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Public Service Broadcasting (North-East)

Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2011

It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am pleased to have secured this debate, and I have a significant interest to declare. I recall Mike Neville explaining to me personally, or so it seemed at the time, what the posh word for a Geordie was: a Novocastrian. I remember learning the points of the compass—north, east, west and south—from the “Look North” weather map, before I was old enough to own a compass of my own.

Clearly, however, public service broadcasting in the north-east is about more than the memories of one Member of Parliament; it is an important part of the identity, culture and economy of the region. In its 2009 review, Ofcom set out the purpose of public service broadcasting, which included:

“To reflect and strengthen our cultural identity through original programming at UK, national and regional level.”

It characterised public service broadcasting:

“High quality—well-funded and well-produced; original—new UK content rather than repeats or acquisitions; innovative—breaking new ideas or re-inventing exciting approaches; challenging—making viewers think; engaging—remaining accessible; and widely available,”

so that a large majority of citizens have the chance to watch it. Will the Minister clarify whether he stands by those purposes and characteristics of public service broadcasting? If he does, will they continue to apply to public service broadcasting in the north-east after the current round of BBC cost cutting?

The purpose and characteristics of public service broadcasting are also enshrined in the BBC’s duties, and include:

“To reflect and strengthen cultural identities.”

The BBC, however, is not the only public service broadcaster; ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five must also meet public service broadcasting requirements. My concerns about the future of public service broadcasting in the north-east therefore apply to private sector broadcasters as well as to the BBC. In addition, all broadcasters are subject to the broadcasting code, which also recognises the importance of regional and local identity.

In his reply to my letter expressing the dismay of my constituents at the portrayal of Newcastle in “Geordie Shore,” Chris Woolard, group director of Ofcom, explained that cities could complain about how they were portrayed and that their individual identity should be recognised. However, despite long-standing lip service to the importance of regional identity and public service broadcasting, we have seen a steady diminution in its quality and availability in the north-east. The BBC now proposes further cuts in its “Delivering Quality First” consultation, and it is not an exaggeration to say that such cuts threaten the existence of public service broadcasting in the north-east.

In the past, commercial companies such as Tyne Tees Television were often the greatest champions of local culture and regional identity, by giving a platform to local music and drama, holding local politicians to account, and providing children’s programmes, educational, artistic or comedy programmes—indeed, programmes of every genre. Local BBC stations would cover news, sport, politics and documentaries, and support locally produced drama, resulting in a wide and diverse range of programming. I remember watching “When the Boat Comes in”, “The Tube”, “The Likely Lads”, “Razamatazz”, “Northern Life”, “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” and many other great examples of local content, as well as listening to a wide range of local radio programming. As well as reflecting regional culture back on ourselves, such diversity helped build local skills, thereby supporting a regional industry that provided high-quality jobs, and train the next generation of broadcasters.

Unfortunately, following consolidation in the television and broadcasting industry, and in the face of rising competition and falling revenues, regional commercial broadcasting has been much weakened. In 2009, Ofcom further reduced regional broadcasting requirements on commercial public service broadcasters. Some support for local television used to be available through Northern Film and Media, funded by the Film Council and the regional development agency, but the Government have now cut that support.

It is not therefore surprising that this summer, in Ofcom’s latest assessment of the state of public service broadcasting, the criterion

“reflecting and strengthening our cultural identity”

scored the lowest marks ever. Only a third of viewers think that public service broadcasting channels do well in

“portraying my region well to the rest of the UK,”

and in providing

“programmes about my region or nation.”

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate; she is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that at a time when the north-east is suffering dreadfully from the economic downturn, it is particularly important that regional broadcasting is able to produce documentaries to show people, both in the region and elsewhere, what is happening? Regional broadcasting can also help to build on a lot of the good that exists in an area, and provide a good and balanced picture. Simply lumping the north-east with other northern areas will not do.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One great strength of regional broadcasting is that local broadcasters understand what is happening in a region such as the north-east, and can go further in identifying issues that are relevant to local people. That is especially true in the north-east at this difficult time. Media outside the north-east have a tendency to portray the area in negative terms—perhaps rightly given the disproportionate cuts that the area is experiencing—but that does not reflect the strengths and the entrepreneurial spirit that is a feature of north-eastern culture.

