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Public Service Broadcasting

Volume 482: debated on Monday 10 November 2008

4. What recent discussions he has had with Ofcom on the public service obligations of the broadcast media. (233991)

I have regular meetings with the chief executive of Ofcom to discuss broadcasting issues. These meetings often include discussion of public service obligations, which are central to Ofcom’s current review of public service broadcasting.

But apart from that, is there anything that the Minister can actually do to stop the slide into tabloid television at the BBC? For example, what could be done to reinforce the excellent and totally unbiased coverage by my sometime employer, BBC news and current affairs?

As I have said before, hon. Members will have their own views on the services provided by the BBC. However, it is important in this instance not to let the failings of one part of the BBC lead to a situation in which the whole organisation is tainted. There are many professionals within the BBC who provide an excellent standard of service, and we would do well to remember that. Clearly, there were serious failings in this particular case, but I urge the hon. Gentleman not to think that that damns all the BBC’s coverage; it does not.

Mr. Speaker, if I used that English vernacular word that begins with f and ends in k, you would chop me off at the knees—if not higher—before I had even got up. Yet all the broadcasters now use it regularly, and it is really offensive. This is not a watershed matter. There are plenty of children watching TV programmes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights after 9 o'clock. I have watched Jamie Oliver reporting from Rotherham, and I have watched quiz shows, and I hear f, f, f, f. Please tell the BBC and Ofcom that we do not hear that in France, Germany or America, so why, with our great language, does British broadcasting have to be in the linguistic sewer?

My right hon. Friend has expressed himself very clearly and trenchantly. The report that I mentioned a moment ago revealed an increase, indeed a spike, of bad language immediately after the watershed, which suggests that it needs to be said that it is not obligatory to use bad language after the watershed.

I believe that my right hon. Friend speaks for many people in the country in saying that while people accept that the language used on television programmes ought to reflect the language used in the country as a whole, there are occasions on which the line has clearly been crossed, and I know that others share the discomfort that he has so eloquently expressed.

While I welcome the Secretary of State’s desire for transparency in the BBC, may I tempt him to go a little further and say that, as BBC staff are public servants like Members of Parliament, its senior executives’ salaries should be published, as should their expenses?

I do not consider it right for me, or any other Minister, to provide a running commentary on the levels of individual salaries in the BBC, just as it is not right for me to provide a running commentary on the salaries of footballers, although I am often asked to do that. However—[Interruption.] There is a “however” coming. However, there is significant public interest in these issues, and they do affect public confidence in the BBC. It is therefore important for the BBC management and trust to show sensitivity to them, particularly when market conditions are changing and the rest of the country is facing real pressure in an economic downturn.

I agree that a judgment needs to be made about these issues, and—as I told the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) a moment ago—I believe that information needs to be released into the public domain to allow people to make that judgment.

I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware that two of the three models for the future of public service broadcasting currently being considered by Ofcom would probably result in a narrowing of its provision. When he examines Ofcom’s recommendations, will he please bear in mind that we do not want a watering down of broadcasters’ obligations, or a restriction of provision to just one or two public service broadcasters?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. The issues that he has raised are very much up for discussion at the moment. The nature of our regulation of broadcasting, particularly commercial public service broadcasting, is changing. We need a debate to establish the best way in which to sustain the aspects that the public like and on which they depend, which will mean devising a new way of sustaining public service content beyond the BBC in the future.

I agree that it is important to have public service broadcasting that is more than the BBC, but precisely how that can be achieved is a matter for debate. As my hon. Friend will know, Lord Carter has been appointed to take a detailed look at the issues, and to report and make recommendations early in the new year.