Public Service Broadcasting: A House of Cards? Lord Dobbs gives the RTS Huw Wheldon lecture

Public Service Broadcasting: A House of Cards? Lord Dobbs gives the RTS Huw Wheldon lecture

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon
Monday, 2nd March 2015

Michael Dobbs, Lord Dobbs of Wylye, presented this year's RTS Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture at Sadler's Wells. 


What fun it is to be here. And what an honour.

I'm also a little nervous. I remember the first and rather hapless time I found myself in front of a BBC television camera. It was while I was working for Margaret Thatcher, on her battle bus during the 1979 election campaign. We were parked at a farm outside Ipswich.

And Mrs Thatcher had just spent several minutes trying to strangle a calf. The press pack loved it. That poor creature in her arms was soon to be the image of the day. As its eyes began to flood with terror, Maggie's press officer rushed back to the battle bus, desperate to know from me if there was anything in our Manifesto about animal cruelty.

It was at that precise moment, while I was frantically thumbing through the pages, that a BBC television crew arrived and asked me what I was doing. I remained utterly speechless. Not a word escaped. My reaction might have seemed like wisdom. In fact, it was paralysing fear.

Although, since then, I've made something of a living out of the fear factor in politics.

House of Cards aired in the very week that Margaret Thatcher was forced, in tears, to resign. Dragged out of Downing Street. Everybody assumed the timing was deliberate, stunningly perceptive, and that I was brilliant.

Only a few insiders at the BBC knew the truth. The coincidence was nothing but the usual organisational cock-up.

I've made something of a living out of the fear factor in politics

Yet it was superb television, and talk of that brings me to the iconic man of broadcasting, Sir Huw Wheldon, to whose name these lectures are dedicated. I remember him - in my mind always in slightly smudgy black and white, of angular jaw, and I think there was an occasional pipe in there somewhere, too.

I'm honoured to be giving this talk in his name. And it's title: Public Service Broadcasting - A House of Cards?

Although I'm not sure if that means - is Public Service Broadcasting about to collapse - or is it full of schemers and psychopaths. Or both. Perhaps we'll see.

Huw Wheldon died almost thirty years ago and it would be easy to conclude that almost nothing has survived since then. The landscape has changed beyond recognition, and with every passing day.

Public service broadcasting is challenged on all sides. By new technologies and new platforms. The changing ownership of channels and production houses. And, of course, an endless battle with its budget. This is a broadcasting revolution and there have been, and will continue to be, casualties.

Where will Public Service Broadcasting be in 10, even five years time? Soon after the election we',l start examining the BBC's Charter with a forensic intensity that could probably become an episode of Silent Witness. There will be fierce and sometimes furious arguments about its funding. The House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee has just delivered pretty dramatic advice on how it should change - or be changed.  We can'´ take any of the present rules for granted. 

Looking back to those days of old, when I was a kid, I remember that I was personally responsible for delivering much of the day's news in my neighbourhood, through the letterboxes on my paper round, the News of the World tucked discretely inside a copy of some rather less illuminating publication. 

If my neighbours wanted any more news, they got it from a box in their sitting room.

Today the paper round is all but dead, the News of the World completely so. And our news and information comes not in a trickle but in a torrent.

It used to be said that newspaper editors were the type who came down from the hills after the battle was over in order to bayonet the wounded. Nowadays they themselves are under siege, surrounded by guerrilla armies like Buzzfeed, Vice, Twitter, the Huffington Post, Guido Fawkes - the list is endless.

The impact of all this change has been, quite literally, revolutionary. When revolutions break out around the world, as they do with alarming frequency, the weapon of choice nowadays is likely to be not so much a Kalashnikov as a mobile phone.

Mobile phones with their images and apps were the launchpad for the Arab Spring, they overwhelmed regimes that were armed to the teeth. A bullet can be fired just once; a Tweet can be launched a million times over.

Which is perhaps why, even in our own relatively peaceful realm, political parties are now spending more on social media than they do on traditional party election broadcasts. Today statesmen don'´ just have to state, they have to tweet too.  Whatever the result on 7th May, it won'´ any longer be the Sun wot won it. 

There's been a transformation in the worlds of music.  And theatre.  And opera.   This new world is full of disgracefully young entrepreneurs like Jamal Edwards, the founder of SBTV.

Even iconic institutions like the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, the National Gallery and Tate, are all getting in on the act, reaching out to their audiences in an entirely novel and more flexible fashion.

