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Public Service Broadcasting

Volume 465: debated on Monday 29 October 2007

The Government believe that public service broadcasting will remain an important part of our public realm. In my speech to the Royal Television Society on 13 September, I identified our goals for broadcasting as open markets, universal access to high-quality output, and empowering consumers. We are setting up a convergence think-tank made up of experts from inside and outside Government to help us to secure those goals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cuts envisaged by ITV run directly contrary to the commitments made by the ITV companies when they took on these contracts; and that if allowed they, coupled with the BBC’s cuts in regional provision, will be directly and substantially damaging to the provision of news and regional programmes in the regions which are so important to us? Is it not time, therefore, that the Government, instead of leaving this issue to the market or to a nervous Ofcom, reaffirmed their strong public support for and commitment to public service and regional broadcasting?

I am happy to make exactly that declaration. This House made it very clear through the Communications Act 2003 that it expected regional television to be right at the heart of what ITV does. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that any such change would be a change to the terms under which the companies got their licences. That is why I said in response to an earlier question that no decision had been made on the matter. Ofcom will have to consider the matter next year, and I am sure that it will take into account the strong feelings expressed about it in this House.

After a quarter of a century of Sianel Pedwar Cymru, the Welsh language fourth channel, being overseen from Wales and Westminster, does the Secretary of State agree with Plaid Cymru and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that responsibility for it should be transferred to Wales, where the majority of Welsh speakers live?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to submit a proposal on that, we are happy to look at it. Traditionally, the process has been dealt with at the UK Government level because broadcasting has implications throughout the UK. In the same way, digital switchover involves spectrum planning throughout the whole of the UK, and the use of the licence fee or the use of public funding has UK-wide implications. I am happy to discuss that issue with him and the authorities in Wales if they want to submit that proposal.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) for his support for my idea.

I urge the Secretary of State to be a bit more robust with ITV. Will he point out two things to it? For decades ITV was effectively given a licence to print money, and consumers in Britain expect better than to see it running away from its obligations. If it stops doing not just local and regional news, but current affairs and other kinds of local programming, the people of Britain will think, “This channel isn’t really part of our national heritage any more. Frankly, we can get rid of it.”

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that local and regional news is at the heart of what people value about ITV, and it would clearly be the best approach for ITV to find a way of making that remit profitable. No decision has been made on the proposals put forward to Ofcom, and I am sure that Ofcom and ITV will listen to the strong views expressed on this matter.

Does the Minister agree that the west midlands is an entirely different region from the east midlands? If he does agree, what action will he take to ensure that Central TV news is not cut as a result of the proposals? We need to start seeing competition in news delivery in the regions, instead of the current monopoly enjoyed by the BBC.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that competition at the local and regional level is important. Like other hon. Members who have made their views clear on that during this Question Time, I advise him to make clear to ITV and Ofcom the strength of his feelings about it. I am happy to agree that the west midlands and east midlands are different regions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a public service broadcaster should have a recruitment process that is fair and open to all the talents? I refer him to the recent research by the Sutton Trust, which shows the predominance of independently educated, public school people in the hierarchy of the BBC.

Given that I went to an independent school, it would be slightly hypocritical to lecture the BBC on that—[Interruption.] It is important for people throughout the cultural industries to ensure that people from all backgrounds are working for them. All of our taxes pay for their products, so we are all entitled to be represented.

Recent scandals have dented trust in our public service broadcasters. Channel 4 has a looming financial crisis, as does ITV. Those may be matters for Ofcom, but the Government are responsible for the BBC. Two years ago, the BBC announced 4,000 job cuts and there are now more to come. The Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), said that the below-licence-fee settlement would lead to certainty and stability for the BBC. Does he accept that what we now have is uncertainty and instability?

I do not accept that. I think that the settlement was fair and reasonable for the BBC. Some people said that we should not give it a charter at all, but we did. Some people said that we should have given it a short charter, but we gave it one for 10 years. Some said we should not fund it through the licence fee, but we have, and we gave it a six-year licence fee deal. If it realises those efficiencies and if more and more households buy more and more licence fees—as predicted—the BBC will have £1.2 billion to invest in new services. That is a fair settlement between the interests of the BBC and the interests of the licence fee payer.

Does the Secretary of State understand the concerns of people in Plymouth and Cornwall, which are respectively 120 and 200 miles away from Bristol, about the plans for ITV public service broadcasting and the cuts? That not only applies to commercial public sector broadcasting requirements; it could have a knock-on effect on the BBC and the quality and quantity of its programmes if it does not have competition from the commercial sector.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Indeed, she has campaigned strongly and effectively on the importance of the creative industries in Plymouth. Plymouth has one of the fastest-growing creative industry sectors in the country, so the campaigning is clearly paying dividends. That further underlines the vital role of our public service broadcasters as anchors of production throughout our country.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the broadcasting regulatory system is failing to work properly? What happened with quiz shows and competitions at BBC, ITV and Channel 4 over the summer clearly breached the broadcasting code. Yet that did not stop producers at all those channels contravening the code. What will the right hon. Gentleman do to make the broadcasting regulatory system work more effectively?

I agree that what happened was unacceptable. It is unacceptable for people to be cheated out of their money and for millions of phone calls to be made when people could not win. I have confidence in Ofcom and the way in which it is tackling the issue proactively. However, I have asked it to advise the House on whether the regulatory regime is robust enough. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions to make to that review, we would be happy to hear them.

Is not the point that, if broadcasters have to be fined huge amounts of money, the system has already failed because viewers’ trust has been compromised? Rather than more regulation, does the Secretary of State agree that we need better observance of existing regulations before trust in broadcasting is further eroded?

Clearly, that is important, but the issue is so serious that we should not simply rely on that cultural change. We should also consider whether the regulatory regime is robust enough, especially the boundaries between the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services—ICSTIS—which is now Phonepay Plus, and Ofcom, and make sure that we have the right approach to ensure that the problem does not happen again.

Will my right hon. Friend consider the impact, especially of staffing cuts, on BBC West Midlands, whether television or radio?

We have a well-established tradition in this country of the BBC being independent of Government. It would therefore be wrong for me to tell it where to employ its staff. We have given the BBC a fair and stable settlement, which provides a good platform for succeeding in the digital age.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in future, the BBC needs to do far less and that it should concentrate on providing public service media content where there is market failure?

I do not agree with the implication in the hon. Gentleman’s question that the BBC should retreat to a public service ghetto. That happens in America and is not the right way forward for us. The BBC’s task has always been to make the popular good and the good popular. That should remain its challenge in the 10 years to come.