John Whittingdale – 2016 Speech to Oxford Media Convention


Below is the text of the speech made by John Whittingdale, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, in Oxford on 2 March 2016.

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be back in Oxford to open this year’s Media Convention.

Having been following media policy for longer than I like to remember, I have been a regular attendee.

Looking back, I found that over the past ten years I have sat on panels discussing analogue switch over, internet regulation and ISP responsibility: at least two of which we are still discussing today.

And last year, I took part in a panel discussion entitled “What is the Point of the DCMS?”

In what turned out to be a wise career move, I argued that the DCMS played an important role in Government and certainly should not be abolished. Happily, not only did my fellow panellists agree but it turned out that so did the Prime Minister.

Since becoming Secretary of State, I have become even more convinced. The DCMS covers many policy areas but at the heart of its mission lies the promotion of our creative industries. A sector which represents over 5 per cent of our GVA and which has been growing at at least twice the rate of the rest of the economy.

In our television, film, music and games industries Britain leads the world. And not just leads but sells around the world. Just in the last 6 months I have helped President Xi of China explore the Tardis and shared a stage in Mexico with Shaun the Sheep.

But it is a sector which also faces extraordinary pace of change. The digital revolution is up ending business models and creating huge new challenges and opportunities. It is a fascinating time to be responsible for Government policy.

I want to talk about some of the challenges later. But first, I want to give an update on our progress on one of the immediate tasks facing the Government: the renewal of the Charter of the BBC.

It is a topic that a lot of people feel very strongly about and on which much has already been said – with even more contributions due by the end of today’s convention.

I am grateful for the submissions from the BBC itself, from other industry players, from my colleagues on the House of Commons and the House of Lords Select Committees, and from the 192,000 people who responded to our consultation paper.

Yesterday, we published three documents all of which will have a major influence on the new draft Charter.

The first document which we published yesterday was a summary of the consultation responses we received. And I would like to reiterate what I’ve said previously. I very much welcome the fact that so many took the trouble to tell us what they thought.

Every response we received matters. Every response we received has been read. And every response we received has informed the document we published yesterday.

As they themselves have boasted, an overwhelming majority of those responses to the consultation were triggered by the organisation Thirty Eight Degrees. I am grateful for their help in publicising it.

Despite their claims to the contrary, I have made clear that every response is valid. And having been to see the team responsible for reading them all, I can confirm that they were not just cut and pasted but were well thought through.

But when you receive an email inviting comment on claims that Murdoch and the Government plan to destroy the BBC and that Newsnight may become riddled with adverts, not only is that wildly misrepresenting the Government’s intentions, it will also naturally colour the type of responses we received.

Just as, if someone had used social media to promulgate the message that we planned to triple the licence fee, and remove accountability we would have seen a different influx of responses.

That said, the consultation does make for interesting reading.

It makes clear that the public do value the BBC, with 80% saying it serves audience well or very well. It makes clear that the public believe it produces high quality and distinctive content – three quarters said that,

And it makes clear that the public want the BBC to remain independent – an overwhelming majority shared that sentiment.

On content – at its best – the BBC produces brilliant, world class TV and radio.

On all those points, I would have said the same. But the responses also suggested that there are areas where the BBC falls short for some viewers. That it needs to do more to reach BAME and young audiences, and to represent the lives of the people of our nations and regions. This is a finding supported by the BBC Trust’s own research and the recent Committee reports from both Houses.

On distinctiveness, there is no doubt that at its best the BBC makes programmes which no-one else would do. Programmes like The Night Manager. Or another example which I saw just a few weeks ago when I watched the filming of the new Ben Elton comedy about Shakespeare: Upstart Crow.

But I also agree with the Director General’s aim “to create a BBC that is more distinctive than ever – and clearly distinguishable from the market”.

This is not just about showing more documentaries than ITV, or spinning a more varied playlist than Global.

It is about the BBC being distinctive in their own right – not just on a service level, but across its output.

And on independence – the government agrees entirely.

A free, impartial and editorially independent BBC is vital not only to our media market but also to news provision and plurality, and we are determined to find the right way to protect those values, whilst ensuring it is accountable and held to the highest of standards.