I recently watched the National Theatre's production of Othello. It was super, but I was nowhere near the South Bank. Instead I was in my local cinema. Watching every expression, every tweak of the eyebrow in stunning High Definition - so stunning that even minutes after she had been smothered, I could still see the gentle rise and fall of Desdemona's breast.

And my own House of Cards has been part of this revolution. It started life beside a swimming pool on the small Mediterranean island of Gozo, 28 years ago. It was after a furious row with Maggie Thatcher.

President Mitterand once described her as having the lips of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula. I got the eyes. Both barrels.  And so FU was born. 

At that time the BBC wasn't the only choice for quality TV drama, but it was the obvious choice. Yet nowadays we have Netflix, HBO, Amazon and the rest - and I'­ delighted that much of the revival of ITV in recent years has been built on great drama.

The outlets have changed; the way we commission programmes has changed, too. The days of caution, of committees and pilot programmes - they've largely disappeared. There aren't any rules any more, no obvious boundaries. 

Amazon Prime has just commissioned the Hollywood legend Woody Allen, at the bright age of 79, to write and direct his first ever TV series. It has no name, no air date, and as far as anyone knows it doesn'´ even have a clear outline. But what it does have is commissioning balls. 

It's a risk, of course, it may even be touched by madness - Allen himself says that Amazon will probably live to regret it. But what is great creativity without an element of risk? The two live, breathe and explode into life together. 

Netflix rebuilt House of Cards - commissioned it without any pilot, for two full seasons. 26 episodes, sight unseen, trusting in the strength of the concept and the skills of Kevin Spacey and David Fincher - Theatre and film artists who, like Woody Allen, and Steven Soderbergh and a growing number of others, had never touched television before. 

The risk was awesome, but then so was the potential. And the need. Just a few years earlier Netflix had been in the tired old business of renting out videos. It seemed likely to be another victim of our changing world. Today it's a world beater, and I'm left regretting that I didn't take my payment in Netflix stock.

House of Cards encapsulates how the rules of the game have changed

House of Cards encapsulates how the rules of the game have changed. In 1990, when that wonderful actor Ian Richardson first brought dear old FU to the screen, it was the broadcasters who were in charge. It was they who decided when a show should go out, one episode at a time - in the case of House of Cards, every Sunday night at 9 pm. 

In those feverish days after Maggie Thatcher had resigned and the race to succeed her was on, John Major candidly admitted that his campaign headquarters came grinding to a halt on every one of those Sunday evenings as his supporters gathered round the television to find out what was going to happen next.

He said later that House of Cards had done for his job what Dracula had done for babysitting. I took it as a compliment.

But nothing lasts forever. More than two decades later Kevin Spacey has recreated the role, perhaps even more brilliantly alongside Robin Wright, yet in totally different circumstances. Streamed. Over the Internet. Around the globe. The whole series at the touch of a button. 

The era of the almighty schedulers is over. Today it's the viewers who are in control.

Television has changed, is changing and will continue to change. But that's just scene-setting. I haven'´ even got close to mentioning the central stuff of this talk - which is Public Service Broadcasting. Is there any point to it any longer? Can'´ others do it all without the licence fee? Why should commercial broadcasters like ITV and C4 and C5 be shackled by their Public Service Broadcasting commitments in this increasingly competitive world?

Does Public Service Broadcasting have a future? Or is it only a matter of time before Auntie and her close cousins are mugged by those young ruffians on the stairs?

One of the most elusive things is deciding what Public Service Broadcasting actually is. Lord Reith didn't have much trouble with it, mind you. In his eyes Public Service Broadcasting was what he deemed was good for us. 

I preferred Huw Wheldon's observation. He summed it up as making the popular good, and the good popular. 

OFCOM talks about TV that's broadcast for the public benefit rather than for purely commercial purposes.

While the House of Lords Communications Committee had its own ideas.  We always do.  It decided there was no clear definition of what Public Service Broadcasting is - but it didn'´ matter. It's the sort of thing we all recognise. When it hits you. Like the elephant in the room.

But if it's not easy to decide precisely what it is, perhaps we can be a little clearer about what it does. And one of the essential characteristics of Public Service Broadcasting, it seems to me, is that it must be a window into the nation's soul. Our ways, our values, our qualities. What makes us different. 

Public Service Broadcasting must above all be relevant. Which means it has to be paid for. But how much? What's it worth? If we can't define it, how on earth can we measure it in monetary terms?

Not easy. Except when that elephant in the room treads on your toe and changes your life. Then its value seems beyond measurement. I remember one such moment, in 1965. 

I watched the funeral of Winston Churchill with my mother. She was in tears. Shed for a man she had never met.

