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BBC: Broadcasting Remit

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 26 March 2009

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the BBC fulfils its public service broadcasting remit.

When I first decided to initiate this debate on the BBC and public service broadcasting, I had not quite appreciated the morass that I was about to enter, including the role and powers of Ofcom, the separate responsibilities of the BBC Trust and the BBC Executive, and the fact that views on BBC output tend to be largely subjective and are based on programmes that you have or have not seen.

To start with, no one seems to agree on what public service broadcasting actually means. It certainly does not mean broadcasting for which you pay a licence fee, because Channel 4 is also a public broadcasting channel and independent television too is committed to a certain amount of public broadcasting. So what does it mean? Broadcasting in the public interest? It would be difficult to find a consensus on that one, too.

I was spurred into initiating this debate in the aftermath of the infamous Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand affair. When Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, was interviewed about the incident, he naturally condemned it and apologised to listeners and Andrew Sachs’s family for the offence that had been caused. But he also added that young people had not been particularly offended by it, and that we must remember that the BBC is also responsible for providing programmes that appeal to younger listeners.

If we are to take that argument at face value, it means we would have to accept that the tastes of young people—I am referring to people in their late teens and their 20s—should be given a more prominent place in public service broadcasting. We would have to accept a good deal more swearing and more of what has come to be known as “gross-out comedy”. Gross-out comedy, for those of you who do not know, is about being disgusting; it is about farting, masturbation, incontinence, vomiting and anything embarrassing to do with bodily functions. That is the essence of gross-out comedy, and we already have a taste of it in the programme called “Little Britain”, which has already been voted the best comedy of the year. Do we really want more programmes like that?

It also raises the question, in any event, of the extent to which public broadcasting channels should reflect public taste and opinion and to what extent it should lead and direct them. Lord Reith obviously believed that it should lead them, and I tend to agree. He also defined the role of the BBC, as we all know, as being to inform, educate and entertain. That is fine, so long as you do not treat each of these aims separately. A public service programme should both educate and entertain. There is no reason why any category of programme—drama, documentary, situation comedy, soap, talk show, quiz show, children’s programme, whatever—should not inform and entertain at the same time.

The real distinction should be between specialist programming and general programming. Specialist programmes cater for specific interests like opera, architecture, classical music, astronomy, cooking, gardening or birdwatching. This also includes the more popular interests like travel, motor cars and money, as well as all types of sport, which seem to take up an inordinate amount of time on television anyway.

These specialist subjects can be—and already are in many cases—provided for on other channels. Therefore, they should not be a priority for the public broadcaster. The BBC should concentrate more on more general programmes, those intended to satisfy the largest number of different tastes, and try in particular to interest us in subjects that we did not know we were interested in. It is in that area of general broadcasting in which I would hope to see a greater degree of innovation and experimentation on the part of the BBC.

Recent technology has revolutionised broadcasting across the board. It has had a more detrimental effect on the commercial channels than on the BBC, which is still supported by the licence fee. But it seems indisputable that the quality of television as a whole was considerably higher when ITV was prosperous. I was a freelance documentary film maker in the 1970s and 1980s, working mostly for independent television companies—those who won their licences to print money, as noble Lords will remember. I do not think that I am looking back on those days with rose-coloured spectacles when I remember them as the golden age of television. ITV was competing directly with the BBC, not just on ratings for popular programmes but also in plays, documentaries, the arts, news and current affairs. There is no doubt that the competition sharpened up the BBC, which saw ITV as a direct competitor in all spheres of broadcasting.

It is understandable in the present climate that ITV has found it difficult to keep up its earlier high standards. The BBC, with its guaranteed licence fee, cannot so easily blame the advances in technology for its drop in high-quality programming. Of course, the BBC still makes or commissions a number of excellent programmes, and is unassailable in its traditional strengths, such as costume drama and wildlife programmes. But there seems much less sign of original programming and the nurturing of new talent that is expected of it in its charter. Some of its previous flagship programmes, such as “Panorama” and “Horizon”, as well as what is as far as I know its only arts programme, “The Culture Show”, seem to have been subjected to a dumbing-down process. I wonder if that is part of the BBC’s campaign to attract younger viewers; if so, why does it assume that younger people are stupider than they were in the 1970s and 1980s?

Recently, too, the BBC’s integrity has been called into question. On several occasions in the past two years there have been substantiated complaints about deliberately misleading or inaccurate material shown on the BBC. I have had personal experience of this, so I know that it happens. I agreed to let Wall to Wall television, which produces programmes for the BBC, film in my castle in Scotland over a period of six months. The programme that I had agreed to do was to be about the trials and tribulations of maintaining an old house—in my case, one that has been in my family for nearly 800 years—and to discover why the younger generation, in this case my son, seem prepared to continue the tradition. When we saw the rough cut, we were genuinely shocked; everything that they had filmed that showed us in a positive light had ended up on the cutting room floor.

