I can inform the House that I will be making a statement tomorrow and laying before the House our White Paper on the BBC. The BBC’s royal charter expires at the end of the December. I launched our public consultation in this House in July last year, and in March we published the summary of responses, along with an independent review of the BBC’s governance led by Sir David Clementi. Over the past 10 months we have listened to the views of hundreds of organisations and institutions, and 190,000 members of the public responded to our consultation. As well as working closely with the BBC and the BBC Trust, we have also had the benefit of expert input from parliamentary Committees of both Houses, as well as from Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont.
The proposals in our White Paper are the result of one of the largest and most open consultations ever conducted. I have always been clear that I will publish our proposals as soon as we are ready to do so, and at a time when the House has the opportunity to debate them, and I look forward to doing so tomorrow.
The BBC is one of the most valued and successful institutions ever created in the UK, and it belongs to the people of this country who pay for it. It has levels of public approval that any politician would die for, and it is the linchpin of a unique ecology of broadcasting in this country, which enables the creative industries in Britain to grow at twice the level of the rest of the economy, exporting more content and employing more people than its size would suggest possible. It enables the UK to project soft power, and it creates good will for Britain throughout the world.
The Secretary of State has been displaying seemingly implacable hostility to the BBC during the charter renewal process, and he has also been avoiding Parliament. He had to be dragged to the House after weeks of almost daily leaked briefings to the media. He has not come willingly to Parliament, and he seems intent on using his brief sojourn in office not to strengthen the BBC but to diminish it; not to see value in it, but to denigrate it; not to enable it, but to control it.
Does the Secretary of State accept that a good charter must do three things? It must guarantee the BBC’s financial and editorial independence, and it must help it to fulfil its mission to inform, educate and entertain us all. Given that the BBC has agreed to take on the £1.3 billion cost of funding free TV licences for the over-75s, does he accept that any further top-slicing or direction from Government about precisely how money from licence fee payers should be spent is an unwarranted interference in BBC independence that threatens its financial independence?
On governance, does the Secretary of State accept that his proposals to appoint a majority of the BBC’s new unitary board, which we have read about in the newspapers, go further than suggested by the Clementi review of BBC governance? Does he accept that that raises a widespread concern that he is seeking to control editorial decision making, by appointing a majority of the BBC board responsible for editorial decisions—something that has never happened before? Does he agree that any such move would be catastrophic for the reputation of our national broadcaster overseas, and diminish its credibility and the respect in which it is held around the world for its objective reporting? Labour Members believe that appointments to any new unitary board must be made through a process that is demonstrably independent of the Government. The recent consultation on the BBC charter—which had the second largest response to a Government consultation ever—shows that three quarters of the public want the BBC to remain independent. Will he listen to that result?
The BBC does a brilliant job in informing, educating and entertaining us all, and four fifths of the public believe that it serves its audiences well. Today we read in the newspapers that the Secretary of State intends to rewrite the BBC’s mission. He is wrong to do so, and we will oppose any such revision. He is seeking to turn the BBC away from a mission that has succeeded brilliantly for 90 years and of which the public approve. Just who does he think he is?
The Secretary of State claims time and again that he is a supporter of the BBC, but he recently told Cambridge students that the disappearance of the BBC was a “tempting prospect”. He did not like the results of the public consultation, so he is simply ignoring them, but the public love the BBC and want it to carry on doing what it has been doing so well for more than 90 years.
May I finish by giving the Secretary of State a bit of advice? It is not too late for the Secretary of State to start listening to the public. Indeed, he had better do so. He will not be forgiven, and nor will his party, if he continues on the path, which he has been briefing to the newspapers, that will lead to the destruction of the BBC as our much loved national broadcaster and turn it instead into a mouthpiece of the Government of the day.
I agree with the shadow Secretary of State’s opening comments. The BBC has a very trusted place in British life and does a huge amount to support creative industries, and its global influence is enormous. We agree on those things and I am determined to preserve them, but to say that I have been dragged to Parliament is a little bit rich when it has always been the intention for us to make a full statement when the House is sitting—that will take place tomorrow.
The shadow Secretary of State set out three concerns on which she said she would judge our White Paper. I am not going to reveal the contents of the White Paper before it is published, but I can tell her that she will find that we agree with her about all three of the concerns she outlined and that they will be met.
We have had an extensive consultation and have taken account of it. The hon. Lady has asked legitimate questions. I would simply say to her that they are legitimate questions for tomorrow when she has had the chance to read the White Paper rather than for now, when she has read comments in the newspapers that range from complete fantasy to others that are quite well informed but certainly not informed by me or my Department.
