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BBC Accountability and Transparency

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2022

Gregory Campbell will move the motion and then the Minister will respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate, as is the convention for 30-minute debates, so the Minister will have the final word.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered BBC accountability and transparency to Government and licence fee payers.

The BBC traditionally was a world-leading news and current affairs broadcaster—paid for, of course, by the licence fee. When I have raised issues such as the one that I will raise today, the Government have said that it is for the BBC to deal with how it allocates and spends our licence fee moneys. I understand and accept that. The problem is that when I and others raise very important issues such as the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability and I and others go to places such as our regional BBC, we do not get answers. Then we come to BBC London and we do not get answers. Then we go to the National Audit Office and we do not get answers. Then we go to Ofcom and we do not get answers. The buck has to stop somewhere, and eventually the buck stops with the Government, Parliament and all of us who, on the public’s behalf, have to try to hold the BBC to account.

A few years ago, as the Minister and others will remember, we had the term “on-screen talent”, which sometimes is a misnomer. There was an issue about the on-screen talent having huge salaries about which no one knew anything. I and others campaigned long and hard to get those salaries brought into the public domain. We all remember programmes in which publicly paid broadcasters were asking us as MPs how we allocated our overheads and how we spent our salaries, how we divvied up our salaries. On rare occasions, Ministers would say, “Just hang on a minute, Mr Dimbleby. How do you spend your money, given that you get it from the licence fee?” Unfortunately, very few people did that, although some of us did. The BBC is very good at asking questions, but it is not very good at answering them. That eventually worked its way through and the BBC now has a banding process whereby it announces the salaries of on-screen talent in certain bands, which is some progress but not sufficient.

Then, on the topic of accountability, we moved on to the issue of outside interests. That resulted in the BBC putting an external events register on their website 18 months ago. I quote:

“As announced in October 2020, the BBC will publish a quarterly summary of the paid-for external events undertaken by on-air staff in journalism and senior leaders, in order to promote the highest standards of impartiality.”

That sounds very good.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured this debate. He has mentioned two issues in relation to wages and others, but he also referred to impartiality. Does my hon. Friend agree that people are now aware that the political agenda of the BBC is premium, and while we have heard about the revamp of attitude, we have seen little fruit? The BBC’s coverage of the Democratic Unionist party—my party and that of my hon. Friend—before the election has been pointed and, indeed, pointedly detrimental. Does he agree that this is an indication that the culture in the BBC remains the same—biased, bitter carping by too many producers?

Indeed. On many occasions, a stark contrast can be seen between the interruptions, constant bickering and trying to misinterpret what is being said by certain of us, and the kid gloves used with others.

For that external events register, the BBC initially put out two columns: if a presenter was undertaking external tasks, they were either paid under £5,000 or over £5,000. That is not really much of a guide, because we do not know whether that person got £25 for speaking at an event or £4,995. The BBC then relented under some pressure, and there are now four categories: under £1,000, between £1,000 and £5,000, between £5,000 and £10,000, and over £10,000. That is an improvement, but unfortunately the BBC has to be dragged into making these simple changes, almost like bringing it from the latter part of the previous century into the 21st century. A simpler approach would be for the BBC to say at the end of the year how much every presenter who undertakes external appointments earned in total—did they earn £565, £10,400, or much more? That would be a much simpler approach, because there are hundreds of these references in the BBC’s register.

I will now move to an issue that is even more significant than external events: the commissioning of programmes for the BBC. In Northern Ireland and across the UK, we have a flourishing independent media sector. It is right and proper that we help to promote the people—young people in particular, but others as well—who establish small independent companies and want to get products from those companies on to either commercial radio and television, or BBC radio and television, because that is where the next generation of media producers, backroom people and camera people will all eventually come from. However, that small independent sector comes up against a huge brick wall, because in some regions of the BBC, there are BBC personnel who have “independent” companies of their own. They apply for commissioning contracts and, remarkably, are very successful in getting them.

That is very good if there is a level playing field—if independents can apply for those contracts, and people who work for the BBC can also apply for them. The problem is that the level playing field does not remain level. There are a small number of BBC personnel who have their own companies and, when they get contracts and a programme emerges on the BBC, can then use their own programme to advertise their privately commissioned programme that is on that evening. We have all repeatedly heard things like, “You may want to tune in at 10.35 tonight, when there is a programme on”, and then the next day when the BBC presenter is on, someone gets in touch and says, “I really enjoyed your television programme last night.” Yes, a programme paid for by us, the licence fee payers, and advertised freely on the BBC to the disadvantage of independent media companies that merely want to operate on a level playing field.

The issue has not been resolved. After holding numerous meetings with the BBC, the NAO and Ofcom, I was told that an additional safeguard would be brought in to protect and safeguard against any abuse of the system. That happened three years ago, in 2019. If there was a commissioning process that was open to all and sundry to apply for, and an internal BBC person with their own company applied for it and was successful in getting through the various stages, there would be a further stage of approval before the awarding of the contract and that person received the commission.

