Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, talks about the future of funding, so-called "BBC English" and the perception that the network plays favorites in its coverage of the Middle East.
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BOB GARFIELD: And now for a very different take on the news, the BBC. The British Broadcasting Corporation lives on what's known as a license fee. For the privilege of receiving a television feed in the United Kingdom, residents must pay 145 pounds, roughly 230 dollars, annually, to “the Beeb.” And whether you watch TV on a television set or a phone or a computer, you owe. And failure to pay can earn you a fine, or worse. Given the current economic climate the BBC decided last month to put a freeze on the fee, effectively cutting the budget. The British press reported that some cultural programming, like expensive dramas, must be shelved. And BBC Chief Mark Thompson warned that money may not be available to carry certain sporting events. Thompson stopped by when he was in the U.S. this week, and we asked him if that license fee can sustain the BBC into the future.
MARK THOMPSON: What's interesting is, I mean, two things. One, public support for the license fee is stronger now than it was a generation ago. We have 97% of people using the BBC. And secondly, it turns out that the idea of a universal charge, which everyone pays and which delivers high quality content, which everyone can then enjoy free at the point of use, this is a model which actually seems surprisingly well suited to the digital age.
BOB GARFIELD: It does, indeed, although the notion of paying per television may not make any sense in the long run, especially if people cease to get their signals over the air, you know, via radio waves.
MARK THOMPSON: That's definitely something which might change over time. But the underlying point is not really about the device that's chosen to levy the charge, it's about the philosophical idea of an entire country, an entire community deciding to pool together money to pay for really high quality content. And that idea, which I — I know is a, in this country and the United States, a very alien, [LAUGHS] strange idea. I mean, our countries took two very different paths in broadcasting back in the 1920s, but that idea still has remarkably resilient public support.
BOB GARFIELD: The second B in BBC is for broadcasting. It's not so simple anymore. What are you?
[THOMPSON LAUGHS] What kind of beast is the BBC in a digital age?
MARK THOMPSON: Our critics would say we're a very big beast. That's the first thing to say. But let's not discount broadcasting. I mean, the hours of TV watched per week are going up in the UK, and I think they're going up in the U.S. In other words, there's no evidence that access to multiple other platforms and ways of getting media are actually reducing classic broadcasting consumption by the public. But it's true that the BBC, in common with other broadcasters, is finding lots of new ways of getting content in front of the public. Different kinds of content I think are moving into the future at different speeds. News already feels like a very multimedia experience. People want news from their BlackBerry, from their PC at work, still from the radio, still from the TV. Knowledge, culture, the arts is somewhere in the middle. There are some very interesting multimedia extensions, but radio and TV still really matters. And classic areas of entertainment, for example, TV drama and comedy, they still feel that they've got a strong future in the rather passive viewing experience.
BOB GARFIELD: I apologize in advance for the next questions but —
MARK THOMPSON: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: — nonetheless, I'm going to press forward. There's a delivery that BBC presenters seem to all share. I guess it's called the received — how is it phrased?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, people talk about received English or even Oxford English — I live in Oxford myself — denoting a certain sort of allegedly clear-cut crystal glass British English accent. If you listen to our services in the U.K., by the way, you'd hear a great deal of regional variation. But I guess international listeners, particularly, to the BBC World Service, expect a certain kind of tone from BBC presenters.
BOB GARFIELD: And kind of a sing-songy delivery of news broadcasts, no? I'm —
MARK THOMPSON: Well, I think that's a shade harsh, Bob. I — I mean —
[LAUGHTER] I mean, the — the main thing we try and achieve with our global English newscasts, actually, is speaking slowly and clearly enough that people who don't have English as a first language can still understand what's been said.
BOB GARFIELD: Dude, they don't sound like you though.
MICHAEL POLES: BBC News with Michael Poles. There've been two explosions at a prominent Sufi shrine in the Pakistani city of Karachi. At least seven people have been killed. The Pakistani president…
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't there a certain style that talent is trained to use or, at least, come to believe is the only way to present news?
MARK THOMPSON: You sure you haven't been watching old Laurence Oliver movies? If you listen to the [LAUGHS] BBC World Service today, [LAUGHING] it's — it's pretty straightforward English. We don't send them to kind of the Royal Shakespeare Company to learn how to — [LAUGHS] broadcast anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: I know this will make a lot of listeners say to themselves, "Physician heal thyself," but I will go to my grave believing that the BBC, as a whole, has bought into a sort of European left-leaning kind of bleeding heart political correctness, that it is not the dead center objective broker of news that it claims to be. Am I insane?
MARK THOMPSON: Because we're not face-to-face, I can't make a diagnosis, but overall I would say in the developing world when we're criticized, we're criticized, in a sense, rather from the other direction. For example, in India I was told that the BBC's, in quotes, "support" for the war in Iraq, in particular, had damaged our reputation in India. I was told that by a number of Indian business people and politicians. Now, what we try and do in the BBC is in covering international news not to take an overtly, in quotes, "western perspective," but to allow every part of a particular dispute to be discussed and aired. There's no question that there are some Americans for whom that reads as or can feel like it's become a liberal progressive approach. But I'd also say that impartiality and objectivity, I don't think this is a state of grace which you can kind of smugly sit there, thinking you occupy. I think it's something we have to work on day in, day out. And when criticism is justified, you should take it seriously and learn from it.