We occasionally criticise the BBC for repeats and insist on original content wherever possible, but I suspect we will have an awful lot of repeats tomorrow from the hon. Lady, because that is when she should ask the questions and when I shall be happy to provide her with answers.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that worldwide reputation of the BBC, which he and I admire, depends above all on its obvious independence, and the fact that it is seen to be independent of the Government and all other pressure groups? Will he reassure me, as he tried to reassure us a few moments ago, that tomorrow’s White Paper will reinforce that reputation, and that it will be plain on the face of it that there is no threat to the BBC?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I have always made it clear that editorial independence is an incredibly important principle and that we will do nothing to undermine it. Indeed, I hope that, when he sees the White Paper tomorrow, he will find that we have done our best to strengthen it in some areas.
Members on both sides of the House wait with some trepidation for the publication tomorrow of the White Paper on the future of the BBC, but the Government should be in no doubt about the support for editorially independent public service broadcasting throughout the United Kingdom.
There often seems to be something of a gulf between some of the whackier notions floated by the Government via the press and broadcasting reality. One of the most bizarre must surely be the idea that the BBC should desist from broadcasting popular programmes at the same time that ITV broadcasts popular programmes—presumably, the BBC should show only dull, unpopular programmes at those times. There are reports that that remains a sticking point between the Government and the director-general. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that there is no truth in that absurd suggestion?
I and my Committee—the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—were concerned earlier this year that the process of releasing the White Paper might be delayed by the volume of responses that the Secretary of State has received, and I congratulate him on publishing it tomorrow. As he and the House will know, my Committee made several serious recommendations on governance, many of which were picked up by the Clementi committee and developed. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the selection process for the crucial role of the chair of the new unitary board will be as wide ranging, robust and independent as possible?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—he is right that it has taken a considerable time to go through all the consultation responses. We have had valuable recommendations both from his Committee and from the Committee in the other House. It was always the case that we would try to make the statement as soon as possible, and when the House is sitting. I am delighted that we are in a position to do so tomorrow.
My hon. Friend will see what we suggest on appointments to the new BBC board, if that is the recommendation in the White Paper. I will be happy to talk to him about it further once the White Paper has been published.
The pre-briefing, from wherever it came in the Government, to the BBC-hostile press has not helped the Secretary of State’s cause. If the White Paper published tomorrow follows the recommendations of the excellent Select Committee report published last year—he chaired the Committee at the time and signed up to the report—I will support it. However, if there is any suggestion whatever of anything that intrudes on the BBC’s independence, he will have the fight of his life on his hands.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that the report issued by the Select Committee last year was excellent—he played a very important role in framing the conclusions—but I repeat what I said: I am committed to the editorial independence of the BBC, and I hope that, when he looks at the White Paper, he finds the reassurance he seeks.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister described the BBC as one of the most recognised brands on the planet—it is indeed. It is also one of the British institutions recognised worldwide as a great achievement of this country and great advert for it. It is clear from Members on both sides of the House that one key reason for that long-term success is the BBC’s independence. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assure us that nothing in the appointments system or the board system in the White Paper exposes the BBC to greater direct interference from any Government, because that would be a hugely retrograde step?
I am repeating this but I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of editorial independence. On the appointments process, he will be aware that BBC Trust members were entirely appointed by the Government, as were BBC governors before them. However, the BBC board is a different beast, and I hope he will find that we have taken steps to ensure that BBC independence is beyond doubt.
Parents throughout the country value the BBC’s children’s channels, CBeebies and CBBC, because they are free from adverts for low-cost loans from Wonga and expensive toys. Like the NHS, the BBC is a world-class institution and the envy of other nations. If it is not broken, the Secretary of State must not fix it.
I share the hon. Lady’s admiration for the programming that the BBC produces for children, particularly given that most of the commercial sector has withdrawn from children’s programming. I consider that to be a very important part of the BBC’s public service role, and I hope she finds measures in the White Paper that she is able to welcome.
I doubt whether any hon. Member on either side of the House is not a major supporter of the BBC, but as someone who served on the National Heritage Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for many years, and as someone who worked for the BBC, I find some of the points made by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) a bit rich. I remember some of the appointments made to the board of governors by Tony Blair. She commented on the suggestion that the BBC should be showing programmes that are different from those shown by ITV and not competing, but that point was made by Chris Smith when he was Culture, Media and Sport Secretary in Tony Blair’s Government.
S4C provides popular programming in Welsh—in fact, it is as popular as possible—and is largely funded by the BBC. Is the Secretary of State concerned that his proposals as reported widely in Wales are likely to hamper S4C’s ability to fulfil that unique prime function?