Against that background, the BBC has proposed the implementation of further drastic cuts to regional provision. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has said that he is keen to support local television, but his proposals are—to be kind—not yet viable and not without controversy. There are major gaps in coverage—the city of Durham, for example, will have no local television coverage—and even in the best possible scenario, local services will not be running until after 2015. Does the Minister think that those local TV services will be complementary to regional public service broadcasting, or is he happy to weaken regional broadcasting on the basis that local TV will replace it?

If we accept the purposes and characteristics of public sector broadcasting as set out by Ofcom and if we consider the reductions in commercial regional broadcasting, the cuts to public support for local talent and the limitations of the local TV proposals, there can be no doubt that the existence of regional public sector broadcasting depends on BBC funding. However, the BBC cuts include, among other things, a 40% cut in investigative programming.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In the past, I might have complained that Darlington, in the south of the north-east, did not get its fair share of attention in regional output. That can only become more of a problem if the north-east is put together with places such as Crewe, Sheffield, Hull and Lancaster. Great as they are, they have nothing at all to do with what it is like to live in the north-east.

On investigative journalism, first-class work has been done by people in the north-east. I am thinking of issues such as that involving Southern Cross. That is particularly pertinent to me because the company is based in Darlington.

With your permission, Mr Gray, I will just finish the point. I think that some of the things that were exposed thanks to the BBC would not have been exposed had we not had that superb output, content and journalism in the north-east.

My hon. Friend makes two excellent points. The first is that it is important to reflect the rich diversity within a region. The north-east is diverse, but it is much harder to reflect that diversity when we are looking at extended supra-regions that may cover half the country. Secondly, it is very important that investigative journalism has the scale and presence locally to be able to identify issues of great significance to local people’s lives, such as Southern Cross, and to be able to invest the right local resources in tracking down the causes of the issues and ensuring that people are made aware of them. Therefore, the cuts to investigative journalism in the north-east are particularly worrying. “Inside Out” is the last remaining dedicated in-depth regional programme on British TV, and the North East and Cumbria edition has won Royal Television Society awards for the last six years running. However, it faces cuts that will see it lose 40% of its staff.

The BBC also proposes 20% staff cuts to local radio stations. That is about 10 jobs each in Newcastle and Tees. It means that programming will be shared across the entire north-east in the afternoons and across the whole of England in the evenings.

Before the hon. Lady leaves the investigative journalism issue, I want to reinforce the point that she is making. Very few other organisations have the investigative journalist staff who can maintain the contacts and have sufficient local knowledge to do the kind of work that the BBC’s “Inside Out” team has been doing.

The right hon. Gentleman makes the excellent point that the investigative journalism supported by the BBC is essential to our ongoing understanding of what is happening in our region so that we can get to the bottom of many of the issues that will not be raised by national media.

I emphasise that cuts to local radio will have a disproportionate effect on older people. Many of them look to local radio for a sense of connection with their community. Ofcom has shown that older people are more likely to listen to the radio at least five days a week, with almost nine in 10 of those aged over 55 doing so. More than a third of Radio Newcastle’s listeners are over 65.

The BBC also envisages a two-thirds cut in local weather presenters. Given the almost sacred position that the weather holds in the national as well as the regional psyche, the end of local weather reporting for much of the day seems deliberately designed to undermine local identity. It is ironic that the cuts are taking place as the BBC is moving many areas of coverage to BBC North in Manchester. We welcome the BBC’s attempts to extend its presence from the capital, but I hope that the Minister does not need me to point out to him that for my constituents, Manchester is a long way south. Apparently, when Caroline Thomson, the BBC’s chief operating officer, visited Newcastle recently, she was surprised to learn that it takes longer to get from Newcastle to Salford than it does to get from Newcastle to London; I am sure that the Minister is more familiar with the public rail network. I hope that he would agree that MediaCity, welcome though it is, should not be an excuse for reducing provision in the north-east. Equally, although I appreciate that “Tracy Beaker” and “Inspector George Gently” are made in the north-east, that is not an excuse for withdrawing quality investigative journalism.

