Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I begin by congratulating the Minister on his re-emergence, which is just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of daily broadcasting on the BBC. If, using the TARDIS from “Doctor Who”, Lord Reith could travel to a modern home, he would be amazed by flatscreen TVs, computers and smart speakers, which are all capable of delivering some or all of the BBC’s output. This now includes nine TV channels, 10 national radio stations and a network of local radio stations, a huge web presence and a large archive of programmes—all readily available for just 44p per day.
He would be equally amazed to learn that what he knew as the Empire Service now delivers reliable and trusted international news and other programming in more than 40 languages, projecting soft power around the world. He would be amazed to hear that BBC services reach 492 million people a week, making it the world’s largest broadcaster by reach. He would be impressed by the BBC’s contribution to our world-beating creative industries through investment, skills, training and, not least, BBC-led innovations such as iPlayer, which trailblazed for the global streamers and the creation of a new market for video on demand.
Reith would also see, with Bitesize, CBeebies, “Panorama”, “Frozen Planet”, “Strictly Come Dancing” and the “BBC Proms”, that the principles of “inform, educate and entertain” remain, as does the power to show us what it is to be part of the United Kingdom and to bring people together, as it did during the Queen’s funeral. He would be proud to learn that many believe that the BBC is the best and most trusted broadcaster in the world. It is probably our best gift to the world. Even rivals are complimentary. Netflix, for example, has said:
“The impact that the BBC has had over the last few decades in building the profile of the UK creatively, in nurturing talent, its investment in production and so forth”.
Reith would also learn that we now have other public service broadcasters. We have ITV, STV, UTV, S4C, Channel 5 and Channel 4, which had its 40th anniversary just yesterday. I note that as part of Channel 4’s celebrations it has guest presenters for its longest-running show, “Countdown”, and my noble friend Lady Benjamin in the hot seat this week.
However, with much to marvel at, Reith would also learn, in true “Doctor Who” style, that there are enemies incoming and PSB problems are multiplying. For example, take the Government’s attitude to the BBC. On these Benches, as critical friends, we support a strong, well-funded and independent BBC and oppose attempts to undermine it by seeking to reduce its funding or remit. Yet, we have seen sadly moves by the Conservative Government that have meant the BBC having to do more with less licence fee income. There has been a 30% cut over the past 12 years following the freeze on the licence fee from 2010. There are also rising production costs and new obligations such as funding free licences for the over-75s—a social policy that should be funded by government. Even now, controversial changes to news and local radio stations are being made which other noble Lords will mention. The BBC is rightly adapting to the digital world, but there can be little doubt that changes would have been done differently had its budget not been so severely cut.
Conservative antipathy to the BBC is perhaps not surprising. After all, it was Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings who called for the
“end of the BBC in its current form”.
He advised right-wingers to work towards undermining the credibility of the BBC because it is the “mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party. No wonder we have seen repeated attempts to do so from right-wing politicians, think tanks and media organisations—many of whom have a vested interest.
Wider challenges face all PSBs. In return for spectrum allocation and guaranteed prominence on electronic programme guides for linear TV, PSBs are required to meet numerous obligations. These include being free at the point of delivery, providing impartial news and current affairs and distinctly British content, commissioning a minimum number of programmes from independent producers outside the M25 and being available on all platforms.
However, with change occurring at an unprecedented pace, they now face stiff competition from hundreds of other channels and online services. Subscription video on demand—SVoD—services, such as Amazon Prime and Netflix, operate globally, with strategic advantages in financing, data and economies of scale. They have enjoyed rapid success and are unencumbered by such obligations. The effects of this, such as the hyper-inflation of production costs, mean that some PSBs are questioning whether they should remain PSBs. We should be clear about what we would lose: there would probably be less original journalism from ITV and Channel 5, for example, and certainly less British content.
Currently, the PSBs combined produce far more original UK home-grown content than the streamers, producing 35,000 hours in the last 12 months to April, compared with only 831 hours produced by Netflix and Amazon Prime combined. If some channels ceased to be PSBs, it would inevitably lead to a reduction in home-grown content and increased reliance on US-made programmes. As the Select Committee said three years ago:
“Our evidence overwhelmingly indicated that public service broadcasting is as important as ever to our democracy and culture, as well as to the UK’s image on the world stage.”
So we must urgently address the challenges.
The April White Paper, Up Next: The Government’s Vision for the Broadcasting Sector, also recognises the challenges and proposes a range of solutions. I agree with some and disagree with others, such as the plans for Channel 4. But, given the urgent need for action, it is disturbing that there is no sign of the media Bill. On Tuesday, DCMS Minister Julia Lopez said that her department was keen to bring it forward, so can the Minister explain who is blocking it? We urgently need the opportunity to agree measures to ensure that we continue to reap the democratic, cultural and economic benefits of PSBs.
I turn to some of the measures that I believe are needed. The first is really easy and requires no money or legislation: simply stop putting the BBC down. It makes an enormous contribution to our culture and democracy, it is held in great affection at home and it is admired the world over. We should be immensely proud of that achievement. Of course, we cannot be complacent and must exercise vigilance over the spending of the public’s money. But let us not confuse accountability with the kind of full-throated attacks frequently heard in the right-wing press and occasionally, dare I say, from the Benches opposite. We should be more willing to celebrate than condemn.
Secondly, we should think creatively about alternative methods of funding the BBC, while ensuring that it continues to be universally available, free at the point of use and the benchmark for quality, range, innovation and training. I serve on the Communications and Digital Committee, the current and past chairs of which I am pleased to see in their places. The committee’s recent report on BBC funding outlined the options that we felt were plausible substitutes for the licence fee and those that we felt should be dismissed. I will not rehearse those arguments here—others may well do so—but we need careful cross-party consideration of those options to ensure that the BBC continues to be an integral part of British life well into the 21st century.
Incidentally, while the Government may wish to explore a contestable fund for additional high-quality UK-produced material, such as the trial carried out on the young audiences content fund, this should be totally separate from financing the BBC. That financing process should be independent and transparent, whether for the licence fee or for whatever succeeds it. In 2019, the Select Committee said that
“the integrity of the licence fee has been undermined by a succession of settlements which were carried out in secret and which have tended to disadvantage the BBC.”
It is time to end those clandestine negotiations, which are bad for the BBC and the country.
Thirdly, our public service broadcasters play a vital role in bringing international stories to UK audiences, informing them about urgent global issues and connecting them with people, places, events and concerns far beyond our national borders. Such a role is especially crucial given the danger of a post-Brexit Britain becoming ever more inward-looking and insular and so must continue to be enshrined in the remits of all PSBs.
Fourthly, we need to end the nonsense of Channel 4 privatisation. This was a particular obsession of Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries, with virtually no support from the industry or from audiences. Your Lordships’ committee was clear that launching consultation on privatisation and stating that privatisation was the Government’s preferred option was “not the right approach”. It went on:
“The Government should have set out its vision for the future of public service broadcasting as a whole before examining what place Channel 4 should have in that ecosystem, and which business model it needs to realise that role.”
Yet the current Secretary of State is apparently reviewing the business case for privatisation as we speak, without any of the key decisions about the future of PSB having been made. I hope the Minister can explain why that is.
On these Benches, we are clear that a privately owned Channel 4 would mean a corporate owner maximising its return to shareholders rather than investing in programmes; it would mean less innovation, an inevitable reduction in serious peak-time news, fewer commissions to small, independent producers, and less investment in the nations and regions. Pulling the rug from under Channel 4 will not just impact one broadcaster; it will harm the whole sector. Privatisation was always a solution in search of a problem; it should go the same way as its initial sponsors.
Fifthly, as both BBC and ITV have warned, there is a risk that, soon, “crown jewel” sporting events will be available only on subscription services. I share their view that urgent changes are required to the listed events regime to avoid this happening.
Sixthly, there needs to be a proper inquiry, perhaps led by Ofcom, into which platforms PSBs should be obliged to provide their content to and whether they are getting fair value for it.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we urgently need to update the prominence regime so that content from PSBs is easily discoverable in the digital age. There is little point in placing content obligations on broadcasters if audiences are unable to find that content. It is three years since Ofcom called for new legislation to keep PSB content prominent on both linear and on-demand television. Three years on, at last we have the promised new prominence framework in the long-awaited media Bill—yet another reason why it should be introduced as a matter of urgency.
Our PSBs, not least the BBC, are the envy of the world, but they are operating in a rapidly changing landscape. If their reputation is to be maintained, urgent changes must be made to the way we support and regulate them. The proposed media Bill is long awaited. Let us hope the wait will be soon over so we can debate it and then agree measures to ensure a PSB sector fit for the new broadcasting age. I beg to move.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Parkinson on his return to the Front Bench, and I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, on an excellent opening and scene-setting speech to this debate.
I was at an event last night—I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, also attended—at which the Secretary of State, Michelle Donelan, committed to bringing forward the media Bill very soon. As my noble friend the Minister knows, and I hope agrees, I believe that there is a strong case for a pro-growth media Bill that combines the prominence measures, which the noble Lord, Lord Foster, has just described, with the digital competition measures, which are also critical not just to the PSBs but to newspapers, publishers and UK tech businesses. These measures form part of another long-promised but still-to-be-seen Bill, so I hope that my noble friend the Minister can say something meaningful about all these things when he comes to wind up.
However, as important and urgent as prominence is for public service broadcasters and radio networks on digital platforms and smart TVs, it is also important to be clear that it is nothing more than a short-term solution. Prominence alone is not the answer to the real challenges facing the future of public service broadcasting. As much as we may feel sentimental towards our broadcasting institutions or specific channels, we cannot escape that the PSBs’ share of UK video viewing has fallen from 97% in 2010 to 63% this year, and it is currently predicted to fall to 50% by 2027. The broadcasters are all responding to this challenge: digital first is the main strategic shift that each is having to adopt, which is why prominence is so important. While I would not for one moment suggest that this is easy and without its challenges, this is a commercial imperative or a survival strategy.
When it comes to the bigger challenge of safeguarding the value of public service broadcasting to society, institutional preservation for the sake of it is not the place to start. There needs to be some big thinking about what public service broadcasting means in the next quarter of the 21st century, and the best way to deliver it, taking account of not just the changing viewing habits of audiences, and the young in particular, but the dissatisfaction of some sections of society who feel that their lives and perspectives are patronised and not seriously represented.
I believe that the broadcasters themselves should take the lead in being radical in the solutions they propose. As politicians, we should be demanding that they be clearer than ever before what the point of them is in this highly competitive media world, and calling on them to set out how the structure of public service broadcasting should change for it to continue delivering value for society. That includes asking whether we still need four public service broadcasters—each independently owned—to deliver distinctively British quality programming that binds us together as a nation. It requires the BBC—as the Communications and Digital Committee has called for—to come forward with its own vision for the future, driven by a clear strategic purpose and costed options for how best to deliver benefit to the nation, as well as how to fund it. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, referred to the report on Channel 4 by the Select Committee I chair—although it was chaired at that time by my noble friend Lord Gilbert—and we were clear that we did not object in principle to its privatisation, although we did question its urgency. If Channel 4 is not to be privatised, it requires its board, if it is to respond to these challenges, to propose new ways for it to be financially sustainable and deliver value that is distinctive from commercial broadcasters. For public service broadcasting to face all these challenges, competition regulators are required to think differently and not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Finally, it requires us, as politicians, not to blindly defend the status quo or engage in a political battle about the licence fee or Channel 4 privatisation, which only encourages the BBC or Channel 4 to keep their heads down and hope that, if we keep fighting, big decisions about funding or ownership models will remain unmade. Clearly, financial pressures are forcing the BBC and others to make changes now, ahead of any long-term strategic decisions, but these seemingly piecemeal decisions serve to illustrate the danger of the BBC waiting to define its strategic purpose to inform decisions about how it needs to change. We might worry about changes to, say, local radio, because we cannot see how they relate to a bigger picture.
It is because I believe in the importance of public service broadcasting to a cohesive society and our prosperity as a nation that I am demanding radical thinking about its future. I do not want solutions to be left to us politicians; I want the broadcasters themselves to be emboldened by us to lead the way and to depoliticise the debate. We all need to recognise that this is urgent and that raising these questions is not some kind of attack; it is the only way of safeguarding something that is important to all of us. I hope that my noble friend the Minister—back in his rightful place—can give me some assurance that the Government understand this and are acting accordingly.
My Lords, 1922 was a very special year. It was the year The Waste Land was published and saw the birth of Philip Larkin and the creation of the BBC—cultural events that echo still to this day. My contribution is going to be about the BBC and my personal experience of it. I first worked for the BBC in the 1950s when I made the sound effects for the horses’ hooves in radio drama. I have gone on to have a varied career in all segments of the BBC, largely working with the creative community, of whom I have a continuing and varied experience. I have been close to them and not to the administrators—of whom the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, is a distinguished one—so I speak from that community.
