Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the number of noble Lords speaking in this very short one-hour debate on the BBC shows the interest and concern that there is around the House on this issue. Contributions in the debate are obviously very limited in terms of time, but it is to the credit of a former chairman of the BBC, a former chairman of the BBC Trust, a former director-general of the BBC and a range of other experts that they have thought it worth while to speak in it. The hope must be that the Government will take note of the great concern that I think there is in this area and, I might add, organise a much fuller debate than the one we have at the moment.
Even in these black days of policy on the BBC, there are moments of humour. After the Minister’s Statement last week on the transfer to the BBC of the cost of free television licences for the over-75s, I was puzzled why it was impossible to find the usual copy of the Statement from the Printed Paper Office. A little later, I found out what the reason was. The copies had been withdrawn after it had been discovered that the Minister’s briefing had been mistakenly published with the Statement. So, unfortunately, we have been sadly deprived of the lines to take and the “if pressed” answers to questions, but I gather that it did not include the famous advice given to one Minister, “This is not a very strong case, but probably good enough for Parliament”.
I remember back in 1986, when Margaret Thatcher personally cancelled a ministerial broadcast that I was about to make on AIDS. We had no reply whatever to the charge that the Prime Minister had vetoed the whole plan; that was exactly what she had done. Later, I saw the less than useful instruction given to our press office—if challenged, it was to say, “Don’t get drawn”. For current Ministers, there are a number of “don’t get drawn” issues on the over-75s Statement. Ministers would be well advised not to get drawn on the conflict between what the Secretary of State said in his previous incarnation as chairman of a Select Committee that the charter process should be open and transparent and that licence fee payers should be consulted about the part that was carried out, in this case, in complete secrecy and behind closed doors. Ministers would be well advised not to get drawn on why the process was carried out without full consultation with the BBC Trust, which we are told is there to represent the licence fee payer. And Ministers would certainly be well advised not to get drawn on why a cut in the social security budget can be passed on to the BBC. As a former Social Services Secretary, I simply wonder at the ingenuity of it all.
It is easy enough to lampoon what has been taking place over the last few weeks, but in fact it is a deadly serious issue. Various colleagues have complimented me on the timing of this debate, but the truth is that I put down the subject some weeks ago, not because of the over-75s or the imminence of the so-called Green Paper but because of stories that had appeared in every newspaper in the land that the Government had declared war on the BBC. As the Daily Telegraph reported on 12 May:
“Tories go to war with the BBC … David Cameron, infuriated by the corporation’s election coverage, appoints BBC critic to ‘sort out the BBC’ ahead of the royal charter review next year”.
My noble friend is a very bright Minister who I know will not try to palm us off with claims that this was just newspaper talk. It was clearly briefing from the top, from No. 10, and it is that which makes it all the more concerning. Frankly, briefings and leaks have been the characteristic so far of what is billed as an open and transparent process. If you want to know what is going on in the discussion on the future of the BBC, do not ask the BBC Trust, read the Sunday Times, which on Sunday had the friendly headline “Taming the BBC Beast”, with a picture of King Kong being attacked over Broadcasting House by aircraft.
I should make my position clear. In my experience, the BBC is under unprecedented attack, but of course I believe that there are changes that can be made. No organisation in the world is beyond that. The BBC Trust itself must come under question and, frankly, had the Government listened to the Lords Select Committee report last time round it would not have been created. The future of BBC Worldwide is also an entirely legitimate area for debate. But changes must take place with the aim of improving the corporation, not undermining it, and I am afraid to say that at the moment that does not appear remotely to be the case.
I am not going to set out what I see as the merits of the whole vast expanse of the BBC—the drama and music, the television but also Radio 3 and Radio 4. As an ex-journalist, what I find most objectionable is the charge that the BBC is in some way biased. It is not exactly a new charge. Having fought elections with Margaret Thatcher and John Major, I have heard it before. I recall Margaret Thatcher’s comment that, if ever she was tempted to say something nice about the BBC, Denis persuaded her not to. But what never seems to be understood is that the role of journalists and politicians is fundamentally different. One is to report and expose the truth, the other is to persuade and win support. Of course, I recognise that in the heat of an election campaign feelings run high. But the real complaint is not that the BBC is impartial; the real complaint is that the BBC is not following to the letter the very partial guidance given to it by the army of advisers that now inhabits Whitehall.
