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Future of BBC Parliament

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of BBC Parliament.

It gives me great pleasure to speak in praise of BBC Parliament, which is the most watched and most successful dedicated parliamentary TV channel in the world. In a good month, when there is controversy in this place, BBC Parliament has a reach of more than 2 million viewers. It is true that the average age of those viewers is quite high, with 60% of them over 60, but as I approach the age of 60—I would not presume to guess your age, Mr Robertson, but I am 57—I think that might not be such a bad thing, because many people involved in all our political parties are the “young retired”, which is a growing age group that needs to be served.

The whole population may not have noticed but BBC Parliament in its current form was under serious threat over the summer, and I want to speak in praise of the people, in this place and elsewhere, who saved it for the nation. Those people include the director-general of the BBC, Mr Speaker, the Lord Speaker, and the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). I intend to tell the story of what happened, which is a good story with a happy ending. I will do three things in my contribution: look at the history and the context of parliamentary broadcasting, consider the controversy over the summer, and try to point the way for the future. In 10 years, when, I anticipate, I will be retired and watching Yorkshire play cricket, where will BBC Parliament be?

While I was preparing for the debate over a cup of coffee in the Members’ Tea Room, I looked up and saw a picture of John Wilkes, which reminded me that the reporting of this place has never been straightforward and simple. There has always been controversy. My 14th birthday, 24 February 1975, happens to be the day that this House debated whether to televise Parliament. In the end, the House decided not to televise Parliament but instead to start experimenting with radio. Coverage began on the radio, and BBC Radio 4 listeners were up in arms about the afternoon play being shoved aside sometimes, but the experiment went on, and three years later it was confirmed that the BBC and others would be able to broadcast parliamentary proceedings on the radio permanently. I remember when I was 18 listening to Michael Foot summing up for Her Majesty’s Government against the vote of no confidence that finally brought the Government down by one vote. I remember being impressed by the atmosphere and the argument that night as I listened to the radio. That coverage was not easily achieved, however, and the debate then turned to television.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a timely debate, given the context that he has laid out. He talks about things that are not easily achieved. Does he agree that, in a wider context, what should be more easily achieved within the BBC is more openness and transparency regarding how it commissions programmes, spends money and deploys resources? There has been a veil of secrecy over much of the BBC. I do not make any assertions about BBC Parliament, but about the BBC more widely. We need to get to the nub of the matter in a wider BBC context.

I have applied for debates in this Chamber—thus far unsuccessfully, but hopefully I will be successful in the next few weeks—so that I can elaborate to some considerable degree on the complete lack of transparency and openness in the BBC more widely.

Openness and transparency are always to be encouraged. I wish the hon. Gentleman luck in pitching for a future debate, at which I hope to be present.

The debate about television and Parliament was heated. The late Howard Wilson, who was my father’s hero, is mentioned in the Crossman diaries asking Crossman whether the BBC would be able to cut the video tape up, take a bit of speech and introduce it into a magazine programme. Crossman replied, “Certainly,” and Wilson concluded that that could not possibly be allowed. In the 1972 debate, the Conservative Back Bencher Brian Batsford said:

“The introduction of the cameras will bridge the gulf which has widened so much between Parliament and the people.”—[Official Report, 19 October 1972; Vol. 843, c. 468.]

The 1970s were a time of conflict in Northern Ireland and of industrial strife. The nation was divided, people said. One BBC executive said, perhaps rather hopefully:

“What then is our public attitude? It is to let the different voices speak for themselves.”

He was in favour of parliamentary broadcasting.

To move the story on, the other place was more progressive. It brought in cameras in 1983, some years before the Commons finally decided do so in 1988, after no fewer than 11 debates in the preceding 14 years. Ian Gow was the first person to be seen on screen.

Without going into all the details, broadcasting in the ’90s was organised through a consortium of cable channels that went under the name of the United Artists cable channel. It broadcast Parliament until 1998, but perhaps the viewing figures were not as high as it had hoped when it took on the contract, so it wanted to pull out. There was a big debate in this place about whether it was appropriate for the BBC to take over. The discussions and negotiations went on for some months, but then a deal was done between the BBC and Parliament and live coverage began. Connoisseurs of BBC Parliament will remember that in the early part of this century, the lack of bandwidth on Freeview TV was such that the pictures of the Commons in operation took up only a quarter of the screen and there were various captions. As the decade went on, digital TV improved and the BBC got more bandwidth, and we got BBC Parliament as we have it today.

