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BBC Trust

Volume 561: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I cannot help thinking that it is somehow appropriate that you should be chairing this debate. I begin by declaring myself a lifelong fan of the BBC and its programmes. It has some of the most brilliant and creative people in the world. I could go through a lengthy list of the world-class programmes that I and many others have enjoyed over the years. It is the same with news and current affairs. The BBC has many talented, thoughtful and—let us not forget—brave journalists.

As an aside, one BBC news journalist recently said to me that they should try to infiltrate a totalitarian regime that has just built a new monument to its vanity. He was not talking about North Korea; he was talking about BBC management. I want to be clear that what I have to say is not about the people who staff the BBC; it is specifically about the people who run the BBC at corporate level and how the trust and the executive work, or do not work. I have rarely encountered such poor management at any level in any organisation, which is why I argue that the role of the BBC Trust is so crucial.

When he first became chairman of the BBC Trust in 2011, Lord Patten said that he regarded the BBC as “a moral force” in this country. I agree, to the extent that the BBC plays an enormously significant cultural role and, with its high ideals, it should seek to be a model for the rest of the public sector. More recently, when addressing a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC, Lord Patten declared that he did not want the period leading up to the BBC licence fee settlement in 2016 to be

“bogged down by nerdy arguments about governance”.

I requested this debate because I respectfully disagree with Lord Patten that the governance of the BBC is a second-order issue, of interest only to nerds. The BBC’s reputation has taken a number of severe hits over the past year, including for its over-lavish pay and perks for its swelled ranks of management, the tax arrangements of its employees, the spectacularly botched “Newsnight” investigation into child abuse allegations in north Wales and, perhaps above all, its response to mounting evidence of decades of sexual abuse and paedophilia by its long-time former employee, the late Jimmy Savile. I understand that further dreadful news about the waste of licence fee payers’ money is forthcoming in the not too distant future.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I share his enthusiasm for the BBC and its importance. Will he add to his list of criticisms, or to his questions at any rate, that the trust ought to look at the practice used in the recent visit to North Korea, because it appeared to put at risk the integrity of academic visits to North Korea and similar countries not only by the LSE but by other universities.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that important point. I understand that the father of one of the young people has written to all members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport outlining his concerns. It was a significant breach of trust by the BBC. Many questions remain that need to be looked into.

Each of the issues that I have listed would on its own have presented painful difficulties for the BBC, but the management’s inept response to Savile and “Newsnight”, which was defensive, secretive, cynical and in some cases downright murky, made life even worse for the corporation and its staff. The damage to audience and public trust in the BBC was compounded by the woeful lack of active leadership by the BBC Trust, which is meant to be the guardian of the interests of licence fee payers. When it should have been leading the way in getting to the truth and in holding the BBC’s management to account, the trust seems to have interpreted its role as being to defend aggressively the management and to do the minimum necessary to fend off pressure, and wait for the storm to pass.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he is leading the debate on this important subject. Does he agree that the BBC Trust should be driving much greater transparency within the BBC to drive better efficiencies and value for money for the licence fee payer? He might well recall a ten-minute rule Bill, in which I sought to force the BBC to publish every invoice in excess of £500. This morning, strangely, the chairman of the BBC Trust felt that to do so would undermine some of the special arrangements and deals with providers of BBC services. Does my hon. Friend agree that, should the BBC publish every invoice in excess of £500, it would be far more open to competition for its contracts, driving down their price and providing more value for money for the licence fee payer?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for leading the way in holding the BBC to account, in particular for its expenditure. If local authorities and Departments can account for everything over £500, there is absolutely no reason why the BBC should not do exactly the same.