In my journalistic days, I was taught to be accurate and to be fair. My editor at the Times was William Haley, a former BBC director-general. This has been the hallmark of BBC reporting over the years, whether it is about the complications of Middle East or the rival passions of party politics. If you go abroad, the reputation of the BBC is entirely built on its objective reporting. That is why it is trusted so widely around the world and why so many overseas broadcasters see it as the best in the world. That is why the BBC World Service is so respected; it is trusted to report objectively on what is taking place—it is not the opinionated editorialising of Fox News and, frankly, thank God for that.
However, I fear that I must warn those who support the BBC that we have something of a fight on our hands. The cards are marked and somewhat stacked against us. The advisory group advising the Secretary of State clanks with special interests and past opinions. Even more, the charter process leaves decisions in the hands of the Government, who make much of their Green Paper—but the fact is that, at the end of the day the royal charter process means that they do not have to listen to anyone. They can draw up a new charter and agreement as they please; it does not go to Parliament or come under parliamentary scrutiny. Decisions rest with the Government, and anyone who doubts that should look back to the last time. The BBC Trust was set up against the advice of a whole range of organisations, including my committee.
Fundamentally, what causes me such concern about what is taking place at present is that the BBC is a British corporation rated by most people as a world leader. It is not an organisation badged as British but with control elsewhere. We do not have that number of British-owned world beaters to be careless about our position. I would have thought that, if we had any sense at all, we would want to support the BBC, to improve it certainly but, equally, not to undermine it. I hope that the Government will now do all they can to regain the trust that I fear they have lost in the past few weeks.
That took up a few minutes, didn’t it?
No director-general of the BBC should ever again be put in the position that the good Tony Hall has been placed in over the past few weeks but, sadly, the form book suggests that it will happen again. In 2010, the licence fee was used to pay for British foreign policy by paying for the World Service. Now, in 2015, the same licence fee payer is being asked to pay for a particularly silly piece of British welfare policy—free licences for the over-75s—with £725 million of it falling on the BBC and licence fee payers. Next time, I expect that the BBC will start paying for the NHS. After all, the NHS provides free specs and enables people to look at the television better. It is that kind of logic—or illogic—that pervades what the Government are doing.
The noble Lord, Lord Hall, is absolutely right to say that the funding of the BBC should be taken out of politics, as it partly was when I sat on the Davies committee on the licence fee back in 1999. After all, keeping politics at a distance from the BBC was one of the main logical reasons for having a licence fee in the first place—it was felt to be a payment for services and therefore out of politics—but I fear that in the corrupted politics of today, it will not happen, not while the licence fee places the hands of politicians firmly around the gonads of a body whose programmes they believe help to determine their electoral fate.
The licence fee has had a good run as a good way of funding, but maybe, just maybe, this will be the end of the road. It would be more honest to replace it with a television tax paid to the Exchequer and have five-year settlements on funding between the BBC and the Government, with the Culture Secretary thus incentivised to fight for the corporation within government rather than, as John Whittingdale has comprehensively done this time—
My Lords, I entirely agree. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. We have just witnessed a smash-and-grab raid. As five years ago, the Chancellor has treated the licence fee as a piggy bank. The director-general has had no alternative but to look cheerful about it, and all the while the Murdoch press gleefully gets government exclusives. I share the disappointment expressed by Rona Fairhead in her letter to the Chancellor last week about there having been no public debate at all about the licence fee. I think the CMS Secretary’s former colleagues on the Select Committee will be astonished, too.
Despite this, there are still major uncertainties. A Perry report recommendation to decriminalise could have an impact of £200 million. The CPI settlement now also appears conditional. We now at least have a debate going forward about the scope of activity of the BBC and the appropriate form of governance for the BBC, but the Secretary of State for CMS and the Chancellor seem to be in disagreement about whether the BBC should continue with popular programming. There is much talk of the BBC’s online presence but, as the example of Channel 4 shows, younger audiences are increasingly migrating to the internet, catch-up and streaming for television consumption.
