Rona Fairhead’s speech to the RTS

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January 11, 2015
February 22, 2015

BBC Trust chair’s first speech in her new role reveals her initial observations from four months in the job and sets out how the corporation should address the challenges it faces.

Rona Fairhead’s speech to the Royal Television Society was entitled ‘Confident and connected – A BBC fit for the future‘. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Thank you Baz [chair of Arts Council England Peter Bazalgette] – and thank you to everyone for coming. It’s a great pleasure to be here this evening. Looking around I’m struck by the eminence and reach of those in the room; by the ability you have to influence the daily lives of people in the UK and around the world. It brings home the importance of the BBC.

I arrive with a certain humility but also a clear sense of purpose. As my mother used to say to me – When you go out, leave your ego at home – we’ll look after it much better than you!

A Personal Perspective

Like almost everyone in this room I grew up with the BBC. As a child it was a weekly treat to have supper watching Dr Who and stay up late for Match of the Day on a Saturday evening. It was something we did as a family – it was something that brought us together.

The BBC played a hugely important role in our lives – so much so that after my brother died recently my mother showed me a number of his treasured possessions. Amongst them were not just one but two letters dating from the 1960’s from Biddy Baxter, the legendary editor of Blue Peter, enclosing his Blue Peter badge. Sadly those badges were not there – otherwise I might well be wearing one of them tonight.

I was born in the North West, then lived in Scotland before moving to the North East in my teens, I went on to work in Northern Ireland. So I saw too how the BBC brings cohesion not just to families but to local, regional and national communities. I have grown up with high quality programmes. So have my children. I was gripped by Life On Earth as a teenager, just as my children have been by Life Story.

And I’ve loved the BBC’s world class entertainment and drama through the decades, from Poldark and The Two Ronnies to Have I got News for You and Wolf Hall today. When I’ve been abroad for work, World Service has been my link to accurate information – as the Today programme is in my weekday world.

The BBC was also my companion when I was treated for cancer. I understood then what the BBC means to people who are housebound. When I was too ill to go out – too ill to do anything – it was the BBC that kept me in touch with the outside world, that offered me entertainment and that gave me comfort.

So I believe passionately in the BBC.

I believe in the BBC as a trusted source of news, and the highest quality original content.

I believe in its role at the heart of national culture and the creative industries.

I believe in the role it plays in the UK and abroad.

Yet the BBC occupies a privileged position that cannot be taken for granted. I used to come home regularly to a new screen saver on my computer at the end of the day – courtesy of my children.

I remember one day having led a conference that had gone particularly well. I came home feeling rather pleased.

The screen saver that day had a picture of a tractor on top of a telegraph pole. It read “High and Mighty – Just because you’re at the top, doesn’t mean you’re useful”. It was a good challenge. Everyone – and I include in that every organisation – needs to challenge itself from time to time. And because the BBC is paid for by the public, that challenge needs to take the form of a wider debate.

Some may say there’s a huge amount of noisy discussion about the BBC all the time – not least in the media and at Westminster. But Charter Review is on the horizon after the election. This will be a very real debate about the future, size and shape of the BBC. I took this job because I believe the Trust needs to be at the heart of that debate. And I believe it needs to be a proper public debate, not one conducted by a small elite. I hope I’m no one’s idea of a cheerleader. I spent a lot of my working life competing hard against the BBC. I’m not someone to gloss over the BBC’s faults, problems or challenges – I see it as part of my job to identify and pursue them.

I also believe the debate must include the voices of all the people out there who pay for the BBC, who love its programmes, who are its true owners.

Today therefore I want to recognise the challenges of the BBC, but I also want to put forward what we the Trust will aim to do as we agree its strategy for the next 10 years. And that is: to make sure that the public voice is heard; to refine – or change – the broader public purposes of the BBC as they are set out in the Charter; and to preserve the BBC’s independence because the BBC belongs to everyone, it’s not owned by the Government or the State.

The BBC’s confidence and its success are inter-twined with that audience connection and its independence.


There is much that has impressed me since arriving at the BBC – its focus on captivating its audience with outstanding creative content and developing creative talent across the UK; and the broad and deep support from the music industry and the independent production industry.

