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Future of the BBC

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Norman Lamb.)

It was a childhood ambition of mine, at the age of 11, to become a Member of Parliament, and I was fortunate enough to be elected in 1983. I remember, as if it were yesterday, first arriving here and being told that this is the mother of Parliaments, that we are sovereign, that this is where laws are made and that Parliament existed to support parliamentarians with their duties. An enormous number of changes have taken place since I was first elected, and I have various question marks over the way in which this place is run these days. However, I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise an important issue that we take for granted—the British Broadcasting Corporation.

I am not using this Adjournment debate to attack the BBC—indeed, I have many friends and some relatives who work for it. However, as this place has been greatly diminished and we were under siege before the previous general election, I made a beeline for the BBC’s chairman and chief executive when we were invited to attend a reception held by the BBC after the election. I told them that I was very concerned about the way the BBC is run and about the salaries that both of those gentlemen are paid, and I will discuss that in due course.

The BBC is a blue-chip company of which we can be very proud. Its first transmission was from the roof of Selfridges in 1922. The first royal address was broadcast in 1924, and in 1932 we had the first Christmas address from His Majesty, the then King. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber remembers 1940, when Churchill made his rousing speeches, but the BBC also deserves credit for those. In 1945, there were the wonderful Dimbleby’s revelatory reports about the terrible happenings in Belsen concentration camp. We have the Olympics next year, and in 1948 the BBC broadcast the Olympic games. Then, 1960 saw the construction of Television Centre, the first purpose-built TV centre in the world. We then go on to 1982 and Brian Hanrahan’s unforgettable news reporting of the Falklands war. In 1990—it is ironic that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) is in the Chamber, because he and I held different views—we saw our proceedings televised. I was dead against that and I voted against it, but, anyway, our proceedings are now televised. The BBC had an exceptional global reputation for being an excellent source of unbiased and impartial news. Indeed, it was groundbreaking and it was known for having remarkably high journalistic integrity in its reports.

The BBC is:

“Institutionally biased to the Left”

and that is a “mindset”. Those are not my words, but those of Peter Sissons in an article in one of our newspapers this year. He said that there were

“basic journalistic mistakes—wrong dates, times and numbers…and basic political or geographical facts”

were wrong. The BBC tends to run positive stories in favour of the UN and the European Union. When it comes to reports relating to Israel, it only ever half tells the story, favouring stories that show Israel in a poor light and failing to report the rest of the facts—I think in a highly disproportionate manner. For instance, there is an humanitarian disaster waiting to happen in Camp Ashraf, so why do we hear nothing about it? There is a terrible situation in Syria, but we do not hear from relatives of President Assad who do not think he is a terribly good leader.

More poignantly, the BBC is fervently anti-cuts and ensures that that message pervades every aspect of BBC programming. Since the general election, the BBC has embarked on a consistent policy of criticising Government actions, which is rather amusing given that the director-general declared that bias at the BBC—he said it, so he must recognise that there was bias—was a thing of the past.

Over the past few days, we have seen that the former Labour Prime Minister was very friendly with Mr Gaddafi in 2004. A book has now been published that shows that there were tensions at the highest echelons of the previous Labour Government. Given the BBC’s high expertise in investigative journalism, it is puzzling that none of those things was brought to the fore at the time. We need only to think of “The One Show”, which recently ran a segment in which a presenter asked the Prime Minister, “Are you too much of a toff?” Another asked him, “How do you sleep at night?”

The BBC uses the term “independence”—I am still citing Peter Sissons—to mask the fact that it positions itself to serve its own best interests. For example, preference was given to Tony Blair’s party conference speech in 1995. Alastair Campbell berated the BBC editor to give the story precedence above all others based on the speech’s proximity to the next general election. That was what happened.

The BBC consistently gives left-wing politicians and figures a platform to spout policy and denounce the Government. Examples include the differing treatment of guests from different ends of the political spectrum on shows such as the “Today” programme. How politicians allow themselves to be treated so badly on the “Newsnight” programme, and on “Question Time” and so on, I do not know.

One thing that is particularly unforgivable is the constant practice of presenting the opinion of BBC correspondents as fact, as summed up by Peter Sissons, the former long-time BBC news presenter, in an article earlier this year. He said that “the increasing tendency” at the BBC is

“to interview its own reporters on air…Instead of concentrating on interviewing the leading players in a story or spreading the net wide for a range of views…It is a format intended to help clarify the facts, but which often invites the expression of opinion. When that happens, instead of hearing both sides of a story, the audience at home gets what is, in effect, the BBC’s view presented as fact.”