There are issues to be discussed, in particular whether the BBC should or could move to a publisher broadcaster model. On the trust, my colleagues and I have never felt that the current structure properly resolves the issues of responsibility for the regulation, governance and management of the BBC. Like the CMS Select Committee, I would favour handing responsibility for regulation, including service licences, to Ofcom, as well as the existing responsibility for the public value test. We must have an open debate, and I ask the Minister: is the Green Paper on track for this week?
My Lords, we look to government to be at its wisest when the challenge is at its greatest, yet twice in five years we have seen not wisdom but opportunistic, expedient and unprincipled diktats issued to the BBC in the dead of night, a pistol to its head, absent any democratic debate—diktats that have sidelined the licence fee payers, the trust that represents them, the department concerned and Parliament itself. Above all, these diktats have trampled on the independence of the BBC.
Twice in five years, neither the trust nor the executive but the Treasury has determined how an enormous slice of licence funding—25% in total—should be spent, earmarked for a long string of obligations to which the BBC Trust would never voluntarily have agreed.
This year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Runnymede, when the arbitrary use of power was first curtailed. It is plain that we now need a Magna Carta for the BBC itself. We need a framework, enshrined in statute and agreed by Parliament, which ensures that nothing like this can ever happen again; which sets out the proper roles of government, the BBC’s regulators and its executive; which outlines a considered, involving and transparent process for settling the level of the licence fee or for amending the BBC’s remit; and which enshrines the independence of an institution that is never, ever perfect, but which we should all safeguard and cherish.
My Lords, it seems odd that a Government so keen to promote British values in our schools appear intent on reducing the capacity of a world-renowned British institution. The BBC is increasingly referred to as though it were part of the public sector. It is not. It is an organisation financed not from the public purse but by those who use it. The fact that many of them are also taxpayers is no more relevant than the fact that those who pay their energy bills are also taxpayers. Perhaps the winter fuel allowance will now be transferred to the energy companies. The logic seems impeccable given the precedent established last week.
The BBC has plenty of the faults to be found in all large institutions, including government departments. It has a capacity to waste money on IT projects, but no more so than successive Governments. It can be complacent and bureaucratic, but so can the Church of England and the trade unions. What seems to irritate its opponents is its very success. If it inhibits commercial opportunities, it is only because the BBC is giving licence fee payers what they want.The BBC’s online presence was reduced by 25% following the last charter renewal. Now it seems that the popularity of BBC News online is its very undoing. In what other area of national life is doing something well so disliked? I believe there has been much greater animus against the BBC in successive Governments than there is in the population at large, and it is disturbing that the leadership of the BBC should have been so acquiescent earlier this month for fear of something worse, but I do not blame them.
There need to be changes in the BBC, not least in relation to the BBC Trust, which is now seen as a failed experiment, but what has been revealed of the direction of travel thus far gives little confidence that the BBC will emerge the stronger from it.
I declare a past interest: for three years, I was chairman of the BBC Trust, to which reference has just been made. I think the BBC is the greatest public service broadcaster in the world. It is not without its faults, and I wish I felt confident that its future was safe in the hands of the present Administration. I do not think that the Prime Minister or the Chancellor want to have as part of their legacy that they began the destruction of this great broadcaster, but I wish I could say the same about my confidence in some of their colleagues and I wish I had a little more confidence in some the adolescent ideologues who dominate so much of this debate with the encouragement of News International and Mr Murdoch’s empire.
The deal that was done last week was appalling—trying to turn the BBC into a branch office of the Department for Work and Pensions is completely ridiculous—and it has left the BBC with £400 million less each year over the next few years. There is no way in which this can be found by cutting the amount spent on digital broadcasting. That is impossible. It will have to be found by cutting services and getting out of sports. It is very important that when that happens the Government recognise that it is not the BBC’s fault, it is their fault that that is happening.
I wish I could feel a bit more confident about what is going to happen in future. The Secretary of State has appointed a team of assistant gravediggers, presumably to help him to bury the BBC that we love. The only surprise is that, despite the collection of vested interests to which my noble friend Lord Fowler referred, Mr Murdoch is not actually on the committee. That would have made the future complete.
I very much hope that we will be able to come back to this debate again and again in future. The BBC is a great international and British institution, and we should defend it à l’outrance.
