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Public Service Broadcasting

Volume 762: debated on Monday 15 June 2015


Asked by

My Lords, Ofcom is conducting a wide-ranging review of public service broadcasting. It will be published later this year and enable the Government to consider next steps for public service broadcasting. The review will be a key input into the BBC charter review. It will be comprehensive, open and a proper consultative process, and funding will be one of the issues on the agenda.

Does the Minister understand the tremendous damage that the ending of funding via the BBC licence fee would entail? Twenty-seven World Service channels would be lost, and we could lose the Welsh S4C television channel because that depends on £76 million a year of funding from the BBC licence fee. When the Government consider this issue, I hope that those points will be borne in mind. What mandate do the Government have to introduce such far-reaching proposals when they received only 24% of the votes at the last general election?

My Lords, to give a constructive reply, we are keenly aware of the importance of S4C to the Welsh language and culture and to the creative economy, with programmes such as “Hinterland” going wider than Wales. We also support the World Service. The excellence of their programmes and the creative content will be considered as part of the charter review, which is getting under way and will be subject to a wide measure of consultation, covering all aspects and bringing in all groups around the country.

My Lords, BBC Monitoring has proved crucial over the years in advising our foreign policy and military operations. Is the Minister content that there will be sufficient funding to ensure that this key capability is maintained, not least because it is part of the special relationship with the Open Source Center in the United States?

The noble Lord is right: these areas are very important. The interests concerned will be taken into account in the wide-ranging charter review once it gets under way.

I declare an interest as a producer at the BBC. During the period of the present BBC charter, more than £1 billion has been top-sliced for spending on purposes other than content provision. Does the Minister agree with the Culture Select Committee’s suggestion regarding the next charter that income from the licence fee or the broadcasting levy be used only for the purpose of the broadcasting or production of public service content?

My Lords, as we know from discussion in this House, there are different views about what the money from the licence fee should be used for. That is why we are planning a wide-ranging review of the charter. These interests, along with others, will of course be taken into account and we will no doubt have many opportunities to debate the results.

Will the review that my noble friend referred to cover the wider aspects of broadcasting and the Government’s interests in, for instance, Channel 4? Is she aware that a great number of us feel quite strongly that the Government’s investment in Channel 4 should be sold off?

My Lords, there are no current plans to privatise Channel 4 but we want to see it strengthened to compete successfully and to support the delivery of its public service obligations. Ofcom is examining Channel 4’s current and future position as part of its review, which I mentioned in my first reply.

My Lords, investment in children’s public service content is dwindling. A crisis is looming because the main broadcasters are now showing just two hours of new children’s programmes, down from 12 hours, and most of that is shown on the BBC. Given the threat to the BBC’s budget and licence fee, will the Minister encourage Ofcom to report on this issue in its next PSB review and encourage commercial broadcasters to improve investment in children’s public service content before it is too late? I declare an interest as a children’s television practitioner.

My Lords, I share the noble Baroness’s passion for children’s TV, including that on the BBC—“Teletubbies” was a totemic part of my life. I assure her that we will be looking at these issues both during the Ofcom review and during the review of the BBC charter.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to the fact that I am a diversity executive at Channel 4. As such, I am well acquainted with some of the possible perils of government decisions in these areas. But on S4C funding, is not the anxiety well placed? Last time, the Government took decisions behind entirely closed doors and locked out not just the Welsh broadcaster but the Welsh people. Can the Minister assure us categorically that that will not happen again?

My Lords, as I have made clear, we are committed to a full and proper consultation. I actually think that S4C is fortunate in having funding from both the Exchequer, of £7 million per year, and the licence fee, of £75 million. The Government will certainly consider positively the funding for minority language broadcasting as part of the charter review.

My Lords, in common with the rest of the nation, I am counting down the days to the publication of Ofcom’s next review of public service broadcasting. Inevitably, the emphasis in a year of charter review is going to be on the BBC, but there is a whole wealth of what I would call heritage regulation in the private sector of broadcasting, in which I include Channel 4, that needs seriously looking at. That would release a lot of money for investment in British programming, not just at Channel 4 but at ITV and in the rest of the commercial sector, which is so overregulated, owing more to its past as a monopoly advertising broadcaster. It is time that we looked at the private sector just as much.

My noble friend makes a good and interesting point and I look forward to hearing the detail of his ideas in the coming weeks and months.

Does my noble friend agree that, now that the World Service is financed by the BBC, it is in a much more secure position than when it was in the home of the Foreign Office?

My Lords, I cannot but agree with my noble friend. I was pleased to see that the audience figures actually increased by 10% to 210 million worldwide in 2015—an awesome bit of public diplomacy, in my opinion.