Last autumn, the BBC instead suffered a severe loss of public trust and its problems were allowed to spiral out of control. While public trust in the BBC appears to have recovered somewhat in the months since, that is surely a reflection of the depth of the good will towards Auntie among the British public, and it should not be a cause for complacency. Unless the BBC has high standards of governance, with active leadership and oversight by its governing body, the chances are that it will be hit by more scandals, and that the cumulative effect on its reputation could be disastrous.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on leading on such matters. As chairman of the all-party BBC group, I take an interest in the governance of the BBC. He mentioned the vile antics of Jimmy Savile, which affected several public sector organisations. The BBC, to its credit, set up two reviews to look at the effect on its organisation. It would be unfair to accuse the BBC of being the only organisation to be affected by Savile’s antics, and it has done more than some other public sector organisations affected by his behaviour.

I was going to come on to that point but, as my hon. Friend has made it, I agree that the BBC was not the only organisation affected by Jimmy Savile; there were problems in the NHS, Broadmoor and other places. The BBC reacted, but only when it was under enormous pressure to do so; it was dragged kicking and screaming to the point at which it would undertake reviews. I was in contact with the BBC from the very start, and I can tell the Chamber as a fact that it did not want to indulge in any form of review at that time. It got there in the end, but it should have got there much earlier, which is one of the main criticisms of the management at the time.

We need the BBC Trust to ensure that the BBC is open and transparent, accountable to the public and responsible in its use of public money. So far, in the post-Savile and McAlpine era, the signs are not encouraging. I want to focus on three matters of concern.

First, given the widespread public anger in recent years about lavish spending at the BBC, it is unacceptable that the BBC continues to refuse to publish the costs of the Pollard review and related post-Savile inquiries. According to some estimates, they may add up to more than the Leveson inquiry, which was a public inquiry on a vastly larger scale that lasted for almost a year rather than a couple of months at best. However, what is really inexplicable is that the BBC Trust has refused to challenge the corporation’s management to publish that information. I understand that Lord Laird wrote to Lord Patten last month seeking confirmation of how much the Pollard review will cost and that Lord Patten refused to provide or even find out the information. When Lord Laird wrote a further letter, Lord Patten did not respond, and has not yet done so as far as I know. Why should licence fee payers remain in the dark about the amount of money spent in their name?

More seriously, the Pollard report was full of holes from the day it was published. Lord Patten was keen to jump on the fact that the Pollard report exonerated the BBC management on the most serious charge, that of suppressing a “Newsnight” investigation into Savile to protect the corporate interests of the BBC, but the evidence compiled by Pollard does not in any way justify a clean bill of health. There is still no explanation of why deputy news chief Steve Mitchell took the “Newsnight” Savile investigation off the managed risk list of potentially controversial stories in November 2011, before it was quietly dropped by the then editor. Pollard, with no power to question witnesses under oath, completely failed to get a proper account of the conversations between the deputy head of news and the editor of “Newsnight” before what we are told was the editor’s personal decision to axe the Savile exposé. Pollard was particularly scathing about Mitchell’s convenient multiple lapses of memory during the inquiry, as well as several other aspects of Mitchell’s conduct, yet neither Mitchell nor anyone else at the BBC has been fired as a result of one of the most damaging failures in its history.

However, the most important unresolved issue, and the one that the BBC needs to learn lessons from, is whether—and if so, why—the BBC’s most senior management chose to ignore the multiple warnings they received about Savile. Let us not forget that Savile was probably the country’s most prolific paedophile ever discovered, and yet he worked seemingly unfettered at the BBC for decades. The BBC is not the only culprit, but it is astounding to think that the BBC’s culture, systems and management could have allowed that to happen, despite the wreckage caused to the lives of so many young people. It is still rather sickening to reflect on. The BBC would have emerged with far greater credit had it confronted the mounting allegations against Savile head-on. Instead, it kept them quiet for as long as it possibly could, before finally being publicly confronted and indeed engulfed by the truth. Years of rottenness tumbled into full view of the public.

