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House of Commons Hansard
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05 February 2019
Volume 654

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered independent accountability of the BBC commissioning process.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to have this Minister replying to the debate, as she has done on previous occasions. I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the lack of transparency at the BBC. There are major concerns about BBC Northern Ireland’s use of public money. I am unaware of the situation in other regions, but if other regions operate on a similar basis to that which I will outline in the next few minutes, there is a problem on a national scale.

I will focus on transparency in Northern Ireland, because BBC NI has not done so. The BBC’s key aim is

“to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value.”

Yes, there are many programmes in which the BBC’s mission is adhered to, but when it comes to the financing and contracting of those programmes, there is a lack of transparency that should not be the case. The programmes are made only as a result of the outdated licence fee, which our constituents are forced to pay if they receive television services. That is public money, but, after many protracted discussions, meetings and correspondence, the brick wall remains—although it can and will be broken down.

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It is one that he has been involved with for a long time, and today’s debate in Westminster Hall is his opportunity to highlight it. Does he agree that the growing number of people who refuse to pay for a TV licence, understanding that that means that they will not be able to watch any BBC programme, either live or on catch-up, indicates that although people are happy to pay £50 a month for Sky or Virgin services, they are not prepared to give the BBC £12 a month? Does he agree that that disenfranchisement is not to do with the cost of the licence, but to do with the nature of programming, with many people grossly unhappy with the BBC bias, which has become the norm but remains unacceptable? Does he further agree that independent regulation is only the first step needed if there is to be any salvation whatever for the BBC?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The compulsory nature of the licence fee has been raised on previous occasions, and I am glad that he has raised it again today.

Troubling questions remain on the issue of independent accountability. Independent media companies in Northern Ireland have approached me. They are concerned that they do not get a fair deal because of the lack of transparency. I intend to go into that in a little detail, Mr Betts.

I first raised concerns about the BBC Northern Ireland commissioning process back in November 2016—two years and four months ago—when I asked a series of questions of the BBC. Some hon. Members will recall that I raised similar matters in the House in September 2017; I was forced down this route after BBC Northern Ireland kept stonewalling.

Initially, I raised the question of how contracts were awarded. I raised that with senior BBC management and with some who were BBC presenters and had benefited from contracts. Answers were not forthcoming. As a result of the lack of accountability and openness, I took the matter to the office of the BBC director-general, Lord Tony Hall, in April 2018, my questions still not having had satisfactory responses. My concern then focused on a single contract that I was aware of relating to a company called Third Street Studios. There are three points to ponder in relation to Third Street Studios. First, the contract was awarded to a company that did not exist at the time of broadcast, the contract having already been paid. Secondly, this particular company has repeatedly received contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Thirdly—this is the irony—the company had no office and the postal address on its website took anyone who investigated to a taxi rank in Belfast city centre. The lack of independent accountability for these significant sums is staggering.

By August 2018, I still was not getting answers. I then went to the National Audit Office here in London to try to obtain satisfaction about taxpayers’ money, those who were, if I can put it like this, on the inside track in the BBC and how they did not account for their expenditure. I met the National Audit Office, and the meeting was good and constructive. The National Audit Office was then helpful in writing to me to confirm that although it does not normally investigate this type of contractual expenditure, an investigation would be opened up into a number of areas concerning the BBC Northern Ireland commissioning process. I want to concentrate on this for a few moments, just to show the significance of it. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the National Audit Office of the United Kingdom has found grounds to investigate BBC Northern Ireland on a contract of this nature. “Unprecedented” would be an appropriate word to describe this.

Let us just remember the guidelines that the BBC operates under. I will quote them briefly. On “Editorial Integrity and Independence”, the statement is as follows:

“The BBC is independent of outside interests and arrangements that could undermine our editorial integrity. Our audiences should be confident that our decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests.”

On “Fairness”, the BBC states:

“Our output will be based on fairness, openness, honesty and straight dealing.”

On “Transparency”, it states:

“We will be transparent about the nature and provenance of the content we offer online. Where appropriate, we will identify who has created it and will use labelling to help online users make informed decisions about the suitability of content for themselves and their children.”

Lastly, on “Accountability”, it states:

“We are accountable to our audiences and will deal fairly and openly with them. Their continuing trust in the BBC is a crucial part of our relationship with them. We will be open in acknowledging mistakes when they are made and encourage a culture of willingness to learn from them.”

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Given that last year I was the only Labour MP to join with most members of the Democratic Unionist party in defending press freedom when there was the chance of a state-appointed press regulator, will the hon. Gentleman recognise that investigations such as that into the renewable heat incentive by BBC Northern Ireland are in the long tradition of fearless investigative journalism by both the BBC and UTV that has served Northern Ireland well during the last 50 years, in both good times and bad?