I am concerned if those reports are circulating in Wales, but I hope there will be reassurance tomorrow. I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit S4C just a few weeks ago and I share the hon. Gentleman’s regard for its programming. He will be aware that we have announced that we will be reviewing S4C once we have completed the BBC charter review. That, too, will be with the aim of seeing how we can strengthen and sustain it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) referred to his past. In 1957, when T S Eliot and Laurence Olivier formed the Third Programme Defence Society, I was a 12-year-old who put stamps on the communications. Trusting in the Government to bring forward a decent White Paper, I ask the Secretary of State to clarify when Channel 4 might come up for review.
My hon. Friend is right that a number of issues are on our agenda. The BBC’s charter was the first and most important priority, not least because it runs out at the end of the year. Channel 4 is an area that we are looking at again to establish whether it can be strengthened in the delivery of its public service remit. I am keen to make public our conclusions as soon as possible.
I have heard what the Secretary of State has had to say about the BBC’s independence, but does he recognise that there is just one ethnic minority member on the current board and that it would be a great travesty if the same old people in the same old Westminster village occupy the same old roles?
I am sympathetic to those comments. Arrangements for appointments to the board will be made clear tomorrow, but the importance of diversity is central to the White Paper and it applies to those who work for the BBC, those who appear on BBC programmes and indeed those who watch them.
Following the lefty-lovey hysteria at the weekend, does my right hon. Friend agree that scrapping the discredited BBC Trust, asking for more transparency in a publicly funded organisation and wanting the BBC to be distinctive and impartial is hardly the end of public service broadcasting as we know it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I think he will find that our proposals certainly do not represent the end of public service broadcasting. Indeed, I hope it will be felt that they strengthen public service broadcasting. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution tomorrow.
There is no doubt about the level of public support for the BBC’s independence, impartiality and fairness. At a time when it is being undermined by its competitors and attacked by the hard right of the Conservative party, as we have just heard, and of course by the bitter practitioners of the new and kinder politics on the hard left, not to mention the crazed conspiracy theorists in the SNP north of the border and UKIP in England, is it not really important for mainstream politicians to stand up for the BBC’s right to do its job and defend its staff from the terrible bullying that we have recently seen?
I sometimes sympathise with the BBC when it comes to maintaining impartiality at a time when there are so many diverse views, making it increasingly hard to strike the balance between them. Impartiality and objectivity are nevertheless absolutely the cornerstone of the BBC’s reputation, and I hope that that will always continue to be the case.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the period of charter renewal is a good time to consider what the BBC can do better in the future, even though it is a much-loved national institution, given that this is recognised by the BBC itself and there is widespread concern about the need for reform of the BBC’s governance?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has contributed to the excellent Select Committee report on this matter. I hope that he finds that our White Paper proposals take account of it. They are intended to strengthen the BBC and ensure that it performs better in the areas where it might not have fulfilled its potential to date.
I am proud to host the BBC’s Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay in my constituency. It is a great facility, providing many jobs within the city of Glasgow and more widely, with lots of production companies also using the facilities there. I want to ask specifically about BBC Alba. Its present schedule provides for 73% repeats and it is able to produce only 4.4 hours of original output a week. BBC Alba’s ask for the charter renewal is to be able to produce 10 hours a week. It is a modest request to the Government, and I very much hope that the Secretary of State will be able to take it into account. The channel has grown a great deal, reaching 700,000 people a week, but it needs extra support to grow its audience further.
I had a useful meeting with the chairman and chief executive of MG Alba not long ago. I agree with the hon. Lady that they do an excellent job in broadcasting Gaelic. The Government remain committed to that, but the hon. Lady will need to wait until tomorrow. We certainly recognise the importance of what she says, but the funding is to some extent a matter for the BBC.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of BBC regional and local broadcasting. When it comes to BBC local radio in particular, it is difficult to imagine that the commercial sector would ever provide the sort of news broadcasting and local community information that the BBC provides. This is certainly one of the BBC’s strengths, which I hope to see continue and strengthen even further in the future.
As part of the ongoing review and as we await tomorrow’s response to the consultation, will the Secretary of State confirm—it is important for regional broadcasting—that collaboration between BBC Northern Ireland and Irish broadcaster RTÉ will continue?
In common with most Members, I fully respect the production values of the BBC. Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that it is only proper to ask the BBC to review its governance arrangements and ensure that it continues to have a distinctive approach in the face of a fast-changing digital world?
