The former BBC director general Mark Thompson believes the UK is facing “a total loss of culture sovereignty” which will leave the country increasingly divided unless the government acts now to fund public service journalism and stop US companies such as Netflix from dominating the media landscape.
Thompson left the BBC in 2012 to become chief executive of the New York Times, where he has helped turn the once-struggling newspaper into a digital success. He suggests that unless viewers recognise “your language, your life experience, your community in the prevailing culture” then they lose their sense of individual and collective agency, which plays into issues such as Brexit.
“No one wants to see the UK turn into a cultural Airstrip One, but it’s a clear and present danger. With newspapers struggling and broadcasters outgunned, I fear only effective and salient government media policy stands between Britain and a total loss of cultural sovereignty,” he will tell an audience at the Steve Hewlett memorial lecture in London on Tuesday night.
“Though the digital giants do a great job of providing quality content, it is surely of overwhelming importance that British audiences still get access to great news, drama, comedy, documentary made first and foremost for them and them alone.”
“A society which fails to provide its different communities and groups with the means to listen and come to understand each other’s pasts and presents shouldn’t be surprised if mutual incomprehension and division are the consequence. If you doubt that any of this connects to real-world politics and national well-being, you need to pay more attention.”
The former BBC boss said that during discussions in 2007 to launch the iPlayer streaming service, he met Netflix’s founder, Reed Hastings, who offered some stark advice: “I don’t know why you’re bothering Mark, you’ll never beat my algorithm. Why not just give us all your content instead?”
Thompson also bemoaned the 2009 decision, made on competition grounds, to stop the main British broadcasters joining together to launch an online streaming service codenamed Project Kangaroo, allowing Netflix to sweep in and dominate the British market. He predicts that a forthcoming recession will wipe out swathes of remaining local newspapers across North America and Europe, leaving large towns and cities without any coverage of local politics.
Thompson will deliver his speech in the aftermath of this weekend’s Emmy awards, where shows created by Britons such as Fleabag, Chernobyl, and Killing Eve with UK writers, directors and producers won award after award. There is also a national shortage of studio space in the UK, as production companies come to Britain to take advantage of tax breaks and Netflix has said it will spend $500m on UK programmes this year.
However, almost all the British Emmy-winning shows were co-productions involving US broadcasters and Thompson said the likes of the BBC and Channel 4 would struggle to arrange similar deals in the future. “For now it makes sense for the streamers to co-produce and share rights in the country of product. Don’t expect that to last. Soon they’ll want it all.”
Although the New York Times has seen a surge in the number of digital subscriptions to 5m, with digital revenue heading towards $800m a year, few industry expect believe this model can be replicated on a mass scale. Thompson also urged media companies to stop blaming Facebook and Google for their woes, saying the internet cannot be uninvented and companies need to work with the reality on the ground.
Thompson in his speech will urge increased public funding for some parts of the media, more support for the BBC and government co-ordination on policy: “Here more than anywhere time is running out. So act now.”
Former BBC boss says UK faces ‘total loss of culture sovereignty’ – The Guardian