[Relevant documents: First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 82-I and -II, on A Public BBC; The Government's response thereto, Cm 6474; The Department for Culture, Media and Sport Green Paper, Review of the BBC's Royal Charter; and The Department for Culture, Media and Sport Annual Report 2004, Cm 6220.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2005, for expenditure by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £63,523,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 325,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £65,461,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]
I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on the BBC and the report by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that was published on
We have a plethora of documents to consider when debating the BBC. We have the Select Committee report and the Secretary of State's reply to it. I am grateful that she published the reply at the same time as the Green Paper, which we are also considering. We can consider the documentation and the inquiries that are relevant to the charter review that have been conducted by the Office of Communications. We also have the documents from Lord Burns and the various inquiries conducted by Tim Gardam, Philip Graf and Professor Barwise. Indeed, it is impossible to count the number of trees that have died during the process of the charter review. I shall address the issues in a moment, but one argument for not having a charter review could be the ruinous impact that producing such documentation has on the landscape.
I thank the Secretary of State not only for publishing her reply to the Committee report at the same time as her Green Paper last week, but because that Green Paper acknowledges the work of the Committee and, in whole or in part, accepts several of our recommendations, although not all of them, as I shall have cause to point out. I know that the United Kingdom Film Council is especially grateful that she accepted our recommendation on a film investment strategy.
The background to both our report and charter renewal is the dramatic change in the audiovisual environment since the National Heritage Committee, which I chaired at the time, produced its report that led to the present 10-year charter and the continuation of the licence fee as the method of funding the BBC. It is remarkable that in 1998 not one single house in this country had digital television—all television signals were analogue—yet today more than half of all households have it. It is partly thanks to initiatives taken by Sky and the hugely imaginative launch of Freeview that the number of houses with digital television will increase almost exponentially. About 5 million houses have Freeview boxes at present, and it is thought that by the end of the year there may be 10 million. That will, among other things, lead us forward to the practicability of digital switch-off.
The fact that we now have digital TV channels and, as the Secretary of State said in her statement last week, there are more than 400 television channels with more to come, has had a dramatic effect on the audience for the old analogue channels, which are also available on digital television. In 1993, BBC1 and what is now ITV1 had three quarters of the entire television audience in this country. The latest figures show that that three quarters has fallen to less than half, and figures published in the last few days show that ITV is continuing to lose its audience. In his memoirs, Greg Dyke interestingly points out that the only reason that BBC1 remains the channel with the largest number of viewers is not because it is doing well, but because ITV1 is doing even worse.
We have also moved forward from a situation in which, ever since the foundation of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922, we have been used, as radio and television channels have increased, to every viewer having access to every channel. That is no longer the case and it will never be the case again.
A significant number of people in the country, including those in Inverkip in my constituency, cannot receive an analogue signal and have never been able to do so, and are thus forced to buy cable, if it is available, or satellite dishes. Given that the analogue switchover in Scotland will happen after the charter is renewed, will my right hon. Friend support my call for a simple principle to be included in the new charter—that if people cannot receive a television signal they should not have to pay the licence fee?
I do not think that I would go that far, much as I sympathise with my hon. Friend and his constituents. One of the things to which we refer in our report is the need to launch and expand the Freesat enterprise, so that, without subscribing to Sky, for those who do not want to do so, it will nevertheless be possible for most people to obtain digital TV, in the same way as many people—up to 10 million, it is thought—will be able to do through Freeview. I see that my hon. Friend Chris Bryant is in his place and I know of the difficulties in his constituency, but my point was reinforcing what I said earlier: the era when everybody had access to everything is gone permanently. It will never return.
What is more, as the Select Committee found in its inquiries both in this country and abroad, and as the Green Paper points out, the situation to which we have been used ever since 1922—of people sitting in front of a radio or TV set and accepting, having to make do, with what is offered by those stations—is over, too. Through Sky Plus, HomeChoice and developments in the United States, people will be able to construct their own viewing in their own time, with their own choice, in a way that was never dreamed of even when the last charter review was taking place.
My right hon. Friend was saying that we lived in a time when every BBC service was available to everyone. That was theoretically true, although as my hon. Friend David Cairns pointed out it is not entirely true in his constituency. In fact, when BBC2 first broadcast, large parts of the country were unable to receive it. Precisely the same parts of the country still cannot receive Freeview, so there is considerable anger in constituencies such as mine. People say that as they pay the same licence fee they should get exactly the same deal. Can my right hon. Friend see any way to insert in the charter a greater impetus for the BBC to ensure that it provides the same deal to every constituency in the land?
When BBC2 was launched nobody could get it, because it broke down on the opening night. The production of "Kiss Me, Kate", the main programme on the opening night and to which I was greatly looking forward to watching, had to be postponed until the next night. The point that my hon. Friend makes, like the point made by my hon. Friend David Cairns a moment ago, is very valid indeed. If we are to have a new BBC charter, and if it is to be based on universal access, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will pay careful heed to those of my hon. Friends who live in areas that do not have the access available to people such as my constituents in Gorton who live in big cities. The interventions of my hon. Friends make the interesting point that viewers or would-be viewers consider access to programmes and channels as their right. That is appropriate.
We are moving towards a situation in which, despite the rather obtuse recommendations in Professor Barwise's report on digital TV, more and more channels are niche channels. Even BBC1—with less than a quarter of the viewers still the biggest channel in the country—is becoming a niche channel, too. Special interest channels are important; for example, Artsworld and Performance, which I understand has difficulties—I hope they can be solved. As the Green Paper points out, there is little of interest on either BBC1 or BBC2 before 7 pm; the arts are almost gone from BBC1 and "Panorama" has been banished to late on Sunday evenings.
It is important to note that people go on about the BBC as though it had been carried down from Sinai by Moses on tablets of stone and there is something holy about it that applies to no other broadcasting organisation. In the end though, as Alfred Hitchcock said to Ingrid Bergman when she was complaining about the interpretation of her role, "It's only a movie, Ingrid". In the same way, in the end, the BBC is only a broadcasting organisation—very important though broadcasting organisations are, and particularly important as the BBC is.
Although it emerges from the material that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has published that the idea of public service broadcasting originated in the United States, nevertheless the embodiment of public service broadcasting is the BBC. We would not use that phrase as we do if the BBC did not exist. When one listens to excellent broadcasting organisations in other parts of the world—for example, CBC in Canada—one can hear or see the influence of the BBC and Lord Reith on what was, when it was developed in the United States, first in radio and then in television, simply a mechanism for selling goods and attracting listeners and viewers through programmes that would get people to listen to or watch the commercials.
I find the right hon. Gentleman's comments very interesting. As he points out, the BBC is not some sort of holy organisation or religious sect, but does he agree that its circumstances and the licence funding arrangement, as he rightly describes them, enables it to be a world-class exemplar for public service broadcasting? Does he also agree that it seems encouraging that the Government have taken on board the important link between the current method of funding the BBC and the direct beneficial consequences on its ability to focus on top-class programming, rather than on ratings or advertising?
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, although I will come to one or two issues that relate to the funding in a moment. There is absolutely no doubt whatever that, if the BBC contributed nothing else to our national life and to international life, its contribution, even under the dumbed-down era of the previous director-general, is incomparable: five symphony orchestras, which we simply would not have in this country without the BBC—including, if I may be territorial, the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester—and the proms. All right, the BBC inherited the proms from Henry Wood, but it continues them.
