to achieve it.
“I genuinely believe at this important moment, the BBC matters more than ever and can work even harder for the UK at home and abroad.”
The BBC will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2022.