Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am delighted to see here so many people who have a share in the television industry generally and an interest from a board viewpoint. This is a matter that concerns us all and will go on concerning us for some time.
This debate follows one held in early July introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. Two days afterwards, on 16 July, the public consultation on the BBC’s charter review opened. That consultation runs for just another four weeks from today. The Government have reiterated that there will be an 18-month window of consultation; for the public it appears that it is a mere three summer months, far from enough time for them to consider the uniquely important changes to what I believe is a pillar of our civic society, an institution of global reach and reputation that belongs not to the Government or the state but to the licence fee-paying public who use it.
Let me begin by asking if the Government would please extend the period of public consultation about this important institution. I address the future of the BBC in a mood not of confrontation but of commitment, but it is proving to be a rocky road. Both Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, as Culture Secretaries, said quite openly, “Yes, the licence fee might well be reduced”. John Whittingdale, the current Secretary, has compared it to the poll tax. Reports from the election campaign bus reported David Cameron as saying, jokily, that he would close the BBC down after the election. Impromptu jokes can often reveal the inner man. The Daily Telegraph headlined: “Tories Go to War with the BBC”. So, we have been well warned.
After the election, the Government moved fast and on several fronts. Their proposal to decriminalise the non-payment of the licence fee could, if it goes ahead, cost the BBC some £200 million. George Osborne corralled the BBC into paying for the free television licence for the over-75s. That was without consultation. It will be at a cost to BBC funding of some £725 million. George Osborne frequently claims that the BBC,
“like much of the rest of the public sector”,
must contribute to the Government’s austerity campaign. The BBC is not part of the public sector like any other: it is an independent body set up and guaranteed by charter. It is wholly wrong for the Government to refer to it in those terms and to load such an institution with what are cuts to their social services budget. The new settlement must outlaw any such smash-and-grab raids in the future.
This calls into question the whole matter of charter renewal and the future funding of the BBC. There is talk of a groundswell of feeling that changes in viewing patterns and technology make the licence fee outdated and in need, if not of outright abolition, of severe control. That feeling comes not from the public at all. There is no popular outcry against paying for the BBC. The BBC commissioned independent research into the matter. A series of families around the country—families who said that they were completely indifferent as to whether the licence fee went or not—went without the BBC’s availability in their homes for nine consecutive days. At the end, two-thirds of them had changed their minds. One among them said that living without the BBC was “absolutely dreadful, just awful”. They found that the BBC’s cost, at £12 a month, was remarkable value compared with, say, Sky’s £70 a month. And the BBC’s service has, uniquely, no commercials—no intrusive interruption to the narrative and creative flow of individual programmes. The BBC is under attack not from the public but from two other sources: namely, the Government of the day and vested media interests—which, of course, command the headlines and thus distort the scale of wider public interest and concern. I refer to the Daily Telegraph’s headline, among others.
It is in the nature of the BBC to be attacked by Governments; it has been so since its earliest days. Churchill wanted to take over the studios during the war. Eden was furious over Suez. Mrs Thatcher complained about coverage of the Falklands War. Tony Blair was enraged by coverage of the Iraq war and the death of David Kelly. It is a testimony to the fact that the BBC, unlike other non-commercial national broadcasters, is not in the pocket of government or required to do their bidding. The BBC’s coverage aims to be fair and balanced. Its training schemes for journalists endorse such values. That is not to say that the BBC does not make mistakes. Recently, it has made some really big ones; for example, over the reporting of the Savile scandal and the aborted digital media initiative.
The renewal or revision of the BBC’s licence fee is the one place where the Government can exercise a direct, profound and unqualified influence. Thus, finding the balance at this point between the BBC and government is at the heart of our democratic process and, I hope, of today’s debate. To date, there have been eight charters, varying in length between five years and 15 years. For the first time, however, a significant option is included in the current charter review, asking simply whether the existing charter and agreement should continue at all.
The charter was created to guarantee the BBC’s independence from Parliament and from government. Any new framework dreamed up by either side of government is, I insist, likely to bring the BBC more effectively within their control. One can be sure that matters of bias, censorship, political neutrality and the scope and scale of its activities will all be drawn closer within any Government’s oversight and jurisdiction—that control being effected by the ongoing financial manipulation of the BBC’s income by the Treasury as directed by the Government of the day. Who is to say where it might end? This is to be resisted on the widest possible front as bad for broadcasting, bad for creative initiatives, bad for the freedom to try daring new formats to encourage experiment and change, and, more fundamentally, bad for the democratic values of fair reporting that underpin our civic society.
The BBC has many faults that need addressing—I work for it, I should know. It is still overmanaged and has too many layers of managers telling the creative classes what to do. It overrewards its headline stars and its pension settlements for managers have been extravagantly high. There is lack of clarity around its governance structures. There needs to be change—change from within. Indeed, the current director-general, Tony Hall—the noble Lord, Lord Hall—is embarked on an extensive programme of just such change. The BBC needs to be more flexible and more responsive to the fast-changing world of global television. Its governance needs to be examined to see whether the BBC Trust has outlived its usefulness. Its own chairman seems to think so. I hope that this debate will address many of these topics.
The BBC faces suggestions of a more fundamental change than we have ever seen. The Government seek to instruct it on the type of programmes that it should make. The scope and scale of programmes should, they suggest, be of a narrower and more targeted range, possibly giving up its most popular formats. In other words, it should be cut down to size. They insist that that is to be done because the landscape of broadcasting is changing and growing, as newspapers—particularly local newspapers—languish and decline. It is also done at the siren call of vested interests—interests which are well represented in the 12 men and women whom the Government have appointed to advise on it.
It is a healthy media landscape when rival organisations succeed and flourish, and many are doing so. Sky News and ITN win as many awards, and sometimes more awards, than BBC News. In July, ITV reported a 23% increase in half-yearly profits. Sky announced a record turnover and full-year profits of £1.4 billion, and nearing an audience of 12 million in the UK and Ireland. The idea hinted at in the Government’s Green Paper that the BBC’s operation is “crowding out” its commercial rivals does not match the facts.
Meanwhile, BBC formats are popular around the world. Outside the US’s main studios, BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm, is the largest distributor of programmes in the world. It has a turnover of £1 billion, with headline profits of £168 million. Such is the nature of the television industry that for any media enterprise to succeed it must cover a whole range of platforms and, of course, have a thriving website. The BBC does this well. Its website ranks in the top 100 in the world. Its channels have increased from two in 1994 to nine in 2014. Yet, over the same period, channels available in the UK have grown from 61 to 536. Clearly the BBC is not crowding them out. The BBC’s commercial rivals have spent more on the rights to Premiership football alone than the BBC spends on all its content, yet the Government expect the BBC to make severe cuts. Why would any Government want to cut down such a success?
As Armando Iannucci declared in this year’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Festival,
“if the BBC were a weapons system, half the cabinet would be on a plane to Saudi Arabia”,
to say how brilliant it is. Let us celebrate and support this major British institution and not cut it down to size.
I hope that that has not come out of my four minutes.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who has a distinguished broadcasting career, on that speech. I do not agree with all of it, but I agree with much of what she has to say.
Given the time, I have two points to make. The first is basically this. The Government, in their consultation on the BBC royal charter, skirt around the most basic question, the 20th question: do we need a royal charter at all? The noble Baroness touched on that. It all sounds very grand. It sounds as if it is a defensive mechanism against political interference—the kind of recognition that should be given to an organisation as important and venerable as the BBC. In fact, the royal charter means that the BBC is the plaything of any Government who happen to be in power as the 10-year renewal comes around. It is not just Conservative Governments, but Labour Governments as well. Last time it was Mr Blair, spluttering with indignation over the reporting of the Iraq war, who gave us the BBC Trust, in spite of all the arguments in the consultation at the time that that was the wrong way to go and that it would provide a divided structure at the top of the BBC, which is precisely what has taken place.
The Privy Council guidance makes crystal-clear the position. Once a body is incorporated by a royal charter it automatically means,
“a significant degree of government regulation”.
The royal charter gives to the Government an absolute power that is totally out of place in a democratic society—the kind of power that any self-respecting United Nations committee would condemn. If noble Lords compare it with the Freedom of Information Act—also being examined, and there are similar criticisms of the advice going to the review—they will see that the difference is this: if the Government decide to propose changes to the Freedom of Information Act, they need a Bill to go before Parliament. With the charter and the agreement that goes with it, the Government rule. That is the position. Obviously time does not allow me in four minutes to go into what I propose instead, but what it means today—as we have the charter today and we are not going to change it in this debate—is that the BBC is operating in a cold climate. Any argument that we put forward needs to be strong in principle and in practice.
That brings me rapidly to my second point. I hope we can all agree that, with so many parts of the world in crisis, there is an urgent need for us in Britain to be fully informed by trusted and independent media companies. That is why the BBC has never been more important. Of course there are other excellent news organisations, such as ITN and Sky, but no other British broadcaster has the range and depth of the BBC. No other broadcaster has the number of overseas bureaux or the number of foreign correspondents. I applaud the domestic decision to put more resources into local reporting, in co-operation with the regional press, but it would be a terrible mistake if there were to be sweeping cuts in the other BBC news services, radio or television at home or overseas.
I have never understood why some in this country refuse to take pride in a world-leading broadcasting organisation that is both British-run and British-owned. If you cross the Atlantic you find many American broadcasters who would give their hind teeth to have a system like this. I hope that the Government recognise that the legacy they have is a very proud and great one that they must maintain.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for raising this debate. I also refer noble Lords to the Register of Lords’ Interests, where I have detailed a range of media interests that I have. Some of the companies of which I am a director, shareholder and majority owner provide programmes to the BBC, particularly in the children’s field, of which I am very proud.
The enemy of a Government, of whatever complexion, is change for change’s sake. It is the thing that most threatens success. We must be very careful not to change a successful institution so that we say, “We have changed it”. I am not a slavish or dogmatic defender of the BBC. Like other noble Lords, there are many things that I would like to change. For example, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hall, in his analysis that the BBC should be smaller in five years’ time. I say this to the Government: it is easy to make things smaller, to cut budgets, to stifle ambition, to retreat from the big challenges. My vision for the BBC is a bigger, stronger BBC that advocates our national interests and values at home and, more than ever, abroad too. It is one of Britain’s best-known institutions: 97% of adults tune in to the BBC every single week, as do 300 million people worldwide. It brings £8 billion per annum directly to the British economy. It is our window on the world and their window on us. Once destroyed, it can never be rebuilt.
