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Thursday, 27th January 2011

The North East & The Border Centre celebrated its 30th Anniversary on 30/11/05 with an event at Sunderland, with Lord David Puttnam as the guest speaker. A report will be posted here shortly, but in the meanwhile here is the text of Lord Puttnam's speech.

Speech to RTS North East and The Border Centre by Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, CBE, Throwing Stones Restaurant, National Glass Centre, Sunderland Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

It's a pleasure to have been asked to speak to you today on this very special occasion W your 30th Anniversary.

The film we watched just before lunch cast a very affectionate look back over those past thirty years. If I may I'd like to look forward, and offer a few reflections on the changes that are sweeping through what we still (just about) call "broadcasting" W and in doing so, I'll quite specifically hone in on some of the opportunities, and challenges, surrounding the development of genuinely 'local' television.
And by this I mean something quite distinct from that which we've traditionally thought of as 'regional' broadcasting.

However, I'll start by putting all of my remarks into context with a few broad observations on 'globalisation' W the overall environment in which broadcasting (and most particularly television) operates.

When I was a young man, in the mid-nineteen sixties, the Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase 'The Global Village'.

At the time it seemed an attractive, if slightly whimsical concept.

But almost forty years later, it should have become apparent to even the most hardened cynic that, like it or not, we do now live in a world which is, to a quite extraordinary degree, inter-dependent.

And inter-dependent in ways that not even a visionary like McLuhan could have ever quite anticipated.

The response to the Boxing Day Tsunami, and to the "Make Poverty History campaign", to take just two examples, demonstrate that people across the planet have come to recognise that this interdependence is a reality W a somewhat complex and changing reality, but nevertheless one that offers the potential for 'globalisation' to become something rather more than the mere consolidation of a 'marketing monoculture', a vast global trading structure dominated by few omnipotent corporations whose sole purpose is to maximise so-called 'shareholder value'. In the process accruing a disproportionate degree of political muscle!

Contrary to what some may think, I have no instinctive antipathy to the notion that companies exist to maximise legitimate shareholder value W but I do believe that, at times, the desire to maximise that value can, and sometimes does, run into direct conflict with the basic tenets of the type of plural and equitable society most of us would argue for.

This is most especially true in the case of media companies; since their ability to shape and define our world is at least as powerful W sometimes even more powerful W than their ability to accurately reflect that same world back to us.

That's why I believe that sensible and sensitive regulation of the media is so very important W to help enshrine and underwrite the basic rights of every citizen in a democratic society.

And that's why the media cannot, any more than other aspect of a functioning democracy, such as our justice, our health or our education system, be reduced to the status of a simple commodity. That's why I've consistently campaigned for the interests of the 'citizen' to be guaranteed primacy over those of the consumer.

In truth, we simply cannot create a "knowledge economy" or a "creative economy" worth the name unless, at their heart, lie the interests of the citizen.

And that is why I, and so many of my colleagues in the House of Lords W including many who do not sit on the same benches as myself W fought so hard two years ago, during the passage of the Communications Bill, to create the 'right' kind of regulatory structure. We fought for a regulator, Ofcom, that was endowed the scale, capacity and legal muscle to enshrine, and maintain, the interests and rights of the citizen W in the face of what will inevitably be enormous pressures that will continually bear down from the marketplace.

This was all the more urgent because I believe we are facing a moment of extraordinary change in the world of communications W with the pace of that change far more likely to accelerate, than slow down.

To offer just one example, the role of 'new media' within the evolving ecology of what it's just about possible to describe generically as 'television' W is a huge issue. The extent to which the incumbent organisations, including Sky, can hold off the challenge of new entries such as Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft is likely to be the really big story in the coming few years. How long will it remain legitimate to use current 'purchasing power' to keep from the marketplace the exploitation of 'new media rights' to the type of content that will create viable businesses in the on-line world?

That television remains incredibly important was brought home to me very forcibly this past weekend when I was fortunate enough to watch George Clooney's film, 'Good Night, and Good Luck' W it should be required viewing for anyone with an ambition to work in Television, or the Media more generally. It asks some tough and timely questions, and makes the point that, if we can't answer these questions adequately, then the medium really is little more than a box W full of lights and wires!

What makes me feel entitled to make such a sweeping judgement of the medium from which most of you earn your living, and in some cases to which you have given your entire lives?