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Yes, I unequivocally agree with that. The only addendum I would make is that the BBC is not exempt from scrutiny itself—that is the point.

It is an appalling reflection on BBC Northern Ireland’s management that a Member of Parliament who has taken a keen interest in these issues both in Parliament and outside has had to take the steps that I have over many months to escalate concerns to the National Audit Office.

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May I support the case that the hon. Gentleman is making? When we did the BBC charter review, we were keen to get independent regulation of the BBC through Ofcom and to open up the BBC’s books to the National Audit Office, which it resisted. The BBC can be opaque and not transparent. That said, does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it does not advance the argument for accountability and transparency simply to accuse the BBC, as some hon. Members have done, of bias? I think it tries very hard to present a balanced picture.

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I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but I invite him to look at more of the BBC’s content. Perhaps then he will reflect on his view. I am sure we will have another debate on that in the coming months.

I will now move on to the specific example I have raised. Third Street Studios has a director who is also a prominent BBC Northern Ireland presenter: Mr Stephen Nolan. The BBC claims that Mr Nolan’s company is an average, independent production company. That is patent nonsense. Mr Nolan quite regularly advertises the television programmes made by his company on his BBC radio show, which is part of his £450,000-a-year job, funded by the licence fee. This is a clear and unfair advantage over other independent production companies, which cannot promote their programmes in the same way.

If an independent production company gets a contract from the BBC, it has to go away, make the programme, supply it to the BBC and hope that the quality of the production will shine through. However, in this instance, as I have outlined, someone who works in the BBC—who has the inside track and knows how it works—can get a contract and then advertise on the BBC for his so-called independent production company, which won the contract from the BBC. That is clearly an unfair advantage.

Since the BBC is effectively funded through the public purse, it must adhere to the same standards as are demanded in other areas of public life. The contract was from 2014—five years ago. I have been asking questions about it for two years, and yet I still do not know basic details about the contract, which we all pay for through the licence fee. The public have paid for it, and therefore they have the right to know the details of how it was awarded and how the expenditure was accounted for. At the moment, we do not know the answers. Why should a contract that was awarded five years ago remain secret? Why not publish all documentation relevant to that series, after five years have passed, unless there is something to hide? That is why the National Audit Office is digging—digging deep, I hope—into the BBC.

The irony is that BBC Northern Ireland programmes continue to investigate the use of public money by Government, as outlined by the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), and they are quite right to do that. No one should misunderstand the nature of this debate. The BBC and others are right to conduct such investigations, but we are equally right to hold it to the standard that it holds others to. The BBC is not, and must not be, exempt.

As many will know, the concerns that I and others have do not just stretch to the process of commissioning programmes. I have long campaigned for maximum transparency in relation to pay. We now know that there exists a gender pay gap, but it took a decade for the BBC to come to the point of publishing the salaries of presenters who earned more than £150,000 per year. Does the BBC hope that if it strings people along on the issue of commissioning contracts, the pay issue might disappear? Does the BBC think that just as it dragged its feet on transparency around salaries, it can drag its feet on this? The BBC must think again. It seems to feel as though it can pose questions, but it does not have to answer them; apparently, answering questions is only for the little people. The BBC must—and will—answer these questions.

The National Audit Office sent me a letter dated 30 January 2019. Coincidentally, that was the day after this debate was announced; I will leave people to draw their own conclusions. In that letter, the NAO said,

“the BBC centrally decided to carry out a targeted review of the commissioning process in BBC Northern Ireland.”

The NAO added:

“We are currently reviewing information collected as part of this review and are following up with some specific questions.”

The National Audit Office has confirmed that it will provide answers by the end of February to the questions that were originally asked of the BBC in 2016. In trying to protect and defend those involved, the BBC has further undermined trust in the organisation.

I look forward to the completion of the National Audit Office investigation. I understand that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will visit Northern Ireland next month, as he said in his answer to my parliamentary question last week, and I hope he will take the opportunity to get questions answered by the BBC in Northern Ireland. In the past, the Minister has been responsive and helpful in answering questions. I hope that she will deal with this issue in any discussions that she may have with the BBC in the run-up to the mid-term charter review, which will take place in the next two years.

I hope that my worst fears are not confirmed, but the information I have gleaned to date does not fill me with hope, and neither do all the stonewalling, all the delaying or all the attempts to avoid answering questions. I hope the National Audit Office will get to the truth of these matters. If there are serious questions to answer about the lack of transparency not just in BBC Northern Ireland, but across the nation as a whole, it will be a national scandal and there will have to be serious consequences for the entire BBC hierarchy.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on securing this debate on the accountability of the BBC and its commissioning activity. I value his long-standing knowledge, interest and work in this important area.