I will just make one self-indulgent point—it may well be the only self-indulgent point that I make in my contribution. [Hon. Members: "No, no. More"] Well, if I am urged, I might expand. Although I am a great admirer of the BBC's contribution to this country's culture—indeed, I have not referred to what I personally believe to be the best of the BBC's television channels, BBC 4—nevertheless, I am using, or perhaps misusing, this moment in my speech to beg Roger Wright, the controller of Radio 3, to get rid of the constant chattering and gibbering that we hear on Radio 3 every morning. There is a presenter, as I understand they have to be called, called Sandy Burnett, who sounds like the gibbering of a demented parakeet, and I very much hope that Roger Wright, in accepting the tribute that I pay to what Radio 3 can be at its best, will get rid of that awful chattering, the requests for e-mails and the other nonsense on what ought to be the most estimable radio channel in the world.
The right hon. Gentleman's experience in this sector is renowned, but does he agree that the amount of time that the BBC uses to promote its digital channels increases the anger of all those people who cannot receive them—they are paying for something that they cannot receive, but they have no option about whether they pay for it—and that, if the roll-out of the digital channels is slower than expected, their anger will grow?
The hon. Gentleman is right, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport refers several times in her Green Paper to the anger that is created by cross-promotion in BBC programmes. One need not be a critic of the BBC to be concerned about the way in which the BBC is deteriorating in several respects, particularly when viewers and listeners rely to such an extent on the BBC for information, art, entertainment and news.
I will give way, but may I remind my hon. Friend that this is only a three-hour debate and other hon. Members will wish to speak? So, if I can be forgiven, this will be the last time that I give way in my speech.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that many hon. Members—for example, those who represent the north-west—are very concerned about dumbing down and the reduction in regional programming and news? Has the BBC not got an obligation to show a greater commitment to regional programming and regional news?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and of course, there is a very good chance that that can be rectified when the BBC moves to what it calls its hub in Manchester. I cannot think of any city—or, indeed, any locality in the entire country—to which it is more appropriate for the BBC move to try to deal with the concerns that my hon. Friend expresses.
We who serve on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport accept, as we did 10 years ago, that whatever concerns one has about the licence, it is the only viable way to fund a public BBC, but I would tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we, like her, having accepted that the licence must continue, ask that certain matters that relate to it be rectified because the BBC is in the unique position of being the only collector of its own funding—the only hypothecated tax in the country, and the only one collected by its recipient with rules laid down by the recipient. I am sure that every hon. Member will know of examples from her or his constituency of the anomalous regulations that relate to the licensing, or otherwise, of sheltered housing. When I had a certain problem in my constituency, I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. She referred me to the chairman of the BBC, who referred me back to my right hon. Friend. What we did not get in the end was a solution to the issue, and I am grateful to her for wanting to find one.
I hope also that my right hon. Friend will move forward from what she says in her Green Paper about the penalty for not having a licence and accept in full our recommendation that failing to pay for a licence should be decriminalised and become a civil offence. All the statistics show that the predominant number of those who fail to pay for their licence are single mothers on low incomes, and turning them into criminals is not acceptable. Incidentally, to continue the ghastly campaign by the BBC, warning us in the most threatening Big Brother way that we will all become criminals if we do not pay for our licence is unacceptable. In my own case, I was sent a threatening letter, asking me why I had not paid my licence fee, when I pay it by direct debit—thus showing that the way in which such matters are dealt with is not absolutely brilliant.
Meanwhile, I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider adopting the recommendation that issuing fixed penalty notices may well be the best way to deal with those who fail to pay for their licence. When we were discussing my right hon. Friend's statement last week, I became conscious of the fact that there is a lot of support for the view that, although some of us have accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm or reluctance that the licence is the most appropriate way to fund the BBC, we believe that it is the most appropriate way to fund only the BBC and that the recommendations made in several quarters to top-slice it to fund other public service broadcasting is just not acceptable. Our constituents will be just about ready to pay the licence fee to fund one major broadcasting organisation, but I do not believe that the use of the licence fee as a kitty to finance other ventures will be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of licence fee payers.
I am very sorry that my right hon. Friend did not find it possible to accept our recommendation that the BBC should be placed on a statutory basis, rather than via a charter. I understand completely her concerns about any possibility of either Government or Parliament intervening in the workings of the BBC, but let us consider Channel 4, which has been a statutory organisation throughout its existence—through the wisdom of Lord Whitelaw, who was responsible for its foundation—as has S4C as well. Channel 4 has been, if one sets aside the Hutton episode, far more controversial during its existence than the BBC has ever been. It has a far more aggressive news programme than anything that the BBC screens or broadcasts, yet nobody has ever been concerned for a moment that Channel 4 would be subject to interference from the Government or from Parliament. I hope that before we get to the White Paper my right hon. Friend may be willing to reconsider the recommendation.
One of the issues to which I have already referred—my right hon. Friend rightly devotes considerable space to it in the Green Paper—is digital switchover. We are reaching a time when digital switchover, for most people, will not be a problem. People are moving towards reception of digital TV themselves, either by Sky, cable or Freeview. It is extremely important that nobody should be excluded from digital reception when the switchover takes place. The recommendation that we make in paragraph 3 of our report is that the Government should give
"serious consideration to the need for measures . . . to make digital switchover affordable and practical to people on low incomes and those with special needs."
I do not believe that that has been given sufficient attention by my right hon. Friend in the Green Paper. I hope that as she moves towards the White Paper she will accept that it is an extremely important matter.
Like a number of my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber, I represent a constituency with a good deal of deprivation, with many people living on benefits. That is through no fault of their own. It is extremely important that such people, often with young children, should not be excluded from TV reception when analogue is turned off.
What my right hon. Friend sets out in the Green Paper with regard to governance, with more than a nod to the Committee's report, makes a great deal of sense, but with one exception. The exception is my concern at the idea of the chairman of the BBC being the chairman of what my right hon. Friend calls the BBC trust. The huge mess into which the BBC got itself under Mr. Davis and Mr. Dyke was due, to a considerable degree, to Mr. Davis defending, almost obsessively, the system of BBC governance. There was the notorious Sunday evening meeting, for example,
Many of us who are delighted with the appointments of Michael Grade and Mark Thompson are worried that the Green Paper and the charter and agreement might be, as it were, fashioned in their image. We cannot always rely on such absolutely first-class people holding the two top positions in the BBC. Indeed, the people who they succeeded were very far from being absolutely top class, and that is me being kind and generous. Whatever my right hon. Friend fashions, I put to her that it should be in place to deal with the worst contingencies rather than leaving them to the albeit admirable people who now run the BBC. I am pleased that in the Green Paper my right hon. Friend accepts what we are saying in our report about the need for professionals who understand the media and business to be on the BBC trust. We have only to look at the antics of Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who claimed to cause a fuss about the Hutton issue while at the same time going on the "Today" programme regularly to take sides on the Hutton issue, to realise how important it is that we get the right people.
