Thank you for calling me to open the debate, Mr. Speaker. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate in the first instance.
As you have indicated, Mr. Speaker, support for the debate came from a range of quarters: from those who are no doubt ardent champions of the broadcaster, and from those who feel that it is long past its sell-by date. I am sure that an array of views will be expressed, and, given the BBC’s recent history, I think it important for Parliament to be encouraged to comment on what has happened. I pay tribute to the way in which the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the Public Accounts Committee have pursued many of the issues, and I am pleased that a debate in the main Chamber will allow more Members to participate, comment and air their concerns.
It is important to consider not just the issues themselves, but the way in which the BBC has responded to them, both internally and externally. The way in which the organisation reacts reflects its culture, which is something with which we all need to be happy and content. I see myself as a critical friend of the BBC. I do not want to offer a post-mortem on each issue that has made the BBC the subject of news reporting over recent years, but I do want to question the way the broadcaster has reacted to many of those issues, which, I suggest, is defensively rather than in an open, positive and transparent way. I want the debate to be about how the BBC needs to adapt, change and reform to become a more open and transparent organisation that welcomes criticism to better inform its own internal operations. Likewise, any criticism that follows should be constructive.
This debate builds on my ten-minute rule Bill of last November calling on the BBC to publish all invoices in excess of £500, as local authorities in England do, and asking it to give unfettered access to the Comptroller and Auditor General. I was very disappointed by its response to that call at the time, which was basically an unequivocal rejection. However, I received a letter last Friday evening advising me it was looking into ways in which it could be more open and transparent, which I naturally welcome.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the BBC is anti-competitive, undemocratic and unaccountable and one way to reform that would be to democratise the licence fee and give licence fee payers a vote on the BBC’s board, chairman and annual reports?
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree with the leader of his party in the National Assembly who believes the BBC in Wales should be accountable to the National Assembly? Public opinion in Wales, too, is overwhelmingly in favour of broadcasting being devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, and that is also advocated by the Silk commission.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the BBC is a national—a UK- national—resource and that it is important that the BBC as a whole is scrutinised from this House, not by other Administrations in other parts of the United Kingdom who are trying to lay claim to it?
I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. She is a strong champion of Wales, but I absolutely agree that the BBC is a UK organisation—indeed, a worldwide international organisation—and it is right that scrutiny is by the licence fee payer, but this place needs to help develop a way in which the licence fee payers’ thoughts, views and concerns can be expressed.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will touch on the way in which the BBC divvies out its resources to the regions, and why it is that London gets between two and three times more than other regions. Secondly, will he say something about the high salaries and redundancy payments, and, thirdly, is the reason why we cannot get to know the salaries of some BBC staff because they are self-employed?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making those points, and the move to Salford may be one example that we could highlight. No doubt there are significant benefits, but there have also been serious questions about the cost and the employment of staff in that move, and I would welcome contributions on the subject.
I want to make a little progress before taking any more interventions.
I recognise that the BBC holds a unique place in British society. That should be welcomed. It produces and broadcasts world-class programmes and excellent news and current affairs outputs, and it would take me too long to list them all. All this success does not automatically make it special and certainly does not put it above scrutiny, however. The BBC rightly plays an important part in scrutinising public and independent organisations. Some of its journalists are among the best in the country and possibly the world. Its investigative reports have exposed wrongdoing and failure by many individuals, organisations and private and public bodies, yet it seems that none of these skills are encouraged when it comes to scrutinising in-house matters. The BBC does not interrogate its own internal affairs with the same rigour as it does so well of outside bodies. How many investigations of scandals or examples of wrongdoing involving the BBC have been made or prompted by the BBC? Some may argue that that is not the BBC’s job, but I would disagree. It receives £3 billion a year in public money from the licence fee payer—the fee is probably the UK’s most regressive tax.
I do not blame the individuals within the BBC for not pursuing these matters, because this is about the culture within the organisation. The “officer class” of executives, as they were described by Lord Hall, need to engage and communicate better with those working at the sharp end, who are the ones usually left to manage the fallout and who are often frustrated and angry at the changes they see that simply will not work. Because of the BBC’s resources and its unique place, BBC executives should encourage its programmes to act where it feels there is wrongdoing, wherever that may be. I recognise that the BBC reports issues when they have come into the public domain, but that usually happens as a result of other press activity and, I suggest, when there is little alternative because of the prominence of the story.
When I served on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I talked to Sir Michael Lyons, the then chairman of the trust, about transparency and how much the top talent earn. It was only because there was a leak that we got to find out how much Jonathan Ross was earning—it was £6 million a year. When I confronted Sir Michael about that he said, “He is worth every penny” and that to have transparency would force salaries up, not bring them down. We now find that quite the reverse is true. Does my hon. Friend share my belief that we should have far more transparency about the salaries being paid to top talent in the BBC?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I will wish to comment on that issue a little later. The use of public money to drive up salaries against competitors needs to be considered within the debate about the BBC.
We need to speak positively when there are good practices; there are some isolated examples of the BBC interrogating itself. The best example was the “Today” programme interview that John Humphrys did which led to the departure of the last director-general. That, however, is the exception rather than the rule. A number of daily and Sunday newspapers and journalists regularly pursue the BBC, and the organisation persistently defends itself, whatever the issue and whatever the rights and wrongs.
That is an interesting point, and I hope that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to catch the Deputy Speaker’s eye and expand on it. I know the strength of feeling that my hon. Friend has on that issue.
I am describing the issues that the BBC should be actively examining from a management or journalism point of view, as that would be not only good management practice, but in the interests of the licence fee payer. I hope the House will allow me to demonstrate the point a little further. Recently, the BBC has not been seen in a positive light on a range of matters. The Jimmy Savile scandal was the ultimate demonstration of that, but I could mention so many examples. Why was £100 million wasted on a now-abandoned digital media initiative? Has anyone lost their job as a result? How do executives pay millions of pounds in severance payments to themselves? Why are staff allowed to leave the BBC on significant pay-offs only to return in a freelance capacity? Why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) mentioned, are BBC talent salaries not published? What about the extent of BBC talent—is it used as a way of preventing the publication of salaries of other senior appointments, because BBC talent is not simply restricted to broadcasters? How can presenters interview organisations that pay them handsomely to speak at conferences in a private capacity outside their employment with the BBC? Is that not a conflict of interest?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as he is being most generous with his time. Does he find it deeply ironic that when the BBC was found guilty of mishandling premium charge calls for competitions the result was that it was fined, once again hitting the taxpayer?
That is part of the difficulty and is another demonstration of how and why the BBC needs to look internally. I am conscious, Mr Deputy Speaker—[Laughter.]
I would suggest that had there been similar questions about conflicts of interest and other bodies, the BBC would rightly demand answers and transparency.
In view of the signals I am getting from you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should perhaps let that one hang. It is a well-made point.
The BBC has played an important role in exposing so much wrongdoing, including the payment of civil servants through personal service firms—yet that was also taking place at the BBC. I can remember a public body being criticised for the increase in employers’ contributions to its pension scheme when only weeks earlier the employers’ contribution to the BBC pension scheme had increased even further, which was not mentioned as part of the package or the report.
It could be argued that the Pollard review, which considered the reasons why the “Newsnight” Savile programme was pulled, is doing just what I am asking for. I am worried, however, that questions remain. It cost nearly £3 million and took seven months to be published, but the results should have been presented on a rolling basis. Most worryingly—I hope that this is not significant—there are even suggestions that some of the evidence from Mark Thompson was excluded from that report. I now suspect that it will be down to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to pursue the question, should any more evidence come to light.
There have been other reports that we need to welcome, including the Dinah Rose report on the respect at work review and Dame Janet Smith’s report on the culture and practices of the BBC.
I am conscious of the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, and would certainly echo much of what has been said about the competition, about how the BBC squeezes out innovation and about the extent of its internet coverage, which squeezes out fresh thinking and opportunities for smaller companies to make their way in news reporting, sports reporting and cultural activities. My final point, however, is about some of the things the BBC does very well.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a powerful speech, making the sort of criticisms of the BBC with which I think we would all agree. Does he acknowledge, however, some of the work carried out by the BBC, particularly in Wales, where the production facilities are tremendous, including the work done with S4C and the work of Elan Closs Stephens, who heads up the BBC Wales audience council? Does he agree that perhaps considering extending the remit of the audience councils might be a way of improving and bringing better scrutiny to the work of the BBC?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She names Elan Closs Stephens and I would certainly underline her contribution. The BBC’s commitment to S4C and its funding as a channel is extremely important. My right hon. Friend also suggests one of the ways in which more effective scrutiny could be brought about.
The BBC has in the past covered some sensitive areas of public and private life extremely successfully. Domestic violence, rape, racism and other issues have been part of its education programmes. That education has been done through dramas, news reports and other means. The most notable was the education and information campaign on HIV. Before the BBC took an active role in informing viewers, the public’s understanding of contracting HIV was confused, to say the least. Factual programmes combined with drama, such as Mark Fowler on “EastEnders”, played a significant part. With its unique status the BBC can play an important part in helping frame a decent society.
On that unique position, does my hon. Friend recognise that when BBC local radio was threatened a couple of years ago in one of the BBC’s many reviews, the response from Members across the House and across the country showed how much they respect, trust and value BBC local radio, which plays a very important role in what the corporation does for our constituents? Here is one suggestion—
Does not the hon. Gentleman deeply regret, with me, that we have no BBC local radio in Wales? Unfortunately, my area of Wales suffers profoundly from not having the type of support and investigative journalism that is available, for example, from BBC Radio Shropshire?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I should like to make progress for a moment, if I can. I have been trying to make a suggestion for a few moments. I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman, with the permission of the Deputy Speaker, a little later.
I hope the BBC can pursue the protection of children online. It is ideally placed to help families protect children online. Few organisations are better placed to educate and inform on a mass scale. A number of newspapers have led the campaign to protect children online, to which the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have responded admirably and have led the way in policy change. However, many children understand technology and the range of filter settings better than their parents. Many parents do not even understand the risks.
The BBC’s mission statement and stated public purposes fit perfectly for it to become the trusted source of advice on how to protect children online. The BBC has a responsibility to educate, to inform and to use new technology for the benefit of the licence fee payer. What better way to do that than to commit part of its vast resources to help parents understand the risks that their children face online and show them how to act to protect them? The BBC has an even more direct reason to do that: BBC iPlayer allows watershed programmes to be downloaded and viewed at any time of the day. I recognise that the system raises a warning, but it merely asks for the OK button to be pressed. Combining the need to improve filtering options and to educate parents about them could therefore easily kill two birds with one stone.
Parents must have the ultimate choice, but the BBC can play a significant part in communicating the risks and how to act to reduce those risks, should a parent want to—be it grooming on a social media site, protecting children against legal adult content, or simply explaining how SafeSearch can be switched to filter outcomes. Encryption, virtual private networks—VPNs—or peer-to-peer networks are ways around the filter and there need to be innovative ways of explaining these to parents and explaining how to protect children against them. There are several benefits to this approach. I am conscious of the time, but I hope that is one example where the BBC can use the licence fee money in a constructive way, recognising the changing needs and demands of the licence fee payer.
I apologise to the House for not being able to stay for the whole debate. I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you will accept my regrets.
I welcome the debate and the sponsorship of it. I welcome the opportunity for this House to reflect on the present state of the BBC and the future ambitions that have been so clearly set out by Lord Hall, the new director-general. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate—sometimes a rather confused one, I think—on BBC governance, which I must say is not at the top of the list of issues that preoccupy licence fee payers. The BBC, despite the publicity surrounding the recent torrid and terrible revelations, has shown itself to be a remarkably resilient institution. It is important that we recognise and respect the reasons for that resilience. First, there is the high level of public support and trust, which I must say this institution and politics would be very satisfied with, even after the fallout from the terrible revelations following the Jimmy Savile inquiry and the degree of public distaste about the level of pay-offs for senior managers.
Perhaps one of the most important reasons for that high level of resilience is the public’s devotion to the BBC’s high-quality content, which is almost taken for granted. I think that it is fair to think of the more than £3 billion of licence fee payers’ money as the venture capital for the nation’s creativity.
My right hon. Friend has done a great job on this issue, as on many others. Will she allow me to introduce a Scottish issue just for a moment? The biggest decision that Scotland will have to take will be in the referendum next September. Does she agree that BBC Scotland, despite its qualities, might focus on greater impartiality on that issue than many people would consider it has done so far?
Sadly, I am not as regular a viewer of BBC Scotland as my right hon. Friend. One of the BBC’s founding codes of trust with the public is its responsibility for accuracy and impartiality, and I think that extends to every outlet for which it is responsible. I hope that BBC Scotland will also reflect on the fact that we are better together. I thank him for that point.