There is – of course – much more in the summary of responses. My team took many months to read every response we received. Indeed, we had to draft in extra staff from across Government as well as temping agencies to draw this all together. But the hours the public put into writing, and those staff put into reading will prove hugely helpful in informing the White Paper.

We’ve also commissioned further polling and focus group work to unpick some of the issues highlighted, and to ensure that some of the minority views of certain parts of society aren’t lost as we take this forward. And we have held a series of roundtables including two with “creatives” which Armando Iannucci helped organise at my invitation in response to his MacTaggart lecture last year.

The second document which we published yesterday was Sir David Clementi’s report into Governance and Regulation of the BBC.

Sir David has gone to enormous lengths over the last five months to talk to as many people as possible, and to make sure that his recommendations are fully evidence based. I am enormously grateful to him for all his hard work.

At first sight, BBC Governance appears to be one of the less controversial aspects of the Charter. It is also fair to say that, while it dominates the debate amongst a small sub-set of BBC watchers, it is an issue that excites the public a lot less. And that was reflected in the responses to Charter – many of which skipped the Governance section entirely.

That is perhaps understandable. Because Governance is an area that to the average viewer can seem dry and technical and – until they have an issue they want to complain about – something of no real relevance to them.

But Governance and Regulation do matter greatly. There have been notable failures in the past. And the future performance of the BBC will be hugely determined by its governance structure:

How the BBC is managed.

How the BBC delivers against its remit.

How the BBC is held to account for the public money it spends.

How the BBC relates to – and works with – its partners and rivals in the market.

All of these are fundamental questions to the Charter process. And they are questions central to Sir David’s review.

I know Sir David will be presenting his paper in detail later on this afternoon.

And I’m not going to formally reply to it today.

But what I will say of Sir David’s paper is this.

He has not only characterised the current arrangements very fairly – both in terms of its strengths and weaknesses…

But he has also set out a clear, sensible, vision for how the BBC can be reformed for the better.

And his ideas for the principles of simpler Governance structures and streamlined regulatory arrangements that have public interest and market sensitivity at their heart, are ones that it would be very difficult for this – or indeed any – Government to overlook.

The third and final document published yesterday was the report we commissioned from independent media consultants – O&O and Oxera – into the BBC’s market impact.

And the key finding of that report was that – perhaps unsurprisingly – the BBC currently has both negative and positive market impacts.

But the report shows that they could do more to enhance their net impact…

And it cautions against the idea that the current positive market impact is a justification for future expansion. One simply doesn’t cause the other.

In fact, the report suggests that the BBC could be a better partner by working more collaboratively with the sector.

I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that the BBC’s partnership record is fitful. Excellent at times. Falling short at others. And – as the BBC themselves have admitted to me – partnership is too often something they’re seen to do to people rather than with them. This is something that needs to be addressed.

The report also shows that in some areas the BBC has become less distinctive in recent years – particularly on BBC 1. It also flags up that Radio 1 and Radio 2 are less distinctive than the BBC claim and that the soft news element of the BBC’s online services is of limited public value.

The report goes on to suggest that a more distinctive BBC would provide benefits both for the organisation itself, and for the wider media sector…

Because not only would it deliver greater variety for licence fee payers, it could also have a positive net market impact and increase commercial revenue by over £100m per year by the end of the next Charter period.

Of course – again – the report says a lot more than that. It is over 200 pages long. It is based on some very thorough analysis. And it will be considered very thoroughly by myself and the Department…

But what the headline figures show, is that the Director General’s drive for greater distinctiveness can be good for the BBC, good for Licence Fee payers, and good for the wider sector, and that is something that the next Charter should encourage and embrace.

So those three documents – Sir David’s report, the summary of Consultation Responses and the Market Impact Study, will play a key role in informing our thinking.

We also agreed with the BBC in July that the Government would update the legislation setting the licence fee to close the so-called iPlayer loophole. When the Licence fee was invented, video on demand did not exist. And while the definition of television in the legislation covers live streaming, it does not require viewers to have a licence if they watch BBC programmes through the iPlayer even if it is just a few minutes after transmission.

