The BBC is a global British institution of huge importance and value to millions of licence fee payers and people all over the world who look on it as an exemplar of independent public service broadcasting. In light of the ongoing crisis, it is crucial that the BBC puts the systems in place to ensure it can continue to make the first-class news and current affairs programmes on which its reputation rests.
George Entwistle has taken full responsibility for the failings of “Newsnight” in his role as editor-in-chief and it was for that reason he decided to resign yesterday. The circumstances of his departure make it hard to justify the level of severance money that has been agreed. Contractual arrangements are a matter for the BBC Trust, but the Trust also has clear responsibilities to ensure value for money for the licence fee payer. I know that Lord Patten has written to the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport outlining why the Trust took the decision it did, and that letter has been made public. It is right that the Trust should account publicly for its decision and I have repeatedly emphasised the need for full transparency to rebuild public trust.
Members will know that procedures are now in place to scrutinise the BBC’s decisions in delivering value for money—procedures strengthened by this Government. The National Audit Office is empowered to conduct a value-for-money review of any issue. If it decides to review this decision, I expect that the BBC would co-operate fully.
The BBC is in the midst of the most serious of crises, and I have made it clear both publicly and privately that the Trust was slow off the mark in responding to the initial crisis over Savile. It is now acting decisively, with three reviews, one of which reported yesterday; the other two are ongoing. It is in the long-term interests of the BBC to have a period of stability in which to see this important work completed.
In my conversations with Lord Patten, I have been clear that the overall aim of the Trust must be to rebuild the public’s trust in the BBC, and I know that Lord Patten agrees. There are three things that the Trust needs to do to achieve that. First, the immediate task for the BBC must be to address whatever failings there have been in the editorial process, particularly in “Newsnight”, in order to restore public confidence in the BBC. The Trust needs to act swiftly to ensure that the management and leadership issues are resolved, and that the failings cannot be repeated. It is clear from the interim director-general’s interviews today that the BBC is looking seriously at what went wrong, where responsibility lies, and how to address the matter in the long term, and I welcome that.
Secondly, the Trust must get the right director-general in post, and Lord Patten has indicated that he will do that as soon as possible. Above all, it must get the right candidate to stabilise the BBC and drive through the change that is necessary. As I have said, the BBC is a global British institution, and it needs to function effectively.
Thirdly, in all this, we must not lose sight of the inquiries and what is at the heart of these events. None of the developments in recent days should overshadow the investigations into the alleged horrendous abuse of children in institutions around our country. It is vital that the BBC responds correctly and decisively to the Pollard inquiry on the decision to drop the “Newsnight” item on Savile, and to the Smith inquiry looking at Savile’s abuses and the culture and practices of the BBC.
The BBC is an independent institution, and its independence is not, and never will be, in question. Ultimately, the only organisation that can restore the public’s trust in the BBC is the BBC itself.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that answer. Does she agree that, first and foremost, we need to have in mind the people who suffered the horror of sexual abuse as children? It takes great courage to come forward, and that we must encourage and support them to do that. Does she also agree that it was disgraceful that “Newsnight” falsely accused an individual of the sexual abuse of children—a damning accusation that could only have caused him and his family untold distress?
As the director-general is editor-in-chief and the buck stops with him, it was right for him to resign. George Entwistle is a decent man for whom this has no doubt been a personal tragedy. We have heard what the Secretary of State said about the pay-off, but surely she must agree that the BBC Trust cannot justify a pay-off of double the amount laid down in George Entwistle’s contract. Does she take the view that I do—that George Entwistle should reflect on this and only take that to which he is entitled under his contract?
Turning to what happens next, the Secretary of State is right that what is needed is a period of stability, so that the Trust can oversee the BBC’s sorting itself out. Does she agree that in the heat of this crisis, there are dangers that we must avoid? We should not trespass on the BBC’s independence. We do not want politicians to meddle with what newspapers write; neither should that happen with the BBC. Does she agree that the next victim of this crisis must not be the independence of the BBC? Does she also agree that while it is imperative that the BBC reinstates professional standards, it is important that the pendulum does not swing so far the other way that the BBC becomes cowed and retreats into risk avoidance?
The BBC is a loved and trusted institution, but it has enemies waiting to pounce. Will the Secretary of State assure this House that she will stand up to the commercial competitors and political opponents who are lining up to attack and wound the BBC at this moment of crisis? The BBC has made grave mistakes, and must sort them out, but everyone, including we politicians, must keep cool heads and let that happen, so that the BBC can restore trust. That is what the public want, and what the country needs.