What do I see of the BBC now? I see the BBC living in fear. It lives in fear of government and government interference and change for the worst. It lives in fear of the right-wing press and its effect on public opinion, always vocal in damning the BBC for the slightest errors and undermining public trust in a national institution. It lives in fear of the public reputation and in fear of the other platforms and the changing landscape of the world of broadcasting; quite rightly, so it needs handling.
What is the consequence that I perceive in the behaviour of the BBC today? I see it as overmanaged, overloaded with managers trying to answer these fears that it harbours. I see too many people designated to sign off programmes—person after person—to sign off a creative enterprise whose managers are perfectly able to deliver in the first instance. I see a timidity from the BBC, overcautiousness about what you can say and how much daring you can display. The great triumph of the BBC throughout the 1950s and 1960s was its openness to adventure and daring and that is where it culled its huge reputation. Now, it drives away people such as Andrew Marr and Emily Maitlis who are fearful of expressing an opinion for fear of overstepping the new rules that apply.
I wish—and this is not the arena to say this—that the BBC had more courage to face down these fears. I call on the Government to endorse the values that existed at the founding of the BBC. I interviewed Lord Reith in this building at the end of his life when he expressed to me how much he regretted that jazz had ever been allowed on the radio. He felt that it was the beginning of the corruption. You can be wrong.
I would like the Government to acknowledge positively the role of the BBC today. The BBC has a global brand, an enviable one in the world of brand making; there is nothing to match it. It has global reach: it reaches into Ukraine; it reaches into China; it reaches everywhere, and it has a say. It is a soft power of incalculable value. Ask any of the diplomats. Ask our foreign embassies. They will tell you how much the BBC is valued as part of our diplomatic contribution to the world.
What is more, the BBC has the trust of the public. The public snipe at the BBC; that is what you do with those you love. Overall, the approval rating for the BBC is extremely high, and it is very precious. Unless we endorse it in a positive way, unless the Government say how they agree with the values of the BBC, then it will slide down the reputational ladder in our society. We cannot afford for it to lose heart and to give way to these fears that it harbours. I call on the Government to endorse the BBC and its values and encourage it to hold fast.
My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Foster on his masterful opening and my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter on her success in gaining this slot for our debate. I will not say anything about the return of the Minister, because the last time we shared a debate I congratulated him on his independence of mind and clear thinking, and then he was gone—I will keep quiet this time. What I will say is what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. She is a proud daughter of Stockport, of which I was an MP, and Stockport is proud of her. I have to be careful about exactly how I describe what she means to my generation, so I will play it safe by saying simply that today’s feisty, self-confident female presenters stand on her shoulders and benefit from the path that she helped to pioneer for women in broadcasting.
This afternoon, as has been said, we celebrate the establishment of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922 and the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927. Having listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, I remind us all again that it was a Conservative Government who established the BBC as a public corporation, protected by royal charter, with John Reith’s brilliant mantra—“inform, educate and entertain”—as its mission statement. It is important to remember that it was the conscious will of Parliament to distort the market in this way, as it has done ever since. Indeed, it was under Conservative Governments that the remit of public service broadcasting was extended, by the introduction first of ITV and then of Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C. It is a reminder to Conservative Members of Parliament, in both Houses, that they do not have be hostile to the BBC.
Because public service broadcasting—and the BBC in particular—has been so successful in its mission it has, as has been said, been under sustained attack on two fronts. Those on the right wing of the Conservative Party hate it because it is publicly owned and well regulated. They are aided and abetted by a clutch of right-wing newspapers, all owned by tax exiles, who lust after the public service audiences—the eyeballs and ears they can turn into hard cash if public service broadcasting can be marginalised, as it has been in some other countries.
Meanwhile, we have to face the fact that, for the last decade and more, the BBC, under successive Governments, including the one of which I was a member, has had to manage successive squeezes on its funding. As has been said, the BBC has had to manage a 30% cut in its funding over the last decade. At the same time, the BBC has had to take on, as my noble friend Lord Foster said, tasks such as funding licences for the elderly, and the BBC World Service, neither of which should be charged to the licence fee. Unfortunately, the BBC insists on presenting all aspects of its cost-cutting as part of some shiny new vision in this new digital age. The corporation should be more up front about its various reforms and contractions and the very real funding constraints that it faces.
This morning, I sat in on a briefing by the BBC on the changes being planned for local radio. The proposals received a rough ride from a cross-section of Labour and Conservative MPs, all jealous to protect their local services—and rightly so. But there was an elephant in the room: if not local radio, where should the axe fall? The truth is that there is only a limited number of services that cutting Gary Lineker’s salary can cover.
The problem with understanding what the BBC is doing across the board is that it means we are acquiescing in a steady marginalisation of the BBC—the very agenda that Rupert Murdoch and other financial interests, along with the right wing of the Conservative Party, want to see.
I am particularly concerned by the proposal for it to close the BBC News channel and BBC World News and replace them with a single, global-focused channel next year. To lose a 24/7 UK news channel when major commercial competitors are tooling up to provide opinionated news channels is a major retreat by the BBC. I hope that Ofcom will examine these proposals with all due rigour and use the public interest powers that the Puttnam committee, of which I was a member, put into its arsenal at its formation 20 years ago. Meanwhile, parliamentarians in both Houses and the parties they represent have to be clear about the future funding of the BBC and the protections offered to it and other public service broadcasters.
Most of all, we need a clear commitment that public service broadcasters, and the BBC in particular, will have the support they need to continue to provide the iron pole of quality around which the ecology of our creative industries can flourish.
My Lords, public service broadcasting works in the UK within a wide framework of duties and responsibilities. These include strict rules on content, range, outreach, implementation and funding. The BBC is also bound by the royal charter, which sets out its objectives, mission and purposes. While we have a free broadcast media, it is monitored and regulated by Ofcom.
The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s 2021 report The Future of Public Service Broadcasting identified three core principles within public service broadcasting: universality of access, accuracy and impartiality, and freedom from government interference or political pressure. In a subsequent report in 2021, the same committee considered that the Communications Act 2003 had been overtaken by huge changes in online digital broadcasting and should no longer be considered fit for purpose. There is a dilemma: how best to amend legislation which pre-dates the rise of streaming platforms and is therefore outdated, and how new funding models might enable relevant and accessible public service broadcasting to compete effectively with the giant online platforms that remain as yet largely unregulated.
The overall consensus is that new primary legislation is now required to replace the 2003 Act, if only to keep pace with broader industry and economic trends and hundreds of other competing channels and online services. However, all the existing safeguards must be retained and perhaps even strengthened. A media Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech in May 2022 and foreshadowed in the Government’s White Paper, is likely to encompass the core principles of public service broadcasting—to be renamed public service media—through new regulatory powers to enforce codes for on-demand videos and stricter rules on potentially harmful material. When the Bill arrives, I am sure it will be much debated.
Meanwhile, the BBC is the only major provider that relies entirely on the annual licence fee, which makes it uniquely vulnerable to political pressure. As we have heard, the BBC licence fee is currently frozen and remains under review, but it is 30% lower in real terms than it was a decade ago. The BBC has found savings approaching £1 billion over the past five years, but it will need to reduce its budget further, by approximately £300 million, before the end of this decade. However, reorganising and recreating models that satisfactorily relay public service broadcasting on both linear and online services will be very expensive.
While acknowledging the fall in listener and viewer numbers in the past five years, the BBC remains a key public service broadcasting provider around the world and the BBC director-general has announced plans to deal with competition and reduced budgets, staff and broadcasting hours while maintaining its crucial public service broadcasting role. These plans, which anticipate the closure of the BBC News channel and BBC World News, the latter funded by subscription and advertising, in favour of a rolling news service, will be fiercely resisted—not least because the new service will be a commercial venture and potentially therefore precluded from licence fee funding.
Colleagues in this Chamber have spoken, and no doubt will speak, with warmth and affection about the BBC World Service and its immense soft power. This is not, I would say, sentimentality; it is a hard, factual appreciation of the gem we have. I remember being extremely moved many years ago in Khartoum when that city simply went silent in order to listen to the 1 pm news, and not much has changed; I think that still happens the world over. In more recent times, the figures for listeners have shot up during world crises such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The reasons for this are obvious but worth restating: in an environment of disinformation, misinformation, half-truths and fantasy, the BBC is trusted.
The world’s most respected broadcaster and one of the UK’s key democratic institutions faces a bleak future in the absence of realistic funding. If public service broadcasting is to be given the importance to our democracy and to our culture that it deserves, together with the cost of maintaining linear broadcasting and expanding online on-demand services, it is vital that the Government provide sufficient funds. It is astonishing to me that the Government would even think of limiting or undermining such a powerful channel of UK influence. Instead, they should be ensuring its long-term security, to enable the BBC, including the World Service, to streamline its public service broadcasting for future decades.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this very important debate. Before saying anything further on the theme, I want to express thanks to and admiration for those who prepared the Library briefing. I have been knocking around these issues for a couple of decades, and this briefing is a model of narrative accuracy and concision.
Public service broadcasting in the UK is unique on the planet and one area in which this country is genuinely a world leader, which is why it is so important that, in the centenary year of the BBC and the day after the 40th birthday of Channel 4, we assess the value of what we have and steel ourselves against the ideologically driven impulse to diminish it. Yesterday, I asked a friend who works in public service broadcasting what she would focus on in a debate such as this. Her response was immediate: imagine a world without it. That is, imagine a world in which broadcasting serves only narrow cultural or political interests and is subject purely to commercial or transactional persuasion. I might put it like this: look at broadcasting in the United States. Price is not the same as value.
The broadcasting landscape has changed, as has been noted by a number of speakers, and is changing by the day. Technology drives both the pace and nature of such change, but there remain principles which, if neglected or sold down the river to the highest bidder, will sell our culture short—and not just the UK’s but that of the global audience who rely on the BBC for accuracy and integrity. Does it get it wrong sometimes? Yes, obviously; but it is also open to scrutiny, challenge and critique. To understand the global importance of the BBC and what the loss of soft power might look like, just ask Arabic speakers what they think of the recent decision to close our Arabic service, at a time when it is most needed.
The main point about PSB is surely that, as the report by the House of Commons DCMS Committee makes clear, it is characterised by universality of access, accuracy and impartiality, and independence. It is surely not coincidental that we read on the walls of New Broadcasting House the words of George Orwell:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
For this freedom to be guaranteed, there needs to be a well-resourced facility for universality of access, accuracy and impartiality—which is not the same as neutrality—and independence.
Yes, technology has changed everything, and it is timely that there should be some serious scrutiny of legislation for a rapidly moving digital and legal world. But, as I wrote in a newspaper article some years ago,
“If the BBC needs to hear what it doesn’t want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform PSB cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries that are not admired for their democratic credentials.”
As we have heard, PSB is not the sole preserve of the BBC. The landscape has changed; there are different media with differing offerings, which are funded by different models. This provides a balance that is precarious and must be respected. Please can the Minister update us on the future of the media Bill, particularly the threat to privatise Channel 4, which is a clear success story of the last 40 years and for which there is no popular mandate to privatise?
Following the appointment of the new Prime Minister, the Government said the Secretary of State was
“carefully considering the business case for a sale of Channel 4”.
Might I suggest that business is not the only case to be considered here?
The Minister might like to help us with further questions. For example, how will the current drastic squeeze on BBC local broadcasting impact local democracy, community cohesion and accuracy of reporting? How will the drastic squeeze on the BBC World Service, and its consequent reduction in service, impact UK soft power in parts of the world where our reputation as a leading democratic and free nation is fragile, and matters?
Young people are accessing the BBC less than ever, but does this not emphasise the need to reach them more effectively with PSB, rather than simply diminishing its resources according to some numbers equation that takes little account of power that cannot be cashed out in a profit and loss spreadsheet? If PSB is reduced as a source of public funding—my assumption here is not incidental—what does this say about the encouragement and nurturing of a new and younger generation of journalists and programme makers who need to embody cultural values, not just technical skills? Do the Government value the fact-checking credibility of the BBC in a world being flooded with disinformation, with a serious impact on truth, democracy and culture?
A reform of legislation may be needed in the wake of radical technological change, to say nothing of the wild west of digital streaming and social media, but please will His Majesty’s Government commit to ensuring the cultural and democratic future of PSB in the UK, in order that we do not lose what has taken a century to build, but could be lost in weeks?
I join noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on initiating this debate. We live in an increasingly dangerous world, and the soft power provided by the BBC and the British Council is invaluable. That this Government seem to be increasingly cutting back both the British Council and the BBC is unrealistic and increases the dangers to this country.