But let’s be clear the BBC faces some real challenges – I’m going to talk about 4 in particular.

The first is the new competitive environment.

Greg Dyke once described the BBC as an 800 pound gorilla. That description is no longer an accurate one. 2014 was a year of extraordinary consolidation among production companies in the UK – some of the BBC’s most important creative partners. Super-indies became mega-indies as three of the top four production companies were taken over by international groups that dwarf the BBC. This reflects the remarkable growth of the UK independent sector over the last decade – now a global market leader. And there’s new competition in the guise of global giants like Google, Amazon and Apple. They are all investing in content as technologies converge – and creating a new eco-system for digital content.

Second, there is the challenge of managing the commercial impact of the BBC. Clearly the BBC is a major market intervention and, while it needs to serve all licence fee payers, it also needs to be sensitive to commercial players operating in the UK market.

However, allegations about the BBC’s impact need to be understood in context – and not over-done. Take an industry I know well – newspapers. The US newspaper market has shown the same structural decline as the UK market without any BBC.

That doesn’t mean the BBC shouldn’t listen – indeed it must.

I’ve now visited a number of newspaper groups – national, regional and local – many of whom would like greater dialogue and sharing.

I do believe that the BBC has to show that it can be more open and collaborative – while respecting its editorial position. It should do more sharing of IP and content, get better at linking and attribution, and it should help close the democratic deficit in local political coverage.

We need a vibrant press as part of a healthy democracy and the public deserve a choice of providers.

I know that the commercial impact will always be an area of tension – but robustness, balance and effective collaboration are all required to set the appropriate boundaries. Third, the BBC faces a real challenge on costs. Homes everywhere are scrutinising cost – never has Value for Money been more important.

My entire life has been in the commercial sector, so this is an area where I believe I can bring that experience to bear.

In my first four months, my observations are these:

  • That much has been done to improve efficiency but this is a never ending journey and there is more to do.
  • There remains a persistent refrain that the BBC is a difficult organisation to deal with: we’ve all heard the saying that partnership is something the BBC does to you rather than with you. It needs to become more agile – simpler to work in and to work with
  • More needs to be done to get a commercial return for the licence fee payers from its content – but recognising two key constraints – the complex web of rights and the intensity of global competition.

The Director General is pursuing plans to address all these areas:

  • Achieving a £1.5bn savings plan;
  • Setting a new culture of “compete or compare”, by subjecting the BBC’s activities to competition or rigorous benchmarking;
  • Developing a simpler more responsive organisation;
  • Becoming a better partner and collaborator. And revisiting the commercial strategy to get the best long-term results for the public.

The Trust supports and encourages this work. Progress is definitely being made, but there is more to do. Moreover I’m confident that the end result can create a better BBC. On a recent visit to the Newsroom I was struck by the benefits of the changed approach – co-locating World Service, Foreign Language Services, the UK TV newsroom and the talents of the BBC’s multi-skilled journalists, has allowed it to operate with lower costs and enhanced authenticity – take for example Mishal Hussain covering the horrific school massacre in Peshawar across multiple UK and international bulletins, alongside Shahzeb Jillani and Shaimaa Khalil who worked across the English and Urdu services.

And, let’s also remember that value for money is not about doing everything for the lowest cost in the short term. It’s about the role that audiences want the BBC to fulfil. It’s about making choices for the long term.

All this means Charter Review will need to look at how the BBC invests in content, how it partners across the industry and how it delivers its services.

The final challenge is the need for the BBC to connect – and to connect with everyone. The BBC has extraordinary reach – over 96% of the public use its services every week.

The future challenge is to continue serving all audiences in a constantly evolving world, where peoples’ interests – and their media habits – are diversifying. Take today’s teenagers – or as I recently heard them described – screenagers.

Ofcom’s research shows that 11 to 15 year olds spend as much time watching other things – such as short online video clips and recorded programmes – as they do watching live TV. They multi task so they consume an average of nine and a half hours of media a day in just seven hours of real time.

Young people still spend more than 11 hours a week with the BBC – miles ahead of any online video provider. But the BBC will need to find ever more inventive ways to maintain that connection in the future. It needs to build on BBC Radio 1’s successful strategy of “listen, watch, share”.