At the meeting of the all-party group on the BBC on 3 November, Mark Thompson admitted that the proposed cuts take regional coverage to a bare minimum. Is that what the Minister wishes for public service broadcasting in the north-east? As it is, BBC audience appreciation levels fall the further we go from London and the south-east.

I therefore hope that the Minister will tell me whether he supports the objectives and characteristics of public service broadcasting as set out by Ofcom. Will he confirm that local TV proposals are not a justification for diminishing regional TV? Will he confirm that the people of the north-east should be able to expect quality and representation in regional broadcasting? Will he agree to do all he can to ensure that the BBC does not further undermine public service broadcasting in the north-east? The Minister may argue that that is the responsibility of the BBC and Ofcom. But it is he who is accountable to the people of the north-east for culture and media in the north-east.

Public service broadcasting in the north-east must be high quality, well funded, well produced, original, innovative, challenging, engaging and widely available programming that reflects and strengthens our regional cultural identity. That requires a minimum level of provision, and the proposed BBC cuts take us well below that. I hope that the Minister can promise the survival of good-quality public service broadcasting in the north-east.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, for what I think is the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this important debate on public service broadcasting in the north-east. I think that I have said this before, but I will say it again: she is a doughty champion for her constituents and for her region. She certainly does not need to convince me that Newcastle and the rest of the north-east are great places to live and work. I spent my summer holiday last year in Newcastle. This year, I did not have a summer holiday, but last year, when I did, it was in Newcastle. I also spent new year in Newcastle. I am a regular visitor to the Sage in Gateshead. The transformation of Newcastle and Gateshead in using culture to create almost from scratch a vibrant £1 billion a year tourism and inward investment industry is a great beacon to the rest of the UK. It is no surprise that on 5 December the Turner prize ceremony—I think that it will be televised—will be held at the BALTIC centre for contemporary art in Gateshead. Obviously, I do not have the extensive knowledge of the area that the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends have, but she certainly does not need to convince me of its merits.

We watched the same programmes when we were growing up. I fondly remember watching with my late father “When The Boat Comes In”, with James Bolam. It was the Vaizey family’s favourite programme. I am delighted to see that James Bolam’s career has gone from strength to strength. I now watch him regularly in “Grandpa In My Pocket” with my five-year-old and three-year-old. Of course, “The Tube” also did so much to forge our cultural identity.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central invites me to endorse the purposes of public service broadcasting, as set out by Ofcom. Given the tone in which she did so, I could not help but feel that she was somehow setting a trap for me, but I can see no reason not to endorse the purposes of public service broadcasting. Perhaps she invites me to—

I simply want to assure the Minister that no trap was intended when I invited him to endorse the important principles behind the purposes and characteristics of public service broadcasting. They are incredibly important at a time when the BBC’s actions would seem to undermine them.

As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out in her speech, it is not just the BBC that is a public service broadcaster, but ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five. If she will allow me to go slightly off-piste, it is important to say that the Government have a communications review under way, and we hope to publish a Green Paper early next year. In it, we will discuss the future of public service broadcasting, but it is certainly our intention, in principle, to maintain the public service broadcasting principles. It is interesting—I say no more that, and I hope Members will not read anything more into my words—to have a debate about the future of public service broadcasting in a digital age, when we have multiple digital channels and the internet. Our initial thinking is certainly that public service broadcasting remains an extraordinarily important cornerstone of UK content throughout the country, and we intend to reinforce the purposes of public service broadcasting in the Green Paper.

Most of the hon. Lady’s remarks focused on the BBC and the cuts it is making as a result of the licence fee settlement. Obviously, I will put the positive case for what the BBC is doing. In the recent debate on local radio, which was well attended, with more than 50 colleagues present, I was intrigued to find myself being assailed by Labour Members for being a defender of the BBC, which is perhaps an unusual position for a Conservative Minister to be in. However, I will bow to no one in my defence of the BBC; it is the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in this country, and we are lucky to have it. It does a superb job. In fact, its commercial rivals—I am talking about not only Sky, but ITV, Channel 4, Channel Five and, indeed, some of the newspapers—express concerns to the effect that the BBC does its job almost too well, making it harder for them to make a living.

