Skip to main content

BBC Commissioning: Oversight

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the oversight of BBC commissioning.

It is a joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I will start by using a number of quotes from the BBC that are directly relevant to the topic. On editorial integrity and independence, the BBC describes itself as

“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 says:

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

Finally, on transparency, the BBC says:

“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.”

Those principles have been burning issues at the heart of the BBC for several years. For example, the salaries of the BBC’s highly paid employees were a closely guarded secret for a long time. That was indefensible even if some of those employees were not questioning others who were also paid out of the public purse, but the double standards jumped out at the viewing and listening public when they regularly probed others yet hid behind BBC executive decisions when asked about their own salaries. That position was gradually worn down, and now there is an annual disclosure without the mass exodus of talent that the corporation had used as a defence when it resisted disclosure.

Now that one issue of transparency regarding directly paid salaries has been largely resolved, we have the overlapping issue of payments made by the corporation for the commissioning of contracts, particularly when contracts are awarded to private companies owned or partially owned by several BBC presenters.

There is one player on the Northern Ireland commissioning pitch whose commissions have been paid millions of pounds in revenue for years. It is now nearly 10 years since the company Third Street Studios first received commissions. Third Street Studios was owned entirely by a BBC presenter, Mr Stephen Nolan, until last year, when a leading bookmaker in Northern Ireland became a person with significant influence in the company. According to the Belfast Telegraph, Stephen Nolan

“transferred all shares in his production company to a firm solely controlled by bookmaker Paul McLean.”

The director general of the BBC has indicated that he is favour of all the outside interests of employees being made public. Why would money earned by an employee who also has his own company, which bids for and gets numerous commissions for programmes, not also be disclosed?

The issue of fairness is relevant here, as a number of companies from the independent sector make excellent and innovative programmes but find it difficult to compete when, as regularly happens, a highly paid BBC employee gets commissions and is then able to advertise them on their own BBC radio programmes. That obviously puts someone from the independent sector at a disadvantage when the next round of bidding for commissioned programmes begins. If the BBC insider, due to excessive advertising on their own behalf, can point to good audience figures and claim they are best positioned to get yet another contract, the independent sector is likely to lose out.

I commend my hon. Friend for securing this debate. In previous debates I have raised a number of issues that were slightly different but nonetheless important. Does my hon. Friend agree that although there seems to be an unending budget for investigatory programming, the programming for diversity—in the form of Ulster-Scots programming or Christian shows and episodes—has been cut back beyond recognition? A rebalance of interest needs to take place. Does my hon. Friend accept that point, to which I have brought his attention in the past?

Yes, indeed. There has to be diversity in the range of directions that the BBC gets involved in. It is equally important that when programmes of the type my hon. Friend mentioned are commissioned, there needs to be transparency in how they are contracted and shown.

I have raised these issues previously, in debates on transparency in 2017 and on commissioning in 2019. In between those debates, I met senior BBC executives in both Belfast and London. I also met senior executives from the Audit Office and Ofcom to try to ensure that matters would be thoroughly investigated. Movement either ground to a halt or went exceptionally slowly. I get the impression that, just like with the salaries escapade, the BBC feels that if it can grind the process down, the issue will eventually go away. It did not manage that with salaries, and I intend to ensure that it does not with the commissioning of contracts. It is important that licence fee payers can see how much has been earned, the process followed, and how it is discharged—with the responsibility of oversight being within the ambit of the BBC.

On transparency, I understand the arguments about the commercial sensitivity of contracts, but what can the commercial sensitivities possibly be many years after a commission is broadcast? Even the Government have moved from a 30-year rule to a 20-year rule on the publication of documentation, but the BBC still seems to live in an age in which it believes we should never know how much it costs the licence fee payer to fund such an outstanding series as “The Fall”, which was filmed in Belfast and funded in part by Invest NI and Northern Ireland Screen. Series three was commissioned by the controller of BBC 2.

“The Fall” was sold in over 200 countries: in the United States via Netflix; in Australia via BBC First; in Canada via Bravo; in Latin America via DirecTV; in Brazil; in the Republic via RTÉ; across Asia via Fox international channels; and with a multi-territory deal in Germany. It had all the hallmarks of a tremendously successful project funded by the licence fee payer and carried out by the BBC. Why, then, are the details not available, as they are for any other publicly funded project? The commission was broadcast seven years ago and we still do not know how it was done.

The simple message I have for the BBC and the Government today is that if public money is used, every effort should be made to ensure that there is integrity in the system for spending it. Secrecy leads to suspicion; if there is nothing to hide, there should be no secrecy.

