Mark Thompson: Public space: so scorned yet so vital

James Murdoch sees the world in black and white. The reality in Britain is very different

Related Topics

I am often asked for my thoughts on that highly respected but much maligned and misunderstood public institution, the Murdoch family.

In many ways, if your name's Murdoch, you can't win. Every time you open your mouth, people start looking for a hidden agenda: institutional self-interest, a secret plan to influence current or future political leaders, or a lust for world domination. As Director-General of the BBC, I can't imagine what that would be like.

James Murdoch declared earlier this month that "the only guarantor of independence is profit". Here is where he and I differ. And also where I believe his view differs from that of the British public. James Murdoch sees an entirely black and white world. Media properties are either commercial and therefore truly free, or they are state sponsored, state controlled and therefore not just paternalistic, but authoritarian. The reality in Britain is more nuanced – and, I think, more precious. I'm quite certain that James Murdoch genuinely, passionately believes that unregulated profit-seeking would lead to a better media sector. By happy coincidence it would also be in the interests of News Corporation, but it is a respectable, principled position. However, it is not such a policy that has given Britain its place as the global leader in creative and cultural industries.

In this country we have a different tradition. Not just the BBC, but also our universities, our museums and galleries, many of our orchestras, the RSC, the National Theatre, our great national parks, in fact so much of our collective cultural and social life exists not in either the market or the state, but in a third space – public space. They exist not to make money but to serve the public. And the more people we serve, the better. To quote just one statistic, this summer more than 12 million people in this country sampled the Proms on BBC television, even before the Last Night.

Public space is also independent space. How can that be, James Murdoch asks, when you're state sponsored and state controlled? In his straw-man world, the Hutton crisis could never have happened – no scandal, no inquiry, no resignations. Indeed, you'd never be able to slip a cigarette paper between the BBC and and any Government minister. Really?

The BBC is an organisation subject to intense public scrutiny – and rightly so. But while many would have you believe that trust in the BBC is diminishing, the opposite is actually the case. Public pride and trust in the BBC has grown significantly over the past five years. Public support is strong and getting stronger. With all its faults and failings – and, of course, there are plenty of them – and at a time when the future of so much of the rest of the media is so uncertain, the idea of the BBC still works. It works in investment in production, in training, and in talent. It works in innovation and in supporting creativity around the whole of the UK. But, above all, it works for the public.

But while we enjoy growing public support, it would be fatal for us to sit on our laurels. And the BBC must not turn its back on the rest of the media sector. The public will be best served not by a strong BBC sitting in isolation but by a strong, varied media industry.

The effect of new media, and of the downturn, on many incumbent media businesses has been devastating. Convergence has meant that businesses which once considered themselves in quite different markets from the BBC – newspapers, for instance – now believe themselves to be competitors. I am told that the problems of commercial broadcasters are the fault of the BBC, but there is no evidence that that is the case.

If anything, the traditional media industry is facing even more daunting financial challenges in America, where there is no large-scale publicly funded broadcaster at all. But understandably, there has been a steady increase in the number of those who worry about the BBC's scope and market impact. Just because James Murdoch has a dualist view that doesn't fit with the reality of British broadcasting or, indeed, public life doesn't mean that every question about how the BBC fits alongside the rest of British media is illegitimate, or a partisan attack on public service broadcasting. The world has changed and so the BBC must consider how it changes too.

Earlier this year, we decided it was the right time to look ahead and develop a strategy for what kind of BBC could best serve the public, and best support the whole media sector in the digital world. This review will be both radical and open minded. The Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, asked this week whether the BBC had reached the limits of expansion. Don't assume that we'll dismiss that notion out of hand or erect defensive barriers against it. Defining the public space that the BBC should rightfully occupy, while being explicit about where space must be left for others, will be the thread through the whole review.

The British public wants a strong, confident BBC which delivers real value to every household. But in a period where not just the licence fee but the wider public finances and the revenues available to commercial media are constrained, and after years of squeezing efficiencies out of the system, that means choices.

The millions of people who will switch on Strictly Come Dancing or The X Factor tonight don't much care about the finer points of the BBC's structure or about the governance of public service broadcasting. But they do care deeply about the quality and range of what they watch and listen to.

Over the coming months we will be scrutinising every aspect of what we do to help us to make those choices. We will seek to help to rebuild the media sector, to secure the future of great British content for audiences here and around the world, and to sustain that precious idea of public space.

Mark Thompson is Director-General of the BBC

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent