Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am delighted to open this debate on the report BBC Charter Review: Reith not Revolution from the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, which I have the honour to chair. The only interest that I must declare is that my son, Will Best, is the presenter of a BBC children’s programme on CBBC.
I am very grateful to my fellow committee members for their input into this report. They represent different perspectives within your Lordships’ House and I think it significant that so much unanimity was achieved on our conclusions and recommendations. Our thanks go to our clerk, Anna Murphy, our policy analyst, Helena Peacock, and our specialist adviser, Jacquie Hughes, and to all those who made submissions to the committee, particularly the 43 witnesses who presented oral evidence.
As a trailer for today’s debate, the lunch-break session held by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, on 10 March attracted some 20 speakers but with contributions limited to just one minute. Today, with even more speakers but with a sensible timetable, I hope that we can do rather more justice to a subject which affects virtually every single man, woman and child in the United Kingdom. I thank in advance all those who will be speaking in the debate.
The Secretary of State told our committee that, rather than respond separately to our report, the Government will take it into account in preparing the White Paper on renewal of the BBC’s charter. We now know that the White Paper will be published in late May. This means that our debate today is well timed to feed into the final stages of the White Paper’s contents, but once it has been released it will be important for this House to be given an opportunity to consider it fully. Can the Minister reassure us that time will be allocated on the Floor of the House to debate the proposals set out in this important White Paper?
The title of our report on BBC charter renewal, Reith not Revolution, for which we are indebted to our committee member, the noble Lord, Lord Hart, sums up the position we have taken. We put our faith in a BBC which respects and appreciates its founding principles, established by the first director-general, Lord Reith, and we rejected calls for radical, fundamental change in the underlying purpose of the BBC or its scale or scope. Speaking personally, I was aware at the outset of our inquiry of a lot of background noise about the possibilities of dramatic change for the BBC. Of course, there had been the Jimmy Savile scandal, criticisms of salaries for executives, accusations of political bias and so on, but, as the evidence rolled in, it became clear to me that mostly the fuss—the call for the BBC to be cut down to size or opened up to commercial competition and the rest—was coming from the Westminster village, not from the world outside. Broadly, we discovered that the public at large were strongly in favour of “their” BBC and would be greatly opposed to radical change.
We recognised that with a limited timescale we could not cover every aspect of the BBC’s future, so we deliberately excluded the topics of the governance and management of the corporation, not least because these areas were considered by our sister committee in the other place, and because in September last year the Government announced that Sir David Clementi would carry out a review into the governance and regulation of the BBC. In the event, I do not think the committee would have any disagreement with either the DCMS Select Committee’s views or Sir David’s recommendations on the creation of a new unitary board for the BBC, with the abolition of the BBC Trust and regulation by Ofcom.
The areas that we did tackle in our eight-month inquiry covered: first, the underlying purpose of the BBC; secondly, the BBC’s scale and scope; thirdly, the process for setting the licence fee; and, finally, the timing of the charter—how many years it should run before renewal.
The charter states that the BBC’s main objective is the promotion of certain public purposes. We decided to examine the six official public purposes in some depth but, as we ventured further into their detail, it became increasingly apparent—as was voiced most forcibly by the noble Earl, Lord Arran—that the purposes framework, comprising a mission statement, six public purposes, purpose remits, purpose priorities and very detailed service licences, was far too complex. When the director-general came before the committee, we were shown the huge stack of forms and submissions that the BBC must complete to fulfil these multiple requirements. All this complexity, we concluded, makes practical assessment of the BBC’s performance more difficult.
We recommended a much simpler and more transparent approach. We liked the distillation of the BBC’s objectives as set out by Lord Reith—to inform, educate and entertain—and we recommend that the status of these Reithian principles should be reaffirmed as the BBC’s overarching mission. We recommended scrapping the current six public purposes and felt, instead, that the BBC should adopt the four general public service broadcaster purposes that apply to all PSBs—that is, to ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, as well as the BBC—but with the BBC setting the gold standard among them. Its special status and its funding through a universal licence fee gives the BBC, we maintained, unique obligations to its audience. It should reflect the different opinions, lifestyles, beliefs and values of the UK’s nations, regions and diverse communities. Indeed, we dared to suggest a fourth dimension to the Reithian mission so that this might become “to inform, educate, entertain and reflect”.
We went on to propose the abolition of the cumbersome purpose remits and purpose priorities, and we recommended a full review of the service licences by the independent regulator of the BBC—most likely to be Ofcom—with a view to these being simplified and strengthened, defining clearly what is expected of each service while still encouraging creativity. We were not letting the BBC off the hook. We felt it should be firmly held to account for any non-compliance with the service licences and that these should be reviewed more frequently than the current five-yearly review.
To assist this process, we were clear that the independent regulator should be provided with a comprehensive account of the BBC’s spending by genre—for children’s programmes, news, drama, current affairs, et cetera. This information was made available to the committee but because of its commercial sensitivity could not be published more widely. In looking at this and other evidence, we expressed some concern at the downward trend in the BBC’s investment in current affairs. Spurred on by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, we underlined the importance of the BBC continuing to fund adequately its output as the leader in the field of children’s programmes. We noted with concern a decrease in spending on the arts, and we emphasised the important role of the BBC in stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, particularly in the field of music and drama, and through training and developing talent.
We noted the criticism that the BBC was too London-centric, and commended the steps taken to address this by moving production to other cities. We were impressed by the impact of the BBC’s investment in Salford’s MediaCity, which we visited. However, we heard from a number of witnesses, particularly a panel of young people, that the BBC did not sufficiently reflect their lives, the lives of those with disabilities or those in BAME communities. However, we noted that the BBC recognised its deficiencies here and we expect to see marked improvement.
We also heard concerns about the decline across broadcasting in religious programming, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford may mention today. We agreed that the BBC, as the dominant provider, should maintain the quality and content of its output in that genre.
Noble Lords will not be surprised to note that we welcomed additional government funding for the World Service. We endorsed the crucial role that the BBC plays in the UK’s cultural influence and soft power on the world stage.
Turning to our second area of interest, the BBC’s scale and scope, it is true that the BBC has already had to cut back and find significant savings. We noted that in today’s global economy, the BBC is really quite small compared in particular to American players such as Amazon and Netflix. We heard no convincing case for a significant reduction in the scale or scope of the BBC, nor did we accept arguments that the BBC should be restricted to remedying gaps for which the commercial market does not provide. We were clear that its outputs should bring benefits to all licence fee payers and that it should continue to be a universal broadcaster providing programmes that do not simply inform and educate but also entertain, as Lord Reith believed.
In the changing world of the digital age, we recognised that the BBC had an important role as a non-commercial contributor to developing innovative technologies such as the iPlayer, and also to delivering its content online.
When we came to our third theme, the process for setting the level of the licence fee, strong views were expressed to us about the deal struck behind closed doors in July 2015. Most of the evidence was highly critical of the Government’s proposal and the BBC’s acceptance that the cost of funding free television licences for the over-75s should come out of cuts to other spending by the BBC. We recommended instead that, in future, the process should be out in the open, with widespread consultation before any such deals are done. We spelled out a detailed process for setting the licence fee, or indeed a household levy, if that were introduced. The independent regulator would make an evidence-based recommendation to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The Secretary of State would have an obligation to accept this or to publish their reasons for not doing so. The regulator, presumably Ofcom, would be allowed to submit an amended recommendation, but not a third one. The Secretary of State would have the final say and, as now, Parliament would be asked to approve a statutory instrument.
Finally, on the timing of the charter review process, we recommended a decoupling from the five-year general election cycle. The present timings could lead to overhasty decision-making soon after an election. We also noted that the impartiality and independence of the BBC could be compromised by a short charter period: there would be a sword of Damocles hanging over the BBC with the ever-present threat of an imminent new charter. Moreover, we recognised the considerable financial and management burden of more frequent charter reviews. We were persuaded, therefore, that the charter period should be no shorter than the current 10 years, which provides the BBC, and the wider creative industries that depend upon it, with the necessary stability for longer-term planning. However, to avoid coinciding with the cycle of general elections, we recommended that the next charter should be for 11 years, with a 10-year period thereafter.
We did not shirk from recommending an enhanced framework of accountability for the BBC, and I think it sits well with the recommendations from the Clementi review and the DCMS committee for new governance and regulation. We were unanimously opposed to a diminution in the scale and scope of the BBC and its position in our national life. We wanted a new, transparent system for setting the licence fee and an 11-year charter period next time. However, while noting valid criticisms of some aspects of the BBC’s behaviour in the past, our report was overwhelmingly supportive and appreciative of the BBC. It is indeed a national treasure: an institution from which all of us gain so much and about which we can rightly feel a genuine sense of national pride. I beg to move the Motion.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the committee on this report. I congratulate the noble Lord on his leadership of the Communications Committee and the way that he has introduced his report. I must say, I found myself in agreement with virtually everything that he said.
It is an important report, and I hope that the Government will follow its proposals. I particularly endorse what the committee said on the principles and guidance of Lord Reith, which make clear, and above all comprehensible, that the aim of the BBC should be to inform, educate and entertain—and even reflect, which has been added. Each is important. I have always been most supportive of the aim to inform, meaning that the BBC should provide the best possible objective news coverage; a duty which to my mind, and in spite of all the sniping, it fulfils excellently. The aim to entertain must be recognised. There should be no question of that being jettisoned so that the commercial sector can fill the gap. We all know what the result of that would be: an assault on the licence fee on the basis that the BBC was not reaching the whole of the nation.
The report begins by going back to 1927 and the formation of the BBC. However, there was a stage before that. In 1925, an all-party broadcasting committee set up by the Government proposed that a public corporation should be set up to act as a trustee for the national interest in broadcasting. It added that the corporation should be set up by statute. But Governments are the same, I fear, in every age. Ministers did not like the idea of them not being in the driving seat or it being set up by statute, because that meant putting things to both Houses. They said that it would become a “creature of Parliament”. So they brought forward the proposal that it should be under a royal charter, and thus it became a creature of government. The royal charter gave the Government the ability to evade Parliament and the power for Ministers to do virtually what they liked. For that is what the royal charter means: a transfer of power to the Executive. That is the position that basically we have today: government may make fundamental changes but without the inconvenience of getting parliamentary approval. How do the Government defend this indefensible position? They say, as my noble friend said only on Tuesday:
“For nearly 90 years a royal charter has been the constitutional basis of the BBC, underlying the independence of the BBC from political interference”.—[Official Report, 19/4/16; col. 539.]
I make absolutely no criticism of my noble friend, who is one of our very best Ministers, but this is the consistent line of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and has been for the past decade and probably more. Even when it says that it is protecting the BBC from political interference, that really is the greatest nonsense. The political interference comes not from Parliament but from government. The worst political interference is that of Ministers, and so it has been during the past few decades.
It was not Parliament that handed over to the BBC a £600 million bill for free television for the over-75s; it was the Government. Governments are notorious for interfering politically. Unless one understands and accepts that, we are not going to make vast progress. Let us recognise that, quite irrespective of party, all Governments and all Prime Ministers have their views. Lady Thatcher made no effort to disguise her scepticism. At a dinner of the Cabinet, I remember her telling us that if ever she was tempted to say anything nice about the BBC, “Denis soon persuaded me out of it”. It was not that she was tempted very much in any event, but there was just the odd occasion. And then, of course, following the last election, all kinds of threatening noises came from No. 10 that now was the time to take on the BBC.
Antipathy towards BBC reporting is not confined to one party. Harold Wilson was not renowned as a great supporter of the independence of the British Broadcasting Corporation and, even more up to date, nor were Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, who were beside themselves with rage about the corporation’s coverage of the Iraq war. In the last charter review in 2005-06—there are a number of us here who were on my committee which looked at the charter then—they invented the BBC Trust and deliberately divided responsibility at the top of the BBC.
So when the DCMS says that the charter,
“has served us so well for 90 years”,—[Official Report, 19/4/16; col. 540.]
and I fear again that I quote my noble friend, I think we are entitled to say, “Just who are you kidding?”. In 2005, I was chairman of the Select Committee which looked at charter renewal and the proposal for the BBC Trust, which provided divided leadership at the top of the corporation. Like virtually everybody else, we rejected the proposal. Of course, that had not the slightest impact on the decision. The Government, using their charter powers, imposed it. And now, 10 years later, can one see what is happening? It is going to be abolished as a bold step by the new Government. Goodness knows what the cost to the taxpayer is of this fruitless adventure, and this is the direct product of the royal charter that has served us so well.
The only sensible question to be asked now is what we can do about it. There seem to be two possible courses. We can turn the BBC into a statutory corporation like Channel 4. That has substantial attractions. With Channel 4, for example, it means that fundamental changes would have to be approved. It means that if one wanted to privatise Channel 4, and there are rumours of that kind, one would have to introduce primary legislation and bring it through both Houses of Parliament—I am not a Whip, but I would not give too many chances of that surviving all that. It means that if the Government have the slightest sense, they will not attempt such action, so it is a great check on the power of Governments to act. That is one course. The alternative is to make the charter changes subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament. In this way, the BBC Trust proposal would have had to come to Parliament and be approved by both Houses. That is an alternative and perhaps less elaborate way of doing it. My noble friend Lord Lester—I should say the noble Lord, Lord Lester, but he is my friend as well—has a plan in this regard which I shall allow him to set out.
The point is that the charter as it now stands needs either fundamental reform or total abolition. It is utterly undemocratic; it makes a nonsense of parliamentary sovereignty and it hands all power to Ministers. I would not have thought that that was what anyone in this country really wanted.
I have not tried to cover the whole of the BBC waterfront, but, in conclusion, perhaps I may be allowed just to say this. I am passionately in favour of an independent BBC absolutely free from government interference; of a BBC with a place in the world and a strong BBC World Service; of a BBC where news reporting is put high and the reporting skills of correspondents are properly valued; of a BBC with a licence fee and not some subscription model; of a BBC which is subject to check, but not the check of the BBC Trust, particularly when we have a perfectly good regulator in Ofcom; and, above all perhaps, of a BBC where the director-general and an independent board make decisions regarding the corporation inside the budget that they are given.
What I do not want is for a board for the BBC to be set up consisting of government placement of one kind or another. The other thing that I really do not want is five-year reviews rather than 10-year reviews. All that would mean was that the BBC was not only constantly under review but constantly under the threat of change. It would also mean that government’s involvement in the corporation would become greater rather than less, and I do not think that that is what the public in this country want.
My hope is that the Government will recognise the importance of the BBC and its national and international reputation. My hope is that the Government seek to strengthen the BBC, not to weaken it. My hope is also that the Government will follow the advice of this excellent report from the Communications Committee and implement the proposals within it.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity of this debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his committee for their sterling work. It is not the first time in your Lordships’ House that I have followed a speech on this subject by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and found myself in agreement with precisely every word that he has spoken, but I shall try to approach some of the issues from a slightly different angle.
Having chaired the joint scrutiny committee for the 2003 Communications Bill, I am keenly aware of the complexities of any discussion around the future of public service broadcasting; and I should at this point declare an interest: I am chairing an ongoing inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting generally, not just the BBC, and we intend to report in June.
This committee’s report which we are debating today is extremely helpful, but it was forced to be somewhat narrower than the debate needs and deserves at this late stage in the process. I entirely welcome its focus on public purpose, its support for a far more transparent process in the setting of the licence fee and its resistance to the notion of the BBC as any form of “market failure” broadcaster. I also strongly support the report’s conclusion that there is no need or justification for contestable funding, let alone further top-slicing of the BBC’s resources for other purposes. But—and it is a rather big but—the report’s remit did not allow it to address the issues of governance and those of funding more generally. It suggested scrapping a good deal of the accountability framework without really putting in place anything substantive beyond supporting Ofcom’s definition of PSB.
For me, the crucial issue for anyone seriously interested in the health of plural democracy is to focus on the overriding importance of the corporation’s independence. In one sense at least, the Secretary of State John Whittingdale has got it right. The future should not—in fact, the future cannot—be simply a version of business as usual. The overwhelming need is to restore faith in the whole process, and to do so the Government must demonstrate their support for meaningful independence in their approach to appointments. As we are currently seeing, Governments of all persuasions can and do use the prospect of charter review and its associated funding decisions to put pressure on the BBC. For a democracy such as ours, that is a thoroughly unhealthy state of affairs. Surely, after almost a century of extraordinary success, the time has come for the BBC to be constituted on a more secure and permanent basis. I will therefore be avidly supporting the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in arguing in favour of replacing the present charter system by placing the BBC on a statutory footing, if necessary through a new Act of Parliament.
The recent review of the BBC’s governance and regulation by Sir David Clementi was right to highlight the problems that the BBC Trust has experienced since it replaced the governors as the corporation’s sovereign body. As Sir David noted, the trust model has conflated governance with regulation and, as a consequence, it has often been hard to tell who has been in charge—the executive or the trust. However, I am sure that I was not the only Member of your Lordships’ House who was disappointed to read Sir David’s suggestion that government could appoint six out of the 13 unitary board members. It is even more disturbing to hear a Conservative Secretary of State suggest that it is perfectly legitimate for government to appoint a significant majority of board members. Given that the Green Paper claims that:
“The independence of the BBC is absolutely central to its mission”,
surely any proposal to increase government influence over what is intended to be a powerful and influential body suggests precisely the opposite.