During the Labour Party conference, the BBC World Service held a breakfast during which they explained and demonstrated what the World Service was doing in its coverage of news from Ukraine. I am sure they did it at the Tory party conference as well, but it was interesting how the brave reporters of the BBC were reporting on what was happening in dangerous areas of Ukraine.
Many years ago, I paid a brief visit to Myanmar and I talked to some people from a hill tribe. They told me they get one hour of local language news a week, and that is what they live for. That is what they get from the outside world. I was also in China some years ago, and I did what many of us do when we are abroad: I switched on my iPad to get the “Today” programme, allowing for the time difference. All I got was some local Chinese radio stations. Clearly, they did not like the idea of making BBC radio programmes available.
The thing that shocks me most is that there is now a threat to the Persian language service. At a time when the brave people of Iran are demonstrating against their foul regime, risking their lives to speak up for freedom and wanting our help and support, what are we thinking of doing? Cutting back our service to them. That is absolutely unacceptable. Whether it is the Government cutting back on the BBC or the BBC deciding, that is surely the wrong decision. We know that the voice of the BBC, and those of our other public service broadcasters, are the voices of democracy and democratic values—and, indeed, they encourage positive attitudes towards this country.
As I understand it, the BBC is the biggest global news provider: 36% of people listen to the BBC; 67% of global business decision-makers use it; and its reach is nearly 500 million people. As has already been said, the BBC is now facing cuts of 30% compared with a decade ago, and I understand that the threat to close the news channel and BBC World News and create a new rolling news service will mean 70 fewer journalists. The BBC cuts threaten 450 posts altogether.
Are we not damaging one of the most powerful institutions in this country in seeking to weaken the BBC? We have already lumbered it with the licence fee for over-75s, and there is a freeze on its future income. There is a debate, encouraged by the Tory party, on whether the licence fee should survive at all, and local radio is also threatened. This is not the way forward. The potential cuts apparently represent a loss of about £5 billion, with possibly 50,000 jobs to be lost.
What about the independent production sector? We have one of the most vibrant such sectors in the world, and it relies heavily on the BBC for investment, training creative talent, apprenticeships and so on. That will be weakened. We have creative industries all over the country, in Salford, Bristol, Birmingham, the north-east and elsewhere, and they are also being threatened.
The BBC is such a valuable institution. As has been mentioned already, anybody who goes to the States and watches and listens to what is on will find Fox News. Heaven preserve us from Fox News; it is like an old Soviet propaganda-style broadcaster. Let us be grateful that we have higher standards here so far.
Channel 4 also supports the independent production sector. I do not understand the ideology that drives forward the wish to privatise Channel 4. It does not cost the public sector anything, and it provides a decent service. If the Government proceed to privatise Channel 4, what assurance can we have that it will not be bought by one of these American companies, or other companies? What is the benefit to us as individuals or as a country if Channel 4, a successful broadcaster, is bought by some overseas company? What is the point of that? What is the benefit? None at all. Of course, the public service broadcasting sector also covers ITV, which is doing pretty well.
So we seem to be moving backwards. Please let us think again before we throw away some of the most valuable features of life in this country.
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Foster on initiating this debate and, in particular, on provoking some fine contributions so far. The much-respected Sir Peter Bazalgette, who has just stepped down as chairman of ITV, said in his Hay Lecture last month:
“Our viewing is so much richer than it used to be and the streamers have hugely enhanced this … Long may we have a system of broadcasting designed to deliver this.”
The streamers have returned the compliment:
“The impact that the BBC has had over the last few decades in building the profile of the UK creatively, in nurturing talent, its investment in production and so forth, is one of the key reasons why we have chosen to make our home here and … why we are such strong supporters of what it does and want to see it continue doing.”
That was Benjamin King, director of public policy for Netflix UK and Ireland, giving evidence to the Commons DCMS Committee back in 2020 in its inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting.
Anne Mensah, vice-president of original series at Netflix, who used to work at the BBC, went further, and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, notes this. She was asked if she thought the licence fee was a sustainable way forward for the BBC in the long term. She said:
“I absolutely believe in the long-term sustainability of the BBC. I love the BBC. I think that it makes some of the best shows, if you look at what it has done this year from ‘I May Destroy You’ to ‘A Suitable Boy’. I back the idea of having a UK creative economy that is built on a number of different models from subscription through to licence. I would hate to see the BBC diminished in its impact in the UK.”
Much the same could be said of the importance of commercial PSBs, such as Channel 4 and ITV. That is why the majority Conservative and Conservative-chaired committee concluded its report by saying:
“The strong, varied public service broadcasting ecology in the UK has played a significant role in the growth of the production sector in the UK. PSBs have been described as underpinning the wider creative economy and whilst SVoDs are beginning to invest more in production in the UK, the number of UK-originated content hours is hardly comparable.”
It is clear that we need a plurality of provision. Each has an important place in our broadcast ecosystem and they are interdependent. They rely on different funding mechanisms and that is a strength, not a weakness.
As Ofcom’s recent report into how the PSBs have delivered for UK audiences states, the amount and range of first-run original UK programmes on the PSBs
“far outweighs what is available on other commercial broadcast channels and the global streaming services.”
It also notes that the streaming services
“do not offer the same mix of original UK content as broadcast services, consisting of predominantly US produced drama and comedy programmes”.
The report, Public Service Broadcasting: As Vital as Ever, from the Select Committee on Communications and Digital—whose chair and former chair are present—concluded that
“TV which reflects UK culture is in demand at home and abroad. However, changes in the market may make the future of individual SVoDs and TV services uncertain. New entrants complement but cannot replace public service broadcasters, which guarantee continued investment in a wide range of original UK content no matter the state of the global market.”
Libby Purves, at the end of her insightful and far from uncritical article on the BBC last month in the Times—“Happy 100th, BBC, You Dear Old Monster”—wrote:
“Something must be done to keep the best of the BBC both safe and independent. Finding it is a serious job for serious politicians, if we ever get any again. And they should remember that every investigation and commission into the corporation has led, however reluctantly, to the conclusion it has unique value.”
I was here in 1999, when the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, concluded his splendid opening speech in a debate on the BBC. He said:
“For over 75 years the BBC has stood for something singular and been seen to be singular. If that goes the BBC will eventually go and a great chapter in our social and cultural history would have come to an end. It need not be like that. But the dangers are clear and the time to act is now.”—[Official Report, 3/3/1999; cols. 1668-69.]
Let us not keep repeating history, but recognise once and for all the huge value and quality in the variety of broadcasting we have, the core of which is our public service broadcasting.
In this light, I believe in particular that the media Bill and government policy should—to ensure that variety, diversity and quality in our broadcast services is included—definitely not contain the privatisation of Channel 4 which, as we have heard, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. As we noted earlier, it was created by a Conservative Government. The Bill should give Ofcom the powers promised in the White Paper to draw up and enforce a new video on demand code, to ensure that television-like content will be subject to similar standards regardless of how it is accessed, so that that age ratings used by all VoD services must meet the three criteria set out in the Government’s consultation response. It should reinstate the BFI young audiences content fund and—as recommended by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee—reform rules around prominence, legislate to give a remit to the digital markets unit over PSB content and plurality in broadcast media, and extend the requirements for diversity reporting to streaming services. I hope the Minister will confirm that the Bill will contain that.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the series producer of a new series on the people of Ukraine to be made for international public service broadcasters.
In the words of the Communications and Digital Committee report, Public Service Broadcasting: As Vital as Ever:
“Public service broadcasting can bring the nation together in a way in which other media cannot and can ‘raise the level’ of quality, as well as ensuring continued investment in original UK content”.
In a broadcasting environment in which the PSBs are facing massive threats from the global streamers, they need economic and political support from the Government to remain relevant to British audiences.
Noble Lords have mentioned the uncertainty surrounding Channel 4, with the continued political indecision about whether to go ahead with its privatisation. I take heart from the Secretary of State’s answer in the other place that she is looking at the business case for its sale. As there is no business case, I would suggest to the Minister that it should not take long to resolve the issue. The channel had its most profitable year last year and if its borrowing limits need to be raised to compete with the streamers, then that should be facilitated.
As noble Lords have said, the other important policy for the Government to enact is the prominence regime on digital platforms. At the moment the channels are finding themselves thwarted by the massive power imbalance with the streamers. This matter is urgent. TV manufacturers are demanding huge fees to ensure the prominence of PSB tiles on their platforms. Channel 4 has just had to pull out of talks with the manufacturers of the LG TV sets because they demanded too much money to place its tile in the most prominent position on the home page, while the Amazon platform has just demoted the position of the All 4 tile to make way for the promotion of its own Freevee tiles. Channel 4 has asked Ofcom to investigate the move. The BBC is better placed because of its “must carry” obligations. The broadcasting White Paper had some very important promises to enshrine the principles of “appropriate prominence” on digital platforms, but every month the Government delay the new regime, the PSBs lose money.
PSB commercial channels need further support in their business relationships with the streamers. Noble Lords only have to look at ITV’s anguished negotiations with these global giants to see why it is important. The channel is confronting variants of closed platforms when dealing with Amazon, Google and other tech companies, which define the terms of inclusion of content. This is particularly important with the upcoming launch of ITVX with its wide-ranging digital offer. Amazon has told it that it must accept the standard terms of 30% share of advertising revenue, take it or leave it. It also will not share data with the content providers. Netflix is famous for failing to provide any audience data to content producers. However, that seems to be an own goal, as content commissioners will obviously commission material better tailored to audiences if they have the data on who is watching and how they are watching material.
The imbalance of power between the platforms and the PSBs strikes me as similar to that affecting news publishers, which I spoke about in last week’s debate on the Free for All? report. I suggested a variation of the mandatory code set up in Australia for news publishers. Surely something similar could be established for TV content providers on platforms in this country. This Government pledged to support the growth of British business and surely our indigenous PSBs should be given all possible help to break open the dominance of the platforms when creating terms for use of their content. I ask the Minister whether such measures could be included in the media or digital markets Bills.
I would also like to put in a plea for Ofcom-licensed radio stations. Last week the latest RAJAR audience figures showed that the percentage of online radio listening has increased from 18% last year to 24% this year. That is a huge increase which, if continued, will mean that the majority of listening will be online within five years. Smart speakers make up half of that and voice-controlled, in-car IP platforms are also a growing online market. It is important that Britain’s radio stations have protected positions on these devices. Without them, there is the temptation for platforms to drive listeners away from UK radio and towards their own playlists.
There also needs to be a regime which supports the ad revenue of UK commercial stations to ensure that they can place their own adverts around their content rather than being forced to accept the platforms’ ad offer, with the subsequent losses of revenue. I hope the media Bill will have specific clauses to support radio and protect listeners in these fields. I understand that the stations are having fruitful conversations with DCMS. I would be grateful if the Minister would give your Lordships’ House his thinking on this.
I welcome the Minister back to the Front Bench and I hope that his second term of office will be filled with the long-awaited DCMS Bills on media and digital spaces. They need to come before Parliament as soon as possible to protect our media industry from the onslaught of the streaming giants. The content production sector is a booming, but its mainstay and driver is the power of our public sector broadcasters in this new age. I ask the Government to embrace them in the tender arms of legislative support.
I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on securing this debate. He is a passionate and truly expert advocate of public service broadcasting.
It was a privilege to chair the Communications and Digital Committee, which produced a number of reports on the future of PSBs prior to the excellent report on BBC funding which my successor and noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston has described.
The Government are right to look now at the future funding of the BBC and are right to ask whether the current model for Channel 4 is sustainable in the long term. However, it is hard to see how evidence-based answers to these questions can be reached without looking in detail at what we want from PSBs in this rapidly changing world. Will my noble friend the Minister, whose return to the Front Bench is most welcome, confirm that in looking at the future funding of the BBC, the starting point will be an across-the-board evaluation of the future role of PSBs?
On BBC funding, I welcome the Government’s commitment to greater transparency in future funding settlements and charter negotiations. We certainly cannot tolerate another behind-closed-doors stitch-up. In the interests of time I will skip the eulogies, but as a friend of the BBC I have to acknowledge that no Government of any colour are going to raise the licence fee significantly above the rate of inflation. With inflation in the sector likely to remain well ahead of consumer inflation measures for many years ahead, this is a recipe for a slow death for the BBC: annual cuts after annual cuts, no long-term investment and the inevitable but non-strategic withdrawal of services. That is why my noble friend Lady Stowell is right to urge the BBC itself to be radical and take a lead in the debate about its future funding.