I hope that while my right hon. Friend pays attention to our recommendation that what she calls the trust should sit in public, she will decide that it ought to sit in public, as the Federal Communications Commission in the United States does, for example. In this country, in many public bodies, there is too much of a net curtains attitude—the idea that things are too important to be conducted in front of the children. The children in this case are the people who pay the licence fee and fund the BBC. I hope that my right hon. Friend will think about that tendency. I hope also that she will have another think about making the details of BBC finances available to the National Audit Office.
In a curious way, all of us—with misgivings and with some disagreements—have reached a consensus about the future of the BBC. That is right because it is an exceptionally important broadcasting organisation. I hope that high as our opinion is of Michael Grade and Mr. Thompson, they will not be complacent in believing that all the problems are over. By the time that the White Paper is published, I hope that my right hon. Friend will have assuaged some of the misgivings that remain so that we can all go forward to support the BBC into the wholly digital age.
I am grateful to be called so early in the debate. It is a great pleasure to follow Sir Gerald Kaufman, who introduced it.
We are fortunate to have the BBC. It is arguably the most professional and respected broadcaster in the world. It has an unrivalled reputation for quality, with high quality programming not only on television but on radio, with its news and current affairs coverage and its coverage of the arts and music, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The promenade concerts constitute probably the greatest classical music festival in the world. Its coverage of sport is largely unrivalled. The best that anyone else can hope ever to claim is that its broadcasting is as good as that of the BBC. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that if we are fortunate in gaining the Olympics in 2012, the coverage of our broadcasters of that great event will, I am sure, show viewers throughout the world what we can do.
We should be in no doubt that the BBC is one of our great national institutions. I believe that we have an interest and a responsibility in this place to secure it. The debate on which we are now embarked, which will last well into the next Parliament, enables us to discharge that obligation in a thorough way. We need to secure the BBC's future in what is already a vastly different broadcasting environment from the one in which it has flourished up to now. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton referred to that. The rapid growth of digital television has surprised many people who were sceptical about how quickly it would be developed.
I have been lucky in my time in this place to have been able to be involved in a number of broadcasting debates and broadcasting Bills. I served on the Home Affairs Select Committee that, in 1988–89, published its own detailed report on the future of our broadcasting, which led to the White Paper, "Choice and Diversity". I served on the Committee that considered the then Communications Bill with my hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale—we represented the Opposition view on that Committee. I have been the secretary of the all-party media group for some time.
I think that it is fair to say that the Select Committee report, on which the debate is based, has provided a good basis, in response to which the Government have published their Green Paper. I shall make a few initial remarks about the Green Paper. The title of the document, "Review of the BBC's Royal Charter: A strong BBC, independent of government", is a welcome and worthwhile goal. As we begin to fathom through the proposals and try to come to a judgment on them, I think that we will want to assess how realistic is the ambition "A strong BBC, independent of government".
It will be difficult for the issues rightly flagged up in the Green Paper to be determined without Government intervention and without decisions being made ultimately by the Government. That is particularly true of funding. The funding review announced by the Secretary of State is welcome, but it will be conducted by the Government. As far as I can tell, if we keep the licence fee for a further 10 years or so, in the end it will be the Government who ask Parliament to agree to its cost. Similarly, whether we or the Labour party are in government, decisions must be made about governance, the handling of complaints, competition and digital switchover that will have a significant bearing on the future of the BBC. I welcome the objective of creating a strong BBC independent of Government, but it will be difficult to achieve completely.
The licence fee is the issue that most troubles Members on both sides of the House. On cost, the bounds of acceptability have been under pressure for some time. A licence fee currently costs £121, but it was because people found it difficult to pay that the Government introduced free television licences for the over-75s. I am not sure whether it was a fortunate responsibility, but I was shadow spokesman on culture, media and sport when the Government, against the advice of the Select Committee, decided on an above-inflation increase in the licence fee. My hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth, the then shadow Secretary of State, and I argued against that increase—not because we wanted to vote against it, but because we wanted to have a debate about the issue. We said that the settlement was too generous, and many of our warnings have turned out to be true. In particular, we believed that the BBC would invest heavily in new digital channels that many viewers would be unable to access, as has been said in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. It is difficult to see how that problem will be resolved, but until the digital switchover people will be peeved at having to pay a fee while they do not have the opportunity to watch those channels.
The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the issue has already been raised in our debate. For some people, Freeview is the way forward, but for others, even though they have to pay some money up front, Freesat is an option. However, that option is not available to everyone, because planning regulations may prevent them from putting up satellites. That has to be factored into the equation.
To reinforce that point, according to Ofcom, the Tyne Tees area is likely to be the last area to undergo the digital switchover, and that will probably happen in 2012. As a result, more than 10,000 of my constituents in Hexham and the Tyne valley cannot receive digital terrestrial television until then, which is hugely frustrating for a large number of people. Was my hon. Friend a little disappointed by the Government's one-paragraph response to the Select Committee report? It is vital that the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters find a way around the problem and that there is a free-to-air satellite service apart from Sky's Freesat.
My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. As part of my own constituency is in the Tyne Tees area, I am familiar with that problem, which is an example of the friction between the current licence fee and people's belief that they should be getting value for what they are paying. It does not matter whether hon. Members have individual views about whether £121 is good value for money. I think that it is—I mentioned the promenade concerts, and it could be argued that £121 is an extremely good deal for more than 50 concerts on Radio 3 and television when we consider what we would have to pay for a subscription service.
If we are to continue with the licence fee for at least 10 years, its sustainability will depend on the public's perception of value for money. I warmly welcome the Select Committee's consistent argument for setting the licence fee increase at the level of inflation, because the fee now exceeds the bounds of acceptability. Also, we are giving the BBC more money to expand broadcasting services, which the commercial sector is perfectly capable of doing. If we are to keep the licence fee it should be set at a realistic and fair level. Equally, we should continue to put pressure on collection costs. I share the view of a number of hon. Members about the heavy-handed nature of some of the BBC's collection practices, particularly towards people who do not have a television, as their declarations are not always believed.
In the charter renewal and the general redefinition of the BBC's mission, we should ensure that there is a service that can be universally accessed and enjoyed. It should be valued, valuable, unique and of high quality, and should retain and sustain programmes and coverage of events that are important to our national life but which other broadcasters choose not to cover. In the past, we have had arguments with directors-general and chairmen of the board of governors about the ratings war, but we must accept that quality programmes should be popular and that people should want to watch them. That is a difficult balance to strike. We had an argument with Christopher Bland, when he was chairman of the board of governors, about the downgrading of "Yesterday in Parliament". One of my colleagues said, "But you have the licence fee, so you should not be concerned about the fact that people switch off and do something else at 8.45 am. That is what the licence fee is for."
We want the BBC to do things that enrich our cultural diversity and allow innovation without it being constantly concerned about viewing figures or the size of the listening audience. While I am concerned that the licence fee may not last the 10-year period that the Government have in mind—we may have to look at alternatives before the end of that period—it is difficult to envisage an alternative, as the Government's consultation has demonstrated. People should feel that they are buying into the BBC through the licence fee and they should receive something that they value.
This is a rather belated intervention, but as my hon. Friend mentioned "Yesterday in Parliament", he may like to know that I have received an e-mail from the BBC that says that an Evening Standard diary column that claimed that the programme was to be scrapped was "completely untrue" and that it would continue in perpetuity. The last two words are my own, but nevertheless my hon. Friend will understand my gist.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's piece of news. Someone suggested to me once that the reason why Members of Parliament like to hear "Yesterday in Parliament" is that we all like the sound of our own voices, which reminds me that having spoken for 14 minutes—I know I have taken a few interventions—I should try to bring my remarks to a conclusion in two or three minutes.