The programme was to be called “Crisis at the Castle”, and everything shown was to display the fact that we were in a state of crisis and that the roof was about to fall in. The researcher, who was also the producer who had originally persuaded us to co-operate, was made redundant in the middle of filming, and the commentary contained so many factual inaccuracies that Wall to Wall was forced to make over 20 changes. We had to go to the BBC Trust to get the BBC to correct a blaring untruth in one of the trailers that it did for the programme. But even with those changes, the programme remained fundamentally dishonest, because it presented a completely false picture. Even the title, “Crisis at the Castle”, was a lie, unless you define an ongoing financial struggle to maintain a castle as a crisis. In that case, we have been in crisis for over 100 years.

As a documentary maker myself, I felt foolish to have been so deceived by Wall to Wall television and the BBC. We were being used, of course, to provide a bit of entertainment, which had nothing to do with what we call “education”. Perhaps I should have known better.

I am certain that all noble Lords will know of Roger Graef, a very distinguished programme maker and documentarist. In a recent article about the BBC’s tendency to compromise standards in order to achieve higher ratings, he wrote:

“Not only must the facts not get in the way of a good story, but many projects have been too rushed to discover the facts at all. In the case of some formulaic reality shows, there is a bible—effectively a script—dictating each stage of the emotional journey. If the participants' actual responses don't fit, the director's task is to ensure they do”.

I am sure your Lordships will agree that that is quite a serious indictment of the BBC’s integrity and trustworthiness.

However, despite my criticism and concern for its fallen standards, I still believe passionately in the BBC as an institution. It is well worth the licence fee, and its very existence should act as a benchmark by which other television companies can be measured. But it is important that its bid for higher ratings does not become too high a priority in its policy-making. It must strive to raise its standards at a time when other television companies are understandably more concerned about their very survival.

I would therefore like the Government’s assurance that they are still firmly committed to retaining the licence fee, even if it could be seen as endorsing unfair competition. I would like the Government’s assurance also that the institutions of the BBC should remain truly independent of interference from government, even on sensitive matters of security such as the real reasons for going to war in Iraq. In the present arrangement, Ofcom and the BBC Trust have the power to direct and control it, but the Government must assure us that in no circumstances will they ever attempt to impose themselves on Ofcom.

As for redefining public service broadcasting and the role of the BBC, Lord Reith’s aim that it should inform, educate and entertain can still mean anything that you want it to mean. It is this gradual process of dumbing-down that I most fear. I would like to think that the BBC’s remit is to make a wide range of programmes to cater for a wide range of tastes, but all should be of the highest quality, intelligence and honesty. That is what I think public broadcasting should mean. I would like to know whether the Government have the same ambitions for the BBC as I do.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, for initiating this debate. The BBC’s mandate is defined by its royal charter and its agreement with the DCMS, the latest version of which came into effect in 2007, I believe.

The royal charter states that the BBC exists to serve the public interest, which it does mainly through the promotion of its public purposes. Those include sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities; bringing the world to the UK and the UK to the world; and helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services, including digital switchover, which should be completed by 2012.

While I have never worked for the BBC, I had the advantage of working for ITV, its main rival, for more than 30 years, first with Granada Television, where we quite consciously tried to match the BBC in public purpose. It set a high standard then, as it does now. As chairman of the ITV broadcast board in the early 1990s, I experienced the growing commercial pressures that make the difference between the advertising-supported channels, which increasingly must see viewers as consumers, and the BBC, which can still see its viewers primarily as citizens. At Scottish Television—alas, after the licence to print money had expired—I first had the pleasure of meeting the noble Earl, a man of real creativity and many talents, in his role as a pioneer independent producer. I can fully understand his frustration when the BBC falls below the standards he rightly expects, whether it is offensive antics, rigged phone-ins or lapses into partial reporting. Sadly, such lapses are all but inescapable in large organisations such as the BBC, which is also under constant scrutiny from politicians and rival media, so we hear about them all. We know, too, that the BBC historically has often been a rather aloof organisation, none too keen on change and overly metropolitan in its attitudes.

I recall a former chairman of the BBC, Sir Michael Swann, telling me that he had been encouraged by the then Prime Minister, Ted Heath, to shrink the BBC in London and transfer programme-making to regional centres where the real people lived, such as Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester. Sir Michael succeeded only in part but it was progress of a sort. The noble Earl will share my regret that the Swann reforms did not do more for BBC Scotland.

I am delighted to see in his place today a former director-general of the BBC, the noble Lord, Lord Birt, perhaps the most influential in that role since the days of Lord Reith. It was the noble Lord who forced through many of the reforms that have made the BBC the formidable force that it is today in the UK and in the new digital world—a well resourced national champion of which we can usually be proud.