At the very least, the appointments process should resemble that of Channel 4, nine of whose 13 board members—and I was a very happy deputy chairman—are appointed by Ofcom, free of any perceptible government influence. Ideally, I would like to see a majority of board members selected through a significantly more democratic and, indeed, imaginative process, involving diverse and experienced representation drawn from right across the country.
We should all be conscious of a growing disquiet, and even an anger, over the prospect of a Whittingdale Broadcasting Corporation. I refer noble Lords to the excellent speech given by the shadow Secretary of State for DCMS on Tuesday of this week, in which she quite rightly excoriated the Government for what appeared to be their bullying of the corporation during the current charter review process; for example, by floating proposals that would involve the corporation selling its stake in UKTV’s bouquet of channels, thereby stripping BBC Worldwide of one-third of its profits. I also draw the attention of the House to a warning delivered by the person who may well be this country’s most trusted public figure, Sir David Attenborough, that the Government need to,
“keep themselves at arm’s length”,
from the BBC in order to protect its independence.
The Government have an opportunity to demonstrate their support for the BBC through their deeds rather than their words, providing the corporation with the security and the scale it requires to continue in its role as the fundamental cornerstone of the public service information landscape as well as the vital engine room of the UK’s ever more successful creative industries. Yes, the BBC needs to enter into new partnerships, but these should not be imposed through top-slicing or by forcing it to become more distinctive, when it is obvious that that is simply another way of saying that it should retreat from popular formats.
For almost 20 years, I had the pleasure of sitting on the board of Anglia Television. As such, I witnessed at first hand the manner in which ill-considered legislation —in that case, the Broadcasting Act 1990—led to significant and wholly unnecessary job losses; the evisceration of an excellent regionally based training structure; a general decline in regional pride and identity; and, most regrettable of all, the erosion of democratic accountability. Noble Lords have only to consider the dramatically reduced level of visibility of any Back-Bench MP as against the situation 30 years ago—a time when every MP, along with other significant local political figures, could expect to get their views aired across their regions and to their local constituents on at least a quarterly basis. That is what I am referring to when I speak of ill-thought-through legislation creating a damaging loss of democratic accountability.
I am pleased, however, to report that not every senior member of the Government shares a lingering antipathy towards the BBC. Here is what the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary had to say on Radio 4, no less, just two days ago:
“Britain is a great country—the world’s fifth largest economy with the world’s best armed forces, best health service and best broadcaster. We are first in the world for soft power thanks to our language, culture and creativity”.
Unless I am very much mistaken, I do not think that Mr Gove was referring to Sky, but then who knows?
We have been assured that the White Paper on the future of the BBC will be with us shortly. We can only hope that it contains measures designed to strengthen public service broadcasting and not to eviscerate it at the behest of its commercial rivals. Indeed, we should do more than hope. I would like to believe that today’s debate will be seen as a shot across the bows of any Government from any party wishing to bring forward measures that could damage one of this country’s two most highly regarded institutions. In a world running short on trust, the BBC remains a significantly more credible organisation than any of those who, for political or for commercial reasons, seek to undermine it.
Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of chairing an event at BAFTA discussing the future of public service broadcasting. At the end of what was a very lively session, I suggested that there was such public interest in this area that any attempt by the Government to undermine the BBC and its independence would be met by a march down Whitehall that would make the Countryside Alliance look like a tea party. I sincerely believe that that could be the case. I sincerely hope that I will be there, and I sincerely believe that the rest of the country would back it.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and members of his committee on an excellent and wide-ranging report. I have long been a critical friend of the BBC, believing it to be the best broadcaster in the world and one of the best gifts of this nation to the world. The committee’s report talks in similar terms, describing the BBC as,
“one of this nation’s most treasured institutions...
the keystone of British broadcasting”,
“respected across the world”.
The report talks of the BBC playing,
“a central role in the wider creative industries”.
It is vital that, as the Government finalise their deliberations on a new charter, nothing is done that will undermine the BBC’s ability to continue to merit such accolades, and nothing should be done to undermine the independence and impartiality of the BBC.
The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said that this should be the top priority and I entirely agree with him. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, with a distinguished track record in these areas, talked powerfully about the need to develop mechanisms to reduce government interference in the BBC. When he speaks later, I understand that my noble friend Lord Lester will talk about how he believes statutory underpinning can help, and I look forward to hearing his contribution.
The committee report makes clear—and I entirely agree—that maintaining independence and impartiality will be aided by a new charter which lasts for at least 10 years. On Tuesday, in your Lordships’ House, I noted that the Minister referred to the value of a royal charter lasting for,
“a good period of time”.—[Official Report, 19/4/16; col. 540.]
I hope that she will accept the committee’s recommendation for a minimum 10-year period, since that will not only help to protect independence and impartiality but provide security in terms of planning and investment for the BBC and, as the report points out, stability for the wider creative industries that relate to the BBC.
Of course, that security and stability would be undermined if the charter period is set for a good period of time, but includes a mid-term review whose scope allows for the unpicking of bits of the charter itself. I hope that we can receive reassurances that that will not be the case.
The report makes one other important recommendation on the length of the charter. It suggests that the next charter should be for 11 years, not 10 years, to decouple the charter review process from the general election cycle and allow full consultation and dialogue. That is an extremely sensible proposal, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on it.
The committee, as we have heard, consciously did not cover the issue of governance of the BBC. Its decision, in the words of the report, to “eschew” governance was well-founded, given the subsequent announcement of the Clementi review. Sir David Clementi’s review proposed the most radical overhaul of the BBC’s governance in its lifetime, ensuring that regulation of the BBC fully passes to an external regulator in Ofcom while governance is transferred to a new unitary board with executive and non-executive directors. I opposed the establishment of the BBC Trust—a fruitless venture, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, called it. I thought it was entirely wrong to set up a body that sought to be both a flag-waver for the BBC and a regulator of the BBC. These two roles are incompatible. Sir David’s proposal for an external regulator and a unitary board resolves this conflict, and I welcome it.
However, like others who have already spoken, I do not believe that the independence of the BBC will be achieved if the non-executive members of the proposed board are government appointees. The Secretary of State at DCMS said recently that he did not think that the Government’s appointment of BBC non-executives to the board would undermine independence, and pointed out that all 12 of the current members of the BBC Trust were appointed by the Government. I think that he is wrong. The current trust is far less powerful than the proposed unitary board, which will set the BBC’s editorial direction, make key decisions on programmes and even have a say in how the BBC manages news.
Giving these important powers to government appointees will understandably lead to accusations that we are creating a state broadcaster, not a public service broadcaster. A bizarre situation could arise in which decisions around how the BBC is reporting government policy or the action of Ministers is being decided by people appointed by the same Government or by the same Minister. That simply cannot be acceptable. Channel 4 has a similar board to the one proposed for the BBC, and its non-executives are all appointed by Ofcom, not by the Government. I believe that the BBC non-executives should also be appointed by an independent body, whether that be Ofcom or some other independent group.
While the report eschews governance, it has a great deal to say about the scale and scope of the BBC. There has been much talk about the BBC becoming a “market failure only” broadcaster, filling in the gaps left by other broadcasters, and of the BBC becoming significantly more distinctive. I hope that, in their deliberations on this issue, the Government will not be influenced by the recent Oliver & Ohlbaum/Oxera report on the BBC’s market impact and use it to justify going down this route. That is because I believe that the report is flawed. For example, contrary to all of the evidence such as Ofcom tracking data, it claims that BBC 1 has become less distinctive.
The Oliver & Ohlbaum/Oxera report also ignores the wider public value benefits and wider economic benefits to UK plc. The report authors merely looked at what revenue benefits there would be to commercial broadcasting competitors of making the BBC less popular, and the revenue benefits that they came up with would be small. The £155 million they quote is just one-quarter of last year’s increase in TV advertising revenue and one-sixth of ITV’s pre-tax profits. Following this route—according to research by Reuters, PwC and Enders Analysis—would have an overall negative impact on the wider UK media sector, let alone on UK plc, for a very small benefit to the BBC’s direct competitors. So I entirely reject the market failure only approach and I am delighted that the committee came to the same conclusion.
As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Best, the committee said that,
“we have not heard a convincing case for a significant reduction in the scale or scope of the BBC”.
The committee goes on to conclude that:
“The BBC should not be restricted to remedying gaps for which the market does not provide. The BBC must continue to be a universal broadcaster providing content which does not simply inform, and educate but also entertains”.
In terms of “inform, educate and entertain”—the Reithian principles—I entirely support the committee’s views that they should be the basis of the BBC’s mission and given greater prominence.
But if the scale and scope of the BBC is to be maintained, it needs to receive the appropriate income to achieve that. That means that there should be no further top-slicing of the licence fee income and no additional constraints on the BBC’s commercial activities. During the coalition Government, I strongly opposed the Conservative proposals to take money from the licence fee to fund free TV licences for the over-75s. I argued that government policies should be funded by the Government. I was pleased that my right honourable friend Nick Clegg vetoed the proposal and it did not take place. It is extremely disappointing that the current Government have now gone ahead to the detriment of the BBC.
Proposals for further top-slicing or new contestable funding should be rejected. Such proposals would mean less money for the BBC to spend on its services, would create additional bureaucracy and transaction costs, would risk transferring resources away from advertising-free services and from programmes that are guaranteed high reach and impact, and would risk poor quality programming. Two-thirds of BBC content spend is already contested, and that figure is set to increase. There is therefore no case for a separate “contestable” fund top-sliced from the licence fee, nor is there any case for requiring the BBC to sell off either BBC Worldwide or its stake in UKTV. Both would deprive licence fee payers of the financial and other benefits they currently receive, including funding for high-quality programming.
The BBC is undoubtedly the best broadcaster in the world, so I hope that in their charter negotiations the Government will do nothing to damage that reputation. Heeding the recommendations of this excellent Select Committee report should form an important component of their deliberations, so that we achieve Reith and not revolution.
My Lords, I too speak as a member of the Select Committee that produced this report. I must declare an interest as a co-chair of the multi-faith standing conference of the BBC on religion and ethics, and related to that work I want to talk about the place of faith in public service broadcasting, and indeed to speak for all the faith communities in these islands.
It has been said that if a mission statement is more than two or three words long, it either means that the organisation does not really know its purpose, or even if it does, no one else will. Let me give a few examples: glasnost, girl power, flower power, New Labour and the big society; I will not go on. Consequently, if a mission statement is going to work, it has to be pithy and memorable. Lord Reith’s “inform, educate and entertain” does the job, and has done it very effectively for a long time—everyone knows it. When the last charter renewal process landed the BBC with six rather wordy and worthy public purposes, it was not necessarily doing it a favour. As the committee took evidence on those six public purposes, it was clear that the people who came to talk about them did not really know them very well themselves. I noticed that each person came with a crib sheet to remind themselves of what the purposes were about: they had clearly failed the memorability test. I also noted that while the new purposes are in some senses impossible to disagree with, the word “entertain”, which is surely a first base requirement for someone actually paying the licence fee, does not appear at all, and hence the title of the report: Reith not Revolution.
As we look forward to the forthcoming charter renewal, it is our strong view that the BBC should regroup around this historic vocation. We also want to say that it is good for the BBC to be entertaining. We do not want public service broadcasting relegated to just those bits of the output that a free market will not deliver. In this country we are rightly proud of the BBC and its place in our national life, its wider mission through the World Service, and its key contribution as part of a vibrant mixed economy of broadcasting in this country—one that is the envy of many other countries.
But we are not without criticism. To those three words that so admirably sum up the whole point of public service broadcasting, we tentatively add a fourth—the noble Lord, Lord Best, already mentioned it: “reflect”. It is to this recommendation that I will speak and limit what I say. Just as the BBC is called to educate, inform and entertain the nation, surely it must reflect the nation as well. This reflection must be more than merely regional. It is not just about sprinkling the airwaves with Yorkshire, scouse, Essex or Scottish accents. The UK is still a family of nations and, within that, a network of regions, each with its own culture and identity, but 21st-century Britain is also a network of communities. Many of these communities find their identity in ethnic origin and religious faith much more than geographic location. This is certainly the case in the East End of London where I serve as a bishop—one of the most multicultural and multifaith places in the whole of Europe. Having returned yesterday from the 16th meeting of the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council in Lusaka, where we discussed with Christians from all around the world what it means to be Christian in a world of great diversity and difference, we should also remember that multifaith and multiculturalism in Britain today also means significant Christian communities from around the world practising their faith here, as well as the presence of other faith communities. The BBC needs to work harder at being better at reflecting this new multiracial and multifaith face of Britain. In particular, religious broadcasting needs to be given a much higher priority in educating, informing and, yes, entertaining us with the beauty and challenges of this diversity.
However, across the public service broadcasting sector, religious broadcasting has been in decline for quite a long while. Contrary to the assumptions of a largely secular media, religion is not a just a private matter—a sort of “add-on” to the rest of life for people who like that sort of thing. Faith is not a leisure activity. Rather, for those of us who live by faith, religious belief is essential and formational—a prime motivator of individuals and communities, shaping their world view and inspiring and informing their political, economic, ethical and social behaviour. Our whole nation needs to wake up to this, and if the BBC is to be the broadcaster of the nation and reflect our national life, it must do too.
That being so, it is hard to comprehend why the BBC has never appointed a religion editor in the same way that it has an editor—an “interpreter”—for business, economics, politics, the arts, sports, et cetera. In July 2015, Ofcom voiced similar misgivings. Its Third Review of Public Service Broadcasting identified religious broadcasting as an area of immediate concern. The BBC is still the dominant provider of religious programmes and many of these are excellent. For this I give thanks, but it remains the case that the BBC downgraded the post of head of religion in January 2015 so that the postholder no longer has authority to commission programmes. Commissioning is where the power really lies. This now sits with non-subject specialists in multigenre commissioning, in a team of history, science, business and religion. This makes strategic decisions about commissioning almost impossible to make and limits the BBC’s ability to fulfil its mission.
This is a time where it is nigh on impossible to understand the world, what is going on in it and how best to find solutions so that we can live in peace, without an understanding of religion. Those who care about our democracy, as well as those who care about faith, need to press the BBC to answer this question: who has overall responsibility for the range, quantity and quality of religious programming? Since our report also voices concerns over the “downward trend” in spending on current affairs, it is not difficult to see how the BBC needs to strengthen its commitment to these areas of broadcasting. Hence the expectation in our report that the BBC maintain its commitment to religious broadcasting and increases its commitment to current affairs and the arts—my personal hope is that this is improved upon—and the following recommendation: that,
“the BBC, as the recipient of the universal licence fee”,
“its duty to serve all the diverse communities of the UK”,
“this obligation should be incorporated into any future accountability framework”.
My Lords, I have the very great pleasure to serve on the Select Committee on Communications, under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Best. I also pay tribute to our assistants, clerks and special adviser, to whom he referred.
The BBC played a very important part in my life, both in my childhood and after. I must declare that interest straight away. Each day at 5 pm, while I had my tea, I listened to “Children’s Hour” with Uncle Mac. The Reithian principles of inform, educate and entertain were, so it turned out, to be a bedrock of my formative years. A favourite was “Toytown”, with Mr Growser, Larry the Lamb and Dennis the Dachshund. I immediately identified with Larry the Lamb, being a shy and mild-mannered child. I did not realise until later in my life that there are so many Mr Growsers in the world—even, as I discovered, one or two in your Lordships’ House.
I also identified with “Norman and Henry Bones”, the boy detectives. I had cousins who were very similar, called Norman and Peter, who often looked after me during the wartime air raids. They used to let me out of the air-raid shelter to see searchlights illuminate the sky, and then to listen out for the drone of the German bombers on their way to raid the docks at Ipswich. One stray bomb destroyed a house only three or four houses away. I always remember my cousins’ wise advice, “Don’t tell your mother”, which came in handy in the years to come.
On another occasion, one afternoon in the garden I noticed the sky full of planes towing gliders. It seemed ages before they passed and no one could tell me what they were. Later, however, we heard on the news that the gliders had landed at Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden. The BBC news was an important part of our day. My father was a soldier overseas in north Africa, Italy and then Europe, building bridges. We did not hear from him very often but the BBC war correspondents wove a narrative into which my imagination inserted my father. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, Frank Phillips, John Snagge and Richard Dimbleby were household names with their brilliant word pictures as the war progressed from depression to jubilation and the theme music for plays and serials remains with me. The intermezzo from “The Jewels of the Madonna” by Wolf-Ferrari introduced each part of “Ballet Shoes”, one of many superbly serialised books. Whenever I hear “Coronation Scot” I remember “Paul Temple”, and who can forget the introductory music to “Dick Barton, Special Agent”?