We all need to study the Green Paper carefully. I cannot tell the Secretary of State that I have read it from cover to cover, and I suspect that very few colleagues have yet had the chance to do that. There are issues of governance on which we will have views. I agree again with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton on the need for a role for the National Audit Office, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford and I pressed in the Standing Committee on the Communications Bill. I am not yet clear to what extent the trust will differ from the board of governors, but I am prepared to be convinced.
I shall say a few words about independent production. During the proceedings on the Ofcom Bill, I was astonished at the strength of feeling against the BBC from some independent producers, to the point where some of them flatly refused to work with the BBC. We got the impression that the 25 per cent. target was a glass ceiling that some folk in the BBC would like to see lowered. My hon. Friend and I came to the conclusion that there probably ought not to be a limit at all, and that the BBC should be encouraged to commission significantly more than 25 per cent. of its output from independent producers. Some of the people now working in independent production companies are responsible for innovation and the development of new talent and new ideas, whereas when we had just the BBC and ITV, and there were no other opportunities, everything was done in-house.
My final comment to the Secretary of State is that in the north we believe we have one of the great centres of excellence in television production in Yorkshire, in the area of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. It is too early to say whether the "outside the M25" definition that was in the Communications Bill is working entirely satisfactorily, but I hope that it is. I want to encourage as much production as possible to take place away from London for the simple reason that the BBC and commercial television generally, by sponsoring arts, educational programmes and a range of other activities, bring a great deal to our cultural life. Those of us who represent constituencies away from London hugely value it. We should not just preserve it, but seek to enhance it.
I draw the attention of the House to my declaration in the Register of Members' Interests.
I welcome the Green Paper, particularly the proposed continuation of the licence fee, which is the bedrock of funding for the BBC into the future, even with the radical changes taking place in the broadcasting sector. However, in the course of my remarks I shall express a couple of reservations, at the outset by echoing the remarks of my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman about top-slicing and adding my concern about whether that will prove to be a sensible way to preserve public service broadcasting outside the walls of the BBC. I shall also say a little about the governance of the BBC, with particular reference to Wales.
Those who are excessively and, perhaps, obsessively critical of the BBC sometimes seem to follow the maxim that it is all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory. The BBC is one of those institutions which, if we invented it from scratch now, would probably never get on to the statute book or receive a royal charter because of the unusual nature of its set-up and governance. Nevertheless, as an institution it has lasted, created standards of excellence and been a flagship for Britain abroad, and it is a hugely recognised British brand and a vital component of the creative industries in the UK—a sector that is becoming increasingly important. In a way it is true, as its critics point out, that in the solar system of broadcasting, the BBC is like a giant gas planet containing many inefficiencies, but still exerting a powerful gravitational pull on standards and making the broadcasting and media universe a much better one than it would be if there were a black hole where the BBC once was.
I come now to BBC Wales, not least because its headquarters is in my constituency—Cardiff, West—and also because of its huge importance in Wales culturally, economically and to the community in Wales. Sometimes the creative industries are not taken seriously by economists. It is only a few years since people involved in economics, which I used to teach, were staggered, puzzled and bemused by the revelation that ABBA was Sweden's most important export industry. Traditional industrial economists could not get their heads round that. It is still true that economists do not recognise the creative industries as an extremely powerful way of growing the economy and as an expanding sector which aims to get value, wealth, income and jobs by creating intellectual property. The sector will become an increasingly important part of the economy, based as it is around high-tech industries.
More than 1,300 people are employed directly by BBC Wales. Many of them live in and around Cardiff, and many of those in my constituency. In addition, it has been estimated that there is a high multiplier effect in the Welsh economy, with a further 1,000 jobs indirectly attributed to the presence of BBC Wales. Its reputation for excellence is continually enhanced, as it was last night with the launch of the new series of "Dr Who", which took place in Cardiff, complete with Daleks on view. I understand that there will be a further showing in London next week for Members of Parliament who would like to see the next episode of the new series. [Interruption.] There are several showings going on, as Michael Fabricant points out.
Despite the important economic impact of the BBC in Wales and the recent announcements, the BBC's economic impact has traditionally been far too centralised. For an institution that is supposed to represent the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, its economic impact is still overwhelmingly felt in London and the London region. Until recently, 80 per cent. of the BBC's overall budget was spent in London and two thirds of its employees were employed there. That is why I welcome the "outside the M25" strategy. I welcome the fact that Manchester is to become an increasingly important part of trying to get the BBC outside the M25. I appeal for Cardiff, the rest of Wales and the other nations and regions of the UK to be at the forefront of the BBC's thinking about its economic and cultural impact in the UK.
On the cultural impact of the BBC, with particular reference to Wales, it is no exaggeration to say that the image of Wales and of the devolution project has been massively influenced by the presence and role of BBC Wales in Welsh life. BBC Wales broadcasts excellent sports coverage, although I do not agree with Mr. Greenway that the BBC is always the best at broadcasting sport, because Sky's coverage of football and Channel 4's coverage of cricket are innovative and have raised standards elsewhere. We need competition and cannot have a single monolithic broadcaster of sport. Nevertheless, sports broadcasts have a huge impact in Wales, as do broadcasts of other aspects of Welsh cultural life, such as the recent opening of the Wales millennium centre.
BBC Wales has played a crucial role in reaching out to the community through various innovative projects, which other parts of the BBC could seek to follow, such as the digital story-telling project, the "Where I live" websites and the community studios, which the BBC has opened around Wales in recognising that over-centralisation can even occur within a nation or region of the UK.
I am concerned about the future governance of the BBC, which might insufficiently take into account the new devolved Britain and the interests of the nations and regions following the Green Paper. Some resources have been devolved, but it is important that the devolution of power accompanies the devolution of resources, because the devolution of resources without the devolution of decision making might lead to an increasingly centralised BBC in terms of management and governance that sends down diktats from London to Cardiff, Manchester, Edinburgh and other parts of the UK.
When the new slimmer BBC board was set up, it was misguided to remove explicit representation of the nations and regions. Although the new Green Paper contains words of comfort about the structure of the trust, on which the nations of the UK are likely to be represented, it is not good enough to appoint someone and say, "Because they are from Wales, they represent Wales on the new trust." The trust should contain specific representation, and it is vital that a position representing the nations and regions is reinstituted when the new board is created.
When future decisions that directly impact on, for example, BBC Wales are taken on BBC finances and resources, there is a danger that there will be no direct input on behalf of the nations and regions. If the nations and regions do not have a voice on the board, their views will not be made clear and the newly restructured BBC might become dislocated from the devolved reality of modern Britain. I hope that that point will be taken into account in considering issues such as the finances and personnel functions of BBC Wales, because there is a danger that BBC Wales management will no longer be free to manage resources in the newly devolved world.
Overall, the Green Paper is welcome, and a period of stability is required. I count myself as a friend of the BBC and hope that it will be a flagship in 10 years' time, when the matter next comes up for review.
I welcome this debate, which arrives at an opportune moment to consider the future of the BBC.