The BBC works on the basis that all who watch it pay for it. Giving a free ride to those who enjoy Sherlock or Bake Off an hour, a day or a week after they are broadcast was never intended and is wrong.

So, having discussed this with the BBC and the BBC Trust, I will be bringing forward, as soon as practicable, secondary legislation which will extend the current TV licensing regime not only to cover those watching the BBC live, but also those watching the BBC on catch-up through the iplayer.

It is not just the BBC that is affected by the digital revolution. It is affecting every media business and, as the pace of change accelerates, no-one can predict what our future media landscape will look like.

This time ten years ago, most TV sets were Cathode Ray tubes receiving analogue signals, catch-up was mainly done with a VHS tape recorder and Netflix was a DVD home delivery service.

Today, consumers are no longer passive recipients, organising their lives around the Radio Times, but are now able to watch what they want, when they want and on a range of different devices from an smart phone screen to one which is 65” in Ultra HD.

What is even more remarkable is that for the consumer, services like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify, and Candy Crush are all free. Music, video, and electronic games can all be enjoyed for nothing – with the result that a generation of consumers is growing up who do not expect to pay.

Yet all of these products and services – and thousands more – are the result of the creativity, hard work and financial investment of vast numbers of people. They have a right – and a need – to be rewarded. Unless they are able to be paid or make a return, those industries may not survive.

In almost all, they are able to do so in large part because of advertising. Commercial TV, Radio, newspaper websites, streaming services, search engines, and many games and apps all rely on advertising. In some cases, they also receive subscription payments from a small minority who are willing to pay to avoid advertisements.

The newspaper, music, film and games industry are all having to adapt to a world in which consumers are no longer as willing to pay as their parents were. In almost every case, advertising revenue now plays an essential part in their new business models.

And so I completely understand the concern that a lot of people have expressed to me about the expansion of ad-blockers.

Ten years ago, the music and film industries faced a threat to their very existence from online copyright infringement by illegal file-sharing or pirate sites.

Today, ad-blocking potentially poses a similar threat. One industry estimate suggests that – within one week of going on sale – the top 3 mobile ad-blockers in the App Store were downloaded nearly 175,000 times. And in the 12 months to June last year, there was a 48 per cent growth in ad-blocker use in the USA and 82 per cent growth in the UK.

Mobile phone manufacturers are now integrating ad blocking features into their browsers. And ISPs are beginning to do the same as they see it as a way of saving money by freeing up capacity on their networks.

Meanwhile, some of the ad-blocking companies are drawing up their own rules of acceptable advertising or offering to white list providers in return for payment. Many see such practices as akin to a modern day protection racket.

This practice is depriving many websites and platforms of legitimate revenue. It is having an impact across the value chain, and it presents a challenge that has to be overcome. Because – quite simply – if people don’t pay in some way for content, then that content will eventually no longer exist.

And that’s as true for the latest piece of journalism as it is for the new album from Muse.

However, it is not all bleak.

Industry research suggests that consumers do not dislike online advertising per se.

What they dislike is online advertising that interrupts what they are doing. They don’t like video or audio that plays automatically as soon as a web page has loaded. Or pop-ups that get in the way of their browsing experience.

And this research also indicates that most consumers would prefer an ad-funded, free internet over a subscription model – which suggests that many consumers do understand that content isn’t free.

But we need to educate consumers more on how most online content is funded. And we need the whole advertising sector to be smarter. If we can avoid the intrusive ads that consumers dislike, then I believe there should be a decrease in the use of ad-blockers.

I am not suggesting that we should ban ad-blockers but I do share the concern about their impact. And I plan to host a round table with representatives from all sides of the argument to discuss this in the coming weeks.

Once I have heard their views, I will consider what role there is for Government.

My natural political instinct is that self-regulation and co-operation is the key to resolving these challenges, and I know the digital sector prides itself on doing just that. But Government stands ready to help in any way we can – as long as this does not erode consumer choice.

This is an extraordinarily exciting time for your sector. It is exciting for those who love your products.

And most of all it is incredibly exciting to be Secretary of State.

I look forward immensely to continuing to work with you to ensure that this country remains at the forefront of all these developments.