The BBC entertained us. At 1.10 pm on Saturday, “ITMA” with Tommy Handley made us laugh, and on Sunday “Down Your Way” with Franklin Engelmann introduced us to different communities. As I grew older the importance of the BBC did not diminish. All children must stare at the night sky and wonder at its enormity; I certainly did and the programme “Journey Into Space” provoked that wonder and stimulated the imagination. Laughter has always been of great importance. I think it brings wisdom and good health and well-being. Laughter and the absurd is part of the glue binding us together and a feature of a civilised society. “The Goon Show” and “Hancock’s Half Hour” were exemplars of brilliant scripts brilliantly performed and that tradition has continued and extended, with television nurturing comic talent. The sad death yesterday of Victoria Wood is a reminder of a tradition which includes “The Likely Lads”, “Not Only… But Also”, “Fawlty Towers” and many others. Your Lordships will have your own favourites.
The sheer brilliance of performers, producers and programmers at the BBC has brought entertainment, education and information to me in my lifetime; and as we listened to the evidence in the committee, I reflected on how fortunate I had been to live through times of enormous technological change, such as colour TV, HD, Freeview, YouView, iPlayer and so on, but during which the skills of programming had maintained a very high level. Today, the quality and creativity have never been higher, with programmes such as “The Night Manager”, “War & Peace” and “Line of Duty”. The ability to market programmes such as these worldwide provides an essential stream of income for the BBC and must not be harmed or diminished.
Wherever I go in the world I hear accolades for the BBC and how envied we are to have such an asset. I do not think that we appreciate sufficiently how significant this soft power is. There were many criticisms, of course. We met a focus group of young people, some of whom told us that they thought the BBC did not represent minorities and they did not see their own lives reflected on the screen, but the noble Lord, Lord Hall, for the BBC, replied that he was seeking to make a real difference on BAME representation, both onscreen and behind it. We expect the BBC to honour its commitment and encourage regional development. We were impressed by Salford Quays and the increased programme efforts at Birmingham and Cardiff. The BBC has become less London-centric and this must continue.
We did not believe that the BBC should be restricted to remedying gaps which the market does not fill. On the contrary, we concluded that the BBC must continue to be a universal broadcaster providing content that does not simply inform and educate but that also entertains. We had no evidence to support a claim that the BBC crowded out commercial competition. On the contrary, we received evidence of the benefits of the wider discovering and developing of talent and the encouragement of training. We were not persuaded that the BBC should reduce the scale or scope of its news operations, either in the United Kingdom or overseas.
Others have described our recommendations on the licence fee and on the charter period, with which I totally agree.
I end as I began. The BBC has played an important part in my life, and it continues to do so. I was once a part-time sheep farmer and each day I would begin by listening to “Farming Today”; and having spent some time each day here in your Lordships’ House, I end with “Today in Parliament”—sometimes enraged, sometimes entertained, but always a little more educated and informed. The BBC is one of our greatest assets and nothing should be done to harm it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a producer and director in BBC television, and I am very grateful for the kind words that have been said about the content that my colleagues produce. We do, indeed, try to inform, entertain and educate.
I congratulate the Communications Committee on producing such an excellent report, which stresses the importance of the BBC as an independent, well-funded public service broadcaster. I am particularly pleased with the emphasis given in chapter 2 to the importance of a strong, independent regulator for the BBC. I understand why the report did not look at governance, but I am concerned—like the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam, Lord Foster and Lord Fowler—that the assumption in paragraph 20 of the report, that the charter will deliver satisfactory governance for the corporation, could be misplaced. I understand that the White Paper is proposing to set up a unitary board, combining the present BBC executive board and the BBC Trust, which will be regulated by Ofcom.
What is very important, as the noble Lord, Lord Foster, explained, is that this unitary board will be much more powerful than the BBC Trust. It will control the BBC’s strategy, governance and, even more importantly, certainly from my point of view, the editorial guidance. It will control the day-to-day broadcast output of the BBC, drafting and approving editorial guidelines, maintaining editorial standards and dealing with editorial complaints—unless, of course, these are appealed to Ofcom. The trust has nowhere near such editorial influence. As a result, the board of this body has to be absolutely independent so that it cannot be accused of being subject to political interference or pressure.
I fear that that independence will not be safeguarded. I, too, was disappointed by Sir David Clementi’s report suggesting that the chairman, the vice-chairman and four non-executives directors should be appointed by the DCMS. My fears were heightened when I read the interview in the Sunday Times in which the Culture Secretary said he intended 10 of the 13 members of this unitary board to be appointed by the Government, with only three members coming from the BBC. My concern about the adverse effect this will have on the independence of the BBC was compounded by fears voiced by Sir David Normington, who retired as Commissioner for Public Appointments earlier this month. He told the Financial Times this month that without the check and balance of the Liberal Democrats in government, there is a feeling by the present Government that,
“if you want to get things done you need to have people who are your sympathisers working in some of the key roles”.
Sir David followed that with his evidence last week to the Public Administration Committee in which he expressed concern, following the Government’s response to Sir Gerry Grimstone’s report, that there is a threat of increased ministerial interference in the selection for public appointments. He said that the appointment of the last BBC Trust chair had been well run and was free from ministerial interference. However, he warned, having seen the Government’s response to the Grimstone proposals, that such a hands-off approach might not be possible in the future. I support the suggestion of the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Puttnam, that there should be an independent body to appoint these members of the unitary board. If we fail to do that, your Lordships have only to look at the political interference in the appointment of executives of public service broadcasters that takes place in many of our partner countries in the European Union. Either the heads of the public service companies are appointed directly by the Government and change when the Government change, or individual channels are controlled by separate parties. These appointments inevitably have an influence on the political alignment of the stations and mean that the stations are not impartial, which I am sure your Lordships would not want to happen.
This morning I received an email from the wife of an opposition leader in Poland which explained what was happening with Polish broadcasters. Of course, this is not relevant to what our Government propose but it is a warning of how extremely fragile the independence of public service broadcasters is. The email says that the Polish Government have dismissed the independent board which is supposed to supervise state TV and fired all the heads of radio and TV and appointed new ones. All such appointments will now be made directly by government Ministers and drastically alter the nature of programming. As a result, more than 100 journalists have been fired or resigned. The result is Communist-style, pro-ruling party propaganda of a kind not seen in Poland since 1989. Of course, that will not happen here but I urge noble Lords to be aware of what a precious thing we have in the independence of the BBC.
As a former day editor of “Newsnight”, I know at first hand the lengths to which government communications advisers will go to ensure that their view of the world is projected on the BBC. In my experience, I am afraid this relates to all Governments of all political persuasions. I fear that we live in a world in which many people think that if you are not with them, you must be against them. The BBC and other broadcasters are mandated to be impartial and it is crucial that everything is done to defend that position. As this report emphasises, impartiality is at the very core of the BBC. I sincerely hope that the noble Baroness the Minister, in preparing for the White Paper, will listen very hard to the massive public response to the BBC Trust consultation, in which the people of this country overwhelmingly said that they wanted the BBC to be independent and free from political interference. I ask the noble Baroness: what will be done in the White Paper to ensure that this happens with the appointments to the new unitary board?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Communications Select Committee, under its excellent chair, the noble Lord, Lord Best, on having delivered an exemplary report that is both focused in scope and wise in its conclusions. I concur with and support much of what has already been said in its favour. It is to be commended to all parliamentarians, especially those who are eager to see the BBC broken up, sold off or simply shackled. The public—as a recent poll indicated—are not with them. The BBC remains a loved and admired institution by a great majority of those who own it, by which I mean the licence payers of this country. To act in defiance of their expressed opinions would be to damage one of the greatest of our national institutions simply to gratify the self-interest of the commercial radio and television enterprises.
When I interviewed Lord Reith in this House back in 1970, he was very disapproving of television. He deplored the fact that it broadcast jazz, which he regarded as the music of the devil. He had a distinct preference for educational programmes and those that instilled rigorous Christian principles of behaviour. But, of course, he was then a man at the end of his life, to some extent disappointed with that life and embittered by what he had seen happen to broadcasting. But I am still sure that the younger Reith—that vigorous young man who pressed ahead with exploring television’s possibilities in the 1930s to be ahead of the Americans, as he said—defied government interference, turning away Churchill’s emissaries at the time of the national strike. He would be proud of the leading role the BBC plays in sustaining standards, promoting British interests and influence around the globe, and in not having commercial breaks.
As we have heard, Lord Reith managed to sum up the purpose of the BBC in just one phrase, which can scarcely be bettered—namely, to “inform, educate and entertain”. As the right reverend Prelate said, that phrase is terse and exact. I did not think that it could be improved. However, the suggestion that the phrase “and to reflect” through the addition of a single word encompasses and enlarges the remit of the BBC appropriate to the times is to be commended.
The committee’s recommendations covered much so I will speak to just two of them. Having worked within the BBC throughout numerous licence renewals, I know that the prospect throws BBC management into a distracted frenzy of concern. Licence renewal casts a long shadow, distorting the focus and concentration of its managers, heads of departments, channel controllers and even programme makers. It is an ordeal that lasts for years. When the licence is finally renewed, everyone sinks back, sighing with relief that the negotiations have gone away, but for how long? It will be for a good few years.
This frenzy is even worse around the time of elections, whether they are coming up or are just over. Both leading parties—indeed all parties—blame the BBC for the supposed broadcasting bias that robbed them of victory or even greater success. They cannot all be right. But it is a matter of blaming the messenger, and it makes for a climate of resentment and revenge that is no mood in which to address serious and thoughtful considerations of the BBC’s future. For these reasons I support the committee’s recommendation that the charter should come up for renewal only every 10 years, and that it should be uncoupled from that deadly electoral cycle. The recommendation is sound and wise. It would allow for long-term planning, which, in the global media world, needs precise marketing knowledge and a sense of the rhythm of change to which this industry is subject.
The second concern of the committee that I wish to address is this matter of scale and scope. There have been suggestions, mainly from other broadcasting bodies, that the BBC should be limited in its scope, possibly confined to news, current affairs, serious documentaries, and education—all areas of broadcasting that attract low viewing figures and, therefore, are not prize pickings for commercial companies. This is clearly a pitch to cut the BBC down to size and would be disastrous for the BBC as a global player. It is essential that its creative heartline is given the scope to be inventive across the whole area of human activity. That is where its genius lies. What other company would have backed a modest idea to encourage people to bake cakes and see it grow into a global format? Once it were successful, would such a format then be declared beyond the BBC’s scope? What happens then? The whole concept is flawed and unworkable.
The BBC faces change, and needs to change. The media landscape is always shifting; the BBC needs the backing of government and the industry to continue as the flagship of broadcasting that it is known to be worldwide.
My Lords, I have been in your Lordships’ House for only 52 years but I used to do media research, and I think that I am really only here because of my grandfather. In May 1934, the Government appointed a committee under the guidance of my grandfather, Lord Selsdon, to begin inquiries into the viability of setting up a public television service, with recommendations on the conditions under which such a service should be offered. The result was the Selsdon report. I had never heard of it—I was not quite sure for a time why I had a different name from my father, which is often the case with peerages—but I did media research, quite thoroughly, for a period of time. At home, we were allowed to listen only to the BBC, as everything else was banned, and that included the early days of television.
I have a tremendous affection for the BBC—I cannot help it. In the days when I did media research, we tended to be influenced primarily by characters. Here in your Lordships’ House, we have a remarkable depth of knowledge and experience, but we do not necessarily know each other. There was and still is a BBC advisory council, which goes on and on, but the BBC is a global institution, not a British one. If you have been in parts of Africa where, to encourage local communities to co-operate in mining or other things, you hand out a little pay phone to workers so that they may listen to the BBC, you realise the extent of its coverage and the respect in which it is held.
What the BBC does next is another matter. Television is a fairly difficult and doubtful exercise. We had the television advisory councils, we now have everyone guiding us here and there, we have the script-writers, but we do not necessarily have the media research and the depth of marketing that one would expect globally. I do not see why there should not be a special relationship with every Commonwealth country for broadcasting programmes daily and constantly right the way around the world. The technology and the expertise are already there.
I would like to make a very simple suggestion. We need to have a programme, a business plan, so that we may all look at the BBC. I know that I am here entirely because of my grandfather; I know, too, that I was never allowed to listen to any programme that was not BBC—they could not, however, teach me languages and I was sent off to various countries in order to speak the foreign languages. With this level of respect, I find myself unable to be of much assistance to your Lordships but I would like the Government to give a little more attention, in developing British relationships on a global basis, to the much more important role that the BBC can play than it does today, not least in the production and syndication of television programmes across the world, and its value in the learning of English.
I thank noble Lords for coming here today. I am so surprised that, in looking up the BBC, I found out more about myself than I would have deemed possible and wonder why my grandfather never told me anything about it or why I was never allowed to watch television until I reached a certain age. I wish the BBC well—I have a great affection for it and that affection will remain with me until I die.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, on securing this debate at a particularly timely moment and for his Communications Committee’s first-class charter review. There is so much that I agree with that, if I were to talk about it, I would just say “Tick, tick, tick”—I am sure that your Lordships do not want that.
In this debate, I hope that there is room to proceed by indirections and to see the BBC not so much through the prism of the review—although that has been marvellously addressed by previous speakers in detail, who in the way they did so have educated, informed and entertained us and given us plenty of time for reflection—but from the general point of view of someone who works for it, as I do. I am one who began his career there in 1961 as a trainee, listened to the radio in the 1940s and was, if I may use the word, suckled by it, and who believes that at its best it is a unique force for excellence and cohesion in this country.
Currently, the BBC is on tremendous form. Its recent television dramas including “The Night Manager”, “War and Peace” and “Undercover” are pulling off the envied double act of high ratings and high praise. This is rare in any broadcasting organisation anywhere in the world, or at any time, but it has three out of three so far and it is only April. In the end, the BBC is the sum of its programmes. The “Panorama” programme on the Panama set-up boldly set the context for what should become an essential and continuing debate. “Newsnight” had the nerve to bite the hand that feeds or could starve it and has wounded it already with its piece on Mr Whittingdale. The news struggles with impartiality and the delicate task of balancing what are often rather overheated and undercooked arguments but it is still walking the tightrope admirably. A magnetic murder in “The Archers” has caught the imagination of so many people in this country. Above the noise there is the even beat of the five national and many regional radio channels, which perhaps more than any of the BBC’s productions best represent the muscle, pulse and mind of this nation.
As has been mentioned, wherever there are debates on the BBC—I have taken part in half a dozen over the last six months, as many of us here have—if a vote is asked for there is always a wholly convincing majority for supporting the BBC. I see no demonstrations about the BBC in our streets, yet in our country where there would be demonstrations about the removal of a bus stop. There is global admiration of the BBC, which is Britain’s most admired brand. It encourages a multitude of writers, actors, producers, directors and researcher talents in radio and television, which is the cornerstone of the cultural power that this country undoubtedly has at the moment. No other country has this and it is, per head, comparatively inexpensive. I do not need to go on. It works magnificently, delivers for this country and is still recognisably within the discipline of Lord Reith.
However, we seem to exist in an atmosphere of permanent crisis about the future of the BBC, from the Government and from parts of the media, as if it were a patient etherized across the sky, in constant need of attention and operations from higher forces that are dive-bombing it again and again. Most of us do not see what the fuss is about. It is not too difficult to pick out sources of discontent, some of which have grievances that need to be addressed, of course. Principally, for instance, the imperial growth of the BBC disturbs the unsubsidised parts of our information economy. The BBC is right to be much more aware of that now than ever before. Even imperialism that is thought to be by the good guys is still imperialism and ultimately unacceptable. The BBC is so vast in its output that it is not too difficult to pick up or embellish an anti-Auntie story quite regularly, in sure and certain knowledge that the compelling letters “BBC” will draw readers’ attention to the contents of that story. The BBC is at once a national treasure and a national dartboard; that seems to be its dual role.
Digging into this, it is argued by some that the BBC’s fundamental singularity—or to use a royal term today, peculiarity—is an affront to the prevailing free-trade and ever-rolling capitalism of the day. Indeed, in some respects it interferes with it unacceptably. Or you could see it another way: as a stimulating alternative, it adds to the variety and richness of this country and gives an oppositional argument. It appears to me that the BBC’s many roles are seamlessly interwoven into the tapestry of broadcasting that we have in this country and, further, that the roles of others are tempered—they are often encouraged and even enriched —by the competition and interchanges with the BBC.
This country is and always has been a place of tribes, since it began to emerge as a place of its own about 1,300 years ago. They are ethnically different, always, and culturally diverse, mostly. These are islands containing differences but, for all that, islands bounded by and often bonded together by the seas. Many have tried and often failed, but tried again, to reach out to all the jostling or sometimes rival groups over those centuries. Through democracy, we have finally arrived at a plausible though often fragile method of inclusion. The BBC’s democratic inclusiveness, which began as a demand of genius by Lord Reith, is not only its strength and its burden; more than that, it is its purpose. We want the best in our society and despite catcalls from the galleries several of our institutions, including this one, try to and can succeed in the attempt to bring together the still-existing and the new tribes.
There is something beyond even that. The BBC does what it does with style, consistency and force. It brings together majorities and minorities in watching the same programme or live event. Most of all, though, the BBC is a statement of public service. That phrase has seen its meaning and strength weakened over the years. In area after area of our public life, too often those at the top who were once content to be public servants have found themselves outflanked and diminished by those who believe that public service is just another ladder to personal riches. Pro bono publico has not gone away, though. Millions of people in the United Kingdom are still alive to it, still working by it, still believing that work is one thing and serving the public is another, and they need not be separate.