My Lords, the BBC should be congratulated, but instead it is under attack. Why? Because some accuse it of reporting the news on the bias. Bias is in the eye of the beholder. It is an impossible task to appear unbiased in this world of political ideology. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, what really matters is the truth, accuracy and timeliness.
The BBC is under attack by right-wing politicians and the right-wing press. Their ideology says that the market ought to offer better value, but in this case it does not. At £12 a month, the licence fee is about one-third or one-quarter of the cost of a subscription to Sky. Its finances are also under attack, and the cost of the pensions exemption is only the latest example. Some mischievously encourage people not to pay their licence fee because they watch via the internet, and that is wrong. Of course there are things to put right. Of course we need to make changes, but openly, not in the recent shoddy, bullying manner described by the noble Lord.
This Government—any Government—should be careful about attacking the BBC. They would do better to work with it and take pride in its success. Why? Because the BBC is part of our DNA, part of the glue that holds us together. It is perhaps the most important cultural organisation in this country and it is our overseas calling card. By attacking the BBC, the Government are also attacking the 96% of the population who switch on and tune in every week for their news, sport, entertainment, information and culture—giving the people what they want. That cannot be good politics.
My Lords, I am speaking in this debate because I want to stand up and be counted as someone who feels that the BBC is a crucially important organisation, not just within this country but internationally. I remember, too many years ago, my father assembling with me a small crystal set. I put my earphones on when I went to bed and, although unfortunately it did not get Radio Luxembourg at the time, it got the Home Service and the Light Service— just. From that point, sad to say, as time went on I became an addict of the “Today” programme, both as it was then and later.
As the right reverend Prelate said, the sad and ironic situation is that the BBC has become the victim of its own success. As a parliamentarian, but also as a citizen, I rely hugely on its website, particularly the news website; it is a fantastic resource, nationally and internationally. The World Service, as well as the BBC’s reputation for its other services, really increases the soft power of this country.
The over-75 smash and grab, as it has been described, was something that I found quite shocking. It is a reaction by the Government in Treasury management that should never have happened and is a very bad omen for the future. The BBC is a great institution. It is of great service to us in the UK but is also one of the greatest gifts from the UK to world society.
My Lords, the BBC is subjecting itself to the most stringent housekeeping. Outrageous pay-offs have stopped. Middle and upper management, for many years top-heavy, have been pruned, while on the shop floor as it were—in the studios—the programme makers, engineers, producers and presenters have been pushed to the brink by cuts. Travel for a programme is seldom possible and contributors are offered a pittance or nothing. Imagine the consequences of further amplification of this trend: output and quality will suffer.
Are the Government aware of the very considerable savings that have already been made by the corporation, as audited by the National Audit Office? As an example, I mentioned recently that I had accepted a cut of one-third of my fee for the programme that I contribute to Radio 3. I must apologise to noble Lords that this came out, and was taken up by the press, as a cut to one-third rather than by one-third. On hearing this, a colleague suggested that I should declare a disinterest rather than an interest.
However, I remain passionately interested in and devoted to the BBC for the way in which it enriches our lives. Last Saturday, having watched Wimbledon, I turned to Radio 3 to catch, from Manchester, a recording of the first performance of a major new piece by a highly gifted young composer and clarinettist, Mark Simpson, who burst on to the scene when he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year. This is the essence of public service broadcasting and it comes at a relatively cheap price. Will the Minister confirm that the Government do not wish to endanger that and other invaluable work such as the Proms, which are about to start? The Government are coming perilously close. They should not throw out the baby with the bath-water while it is, in fact, in the process of being changed.
My Lords, it would take me two minutes to declare my interests, so I hope that the House will indulge me and allow me to move swiftly on. I shall make three quick points, none of which I think has been made.
We must always remember that the BBC is a fantastic, and the most important, engine for growth in the creative industries in this country. We must not forget how much viewers and listeners value the BBC for its lack of interruption by advertisements, which provides a real alternative; we do not cut away from Centre Court to a break, as they do between overs when one is watching wonderful cricket on Sky. I shall leave noble Lords—I had trouble filling the two minutes when I was writing this—with the question posed to me recently by my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, when he asked me if I had travelled anywhere in the world where anyone had ever said to me, “I love Britain but hate your television”. That just never happens.
