The BBC’s outgoing director-general has called for funds for the World Service to reach a billion people, in a valedictory address casting public broadcasting as “the magic formula” for British success in a global media age.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in his final week in the role, Tony Hall made an optimistic defence of the BBC as “an organisation transformed” and able to bolster democracy around the world against a tide of disinformation.
His departing reflections before handing over to Tim Davie show how the BBC is trying to cope with one of the most difficult transitions in its history — across technology, funding and politics — by seeking to cleave more closely to its core public service responsibilities.
“My goal, when I arrived at the BBC, was to double our global audience to reach 500m people by 2022 — our centenary year,” Lord Hall said of the World Service, which was given an additional £85m of public funding to support the expansion.
“With two years to go, we are today reaching 468m people each week. We have plans in place to double that ambition . . . but it needs extra investment from the government.”
Sidestepping rows over the licence fee and funding that have dogged his time at the helm, Lord Hall instead argued that the pandemic had brought into sharper focus the BBC’s “central mission” as a trusted news provider.
“This is about much more than protecting integrity in news, critical as that is,” he said. “It’s also about helping to protect our democratic integrity, and fostering unity and cohesion.”
Mr Davie will take over the corporation as it approaches a potentially painful negotiation with Boris Johnson’s government over the level of its funding beyond 2022 and the renewal of its royal charter after 2027.
The incoming director-general will also be expected to work with a new chair from next year, when David Clementi’s successor is appointed by the government. One open question is whether Mr Davie’s priorities for the corporation will fit with those of a Downing Street team that has long wished to shake up the corporation.
In his defence of the BBC’s role, Lord Hall listed its achievements during the pandemic, which he described as “a massive consultation in real time on what the British public want and expect from great public service broadcasting”.
Lord Hall claimed the BBC had “reformed and reinvented itself” for the digital age, and “made the pivot to a new world”. The iPlayer streaming service had attracted 49m sign-ups, growing at a pace that was making up for the fall in traditional television audiences.
Yet the corporation has been losing ground to global streaming services such as Netflix and Disney Plus during lockdown.
A recent study by Ofcom, the media regulator, found that subscription services gained 37 minutes of average viewing time during April, while the streaming services of traditional broadcasters claimed only an additional minute. Disney Plus, which was launched in March, has already become more popular with younger children than BBC iPlayer.
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