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BBC Royal Charter

Volume 762: debated on Thursday 4 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to consult the public on the renewal of the BBC royal charter.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is currently considering a range of options for how the charter review might be conducted. An announcement will be made in due course. There is no set process, but of course we are determined to conduct a robust and thorough process with significant opportunities for the public to contribute.

I am grateful to the Minister, but did she see the reports of 12 May, which appeared in every newspaper and clearly resulted from an official briefing, that the Government intended, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, to declare “war” on the BBC? Does the Minister recognise that many people in this country profoundly disagree with such a policy, value the high standards of the BBC and its international reputation and will strongly oppose any attempt to undermine these?

My Lords, war has not been declared on the BBC. The BBC makes an enormous and valuable contribution to many people’s lives as the nation’s broadcaster and in its overseas services, with 308 million people around the world and 96% of the UK population watching it each week. It is also a very well-understood and supported cultural institution, which I know is important to this House. The arrangements will be looked at fully and from every perspective in the charter review. I think the process starts today with the kind of comments that I know will be made in this House.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is a bit rich for many members of the Conservative Party to complain when the BBC does not reflect everything said by the Daily Mail, when, as far as I can see, it is compelled each morning to regurgitate everything said by the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Sun et cetera on “What the Papers Say”?

My Lords, the underlying point is about impartiality. The BBC is required by the royal charter and agreement to deliver impartial news. Under the terms of the agreement, the BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and due impartiality. This is, of course, one of the issues for the charter review. I think there has been some long-standing suspicion that the views are sometimes skewed, and not in a way favourable to our party.

My Lords, I saw a report in the Spectator which suggested that music and entertainment services provided by the BBC could be put out to subscription and that the only thing the licence fee should continue to support was the BBC’s news and current affairs output. Does that reflect the Government’s thinking?

My Lords, funding, governance and all other aspects, especially ensuring that we continue to have some of the best public broadcasting in the world, are all matters for the charter review, which will be getting under way very soon.

My Lords, the House seems to be calling for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, but we have plenty of time and we have not heard from the Liberal Democrat Benches either. I suggest that we hear first from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and then move to the Liberal Democrats.

My Lords, I am most grateful. Have the Government examined the website, which shows how the BBC has so far failed to allow fair debate between the two sides in the forthcoming EU referendum and thus to respect its present charter? Might it be good to involve the public in the next charter by allowing the licence fee-payers to elect the BBC’s trustees and, through them, the chairman and the director-general?

My Lords, I have not seen the News-watch website that was referred to, but I will obviously take the opportunity to look at it as part of my induction into this vital area. All aspects of the kind that the noble Lord describes will be looked at in the review. As I said, I think that the comments from this House will be very helpful to us in coming to the right conclusions.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that a BBC funded by the licence fee is essential in a changing world as a safeguard for British creativity? The creative industries are the fastest growing sector of the UK economy and a crucial part of our continued prosperity and the economic recovery.

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Baroness’s point about the power and importance of the creative industries, and of course the BBC plays a huge part in that, not least around the world because of the respect that it is accorded.

My Lords, are there plans to consult on the BBC’s partial funding of the Welsh television channel S4C?

My Lords, the Government are committed to strong Welsh language broadcasting, although the funding arrangements for the future are clearly for the charter review. I am sure they will be looked at in that context. It is really important to safeguard Welsh language broadcasting. When I was on maternity leave, I was a big fan of “Pobol y Cwm”, which you can get in the south-west, where I was spending some time.

My Lords, if the noble Baroness were to go round any of the market squares of eastern Europe and talk to anybody over the age of 45, she would discover how vital the BBC has been in emphasising British and western cultural values. The same could now be said of all the villages and madrassahs in places such as Afghanistan, where they gather round a television still in their coffee shops. For those of us who believe that the BBC, in some of its areas, needs a good and perhaps vigorous nudging, will she ensure that that crucial element of soft power which the BBC represents is not undermined but indeed enhanced?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I have spent a lot of time in the towns of central Europe and I know just how important the BBC is to them. Indeed, I was very pleased to hear that while there were a lot of concerns about the World Service, the funding has actually gone up since the new arrangements were brought in.

I draw attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests, as I work for Channel 4. Turning to the BBC, it is, as my noble friend Lord Bragg put it yesterday,

“not so much the family silver as the family itself”?—[Official Report, 3/6/15; col. 432.]

As the Minister herself mentioned, a staggering 96% of the British population uses a BBC service every week. Given that, when going into negotiations on the licence fee, will the Government take into account the range and breadth of the BBC’s offer, so appreciated by the British public, because any wholesale reduction in funding will inevitably damage content and tarnish the family silver, if not the family? Lastly, did the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Low, not indicate a lack of clarity in the Government’s thinking?

My Lords, good points have been made, but we are embarking on a charter review and we need to consult the public, business and distinguished people such as your Lordships. Nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out, but the underlying variety which the BBC produces, here and around the world, is obviously incredibly important and helps our place in the world.