I am interested in the right hon. Lady’s point about the very high pay-offs going to managers. What does she think should be done about the very high salaries and pay-offs going to managers and talent when it is paid for by a poll tax that, among other things, is levied on a large number of people who have very little income at all?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that transparency is absolutely of the essence in that regard. The BBC, as an independent entity, must be able to account to licence fee payers for the decisions taken about remuneration. I certainly think that increased transparency would be one of the ways of rebuilding trust.
Given what the right hon. Lady has just said, does she not agree that the best way to improve transparency would be by giving licence fee payers a vote on the board, on the running of the BBC and on major decisions, such as whether or not it should spend money on local radio, BBC 3, Formula 1 or whatever else?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution; I hope that he will find some common cause with the point that I am about to develop.
The licence fee income that comes to the BBC is the public’s money and not public expenditure in the normal sense, so I argue that it should be dealt with differently. This is an opportunity to rehearse some of the often cited arguments, so I should also say that of course the BBC distorts the broadcasting market. However, it exists, by consent of the public, as a deliberate market intervention. When I was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, I realised the importance, at a time of rapid innovation, of ensuring that the power of the BBC was not chilling in its effect on other areas of investment and innovation. We need constantly to keep a close eye on that issue.
I want to say a couple of things about the recent revelations. They are historical, but disturbing none the less. There was much in Lord Hall’s speech on strategy to be optimistic and enthusiastic about, but the BBC as an organisation has to be concerned about culture, as that will always trump strategy and undermine the ability to deliver a strategy aligned to the licence fee payer. There has to be a sense that the Augean stables have been cleaned out. Transparency and shining a bright light on such practices is one of the ways of doing that.
I turn briefly to the BBC Trust. There has been a profound misunderstanding about its role. The BBC Trust is the cheerleader not for the BBC, but for the licence fee payer. That places a different set of expectations and responsibilities on it. I want to set out some ways in which it might cheerlead in that way more effectively. As we move to charter review, which the Secretary of State will be thinking closely about, one of the big threats to the independence of the BBC is interference by Government—any Government. That is why the BBC must be structurally reinforced against the temptation of Governments to intervene and unduly influence it.
The public and licence fee payers should be in the driving seat. The argument is that the BBC should indeed be owned by its licence fee payers and should become the country’s biggest mutual. I do not want to take too much of the House’s time going through the detail of how that would work, although I have given a lot of thought to that. I offer the House this idea at a time of charter review to raise public confidence and create a firewall between the public interest and the Government of the day.
The right hon. Lady has done considerable work on this subject. Does she therefore agree that it is highly dangerous even to consider giving devolved Administrations—another set of politicians—any role over the BBC? Has she had an opportunity to look at my earlier suggestion to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) that we could extend the roles of the audience councils, particularly to something like Audience Council Wales, which represents the people who are speaking on behalf of the licence fee payers?
I will study the right hon. Lady’s proposals. Certainly audience councils are widely seen to be successful, but we have to recognise that their impact on the direction of the BBC executive has been minimal.
There is public concern about Government involvement compromising the independence of the BBC. I believe that there is public support for the kind of proposal that I am making, which would strengthen the Trust’s hand in relation to the executive and make it absolutely clear that the Trust is the cheerleader for the licence fee payer. There would have to be further public consultation. However, in the public consultation that I oversaw in the run-up to the current charter, it was absolutely clear that the public wanted a break from the BBC being run by the usual suspects from the establishment or governing classes, and we should respect and respond to that.
The second argument for mutualisation is that while members of the Trust continue to be appointed via DCMS, the question of independence from Government will remain. It is clear that the public greatly value the BBC’s reputation and its charter responsibility for accuracy and impartiality. Respondents to the 2005 pre-charter consultation welcomed the lack of advertising in BBC sport and drama and the fact that the BBC set the standards for other news programmes. Therefore, a stronger Trust, backed by licence fee payers’ support, could provide a greater bulwark against those who seek to put undue political influence on the BBC or cut corners under pressure from the rest of the broadcasting market.
The third reason—this addresses the point made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood)—is that it would give the public more of a say over programmes and direction. It is a simple principle that if we pay for the BBC, the institution should be more accountable to us. It is undoubtedly the case that following the Jimmy Savile scandal public trust in the BBC has dropped significantly. As Onora O’Neill remarked in the BBC Reith lecture on trust in 2002:
“Reasonably placed trust requires not only information about the proposals or undertaking that others put forward, but also information about those who put them forward.”
Again, that makes the case for building public confidence and public ownership through greater transparency.
I hope that this is a debate whose time has come. The BBC, along with most of our national institutions, is under scrutiny at the moment. What better opportunity and better time to think innovatively about how it can change, not just in response to crises such as Savile but in reflecting the shifting relationship between the citizen and the public service, with a stronger voice for those who pay and ultimately own their public broadcaster? Reith said that the role of the BBC was to “inform, educate and entertain”. I believe that only radical public ownership by the people of this country themselves will continue to ensure that those values are firmly embedded at the heart of the BBC and safeguard the BBC as a truly public institution for years to come.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on his success in obtaining this debate, which comes at a time when some serious questions need to be addressed. I do not want to detain the House for too long, because the Culture, Media and Sport Committee will take evidence tomorrow morning from the chairman of the BBC Trust and the director-general, so we will cover a lot of the issues in detail. We have also announced that we intend to hold a full inquiry into the future of the BBC, and that is likely to commence in the new year. That will provide an opportunity to examine these matters and I do not want to prejudge the inquiry. It is, however, worth spending a little time on the subject, because there have been some very difficult issues raised, and some very clear failures by, the BBC over the past year.
It is important not just to focus on criticisms, but to recognise that the BBC remains one of the finest broadcasters in the world and that, at its best, it is unequalled. That is not to say that one should just point at the successes. It is important that we look at the failures and see how they can be prevented from happening again.
There was once a time when people said that only the BBC could do the arts and that it could not be done commercially. Does my hon. Friend agree that Sky Arts is now doing a tremendous job in providing arts to the masses, and that Classic FM on the radio provides classical music to a group of people who perhaps would never previously have listened to Radio 3? The onus is therefore on the BBC to keep raising the game. It does not have to chase the ratings, but it needs to ensure that it keeps providing high-quality programmes.
I am not in the least surprised to find that I agree completely with my hon. Friend, who was an excellent member of the Committee for a time. I will come on to this issue, but he is absolutely right that there has been a change in terms of the amount and diversity of content available. The advent of Classic FM, which is hugely successful, means that Radio 3 should no longer need to occupy the same space, but concentrate, as it does most of the time, on a little more challenging and difficult classical music than the more commercial Classic FM output. That applies equally in other areas.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has described this as having been an annus horribilis for the BBC, and she is certainly correct. Reference has been made to the Jimmy Savile exposure. We have seen the Pollard report and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan is right that, given that a lot of money has been spent and a great deal of evidence taken, it is worrying that questions remain, particularly about the evidence submitted to Pollard by Helen Boaden and its apparent conflict with that supplied by Mark Thompson. Pollard did not really address that and I know that others may wish to pursue it.
Of course, the bigger question was not about the Pollard review, which examined why “Newsnight” came not to be broadcast, but about how Jimmy Savile was able to operate in the way that he did for so long. We await the findings of Dame Janet Smith’s review of the culture of the time. That may prove to be rather more shocking and it may have greater lessons of which we will need to take account.
The next failure, which was certainly as shocking, was the Lord McAlpine programme. It would have been the most catastrophic failure of editorial judgment at any time, but it defied belief that it happened such a short time after the failure to broadcast the Savile programme. Obviously, that led to the resignation of the then director-general, but there was a failure in editorial standards right across the news and current affairs division, and it is still not clear to me that everybody responsible has been identified or that sufficient action has been taken.
Another issue is the so-called respect at work inquiry into the bullying practices that apparently took place over a long period and the failure of management to take any action when presented with worrying findings about the way in which some employees at the BBC were treated. The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) said that those were historical episodes. There is evidence that the bullying is not an historical, but a recent practice. The Select Committee will pursue that matter with the management of the BBC.
A lot of attention has been given to the level of the pay-offs and salaries. Those are serious matters. A culture appeared to exist whereby a small group of people at the top of the BBC awarded each other pay-offs when they came to leave. Those severance payments far exceeded any contractual liabilities.
My hon. Friend hits on an important point about the costs that people at the BBC brought forward. Will he comment on the problem that the BBC’s behaviour, for example in the Jimmy Savile case, leaves it open to being sued by the relatives, which would create a multi-million pound compensation deal? The trouble is that that bill would, once again, be paid by the taxpayer. The BBC has a commercial arm. Does my hon. Friend have any thoughts on how the confidence of the public, who pay a tax to the BBC, is affected by these matters? It is not just the salaries that outrage them, but the fact that every time the BBC does something wrong, it is the taxpayer who pays the bill.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not follow him in talking about the legal liabilities that may flow from the various cases. He made the point earlier that the BBC has been fined for breaches of the broadcasting code. If a publicly funded organisation such as the BBC is required to pay a fine, it of course comes out of the licence fee. It may be that we have to consider other measures. A fine is not necessarily the best way or even a sufficient way to punish failures by the corporation.
Although the severance payments are a serious issue, the amounts of money involved were relatively small. By far the worst financial failure of the BBC is the digital media initiative, which has cost the licence fee payer £100 million, to no benefit whatsoever. It angers people in the BBC, as much as people outside, that they have been required to deliver savings in front-line programming, when they see huge amounts going on senior management salaries and pay-offs, and the huge waste of money in the digital media initiative. It worries me that, in making efficiency savings, the BBC has made cuts in some of the areas that it is most important for it to invest in, such as news and current affairs and local radio. It is no wonder that there is serious anger throughout the BBC when its employees have been told that investment in certain types of programming cannot be afforded, but they then find that £100 million has essentially been thrown away on the digital media initiative. That reflects a failure of governance.
I listened carefully to what the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said. She recognised that the existing model is flawed and that there needs to be change. That is clear to me. There is a conflict between the two roles of the trust, even though I hear what she says about the trust being the cheerleader for the licence fee payer. I was interested in her idea about a mutual status. Perhaps she would like to expand on that further when the Select Committee considers the future of the BBC in the new year. It is certainly something that we would consider.
My view has always been that the BBC needs to be properly regulated from outside. It already is in some areas by Ofcom. I have always found the argument that Ofcom is well equipped to carry out the regulatory functions persuasive. Perhaps the BBC should have a more traditional model of corporate governance. Those are issues that we need to consider. What is clear is that the existing model is not working.
I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State that the National Audit Office will have full access to the BBC. That has been called for by successive Chairmen of the Public Accounts Committee over the past 20 years. The BBC has said repeatedly that that would be a dangerous intervention and that it might interfere with editorial independence. That is absolute nonsense. There is no reason why the NAO should not examine the accounts of the BBC—that does not represent editorial interference. In my view, what has come out over the past year, particularly with the DMI, makes it plain that the NAO needs that full access. I therefore very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the NAO and think that arguments against that view are insubstantial. I take issue with him, however, about his assertion that the present model is flawed. It is not the present model of governance that is flawed, but the failure of individuals within that to make the right decisions and intervene sufficiently early. For example, the trust could have conducted an investigation into levels of pay-off, but it did not do so quickly enough. Many lessons have been learned, but it is a mistake to conclude from that that the model itself is flawed.
I certainly agree that there have been failures by individuals, both in BBC senior management and in the trust. Whether we can draw from that a more fundamental problem with the model of governance is open for debate. I was opposed to that model of governance when the right hon. Lady created it some time ago, so I can at least claim consistency. It is clearly something we will need to consider and debate in the run-up to charter renewal.
I hope that this discussion and the Select Committee inquiry will begin a debate about the role of the BBC today. The BBC is good at displaying all it does. It has a huge range of TV channels and radio stations, and it is expanding online and launching more services on the iPlayer. However, the world has changed—and is changing—so much in the media. There has been an explosion in the past few years in the number of different content outlets, and that is continuing. We now have a successful ITV commissioning really good content.
I know my hon. Friend is a great thinker on this issue, so let me run a point by him. Is the sheer scale and size of the BBC some of its problem? My constituents pay for highly commercial ventures such as “Strictly Come Dancing” and Radio 2, which could survive well in a commercial environment. The BBC also does great investigative journalism, and things such as “BBC introducing”, which Radio 1 does so well. If the BBC got out of some of the ratings chasing and competing with the “X Factor” on Saturday night, it could do so many more good things such as local radio and the other things I have mentioned.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and the point I was coming to is that that issue should be part of the debate about what the BBC should be doing—and, indeed, what it should no longer be doing—in this new environment. I have referred to ITV’s success, and we now have Sky investing a huge amount in original content and British programming—my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) mentioned Sky Arts. Perhaps even more excitingly, BT is entering the content provision market, and possibly in due course Liberty Global, which has just acquired Virgin Media, will go into content. We do not know, but that seems possible.