The right hon. and learned Lady called for an urgent question today, so she is very much standing there questioning the BBC. I endorse what she says, as we should let the BBC get on with putting its house in order. It is absolutely vital that we have a period of stability to do exactly what she was discussing, to make sure that the BBC can put its house in order, and restore stability to one of our most highly prized national institutions. I hope that she would join me in calling for that period of stability.
The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that we should not at any point forget why these issues are under review right now—it is because of the sexual abuse of some of the most vulnerable people in society, and she will have noted the comments that I made in my statement. It is absolutely right that she should deplore the actions of those who repeated wrong accusations against people who clearly had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in the dreadful events that related to these problems.
As for the terms and conditions of those who are leaving the BBC, the right hon. and learned Lady will know that that is very much a matter for the BBC itself. I agree, as I have said, that it is hard to justify the level of payment that has been discussed. It is for Mr Entwistle himself to decide whether it is appropriate to accept that payment. I repeat again to the right hon. and learned Lady, as I said in my opening comments, that the National Audit Office can undertake a value-for-money review of the issues, which is an important thing to note.
Order. I am minded to run the exchanges on this question for approximately half an hour, but there is a premium, if I am to accommodate colleagues’ level of interest, on short questions and short answers. Long questions by one colleague will cause another colleague to be deprived of the opportunity to contribute.
Given that under the one-off agreement between the Department and the BBC Trust, the Comptroller and Auditor General is unable, without the consent of the BBC Trust, to inquire into the regularity of the £450,000 severance payment to the director-general, would it not make sense to give the NAO unfettered access for its value-for-money audits and place the BBC on the same basis as every other public body?
I know that my hon. Friend has looked at this issue in great detail. I repeat that the NAO is already empowered to conduct a value-for-money review. He makes an important point that in this day and age people expect all public institutions to be open to the widest possible scrutiny.
As George Entwistle has been given a huge pay-off to go quietly, is my right hon. Friend at all concerned that the BBC will try to use pay-offs to ensure the silence of those implicated in the Savile and “Newsnight” scandals? Will she make it clear to the chairman of the BBC Trust that the BBC must be open about its failings and not use licence fee payers’ money to avoid the corporation’s own embarrassment?
Does not this sorry episode illustrate the folly of entrusting the regulation of the BBC to a neutered body presided over by passé politicians from both parties who act in cosy collusion with the BBC, when what the BBC needs is proper regulation—an independent body, but properly and appropriately regulated?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a colourful intervention. I remind him gently that it was his party that put in place the present structure. We will make sure that in the long term we have a structure that can protect what I have already said is one of our iconic national institutions.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s opening comments. The recent catalogue of senior management failings has given the BBC’s opponents the ammunition to attack what is, for the most part, a great broadcasting institution. So does the right hon. Lady agree that the decision to award a pay-off worth twice the amount of the contract gives the BBC’s opponents a green light to maintain their attack, rather than giving the BBC an opportunity to learn from its mistakes?
I agree with both Front-Bench speakers that the main focus should be on the abuse of children in north Wales. There is a danger of intimidating the BBC. May I give the House a quick example? On Thursday I was interviewed by BBC Wales about child abuse. I mentioned the role of the Welsh Office and the fact that the Welsh Office had known for 20 years that this abuse was going on. I mentioned the fact that there was a convicted paedophile who had worked at the Welsh Office in a senior position, responsible for children’s services. The next day I did a similar interview and I was asked not to mention that person—I had not mentioned the person by name, anyway. I asked why not, and I was told, “That person might be identified because there were a small number of people.” He had already been identified; he was a convicted paedophile. So it is dangerous also that the BBC might now feel intimidated about broadcasting matters which it should broadcast.
I understand the right hon. Lady’s point, although I say firmly that there are many lessons to be learned from the current situation. One of them is that it is in no way sensible to name individuals without there having been a proper and thorough criminal investigation associated with it.
Will the Secretary of State speak up for licence payers and ask Lord Patten, when she next talks to him, whether he will reconsider the outrageous and over-the-top pay-off and what he intends to do about the excessive number of highly paid managers, which he now condemns as if he were a critic, rather than their boss?
The hon. Gentleman makes his own point. I am concerned about making sure that the Trust is doing everything it can to bring the current situation to order, and to make sure that the licence fee payers are getting the sort of value for money that they would expect from a national institution.
My hon. Friend will know that the director-general of the BBC is appointed by the BBC Trust, and Mr Entwistle was appointed by the Trust on a unanimous basis. What is important now is that we have a new director-general in place who can tackle some real and important issues and a very serious crisis facing the organisation.
