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BBC: Royal Charter

Volume 835: debated on Monday 15 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what consultations they propose to have before the next renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter about news and current affairs programmes, including the future of Newsnight.

My Lords, the BBC has a duty under its royal charter to deliver impartial and accurate news and current affairs programmes. It decides independently how to deliver these services. The Government’s mid-term review focuses on impartiality, editorial standards and making sure that we have a BBC that represents all audiences. As required by the royal charter, His Majesty’s Government will consult the public on the BBC’s future as part of the charter renewal process.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the BBC faces an immediate crisis given the 34% real-terms cut in its income between 2010 and the present? This cut has had an adverse effect on some programmes, including “Newsnight”, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, which may have to be cut back in an election year when what we want is more scrutiny of politicians, not less. Is not there some truth in what Sir Max Hastings said: that there is a

“Tory war on the BBC”?

It is important to begin with the fact that the BBC will benefit from more than £3.8 billion of licence fee income per year; that is a considerable amount of money. We froze the licence fee to help people with the cost of living but it is now rising in line with inflation. It is for the BBC to decide how it spends the money that it gets from the licence fee payer within the expectations that are clearly set out in the royal charter, in which its first public purpose is:

“To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”.

It is important that the BBC does this.

My Lords, those of us who care passionately about the BBC are very worried about the direction of travel for BBC News. There have been decimating cuts to local radio, with long-standing presenters being made redundant in the most brutal of ways, the botched merger of world news and domestic news, and the cuts to flagship programmes. As the Minister said, is it not the BBC’s duty as a publicly funded broadcaster—particularly in an age of disinformation being so widespread—to invest heavily in a news service that we all rely on?

Although it is up to the BBC to decide how to deliver its services, the Government are clear that it must make sure that it continues to deliver its remit as set out in the royal charter and the agreement. The Government expect Ofcom, as the BBC’s regulator, to ensure that the BBC is held to account in the way it does so. We recognise the strength of feeling on the importance of news coverage, both nationally and locally. We have raised the concerns expressed in your Lordships’ House and another place about cuts to local news reporting services, but it is up to the BBC to decide how it delivers these services with the money that it gets.

My Lords, my final act in departing the BBC in 2000 was to negotiate a licence fee settlement for seven years at RPI plus 1.5%. That was with a Prime Minister who was crystal clear—to repeat a phrase from earlier—that he wanted to see a well-funded BBC in a rapidly expanding new digital universe. A quarter of a century later, we find the BBC with its finances brutalised and forced to pull back in every area of programming. Is it not time to restore the scope and scale of our most important national cultural institution?

The BBC is indeed a beacon that shines brightly around the world, reflecting British values and doing great credit to us as a nation. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the work that he did at the corporation. However, since he left, we have seen the number of people paying the licence fee falling. It has fallen by 1.7 million people over the last five years. Therefore, as well as ensuring that there is a fair settlement that gives the BBC the money that it needs and is fair to the people who pay the licence fee, we are looking at the funding model to ensure that the BBC is able to continue to get the income and to shine brightly as a beacon in an increasingly competitive media landscape.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has implied, the biggest threat to the BBC’s news and current affairs is from this Government. After the level of cuts that we have already heard about and last year’s two-year freeze on the licence fee, the Government did at least promise an inflationary increase in the licence fee for this year. Will the Minister now acknowledge that the Government have also broken that promise by giving an inflationary rise that is much lower than was anticipated, saving British households the equivalent of one egg per month while causing the BBC to have to have a further £90 million in cuts? How does that ensure that the BBC will continue to be the most trusted international provider of news across the world?

The increase has been calculated based on the annual rate of CPI inflation in September. That is the same measure that we use for the increases to the pension and to those in receipt of benefits. It ensures that the BBC can get income from the licence fee while being fair to those who pay it at a time when household budgets are also hard pressed. That money delivers the BBC more than £3.8 billion per year. It is for the BBC to decide how it carries out its obligations as set out in the royal charter.

My Lords, I am very tempted to sling “Winterwatch” into this debate as it is being reduced because it is an expensive programme, which is a great shame. However, I will return to the issue that my noble friend Lord Dubs raised, because “Newsnight” is a much-respected and cherished institution. I would like to understand the need for the BBC to make changes in response to this funding challenge. Is the Minister satisfied with the BBC’s assurances in relation to the continuation of investigative journalism? Is he equally satisfied that now that privatisation is off the table and there is a clearer strategy for its future, Channel 4 can also continue to play its important informing and investigative role?

The royal charter sets out clear expectations for how the BBC impartially delivers news output. It is for the BBC to decide how it does this and through which programmes, however beloved they are in your Lordships’ House. I know that Members of your Lordships’ House have worked on “Newsnight” and many watch it and get their news that way. However, it is important that the BBC makes the decisions on how it adheres to the obligations set out in the royal charter and in its public purpose. It is also important that we do not have a Government who tell the national broadcaster how to report the news.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former news editor of “Newsnight” and a freelance TV producer. In the last year, commissions for factual programmes on all channels have been massively reduced. Over 70% of freelance documentary television producers are said to be without work. Does the Minister agree that Ofcom should investigate how the massive reduction in BBC budgets over the last decade has adversely affected the commissioning of documentaries on the BBC?

Ofcom has a role under the current royal charter to see how the BBC is meeting its obligations. It does this independently but will have heard the point made by the noble Viscount. More broadly, the Government are working on growing our creative industries so that there are many other avenues for brilliant documentary makers to add to the public understanding of current issues that are of interest to us all as globally engaged people, and many ways in which people can get their news and current affairs programming.

In his consultations, will my noble friend urgently take up the position on free-to-air, particularly regarding the test match series in India between England and India, which starts in about two weeks’ time? Does he realise, and does the BBC understand, how literally millions of people are sitting at home in this cold weather dying to see that cricket?

The listed events programme is a particular piece of work, but I will take my noble friend’s point back to Ministers, who, I am sure, hope for this to bring some joy and warmth into the lives of listeners and viewers.

My Lords, do the Government agree that multiple, daily, repeated quiz shows, which are almost continuous on the BBC now, are a good way to make sure that the licence remit is fulfilled?

The BBC has a licence remit and there are quotas for the number of hours of current affairs and news programming that it must show. What it fills its channels with outside of that is, rightly, a matter not for Ministers but for the BBC itself to decide.

My Lords, before any funding formula is introduced for the BBC, will the Minister commit to commissioning an independent, separate and dedicated impact assessment of that funding formula’s impact on the World Service, which needs a great deal of budgetary resilience built into it so that it can continue to respond flexibly to geopolitical situations around the world, especially through its language services?

The Government have made it clear—I am happy to say it again—that continued investment in the World Service is necessary to reflect the UK, its culture and its values to the rest of the world. Last March, we announced a £20 million uplift for the BBC World Service over the next two years, on top of the £94 million that it gets annually, to protect all 42 World Service language services, to support English language broadcasting and to counter disinformation. I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of doing that in the world situation we face.