That brings me to the second part of my remarks. This summer, the day after Croatia beat England in the World cup semi-finals—if there could be any bigger blow—it leaked out that, as part of several changes to political programming that the BBC was going to make, BBC Parliament was not going to continue in its current form. The proposal was not to totally discontinue the channel but to remove any of the associated programming. Even the captions were under threat. The BBC would have continued to take the feed from this place and the House of Lords and so on, but would not have broadcast during parliamentary recesses. It would only do the very basics, and no doubt that that would have come under threat in years hence.

I am the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group and I recognise the tremendous pressures that the BBC is under. It has to save £550 million by 2021-22. BBC News, which took the decision to try to scale back BBC Parliament, has to find £80 million in that period. I realise that there are challenges for the BBC management, but the cost of BBC Parliament is such that they would have saved only about £500,000 by getting rid of most of the staff. The transmission costs of BBC Parliament are nearly £7 million and another £1.7 million is spent on content and distribution, so the really significant money is in actually transmitting the channel, which I will come back to in a minute.

What happened then was that at a sitting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee just before Parliament went into recess, Lord Hall was asked by the Chair if he would be pulling all of the additional edited programmes on BBC Parliament. Those programmes obviously include things such as the coverage of the conferences and of Select Committees, but there is also a book programme about political books and a host of programming based on anniversaries, including of general elections. Indeed, there was programme a few years ago on the anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, with a replaying of his funeral and so on. All this associated political programming would have gone. Recently, Steve Richards has done a series in the old style of A.J.P. Taylor really, just extemporising—rather like I am doing now—for a period to the camera, and his theme was “Prime Ministers” who never quite became Prime Minister, and so on. As I say, all of that programming would have gone.

Lord Hall suddenly said in reply to the Chair of the Committee:

“I want the edited programmes to continue. Let me just say we are constantly reviewing what we do…Could we do this better? Could we do it more effectively? But do not read into that necessarily something that we intend to do.”

That was a glorious moment. Some in the House may have watched “W1A”, a BBC comedy about the inner workings of the BBC—there was a similar comedy about the inner workings of the Olympics—and this was a “W1A” moment. The poor press officer at the BBC then had to issue a press release saying:

“As the director general has said, certain programming on BBC Parliament will continue as before”.

That was a very elegantly achieved U-turn.

Then the Speaker stepped in and he also made representations, so it looks now as though BBC Parliament will continue very much as before, with its current staffing levels, producing the range of programming that I have referred to. It really is important also to have the captions on the screen. Another programme that BBC Parliament has made is the “A to Z of Parliament”, which explains different things we do here in Parliament—for example, Divisions—to the public. In that sense, there is a good story to tell about BBC Parliament, but as I said earlier, today I want to look ahead and consider what BBC Parliament could be like in 10 years’ time. How can we attract more people—perhaps more younger people—to watch it and how can we take it forward?

I remember that about 10 years ago, when I was previously in the House, I worked with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), now Deputy Leader of the Labour party, to save BBC 6 Music and the BBC Asian Network on the radio. I would like BBC Parliament to improve and expand, rather like BBC 6 Music has in the 10 years since it came under threat. How might BBC Parliament do that? It is obviously a question of resources and so on, but if the BBC put its mind to it, working in association with the parliamentary broadcasting unit, it could do for Parliament what it has done for things such as the Olympics, the FA cup and so on. It is a common theme in the BBC now to have My BBC—a digital concept. If I am interested in Bradford City’s results I can get an alert from the BBC about those results, or if I am interested in a particular area of news I can get alerts about programming in that area of news.

I think the parliamentary broadcasting unit now has, on some days, no fewer than 20 transmissions from various Committees around this House. There must be a way of linking those transmissions in to the promotional power of the BBC. Indeed, Lord Hall said in the Select Committee hearing:

“For example, could we…work with the parliamentary website to allow people to search more easily by topic, to have notifications when things are being brought up in the House? Could we extend our service in that sort of way, too, so that if you are particularly interested in…say the A303…every time that came up in Parliament you were told it was about to come up”.

