BBC is more like John Lewis than the City says chief Tony Hall - and licence fee is the key to quality

The BBC brand bears more resemblance to John Lewis than the ‘the City’, BBC director-general Tony Hall said during a speech at the Oxford Media Convention, as he defended the broadcaster’s licence fee model as the key to quality.

Speech: BBC director-general Tony Hall

Hall used the speech to promote the BBC’s position within the British media, which he said was “the most vibrant and independent free press in the world”, and argued that the existence of competitive media boosted the BBC while the existence of the organisation in turn benefited the competition.

In defence of the licence fee, Hall said that the broadcaster’s quality came as a result of it and “not despite it”, and said public support for the licence fee was at 53 per cent, ahead of support for a subscription based model at 17 per cent or and advertising model at 26 per cent.

“Under a subscription model, the BBC’s incentives would change as a result,” he said. “We’re make programming for those with the highest willingness to pay. Some audiences would become more important than others.”

The director-general went on to warn that embracing advertising would threaten the overall value of all British broadcasters.

“It’s not just the interruption that people dislike,” he said. “Advertising would also narrow the range of content on the BBC. And by taking advertising money away from ITV and Channel 4 it would make public service broadcasting much worse across the board.”

While the BBC domestically may have no plans to change its licence fee model, the BBC Trust earlier this month agreed that BBC World Service can begin broadcasting a limited amount of advertising and sponsored content from April.

In an opinion piece in the Independent, Hall said that the move was an “economic necessity” but insisted commercial funding would “never get in the way” of the broadcaster’s output. NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet condemned the move, calling it an “extremely foolish and dangerous decision”.

During the speech, Hall also argued that the value the BBC brought to British media was evidence that a public service broadcaster worked.

“Arguing that the BBC is great value and serves the function it was set up for may be contentious,” he said, “but only in a policy seminar. Or perhaps in a newspaper column. For most people, most of the time, the BBC just is. It just is valuable, is just is part of their lives.”

“The BBC is not a standard public service. In ethos we’re less like the City and more like John Lewis,” he added “It is our job to hold the powerful to account on behalf of the public.”

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