Despite the occasional and justifiable criticisms of BBC content, I want to celebrate the fact that the new BBC Trust under Sir Michael Lyons and the BBC executive led by Mark Thompson seem to appreciate that their dominant position requires a generous and supportive approach to the problems elsewhere in public service broadcasting. ITV, Channel 4 and channel Five are all, as the noble Earl said, suffering from a sharp decline in advertising revenue. To help them, the BBC has this month agreed a partnership approach in areas such as regional news, which will cut costs for the commercial channels. In Scotland, that should also help stv on Channel 3.

The noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, will also be aware of the huge boost given to our minority language and the Gaelic Media Service through its partnership with the BBC in the recently launched digital channel, BBC Alba. In addition, Mark Thompson has made a commitment that Scottish programme makers have waited 50 years to hear. To appreciate the importance of this commitment, noble Lords should be aware of one of the most extraordinary features in the operation of British broadcasting to date: the fact that 17 per cent of BBC licence fees come from viewers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, yet barely 1 per cent of the British programmes networked in peak time—the high-quality, big-budget programming—is currently commissioned from the three smaller nations. The BBC, belatedly but emphatically, is redressing this miserable imbalance. For Scotland, it means a 9 per cent share of the total network budget of £850 million—a target of more than £70-million worth of network programming to be made north of the border each year. My only complaint is that the deadline for reaching that due proportion is 2016. A seven-year wait is surely too long. Let us make the BBC more British by 2012.

The BBC licence fee revenue is rising to around £3.5 billion a year, and it will be top-sliced for a few years yet to fund the switchover to digital broadcasting. This principle having been established, and with the BBC more dominant than ever, the top-slicing could, I suggest, be extended beyond the digital switchover deadline to serve the BBC’s other public purposes—for example,

“to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services”.

As noble Lords may be aware, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, with the backing of all parties in the Scottish Parliament, recently called for the setting up of a new Scottish network, based on a digital platform, as a strategy for the 21st century. Given the threats to the viability of stv, the traditional competition for BBC Scotland, a publicly funded network would help to plug the democratic deficit that would be created by a BBC monopoly of public service broadcasting in Scotland. I hope that the noble Earl and other noble Lords will support the suggestion that this might be yet another partnership in which BBC licence-fee funding could play a crucial role.

I conclude with the fervent hope that the current generosity and responsiveness of the BBC are not a transient tactic but are now enshrined as an enduring public purpose.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, about the generally high standards of the BBC, and I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, on securing this debate. I should say that I am chairman of the Communications Committee, and as our report on public service broadcasting will come out very shortly, I do not intend to pre-empt everything—or, I hope, anything—in it. I would just like to make two points.

First, I agree with the noble Earl about the fundamental importance of the BBC, particularly with regard to public service broadcasting. Whether we are talking about news, current affairs, drama or the arts, the BBC is the leading public service provider in this country. That position is well recognised overseas. When, for a previous report, the Select Committee went to the United States, there was unanimous praise for the BBC from other professional broadcasters on the production and standards of its programmes. In the United States—the home of the free market—the standards of the BBC were appreciated, and there was a certain amount of regret that there was nothing like it there. Equally, the BBC World Service continues to provide some excellent programmes. It provides objectivity, sometimes to countries where objectivity in presenting the news is not their most outstanding feature.

Noble Lords might therefore wonder why the BBC inside the United Kingdom gets such a poor press at times. It must be recognised that some other media organisations have their own agenda regarding the BBC. Another reason is the BBC’s divided leadership. When the Broadcasting Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, gave evidence to our Select Committee on the BBC’s reaction to his proposals concerning BBC Worldwide, he said that it rather depended which BBC you were talking to—BBC Worldwide, the executive or the BBC Trust. That neatly encapsulates the problem. It is a rather fundamental problem of structure. The Minister will be familiar with the position because we put it to him earlier in our deliberations. There is now a director-general in the executive and, quite separately—physically separately—there is the BBC Trust. However, the chairman of the BBC Trust can call himself chairman of the BBC only as an honorary title.

It is rather an odd position. Rather than having one board and one chairman, the director-general on the board, as would happen in any other organisation of this size, there is this rather eccentric structure which, as far as I know, is unique in the corporate world. This is not a commentary, incidentally, on the people involved who have to work the system; but it is, frankly, an organisational nonsense. It is a nonsense in managerial terms and in enabling the BBC to put its view convincingly. It does the BBC no favours whatever. Jonathan Ross, mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, was condemned by the BBC Trust one day and put in by the executive for a BAFTA the next. Even worse was the handling of the advertisement for the appeal for help in Gaza which was rejected by the executive. I do not agree with that, but obviously that case could be argued. Three weeks later, the BBC Trust came out to support the executive. Frankly, that support had no impact whatever at that stage, whereas if the board and the director-general had been putting the case together, that would have added to the authority. I think that it is a silly structure which does nothing to preserve the interests of the BBC and nothing very much to preserve the interests of the public. It certainly does not do much that could not have been done in other ways.