And when it comes to using data to understand its audiences the BBC is a long way behind the competition. This was one of the less pleasant surprises on assuming my new role, although I know that efforts are now being made to catch up, so that the BBC can offer a more personal service to licence fee payers.

The voice of the public must be heard

In addressing these issues properly, I am determined that the public’s voice will be heard.

One of the Trust’s core roles is to represent the licence fee payer. To do that, we need to know what audiences themselves think in a much more granular way. So we have commissioned an initial piece of audience research to begin that process.

We already know that they feel incredibly close to the programmes and services that they use every week. You can see that in reactions to any changes the management propose.

The new research we’ve done shows that the public believe the core mission should not change. Over 80% supported the Reithian mission set out almost a century ago – to inform, to educate, and to entertain – pretty remarkable given changes in the market, technology and viewing habits.

Indeed, “entertain” was rated highest of all when people were given a list of words which have been associated with the BBC.

And they still think it’s important for the BBC to provide an amazingly wide range of different types of content and programming. News and documentaries top the list of what people say is important, but they also want drama, education, comedy and children’s programmes. They want a BBC that is local, regional, national and international. They seem to want it all.

Even the genres that were rated as less important play a key role as part of a universal public service. Arts, music and religious programmes are not always majority pursuits but they have a very clear public value. And soap operas are among the most valued programmes for millions of viewers every week. They have an important place at the heart of the BBC’s schedules.

We’ll need to explore the public’s views in more depth across all these areas as we try to shape the BBC’s future.

The broader purposes need to be refined or changed

We will also want to do some more thinking about what the BBC’s key public purposes should be.

The current Charter sets purposes that are about promoting democracy, learning, and creativity; reflecting the nation and regions as well as enhancing the reputation of the UK internationally; and playing a role in technological development. Our research asked people what they thought the most important objectives are for the BBC in future. We wanted to use that question to test the relative importance that they attach to the current public purposes.

For the most part there was positive endorsement of these purposes. There was near universal support for high quality, impartial news: Our public recognise the need for a strong independent provider of news and current affairs.

There was also a continued belief in the educating force of the BBC – from children’s television through to Natural History and Science programmes both broadcast and online. Although I believe we can do more to clarify the BBC’s future role in education. And this is one area where the Trust will want to do more research, to understand what the public think that role should be.

I talked earlier about creating a sense of community – reflecting what’s happening in the UK, the nations, the regions, as well as local communities. This was unsurprisingly strongly supported.

The moves towards greater devolution – whether in Scotland following the referendum or in areas like Greater Manchester – are all part of the changing context which the BBC needs to reflect.

For example, I know how much viewers in Northern Ireland appreciated The Fall being made on their home turf.

This mirrors the desire among audiences in all parts of the UK to see their nation or region reflected in the BBC’s output.

But alongside the centrifugal force of devolution, the centripetal force still exists. There are many occasions – take the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games or The Great British Bake-off – when I have felt the buzz of truly nationwide excitement. And over 2/3 of those surveyed said it was important to have programmes that bring families and people together and get the UK talking.

There is also public support for the role the BBC plays in establishing the UK’s place in the world – achieved not least through the stature of the World Service and BBC World News, giving exposure to UK culture and values. In his recent speech on the Future of News, James Harding highlighted the challenge from very fully funded competitors such as China with $7bn of investment. The BBC has a position based on years of trust and excellence. I believe this is given up at our peril.

The BBC’s roles in technology and the creative economy do not resonate so directly with audiences. I am not surprised, as they are mainly interested in content. But I am in no doubt that the BBC’s work in both of these areas is critically important.

In such a fast-changing environment, the BBC must keep innovating in order to sustain a universal service. Indeed, the BBC has a proud tradition of anticipating technological change. The question is how far in the next Charter period the BBC’s role should extend to support wider digital developments across the UK?

Similarly, the BBC’s contribution to jobs, talent, and the creative economy should not be underestimated. 49% of ITV’s factual, lifestyle, entertainment and comedy talent began their career at the BBC. The Creative and Digital industries employ over 2 million people, contribute 6% of GDP and are responsible for over £16 billion of exports according to the CBI. One of the great British success stories. The underpinning of the BBC is critical to that success.

