BBC: Future Funding (Communications and Digital Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:11 am on 16 December 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Deputy Chairman of Committees 11:11, 16 December 2022

My Lords, it’s a great privilege to serve on the Communications and Digital Committee and, like many committee members, I start by declaring interests both past and present: I was a BBC governor and I have made and presented programmes on television and radio, where I still pop up from time to time as a contributor. I also join fellow committee members in congratulating the noble Lady, Baroness Stowell, on her skilled chairing and her excellent introduction; and I too note the work of our excellent clerking team.

Being this far down the list means that the debate has already ranged widely across the pages of our report, and I echo many of the points raised, particularly the need for the BBC to better represent and include the full diversity of the UK today. I will use my late billing as licence to focus my remarks more narrowly on the fundamental principle underpinning all our recommendations: that the shape of the future funding model must depend on what the BBC is for and what it provides.

While the Reithian mission to inform, educate and entertain continues to stand the test of time, the 2022 White Paper sets out the Government’s intention to review the PSB purposes and objectives, so that PSBs focus on areas where they are uniquely positioned to deliver and which would make us poorer as a nation—culturally, economically and democratically—if they were not provided. This seems to hint towards a market failure role, often regarded as a purpose of public service broadcasting. While some witnesses to our inquiry argued that this should be the exclusive focus of the BBC, many did not, with one suggesting that this kind of “eat your greens” mandate would see the BBC fail to reach large sections of the public.

I was particularly interested in a contribution on this subject from Professor Mariana Mazzucato, from UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, who has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck. Mazzucato makes a persuasive case for seeing the BBC in terms not of market failure but of market shaping: a more accurate description in her view of the role it plays in leading innovation, setting new standards and taking the risks necessary for new markets, creative ecosystems and supply chains to emerge.

This was beautifully illustrated in a recent article by Bill Thompson, in which he looks back at market-shaping innovations pioneered by the corporation over its first 100 years: the BBC Marconi Type A ribbon microphone, as well as the lip mic mentioned by my noble friend; NICAM stereo recording and transmission; and DVB-T2, the second-generation system that ultimately made Freeview HD possible and, in doing so, freed up broadcast spectrum for mobile phones, giving us the always-connected world that we live in today.

Then there is outside broadcasting, pioneered in 1936 to relay the Coronation of King George VI, or the BBC’s work on broadcasting standards conversion, which allows signals from one type of system to be seen on another. It was this invisible innovation that enabled UK viewers to watch the 1968 Mexico Olympics in colour and to see the 1969 lunar landings as they happened—not just one small step for a man, but a giant leap for international live broadcasting. And who can forget Ceefax; the BBC networking club, a sort of internet forerunner; BBC computers; and the iPlayer?

I mention these innovations not just to enjoy a trip down memory lane, but as a clear example of how BBC innovations have impacted on and beyond the media and broadcasting sectors. They demonstrate not only the BBC’s role in shaping and supporting the creative industries, but the importance of the creative industries to an innovation economy. This impact can be seen in two ways: in the way new technologies generated by creative businesses such as the BBC are adopted by other industrial sectors; and in how creative businesses push producers in other sectors to meet their creative needs by developing new products and services. One immediately accessible example of this is the new underwater filming technologies developed for “Blue Planet II”, which have created ongoing legacy benefits for scientific research.

Alongside these examples of the BBC as inventor, investor, innovator and “de-risker” of new technologies, its market shaping role is also played out through its content creation and its contribution to talent and skills development, both on and off screen, as already mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hall. This is value distributed across multiple domains and, looked at in these terms, “market shaping” seems a far better lens than “market failure” through which it should be considered. However, fully understanding this kind of value, and then translating it into a source of stable and adequate funding, will require new ways of thinking and new approaches to analysis and assessment.

This is what our report calls for: from the BBC, a bold new vision with its market-shaping role featured prominently; and, from government, a commitment that any future funding model and remit incentivises the corporation to strike the right balance between addressing market failure and shaping markets for the benefit of the UK creative industries and the wider economy.

When we think about the BBC, we tend primarily, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, said, to think about content—the programmes we love and hate—and about whether we like the platforms on which that content is currently made available. Reimagining the BBC as a shaper and creator of markets, rather than as a public service broadcaster whose role is to fill in where the market fails, offers an alternative way to view the BBC’s public value and to consider what the BBC is for, what it provides and how it should therefore be funded.