My second point is that although the BBC has a fundamental role in public service broadcasting and, in my view, carries out that role extremely well, it would be a tragedy if there was no competition for it. We do not want a position in this country where the BBC is almost the only public service broadcaster, because that would have dangers at every level and in every area. This can perhaps be best illustrated in the regional news area, which I know something about from my newspaper experience. Currently, regional newspapers are in crisis; redundancies are being made, titles are closing and competition from the internet is taking both advertising and readers. Obviously the same is happening in the United States, so it is not only in this country.

At the same time, regional television is under even greater threat. The future of ITV regional news programmes is not secure and a fight for survival is taking place. It would be unacceptable for the BBC to be the only one left standing. Such a near monopoly position would have profound dangers; there need to be alternative public service broadcasting providers. The Government have until now concentrated entirely in this debate on Channel 4. I agree that Channel 4 and its news programmes are important, but it does not provide regional news, and therefore the solution for public service broadcasting has to go beyond Channel 4. I also want to see public service broadcasting on channels 3 and 5 as well.

So, although no one expects the Minister in this short debate to go into detail, I hope that he can assure the Committee that the Government recognise, first, the need to act to provide public service broadcasting in addition to the BBC; and, secondly, that simply supporting Channel 4 is not the total answer. Alternative providers and competition in public service broadcasting are essential if we are, in the words of the Motion,

“to ensure that the BBC fulfils its public service broadcasting remit”.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, for spurring this debate on the mighty beast, the BBC, at such an apposite moment. I fear that an hour will not allow us to do justice to the many issues raised. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, for his unexpected and generous remarks. I am not much used to it.

The BBC’s public service pulse, in my view, is beating especially strongly at the minute. Mark Thompson always was, and still is, an outstanding creative leader. We can all point to programmes that we do not like—I see many programmes that I do not like on the BBC—but let me paint a somewhat different picture. On science alone, the BBC has in the past month impeccably marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin with truly illuminating programmes. I shall mention just one. David Attenborough’s essay, made with the Open University, was a tour de force: an extraordinary blend of narrative skill, production virtuosity and scientific insight, and it was shown at the heart of BBC1 in peak time.

My knowledge is growing in semi-retirement. I have just finished watching the “Story of Maths” on BBC4 and just about kept up with Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s authoritative primer on sub-atomic particles on BBC2. Altogether easier to follow, but none the less important for that, was a “Horizon” programme a few weeks ago which pulled together, in entertaining fashion, all the latest science on obesity. The BBC fuels our intellectual life more generally. Most weeks on Radio 4, Laurie Taylor and, to use his commoner’s name, Melvyn Bragg, offer unbridled opportunity for leading academics and thinkers to debate and to shine across a huge array of matters.

The BBC has created unique and innovative forms of broadcasting throughout its history. Just a week or so ago—all my examples are recent ones—we had Comic Relief, which was as usual an extraordinary mix. On the one hand, we had a harrowing, uncompromising and tormenting account of deprivation and misery in Africa and, on the other, a showcase for the noble Earl’s beloved well pool of Britain’s best comic talents, all in fine form—astute, unclichéd and often utterly brilliant. Plainly, they are not to everyone’s taste. I say that honestly; we are of a similar generation, but it is not always easy for one generation to appreciate the humour of the next. However, today’s comedians are absolutely in a tradition that we all know, understand and have enjoyed and loved over many decades. No other broadcaster rises to those levels of ambition, innovation and achievement anywhere in the world—and I am sure that that is common ground between us.

The BBC was not perfect in my day and it is certainly not perfect now. It never will be, but it must perpetually strive to be better, which is what we are here to talk about. We all have our little list of suggestions, which is the curse of any director-general. Here is my current shortlist, which I am sure will be as welcome as that of other noble Lords. First, for my taste, too little BBC drama matches the freshness and originality of its comedy. Secondly, I feel that the BBC is chronicling the financial and economic crisis brilliantly but it is doing far too little to help us understand the crisis and learn from it or to mount the scale and intensity of inquiry justified by the enormity of events. The BBC’s current affairs muscles appear to be withering. Thirdly, the BBC’s editorial standards do need reasserting. Creative talent will always and should press at the boundaries of public taste, but some behaviours are simply not appropriate in a public service space dedicated to high ethical values.

It is inevitable with an organisation of the scale and complexity of the BBC that there will always be areas of weakness as well as of strength. However, on the question that we are invited to discuss today, on what the Government can do to help this great institution progress—and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has already said some things that I shall echo—I fear that the Government’s new prototype for the governance of the BBC is a timid compromise and has proved a disappointment. Yes, the trustees administer the odd rap across the knuckles or opine on efficiency, but they have not stood back and acted as the trustees of all licence payers, identifying their needs and challenging the BBC to serve them. Let us hope that we can do better in the next charter review.