A rapid change is taking place, and we therefore need to look at how the BBC fits into the new media world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) was saying, there are areas where the BBC appears to replicate content that is already available in a number of different commercial places, and it is not clear to me why the licence fee payer should pay for programming that the market already supplies. We need to address that important part of the debate.
The other part of the debate concerns whether the licence fee is still the most appropriate way to finance the BBC. I have always been critical of the licence fee, which is highly regressive, inefficient and evaded by a large number of people. The BBC director-general is now announcing that some programmes will be made available on the iPlayer before they are broadcast. That raises questions because the traditional licence fee model means that someone needs a licence if they own a television set in their corner. More and more people are now accessing content through iPlayer on catch-up, which is outside the original definition of what the licence fee should be for. Whether the licence fee is sustainable is cast into question in that different world. There is no easy answer to the question of what we put in its place—perhaps straight Exchequer subsidy is a better solution than a flat-rate poll tax, which is what the licence fee essentially is—but it should be an important part of the debate we need to have as charter renewal approaches.
That is the question. The debate on what public service broadcasting is has occupied my Committee and all commentators on media matters for a long period. The answer is that public service broadcasting is changing. A lot of material that could, at one time, be found only on the BBC is now available in a large number of other places and meets the definition of public service broadcasting.
These are exciting times in broadcasting because there is a huge range of programming and choice that did not previously exist, but we need to examine where the BBC fits in with that. I remain a strong supporter of a publicly owned, publicly funded public service broadcaster. I am not sure that it needs to be as big as it currently is or that it needs to be funded in the same way as it is. I am also not sure whether it needs to do all the things it currently does. I hope we address those questions as charter renewal approaches.
It is a great delight to congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing the debate. I wish I could congratulate him on his speech, but, unfortunately, I disagreed with every word of it. The most exciting moment was when he declared that he was conscious. I am not sure what Hansard will make of that.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on fundamental principles. First, I believe that, nearly always, broadcasting tends towards monopoly. It is in the nature of the business because it costs an awful lot to make one hour of programming. It costs a lot to broadcast it to five people, but it does not cost that much more to broadcast it to 10, 10,000, 5 million or 20 million more people. That is why the state must intervene in the market, which is why I support the licence fee.
Secondly, risk-taking in the broadcasting industry—it is expensive to make one hour of broadcasting—is very expensive, especially in two notable genres, drama and comedy. Making drama is expensive. If people get it wrong, they might end up making 10 or 13 weeks of a programme that nobody wants to watch. Everybody will chuck mud at them for weeks. Comedy is even worse. For every “Fawlty Towers”, there is a “Miranda”—[Interruption.] I do not like “Miranda”, although some Government Members obviously do. It could be the other way around for people who do not like “Fawlty Towers”—for every “Miranda”, there is a “Fawlty Towers”. My point is simply that, in matters of taste, it is difficult to jiggle all the nation’s funny bones at the same time. State intervention is therefore important, because the market would not otherwise provide.
Australia abolished the licence fee, and what happened? The first thing that disappeared from the market in Australia was the one thing Australians loved watching—mystery drama set in Australia. It does not exist any more. It can be seen nowhere in the world because there is no licence fee in Australia to invest in it.
Thirdly, we need enough diversity in the whole of the market to be able to entertain the whole of the country, and to represent democratically the whole nation. A diversity of voices is therefore important. S4C in Wales is under the BBC and paid for from the licence fee, and I worry that there is not enough diversity of voices within Welsh broadcasting.
When I was first elected, but not because I was elected, the Rhondda Leader was phenomenally popular. Currently, remarkably few people buy it. All hon. Members know that local newspapers are dying in constituencies up and down the land. That is not because of BBC online, but because people are not buying newspapers, and because, in some cases, local newspapers have failed to seize the imagination. However, I worry that local government is virtually unscrutinised. That is why a diversity of voices in the market is important.
I am delighted that ITV in Wales decided, in the end, that it would be a mistake to move away from local news and current affairs. Otherwise, it would have lost its sense of being and its importance to the nation. However, I worry about the future because, all too often, there is only one broadcast voice outside London and the south-east. Let us face it: if the BBC excels in one thing more than anything, it is local radio. Nobody else produces the same quality of local radio—it is produced and resourced locally and brings local stories to light. Can Sky broadcast units be made to go outside the M25? Occasionally they do, such as if there are multiple murders—[Interruption.] They will visit the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) because he is Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and a very important panjandrum, but, all too often, if it were not for the BBC, the television news would be a version of events from London and the south-east.
The hon. Gentleman walks straight into my trap. Public service broadcasting is not about making programmes that nobody wants to watch or listen to, which is in effect his argument. I do not believe that Radio 3 prevented Classic FM from coming into existence. If anything, Radio 3 enabled Classic FM to come into existence. There was competition at the start, but Classic FM found a different way of presenting classical music. It relied on an audience that was already out there—an audience created largely by Radio 3—and on players, singers and concert halls that, effectively, were subsidised by the BBC. There is a double benefit from the BBC. The licence fee paid by my constituents in the Rhondda pays for the hon. Gentleman to watch all the highbrow, intellectual stuff he watches, and to listen to the wonderfully intelligent and academic stuff he appears on and contributes to. My constituents are interested in watching “EastEnders” and, on Saturday evening, “Strictly Come Dancing”. They are also interested in watching sports programmes such as Wimbledon, which get very large audiences.
That is not true. Other broadcasters are allowed to broadcast it—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman quietens down, he will be able to hear the answer and learn something. The truth of the matter is that, under the television without frontiers directive, to which all countries agreed, the European Commission allowed individual countries to list certain events—they must be agreed by the Commission so they are not too anti-competitive. Wimbledon is on the list of events that must be available on free-to-air television, but others can compete for it, just as they have competed for other sports that must to be available on free-to-air television.
I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments—if everyone pays the licence fee, there should be something in it for everyone, not just for people who want to watch highbrow programmes—but does he agree that there is a legitimate debate to be had on the commissioning of programmes such as “The Voice”, because, in commissioning that, the BBC was breaking into and chasing a market that someone else had established?
There is a balancing act. I agree with the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan that the BBC should not pursue every sports rights battle. In the end, that cannot be in anybody’s interest. I worry, however, that when one broadcaster in the land is much bigger than the BBC in terms of financial value and has deeper pockets, namely Sky—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) seems to be disagreeing. The BBC has £3.7 billion a year, with which it produces TV, radio and online content. Sky has nearly double that—£7.2 billion—yet produces far less. In those circumstances, there is a danger if the BBC merely ends up in a competition for further sports rights.
I know my hon. Friend will not go on about sport, which is not my strength, for too long. What he has not mentioned—he is making such a good speech that I am sure he will come to it—is how the BBC invests in talent right across the piece, from technology and technicians to new artists and comedians. Companies such as Sky do not invest in new talent in the same way.
It is an utter delight to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. In whatever small way I contributed to your election, or at least did not prevent you from being elected by supporting you, I am delighted that you are there.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In many cases, the only training programmes in the industry are run by the BBC. For example, its contribution to the high arts, by funding orchestras and choirs, is one of the things that manages to keep many of our concert halls and classical concerts going. Broadcasting is one of the things we can rightly say, without any sense of British arrogance that often applies to many other things, we do better than any other country in the world. I am conscious that that is not just about the BBC. I once worked for the BBC in Brussels. I got into a taxi and the driver asked me who I worked for. I told him I worked for the BBC and he said, “I love the BBC. I love ‘Midsomer Murders’, ‘Inspector Morse’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’.” I did not point out to him that they had been made by ITV. We get a double benefit from the BBC, because it creates a competition for quality. It is not anti-competitive—quite the reverse. It is profoundly competitive, because it creates a competition for quality.
Contrary to the grand sweeping statements by hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan about how the BBC never investigates itself, I have heard every director-general, and most directors of programmes, quizzed on BBC radio and television programmes with an aggression equal to that shown to any politician. I do not recall, not even throughout the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch ever being interviewed by Sky. That is not to say that I do not think Sky is a good broadcaster; I think it is a great news broadcaster—it adopts a different attitude and that is great. I would just point out that, if anything, the BBC racks itself with guilt almost too much on occasion. It did not do a good job with regard to Savile or Lord McAlpine. It did not cover itself with glory in its approach to the National Audit Office, as the hon. Member for Maldon said, and to which I have referred to many times before.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again, because I have already made a long speech and I am sure that Members do not want me to go on for ever. I have at least united the House on that point.
There are other critiques I would make of the BBC. The Chair of the Select Committee said that the chairman of the BBC Trust and the director-general are appearing before his Committee tomorrow. I hope they are not appearing together. [Interruption.] He is saying that they are. I think that is entirely wrong as they have completely different jobs to do. They should never, ever appear on a panel together. They should not do joint press conferences or appear before a Select Committee together—perhaps they could appear one after another. This is where the BBC has gone disastrously wrong in the past few years. The chairman of the BBC Trust seems to think that his job is always to defend the director-general and vice versa. I disagree with that. The two bodies should be far more independent, as was argued in a report brought out in 1948.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, one that the Committee has thought about. I agree that sometimes the two roles are not as distinct as they should be and there is a risk that bringing those people in together contributes to that. However, the risk we run by adopting the other strategy is that the chair appears and says, “That is entirely a matter for the director-general, so I’m not willing to answer it,” and half an hour later the director-general says, “I am not going to answer that, because it is a matter for the trust.” By having them together, we do not allow them the opportunity to shift responsibility on to the other.
It may be that the hon. Gentleman has a point and that the Committee needs to think about how it can interrogate people with consistency, and perhaps it should be done on the same day so that they cannot pass the buck in that way, but in the past two years we have far too often seen Lord Patten appear beside the director-general in press conferences. That conflates the two roles and confuses the public. It means that the criticism rightly made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan on the transparency of arrangements of the governance of the BBC is lost. We could do far better. I would make other criticisms.
My hon. Friend alluded to me earlier when he referred to the position of the BBC in relation to other broadcasters. He mentioned the person who thought that “Midsomer Murders” and “Brideshead Revisited” were made by the BBC. Does that not demonstrate that the BBC is rightly or wrongly—in most cases wrongly—held to be the gold standard of British broadcasting? We should defend that, but the BBC has to understand that it is the only organisation in Britain with a legally enforceable income without it producing anything. It has to demonstrate that it is worthy of the licence fee.
Of course I agree with that. I was merely trying to make the point that many people think and say that the BBC is a vast leviathan in the British broadcasting market, whereas actually the leviathan is Sky. Sky hoovers up rights, has control of the platform, and is profoundly anti-competitive. If we did not have the BBC, we would have a denuded broadcasting market in the UK.
I would make many other criticisms of the BBC. BBC Wales sometimes seems to believe that its job is to create a Welsh national identity, which is far too close to nationalism for my liking. It often portrays my constituency as a drug den or as the murder capital of Wales, because those are the only times it ever comes to the Rhondda to report a story, and the truth is very different. The BBC is often far too right-wing in the way it presents news. For example, it barely seems to have noticed that the national health service in England is being privatised, and two of its most senior broadcast journalists were formally Conservatives, not members of the Labour party.
My fundamental point, and the Chair of the Select Committee gave away the line, is that we all know there are regressive elements to the licence fee, but it is a bit like what Churchill said about democracy: there is nothing better. What else are we going to do, other than have the licence fee, to invest in broadcast talent and the arts, and to ensure that there is something for everybody that comes out of a licence fee which is paid for by all?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for the first time since you were elected, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I find myself saying, for the first time in my eight and a half years in Parliament, that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I agreed with almost everything he said, which is a fairly uncommon occurrence.
I am delighted to speak in this important debate about the future of the BBC. It is particularly timely, given that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is soon to begin a major inquiry into its future. No doubt, this debate will help to set the scene for our inquiry and to show the wide range of views of politicians on both sides of the House on what the BBC should look like in the future. I make no apology for expressing my full support for the BBC and for being committed to supporting the long-term future of its top-quality public service broadcasting, but as my predecessor as Lib Dem spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport, the now Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), so rightly said, because it is funded by everyone, it is in the unenviable position of having to please everyone, which is impossible.