I come now to employees’ declarations of interest. Previously, I raised a case in which a BBC journalist in Northern Ireland was involved in presenting an investigative programme that was critical of elements of policing. After the programme was aired, I discovered that several years earlier the same journalist had been a serving police officer. She had appeared in court, had been bound over to be of good behaviour, and had left the police shortly after. That was an obvious case in which a BBC executive should have taken a prior decision about the suitability of someone like that fronting a programme that was “critical of policing”.

Viewers were of course unaware, at the time of the broadcast, of the journalist’s previous history. I mention that because similar types of issues could well emerge if commissioned programmes were to deal with, for example, the topical matter of addictive gambling and Premier League football clubs, many of which have huge gambling companies as sponsors on their shirts. How would a conflict of interest be handled if such issues were to be dealt with by a company in which a leading bookmaker had a controlling interest?

I come now to integrity. During the summer recess I was given a large volume of disturbing internal BBC material, including some from human resources and some text messages between production teams. Most seriously, I received a disturbing and alarming piece of information. The public need to have confidence in the commissioning process, because some of the processes are worth hundreds of thousands—indeed, in some cases millions—of pounds. We have to have confidence in the BBC’s internal processes when projects are awarded.

I have been given an account of a BBC internal process: an interview for a highly sought-after job in the production team for “The Stephen Nolan Show”. For context, this was a widely listened-to radio show in Northern Ireland at the time, and to work on the programme was a highly prized and much sought-after position. Indeed, a number of notable people in the Northern Ireland media sector applied for the role. Only one person was successful, while at least 10 internal and external candidates lost out.

But the process was rigged. It was not fair and lacked integrity, because the unsuccessful applicants did not necessarily lose out because they were unprepared for the interview process. They lost out because, unlike with the winning candidate, the presenter did not ring them up and give them the interview questions in advance, nor were they treated to a nice meal by the presenter before the interview.

A former BBC employee is prepared to come before this House and testify in Committee that Stephen Nolan corrupted a BBC recruitment process by giving one applicant the interview questions in advance and coaching them on how they should answer questions. I can further inform Members that in October 2018 this former employee wrote to the then BBC Northern Ireland director, Mr Peter Johnston, and told him about the corruption of the process. He is unaware of any investigation or action. The alarming thing is that that same Mr Peter Johnston now leads the investigation into the complaints against Russell Brand here in London.

This is appalling. These are not the actions of what was once a proud bastion of truth and integrity, informing, educating and entertaining without fear or favour. Truth and integrity demand a thorough investigation, with Government Ministers telling the director general that he needs to act, and he needs to act now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) on securing the debate and on raising what are important matters. I know that he has campaigned on this issue for many years. I have read his previous debates and parliamentary questions on the subject, and he has been assiduous. In a number of areas, I have considerable sympathy with him. I have been overseeing the BBC for a very long time in one capacity or another, and a number of the issues he raised are ones on which I, too, campaigned.

There are three issues on which we have made great progress, and for which I would like to take some credit, but I absolutely recognise the hon. Gentleman’s role. All the issues relate to the area of commissioning. The first is the National Audit Office’s access to the BBC. The extent to which the NAO was able to examine the BBC’s financial accounts was limited for quite a long time. As he knows, the BBC argued strongly that the NAO should not be given full access, with a succession of what I regarded as somewhat spurious excuses, such as that it would somehow interfere with the BBC’s independence from the Government. Well, the BBC is independent of the Government, but that does not mean that the BBC should not be held to account for the fact that it spends a very large amount of public money in the form of the licence fee. I am glad that, in the charter, we ensured that the NAO had full access to the BBC accounts.

The second matter is on the commissioning of programming. Previously, the BBC produced 50% of its content in-house. It was subject to a quota for indie productions of 25%, and then there was something known in the trade as the window of creative competition, or WoCC, which was the remaining 25% that could be opened up to either BBC in-house production or the independent sector. We reached the agreement that the BBC should move towards opening up the entirety of its schedule to competition from BBC production and independent production. The BBC is on track to achieve 100%, I think by 2027, which has provided a huge boost to the independent production sector. It was very strongly welcomed at the time by the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, the body representing independent producers. Opening this up does mean that the BBC’s public money, through the licence fee, is being used to commission programmes from private companies. That obviously needs to be done in a transparent and accountable fashion, which is one of the requirements of the charter, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry quoted.

The third area, which we also addressed in the last charter renewal—I, too, have campaigned on this issue and the hon. Gentleman also raised it—is transparency over the payment of public money in the form of salaries to high-earning BBC employees. Initially, the BBC resisted very strongly, believing that it would make it harder for them to recruit and that it would somehow give an unfair advantage to their competitors, but eventually, the BBC agreed to this at a higher threshold than was ultimately introduced. Actually, the Prime Minister who appointed me to oversee the task, David Cameron, agreed to that higher threshold, but when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) became Prime Minister, she insisted on bringing it back down to £150,000. It has risen in line with inflation, so I think the figure for the publication of salaries is now £178,000.