We can say that especially today. We see the monarchy, under Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, as a symbol of public service. The admiration, even reverence, that is felt for her is entirely to do with her palpable sense of service to the public.
The BBC remains still, despite its gaffes, despite muddles, despite being treated by this Government as a cash cow for social policies, a symbol of something that this country craves for deeply. People who are divided want to return to what they think of as living properly—what Orwell called the decency of these people, which of course includes us.
Of course we have to create wealth, make a living and construct a complex society, but we need an element of something else, and perhaps the word “higher” might serve, or the word “better”—that there are great bodies which speak in our name, unfettered by the demands of making and getting, independent and, in the name of all of us, standing for an ideal without which we would be so very much poorer, so much less of a place.
If it is chipped away, as the BBC is chipped away—as some of them out there want it to be—we will be much less than we could be. We will have lost what has been so strenuously built up, cherished and loved over many decades. That is, in brief, something unique, something of which, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said at the beginning of this debate, we can be, and are, proud.
My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken so far in the debate, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his committee, on a very important and excellent report.
Continuing uncertainty about the Government’s plans is very harmful to the BBC and the public interest. The continuing uncertainty, and the Government’s dumping of the cost of free licences for the over-75s on the BBC, rather than taxpayers, have undermined morale within the BBC as well as public trust and confidence.
The Government are likely to replace the BBC Trust with a new unitary board, as recommended by Sir David Clementi. The new board will have executive functions relating to the content of its broadcasts. That makes it essential that the chair, deputy chair and other members of the board are independent and manifestly seem to be independent. It is essential that they are independently appointed, without ministerial influence.
The noble Lord, Lord Hall, has rightly said that the BBC needs regulation that is effective but not prescriptive. He has emphasised the importance of protecting the BBC’s independence, recalling that Willie Whitelaw gave the BBC a 15-year charter. The Government should follow that example and give the BBC a charter for the next 11 years.
What we call a royal charter is really a ministerial charter. It is a charter shaped by Ministers using the prerogative powers inherited from the Crown. We speak of parliamentary sovereignty as the cornerstone of the British constitution, but it is Ministers, and not Parliament, who determine the scope and effect of the charter. There are no overarching, binding principles approved by Parliament that Ministers or the BBC must respect. As the noble Lord, Lord Birt, former director-general and television journalist, said during the debate on 10 March, a royal charter,
“far from being a powerful symbol and safeguard of the BBC’s independence, on the contrary enables Governments to be less accountable even than medieval kings; to amend the charter through the Privy Council … and to inflict unprincipled and material change on the BBC”.—[Official Report, 10/3/16; col. 1055.]
The noble Lord, Lord Birt, agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, that it is time to place the BBC on a statutory footing. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on whose most powerful speech I congratulate him, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, another former chair of the Communications Committee, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, have each suggested that the charter is an anomaly that should be replaced by legislation, much like that which governs Channel 4. But it is inconceivable, as the Minister will confirm, that the present Government will agree to dispense with the charter.
In truth, the choice is not a binary choice between legislation and charter. A statute could and should set out the governing principles protecting the independence and effectiveness of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, and the core duties of the BBC and the Secretary of State. It should make the charter and charter changes subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament. In that way, the BBC’s independence would be protected against political interference.
So, as other noble Lords have indicated, I am fashioning a Bill to provide a framework of core principles and duties governing Ministers and the BBC, and the charter and its renewal, while leaving the detail to be covered in the charter and the accompanying agreement. I hope that it will have support in Parliament and Whitehall. Several noble Lords who cannot be here today have authorised me to indicate their support, including the noble Lords, Lord Alli, Lord Inglewood and Lord Pannick.
The Bill will provide for the BBC to be a statutory corporation established by royal charter but subject to the Bill’s criteria. It will underpin the BBC’s duty as a public service broadcaster to serve the public interest by informing, educating and entertaining the people of the United Kingdom, including its nations, regions and communities, by means of television, radio, online services and other similar services. It is important that the BBC—and nobody else—defines the scope of its public service broadcasting and its limits. The Bill will protect the BBC’s independence as regards the content of its output, the times at which and the manner in which that output is supplied, and the governance and management of its affairs. The Secretary of State, other Ministers of the Crown, the BBC and anyone else with responsibility for the BBC’s governance will have a duty to ensure that the BBC is able to operate independently from Ministers and other public authorities in the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State will be required to make available to the BBC sufficient funds to enable it to perform its functions to promote public purposes as a public service broadcaster. The licence fee must be for the exclusive use of the BBC in performing those functions. It will be index-linked and increased at least in line with inflation. The BBC’s funding must be protected against top-slicing—as happened, for example, under the current licence fee deal, under which £150 million a year was diverted from the licence fee to subsidise BT’s rural broadband rollout. The Secretary of State will not be able to transfer public expenditure to the BBC. If Ministers and future Ministers want to change this, they will have to persuade Parliament to legislate.
The BBC’s use of the licence fee carries responsibilities, but those are matters not for the Government but for the new board and senior staff, and for the regulator. Under my Bill, there will be an independent, external regulator, whether Ofcom or another body, to oversee the performance of the BBC’s duties as a public service broadcaster, including any increase above inflation in the licence fee. The Secretary of State and other Ministers will be forbidden to seek to influence the BBC’s decisions. The Secretary of State will be required to have regard to the need to defend the BBC’s independence, to the need for the BBC to have the financial and non-financial support needed to enable it to exercise its functions, and to the need for the public interest to be considered in regard to matters relating to the BBC.
An independent board of, I suggest, no more than 14 members, including the chair and deputy chair, will govern the BBC. The members should be people with the skills, knowledge and experience needed to perform the board’s function of directing a public service broadcaster. They should be drawn from across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, including from BBC licence fee payers and present and former members of staff. Crucially, they must not be political appointments but must be appointed by an independent appointments committee established by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The board will be required to carry out its duties in an open and transparent manner. The royal charter and any amendments to it will not have effect or be granted unless a draft of the charter or amendment has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
For the last six years, the BBC has seen no increase in its funding for the licence fee, so it has had to make millions of pounds of cuts in its services and staff. But reforms are needed and are being made. The number of managers remains far too high, in spite of commitments to reduce their ranks by a thousand. The BBC must not operate from an ivory tower, broadcasting to an intellectual elite. But the BBC has become over-blown and top-heavy, involved in commercial projects that could be left to others. Again, these are matters for the board, senior staff and the regulator to address, and not the Government.
As we have said in this debate repeatedly, the public enthusiastically trust the BBC and appreciate the public service it provides. The BBC’s staff do their best to deliver a first-class and balanced public service, despite the worsening financial pressures. This Government have dumped more than £600 million of public spending on to the BBC by transferring the cost of licence fees for the over-75s. This makes the BBC carry the burden of fulfilling part of the Government’s welfare policy. The BBC is faced with the serious threat of a new unitary board that is appointed politically by Ministers and may influence content.
As several noble Lords have said, the BBC is a national treasure that could easily be harmed by government interference. We all want to ensure the independence of the BBC, so that it pursues the Reithian principles that have made it the most respected broadcaster in the world. I hope that the Government will accept the need for a properly funded BBC that is independent and free from political interference, and is able with its guaranteed income to continue to produce impartial high-quality programming that is envied the world over. That is what my Bill will seek to safeguard—but, ultimately, it is the public that, to coin a phrase, must fight, and fight, and fight again for the BBC they love.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate on the Select Committee report on the future of the BBC, aptly named Reith not Revolution, on which I served, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his excellent and diligent chairmanship. As many noble Lords have already made clear, it is essential that the BBC remains the keystone of British broadcasting, and continues to play a central role in the wider creative industries. The BBC must retain its reputation for quality and independence throughout the world. This is possible only with the continued support from the Government in keeping with the overwhelming wishes of the British public, apparent from the DCMS consultation response summary published on 1 March. The findings showed that the public value the BBC, believe it produces high-quality and distinctive content and want it to remain independent. As in our report, however, concern was voiced that the BBC falls short for some viewers, such as reaching black, Asian and ethnic minority and young audiences, and representing the lives of people in the UK’s nations and regions.
Just to highlight how important the BBC is for the country, it is worth stating that BBC services reach 97% of the UK population every week, with an average of around 8.5 hours of TV and over 10 hours of BBC radio per head. For £145.50 a year, audiences are provided with nine national TV channels, 10 national radio stations, 39 local radio stations and a wealth of online and mobile services including BBC Three, iPlayer and bbc.co.uk.
However, as our report said,
“audiences have higher expectations of the BBC than … of other Public … Broadcasters”.
The BBC must play its part by reaffirming the Reithian principles to inform, educate and entertain and by reflecting better the society we live in, which other noble Lords mentioned. The BBC should,
“make a particular commitment to reflecting the nations, regions and all the diverse communities of the UK”.
The BBC has,
“unique obligations to its audience”,
“it is established by royal charter”—
no matter how controversial that is today—
“and its principal source of funding is a universal licence fee”.
“set the gold standard amongst the PSBs”,
and thereby remain,
“one of this nation’s most treasured institutions”.
I acknowledge that the BBC recognises that it should be held firmly to account by licence fee payers, Parliament and the new regulator, but it is also imperative that the BBC retains its editorial and creative freedom to react to the changing needs of the public, the highly competitive evolving media market and social conditions. That is why our report wants to see the BBC better reflect UK society in all its diversity. We were concerned to hear,
“from a number of witnesses who felt that the BBC did not reflect their lives, particularly the panel of young people, those with a disability and those within the BAME community. We note that the BBC has recognised this and we expect to see a marked improvement here”.
In a recent article Tunde Ogungbesan, head of diversity, inclusion and succession at the BBC, wrote:
“We all want to get the same result: a BBC where all our audiences can see their lives authentically portrayed in our programmes, where our shows are made by a broad range of people, and where your background—whatever it is—is no barrier to a successful career here”.
The BBC is aware of its responsibilities to make itself a truly diverse organisation and states that almost half its workforce—48.5%—are women and that the proportion of the workforce that is black, Asian and other ethnic minority is at an all-time high of 13.1%. I welcome its independent diversity advisory group of disabled and BAME experts and cultural leaders, including the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, which continues to hold the BBC to account.
Likewise, it is good to see the efforts made in training by the new BBC Academy, which is based in Birmingham and aims to attract the best new talent from all over the UK. Its Extend recruitment programme, aimed at people with disabilities who are hired on six-month placements across the BBC, has reached 628 people over the 18 years it has been running, and last year, with the help of my noble friend Lady Lawrence of Clarendon the BBC launched a pre-employment traineeship with the Stephen Lawrence Trust to identify and develop young BAME talent. Everyone who successfully completed the traineeship was fast-tracked to near the end of the application process for BBC production apprenticeships.
I welcome the BBC’s new four-year diversity strategy, which aims to make a difference to the audience and employees. I hope that it meets its target for 15% of leadership grades to be BAME by 2020. For disabled staff the target is 5% by 2017. Currently the figure is 3.1%. It is also important to improve on-air portrayal. The BBC recognises this with its target to increase BAME presence from the current 10.4% to 15% by 2017 and to increase disabled portrayal from only 1.2% to 5% by 2017. I hope “Redefining Juliet”, which is to be aired on BBC4 on 1 May as part of its Shakespeare festival, will be a trailblazer for increasing such portrayal. In it a diverse group of actors, all with disabilities or differences, led by Storme Toolis, a wheelchair user, brings Juliet into the 21st century and recasts her for today’s diverse society.
Also to be welcomed is Peter Bowker’s new drama “The A Word” on BBC1, which was described by Charlotte Moore, the new controller of BBC TV channels and iPlayer, as,
“a brilliant story about autism and contemporary family life”.
In documentary, the new series “Employable Me”, which follows adults with neurological conditions such as Tourette’s or autism, is also ground-breaking.
I hope the BBC will continue to meet the challenges of reflecting our modern and ever-changing Britain, to ensure that it remains pertinent to the concerns of the young as well as to the rest of its audience, and to preserve its vital role in the life of our nation. I am sure the BBC can have a great future, and there is absolutely no case for the Government to consider reducing its scale or scope. However, all great institutions must continue to change and innovate, and I hope the charter renewal process will prove an opportunity to refresh, but not fracture, the BBC. I look forward to an assurance on this from the Minister.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation. As the register of interests notes, I am that much maligned species, a trustee of the BBC. Noble Lords might ask why I joined the BBC Trust. I did so because the BBC has always been important in my life and career. Indeed, I worked in that iconic building, Bush House, as a journalist and editor for the World Service for some eight years from 1984 to 1992. Thereafter I left the BBC to work for the United Nations and served for many years in Cambodia, the Balkans and the Middle East. During those years, the BBC was vital for me. Far more important than that, though, I saw that it was critical for the people with whom I worked in those countries.
I worked for Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the UN, who once famously described the BBC as Britain’s greatest contribution to the world in the 20th century. The World Service has been able to make that enormous contribution because it is part of the wider BBC, which over the past 90 years has done so much to inform, educate and entertain, in the words of the great John Reith, one of the greatest public servants this country has produced.
At the outset, there can be no argument—the BBC is one of the best public broadcasters in the world, if not the best. Is there anyone who can challenge that? This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of our greatest writer, William Shakespeare, and the BBC will be marking that event with a special programme on 23 April, bringing together Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Joseph Fiennes, the Royal Shakespeare Company, English National Opera and the Royal Ballet in a televised event to honour the birthday of the national bard. It is typical of what our great public broadcaster can do at its best, bringing together our finest cultural institutions and actors, broadcast nationwide and internationally to the widest possible audience.
The very concept of public service broadcasting was pioneered here in Britain by the BBC. We should be immensely proud of that. From 1932 the BBC began to broadcast globally, first in English and then, interestingly, on the eve of the Second World War in 1938, in Arabic. The need for broadcasting in that language is as great now as it was then.
The journalism of the BBC goes from strength to strength under the leadership of James Harding, the editor of the news department. Recently I saw an extraordinary report on the “Ten O’Clock News” from Alastair Leithead in Nigeria, looking at the horrible movement Boko Haram and the mystery of the 200 girls who were kidnapped by that vile group more than two years ago. I cannot think of another public broadcaster that, in prime time, would have given such attention to that movement and the hideous work it has done.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his committee on producing an excellent report that has informed this debate on an institution that is national as well as international. At a time when our international presence is diminishing, when much of the world watches with amazement at the spectre of our pending referendum, we can ill afford to see the BBC retreat.
I commend the Government for the extra funds they have made available to the BBC in 2015 for African languages such as Amharic and Oromo, for the establishment of the Korean service, so long championed by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and also for further enhancement of the BBC Arabic and Farsi services, which play such a critical role in the Middle East.
This year, of course, is the year of charter renewal, which I hope will not be marked by the cuts that have been inflicted on fellow public broadcasters in Canada and Australia in recent years. I submit that that is not a path we want to see the BBC go down. The BBC can ill afford to accept any more surprises from government of the sort meted out by the Chancellor last year. As a result of that step, as many noble Lords have noted, the BBC has had to take responsibility for the free licences for over-75s, introduced by the Labour Government led by Gordon Brown. There should be no more fiats of this order. The BBC is not a state broadcaster. It is for Governments to decide appropriate levels of social welfare for the elderly and to accept the costs, not to pass them on to the BBC. Assurance from the Minister that there will be no similar action in that respect would be most welcome.
On the report of the noble Lord, Lord Best, like other members of the trust I welcome the suggestion that there should be an 11-year charter, which is vital to detach the process from the electoral cycle—that should be obvious to us all; the need for the licence fee process to involve an independent regulator to propose the level of the licence fee; and an end to top-slicing of the licence fee or any kind of contestable fund paid for by licence fee payers.
The importance of the BBC’s independence—financial, editorial and operational—comes through strongly in the Select Committee’s report. This independence is vital for the future of the BBC and it matters crucially to licence fee payers. Following the publication of the BBC Charter Review Green Paper in July 2015, the trust launched its own consultation for members of the public to have their say on the future of the BBC. Alongside this, the trust commissioned qualitative and quantitative research studies to examine issues in greater depth. That consultation found that nine in 10 respondents—88%—felt that it was important that the BBC remain independent, and a large majority—79%—felt it was “very” important.
I will make three critical points. The BBC’s financial independence is absolutely imperative for the organisation’s future. Future funding periods should be fixed for no less than six years to provide certainty for planning. Licence fee moneys should be dedicated to BBC services and should never again be used to fund wider Government programmes. The crucial new proposal, developed by the trust, relates to a process to determine the licence fee. After three unsatisfactory processes for the BBC’s funding, the trust is now calling for a clear process to be written into the charter. It also adds that a formal process and timescale needs to be established; the regulator, whether it is Ofcom or something else, needs to be empowered to bring neutral, evidence-based analysis into the debate about the BBC’s funding and to give advice, in public, to the Government; and Parliament and the public need to be provided with a proper opportunity for debate before final decisions are taken.