Unfortunately, it has become increasingly fashionable to attack the BBC, particularly in the light of recent revelations about pay-offs to senior executives, allegations of bullying and question marks over the handling of the Jimmy Savile affair. The BBC cannot be immune to criticism and its detractors are right that it is not perfect and sometimes gets it wrong. For instance, spending £25 million on severance payments for 150 senior managers—an average payout of £164,000—simply cannot be justified, and people were rightly mystified to hear of a £500,000 payment to the former director-general, George Entwistle, given that he had apparently resigned and that this exceeded his terms and conditions.
Having said that, however, under the leadership of Tony Hall, the new director-general, there are clear signs that the BBC is rising to the challenge and addressing these shortcomings. For instance, the £150,000 or 12-month salary cap on redundancy payments is very welcome, as is the commitment to removing so-called gagging clauses from BBC contracts and compromise agreements. The BBC needs to draw a line under these damaging revelations and concentrate on what it does best: providing top-quality programming and completing its efficiency savings without damaging its position as the best public service broadcaster.
Nobody can doubt that the six-year freeze created a massive challenge for the BBC—a real-terms 20% budget cut over the period—while it had to take on responsibility for £340 million of spending, including the World Service, S4C, local television and the roll-out of superfast broadband, but at the same time, the BBC was guaranteed its funding over that six-year period, which provided much-needed certainty. As we move forward, it is vital that that certainty is retained and that the BBC is in a position to plan for its future well into the next decade.
The cuts have certainly not been easy: good-quality local programming has been lost in the regions, including in Manchester with Radio Manchester, while more than 2,000 jobs have been lost, on top of the thousands that went under the value-for-money, cost-cutting exercise. The number of senior management posts has been reduced by 30% since 2009, while the National Union of Journalists has raised serious concerns about the loss of investigative journalists and the potential impact on the quality of programming; and that is before recognition from management that further savings still need to be made.
By 2017, the BBC will look radically different from the one that began this process of cost cutting, but despite the significant cuts, the BBC has maintained its popularity: 96% of the UK population access BBC content in an average week; audiences spend on average almost 19 hours with the BBC each week across all its services; when asked which media provider they most trusted, 58% of people said the BBC, which was well ahead of its nearest rival, which was ITV on 14%; 78% of the public are glad that the BBC exists, up from 71% in 2008; and 76% of the public think the BBC maintains high standards of quality, up from 66% in 2008. The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) beat me to it when she said that those are the sort of polling figures that politicians can only dream of.
Despite its challenges and the resistance from some, the move to Media City has also been a great success and was achieved under budget. It has been a massive bonus for the north-west economy and an engine for further economic regeneration for that part of Greater Manchester. Investment in Cardiff and Glasgow has brought about similar success in Wales and Scotland.
Although it is good that we can point to investment in Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester, are other parts of the country not entitled to a similar return, and have Birmingham and the midlands not done badly out of the distribution of spend so far?
I recognise that Birmingham has done badly out of the move to the regions, but the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, as a Manchester MP, for welcoming investment in Greater Manchester. Nevertheless, I accept his point.
If the BBC is to continue to succeed and maintain its position and reputation, the Government must commit to its long-term future. It is unrealistic for the BBC to expect a real-terms increase in its funding after 2017, but at the same time it is unrealistic for the Government to expect that further real-term cuts can be sustained without damaging the BBC and compromising the quality of programming.
Although it might be unrealistic to expect those things, further to the point I made to the Chairman of the Select Committee, does the hon. Gentleman accept that it might be realistic for the BBC to stop doing some things, in certain creative spaces, and focus on doing what it is good at and what a “public broadcaster” should be doing?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because there is strong evidence to suggest that the BBC producing such content actually drives quality in the commercial market. There is little doubt in my mind that further funding cuts would be seriously damaging to the future quality of programming.
I find it strange that the hon. Gentleman thinks that further cuts would damage the BBC’s output. Have several examples not been aired already during this debate of significant waste? The digital media initiative cost £100 million, while the pay-offs to BBC executives also cost significant sums—£329 million to 7,500 members of staff. Those are examples of money that has not gone into broadcasting, which is the purpose of the BBC.
Certainly, there are examples of money not going into broadcasting, but I think the new director-general has got a grip of what has gone on in the past, and I would expect it not to happen in the future. One good example is the restriction of pay-offs for senior executives to a year’s salary or £150,000, which is line with senior civil servants. My biggest concern is that future cuts to BBC funding would be most severely felt in local and regional broadcasting.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little progress, I will give way.
The cuts have already seriously stretched resources in local and regional broadcasting, and no doubt further cuts would have a severe impact, which is why we must ensure that there are no further cuts to the BBC after the six-year licence fee freeze comes to an end.
That is not what I am saying. Had the hon. Gentleman let me continue for two more seconds, he would have heard me say that we should commit to inflation-linked rises in the licence fee after 2017, with a similar commitment to maintaining inflation-linked rises for at least the next five to six years. I realise that that would not be popular with some hon. Members, who believe that the licence fee should be scrapped altogether or reduced, but the current £145.50 fee works out at about 40p a day to watch the BBC, compared with around four times that amount for Sky. Furthermore, about a quarter of Sky viewing involves BBC programming that people have already paid for. The BBC is good value for money.
Good quality public service broadcasting sets the bar high and ensures good quality commercial broadcasting, because the commercial quality needs to be good to compete. Where public service broadcasting is poor, the commercial sector does not need to provide high-quality programming to gain market share. The BBC sets the bar high, and needs to continue to do so. Recent research shows that public service broadcasting raises audience expectations and forces the commercial sector to raise its game too. Enhanced quality in the commercial sector then challenges public service broadcasters to achieve ever-higher levels of quality and investment to sustain public service broadcasting’s distinctiveness. Some hon. Members have questioned whether the BBC needs to continue to create certain programmes when commercial broadcasters such as Sky are now producing good-quality content. I would argue strongly that Sky is now doing that precisely in order to compete with the BBC, rather than the other way round.
Owing to time constraints, I have concentrated my brief comments on the future funding of the BBC. I make no apology for doing so, because that funding is vital to its long-term future. If I had had more time, I would have liked to cover many more of the BBC’s opportunities and challenges. I shall briefly mention four of them. One opportunity relates to the success of BBC Worldwide and the need to encourage it to do even more. It generated more than £1 billion in revenue in 2011-12, and there is plenty of scope for improving on that figure. Secondly, I would have liked to talk about the BBC’s role in sport, and particularly its role in enhancing and showcasing women in sport. Thirdly, we need to end the anomaly whereby the BBC pays Sky to have its programmes on Sky’s platform. That is a ludicrous situation and it needs to come to an end. It should be the other way round, because Sky benefits from having BBC programmes on its platform. At the very least, the arrangement needs to be cost neutral; the BBC should not be paying.
Finally, there is a need to protect public service broadcasting through guaranteed positioning on the electronic programming guide. That is a bit of a geeky issue, but I hope that the Select Committee will look into it as part of our BBC inquiry. The electronic programming guide could become even more important as television changes in the coming decades, and we need to set it in stone that public service broadcasting will have the prominence that it deserves on the electronic programming guide.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also fully concur with some of the ideas that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) put forward at the end of his speech. I was about to say that this debate is extremely timely because the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), is here, but he is just leaving the Chamber. Not to worry; I am sure that he will read Hansard in the morning. The debate is also timely as the Select Committee will have the BBC director-general and the chair of the BBC Trust before it tomorrow.
I want to concentrate on the subject of BBC news. I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, which is a cross-party group that works closely with the NUJ and naturally has concerns about the role of journalists within the BBC. It is worth reminding ourselves that the BBC still has a 74% share of national and international news consumption and a 31% share of all television news. It is the largest single investor in TV news production and it spends £120 million on radio news, compared with the £27 million spent in the commercial sector.
I was around at the time of the licence fee settlement three years ago. I was there on that dark autumn weekend when the deal was stitched up—largely influenced, I think, by Murdoch—in which the BBC took on the freeze over the next six years, the 20% cuts and, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said, the additional £340 million of expenditure on other services. That deal has resulted in 2,000 job lay-offs. It has also had a dramatic effect on the BBC news service. Last year, 140 jobs were lost in BBC news, and that was the eighth consecutive year of cuts in that area. That has hit investigative journalism and political coverage.
The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have criticised the BBC for implementing the cuts to the news service without making any assessment of their impact on quality. Last month, a further 75 job cuts were announced in BBC news and current affairs. The impact of these cuts is to degrade the BBC’s unique selling point, which is the quality of its journalism and news provision.
There are also real worries about an element of creeping commercialisation in the BBC news service. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of BBC Worldwide. The £1.09 billion income that it brought in during 2011-12 has made a significant contribution to the BBC. However, we are beginning to see the incursion of a profit motive within the BBC Worldwide’s service delivery. Peter Horrocks, the director of BBC Global News, which includes the BBC World Service. reportedly told news journalists that they would be required to come up with ideas
“to strengthen our commercial focus and grow income”
as part of their job appraisal process.
That came hard on the heels of the scandal in which the BBC was forced to issue an apology for accepting £17 million from the Malaysian Government—for “global strategic communications”—after running documentaries about Malaysia. The BBC has also broadcast material on Egypt made by FBC Media (UK) Ltd, a public relations firm that was working for the Mubarak regime at the time. There is therefore a real concern that BBC Worldwide’s search for income is affecting its editorial and journalistic decision making.
I agree that it is galling for journalists to see their jobs being cut and the service being reduced while expenditure is going into other areas, particularly into pay-offs for senior managers and others. I welcome Lord Hall’s introduction of some form of cap on redundancy payments. He has a real job on his hands, however, in tackling the BBC management style. The Chair of the Select Committee raised the issue of bullying at the BBC, and I shall go into that matter in more detail.
The investigation by Dinah Rose QC, known as the Respect at Work review, was launched more than a year ago. It revealed
“a culture where inappropriate behaviour has gone unchallenged and become normalised”.
It found that staff were often too afraid to use the complaints service. The NUJ provided the BBC management and the inquiry with a dossier containing eye-witness accounts of bullying at the corporation, some of which were leaked to the media. It is worth putting on record some of the experiences that the staff endured.
The NUJ dossier, which was seen by senior executives at the BBC, claims that a female journalist was offered a job promotion if she had sex with her boss in his country cottage, that a senior manager was given a pay-off despite allegations that he had sent sexual messages to two female graduates, that women working in the World Service’s Afghan department in the BBC's London headquarters were criticised for wearing western clothes and expressing opinions, and that a black radio presenter was told by his manager that his voice was “not black enough”. That is what went on at the BBC. Those are some of the complaints in the dossier that was submitted to the management.
Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ general secretary, has said:
“It is quite clear that bullying has become an institutionalised problem at the BBC, one that has taken hold over many years. The report’s findings underline the fear factor that exists, particularly for those staff on freelance and short-term contracts, who know that speaking out could damage their career prospects. Many see how bullies have been allowed to get away with shocking behaviour right under the noses of senior management, so have no faith that complaining will bring any redress. Our submission was eye-watering stuff: people have been bullied because of their sexuality, or their race; women have been subjected to the most awful sexism; journalists have been openly reviled because of their age; and there are many others whose lives have been made unbearable for no discernible reason. People have been picked off simply because their face doesn’t seem to fit.”
What also came out of this dossier was that a former human resources manager turned whistleblower alleged that the BBC adopted underhand tactics during the 2010 pensions dispute with the NUJ. He claimed that, during those negotiations, the management were putting active union members under pressure, monitoring union ballots and e-mails. That was from the dossier submitted to management. Individual cases are now being taken up and formal complaints are being investigated. However, many of the formal complaints lodged nine months ago have still not come to any conclusion. That is a long period of time in which to investigate a case and then not come to a decision.
I thus believe that Lord Hall has a job to do in sorting out this atmosphere of bullying and intimidation within the BBC, and I doubt whether BBC management will be able to focus properly on the organisation’s future unless it restores morale, which is at an all-time low as a result of some elements of mismanagement that have gone on. When the Select Committee meets tomorrow and interviews the director-general of the BBC and the BBC Trust chairman, it must first of all get a grip on those matters of executive pay and excessive pay-offs, and it must then challenge the bullying culture revealed by the Rose review. It is important to recognise that the BBC lost the confidence of the work force because it was distant from the work force—not listening to the trade union representations made to it about a number of these issues and not understanding that the workers within the organisation wanted to make a contribution. I would welcome it ensuring that, whatever structure is established, if things continue with a board as at present, staff representation must be part of that board so that the workers can be involved in the future direction of the BBC.
I fear for BBC news in particular. I fear that if these cuts go on, they will undermine the very product for which the BBC has become famous. That is why, in the build-up to the renegotiations of the licence fee, I agree that we cannot have a continuing freeze. There should at least be inflation proofing and we need a proper discussion about the levels of investment needed for the future of journalism within the BBC. It is too good a service to lose and too good a service to undermine in the long term by the year-on cuts that have been endured over the last eight years.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as well as to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this debate.