Charter renewal is a chance to build the BBC for the future, but the danger is that it will become the beginning of the end of the BBC that we know and love. I want the Government to bear in mind six red lines at the beginning of charter renewal. First, it is in the interest of the UK and all its citizens that the BBC remains a top global broadcaster, promoting British culture and values throughout the world. Secondly, the core principles of public service broadcasting and the mission of the BBC to inform, educate and, yes, entertain must stay. Thirdly, the BBC gives us much more than it takes. The licence fee system, where we as citizens jointly pay for the BBC, should remain in place. It is right that the licence fee should be increased in line with inflation through the charter review period. I believe that there is a strong case for more money to be invested in the BBC.
Fourthly, the BBC must remain independent and free of political and, more importantly these days, commercial influence. Fifthly, the BBC should continue to support greater cultural understanding across our nations and regions by incorporating the talents of all. Sixthly, the BBC should be able to use new technologies and platforms to ensure that its content reaches young and global audiences in a cost-effective way.
The mistake is to believe that the BBC is in competition with local newspapers, ITV or indeed Channel 5 or Sky. The BBC faces a competitive battle with global media giants—Google, Apple, the US networks, CCTV in China and Netflix. It is only by being great at what it does and unapologetic for its size that we stand a chance of passing on a BBC fit for generations to come. I ask the Minister to be bold because out of boldness comes greatness.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for initiating this debate as, I believe, is the whole House. The time available for Back-Bench speeches is very limited. Consequently, I shall focus principally on one issue—the BBC World Service. The Government appear to value the World Service much less than do others outside this country. The ending of BBC funding by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is an indication of that.
The BBC’s proposal to invest significantly in new parts of the world such as North Korea and to increase broadcasting in the Russian language, and in north Africa and the Middle East, where there is a democratic deficit in impartial news, will not necessarily come about unless the Government are prepared to increase the funding. The BBC said on Monday of this week that the new services will be dependent on increased government funding. There is no indication from the Minister, Mr Whittingdale, whether or not extra money will be available, despite the fact that he has proclaimed his support for the World Service. The Minister was surrounded by people from his department, which indicated earlier this week that it welcomed the proposal to launch a Russian language service. However, there was no commitment on behalf of the Government to make extra funding available. The World Service’s effectiveness is unequalled in any other country and it expresses the British values of democracy, justice and human rights. That is something government should be prepared to back.
The total income of the BBC in the last five years has reduced by 10.1% and grant income has also reduced. The grant in aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has ended, as I said. The Government’s statements on how they wish to see these matters dealt with have been highly equivocal. They have said that the licence fee will rise in line with inflation, following the charter renewal. However, they have said that that is subject to the purposes and scope of the BBC, which have not been clearly defined, and that the BBC must undertake efficiency savings equivalent to those in other parts of the public sector. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said about the public sector.
The Minister has stated that the funding of the World Service was transferred to the BBC but is nevertheless protected. What does that mean? It is absolutely ambivalent. On 9 September—yesterday—the Minister told the House of Commons Select Committee that,
“‘all things being equal’ the licence fee would rise in line with inflation”.
What certainty does that give? There is no indication of what “all things being equal” means.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for instigating the debate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, who will reply to it. I declare an interest as I work as an independent contributor on Radio 4 and BBC2 and am director of a small independent arts company.
A few weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, as authorised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and approved by the Prime Minister, the director-general of the BBC, the noble Lord, Lord Hall, was cold-called, rather in Mafia style. It was a demand he was not allowed to refuse. I had the impression that we were trying to outlaw cold calls but I suppose that privilege has its perks. The demand was that the Treasury wanted more than £700 million, and rising, from the BBC to pay for the over-75s licence fee. As we understand it, there was no discussion or debate. In my view it could be the most damaging thing that has happened to the BBC in decades. Your Lordships discussed the BBC twice recently but this was never mentioned. I make no apology for backing up the brilliant speech made by my noble friend Lady Bakewell. This is not collusion but repetition, and this deserves repetition.
The licence fee payer, whose money is targeted to pay for BBC radio and television programmes, has been forced to bankroll an eye-catching Conservative social policy which ought to come out of general taxes and has no connection with the making of programmes for the BBC. How can this be right? Why was this not discussed beforehand? Is it legal? Why was the director-general forced into it and given no time for consultation? Where was the voice of the BBC Trust, which is supposed to represent licence fee payers?
The Government have attempted to nobble the BBC a few times before with the digital switchover, broadband rollout, S4C and monitoring at Caversham, but there has been nothing on this scale which shows such contempt for the licence fee payer. That fee is still the democratic basis of the BBC’s universal service and it has just been ignored and trampled over.
The noble Lord, Lord Hall, has already markedly reduced costs at the BBC, as we have heard, and made a good fist of retrieving something in return for this raid on its coffers, but it is not enough, it seems, to fill the gap with any short or long-term certainty. Even the current level of licence fee is not guaranteed by this Government. This cut could precipitate a radically deep reduction in the BBC’s production arm. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, successfully managed to reduce resources a few years ago, which, unpopular though it was, was necessary. However, to do this in the production arm would damage and change the character of the BBC for ever, as has been mentioned already. It is an amazing programme-making organisation which stretches worldwide, but this measure goes to its jugular.
Given the floods of new channels and torrents of cash being pumped worldwide into non-BBC channels, the BBC is currently fighting for its life and to maintain its special place and integrity in the UK and the world. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that it needs more funds. Yet this is the very time that the Government choose to rob it of licence fee payers’ money, which is not the Government’s own.
Most of all, the BBC deserves independence. Can we still explain to those who have always rather doubted the link between the Government and the BBC that it was an arm’s-length link? Can we say that that is as strong and effective as it has always been? I do not think that we can say that confidently, and perhaps not at all. To make the BBC smaller at a time like this, without reason, passes understanding. It could be called, without exaggeration, cultural vandalism.
I hope that this is only the beginning of this discussion. To be cavalier about the future of the BBC is to be responsible for endangering one of our greatest and most admired institutions—culturally, educationally, politically and in terms of news values. Dishonourably, in my view, the Government have slid their retaliation in first. I wish I could think that they had the generosity and vision to realise that they have made a mistake and to withdraw and correctly ask the taxpayer to pay for what is the taxpayer’s business. If not, the least we can ask is that in future they are transparent and show some guts and respect for the values that make the BBC so necessary, respected and admired in this country and abroad—often rather more so than our politicians.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for securing this debate, which she introduced with her unique authority. Of course, it is always a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bragg.
This debate could not be more critical at a time when, as the noble Lord said, the BBC is fighting for its life. I feel particularly keenly about this because the BBC occupies a central place in the fabric of my daily life and plays a major part in mediating my interaction with the world. This may touch me, as a blind person, particularly closely but I am quite certain that I am far from unique in this.
I have had some difficulty in preparing for the debate because it has been virtually impossible to get hold of an accessible copy of the DCMS’s consultation document, but I do not really need to read it to know what it says. It will be redolent with the kind of bland assurances we are accustomed to hearing from the Dispatch Box, to the effect that the Government are committed to a thorough and open process, where all aspects of the BBC will be up for discussion. But the drumbeat of hostile briefing and publicity puts it beyond doubt that there is a hidden agenda to clip the wings of the BBC, and the Minister will have a hard job persuading the House otherwise.
As Armando Iannucci, who has already been referred to, said while giving the MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh this summer:
“The question shouldn’t be, how do we cut it down to size, but why should we?”.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I say. There is no evidence that it is broke and no call for it to be fixed. For instance, why should we stunt the development of the only British-owned website in the top 100 in the world? That seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. There have been issues about Savile and the number and remuneration of managers but, pace the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, thanks to the resolute action of the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Hall, I think these are largely a thing of the past.
Four minutes is not much time to say very much so I want to concentrate on just one thing: the BBC’s role in entertainment, which seems to be particularly in the firing line. Audience research published by the BBC Trust earlier this year showed that not only do the public back the current mission to entertain as well as to inform and educate, but when asked to choose from some words describing what the BBC’s mission should be, over six in 10 people chose “entertain” more than any other. Two per cent of the licence fee spent on TV entertainment provides 4% of all the time audiences spend with the BBC, so the public get plenty of bang for their buck there.
Unlike other providers, the BBC acknowledges a truly national commitment, investing in a broad range of programmes and services for all audiences. Series such as “The Voice UK” draw audiences that are otherwise underserved, such as black, Asian and minority ethnic people and young people. “The Voice UK” had an average audience of 8.5 million across the series this year, with the peak episode reaching 10.1 million. “The Great British Bake Off” attracts average audiences of close to 10 million every week. To quote Armando Iannucci again:
“This is what the BBC is there for, connecting, connecting highbrow and mainstream, knowledge and entertainment, connecting you with the world, the whole country with its culture”.
The BBC is part of the fabric of British society.
I could go on about the World Service, the BBC’s contribution to Britain’s soft power and influence in the world, and so on, but I realise that this does not cut much ice and that these things are not decided by rational argument. So I have decided to try a different tack. Do the Government really want to go down in history as the Government who got rid of “The Archers”, “Desert Island Discs”, “Just a Minute”, “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”, “Strictly Come Dancing” and “Yes Minister”—sorry, that is probably more a documentary than entertainment? Do not tell me someone else can do them because I have checked the copyrights. The Government would be a laughing stock and it is when Governments become a laughing stock that they begin to lose their authority. Remember “That Was the Week That Was”?
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the CN Group, the Cumbrian local media group. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for initiating this timely debate.
If one was starting from scratch, I dare say one would not, in a digital age, create a BBC of the kind we have today, which is not now and never has been merely a UK broadcaster. Its other attributes must not be forgotten, not least its important role in training and its hugely important diplomatic impact. But just because it is not what we would do now if you had a tabula rasa, we must not overlook today’s reality. While everything must be allowed to evolve and reform constructively, we must not permit the proverbial baby to be thrown out with the bathwater at the behest of obsessives and cranks.
I will focus my remarks on independence. If we have a publicly funded broadcaster, it must at all times be kept at arm’s length from politicians, the Government and the Administration. Of course, the framework, structure and terms of reference of the broadcaster have to be set politically but its day-to-day activities must be regulated—rigorously—at arm’s length. A combination of the regulators, the courts and independent systems of audit must, in a judicial and independent manner, without reference to politicians, carry out that function. Again, I put on record my view that the experiment of the BBC Trust model of governance has not worked properly and needs reform.
It is also important that everyone understands that the BBC does not belong to the Government or even to the licence fee payer—although obviously they have a very real interest—it belongs to everyone. Furthermore, it is right and proper that it should be scrutinised by this House and the other place and have to explain itself. Ultimately, though, it is for the regulators at the time—whoever they might be—including the NAO, to hold it to account according to the terms of reference they have been given by Parliament. The BBC should have to explain itself to Parliament, even if Parliament and the Government are in no position to give it instructions in reply.
