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BBC (Public Service Broadcasting)

Volume 482: debated on Monday 10 November 2008

3. What recent discussions he has had about the BBC’s performance of its public service broadcasting responsibilities. (233990)

Commercial pressures are forcing ITV to reduce its commitment to regional programming. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC should not slavishly play the ratings game and ape ITV, with fat-cat salaries for top presenters and executives, but put public money, which comes from licence fee payers, into regional television and high-quality local radio programmes?

On ITV, as we move towards a full digital television world, the basis on which we have regulated ITV hitherto changes. It is important to understand that the financial case changes for the regional programming that we have received for many years. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that we want public service broadcasting to build on the best of what we have got—strong programming, with a regional identity and regional news, which people value greatly, provided by not only the BBC.

Quite apart from the behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, does the Secretary of State share the concern expressed by viewers of the BBC and other public service channels about the torrent of gratuitous bad language that is now found on programmes ranging from comedy to cookery after 9 pm? Does he think that the time has come when broadcasters may need to reconsider what is publicly acceptable in mainstream entertainment shows?

May I welcome what the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has just said? I do not expect him to read all my speeches, but if he reads some of them, he will see that since I took on this job, I have spoken many times about the importance of maintaining standards, particularly in a changing world. People can look online for all kinds of information, gossip and so on, but TV needs to uphold standards in this changing world. That is incredibly important. I welcomed very much what the chairman of ITV said last week about the importance of the watershed. I note that one newspaper—The Sunday Telegraph, I think—did a survey that found a spike in programmes containing heavy use of swearing immediately after the watershed. I do not think that that is acceptable. The watershed is there as a guide to broadcasters. The public clearly understand that programmes can reflect the language that is used, but that there should not be gratuitous use of bad language on television.

Certainly I recognise that the BBC is still a great national institution and I am usually a great supporter of it. However, if we have a public sector broadcaster that is funded by the licence fee, should it not be more independent in its news gathering? Personally, I am sickened by the number of times we have to hear what the papers say and by how the lead from all that Conservative press outside is slavishly followed on the BBC. Why can it not get its own news?

If my hon. Friend looks at research into how the public value news, particularly that provided by the BBC, he will see that they find it to be trustworthy, impartial, accurate and of high quality. They depend on it very much and as far as I am concerned, the BBC continues to provide an excellent news service.

The BBC should be providing programmes that the whole family can watch together. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be nice to see “The Generation Game” return to our screens on Saturday nights, albeit not presented by Mr. Ross or Mr. Brand?

All of us, or most of us, are television viewers and it always tempting to pass comment on editorial matters in the House and amplify our views to the nation about the kind of programmes that we should be seeing. We should mainly resist the temptation to comment on editorial matters, although the temptation is great in my case, having seen the wonderful and talented Laura White harshly voted off “The X Factor” on Saturday. She happens also to be my constituent, so I should probably say no more on that topic. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this is not a good place for politicians to comment on every editorial decision that the BBC or other broadcasters take.

The millions of people who live in the counties in the M25 ring around London are much more numerous than all the people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, yet they are badly served by BBC news gathering and provision. It really is time that the Secretary of State told the BBC to get a move on and provide proper news reporting facilities and proper news programmes for places such as my area of Essex, on both radio and television, and to recognise that there are boundaries such as the Thames Gateway that need to be embraced. We are being badly served, yet we are millions of people more than those in the other countries, which, very important though they are, each have almost their own BBC Scotland service. Discuss.

My hon. Friend may not have noticed, but the BBC Trust is at present in a mode where it is receiving constructive criticism on the services that it provides. I would encourage him to make his views known to the BBC Trust, which I am sure will take the strength of feeling that he has just displayed on board.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the things that has emerged over the past few weeks from the Russell Brand-Jonathan Ross incident is that it is difficult for viewers to know exactly to whom they should complain if they are unhappy with BBC programmes that are funded by their licence fee? Should they complain to the BBC management, the BBC Trust or Ofcom? In view of that, does he agree that it is absolutely essential that viewers should be represented by an independent body that champions the needs of licence fee payers, and not by an organisation that defends the BBC as an institution?

Let me say quite clearly that the episode to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a serious lapse of broadcasting standards, and, indeed, of the editorial controls designed to uphold those standards. Furthermore, the BBC management was too slow to recognise the seriousness of the situation. However, I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement issued by the BBC Trust on 30 October, which set in train a whole range of actions to ensure that there would be no repeat of that episode. One example of those actions is the review of the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

On the hon. Gentleman’s wider point, I think that it is clear to the public that the BBC Trust can and will take the issues that are referred to it and challenge the BBC on them. It already has a record of doing that on behalf of the licence fee payer. It is also true to say that Ofcom has a role to play in taking a wider view of broadcasting and ensuring that standards across the board are upheld. Those two roles are complementary, and they are working well. Indeed, in this case, the regulators have set action in train and done their job.

If the system works so well, will Secretary of State explain why it is so difficult for licence fee payers, even after freedom of information requests, to find out the salaries paid to BBC management or BBC stars? Should not the first lesson be that, if the BBC is to restore confidence in what it does, it needs to be totally transparent? This is our money, not the BBC’s, and we are entitled to know how it is being spent.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the BBC Trust has a job to do in representing the licence fee payers to the BBC management and the BBC executive. I also agree that, if it is to do that job effectively, it is important for there to be proper transparency and disclosure of information that can have a bearing on public opinion in relation to the BBC. However, I would refer him to some of the strong actions that the BBC Trust has already taken since it came into existence. An example is the King report, which looked into news reporting across the four home nations. There should always be disclosure of information, where that is in the public interest, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me to suggest further areas in which that could be improved, I shall give the matter my consideration.