Gavyn Davies: Our critics are just trying to hijack our services

Taken from a speech delivered by the chairman of the BBC at the Westminster Media Forum
Click to follow

For us to truly serve the public, and justify the licence fee, we must first make sure that the public consumes our services in huge numbers. We simply cannot deliver value for money, or attain near universal reach, if we only serve minority tastes. I know that is highly inconvenient for some of our competitors, who would like nothing better than to box us into an ever-diminishing space, but it is a fact.

So we must continue to serve mass audiences in the digital age. In the last month alone, we have launched five new digital services – Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, Radio 6 Music, Cbeebies and CBBC for children, and BBC Four. I have no doubt that some of these new services will take time to win mass audiences, but that eventually they will do so.

I should just say to our competitors that it is obvious to most fair-minded people what is motivating them when they complain about the BBC. Many of their complaints are based on understandable self interest – the kind of self interest which I would expect if I were one of their shareholders.

I notice that our competitors have started to complain that the licence fee offers stable funding for the BBC, at a time when advertising and subscription revenues have been going through a sticky patch. Funnily enough, we did not hear so much about relative income growth during the 1990s, when private sector revenues were surging relative to the licence fee. The recent past has seen only a small redressing of the balance. The Board of Governors might be responsible for many things, but the short-term financial performance of commercial broadcasters is not prime among them.

But I get more concerned when complaints come from friends of the BBC – from people who are genuinely sympathetic to our aims as a public service broadcaster. I am concerned that the BBC is sometimes seen as aloof, arrogant and inaccessible. I am worried when the BBC's friends say that they are confused and troubled about the way the organisation is governed.

Many people say to me – why can't we have television series like Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, which we had 30 years ago, in the so-called golden age of television? They were great series, but they attracted very small audiences, in the region of one to two million per week. We still make great series – like The Blue Planet, Simon Schama's History of Britain and Walking with Beasts. And they attract audiences five to ten times as large as the landmark series of yesteryear. So we must be doing something right.

Yet still the criticism for dumbing down will not go away. Typically, this criticism comes from a particular group of people in the UK. They tend to be southern, white, middle class, middle aged and well educated. Strangely enough, they are already the type of people who consume a disproportionate amount of the BBC's services – people who get more out of the licence fee than they put into it.

In some cases, the criticism of dumbing down is simply a respectable way of trying to hijack even more of the BBC's services for themselves. The unique thing about the BBC is that we all pay exactly the same amount for it. The Asian teenager on the streets of Leicester has just as much right to be heard, and to be served, as a member of the House of Lords in Westminster. The fact is that they may not want exactly the same thing, but we have to serve them both.

So the debate about dumbing down should be about how to ensure quality and enrichment for all our licence fee payers, and not about skewing our services to appeal to a small minority. Some people continue to argue that we must choose between mass audiences and programme quality. But at our best, we can achieve both – after all, 80 million people watched the eight episodes of The Blue Planet last year. Unless we can achieve quality for all, we will not deserve the licence fee.