On Channel 4, the Government are right to periodically review their ownership and they were right to worry about the sustainability of the current model. They should, however, have considered other ways of updating the model. Given that so much has changed since the launch of Channel 4, including the huge expansion of the independent production sector and the nature of underserved audiences, we should be asking whether the remit is up to date, the terms of trade and publisher broadcaster model need updating, and whether the way it accesses capital could be changed. However, if the Government should have asked these questions, so should Channel 4 have addressed them in its response to the Government’s proposals. An outright rejection of privatisation without any evidence that it had really weighed up the pros and cons and considered alternative approaches was not an adequate response.
However, let us work on the assumption that the Government are not going to privatise Channel 4 and that they are going to examine the future funding of the BBC. It seems that this is a time to be ambitious. The Government are right that levelling up and impartiality should be the focus of the BBC midterm review, but I argue that the role of PSBs should be looked at alongside the potential huge contribution of the TV and film production, broadcasting and content distribution sectors to levelling up. The creative industries generally and these sectors specifically should be right at the heart of industrial policy, and the Government should not be afraid of giving strategic direction.
The UK is attracting huge investment. Global players are here because of the facilities and talent that they can draw on and the incredibly rich ecosystem that has largely been nurtured by public service broadcasters. However, the sector remains too focussed on London and the south-east, and too metropolitan and liberal in outlook. This will not do. Diversity is about more than protected characteristics. It is about diversity of social background, geography and viewpoint, too. If these sectors are to provide well rewarded, fulfilling jobs in the post-automation world, they must be more geographically dispersed and more socially inclusive. That means a skills policy and tax incentives for the whole sector sitting alongside renewed PSB objectives and some clear targets.
It also needs to be specific. For example, incentives and policy should drive the growth of Salford as a TV production and facilities centre, building on the historic investment that ITV has made in the region, and encourage the clustering of businesses so that, across the whole range of on-screen and off-screen roles, young people can have a career in this sector without moving to London.
Cardiff has nurtured remarkable talent and is incredibly creative. Much of this stems from huge cultural and economic input from the BBC and now the right mix of training, tax incentives and political drive should be applied with the ambition of making it a world-class drama production centre. Glasgow, the home of BBC Scotland, STV and numerous small independent production companies championed by Channel 4, needs the Government to incentivise global businesses that are producing great content in the UK to bring returning series to Scotland.
When I have discussed levelling up and the role of PSBs with senior players in the global businesses that are investing so heavily in the UK, the message is clear. They value the mixed ecology and the role of the BBC and other PSBs, and they want to do more outside London. Yet vast investment in studios and stages is still concentrated in the south-east and, if you want a job in many of the roles in the sector, you need to move there. When I ask them what would persuade them to build studios and stages in other parts of the country, the answer is that they need to be able to access the full range of skills and facilities that support major productions. They also say that they need leadership and grip from the Government. I would add that the industry itself needs to work together to drive this change.
An ambitious Government who truly believe in levelling up will seize this opportunity and work with devolved Administrations to ensure that PSBs thrive at the heart of this sector, which has the potential to contribute as much to our economic success as to our cultural lives.
My Lords, this is a good moment to discuss the future of public service broadcasting. I congratulate the noble Lord on securing and introducing this debate and join all noble Lords in welcoming the Minister back to the Front Bench. In the great carousel of recent government changes, I am glad that the wheel has stopped at exactly the right place for him to get off and resume his role as DCMS Minister. This gives me the chance, like everyone else in the debate, to congratulate the BBC on its centenary.
Of course, this is not the first time that Parliament has debated the future of the BBC or public service broadcasting. There was quite an interesting debate in July 1951 on the same subject. At that time, the distinguished historian Asa Briggs described Selwyn Lloyd’s report as “the real dynamite” which eventually led the BBC to lose its monopoly. Why is it useful to recall such a debate many decades later? It is because we are now facing threats to public service broadcasting again.
For example, the Government previously indicated that they wanted to sell off Channel 4, but it is not yet clear what the current Government will do. Indeed, it is not entirely clear what the current Government will do in a number of areas. However, we do know that the Government continue to put pressure on the BBC via the licence fee. There are people who want to see the BBC further constrained and reduced, both financially and by cutting its coverage, despite the BBC being the jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom’s soft power.
Sadly, only this week we heard of potential cutbacks in services provided by local radio. I presume that all noble Lords have had the very useful briefing from the BBC and its key statistics, so I will not repeat them except to say that the BBC remains an incredibly trusted voice in Britain and around the world.
My main purpose in speaking in today’s debate is to highlight one issue in particular: the BBC’s superb record over the years, whether on radio, on TV or, now, online, of informing, educating and entertaining the nation about science. I shall give the House some examples. “The Sky at Night” began in 1957. It was a monthly programme, one of the longest-running by the time it ended, and it was one of the very earliest of the regular science programmes. I grew up on it. Who could possibly forget the sheer enthusiasm of the presenter Patrick Moore? Yes, I agree that the more we learned about his personal political opinions, the less I liked them; nevertheless, over the decades he shared with people the sense of sheer excitement at space and what humankind could achieve. That culminated in the moon landing of 1969, which the BBC covered in an exemplary way as a national broadcaster. Another long-running show was “Tomorrow’s World” with presenters such as Raymond Baxter, Judith Hann, Maggie Philbin and James Burke guiding us through the then latest developments in technology.
More recently, there are programmes such as “Click”, which, since the start of the millennium has been the BBC’s flagship technology show on BBC World News, where presenters such as Spencer Kelly, Kate Russell and Lara Lewington have educated, informed and entertained us on all the latest news in the world of tech.
There are other programmes such as “Stargazing Live” with Dara Ó’Briain on BBC1, but it is not just on TV that the BBC has fulfilled the vital function of bringing science and technology to the nation. On radio, the BBC has had such programmes as “The Life Scientific” with Jim Al-Khalili and “The Infinite Monkey Cage” with Professor Brian Cox and Robin Ince. There are now also podcasts such as “13 Minutes to the Moon”.
Some of the BBC’s science output over this period has been on a grander scale, with such blockbuster series as “Life on Earth”, which opened up the world of natural history and set the standard for documentaries in that genre. That has been followed by “Frozen Planet” and “Frozen Planet II”, presented by our foremost scientific national treasure, David Attenborough. I think the first episode of the new series attracted 9 million viewers.
Then there are the series “Wonders of the Universe”, “Wonders of the Solar System” and “Wonders of Life”, all presented by Brian Cox. Heaven knows there are quite enough wonders in the world and I dare say the BBC will keep on bringing them to our attention in the years ahead—for example, by broadcasting the fantastic photographs provided by the James Webb telescope.
More recently, there was the BBC’s coverage of Covid-19, when the country and the world were crying out for trusted factual information to help us navigate our way through a terrifying period in our recent history. The BBC once again pioneered things such as “Covid: Your Questions Answered” on the BBC News Channel and on “BBC Breakfast”, where people around the country could put their questions on all aspects of Covid.
And, of course, for much of the past half-century the BBC has brought us “Doctor Who”, mentioned in the opening speech, with its iconic music. That programme has helped inspire generations of children—and, I dare say, a few adults too—with an interest in and fascination with science and the future. It has been as integral a part of the BBC’s output on science as any other.
My point is very simple. No one else—no other independent channel anywhere—has provided remotely the same level of public service broadcasting in science and science-related programmes. Contrast its output with that of broadcasters around globe. It is a record to be proud of and it is true public service broadcasting. Moreover, these BBC programmes are so prestigious that they are sold around the world.
I am not denigrating other providers—some also make valuable contributions to our understanding of science—but, when we look ahead to the future that lies before us, which is unimaginably different from that faced by Parliament when it debated these matters in 1951, it is my view that the BBC remains the only entity in today’s multidimensional broadcasting world that we can rely on to provide science-related programmes.
That is why our current system of public service broadcasting remains an essential part of who we are as a country. There are times when public service broadcasting needs to be defended, and this is one of them.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foster for securing this important debate and for his kind remarks. I declare my interests as set out in the register.
Public service broadcasting content is vital nourishment for children and their well-being. It is the perfect way for them to recognise and understand the world that they live in. I have vast experience, knowledge and wisdom of the importance of this because of my 46 years of broadcasting for children, through programmes such as the BBC’s “Play School”. Many say that that programme, where I took them through the arched, round and square windows, shaped their lives, helped them deal with dark moments and gave them unconditional love and confidence to face adversity.
Before we meddle with the future of public service broadcasting, let us think of our children and what we are going to replace it with. Our thinking about the future of public service media must recognise that young people are taking the lead in the adoption of new services and developing loyalty to new platforms. If we ignore that young audience, we risk losing them permanently to a diet of international content that fails to connect them to the UK’s culture, engage them in UK society or reflect them as members of that society. Remember: childhood lasts a lifetime, so if we fail to provide content that has public service purposes at its heart, then public service media will be meaningless to them as they become adults. This is why the media Bill is crucial to ensuring that PSB has prominence, is inclusive and has fair value for its content, and that those broadcasters are able to compete fairly with global streamers and secure fair value for their investment in original UK content, which in turn has clear value for the UK.
Several areas of public policy are impacting on young people right now. First, Ofcom had identified market failure in the provision of children’s television in the UK, mainly associated with the reluctance of the commercial public service broadcasters to commission new content for children and teenagers. So the young audience content fund, which I persuaded the then Digital Minister Margot James to give to children’s production, was a successful pilot which addressed market failure. It disbursed £44 million over three years and provided 50% of the funding needed to generate new content for children and young people on ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. It coincided with the new regulatory powers that Ofcom was granted through the amendment I proposed to what is now the Digital Economy Act 2017. I fought hard for that amendment in this House. At last, Ofcom could insist that public service broadcasters provide programmes for young people. Ofcom worked with broadcasters, allowing them flexibility to run content on their dedicated children’s channels or online. It was a perfect carrot and stick approach.
However, the fund was abruptly brought to a halt when the DCMS did a deal with the BBC in the current licence fee settlement to abandon contestable funding. This was the death-knell for the young audience fund—for broadcasters, producers and the audience, who benefited from the dozens of new projects that it generated. This was a successful new way of tackling market failure. It addressed the issue of “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. For a child to truly aspire—for a child to feel welcome in their own culture and the broader culture of the country in which they live—they need to be included in the media they consume. The fund achieved this. We urgently need to create a successor to the fund to support a plural system of public service provision, such as through levies or lottery funding, not by top-slicing the licence fee.
The second policy impact on the children’s audience is the BBC children’s department. It is currently focusing on animation, which is expensive and will impact on the amount of commissioning of live-action content for kids. But Ofcom must not roll back the requirement for the BBC to commission content for children in a variety of genres, and at a reasonable number of hours per year. We know that the BBC plans to place all CBBC content on the iPlayer in the long term. While positioning BBC content on platforms such as YouTube could be a way of recapturing the lost audience, this should not be done at the expense of independent producers, who currently hold the rights to exploit their content on digital platforms. Clearly, there is pressure on the finance for children’s content at the BBC, so we need to ensure that the BBC is funded securely and in a fair manner. Without secure and adequate funding, the BBC will short-change the children’s audience and continue to lose them to YouTube, TikTok and the streamers.
Another important aspect of public service broadcasting is that it provides something for everyone. Channel 4 is currently helping the UK fulfil that promise through its commitment to 13 to 16-year-olds. A fully commercial Channel 4 would be highly unlikely to serve this niche group. Once again, public policy decisions will impact heavily on this audience. A privatised Channel 4 would not serve the young children’s audience well. I am frightened to say that as a result of public policy decisions, market failure is back with a vengeance. Will the Government commit to finding new methods of funding competitive, trusted public service content for children and young people? They are the future; please, let us not fail them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, for securing this debate and for his superb introduction. I agree with every word he said about the Government’s ideologically driven, utterly nonsensical proposed sale of Channel 4. I also echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on the importance of that. I would join everyone in welcoming the Minister back, but, wary of setting off that ministerial carousel the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, referred to, I will not in case it might not do him any good.
On Tuesday I had an Oral Question about the teaching of philosophy in our education system. My supplementary question was about whether this could help to improve the quality of public debate and the state of the public sphere. It is interesting that I got the loudest intimations of support, from every corner of your Lordships’ House, that I have ever enjoyed when I asked that question. We know that the quality of our public discourse and political debate needs to be much better. However, it could be much worse, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, pointing to Fox News in the United States. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, said that the Government have to answer the question, “What is public service broadcasting for?” My answer to that question is: to ensure there is a clear, funded voice expressing ideas, encouraging creativity and allowing the public to speak for the public good—not voices driven entirely by private profit and interests. I will come back to who owns the private broadcasters.