When it comes to Charter Review, I’d like to find a simpler articulation of these public purposes. Because it ought to be crystal clear what the BBC has agreed to do as part of its public service remit.

That should also include greater clarity about the costs that go with such purposes. If the BBC continues to provide dedicated services to the constituent parts of the UK, that has significant cost. If it continues to provide a world-beating World Service or World News, that has significant cost. We ought to be explicit about the deal that is being struck in any new Charter and the financial consequences of it.


While audiences have different views about the best and worst programmes, there is a remarkable consensus about one thing: the vital importance of impartiality and independence.

Keats wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”.

The BBC has always been dedicated to finding and reporting truth. In my view people trust it to do so because they know that it is independent. That it will have the courage to pursue and report the facts.

I’ve learnt from my own experience just how important and fragile trust can be. One of the very first decisions I had to make as Finance Director at Pearson concerned science text books in the US.

We were put under considerable pressure (by certain politicians) to include creationism in these books.

Our editorial team insisted there was no scientific evidence to support creationism, and when we made the decision to back our editorial team, I fully expected to write off tens of millions of pounds worth of investment.

But we knew, even as a commercial organisation, that it was more important in the long term to stand by our editorial judgement than give in to political pressure. In an election year, there are likely to be barbs from all sides about the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage, and vigorous attempts to influence it. The BBC must withstand that. In our survey, there was very little support for any Government intervention in the BBC. People see a need for independent scrutiny and regulation, but they prefer this to be done by a separate body representing licence fee payers, not by Government or MPs. That included 2:1 support for an independent body to set the level of the licence fee. Politicians need to understand that strength of feeling about independence. The BBC doesn’t belong to the State. It lives and thrives outside Westminster in millions of homes around the country. The process and outcome of Charter Review need to reflect that reality. The BBC should be kept out of politics as far as possible. It’s part of my job, and the Trust’s role, to do everything we can to protect it.

The role of the Trust

A lot of my professional life has been concerned with strategy – in 5 or 10 years’ time what should an organisation look like?

Where should we be investing? What are the difficult decisions? What are the trade-offs we have to make to get where we want to go?

I’ve also spent a lot of time asking what customers want, what they are prepared to pay for, how we can deliver that while managing costs in a very competitive environment. These are disciplines I believe will be useful as we think about the future of the BBC. Our consultation process with audiences has only just begun. I’ve asked the Trust Unit to develop an action plan to ensure we can do this effectively.

So we will explore how we can use social media and involve Trustees and other stakeholders ever more actively to promote wider debate and discussion. You can expect to see public events and seminars; more surveys and polling; and more innovative use of online discussion forums.

The Trust will want to use all these methods to test and gauge public reaction to whatever proposals the BBC Executive puts forward.

There are some people who believe the BBC should no longer exist. There are some who believe the BBC has to change. There are some who want the BBC to fulfil all the priorities it has today. Some have suggested that the BBC should be much smaller – but let’s be clear that a much smaller BBC would not be the BBC as we know it – it wouldn’t have the appeal to broad audiences, it wouldn’t have the firepower to create great international journalism or world beating drama or achieve its public purposes: I see no public appetite for that.

Indeed we know from our regular tracking research that the majority of people see an annual licence fee of £145.50 as value for money. But in Charter Review we want to test that in more depth so that we start the negotiation from an informed position. Before we arrive at any decisions, we should all have a much better understanding of the trade-offs that will have to be made, what audiences expect of the BBC and what they are willing to pay.


If the BBC is to deliver on its mission and its purposes, a critical ingredient is confidence: Only a confident BBC will take the creative risks it needs to remain distinctive;

  • to deliver courageous and ambitious journalism;
  • to simplify its internal processes and structure;
  • and to take the big decisions necessary to keep innovating in the way it delivers its services.

That confidence can be built on strong foundations if the BBC connects with its audiences so that it is:

  • confident that it is providing fantastic content and services;
  • confident that it can act with independence and impartiality;
  • and confident that it offers real value for money.

That will, in turn, ensure that audiences can continue to have confidence in the BBC. There is a lot to be confident about. But all the noise around the BBC can be a distraction. I see it as my job to push the BBC to be confident and connected with its audience in everything that it does.

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