The issue goes right to the top of the BBC at the time. In particular, the Pollard report concluded that it had no reason to disbelieve the story of then director-general Mark Thompson that he knew nothing about the sexual abuse allegations against Savile or about the nature of the “Newsnight” investigation until after he left the BBC. That is frankly implausible. The BBC’s former head of news and current head of radio, Helen Boaden, told the Pollard inquiry in a legal letter that she had informed Mark Thompson in December 2011 about the nature of the allegations against Savile. Shockingly, the evidence of the BBC’s then most senior female executive on the issue was given zero weight and was not even mentioned in the Pollard report. Instead, we were asked to believe that when Mark Thompson was sufficiently worried to call the head of BBC News to discuss the “Newsnight” investigation into Savile, he somehow, miraculously, never gained any indication of what the investigation was about.

Thompson maintains his denials of knowing anything about the Savile allegation, despite the fact that they were drawn to his office’s attention on at least 10 other occasions before he left the BBC in 2012. He even authorised the threat of a libel action to The Sunday Times. Leaders should be accountable for their own performance and for that of their organisations. It is not in the interests of the BBC or any other public sector organisation for a culture to emerge in which leaders may turn a blind eye to problems and evade their responsibilities with impunity.

I hope that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport will make good its promise to call Helen Boaden and Mark Thompson before it to clear the matter up once and for all. MPs should not have to deal with such issues. Frankly, an active BBC Trust and an active chairman would have made it their business to get to the bottom of the matter without delay. Instead, having spent millions of pounds of public money on inquiries, Lord Patten and the trust seem content to pass lingering questions about failures in the BBC’s management into the hands of its executive. At the very least, that shows an amazing lack of curiosity by Lord Patten to get at the truth.

The BBC Trust’s chief response to the Savile and McAlpine scandals seems to have been to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on getting rid of its previous choice of director-general, almost via constructive dismissal, and then parachuting in another one with no open competition or advertisement. The new director-general in turn has parachuted several cronies into lavishly paid top jobs with no open appointment process. Instead of making appointments at the top of the BBC more open and more meritocratic, they are now, ironically, less open than the procedures at the Bank of England. That is completely and utterly unacceptable.

Of course, I wish Lord Hall all the best in his difficult work, but the manner of his appointment, overseen by the BBC Trust, marks a step backwards, not forwards. As I understand it, the perception among BBC journalists is that the changes at the BBC since Savile, which was a gross failure of management, have entirely suited the management rather than the staff.

I have been less than impressed by the performance of the BBC’s other regulator, Ofcom. After the glaring flaws in the “Newsnight” report on child sex abuse allegations in north Wales became immediately obvious, I wrote to Ofcom asking it to investigate potentially serious breaches of the broadcasting code, and a related incident involving some fairly crass behaviour on ITV’s “This Morning” programme. Ofcom replied in November 2012 announcing that it had opened an investigation into both programmes. Nearly six months later, we are none the wiser as to its conclusions or even the state of its investigation. Again, instead of effective regulation and oversight, it looks as though Ofcom is happy for that issue to remain in the long grass.

I will conclude by asking a number of questions of the Minister. Does he agree with Lord Patten that governance is somehow a second-order issue? Does he think it is important that the BBC Trust is active, and a proactive guardian of licence fee payers’ interests? What assessment have the Government made of the current BBC Trust’s performance during the Savile and McAlpine scandals and more broadly? Does it have his full confidence? Does he agree with the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) that the BBC Trust has

“not yet been a strong enough or assertive enough voice on behalf of the licence-fee payer”?

Above all, there are two key questions for the Government to consider. In the long term, is the trusteeship model right for oversight and regulation of the BBC? More immediately, given the reputational damage the BBC has suffered over the past year, does the Minister have confidence in the current trustees and are they the right people to lead the BBC into the next licence fee settlement and beyond?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the worrying pattern, which we have seen since the death of Savile, of something that has been happening for many years—20 or 30 years—is typical of the wrong approach that such matters are too secret to get out?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Something has clearly been wrong and damaging about the culture and practices in the BBC over a long period. It just so happens that Savile’s death and what he got up to has cast a light on something that many people did not understand or know about. We must take action now that we know what happened and what was wrong in the BBC. I hope that the BBC and the trust will learn from that.