My Lords, all over the world it would be impossible to think of a profile of Britain without the BBC at the centre of it. It has won loyalty, respect and affection across the whole international community. I can remember, sitting with my father in the war at the age of eight, listening at the end of the day’s broadcasting to the national anthems of every occupied country being played. That is the kind of involvement in the world that has made the BBC so successful, and it is the basis on which the excellence and quality of its journalism have been built—a dedication to truth and principle. If truth and principle become seen as an enemy by the Government, we are in dire straits.
I believe that the BBC belongs to the British people, and it is therefore right that the British people should feel a direct sense of responsibility for it and be directly involved in financing it. We meddle with the standing, respect and integrity of the BBC at our peril, because if that begins to happen then we shall begin to see the disintegration of the moral fabric of this country.
My Lords, I would like to say a word about the BBC as it is involved in Wales. Without the BBC’s funding of S4C, there would not be an S4C channel today. Until about four years ago it was a government payment from DCMS that kept S4C going. That involvement with the Government was then withdrawn. We get a little money, about £7 million, but the rest of the burden is borne by the BBC licence fee. Without that, there would be no Welsh-language television. The Assembly could not afford it—I do not see where it could get the money—so we have to protect the BBC, not only because of itself.
For many years, from the time of Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris, we in Wales have fought for and achieved radio channels in Welsh and English. We then wanted a television channel, and Gwynfor Evans, who some noble Lords might remember, threatened a fast to the death to get the Government to keep their promise to give us a Welsh-language television service. The result is that we are keeping the Welsh family throughout the world together. I can imagine people in the La Trobe Street chapel in Melbourne saying to each other, “Wasn’t that a great Eisteddfod we saw from Llangollen this year?”, or possibly, in the Dewi Sant church in Toronto they will say, “There was some wonderful hymn-singing tonight from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll”. We are one family, and the BBC makes that possible through its support for S4C. Thank you for what we have had. I hope that the Government will not interfere in any way to make S4C a difficult channel to maintain.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for his brilliant speech and for his role as the founder chairman of your Lordships’ Communications Select Committee, which I now have the honour of chairing. In contributing to Parliament’s consideration of renewal of the BBC charter, our committee is now looking at: first, the question of what the BBC is for, including whether its existing six public purposes are still relevant and whether they represent a good way of measuring the BBC’s performance; and, secondly, with regard to the BBC’s funding, whether the current process is the best way of deciding the level of the licence fee. We are now wondering whether it is sensible to continue to consider this second issue.
It would be helpful if the Minister could answer this question: are the BBC Trust and the BBC management correct in their assumption that, along with the other details they have agreed with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State, the licence fee will be increased on an indexed basis for the next five years with a starting level of the current £145.50? Has this matter now been settled, or is the Government’s expectation that, after the wider Green Paper consultation, a new starting point for indexing the licence fee—maybe higher or maybe lower than the present figure—could be substituted for the current £145.50? The answer to this question will greatly help the Select Committee in deciding whether it is worth persisting with the second part of our inquiry.
My Lords, I begin by explaining to the House that I am chairman of CN Group, a local media company. Two Sundays ago, over my breakfast, I was told by the Sunday Times of recent developments that had been agreed between the Government and the BBC, which came as a surprise. The following Sunday, there was a further surprise, with another report of further developments between the Government and the BBC, some of which appeared to be at variance with what I understood were the facts behind the previous week’s story.
As my noble friend Lord Fowler has said, the relationship between the media and politics has always been tense, as can be seen most recently from the hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry. The sensitivity of that relationship is why the BBC has been set up under the charter and agreement, which appears to be the preferred option for the Government once the existing charter and agreement expire in 2016. This is why there is a very important need to keep politicians and the Government and the licence fee-funded public service broadcaster at arm’s length from each other. Yet, in this case, it seems that the negotiations between them are being orchestrated through discussions that are taking place behind the arras in the so-called smoke-filled rooms. That is not what was originally envisaged.