It is also our firm opinion that there should be no mid-point review, which has been much speculated upon in the press. This would create significant operational uncertainty for the BBC and would make long-term planning difficult. Moreover, it could undermine the BBC’s ability to invest in innovative projects which benefit both audiences and the UK’s wider creative industries. The current 10-year charter has shown sufficient flexibility to enable the BBC to respond effectively to significant shifts in the media and the technological landscape—for example, the decision to launch the iPlayer in 2007. A mid-point review is, we believe, unnecessary.
Thirdly and finally, we support the proposal in David Clementi’s report for the creation of a unitary board which is fully independent of the Government. We have significant concerns, however, about the suggestion that the DCMS should have the power to appoint all members of the BBC’s new unitary board. This, we believe, is unacceptable. Instead, the charter should set out a clear and transparent process for the appointment of members of the board. Ministerial involvement should be limited to the appointment of the chair. This view is widely supported by polling the trust has carried out.
Earlier today in this House, in the humble Address to Her Majesty, we marked her 90th birthday. The BBC, at 94, is slightly older. Her Majesty’s Christmas Day broadcasts are watched by all, and it is remarkable that, when so much has changed during her reign, last Christmas it was the most watched programme on that day. I believe that it shows again how the BBC can play a powerful role in bringing this nation together.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the Communications Committee for this excellent debate based on their excellent report, both of which highlight in particular the importance of better governance, greater diversity and protection against political pressure.
The report anticipates that the existing BBC Trust will be replaced by an independent regulator—most likely Ofcom, which I would welcome because it is very well regarded across business and politics. Given the replacement of the BBC Trust by an independent regulator, Sir David Clementi’s recent review proposes a unitary BBC board of perhaps 13 members, led by a non-executive chair with a deputy chair acting as senior independent director, plus four other non-executive directors “designated” from the four nations of the United Kingdom, and the balance of five or six non-execs also to be appointed to a 13 or 14-strong board. The proposed unitary board might therefore have only two or perhaps three executive directors from BBC management, including, of course, the director-general.
As we have heard, the DCMS Secretary of State, John Whittingdale, suggests that the Government might appoint all the non-executives. That would be, as previous speakers have made clear, a very real threat to the independence of the BBC because, in an organisation controlled by a unitary board, these government appointees could exert influence in many sensitive areas, including programming decisions. One consideration should therefore be that the next royal charter must make it clear that the ultimate editor-in-chief of all programme output is the director-general.
The noble Lord, Lord Hall, the current director-general, recently stressed that the independence of the BBC from political pressure must be a priority. As we have heard today, it is clear that most noble Lords share that view. We now know that the White Paper on charter renewal will finally be published next month, and I hope that by then the Government will have backed away from proposing an appointments procedure that would threaten the BBC’s traditional independence and would be very vigorously contested.
The weakness of the royal charter process in protecting the BBC from government interference has long and cogently been argued by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who rightly states that it should be rooted in statute, with more transparent and democratic decisions debated and endorsed in Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, a former director-general, criticised the way in which the royal charter’s supposed safeguards have been so easily bypassed to divert around 25% of BBC programme budgets to fund Treasury schemes. Unfortunately, it is almost too late to push through fundamental reforms, but I look forward to the draft Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to which I hope this House can give attention and momentum. However, we must still use next month’s White Paper to press for reforms in other arrangements.
Your Lordships’ Communications Committee recommends scrapping the multiple accountability layers of BBC bureaucracy and adopting Ofcom’s four general public service broadcasting purposes, which are: informing our understanding of the world; stimulating knowledge and learning; reflecting UK cultural identity; and representing diversity and alternative viewpoints. So to the BBC’s traditional Reithian mission, to inform, educate and entertain, we might now add a fourth priority: to reflect the diversity of the UK. That diversity will, no doubt, become even greater over the life of the next BBC charter, and I pick up here on some of the issues raised by my noble friend Lady Healy.
In the House of Commons last Thursday, a debate on the BBC and diversity was introduced by the MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, in an excellent speech. Mr Lammy’s Motion noted with concern that black, Asian and minority-ethnic people working in the UK’s creative media fell by 31% between 2006 and 2012. It also noted that the BBC had fallen behind other broadcasters in setting and achieving targets for a more diverse workforce. Diversity, of course, embraces more than BAME matters; it is also about the representation and employment of people with disabilities, about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, about regionalism and about gender. Noble Lords may recall that our own Communications Committee recently reported on the problems facing older women working in television.
Over the 15 years from 1999, the BBC launched 29 initiatives aimed at improving BAME employment, and no doubt another initiative will be announced soon, which will be welcomed. However, clearly what is needed are action and results if the BBC is to meet its targets, which, at present, lag behind Channel 4 and Sky. Sky Entertainment has decreed that all new shows will have 20% of people from BAME backgrounds in significant on-screen roles, plus targets for senior roles off-screen in all productions. On Sky News, 15% of interviewers were from black, Asian and minority-ethnic communities. Channel 4 has ambitious targets in its 360° Diversity Charter, with an increase from 15% of BAME staff in 2015 to 20% in 2020. Channel 4 has also made remarkable progress in employing and presenting, on-screen and off-screen, people with disabilities. My noble friend Lady King is the driving force on these issues at Channel 4.
Currently, the reckoning is that in London, where national broadcasters are based, about 40% of the population are from BAME communities or are not British born. Across the UK, the figure is around 14% and rising. Significantly, BBC1 has a share of 22% of the television audience but only a 13% share of BAME viewers. The BAME percentage of the BBC workforce has crept up pretty slowly in recent years to just over 13%, but that is markedly lower in senior positions.
Interestingly, the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, who took part in the Commons debate, was repeatedly praised for the personal and very positive role he plays in encouraging greater diversity. The Minister in turn praised the work done to highlight diversity issues by Sir Lenny Henry, the actor Idris Elba, who recently addressed a packed meeting here in Parliament, and Simon Albury of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, who is a former chief executive of the Royal Television Society. Mr Albury says that the advances made on-screen in BAME representation are important but that on-screen representation must now be matched by more off-screen employment, especially in the areas of commissioning power and editorial influence, which must be mobilised to drive faster change across the BBC.
Regarding regional diversity, the BBC can be proud of the progress it has made in spending much more of its programming budget outside the M25. Media City in Salford has given a great boost to production in the north of England. ITV has also built on its old regional structures in Yorkshire and in what used to be called “Granadaland” in the north-west, especially with location drama and serials such as “Emmerdale” and “Coronation Street”. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have shares of BBC programme production that better reflect their share of UK audiences, a much welcome advance on past practice. BBC television and radio now have a more diverse regional spread, but there is surely a lot more that could be done for the populous Midlands and the north-east of England. Our judgments on these matters might be better informed if the BBC were not so grudging in giving out information about programme budgets and staffing, for which it was criticised in the Commons debate. How viewers’ licence fee money is spent demands and deserves more transparency.
The diversity of the UK can be defined in so many ways that no royal charter or PSB purpose can capture all its complexity. The creative challenge in producing BBC programmes has been defined as “making the good popular and the popular good”. With digital platforms and alternative channels multiplying, competition increasing and audiences fragmenting, the demands on executives and creative producers will intensify. These demands for quality and higher ratings will at times not sit easily alongside the targeting of more diversity. That challenge must be guided strongly and imaginatively from the top of broadcasting organisations, especially one as indispensable to the UK as the BBC —I speak as somebody who has spent his 30 years in broadcasting in the rival, independent side of television. That leadership will not be achieved by a unitary board of the BBC if it is dominated by political appointees.
Between the publication of the White Paper and the start of the new BBC charter, Parliament must strive to put the right structures of governance in place to encourage creativity and diversity, to sustain impartiality and independence, and to reward the viewing public for the trust and affection they have for the BBC.
My Lords, I, too, want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Best, who chaired our committee. I also pay tribute to my fellow committee members. These are warm-hearted tributes, and I will explain why.
Our report reminds me of how one produces a soufflé. We served up a dish which looks simple. It contains clear and straightforward observations and recommendations. But as with a soufflé, it involved hours and hours of toil and sweat in the preparation. Only members of the committee who were involved in this process can appreciate what agonies we went through.
What happened was this: we did not want to have an inquiry into every element of the BBC, so we said that we would focus on specific elements, one being the public purposes of the BBC. Little did we know what we were getting into. We thought that this arena, the arena of public purposes, would be a light stroll in a garden involving a pair of secateurs for a little light pruning. Instead, we found ourselves entangled, almost strangulated, in a thicket of six public purposes, a further six public remits, 28 purpose priorities and 26 service licences. Add to these Ofcom’s own public purposes.
Not surprisingly, we decided that what were needed were not secateurs but heavy garden-shears. So we came to the view: “Keep it simple, please. Get back to the simple Reithian mission—the three objectives—to inform, educate and entertain”. We were then encouraged by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford to add a fourth: to reflect—the right reverend Prelate has spoken today about the need to reflect beliefs across the country. So our report says that the BBC should reflect,
“the different opinions, lifestyles, beliefs and values of the nations, regions and diverse communities of the UK”.
I hope that the BBC will take note of the recommendation to reflect the range of different opinions across the UK, because I do not think that it has always done so. I have heard highly respected BBC commentators, such as Nick Robinson, say that the BBC has sometimes been slow to reflect public opinion on controversial subjects. He cited, for example, Europe and immigration. I suspect that that is partly the result of a metropolitan bias in news reporting. How often have we heard the anchor-man or woman on the “Today” programme as they introduce the weather forecast say, “It’s raining over Broadcasting House. What’s it doing in the rest of the country?” It was therefore very encouraging when our committee went to visit the BBC in Media City at Salford Quays. That move has been a great success and not just for the BBC but for the locality and the region. The same will be true, I think, as the BBC extends its presence elsewhere—for example, in Cardiff.
The Government will soon publish their proposals on charter renewal, so I shall make a few points about that. It is right, as has been said by many noble Lords—notably my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who is not in his place—that the BBC should be independent and be seen to be independent. Points have been raised about how the process by which charter renewal takes place should happen. I listened very carefully to what was said. As I understand it, the provisions of the BBC charter and charter renewal might be put into legislation—an Act of Parliament—and decided by Parliament, but I wonder whether that might not make the process more political. I wonder if my noble friend Lord Fowler can imagine the kind of amendments and who might move them that such a Bill might attract. I look forward to seeing what proposals the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has when he comes forward with his proposed Bill. Let us judge it when we see the details.
On the licence fee, I would not want to see a repeat of last year’s process, which pushed on to the BBC the cost of free licences for the over-75s. Not surprisingly, that has led to calls for a more independent system for setting the licence fee, and our committee indeed recommends one. But I am not sure that it is quite as straightforward as that. At the end of the day, the level of the licence fee surely has to reflect the scale and scope of the BBC. At least under the present regime, that will, at the end of the day, be decided by the Government. But let us suppose that the Government were to adopt a system of licence fee settlement along the lines of our report, and that it should be handed to an independent body to make a recommendation. Surely, there would have to be factored into that process a view or calculation of what efficiency savings are required of the BBC. Every well-run organisation and company looks each year at how it can run itself more efficiently and cut costs where it can. The BBC should not be immune from that process.
That brings me to the tough choices that the management of the BBC has to confront. It is faced with demands from the public for extensive news and current affairs, loads of sport, top-class drama, brilliant wildlife programmes, high-quality entertainment, comedy, the arts and the list goes on. But of course the BBC has very little control over its funding, so the demands made of the BBC in the new charter must be realistic—ambitious but not overambitious. In my opinion, the BBC cannot do everything unless the public are really prepared to pay for it. Therefore, I do not think that the BBC should always try to compete with the commercial channels at every level. But that emphatically does not mean that the BBC should confine itself to output that the market will not provide—the so-called market failure model. It is not a binary choice. What I want to see is market enrichment.
The BBC makes programmes which inform, educate and entertain, but which are distinctive because of their high quality. Its programmes are innovative, break new ground and are challenging. It has been mentioned in the course of the debate that programmes such as “The Great British Bake Off” and that of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, “In Our Time”, are wonderful and brilliant. The BBC can and does make a huge range of programmes, and here in the UK we are blessed with an abundance of creative people within the BBC and among the independent producers with the ideas, imagination and expertise to conceive and make these programmes. They will go on doing so as long as the BBC has clear objectives, its culture and ethos encourages them, and as long as it is not swamped by an incomprehensible hierarchy of public purposes and remits involving endless and pointless box-ticking.
Give the BBC a new, straightforward board structure, appoint independent people at the top and establish a clear regulatory framework, and then quite simply let it get on with the job.
My Lords, it is good to hear all the tributes to the committee and its chair, the noble Lord, Lord Best, on this really quite statesmanlike and distinguished report. The way the noble Lord introduced the report had the ring of Reithian authoritative comment at its best. The debate got off to a good start because its introduction was followed by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. There has been no more consistent and firm champion of the cause of the BBC in this House and beyond than the noble Lord. He not only champions the BBC; he analyses situations, underlines the strengths, sees the challenges and—what is so important—puts forward constructive remedies to take it forward. He is no Greek chorus: he is an active player who wants to engage in the whole dynamic of the future.
What has also been very good for a layman like me is that we have again discovered the value of hearing from my noble friends Lord Puttnam and Lord Bragg. There are no people in the political community in Westminster who have done more, practically and in an engaged way, to advance the cause of the arts and to bring them to the widest possible cross-section of people. If I am allowed to make a personal observation, I am constantly reminded of this in Cumbria, where I live. It is really quite remarkable how, in his demanding life, my noble friend Lord Bragg has found so much time to nurture what has become a very significant event—the Keswick literature festival.
My noble friend Lord Puttnam underlined splendidly that if what we appreciate and love about the BBC is to survive and foster, its independence is crucial. In that regard, the way the governors and the chair are appointed is of course essential. We need to watch that very carefully indeed. The report put forward the thought that an additional objective might be added to the BBC mission, and that is to “reflect”. Of course the way in which the word is used is that the BBC must reflect society as it is. It must reflect society generationally, it must reflect the nations that make up the United Kingdom, and it must do so demonstrably and with commitment. It also needs to reflect the ethnic mix which is now Britain. But the word “reflect” has two meanings. I hope it feels as strongly about the other dimension of “reflect”, which is to pause, consider and evaluate the society in which you are living. This is a tremendous contribution that the BBC can make: encouraging people to think about the world in which they live, to see the challenges and not just react to the world, but see how they can become engaged in shaping that world.
In this context, I was also very glad that the report unashamedly emphasised children. Gosh, I cannot help forgetting my upbringing, but “Children’s Hour” was a very important part of my young days, not least because I was growing up in the war, with all its tensions, stress and drama. How we waited for the next episode of the radio drama on Thursday nights. Some children were asked in a serious survey soon after television came in and started working with children, “Which do you prefer: radio drama or television drama?”. At that stage, a majority of children said radio drama. When asked why, they said, “Because the pictures are better”. I wonder whether, with all our high-tech cameras and the rest, we are stimulating vision and imagination to quite the degree that children’s radio programmes used to do in the 1930s and 1940s.
If it is about stimulating imagination and vision in the young, we have to look at what the BBC is making available to the young in the context of the crisis in our society. I almost literally lose sleep about the fact that the concept of citizenship is withering in our society as consumerism takes over. Consumerism fosters responsive attitudes in terms of personal need, self-aggrandisement and the rest, but citizenship demands thought and participation. Without becoming propaganda agents, the BBC has a unique opportunity to begin effectively to introduce children to the importance of citizenship, what its issues are and how they can participate in it.
When I was a Member of Parliament I had an inner-city constituency. I used to make a point every year of going to visit every secondary school in it. It was not a cheering experience, because when I talked to the youngsters about the importance of participation in politics, they would say that they had nothing to do with politics. I used to say to them, “Look: does your family have any housing problems? Do your families ever encounter medical problems? Do your families have issues about education?”. I was repeatedly told by these youngsters, in words of one syllable, sometimes very bluntly, “That’s got nothing to do with politics”. That was some years ago, but I suspect that disillusionment with the political community is even worse today. The BBC has a terrific opportunity to rehabilitate the political context and quality of our society.
Local radio has a particular part to play in that. I can speak with real warmth and appreciation of Radio Cumbria and the key part it played in two terrible flooding episodes in recent years. It was crucial to the well-being and safety of the population. Local radio has another opportunity, which is to link local perceptions—local engagement—to national issues. I was struck at the time of the last floods that they virtually coincided with the great conference in Paris. There was a terrific opportunity there to get people thinking about what relevance events in Paris had to their situation and the difficulties they were facing. There again, the role the BBC can play locally must never be underestimated, but it is not just about reporting local crime, murders and so on—it is quite easy to slip into that kind of preoccupation. It is about taking the opportunity to stimulate a better neighbourhood and community understanding of how the issues of the world affect people and relate to them as a community.
In view of the pattern of my own life, I cannot conclude without saying how glad I am that there is so much fulsome support for the World Service in the report. The World Service is something very special. As a young man, not infrequently I found myself in Bush House. Bush House had, it seemed to me, all the characteristics of a unique university. It had a real sense of community in journalism, of shared experiences and depth, and a very high level of analysis and thought about the issues before the world’s society.
