Stephen Fry on the future of Public Service Broadcasting

Following on from a previous post, Stephen Fry gave a lecture recently entitled “The Future Of Public Service Broadcasting – Some Thoughts” and it is available on a special BBC website  – The BBC And The Future Of Public Service Broadcasting.

I think the following excerpts are key from his lecture:

…but is it broadcasting, is it, actually, what anyone wants? Well actually, it exactly isn’t broadcasting, it’s narrow-casting. But is it wanted? I don’t know, I can’t speak for Britain, I can’t second guess polls, though I can imagine how easily they will return the results wanted by either side, according to the way the questions are framed. “Do you want to see the BBC dismantled so that you have to choose and pay for all your programmes like a hotel room film menu?” NO. “Do you want to stop paying the licence fee and being forced to watch poncey documentaries and have access to thousands of films and saucy programmes at the click of a button?” YES. GIGO, as they used to say in the early days of computing: garbage in, garbage out.

But that is nothing, nothing to the real problem. Content. Production. Programme making. TV programmes suffer from the embarrassing necessity of having to be written and made. Unlike Yorkie Bars or tennis balls or mobile phones you can’t just gear up the machinery and stamp them out in perpetuity. Every damned new programme has to be developed, nurtured, and tried out. Relationships have to be forged with writers, performers, presenters and directors, failures have to be accommodated and accepted. How this is achieved in a brave new world of post switchover root and branch restructuring, I don’t know.


…I genuinely cannot see that the nation would benefit from a diminution of any part of the BBC’s great whole. It should be as closely scrutinised as possible of course, value for money, due humility and all that, but to reduce its economies of scale, its artistic, social and national reach for misbegotten reasons of ideology or thrift would be a tragedy. We got here by an unusual route that stretches back to Reith. We have evolved extraordinarily, like our parliament and other institutions, such is the British way. Yes, we could cut it all down and remake ourselves in the image of Italy or Austria or some other notional modern state. We could sharpen the axe, we could cut away apparently dead wood, we could reinvent the wheel, we could succumb to the natural desires of commercial media companies. Although I have an axe to grind on this, you should understand that it is personal not professional. Actually, if licence fee slicing and other radical plans do go ahead, I do not believe it would affect my career as performer, presenter or producer; in fact I would probably profit more from the change. It is simply that I don’t want to live in a country that emasculates the BBC. Yes, I want to see Channel 4 secure, but I don’t believe that the only way to save it is to reduce the BBC. We can afford what we decide we can afford.

You know when you visit another country and you see that it spends more money on flowers for its roundabouts than we do, and you think … coo, why don’t we do that? How pretty. How pleasing. What a difference it makes. To spend money for the public good in a way that enriches, gives pleasure, improves the quality of life, that is something. That is a real achievement. It’s only flowers in a roundabout, but how wonderful. Well, we have the equivalent of flowers in the roundabout times a million: the BBC enriches the country in ways we will only discover when it has gone and it is too late to build it up again. We actually can afford the BBC, because we can’t afford not to.

These two quotes sum up what Stephen was getting at – yes, content is expensive (but it’s expensive for a reason and won’t always succeed) and it is not a question of whether you can afford to, but what the cost is, of not cherishing what you have.

I am not going to argue these points but what I would say is there is a reason why people question the BBC’s public service remit – and the main reason is BBC3.

Stephen makes reference to possible future Channel 4 commissions such as ” The Man With a Nose Growing Out of His Bottom”, “The Girl With Fourteen Nipples” and ” The Boy Whose Testicles Play The Harpsichord”but fails to quote the actually commissioned BBC3 programmes of “F*** Off I’m Ginger“, “F*** Off I’m Small” and of course not forgetting the wonderfully titled “F*** Off I’m A Hairy Woman“.

I’m all for flowers on the roundabout but you have to keep the weeds out to maintain the aesthetic.

One response

  1. […] the Stephen Fry lecture itself and what he had to say – more on that to follow. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Ashley Highfield on DRM and the BBC […]

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