There is an even bigger challenge for government, which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has already mentioned. In the heyday of public service broadcasting in the UK, the regulator obliged ITV to spend half its revenues on challenging programmes while Channel 4 was cracking open the mould and an independent production sector was blossoming and biting at the ankles of the old monoliths. The BBC enjoyed and responded to intense creative competition. Now we are at a crossroads; the digital era has brought vast commercial competition and a structural decline in advertising. Investment in programmes in the public service tradition has been decimated and ITV has all but left the stage. If we do nothing, Channel 4 will soon follow.

So we face the grim prospect of the BBC returning to the near monopoly status as a public service broadcaster that it had 50 years ago. That would not be healthy for anyone including the BBC itself. It will be hard for a distracted Government to focus on how we can maintain the right level of investment and competition in public service broadcasting, but they must. Long after this accursed financial crisis is over, the continuing strength of one of our great glories—our public service broadcasting system with the BBC at its core—will really matter.

I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, on securing this debate and initiating it with great wisdom and insight.

I need hardly say that the BBC is a great national institution which deservedly enjoys a considerable reputation both at home and abroad for its professionalism, courage and impartiality. Although it does not have a monopoly on public service broadcasting, because other channels do it as well, it is the cornerstone of public service broadcasting. As such, we expect it to set the highest standards and act as a custodian of the values of our public life. We also expect it to reflect the diversity of our society, interpret one community to another and over time help create a broadly shared national culture and a reasonably harmonious society. These are the criteria by which we need to judge whether the BBC has been able to realise its objectives of providing public service broadcasting. By and large, it does very well, and it certainly has substantially realised many of these objectives. But there are four areas where I think it can do with further improvement and progress.

First, as the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, rightly pointed out, and other noble Lords reinforced the point, bad language occurs far too frequently after the watershed hours and more so than in any other country that I know. As an academic I have spent a lot of my time in various universities in Europe and the United States and I cannot remember any television, public broadcasting or any other, which has this degree of frequency of bad language. There is no good reason why this should be so. It serves no artistic purpose. It is gratuitous and often a case of schoolboy humour and a certain style of self-indulgence. The BBC is a public space and should set the tone of society. If it violates norms of decency it breaks the long-developed inhibitions and taboos on what may or may not be said in public.

The Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross outburst was not entirely accidental but a product of a certain prevailing trend. The BBC said in response that the young were not offended. That is hardly an argument; the young routinely use the language and obviously are bound not to be affected by it. The question is whether it was the right thing to do as determined by the broad consensus of British society. On that score, everyone agreed that it was unacceptable.

Secondly, the BBC should reflect the diversity of our country. I am not convinced that it does so as well as it could and should. The British Muslims do get some coverage, largely because they are seen as a threat to public order. Other communities do not. How do our Indian and Chinese communities live? What goes on in these communities? What is the source of their relative success compared with other communities? We know very little. An impression is created that if a community is quiet and does not make noise or achieves reasonably well, it should remain invisible. You become visible only if you fail. This is hardly the way to sustain high standards in our society.

Ethnic minority music and arts also do not receive much attention. This relative neglect of diversity is partly due to the fact that the BBC’s power structure is largely monocultural and its senior executives and programme makers are not drawn from the ranks of ethnic minority communities. Those communities constitute 9.5 per cent of the population and 6 to 7 per cent of the BBC’s revenue is derived from them, but I do not think that they receive proportionate coverage.

Thirdly, we are privileged in this country to have great universities and research institutions, and their members possess great expertise, detachment and objectivity. However, they are rarely drawn into public life and invited to comment on public issues. In France and Germany, public intellectuals and academics frequently appear on the television but not, sadly, in Britain. Let us take “Question Time”, which I watch regularly and which has acquired a considerable following. It includes only spokesmen of different political parties, each rehearsing a familiar and predictable line but none standing back and critically reflecting on the major issues of our society. I should have thought that public interest in this country would be better served if programmes such as that were depoliticised and drew on independent-minded academics, scholars and others who were asked to debate important issues in a calm and reflective manner.

Finally, as Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director-general, rightly argued in his keynote address on 19 March, the BBC should be concerned with the public sector not only in Britain,

“but also around the world”.

It is in our enlightened self-interest to nurture and promote public service broadcasting in developing countries—not just Muslim countries but also others. If we could co-operate with them more than we do at present, we, by which I mean the BBC, could give them technical and other forms of assistance, train their staff—programme makers as well as technical staff—buy their programmes and offer ours at a price that they could afford. There is no reason why films and programmes shown on the BBC must come only from the United States or Australia. For a long time now, I have not seen a programme from India, Indonesia or Mexico, where some great films that won Oscars were produced. The BBC can give a moral lead by doing this kind of thing in our increasingly interdependent world.

I add my congratulations to my noble friend on introducing this debate. Having seen “Crisis at the Castle”, I have no recollection of the title, only of the charm of the castle’s owner, so, if I were him, I would not worry too much.

I declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company and also as someone with insider knowledge, having worked for many years making PSB television programmes for the BBC, as well as for Channel 4 and ITV.