Of course, if we have one reality with which we all have to live—I really cannot say how strongly I feel this, and it is so sad to see in Britain so many people, not least in the Westminster community, who wish it were not true and want to run away from it—it is that from the moment we are born, we are locked into a world community. We are utterly interdependent with the world. There is hardly a single issue of significance that can be solved, resolved or dealt with successfully on our own as a nation: it has to be dealt with in the context of co-operation and participation in the wider world community of which we are a part. Here, the BBC—not only in the quality of thinking it brings and the contribution it makes, but in the practical reality of its link between the World Service, the national service, the regional service and the local services—is in a strong position to help ensure the quality of the future of our democracy.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for being a wonderful chairman and I thank my fellow committee members for the stimulating experience of putting this report together. I speak as a proud member of the committee looking into the future of one of our most valued treasures, the BBC, and I declare an interest as per the register. I want to concentrate on children’s programming and diversity.
Key figures in the children’s industry, including PACT, the Children’s Media Foundation, Animation UK and academics, contributed to this report. They called for a funding commitment by the BBC into children’s content at around 8% of the network original content spend and insisted that this should not fall below £100 million per year over the next charter period. However, it was felt that any ring-fencing of funding for children’s content before the final funding settlement for the BBC’s charter is negotiated would tie the BBC’s hands when it comes to negotiating the final funding package for BBC children’s programming.
There has been much talk of contestable funding for children’s programming, but everyone in the children’s industry, including those who gave evidence for the report, made clear their strong opposition to a contestable fund for children’s content. Nor is there any support for topslicing of the licence fee to establish a contestable fund, because of the risk of the BBC doing less and the uncertainties of establishing a fund without a clear idea of who would administer it, as well as the cost of doing so. Also, where would the content find a home? The direct and indirect costs of administering contestable funding would take money directly out of PSB content and therefore result in net negative investment. Also, it could mean that the funding would be taken from BBC’s children’s budgets or wider content budgets within the BBC. It is acknowledged that contestable funding that shifts PSB away from the BBC to other providers will most likely reduce audience reach and impact. It would be wholly unacceptable to have reduced BBC budgets to fund commercial PSB activity and there is a general consensus that contestable funding would not be an incentive for commercial PSBs to commission more children’s content.
Contestable funding has not worked when tried in other countries, such as New Zealand or Canada, where it has been criticised for being inefficient and bureaucrat-led and for commissioning low-impact and low-quality programmes. Any ring-fencing or topslicing would also impede the funding of new initiatives such as iPlay and tie the BBC down in ways that do not take into account how children’s viewing habits are evolving, as the introduction of the dedicated and highly successful BBC children’s channels CBeebies and CBBC has shown.
Investment in PSB UK original children’s content has declined sharply over the last 10 years. Spend has fallen by 95% since 2003 and it will not be long before there is little of our excellent children’s production sector left. If this decline is allowed to continue, the UK will no longer be the world leader in children’s content, as it has been for many years, which has contributed hugely to the UK economy. It is strongly felt that new money should be found to boost original production of children’s PSB content that is culturally relevant to them, especially in the areas of drama and factual.
Many believe that the answer could be to encourage Channel 4 and other commercial broadcasters to re-enter the children’s market specifically targeted at 12 to 16 year-olds to fill the gap in provision for older children. This would provide competition for the BBC because at the moment there is virtually only one buyer in the marketplace for UK-made children’s content—and that is the BBC. This is a chance—maybe the last chance—for real radical thinking, as supported by PACT and the Children’s Media Foundation. So I ask the Minister: will the Government consider addressing this issue through primary legislation and make children’s content a tier 2, rather than a tier 3, requirement for broadcasters, and include this in the digital economy Bill to be announced in the Queen’s Speech next month? Will they also set up a feasibility study into new ways of funding children’s content, which should not be dismissed as too difficult?
A 48 year-old woman once told me that as an eight year-old child she was abused by her foster parents’ sons, but the BBC’s children’s programmes and their presenters got her through it because they were there for her. They told her—through the television—that she was loved and was worthy. This still applies today; these programmes are a support tool for children. The whole landscape of broadcasting and media is changing but, whatever happens, quality and inspirational content has to be created for children, reflecting their world. We must not do anything to hinder the BBC continuing to do this in the way that it has historically.
I turn my attention to diversity. One in five nursery school children is from a diverse background. They are the future and they desperately need—and expect—to see role models to inspire them, to encourage them to find a place in society, so that they feel valued and appreciated. Without this feeling of aspiration, the gaps between the haves and the have-nots will for ever widen.
I have been dealing with the issue of diversity all my life and professionally, for more than 40 years, have been trying to make change. It started when I asked a television producer back in 1973 why we could not have a more diverse and positive portrayal of professional black characters, such as lawyers and accountants. He dismissively told me that it was not realistic. In 1976, when I first appeared on children’s programmes—good old “Play School”—I asked why there were no black, Chinese and Asian faces represented in the illustrations of the stories that I read. The producer said, “Oh, we hadn’t noticed”. Thankfully she acted on it immediately and, from that day on, BBC children’s programmes became the most diverse genre on television and a great example of how differences can be so brilliantly represented on our screens and, in turn, in society.
Television is perhaps the most influential sector of the media. It affects people’s thinking; it forms attitudes, tolerances, acceptances and how we have empathy with others. That is why I believe that it is important that we all work together to make lasting change. It is widely acknowledged that the lack of diversity within the television industry has always been a major issue. Many have fought hard to make changes for decades with very little effect, even after Greg Dyke called the BBC “hideously white” in 2001. Suddenly, however, things have taken a dramatic turn for the better and now all the major broadcasters are coming up with strategies, including the BBC’s dynamic drive to improve its diversity remit, which sweeps away the shocking practices of the past. But we need to see results—and fast—in the commissioning process, production staff, senior management team and, of course, the make-up of the independent production companies that the BBC commissions. Diversity has to freely filter down from the top with no blockages or obstacles in the middle. This is essential for change.
I am so pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hall, director-general of the BBC, has set up a BBC diversity advisory panel, on which I sit along with the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. We advise the BBC how to put right what should have been addressed decades ago: ensuring that diversity is sustainable and embedded in the BBC’s DNA, both in front and behind the camera, as well as in its promotional material. We must not forget that that needs to be reflected throughout BBC Radio as well.
Having said that, I am still concerned as to whether the BBC can and will deliver on all its promises. My heart has been broken on this important diversity issue so many times over the years. Many others are also justifiably concerned about this issue. As we have heard, the honourable David Lammy led a strong debate on BBC diversity in the other place last week, which was the first time in history that this had happened. But I am an optimist and I am encouraged by the commitment of the right honourable Ed Vaizey to address some of the diversity issues across our creative industries. He has become a true diversity champion; now, he really gets it.
On a personal note, after 43 years of campaigning, persuading and being told to shut up or I would never work again, I believe that at last things are really beginning to change for the better. Will the Government ensure that diversity features strongly in the White Paper as a requirement on the BBC to fulfil its obligations to all licence fee payers? I long for the day when everyone is given an equal opportunity to take part in the process of making Britain the great country that we know and love. The BBC must play a vital role in this process. It is its duty to comply.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating and wide-ranging debate and I declare an interest as a former governor of the BBC. I suppose that it was a unitary board in those days, when I reflect on it. I am also an avid listener and viewer and I go back as far as the crystal set, so that dates me. I do not want to indicate the programmes that I liked then, because I have done that once before, and my noble friend Lord Hart took us through some programmes for which I shared an enormous affection. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the committee on a report which was well crafted in the way that it confined itself. It did not seek to reach too far and wide, which was a strength in the report and the way that it was introduced.
As has been said, the BBC is a great institution and a world beater but that does not mean that it is incapable of reform or does not need it, or does not need constant attention to the way that it behaves and produces programmes. That has been said today in the Chamber, including in the previous contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. The ways that people interact nowadays with the media would have been beyond the comprehension of Lord Reith in his day. He had a different set of challenges in establishing the broadcasting corporation. We know that the BBC will need to continue to change. However, the idea that having examined its role it should somehow restrict itself to being a market-failure organisation seems an approach designed just to undermine the BBC.
There is one bit of the committee’s report which I profoundly disagree with. Fortunately, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is not here but it was the desire to tinker with the mission statement—but it ain’t broke, so don’t try to fix it because you will ruin it. Come on: “To inform, educate, entertain and reflect” would mean that the statement ends with a whimper. Of course we want the BBC to reflect today’s diverse multicultural and multiracial society, but we do not need to put that in the mission statement. In my view, that is the responsibility of the board and the regulator. The responsibility to produce programme content is what shows what the BBC is really doing, so that is my plea about the mission statement.
Looking at and listening to today’s programmes, as I do, their track record is brilliant. The BBC does not always get it right but then no organisation is always going to do so. Some really interesting programmes have been cited. Look at the programmes which seek just to entertain—the way in which they not only entertain but inform and educate is when the BBC has really cracked it. I like the programmes that attract large viewing numbers, because what they are doing is important. One episode of “Call the Midwife” dealt with thalidomide, which, for many people, is an issue that has drifted away, a part of history that they had probably forgotten about. It dealt with it sensitively, in a way that informed and educated us. In my view, that is the BBC doing it right.
“The Great British Bake Off” has been referred to several times. I want to refer to it in a slightly different way. Last year’s winner was Nadiya Hussain. What a fascinating result that was. There was an obvious example of the multiracial, multicultural country that we are today. There was a young woman of Muslim faith winning such an essentially British competition. That, I hope, did much to make us a society that understands how different we are but how people can make their contributions regardless of their background.
The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, said that this debate had both informed and educated him, and I would say the same thing. I was fascinated by the contribution of my noble friend Lady Healy, for example. She gave so many interesting statistics about programme content, training, et cetera that she will drive me to Hansard to read them again.
Although it is clear that the BBC has further to go on diversity, there are programmes such as “The A Word”—I do not know whether noble Lords have watched that recently—which deals with autism in such an imaginative way, and “Employable Me”, which is another great example of the BBC combining that mission to inform, educate and entertain. We should not forget about things that we take for granted. What other broadcaster in the world would have a season like the Proms every year? We take it for granted.
So where to with the BBC? I agree with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, of the weakness and deficiencies of the charter, and I wish him well in his attempt to reform it. That would be better, given the way that we have seen the Government behaving to the BBC by hiving off to it their responsibility for free licences, and by top-slicing.
I repeat my question to the Minister from the previous debate. I hope that the White Paper will make it clear that the licence fee is to ensure that the BBC can function and do all the things that we expect it to, which have been mentioned in this debate, such as producing those quality programmes appealing to a wide section of the population, and that the BBC will not be attacked yet again by taking a slice of the licence fee to perform another necessary function. Everyone knows that we want good broadband services, but it should not be part of the BBC’s job to provide them out of the licence fee.
Similarly, there are those who say that 10 years is too long in a world that is changing fundamentally in its technology. I do not endorse every aspect of the Clementi review, but it may have got it right that the BBC should return to a unitary board. I agree with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, about the importance of independent board members—and not just their independence but their skill, competence and ability to challenge the powers that be at the BBC. I often reflect on my time, when we were invited to endorse yet another large increase in the director-general’s pay on the basis that they could get far more if they were working outside the corporation. We desperately tried to point out, “Yes, but the job of director-general of the BBC is something special, given only to a few”. That has been proved now, as although the pay has been halved it has continued to attract a really good-quality person in the noble Lord, Lord Hall. If that is the way we are going, the importance of the independence of the board cannot be stressed too much.
I am conscious of the time and of the fact that most of the points have already been made—although, as some wag said, not by everyone. At this time in the day, I will conclude my thoughts on the future of the BBC by expressing the hope that the Government will produce a White Paper that genuinely ensures that what is definitely one of the greatest things that this country has produced—and which gives a service not only to this country but, as many noble Lords said, all round the world—will continue to be able to do so in a way that we can have confidence in.
My Lords, I must at once declare a dual interest, having been a presenter for the BBC for some 40-odd years—like other noble Lords—and also a recipient of several commissions, including one for this year’s Proms. Indeed, I look forward to seeing noble Lords of a brave musical bent at the Royal Albert Hall in July.
I contend that my declaration of interest amounts to something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I have clearly gained, like countless other composers, writers, designers and actors, from my association with the BBC. So you could say, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”. On the other hand, I could be said to have a degree of experience and knowledge, like other noble Lords, of how the BBC works, and in particular of the cultural dimension, to which I will largely confine myself.
In many ways, the BBC is not unlike your Lordships’ House: it does very good work, but there are many areas that have required overhaul. There have been ludicrous pay-offs at the corporation, and a huge and disproportionate ratio of middle management to people actually working in studios on programmes. However, the BBC is manifestly getting its house in order on these points. I have witnessed the cuts on the shop floor, as it were, in the studio and on location, because programme budgets have been cut to the bone.
Just as I believe, despite anomalies such as the political appointment process for Peers that we heard about this morning, that this Chamber does a hugely valuable job in scrutinising and improving legislation, so I believe that the BBC fulfils well the Reithian principles of informing, educating and entertaining in a way that really is the envy of the world. Like other noble Lords, whenever I go abroad, I am told, “Gosh, you’re so lucky. You have the NHS and the BBC”. When I was artistic director of the Cheltenham festival, it was my partnership with Radio 3 that helped secure the festival’s truly national and international reputation. Radio 3 embraced and encouraged my initiative of saying that every artist had to include a contemporary piece in their programme.
The sheer number of people whose lives have been transformed by access to experiences that, were it not for the BBC, would have been denied them is staggering. That is why I wholeheartedly endorse paragraph 23 of the committee’s summary and conclusions, in which it welcomes the additional funding that the Government have found for the World Service. I congratulate the Government on this initiative because the link to the free world has been—I witnessed it in the bad old days in Czechoslovakia and the former USSR—and still is a lifeline for those living under oppression. It is also a marvellous vehicle for the subtle dissemination of the soft power of thoughts and ideas that are often restricted or forbidden elsewhere.
Closer to home, I have had countless artists, such as the playwright Alan Plater, tell me of the huge debt they owed to the BBC for shining a light, in a distinctly underprivileged area of the north, on to music and art in the days of the Third Programme—whose 70th birthday, incidentally, the BBC is about to celebrate. As we sit here in Westminster, in central London, able to pop over the bridge to enjoy the best theatre, film, visual art and music that the world has to offer, we should think about these priceless riches and how they are paid for by taxpayers in communities in areas where there is a dearth of cultural provision. That the BBC can disseminate these riches must always be a social imperative. I am often told by the disabled or infirm that, for example, choral evensong and the morning service provide much-appreciated spiritual nourishment.
Today’s BBC is a listening organisation—hence the move to Salford, the emphasis on regional diversity and the celebration of a tapestry of cultural accents, if I might put it like that. I agree with the committee in paragraph 35, where it says that,
“lack of a clear process for setting the level of the licence fee”,
or whatever replaces it, is unacceptable. Anyone engaged in business or festival planning knows that a primary prerequisite is a budget to allow forward planning. I also believe that it was not right for the Government to propose free television licences for the over-75s to be provided by the BBC. I can understand the dilemma that the director-general was in when he accepted it and, doubtless, the bridge that he hoped it would build—but this should not, in future, be a dilemma in which he or any other director-general is ever placed again.
The committee rightly says that it is persuaded by the argument that a charter period of at least 10 years is necessary. When I was on the, now defunct, general advisory committee of the BBC, I recall that a huge amount of time would be spent—we have heard this from other noble Lords—preparing for charter and licence fee renewal, with scarcely a break before having to embark on the next one.
The cultural position that the BBC holds is extraordinary, providing orchestras, not just in London but throughout the land, and singing this country’s gifts still further afield. At this very moment, the BBC is exporting the Proms, with performances in Melbourne, in Australia, featuring young generation artists. Really the question that one needs to ask is this: if the BBC were curtailed still further in its current work and potential, is there another broadcaster that could take on the Proms, “Young Musician of the Year”, “Shakespeare’s Celebrations”, or the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead? Would another broadcaster commission to the same extent new work from writers and composers or relay from all over the kingdom, and often the world, artistic experiences that are the right of the many and not just the privileged few?
Would any other organisation be able to take risks to uncover originality and innovation, which are so central to a prosperous cultural landscape—furthermore, one that feeds directly into and nurtures the hugely successful creative industries for which the Government have often been fulsome in their praise? These industries, which are so often allied to the BBC, bring vast income into the Treasury. Tamper with one leg of that industry—the cultural side of the BBC—and you begin to risk toppling the entire edifice, for they are inextricably linked.
Surely we and the Government should seek not to constrain but to celebrate the BBC and what it brings all of us and a global audience. What better advertisement could there be for the United Kingdom? Any Government who seriously damage the BBC would simply not be forgiven by the electorate. Even if Ministers may feel justified in discounting a certain percentage of opinion polls—although I am not sure that they are right so to do—that have shown huge support for the BBC, they surely cannot be unaware of the overriding message and warning that they are confronting and will, make no mistake, continue to confront.
To continue the point about political interference from the noble Lord Fowler, I would argue that, if politicians never feel irritated by journalistic inquiry, those journalists are simply not doing their job properly. An external board, constructed by government appointment, would not be truly external or independent, in the broadest sense of the words, but parti pris.