The publication had an unforeseen consequence, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned. When I insisted on the publication of information about individuals earning high salaries, for the reasons that he gave, I did so on the basis that I thought it right that the licence fee payer should know where large amounts of the money were going. We did not realise that it would also expose the shocking gender pay gap between the salaries of men and women doing essentially the same jobs at the BBC. It had the consequence of making the BBC address that issue as well, and that was a very good demonstration of why transparency is so important.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the way in which the BBC has to publish the names of its employees directly earning money over a certain threshold, but a number of people obtain payment from the Government through the intermediary of a private production company—a number of individuals have set that up. I agree with him that it is not entirely satisfactory that one person who earns a large amount of money from the BBC has their name published, and another does not, just because the way in which the BBC pays them is done through a slightly different route. I hope that is something we will continue to look at. I raised the issue when I was chairing the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and I have raised it since, and I hope the BBC will continue to look at ways in which it can increase transparency, which is the right way forward.

The charter increased the level of independent oversight of the BBC by bringing in Ofcom as an independent regulator. We have a system whereby complaints about the BBC go first to the BBC, but can then be escalated to Ofcom. The Government does not get involved in that process. I think that is right, and for that reason, I cannot directly respond to some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific complaints. Those are for the BBC to examine. I agree that he has raised some important matters that I hope the BBC will look at, and indeed that Ofcom could investigate as well.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware, as is written into the charter, that the Government said there would be a review of the governance arrangements—called the mid-term review—that needs to be completed by 2024. We will publish the outcome of that very soon actually. While I cannot reveal that at this stage, I can say that one of the areas that has been raised with the Government a number of times, and which the hon. Gentleman raised again today, is the way in which the BBC has dealt with complaints and the fact that so few have been upheld. The Government’s view is that that process needs to be strengthened. We will have more to say about how we believe it can be strengthened—the BBC has agreed that it should be strengthened—when we publish the mid-term review.

I am grateful for the Minister’s attendance and for what he has just shared. A perception arising from some issues that my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) raised is that some people in the BBC are too popular to be criticised, too successful to be touched, and too important in the ratings game to have issues raised about their conduct. Some of the points that my hon. Friend made touch on questionable, if not corruptible, practices around commissioning and around individuals and their behaviour. The Minister is right that Ofcom is there for when the BBC has completed its investigations, but Ofcom looks very particularly at regulatory matters. He mentioned the ongoing review, but can he give us any assurance that there will be a level of stringent and independent oversight in the BBC and through its management structure, so that when such issues are raised, which touch on malpractice or questionable practice around the allocation of financing and the commissioning of resources, the public and we all know there is integrity in the process of investigating them?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I agree that nobody who is in receipt of public money or who holds a senior position in a publicly owned and publicly funded organisation should be exempt from scrutiny to make sure that they are carrying out their functions properly, and that any concerns around that need to be investigated.

As for whether anybody is too popular or too senior to be examined or held to account, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the highest-paid BBC employee is Gary Lineker, and there has been quite a lot of controversy over some of his remarks. That is absolutely right and, as a consequence, the BBC has recently carried out a further consideration of their social media guidelines for highly paid staff and has brought those into play, partially as a result of some of those controversies. That matter is very different from the kind of issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. They relate to allegations that have been received about possible corrupt behaviour, and, obviously, that would also need to be investigated. The particular show that he referred to is presented by the fourth highest-paid person at the BBC. That, again, is another reason why a large amount of public money is spent, and we need to be satisfied.

As I said, this is not a matter that the Government can or should investigate, but there are independent bodies that do so. The first port of call I suggest the Gentleman might talk to is the BBC board member for Northern Ireland, Mr Michael Smyth. He was recently appointed and has taken up his post. Part of his role is to oversee the BBC’s activities in Northern Ireland, as well as to act as a member of the board as a whole. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will draw his concerns to Mr Smyth’s attention, and also take advantage of the BBC first complaints process.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the individual who runs the editorial standards and guidelines committee, but there are also independent board members who sit on that committee. He could certainly draw his concerns to their attention. Ultimately, as we have discussed, the NAO has full access under the charter. If there are concerns about the way in which public money has been spent, that, too, is a matter that the NAO could investigate.

I do not in any way suggest that the hon. Gentleman has not raised some serious concerns; I hope they will be examined to his satisfaction. I think he is best placed to pursue them through the routes that I have suggested, but I am grateful to him for raising these matters this morning.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.