To be fair, as we are talking about public service broadcasting, I acknowledge that I have sometimes been a critic, particularly of the BBC. If the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, thinks that the BBC is too liberal, I invite him to consider the number of appearances of Green Party representatives on “Question Time” compared with UKIP, the Brexit party and their ilk. The maths is quite astonishing. We have seen a BBC that has been “small c” conservative; it kept giving a platform to climate change deniers long after most other international media outlets had given that up and were astonished that the BBC was still doing so. In a story in the New Statesman only this week, looking at the BBC’s economic coverage, economists express concern that the national budget/household budget analogy is utterly false and misleading for the public.
I speak as a former newspaper editor, so I know that editors have enormous pressures on them. A number of noble Lords have referred to the enormous pressures placed on the BBC in recent years. Those pressures have come from right-wing, profit-driven commercial forces. The media tycoons I referred to earlier have commercial and political interests in squashing the BBC. In recent years, sadly, their voices have been backed by the Government. They have often seemed to be joint voices, the two working together to attack the BBC and our other public service broadcasters. It is crucial that there is an alternative voice saying that we want a genuinely critical BBC which acknowledges that there are lots of different voices and approaches.
Particularly on that basis, a number of noble Lords have referred to the importance of local media outlets. Local BBC radio in particular is crucial—I appear on it quite often because I travel around the country a lot. It is so valued by local communities, particularly in times of crisis, of which we are seeing so many now. I would like there to be thinking about how we can fund more local public sector broadcasting and media.
The reality of broadcasting now is that everything is merged together: people often get what is called broadcasting, what used to be called newspapers, and social media through one device, and they do not necessarily make much of a distinction between them. Along those lines, I return to the issue of ownership and voices. The latest Media Reform Coalition report, from 2021, pointed out that 90% of national newspaper circulation is now owned by three companies. These voices are competing with the broadcasters. DMG Media, owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust, has 38% of weekly newspaper circulation, and News UK has 32%. We need balance.
Speaking as someone with a degree in communication studies, I say that we have to start thinking about all of this as an interactive process. We are talking about broadcasting and audiences sitting there receiving the content, but we need to think much more about content created by individuals to whom technology is now available, with broadcasters picking some of that up and sharing it around. Perhaps I should declare an interest: I am probably one of the few Members of your Lordships’ House with a TikTok account. I would be interested to know who else has one; I will follow them.
We have to think from the perspective of young people today and make sure that they have a voice in mainstream sources, such as public sector broadcasting. We have to make sure that they are not drowned out by a few loud—inevitably right-wing—media tycoon voices.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating and welcoming my noble friend back to his rightful place on the Front Bench. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this debate.
I declare my interests in the register and, if noble Lords will forgive me, I will highlight a correction recently made to them. I have been undertaking work for Vitrifi Ltd, a telecoms business that is part of a fund managed by Octopus Ventures, which I had incorrectly declared as working for Octopus Ventures. My entry in the register now accurately reflects that I am working directly for Vitrifi, and I hope that noble Lords will forgive my inaccurate previous statement.
As many noble Lords have said, public service broadcasting and broadcasters enjoy broad public support. Inquiries by committees of both Houses have consistently found support not just for the principles of public service broadcasting but for the programmes themselves. But the world is very different from 100 years ago, when the BBC was born—both the media landscape and British society. We no longer sit in our living rooms, watching linear broadcast channels all together as a single family unit on the single family TV set: the landscape is now multimedia, multidevice and multiplatform. We have and need public service media, not just public service broadcasters.
Society is also very different from 100 years ago: it is more diverse and more open. Our digital native children and grandchildren access media completely differently from the way that we in this Chamber do and did. As we heard, viewing of BBC channels, for example, by 16 to 34 year-olds has halved over the last 10 years, according to our Communications and Digital Committee report. So, if we value public service broadcasters—I do not think that anyone has spoken today from a position other than valuing them—we should not be afraid of change. In fact, I would argue that updating and changing to reflect the modern world is essential to maintain the public glue and the very value that we all hold so dear in our public service broadcasters.
Noble Lords may call me naive, but I worry that in public debate we too quickly move to hero or villain. It is very hard for individuals and institutions to admit mistakes or that that they could do better without immediately being castigated as the villain. It is also very hard to take risks and to change if you are put on a pedestal as the hero. It is entirely possible both to be incredibly proud of an organisation, its role in society and its performance and to acknowledge that it can and should change and do better.
That is where I am about public service broadcasters in the round. Our PSBs are one of the things that hold our country together. Like many of my fellow citizens, I am incredibly proud of them. I watch and love their content, and I think they could do better. Indeed, we could help them do better. There is something for all of us in helping them to do that. As a number of noble Lords have said, legislation is clearly needed to recognise that existing rules that worked in a linear TV and radio world need to be updated to reflect the digital age of streaming and global tech platforms. Clearly, prominence rules need to be updated, but we also need things such as the Digital Markets Unit in Ofcom to be put on a firm legal footing. I ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm that that legislation will be coming soon.
There is clearly work for government to do as well. It needs to face into the difficult decision of funding the BBC. Our generation here today might just about be able to get our heads around a licence fee being linked to a television set, but that is impossible for my children, who consume almost all their media on other devices. I fear we risk the credibility of our system of funding the BBC by tethering it to an increasingly anachronistic model of media consumption—that of just the television set. I do not pretend that replacing the licence fee as it stands today is easy, but just ignoring the need for change is definitely not the answer.
As a number of noble Lords have said, the public service broadcasters themselves must work much harder to appeal to all groups, especially young people and those from more diverse backgrounds, both urban and rural. As with the funding decisions, this is really easy to say, but it is much harder to do well. That is what will mark out successful public service broadcasters and media organisations worldwide. It is those which develop platforms and programmes that make us all feel welcome and have something for all of us to treasure that will flourish in the future. We need our wonderful public service broadcasters to stand up to that challenge.
We as parliamentarians have a role to play as well. Our public service broadcasters are the envy of the free world, and it has been all too fashionable to bash many of the establishment organisations in this country. It is hugely important that we do not fall into that trap. Nor should we put them on a pedestal. Our role as parliamentarians should be to be hugely proud of our public service broadcasters but also to challenge them to do an even better job. One hundred years ago, it was the most fantastic moment that the BBC was born. We need to both respect and challenge our PSBs to deliver for another 100 years ahead.
My Lords, this is one of those debates where there has been less direct confrontation and “You’re wrong and we’re right” than I was expecting, but, at the same time, there is the fundamental truth that to those of us who feel really embedded in it, public service broadcasting feels slightly under threat. I do not know why this is, other than that it has become fashionable, certainly on the right in politics, to feel that the BBC—let us face it, that is the lead organisation, the unit—is against the Conservative Party.
I feel that this is almost totally down to the fact that the Conservative Party has its behinds on the Treasury Bench. Any news organisation that does not primarily put fire under what the Government are doing is not worth having. Let us face it, if they are the people making the decisions—I point my finger towards the Treasury Bench—they will be the ones getting the criticism and being the most solidly examined. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, gave a little suggestion about what happens if you are not in power: you get ignored. When a party comes third or fourth in a general election, they are begging the BBC to pay them some attention. So if noble Lords want the BBC to be nicer to them, they should lose the next two general elections—it is that simple.
Having got that off my chest, I will now address some of the things that it is very unlikely that anything other than a public service broadcaster will do well. We have already heard a few examples: children’s television and science. Another is sport, particularly sport that is not immediately mainstream at a given point in time. It is a fact that public service broadcasting has proved to us that disability sport is still a contest worth watching. If Channel 4—whatever happens to it—has carved a little place in history, it is because of the huge step it took in making the Paralympics accessible. It was a massive change that went beyond sport itself: it managed to broadcast programmes in which disabled people were people who happened to have a disability, and viewers did not notice it half the time. By the way, Adam Hills playing disability rugby league for Australia and losing to Wales, while still having a smile on his face, gets my round of applause.
We can look to another sector, which is probably bigger still: the growth of women’s team sports as national institutions and events. Who is going to forget the Euros in a hurry? It is not the type of football with which I am most closely associated, but the degree of enjoyment, celebration and success that came out of that game—the team will probably have it coached out of them by next time—was something we could embrace as a nation. The fact that 51% of the population can play sport, enjoy it, be good at it and have a degree of sheer joy in it is wonderful.
At the moment, we have yet another England team—the rugby union team—which is the betting favourites to lift another world cup. We will see what happens with rugby league. There is a lot of enthusiasm here. These sports would not have been brought to the attention of the public if it were not for public service broadcasting. There was no ready market, so nobody was willing to invest money to get them there. It takes a leap of faith to bring them forward—and that must come from public service broadcasting, because who else is going to do it? You can make a huge investment and work for 100 years to build an audience—you might be able to do it—but who is going to make that first investment? The public service broadcasters took something that already existed and said, “Enjoy it. Make sure that people are embracing it more strongly”. No matter what happens in public service broadcasting, this, among other things, is something we must encourage for the future: that minority groups, by taking part in something, are given the credit they deserve, allowing them to become mainstream. I cannot see this being done anywhere else—or in any other way going forward. If anybody has any suggestions, I am all ears.
I will make one final point: when we look at public service broadcasting, we must also remember that it is a public service. Before we get rid of it, I would turn our minds back to the pandemic. Who else other than the BBC would have taken on providing huge support to education? Who else could do it? Who else would even consider doing it on a commercial basis? Whatever the Government do, I hope they will retain that capacity for public service somewhere within our broadcasting system. If we do not, we are potentially damaging ourselves in the long run.
My Lords, one of my earliest memories of my grandfather, Squadron Leader JD Italia, in Hyderabad, India, is him listening to the BBC World Service on his radio. Last month, I visited Bangladesh. Fifty years ago, my father fought in the liberation war of Bangladesh, commanding his battalion. He was General Bilimoria at that time, later Lieutenant Colonel Bilimoria. He commanded his battalion of the second 5th Gurkha Rifles, Frontier Force, that liberated Pirganj and Bogra, while another battalion of the same regiment of 5th Gurkhas liberated Sylhet, where the vast majority of the Indian curry restaurant owners come from. In fact, the liberation of Sylhet was helped by the BBC broadcasting that the brigade of Gurkhas was landing in Sylhet, which put the fear into the enemy.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for initiating this excellent debate and give many congratulations to the BBC. It was born on 18 October 2022 and, of course, we know that is principally founded through the television licence fee. I also congratulate Channel 4 on its 40th anniversary, which is publicly owned but commercially funded. As the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said, in public broadcasting there are three principles: universality of access, accuracy and impartiality, and independence.
Will the Minister acknowledge that as many as 60 British TV production companies could face going out of business if Channel 4 is privatised? We heard recently from the Government, on 27 October, after Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, that they are carefully considering the business case for a sale of Channel 4 and will set out more details in due course. Can the Minister elaborate on that, please, and confirm that Channel 4 will not be privatised? Furthermore, as many other noble Lords have mentioned, on 24 October the Government said they would introduce a Bill when parliamentary time allows. When will we have that Bill before us?
The BBC World Service is predominantly funded by the licence free. It faces serious financial challenges: high inflation, soaring costs and a cash-flat licence fee settlement. It continues to receive grant-in-aid funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and there is a strong case for more investment from government over the coming weeks in order to minimise more damaging cost savings next year. Can the Minister reassure us where the BBC World Service is concerned?
The BBC has been a cornerstone of Britain for the last century, with its mission to educate, inform and entertain. It has brought people together around the country. It has been at the forefront of Britain’s biggest moments over the years and, most importantly, this has all been possible thanks to its values. Some 90% of UK adults use a BBC service every week and audiences around the world bank on the BBC to get impartial news. That was proven by the Ukraine war, during which audiences for the BBC Ukrainian website have more than doubled.
Some 48% of people are more likely to turn to the BBC for news that they trust. Do you know the next highest station? Sky is on 8%, ITV News is on 6% and the Guardian, 5%. The BBC is way ahead. The BBC generates almost £5 billion of economic output. Every £1 of economic output generated by the BBC generates almost three times as much for the economy, and approximately half the BBC’s GVA was generated outside London. It works with 334 producers and supports more than 53,000 jobs—and all this is fantastic value at less than 50p a day. Some 44% of adults back the licence fee. That is higher than 15 or 30 years ago, when the figure was 28% and 31% respectively. In lockdown, we saw how beneficial the BBC was to our children, with almost 6 million of them using it at its peak.
As chancellor of the University of Birmingham, I have seen the fantastic broadcasting of the Commonwealth Games, which we were so proud of. The top market for BBC News around the world is India, with 70 million viewers, including my 86 year-old mother in Dehradun. Of course, the BBC also encourages people to do business with the UK. It inspires people to visit the UK. It inspires international students like me to come and study in the UK. As co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students and president of UKCISA, I can vouch for that.