The Secretary of State will know that there is great concern in Scotland about the crisis at the BBC, although BBC Scotland had no role in it. Does she agree with the National Union of Journalists and others who suggest that the job cuts to front-line journalistic staff have at least a part to play in this? May we have a moratorium on such job cuts until the crisis is resolved?
I think that the hon. Gentleman would have to agree that the problem we face is a structural one within the BBC organisation. It is a problem that the BBC Trust is addressing through the plans and reviews it has put in place, and I hope that he will join me in welcoming that as the right way forward.
In the past few days the main news headlines have been about structural overhaul at the BBC, heads rolling and severance payments, yet in the same few days we have heard about further arrests in connection with Savile and with child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and Leeds that have hardly troubled the headlines. The Secretary of State is right to say that the origins of all this mess are the inquiries into Savile and child abuse under the BBC’s roof. Does she agree that sensationalist celebrity scalp hunting by Opposition Members and shoddy reporting by “Newsnight” have undermined the possibility that witnesses will come back and that we need to get the inquiry back on track and focused on child abuse, which is where it started and where it should end?
My hon. Friend puts it extremely well. We cannot let these debates fog the central question: how do we ensure that we protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society? I welcome the fact that there will be a Back-Bench debate on that tomorrow, when I am sure he will continue to contribute and make the excellent points he has made this afternoon.
The tragic case of Madeleine McCann shows that newspaper editors can make the most appalling allegations without having to resign or being sacked by their proprietors, so we should bring some perspective to George Entwistle’s departure, whether it was truly voluntary or whether he was pushed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the BBC Trust has compounded all the errors by agreeing to this misjudged double pay-off and, in so doing, has made it doubly difficult for even the friends of the BBC, and there are many, to stand up for it?
The hon. Gentleman is right that the level of pay-off will not be easy for Members in the Chamber to understand and that it is difficult to justify. However, I hope that he will agree that at this point we need to ensure that the BBC has a period of stability so that it can proceed with the reviews it has undertaken and we can create the sort of change that will strengthen the organisation for the long term.
The BBC is bigger than “Newsnight”, which is one programme, and what happened is terrible, but does the Secretary of State agree that we should allow Tim Davie, who has already shown clear leadership today, some time to get the BBC back on track so that it can finish those inquiries?
This has clearly been a dark time for the BBC, but does the Secretary of State recognise that last week it covered the American elections and that there was a range of programming on television and radio of an incredible standard and that this should not be used as a tool to undermine the basis of a public broadcaster?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the incredibly important contribution the BBC makes. We saw that through the summer with its coverage of the Olympics. We must also ensure that the changes that are being made allow continued support for the sort of investigative journalism that is a critical part of its role.
Yesterday our nation gathered to mourn our war dead, Israeli forces exchanged fire with forces in Syria and there was the small matter of an election in China. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the interminable introspection the BBC is going through at the moment and agree that we need to put these events in perspective and focus on the real issue, which is uncovering child abuse?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we should not let these matters cloud the central issue of child abuse. Equally, it is vital that we ensure that our country’s main news broadcaster has the management and editorial controls in place to ensure trust in the work it does.
Over the weekend allegations were made that an abuser in the north Wales case had previously abused children in my constituency in the 1960s and ’70s. As other Members have said, we must ensure that it is those people we focus on and that we put as much effort, if not more, into ensuring that proper resources go into encouraging victims of abuse to come forward. That might well mean that the Government will have to look at giving further support to social services departments and the police, because those people will not just feel frightened and apprehensive; they might have spent a lifetime feeling that in some way they are guilty. They need a lot of support, and we should give it to them.
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on it when he says that the important issue that comes out of this is that people who have suffered abuse do not in any way feel impeded in coming forward for fear of being part of what has become a media circus. We have to make sure that people have the confidence to be able to do that, and he is right to make sure that we focus on it. Perhaps he will contribute to tomorrow’s Back-Bench debate as well.
May I assure Labour Members that many Members of Parliament on the Government Benches think that the BBC is a great and fantastic global news organisation? Indeed, I love the BBC, not least BBC Radio Shropshire. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely vital that the new director-general is the right person for the job and that the Trust does not, in a panic and in a crisis, rush to judgment about putting someone in but ensures that we get the right person to lead this wonderful organisation forward into the rest of the century?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the work of local BBC stations and organisations; we all know that they do a fantastic job of work in our constituencies. He is also right to say that we need to ensure that we have in the new director-general somebody who is able to deal with the real structural changes that are required in the organisation, as already outlined by the chairman of the Trust.