I was astonished. Why was she crying? Who was this man who meant so much to her? A hundred questions leapt into my mind that led me on a lifelong voyage of discovery. About Winston Churchill. And about the meaning of greatness. 

The eventual result was four novels, countless articles, any number of speeches - and a TV play funded by SKY Arts, about a meeting that took place between that great politician, Winston Churchill, and that great spy, Guy Burgess. 

At the time, Burgess was the producer of The Week in Westminster programme. He was reprimanded regularly by his masters at the BBC for taking taxis when a bus would do. Old habits die hard. 

And those moments of broadcasting gold keep coming. Like the way in which we marked the recent Democracy Day. The centenary of World War 1. The liberation of Auschwitz and all that meant for our understanding of the Holocaust. And all this in just a few recent weeks.  

These moments aren't just for audiences in Britain, they reach out around the globe. And are of huge value. They help define our image- through the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations, and the Royal Wedding, even the transmission of those fabulous Shakespeare dramas like The Hollow Crown. What a splendid showcase for the very best in British acting and directing. The writing wasn'´ half bad, either. 

Public Service Broadcasting doesn'´ simply tell the world what we are doing, but crafts an image of who we are.  That was never more the case than on the opening night of the London Olympics in 2012.  

Images like those have a profound impact around the world. They drive interest in British culture, British excellence - and, not least, British exports. How do we put a value on that? With some difficulty, I suggest.

Yet Public Service Broadcasting now stands at a crossroads, mud on its boots, with bystanders hurling criticism from all sides. The BBC in particular has been under unprecedented attack. With criticism of its governance, of its apparent self-indulgences. And, of course, over the Jimmy Savile scandal. 

There is a real danger of the BBC being brought low by a hundred headlines, a thousand unnecessary taxi rides, and millions that have been spent on redundancies and failures. 

I write political fiction. I start by taking reality. Then I have to water it down. I have to, in order to make it credible

There's a sense amongst many opinion formers that a BBC that was set up to be the custodian of all that is best in British broadcasting, has too often in recent years  slipped into both organisational and intellectual arrogance. The criticism in many instances is well founded.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. I think much of whatever reputation I have is based on my novel House of Cards. The BBC dramatised it superbly. But when they commissioned the third series, called The Final Cut, I had a host of creative differences with the producers. Oh, it was handbags-at-dawn stuff, the usual thing amongst we excitable creative types. But I decided that I couldn'´ have my name attached to it. 

Huff and puff. I was summoned to Television Centre by two very senior BBC executives. They asked that I keep my name on the programme, even gave me a cup of tea and a biscuit. 

But when the chocolate digestive didn'´ do the trick, I was told, if I didn'´ do as they wanted, that I would never work for the BBC again. You must remember at the time I was an innocent new author.

Their arrogance seemed to me the best reason for walking out, and I did. I took my name off The Final Cut. A deep sorrow, as you can imagine. Although, as things turned out, despite the threats, I'¶e been taking a bob or two off the BBC almost every week since then.

I could cite other examples of the BBC's - what shall we call it? - institutional insensitivity? - but there is no need and no time. Suffice it to say that the BBC has taken an extraordinary battering in recent years, no more so than over Savile. I think much of that criticism is justified. Sometimes the BBC has seemed more like a private fiefdom than a public service. 

But before I and other politicians sharpen our swords too keenly, I want to say this. As parliamentarians, we are also in the public service business, and we have no monopoly over virtue. Not this week. Not ever.

For every BBC screw up like the sale of Lonely Planet and the Digital media initiative, Westminster has its IT catastrophes, its organisational incompetences, and not least of all its stupendously wasteful wars. 

We politicians, too, have our expenses fiascos - and I don'´ know any BBC executive who has yet put in a claim for a duck house.

And as far as Savile is concerned, it's a courageous politician who doesn'´ think a new Westminster sex scandal is brewing.

I write political fiction. I start by taking reality. Then I have to water it down. I have to, in order to make it credible.

So while it is entirely right that we politicians should question, and should push, and if necessary should purge, an occasional hint of humility on our own part perhaps wouldn'´ go amiss. We all need to recognise that Public Service is a damned bumpy playing field.

Yet that will not stop the game. And so long as the BBC struggles to escape from this current pre-occupation about its governance and its money, so long as it seems to be more interested in self-service than public service, so long as it can't find its way back to its real focus, which is the relentless search for creativity and quality, then it faces a long and bitter winter.  Some would welcome this more than others. 