I know that I am biased, but we are blessed with an absolutely splendid Home Secretary and a first-class Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I do not criticise them regarding the challenge that lies ahead. In the past, after each election, the new Home Secretary has invited colleagues to come and talk about licensing and whether we should do away with it, but that has not happened this time. One of the main reasons why the BBC is so financially stretched is the cost of digital-only stations such as BBC 3. This youth-orientated channel costs £119 million a year. Shows on it include “Snog, Marry, Avoid?”, “Total Wipeout”, “Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum”, “Don’t Tell the Bride”, “Underage and Pregnant” and “Jamelia: Shame About Single Mums”. However, I am delighted that Mr Gareth Gates, whom we were honoured to have in the Palace of Westminster today to address the all-party group on speech and language difficulties—he had a speech problem himself—will be appearing on BBC 3 in November on a programme about people with speech difficulties. BBC 4, the more high-brow channel, costs £74 million.

I want to focus on the salaries of executives, because I now realise, as a Member of Parliament, that it is not the workers who are at fault in so many sectors of life but the management. The salaries that the management of the BBC are paid are absolutely ludicrous. The director-general is paid £838,000—this is madness! Other directors’ pay, as of March 2011, are: £488,000; £517,000; £467,000; and £452,000—not to mention what the financial controller gets. At 31 March 2011, 13 executive directors had cost us, the British people, £4,792,000, but we Members of Parliament are castigated for what we earn, and the electorate can get rid of us through the ballot box.

Let me give my hon. Friend an opportunity to take a breath of air after pouring out all those huge figures. Does he agree that it would be totally grotesque if BBC local radio, which is in touch with local communities, had to suffer cuts while those huge salaries were being paid out? In my part of Yorkshire, BBC local radio not only reports local sport such as Huddersfield Giants rugby league and Huddersfield Town football club, but is a valuable service when there is heavy snow, because it lets people know whether the schools are open, which shops are open and which roads are open or closed. People who cannot get out and about love their BBC local radio, and it would be totally grotesque if those salaries were still being paid while BBC local radio was being cut.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One cannot watch TV while driving a car, but one can listen to the radio. I love radio—Essex Radio is fantastic. I absolutely agree. Frankly, these BBC radio stations have been starved of cash, as can be seen by looking at some of their software.

The director-general proposed that the executives could increase their annual pay by tens of thousands of pounds through a policy known as “earn back”. I must say that I have the highest regard for Lord Patten, the current chairman of the BBC. I once had the honour of being his Private Parliamentary Secretary for a week, not because I was useless but because my former colleague, Robert Key, had been appointed as a Minister and I stood in for a week. Lord Patten is going to be a wonderful chairman of the BBC. Under the director-general’s proposals, however, the seven members of the BBC’s executive board, as well as the corporation’s 540 senior managers, would have been able to earn an extra 10% on top of their salaries by beating performance targets. The proposal was accepted by the BBC’s executive remuneration committee, but I am delighted to say that the new chairman stepped in and dealt with the issue. It just shows how out of touch they are.

I now move on to the presenters. I do not know whether we have brilliant presenters. I would just say that I find it slightly annoying that when one or two female presenters—I do not know whether they have had too much Botox or something—are presenting the news on a very serious subject, they smile. But their salaries, which we are paying for, are worth looking at. The highest paid stars’ earnings from the BBC cost 1.55% of the £3.49 billion that the licence fee brings in. That is huge.

The seven high-profile presenters involved in this year’s coverage of the Glastonbury music festival for the BBC were not only paid lots of money for going, but given complimentary tickets. Why did the BBC send 400 journalists to the Glastonbury festival? All this goes unquestioned. We are concentrating now on phone hacking and so on. If Parliament was as it used to be, we could properly scrutinise these things.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned performance targets. Does he agree that if there have to be performance targets, they should be based on the satisfaction of the TV licence holders, and that plenty of them are dissatisfied?

I am going to call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with his point, and I hope that will be a subject for another debate.

To save money, headquarters are moving to Salford. Well, I am sorry: London is the capital city. Other TV channels have found that London is the best place for programmes to be based. Indeed, ITV moved “This Morning” to London because it could not get guests to travel to the studio in Liverpool. There are fears that the corporation’s move to the north could turn out to be an £877 million white elephant. It is understood that the BBC has had to offer incentives for people to move to Salford.

