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Read this: Tim Davie on the future of the BBC | FT

Summary: The director-general of the BBC discusses with Alex Barker just who a public service broadcaster should be serving in an age of streaming and culture wars, and how? - - link

Tim Davie on the future of the BBC | FT…

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Friday, 18 June 2021
Brian Butterworth

5:45 PM

Alex Barker: And Tim, you know, we all have our own special relationship with the BBC in the U.K., and you've got vast amounts of news output. You can't possibly monitor it all and watch it all. What do you actually listen and watch on a daily basis?

Tim Davie: Personally, I spread it around a bit, so I see I'm joining in from Glasgow, so I've been with the Good Morning Scotland team and actually the Scottish Channel Nine Bulletin last night, Alex. So they asked me a question is immersed in Scottish politics the the Scottish fan zone. So it's your question. I mean, I do kind of have a broad listening and viewing kind of selection. I'll go through. I'll also make sure that you know, that the really landmark programs, whether it's the six o'clock news, ten o'clock news today and Panorama, you're across, you know, that's what that's the job.

Alex Barker: And, you know, as editor in chief, do you want more decisions coming up to your level or less in the way that you'd be running the BBC?

Tim Davie: I think we're pretty well balanced, but certainly not it's not about all of the things coming through the system to me. I mean, in some ways you can overexaggerate the curiosities of the BBC. You think about if you were running a big retail operation, you need those processes. You need those systems so that store managers in that scenario can make their decisions for me, empowered good editors with proper process. I mean, we're making thousands of hours and we have our trauma's. We make big mistakes now and again. But actually across the world as we speak today, we've got a brilliant set of editors with very good guidelines delivering very high quality news coverage. I don't think the system works. I think it's right that I'm editor in chief and you make those really big calls and you come in and set the tone and do the things you need to. And now and again, there's a code just like it would be in any business where you've got a something of corporate importance. But the answer to your question is no. I think a system that relies on everything in a very high rock way being referred

Alex Barker: To yesterday, there was a bit of a fuss over royal babies names. Does that come to you? I mean, was the some of that kind of talk to you on the show

Tim Davie: That this is currently being very open about it if something hits the main headlines? I will I will be brief to make sure that I I am happy with where the corporation is and understand the situation fully, but that this is not unmanageable. There is you know, the BBC does throw them up, as you said, in your introduction of it, on a regular basis. But but overall, something I make a judgment with my top team on, whether something is, if you like, a corporate program, which if you think about the other CEOs listening in, that's pretty. That's how it works. Know, the real thing is making sure you've got the guidelines, the processes, the quality that is in place, just as you would have in the FTC that can run their areas efficiently and properly, Wendy. And, you know,

Alex Barker: You've made impartiality a big theme over. Do you feel like you've corrected whatever you want to correct already, or are you going to have to look at more structural changes as well? Is there more to come?

Tim Davie: This is an ongoing project. Yeah, and I thought and I've been very open about it, I think, which is. I think the issue for us was not primarily there's a lot of noise around if you're the national broadcaster, our intent is absolutely to be impartial of a fair and balanced coverage. There's no doubt there's enormous amounts of heat. I mean, you know, I'm in Scotland where if you think about the debates around independence and all those things, navigating that course, and again, people like the have to do the same thing politically is one thing. But I think there's something slightly deeper in a more polarized society where you've got to use your cliche. But echo chambers and the idea that you're not seeking out, actively seeking out other's opinion, broader non-metropolitan views. And I just think that is a danger in any organisation of a degree of groupthink. And I think that's going to be something that's not we're not going to I do see things that I can look at and say, OK, I'm really pleased. I think when we look at that section of the website, it now seems to really reflect a breadth of concerns and think it's I'm pleased on where we're going. I'm pleased where we are politically. I think actually when we did the local and national elections, I'm proud of our coverage. I think we truly delivered impartial coverage. But to your point, we've got lots of work to do in terms of seeking out different perspective. People that don't feel they get their voice heard in institutions, we know how valuable that can be. So that is ongoing work and release all the way back to who we bring into the organisation if this is going to take quite some time.

Alex Barker: Yeah, and I mean, obviously, most recently you had the Dyson report and the controversy around the Martin Bashir interview and how he was brought into the organisation that's coming out. So, I mean, do you think you potentially might have people leaving the BBC as a result of those findings? In the end? I mean, are you going to have to look at your management team as well?