I congratulate Sir Gerald Kaufman on both his speech, some of which I agreed with, and the work of his Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which has undoubtedly contributed valuable information and knowledge.
We can all agree on various things. The broadcasting environment is changing rapidly. We have gone from four or five channels to more than 50 per cent. of the population having access to tens, if not hundreds, of channels, and that trend will undoubtedly continue.
In some areas, the future is predictable. Digital take-up will continue to grow, which will have a profound impact. In the past 10 years, the BBC's television audience share has fallen from 33 per cent. to 25 per cent. The effect on ITV has been even more significant, with its share falling from 40 per cent. to 23 per cent., which is causing real problems, despite the results that it announced this morning. That trend is likely to continue as more and more households switch to digital, either because they choose to do so or because the Government require them to at some future date.
In other areas the future is less predictable. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee rightly identified the challenges that might arise from broadband television, from people deciding to watch television on their computer screens and receiving television pictures on mobile telephones. On top of that, in some quarters people believe that the future lies in high-definition television, which might switch the focus back to satellite television rather than digital terrestrial television. Whatever the future holds, it is clearly important to examine the role that the BBC should play and ask whether we need the BBC in a world full of television channels.
I have always believed that the only justification for having a state-owned and state-financed broadcaster is if it does something distinctive and different that would not otherwise be available from the market—in other words, public service broadcasting.
I am following my hon. Friend's argument with considerable interest. Does he agree that if the BBC or, indeed, any state broadcaster, were wholly and exclusively to confine its output to that which is different from the output of popular broadcasters or commercial broadcasters, its output would, by definition, be unpopular? In that case, how might it sustain its licence fee?
I am not sure whether the licence fee is sustainable, an issue which I shall discuss later, but I take my hon. Friend's point and do not believe that the BBC should set out to make unpopular programmes. The BBC must concentrate on high-quality, educational, informative programming, but it should not seek to appeal only to niches or to chase ratings. There is a difference between setting out to make high-quality programmes that then attract large audiences, and setting out to attract large audiences in the first place. To that extent, I welcomed last week's statement by the Secretary of State and share her concern, which is widely felt, that the quality of BBC programming has declined over the years and that there has been a tendency towards copy-cat programming.
One can point to some extraordinarily high-quality programmes, which are probably as good as any in the world, such as "The Blue Planet", "The Lost Prince" and "Auschwitz". However, for every one of those, there are probably 10 make-over programmes, game shows and DIY shows, which raise real concerns about dumbing down.
I welcome the Government's intention to bring in specific licences for individual BBC services, because each needs a clear and distinct role. That does not mean that, if one BBC service is failing to meet an identified need, it should necessarily look around to find another need. That leads us to question, in some cases, whether the service is needed at all and could be dispensed with.
The BBC has a particular duty to meet higher standards than those which apply to other broadcasters, partly because it benefits from a very large amount of public money. In that context, I want to consider one or two areas where the BBC has not always lived up to the standards that one would have hoped for. The first is that of harm and offence. Because the BBC is funded by a licence fee that is compulsory for all householders under the age of 75, it needs to take into account the sensitivities of the population. I draw particular attention to the recent transmission of "Jerry Springer—The Opera". That work may have artistic merit—certainly, it won awards—and there was a case for its being shown on television, but showing it on the BBC was bound to generate a huge number of complaints. The BBC should have anticipated that and thought seriously about whether it was appropriate to show it, especially given that the 50,000 complaints that it received came from people who will resent having had to pay the BBC for having shown it. That is now subject to a complaint to Ofcom and I will take great interest in Ofcom's ruling.
I could not disagree with the hon. Gentleman more on this issue, not least because when some of the newspapers that excoriated the BBC for showing the Jerry Springer programme first reviewed the theatre production, they said that it was bound to be a sure-fire hit and that they only wished that everybody in the country could get to see it. The important point about the licence fee is that it means that there is something for everybody. Some people may be militant atheists who do not want part of their licence fee to be spent on religious broadcasting. I do not believe that they are right—there should be something for everybody. "Jerry Springer—The Opera" may not be something that everybody wants to watch, but surely it is okay for the BBC to show it as long as it ensures that those who might be offended are aware of that.
I do not agree with the something for everybody argument, to which I shall return. Some people's tastes may be confined strictly to game shows and make-over programmes, but that does not mean that the BBC should cater for them when they are adequately—indeed, over-adequately—supplied on commercial television channels. On the Jerry Springer programme, my concern is that the BBC has not shown sufficient sensitivity to what is not just religious extremism, as the director-general was quoted as saying, but a very significant body of opinion.
Another issue that has given rise to, if anything, even more concern, is the BBC's decision in the past few days to pay Mr. Brendan Fearon £4,500 for his contribution to a documentary on the Tony Martin case. The BBC says that there was an exceptional public interest in that payment and that the documentary would not have presented a full picture without Mr. Fearon's contribution. The latter point may well be true, but that does not necessarily mean that there was an exceptional public interest. There is a widespread view that the BBC got it wrong, and I should like it to say so.
It is to the credit of the BBC that, in the course of an extensive interview with the person who produced that programme, also interviewed was the former BBC senior employee, now retired, who had drawn up the very guidelines that the programme's producer was praying in aid to justify it. The person who had drawn up the guidelines was sufficiently outraged to say that he had never meant them to be used in that way.
I agree that it is to the BBC's credit that it is willing to carry interviews with people who are critical of it. Indeed, those of us who take an interest in these matters find that the BBC devotes huge amounts of coverage to debates about the BBC.
The significant and welcome change that has happened in relation to harm and offence is the Government's decision that the BBC should be subject to external regulation by Ofcom, but in other areas it is not subject to such regulation. One of those is impartiality and balance. The BBC has long operated on the principle that, if both sides complain, it must be doing something right. That has been its approach to complaints by either of the main political parties, but there are other areas where it is generally felt that the BBC is less impartial than it should be. For example, people who are less supportive of a federal Europe have long complained that the BBC has a biased agenda to push a pro-European Union viewpoint.
The hon. Gentleman must have deliberately included that comment to rile me. Will he take it from me that many people on the pro-European side of the argument believe that the BBC has had an anti-European agenda for quite some time and has been particularly poor at explaining the European Union—which, indeed, the recent report into the BBC found to be true?
I would merely say to the hon. Gentleman that when the BBC, having dismissed such complaints for many years, finally set up an independent group to examine the question, it concluded that the BBC
"suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias" and that, despite the good intentions of producers,
"nobody thinks the outcome is impartial".
This is also relevant to the Catholic church, the Israeli Government, and supporters of hunting, all of whom have felt in the past that they have not had a fair deal from the BBC.
That could certainly have a great deal to do with it. I believe that the BBC is finally trying to put that right, but of course generations of BBC employees have already been recruited through the pages of The Guardian.
It is not satisfactory for the BBC to continue to regulate itself in this regard. Ofcom is already responsible for adjudicating on complaints about impartiality in the commercial television sector, and the BBC should be so regulated.
Another area that requires external regulation by Ofcom is that of the enforcement of the BBC's fair trading commitment. Commercial broadcasters, suppliers and other organisations have complained for many years about unfair competition from the BBC and abuse of its market powers. Yet time and again those complaints have been considered for a period by the governors only to be ultimately dismissed. Outside studies such as the recent Graf report on BBC online services and the Lambert report on 24-hour news have shown that changes were necessary, but the BBC has had to be dragged along kicking and screaming.