The BBC therefore does a fantastic job, but everyone is having to make savings, and when families up and down the country are trying to manage their budgets, this is not the right time substantially to increase the BBC licence fee. What the BBC does have, which no other media company in this country really has—indeed, very few media companies around the world have this—is certainty over its funding until March 2017. That is an important asset for the BBC, and it means that it can plan ahead. Let us not forget that the BBC also receives additional income because of the success of BBC Worldwide.

The BBC is therefore well funded, but it is having to make savings. As we know from the debate about local radio, which focused on the proposals in “Delivering Quality First”, the BBC is looking to make savings of about 10% in local radio, if we take into account the cuts and the fact that the BBC wants to put more money back into programming. In that debate, I defended the BBC’s approach in “Delivering Quality First”, because I felt—and I still feel—that it has taken a strategic approach, and some of the changes that it proposes for local radio are based more on quality than cost cutting.

I must tell the hon. Lady and her colleagues, however, that that debate had a significant impact. I am not privy to the BBC’s thinking or to any changes that it might be thinking of making, but I assure them that I think the BBC has listened to the concerns that were raised. I do not know what changes, if any, it plans to make, but it is certainly legitimate for hon. Members to raise such concerns, and I am pleased that the hon. Lady attended the meeting with Mark Thompson and Lord Patten, when they came to the House to discuss these issues.

On the specific changes in the north-east, my understanding is that there are no plans to stop providing an “Inside Out” edition for the north-east. There will be savings in that programme strand, because this is a regional programme that goes out across the country in different regional variations. That means that there will be a smaller team, and more items in specific programmes might be shared.

On local radio, my understanding is that Newcastle and Tees will have to share a programme on weekday afternoons. The hon. Lady also mentioned the weather report, and I agree that it is an important part of public service broadcasting. There will still be a specific evening weather report, but it is true that the BBC is planning to pre-record the weather report for the early-morning and lunchtime broadcasts on local radio and regional television.

The BBC has had to make some tough decisions, but it has done so in a way that shows that it wants to provide the best possible service for every region in the country. I think the BBC takes its regional responsibilities very seriously, and I certainly know from my conversations with the director-general over the years that he absolutely feels in his bones the need for the BBC to be a service for every licence payer, wherever they live in the United Kingdom, and he would be wary of any proposals that undermined that.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Government’s proposals for local television, and she raises a good point. She mentioned concerns that local television might not be up and running until after 2015. We hope to have the first 20 stations launched in 2012, but if I am wrong about that, I will write to her to correct myself. I also understand—again, if I am wrong, I will write to her to correct myself—that Newcastle and Middlesbrough are among the locations that were consulted over the summer about the local TV framework and potential locations. An announcement will be made just before Christmas on where Ofcom intends to advertise local television licences.

Local television is potentially a revolution in public service broadcasting. It is there to complement the existing public service broadcasting framework, not to replace it. It is there to fill the gap that the Secretary of State felt very keenly, and which he worked on in opposition. Funnily enough, too many regional programmes, which many hon. Members have rightly defended in recent months, are still not local enough, and the Government think audiences would welcome ultra-local television.

On the other investment going into the north-east, the BBC has an impact fund, which is designed specifically to fund programmes in the regions, and it has funded 13 programmes in the north-east over the past two years.

The hon. Lady mentioned changes in the regional development agencies and in Northern Film and Media. I am delighted that Creative England has now been launched under the exemplary leadership of Caroline Norbury, and it has now received £5 million from the regional growth fund. It will maintain a presence in all the regions, and it will work with Northern Film and Media to ensure that investment opportunities exist for local independent production companies, video games companies and all the other high-tech companies that are so successful in the north-east.

One issue we have not covered, and which I often mention—this was an achievement of the previous Government, and I am happy to credit them with it—is the explosion in community radio, which was brought about by the Communications Act 2003. There are now more than 200 local community radio stations across the country, and I am sure many are also thriving in the north-east.

We still have regional quotas for all the public service broadcasters. When I talk to independent production companies in the north-east, they are keen to impress on me the importance of those quotas in ensuring that programmes are commissioned around the country.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) is now yawning, and the clock is flashing, showing that the debate is about to end. Those are strong signals that I have made the points I need to make and that it is time for me to sit down and conclude the debate.

Sitting suspended.