When I was Minister responsible for broadcasting some 20 years ago I was subject to pressure for much greater parliamentary involvement around the process of charter renewal. Since then, concern about that has grown and is still growing—and rightly so. For this quasi-clandestine ritual to take place does no favours to either the Government or the BBC and does little to encourage confidence in the wider public, viewers or licence fee payers, albeit a number of aspects of what are being suggested seem quite sensible.
My suggestion to the Minister, to echo the noble Lord, Lord Birt, is that the Government should put on the statute book a BBC charter renewal (procedure) Act 2015, which would set out a road map for this process and for future occasions. Thus, things would become clear. I dare say that the Minister will respond that it is an interesting idea, with all the damning overtones that that entails. Rather, in addition, I suggest that she should write to me, and put a copy in the Library, to give full reasons for the Government’s response to the idea.
My Lords, I am very proud to be a producer at the BBC. I work there because I passionately believe in public service broadcasting. It makes our country a better place—better educated, better informed and with a better understanding of the great political issues that we face. Your Lordships have only to look at America, where there is a very weak public service broadcasting component in television and politics is covered in terms of the drama between the personalities, not the issues. Yet we want to make the BBC smaller. Some 1,000 jobs went last month, and I am told that hundreds more programme-makers will go in the next few months in the run-up to the launch of BBC Studios.
It will also get even smaller. The £750 million that the BBC will have to take on in 2021 will not be cash-flat, as the director-general said. Apparently, the extra money will come from £100 million from the iPlayer licence, but I wonder if that is so, with a generation so good at file-sharing. It is hoped that £100 million will be raised voluntarily from the over-75s. That may be, although it would be very generous, and then, of course, £350 million will come from increasing the licence fee by CPI. However, we know that that will be subject to very harsh negotiations. I fear that this great British institution is threatened as never before, and I am afraid that the vacuum we leave will not be filled with news, information and education.
I am concerned about crowding out. Any corporation with a lot of highly intelligent, sparky, creative and commercial types—I speak not just of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross—is likely to be under continuous pressure to expand into adjacent white spaces. Any corporation with critical strategic foresight, capacity and grip has this under watchful control.
Yet some reasonable complaints about perceived crowding out are coming from various quarters, whether the exalted or the struggling. The Chancellor of the Exchequer—surely in the exalted quarter—says that he has spotted a bit of empire building by the BBC website into “newspaper land” and away from its core mission. Of the more struggling, secondly, there are local and regional news-gatherers who sometimes complain of onerous competition bearing down on them from above, as do some in the internet new media start-up space.
Thirdly, UK independent producers would like to see more independently produced material going into the BBC and not vice versa. This was most vividly illustrated by the BBC announcement on 2 March of its new division, BBC Studios, to which the noble Viscount has just referred, which apparently aims—and it has been said by the director-general, so it must be true—at an eventually unfettered ability to offer productions to anyone, local or worldwide. That is a change that surely will then need change to the royal charter—the ultimate vehicle for the ultimate crowding out, for sure, of this proposal.
Therefore, I urge that any forthcoming review should seek better for the future to draw some boundaries and define what corporate strategy has not perhaps so clearly done of late.
“The BBC, because of its success … is being constantly attacked … in Parliament … in the press, and the attack is on new and dangerous lines. The aim is suppression. When suppression has been achieved, control may be attempted, but suppression is the immediate objective”.
Those are not my words but those of EM Forster in 1931. So it was ever thus. But those on the attack then did not succeed and they must not succeed in 2015.
I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Mexico, a country where the federal Government have just given the go-ahead for a new national TV network—it is the BBC that they wish to emulate and it is our TV content and formats they wish to purchase. In a study on soft power published today, the UK is named as global leader and the BBC is cited as central to this. I am therefore bemused by this Government being on the warpath against what is a cornerstone, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said, of the UK’s creative industries—the fastest-growing sector of the economy—and such a successful ambassador and disseminator of what we believe in across this troubled world.
Then there is the matter of scope and scale. Lord Reith set the rules and they were to inform, educate and entertain. How can the licence fee be justified if the BBC is not allowed to have fun?
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made a point about bias. When I sat on his Select Committee, we had Rupert Murdoch as a witness and he told us that he wished Sky News was more like Fox News. Well, it is not, and that is because of the BBC and because of the impartiality of the BBC.
