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.

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