Tim Davie: Well, it's way too early to speculate and you won't be surprised I'm going to wait for the report on the rehiring before before I make any conclusions. So, yeah, I think, to be honest, I mean, as as DG in charge, I mean, that was more recent. But twenty five years ago, this was a pretty grim affair. I think, you know, Alex, I've been very active in saying, let's get to the truth. And it's the same with the rehiring. We'll just be very clear on what happened and make some conclusions from that.

Alex Barker: And you know, one of the other things I find extraordinary in terms of how you juggle is not being editor in chief, meeting the government at the same time being director general and having to negotiate with that government. What what your your budget is going to be and how the BBC it changes in the years to come. I mean, what are those conversations like? I mean, how do you manage it?

Tim Davie: I think that I mean. I think they're fairly rational, and I mean by that is I think the lines are clearly drawn in the charter. It's not I think sometimes we overcomplicate things. I mean, we are ferociously independent editorially. Did we do that without fear or favor? There's no problem with that if you've got the right people. We've also got the director of news, the news operation. Everyone, our editorial teams are not involved in that negotiation. And then when I go in, it is a clear discussion. I mean I mean, for those who are experts on the BBC, we've got the next five years of funding to agree with the government and we're in that process.

Alex Barker: I mean, last year, I think you went in to see Don Cummings, your political editor, with you, is that as editor in chief or you're talking about the future of the BBC or is all of it? What how how does that go?

Tim Davie: When I'm meeting, I am I am the leader of the BBC. Yeah, in the round, I don't find that problematic. I can have a discussion around, as I say, you go back to the charter and the rules of the road. They're not that complicated to a degree. You go, OK, here's my funding. It is completely you are not linking that enough. It's totally non-negotiable. And you see that judging from our record on that. Yeah. In terms of how we go off the stories, you know, if you're the BBC, the one thing you are not going to trade on is independence, impartiality and reporting without fear or favour. I would say, by the way, just a little kind of, you know, flag way for our system. I think most politicians that I meet across the spectrum. Value that democratic process, they may have a view that that interview was unfair or that program or whatever. But by and large, you know, we can we can beat ourselves up a bit here. By and large, there is general support for a proper functioning media truly going off the story and, you know, this impartiality. And then we'll have their gripes that all have their views. But there is general support for that. So I don't have a problem with that. I think that can function. You need strong willed individuals on both side of the table who know where the lines are. But it's OK. It's OK. It works.

Alex Barker: I mean, surely after you came in, decriminalisation was going to show you put that down as a win for you. I mean, did you is that person

Tim Davie: Forget about me. We thought that was not a smart idea. Yeah. And the BBC, I mean, it wasn't cryptic. It was very clear that we thought the logic behind decriminalisation of the licence fee was problematic. I think the two problems, by the way, one is you're either in this system or you're not. You're I mean, this is a universal intervention. It's slightly strange, but it's a wonder and it grows. The creative industries works so well to me. It's a precious thing for the UK and where it march. I mean, there's people around the world, I'm sure on this call. It is more global. It's all things we do pretty well. The second is the utilities were particularly cost effective. So I think I was very pleased we we won that argument.

Alex Barker: Amy, you mentioned the world and obviously you're more than a national broadcaster, you've got a huge presence and operations, you make money around the world mean on the news side, you said you want to reach a billion viewers and listeners around the world and also think about how to introduce paywalls around some news and factual content and raise money that way. How do you balance those two and how are you going to find the money to actually make a big investment like that outside of the U.K.?

Tim Davie: Yeah, it's a it's a great question because it's a really what you've said that is exactly right is the balance in terms of reach and then financial return. And I do think, for what it's worth, I see it differently between News World Service and if you like, in fact trusted, impartial information. I mean, we have reach in places like Afghanistan or other places where commercial income is not on the forefront of my mind. It's about ensuring fair information is getting through there and the BBC. And that's funded partly by the licence fee, partly by the FCD, so from the government. So clearly on those objectives, you're not primarily about financial return. Having said that, when you take I mean, for those who don't know, we have the big studios business with you, which you referring to one point four billion of revenues, decent profitability, but some real choices now around the paywall. And we are beginning that journey. The question is at what speed you go and how cold turkey you go on your current revenues. That way, many businesses in the same type of dilemma as they migrate this path when it comes to news. To answer your question directly, I think my focus is where we've got areas like the US where you've got more disposable income, you've got more competitive competition. I think that is and you've got scale, I should say. You do at that point say you want to be actively looking at making sure you can commercialise. And I am interested in a paywall around some of the news products and also our factual programming. And we've got a service in the US. Brit box is doing really well, but that is more on the drama side. So you will see us make news in other areas.