On sport, I am sure that many hon. Members used to love watching cricket on the BBC, and wall-to-wall coverage of Wimbledon and so on. “Test Match Special” was so special. Well, all that has gone and now constituents are contacting me about Formula 1. We even had all the anti stuff against Andy Murray. Okay, he is Scottish; let’s get over it. He is a fantastic tennis player.

I end with a thought about the licence fee. I am delighted that the Government have frozen it at £145.50 until April 2017. That amounts to 40p a day, which for lots of people actually mounts up to quite a lot. The completion of the digital switchover in 2012 would be a good time to think once again about how the BBC is funded. The British Broadcasting Corporation is a jewel in our crown, if it is well run and managed. It is pointless to have Adjournment debates unless hon. Members’ arguments are listened to. I hope that my words have been listened to and that there will be changes in the ridiculous high salaries that are being paid.

Order. I remind Members that the debate finishes at 8.47, and I am sure that we want to give the Minister time to respond.

I am grateful for a little space from the Minister’s table to comment, because I will not follow the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) in his ludicrous accusations of bias in the BBC, about which he is as wrong as he was all those years ago about televising Parliament. However, he mentioned, in his back-handed way, quality in the BBC. We are about the get the document “Delivering Quality First” from the BBC, in which it will tell us how it will deliver a 20% reduction in spending and a 25% reduction in overheads. That is far more than can be gained by any reduction in fees paid to Jonathan Ross or “Paxperson”, or even in the director-general’s ludicrous salary.

This is a serious issue, because cuts cannot be made on that scale without damaging the BBC’s quality of production. This is a national jewel—a national asset—and we propose to inflict devastating cuts in production and staff, in the BBC’s scope and artistic integrity and, above all, in quality. Quality costs in television, and it must be financed.

Here we are damaging this precious asset as a result, it seems to me, of a dirty deal that was arrived at between the Conservative party and the Murdoch interests. In return for the Murdoch newspapers’ support, the Conservatives agreed in opposition to prune the BBC, as James Murdoch had asked for in his MacTaggart lecture, and to give them the ability to take over Sky. Part of that deal has now fallen through, but it is important—I wish the hon. Gentleman had mentioned this—to stop the decimation of services in the BBC. It must be stopped.

Far from using the licence fee as a stranglehold on the BBC to enforce reductions, we should pass at some stage a supplementary licence fee increase to save it from these cuts, which will be compounded by taking on the burden of the World Service. It is not now a matter of grumbling about bias at the BBC and making snide remarks about the salaries paid at the BBC. It is not now a matter of handwringing; it is a matter of fighting to save the BBC.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and near neighbour the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) on securing this important debate. I believe that I can set out the answer to the problems that he has talked about this evening. I have campaigned since becoming a parliamentarian for the democratisation of the BBC licence fee. I have presented a ten-minute rule Bill and tabled many motions and questions on the subject. I agree with him that the BBC is a jewel in the crown. I think of the quote from Shimon Peres, who said that the BBC makes

“dictatorship impossible, but democracy intolerable”.

I, like my hon. Friend, love Essex Radio and “Look East”. We know that they provide essential services for people in my community, but the problem is that we are compelled to pay for the BBC and have no say over its cost or programming. The BBC is monopolistic, with about a third of TV viewing and half of radio, but it does not need to make a commercial return, so other providers are crowded out. We have no recourse and no means of redress. I do not object to the licence fee; I would be happy to pay double.

My hon. Friend says that the BBC is a jewel in the crown, but what percentage of the British public does he think would purchase a licence if doing so were not compulsory?

If my hon. Friend waits, I will answer his question in a second. I would pay double for the licence, but the problem is that we have taxation without representation. We do not tolerate that in politics, and there is no reason why we should tolerate it in our public media.

Under my private Member’s Bill, which is due for consideration on 25 November, the BBC would have to set out an annual plan and licence fee payers would vote. It is quite astonishing that licence fee payers had no say over the appointment of Chris Patten, whatever his merits might be. To those who say that voting would mean a decline in quality, I say that that attitude is mixture of ignorance and snobbery—ignorance because there is a market for quality, as Classic FM and other quality media show, and snobbery because that is like saying that the public should not be free to choose for themselves.

Mine is not a radical proposal. Company shareholders have the right to hire and fire their boards. Residents have the right to elect their MPs and councillors. Given that we are supposed to be the BBC’s owners and are compelled to pay for it, we should democratise the licence fee immediately and give licence fee payers the vote.