Most importantly, the BBC is associated around the world with the amazing respect Britain has as a country for fairness, integrity and impartiality. I have said many times that the UK has one of the strongest combinations of hard and soft power in the world. If you rank the top three elements of soft power, the Royal Family is first, thanks predominantly to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her 70-year reign, and, of course, now King Charles III. Secondly, there is Premier League football, watched by almost 1 billion people around the world, with the top teams having hundreds of millions of followers. The third is the BBC.
The BBC is trusted. A Harvard Business School professor of mine, Frances Frei, described trust as a triangle: to get trust, you must be authentic; you must have the logic, the ability and professional capability to deliver what you are promising; and you must have empathy. The BBC has all three of those in spades. John Simpson, the famous broadcaster, said: “It is the BBC that opens those doors, not me.” It is those magic initials. The BBC means honesty.
We are very fortunate to have the BBC. We are lucky; we should never, ever take it for granted. All I can say is “Thank you, thank you, thank you” to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
My Lords, I start like many other speakers by saying how appropriate it is that the noble Lord, Lord Foster, has instituted this debate, first, marking as it does the Minister’s return and, secondly, celebrating the BBC’s 100th birthday. It is now older than each and every Member of the House of Lords—and I am confident that it will stay that way.
During that past century, the BBC has become a real UK-wide and global institution and brand and, taken as a whole, has been a real force for good during both peace and war. In terms of its current place in the UK, it and the National Health Service seem to be the two most significant institutions that have emerged.
At its start, the politicians and broadcasters were quite right in insisting that the Government were to get nowhere near the day-to-day running of the corporation and that political interference should be nowhere near our national—and, in those days, monopoly—broadcaster. It is from this that public service broadcasting, or what the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, called “public service media”, has evolved, combining the requirement of non-partisan political news and comment with the need to provide other things for society as a whole. This has obviously developed further with the establishment of ITV and then our other public service broadcasters in the ensuing years. Channel 4, in my view, is a little bit different in some respects, and I will try to explain that later.
One of the heresies of contemporary Britain is that there is an overweening tendency to believe that we are exceptional—generally, we are not. But, as far as I can see it, there is a fair case to be made for saying that the quality of broadcasting—using that word in a wide sense in an internet world—is not surpassed anywhere else. This is something of which we should be proud, for which we should be grateful, and which we should cherish.
I mentioned Channel 4 which, as has been said, also has a significant birthday this year. If we look at its history, how it has evolved and the way in which it has been established in law by Parliament, it seems clear that, even if at one time it was a mere broadcaster, it now has a distinct role and purpose in helping and supporting our independent broadcasters and young businesses to break into the national and then the international market, which is hugely important from a UK economic perspective. Its function now is, in some respects, much closer to something in the third sector than being purely commercial. It is for this reason that the suggestion that it be privatised calls to mind the phrase “breach of trust”. Apart from anything else, I really cannot see how privatising Channel 4—for what, in the context of the national finances, is a mess of pottage—tallies with what it should be doing.
Since we are celebrating anniversaries, I remember 25 years ago—I do not expect that many other noble Lords will—when I was Minister for Broadcasting. What is dramatically clear is that the media was very different then in all respects from what it is now. No longer is spectrum the key; in the age of the online world, that has changed. While it is important, television and broadcasting are only a part of something much larger.
The question, then, is whether public service broadcasting is still relevant. I think it is. Not merely must even-handedness be embedded in at least some news provision that is available free to all—after all, we have seen how fake and dishonest news is universal and its impact is invariably malicious and carcinogenic—but the availability of quality broadcast material over a range of genres is a complement to the educational and cultural remit of the contemporary UK state, at least for the time being. It is part of society’s information and societal infrastructure.
One of the big questions is how to pay for the BBC, not least when the use of television sets is far from universal, as has been said. I have always thought, although I may be heterodox, that the licence fee is essentially a charge, not a tax. I suggest that it should be treated as such. I would attach it to the council tax for onward hypothecation, rather than having the BBC bankroll the cost to certain deserving categories that should be dealt with as part of the mainstream element of the welfare system.
What about the non-licence fee-funded broadcasters? Clearly, spectrum and EPG prominence have some value, but is it enough to sustain this important part of the public service offering beyond the commercial revenues they can generate? I do not know the answer to that; it needs to be thought about carefully.
Nobody would have set out to create the system of public service broadcasting we now enjoy. It has evolved in a peculiarly British way into something that works, and we should be proud of it. We must not curtail the evolutionary processes of technology and the way the world works; if we do so, it will die, and everyone will be the loser.
My Lords, like many other noble Lords, I welcome the Minister back to his role. I think the unanimity of view shows the esteem in which he is held in all parts of the House. I do not normally intervene in these debates, not only because my daughter has worked for Channel 4 and is now the arts and culture editor of the BBC but because many colleagues across all parties are more expert on these topics than me. However, I cannot resist speaking in this debate in the light of recent attacks on both the BBC and Channel 4.
It all started with the Johnson Government in 2019. If noble Lords remember, such was his antipathy to the BBC—probably egged on by Dominic Cummings—that for a long time you were more likely to hear the captain of the England women’s cricket team on the “Today” programme than a Cabinet Minister. This was followed more recently by the proposal from Nadine Dorries—who is rumoured soon to be joining us—to privatise Channel 4. The proposal was clearly based on such intimate knowledge that she believed Channel 4 to be funded by the taxpayer. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has said, it was clearly made without any thought for the impact on independent production companies, many of which rely on Channel 4 for their very existence. The proposal was also clearly opposed by Channel 4 management. Normally a privatisation is welcomed by the company’s management, but, notably, not in this case.
The final straw for me has been recent attacks on the BBC and its funding model, which are putting its very existence as we know it in danger. As noble Lords have said, “Inform, educate and entertain” was the rubric for the BBC when it was established by John Reith. Can there be any doubt that, over 100 years, without the BBC many critical world events would not have been captured so vividly? I name a few: the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the 1966 World Cup victory—apologies to the Scots—and the recent war in Ukraine. In all those cases, the BBC has been at the forefront of stellar reporting. We have clearly been informed. As for education, the Open University could not have been established without the BBC’s participation and, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, indicated, during the pandemic, education could not have survived without it.
Then there is entertainment. I always worry about politicians talking about the BBC, because I think they think it is all about politics, news and comment. It is not. For most people, it is all about entertainment. I am sure all noble Lords are aware of the pleasure given to millions by, for example, “EastEnders”, “The Archers” or “Strictly Come Dancing”—I am sure most noble Lords have heard of them—let alone the export revenue from BBC-produced shows.
Why do the Government seem so hostile to public service broadcasters, particularly the BBC and Channel 4? I believe it is ideological. I think the desire to sell off Channel 4 came from Johnson’s refusal to appear on a political programme and being replaced by a block of ice. I think the desire to clip the financial wings of the BBC comes from the belief on Tory Benches that it is full of nasty lefties biased against a Tory Government. Oh, yes? Nick Robinson, formerly its political editor and now a presenter on the “Today” programme, used to work for Tory central office; Tim Davie, the director-general, stood for Hammersmith council as a Tory in the White City ward, and chair Richard Sharp was at one stage, I believe, a Tory donor—hardly nasty lefties.
The fact is that every Government think the BBC is against them. It is because a key role of the BBC is to hold Governments of all persuasions to account. Noble Lords should have heard Alistair Campbell’s views about the BBC when he worked for Tony Blair. The Johnson Government started on a path in 2019 to curb many of the key pillars of our society. The judiciary: remember the so-called “traitors”? The Civil Service: let us sack Permanent Secretaries who disagree with us. The parliamentary system: remember Prorogation? After 100 years of the BBC and 40 years of Channel 4, now is the time for the Government to return to what I always thought was the raison d’être of the Conservative Party—to conserve what is best in our society. I say to the Government, “Keep your hands off our public service broadcasters”.
I thank my noble friend Lord Foster for his characteristically excellent opening speech to this debate and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, back. Keeping up the “Doctor Who” theme, I see him as the David Tennant of the House of Lords Benches.
The origin of the word “broadcast” was “to sow seed widely”, and that is what our PSBs have done, beginning with the BBC and its mission to inform, educate and entertain. They have made culture, news and other people’s experiences and lives available to all. Before the BBC started universally beaming into homes via the radio, the vast majority of the population did not have access to plays, stories and music. I heard Harold Pinter recollecting, in a recent programme, how, as a working-class teenager, listening to the Third Programme opened up a new world and set him on his creative path. He was not alone: it led to the formation of a whole new generations of artists.
Factual programmes such as “Woman’s Hour”, established in 1964, linked women with each other in a ground-breaking way, allowing isolated individuals to understand that their experience was not unique. Then there are the programmes for children. Just go for a stroll with my noble friend Lady Benjamin anywhere and her “Play School” babies flock, united in shared memories.
It was the BBC that came up with the idea of television. There was radio and there were the movies. The BBC put the two together, movies and radio, and it has continued to lead as an innovator—not something that has been much mentioned in this debate—working in the public interest with the likes of iPlayer and BBC Sounds, not just establishing new technologies but setting standards for the whole media industry. It led on rolling out the digital switchover and created two new consumer platforms, YouView and Freeview Play, which made online TV available to all UK audiences.
Every £1 of BBC R&D spend contributes up to £9 in value to the UK creative industries and beyond. As the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and my noble friend Lord Foster said, the streamers love the UK partly because of this trail-blazing R&D, as well as the skills and infrastructure that the BBC and other PSBs provide. Companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney have flocked to these shores, making the UK their production base because, as my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones has already said, they get what our PSBs contribute and they understand the value of investing in them. Netflix alone is involved in more than 40 co-productions in the UK, worth tens of millions of pounds.
“A big benefit of a co-production model is we have partnerships with PSBs that have great creative instincts. We defer to them creatively.”
Those were the words of a Netflix executive.
However, the Government do not seem very grateful. They do not seem to understand what the streamers do. As my noble friend Lord Foster said of the BBC, they have consistently undermined an institution that is the backbone of these creative industries, doubling its money, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, so far as investment in the creative economy goes. It is a rare sector of the economy that still, despite all the efforts of Brexit, thrives.
The effect of initial BBC spending multiplies as it ripples through the economy, from region to region and sector to sector. It is pivotal in supporting our creative industries through the innovations I mentioned, but through skills and training as well. It feeds directly into levelling up. We have a Secretary of State for levelling up, so I presume it is still a government commitment. The BBC makes programmes across the country, boosting local economies and utilising local skills. It costs 44p a day and offers exceptional value, supplying British content via television, radio and the internet, universally available to everybody, in all parts of the UK.
As the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, said, it supplied a lifeline through the pandemic, providing news that the public trusted and essential support through Bitesize. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned how women’s football found its audience through pioneering coverage on the BBC, and now Harry Kane invokes the Lionesses as the World Cup team’s inspiration. It supplied superb coverage of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s lying in state and funeral and, as my noble friend Lord Razzall mentioned, the BBC and our other PSBs supply top-quality journalism in covering the war in Ukraine—not something the streaming services will ever provide.
Yet, as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, pointed out, this Government’s 100th birthday present to the BBC is to freeze the licence fee, effectively depriving it of £3 billion over the next five years. We think the Government are putting their determination to weaken the BBC before the national interest. Most recently, we have seen the consequences for the World Service, mentioned by so many across the House, such as the loss of 382 jobs and changes to delivery that mean nearly half of all 41 language services will become digital only. Of course we have to move with the times, but these cuts involve BBC Arabic radio and BBC Persian radio, both of which will cease. Digital is accessed via the internet, and the internet can be shut down by tyrannical Governments, as we are witnessing at the moment in Iran.
Does the Minister not agree with a former Foreign Secretary—a certain Boris Johnson—who described the BBC as the
“single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values”
and a crucial contributor to Britain’s role as a “soft-power superpower”? In which case, can the Minister answer the question from these Benches and from the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, about why there is not more funding?
As my noble friend Lord McNally brought to our notice, the cuts to local radio are equally alarming. In the words of NUJ officer Paul Siegert:
“This is the biggest threat facing local radio since it launched in 1967. The key to its success over the past 50 years has been its localness.”
Does the Minister not agree, and how can local radio be local when it comes off air at 2 pm? Just last month, local radio stations took turns to interview the then Prime Minister, Liz Truss. The quality and depth of BBC local journalism was on display, and it was a triumph for local accountability and the power of local media. Does the Minister not agree that these cuts in radio, both across the World Service and domestically, provide an incredibly convincing argument as to why we should protect and finance the BBC properly?
I am afraid that the Government’s gloomy attitude extends beyond the BBC to public service broadcasting in general, with the threat to Channel 4 through privatisation. As so many people have talked about this, I am going to cut my speech on this point. However, contrary to what the April White Paper claims, and due to the expansion of its digital channels, Channel 4’s viewing demographic is young and diverse, and advertising revenue has increased over the last two years. The fact is that Channel 4 is in rude financial health and does not need privatisation to prosper. The Secretary of State has said that she will re-examine the business case. I hope the Minister accepts that the figures in the government paper need re-examining, too—as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said—as many are plain wrong. The other pressing need is for a media Bill, as many noble Lords have said, both to ensure prominence and to reform listed events.
