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BBC: Brexit

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Civitas publication The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation? and of the BBC's coverage of Brexit, set against its new Charter and guidelines.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, but not as it appears on the speakers list for today.

My Lords, the Government have not made an assessment of the Civitas report The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation?, as the BBC is operationally and editorially independent of the Government. Under its royal charter, the BBC has a duty to deliver impartial and accurate news coverage and content. The BBC is also subject to the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, which requires that news is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality. As the new external regulator of the BBC, Ofcom can also consider complaints relating to the BBC’s output.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that predictably bland reply, but the Brexit Secretary, Mr David Davis, said to me recently that his job in Brussels is made even more difficult if, every time he makes a small advance there, he is promptly undermined by the BBC. Are the Government aware that the BBC cannot give a cross-party group of MPs an example of a single programme since the referendum which has examined Brexit opportunities—not promoted them, just examined them? Secondly, is it acceptable that the BBC has not debated the ideas behind the project of European integration and whether they are still valid today?

The noble Lord comes from a particular viewpoint, and we understand that he takes its coverage very seriously. He knows that the royal charter has made the BBC independent, and it is very important that Ministers do not get involved in the editorial opinions and conduct of the BBC. That independence is guaranteed in Article 3 of the royal charter. Secondly, there is an established complaints procedure. What is different now is that there is a unitary board holding the director-general, who is the editor-in-chief, responsible and that Ofcom, which has a code, is for the first time the BBC’s regulator, so the noble Lord can also complain to Ofcom.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and those of his ilk would not be satisfied if every programme that the BBC broadcast on current affairs started with a litany which said, “Confusion to the Commission and down with the tyrannous EU!”? That would not be enough for them. It is vintage Trump: “I didn’t say it. If I said it, I didn’t mean it. If I said it and meant it, nobody believed it”. It is the last screech of a dying cause.

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is much more balanced than that. He knows that a small portion of Brussels is part of a healthy and balanced diet.

My Lords, I do not blame the Minister for the Answer that he read out, but does he not think as an individual, a private person, that there is something wrong when, out of 4,275 guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132, or 3.2%, were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? Frankly, the BBC has become the supporter of a foreign organisation called the European Union. Could not the Minister quietly whisper in somebody’s ear, “Get your act in order, because you owe a duty of impartiality”?

I agree with my noble friend that the BBC owes a duty of impartiality. I do not think anyone is particularly interested in my views as a private person, but as a Minister I care that Ministers keep out of editorial decisions. This question of impartiality is largely a matter of opinion. For example, I happened to read a letter to a pro-European website, which complained that the BBC had put Nigel Farage on Question Time 31 times since the programme began.

My Lords, following on from that, does the Minister not agree that every political party, including my own, and factions within every political party complain about BBC coverage, particularly on Brexit? Yet the BBC has clearly been successful in following the impartiality guidelines put forward in the new charter.

I think the BBC does a very difficult job well, but it is for members of the public, including noble Lords, to follow the complaints procedure—which is easy to do. The BBC receives, I think, 200,000 comments on its programmes per year. As I said before, Ofcom is there to make sure they stay within the code.

My Lords, as we abandon EU institutions, does the Minister agree that we should be bolstering rather than bashing our great British institutions? One of the most internationally respected and well-known of those that need bolstering is the BBC.

The BBC needs support when it does things well; it also needs to get its house in order when it does things wrongly.

My Lords, having referred to Mr Nigel Farage, does the Minister agree that, if by some chance Mr Farage were to become leader of UKIP once again, he has already had his quota of appearances at the BBC?

My noble friend referred to the complaints procedure of the BBC. Can he quote any instances where complaints about political bias have been upheld?

My Lords, is it not the case that, when somebody complains about political bias in the media, it is normally because they do not like what the person they are listening to is saying, rather than because of any real bias? In the days of fake news, does the Minister not accept that people have more faith in the BBC and national newspapers than in social media, which is completely unregulated, with anyone saying what they want? The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, referred to the “Today” programme—some of us rather admire the way presenters on the “Today” programme interrogate people, whatever their views or political persuasion.

The noble Baroness is right: trust in media sources is measured each year by a survey, which clearly shows that the public believes radio and television more than it believes social media. Radio and television get a 74% to 77% approval rating, whereas social media gets a mere 15%. Members of the public are not fools.