Alex Barker: I mean, if you were running this, you know, the kind of resource side, I mean, just as a strategy, would you be accelerating that faster to introduce the paywall? And even if it takes a lot of pain in terms of the licensing revenues and things that would be lost, I mean, would you get faster as a preference?

Tim Davie: Broadly, yes. And I think we need to broadly, yes. The reason I'm hedging. So you've

Alex Barker: Made that pitch to the government, presumably, and are they well, in the mood to

Tim Davie: The issue in the medium term? I mean, we we've said publicly, by the way, that there is a balance here because you you've got your ongoing revenues and we want to keep delivering competitive margins. So the question is how much you can invest, because these these things are again, there'll be a lot of people on this call to get this moving to those. That digital model is not necessarily cash accretive in the next five years, as you know. Look at the debt profile on these journeys. So so I think we're balancing that I do think is slightly complicated for us. I don't I don't like adding complications, the sake of it because of a simple by the way, moving to payroll in some areas makes total sense. We can move aggressively and we've done so and we will continue to do more. To your point, can we move faster? I'd like to yeah. I think there's some areas where you're creating content together, whether it's major natural history landmarks, some of these really big dramas. We're actually co-production partners. And, you know, it's a finely balanced decision about whether you're buying all the rights up front and putting it to your own service or you're going into co-production limiting your cash risk upfront. And actually, that works because the primary revenue for me is, of course, making sure the licence fee is great value for money. And my strategy is very simple. BBC Trust is very simple. It's not about focused on politicians or anyone else. It's focused on do you and you and your family get one hundred and fifty nine pounds of value for every household. And in some ways it's not, you know, co-production and securing that content is probably one the key bits of jeopardy for the BBC. So it's not necessarily all about direct to consumer.

Alex Barker: Ok, and actually, I'm going to draw on one of the questions that came in that comes to that point is how do you managed to justify financially the BBC's huge interest in investments in international news when you and the international operation, to some degree, when ultimately you are responsible to the taxpayer?

Tim Davie: And as I told you, it's a very fair question. I think the international news is one thing, and I think that is easily justifiable, which is clearly I think one of the things we bring to UK audiences. And one thing I've always valued about the BBC is a someone who used to be a consumer rather than an executive. Is is that international coverage and truly understanding what's going on around the world is clearly a value for that. It's part of the UK's DNA. I think the the on the. Services, radio, online, television, beyond the UK's borders, that is a blended fund, blending, blending, funding, so you're spending about 250 million of the licence fee as of three point seven billion, and you've got 90 odd million from government on that. So it is a blended fund. And I do think there's something about the UK economy. By the way, the stats are pretty good on this. And what we are is the UK, the U.K. It does make sense to spend a proportion of that UK revenue on making sure we've got good global presence. By the way, the whole thing works together, bureaus in the services. But I do think your question is well put. There is a limit to that. And I think we're we're it's a pretty good situation now.

Alex Barker: Would you want to see the borrowing limit of the big race? You could actually invest in some of the kind of international I think

Tim Davie: There's I think a

Alex Barker: Rather than.

Tim Davie: Yeah, I think on the commercial side, there is a case to say, you know, we do have very low gearing. I mean, the truth of this is you can normally get I mean, again, you know, as people know, there's plenty of capital out there. It's a question of what the cost of capital is. And I'm not just talking payments. I'm talking, you know, are you giving up equity? I pay in productions. I think there is a case that says actually from a UK policy point of view, BBC Studios is in a unique position to grow its IP and there is a case for Mubarak. Yes. And that's the conversation. I mean, if they want to go make that for. I don't want to go into it. I don't want to go into exact levels at the moment, Alex, because I do think that's part of the discussions with government. But I do think there's a case. Let's leave it there. Yeah.

Alex Barker: And another question that's related is how important is advertising revenue to the BBC internationally and how much of a priority is it moving forward? I mean, particularly if you're going behind paywalls on some factual news, etc. how do you make that balance with advertising?

Tim Davie: And it's still it's still it's still pretty critical in terms of. But the longer term picture, if you look at our growth, growth in our revenues, I think there's two areas where our commercial revenue looks very exciting. One is production. You know, we've been I mean, this is a bit in the Beltway, but we've only been making we've an incredible world class. Think about our natural history unit or our documentary unit or our dramas. We we've only been making for the BBC. Now we make for anyone. You know, in the latest Vaughters, one of the Netflix award winners, was actually made by BBC Studios. Yeah, so so surgeons. That's the program. So what I'm saying there is there's plenty of revenue that's not so I'm not sure the question becomes that's where there's a lot of revenue growth. The other is, yeah, if you take breadbox, you take some of our data, see plays lots of growth there. So I think the advertising slug is hundreds of millions and it's important we have our traditional channel business. There will be more, I think, blended models where you've got advertising and ad funded and advertising video on demand. But it's not, if I'm being really honest, is not the real area of growth for us. The real area, a subscription growth and production revenue and IP growth there, the real motives of the business going forward.