To my mind, Public Service Broadcasting is a little like good commercial banking. In order to succeed, it must have the freedom to take risks. And the freedom to take risks must at times involve the freedom to fail. Only through that can we discover the way to move forward. 

And we must move forward. The status quo is not an option.  If television stands still, it will find itself on the trapdoor of the gallows.

Kevin Spacey - the real one, not the character who plays FU - put it delightfully, as he so often does, when he spoke in Edinburgh in 2013 about the future of entertainment last year in Edinburgh.

'We need to surprise, break boundaries and take viewers to new places. We need to give them better quality. We might not disrupt the status quo overnight, but if we put talent at the heart of everything we do, we might just be able to have greater highs across a broader section of the industry.'

To my mind, Public Service Broadcasting is a little like good commercial banking

In other words, creativity is king.  Be fresh or fail.

Which brings us back once more to the perpetual dance around the flame that is the licence fee. Public Service Broadcasting. It can never be the cheapest television. It should be cost-effective, of course, but never cheap. Always high value. And sometimes high risk. Sometimes in the creative world, you find that failure becomes your most inspiring friend.

The BBC needs the tools to get on with the job, its financial and its creative independence. But, of course, it must also have its political independence.

Now, that's another issue that gets a hammering because the BBC's record isn'´ spotless. Examples.

Europe. The BBC has an institutional bias in favour of the European Union and all its works. It has taken sides in an ongoing debate. That's been acknowledged in report after independent report.

Immigration. Too often and for too long, the BBC has implied that anyone who wanted to question immigration policies must be racist.

The BBC rails against excess in the City (as it should) while apparently conniving in extraordinary tax avoidance schemes for its own stars.

It ducked away from broadcasting its own inquiries into the Savile scandal, leaving that to ITV. Yet it couldn'´ resist casting appalling allegations at the Tory peer Alistair McAlpine, even while it ignored the dark tide that was flooding through its own back door.

Its former Director General, Mark Thompson, has talked about the '­assive left-wing bias' within the organisation. Perhaps this isn'´ the time or place to analyse that remark too deeply, as much fun as that would be, but put alongside the damning allegation that the BBC buys more copies of The Guardian than any other newspaper, there is surely a case to answer!

And yet, and yetÅ its independence and objectivity are the cornerstones of everything the BBC stands for. It's easy enough to pick out the failures, and just as easy to lose sight of some of the broader truths.

The BBC is still the most trusted source of news in the UK. It's still the place the British public goes to for the great events, those moments of national drama, and celebration, and mourning.

It's often very, very good at news. Equally often, it's terrible at self-criticism.

The BBC isn't the only provider of Public Service Broadcasting, of course, but I think it's fair to say that its presence and its achievements boost the rest. Raises the bar. Not just in news and current affairs, but in those areas that are deliberately creative.  Like drama. 

The recent rejuvenation of ITV has been based in large part on its dramas, like Julian Fellowes' enchanting Downton Abbey and Chris Chibnall's Broadchurch, drawing inspiration from the standards set by the BBC.

Public Service Broadcasting isn't simply a one drink saloon. It's a wonderfully competitive world out there, which brings television audiences nothing but joy and rich rewards, and one of the major factors in the licence fee renegotiation has to be to find a way of ensuring that the other providers of Public Service Broadcasting are also treated fairly.

Britain is stunningly creative.  We have a special talent.  The creative industries in this country are an outstanding success. Television alone earns more than £12 billion a year for Britain and employs more than 130,000 people.

And television primes other creative industries that together contribute almost £¸0 billion a year to our economy. Its recent rate of growth has been almost 10% - that's three times that of the wider economy. 

Don't bother trying to remember all the figures. Just remember they're simply huge. 

All round the world our creative excellence is recognised and honoured - in Oscars and Emmys and other awards and, very tangibly, in export earnings. It's so often said that Britain punches above its weight - I prefer to think of it as singing above the scale. 

Talking of singing above the scale, the BBC's support of music is crucial to the success of the British industry, both pop and classical. It plans to introduce classical music to every primary school. 

And almost single handedly it's been responsible for the revival of ballroom dancing. Strictly is now licensed in more than fifty other countries.

We have what is arguably the richest contemporary cultural activity anywhere in the world. And the reason for that is, in part, because we have the finest broadcasting system in the world. And the BBC is at its core.

You know, the BBC is a little like the Monarchy. Yes, Auntie's like the Queen. Impossible to measure how much she earns for the country, but we know it's immense.

Our creative industries flourish. They bring employment, earnings, exports - and prestige. And the BBC is the oil that enables so many of these wheels to turn profitably.

