The director general of the BBC, Tim Davie, has presented his vision for the future of the organisation, with a focus on pursuing the truth, backing the best British storytelling, and bringing people together. The perennial question is how this will be funded and the best idea he has on this is now over a hundred years old.

In a speech for the Royal Television Society, directed at a much wider audience, the head of the BBC made the usual case for the importance of the institution, saying that its mission to inform, educate and entertain is more vital than ever, a sentiment that could have been expressed any time in the last hundred years.

He repeated his view that the BBC needed to embrace, not get dragged into the interactive age. Incidentally, the interactive age arguably began about a quarter of a century ago when the BBC began its digital transition. Indeed, it is half a century since the BBC launched Ceefax, its first digital interactive text service, which he noted as one its first steps into the digital world.

He acknowledged that the BBC does not have a ‘God-given right to exist’, saying “We know we have no right to exist. Complacency, defensiveness, and arrogance leaves institutions fatally distanced from those they serve.”

Tim Davie, director general of the BBC. Photo: RTS/Richard Kendal

Despite historical criticisms of the BBC as slow-moving, he said “Now we must transform ourselves again to increase relevance in a time of limitless choice and interactivity”. He spoke of migrating “from a broadcast to an on-demand organisation”.

It is significant that the head of the British Broadcasting Corporation suggests that this should be its new role. Broadcasting has defined the BBC for over a century. It has pioneered the transition to digital broadcasting. The assumption is that it should migrate to on-demand, rather than simply embrace it as another mode of delivery.

Perhaps recognising that the digital age and the interactivity it enabled began decades ago, he spoke of the new AI age and an “internet-only world” and developing “unique ethical algorithms that dramatically increase personalisation”.

“A BBC of the future will complete the journey from a broadcaster-controlled to a more audience-controlled future,” he promised.

There lies the philosophical problem at the heart of the BBC. The notion of broadcasting, and the form of public service broadcasting embodied in the BBC, assumes that auntie knows best, and the only option lies in the specific brand of BBC service that you choose. The promise of personalisation is that the individual gets to choose what, where and when they watch, listen, or read. A corollary of that freedom is that people may end up watching, listening to, or reading things that entertain, endorse and emphasise their existing interests and attitudes.

The existential value of the BBC lies in providing programming that is authentic, particularly British, and brings people together. That alone might justify its existence, not as a God-given right but as something that has intrinsic merit and worth.

Which inevitably raises the problem of funding. The BBC has endured a 30% cut in real terms budget cuts between 2010 and 2020, followed by a couple of years of flat funding and the promise of future funding linked to inflation. And frankly it shows on screen in its shows and can be heard in its audio programmes, while its online output that was once world-leading is now multi-mediocre. The problem is that in attempting to be everything to everyone it is now spread far too thin. Much of what it once did pre-eminently is now available elsewhere and is often as good if not better.

The solution, apparently, is to accelerate content spend “towards streaming value and away from broadcast-only output”. The problem with that is that while the BBC has the right, not God-given but granted by its Royal Charter, to broadcast to the nation, anyone can do anything they want online. That means competing directly with better resourced multinational media companies and the output of billions of individuals.

So, when the BBC says it will deliver more value for younger audiences by focusing all its commissioning, marketing and social media activity on BBC iPlayer it is likely to get lost in the internet noise.

Returning to the perennial problem of the licence fee, the director general said the first order question is “how can we best secure all the benefits of universal public service broadcasting — for our democracy, our creative economy, and our society?”

Note that he refers to the benefits of universal public service broadcasting, not online video on demand.

Interestingly, the director general made only passing mention of the planned launch, alongside other public service broadcasters, of a free television service, Freely, to deliver live television over broadband. That is something that has been possible for at least 20 years and is already widespread in many countries.

The real challenge that the BBC faces is how to deliver a universal public service online, free at the point of use, with a level of adoption and usage that is comparable to the market penetration it has had in the past.

As the director general observed, “the market has changed hugely since the licence fee was introduced”. That was over a hundred years ago, originally as a radio licence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1904. He concedes that “it is right to ask fundamental questions about its longevity in a world that is now full of choice.”

He goes on to say “we will proactively research how to reform the licence fee post-2028 — looking at its scope, how it could be more progressive, and making sure its enforcement is fair and proportionate.”

He does not appear to contemplate the possibility of any alternative to the licence fee, although he says, “we will engage with the work being done by the Government to review BBC funding”, before adding “our most important relationship is with our owners, the UK public”.

Starting in 2025, when the political landscape may have changed, the corporation will open its biggest-ever consultation process so that the public can inform and drive the debate on the future BBC.

A supporting white paper, , is published on the BBC web site.