I understand that Lord Hall, who has a very progressive vision, may well meet the Speaker to discuss that. As a vice-chair of the APPG on the BBC, I will write to the Speaker and the director-general of the BBC suggesting that the director-general to come into Parliament and perhaps have a seminar—if the Speaker would host that in his house, it would be great—about the future of BBC Parliament, with the authorities of the House present as well, to consider how we can improve the channel’s digital output.

In years to come, TV will probably change again. In recent years, all TV sets have switched to digital. There was a tremendous effort by the private sector and the Government, who worked together to make that change happen. In the future, something similar will probably be done with connected TVs. At some stage in the future, we will probably all have connected TVs, so I guess that eventually the BBC will make savings on the transmission costs of BBC Parliament. In the years ahead, it is really important that BBC Parliament remains a terrestrial channel that everyone can access, regardless of income. I hope that that has been achieved, but it is also important that we consider how the broadcasting of this place, the other place, our Committees and so on can be reviewed, to refresh it for another age. I say that because one of the things that has happened in recent years is that many young people have become involved and interested in all sorts of politics. BBC Parliament has done a massive and magnificent job for our nation over the last 20 years or so, and I would like to see it doing a similar but different job in the years to come for the generations to come.

Thank you, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, and I am delighted to do so.

I almost forgot that I had to respond to the debate, because I was enjoying the contribution by the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) so much. I thank him for that and I congratulate him on securing this very important debate on the future of the BBC Parliament service. He made a marvellous speech, taking me back to the ’70s, when my interest in politics was first inspired. He mentioned people such as the late and lamented Ian Gow, and he even alluded to that marvellous night—from my perspective—of the no confidence motion that brought Britain’s first woman Prime Minister to power.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Harold Wilson, who he said was his father’s hero. Actually, in my young years I revered Harold Wilson, as I believe did Michael Portillo, so he had many admirers; he was the most amazing politician and an inspirational figure of the ’60s and ’70s. I was also fascinated to learn that the House of Lords stole a march on us by five years; I did not know that it was the first House to agree to broadcasting and that it took the Commons so much longer.

The hon. Gentleman made various recommendations. I shall certainly listen to the programme by Steve Richards on the politicians who never quite made it to becoming Prime Minister. There might be a subsequent series called, “The Prime Ministers we never had—thank God!” [Laughter.] Perhaps I had better not dwell on that point. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was fantastic and I learned so much from it.

The BBC is rightly one of the UK’s most treasured institutions. It sets a fantastic example as a world-leading—indeed, the world-leading—public service broadcaster. There are BBC programmes that are perhaps off the point of this debate, such as “Planet Earth”, “Strictly Come Dancing”, the “Today” programme—I am sure we all enjoy that—and “Bodyguard”, but all of those outputs come from the licence fee, which allows the BBC to reach UK audiences everywhere, through the TVs in our homes, the radios in our cars and, of course, the devices in our pockets or on our wrists.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Does she agree that, despite having outlined some of the magnificent programmes that the BBC makes, there are issues with the BBC in a wider sense? For example, I have just come today from the National Audit Office in London, as I am trying to establish more openness and transparency for the BBC. Given that it receives almost £4 billion of licence fee-payers’ money from the public purse, it needs to be much more open about how it spends that resource and accounts for spending it.

I think that all large organisations are on a journey to become more transparent and accountable. Indeed, the BBC’s annual plan sets out clear commissioning priorities, and transparency is fundamental to that. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of this, but Ofcom is currently consulting on the commissioning process, including the transparency of that process. If that consultation is not yet closed, I urge him to contribute to it. Ofcom expects to make a statement about the mater by the end of this year.

Crucial to the BBC’s duty to provide impartial and accurate news and information is the building of people’s understanding of the UK, its democratic processes and the wider world, so that all audiences can engage fully in those processes as active and informed citizens. I am sure that the hon. Member for Keighley is aware of the BBC’s Democracy programme, which is all about facilitating greater democratic accountability and participation at a local level.

Scrutiny of politics—local and national—is vital, and the BBC provides a window for the public into discussions and debates. I did not know that the parliamentary broadcasting unit broadcasts an average of 20 different sessions of Parliament a day. That is absolutely fantastic, and BBC Parliament is an absolutely key part of delivering that unique responsibility, providing unparalleled openness and transparency by allowing viewers direct access to everyday political activities, not just here in Westminster but in Holyrood, Stormont—when it is sitting—and Cardiff, and helping them to make sense of the business of politics, through clear insight and explanation and links to other BBC sources. The channel contributes directly to genuine engagement in UK political life through the programmes it shows. Live daily coverage of how decisions are made and how the public is represented allows people to watch and listen to their representatives and hold them to account, and viewers can watch repeats of sessions on topics they are passionate about but may have missed because of the demands of everyday life.