In the words of Sir Peter Bazalgette:
“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.”
That is the point. Our public service broadcasters are much more than what we see on their screens, and the BBC’s original mission has never been more important. The first episode of a recent programme “How the BBC Began” was titled “Accident and Opportunity”—how true. As the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said, the BBC is a unique and glorious aberration. Once gone, it is never coming back, and with it go our other public service broadcasters. The BBC is 100, ITV is 67, Channel 4 was 40 yesterday—long may they last.
My Lords, in common with other noble Lords today, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on securing this debate and giving us something of a tour de force of a speech. There have been many tours de force this afternoon—probably too many to list—and I have enjoyed them all. While we are on the business of congratulations, I join others and reaffirm my earlier congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, on his bouncebackability. It is a good cause for celebration. Whatever the reason for his departure under the Truss regime changes, we all feel reassured by his return.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, all about modernisation and modern media, and quite a lot about nostalgia. We should remind ourselves of some things about public service broadcasting. In recent years, particularly during the Covid pandemic, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, touched on, its value has been brought home because of its trusted nature and its ability not only to provide news and advice at the same time but to do much more than that—to entertain us when we need it most and to act as a key tool for children and young people in the absence of their usual school day.
TV these days is a formative part of a child’s experience, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, reminded us, in a way that is very different from my childhood. Indeed, when I was thinking about this debate today, I was reminded that I did not watch a television until the age of eight—something unthinkable today, when TV screens are everywhere and catch-up enables us to tune in to whatever, whenever.
Indeed, I recall my mother being deeply sceptical about the merits of children watching TV at all. She was oddly rather relieved when we moved to a house served only by gaslight rather than electricity. Later, when I was older, she said that at least she did not have to think about the issue.
My early broadcasting experience as a consumer was with radio, in the days of the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme—which I was told was only for posh people. Then, of course, there was the Empire Service, later rebadged as the World Service. Now it is a very widely respected output, one that—as many colleagues this afternoon have said—is trusted for its reliability but has, unfortunately, been threatened by the decreases in funding over the years.
I knew nothing of current affairs and politics until TV arrived in our household and the outcome of the 1964 general election became a topic of conversation. Nowadays we can have all this as a wall-to-wall subject, manipulating content to suit our personal preferences. Of course, today the modern Conservative Party has seemingly done its best to keep BBC News and Channel 4 busy with wall-to-wall coverage of its own soap and psychodrama, particularly over the last year—something that I must say I have greatly enjoyed. It is a form of entertainment.
More seriously, the broadcasters have played out the game of politics in front of us in a way that I think has been incredibly balanced, informing while trying to keep us up to date with the latest twists and turns. In a strange way, I think they have proven their value as impartial observers, casting questions in the right direction, by the way in which those stories have panned out.
We had excellent coverage following the sad passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in September. The BBC reports that 32.5 million people tuned into the Queen’s state funeral. That was an enormous number of people paying close attention, far more than watched the Queen when she was crowned back in 1952. Huw Edwards was a calming, reassuring, measured presence during that tumultuous time and, as something of a national treasure, many will share his sentiments on the BBC. As he says, it offers
“very good value for money”
“100 years of incredible achievement and some of the best programming in the world.”
It is hard to dispute those words.
As well as celebrating the BBC’s centenary, as many noble Lords have said today, we should also congratulate Channel 4 on its 40th anniversary, which was marked yesterday. Contrary to assertions made by the Government in recent years, Channel 4 continues to reinvent itself. It has the biggest free streaming platform in the UK and is constantly evolving its offering, supporting independent production companies and emerging talent across the whole of the UK. As noble Lords have reminded us this afternoon, if we privatise Channel 4 and go down that route, many of those production houses and companies will simply disappear.
If left by Ministers to get on with its work, Channel 4 is well positioned to continue playing an important public service role for many years to come. Yes, the Government have raised questions about its future funding, but privatisation is not the only answer. Channel 4 has a well-advanced alternative business plan that addresses the issues the Government claim exist as a threat to its success. As others have said, we know that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has been reassessing the business case for its privatisation. Can the Minister confirm where the Government have got to on this? Either they have gone very quiet or a review has found its way into the long grass.
Can the noble Lord please reassure us that we shall have the much-needed media Bill? The noble Lord, Lord Foster, made that point very persuasively and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and others followed. We need to know because there is so much uncertainty out there. Some of the issues that are very much alive, such as prominence and a sense of mission for our media, need to be dealt with in a modern and updated piece of legislation.
I also want the noble Lord to take the opportunity to correct the record concerning Channel 4’s chief executive officer’s remuneration package. On 21 July, he told the House that Channel 4’s boss receives
“more than the chief executive of ITV”,—[Official Report, 21/7/22; col. 2032.]
yet, according to both organisations’ annual reports, that is simply not the case, so perhaps the noble Lord can offer a correction. Channel 4 may be a specialist in commissioning alternative programming, but discussions about its future should not be based on alternative facts.
Of course, neither Channel 4 nor the BBC is without its faults. Just this week, we heard of the BBC’s plans to radically shake up its radio offering. Local BBC radio stations inform and entertain millions across the country. We also saw during Liz Truss’s short spell in office that the BBC local radio presenters are excellent journalists. They were asking the hard questions, putting the Prime Minister on the spot and holding her to account perhaps more effectively than we are used to. It was a service to the nation.
The BBC has not covered itself in glory in recent days with its announcement and we should not shy away from saying that, but one answer is for the Government to provide it with greater clarity about its long-term future. The plans it outlined do in part have a direct relationship to the Government’s decision to cap the licence fee at £159 and effectively take some £250 million of revenue out that would otherwise have been available to the BBC for its programming. That reduction made it inevitable that change to service levels would take place, but whether they are the right ones must be open to debate.
Just as Ministers have threatened Channel 4 with privatisation, the BBC has been threatened with the withdrawal of the licence fee, with no feasible alternative proposal in its place. We know that licence fee payers have been diminishing in number—a challenge that the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, and others raised in their plea for us to think big in the future. We need to understand why those licence fee numbers are shrinking and what that means and implies for the future funding of the BBC. It is for the Government to lead the debate there, in a constructive way that recognises the value of this great institution.
The BBC has served our country well for 100 years since its inception. We benefit from its history and legacy and, as others have said, we undermine it at our peril. Not only is it rightly admired worldwide, rather like our National Health Service, but its reputation, despite periodic political attacks, remains high. For a whole variety of reasons, many of which have been given clear and distinct voice during the debate, we should cherish and nurture our public service broadcasters, guaranteeing their future rather than throwing it into doubt. Broadcast media, like all others, live in an era of rapid change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, said, our role is surely to create a framework in which we as parliamentarians provide opportunities for change and renewal and encourage it in a way that strengthens, rather than weakens, the broadcasting ecosystem.
We can only hope that the arrival of the third Prime Minister in as many months, who we are told is a grown-up, will see a ratcheting down of the threats to public service broadcasting outlets and a more mature discussion about the issues that currently face all broadcasters. There are decisions to be made about funding, listed events, new markets, prominence, missions, purpose and so on, but they must be taken in the national interest, not in a narrow party-political interest, with the widest possible public debate and engagement in a well-informed way. There is much in that menu for the Minister to respond to.
My Lords, this has been a very spirited and thought-provoking debate, and a very enjoyable one for my first time back at the Dispatch Box. I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, on securing it. He encouraged me to sign up to speak from the Back Benches and I had done so, but it is a delight to be responding with a bit more time from this position.
The noble Lord’s Motion encourages us to look to both the future and the past, but perhaps I should start with an observation about the present. It seems to me that we in the UK today are very lucky to benefit from a vibrant and diverse broadcasting sector. We have access to hundreds of television and radio channels, each of them unique. These are in turn supplied by a wealth of creative talent and distributed in innumerable ways, some cutting-edge and others which would be familiar even to the late Lord Reith himself—although I wonder whether he might have mellowed in his opinions on jazz.
Moreover, it strikes me, taking the long view, as today’s Motion invites us to do, that that success is due in no small part to the work of the BBC, first as the pioneer of radio, and later television, broadcasting, and then, over time, providing a different role, an important foundation on which so much else of our broadcasting heritage is built.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell said, 1922 was a very special year. It marked the publication of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of which I have read repeatedly and the other of which I am still struggling through, but both of which I have learned a great deal about in this centenary year thanks to the BBC’s programming about them.
However, as we heard, a lot has changed since 1922. The BBC is no longer our only broadcaster; indeed, it is not our only public service broadcaster. Strictly speaking, it is one of six but, taking a more rounded measure of public service, we might also include our eight local television providers and hundreds of local and national radio stations in that list. That does not even include all the programmes created and shown by commercial broadcasters that are nevertheless public service in nature.
The need for public service broadcasting in this country is as strong as ever it was. Whether that is breaking news footage of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, or lessons for children stuck at home during the pandemic, it is vital that our broadcasters understand the positive impact that they can and do have on our life in the United Kingdom: on our culture and values, on our economy and on the very cornerstones of democracy. They play a key role in bringing the nation together at our moments of greatest celebration and our moments of deepest sadness.
In particular, I echo the tributes paid by other noble Lords to our public service broadcasters, especially the BBC, for their thoughtful and respectful coverage following the recent death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, more than half the country, 32.5 million people, watched the BBC’s coverage of the state funeral, and millions more watched it on ITV: a powerful example of what public service broadcasting can and should be about.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Harding that, in Parliament, it is our job as parliamentarians to hold public service broadcasting to account but also to provide a legal and regulatory framework which encourages and supports the contribution that the BBC and others make. Part of that framework, of course, includes the media Bill, which noble Lords in great number have asked about, understandably, today. Let me highlight what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said last night in your Lordships’ House—not in the Chamber but in a reception held here. She said she is fully committed to introducing legislation to make sure that we are regulating in a way that is fit for the modern era, and that we will be coming forward with the media Bill shortly. I am afraid I cannot be more precise than that, but I am happy to echo her words that we will do that soon.
I will start with the legal and regulatory framework for the BBC. In January, the Government announced that the licence fee will be frozen for the next two years and will rise in line with inflation for the following four years. That means that the cost of the licence fee will remain fixed at £159 until April 2024, before rising in line with inflation until April 2028.
Concerns about the cost of living have been echoed in your Lordships’ House today and were central to the Government’s decision. The settlement aims to support households at a time when they need that support most, while also giving the BBC what it needs to deliver on its important remit. Under the settlement, the BBC will continue to receive around £3.8 billion in annual public funding, allowing it to deliver its mission in public purposes and to continue doing what it does best.
We believe that this is a fair settlement which strikes the right balance between protecting households and allowing the BBC to deliver its vital public responsibilities, while encouraging it to make further savings, efficiencies and innovations. The Government’s longer-term road map for reform of the BBC sees two forthcoming milestones as we prepare for the next review of the BBC’s royal charter: the ongoing mid-term review and the planned BBC funding model review. I will address each of those in turn.
At this point, half way through the charter period, work has already begun on the mid-term review. That will function as a health check, conducted by the Government and examining how effectively the governance and regulatory arrangements introduced by the current charter, such as the move to the new unitary board, are performing, and whether further reforms are required. The Government are interested in the success of the BBC’s governance and regulatory arrangements in enabling progress against our ambitions for greater impartiality, an effective complaints system and a BBC that represents the breadth of the audience it was established to serve.
That is not just about how well the BBC is doing. We also want to look at the effectiveness of the framework by which Ofcom holds it to account. The Government are seeking to conclude the review swiftly and to report on its findings next year. At the same time, the BBC’s funding model faces major challenges, due to how people consume media, as we have heard in this debate. Technology has revolutionised how, when and where audiences can access and watch content. An increasing number of households are choosing not to hold a TV licence as fewer people choose to watch live television or other activities which require a TV licence. If this trend continues as expected, that presents clear and looming challenges to the sustainability of the licence fee.
It is not just the Government who have these concerns. They have been echoed in today’s debate. Licence to Change: BBC Future Funding, the report of your Lordships’ Communications and Digital Committee under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, whom I had the pleasure of sitting alongside, albeit briefly, in the last few weeks, found that the drawbacks to the current licence fee model are becoming more salient. We must consider how best to fund the BBC over the long term so that it can continue to succeed. It is therefore right that we examine the future of the licence fee. The Government will set out further detail on their plans in due course.