Before I address the important issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, I want to speak briefly about the importance of the BBC as a collaborative partner in the UK’s vibrant creative industries. The BBC is one of the UK’s most admired institutions across the world, and I am very proud of the example it sets as a world-leading public service broadcaster. The BBC has provided some of the most memorable moments across television, radio and online services in recent times. From “Planet Earth” to “Les Misérables”, and the “Today” programme to “Killing Eve”, the BBC is at the centre of conversations in homes and workplaces across the country. All of those moments—and those programmes—depend on the BBC working in partnership with a diverse range of organisations across the creative economy. We have seen examples of how these partnerships deliver high quality and distinctive programming.

Such dynamic and innovative collaboration is crucial to the BBC’s success and must be embedded into the BBC’s everyday work with a broad spectrum of independent producers. After all, some of the highest quality and most popular BBC programmes come from those independent producers. Where would we have been, for example, without the excellent “Bodyguard” on our screens last year, or—one of my personal favourites—“Line of Duty”? Both of these excellent programmes were produced by Jed Mercurio and World Productions. They are just two of the brilliant programmes brought to us by independent producers in partnership with the BBC each year.

The BBC is rightly independent of Government, and it is the BBC Trust’s responsibility to ensure that the BBC delivers on its commissioning obligations. It would therefore not be right for Government to intervene in these matters, but later in my speech I will come back to the influence that we can have.

Collaboration was a key theme of the last BBC charter review. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on his role, when he was a Minister of State in my Department, in securing the new BBC charter review and the important remit now given to Ofcom, which he mentioned in his intervention. It is vital that the new charter requires—as it does now—the BBC to work collaboratively to support the wider sector as a creative partner, using its unique position in the creative industries to deliver the best possible public value.

The charter also requires the BBC to open up content production over time to allow non-BBC producers to compete for BBC projects and further stimulate the independent production market. By the end of the charter in 2027, 100% of BBC television and 60% of BBC radio will be fully open to competition, which will bring a diverse range of stories to the BBC. However, we recognise that how commissioning decisions are made is crucial, which is why we have also required the BBC to commission programmes in a fair, reasonable, non-discriminatory and transparent way.

I listened with interest to the case raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, which has caused me some disquiet. I was not aware of that matter until this debate. He has raised important issues and he deserves answers, which I trust he will get from the National Audit Office in due course. He will no doubt raise those issues with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on his visit to Northern Ireland next month.

I expect the BBC to be one of the best partners to work with in the UK. We have established the new framework to ensure that BBC content comes from a range of voices that represents the diverse communities of the UK nations and regions. I am pleased to see the BBC taking action to deliver on those important goals. It has set out a clear commissioning process framework and code of practice that govern the commissioning of TV content from independent producers.

The BBC is also making strides towards full competition for its content. Indeed, I am aware that it recently achieved the first of its requirements to open up 40% of drama, entertainment, comedy and factual production to competition. They are important areas, and I expect the BBC to take its charter obligations seriously, given that it has a unique position in the sector and is the recipient of substantial licence fee income. [Interruption.] As hon. Members remind me from a sedentary position, that is vital. When we hold the BBC to account, we should never forget that that is public money.

It is also important that, when the BBC gets things wrong, it takes swift action to resolve those issues. To support that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage reminded us, the Government established Ofcom as the strong independent regulator to hold the BBC to account on its duties and responsibilities and to ensure that it does not have an adverse impact on fair and effective competition. If hon. Members are interested, Ofcom delivered a report at the end of last year that found that the BBC is complying with all the priorities set for it in the process. It is Ofcom’s responsibility to ensure that the BBC delivers on the requirements, and that it does so in the spirit of openness and transparency that we embedded in the charter.

Ofcom recently consulted on whether further regulation might be required to ensure that the BBC fulfils its commissioning requirements. The hon. Member for East Londonderry is nodding—perhaps he had the opportunity to make his views known during that process. I gather that Ofcom will publish the report shortly, at least by way of a statement, and I look forward to receiving it with added interest owing to this debate.

The BBC’s charter obligations, together with Ofcom’s regulatory responsibilities, ensure that the BBC is held to the highest standards and delivers the best outcomes for licence fee payers. I look forward with interest to Ofcom’s commissioning statement and to seeing the BBC’s continued progress on collaboration and competition. I hope that the hon. Member for East Londonderry gets satisfaction regarding his inquiry and concerns in due course.

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The Minister has focused on the BBC, but given that the debate is about the BBC and the media in Northern Ireland, it is worth mentioning how successful Northern Ireland has been in supporting the creative industries, thanks to the great tax credits that the Minister oversees. The making of “Game of Thrones” and many others have transformed the Northern Irish economy.

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I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend, and I am glad that he has made that important point. We enjoy an ecosystem of fine creative talent in Northern Ireland. He rightly praises “Game of Thrones”, which has been an amazing global success, but is far from the only one. I wish the creative industries in Northern Ireland every continued success.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.