‘Politicians of all hues have a problem with the BBC and I hope that continues,’ Richard Sharp said in a discussion with broadcaster Tania Bryar from the CogX Global Leadership Stage. ‘They’re human beings and the BBC will have an independent and impartial perspective that challenges the narrative that they as individuals, from time to time, might seek to project. So, I’d be concerned if we didn’t have problems with politicians in that respect. The government is certainly not seeking to direct us to behave in a certain way.
‘We’re set up with the licence fee as an example to ensure the government can’t control the purse strings and therefore distort the mentality of the BBC and how it behaves.’
But, in the same discussion, he admitted that some in government are pressing to remove the BBC’s licence fee and move to a subscription or commercial model, something he is strongly against.
Sharp was Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs some years ago and he suggested that Sunak should ‘be careful’ how he treats the BBC.
‘One of the good things about competition is that it allows people to benchmark what they’re getting from the BBC and what they’re paying for. The BBC right now is about 43p a day, and for that you get news, you get radio, you get television, you get the iPlayer and you get Sounds. And you also get the BBC as a resource in moments of crisis. You get Children’s education through the BBC Trust. So, for 43 p a day, if you were to try to get that bundle of services in the private sector, it would cost multiples of that.’
‘We deliver value not just in content but in a lower price for that content than the marketplace norm. So, in that sense, I think people are starting to appreciate that the licence fee is worth having.’
Richard Sharp’s words were defiant, but one of the conference’s other speakers, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, has since announced the selling-off of Channel 4, a public service broadcaster that places little burden on the public purse and is highly regarded worldwide. Dowden’s argument is that commercialising it will challenge the likes of Netflix.
Sharp seems to have a different philosophy on the global streaming giants, who have plenty of cash but are beholden to their paymasters. ‘The BBC is critical to the creative industries in the UK. We engage with 14 thousand SMEs. The BBC can create a proliferation of independents, it supports eco-systems and I think it’s critical to create a competitive advantage for the UK in relation to the world in a way that non-UK global players cannot.’
‘Capitalism has enormous strength in terms of competition, innovation, efficiencies, but it also has an Achilles heel, and that is the prioritisation of the financial return on capital. Whereas the BBC’s able to bring other measures to bear, which creates a distinctive advantage.
‘If we think about going forward 10 years and we look at the role the BBC has to play it chimes with many of the considerations that this new age of entrepreneurs that this CogX really demonstrates.
‘I don’t think you can count resources in terms of financial scale or in terms of the number of people in the way we have in the past. What it really is about is content. And the great thing about the digitally connected world that we live in is that the market is there for everyone no matter how large or small.
‘The disintermediation of large organisations between the consumer and content plays to our advantage, provided we continue to be innovative, provided we are self-critical and provided we are a home to talented people. And being in the UK, being able to attract such a thoroughly diverse group of people, means we can deliver that.’
As the vultures circle over Channel 4 and both the political left and right campaign to defund the BBC, Richard Sharp has taken on a major challenge if he intends to defend the aspects of the corporation that many hold dear.
View the whole discussion here
Header photo: BBC Chairman Richard Sharp in discussion with Tania Bryer (CNBC International) at the 2021 CogX Festival in London