The BBC forms just one part of the UK’s vibrant public service broadcasting system. Our six public service broadcasters provide a wealth of important content—news and current affairs programmes which help us understand the world around us, original, distinctively British programming which shapes our culture and reflects our values, and programmes made in all corners of our nation and broadcast around the world.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and others, were right to praise the important work of the BBC World Service. The Government strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to global audiences in some of the most remote places in the world, particularly those parts of our globe where free speech is limited. The BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, so decisions over its spending and services are a matter for the BBC, but the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is providing the BBC World Service with over £94 million annually for the next three years, supporting services in 12 languages and improving key services, and that is in addition to the nearly £470 million which the Government have already provided through the BBC World2020 programme since 2016.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was right to highlight the bravery of BBC journalists who report for the World Service, particularly in Iran. We regularly raise the harassment of BBC Persian staff directly with the Iranian Government as well as in multilateral fora, but I wholeheartedly agree with his tribute to them. Moreover, our public service broadcasters complement their commercial competitors by raising standards across the industry by investing in skills, boosting growth and taking creative risks. They drive growth in our booming production sector by commissioning distinctive public service content and supporting the hundreds of independent production companies that are the lifeblood of that sector.
This contribution is not limited to television. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, noted, in celebrating 100 years of the BBC, we are celebrating 100 years of BBC radio. Since listeners first tuned in to daily news bulletins on its 2LO service, BBC radio has been a pioneer of public service content, from great drama to ground-breaking comedy, the newest music and the greatest of old, not least through its orchestras and choirs. Radio is also changing, as more and more people consume audio content online. With its unique position in the radio market, I hope we can have confidence that the BBC will continue to evolve to deliver high-quality and engaging audio services to the country and the globe over the years to come.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, and others raised the announcements this week about changes to BBC local radio stations. Again, the BBC is rightly operationally and editorially independent of government, but the Government are disappointed that it is reportedly planning to make such extensive cuts to its local radio output. In an Answer to an Urgent Question in another place earlier this week, my honourable friend Julia Lopez set out that she is meeting the BBC next week and will be conveying to it the views raised in that Urgent Question. We wait to hear more from the BBC on how it expects these changes to affect local communities, including the provision of local news and media plurality.
As noble Lords have noted, it is not just the BBC celebrating an important birthday this year. On Tuesday, Sianel Pedwar Cymru, or S4C, the UK’s Welsh language television broadcaster, celebrated its 40th birthday. S4C is a great example of how our public service broadcasting provides for every part of the UK, not only providing an opportunity for Welsh speakers to access content in a language familiar to them but supporting the Welsh economy, culture, and society.
Channel 4 also celebrated its 40th birthday yesterday. It is an integral part of our public service broadcasting system and a great UK success story. Over the past four decades, Channel 4 has done an excellent job in delivering on its founding purposes, providing greater choice for audiences and supporting the British production sector, including in the diocese of the right reverend Prelate following its move to Leeds. The Government want Channel 4 to continue to deliver for audiences for the next 40 years and long beyond. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is carefully examining the business case for the sale of Channel 4 and will set out further detail on our plans for the future of the channel in due course. As the right reverend Prelate and others said, there is much to be considered. The principal conclusions of the Government’s review of public service broadcasting were set out in our White Paper earlier this year and my right honourable friend will be able to draw on those conclusions when considering her decision.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for giving me the opportunity to correct the record. He is right to pick up on an answer that I gave when last in this post, stemming from a confusion between salaries and total remuneration packages. One of the last things that I did before leaving was to write a letter to the Library of your Lordships’ House setting that out for the record; if it was not sent, I will make sure that it is. I am grateful for the opportunity to do that from the Dispatch Box.
Continuing with birthdays, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will remember particularly well as a former Broadcasting Minister, in March this year Channel 5 turned 25. It continues to make a vital contribution to the UK PSB system through its provision of news and its unique focus on children’s television.
Our two other public service broadcasters, ITV and STV, continue to play an important role both on and off the screen. Last year, STV was the most watched peak-time television channel in Scotland for the fourth year in succession, and in 2019, the most recent year for which detailed data are available, ITV spent more than £250 million outside London, directly employing more than 2,000 staff and indirectly supporting many more. That is not to mention its 3,000 hours of national and regional news, with “STV News at Six” having held Scotland’s number one news programme slot since 2019.
However, despite these ongoing successes, there are also challenges ahead for our public service broadcasters. I have referred already to some of the specific challenges facing the BBC, but in many ways, they are symptomatic of broader changes in the sector, which create both opportunities and risks. One of those is advances in technology. Just as the advent of cable and satellite services revolutionised broadcasting in previous decades so internet-delivered services are revolutionising it now, creating new distribution methods and potential business models. It is notable, for instance, that 79% of households with a television set now choose to connect it to the internet.
Changing consumer habits are also a factor. Today’s viewers now have huge choice in what they watch and how they watch it, and are taking advantage of that choice. Two-thirds of households subscribe to video-on-demand services like Netflix and Disney+, and in September 2021 YouTube reached 92% of online adults in the United Kingdom. Viewers are shifting to different platforms, types of content and modes of viewing: telephones, laptops, short-form, long-form, on-the-go and around the house. To be a successful modern broadcaster, it is important that broadcasters make their content available in a multitude of formats across a wide range of devices and platforms.
Increased competition is also changing the sector. New global players, particularly US-based streamers, as noble Lords have noted, are using their greater financial resources to compete with both our public service broadcasters and our commercial ones. That is not just a question of competition for viewers but for the programmes they show. In 2019, the public service broadcasters in the UK were collectively able to spend just under £2.8 billion on new content. At the same time, Netflix alone spent an estimated £11.5 billion on production globally.
In April this year, the Government set out their proposals for supporting our public service broadcasters, using our new legislative freedoms to deliver a regulatory framework which works in the best interests of the UK. We were able to draw upon much previous work, including the report of the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House, at that time chaired by my noble friend Lord Gilbert of Panteg. As a result, the White Paper contained a number of proposals to support British broadcasters to prosper in this new media environment.
The first of these relates to prominence. An important part of our public service broadcasting system is ensuring that public service content is readily available to as wide an audience as possible and easy to find. But as audiences increasingly watch content online, our broadcasters, including the BBC, are finding it increasingly difficult to secure and maintain their presence on global platforms. We announced in our White Paper plans to legislate for a new online prominence regime, so that PSB content is made available and given protected prominence across designated TV platforms. Building on Ofcom’s recommendations, we believe that legislating for prominence will not only support the future sustainability of public service broadcasters; it will also mean that viewers can continue to find the content they value. We understand, and share, the concerns of our public service broadcasters that action to address this issue is needed as soon as possible. I am glad to hear that echoed in today’s debate.
I also want to touch briefly on the listed events regime, which helps to ensure the free and universal availability of key moments from some of our most loved sports. In recognition of the key role that our public service broadcasters play in distributing content which is distinctively British and of interest to audiences in the UK, the Government have announced their intention to make qualification for the listed events regime a benefit specific to our public service broadcasters. This will ensure that they have the opportunity to show national sporting events such as the Paralympic Games and the Women’s EUROs, both rightly praised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for years to come. We are considering whether digital rights should be brought in scope of the regime to reflect the rapidly changing viewing habits of UK audiences and the growth in on-demand streaming services.
Video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime provide huge value to UK audiences and in many cases significant, and growing, contributions to the UK economy. But these on-demand services, apart from BBC’s iPlayer, are not subject to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which sets out appropriate standards for content, including for harmful or offensive material, accuracy, fairness and privacy. This means that the television-like content which people watch is regulated differently depending on how they choose to watch it. Some services available in the UK are not regulated in the UK at all. That is why we intend to bring larger TV-like on-demand providers, which are not regulated in the UK but which target and profit from UK audiences, under Ofcom jurisdiction. We will also give Ofcom powers to draft and enforce a new video-on-demand code, similar to the existing Broadcasting Code. These changes will mean that UK audiences will be better protected from harmful material and better able to complain to Ofcom if they see something about which they are concerned.
My noble friend Lady Harding of Winscombe was right that the people who are moving to these new methods of watching television the quickest are the young, and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, was right to raise our important responsibility to children. UK-wide television tax reliefs aimed specifically at children’s television programming have since 2015 directly supported more than 500 projects and over £600 million of investment in children’s content. We are grateful to have worked closely with the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, on introducing powers for Ofcom to monitor the commercial public service broadcasters and enable them to set criteria for the provision of children’s television programming; and of course, we chose children’s television, alongside radio, to pilot contestable funding, as she mentioned in her contribution. An evaluation of the three-year pilot of the young audiences’ content fund is taking place to determine its impact. The potential for further investment will be assessed against that evaluation and future public service broadcasting needs.
The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, mentioned smart speakers. Today the whole sector faces perhaps its greatest challenge yet with the emergence of online audio services and smart speakers. I share the noble Viscount’s concerns about the potential impact of these devices on the radio sector. Officials in DCMS are actively exploring potential options for bringing forward legislation to protect the position of radio on smart speakers in a way consistent with the proposals to develop a new pro-competition regime for digital markets.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that it was a Conservative Government who established the BBC. As this is a Liberal Democrat debate, I should say that a Conservative and Liberal coalition presided over its birth. The BBC was founded on 18 October 1922. The following day, Tory Back-Benchers met at the Carlton Club and pulled the plug on that coalition, giving the BBC its first big story to cover. Those were the days when Tory Back-Benchers brought down Prime Ministers from other parties. It was thus a Liberal politician, the Postmaster-General FG Kellaway, who noted:
“If the best use is to be made of this new form of communication, it must touch life at many aspects”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/8/1922; col. 1955.]
I think we would all agree that our public service broadcasters have delivered on that vision. Now is the time, as we have done today, to look ahead to the next century and provide the foundations for future success. I am very grateful to the noble Lords who have given us the opportunity to do so.
Before my noble friend sits down, may I seek a couple of points of clarification on legislation? My noble friend echoed the Secretary of State in saying that the media Bill will be with us shortly. Yet a decision on the privatisation of Channel 4 has yet to be taken. Could he confirm that, if the Government decide not to go ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4, the media Bill will still come forward shortly because it is the non-Channel 4 aspects that are deemed incredibly urgent?
The Minister also made some comment in response to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, on digital competition. However, I am not entirely clear on what he is saying about the prospect of a digital competition Bill. He may remember that I was very keen, if possible, that we should combine the two things, particularly if Channel 4 is no longer on the agenda.
I am grateful to my noble friend for the opportunity to say a bit more. There is not much that I can add, other than to repeat the Secretary of State’s words from last night. We will bring the media Bill forward shortly and that does not pre-empt the decision she is considering vis-à-vis Channel 4. The Queen’s Speech set out the Government’s commitment to publishing a draft digital markets competition and consumer Bill in this parliamentary Session. We will do so as soon as parliamentary time allows.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am almost surprised that he did not lead us in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for the BBC and Channel 4. I also have to ponder what his speech might have been like had he delivered it, as originally intended, from the Back Benches rather than the Front Bench. I am almost certain—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the history lesson about the Liberal role in the BBC’s establishment would not have been included in a Back-Bench speech, but I am grateful to him for it.
The Minister will have heard that there is a great deal of support for public service broadcasting all around the Chamber. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly those who emphasised important reasons for supporting it that I did not mention. There were references, for example, to science, children, sport and even the importance of trusted news in conflict areas.
I am also conscious that, in the back of our minds, many of us support the public service broadcasters, including the BBC, because of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds called the “nightmare alternative” of having a broadcasting landscape like that in the United States—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, put it, “Heaven preserve us from Fox News”.
So the Minister will take away that there is a great deal of support for the BBC. He in turn supported the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, about the need for the public service broadcasters, including the BBC, to address some of the issues that need addressing. Reference was made to former chairs of the Select Committee and the way in which some people in society feel that they are not represented by our public service broadcasters—they have to address that. It is equally true that, as my noble friend Lord McNally said, public service broadcasters need to be a bit more up front about their own proposals and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, less timid.
I end by repeating my thanks to everybody. I hope that the Minister will take away the very clear message from the whole of your Lordships’ House that there are issues that need fixing and that can be fixed only through legislation, which we need as soon as possible—including legislation in relation to the important digital markets issue. I was present when the Secretary of State spoke, and she said “soon”, not “shortly”. I have had the chance to stand at the Dispatch Box and use all those phrases—“when parliamentary time allows”, “in due course”, “soon”, “shortly”, “in a few weeks’ time” and so on—and I have never understood the subtle distinctions between them. But, if the Minister knows the answer to this, could he intervene? It would help us to answer the question of how likely it is that we will get this soon. Does he know whether a media Bill has been approved by the Cabinet? If he does not, perhaps he could find out, because that would be helpful information for the House. If it has not been, could he do everything in his power to urge the Cabinet to address this issue very quickly?