There is an even more profound reason for trying to get to grips with the full value of Public Service Broadcasting.

I remember The Berlin Wall. I lived in Berlin for a few months when I was a teenager, not long after it was built. I remember the bodies that were left alongside it.  One was a baby just one year old, another an old woman of 80. Berliners from the East paid with their lives to get to the West. Not because they wanted a few extra dollars, but because they wanted freedom. 

During the Cold War the entire world at times stood on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Yet, in the end, the Wall crumbled without a shot being fired. It wasn'´ destroyed by military might, although our strength and determination played a vital part. Ultimately, it was pulled down by the bare hands of those millions of Eastern Europeans who wanted what we have. 

Western values. Our cultural strength. The pen, and pop music, mightier than the sword. It's called soft power.

Naively, many thought that once the Iron Curtain came down we could look forward to an era of enduring peace. It didn't happen. Today, once again, we live in a world of increasing division. Some commentators see the future in almost Apocalyptic terms.

It's a world full of ironies. The other day I was listening to a Question in the House of Lords. It was about the Type-27 frigates the government is ordering. Undoubtedly useful bits of kit. Then I realised that the expenditure on those ships alone will be more than the entire annual budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

But modern wars aren't won by military might alone. This new struggle in which we are engaged with fanaticism won't be resolved simply by military means. Through the strength of our weapons systems. What will be just as important - if not more important - will be the strength of our culture. And our values.

Are we to simply blast ISIS into oblivion? Or will the fanatics fade into irrelevance when their followers drift away because they are sick of the endless butchery, and they know there is an alternative?

Very often, around the world, those who live on the dark side of the planet discover that alternative through the broadcasts of the BBC. Aung San Suu Kyi lived in isolation under house arrest for 15 years in Burma. She has told how the BBC kept her in touch. '…verywhere I have been, the BBC has been with me,' she said.

Walk through the towns and squares of Eastern Europe and you will hear the older generation talk of how the BBC's news service kept their minds informed and their hope alive during the dark days of Communism.

And it's not just an older generation. The audience for the BBC's World Service is remarkably youthful. It's vast. And it's growing. 

Kofi Annan, the UN's former Secretary General, put it this way. 'The BBC World Service is what its name implies: a service to the world as a whole. It has perhaps been Britain's greatest gift to the world.' 

The surveys suggest that the BBC is still the world's most trusted source of information.

Let me tell you a story about one small part of this global picture. Afghanistan. A country where we have spent so much treasure and lost so many lives.

The BBC reaches half of all the Afghan people. In rural areas they still gather around a radio or increasingly a television, in courtyards and coffee houses. Sharing. And soaking up what Britain has to say.

I am haunted by the words of a close friend of mine, a Pashtun who was born in the area. He said it was a waste of time trying to defeat the Afghans, it had been tried so many times and always failed. How much more effective, and cheaper it would have been, he said, if you'd simply tried to rent us, in other words to talk to us  

I suspect he was right. And in that process of renting, and wooing, the power of the word and of the image is immense. 

In this world where ideas and values compete for supremacy like never before, we need a British Broadcasting Corporation, one that shouldn'´ shrink from reflecting our national character and our values. Arguably it's the most important form of foreign aid we provide.

Those values change, of course. They adapt, grow more diverse as Britain itself changes. And while we're talking about our values to the outside world, it's important to remember that we need to remind ourselves, too: young and old, north and South, newly arrived and long-rooted, about the things that bring us together. What makes us British. Slightly different from the rest of the world.

It's a process in which our public service broadcasters play a crucial role.

The BBC is arguably this country's strongest cultural brand. It has an impact in every corner of the globe. It is one of the prime weapon systems in our arsenal of soft power that will grow increasingly important in the years of uncertainty that lie ahead.

That doesn'´ mean giving the BBC a blank cheque, or refraining from giving it a good kicking when it deserves it, but it does mean making sure it has the opportunity, and the encouragement, to meet its ambition of doubling its global audience to half a billion people in the next seven years. Half a billion.

What a difference that could make. A vibrant system of Public Service Broadcasting that is part of our future, not just a glorious past.

There are turbulent tides that are ripping at so much of what we believe in. So how do we resist the chaos? How will we defend ourselves, and our values? How will we best fight off the bullying, and even barbarity, that threatens us?

Or let me put those questions another way.

If we didn'´ have the BBC, how much would we be willing to pay, to invent it?

You are here

Michael Dobbs, Lord Dobbs of Wylye, presented this year's RTS Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture at Sadler's Wells.