British broadcasting, as we all recognise, has reached a critical point: a transition is under way from one age to another—from the analogue age to the digital one. The analogue age lasted for about 100 years, during which time Britain developed arguably the best broadcasting system in the world. Of course, central to that system is, and always has been, the BBC and its position, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has just said, as the cornerstone of public service broadcasting.

Through the years, there have been many attempts at defining public service broadcasting and why it is so important—first by Lord Reith and most recently by Ofcom. I choose on this occasion to refer to the words of Sir David Attenborough, a man who in my opinion exemplifies what our broadcasting system has allowed to flourish. In a recent lecture, he described the advent of broadcasting in this country, and the public service remit that is so integral to it, as,

“that miraculous advance, still not a century old, that allows a whole society, a whole nation, to see itself and to talk to itself ... to share insights and illuminations, to become aware of problems and collectively consider solutions”.

I think that when we talk about the BBC fulfilling its public service remit, in this era of multiplying channels and platforms, the institution is as important to protect as the programmes that it makes and commissions, so that—I return to Sir David—

“all kinds of people, with all kinds of interests and insights, can share them with society as a whole. That ... cannot be achieved with a few individual programmes ... It can only be done by a coherent network”.

It is fashionable to say that the concept of inheritance, whereby viewers watching “EastEnders” find themselves drawn into a programme about, say, the fall of the Shah of Iran or vice versa, no longer applies due to the existence of Sky+, BBC iPlayer and so on. However, despite the fact that we can in effect view what we want when we want to, the vast majority of viewing is still linear.

In 1922, when the British Broadcasting Company was set up, it had a staff of four. Today it has a staff of 19,540—I have done my research. It was financed by the licence fee and continues to be financed in this way. Of course in those days the BBC was a monopoly provider, which was a situation that we must not return to, as everyone in this room has said.

Today we have ITV, Channel 4, Five and digital channels showing PSB programmes; but this plurality is under threat. An essential element in ensuring that the BBC fulfils its PSB remit is competition. This is what the public want. According to Ofcom, 86 per cent of viewers consider plurality to be important. We on these Benches welcome the Government’s commitment in Digital Britain, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to maintaining a plurality of public service broadcasters.

Throughout the BBC’s history there have been quarrels with the Government over perceived general bias and about individual programmes. The last most explosive case, on regime change in Iraq, ended with regime change at the BBC. Although it is not for the Government, as my noble friend said, to interfere in the BBC’s editorial output, recently it has sometimes seemed that the corporation has not wanted to help itself. In the case of the unacceptable behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, the BBC were arrogant—first appearing to deny the problem, then belatedly responding with suspension of the pair, while all the time the bosses refused to take part in the debate. This allowed those who do not like the licence fee to have a target that they laid into with relish. It is important when things go wrong to ensure that they do not happen again. It remains vital that we maintain a truly independent BBC. We should think long and hard—here I disagree with my noble friend—about what would happen to many of the wonderfully innovative BBC programmes if producers were no longer prepared or allowed to take risks. PSB must be defined broadly, not narrowly.

The expansion of the BBC into digital channels has produced some great new PSB programming. Indeed, there is a whole new channel of it on BBC Four, including, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said, the “Story of Maths”. Through BBC Parliament there is not just coverage of what is going on in our various legislatures, but truly imaginative, informative use of political archives. But I am concerned that the BBC is not listening to the wise words of Sir David. These are digital channels with small, niche audiences, which represent a tiny percentage when compared with a terrestrial channel. Increasingly the BBC uses digital channels’ existence as an excuse not to commission programmes for the channel they should be on, BBC2. I am referring particularly to current affairs. Some BBC Four programmes are repeated on BBC2, but it is always late at night.

The other day I saw a very moving and well made documentary called “Jack: A Solder’s Story” which is about a soldier who was incredibly brave in Afghanistan and was awarded medals but who could not deal with life back in Britain and was stripped of his rank. The programme ticked all the PSB boxes. It was commissioned by BBC Three, but, in my opinion, it should have been on BBC2.

The new world we are entering leaves the BBC in a very powerful position, and it must tread carefully. It has responded to Digital Britain, the interim report of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, with a wholehearted acceptance of the need to share. We welcome the fact that the corporation is actively working on developing partnerships with ITV in regional news resources and with Channel 4 on a link with the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. However partnerships have not historically been what the BBC has been best at, and once again, as it did with the advent of competition back in 1955, it will have to change its culture. In particular the BBC Worldwide/Channel 4 partnership cannot simply be a cover for a monopoly by another name, BBCC4. It is essential that Channel 4 retains its separate nature and that the proximity of the organisation’s interests within BBC Worldwide does not undermine essential competition between the two channels.

Thanks to the licence fee, the BBC is able to provide a service that is universally available and free. It is essential that it delivers more fully on its PSB remit on its terrestrial channels than it is now doing. It must move with the times but never ignore the fact that it is a public service broadcaster, not simply a publicly financed one—because that way top-slicing lies.