My hon. Friend is right on both counts. There is, I think, universal agreement that the existing governance structure has not proved to be sufficiently effective, so there is a need for a new system of governance. My hon. Friend also rightly makes the point that we live in an extraordinarily fast-changing media landscape, in which people are changing the way they consume television. If we compare that with the position 10 years ago, we find the current landscape transformed—and it is likely that the pace of change will continue. That is why the BBC needs to be adaptable and ready for that future.
Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will not listen to all the hard-line cranks and the obsessive detractors of the BBC who are always knocking this important institution, much loved and much valued by mainstream Britain? The BBC actually raises the standard and the quality of output from its competitors, so hobbling the BBC will do nothing but reduce that quality.
With wonderful BBC dramas such as “Happy Valley” and “Peaky Blinders” being filmed in my beautiful part of Yorkshire, will the Secretary of State assure me that the White Paper will enhance support and encourage yet more BBC TV production in the regions?
I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the set of “Peaky Blinders” recently, although they were filming in Liverpool rather than in my hon. Friend’s constituency. This provides a very good example of fine and popular BBC drama—exactly the sort of thing at which the BBC excels—and I hope that it will continue to produce such programmes for a long time.
The people of Wales are true to the BBC, but the stories of their lives are progressively going untold. Will the Secretary of State commit to increase the hours of English language broadcasting made both in Wales and for Wales?
The importance of serving the needs of all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom is central to the BBC, and, indeed, plays a major part in our White Paper. Precisely how that is done is largely a matter for the BBC itself, but, as the hon. Lady will see, we will have a little more to say about it tomorrow.
I thank the Secretary of State for his words of reassurance, and particularly for what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) about local radio. In the last Parliament, I led a very oversubscribed Westminster Hall debate opposing cuts to BBC local radio services. Even the BBC Trust seemed surprised at the strength of cross-party feeling in support of local radio. I look forward to my right hon. Friend’s statement tomorrow, but what more can he tell us about the importance of local radio?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Local radio performs an extremely valuable function, particularly when there are crises such as the flooding that occurred in the north of England. During the flooding, it was essential that people were able to obtain information about how they could receive help and what the scale of the problem was, and BBC local radio played a critical part in providing that information. I am therefore a great supporter of BBC local radio. As for the allocation of the budget, that is largely a matter for the BBC. We do not tell the BBC how to divide up the funds that are available to it. However, I hope that it will continue to give local radio the priority that it deserves.
I speak as one of the old lefty luvvies who were adverted to earlier. We were under the impression that last July the Secretary of State had reached an agreement with the BBC that there would be no top-slicing of the licence fee. Will he tell us whether that agreement still holds?
Does the Secretary of State agree that, given its clear remit to educate, entertain and inform the British public, the BBC plays a pivotal role in British society, and does he agree that, as the way in which we consume education, entertainment and information evolves and changes, so must the BBC? Is that not what the White Paper is all about?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, the pace of technological change is very rapid. The way in which people consume television today is very different from what it was 10 years ago, but I have absolutely no doubt that by the time the charter is next renewed, it will have changed still further. Of course the BBC must take account of that, as must every other broadcaster.
As the Secretary of State may know, S4C is the only television channel in the United Kingdom that broadcasts in Welsh, and its continued existence is very important. Will its future funding and governance be considered as part of the charter renewal process, or will those issues be stuck in the long grass, with just a few little words said about them afterwards?
I agree that S4C makes a valuable contribution to the broadcasting landscape. It is appreciated throughout Wales and in other parts of the UK, and I believe that it has a considerable audience in Patagonia. As I said earlier, once the charter has been renewed we will conduct a further review of S4C which will cover all aspects, including its governance, its remit and, indeed, its funding.
There is no existential threat to the BBC. This debate has been characterised by the sort of hype that we have heard today, particularly from the left. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in return for a guaranteed £4 billion a year, plus BBC Worldwide, it is perfectly reasonable for the British public to expect a bit of belt-tightening, more accountability than the BBC Trust currently offers, a little injection of entrepreneurship, and, above all, a return to some of the even-handedness that characterised the first 40 years of the BBC?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. The BBC is privileged to receive £3.7 billion of licence fee funding, and, indeed, additional income. Obviously it is important that that money is spent wisely, that we seek to improve efficiency wherever possible, and that we also seek greater transparency in respect of the way in which the money is spent. All those things are priorities for us, and we will be addressing them tomorrow.
There is obviously a feeling that the Secretary of State should not seek to exert undue influence in the wrong direction when it comes to the future of the BBC, but may I suggest that intervention would be welcome in one context—that is, were he to advise that the people of the midlands should be given a much fairer and more equitable share of the return from the licence contributions that they make?