There is real concern that the BBC continues to abuse its position. I will give two examples. The first concerns the competition to provide subtitling services to Channel 4, which the BBC won with a bid that was widely believed to be way below cost. As a result, the commercial organisation that had thought that it stood a good chance of winning lost out. The BBC says that it has looked into it—indeed, the chairman told me that, having carried out a thorough investigation, he is absolutely satisfied that the process was entirely fair. However, the figures have not been published and there remains considerable suspicion among the commercial providers.
The second example concerns the requirement by the BBC that songwriters and composers should sign up with publishers who are selected by the broadcasting organisation, which then receives a cut of subsequent royalty payments. That strikes me as wrong and anti-competitive. The BBC is not the only offender—indeed, others are worse—but the BBC has a duty to set an example and should not continue that practice.
The BBC should come under external regulation for both matters. The Secretary of State said that she would consider allowing Ofcom to adjudicate on matters that relate to the fair trading commitment. That is a step forward, but I hope that she will go further than considering it and actually do it.
I was aware that the OFT had received complaints and I hope that it will deal with the matter.
I share the view of Mr. Greenway that the National Audit Office should have proper access to the BBC. It is extraordinary that the BBC benefits from £2.8 billion of public money and yet is still not subject to the same scrutiny as all other Government bodies. The Public Accounts Committee has repeatedly raised that matter, yet the Government, for reasons that I do not understand, appear unwilling to allow access. It would enormously improve transparency and accountability if the NAO were given full access.
Everybody agrees that there is a need for change in governance. The Secretary of State said that the status quo was unsustainable. The new chairman of the BBC made moves to give the governors much more independence and to set up an arm's-length arrangement whereby they have their own staff. Although that is an improvement on the current position, it does not go far enough. That was Lord Burns's conclusion. Indeed, he proposed a unitary board of executive and non-executive directors and a new, independent and separate public service broadcasting commission, which would oversee the use of public money. Ofcom strongly supported that model, which was also supported by Greg Dyke, who said that the Secretary of State should ignore the bleating about the proposals that she was bound to get from people, including the current governors, and simply implement Burns's suggestions.
Despite all that advice, the Secretary of State has chosen to adopt a compromise solution of a BBC trust. Yet the trust remains part of the BBC. It will be chaired by the BBC's chairman and the Government will appoint its members. It is difficult in practice to perceive any genuine difference between the new BBC trust and the arm's-length arrangement that the chairman of the BBC proposed. The Government have instituted a change but it does not go nearly far enough.
The Green Paper takes steps in the right direction, but does not go far enough on various aspects. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale mentioned independent production. The BBC has been subject to a quota for independent production since 1990. For three years running, it has failed to meet it. Indeed, the proportion decreased year after year. The BBC moved to fulfil the independent production quota only when it was threatened with the possibility of Ofcom imposing fines on it.
I welcome the director-general's new proposal of a window of creative competition but it does not go far enough. There should be a 50 per cent. maximum for in- house production, as PACT recommends. The Secretary of State has hinted that she will consider that but I hope that she can say that she will go further.
The BBC should also go further in disposing of its commercial operations. It has agreed to dispense with some of its operations under the worldwide umbrella but it will retain magazine production. The reason why the BBC needs to be in the magazine publishing business is beyond me.
The Select Committee was right that to say that the licence fee is regressive and unfair. It is essentially a poll tax. Yet, unlike the poll tax that Labour Members condemn, it does not even provide for assistance for those who can least afford to pay. Every year, some 100,000 people are fined for failing to pay the licence fee. In 2003, 20 people went to prison because they could not afford to pay the fines. It is incredibly expensive to collect—it costs some £150 million and the Select Committee has rightly drawn attention to the campaign with menaces that the BBC adopts to intimidate people into paying. Despite that, it suffers from widespread evasion, with approximately £200 million lost through evasion every year.
We are at the point even now when 7 per cent. of people do not listen to or watch the BBC. That number will grow and it will become unreasonable to prosecute people or send them to jail because they fail to pay a licence fee that increases every year to finance programmes that they choose not to watch or channels that they cannot receive.
The Government's adviser, Lord Burns, said that, over time, sustaining the licence fee will become increasingly difficult. Yet, in the Green Paper, the Secretary of State said that it would continue for at least another 10 years and that consideration of alternatives will not even begin for five years. It is a complete surrender. No wonder The Times described the document as a "yellow paper" rather than a Green Paper. We must tackle the issue now.
The Government have also ducked Lord Burns's recommendation that there should be contestable funding for part of the licence fee, which provides some solution to the problem that Ofcom identified of how we continue to have public service programming on the commercial channels, when the value to them of the analogue spectrum diminishes every year.
The Government, in the Green Paper, have essentially ducked every serious challenge. Despite all the consultations, debates, advisory panels and reports given to them, the conclusion in the Green Paper is that the charter will be renewed for another 10 years, the licence fee will go on for another 10 years and the BBC will continue to govern itself. The Government have stuck their head in the sand and shied away from any significant change. The Green Paper is a lost opportunity, which we will wish to address.
I begin with an apology: I have a ministerial meeting at 3.30 pm and I shall therefore be absent for the winding-up speeches.
I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman. On Monday, we held a dinner in his honour because he has chaired the Select Committee for 13 years and he will not chair it again. The high esteem in which he is held was shown by the attendance of so many hon. Members who served from 1992 to 1997 and from 1997 to 2001. We have enjoyed the fun and especially the intellectual rigour under his chairmanship.
Let me consider the duration of the charter. We have Departments for education, health and foreign affairs. Does anyone in their right mind believe that we will not have such Departments in 10 years? Of course we will. Does anyone in their right mind believe that the BBC will not be here in some form in 10 years? Of course it will. Why, therefore, do we need a charter for 10 years? Why is that such a magical period? The charter's duration has always been inconsistent—for example, it has been for nine months and for three years. Why, when we are confronting the greatest change in technology, should we consider granting the charter for 10 years? We must be careful. I do not accept that it is being renewed for five years with a review. The BBC will always be with us, so what is so precious about 10 years, five years, one year and so on? That debate has not been held in the public domain.
The debate is especially important now because, if we had held it three years ago, no one would have mentioned an iPod or broadband. Those two innovations alone have caused phenomenal change in the way in which we do business and conduct ourselves around the world. Who is to say that there will be no son of iPod or son of broadband in the next two or three years? The pace of change will increase phenomenally and any public sector broadcaster needs to change at the same pace. That is impossible and, therefore, although I do not believe that the argument about the duration of the charter is fatuous, I wish that it would go away. There will always be a BBC and I support the Select Committee's recommendation for a statutory basis. That is the easiest and cleanest way to resolve the matter.
There is another reason for putting the arrangements on a statutory basis. When we want to put a question about the BBC on the Order Paper, we have to go through an interesting process. I had to ask the Clerks whether could I table the question, because it does not come under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State. I did that, but I was then told that it did actually come under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State but not of the House. So I wrote to the Secretary of State—not the present one—and he said, "Actually, it is not my jurisdiction. It is the jurisdiction of the governors." So I wrote to the chairman of the governors, and he said that the matter did not come under his jurisdiction, but under that of Parliament. These things go round and round. If the arrangements were put on a statutory basis, there would be an obligation to answer such questions.