We are all grateful to the noble Earl for raising this debate. I should like to reiterate everything that my noble friend Lord Fowler has said. We believe that the BBC is a highly valued and very important national institution and we want it to remain at the heart of UK public service broadcasting. We are in a time of great and rapid change in terms of the economy, the technological shift from analogue to digital and, as the Ofcom report shows, deep structural changes in the commercial broadcasting sector. It is therefore right that we debate the issues surrounding the BBC and make sure that, in this time of change, it is being given assistance to fulfil its public service broadcasting remit. It is surely right that we hope to preserve, and if necessary improve, this national institution.

My right honourable friend David Cameron has declared that we should freeze the licence fee for one year, because a 2 per cent increase due to start in April of this year would mean that the fee would increase by £3 for an individual colour licence. Given the current difficult economic circumstances, does the Minister agree with this policy? Do the Government have any intention of discussing this matter with the BBC or the BBC Trust, which have disappointingly decided to take up this year’s increase? Does he agree that it would be an important and significant gesture at this time?

Mr Cameron has said that we want to see the BBC,

“leading by example at a time when the whole country is tightening its belt”.

We therefore welcome the BBC’s new programme of efficiencies which will mean planned savings of some £1.9 billion by 2012-13. The BBC’s budget for the next three years also includes a further £400 million of cuts and reductions in expenditure. After all, the licence fee income for this year could be as much as £1 billion more than the entire income of the advertising-funded TV sector.

All channels are struggling at the moment. We are all aware of the difficulties facing ITV and that predictions in October last year stated that some thought that Channel 4 could face a deficit of as much as £100 million in 2012. It is vital for the continued success and improvement of the standards of the BBC and its programmes that plurality and a healthy competition with other public service broadcasting channels are maintained. The BBC should be the cornerstone, but not the only public service broadcaster.

We welcome news that the BBC has signed a memorandum of understanding with ITV with the intention of cost savings for regional news on ITV1. Nevertheless, by 2016 this will be worth only £7 million to ITV and so will not of itself save regional news. Will the Minister inform us what more is being done?

The BBC has six main public service purposes: sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities; bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK; and, in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

I shall refer to just the first of these, sustaining citizenship and civil society. The BBC has a social responsibility as manifested in its great power to educate the public and bring important issues to the fore. It is therefore very important that a proper balance is always maintained by the corporation in the way in which it deals with important issues.

One of the ways to ensure this is to make sure that the BBC has a completely independent regulator and not one which just repeats what the BBC executive would like to hear. At the moment, the BBC and the BBC Trust, which regulates it, submit joint responses to committees and reviews. Their responses to Ofcom’s public service review were submitted jointly even though they included some proposals which the BBC Trust would have to approve. As they were submitted together, it looked as if the decisions had already been taken, which is not right.

Finally, I turn to the future. The pressure on the BBC and other public service broadcasters to adapt to the changing technologies is very great. There are fears that some of those channels outside the BBC may not survive the transition to digital. New technologies such as 3DTV are beginning to take off. Are the Government providing help to the BBC and other channels as they move through this difficult transition?

I would like to end on a positive note. According to figures from the end of last year, 93 per cent of the population tune into one or other of the BBC’s services every week. We all know what an important cornerstone of our life the BBC is, and we all wish it to stay that way.

I am in some difficulty as I have five minutes in which to respond to the debate. I crave the leave of the Committee to extend the debate a little so that I can do justice to the contributions that have been made, as the next debate is relatively short.

The noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, said at the outset that this was a specific question. In that case, he will get a specific answer. The answer is clear: the Government do not undertake any steps to ensure that the BBC is fulfilling its public service broadcasting remit. Assessing whether the BBC is meeting its public service remit is entirely the responsibility of the BBC Trust. This is set out in the charter, which states that one of the functions of the trust is assessing the performance of the executive board in delivering the BBC’s services and activities and holding the executive board to account for its performance. That is there because the other great principle of the BBC is its independence from government. Any other formulation would leave the BBC open to government pressure and gentle political pressure. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is well versed on issues of political pressure, but he will know the difference between the independence of the BBC in its formal position and any change to the charter, the structure of the BBC and its relationships to government which would compromise its fundamental independence. That does not alter the fact that the whole nation has views on the BBC, and this debate has given a fundamental airing to a number of the issues which exercise us all.

I am sorry about the particular instance that the noble Earl indicated with regard to his own programme; he identified that editorial standards were perhaps not as high as they might have been. That is a genuine worry. Where it is identified that the BBC’s editorial control and exercise of judgment fall below acceptable standards, that should be brought to light and the BBC challenged through the trust and through representations. As my noble friend Lord Macdonald indicated, in any huge operation such as the BBC, there will be occasional lapses. They are not to be forgiven but they are to be understood. The task of the community is to ensure that, as far as we can, we keep the BBC’s editorial standards as high as possible.