My final question for the Minister is: does he think that there are enough people with media and broadcasting experience in the current BBC Trust? I have been and remain at heart a huge fan of the BBC, but as it enters the brave new world of online and mobile communications, surely it is important to ensure that the corporation is properly managed.

It is an honour and a privilege to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) for calling this debate. I sit between two of the BBC’s strongest advocates in Parliament. I echo my hon. Friend’s opening remarks that the BBC is a fantastic institution, but that does not mean that it is above reproach or criticism.

With your indulgence, Mr Davies, I will dwell on my hon. Friend’s work in this area. He has positioned himself as a critical friend of the BBC. He is keen to look at where it has made errors, and keen to make constructive proposals to improve its governance. I would expect nothing less from him. I got to know him when he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), but his reputation preceded him as having made the highest number of runs for South Moreton cricket club in my constituency, a record that stood for something like 30 years.

At the risk of repeating myself, the BBC is a globally recognised and admired institution. It is a hugely respected brand around the world. The previous UN Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, described the BBC World Service as

“perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world this century.”

BBC programmes are sold all round the world, whether the programmes themselves or the format. It is important to keep that in mind during this debate.

The second point I want to make in setting the context and before turning to the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised is that one reason for the BBC’s success is its independence. Although we have our criticisms of it, no one in the House would want it to become subject to political control, which is why many processes are being put in place to ensure that politicians do not interfere, but perversely that produces an element of frustration when things go wrong and it is difficult to influence decisions when people in this House perceive them to be going wrong.

The BBC is independent, but that does not mean that it is not accountable for its actions. Because of the unique way it is funded and owned, the BBC must be accountable. It must be accountable to licence fee payers, and that is why this debate is so important. The BBC Trust represents licence fee payers’ interests, and holds the BBC’s executive to account.

Let us remind ourselves of the trust’s duties. They are enshrined in the charter, and explicitly include representing licence fee payers, ensuring the independence of the BBC, and assessing the views of licence fee payers. We believe that those principles, alongside the others set out in the charter and agreement, provide a strong framework for the trust to ensure accountability to licence fee payers.

Parliament should also have an overview of a public institution as important as the BBC, so it goes without saying that it has the right to ask questions and to hold debates—never more so, perhaps, than following the recent events that my hon. Friend referred to. It is clear, following those events, that the BBC Trust must rebuild not only the public’s trust in the BBC, but trust in the BBC Trust itself. I welcome the steps that are being taken to achieve that.

I welcome the appointment of a new director-general of the BBC, Tony Hall, and I use this opportunity to thank Tim Davie—now the chief executive officer of BBC Worldwide—for his role as acting director-general of the BBC. When Tim Davie took on that acting role, he was very conscious of the need to engage not only with politicians and the licence fee payer, but with the people who worked at the BBC. We should not forget, as my hon. Friend made clear, that the criticisms surrounding the BBC in recent weeks and months are not directed at the vast majority of people who do a fantastic job for the BBC, and the impact on their morale was significant.

There is still work to do, and I assure my hon. Friend that no one is complacent. We need to see through the remaining BBC inquiries. Let us not forget that we have yet to conclude the Dame Janet Smith review, which has contacted 450 people, and has had 275 telephone conversations and 80 face-to-face meetings with witnesses. The BBC is also carrying out two internal reviews on respect at work and on child protection and whistleblowing procedures. Both are expected to report to the BBC Trust shortly.

We have had the Pollard review, and my hon. Friend raised points about the cost of that. As I understand it, the cost is £2.2 million, which has been publicly stated, and in May, the BBC will provide a breakdown of how and where that money was spent. It is also the case that apart from redactions required to avoid legal action, if I can put it that way, all the evidence that was supplied to the Pollard review has been published. I am sure that people will still have their views on the review’s conclusions, but those are the facts as they stand.