All the fudging that we have talked about this afternoon has been talked about for quite a while, including issues relating to the National Audit Office and other things that we want. Our discussions are taking place round the edge of the issues because we cannot get to the meat. We cannot get what we want, but we should be able to because we are elected Members acting on behalf of the public. We should be able to cross-examine the BBC in real depth, especially on its accounts. I hope that the Secretary of State will give some more thought to the statutory versus charter argument, and to the length of the charter.
On independent productions, not only has the BBC failed to reach its targets, but I do not think that it wants to reach them. This presents a big cultural problem. Let us raise the bar to 50 per cent., because that would make the BBC achieve 50 per cent., and let us make that a minimum. How should we do that? Let us consider what the BBC is proposing and try to understand the model involved. Let us imagine that I am the head of BBC documentaries, for example, and therefore also the commissioning head of BBC documentaries. I would get inside offers as well as outside offers, but I could not be impartial. Will the Government consider the ITV network centre model that was created 10 years ago? It operated under a different regime, in which there were many more independent television operators. Under that model, bids had to be made to centre and against the independents. The head of drama or documentaries at ITV network centre would then say, "This is the best proposal; we will go with this." That was quickly accepted as the best model. One of the reasons that the 25 per cent. target cannot be achieved is that the system is not transparent inside the BBC. If the BBC cannot solve this problem, we will have to do it for them. It needs a model like the ITV network centre model that will give people inside and outside the BBC the chance to bid. Such a system would be fair. The present system is not, which is why we have problems.
I am uncertain about the move to Manchester, because Manchester is already a substantial artistic and cultural centre in the north-west. If Government regions have to look outside the M25 and take poverty indicators into account, I cannot see why the BBC should not have to do the same. What is wrong with Sunderland, for example? I cannot see what would be wrong with establishing another media centre somewhere else in Britain. Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester are already well established.
Furthermore, the £500 million cost of the move to Manchester is simply unacceptable. It equates to the cost of five major hospitals or 40 community hospitals, and such expenditure is intolerable. Under the proposed trust, a director-general could say, "We are moving to Manchester", only for the trust to say, "Oh, hold on. We haven't approved that." That would upset all the staff involved and all sorts of discussions would ensue about which departments were moving and which were not. That is not the way to run a company. I shall give the new trust some time, but my instinct tells me that the governance of the BBC should involve a FTSE 100 system. If that works for the companies involved, it should be good enough for the BBC. I would use that method to run the BBC, rather than having a trust.
I am a huge fan of top-slicing. If it was correct, in the 1920s and 1930s, to see the BBC as a cultural icon for the nation—in a different way from how it is seen today—and if it was correct for it to have five orchestras, why is it not possible for the BBC to have a film centre? Film is one of the great cultural institutions in this country, so why does not the BBC make films? I do not see the logic there. If the BBC is a great cultural icon with five orchestras, it should also make films. Less than £10 million of the BBC's £2.7 billion income went into making films, yet it has bought £78 million-worth of American films to be shown in Britain. All that money could have gone to our nascent, youthful film makers here. Why should they all have to go to Hollywood? Top-slicing is critical in that regard. We could include a film option. Why, too, is there no community channel in the BBC? Why are there no education, arts or sports channels? Why is there no UK film channel?
The BBC now has BBC3 and BBC4. Before that, it had BBC Prime and BBC Choice. They lost between £500 million and £600 million, and hardly anyone watched them. Still no one watches BBC3, and only a few people watch BBC4. They cost £120 million each, which is a huge sum. The BBC might not want to provide them, but people out there would like an arts channel, a film channel and a sports channel. How can we get a public sector broadcasting model that is more nimble and nifty if we do not have top-slicing? I encourage the Secretary of State to think again about that.
On the question of Ofcom and who should regulate the BBC, it would be ironic if the public service publisher model were delivered by Ofcom—however it might be funded—resulting in Ofcom regulating a brand-new public service publisher but not regulating the BBC. That would be madness. The regulator must ultimately be Ofcom. That is logical. It would not be sensible to set up an alternative Ofcom just for the BBC. Will the Secretary of State think again about the role of Ofcom in this regard?
On how we are viewed overseas, we talk about the BBC being one of the great bastions of broadcasting, and it is. The BBC World Service is sensational. It is one of our great cultural battalions overseas, along with the Open university and the British Council. However, BBC World television is not sensational but embarrassing. BBC News 24 is not good—it, too, is embarrassing. If the BBC cannot do that properly, why do not we put out a tender and ask UK companies to run those two channels? I bet that ITV News, Sky and the BBC could come together to run a really effective BBC News 24 on half the money that is currently spent. I bet, too, that that would produce a cultural icon that would represent the best of the BBC and provide all the necessary programmes from the independents. I no longer accept that the BBC is the best in that field, and that is a problem that has not been examined properly in the Green Paper.
I am delighted to follow Mr. Wyatt, who made an interesting and provocative speech. I disagree with him on a number of points. For example, I believe that his contention that the charter should not last for 10 years is misplaced. For the very reasons that he gave of the huge changes taking place in the broadcasting ecology, it is crucial that the BBC be given a 10-year period to see it through those changes—not least, the move to digital switchover—with a degree of certainty.
I am also concerned about the language that the hon. Gentleman used in regard to top-slicing. He seemed to support the concept of taking money away from the licence fee revenue and using it for other purposes. To be fair, the proposals that he went on to make seemed largely to involve the BBC using that money itself for rather different purposes. I was a little confused by that.
In some areas, however, I am in total agreement with the hon. Gentleman, not least on his last point about BBC World. He is absolutely right to say that the BBC World Service is a jewel in the BBC's crown that many other countries have tried to emulate without success. BBC World, however, is not in the same category, and we desperately need to do something significantly to improve it.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the role of Sir Gerald Kaufman in his chairmanship of the Select Committee. We welcome much of the work that he has done, especially on the report that we are debating today. I congratulate him, the other members of the Committee and the officers of the Committee on the work that they have put in. The Liberal Democrats fully support the vast majority of the recommendations in the Committee's report.
Given the Committee's recommendation for the continuation of the licence fee without top-slicing, however, I should like to remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was only about three months ago that he and I were debating this issue in the old Greater London council building across the road. I was arguing in favour of the licence fee, and he, while dodging rain coming in through the roof of the building, was on the other side of the argument. I am delighted that he appears to have changed his mind on that issue. The report is excellent, and I support many of its recommendations. The one recommendation with which I disagree relates to the length of the charter—the report recommends five years, whereas we would support the proposal in the Green Paper that it should be for 10 years.
Although the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton is critical of some aspects of the BBC, and rightly so in some cases, overall, he is an ardent supporter of the BBC. That is my position, too. We should all recognise the huge benefits of the BBC to this country, both in terms of our citizens and of what it projects about this country abroad. We should praise it for its diversity, educational programming and high-quality drama and comedy; for its work on sports, to which I shall return in a few minutes; for its children's programming free of advertisements; for having one of the world's most trusted websites; for providing a wonderful diversity and range of music offerings, not least on the radio; and, perhaps above all, for its news and current affairs programmes, which are authoritative, accurate and, notwithstanding what others have said, largely impartial. As I have mentioned, there is also the gem of the World Service.