I am aware of the strength of feeling about the matter in the midlands in particular, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy responded to a Westminster Hall debate about it. Again, this is largely up to the BBC, but we feel strongly about the importance of ensuring that the BBC serves all nations and regions of the United Kingdom, as we will make clear in the White Paper.
Having debated the future of the BBC a few days ago on the radio with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I yield to none in my willingness to go the extra mile in support of it—and I hope I am not one of the lefty luvvies to whom my hon. Friend referred. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me to listen to some of my concerns. Given that I am now reassured, does he agree that it might have been better for Opposition Members to wait 24 hours so that they could be educated and informed in the same way?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I was happy to be able to discuss some of his concerns with him and, I hope, to set his mind at rest, and I shall be happy to do the same for any other Members who have concerns. I would suggest to them, however, that it would be sensible to wait until they have seen what we actually propose, rather than some of the somewhat wild speculation that has appeared in the newspapers.
Virtually everyone agrees that the retention of a high-quality, independent public sector broadcaster is essential. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that one aspect of the £3.7 billion budget to which he has alluded is that it comes from the public purse, and does he also agree that greater transparency should be at the very top of both the BBC’s agenda and the agenda that he will announce tomorrow?
I was, once upon a time, a messenger at the BBC, so I know my way around Broadcasting House very slightly.
May I add to the argument for greater transparency by suggesting that we should have some understanding of how much senior managers in the BBC are being paid? My local journalists down in Devon would certainly be interested in learning about that.
I agree that transparency is very important, especially when public money is involved. Obviously, over a certain level, information about the remuneration packages of Members of Parliament, and, indeed, those of people who work for the Government throughout the public sector, is made public. The BBC already publishes the figures for its senior management, but I share my hon. Friend’s wish for there to be as much transparency as possible.
The Secretary of State has said that he recognises the importance of the BBC’s reflecting the geographical diversity of the regions of the United Kingdom, and, indeed, recognises the anger that exists in the midlands about the fact that BBC has not provided fair shares in that region, either in terms of investment or in terms of its operation and breadth of operation. I realise that he cannot say precisely what will be in the White Paper tomorrow, but can he tell us today what his approach will be in trying to influence those factors? May I also suggest that there is a job of work that can be done at Channel 4 to ensure that it has a greater geographical reach? Moving its headquarters to Birmingham might be a step in the right direction.
Obviously I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman today what will be in the White Paper that we are publishing tomorrow. Moreover, as I said earlier, some of those questions are for the BBC rather than the Government to determine. However, I reiterate that the need for broadcasters to serve all the nations and regions is a very important criterion, which we will be stressing to the BBC. I also hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Channel 4.
The cuts to local authority funding have created a crisis in the availability of regional arts and culture. In the BBC, however, we have a national institution that enables people to have access to the best, irrespective of where they live or what they earn. Does not the Secretary of State understand that by chipping away at the independence and the finances of the BBC, he is increasing unequal access, and that that is why he has created such a big backlash?
I hope that the hon. Lady will wait until the publication of the White Paper tomorrow before she makes any comment about the independence of the funding. I agree with her about the important role that the BBC plays in supporting the creative sector and the arts in this country, and that is something that I want to see continue.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that the BBC is internationally renowned for its independence and its quality programmes that entertain, inform and challenge? Does he also understand that any attempts by the Government to play the fat controller by, for instance, packing the board, interfering with programme scheduling or top-slicing the licence fee would risk inflicting severe damage on the BBC’s reputation?
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State refer to the important role of regional radio. I want to highlight the role played by James Hoggarth, who broadcast for eight hours straight from Radio Humberside when the BBC studio in York was flooded in December, providing a vital public service and emergency information. I very much hope that the White Paper will contain references to the important emergency service that BBC local radio provides.
I very much agree. As I indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) earlier, BBC local radio performs a valuable service at all times, but it comes into its own at a time of crisis in one particular part of our country or another. At such times, it is possibly the only source of news and information for the people who are affected.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), my constituents are deeply concerned about local and regional news provision. Can the Secretary of State assure us that tomorrow’s White Paper will not impinge on the independence or the resources of local news provision?
It is a testimony to the quality of the BBC’s programming that BBC Worldwide brought in £226.5 million of funds to the BBC last year. That is the equivalent of £10 for each licence fee payer. Can the Secretary of State convey to the House of Commons that he has no intention of selling off any aspect of the BBC’s commercial arm?
Again, I invite the hon. Gentleman to read what we actually say about this in the White Paper tomorrow. Where I agree with him is that the BBC does have an extremely valuable asset and that it should exploit that in order to maximise the return and reduce the pressure on the licence fee.