Does the Minister not agree that the BBC is one of this country’s greatest achievements, and can she assure us that this Government will listen to the licence fee payer and what they want, and not to the eight random advisers hand-picked by the Secretary of State?
My Lords, it makes me proud to be part of a group of such quality that is able to address such a major issue as the BBC in tweet-length speeches. It is an amazing achievement and noble Lords have all done brilliantly. I only hope that I match them, at least in brevity.
I feel that we have delivered a charge sheet, and I look forward to the Minister responding. It seems to have four main components. First, the BBC’s future is not safe in the Government’s hands, with the two raids in the last five years and the disregard for the process of the charter. Secondly, the charter has been fixed by the establishment of a cod-advisory committee and no guarantees that proper engagement will take place with licence fee payers. Thirdly, setting off the hounds of war on the BBC means that between now and 2017—time that we should be spending improving the BBC and helping it to get better—those of us who care about the BBC will have to put all our efforts into saving it.
Fourthly, and perhaps most seriously, the charge appears to be that the Government do not understand the fundamental point of having the BBC—the cornerstone of the sort of open and accountable society that we want in this country, the gold standard for other broadcasters, the fulcrum for a competition for quality in broadcasting, and the guarantee of impartiality and fair coverage throughout the United Kingdom. As we have heard, you have only to speak to anybody from outside the UK if you disbelieve any of those points.
I hope that the Minister has some words of reassurance for us, and I wonder particularly whether she can give us an advance of what will happen when the Green Paper is announced on Thursday. But, at the very least, she now knows that the way things are going at the moment is simply unacceptable.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I congratulate my noble friend on securing it. Indeed, I was one of the first to compliment him on his expert timing. As is always the case when we discuss broadcasting in this place, and particularly when the BBC is our focus, noble Lords have left the House in no doubt whatever about how much these issues matter, and they have done so in a very focused, excellent two-minute way. I have listened very carefully to all the concerns, although I did not always agree with everything. However, it has set a very useful backdrop to the discussions that we will be having over the next 18 months.
The BBC is a world-renowned institution. It delivers high quality to 97% of the UK population every week. That is up 1% on last year, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, will be glad to know. It retains a unique importance in the UK’s broadcasting industry and in our collective sense of identity, and it is a brand that is respected and valued around the world—a world beater, indeed. I agree with my noble friend Lord Grade about how much the BBC is valued as one travels around the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, will have been very glad to hear—from the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, in fact—that a report today has put the UK at No. 1 in respect of soft power. I believe that that is partly thanks to the strength and excellence of the BBC.
Let us look at the BBC World Service as a case in point. Kofi Annan referred to the World Service as,
“perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.
I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is occasionally able to reach the parts that ambassadors cannot.
Beyond this, the BBC provides a breadth of services and content that we are all able to enjoy. That includes coverage of the Ashes on “Test Match Special”—I agree with my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes about the importance of sport—high-quality drama such as “Wolf Hall”, the recently relaunched children’s classic, “The Clangers”, and its genuinely pioneering and constantly improving website. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, the BBC nourishes musical talent, as well as acting and writing talent—as we were discussing at Question Time today.
The BBC is also unique in the way in which it is funded, and in terms of the level of obligations and expectations placed upon it. A universal licence fee, which must be paid for all viewing of live or nearly live content, brings with it a set of expectations from all licence fee payers—chiefly, delivery on all its public purposes, maintaining the highest quality of original, distinctive content, journalistic independence and integrity, and ensuring value for money for every penny of licence fee spent.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked whether the Government are aware of savings already made by the BBC. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, gave us an inside track on some of the difficulties. We welcome a BBC that ensures that every penny spent represents good value, and we welcome the work that has been done by the BBC to achieve this, particularly in recent times through its Delivering Quality First efficiency programme.
Clearly, the BBC has faced serious challenges over the 10-year period of the current charter. In all these areas—value for money, governance and accountability, or concerns over quality and balance of coverage—the BBC has on occasion been the subject of some controversy and complaint, not just among parliamentarians but the licence fee paying public more broadly. As my noble friend Lord Fowler acknowledged, change is needed.