BOB GARFIELD: I must say there have been times that I've listened to the Beeb, and I've gone, well that sounds almost like this presenter is an apologist for the Palestinian point of view. And as a newsman, my eyebrows have gone up. I'm not a Zionist but if I'm thinkin' that, I imagine that there's hard core Zionists who are thinking that, and much worse. How do you monitor your coverage on an ongoing basis, to make sure that you're not infuriating large swats of your audience in coverage in the Middle East?
MARK THOMPSON: The BBC's minutely, minutely observed by all the players in that conflict, as we are in the conflict in Kashmir, in Sri Lanka and three or four other particularly vituperative conflicts around the world. But the answer is that we do everything we can to monitor exactly how we cover these stories, the language we use, the balance we use, recognizing that these are conflicts where attitudes are so polarized that many on either side, let's say, of the Israel-Palestine conflict, themselves have a very particular view about what fairness sounds like. But this is one of a handful of the topics where we get the most numbers of complaints, though I want to be clear, we get very, very large numbers of complaints from both sides.
BOB GARFIELD: As you know, all coverage is a Rorschach test from people's own world views. So the fact that you're getting accused from both sides of a political question does not constitute actual neutrality.
MARK THOMPSON: No, but I will — what I would say is, I mean, in a most straightforward way, the way we cover that conflict does attempt to try and reflect in our interviews, in our debates and also in our news coverage the perspectives of both sides of the conflict. For example, the story of Gaza over the last 18 months, two years, we take extreme care to make sure that the Israeli government, the Israeli defense force, the leadership of Fatah and the Palestinian authority, the leadership of Hamas all get a chance to contribute and tell their side of the story. This is not done literally with a stop watch, but it's done with great care. There was an enormous fuss in the U.K. because we decided — I hadn't even decided — that we should not want to run a charity appeal after the minor war in Gaza because of the danger that running a charitable campaign could give some people the impression that we were emotionally biased on one side or other side of the conflict. We would rather take the approach of not running the appeal, than run the risk of damaging our reputation for impartiality in that part of the world.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to go back to the lead-up to the Iraq war, when the U.S. press was roundly criticized, including by this program, for being quiescent, for so cleaving to the cult of balance that it failed to see an abuse of power. I wonder where in its ordinary broadcast that the BBC comes down on this. Is it your role to be a completely arms-length observer to the news, or when you see governments lying to you, are you supposed to intervene on the behalf of the body politic?
MARK THOMPSON: We are supposed to scrutinize and hold up to debates, analysis, everything that happens, including what governments do. And the BBC's record in the run up to the Iraq war was one of investigative journalism, which led ultimately the BBC into a head-to-head conflict, indeed, a — a rather dramatic conflict between the BBC and the U.K. government because of the BBC's reporting. I believe that our track record in holding our government to account was a strong one and, to be honest, was in contrast to the generality of what I saw in U.S. media. Now, there are some, I think, mitigating circumstances. I think that the atmosphere in the United States in the years following 9/11 meant it was a very, very tough climate in which to, in a sense, raise your hand and ask difficult questions. But our tradition is even if it means editorial leaders in the BBC putting their heads on the line, we should stand true to our values as an independent news organization. There was a big conflict about one particular report the BBC did, claims that one of the key documents the U.K. government had produced to persuade the British public that it was right to go to war, that this document was defective in a — in a number of different ways.
BOB GARFIELD: The sexed up dossier.
MARK THOMPSON: That conflict led to the departure of my predecessor, the last editor-in-chief of the BBC, Greg Dyke. It led to the departure of the chairman of what was then our board of governors of the BBC. But in the end, to be honest, it's more important that the BBC continues to do strong investigatory journalism and to hold the government to account, than it is that you preserve the careers of individual executives.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Mark, you think I'm finished with you. I am not —
MARK THOMPSON: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: — because we asked our Twitter followers what they would ask you, and there seems to be a great interest in your iPlayer. And our Twitter followers, most of whom I presume are Americans, are interested in paying a BBC license fee [LAUGHS] —
MARK THOMPSON: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: — in order to have access to BBC programming worldwide. Is that a doable thing?
MARK THOMPSON: We're always happy to have that kind of conversation. Yeah, we — the iPlayer is a —available in the U.K., and it's an application on the web but also on iPads and on mobile phones, and so forth, where you can very easily catch up at any point, on demand, with any BBC TV or radio show from the previous seven days. And it's been a — massive, massive hit with audiences in the U.K. And people have heard about it in this country and around the world. There are some issues around rights and technology to sort out, but we will launch an international version of the iPlayer with lots of BBC content in 2011.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Mark, thank you very much for joining us.
MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Thompson is director general of the BBC.
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