I have been listening to the views expressed by hon. Members and I agree with quite a lot of what has been said, but the House should consider the fact that the fears and complaints expressed about monopolies in the media when News International attempted to take over Sky were taken on board by the Government, yet we hear no real complaint about the BBC’s monopoly, which reaches far more widely.

There is a lot of talk of cuts, but let us look at the quality of television programmes: as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) said, we have all those reality programmes, such as “Snog, Marry, Avoid”, which are ridiculed by the public and in the media. Is that what we want to spend our money on? I do not think it is. The ratings are dropping off and have been doing so steadily since 2000, when the reality TV boom occurred. We are ploughing all that money into the BBC without getting back programmes of the right quality. Efficiency is what we are trying to achieve, not stifling the BBC with cuts. We are trying to get the right deal for the public.

It has to be borne in mind that the Government have spent a lot of time and energy on ensuring that local communities have greater influence over their local services, yet that has not been applied to the BBC. Are we aware that the BBC does not feel that it should be included in this and be subject to the public’s views? We have only to listen to local radio to hear that it is stifled in its approach to what it broadcasts.

As more of our local papers move to online versions, does the House share my fear that non-commercial BBC websites might put them out of business, cutting choice for local residents? The BBC is an institution that we should protect, but the charge of cuts that is being thrown at the Government is the wrong one to make. The issue is quality within the BBC. That is the point I wanted to put before the House.

We have had a good debate, long after the House concluded the rest of its business, and the fact that so many hon. Members wanted to participate shows that it could have gone on for much longer. I hope that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) will tell his Front Benchers that they should initiate an Opposition day debate on the future of the BBC, because there is nothing that hon. Members enjoy more than having a good old debate about the good old BBC.

May I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) on introducing the debate and say how much I enjoyed his speech? I hope that I am not breaking a confidence if I say that before the debate he told me that he had a lot to get off his chest, and he certainly did. He started with praise for the BBC, and it is right and proper that we acknowledge that the BBC is one of the finest broadcasters not just in this country, but in the world. It sets a quality bar, which is why we have such high-quality television and radio in this country. At this point, it is traditional for a Member taking part in such a debate to praise his local radio station, so let me say that I think that BBC Radio Oxford is the finest local radio station in the country. That will now appear as a jingle this week on BBC Radio Oxford.

More seriously, may I also praise BBC Worldwide for its success, led by its extremely effective chief executive, John Smith? It makes a significant income for the BBC.

Many topics were covered in the debate, and I have four minutes in which to deal with them. First, I hear what my hon. Friend had to say about impartiality and the BBC. We all have views and might occasionally throw something at the television when we see an item that we think is unfair. The BBC, in the consultation document from the new chairman of the BBC Trust, has said that it is aware of those concerns and will now have annual impartiality reviews. It sounds rather Orwellian, but the BBC is going to have impartiality seminars for staff, where they will be re-educated away from their partial tendencies towards impartial tendencies.

I heard my hon. Friend speak of his concerns about BBC 3 and BBC 4. They are not watched by many, but they are loved by a few. Again, it is an indication of taste that in the litany of programmes of which he disapproved, one shone out—“Total Wipeout”—of which I have become a great fan, because I can watch it with my young children.

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the level of salaries at the BBC. I am not sure I agree with the assertion that the people who earn these salaries could earn significantly more in the outside world. If such people could triple their salaries there, one wonders why they are not going into the outside world. We have made progress in transparency, at least. I hear his concern about what talent is paid, particularly the talent who use their platform on the BBC to make significant outside earnings by speaking at corporate events, which are not declared by the BBC.

The new chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, is a welcome appointment. I am pleased that we have a licence fee freeze. That will be good for the licence fee payer. Although the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, Cassandra-like, predicts doom for the BBC under the licence fee freeze, my glass is half-full in that respect. What the BBC has, which other media companies do not have, is certainty of income for the next six years.

There will be a charter review. The new charter must be concluded by the end of 2016. It may be that we take into account the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) who, since he entered the House, has made a fantastic impact. I wonder, though, whether his proposals might be somewhat expensive.

May I also praise my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for his contribution—I am told that he used to be in a band, but it is not in Vachers, so I would like to know which band it was—and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), who highlighted the importance of local radio?

I conclude by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the debate. If anyone wants to know about my own political obsessions, let me point out that my devotion to Parliament and to the BBC means that once I watched the Parliament channel where, in archive footage, I saw the hon. Member for Great Grimsby in his younger days debating the merits of televising Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.