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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 March 2007, 11:52 GMT
BBC matters
On Sunday Sunday 18 March, Andrew Marr interviewed BBC Director General Mark Thompson.

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

BBC Director General Mark Thompson
BBC Director General Mark Thompson

ANDREW MARR: People are entitled to say we don't trust these phone-ins any more, we think that the BBC has broken faith with its viewers.

MARK THOMPSON: A couple of things.

Firstly, from everything we know so far, We don't believe there's problem with the programme Smile and we will be careful now that as the kind of white noise around this issue raises that you hear kind of false alarms.

Both Blue Peter and Saturday Kitchen however were genuinely quite serious errors of judgement. Really as you said, Blue Peter, to be honest, a bit of blind panic on the studio floor, no intention as far as we can tell, no intention at all really to deceive.

And with Saturday Kitchen, a kind of sloppiness about whether a programme was live.

We don't on BBC services use premium phone lines to make money, quite often there'll be an opportunity to give money to charity, Comic Relief will be an example of that.

ANDREW MARR: When people phone in, never does the BBC take money from...

MARK THOMPSON: No, that's not what we do. Nonetheless, it's incredibly important that when people phone in one of these circumstances, or take part in a competition, that it should be fair, and we shouldn't even unintentionally mislead the audiences.

And, you know, programmes like Blue Peter know, they're absolutely mortified by this incident. They know that trust is a foundation on which everything else is built. I mean people have trusted Blue Peter for decades.

They should trust it, it's a programme which wants to get it right. So for us, I believe, we're continuing to look closely at what's going on, and we're going to go on looking at our guidelines and also looking at our practice across the BBC.

The centrepiece for us is about re-establishing trust. I don't believe that the public, there are many, many thousands of phone calls every year - two incidents - very regrettable incidents have emerged. I don't believe that there's a pattern of misleading the public at all. But we have to do everything we can to make sure we can rebuild that public trust.

ANDREW MARR: Well, as you know OFCOM are investigating both the BBC and ITV, Channel Four, everybody seems to have had some trouble with this. Do you think there has been a general sloppiness about how some of these lines have been used?

MARK THOMPSON: There are lots of different stories. I mean the BBC is not part of, if you like, the central set of allegations around scams around, effectively generating money out of a premium phone line.

But I think OFCOM and indeed our own regulator, the BBC Trust, is going to be talking to me and my colleagues this week and I'm sure they'll have some fairly tough questions for us as well. I think this has been a wake-up call for the industry.

And I think that across broadcasting we have to look very, very closely at the way we use phone lines. And above all, of making sure that the public can understand and trust exactly what's happening when they pick up the phone.

ANDREW MARR: And apologise to our viewers?

MARK THOMPSON: Well we have, and I'm very happy to join in the apologies we've made this week about Blue Peter and Saturday Kitchen. People should expect absolutely high standards.

But at the same time, Andrew, we've got to accept that people, we have millions of people involved in phoning in Comic Relief, generating a fantastic amount of money for great causes on Friday night.

We know the public, 2007, love to take part, love to interact, love to join in. And I think it will be too strong to say that the right response for this is to stop the whole business. The public actually like to take part, and we should make that possible. But it should be in an environment of trust.

ANDREW MARR: Are heads going to roll over this?

MARK THOMPSON: I think what we need to do is look very closely at what's happened in each case. As I've said to you, from everything I've learned so far, from what I've seen, I can't see an intention to mislead, let alone any intention for anyone to line their pockets. But we need to go through the process and look and see what happened.

ANDREW MARR: Sure. Let's talk about the licence fee settlement and the charter. You got most of what you wanted in the charter, but the licence fee, 2.2 billion adrift - an awful lot of money. And the obvious question is, does this actually mean inevitably yet more repeats?

MARK THOMPSON: I mean, what I and the BBC have got to accept is that this is an environment where commercial media is struggling for revenue, and where much of the rest of the public sector is also facing very tight budgets. And so, I mean the first thing I'd want to say is I recognise it's for the government and parliament to decide these things, not us.