For twenty years, during the eighties and nineties, I was a director of Anglia Television. During those two decades, I can honestly say that we never ever looked more than five years ahead, and I'd also have to concede that just about every move we made was primarily defensive.
It was all about 'how do we keep the franchise?', 'how do we please (or at least second-guess) the ITC?', 'how do we incrementally increase, as it were, year-on-year shareholder value?' There were very few leaps of imagination W and this is not a criticism of the Board W we were working within an environment in which it was regarded as foolhardy, and even somewhat self defeating, to see the future in any other way.

Not only was the world of electronic communications we're now confronting not planned for, it wasn't even imagined by anyone in 1990, with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch. In this respect at least, I take my hat off to Mr Murdoch W he spotted an opportunity, he moved, he shifted (or was sufficiently shifty!), but most of all he was prepared to adapt and do the one thing that the rest of us resisted, which was to take risks. And so when he claimed in an interview with the Press Gazette last week that the creation of Sky will form part of his legacy, I think he is right.

Emily Bell made both of my points for me when, in Monday's Guardian, she wrote this:

"At a time when the leadership and vision in British Television was astonishingly moribund, the rise of Sky was an incredible thing to behold. It remade an utterly reluctant establishment and, one could argue, made television better. It focused the opposition and raised the game of the BBC at a time when the Corporation's assumptions about its own role desperately needed challenging".

So experience tells me that we need to at least attempt to imagine and anticipate the future; its opportunities and its dangers, precisely to avoid society being outflanked by those who have historically shown themselves to be far better at responding to changing market conditions W sometimes at the expense of those things which are truly in the public interest. As the Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee I chaired argued, regulation has to keep abreast of technology W ex post facto law is invariably bad law.

Or as one of my personal heroes, the polymath Dr Albert Schweitzer cautioned "Never let your technology exceed your humanity".

I share the view set out in Ofcom's report on Public Service Broadcasting that one of the key challenges for PSB is "securing the effective provision of Public Service Broadcasting in the Nations, regions and localities of the UK."

But equally, in my view, one of the most significant and under-discussed opportunities presented by digital technology, is its ability to deliver truly "local" television W television which more precisely meets the needs of citizens across the Nations and Regions of the UK where they actually live. That's why I am particularly pleased that a recent Ofcom Review proposed a programme of further work on the potential for developing what they term 'ultra local' digital television services.

The boundaries which shape Regional Television are, in truth, extremely arbitrary. The siteing of the original Burnhope Transmitter in this region largely determined its subsequent geography and rationale!

To take the example of Anglia once again, the very idea of a common culture across the 'so-called' region is clearly a nonsense W it's hard to think of anything 'culturally specific' to bind say, Northampton to Chelmsford, in preference to any other town in the country.
Truly 'local' television, on the other hand, can operate at a level at which a very definite sense of local need can be properly identified W with the ability to serve different parts of Newcastle without pretending that they are precisely replicated in Sunderland, let alone further up the coast in Anwick. This will require something of a 'culture change' to occur within Television itself. (Anglia 'triple news opt-out' story W at the time of the 1990 licence renewal!)

This potential is partly created by a dramatic fall in costs W to build a functioning "studio" five years ago, cost between £800,000 and £1 million. To build and equip the same studio today would cost a quarter to a third of that. Put another way W you can go into Dixons and, for a little over £2000, buy a digital camera with better resolution than anything the BBC owned just five years ago!

In such a digital world, where cost is no longer a barrier to entry, we ought to seize every opportunity to ensure that television truly serves all the concerns of citizens, and in locations with which they have a genuine sense of identity.

One of the reasons I passionately believe that 'local' television has a real future goes back to what I was saying at the outset about 'globalisation'. I happen to believe that one of the effects of globalisation has been to stimulate a renewed interest in what we'll call, the "local" W partly as a result of people feeling the need to strengthen their roots, their sense of place, as an entirely understandable response to many of the seemingly 'uncontrollable' upheavals created by globalisation. As any behavioural scientist will tell you, this is a completely natural emotional reaction.

It's also probably why television companies in the past few years (unlike their Cinema counterparts), continue to find the appetite for home-grown programming remaining extremely strong, despite an enormous increase the availability of cheap, overseas programming.

As a consequence, there is a real market out there for the community or local experience, but one that television has, as yet, done remarkably little to address. For historically understandable reasons the 'technology' has focussed on its national (and increasingly its international) reach.

I believe the importance of local television lies in the fact that it offers a new way for communities to represent themselves and (just as importantly) to talk to each other.

Let me offer you a concrete example based on personal experience.

