Attenborough on Public Service Broadcasting

Sir David Attenborough reflects, in a speech given in London a week or so ago, on the future of public service broadcasting. I say ‘reflects,’ because much of his speech, as he admits himself, concerns the path we’ve taken to get here.

This is crucial background and perspective. There’s something naïve – gloriously, willfully, preciously naïve – about the concept of Broadcasting in the Public Service, and the people who pioneered that thinking. I was privileged to start in television when I did, and indeed where I did: children’s programmes, and production personnel in Leeds in general, understood this stuff intuitively.

Today, while I’m sure there are pockets within the BBC for whom Attenborough’s sentiments will resonate, I worry that for most television people the history he describes will feel quaint, even archaic.

I worry, overall, that on something like a decade timescale, the BBC may be doomed. This is one of the reasons I didn’t take SciCast to them in the first place, and it’s still why I’m not convinced that a broadcaster would be a ‘natural’ home for the project.

Faced with a choice between ‘Public Service’ and ‘Broadcasting’, I’ll pick the former. It’s a less grandiose goal, but I’ll take something over nothing. This is essentially where I stood with children’s programmes four years ago, and my result is SciCast – public service, not broadcasting, a tenth the budget I used to have, but at least it exists.

There are possible paths on which we wouldn’t encounter such a decision over the BBC as a whole. Avoiding it, however, would require a mass public awakening of what they stand to lose if PSB evaporates. In that future, Attenborough’s talk reads less like harking back to the beginnings, and more like an initial call to arms for a coming campaign.

Sometimes, I wonder if the BBC’s slogan should be ‘We know what’s good for you.’ It is their curse, and their burden, that many people dislike and distrust the BBC for behaving in accordance.

But it happens to be true.

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