One feature which has underpinned this debate is a genuine respect for the BBC’s performance and output. We do not just need to make our own internal judgments on this: the world’s judgments on the BBC are there to see. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, gave us an illustration of the American position, which he identified from his Select Committee visit to the United States. That is the experience that we all have when talking to Americans about the comparisons between their television services and the BBC. It is also a reflection of the commercial success of the BBC’s programmes worldwide. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, also said, the World Service continues to enjoy that very high reputation.

We have to put mistakes in context, and this includes the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross mistake. I accept that the BBC did not move with the adroitness and alacrity that the occasion demanded. The British public as a whole decided that the behaviour was unacceptable. It was the actual behaviour, what was done at the time, that was so wrong, not the swear words. The BBC executive was also slow to react. A price was paid, of course. The director of Radio 2 resigned over the issue. But there was tardiness.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, will see the incident as buttressing his more general case that the structure of the BBC, as developed in the legislation that we passed not so very long ago, is wrong. That is not the case. The board could perhaps have moved in a more forthright manner on this matter. Nevertheless one would be hard pressed to say on the basis of such an instance that BBC structure and control are lacking. I hear what the noble Lord says—after all, we debated this at great length during the passing of the Bill—and I respect his opinions on this. If he is proven right in the long run, I have no doubt that I shall have the opportunity on several occasions in the future to eat humble pie, as will other members of the Government who defended the policy.

However, I emphasise that these instances remain few and far between. We have not had many of these areas of great national concern. Almost everything the BBC does which is significantly wrong is also very publicly wrong and therefore occasions great public debate. I am not sure that this incident showed a crisis of governance at the BBC. I respect what the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said from his informed perspective regarding his reservations about the structure.

We have got to give the present structure the test of time. Certainly it is understandable that it will take the members of the board a little longer than the professionals who work within the BBC to settle into their roles and their positions. I accept the criticisms that there were lapses and that there have been one or two failures, but I do not accept that they identify that the structure is wrong.

On the question of what is acceptable in comedy, the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, said that he did not think much of “Little Britain”. He might not, but a lot of people do. We have to appreciate the obvious fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, emphasised—I shall come to his point in a moment—not only do we have diversity of cultures but, by heavens, we have got diversity across generations in a way that we have never known before. The culture of younger people in relationship to the culture in which we all grew up has changed significantly and we have to adjust to it. There is no sense in which we can get away from our profound irritation at these changes and, at times, even our outright disgust. We are not in a position to instruct the BBC. Nor would the BBC be fulfilling its remit if it took a narrow view of the concept of culture. It would look as though it was not creative enough and that it was unable to adjust to changes in youth culture. I know that certain aspects of this culture, including bad language, offend everyone in the Committee and that we are all shocked at times. However, that does not mean to say that the BBC should never broadcast it. The Committee will recognise that national newspapers have also shifted quite a long way in terms of this culture. However regrettable, these are the facts of the world in which we live.

I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Macdonald, who put these issues into context and helped with an analysis of the position. He has a valid point on the amount of programming within the nations. The BBC’s move to Manchester is more than a gesture: it is a fact of substance which demonstrates the end of London and south-east centricity in the BBC. However, more needs to be done. My noble friend’s figures on the percentage of programmes that emerge from the three nations are damning. That needs to be addressed, as does the broader issue that my noble friend Lord Parekh raised of the representation of the diversity of the nation. He made some telling points in this area, which I am sure the BBC will take on board.

I am not sure that my noble friend is entirely right about “Question Time”. I watch it quite a lot, although possibly not as avidly as he does. I think the Committee will recognise that it is not just the political parties that are represented; there is often a fifth panel member now who is not representative of any political party but is in fact some kind of—dare I use the word?—“personality”. That introduces an element of diversity and even, although rarely, an element of ethnic diversity too, but he is right to emphasises that that is not the only feature of “Question Time”.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, indicated that his committee would be looking at the challenges facing the BBC. I think we all recognise the position that the BBC is in regarding technological challenges.

The theme that emerged from a substantial number of noble Lords’ contributions—the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, made this point, as did others—was that the BBC has to come to terms with public service broadcasting meaning a wider position than its own. I understand the point that is being made about Channel 4. The Government thus far, recognising the challenge of these issues, have seen elements of encouragement regarding the necessity of protecting Channel 4’s public service broadcasting remit as well, but independent television was always constructed on that basis to a certain dimension, too. We must not lose it.

I hope that this short debate has at least helped to make these points heard in the places where action is necessary. My noble friend Lord Carter of Barnes has advanced the issues relating to technological challenge, and the response of the broadcasters to that has to be constructive and perceptive. There is no doubt that the challenges are great.

I apologise for my somewhat breathless response to such an intense debate. The Committee will recognise that we would all have done ourselves greater justice with a two-hour or three-hour debate, rather than just the one-hour debate that we were vouchsafed. Still, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, for giving us the chance to examine these issues.