As I said, BBC Parliament delivers significant coverage throughout the UK’s regions, showing, in the last year, 427 hours from the devolved Assemblies—an enormous amount that exceeds Ofcom’s quota for the channel. That coverage provides a critical link between voters and their representatives, and shines a light on the issues that affect everyone, regardless of where they live and work. That is an encouraging sign that the BBC is fulfilling its public duties, and it demonstrates the value of the BBC Parliament service.

In addition, weekly edited BBC Parliament programmes, such as “Today in Parliament”, which I enjoy, when I can, at 11.30 in the evening, and “The Week in Parliament”, deliver tailored insight into and analysis of the business of the day. A great example, which regrettably I am yet to see, is “Suffragette Allies”, which was broadcast as part of the BBC’s year-long celebration of the centenary of women’s partial suffrage.

BBC Parliament, as the UK’s only channel dedicated exclusively to politics, is an example of the public service ethos that lies at the heart of the BBC, providing a service that cannot be provided by anyone else. The monthly reach of the dedicated parliamentary channel is almost 2 million viewers and listeners, and the average BBC Parliament viewer watches the channel for almost two hours a week, which is a significant volume of viewing by person and speaks to the value that the channel delivers. The hon. Member for Keighley noted the average age of the viewers and listeners—I am that age, being over 60. However, although I am passionate about encouraging the BBC to attract younger viewers and listeners, we do not want that to be at the expense of, but rather as well as, people over 60, or 50, or any other age. It is all to the good that BBC Parliament will remain, and I was interested in his comments about its future.

All of that is delivered with a content spend of only £1.6 million, which was just 0.1% of the total BBC television content spend last year. I am not privy to the reasons for the BBC’s review of the channel, but the golden rule about saving money that I followed when I was in business was, “You can only save money from where money is.” As that 0.1% is a very small budget to start with, I trust it will be safe from that kind of scrutiny. It obviously needs to deliver value, but the hon. Member for Keighley and I have made clear the enormous value that such a modest spend generates. At a time when misinformation and fake news are rife, safeguarding trusted, impartial and accurate political coverage for audiences in the UK and beyond is more important than ever.

Underpinning all of that is the BBC’s independence. As hon. Members know, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, and rightly so. Independence means that the BBC can make tough editorial decisions to robustly hold Parliament and the devolved Assemblies to account, and to scrutinise our actions without fear of reprisals. Independence allows the BBC to help voters understand and engage with parliamentary and political events. Voters trust that BBC coverage is accurate and impartial. I know that there are challenges to that trust, because I receive letters from people—

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments. Trust must constantly be earned; it can never be taken for granted.

The welcome news, which the hon. Member for Keighley mentioned, is that the BBC recently announced that its planned cuts to edited daily and weekly BBC Parliament programmes will not now go ahead. I am very pleased to hear that decision, which I am sure we all welcome. I am reassured by the BBC’s comments to me that political and parliamentary content has a strong future on the BBC. I trust that the BBC will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s good ideas about looking to the future of the parliamentary broadcasting unit, with the development of artificial intelligence, notifications and all manner of automatic transmission opportunities that are more personally targeted at viewers’ and listeners’ interests. There is a great future in that. The hon. Gentleman has invited the director-general into Parliament, and I will encourage him to take up that invitation and join in any meeting that can be convened.

In an increasingly digital world, I am excited to see how the BBC has responded to the campaign. I wholeheartedly support its ambition and look forward to hearing further about its plans for the parliamentary broadcasting unit, which does such valuable and important work. I now leave a few minutes to the hon. Gentleman, in case he wishes to contribute further.

I am never quite sure, Mr Robertson; I have done these debates so often and in some I have been admonished for not leaving time.

I could never run out of things to say about the BBC. We are so fortunate in this country to have this truly great public service broadcaster. I am grateful, again, to the hon. Member for Keighley for teaching me so much about the parliamentary broadcasting unit and its offer, and some of the history of the whole thing. It has been marvellous.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.