But I think it's true that having a licence fee at the level it's been set means we'll have to make some tough choices. I don't believe that you're going to see a sudden burst of repeats on BBC1. We know that the public expect outstanding, outstanding high quality and original programmes on our main television networks.

On the other hand we are going to have to make some difficult choices about where to put our priorities. And above all, to concentrate on those areas where the BBC can do something different and distinctive and valuable, alongside the rest of what broadcasting does.

ANDREW MARR: Because I read it costs about half a million pounds a night to replace a repeat with a new piece of drama. So..

MARK THOMPSON: Yes a repeat might cost 10,000-15,000 to run - an original hour of drama half a million, six, seven, eight hundred thousand pounds, so economically there's a very big difference between a repeats driven schedule and an original schedule. Which is why, by the way, multi-channel television almost all satellite channels run largely repeats and bought-in programmes. If you want to see original British programmes, BBC, ITV, Channel Four is where you'll find them.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think the BBC spends too much money, or too much attention on the sort of kit and the gismos and the technology and the platforms, and perhaps not enough on the actual programme-making. I mean some people say to me do you really need four major channels?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, firstly the overwhelming majority of the licence fee does go, and should go, into making great content. Journalism around the world, great drama, great comedy, and so forth. We also have to accept though, that we need to find effective ways of the public actually receiving and getting this content.

And now that does mean, and people have lapped up the new digital service from the BBC, it does mean over this next period, particularly as we come to digital switch-over, we are going to have to invest more in technology, and also in distribution. And that's a fact of life as we go through this transition.

ANDREW MARR: We have to spend that money.


ANDREW MARR: People will say from time to time, quite often actually, that the BBC remains a sort of liberal conspiracy, that in the end it's a metropolitan, slightly left-leaning organisation in its roots. Do you think we have enough conservative voices on the BBC?

MARK THOMPSON: I think, first of all, making sure that everyone gets a voice and that perspectives from the right tradition, as it were, in British politics, get heard as much as from the left, is a priority for the BBC. I think historically it has been an issue, particularly in certain specific issues, coverage of Europe will be an example, possibly coverage of immigration as well.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think we made mistakes in the past, in terms of tone?

MARK THOMPSON: I think that particularly now that we are having such open debate about the big issues of the day where actually quite often the traditional party lines are being crossed and perspectives are coming from unusual quarters. I think it's very important that the BBC stays open.

But I also want to say that when people talk about political correctness, I mean many of the most politically incorrect voices in Britain you hear and see on the BBC. From Jeremy Clarkson onwards. I mean, in other words I think the BBC is in many ways more open to different perspective and different opinions now than it was say five or ten years ago.

ANDREW MARR: So it has changed. But presumably as an organisation which is publicly funded, sitting in a part of West London surrounded by one of the most mixed communities in the country, the BBC has to lean particularly, ensure particularly that it doesn't come across as sort of liberal?

MARK THOMPSON: I guess so, but the BBC is very different today than it was in the past. I mean nearly half the licence fee goes straight out of the building in commercial contracts. As we develop the broadcasting in the future we have very, very complex commercial relationships.

And although, yes, I mean the BBC is a big chunk of the public sector it's also now in many ways, you know, it's very like in many ways a multi-billion pound private enterprise as well. So I think that, you know, the other big thing to say about the BBC is it was very much a college which self-generated, hired people coming out of university, there's much more interchange now between the BBC and the rest of the industry.

ANDREW MARR: Finally, I must just ask you, a bit of a cock-up last night on Eurovision Song Contest wasn't it?

MARK THOMPSON: I think they were trying to hard to get the phones right that something else must have gone wrong. I'll find out tomorrow morning exactly what. But whose ever fault it was I'm sure it wasn't Terry Wogan's.

ANDREW MARR: Absolutely, it all lands on your desk! Thank you very much indeed for coming in.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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