Finally, in thanking my noble friend Lord Best for his considerable contribution today, I endorse his request to the Minister that your Lordships’ House has real time to debate the forthcoming White Paper.
My Lords, coming 20th out of 21 speakers is not a great position to be in. I endorse most of the things the committee said about the governance of the BBC, regarding independence, a single board and so on. In his concluding remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, summarised those very well. Let this be the last royal charter. Let us get rid of the royal charter. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, in our system, “royal” actually means the Prime Minister’s prerogative and politicians’ power. Royal just gives an impression that somehow it is above politics. It is actually deep down in politics. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Lester, once again brings about a revolution like the many others he has brought about in our public life. I wish him good luck.
Before I get on to what I wanted to say, let me say that I do not watch the BBC that much. I watch only the news on television. There are perfectly good substitutes available. I am not completely given over to the uniqueness and fantasticness of the BBC. I am not saying it is not good, but I do not watch drama and those sorts of things. As far as the news is concerned, it is all right. However, I somehow feel very surprised that everybody is so fulsome about Lord Reith and the mission statement. I dislike the phrase “mission statement”, which is another reason. Why does anybody need a mission statement? Just get on with the job. It is so paternalistic to say: “educate”. It is commanding, “Out you go to educate and entertain”. As Douglas Jay said, “The man in Whitehall knows best”. So the man in Whitehall said to education and entertain and everybody responded, “Wow”. I am sure that if we had a few people under 25 in your Lordships’ House, they would be laughing at us.
I want to talk about the licence fee. No body can be independent unless it has an independent source of income. Ministers love the licence fee because it gives them immense power and a constant blackmailing force over the BBC. I want to explore how we can find substitutes for the licence fee. The licence fee is regressive because it is a household levy, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said. If you own four televisions, you pay the same as somebody who owns just one television. If you own four cars, you have to get four discs, but not with televisions. It is very inelastic. My main worry is that it may be anachronistic because we are going to have a generation that will not receive its entertainment from a box. A box may not even be needed. Entertainment will be streamed or whatever. We may be talking about the medium, especially the instrument through which we receive this education, entertainment and information. The instrument may not be there in 10 years’ time. Therefore, we have to start thinking now about other ways of financing the BBC which will give it a substantial degree of independence and ensure that the money continues to come. The BBC has a budget of around £5 billion, and £4 billion of that comes from the licence fee—I am keeping the numbers fairly broad—and £1 billion comes from its own business. So we have to find £4 billion at any point in time. Obviously the Government list the receipts from the licence fee among their tax receipts, but we could find from other sources of taxation a form of income whose proceeds could be hypothecated to the BBC. For a long time hypothecation was anathema to the Treasury, but recently it has increasingly adopted the idea that certain taxes should be hypothecated.
I was looking around to find out what kind of numbers there are. Take, say, the duty on fuel along with those on tobacco, spirits and wine. Together they raise about £48 billion, so we are basically looking at a 10% enhancement of the receipts. Noble Lords would be surprised to know that the fuel duty, which has been frozen for the last few years, is right now 25% below what it would have been had the fuel duty regime continued and not favoured people who pollute our air. Just by taking fuel duty back to what the level should be, we would get a substantial part of the £4 billion that we are worried about. I say that as an illustration. I strongly believe that one should have consumption taxes, not income taxes. If you tax people on their consumption basket, tax is felt less acutely than in any other way. The Government ought to explore alternative forms of hypothecated taxes, or increases in existing taxes, which would be given straight to the BBC for its budget. Then it could just continue and no time would have to be spent on the next licence fee renewal.
I have a more expensive proposal to pass on. Right now, the Government pay about 3% on their debt. If they were to gift the BBC a debt stock of £100 billion to perpetually finance its income of £3 billion-odd for a long time, that would be the corpus that the BBC could keep and get on with it. If the yield could be indexed, that would be even better. That would be very cheap; £100 billion is not very much these days.
It should be possible for us to think of elastic, progressive and modern ways of raising money for the BBC. If we can find that, we will guarantee its independence more than in any other way. As soon as the White Paper is issued—it may be too soon for the White Paper itself to include such things—I urge the Government to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament to examine the reforms proposed in the report of the Communications Committee and the other proposals that have come up in your Lordships’ House, starting now. If we start now, then by the time the charter needs renewing we will be ready with all the necessary equipment: the structures, the financing and the mission statement.
My Lords, I am last but, I hope, not least. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the excellent way in which he introduced his report, and for the report itself, which is very good, although there are criticisms that I will make of it as we go along. For a start, the report does not mention the fact that the BBC ought to be established by an Act of Parliament, not by royal charter. That ought to have been in the report, and it should have been said loud and clear.
On the idea from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for an independent board and so on, I would like to combine the two and suggest that we ought to look at an advise-and-consent procedure, whereby anyone who is named as an appointee should appear before a Select Committee of the House of Commons before being appointed. They would then be appointed thereafter. That is just a thought that I am throwing into the debate.
On the licence fee, I think that it is time that we looked at it. I am not saying that my noble friend Lord Desai’s ideas are the right ones, but we certainly have to look at it. We have to remember that the licence fee was introduced, in the first place, for one radio in one house. It was then expanded to include one television and one radio in one house. Now, if you take just myself in my house in Hamilton as an example, we have eight different ways of watching television—we have two televisions, two computers and two phones, which we can watch television on; I even have a phone in my car, which I emphasise is a Skoda—as well as having a radio in my car, and a radio in my son’s car as well. We are all covered by a single licence fee. It cannot be right that we have one licence fee to cover so many different options.
I am standing here today with two devices in my pockets—one my mobile phone, one my mini iPad—on which I could watch television now. In fact, I could go further than that, because if I forget to record a programme at home in Hamilton, I can look it up on the Virgin app on my mobile and set it to record the programme. I can do that now, standing here—although I will not. That makes a nonsense of the whole idea of having a single licence fee to cover one house, which was the initial idea. It is regressive and it means that those who are poorer or older—not a lot older than me, maybe—and who have only one television and one radio in their house pay exactly the same as I pay for all the devices I have in my house, and that cannot be right.
My third point relates to a word that has not been mentioned in the whole of this debate—yet no other area has seen a bigger decline in BBC output than sport. It used to be the case that, if you wanted to watch or listen to a football match or a cricket match or whatever, you went to the BBC. The BBC cannot do that anymore. It appears that it cannot afford it, and maybe it cannot. However, there are a lot of other sports that are not professional which would welcome the BBC showing their sport on television. I am told that netball, for instance, which is now being shown on Sky, has become a very popular sport indeed. Sky shows it, young girls are encouraged to go and play netball, and as a result the number of people who participate in that sport has increased. Noble Lords may say, “What’s this got to do with the BBC?”. The BBC’s mission statement is to “inform, educate and entertain”. I accept that sport entertains, but it also educates. There is a lot of evidence that, if you show a sport on television, you raise the participation rate of that sport generally in the country, and as a result you increase the levels of health in the country. There is no question that playing sport is a way of ensuring that people are healthy. They may not necessarily lose a large amount of weight when doing sport but they are kept healthy.
I will also raise an issue, which again was not raised in the report, which is that the BBC has a wonderful, enormous archive, both as regards sport and a whole range of different programmes. Why is that archive not readily available to all of us? Why are we not able to watch programmes on the BBC website? We can watch some programmes which are on Gold, or whatever the channel is called these days, but a lot of them are not. That brings me back to sport, because a whole range of great sporting events are never shown on television but they are in the archive. The BBC promised years ago that it was going to digitalise its archive. It has failed to do so and it has failed to put it on its website.
I now turn to the major point. I accept the report, which I think is good, but I do not like the title, Reith not Revolution. I looked up Lord Reith on the internet—not on the BBC website but on Google. I googled his name and discovered what a nasty piece of goods he was. He was a thoroughly nasty man. He supported Hitler and Mussolini during the 1930s. He also disliked Winston Churchill. There may be a reason for that, but he was an enemy of Winston Churchill throughout the whole of his career. He also never watched television. He sometimes listened to the radio when he was director-general, but I do not think that he ever listened to it after that.
However, my main point relates to the words “not revolution”. The fact is that we are living through a revolution. We are in the middle of a technological revolution that goes much further than just the media, but the media are living through it as well. Since the 10-year period when I sat on the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, the world, even in those 10 years, has changed dramatically with the advent of the iPad, the iPhone and all these new devices and means of getting on to the internet. We have seen the way in which apps are now used on the internet. There is now a whole range of things that were not available in those days. So there is a revolution and it is going to continue. I can watch programmes on my television set via my iPad, and that will become easier and easier to do. How do we combat that?
I am a supporter of the BBC. I believe that it ought to continue and that it ought to be part and parcel of the revolution, but it will become a producer of programmes—and I am happy to pay a licence fee towards that—rather than a broadcaster in the sense that we now know it. People will not watch a television or listen to a radio; they will record programmes and watch them on catch-up or on the internet. They will do that in a variety of ways, but they will still be watching the BBC.
I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is not the last.
I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Best. I sit on the committee and he has been an admirable chair. Picking up on the all too accurate description of the toil and sweat given by the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, he has also been an admirably patient chair, and patience was needed. Patience was also exhibited by the team: the clerk, Anna Murphy, the policy analyst, Helena Peacock, the committee assistant, Rita Logan, and our special adviser, Jacquie Hughes.
I sat on the Communications Committee with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and, not for the first time, I am going to disagree with him because I commend the noble Lord, Lord Hart, for what I think is an excellent title for our report: Reith not Revolution. That is what the British public—the licence fee payers—want. According to the BBC Trust, 85% of the public support the BBC’s main mission to inform, educate and entertain.
What I did not realise until today is that the noble Lord, Lord Hart, and I share an appreciation of Ballet Shoes as well as the BBC. What a rounded man he is.
We welcome the fact that the elusive White Paper will be published next month, and, as I understand it, the Minister has confirmed that the Government intend to hold debates on that in both Houses. We are disappointed that she could not confirm that there will be approval Motions, but perhaps she can today.
The process of charter renewal has confirmed that the British public overwhelmingly support the BBC. Over 80% of people responding to the Green Paper believe that the BBC is effectively serving audiences, around 75% support the licence fee, and almost three-quarters believe that BBC services are truly distinctive and that it has a positive wider impact on the market. As the summary of responses document says, it was one of the largest ever received to a government consultation, highlighting that the future of the BBC is an important issue to a great many people.
Despite this, the Secretary of State seemed to suggest that the involvement of the organisation 38 Degrees has somehow distorted the responses. Replying to an Oral Question in January, he said:
“That does not mean they are not valid expressions of opinion; it just means that perhaps they are not wholly representative of public opinion at large”. —[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/16; col. 1536.]
No surprise, then, that a recent YouGov poll found that 53% of voters do not trust the Government’s intentions where the BBC is concerned, rising to 62% among the over-60s. What is clear is that despite what you read in certain newspapers, and despite such reservations expressed by the Secretary of State, public opinion at large does support the BBC. It is clear that across Britain people use the BBC’s services every day and very happily, because it serves them well. So what fuels the negativity—something that the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, questioned? We seem, as Armando Iannucci said in his MacTaggart Lecture, to be in some artificially concocted zone of outrage.
The public largely support the licence fee, and why not? At 40p per day, the BBC is tremendous value for the consumer, but it is also great for the UK economy, generating the equivalent of £2 for every £1 of licence fee—in other words, it doubles its money and is a crucial pillar of our very successful creative economy. Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England, when giving evidence to the committee, said that:
“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”.
What we do not support, along with so many other speakers today, is how the licence fee is set. As our report says, a new process must be established to set the level of our licence fee in a transparent way. The covert way in which the Chancellor negotiated the BBC taking on the cost of funding free TV licences for the over-75s was inappropriate, to say the least. Will the Minister agree with so many of the participants in this debate that the process in future should be transparent and, as our report says, that the level should be recommended by the new regulatory body?
As was pointed out, our report did not address governance, but we on these Benches agree with Sir David Clementi’s recommendation that a strong unitary BBC board matched by a strong external regulator is the right model for running and overseeing the BBC. However—I am going to repeat what everyone has said, but I have to say it too—it is absolutely vital that the Government ensure the appointment of a genuinely independent chair and non-executive directors. The Secretary of State’s plan to give the Government power to appoint most members of the new board is not acceptable. The BBC is a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. It must be independent to do its job, and must be seen to be independent. Does the Minister agree that there should be a transparent and independent process for appointing a BBC unitary board, starting with the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and then a wholly independent appointments panel, as my noble friend Lord Lester said? Also on independence, does she agree, as our report has recommended, that the next BBC royal charter should last for 11 years so as to decouple the charter review process from the general election cycle, and thereafter that charters should last for 10 years? The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, with her experience, pointed to how this would provide stability for the BBC.
Another recently published report on the BBC was titled, An Assessment of Market Impact and Distinctiveness. On market impact, crowding out, there seems to be a particular concern in the area of online news. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, BBC news has a higher level of trust than any other news source. In what Sir Peter Bazalgette referred to in evidence as,
“the Klondike mayhem of the internet world”,
it is surely more important than ever that it has an online presence. There was a fascinating “Start the Week” on Radio 4 this Monday about journalism in the digital age and the struggle to sort out the abundance of information and misinformation—I think that this addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton—and how new technology is increasingly manipulated in certain parts of the world by those who exert power. Images being circulated in Syrian refugee camps, for example, of Sunnis decapitating Shias were actually footage of members of a Latin American drug cartel murdering their rivals. I quote Sir Peter again when he said in evidence that,
that is, the BBC—
“does compete and it is a market intervention, but if it is to have an impartial and independent news and information service for the country—if we believe in that—it has to have an online iteration”.
Our concern about BBC news as expressed in the report—the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to this—is different: the downward trend in investment in current affairs, noted by Ofcom in the last review of PSB. It is vital that the BBC maintain both quality and quantity in this genre.
Then, there is the matter of a word very much in the ether—distinctiveness, which I think has somehow replaced scale and scope. The Oliver and Ohlbaum report called in particular for BBC1 to be more distinctive, echoed by the Secretary of State, which is odd considering the channel comes out top in Ofcom’s distinctiveness measure. There is a Trojan horse element to this request, alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and identified by the actor and writer, David Mitchell, who said:
“An overt challenge to the corporation’s existence remains politically unfeasible—the public would miss it too much. The first step, then, is to turn it into something that fewer people would miss—and eventually, over time, to make it so distinctive that hardly anyone likes it at all”.
As many have said, there are of course areas where the BBC’s choices and behaviour have been far from perfect. The “officer class”, as the noble Lord, Lord Hall, refers to them, has on occasion been out of step, and there are still too many layers of them, as well as bureaucracy, referred to so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Best. We therefore welcome the appointment of one head of TV channels, Charlotte Moore, and her very plain pledge that:
“Life’s going to be simpler”.
The BBC must learn to understand the true definition of partnership and to do so, as we say in our report,
“in an open and generous manner”.
Here, I echo the noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin and Lady Healy, the noble Lords, Lord Macdonald and Lord Hart, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. If the BBC is properly to reflect the country, it has to address the problem of a lack of diversity. We need diversity at production and management level, as well as on screen. As Idris Elba said here in Parliament, there is a disconnect between people who make TV and people who watch TV. Charlotte Moore has personally committed to champion and drive diversity, but this must be delivered on, because in the past, as so many of your Lordships have said, there have been too many commitments and too little action.
I end as I did in the last debate, with the words of Terry Wogan, because I feel that their pertinence bears repeating. My first job at the BBC was working for him. He was a great man who certainly knew how to entertain, but also how to inform and educate. I wonder, would he be distinct enough if seeking a job under the world of Whittingdale? He said of the BBC:
“The BBC is the greatest broadcaster in the world. It is the standard that everyone measures themselves against. If we lose the BBC it won’t be quite as bad as losing the Royal family but an integral part of this country will have gone”.
Before then, many of us here will be marching with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, because once the BBC has gone, it is never coming back.
My Lords, this has been a good debate and we owe a great deal to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the Communications Committee for their excellent choice for this topic. Anticipating more opportunities to debate the wider issue in the future, I will restrict myself mainly to comments arising from the Communications Committee’s proposals, specifically how the BBC is held to account, and its priorities, and on the issue of distinctiveness before briefly addressing the process of the licence fee and the timing of the charter renewal.
We on this side of the House do not claim that the BBC is perfect: we are critical friends. But what we will do is fight hard against a politically motivated attack on the BBC. In some senses, the BBC is the quintessential public good whose value is really only quantifiable if it were to disappear or be harmed. However, the question that must be settled before any others is: what is the BBC for? As the committee said, the Reithian principles to inform, educate and entertain are widely understood and recognised as forming the BBC mission. We agree, and believe that they should remain embedded in the BBC royal charter.
We agree with the committee that it is time to sort out the regulatory and accountability problems that have hampered rather than helped the BBC since 2007. The structures put in place at that time were considered appropriate, but we believe that a leaner and more effective structure should be introduced under the next royal charter. We also think that Ofcom should be the independent regulator of the BBC. It must be given not only the responsibilities appropriate for that role, independent of government, but the staff and other resources that it needs to fulfil it.