This is certainly the worst crisis that the BBC has faced for at least nine years. Does the Secretary of State agree that if the editorial policy of the BBC is in need of review, then that review must be done by independent professional journalists and not by middle managers or by Government Ministers, and certainly not by Members of the House of Lords?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the two reviews on the BBC that are still ongoing are being conducted by individuals not only with extensive experience in journalism, in the case of Mr Pollard, but of absolutely the highest standard and the highest integrity in the case of Janet Smith. He can therefore be assured that those investigations will be conducted in the most appropriate way possible.
Lord Patten wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds on the appointment process for George Entwistle, and he has now wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds on paying him off, saying that he was not up to the job, that he was overwhelmed by it, and that he was right to resign. Lord Patten has been asleep at the wheel, he has been off the pace from the word go, and he is part of the problem rather than the solution. Is it not time that the Secretary of State tapped him on the shoulder and told him to move aside and manage all his other outside interests, which are probably why he has been treating this as a sinecure and has done absolutely nothing to earn the staggering salary that he gets?
My hon. Friend’s strength of feeling is clear. While, as I said, the Trust could have acted more quickly with the initial inquiries, I now feel that it is acting decisively to address this very serious crisis. Lord Patten has a key role in ensuring that the crisis is well handled, and I support him in doing that.
Genuine supporters of the BBC will be appalled whenever it slips from the very highest standard of integrity and quality because we expect it domestically and worldwide to achieve that gold standard. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the detractors who seek to make mileage out of this predicament will not be given free rein, because we need the BBC to be there investigating, with the strongest possible standards, the child abuse that is at the centre of this issue?
Is not one of the lessons that we need to learn that all of us in this place need to be very careful that we do not use parliamentary privilege simply to stand up stories for journalists outside? Is not one of the sad facts, as events have unfurled and unfolded, that some journalists and, I am afraid, some parliamentarians were so keen to have a crack at the previous Thatcher Government by way of association and innuendo that they made no, or no reasonable, effort to check the accuracy of their assertions and accusations?
There are two strands to today’s discussion—that it is vital that the victims of abuse feel confident that if they come forward their cases will be considered, and that the BBC, whether it be local radio, drama or children’s programmes, is a national treasure. Can the Secretary of State say with confidence that she feels that the Trust fully understands that, apart from changing personnel, there is an issue around the ethos of the BBC that needs serious consideration, including the messages sent to the public about the golden goodbyes?
The hon. Lady is right to ensure that we always keep to the fore the situation of children who have been victims of abuse. I am sure she has read Lord Patten’s words that he fully understands the issue with the ethos of the organisation—something that he made clear when he was appointed.
As a result of George Entwistle going there might be other departures from the BBC because of the present crisis. If so, will the Secretary of State assure the House that she will press Lord Patten to ensure that not only the notice provisions of individuals’ contracts but the clauses that speak of proper performance of their duties are looked at; and that if payments are made proper consideration will be given to what, if any, performance there has been?
Last week, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales made it clear he had had some contact with members of the public who had been abused in children’s homes in north Wales but had not come forward before. I am sure we welcome people feeling that they can do so, but many of us fear that certain events will make them nervous, especially given the current media reaction. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is spectacularly unhelpful when people who should know better refer to such people as “weirdos”?
Twice in the past 12 months the House has discussed the lack of management control over large media organisations—now the BBC and earlier News International led by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who I see is not in his place today. Will my right hon. Friend say whether this raises issues about revising the roles of the BBC so that it can focus on doing right those things it does best?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the importance of focusing the BBC. I hope that at the heart of the review we will have the opportunity to ensure that we get back to doing what the BBC does best—world-class broadcasting and world-class news journalism.
Will the Secretary of State ensure there is no witch hunt at the BBC? Does she agree that the priorities must be a combination of justice for the victims of the now well-documented abuse and of lessons being learned for now and for the future so that children’s protection is always at the heart of what we do?
Management of the current situation is very much for members of the BBC executive. I see day in, day out their desire to get to the bottom of the issues, which I have encouraged them to do rather than look for any easy way out. The hon. Gentleman is right that we must ensure that we put the safeguarding of children at the heart of what the not only the BBC but every public organisation does.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even after the shoddy journalism we have seen at the BBC, the most important thing is getting to the bottom of who perpetrated those crimes and ensuring that the police are allowed to get on and do their job? That journalism should not cloud the situation or do anything to stop the police.