Alex Barker: Ok, just to change gears, we've got a question on scandals of the country, I mean, you actually got the Georgia, so I have to step aside because of the Jimmy Savile scandal in 2012. How do you compare the current bushier scandal with that? Is it is damaging reputational and the other common threads between the two in terms of poor oversight and editorial judgment?

Tim Davie: It's really difficult to benchmark these things, isn't it, because they're asymmetric, I mean, they're different shapes. I think look, I think the truth is that you can manage you manage these scandals. But but the worry for us is we're based on our system is based on trust. The ones impartiality and trust are sacrosanct for that. And you can give up trust as the lead is on this corner. You can give up trust quite quickly. Takes a lot a lot of work to build it back. And I think there are similarities. I mean, I don't want to benchmark it, but I mean, I think the cybercafes was really very, very disturbing in terms of in the deep history of what went on there. And if you think about the impacts, very severe. Martin Bashir, a very serious incident as well. The worry, I mean, in terms of leadership. They I think the what I would say is you want to be very accountable. I think this is difficult for leaders sometimes say, look, we just want to get to the truth, however uncomfortable, just get at it, which is always been the way I want to work and then building back trust. I don't think you can do it in a tokenistic way. You've got to do it day in, day out and build it back. And I think that that's the learnings. I mean, as I say, you don't lose.

Alex Barker: So, I mean, in both of these circumstances, you've had situations where you're having to criticize potentially your predecessors or precise actions. How do you weigh that up? And it must be pretty uncomfortable, particularly when you work with these people will be your mentor.

Tim Davie: It's these are really tough things, tough things to do. But at the end of the day, like anyone leading you act in the corporate interest. You act trying to act fairly, but really making sure that you are accountable and you're getting off to the truth. The one thing I've learned in life is you've just got to go and get the facts and share them openly. And if you don't do that, I think I'm less interested. If I'm being really provocative about comes, you know, this how do we how do we spin the story? Forget all that. My learnings are very clear. You go and find out what happened. You just you just deal with it. And I think if you do that, you can get you can move on. I think in this age, it's an age in which, you know, accountability is everything. You need to be accountable. You need to show what you're doing. And I think it's all out there. So but but I do think that very concerning businesses there that you've just got to build back trust. The final thing is you've got to keep perspective as well. You know, we're delivering thousands of hours a day. Really good programming. If you go out in Glasgow here and talk to people, they are interested in what's on at nine o'clock tonight. They're interested in the dramas. They're interested in how we deliver our local news coverage. So in terms of keeping your own perspective on this, I think it's really important you get close to audiences and listen to them not just with the greatest respect, not just the press, but do you know, I mean, I think that is important for CEOs

Alex Barker: As a very fine audience can be very fond of. We've got about a minute left and I'm going to ask this in two ways. We've got the question came in, to what extent would you say the culture wars have cut through to a broad UK audience and how does that inform your coverage and secondary to that? We've got Andrew Neil coming up in about five minutes who I'll be interviewing. Do you want to news to succeed?

Tim Davie: You're going to get the diplomatic answer, which happens to be true, Alex, which is I absolutely think we've always from date since I was growing up, we've had different media sources. Polarity is absolutely critical to the U.K. market, and I absolutely think that we should embrace it, learn from it. I don't see any arrogance. And there's probably stuff I'll learn from Andrew. I've got enormous time for Andrew. I'm sure he's going to do a few things in GB news I want to learn from. That's how we should we should treat this. And I think the last thing we'll do is say, you know, this isn't serious competition or, you know, put them describe them in cliched terms. I'm sure there'll be lots of things I do very well. And Andrew's a very accomplished journalist. And I think we'll learn on culture wars. By the way, you know, welcome. Welcome to modern Britain. I think navigating that, being listening to different perspectives, being comfortable, by the way, of opening up different opinions. That's the game. That's the game now. And I think everyone of my generation is walking a bit of a tightrope, but I hope that's what we've got to do and kind of enjoy a little bit if we can.

Alex Barker: But thank you. We are overrun already, so we've got a couple of minutes before, Andrew, just to say a big thank you to Tim, appreciate your time for a big opening.

Tim Davie: All right. Thank you very much. Thanks very much.

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