Self-evidently, the question of funding is important because he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is a matter of great regret, as has already been mentioned, that over the past 15 years we have seen political manoeuvring around the licence fee. In my view, the amount the BBC gets should be set at the outset of the period for which the arrangement runs and it should be hypothecated exclusively for the corporation. Successive Governments have raided that money and since—whether as a threat or as a reality—that exercise has influence, changes in this respect should not occur except at regular, clearly defined, well-advertised points of time.
There has been a lot of debate about whether a royal charter is the best legal basis for setting up the BBC. I am not convinced but I recognise its important psychological impact, although everyone has to recognise that the shenanigans surrounding events after Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry have materially eroded its mystique. It is my assessment that it is likely that the Government intend to proceed with another charter and agreement. That being the case, in parallel with the charter and the agreement, legislation should be put in place making it unlawful for the Government to withdraw or amend the charter for the duration of that charter without express parliamentary approval through a statutory instrument subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views about this as it would give Parliament a lock on the whole process.
Thinking back to the time when I was responsible for taking a previous charter and agreement through this House in the mid-1990s, I say quite simply that there is insufficient debate in Parliament. It is a very important matter that is not given sufficient parliamentary scrutiny in either House. I am very sorry that my noble friend the Minister did not respond to my suggestion echoing the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, in the debate of 14 July that we should be told the kind of process that it is anticipated this will go through. The topic should be debated several times before it is finally resolved, as is the case with ordinary legislation, and the Government should undertake at the Dispatch Box that they will not bring forward a new charter and agreement via the Privy Council until each House has approved final drafts of both documents, and that in the event of time running out because that has not been achieved, they will extend temporarily the existing arrangements to ensure a seamless transition.
My Lords, I will be brief. First, I declare my interest as a rights holder and participant in BBC programmes stretching back four decades, most of them thankfully rarely shown now. I commend my noble friend Lady Bakewell for initiating this extremely important debate and for her opening contribution. I also pay thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for the debate that he initiated in July.
I have to tell your Lordships that there is a real and deep concern within creative communities that the BBC is under attack—an attack that it will not survive. If the BBC were a failure or failing to deliver, one could understand why the Government had undertaken this approach, but the BBC is a world leader in all that it undertakes. As my noble friend Lady Bakewell said, there have been problems, yes, but if you look at the problems that the institution of the BBC has in comparison to some of the multinationals and financial institutions of this country, you will see that they pale into insignificance. There is also a real concern that this “review” is there to do the work of News International and the BBC’s other competitors.
When the Green Paper was announced, a press release said that the BBC Trust would play its part in an,
“open and democratic Charter Review process”.
Might I suggest that the Government too have to be part of that two-way, accountable and transparent process? I therefore endorse what my noble friend Lady Bakewell asked for: an extension of the public consultation period beyond 8 October. More importantly —and I want the Government to respond directly to this—will the Government publish all submissions during this review process on a public website? It is vital that we know all the views and arguments for and against the review being undertaken.
It is therefore vital that we do not rush this. I endorse the recommendation from the committee in the other House that, if necessary, there should be a two-year extension of the charter to get this absolutely right and for there to be no question of the motives of those involved. Let me also restate and thereby endorse a position taken by the BBC Trust in its initial response to the Green Paper, where it observed:
“The BBC is neither owned by the Government, nor by its management. It belongs to the public, who pay for it directly through the licence fee. Because every home in the United Kingdom pays for the BBC it has always been … Universal”.
It goes on to explain that universality; it is reprinted in the Library document. The BBC is also independent. Those two elements are vital if the BBC is to continue in the campaigning and brilliant way that it has.
Finally, let me again report observations made by the BBC Trust in relation to scale and scope. It said:
“Individual decisions about the future of individual services must continue to be taken independently of Government in order to protect the BBC’s independence from political interference. While reductions in scope have been possible in the current Charter period … they have also been controversial. The Trust’s experience has been that it is difficult to put a complete stop to any significant parts of BBC activity, such is the support and loyalty shown by audiences to the services that they use every day or every week”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for introducing this important debate. What is independence? It is independence from commercial and political bias, including the influence of government, to achieve a broadcasting output accessible here and abroad that has a unique value unattainable in any other way. My argument is that the BBC’s independence, and the output that allows, is not only a combination that the public appreciate but one essential to our democratic culture.
On the influence of government, on the face of it the current Government are passive-aggressive towards the BBC. On the one hand, they say that there is no conspiracy. On the other, they want to interfere with the BBC’s coherence. They give what is surely inappropriate editorial advice and there are huge cuts—this is where you can take the passive bit out.
It might be argued that Ofcom or an “OfBeeb” may do a good job, but would that be the start of making the BBC less integral and less able to maintain its independence? In criticising coverage of the EU referendum, the Culture Secretary is doing in a sense no more than we do as individual private citizens, but we do so through the prism of our own views. It is said that the BBC is too left-wing or too right-wing. The point is that because the BBC is both ours and independent, it is a privilege for us to criticise it in a way that we do not feel we can with any other media organisation—certainly not the national newspapers, which we know to be biased and which therefore offer something quite different from the BBC, including online. The reality is that polls comparing public perceptions of impartiality put the BBC significantly higher than anyone else. The Evening Standard’s editor, Sarah Sands, suggested this week in an article hugely supportive of the BBC that it had approval ratings much higher than those of any political party.
The noble Lord, Lord Hall, cites as a fourth objective, on top of the three original Reithian ones, that of enabling. He is right to do so, even as a modern reaffirmation of something that the BBC has already done for a long time, particularly in the arts. New writers, musicians and composers, popular and classical, are all presented within a context of expertise without parallel. Where else would you find the greatest classical music festival in the world—the Proms—but on the BBC? That is because of its breadth and depth, inconceivable under a subscription service. It is a partnership, to use the current term, of live and broadcast music. All this is a platform for external and in-house artists and creatives which is the envy of the world. This is what the BBC already does so brilliantly because it is publicly funded and belongs to us.
The complexity of ways in which broadcasting by the BBC is now accessed should not be underestimated in terms of its appeal to the public. This has a bearing on financing. People who do not listen to Radio 4 when they are 20 may do so when they are 30. Linear programming is still popular. Some who wish to pay the licence fee might access programming only through iPlayer. The recent study mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, which the BBC carried out of households deprived of access to radio, television and online services is telling. Thirty-three out of 48 households so deprived which initially did not want to pay the licence fee changed their minds.
If the BBC is ours and an essential aspect of our culture then why not properly formalise this relationship by having a universal broadcast contribution, as has been successfully introduced in Germany and which the Government are now considering? As a country we should be proud not only of the BBC as an organisation but of all those who make the BBC what it is: not just researchers, producers and editors but engineers and technologists, as well as the public themselves. This is an organisation which is the most respected broadcaster in the world. To run it down would be madness.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for initiating this debate.
A challenge of the BBC’s charter review is in predicting how quickly technology and viewing preferences will change between now and 2027. Remarkably, the BBC iPlayer recently had 343 million downloads by on-demand viewers in just one month. The BBC was, of course, an early investor in the digital revolution, funded by a generous licence fee settlement in the mid-1990s. Today, as we have heard, of the world’s top 100 websites only one is British: BBC Online. George Osborne criticised the BBC for being “imperial” in its online expansion but surely it is also our national champion in the internet age.
The BBC, as we have heard, declared recently that since it is owned by the public—the licence fee payers—their voice should be heard the loudest. I agree and, echoing my noble friend Lord Bragg, say that in the developing debate about the charter review, viewers should be made aware of how much of the annual fee that they pay for public service television is now diverted away from on-screen programming. The recent deal imposed on the BBC by the Government means that the cost of free television licences for the over-75s—some £650 million a year—must now be paid out of licence fee money. Similarly, in this charter period, licence fee money is being diverted to fund digital switchover, the rollout of broadband and, now, to fund local commercial television stations. These are all perhaps worthy causes, but why should it be to the detriment of what viewers are offered on-screen or on the radio as programme budgets are cut?
This is not to excuse any past profligacy or inefficiency at the BBC. The noble Lord, Lord Hall, has pledged to reduce the many layers of management; executive salaries and payments to presenters and performers are being squeezed. Much of the cost and complexity of the BBC bureaucracy comes from it trying to do too much in-house, thus creating uniquely demanding roles for its senior executives. Later this month, proposals will be set out on whether BBC Worldwide and BBC production should be kept in-house or outsourced, with production most likely to change its status.
There are other important questions. Will the present licence fee be replaced with a household levy, which is certainly worth serious consideration? Should the BBC Trust be abolished and its key responsibilities transferred to Ofcom, leaving the BBC controlled by a board of appointed, independent directors and senior BBC executives? I think that likely. What kind of BBC would this board preside over after the charter review? In his most recent contribution to the ongoing debate, the noble Lord, Lord Hall, proposed an,
“open BBC for the internet age”.
The Ideas Service would be an online partnership for collaboration with arts bodies, institutions, universities et cetera. A partnership with local newspapers is also proposed, with the BBC funding a pool of 100 public service reporters across the UK. That is certainly imaginative, but there is an urgent need for practical examples of how such partnerships will work, to persuade the many sceptics.
I hope we can encourage greater public involvement in a wide-ranging debate on the BBC charter review; to be followed in 2017 by an era of conspicuous austerity off-screen, better-funded programming on-screen and less interference from top-slicing Ministers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for this debate. The BBC is credited with inventing the term “national region” within a UK context. With the financial cuts facing the BBC, it is that aspect on which I want to concentrate in these few minutes.
If the BBC is regarded in London as a UK national institution, it is also regarded in Wales as a Welsh national institution. Over the past 70 years, it has done an immense amount to help Wales to better understand itself and to interpret our national and diverse local life for the people of Wales, in both languages, and indeed to a wider world. At this time, when the relationships between the nations of these islands are in the melting pot, we need that facility in Wales. This is the worst possible moment to erode the BBC’s capacity. The key theme of devolution over the past five years has been the need to hold the devolved Governments to account by insisting that they raise their own taxes and are accountable for what they spend. For this to work, there has to be adequate scrutiny of government; and for this to reach the voting public in Wales—where we have only a limited press media, where the capacity of ITV has shrunk and where Sky has totally failed to engage—the central responsibility falls on to the BBC, which is having to shoulder a disproportionate share of this work.
The take-up of the BBC in Wales is proportionately higher than anywhere else in the UK: the average daily use is over six and a half hours per household. However, only half the adults of Wales are reached by BBC Wales’s news services. The other BBC news services, originating outside Wales, do not even start to address the question of scrutiny of Wales’s Government. For half the people of Wales, the performance of the Welsh Government in vital matters such as health and education is literally beyond scrutiny. The democratic deficit that existed in Wales before devolution has now turned into a transparency deficit, which is rapidly becoming an accountability deficit.
