Skip to main content

Public Service Broadcasting Online

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by Ofcom Review of prominence for public service broadcasting: Recommendations to Government for a new framework to keep PSB TV prominent in an online world, published on 4 July 2019, what plans they have to introduce legislation to ensure the prominence of public service broadcasting online.

My Lords, the Government have engaged with industry to understand fully the impact of Ofcom’s proposals. The Government remain committed to acting on Ofcom’s prominence recommendations, including through legislation. It is important to ensure that prominence and the balance of benefits and obligations support a sustainable future for PSBs. These issues will be considered as part of the Government’s strategic review of PSBs, where we will set out the next steps next year.

I thank the Minister as usual for her response. As stated in the Ofcom report published yesterday on the future of PSBs, viewers of all ages and backgrounds value PSBs. The pandemic has highlighted their importance as trusted sources of information, and they will be equally important going forward into a vaccine phase. Does the Minister agree that for viewers to continue to be able to find them across the many connected, ever-changing devices that now exist, they must be kept prominent? Otherwise, what we watch will be dictated by the interests of global tech giants, not the interests of our society. Can the Minister reassure the House that this Government are committed to public service broadcasting, that they recognise that introducing this long overdue—

I am afraid that the noble Baroness has been asking for far too long. Can we please keep questions short to give everybody a chance to ask their question?

I will reiterate briefly what I have already said. Of course, the Government have always supported public service broadcasting and continue to do so. We are conducting a wide-ranging review but remain committed to legislation in relation to prominence.

[Inaudible]—of high-quality content made for UK viewers, including current affairs. Does the Minister agree that this is more important than ever, given the amount of dangerous propaganda that those with malign intent pump out on social media all the time?

I apologise for missing the beginning of the noble Baroness’s question, but I think I got the gist of it. The Government take the importance of impartial and reliable information very seriously and, conversely, are clamping down on both misinformation and disinformation. We have made good progress with social media platforms in this regard.

My Lords, I am absolutely delighted by the Minister’s answers. Does she share with me a sense that us all having access to a truthful public service broadcaster is an essential component of keeping a coherent and happier society?

My noble friend is right to raise these points. Indeed, it is vital also for practical reasons. Given that just over half of the country have access to a video-on-demand service, the role of public service broadcasting continues to be crucial.

I declare my interests as noted in the register. Can the Minister confirm that there will be a special focus, in the strategic review that she mentioned was coming next year, on the relationship between young people, public service broadcasting and information? With just two minutes a day of news being consumed by people under 24, as other noble Lords have said, the case for the veracity of news and the authenticity of information is so important at the moment.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Obviously, I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of that committee, but across our legislative programme, the importance of children and young people is pre-eminent.

I raise the issue of urgency about this Bill. There are two circumstances: first, as has already been said, the increasing abundance of fake news on the internet, with its damaging effect on public trust; and, secondly, the renewed sense of civic responsibility engendered by the pandemic. Will the Minister press the Government to seize the moment and give a date when they will introduce this timely legislation?

The Government are actively working with all the key stakeholders in this area—the TV manufacturers, the platform gatekeepers and the PSBs—but I am afraid I cannot give the noble Baroness a firm date.

My Lords, will the Minister explain to some of the Neanderthals on her own Benches in both Houses that support for public service broadcasting includes giving stimulation to our creative industries and giving voice to our national and regional identities in ways that the big international providers never will?

I have to say that I do not recognise the description the noble Lord gives of either my noble friends behind me or those in the other place. We absolutely recognise the importance of the investment in our creative industries of more than £2.5 billion a year, and we welcome that and the ecosystem it creates.

In my Neanderthal fashion, I have found that BBC Radio 3 has been the mainstay of my life for nearly 50 years, and it is a fine example of public service broadcasting—but in recent years, it has been infected by a sort of relentless “wokeness”, which is a tendency of public service broadcasting. So, while my noble friend is correctly promoting the prominence of PSB, will she also tell us what she will do to try to ensure that it meets a broader spectrum of cultural views across the country?

I think that the new director-general, and the most recent comments from Ofcom, support my noble friend’s final comments about breadth of views and voices—but, as he will know, the BBC is editorially independent, so decisions in relation to Radio 3 rest with it.

My Lords, British broadcasting relies to a significant extent on keeping the funding of public service broadcasters separate. What response do the Government have to the decline of mass advertising revenue referred to in the Small Screen: Big Debate consultation recently issued?

I think that the Government are concerned, and my colleagues in the department are working closely with the industry to understand what a sustainable funding model looks like.

The Ofcom report on prominence recommends that there may need to be new obligations to ensure the continued availability of PSB on-demand content to viewers equivalent to the existing “must offer” and “must carry” rules for PSBs’ traditional channels. What plans are there for the PSBs to be available on a wide range of platforms?

The noble Viscount raises an important point. Our view is that this is a commercial issue between the platforms and the PSBs. We will continue to keep it under review as part of our review of the future of PSBs, but in the meantime, we hope that they will achieve a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Will the Minister give an assurance that the Welsh language channel S4C will be defended? We depend on the licence fee and are supported by up to £70 million a year in that way. If there is any change, Welsh language broadcasting will be in danger.

My Lords, I would be deeply comforted by the noble Baroness’s answers this afternoon if it were not for the fact that the Secretary of State has established an advisory panel whose membership, it has to be said, is imbalanced in terms of their experience, history and known views. What is the role of the advisory panel in sustaining PSB when so many members are clearly against it?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question. Obviously, all members of the panel are expected to operate in an independent capacity. Their role is in relation t advising the Government on some of the complex policy issues, with which the noble Lord is very familiar.