Podium: The BBC in an age of choice

John Birt

Extracted from the `New Statesman' Media Lecture given

at Banqueting House, London, by the

BBC director general

SOMETHING REVOLUTIONARY is happening. The environment in which broadcasting operates is changing in extraordinary ways, with profound consequences. The technology that broadcasting has used for the first 75 years of its history is giving way to a completely new technology: digital.

Digital technology will move us from the world of scarcity, where only a small number of channels could be broadcast, to the world of plenty. It will enable us to call up programmes on demand. The technologies will be interactive, access will increase, and publishers will multiply. As production costs come tumbling down, anyone will be able to make and to publish their own programmes. The monoliths will shake.

The digital age we are entering can and will bring many benefits to individuals and organisations; but there are also significant difficulties to be overcome if the advantages are to outweigh the dangers.

Let me explore those.

The first is that the digital age may be marked by dominance rather than by plurality and diversity. The producer rather than the consumer may be in the driving seat. This is because of the emerging power of those who will control the gateways to digitopia - to your computer, your TV screen, the server in your school,the memory store in your set-top box.

The gateway controllers can order and marshal - if not bar - your choices about programmes, and a myriad services. Already the BBC's digital choices are scattered across Sky's front page menu, its Electronic Programme Guide. Governments will be cautious of interfering.

Let me say with all the force that I can muster that now is the time to act and to apply with rigour clear regulatory principles for the digital age. It will be even more difficult later than it is now to dislodge those who will have an ever-tighter grip on the digital gateway.

Let us have a regulatory regime which champions the consumer, and let no group in any distribution system both control the gateway and be at the same time a substantial provider of services.

Let me unashamedly propose something else. The public pays for the BBC. It is in the public's interest that they should always be able easily to access BBC services - by whatever means they choose.

There should be a guaranteed and appropriately prominent position for a publicly funded BBC on every gateway in the UK.

Another risk of the digital age is that the worst excesses of print may be imported into the new media. Politics could become even more polemicised; and debate corrupted.

Our culture may be degraded by the instant availability in new media of the raucous, the vulgar and the sensationalist.

There is a risk to our national culture. We have already seen in this century the emergence of a global culture which is essentially American - the baseball cap, jeans, trainers and Pepsi are all ubiquitous. A high proportion of programmes on cable and satellite homes are from the US. The globalisation of media may intensify this trend.

Our social cohesion may be undermined. An important consequence of the mass broadcast media in this century has been that - for the first time in human history - we have a world of common experience. We have watched the Wimbledon Final together, and Dad's Army, and Princess Diana's funeral. The 21st-century media experience may be marked by instant and intense personal gratification. Social division may be encouraged. We may see the emergence of an information-poor knowledge underclass.

A dynamic, flourishing BBC will not of itself address all of these risks, but it will provide a weighty counterbalance. The BBC is the world's most successful cultural institution. The BBC has the creative strength, the energy, the insight, the capability to become a successful 21st-century broadcaster, pioneering in the digital age, satisfying our licence payers as never before, acting as a civilising force, a universal provider, a trusted guide, a guardian of the culture, a guarantor of the national debate, and as a national insurance against the risks of the digital revolution.

The decision to be made this autumn about the level of the BBC's funding is of historic importance. Unless and until the BBC's income grows as the nation's income grows, the BBC will gradually, slowly, imperceptibly, incrementally, diminish, and will play a reducing role in this nation's life.

I hope that is unthinkable. The BBC is magnificent. It is a beacon; a great national cause; a huge adventure of the mind. It has been the privilege of my life to lead it.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?