Securing an urgent solution does not lie only, or even primarily, in the hands of BBC Wales, but it must involve fundamental rethinking by the BBC on a UK level. The BBC centrally must come to realise that much of its news coverage on flagship programmes such as the BBC television “News at Six”, Radio 4’s “World at One” and Radio 1 and 2’s news bulletins are totally irrelevant to Wales and Scotland. In key domestic matters such as health and education, even worse, they can be positively misleading, with viewers and listeners in Wales and Scotland thinking that the policy analysis presented applies to them when it does not. In the context of these cuts, what do we have to do to safeguard the current performance—or indeed to secure new, augmented performance—as far as Wales is concerned?
First, we need news programmes that reflect reality in and for Wales. That may mean creating a new 6 pm TV news programme for Wales, bringing a better balance between Welsh, UK and world news; likewise, possibly news opt-outs for Wales on Radio 1 and Radio 2. Secondly, BBC Wales must be funded adequately to provide a much wider range of English-language television programmes emanating from Wales. Thirdly, if the UK is to survive, the people of England need to acquire a better understanding of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the BBC must play a leading role in that. The BBC, more than any other organisation, has a key responsibility in helping to mould a new Britain. To cut its resources at such a critical time may be seen by future generations as one of the most stupid acts by government in the modern era.
My Lords, I declare my interest as the executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, which I fear damns me in the eyes of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, but I am none the less very grateful to her for introducing this debate.
Our reverence for the BBC’s role as a content provider—about which we have heard a great deal, and which I share—must not be allowed to obscure the realities of its commercial impact on the rest of the media; in particular, the private sector news media publishers, which face an extremely tough time as they transit from print-based operations to global digital news suppliers. If we are to have a vibrant democracy in which government is held effectively to account, then we need plural provision of news, with a commercially successful private sector news market, providing a range of partial and campaigning journalism, operating alongside licensed and impartial TV news provision. How these two parts of the media ecosystem develop over the next 10 years and relate to each other is the crucial issue at the heart of the charter review, especially with regard to the BBC’s digital operations, on which I wish to concentrate.
The reality of the media world is that traditional news media silos are disintegrating and all those seeking to provide news are now competing for audience in a single, global online market. That is a tremendous opportunity for innovative companies, as it provides a route to global audiences, but it is also fraught with danger where the playing field is uneven. In this period of rapid transition, the impact of a continually expanding and licence fee-funded online news operation, using the BBC’s network of overseas journalists to underpin those commercial news operations and producing ever more local UK news and magazine-style content, will, if not tackled, be highly damaging for the development of commercial news brands—if not lethal for many. The sums of money the BBC invests in BBC Online are huge. The headline figure alone is £201 million, but that masks the huge advantage from the £l billion spent on the World Service and BBC Radio. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that that is how the BBC is crowding out its commercial rivals. It provides a competitive advantage which is unsustainable if we are to maintain a plural media market.
Rather than seeking continually to expand online content at a time when resources are stretched, surely the time is now right to subject it to far tighter control in terms of its market impact, something particularly important in the local market—which is particularly important in the local market. I welcome the recognition from the noble Lord, Lord Hall, in his speech earlier this week that there is a problem in this area and, particularly, the belated commitment to partnership with the local press. However, his proposals go about it in the wrong way by foreshadowing a network of 100 local journalists “run by the BBC” and potentially supplied by them. That, I fear, would simply be a further attempt by the BBC to colonise local news. If it is serious, the BBC should tap into the pool of local news that is already provided by thousands of fantastic journalists working in the local press, rather than replicating it.
In general, the proposals on offer, although they go some way, are too timid and ignore the cultural and oversight change that will be essential to make partnership a reality. They certainly do not go far enough in terms of scrutiny and control of the BBC’s online services.
In my view, the new royal charter must: contain specific proposals for the scope and purpose of the BBC online as it relates to news provision and content; introduce a much more effective process for triggering market impact assessments of pre-existing and future initiatives; establish a binding commitment to source and pay for news content from existing news providers; and set up a system of accountability that ensures that its promises are adhered to. Regrettably, in the past, we have seen far too many promises that were not fulfilled. I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that change from within is a very good thing, but change from within never seems to happen.
This charter review is the last opportunity to achieve durable reform that protects a plural media market. Either the BBC can play a genuine partnership role, focus its resources on what it does best and help nurture the transition now going on within the commercially funded news market, or it can continue to colonise the online space in a way that erodes the wider news market and undermines the plurality on which democracy depends, leading to a news landscape dominated by social media and global news providers. I may be a lone voice in this debate, but I do not believe that anyone in this House would want that.
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lady Bakewell for obtaining this debate and congratulate her on the excellent manner in which she introduced it. I did not agree with everything she said—in fact, I agree with the noble Lord opposite who has on occasion raised the issue of legislation for the BBC. I agree with him wholeheartedly on that matter. Yes, the BBC belongs to the licence fee payer, but the only people who represent the licence fee payer are those who are elected to the other House down the Corridor. Equally, in this House, there is an expertise that we ought to be tapping into, amending a Bill to put the BBC on a statutory basis, rather than as it is at present. I have served on the same committee as the noble Lord, and we agree that that is the way forward. The present management is wrong as well, and that is also something that ought to be changed in the charter. The fact is that the charter does not give political freedom to the BBC; in fact, every 10 years it imposes a political will on it if those who can are determined to do so.
However, my major concern, as people may not be that surprised to learn, is that the world of the media is changing. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Black. I do not care—I am personally in favour of the BBC, but I increasingly use it online, not watching it as a broadcaster. In fact, it is my view that in 10 years’ time, people will wonder exactly what we mean by the term “broadcaster”; the new term is “narrowcasting”. People will increasingly watch what they want, where they want, when they want and how they want. It might be on an iPad, a mobile phone or a television. It might be listening to a radio, which may very well be wi-fi, it may be in their car or anywhere. The BBC has to become a narrowcaster; it already is. It is a very good narrowcaster, and we should not attack it accordingly. We should support its online activities.
My noble friend Lord Birt, who unfortunately is not present, but who I know took part in previous debates, is to be congratulated on the way in which, when he was director-general of the BBC, he ensured that the BBC produced online services. I listen to “Good Morning Scotland” in my flat in London on my iPad. That way I can keep up with the news that is happening in Scotland. It is much easier than trying to find the Herald, the Scotsman, or whatever, which I have to pay for; I can get it for nothing and I can keep up with the news. On my iPad, I use the BBC News app all the time. That is where I go if I want to catch up with the latest news. I do not go to Sky, the Guardian app, the Times or wherever; I go to the BBC News app, because there I know that I can get what I want quickly for nothing. I can look at what is happening in Scotland, in Wales and worldwide.
The BBC will become an online provider and a producer of good, high-quality programmes rather than a broadcaster in the linear sense.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former governor.
The recent BBC report on its future had nothing to say about governance and complaints. I propose to address the issue of complaints handling today, because I believe that the crux of the BBC’s independence, impartiality and accountability to the licence fee payers lies in the way in which complaints about its service are responded to. I am focusing on accuracy and impartiality, not taste and decency complaints—for example, about Russell Brand, Jeremy Clarkson and the like—because accuracy and impartiality are what make the BBC a world and national influence. Its impartiality needs to be guaranteed by a complaints process that matches the significance of the issues complained about. For example, was the Iraqi intelligence dossier sexed up? Should it refer to ISIL or Daesh? There are the issues of climate change science, Europe and so on. The BBC forms national opinion on those matters, and if complaints about them were transparently and fairly handled and more were upheld, there would be even more confidence in the BBC and more audience satisfaction.
At the moment, only the tiniest proportion of complaints is upheld, and the BBC complaints procedure is far from simple. There is overlapping jurisdiction with Ofcom; some complaints get passed from one organisation to the other. There are three layers of complaints handling at the BBC, with the final stage being the editorial standards committee of the trust itself—five trustees closeted with staff and an adviser whom they selected. The findings are made entirely inside the organisation with no outside oversight.
Best practice today is that there should be an independent arbiter who is not associated with the organisation being complained against. Both the Commons and Lords Select Committees on the BBC explored the alternative of Ofcom. The difficulty is that Ofcom is not recognisably superior to the BBC in the way that an appeal body should be, but is on a level. One expects difficult issues to move upwards to more and more expert bodies. Moreover, the BBC’s independence and its reputation for impartiality might be compromised in the eyes of the public if just another quango—namely, Ofcom—could overrule the BBC. Ofcom’s members are appointed by the DCMS, and many of them are too steeped in the BBC and its culture from their past careers to be perceived as sufficiently detached.
Externality in complaints handling is essential. My suggestion is an ombudsman, who would report his or her findings to the trust, or whatever replaces it, which would have to have an exceptionally strong reason for rejecting the ombudsman’s findings. This system would preserve the appearance—indeed, the reality—of the BBC retaining the final say and retaining independence.
Adverse findings are naturally hard for the BBC to accept. They are slightly more palatable coming from an outside expert, and the BBC has itself resorted to the use of distinguished external figures occasionally in examining its own output. An ombudsman could be trusted to make decisions about the balance to be struck between public interest, journalistic freedom, impartiality and accuracy. It is hard to see Ofcom, as currently constituted, making better decisions than the trust. This is editorial and political territory and can only fairly be considered by an outsider with a track record of experience and judgment.
My Lords, in this expert debate, admirably led by my noble friend Lady Bakewell, I speak only as a citizen but as a fairly widely travelled one in almost all the comparable democracies in western Europe, the transatlantic and Antipodean ones, and elsewhere in many other countries that are struggling to emerge as democracies or emerging as different kinds of democracies. Nowhere have I seen comparable broadcasting services to the BBC. I am not thinking just of speaking truth to power, although that is priceless and rarer than noble Lords might think, but of the refusal to segregate audiences via subscription into “quality” or “elite” fee-payers and a wide popular audience.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Low, I applaud the resolute focus of the BBC on entertaining as well as informing or educating, to quote the still not bettered Reithian formula. The BBC gains the status of a truly national institution by it. It creates shared experiences which bond the nation. If we can laugh at the same jokes or watch the same preposterous dancers, hot-tempered cooks, or soap operas, or listen to “The Archers”—how much do urban folk learn about countryside issues from it? Although to my taste that programme is not quite gritty enough—we become more at home with each other. We need these shared moments in our lives more than ever.
We are a diverse nation, no longer homogeneous in faith and belief and, as ever, very segregated by class. If we compound that by cultural segregation, we shall be committing an act of great folly indeed. BBC programmes unite the nation, and unite it with consistent quality. Of course all institutions need to evolve, but to oblige change in such a way as to undermine their real benefit would be irreparably stupid.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, in her brilliant opening speech for this debate, rightly placed much emphasis on the crucial issue of the independence of the BBC.