That further stage is an internal stage. The regional head of the BBC looks at the application—from a person that he or she knows, because that person is in his or her employ, and has received numerous commissions in the past. They have to rubber-stamp the application.

We are led to believe that that is a further safeguard. I do not think so. It is not independent; it is not transparent; and it certainly does not stand up to scrutiny. It has been in place for three years. Obviously, we have had the pandemic for two of those years, so we are unaware of the success or otherwise of that safeguard. I have watched closely and have seen the same small number of internal BBC employees receive a similar number of successful contracts since the safeguard was in place, so the BBC needs to answer the questions.

I hope the Minister can raise these important matters with the BBC. As we all know, there is an ongoing issue. The Secretary of State has made it clear that the BBC will have questions to answer and that, as we go into the future, there is a severe question mark over the licence fee—we understand that—but people are angry and annoyed that they pay for a service that they either do not receive, do not want or cannot opt out of. If they watch or listen to any live BBC broadcast, they are automatically liable to pay the BBC licence fee.

The hon. Gentleman is giving a brilliant speech. I agree wholeheartedly with his points on accountability and transparency. He is alluding to the issue of value for money from the BBC. Many of my constituents have long felt that the BBC does not offer value for money. In a deprived constituency such as mine, they question the licence fee and whether they should pay what is essentially a regressive tax. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

I do indeed. There is a rising tide of resentment, particularly when the public see matters on the BBC that seem to be quite partisan, whether locally, nationally or internationally. We can look back through the pandemic; we can look at the middle east; we can look at a whole series of incidents.

I remember the infamous time with the BBC’s North American correspondent when President Trump was first elected. At the very first press conference in the White House, the incoming President, for all his faults, said to the North American correspondent, “Who are you with?” He said, “The BBC,” and the President said, “Another winner.” That North American correspondent never forgot that put-down. Every time I saw him on at the White House, there would be a disparaging reference to the Trump Administration. Unsurprisingly, I have seen very little by way of disparaging references to the current incumbent of the White House—comparatively few, if any. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). The tension and annoyance of the general public rises when they see events and incidents like that on the BBC.

I ask the Minister to raise these matters with the BBC, because we are talking about public money. There is a system in place that some of us have tried to work within. We know that the BBC is accountable for that money. We have tried regionally; we have tried nationally; we have gone to Ofcom; we have gone to the NAO—but the rationale is slow and intractable, and the BBC is slow to get to the point it should have come to automatically. It should not have had to be dragged to this point—it should have embraced it—but there is a reluctance at the heart of those in the BBC to adopt these structures.

I ask the Minister to enter into his response to the debate with an open mind and an open heart and to endeavour to take these matters up when there are discussions with the BBC, in order that the public, and all of us who occasionally or frequently watch the BBC, can rest more assured that the BBC is accountable to us who pay their very wages.

It is an honour, again, to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for securing the debate and for the many important points he, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) have raised. I know all three are frequent commentators on BBC performance, and I know that the hon. Member for East Londonderry has had conversations with my colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I will make sure they are aware of the issues he has raised today. My colleagues and I regularly meet the BBC and will be happy to raise the hon. Gentleman’s points.

He is absolutely right; this debate, and the success he has had on the points he has raised, show that the BBC is accountable, as he said so clearly and eloquently, to Parliament, and to the public and the licence fee payers. That is really important and the hon. Gentleman made the point clearly.

Will the Minister continue to raise the issue of the complaints mechanism process with the BBC? In the last year for which figures are available, 2020-21, there were almost half a million audience complaints to the BBC about content. Eighteen resulted in a partially upheld or an upheld complaint. That is a woefully inadequate complaints process, when it results in such a low number of upheld complaints.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I know that he raised that issue with my colleagues at DCMS, including the Secretary of State. He raises important points. Addressing complaints is an important part of the responsiveness that the BBC can show, and the respect it can show to the public, as well as to Parliament. I will make sure that his point is reiterated—I know he has raised it before.

As the Secretary of State has said, the BBC is a global British brand. The Government want the BBC to continue to thrive in the decades to come, and to be a beacon for news and the arts around the world.

There are many things the Government support about the BBC. At this time, I want to draw particular attention to the work the BBC has been doing in relation to the conflict in Ukraine. The value of the BBC to people across the globe can be seen in the brave and admirable work of many BBC journalists who are risking their lives to bring us unbiased and accurate news from a live war zone in Ukraine.