One particular area of contention both for noble Lords and in the other place is the extent to which the BBC manages to meet its impartiality obligations, and how best this should be achieved and regulated. Looking ahead to the EU referendum, for example, it will be crucial that the BBC, as with other broadcasters, maintains balance and impartiality in its coverage to ensure the public can make the best-informed choices. We have written to the BBC, other public service broadcasters and Ofcom to say just that.
As we near the end of the current charter, we are also presented with the opportunity, through the charter review, to consider in full the BBC’s activities, its appropriate scale and scope, and how it should deliver in the future what is expected of it by all licence fee payers. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked if the Green Paper was on track. I am glad to be able to answer positively and say that a charter review consultation document will be published this Thursday. This will provide another opportunity for this House to discuss these matters, and the document will set out a range of important questions about the future of the BBC and almost every aspect of how it operates. The Government are very clear that the charter review process will be as open and consultative as possible. It will be similar in many respects to the previous review—I look forward to discussing this further on Thursday—and will ensure that the views and concerns of all of us who have a stake in the BBC, as well as the views of the panel, are heard and considered in full.
The sort of concerns that have been raised tonight that are relevant to the debate on the review include: the operating model and governance, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said; its boundaries, which were the concern of my noble friend Lord Patten; the process for the future, which was the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Birt; and the future of the BBC Trust, which the right reverend Prelate felt needed change. On the process point, my noble friend Lord Inglewood suggested a charter review procedure Bill to govern future settlements. As I have said, we will run an open consultation and welcome all such proposals, including those on process, and I am of course happy to write to the noble Lord and respond to the points he made.
Although nobody has mentioned it because of the two-minute rule—other than the noble Lord, Lord Best, who spoke most eloquently—the noble Lord, Lord Best, chairs the Lords Communications Committee, which recently began its own inquiry into the BBC. This will be a valuable, in-depth look at the BBC’s public purposes, which we will all be interested to see. Given the matchless expertise and experience of that committee’s membership, including many Members here tonight, it will undoubtedly be an important piece of work. I hope that we will see the outcomes of some of that work in the spring of next year, and indeed emerging findings, so that those can feed into the review as it progresses.
Last week, we were afforded the opportunity to consider the Government’s agreement with the BBC in respect of concessionary TV licences for people aged over 75. As explained by my noble friend Lord Courtown last week, these new arrangements, which have been agreed with the BBC, are firm but fair and will ensure that the BBC, as a publicly financed body, plays its part in carrying the burden of necessary deficit reduction. This is a point that has not been strongly made: in times of financial constraint, as we find ourselves in now, those with the broadest shoulders need to bear a share of the burden.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hall—I think he was described as the good Lord Hall—for saying on the “Today” programme, a great BBC institution, that this represents a strong deal for the BBC, giving it financial stability and the ability to plan for the future, which he believes in for what he called, “this wonderful creative organisation”. Further, he welcomed the Government’s commitment to look specifically at modernising the licence fee for the digital age. This agreement also gives good notice for potential changes coming down the line to address changing consumer trends with the revolution of digital.
I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised by noble Lords tonight about this agreement and the funding of concessionary licences for the over-75s from the licence fee. However, if I stand back for a moment, I believe that there is a good balance between the reduction in funding for free TV licences and the new flexibilities, which will provide growing income from catch-up and a reduction in the contribution to broadband.
Additionally, to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Best, although the licence fee has not been settled, because it will be subject to the outcomes of the charter review, the Government have indicated that it will rise in line with the consumer prices index over the next charter period, starting in January 2017.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, spoke as he always does of both the BBC and our Welsh language broadcaster. I am sure he will welcome the news in S4C’s annual report that 8.4 million people in the UK have watched S4C in the past year—an increase of around 29% on the previous year. We should be clear that the Government are keenly aware of the importance of S4C and other minority language broadcasters.
In conclusion, I wish to thank once again all who have contributed to tonight’s debate and, in particular, my noble friend Lord Fowler for securing it. I am glad to say that the end of the world is not at hand. Given the BBC’s importance to our daily life, and the content and services that it provides to the UK and the world, we should be clear that no one is seriously proposing the BBC’s abolition. This evening, noble Lords have demonstrated admirably the vital role that this House has to play in the debate on the BBC’s future and in the forthcoming charter review. I am sure, as my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes said, we will come back to the subject again and again.