I remember when I was Secretary of State some 15 years ago and went on an official visit to China. I took a number of creative business figures with me, and a representative of the BBC. Every time I met with any official or Minister from any of the relevant Chinese ministries, I had to listen to half an hour of disquisition on the evils of the BBC, which had very recently run a candid and fascinating programme about Tibet. The best way I found to respond to the criticism of the BBC was to say, “I know. I am responsible for oversight of the BBC in the Government and for taking BBC matters through our Parliament. Yet every week the BBC carries criticism of me and the Government of which I am part”. So it should be, and we value that it should be so. The BBC is not a state broadcaster but the nation’s broadcaster, and the Government would do very well to remember that.
I will make just two other brief points. First, the BBC is in business not just to provide wonderful programmes, create fantastic content and train people in the business of being creative. It is also there to be a benchmark of quality for the whole broadcasting environment. Because the BBC does programmes of incredible quality, that helps the whole of broadcasting to be good. If the Government wish to clip the BBC’s wings, have a go at what they call its “imperial ambitions” or remove its precious funding, whether the result is not being able to have BBC4 or the children’s channels, or a diminution in the entertainment the BBC can put on—whatever the result, it will be a diminution of that “benchmark of quality” role the BBC has to play.
Secondly, there are relatively few things that we as a nation do fantastically well and in a way that beats the rest of the world. I would say that that applies to our greatest museums, our theatre, music and literature at its best, and to our greatest universities. Above all, it applies to the BBC. This is something incredibly precious for us as a nation. The Government should be nurturing and sustaining it, not seeking to tamper with it or undermine it.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation, as I am a trustee of the BBC, a body much-criticised these days, a post I have held since December 2011. I also declare that in the distant past, in the 1980s, I was a reporter and correspondent for the World Service for some seven years. My responsibilities on the trust cover international issues, and especially the World Service. It is a responsibility I take seriously, as I regard it as an incontestable fact that the World Service is at the forefront of the United Kingdom’s most widely admired institutions globally. While the United States, as other noble Lords have said, has fine universities and great newspapers such as the New York Times, it is striking that 180 US public radio stations broadcast the World Service. There are not many areas now where this country truly has global leads, but the World Service is undeniably one.
I also worked for the UN for several years, and was proud to work for Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General, who famously described the World Service as Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th century. When I worked for the UN in places as different as Cambodia, Bosnia, and the Middle East, I was struck time and again by how important the World Service was to me, but more critically to the peoples of those countries, so often caught in turmoil and conflict. I recall accompanying Jack Straw when, as Foreign Secretary, he visited Iran. During a meeting with President Khatami, the Foreign Secretary’s views were challenged by his host, who pointedly said that his analysis was based on what he had heard on the Farsi service of the BBC that very morning. In Iran, as in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, south Asia and the heart of central Africa, the World Service’s influence is enormous, humbling, and something this country can be very proud of.
The noble Lord, Lord Hall, the BBC’s director-general, made an important speech on Monday of this week. What is the Government’s reaction to that speech, and in particular to the bold and ambitious ideas he put forward for the World Service? In doing so, he has heeded opinions, including in this House, on the future direction of the World Service. I will highlight three of those.
The first is an idea most ably addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who is not in his place today, regarding the severity of repression and absence of any meaningful freedom of expression in North Korea. We have looked at this issue and despite formidable obstacles, we are proposing launching a news service in the Korean language on short wave.
Secondly, concerns have been expressed repeatedly in this House and the other place about the absence of free discussion and limitations on the press in contemporary Russia. It is important that we move on this issue too, and the BBC has in mind the establishment of a satellite television service in the Russian language. Finally, we are proposing a new service for two of the poorest African countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, in their indigenous languages, Amharic and Oromo.
This envisaged expansion underlines the principles of the Government’s own foreign and development policies and will be an important plank of the BBC’s plans for discussion during the forthcoming spending review. The BBC will seek to match any increase in funding for the World Service with the external income it can generate from its other global news services. I invite the Minister to comment on these ambitious proposals, which I believe are testimony to the soft power in which Britain excels, and of which the BBC is perhaps the strongest exponent.
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register and I am grateful, as I so often am, to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for this debate. The BBC: how do we pay for it? How much do we pay for it? Should we be paying for it at all in a broadcasting world where all the rules seem to be changing?
Some of what the BBC has done in recent years has been inept and, in some cases, appalling. Jimmy Savile. The grotesque attack on our late colleague, Lord McAlpine. Financial mismanagement. Scandal. The BBC, that great custodian of all that was supposed to be best in British broadcasting, has at times lost its way. It has shown unremitting arrogance and has been in danger of being cut to pieces by a hundred headlines, a thousand expenses claims, and millions that have been spent on redundancies and failures—and do not get me going on some of its political coverage. And yet we in Westminster know what a bumpy playing field public service can prove to be. As we have come to learn to our cost, sex and financial scandals are not the exclusive preserve of the BBC.
While we concentrate on its governance and financing, we must not lose sight of what the BBC is fundamentally about, which is output. And the BBC’s output, in the round and over the balance of time, is often superb. Almost daily in this House we discuss Britain’s influence around the world—its soft power—and a good chunk of that soft power is delivered through the BBC. Not just through its news services, but through its fine dramas, its compelling sport, its inspiring music, its celebrations of our culture, its coverage of the London Olympics—who could forget that?—the royal wedding and the Queen’s golden jubilee. And we should never forget, of course, the huge role of the BBC’s World Service.
The BBC is at the heart of British culture and creativity, and raises the bar for all other broadcasters. We as a nation are stunningly creative. We have a special talent for it. Television alone earns more than £12 billion a year for Britain and employs more than 130,000 people. And television primes other creative industries, too, which together contribute almost £80 billion a year to our economy, wins us Emmys and Oscars and accolades and exports. And in our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, I believe that the BBC has a leader who understands the very special responsibilities of a public service broadcaster. He really gets it.
This brings us back once more to the perpetual dance around the flame that is the licence fee. Public service broadcasting can never be the cheapest television. It should be cost-effective, of course, but never cheap. Always high value. And sometimes high risk. In the creative world, the world of new ideas, it is crucial to have the ability to take risks, and sometimes that means the freedom to fail.
So, as an unapologetic Tory, let me say: we still need the BBC. Independent. Error-strewn. Sometimes inexcusably arrogant—an organisation that would not recognise an apology if it tripped over it. And still one of our great national institutions.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Bakewell for introducing this important debate. Much has been said about the threat to the BBC from many members of the party opposite—threats from the Rupert Murdochs of this world. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, referring to perceptions of bias.
There is another political party that does not much like the BBC for reasons of bias, and that is the Scottish National Party. It does not like the BBC because it does not bend the knee enough, or is perceived not to bend the knee enough, to their leaders or to their policies. They would like the BBC in Scotland to be devolved; they would like it, as their former leader, Alex Salmond, said, to be under Scottish Government control.
I am not sure what a Scottish broadcasting corporation would be like under their control. Perhaps—as some of the wilder shores of nationalism suggest—a hybrid of Russia Today with influence from Rupert Murdoch. I dread to think what that could be like. Fortunately that party is not in a position to do too much damage to the BBC at the minute, but the present Government are, and they appear to be intent on doing so.
I will concentrate for a moment on minority-language broadcasting. No commercial broadcaster committed to its shareholders can properly cater for a minority language in this country, whether it is Scottish, Gaelic or Welsh. Gaelic is a living language and if it is to have a future then Radio nan Gàidheal and BBC Alba must not be damaged as a consequence of this review.
It certainly seems from the Green Paper that minority-interest broadcasting is firmly in the sights of the Government and perhaps, too, of the Culture Secretary. To have “culture” in the title of the office and not support minority languages is, I respectfully suggest, a contradiction.
Of course, it costs more per listener or viewer per hour to broadcast in Gaelic compared with mainstream English language channels, but the differences are not so material as is suggested in the Green Paper—not least if we can drag our eyes away from the bottom line and use a cross-subsidy approach, having some regard for the culture and safeguarding of these beautiful languages.
Where is the Scottish National Party in this? As I said, it wants the BBC to be devolved but, sadly, far too many Anglophone Scots have no time for Gaelic or its future. To put a Gaelic name even on a road sign elicits howls of protest. The SNP Government are busily centralising everything away from the Highlands and Islands. Historically—I can well remember my father saying it and many people are now coming to believe it again—many Highlanders and Islanders thought that we got far more out of Westminster than we ever got out of Edinburgh. So, in the forthcoming charter review, I have no trust whatever that the SNP Members down the corridor will do anything to help the BBC or to help minority languages. Their perceived grievances, blaming the BBC for their losing the referendum, are like a running sore and, although I hope I am wrong, I think that they are unlikely to rally to the cause of keeping an integrated broadcaster which is unique in this world.
I hope that the Minister will tell the House what the policy of the Government is in relation to minority language broadcasting. Can she reassure the House that in the BBC charter review the Government will not be a slave to the bottom line when considering the future of Gaelic broadcasting? Finally, I understand that it is government policy not to devolve broadcasting to Edinburgh. I hope that the Minister can give us a guarantee that that will not be dropped in at the last minute as a gift to the Scottish Government in the present negotiations on devolution matters.
My Lords, I make no apology for concentrating the whole of my remarks today on the BBC’s World Service and its vernacular services, which, since the coalition Government’s decision, are now fully funded from the resources available to the BBC. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for having introduced such a timely debate and for giving me an opportunity to speak about this.
This House’s point of departure, I suggest, must surely be our own relatively recent report on the UK’s soft power, which found that the BBC’s overseas work was a crucial and immensely valuable soft-power asset. I doubt whether anyone disputes that conclusion; indeed, the Government seemed to share it when they responded to the report. However, the time has now come to move from warm words to specifics, and I hope that the Minister will do just that.
To rate the BBC’s overseas work so highly is not, I suggest, to fall into the trap of suggesting that soft-power assets can be a substitute for hard power but, as this country’s hard-power capability is constrained by the rise of others and by financial limits, it is all the more important to make the best use of and promote our principal soft-power assets, which were recently recognised in a private analysis as putting Britain at the head of a global league table. The BBC was a key part of that conclusion.
First, on the issue of wider consultation about the BBC’s future, I wonder whether the Minister has anything more to add to the cautiously positive response that she gave to my Question on 16 July about the desirability of finding a way of assessing the BBC’s worldwide audience’s attitudes, which, after all, represent a rather larger number of people than our domestic audience, and to bring them into some kind of consultative process. The evidence of the importance of the World Service and the BBC’s vernacular services, particularly in countries that do not have press freedom or access to unbiased reporting on world events, is scattered through innumerable historical accounts of the last century’s troubled history. Those views of the UK’s overseas audience need to be heard and to be taken fully account of before any decisions are taken.