However, the Government have also been clear that there are areas where we want to see the BBC do better. That includes the BBC’s approach to openness and transparency, which is the matter for discussion today. The BBC’s royal charter, underpinned by a more detailed framework agreement, guarantees the BBC’s current model, as an independent, publicly owned, public service broadcaster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South raised the issue of value for money. On 17 January, the Secretary of State announced in Parliament that the licence fee would be frozen for the next two years and would rise in line with inflation for the following four years. This settlement aims to support households at a time when they need that support the most and sends an important message about keeping costs down and giving the BBC what it needs to deliver to fulfill its remit. The BBC will continue to receive around £3.7 billion in annual public funding, allowing it to deliver its mission and public purposes and to continue doing what it does best. We recognise the important point about money that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The charter also requires the BBC to act in the public interest; to observe high standards of openness; and to seek to maximise transparency and accountability. The public has a right to expect the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, to be open and transparent. The Government believe that this focus on transparency and accountability is a key obligation for the BBC and essential to maintaining public trust. That is why, for example, the Government now require the BBC to publish salary details of all BBC staff paid over £150,000, which was done for the first time in the BBC’s annual report back in 2016-17. The public deserve to know how their licence fee is being spent.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry mentioned the issue of the external events register. In 2020, the BBC announced it would publish a quarterly summary of the paid-for external events undertaken by on-air staff in journalism and by senior leaders in order to promote the high standards of impartiality. The first quarter to be published covered January to March 2020-21. The Government welcome the publication of this information and it is an important example of how the BBC can increase its openness and transparency.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that perhaps he can chalk this up as a success. It looks as if the BBC has already moved to be even more open in the characterisation. I hope that is a step in the right direction and shows that the BBC is listening and has heard the points raised by him and others and will take action. I understand his frustration at having to labour those points, but I think this shows that movement in the right direction can be made.

As we know, unfortunately, the BBC has fallen short in the past in a number of ways. Lord Dyson’s report last year into the “Panorama” interview with Princess Diana shed light on the serious consequences incurred when the BBC does not meet the high standards of integrity and transparency which we expect from a public service broadcaster. Lord Dyson found that the BBC’s broadcast coverage was not open in regard to what the BBC knew about its own activities or transparent enough in response to questions from the press.

The BBC has clearly made progress since the 1990s, when the interview took place. The subsequent review by Sir Nicholas Serota into the BBC’s editorial process, governance and culture found that the BBC was much more open and accountable than it was 25 years ago, but that more could still be done. The Serota review also uncovered a persisting culture of defensiveness at the BBC, especially around admitting mistakes. The review also noted that, as a publicly-funded organisation in a society that is increasingly open, the BBC must further identify opportunities to enhance transparency.

This view is also held by Ofcom, the independent regulator of the BBC. Ofcom has consistently called for the BBC to be more transparent in how it explains its decisions to the public, engages with industry on proposed changes to its services, and in its reporting. Ofcom’s most recent annual report on the BBC’s performance noted that it has seen some improvements in recent years, but more needs to be done. We support Ofcom’s view that it is critical that the BBC holds itself accountable by clearly setting out how it will implement its strategies, measure their success and report on their effectiveness.

The Government have therefore welcomed the BBC’s acceptance of the Serota review’s findings and recommendations in full and the BBC’s publication of its 10-point impartiality and editorial standards action plan. We see this as an essential step in driving culture change at the BBC.

We also welcome recent announcements that the BBC will be carrying out the first of its thematic editorial reviews under the plan of its coverage of taxation and UK public spending. This will be chaired by Sir Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland, and the Government look forward to publication of the review this summer.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive nature of his response. In the concluding part of his response, will he detail the issue that I raised towards the end of my speech in relation to the commissioning of programmes, which is an important part of the debate?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reiterating that point. I will come to it in a moment.

Looking further ahead, the Government will shortly begin the mid-term review of the BBC charter, which will consider the overall governance and regulation of the BBC. A key part of that review will be whether the BBC plans for reform have materially contributed to improving the organisation’s internal governance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the point about commissioning, and in that context he highlighted the incredibly successful Northern Ireland independent production sector, and the overall film and TV production sector in Northern Ireland, which I know; I have managed to visit it a couple of times. It is absolutely incredible—world class—both in front of and behind the camera, which is why so many productions are based there. It is a really important sector, and commissioning and the commissioning process is vital.

According to Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC for 2020-21, published in November last year, the BBC has confirmed it is on track to meet the charter requirements on commissioning—64% of television, 53% of radio and 59% of online opportunities were open to competition. Ofcom notes that progress towards the targets this year has not been as significant as in other years, and in the case of online the percentage of content that is contested decreased. For TV and radio programming, Ofcom understands that the smaller increase is due to the BBC putting some of its plans for competitive tendering on hold due to the impact of covid-19. I will ensure that my colleagues in the BBC hear the other comments that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. I am sure that they will keep a close eye on the record in Hansard.

Richard Sharp, the chairman of the BBC, has said:

“Trust is the foundation of the BBC’s relationship with audiences and it is more important now than ever.”

I agree. It is for this reason that it is more necessary than ever to rebuild and maintain trust in the BBC among those who have lost it. The BBC has made promising steps towards greater transparency and accountability, but there is more to be done. The Government will continue to work closely with the BBC to ensure that it remains trusted and valued by audiences in the UK and across the world for many years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.