The BBC board of governors should be reconstituted, with a majority of independent, external members and an independent chair. It should deliver the Reithian principles across all activities using what the committee describes as,
“a simpler, more transparent framework that both encourages creativity and allows all stakeholders to analyse the BBC’s performance”.
The new unitary board has not only to be fully independent of government, it must be seen to be so. There is significant concern over the suggestion that the DCMS should take the power to appoint all non-executive members of the BBC’s new unitary board. We therefore agree with the committee that, to strengthen the BBC’s independence, the new charter should set out a clear and transparent process for the appointment of members of the board at arm’s length from the Government.
We also need to take account of the different nations in the United Kingdom and that they have appropriate levels of engagement with BBC management and governors. That needs to be carefully considered. On the one hand, a set of national committees may be required, but it is important not only that the BBC management embraces such a structure and devolves real power but that the committees themselves have real expertise and are not captured by local political or operational interests. It will be for the new unitary board, independent of government, to set the objectives for the BBC, and it is difficult to see why the Government would want to become involved in specifying in the charter particular genres or indeed individual programmes which should be included in, or excluded from, output delivered. We hope that the Government will steer clear of this issue.
Ofcom already carries out a periodic review of public service broadcasting. It has drawn attention to the decrease in PSB spend in the commercial sector, hence it may be appropriate for the licences which form part of the charter renewal process to reflect the committee’s concern that important genres which make up our understanding of PSB should be given priority in the next charter period. These might include current affairs, children’s programming and the important role the BBC plays in stimulating creativity and cultural excellence. This it does through its own content and through its impact on the wider industry, particularly in the fields of music and drama, and through training and developing talent. In this context, the committee’s comment that it had heard from a number of witnesses who felt that the BBC did not reflect their lives, particularly the panel of young people, those with a disability and those within the BAME community, is of concern and should be addressed with vigour.
The Secretary of State has on several occasions suggested that the BBC should be restricted to “distinctive” programmes, although he has not spelled out what that means, other than to hint that it means that the BBC should not produce programmes offered by the other broadcasters. Charlotte Moore, the controller of BBC TV channels and iPlayer, addressed this issue on Tuesday this week in a speech she gave to the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. She put up a very robust defence of the distinctiveness of BBC programmes in a much richer and more textured sense than used to date by the Secretary of State. I think it is important that I should summarise the main arguments. She said that distinctiveness carries with it a promise of quality—a promise that all BBC programmes across all genres should aspire to be the best in class. Distinctiveness means ambition, and this in turn derives from the unique way the BBC is funded. It allows the BBC the chance to give the country’s best creative talent the freedom to pursue its creative ideas, back it to take risks, push boundaries and try new things; to innovate, to challenge and to surprise. Distinctive means range. It means accepting and celebrating the fact that the BBC has a duty to serve everyone, whoever they are and wherever they come from. While that means that the BBC has to provide programmes across a broad range of genres, it also means that there is an aim to make the good popular and the popular good. What a weird world we would live in if it were required of the BBC that, as soon as one of its programmes becomes popular, it has to stop making it. Distinctive means home grown. The BBC’s priority is a high level of first-run, UK-originated content across the whole of the BBC, and it is its goal to take those great British programmes to the world. Importantly, this allows the BBC to reinvest the proceeds back into more home-grown hits and the next generation of home-grown talent.
I think that everyone in this debate today agrees that there need to be changes in the way the licence fee is set. The committee made a good start on how a better process might be conducted, and we certainly think that the key to a new process going forward must be transparency. On the timing of the charter review, there is a growing consensus that the review process should be decoupled from the general election cycle resulting from the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, and we agree. We also agree that the impartiality and independence of the BBC could be threatened by a short charter period. Eleven years takes us to 2018, which seems a sensible and pragmatic way of dealing with both points.
The BBC is the cornerstone of the creative industries in this country, which are the powerhouse of our future prosperity. They represent one in 11 jobs, bring in £76 billion a year, enhance our reputation overseas, are intrinsic to our whole added-value economy and 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 with the BBC at its heart. Only a madman would take an axe to the tallest tree in the middle of a forest and not expect to do serious harm to the whole of the forest. The BBC does not harm the wider industry; it fosters it and creates a competition for quality. Its £3.7 billion from the licence fee is the largest and most productive investment we make in the arts. We should support it.
The history of broadcasting in this country is rightly praised for what it has achieved, bringing on stream over time both state-funded and commercial services that compete for audiences, but not for funding. Let us hope that the White Paper next month builds on where we are and allows the BBC to make progress in its mission to inform, educate and entertain.
This has been an interesting debate. Twenty-three Peers have spoken to this point. The extent of the consensus on the central theme of the values and shape of the BBC is amazing. It has been a calm and thoughtful debate, but there has been an underlying passion. If the Government plan to damage, restrict or interfere with the BBC, or challenge its unique character, they will release a torrent of opposition, not just from these Benches, but from all round the House. That opposition will spread throughout the country. I have only one request of the Minister: that she communicates the depth and passion of the debate not just to the DCMS, but forcefully to the whole Government. If the Government do not listen they will create a storm that they will sorely regret.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for introducing this very timely debate. I join the House in congratulating him, the entire Communications Committee and their staff on their excellent report. After a busy week it has been an enjoyable, interesting and important afternoon. I will ensure a further opportunity for a debate on the charter this year. I am in discussion with the usual channels about the timing and the detail.
The report endorses the Reithian principles that the BBC should be about information, education and entertainment. The committee proposes adding an extra dimension with the fourth word “reflect” to commit the BBC to reflecting,
“the different opinions, lifestyles, beliefs and values of the nations, regions and diverse communities of the UK”.
This has been endorsed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and by inference by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. The Government agree that the BBC must serve every corner and community of the country, and next month’s White Paper will elaborate on that.
As a former businesswoman I was very taken by the eloquent deconstruction of the panoply of missions, activities and objectives by my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury. As a gardener, I know that heavy garden shears do wonders to help the light in. The Committee’s report rightly advocates greater transparency and a simpler accountability framework for the BBC. These are themes that we have heard throughout the charter review and they are extremely important.
I am glad that, once again, the House has shown its full-throated commitment to the BBC. The Government share this commitment. The BBC is the finest broadcaster in the world. It is an indispensable part of our national life and makes an enormous contribution to our standing in the world. The 192,000 responses to the culture department’s consultation and countless surveys demonstrate the fact that the public care intensely about the BBC. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, about that and, indeed, about its huge contribution to our creative industries.
The proof of the pudding, of course, is always in the eating, and some 97% of Britons use the BBC’s services on a weekly basis, for an average of more than 18 hours. I enjoyed the way that the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, took us on a walk down memory lane. I was, of course, another fan of “Ballet Shoes”. Programmes such as “The Night Manager”, “The Great British Bake Off”, “Sherlock”, “Doctor Who”, the new sports that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, spoke of and “University Challenge” all bring great delight to millions. And, of course, BBC radio should not be forgotten because it hits commanding heights as well. What would we do without “You and Yours” and “The Archers”? Both show how the BBC provides insightful, popular programming day after day, week after week. All inform, educate or entertain. Like the noble Lord, Lord Foster, I am a critical friend.
I am always interested in global perspectives, because of the way the world is changing and because of the interdependencies which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. BBC international services now reach 308 million people across the globe every week. This is higher than the weekly reach of the international group of broadcasters which includes Voice of America, China Central TV and Al Jazeera.
The BBC World Service is consistently recognised as the most accurate and highest-quality news outlet on earth and is also a much-needed corrective to state-run broadcasters that are controlled by despots. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, hinted at that. It reached 210 million people in 2014-15. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Best, and my noble friend Lord Selsdon, it is an extraordinary source of soft power. It helps—even more importantly, perhaps—to ensure the continued prominence of the language of Shakespeare in this year of his 400th anniversary. BBC global news operates in more than 170 countries and was accessed by 283 million people in 2014-15.
It is because the Government recognise how much the BBC matters that we want it to be as efficient and effective as possible. At the time of the last charter review, most households had access to five television channels. Now the BBC has eight channels and one online channel and the media landscape has changed beyond all recognition.
The BBC’s status as a pre-eminent player, both domestically and internationally, is not in doubt. Far from wishing to threaten this status, the Government want to solidify it.
One of the fundamental issues that the White Paper must address is the constitutional basis of the BBC. Some, including my noble friend Lord Fowler, and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, take the view that the royal charter affords too much power to the Government and that the BBC should be established under statute. As I said in the House earlier in the week, the charter has been the basis of the BBC for nearly 90 years, ensuring, in my view, the BBC’s independence. We have consulted on the way the BBC is enshrined and no strong argument has come through in that consultation to change the approach of a charter which has served the BBC well over the past century. That included the Communication Committee’s own report.
Moreover, the BBC Trust has set out concerns about a statutory basis. Far from protecting the BBC, it would mean that the BBC could be subject to amendment, or at least the threat of it, at any time. I agree with the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, who is very experienced, that a statutory approach could in practice be more political and less independent. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, kindly described an array of mechanisms by which legislation that he is hoping to bring forward might secure the independence of the BBC. I share the view that independence is central to the BBC’s future. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested, there are many ways in which the charter may achieve the same effect of securing independence. As someone who has a passion for good government, I am not convinced that legislation is necessarily the way to deliver independence or the best possible outcome for the BBC.
I assure the House that this Administration takes editorial independence extremely seriously. The BBC must have the freedom and independence to take creative risks so that it can inform, educate and entertain. It must be free to be robust and critical in holding power to account through its hard-hitting journalism. The Government have been clear throughout the charter review that independence is not negotiable, and will set out their plans in the White Paper shortly. Of course, the BBC is in receipt of nearly £4 billion— £3.7 billion—of public money, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. It also has a very significant impact on the commercial sector, although it is also important to acknowledge—and I think we should do so—that the BBC spends more than a billion pounds a year in the external creative economy, which I think is absolutely vital.
The White Paper, which we plan to release in May with a view to the new charter being in place for the beginning of next year, will strike a balance between giving the BBC the space and independence it needs to thrive and ensuring that it is efficient and fit for purpose in a much-changed media landscape. It is for this reason that we do not agree with the committee’s suggestion that the licence fee should be set by a regulator. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, the licence fee is essentially a tax and should therefore be government-led. The funding of free licences for the over-75s was agreed between the Government and the BBC. As a public institution in receipt of £3.7 billion a year, it is right that it should play some part in balancing the books.
As Ofcom has noted, some areas of public service broadcasting, such as children’s TV, are at risk, and there have been calls from some quarters to allow part of the licence fee—or some other form of public funding—to be made available for public service broadcasting to organisations other than the BBC. That is the contestable funding model. This could introduce greater competition and allow more creative risks to be taken. We have heard these calls and the concerns articulated so clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, this evening. I share her passion for children’s television, which she has done so much to advance. That model is under discussion and our plans will be set out in the White Paper.
The Communications Committee has also called for future BBC charters to last for 11 years in order to decouple them from the electoral cycle and avoid the review acting as a sword of Damocles, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Best, said. This is an interesting idea, and we are looking at the length of future charters, recognising the need for stability within the fast-changing industry, which several noble Lords have mentioned.
There is widespread acceptance, including from the BBC, that governance has not worked properly. The Jimmy Savile outrage, the excessive payouts mentioned in the debate, the complaints procedure and other failings have naturally caused consternation and concern. The opacity and complexity of the current governance system make it far harder to find out what has gone wrong, and sort it out, than should be the case for such a vitally important and influential institution.
Noble Lords have made it clear that they feel strongly that BBC appointments should be wholly independent of government. The Government currently appoint, through a public appointments process, all members of the BBC Trust. As has been noted, all members of the executive board are appointed by the BBC Trust itself. The independent report published by Sir David Clementi recommended a unitary board for the BBC and found that the Government have a legitimate role in appointments. We are looking at this issue very carefully and will of course set out our proposals in the White Paper.
So far, my noble friend has said that there is basically going to be no change—certainly not to the government control of the charter. But when she and the Government come to make their proposals in the White Paper, is it their intention that they will be put to the vote in the House of Commons and House of Lords?
Does the Minister appreciate that everything that she is saying makes me more and more depressed and convinced that I shall have to introduce a Bill? She has not yet made a single concession to the point that, in a parliamentary democracy, it should not be for the Government wearing the robes of the monarch to make all these decisions; it should be Parliament with external criteria. If the Minister is able to tell the House, or to tell us in a White Paper, that the Government accept the kind of criteria that I have tried to describe, I would not dream of pursuing a Bill, because it could be achieved in other ways. But she has said nothing so far to cheer me up.
I ask a quick but quite important question. I listened very carefully to the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne—there are of course countervailing arguments one way or another for the charter, as against a legislative solution. I put to the Minister that, as we watch the retreat from the possibility of privatisation of Channel 4, I have no doubt whatsoever that this retreat is occasioned by the fact that it would require Parliament’s agreement and that the Government are fully aware that they would never get it. I would suggest in fact that the security of Channel 4 is created by its legislative status—why would that not be true of the BBC?
No decisions have been taken on Channel 4. Obviously I hear what the noble Lord has said; equally, there are arguments on the other side, which I will not weary the House with repeating.
The Committee’s report says that there should be no reduction in the scale and scope of the BBC and that it should not restrict itself to content that is not provided commercially. The Government does not believe that “public service” simply means “minority interest”. The BBC is, as we have all agreed, able to take creative risks that other broadcasters cannot and we certainly want this to continue. It includes the important roles of supporting local democracy and reflecting diversity, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford.
Several people spoke very helpfully on the issue of diversity—the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. The BBC is for everyone and must serve and represent all audiences. The totemic programmes that were mentioned are very important and the new BBC1 drama “Undercover” is another one. Noble Lords can expect to see diversity addressed in the White Paper. Ed Vaizey recently responded to an important debate on that subject in another place and I will pass on the kind comments from noble Lords about his role as a champion of diversity. It is not, in conclusion, for the Government to tell the BBC what programmes it should make, but diversity is of course important.
I also noted with great interest the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in relation to religious programming. Programming about faith and religion has a vital role and, I believe, is an important part of the BBC’s distinctiveness. The BBC itself has acknowledged the importance of distinctiveness.
The BBC is of course a public service and, as a former public servant, I know that it is essential that the BBC delivers value for money for the licence fee payer. The public need to be assured that it is well-managed and that every pound is spent well.
The BBC’s commercial activities are an issue that we are considering as part of the charter review and, to reassure noble Lords, we certainly do not believe that the BBC should refrain at all from commercial activity. This is another issue that we will address in the White Paper.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and to all colleagues for their contributions to an invigorating, if at times challenging, debate. The Communications Committee, along with the whole House, has made a big contribution to the charter review process. Today’s debate adds richly to the deliberations by the Government in the coming weeks and months.
In their concluding comments, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, focused on a range of issues that have been raised today in relation to independence and transparency. I can only say that the Government recognise the importance of an independent BBC and will be setting out their plans to that end in the White Paper.
The BBC—this is common ground—matters a great deal to us all. It is hugely admired around the world and something of which our country can be very proud. The Government want it to be the very best that it can be. The purpose of the charter review and next month’s White Paper is to ensure that it is fit for purpose, able to thrive and serves each and every licence payer and their families outstandingly well.
My Lords, six hours on, I am deeply grateful to everybody for their contributions. I feel privileged to have been part of a succession of contributions from some of the country’s wisest and most experienced politicians and public servants, along with some of our most senior lawyers and most successful and well-known broadcasters, with their unlimited knowledge of the BBC. Together, we have created a collection of essays that will probably be the standard text for students, politicians and policymakers for years to come. We have covered the BBC’s successes: from the Proms and “War and Peace” to “The Great British Bake Off”, from “Panorama” on the Panama papers to murder in “The Archers”, and from the BBC’s Korean service to Larry the Lamb. Almost unanimously, your Lordships have supported and endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of your Communications Committee, for which I am deeply grateful.
It took us until speakers 21 and 22 for the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Maxton, to add a little note of dissent. I will make one comment on the remarks they made. We felt that if the licence fee is to be replaced by a household levy, which may be a better way of collecting the resources needed, that should follow the same transparent and open process in being set as we were recommending for the licence fee itself. It might be a better system but we thought that the process should be the same.
The debate has drawn out some continuing unease that the new unitary board, if that is what emerges from the White Paper, will not be truly independent if the non-executive members are seen as creatures of the Secretary of State, and we will need to watch that very carefully. I am grateful to the Minister for reassuring us to some extent on that, and we await our debate on the White Paper, when we will be able to have a go at that.
We noted also that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is coming out in June. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, may well be bringing before us a Private Member’s Bill to put the BBC on a statutory footing and end what he regards as a ministerial charter. The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, reminded us that a digital economy Bill is also coming, and that is an opportunity for us to comment further on some of these matters. But the White Paper debate itself will be significant, and we look forward to that.
The House has sent out a very clear message to any politician not to meddle or interfere with, micromanage or diminish the BBC. Long may the BBC reflect all the diversity of our nation as it informs, educates and, indeed, entertains us so brilliantly. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 6.41 pm.