When the responsibility for financing the World Service and the vernacular services was switched from the FCO to the BBC, many of us argued that the safeguards available to the Government to protect those services were entirely inadequate, particularly in the event of the BBC’s overall resources being further squeezed, as is now the case. I am not suggesting that that decision should be reversed or reopened but this review surely provides an opportunity which needs to be seized to give the Government as a whole a greater say in the oversight of these resources for the BBC’s work, its scope and its basic direction—but not of course of its content. The Foreign Secretary’s current powers to approve any major shift in the vernacular programmes, either to increase or to reduce them, is, I suggest, far short of what is needed and far too limited for the period ahead. So will the Minister tell the House that consideration of the strengthening of these safeguards will be a central part of the review?
While much of this debate no doubt will be, and has been, about the BBC’s domestic services and their financing—and rightly so—I hope that we are not going to lose sight of the significance for our future role in world affairs of the overseas services. Throughout my diplomatic career, I benefited enormously from the BBC’s overseas work and the esteem in which it was held. It is something of which we should be proud and it is something which we should spare no effort to sustain and promote.
My Lords, the current roaring debate about the BBC is not entirely edifying. However, thanks to my noble friend Lady Bakewell, we have done a great deal better this afternoon in your Lordships’ House. I will focus on funding.
There is no right sum to give the BBC. How much cash it should get depends on two factors: what you want the BBC to do and whether it is using the resources you give it efficiently and well. With this year’s settlement, we move into a new era: what the Davies committee, on which I sat nearly 20 years ago, described as:
“The BBC on a diet”.
We will still have a BBC at the end of the process; it will probably still be a full-service BBC; but its scope will be limited and its market share will decline. That is sad.
For an economist, and I sort of am one, there is much to be said for a broadcasting service that is free at the point of use. This is because of the nature of broadcasting output. Essentially, once you have made your programme, the cost does not increase no matter how many people watch it. In economists’ jargon, the marginal cost is zero. If the good is free, more people watch it, they all get something out of it, and the total value created is greater. Anything that cuts the number of viewers—such as pay-per-view or subscription—cuts the net value to consumers. From that point of view, the licence fee has strengths.
You tamper with the licence fee at your peril. I have read the latest proposal for a household levy rather than the licence fee. I can see that it has obvious advantages, particularly for the BBC, so I am instinctively sympathetic towards it. However, there is a real, if political, difference between an existing fee and a new one. Remember the poll tax. Whatever the logic for it, it was a completely new tax that came out of nowhere and was therefore unacceptable to everyone. The licence fee has an estimable, though low-profile, advantage: it has been around for a long time. People pay it mostly without cavil, from habit. One does not even need to send in the bailiffs, knock down doors or do much generally to collect it. That is something that you put at risk greatly to your peril.
My final point is perhaps utopian beyond feasibility but it is simply this: the politicisation of arguments about the funding of the BBC is unfortunate. More objectivity would help. There should have been an objective assessment before any announcement was made this year. The bully-boy handling of this year’s negotiations by Messrs Osborne and Whittingdale was, frankly, a scandal. I wonder if there is not scope for an independent body, perhaps a standing body, to be charged with advising on how much revenue the BBC should be given. Might there even be an agreement among politicians that they would, save in conditions of national emergency, adhere to the body’s recommendations? I dare say that if your Lordships’ House ruled the country, some such arrangement would be readily agreed, though in the real world in which we live, I am not so naive as to hold my breath waiting.
My Lords, I apologise to the House for coming in at the wrong time. I was too captivated by my noble friend Lord Smith’s contribution, which distracted me.
I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Bakewell on creating this opportunity and on her superb opening speech. I declare interests as an ex-governor of the BBC and a long-time viewer and listener. As an East End kid, I can remember playing in the street in the 1940s, when there were very few cars, and the cry would go out: “Can’t stay—I’m going in to listen to ‘Dick Barton, Special Agent’ or ‘Journey into Space’”. A few years later, it was the “Goon Show”. They are unforgettable childhood memories. But 65 years later, the world has changed in a way that we would never have envisaged. I am still listening, mainly to Radio 4. My noble friend Lord Bragg, the creator of “In Our Time” continues to enlighten me.
I want to reflect on what I think is the superb mission statement by the first director-general, Lord Reith. It is shorter, briefer and better than any other, creating the concept that the BBC is to “inform, educate and entertain”. More recently, that was added to by our colleague the noble Lord, Lord Hall, who suggested that “enable” should go on the end of it. I am not sure whether that is a particularly good idea, but the spirit behind it is certainly the right one.
Undoubtedly, the BBC has changed—it needed to. Like any large institution, it has its strengths and weaknesses. It is a shame that the noble Lord, Lord Birt, is not here to remind us how he dragged the BBC kicking and screaming into the 21st century when he created the very controversial approach of the internal market and also BBC Online. Our esteemed colleague the noble Lord, Lord Hall, is continuing that process. That rather goes against the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, who said that change is promised but never actually undertaken. That really does fly in the face of the facts.
I want to give a few key facts about the BBC. For £2.80 a week, it is really great value. The BBC offers far more channels and services than it did 20 years ago. It has a good record on efficiency—among the best in the public sector—although it could still be improved. By 2016, it will be saving £1.5 billion a year. The licence fee is simple, accountable and a means by which we can better deliver cheaper programmes for everyone than other systems; everyone pays and everyone benefits. Support for the licence fee has grown over the last 10 years: 48% of the public think it is the best way to fund the BBC, up from 31% in 2004. Compare its income of £5.1 billion to that of the huge digital players, such as Sky’s £7.2 billion, Google’s $59.8 billion and Apple’s $170.9 billion.
Quite rightly, executive pay and expenses have been the subject of criticism, and the noble Lord, Lord Hall, has taken action in that area. People are paid significantly less and the focus is on making great programmes.
I am not going to comment on the World Service because so many people have already covered that better than I could hope to.
The latest proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Hall, are for a partnership, a commitment to high-quality original British drama, an ideas service, a new children’s service, more investment in the World Service, opening up the BBC iPlayer, and—dismissed far too quickly by the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood—trying to work out a new partnership with local newspapers. I would welcome hearing the Minister’s response to those suggestions. Of course, for them to work, we need effective funding for the BBC.
I want to make a couple of final points. The BBC has shown its commitment to not just graduate intake but also, I am pleased to say, non-graduate intake. It has already beaten its target, with 178 graduate-level trainees and 177 non-graduate apprentices, and not before time.
As charter renewal draws nearer, there will be many more debates. I am sure that the Minister will reflect on today’s contribution. We need to remind ourselves that it is not easy to build a successful, global, trusted brand. As one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell, said,
“you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.
My Lords, I add to that of others my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for this debate. I hope she does not mind me saying that she is such a distinguished example of one of the many things that we have gained from the BBC. This is another case of the Secretary of State John Whittingdale’s lack of grasp: he should have added her name to that of David Attenborough’s as something that “arguably” the BBC should be allowed to keep.
As the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, mentioned, before the Summer Recess we had an excellent debate on the future of the BBC, thanks to my noble friend— I hope that I can still call him that—Lord Fowler. The future of the BBC is, of course, its financing and its independence. As many noble Lords have mentioned, Armando Iannucci put the obvious question at the MacTaggart lecture: in what other area of national life is doing well so frowned on by government?
So what does the BBC do so well? It only provides a massive creative and financial investment in original British programming and content. It develops and invests in talent; the noble Baroness and others around this Chamber gave examples of that. It plays a hugely important role in promoting the UK around the world, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned; a study on soft power published in July and commissioned by Professor Joseph Nye, who coined the phrase, stated that the UK was the global leader and the BBC central to this. The BBC is also a cornerstone of the UK’s creative industries, the fastest-growing sector of the economy, and it provides an independent and impartial source of news and information which in the digital age is more important than ever—here, I part company with the noble Lord, Lord Black; I think that in a digital world we need, even more than ever, a digital BBC providing impartial news and information online.
Independence and impartiality are so important—and, again, under attack. Here I ask the Iannucci question: why? I worked at the BBC for 10 years and in news and current affairs for most of that period. Bias was the last thing that I ever experienced. We were taught to bend over backwards to ensure that everything was factually correct, and that all sides to an argument were heard. My colleague at “Newsnight”, Jeremy Paxman, came out after leaving the BBC as a one-nation Tory. Nick Robinson, until recently political editor, was president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. I often look across the Chamber at my old boss, the noble Lord, Lord Grade, controller of BBC1 and director of programmes et cetera. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, now Leader of the House, was deputy secretary of the corporation, head of comms for the trust and head of corporate affairs. I think that we all know these are not people who do not speak their mind. They do not and did not put up with bias. As I have mentioned so often before, when I sat on the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, we had Rupert Murdoch as a witness and he told us that he wished that Sky News was more like Fox News. Implicit was the fact that the existence of the BBC made this impossible.
The BBC’s independence is crucial and it belongs to the licence fee payer, the public, not to politicians. Can the Minister assure us that this Government will listen to the public consultation that the BBC Trust is carrying out, to the licence fee payer, and not just to the advisers handpicked by the Secretary of State and memorably described in this Chamber by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, as,
“a team of assistant gravediggers”?—[Official Report, 14/7/15; col. 527.]
This leads me on to funding. I am as unapologetic about being a Liberal Democrat as is the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, about being a Conservative, but we agree with him in our support for the licence fee. We condemn placing responsibility for covering the costs of the licence fee for the over-75s on the BBC, mentioned by so many noble Lords today, as it effectively makes the BBC the vehicle to deliver elements of the welfare state. As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, can the Minister explain why the BBC Trust, which represents the licence fee payer, was not involved in that decision?
With the BBC being asked to take this financial hit, it is important, if it is to continue to fulfil its remit, that other sources of income are not undermined. BBC Worldwide is the largest distributor of TV programmes in the world outside the US studios. Over the last charter period, it has increased total returns to the BBC by 6.2%. Does the Minister not agree that BBC Worldwide is a crucial element to the BBC’s ability to continue to fund UK content, while taking pressure off the licence fee?
The BBC generates for the UK economy the equivalent of £2 of economic value for every £1 licence fee that it receives. In other words, it doubles its money. The effect of initial BBC spending is multiplied, as it ripples through the economy from region to region and sector to sector. As well as showcasing British culture and creativity, the BBC functions as a catalyst for the creative industries as a whole and as such a major contributor to the creative economy.
As Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England told the House of Lords Communication Committee,
“one of the justifications for the intervention in the marketplace that is the BBC is the value of the creative industries democratically, culturally, socially and economically”.
Have any noble Lords noticed the lack of criticism of the licence fee from other broadcasters? That is because the UK broadcast market works, delivering better, more varied programmes because of the licence fee. There is competition for quality rather than for funding.