The whole issue of the BBC has come to light over the last couple of years, and we have noticed that there is a tendency among some to join in with what has become known as “BBC bashing”, which seems to have become almost a national pastime. Speaking as the chairman of the all-party BBC group, I certainly do not claim that all is perfect in the BBC—far from it. It does get things wrong, but it also gets a lot of things right.
The BBC has probably had the worst couple of years since its creation. It has never been criticised to such an extent before. Usually, with broadcasting organisations, it is the quality of the output that is criticised. The accusations tend to be that the programming is poor and not current or relevant enough. That, however, is rarely the accusation thrown at the BBC. I have not heard such an accusation during this debate. Indeed, if there is some agreement, it seems to be that the quality of programme production by the BBC is pretty much second to none.
One other point is that people rely on the BBC for accuracy in its news reporting. It may sometimes be that the BBC is not the fastest to report a story because it always waits until it has at least two people to confirm one. This afternoon, on the other hand, Wales Online, which belongs to Trinity Mirror, announced that the Prime Minister had resigned. Next to that item the website referred to “other stories” that people might like. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State looks frightened, but the Prime Minister has not resigned; he is still here. That is not the kind of mistake that the BBC would make.
It would be damaging to my career to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he makes a very pertinent point. With news announcements from other broadcasters, we might think “That could well be true,” but when we see a story from the BBC, we view it as confirmation because the accuracy is there and the report is right and honest. The BBC is not always first when it comes to breaking news, but it is often the most accurate.
There is no doubt that there have been failings at the BBC, and I am not trying to claim otherwise. What I am claiming is that there is a vein running through the BBC that prides itself on being accurate, impartial, fair and right above everything else. We should give credit to the BBC for that. We have heard a lot about the BBC’s failures—I shall make some criticisms myself—but I believe that we should give credit to the BBC where it is due.
As I say, the BBC has its failings, but the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) made the point that we politicians could only dream of having the approval ratings that the BBC experiences today—notwithstanding the two difficult years to which I have alluded. As I said to the hon. Member for Rhondda, when the BBC makes a statement, there is an extra burden on it to be accurate, fair and unbiased. It is right to scrutinise the work of the BBC to make sure that that very high standard is upheld. I do not claim to be one of the most travelled Members, but when I watch television in various different countries around the world, the coverage can often be dreadful and unashamedly partisan. When foreign nationals come here, however, they often compliment the BBC. In other words, our reputation as a nation is enhanced by the BBC.
BBC World is watched by billions and trusted by billions. This trust can easily be translated into trade and commerce with those countries in a way that can never accurately be quantified, but it can be relied upon to ensure that there is often a positive response to the UK from abroad. Such a response is frequently generated by the BBC through the work it does. As an opinion poll recently highlighted, it is seen as second only to our armed forces when it comes to serving our national interests positively around the world. The BBC should be commended for that.
As chairman of the all-party group, I had the pleasure of travelling to Caversham, where the BBC monitors publicly available websites and broadcasts. This sees the BBC at its best. This gathering of information by experts in the regions it follows has proven to be an extremely valuable asset for businesses and Government investing in those areas—so much so that a large proportion of its costs are now met by the private sector. The private sector wants to invest in it and to know what the BBC is finding out about markets, and it wants to help the licence fee payer to provide that service.
Here in the UK, we also benefit from the regional coverage provided by the BBC, which has already been mentioned. Its local radio networks and regional television coverage ensure that issues of huge local importance are covered which would otherwise never get an airing and commercial networks could not always cover. Today, for example, I gave interviews to Radio Kent on the Dartford crossing—an incredibly important issue locally, but one that struggles for coverage beyond BBC local broadcasting. In that sense, the BBC provides a vital service in ensuring that people are informed of local issues that affect them directly. Let me add that I never feel that I am given an easy ride when I am interviewed by the BBC, but I do feel that I am given a fair crack of the whip.
The BBC has been criticised over the last two years over the link between it and the Jimmy Savile revelations. It was right for people to make such a link, to point the finger at the BBC, and to ask what more it could have done to protect children from that man. There is no doubt that mistakes were made, and that this monster of a man was able to take advantage of his stardom. However, the same could be said of the national health service, given that Savile may have committed more offences in NHS properties than in television and radio studios—although we cannot be certain of that, because we cannot enumerate all the victims of his appalling crimes. Let us not forget that this was a man who, it has been said, groomed a nation. He pulled the wool over the eyes of not only the BBC but the NHS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. Moreover, an early-day motion was tabled in this House complimenting him on his work. So the link between the BBC and Savile is just one of numerous failings.
The BBC has shown that it can adapt to new challenges, and also to new failings. Its personnel contracts for senior managers have been amended, and rightly so. It is right that we have criticised the way in which those contracts were originally drafted, and it is right that changes have been made. The BBC has also shown that it can respond to the economic challenges of today. We said that there needed to be cuts in its expenditure, and that the licence fee would be frozen for a number of years. We thought it right for the BBC to respond to a challenge to which we expected the public sector to respond, and, in fact, it was able to meet that challenge in a way that put some utility companies to shame.
The future of the BBC now looks far healthier than it looked a year ago. Changes in management structures and pay have helped it enormously. It is taking on 170 apprentices, including at least one in every local radio station, and it has also embraced the technological revolution. Such innovations will play a key role in the corporation.
Has the BBC made mistakes over management contracts? Definitely. Has it made mistakes in general that it needs to clear up? Certainly. Can it improve? Yes. Nevertheless, I believe that the BBC is respected both in the United Kingdom and in other countries throughout the world for the quality and honesty of its work, and I believe that therein lies its future.
Let me say what a pleasure it is to be speaking for the first time with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I want to refer to BBC radio broadcasting in two very different parts of the world. First, I want to say something about BBC Radio Cheshire—or, rather, the absence of it.
In July 2012, I had what I thought at the time was a constructive meeting in the House with David Houldsworth, the BBC’s English regions controller, and Mary Picken, head of communications for BBC English regions, about the absence of local BBC radio in Cheshire. Most of my constituency is effectively not covered by local radio at all, because there is no distinctly local independent radio broadcasting. The three of us had what I felt was a very fruitful and fair discussion. I explained that Cheshire was becoming an increasingly well-defined region with three strong unitary authorities working together to develop its economic potential—although it has been recognised not only for that economic potential but for the quality of life there, not least by the numerous BBC executives who have relocated to the county following the BBC’s move north. We all agreed that Cheshire was very distinct from the two city regions of Liverpool and Manchester, and that the current BBC local radio provision for Manchester, Merseyside and Stoke did not serve Cheshire appropriately.
I accepted from David at the time that, given the current economic climate and the fact that there was no spare transmitter capacity in the region, setting up and broadcasting from a new BBC Radio Cheshire might present a challenge. That, however, was nearly a year and a half ago, and I want to revisit the issue now. More important, I want to revisit the fact that at that meeting, on behalf of the BBC, David Houldsworth acknowledged the need for a clear and identifiable source of information about Cheshire and its news and views, and said that he would take what he described as active steps to bring about the creation of a BBC Cheshire news index on the BBC news website, which would enable all the news and wide-ranging events across Cheshire to be gathered in one place for people to view. There are similar forums on the BBC website for other areas in the north-west, such as Lancashire, Merseyside, Cumbria and Greater Manchester, all of which have their own dedicated pages.
Shortly after the meeting, Helen Boaden, who was then director of BBC News and is now director of BBC Radio, confirmed that the BBC
“is actively looking at the idea of an online Cheshire index and is hoping that any regulatory issues can be resolved as soon as possible. If that is the case it should be possible to launch an index within six months.”
As I said earlier, that meeting took place in July 2012. Since then—I hope that the House will forgive the pun—there has been radio silence. My office has heard nothing about the setting up of a BBC Cheshire news index. I should very much like to know from the BBC when that will happen.
The second geographical area that I want to discuss is a world away. I must don the hat that I wear as vice-chair of the North Korea all-party parliamentary group to speak about BBC World Service broadcasting into that country-—or rather, again, the lack of it. I think that we would all accept the importance of the BBC’s role as a key instrument of soft power in promoting universal values—human rights, the rule of law and democracy—and would accept that, at its best, the BBC World Service is a beacon of hope and a voice of freedom for the oppressed throughout the world. Broadcasting into North Korea would enable the people there who are victims of the most egregious and repressive regime in the world to know that they are not forgotten.
I hope that Members will forgive me if I remind them for a moment of the atrocities that occur in North Korea, and of why it is so important for us to shatter the wall of communication isolation that has afflicted the North Korean people for well over three generations. There are beginning to be cracks in that wall, largely owing to the advancement of technology. I think it important for the BBC to be at the forefront of that, rather than lagging behind.
Only last week our media reported that humans were being used as guinea pigs in North Korea, and that whole families were being placed in what were effectively glass boxes so that chemical weapons could be tested. That is cruelty beyond imagination, but it is just one example of what is happening in that country. People are being steamrollered to death, children are being starved to death, and thousands more are wandering the streets without parents. The children of prisoners are being treated as prisoners from birth. Hundreds of thousands are being held in gulags, many simply because of their beliefs or for making a cursory statement against the regime. Many are literally worked to death in prison factories, sleeping at their machines. A vast number of people are starving. Aid is being misappropriated at borders, never reaching those for whom it is intended. Those who succeed in escaping—which is rare—may lose their lives in the process, and three generations of their families may be threatened with imprisonment, perhaps for life. In short, they are the most persecuted people on earth.
Surely we should use our soft power through the BBC World Service to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and to develop this nation into one that we would see as habitable for human beings, not the nation we know of today. The cost of that would be a fraction of the £100 million lost from the BBC through the digital media initiative, not to mention the high celebrity salaries and executive pay-offs.
The all-party group held a meeting some months ago with Peter Horrocks, director of global news, including the World Service, and he kindly agreed to look into this suggestion. I contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office some time later and received a letter in response in March 2013 from the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire). He confirmed that Mr Horrocks had
“agreed to look into the suggestions that the group made in more detail. I understand that this work is ongoing. The BBC has committed to updating the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the APPG once this work has been completed. I do not want to prejudice that update and look forward to hearing more from Mr Horrocks on this in due course.”
I should be grateful if the Minister present today updated the all-party group on that.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State also indicated that Mr Horrocks had said
“that the BBC Worldwide are currently exploring the possibility of offering BBC cultural television programmes to the North Korean state broadcaster.”
I should be grateful for an update on that, too.
We know how effective the British Council has been in North Korea in its teaching of English over very many years. I believe it has now taught English to almost 4,000 North Koreans. It has had access into North Korea, which has made a huge difference. I have spoken to several escapees and refugees who learned some of their English as a result of the work of the British Council. That and the BBC World Service are excellent examples of the use of soft power, which the UK is so good at.
We should remember that the Foreign Secretary retains his role in setting the strategic objectives of the BBC World Service. He still has oversight, and post-2014, will retain his current role of agreeing objectives, priorities and targets. I hope he will look favourably on the extension of broadcasting into North Korea and I ask the Minister to refer that point to him for a response.
I close by reminding the House of the respect in which the BBC World Service is held across the globe for the quality of its reporting. I share that respect; it is a service that I listen to frequently when I sometimes find I am unable to access the kind of slumber I would wish after a long day in this House. The quality of the BBC World Service never fails to impress me, and the public agree. The Chatham House-YouGov 2012 survey on British attitudes towards the UK’s international priorities asked people the following question:
“Which of the following do you think do most to serve Britain’s national interests around the world?”
They ranked the BBC World Service radio and TV broadcasting second only to the armed forces, with an overwhelming 68% of opinion-formers believing the BBC World Service is the UK’s most important foreign policy asset.
Let us use that asset to promote a safer world and address some of the most egregious human rights atrocities on earth today. That would be in the interests of not only North Koreans, but us all.
First, may I say what a personal privilege it is to be making this speech under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, so soon after your election, and may I add that I hope you have a very long career in the post?
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this debate on the very important topic of the future of the BBC. We must focus on that subject, but, with that in mind, we must first get out of the way what many believe to be the elephant in the room: the subject of BBC bias.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said he found the BBC to be quite right-wing. I was monitoring the twitter feed after he said that and I do not think many members of the public agree with him. However, I sometimes think it is wrong to say the BBC is too left-wing. That very much depends on the individuals who are presenting the show, not the corporation as a whole. There is no doubt that the BBC attracts liberal-minded people to work for it. Anyone who has done BBC interviews, especially at regional level, cannot fail to notice that the newspapers available to read while waiting to go into the studio are usually The Guardian, The Mirror or The Independent—The Guardian has almost become the in-house newspaper of the BBC. Setting that aside, however, this question very much depends on the show and the interviewers.
I think that one of the most politically neutral shows on the BBC is the “Today” programme. Some people will gasp at that comment and say, “It’s outrageous: John Humphrys sits there berating the Tories but never gives Labour such a rough ride.” However, when Labour was in power that was exactly what it said, and I think that when both sides of the House believe there is favouritism for the other side, the balance is probably just about right.
Where the BBC does tend to have its issues are in areas such as the Radio 5 morning phone-in show. Some of the comments the presenter of that show has let slip leaves us in no doubt about where said-presenter’s political loyalties lie. That does the BBC a disservice, because, by revealing the political hand in the comments made, the idea of neutrality goes out of the window.
I do not want to interrupt my hon. Friend’s attempt to be invited on to the “Today” programme tomorrow morning to talk about this debate, but does he agree that the issue is not so much about balance or the number of questions asked or the people invited on to shows, but about what the BBC wonderfully calls “internal plurality”, which is, in effect, making sure that a breadth of different types of opinion is involved in making decisions on what news is and what is important?
We know that there was a serious editorial and management change of direction for the “Today” programme in 1987, when it was decided that the show should shape the coming day’s agenda rather than report what happened the previous day. From that moment on, it became a more controversial show among politicians. I feel there is less bias in it than people on the right of politics think. However, it is clear that there are presenters who have deeply held left-wing political views. For example, we all remember the Jim Naughtie comment on the “Today” programme: he said “we” while interviewing a representative of the Labour party, rather than “you”. Such slips do get made.
We do not want to see programmes being dumbed down, however. That is where “Question Time” lets the BBC down very badly, because it is dominated by left-wing opinion. I was at a public meeting last night and the question at the end was, “Who would you most like to share a panel with, and who would you least like to share a panel with?” Somebody said they would like to share a panel with Peter Ustinov, which was interesting, and somebody else said they would not like to share a panel with Nick Griffin. My answer was different. I said I only want to share a panel with people who have been put there because they have been elected by and are accountable to the public. I want “Question Time” to have elected, and therefore accountable, politicians from across the political spectrum so that the public get to hear how the issues of the day are addressed by those representing the range of political opinions in this country. I get sick to the back teeth of opinionated comedians et al going on and spouting forth when they are not in any way accountable to the public. That is where the BBC lets itself down—through what I call a dumbing-down.
In the early-1990s “Harry Enfield’s Television Programme” probably did more damage to Radio 1 than anything else when it introduced the DJs Smashie and Nicey and completely undermined and caricatured such figures. Interestingly, I wonder whether Harry Enfield had the same impact when he caricatured “Question Time” six or seven months ago. Anybody who watched that caricature of “Question Time” will have found very little they could disagree with. It showed the BBC was in danger of losing an important part of its audience. We should consider the difference between “Question Time” and “Any Questions”, which is a very different type of show.
That point leads on to what I want to talk about: the future of the BBC, and how the various radio and TV stations feed into the whole organisation, and how it serves the public. The hon. Member for Rhondda made an important and interesting point when he said that public service broadcasting should be there for the highbrow programmes—and I certainly do enjoy them and the education I get from them—but then asked why people who pay that tax and do not want to enjoy those programmes should have them taken away. The idea that it is the role of a public sector broadcaster to entertain and to be informative is laid out in the charter, but I believe that it is surely the role of a public sector broadcaster to enrich the people it serves.
We then get into the argument about what lets such a broadcaster enrich the people it serves, and, thus, whether it is wrong to say that any of the BBC’s programmes or content should be commercialised. The BBC may have led to Sky Arts being formed and having a high-level arts output, but I would argue that BBC News followed Sky News. On stations that should be changed and either commercialised or kept in the public sector—I will deal with that point in a moment—BBC News 24 could seize the opportunity to split its content each hour between the half-hour rolling news that it does on the hour and having the next half hour become, in effect, the televised version of the World Service. This is an important point for the BBC, because it should not be competing with Sky News and its like. We hear the argument all the time that “We need to feed the 24-hour rolling news.” The BBC is a very important brand, which people feel does deliver knowledge in a way that they appreciate. It therefore has a prime opportunity to enrich people’s knowledge of what is going on politically in the world by making half of that broadcast output on BBC News 24 a televised version of the World Service.
Which areas would I commercialise? I often feel that BBC 1, Radio 1 and Radio 2 could easily exist in a commercial environment. Why do I say that? I say it not in order to cut the TV licence, but to bring in more money for investment in the things that will enrich our lives. Let us examine some of the most successful television comedies, such as “Little Britain”. It made a journey from Radio 4 to BBC 2 to BBC 1, whereupon it was hugely successful in its sales of DVDs, books, CDs and so on, as many BBC programmes have been. I would like the BBC to focus its resources much more strategically, rather than taking a scatter-gun approach across many a television station. I feel that BBC 3 and BBC 4 are excessive and are not actually needed. BBC 2 used to have the content that BBC 4 and BBC 3 show, and it was often seen as the feeder channel into BBC 1, along with its having the highbrow content. A lot of the stuff on BBC 1 can survive in a commercial environment because it has the ratings, but that is not to say that we should bring in commercialisation to cut the television licence; the BBC should be able to gain as much revenue as it can in order to invest that back and carry on investing in British comedy, British drama and news. Although the BBC has cut its funding to news, it did not need to do that and should not have done it. I hope the Secretary of State has heard what I have said about the television side of things.
What I am saying is far more important for the radio side of the BBC. I have said that Radio 1 and Radio 2 should be commercialised, and I hear people gasp and say, “Hang on a minute. Radio 1 does put on show some new talent and brings those sorts of things forward.” It does, but it often puts those things on early in the morning or late at night, and we also have Radio 6, Radio 1Xtra and so on. Other radio stations are involved in bringing in new talent, and some of the things on Radio 2 would probably be commercially viable.
Does my hon. Friend accept that although it may be possible to turn Radio 1 and Radio 2 into commercial broadcasters, there would be a massive knock-on implication for other commercial radio broadcasters if those stations became fully commercialised, attracting advertising revenue and so on? We have to consider the impact on the whole market, not just whether or not an individual BBC property could survive in the private sector.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. The question that will need to be assessed by the Secretary of State and her Department is whether the BBC has that effect now on the commercial radio sector. For example, I am a great fan of Absolute Radio, which attracts only 1.9 million listeners. It has diversified over the years; it does things decade by decade, and plays rock and different genres. Given that it has 1.9 million listeners, one must question how it is viable. It must be viable through the commercial airtime that is available. We know that commercial revenue has reduced in the year, which is why ITV now has four minutes of adverts compared with the two minutes there were some 20 years ago, as it needs to meet the costs along the way. However, a fear of allowing something into the market should not change our approach; we should allow the commercial operators to say, “If that is there, we have to compete.” That might raise their game.
The big “but” is that it comes down to this: do we want a public service broadcaster to enrich our lives? I believe we do, as that is very important. I believe there will always be a role for Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service, and, of course, for Radio 5 and local radio stations. When the cutbacks were coming to local radio stations, the point had to be made that there is no better broadcaster in this country during a time of crisis, whatever that may be—nine times out of 10 it is weather-related—than BBC local radio to inform its listeners of what is happening in the area. That service must be protected, as must the content on Radio 5 and Radio 5 live sports extra. We have had the discussion about sport, and over the years televised sport has gone from terrestrial television to the pay-per-view satellite broadcasters, but the same has not happened to radio sport; we get a wide range of programmes on the radio. That is one of the key reasons why Radio 5 should always remain on medium wave, because it has a greater reach than FM.
That reach is also why the BBC, this Government or any future Government must not allow the FM or analogue broadcasting frequencies to be switched off in favour of digital. We had this argument in 1992, when the BBC was talking about turning Radio 4 long wave into a 24-hour news channel, and we heard about the areas that Radio 4 FM cannot reach whereas long wave can. The analogue stations may be crackly and hissy every now and again, but we do get something. I drive down the M1 every week to this place and I very much enjoy listening to Radio 5, the World Service and Absolute Radio on my in-car digital radio, but there are plenty of places along the way where the signal is completely lost. We may get hisses, cracks and bangs with an analogue signal, but with digital we either get all or nothing. So when we talk about the future of the BBC, it is very important that the BBC makes sure that, above all, it is there for everybody and there to enrich life. I hope that I have given the Secretary of State many a point to consider.
As I am the last but one speaker, it is almost inevitable that everything I say will be repetitious, so I will not speak for too long. This debate was expected to focus on three main issues: the budget and the licence fee freeze; the failed digital media initiative; and the Savile and three associated inquiries. I will comment on those briefly before moving on to the specific point that I wish to make.
The BBC is a bit of a curate’s egg: it is remarkably good in parts, so in fairness I shall pay tribute first to its many successes. The quality of BBC drama, its wildlife, sport, history and comedy programmes and so much else is acknowledged internationally, and rightly so. That is something of which the BBC can be proud.
The BBC has a budget of about £3.5 billion and of course, like all public services, it thinks it needs more money but, like all other public services, it has to make decisions to reduce its running costs and protect the licence fee. At £145.50, the licence fee is already difficult for many people to afford, even in instalments. Recent accounts of embarrassingly high senior management salaries, severance packages and relocation to Salford payments would make any increase in the licence fee absolutely unjustifiable in the eyes of the public. There were 91 exceptions to the rules involving relocation payments of more than £600,000, with a very dilatory approach to recording them. The BBC review of that is still awaited.
The digital media initiative involved a catastrophic loss of nearly £100 million. Nobody knew it was going to be unsuccessful, but it was and that underlines the need for the BBC to find savings from within its budget.
The Savile inquiry and the need for the subsequent Pollard, Smith, MacQuarrie and Respect at Work reviews have left the BBC with a damaged reputation. There are still unanswered questions about who knew what, who colluded in the cover-up and who turned a blind eye to Jimmy Savile’s extensive activities. Public confidence will have to be regained gradually over time through the BBC’s future performance.
I want to make a specific point about news broadcasting. There is an aspect of BBC culture that I find worrying and that I believe requires the attention of the BBC Trust and possibly the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Committee Chairman, mention that there will be an investigation into the future of the BBC in the new year. I hope that my comments might find their way into the Committee’s deliberations.
As a publicly funded broadcasting company, the BBC has a duty to provide balanced information and not political opinion, which it gives routinely. Mass communication through radio and television gives the BBC immense power from the ability to influence its audiences and form public opinion. Television news bulletins, in particular, are a main source of information for a large number of people and the content is assumed to be non-selective and factual. I know that from the contact I have from my constituents who complain to me about what they have heard and seen.
The personal political views of news presenters are often transparent when they conduct interviews. Interviewees with whom they do not agree are talked over and interrupted, and another question is asked before the first has been answered in an aggressive style that contrasts noticeably with the respectful, unchallenging approach shown to favoured interviewees.
I have often been interrupted by many a journalist on the BBC, although never more frequently than by Adam Boulton on Sky. The hon. Lady seems to be making an allegation of bias at the BBC. Can she give a specific example of a broadcaster whom she thinks has been biased or an occasion on which that has happened?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was utterly predictable. I am not going to name any individual, but I have seen countless examples of that difference in style between the treatment of one politician and another because of their political party.
Unrepresentative individuals are often invited to demonstrate an adverse effect of a new government policy with glaring omissions in the presentation. That would be perfectly acceptable if another person were also invited who would demonstrate the benefit of that policy, but they are not. Both sides of the argument should be presented and it is not a legitimate role of a publicly funded broadcasting company to show political bias.
The BBC informs, educates and entertains, but what it should not do is misinform by omission. The BBC Trust has 12 trustees, independent from the BBC executive board. The Trust and governing body make decisions in the best interests of licence fee payers and protect the independence of the BBC. The Trust reviews performance of all services, so that must include news, and establishes protocols, policies and guidance that govern performance. Let me quote from the BBC website:
“The Trust must act in the public interest. We seek evidence to inform our discussions and reach our decisions through a mix of factual analysis and judgement. Governing a creative organisation on behalf of the public whose BBC it is allows for no other approach.”
News presentation should be exempt from creativity, and factual analysis and judgment should find their basis in political neutrality. I believe that the BBC long ago gave up any pretence of neutrality. In the run-up to the local and European elections next year and the general election in 2015, the style of the BBC’s news service needs to be reviewed to ensure even-handed and fair treatment of all political parties and to introduce a party politically neutral culture in its future news broadcasting. That is in the public interest.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on the BBC. I want to concentrate on the charter renewal and the new licence fee agreements from 2016 and to give some thoughts on the future of the BBC in that regard.
I am a fan of what the BBC does. It does some incredible work; I was at a launch event last week at Broadcasting House for the coverage that the BBC is preparing to mark the first world war centenaries that start next year, with 130 commissioned new programmes that will produce 2,500 hours of programming. That is a pretty impressive commitment to the four-year centenary period. It is difficult to think of any other broadcaster in the world that would have prepared in that way for something that will be of huge national significance over that period.
The BBC has a role in setting high bars for creativity and programming and doing the things that a public sector broadcaster can invest in on a scale that might not be possible for a fully commercial broadcaster. As some people have reflected during the debate, that does not mean that only the BBC can deliver high-quality programming in drama, factual programming and children’s programming. They are done to exceptionally high standards across the broadcasting world and we should appreciate that. We are fortunate to have such a rich diversity of creativity and talent working in broadcasting and programming across the country.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee, is back in his place, let me say that I think that the key point in the debate about the future of the BBC and about the licence fee is how people consume television. Gone are the days when people watched television by turning on a box in a room. I noticed that in his recent speech on the future of the BBC, Tony Hall commented on the fact that on transfer deadline day there were 9 million hits on the BBC Sport website from people looking for news, that 40% of iPlayer use is through mobile devices rather than desktop computers and, on the question of TV on demand and previewing television online, that there were 1.5 million requests to the BBC for its programme “Bad Education” before it had even been broadcast. Whether one is a fan of “Bad Education” or not, that is certainly an impressive number.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I shall come on to that and he is welcome to pick me up on it when I have made a little more progress if he feels that I have not done justice to his point. Undoubtedly, 4G will only accelerate the process of TV being watched on demand and on the go where people want to watch it.
We should not underestimate the massive public appetite that remains for live television and radio, particularly when it comes to major national events, soap operas and dramas. The country comes together in its millions to watch something live and the appetite for that has not diminished. The evidence for it can be found in the incredibly robust performance of the commercial television advertising market, which has not been diminished by the internet at all and has recovered from the recession. When I first joined the Select Committee, I remember that the chief executive of Channel 4 said that we would never again see TV commercial revenues back at peak. Now they are not only back at peak, but in many cases exceed their previous level. That shows the demand for live TV, as well as for TV on demand.
Through the incredible initiative of Netflix in commissioning Kevin Spacey’s remake of “House of Cards” and broadcasting that so that people could watch the entire series as they might watch a boxed set at home, without having to wait for the next instalment, a commercial broadcaster has demonstrated that it is possible to pay for very high-quality content through a subscription service. We must acknowledge the fact that television is changing, and therefore the role of the BBC and the nature of the licence fee will inevitably change with that.
The director-general has set out a number of initiatives for the BBC to improve the breadth of the iPlayer, the period of time during which people can continue to watch programmes for free, and the ability to preview programmes through the iPlayer. Another interesting initiative is the creation of what he called BBC Store, whereby people can access programmes in the BBC back catalogue digitally through the iPlayer and pay a fee to do that. In the same way as they might pay to buy a DVD of programming that they were particularly interested in, they will be able to pay a subscription to watch it through BBC Store instead. This creates very interesting and exciting commercial opportunities for the BBC and raises some fair questions. If the BBC is allowed to develop more commercial properties and allowed to make more money from its back catalogue, how is this money used in the organisation? Can this be offset against future demands for a freeze or reduction of the licence fee if it is decided that that is the best way to go forward?
The BBC is also developing for music and radio an interesting platform called Playlister, which will help people to find music played on BBC radio stations and in BBC programming, identify it and add it to their playlist through Spotify, Deezer or whichever platform they use. This creates an interesting way for people to interact with BBC broadcast content and continue to consume it through whichever channel they choose.
This opens up an interesting debate about the way people consume the BBC outside the live environment. If people increasingly use the BBC through these online platforms, they create their own bundles of programming and content that they want to see. They prioritise the things that they want to consume. They effectively become their own director-general. They are their own editor-in-chief of BBC content. They will see that there is a great deal of content that they are happy to use and a great deal that they will not use. This may provoke a debate about the future of the licence fee.
Should there be a licence fee that covers a core service—core programming and the sort of channels that we would expect to see in a free channel bundle? There may be other programming and services that should be accessed through a subscription, so there would be a core BBC, plus extra services that people choose to opt into through extra channels. That should be part of the debate as we move towards the charter renewal process in 2016 and consider the future licence fee.
We know that people are changing the way that they consume media. We know that they want it on demand on mobile devices. A licence fee linked to a physical television set in a room is clearly no longer suitable, so how do we decide how the BBC should be funded? Should that be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) suggested, through general taxation? I am uneasy about that, because the BBC would tend to become even more like a Government Department than it is already. The idea of some sort of fee collected through the way in which people consume BBC output, perhaps linked to what they consume, is an interesting idea and should be part of the discussions.
Does my hon. Friend believe that if the licence fee were replaced by a grant through central Government, the BBC would be under any more influence from Government than it was in 2003 in the case of the 45-minute dossier, when a Government who were not happy with reports from the BBC, which turned out to be accurate, tried to impose and did indeed impose their will on the BBC?
I do not believe that that pressure would exist then any more than it does now. The BBC will come to negotiate the licence fee settlement. If it is like the last few settlements, there will be downward pressure on that or an idea that the BBC should take on other services that it should pay for, as it did when taking on the World Service through the most recent licence fee negotiations. That will be part of the debate, and there will be a robust debate between the Government and the BBC.
The BBC must be independent of Government, but it must accept that it effectively receives public money so there deserves to be some scrutiny of it. Criticisms that have been made of the scrutiny of the way the BBC uses public money have not been robust enough and are valid. Additional scrutiny through the National Audit Office may well be the best way to go. Throughout the debate legitimate questions have been asked about the BBC Trust. While I was a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee I thought that was particularly evident during the Savile affair and the session that the Committee held with George Entwistle.
The relationship between the director-general and the chairman of the Trust is more akin to the relationship between the chief executive of a company and the chairman of the company, but the chairman of the Trust behaved, certainly through the Savile crisis and its aftermath, like the chairman of the board of the BBC, a member of the organisation. I do not criticise Chris Patten for that. I think he did what anyone would have had to do in that situation—a senior figure who could speak for the organisation had to take charge at that difficult time, and he did that. But that is not the same as being the chairman of the body that exists to scrutinise the BBC—to be chairman of its own regulator. It raises questions about whether the current chairman of the Trust should be seen more as the chairman of a board of governors and whether there should be a new body that is more independent and that has more of an independent voice, whose members are perhaps selected with broader consent from the public, but is clearly a separate regulatory body.
If it is not possible to achieve that, the debate will surely come as to whether the BBC should be regulated by Ofcom as all other broadcasters are, and treated as any other broadcaster, with the current chairman of the Trust being the chairman of the board of governors, representing the viewers’ voice within the organisation. That must be a legitimate part of the debate on the future of the BBC.
If we had a blank piece of paper and if we could recreate the entire broadcast landscape of this country, we might not create the BBC as it is now, but we must recognise that it is a global media brand of enormous importance, it is an ambassador for this country around the world, it produces some iconic programming, it is chosen repeatedly by the nation as its preferred viewing platform for major national events, both state events and sporting events, and it is something that we should celebrate. However, there are genuine questions about the way in which it raises its finance, linked to how people consume its services and to the way it is governed, and those should form part of the debate as we come closer to charter renewal.
The BBC is an important national institution and I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this debate which has, as other hon. Members have said, come at a timely moment. Obviously, the BBC has special funding arrangements. The licence fee is unavoidable for anybody who wants to watch television. As a consequence, or perhaps in recognition of its very high status, 96% of the public use the BBC in an average week.
However, as other hon. Members have said, a series of scandals have rocked the BBC in the past few years. The most serious was clearly the Savile scandal. It looks now as if perhaps 500 people were victims of this man, and the initial horrors have been followed by wrong editorial decisions. Then there were serious financial problems—£100 million squandered on the digital initiative, and massive executive pay-offs. It was not just the sums of money, but the mismanagement of the agreement to these pay-offs that was criticised. Those massive pay-offs were partly caused by the fact that there was excessive pay at the top of the management of the organisation.
We on the Labour Benches believe that the BBC must get a grip. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has said that
“it is odd that though the BBC rightly sees itself as different from commercial broadcasters—in terms of how it is regulated and treated in terms of market share . . . they argue that it’s the market pure and simple which should dictate their pay.”
She went on to say that
“they cannot have it both ways.”
The consensus across the House today is that the BBC cannot have it both ways. Hon. Members also referred to the editorial errors in the case of the “Newsnight” descriptions of Lord McAlpine, and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about North Korea. I thought she was going to talk about the questionable practices in the documentary about North Korea, which also raised concerns among many people.
All those episodes seem to me to show that the BBC’s management needs to be improved. They also show that its governance has failed, because the Trust did not fulfil its role of defending the licence fee payer. In this situation, we are presented with the question, “What is to be done?” Some hon. Members believe that the model has failed and the licence fee should be abandoned. The Secretary of State has said that she believes that the National Audit Office should have further powers and rights to go through the BBC’s accounts. I hope that she will say a little more about that when she responds to the debate. In particular, I hope that she will explain how she would achieve that while avoiding either the reality or the perception that politicians are interfering with the BBC.
The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), made it clear that he believes that the BBC should be considerably smaller and that there is a question mark over whether it can continue to be financed through the licence fee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) proposed a new model for a mutual BBC, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) all seemed far more supportive of the status quo and the current model—
I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon, although I must say that is a rather detailed point, compared with the radical proposals coming from the Government side of the House.
When we consider the future of the BBC, it is interesting to look at what the director-general said last week in a major speech. He said that he wanted to see public service at the heart of the BBC and promised leaner management and further cuts of £100 million. It is true that some of the recent mistakes have been phenomenally costly, so a “right first time” culture would be incredibly helpful. He spoke at length about the possibilities for the BBC of technical innovations, including improvements to iPlayer, a BBC store and iPlayer radio.
The director-general also spoke about the significant contribution the BBC not only makes now, but can make in future, to the creative industries generally in this country. I think that is something we would all applaud. The fact that we put a 25% quota on the BBC to commission externally has turned out to be an extremely useful way of promoting and supporting other creative industries, and indeed exports, in this country. His proposals for a partnership with the British Library and a digital space with other institutions were extremely positive, as were his proposals for increasing the number of apprenticeships and the amount of education for young people in new technology. He mentioned something that I think we have all agreed with over the course of today’s debate: the importance of seeing more investigative news reporting. He also wants to strengthen the BBC’s global news presence, which will be facilitated through the incorporation of the World Service.
Although the director-general made a number of important statements about the BBC’s content and the possibilities for technology, he said less about the management. That has been a major concern in this debate and I think that it would be helpful if the BBC paid significantly more attention to it. In addition to the issue of top pay, we will obviously look at governance in the process of royal charter renewal. Rather than leaping to some new model, I think that it would be more helpful to have a proper royal charter process that includes consulting the public. As my right hon. Friend said, the fact that the governance arrangements did not work in the Savile episode, for example, does not prove that the model is broken; it demonstrates that the individuals did not fulfil their roles as well as they could have done. I urge caution before we tear up the current model and move into a whole new world—I am pleased to see the Secretary of State nodding in agreement.
It is also worth considering the future of the BBC in relation to the other large media organisations and the importance of maintaining media plurality in this country. The position of Her Majesty’s Opposition is that we should of course include the BBC in the overall understanding of the shares when measuring media markets, but that does not mean that we should apply the same remedies to the BBC as to other media organisations, and that is because of the different governance arrangements. I am not saying that those arrangements or transparency—the point made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan—cannot be improved, because I am sure that they can, but I think that all Members of the House must acknowledge that the BBC has a very different place from the private commercial operators.
I think that the hon. Lady is right up to a point, but surely we should also be looking forward when it comes to governance issues. Many of our local newspapers across the country are dying because they cannot monetise their online provision. In the United States, however, many local newspapers are thriving because they can monetise their online provision, and that is because they do not have a very big BBC online presence providing that content. I think that we need to look very carefully at that when we talk about media plurality.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is a long-standing concern that the BBC should not use its privileged position to compete unfairly with other market operators. Local newspapers have claimed that stories are taken from them and that they are not paid for them properly, which obviously is something we need to address if we are to have plurality at both local and national level.
When we are looking at transparency and public accountability, I think that it is worth thinking about ways in which the public can be involved in commissioning. The best job in television must be that of commissioning editor. I think that a more open approach to the public on commissioning would be extremely welcome. The director-general says that he wants the public to feel that they are the owners of the BBC and that it is theirs, and we say amen to that, but we do not want it to be a piece of rhetoric; we want it to be a piece of reality.