I live in the small town of Skibbereen in West Cork for as much of the year as I can; and we've done experiments with community television in which the people we talk to are not in Dublin, but instead they're in Penzance, or coastal areas of France or Sweden. Basically, the challenges and the opportunities my community faces, and the day-to-day issues we're involved in, are remarkably similar to those of other geographically similar areas. And that becomes the dominant factor in establishing common interests.

I don't believe it's remotely sufficient to rely on the BBC, S4C or the Gaelic Media Services as the sole providers of services in the Nations and Regions W I believe that competition, aided by developments in digital technology should be a spur to innovation and diversity, not the possible instrument of their erosion.

The one thing that could derail all of the possible 'public service' benefits that could be gained from this opportunity would be a strict or ideologically driven adherence by the Treasury to the recommendations of the 'Cave Report' on Spectrum Pricing. If Treasury rules insisted that all available spectrum was only made available, through auction, to the highest bidder W then all hopes of genuine 'community' television would go out of the window, in favour of Tesco TV!

In the time that remains, I'd like to broaden my angle of vision, and focus on one other issue which, as I see it, is absolutely central to the sustainability of all the interests which are represented by the RTS W not just here in the North East, but far beyond. I'm referring to the vexed issue of training and skills. There continue to be those who, whilst paying lip service, believe that this is a peripheral issue W that somehow, in a digital economy, as the nature of skills required changes, so the market will provide. I'm here to tell you from bitter experience W I could not disagree more!

It's really very simple; there has always been a direct correlation between training and costs. If an industry fails to expand its skills base to meet rising demand, then sooner or later its cost-base will quite inevitably (and inexcusably!) go up. It's basic economics really. The example of our film industry, which seriously neglected to invest in its skillsbase for most of the 1990s, and has only recently begun to get its act together, demonstrates the strength and inevitability of this correlation.

If, as a nation, we are to truly embrace switch-over, not just to digital television, but to a communications industry which is digital to its very core, then we have a serious 'up-skilling' challenge on our hands. That's why I entirely welcome the development of a co-regulatory system for training between Ofcom, Skillset and the industry.

But beyond the immediate challenges W which are many and fairly daunting W the far greater challenge, over the long-term, for the whole of the industry, is to create strategic targets for what will be initially regarded as a massive investment in training and up-skilling across the whole range of digital media.

Certainly I for one, intend to hold the BBC's 'feet to the fire' on its commitment to training as set out in Building Public Value, where it observes that "one of its key contributions to the media economy is as its main investor in skills and training, with a current commitment over £40m a year on training craft skills."

For if the BBC and the rest of the industry do not step up to the plate, then any meaningful long-term ambitions for high quality programming will unquestionably fail to be realised. And as a nation, we will lose our competitive advantage, not just in content creation, but in technological innovation as well.

As I draw to a close, I'd like to return to the bigger picture.

Properly regulated broadcasters (and the media more generally) should be capable of safeguarding that "plurality of public voice" which is one of the prerequisites of a healthy democracy, ensuring that all of a nation's citizens are promptly, accurately and impartially informed. I believe that, in the manner of few other institutions, once trusted and respected, the media are, or certainly ought to be, part of the social glue which helps bind nations and communities together. At the same time the media have to bear at least some responsibility for the erosion of trust which now afflicts public life. Sadly we have to acknowledge that we cannot legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained.

The link between that inter-connected world I referred to earlier, and the role of the media, has been, I think, quite brilliantly, advanced by the Secretary of State for International Development. In a speech to the World Service Trust, Hilary Benn put it this way:

"In the 19th century, it was the people who got on their horses W and on the trains W and who travelled the length and breadth of the land to report back to society on the conditions in which so many people lived W it was they who helped to change the face of Britain. This was great social reform born of great reporting. I think that we are now witnessing exactly the same process happening on a global scale, in which great reporting has the same potential to help us W together W to change the face of the world".

So to sum up W in an increasingly fragmented media environment, a responsible media, well-led and well-motivated, must, once and for all re-establish their position as a force for good in promoting the overwhelming value of social coherence.

Trash, trivia and sensation have always been able to be brought to the marketplace at a surprisingly low cost, whereas truth, responsibility and quality (for the most part) carry a far higher price W and thereby, necessarily, a far higher social value.

As BBC producer Michael Wearing once said, "Don't give the people want they want W they deserve far better!"

Thank you very much for listening to me, and once again, 'Happy Birthday'!

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