The BBC foolishly cut spending on its high-quality, in-house investigative journalism, and contracted it to outside bodies in order to spend excessively on salaries for managers and stars. Is it not true that the situation is serious for the BBC, but ephemeral, and that the nation’s trust in the BBC is deeply rooted and permanent?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this latest debacle will bring forward the day when the British public will have the freedom to decide whether to pay to watch the BBC, rather than being forced to pay for it by the criminal law?
The role of the Trust is to ensure that the BBC executive works as it should. We will always work closely with Lord Patten on that. At this point, we want to ensure that there is a period of stability in which we can see the outcomes of the reviews that have been put in place. They may well raise the sorts of issues the hon. Gentleman raises.
The BBC, across local radio, regional television and national broadcasting, is more accurate and reliable, and better trusted, than Britain’s newspapers, particularly those with foreign owners who have a vested interest in, and commercial reasons for, wanting to damage the BBC. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that the failings will not be used as an excuse to dismantle a great British institution that is the envy of the free world?
The hon. Gentleman is right that a mixed media in this country is important—both broadcast and press have an important role to play. He can have an assurance today that the Government, working in support of the Trust, are trying to ensure that the BBC goes back to being a global player in terms of highly respected journalism, including investigative journalism.
There is no doubt that “Newsnight” broadcast a car crash of a television programme or that changes are needed at the BBC, but does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a mistake to use the problems emanating from that “Newsnight” programme and the current difficulties at the BBC to rubbish everything it does and all it stands for?
My hon. Friend says that it is important to value the wide cross-section of things that the BBC does. He is right to do that, but it is also right to ensure that such an important institution in this country has the right management structures in place for people to have full confidence in it.
I think my hon. Friend would have to agree that what we want now is a solution to the situation we are in. It is clear to me that we need to look at the factual evidence coming out of the reports that have already been commissioned. That is the most important thing we can be doing here and now.
The BBC is an institution of world renown that is respected in every corner of our world. Of course when there is failure and wasteful pay-offs they must be acknowledged, apologised for and put right; but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is much in the British national interest that the current crisis should be dealt with in a reasoned, balanced and proportionate way, without inflicting long-term damage on the BBC?
It is clear that a great number of people are busy grinding their axe on this issue. I personally hope that the BBC can get back to doing what it does best: quality programming and world-leading journalism. However, so that more funds from the licence fee payers are not diverted away from that and so they do not have to pay twice, will my right hon. Friend join me in suggesting that some of the outgoing director-general’s pay-off could be set aside for—I would not want to prejudge anything—any future payments that might have to be made?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite frankly the BBC has shown itself always to be in contempt of this place? I remember when we first came here we had several debates about a lack of funding for local radio because of the freeze in the licence fee, yet Jeremy Paxman himself said yesterday that too much money is being put into middle management and not journalism. Will she ensure that the BBC gets back to doing journalism, rather than trying to beat the Government with a stick all the time?
I hope that “Newsnight” is back tonight, slowly turning politicians on the spit; but although the BBC can be held accountable in a court of law for its outrageous and devastating slur against an innocent man, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) cannot. Does the Secretary of State agree that he should have been here this afternoon to make an apology?
A lot has been said in recent weeks about pay at the BBC, but anybody who has ever tried to ask a question about the BBC at the Table Office will know that it is near enough impossible. In the collegiate spirit of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), does the Secretary of State not think it time to reform some of the BBC’s archaic ways and allow Members of this House to find out exactly what is going on there, so that perhaps a lot of the debacles we have seen over the past few weeks will not happen again?
The ability to scrutinise the BBC has been strengthened under this Government; my hon. Friend asks whether we should go further. Clearly all of us in public office—indeed, all public institutions—have transparency and scrutiny as our everyday business, and I think that goes for every single public organisation.
Licence fee payers in Kettering and, indeed, throughout the country face a criminal sanction if they fail to buy their television licences. Is it not clear that the BBC is being far too liberal with licence fee payers’ money, whether it is spent on low-tax contracts for overpaid presenters or the awarding of twice the amount of severance pay that should be awarded? Given that Lord Patten, as chairman of the Trust, has presided over the appointment of a clearly unsuitable person and then presided over his departure with twice the severance pay that he should have received, is it not time for the chairman himself to go?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that it should be possible to hold every public organisation to account for the way in which it uses money. I remind him that the National Audit Office is empowered to examine value-for-money issues of that kind. However, I think that at this point it should be possible for there to be a period of calm within the BBC, so that it can establish the facts and the problems that it faces and introduce meaningful reforms.