Hon. Members also spoke about the management and culture of the organisation. Clearly, the need to be more conscious of value-for-money issues is still essential. Only last month senior executives gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, and it was clear on that occasion that there is still some way to go. We would also like to see more women in the BBC, both behind the scenes and on air. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) spoke about the serious cases of bullying that the National Union of Journalists has highlighted to us. One of the things that the NUJ has said—it is a good and reasonable point—is that the BBC should have an independent, external process for handling bullying or harassment cases. Doing everything in-house does not give members of staff the confidence that they need in the system.
I want to raise an important point about standards. There is a clear watershed on television; the content is suitable for children earlier in the evening and suitable for adults later. My impression is that the BBC does not operate radio to the same standards and that, from time to time on Radio 1 and Radio 2, there are songs, lyrics and language that are really not suitable for children. We cannot expect families always to put children into a silo of separate channels—that is not how people lead their lives, and the BBC must take that into account.
I felt that the criticisms made about BBC bias by some hon. Members, in particular the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson), were a little unfair. We can all think of occasions when we have been enraged by what we have heard on the BBC, but feeling extreme irritation sometimes does not mean that there is bias overall.
We want to tackle the issue of top pay and strengthen accountability, but we must acknowledge that three quarters of the population believe that the BBC maintains high standards. The most important guarantee of that is continued editorial independence. Although I completely understand that the BBC must evolve with changes in technology, in the end what we look for from it are values and commitment to truth and independence.
I end on a personal note. My mother is Danish. During the Nazi occupation of Denmark in world war two, the Danish relied completely on the BBC to get the truth. Those high standards of editorial independence and truthfulness are as relevant today, and will be as relevant in 10 years’ time, as 70 years ago. Those standards are what we want from the BBC.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) for securing this debate. It is difficult to do justice to the wide range of issues that have been raised.
What I will not do is prematurely sound the starting gun for the next charter renewal, which will deal with many of the strategic issues raised today; people would not expect me to prejudge those issues. However, I will join my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who struck the right tone in paying tribute to the majority of BBC staff, who produce world-class content. I particularly thank staff at the Salford offices, whom I met recently at our party conference. We should not confuse the poor judgment of some of the management —the failure of the few—with the world-class programming produced by the many. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who referred so movingly to the World Service.
What is clear is that the BBC asks for special treatment, and it gets that—a £3 billion a year levy. It is an extremely important institution nationally and across the globe, as we have heard in today’s extremely good debate. The BBC is synonymous with Britain, which is perhaps why it is so damaging for it to have been plagued by one scandal after another.
Many issues have contributed to making the past 12 months an annus horribilis for the BBC—from Savile to McAlpine and the failed digital media initiative to exorbitant severance payments. To say that as a nation we have been disappointed is an understatement. What we all want and expect from the BBC, now and in future, is relatively uncontroversial: a BBC focused on producing programming of the highest quality, setting the highest standards of behaviour and respect throughout its organisation and having an independence beyond question. However, we also expect it to be accountable to the public, who pay for it, for how it spends licence fee money. It is absolutely to be expected that both the public and this House should react when those standards are not met and that the BBC Trust and management should not only act effectively to address the issues of real public concern that have arisen, but be seen to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) said that it was difficult to please everyone—that is something, coming from a Liberal Democrat. He also said, absolutely rightly, that the BBC should concentrate on what it does best, which is high-quality programming. I totally agree.
I had a little less sympathy for the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
The hon. Gentleman is probably right. Perhaps I will get right what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) got wrong, or perhaps neither of us can understand what the hon. Gentleman said, but I think he said that only the BBC could do cutting-edge comedy. I would like to see him argue that while watching episodes of “Peep Show” or “8 Out of 10 Cats” on Channel 4. I do not think he has got that right.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I really want to move on.
The Pollard review and the MacQuarrie report both concluded that a lack of clarity and accountability in editorial decision making created an environment of uncertainty in which such errors could be made. Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry has yet to report, but I expect the BBC to act swiftly in response to its findings. As the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said absolutely rightly, with a sagacity that I always expect from him in debates such as this, the culture that pervades is critical. Importantly, the BBC has already instituted some changes to reform its management culture—for example, through its Respect at Work review and changes to its own whistleblowing policies.
However, it is crystal clear that more has to be done. The events surrounding the Savile report on “Newsnight”, the failed digital media initiative and the remuneration of senior executives all seem to share a common theme: confusion around where the roles and responsibilities of the executive stop and those of the BBC Trust start. That is where I part company from the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell), who is not in her place. She seemed to focus on the people rather than the processes. There are issues around the ambiguity over the chain of command within the BBC, whether editorially or financially. That has had serious consequences for the corporation itself, and more importantly for licence fee payers, whom all of us in the Chamber represent.
The issue must be addressed, and it is no good waiting until a new charter in 2017 to act. The right hon. Lady floated the idea of mutualisation. It is right that she should have such ideas; as she reminded us, she was one of the architects of the current situation. Perhaps it is attractive to think in the abstract about changing structures, but I believe that here and now we have to make what we have got work. It is important that we get in place the right management who have the right judgment but also have the right governance structures to ensure that we can be proud of what the BBC is doing and are not concerned about how it is being run.
It was right that following the catalogue of failures that we have all talked about the BBC Trust and the BBC’s executive announced a comprehensive review of the BBC’s internal governance system and structures and the culture surrounding them. They are re-examining the relationship between the Trust and the executive with the aim of simplifying it and providing better, clearer oversight of the way our licence fee is spent. The review will build on the work that has already been done by the BBC’s new executive team to simplify the organisation, reducing not only the head count of senior management but the number of boards and committees to help get to a position of more transparency over the lines of accountability. As every Member of this House would expect, I will continue to keep the BBC’s structures and effectiveness under close review to make sure that it has effectively addressed these very serious and unacceptable problems.
Importantly, the BBC has already agreed in principle to changes to its relationship with the National Audit Office. I want this relationship to be strong and open while clearly protecting the BBC’s editorial independence. I note that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland has concerns about this. She will know from what I have said and what has been agreed in principle that there are no proposed changes to the role of Government and Ministers in what has been put forward. However, this requires the Public Accounts Committee to act responsibly in what it does. I am sure that she will be able to discuss any concerns about this with the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge). The hon. Lady is right that the PAC has to act responsibly in how it looks at the BBC, as it does, I believe, in all its business. Concerns have been raised about whether such changes could threaten the independence of the BBC, editorially and managerially, but the existing management agreement is absolutely clear, that while the NAO is entitled to review any BBC decision, it is not entitled to
“question the merits of any editorial or creative judgment which is made by or on behalf of the BBC”.
That is a direct quote from the agreement that is in place. Nothing that I have suggested would change that, and I am clear that this important safeguard will be maintained.
I serve on the Public Accounts Committee. In terms of how the NAO and the PAC dealt with executive pay, I like to think that that issue would not have come to light had the NAO not had the access that it now has under the agreement that we struck, which has proved to be of great public benefit.
My hon. Friend is right. I am referring to some of the issues to do with the ability to intervene on things in a timely manner. I think particularly of the Entwistle payment, where we had to wait, I think, three months before it was able to be investigated. Those sorts of things do not help when we are trying to rebuild trust in the BBC.
So yes, lessons have to be learned from the last 12 months—some of the most turbulent times in the organisation’s existence—but we must also look to the future. We need to consider a whole host of issues that have been raised, such as convergence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) raised, and the importance of the BBC’s independence in the future. I could go into a whole range of things, but I would like particularly to focus on the BBC’s vital role in our creative industries, which are a growing part of our economy. At a time when we are all focused on growing the economy and prosperity for the future, the BBC’s figures demonstrating that for every £1 spent on it through the licence fee there is £2 of value added in the economy is a good story to be telling for jobs, expenditure in the economy and economic opportunities. This represents the BBC generating some £8 billion of economic value for the UK.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford explained extremely eloquently, the impact of the BBC goes far beyond the economic. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan mentioned the BBC’s role in public health and the part that it played, extremely effectively, in raising awareness of AIDS. He asked whether the BBC could do further work on child safety online. That is an extremely interesting area. The BBC has already announced—I think in February—Share Take Care, which is an initial piece of work in that area; perhaps more will be done.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her contribution, in which she spoke incredibly powerfully about the BBC’s role in taking concepts of democracy and human rights around the world. I would like to touch on the impact that the BBC can have on the international stage in representing us and playing a key role in how we are perceived as a nation. As well as stimulating the interests of businesses and tourists alike, through the work of the BBC we are spreading Britain’s reach and enhancing our reputation as a nation. In a recent survey of about 900 business leaders in the United States, India and Australia, nearly two thirds of respondents said that the BBC was the main way in which they found out about the UK, and over half said that they were more likely to do business with the UK because of what they knew about the BBC. That is extremely powerful, and important to understand. Therefore, when the BBC fails to adhere to the standards we expect, and does so repeatedly, the potential for damage is great and goes well beyond our shores. That is perhaps another reason why this debate has been so heated at times. As a brand and as a business, the BBC has an important and powerful role in helping us to preserve what is great about our nation and taking to a wider audience what Britain stands for today.
The BBC also has an important role to play in helping to preserve the culture and languages of our nations. In Cardiff, the BBC has built a drama production village in Roath that is now the BBC’s biggest drama centre in the UK, home to “Doctor Who” and “Casualty”. BBC Scotland’s presence on the banks of the Clyde has an equally positive impact. In terms of Welsh language broadcasting, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan has a keen interest and about which we have many conversations, the BBC became S4C’s major funder in April this year. The BBC has an existing statutory obligation to provide at least 10 hours of programming a week, at a cost of roughly £20 million per year, and BBC Cymru content is regularly at the top of S4C’s viewing figures. This can be in the form of “Pobol y Cwm” or rugby coverage, the latter of which draws over 100,000 viewers, possibly confirming a stereotype about rugby being such a part of Welsh DNA—something that I can certainly agree with. I was extremely pleased with the recent spending review settlement in which the Government were able to confirm our support for minority-language broadcasting, maintaining S4C’s Exchequer funding at its current level and investing a further £1 million in MG Alba, north of the border. It is important that we are doing this given its significance to our minority languages in this country.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members raised the issue of local radio. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and I agree on many things, but on this we may have to disagree slightly. I will read Hansard to make sure that I clearly understood what he said. As regards digital radio, we have to be consumer-led, and that is the approach we have taken. It is important that we respond to consumer demand in that field. I am sure that he and I will continue to discuss the issue.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that this is about responding to the consumer. We are on common ground. Decisions have to be made at some point and we need to make sure that we take the consumer with us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton addressed the role of local radio, particularly in Cheshire. She has campaigned hard and I do not have much to add at this stage. I hope she gets the answers she needs and that BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Radio Stoke pay heed to and focus on her powerful arguments.
The BBC has been and continues to be a creative and cultural powerhouse. It is totally unacceptable that recent scandals have overshadowed that. We need the BBC to learn from its mistakes, pick itself up, dust itself off and restore public confidence. The BBC Trust and executive must look to learn from the past and to build a BBC for the future that sets the highest possible standards in absolutely everything it does. We would expect nothing less.
In the limited time available to respond to the debate, I pay tribute to every Member who has spoken. I do not have time to go through them all, but I pay particular tribute to the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who stayed throughout the whole debate, as well as to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), whose interventions and speech were extremely helpful. I hope that this debate will be significant for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report, which we look forward to with great interest.
A whole range of issues have been raised and I will try to bring them together. Many focused on structure, transparency and the licence fee, and we have also focused on public service broadcasting and what comes from it. On transparency, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who has achieved an agreement with the BBC and the National Audit Office. We have been calling for that greater transparency for some time. It was resisted for a considerable period and featured in my 10-minute rule Bill last November. It seems that significant progress is being made and we look forward to the NAO’s reports. The director-general’s response to me last Friday suggests that it is happy to consider grater transparency, which may well mean the publication of invoices.
The structure is an important issue and I disagreed with much of what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, other than one point, namely that all too often the BBC Trust and executive management appear to be one and the same and there needs to be a distinct separation. The BBC Trust needs to be the champion of the licence fee payer rather than the defender of the status quo against any criticism of it.
This is a useful time to start asking what we want from the future of public service broadcasting. Do we want the BBC to chase viewing figures and potentially compete with what the market can deliver, or do we want it to broadcast unique programmes that can appeal to wider audiences for whom the market will struggle to provide through the income it generates?
In conclusion, I ask the Secretary of State to take up my suggestion for the BBC to play a significant part in communicating with, and educating and informing, parents and children on online protection. That fits perfectly with the BBC’s unique status as well as its mission statements, and I hope that that is one positive that will come from this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the BBC.