Finally, the BBC is a great institution, as so many of us have been saying, but it is obviously not perfect. There are indeed things that need to be addressed during the charter renewal process. Does the Minister agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said about training, that there needs to be a cast-iron commitment to training? This is a crucial part of justifying the licence fee. There must also be a continued emphasis on partnerships. Historically, as I know from my time in the independent sector, that is not something that the BBC has been terribly good at. We on these Benches welcome the director-general Tony Hall’s announcement earlier this week of the “ideas service”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, drew attention to a continued reduction in the layers of management—or officer class, as Tony Hall referred to them. Something that has not been mentioned today is that, if the BBC is to properly reflect the country, it has to address the issue of diversity. We need diversity at producer, researcher and management level as well as on screen.
I end as I almost started, with Sir David Attenborough. He describes the BBC 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 to consider solutions”.
As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said right at the beginning of this debate, we live in troubled times. Does the Minister not agree that we do not need to go to war with a uniquely British institution that is the envy of the world?
My Lords, we all owe my noble friend Lady Bakewell a vote of thanks for agreeing to lead this debate today, and for the excellent speech with which she started us off a couple of hours ago. I also thank all speakers for their contributions. This has been a very high-level debate—a very full and important one. I hope that the Minister will reflect not only on what was said and the near unanimity of those who have spoken, but the impressive number and wide range of speakers from all sides of the House who contributed. We have had Secretaries of State, Ministers, governors and practitioners. It would be invidious to select the best of those, although my vote would go to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, who for the first time in my experience here managed to silence my noble friend Lord Young, although not for long. In fact, I really wanted to put a plug in for the noble Lord, Lord Low. Noble Lords may not know that he was in the earlier debate that lasted two and a half hours and also made a stonkingly good speech during that. I congratulate him. At least I went out for a cup of tea in the middle, but he did not.
From the general tenor of the comments made today, most speakers in the debate believe that the Government have the BBC in their sights, if not, to use the words of my noble friend Lord Bragg, their teeth already in the BBC’s jugular. Only a few years ago, in a smash-and-grab raid, the BBC was forced to pick up about £500 million per annum in its budget, including the cost of the BBC World Service, city TV, the Caversham monitoring service and S4C and some other elements. In July 2015, the Government announced that the BBC will additionally become part of the social services by taking on the cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s. This second smash-and-grab—sorry, I am supposed to call it the “framework for licence fee funding after 2017”—looks increasingly like a very bad deal indeed.
It is good that the licence fee is to be modernised to cover public service broadcasting video-on-demand services, that ring-fencing is to be phased out and that the licence fee will increase with CPI. But as the BBC announced earlier in the week, this means a total saving of around £700 million a year by 2021-22, or an annual average savings target of around 3.5% a year over the next five years. That is not a good start, particularly as the BBC has, according to the NAO, been very successful in bringing in efficiency savings already and delivering asset sales, although that trick cannot be repeated. As my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, we already have a BBC on a diet.
We are at the beginning of what looks like a quick and dirty charter review process, one that is just not worthy of the sort of care, concern and interest that every Government should have in one of their principal public institutions. And of course our concern is fuelled by a continuing uncertainty about whether the Government really understand, or want to understand, what the BBC is for. In the Green Paper the Secretary of State merely states that:
“The BBC is at the very heart of Britain It is one of this nation’s most treasured institutions—playing a role in almost all of our lives”.
Then it stops; talk about damning with faint praise.
In the recent debate in your Lordships’ House, I asked the Minister if she agreed with me that the BBC is the cornerstone of the sort of open and accountable society that we want in this country, the gold standard for other broadcasters, the fulcrum of a competition for quality in broadcasting, the centre for training and development in broadcasting, the guarantee of impartiality and fair coverage of news and current affairs throughout the United Kingdom and a beacon for democracy and the rule of law. As the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said, to attack one of the few British institutions which is contributing to holding the country together seems perverse beyond belief. I ask her again to put on record her support for this vision of the BBC.
As we have learnt, we are now less than a month away from the end of the public consultation on 8 October, so I want to use the rest of my time to focus on what might be our only opportunity to respond to some of the 19 questions that were in the Green Paper. We have no information about where the Government got these questions. No research has been published and apparently no expert advice was sought, and while some of the questions are sensible and appropriate for any Government to ask about a body which is supported by public funds, there are others that are laden with bias and dodgy assertions and which raise deep concerns about the direction the Government seem to be signalling as wanting to take. As my noble friend Lord Alli said, the real enemy is the huge international media companies, not the domestic broadcasting companies. Why is the default position to cut and constrain rather than to invest and grow?
The first group of questions are about the mission, purpose and values of the BBC, and the key question is really about universality. The current consensus position is that the BBC,
“should be big enough to deliver the services audiences demand, but as small as its mission allows”.
Are the Government intending to change that, or suggesting that we move away from the Reithian values which have stood the test of time—to inform, educate and entertain? As we have learnt, the BBC is the cornerstone of the creative industries in this country, and the creative industries are the powerhouse of our future prosperity. They represent one in 11 jobs, they bring in £76 billion a year, they enhance our reputation overseas, they are intrinsic to our whole added-value economy, and they have seen growth year on year well ahead of the rest of the economy. But the truth is that the British creative industries cohere as a balanced ecology and the BBC is at its heart. The BBC does not harm the wider industry; rather, it fosters it. It creates a competition for quality programming and the £3.7 billion from the licence fee is the largest investment we make in the arts.
The second group of questions—there are 10 of them—deal with what the BBC does; its scale and scope. The key question here, although it is not made explicit, is whether the BBC should be constrained simply to provide what the market does not. But far from crowding out commercial operators, since 1985 the BBC has taken a smaller and smaller share of the market, and soon it will be less than a fifth. In the past, it has been broadly accepted that the BBC should remain a cultural institution of real size and scope, and should not simply be a broadcaster of minority interest programming. It should provide a wide range of different programmes to a wide range of different audiences. There is no evidence to show that, if the BBC were not to exist, other broadcasters would invest in more production. They are shareholder driven, and the short-term needs of the market will require higher returns well before it allows more public service broadcasting expenditure. Indeed, Ofcom’s recent review of PSB shows that there has been a £400 million fall in investment in new content. So the very idea that the BBC should be cut down to size is madness.
The third group of questions deals with funding; the key question is obviously whether the licence fee should be retained. It may well be that in the future we need to reconsider the licence fee, and the idea of a household levy, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, said, has its attractions, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, reminded us, there are reservations. For the present charter period, however, it is clear that if we want the BBC to be an independent, universal broadcaster, committed to serving everyone and to investing in British creativity, the licence fee remains the best way of paying for BBC services. It is simple and accountable; we all pay it and we all benefit. Overall, the market delivers better, more varied programmes as the competition is for quality in programmes rather than funding. The TV Licence Fee Enforcement Review by David Perry QC has recommended that, while the current licence fee collection system is in operation, the current system of criminal deterrence and prosecution should be maintained. Can the Minister confirm that this issue is now settled?
The fourth group of questions asked how the current model of governance and regulation of the BBC should be reformed. These are serious issues, and ones for which there is probably more agreement on the need for change. The last charter introduced the BBC Trust, and while there have been some positive changes, including the introduction of some new elements such as public value tests, this structure has come under sustained criticism throughout the period. Of the three options, the one that seems to offer the most benefit would create a unitary board for the BBC with regulation moving wholly to Ofcom. However, I agree with the Green Paper that it is important that, in any change, the progress that has been made to date under the trust is not lost. But there is a wider question, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and others, about whether the royal charter is the right basis under which the BBC should be established and whether the current periodicity reflects properly the role that Parliament should play in that process. These are very important issues, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts.
We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate about what should happen to the BBC over the next period, albeit at the same time worrying that most of the decisions have, in effect, already been taken. We are concerned about the general approach being taken, the tone of the public consultation document and the sense that, taken along with the recent Budget decisions, the Government have already decided to cut the BBC down to size.
My biggest regret will be that, if at the end of this process we find that the Government have not been able to respond to the very good ideas proposed by the BBC in its new paper An Open, More Distinctive BBC, we will be the losers. It would be a tragedy not to have more original high-quality British drama; an ideas service providing the public with the best of British ideas and culture; a new children’s service—desperately needed—providing more content for children across more platforms and making it safe and trusted; and investment in the World Service, which as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, reminded us, was once described by Kofi Annan as Britain’s gift to the world. Where there is a democratic deficit in impartial news, we will be able to uphold better Britain’s place in the world and the promotion of British values. The idea of a new partnership with local newspapers and local reporting may, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, not be the right formulation, but it is a good idea; we should pursue it and make sure that something comes from it.
The BBC says that it must adapt and change and that it believes that these proposals will have a positive impact on the creative industries. I think that the Government are lucky to find themselves being offered this at all from a body under such attack. The BBC has already slimmed itself down; it is one of the most efficient bodies in the public sector. I just hope that the Government have the wit to recognise what a good deal they are being offered, and that they will do the deal needed to secure this for the nation for the long term. As the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Smith, across the political boundaries said, we should be cherishing this very British broadcasting corporation —the envy of the world.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for introducing this timely debate and for bringing her own experience to it in a brilliant introduction.
It is abundantly clear that this House cares deeply about the BBC and the BBC World Service, and that it considers the BBC to be an integral part of our national fabric, along with, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, music, theatre, universities and other great British things—for me, those include the countryside and the monarchy. The noble Lord, Lord Young, mentioned the BBC’s track record on apprenticeships, while the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, referred to talent, training, soft power, the fast-growing nature of the digital world and the catalyst that the BBC has provided for the creative industries, including BBC Worldwide.
I will not seek to go through everything that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, but I will read his contribution with great interest. I agree with a number of the points that he made in relation to vision, although not all. I am also very grateful for the responses that have been given on the Floor of the House to our consultation. It is a great tribute to all noble Lords that we have been able to have this debate relatively early on in the consultation process. It comes on top of the short debate in July, which has already been referenced, led by my noble friend Lord Fowler, and the debate we had when I repeated the charter Statement. We should also mention the diversity debate earlier this week on women in the media, during which a number of points were made about the BBC.
I will not try to comment on everything that everyone has said because I will not get through it all: one of the problems with the BBC is the scale of interest and importance of the subject. However, the Government share the view that the BBC is an integral part of our national fabric and is incredibly important. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said in her wide-ranging speech, all things can be improved. She acknowledged that with her correct references to Savile, digital failure, layers of management, remuneration and so on. I agree with the sense that she had that the BBC can emerge from the charter review stronger and better as a result of the debates we are having.
The charter review is a national conversation about the BBC and everyone is encouraged to take part. Today is part of that process. No charter review could fail to consider the size and scope of the BBC in the modern era. It is absolutely right to look at how well the BBC serves licence fee payers and its impact on other broadcasters. The consultation has already received thousands of responses. Over the coming months, there will be further opportunities for people across the UK to contribute their views—both directly to the Government and to the BBC Trust, which is working with the public. Our plan is to publish a White Paper in the spring and our ambition is to complete the charter review by the end of December 2016 and, if we can, to avoid the need for an extension.
Perhaps I may pick up an important point on accessibility made by the noble Lord, Lord Low. An accessible version is available for text-to-audio services and I will make sure that that is made available to the noble Lord. Also on accessibility, as a result of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about input from other countries around the world into this important debate, the consultation is available on GOV.UK and I am assured that it is accessible from overseas. I will have a think about whether there is anything more we can do on that in the next few weeks.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, my noble friends Lord Fowler and Lord Inglewood, and the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, talked about the charter and its parliamentary role. It is fair to say that we have heard a wide range of views today about whether a royal charter is right for the BBC, the role of Parliament—both this House and the other place—and whether there should be any statutory controls. These are important questions for the charter review consultation, which asks about the proper relationship between Parliament, government, the NAO and the BBC. We are consulting on these questions, so noble Lords would not expect me to pre-judge the outcome but the Government are committed to making sure that governance and regulatory structures are appropriate. I welcome the views expressed today and subsequent views on this issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Bragg, expressed concern about what I would call the over-75s deal. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and other noble Lords also mentioned that. One vital point has not been made. The deal that the Government reached with the BBC over free television licences for households with over-75s is not happening overnight. It will be phased in from 2018-19 and the BBC will not take on the full costs until 2020-21. In the mean time, the licence fee will be modernised to cover public service broadcast catch-up TV, which is very welcome to the BBC, and licence fee funding currently allocated for broadband rollout will be phased out, giving the BBC access to that money.
I thank the noble Lord. Obviously I was not involved in it. Whether it was a demand or a deal, it is important that we try to explain our thinking and how that will affect the players concerned, which I continue to try to do.
The over-75s concession is, of course, a grant from a government department, the DWP, to the BBC. We have agreed to phase that out. To respond to a question that was asked, following the agreement with the BBC, the trust accepted that decision. On the positive side, the fact that the BBC has agreed to play its part in common with most of the public sector in reducing spending does not mean that it has become an arm of the Government. After this Parliament, the BBC will become responsible for policy relating to the over-75s concession. That will be very important.
I am keen that, as part of charter review, we take a broad look at efficiency at the BBC. Work has been done before, but it is not just overheads: it is how the BBC delivers its public services as well. What is being asked of the BBC in terms of savings is not out of line with what is being asked of most government departments—it is possibly rather less. The licence fee is expected to rise in line with the consumer prices index over the next charter review period, dependent on the BBC keeping pace with efficiency savings elsewhere in the public sector and subject to the conclusions drawn from the charter review about the BBC’s scope and purpose. The noble Lord, Lord Hall, described this as,
“a strong deal for the BBC”.
As the Secretary of State made clear to a committee yesterday in the other place, in the consultation paper we are looking at three options for future funding. We tend to bring to bear new expertise on this issue because all the options have pluses and minuses. It is important that we look at those.
I should comment on the BBC charter review advisory group, because there has recently been rather a lot of nonsense written and spoken about it. It is a group of unpaid volunteers with huge and varying expertise and experience, including of the BBC, public service broadcasting, technology, journalism, governance and regulation. It would be impossible to find a group with significant insight or current knowledge if anyone who worked in the industry had been ruled out. It would be eccentric at best and a dereliction of duty not to seek counsel from experts. The group has met once thus far and will meet approximately every two months. It is only one source of expert advice. I emphasise that, as I did in July. It is not a forum for decision-making. We have our consultation; it is well under way. We have had 25,000 responses already and we have nearly a month to go. The trust is soon to embark on its complementary process. I hope that that will go some way to reassuring those who have expressed concern about the period of consultation.
I am sure that the whole House agrees that the editorial independence of the BBC is sacrosanct. Government does, however, have a legitimate and important role in ensuring that the BBC spends money responsibly and is regulated and governed effectively. The BBC’s governance structure will affect complaints handling, strategic direction, the setting of high-level budgets and changes to BBC services.
I very much agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said about the importance of having good independent complaints systems, and, indeed, the value that complaints can bring to an organisation. When I worked in consumer goods, I always felt that complaints were a way of improving an organisation.
The BBC Trust has been widely criticised. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, its own chair—Rona Fairhead—has said that,
“a fault line continues to lie in the blurred accountabilities between the Trust and the Executive board”.
There are three broad options here: reforming the trust model, which I think many noble Lords have reservations about, and I have heard some today; the creation of a unitary board and a new stand-alone oversight body; or moving external regulation wholesale to Ofcom.
The BBC has a duty to exercise total input impartiality. Its reputation at home and abroad depends on it meeting the very highest standards in this regard. There has sometimes been rather widespread disappointment in the BBC’s ability to achieve balance. Indeed, even BBC insiders have acknowledged as much, although generally only retrospectively. I was struck by the recollection of the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that the Chinese sometimes complained about this—along with UKIP, the SNP and others. I do not entirely agree with the conclusion of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, that there is never an issue. I wish that I had dealt with her when she worked at the BBC. On a related point, the BBC must respond swiftly and comprehensively to complaints. As I said in relation to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, this is another issue we will be looking at.
The 2006 agreement between the BBC and the Culture Secretary reached at the last charter review states:
“The content of the BBC’s UK Public Services”—
taken as a whole—
“must be high quality, challenging, original, innovative and engaging”.
There is a feeling that this is rather too broad brush. Meanwhile, the BBC’s latest annual report helpfully set “Quality and distinctiveness” as one of its four strategic objectives. The BBC executive has recently proposed to invest more in original British drama and comedy and to take a more distinctive approach across all of the BBC’s services, including a new children’s service called iPlay. We look forward to seeing further details of these proposals.
Contrary to what noble Lords may have read in the press, the Government do not want to abandon popular programmes. “Public service” does not simply mean “minority interest” or providing only for those audiences which will not be served by the market. I agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Low, said about the success of every sort of programme from “The Archers” to “Yes Minister”.
The Government will never decide or dictate BBC content—these are editorial decisions for the BBC. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, emphasised, that is very important. However, as part of an open, thorough and consultative charter review, it is proper that we should look at whether every BBC intervention in the market is justified. Concerns that need to be explored include whether the BBC is too dominant online, especially in terms of its effect on local news. Commercial radio companies have claimed that some of the BBC’s radio output is not sufficiently distinctive. On the other hand, BBC Radio 1 is rightly celebrated for its diverse playlist and breaking new acts.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, expressed her view that the BBC’s activities do not have a negative impact on the market, and that there is no crowding out. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, took us through some of the positive impacts that the BBC has had, which I agree with. However, through the consultation we are seeking evidence about this. The House will be glad to know that we will commission more research on these impacts.
The BBC executive has made proposals for local news coverage that include: investment in a local news service that will report on councils, courts and public services, and making regional video and local audio content available for immediate use on the internet services of local and regional news organisations. These are interesting and timely suggestions but we will want to make sure that they genuinely benefit UK plc and the wider sector. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Black about whether we should be controlling the BBC’s online offer in some way to ensure that the creative industries continue to flourish. We are awaiting further detail on these proposals and will be listening to industry and the public through the review process.
The noble Lords, Lord Wigley, Lord Williams and Lord MacKenzie, talked about Wales and Scotland and the importance of content focused for the local audience. I agree. Indeed, in July I had the pleasure of visiting Cardiff and meeting S4C’s chairman and other staff. I was struck by their dedication to quality and value for money. S4C is going to relocate to Carmarthen and co-locate its broadcasting with the BBC in Cardiff—an example of efficiency savings. I can reiterate, as I was asked to, the Government’s commitment to minority-language broadcasting across the UK, including Gaelic. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, this will be a key thread in the charter review and, indeed, the BBC presence in Edinburgh is an important part of it being a British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC has identified a growing demand for programming that better serves the distinctive needs of Scotland and reflects Scottish life, and is also reflecting on whether it has the right balance across the home nations in its news services.
Charter review is not an unprecedented process. This is a consultation. Many noble Lords who have spoken today are well versed in the fact that a charter review always draws out strong and sometimes polarised views on the future of the BBC. I very much welcome the views of noble Lords on everything—from purpose and funding to scale and scope, and, of course, governance, all of which are central.
The BBC—British-owned and British-run—is vital on the international stage, as was so well explained by my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, who spoke with such passion. It does spectacularly well. BBC services reach more than 300 million people throughout the world each week. The BBC’s recent decision to prioritise parts of the world that urgently need reliable news, such as Russia, North Korea, north Africa and the Middle East, is most welcome, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, made clear in his moving speech. The overseas services are important and I will feed in the point that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made about the vernacular services.
The media landscape has changed beyond all recognition in just a few years. We have seen dramatic changes as a result of technology, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, articulated so well. It is impossible to predict precisely how the media landscape will look in the years to come, and all these changes will be important inputs into the charter process. The conclusions of the Perry review are also very relevant to this part of the debate and we will make sure that the points made on that today are considered.
As some have said, the noble Lord, Lord Hall, said that he wants,
“the BBC to be Britain’s creative partner”—
the “Ideas Service” he mentioned in the paper he published on Monday—when he announced plans involving, for example, the best content from museums, festivals, galleries and other cultural institutions. This is an exciting development. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, is also pleased to see the proposals on music.
The BBC is the most celebrated broadcaster in the world. That is, as everybody agrees, worth protecting. But no institution will be as good as it could be if it is seen to be untouchable. In a multimedia age, the BBC has to find its place. It has to improve. It has to build on the excellent strengths it has. We are having a national conversation about our brilliant national broadcaster, and everyone is invited.
I thank the Minister for her valiant attempt to cover the horizon, broad as it has been, of the debate here today. She said that the outcome of the negotiations over the licence fee would be the BBC emerging stronger. I say that if the Minister took the advice of this Chamber, it would indeed be so. I have been delighted by the contributions made by everyone, many of them broadcasters themselves but everyone an expert as a consumer of the BBC. My heart sank when my friend the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, began to enumerate with such passion the failings of the BBC, but even he went on to say “And yet”, and to enumerate its virtues.
This is a universally admired institution and we do not want it to be tampered out of existence, away from its great virtues. Slightly too often for my taste, the Minister said that of course its independence was important and that of course the Government would not intervene with policy or programmes; she then went on to use the word “However”. I press upon her the feeling in this House that the public consultation should be extended. The public would enjoy that and have plenty to say. Thank you very much.