My hon. Friend raised a number of other issues. In terms of the BBC Trust’s role as the guardian of the licence fee revenue, its strategic functions include setting the strategic direction of the BBC and assessing the performance of BBC services. BBC Trust oversight of the BBC, however, does not extend to interference in editorial decision making and involvement in operational management. It is the regulator of the BBC, but it does not run the BBC on a day-to-day basis.

My hon. Friend discussed value for money, which is important. Let us not forget that one of the first decisions of this Government was to freeze the licence fee until the end of the charter. It was a good decision, not only to provide value for the licence fee payer, but to force the BBC to address some of the costs that it could remove from its organisation. It has done that through the “Delivering Quality First” strategy, which has made savings of £700 million. It has reduced the amounts paid to senior managers, as well as the number of senior managers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) mentioned the issue of publishing invoices. As I understand it, the BBC is trying to make progress on that point. Last year, the previous director-general, Mark Thompson said that the BBC would release details of spending by category, which will provide a coherent and transparent picture of expenditure. However, the BBC believes that publishing individual invoices would cause commercial difficulties. Let us not forget that the BBC deals with a range of commercial partners that might not wish to see the commercial terms of their relationship with the BBC published. I can tell, just by making that brief remark, that I have provoked my hon. Friend into making an intervention.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for the way in which he is responding to the debate. Does he recall that the same defence was used by local authorities about their contractual organisations? The world has not fallen in since they have published all their invoices.

That intervention was carefully staged for two reasons. First, it allows me to congratulate my hon. Friend on his magnificent performance at the marathon on Sunday. Secondly, I take his point and I was going to say that the debate will continue, and it is right that colleagues in the House raise those issues and press the BBC on them. I do not necessarily believe that the matter is closed, but the time for our debate is running short, and I want to address the specific questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East asked.

I do not believe that Lord Patten thinks that governance is somehow a second-order issue. He is an experienced, former politician, who can sometimes have a particular turn of phrase, but I have no doubt at all that he took on the job with serious intent. He intends to run the BBC Trust—and has done so—in a serious manner, but I think that he wants to make sure, as we run up to charter review, that we focus on important issues.

It is an important point to make that we are gearing up for charter review. The BBC’s charter runs out at the end of 2016. The previous Government conducted a long, three-year process of charter review. Whether that is necessary in this instant, again, is a matter for contemplation and debate. What is important about the charter review is that those important issues can now be subject to part of a formal procedure. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East, who has made himself a strong voice in Parliament, putting forward issues of reform for the BBC, will play an important role. I, and the Government, want the charter review to be a public process, engaging as many people as possible.

The trust has acted as a guardian of licence fee payers’ interests. That is central to its very being. The trust’s oversight, as I said earlier, does not extend to interference in editorial decision making, but that does not mean, concerning recent events, that we cannot acknowledge that lessons need to be learnt, not only from the events themselves, but, as we made clear at the time, from the pace at which they were addressed. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made it clear that she felt the trust could have acted quicker with the initial inquiries. It is also now clear—the Secretary of State again made it clear—that she felt that once the trust had understood the seriousness of the issues that it was facing, it began to handle the process well.

My hon. Friend asked whether the trusteeship model is the right one for oversight and regulation of the BBC. We are content with the model at the moment, but there is no doubt at all that people will have views as we undertake charter review.

Is the Minister saying that the Government are open to changes in the existing model as part of the charter review?

The Government are open to hearing the views of all stakeholders who have expertise and an interest in the BBC and its future. It seems a matter of common sense that people will offer up improvements or even potential models. We do not want to change the BBC Trust model, but we want to have an open debate about issues to do with the BBC as we move towards charter review. It is important to say that we are not excluding any specific issue.

Finally, I have full confidence in the chairman of the BBC Trust and in the existing trustees. Again, by and large, they are appointed by an independent process, but the process for appointing trustees is open and transparent, which is important. The BBC has been through a tortuous period in the past few months. My hon. Friend has responded in an entirely appropriate way, by holding it to account, by asking pertinent questions, and most importantly, by offering constructive proposals for reform. The Government are always open to ideas, and a process will get under way in terms of charter review.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).