Even those who never watch BBC television get enormous benefits from the BBC. Many of them listen to some excellent programmes on BBC radio, whether national programmes or excellent local radio station programmes. Let us not forget that 24 per cent. of the licence fee is spent on radio, which is reflected in some of the excellent material produced.
Even if people do not listen to the radio or watch the television, they still benefit from the BBC's tremendous work in technological development. All hon. Members will recall that the BBC made the first moves to get computers into our schools. We should also remember its development work in relation to the world wide web, and its current work, with more still to be done, on promoting the move towards digital.
Above all, there is the fact that a large percentage of people who work in other broadcasting organisations have been trained by the BBC. It is, in effect, the university of broadcasting. During the many rounds of interviews that many of us did on the day of the Green Paper's launch, I followed Michael Grade into ITV, where he was about to do an interview immediately before me. The person from ITV who met and greeted him was quick to point out that although he now worked for ITV, he was proud that he had done all his training with the BBC.
Therefore, even if people do not watch or listen to BBC programming, they benefit from it. For 82 years, the BBC has set standards throughout the world for public service broadcasting. It is the pre-eminent public service broadcaster. Two days ago, a South African newspaper, Business Day, said that
"most of the world, South Africa included, has regarded the BBC as a model of public service broadcasting."
That is not to say that the BBC always gets it right. I entirely agree with the comments of Mr. Whittingdale about the Brendan Fearon case. The BBC's decision to pay money to that person was disgraceful. It is worth reflecting that there have been two trials involving the Tony Martin case, and all the information about Brendan Fearon's involvement came out in those trials. There was no need to pay him money to get him to repeat what we already knew. It was not in the public interest to do so, and neither would it have helped one iota in our deliberations about individuals' right to protect their homes.
Is not it a fact that had a newspaper done what the BBC did in that case, it would be a violation of the Press Complaints Commission code, and the PCC would have imposed sanctions on the newspaper concerned? Given that the new leadership of the BBC is determined to turn over a new leaf, would not it be a good idea if it stopped defending its action, apologised and said that it will never happen again?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the BBC should apologise. I am sure that he knows, however, that the PCC recognises in its procedures the right for there to be payments to people in certain circumstances, including when it is in the public interest. I simply do not believe that that interview was in the public interest, and I am sure that he agrees. It would have fallen foul of my interpretation of the PCC rules, which are somewhat mirrored by the BBC's own rules.
Despite the fact that the BBC gets it wrong from time to time, anything that we were to do to damage it seriously would be at our peril. We need a strong, independent and well and securely funded BBC. It has not always been obvious that everybody wants that— reference has rightly been made to the disgraceful episodes during the Hutton inquiry involving the behaviour not least of Mr. Alastair Campbell in his attacks on the BBC.
The other point that has been made strongly in this debate is that the BBC is at is best when there is competition in public service broadcasting. In relation to sport, reference has rightly been made to the enormous benefit seen within the BBC as a result of the excellent cricket coverage by Channel 4 and the excellent football coverage by Sky. It is therefore important that in any debate about the future of the BBC, we also keep an eye on the importance of ensuring support for the other public service broadcasters: currently, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. For that reason, I welcome very much the work that Ofcom has been doing on this issue.
As many others have said, it is also important to recognise that the broadcasting ecology is changing dramatically. Television can already be accessed through broadband and moves are increasing to enable its reception through mobile phones. At some date in the future—I wish that we had a clear commitment from the Government as to that date—analogue switch-off will occur as we all move to digital. We have seen a huge increase in the number of channels available to us, with all the difficulties that that presents. Reference has already been made to the declining numbers of people watching ITV1, and that has an impact on the availability of advertising revenue for some of those channels.
A number of reports have come and gone. The Elstein report, commissioned by the Conservative party, seemed to have been rejected almost as soon as it was published. We have had the excellent report from the Select Committee. We have heard of the various interventions by Lord Birt in his attempt to lobby 10 Downing street and put pressure on the Secretary of State. I am delighted that that pressure was unsuccessful and that she was not persuaded of the argument for top-slicing the licence fee. I was surprised that Lord Birt made such a recommendation given that he had presented a totally opposing view on that issue only a few years earlier when he was heavily involved in his work with the BBC. These things happen, I suppose. As I have mentioned, there has been Ofcom's work on public service broadcasting.
Even without all those reports and the Green Paper, it is important to remember that the BBC does not stay the same. It has been changing without the need for any of that. As has been pointed out, one change is the ending of involvement in the ratings war. I agree with the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford that we do not want the BBC to become a ghetto for what Mr. Greenway described as unpopular programming. It is important for the BBC to produce programmes that are popular. What the hon. Gentleman rightly criticised were moves towards what we call dumbing down, and a surfeit of reality and makeover television shows. There are already far too many of those on our screens.
There have been moves to change the number of staff, not because of the charter review or any other reports. I only hope that the BBC will work hard to ensure that the members of staff affected have a chance to become involved in the new opportunities that the BBC's decision will allegedly create. Similarly, changes have been made to BBC Worldwide that have nothing to do with the review or other reports.
I accept that many changes are being made, but I do not entirely accept criticism of the BBC's involvement in the publication of magazines, especially music-related and educational magazines and others that are directly connected with programmes. I think it is crucial for the BBC to go on being involved with magazines of that kind.
They may also fall into that category.
I agree with what has been said about the BBC's earlier use of independent producers. We certainly need to change what is going on, and we shall all need to look carefully at the BBC's proposals for a window of creative opportunity. At least that is an example of its moving in the direction that many of us favour, but as has been pointed out by the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television—usually known as PACT—many questions remain to be answered about how that window of opportunity will continue to exist.
Issues that desperately need examination do not seem to have been covered by any of the reports that I have mentioned. Kevin Brennan spoke of the vital importance of the BBC in Wales. It is surprising that there has been no debate anywhere about the relationship between the BBC and S4C. As Members know, the BBC is currently required to provide 10 hours of Welsh language programming for S4C to show. I find it strange that the nature of that relationship has never been challenged. Surely if it is to receive the BBC's material, S4C ought to have far more editorial control over its content.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the view of people at S4C. We should also try to agree on the current value of those 10 hours of programming, and then agree to enable S4C to negotiate with the BBC on how the money can best be spent, rather than being tied to a fixed number of hours.
As I said on the day the Green Paper was announced, I broadly agree with a great deal of it. Unlike the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, I believe that many of its proposals deserve support. I especially welcome the Government's agreement to continue the licence fee and not to allow top-slicing. As the Select Committee said, the licence fee is not perfect; it might be better described as the least worst of the options currently available. If we reflect on the alternatives, we see why that is so.
In fact, there are only two key alternatives. One is direct funding by the Government of the day. In Australia, a 25 per cent. reduction in the funding of public service broadcasting has been accompanied by increased Government interference. If we want an independent BBC that is well and securely funded, that is not the route we should take. The other option is subscription, advertising or pay-to-view, but all those would lead to the BBC's rejoining the ratings war to secure the maximum number of viewers to boost advertising and the number of pay-per-view clients.
If we do not choose any of those options, as I hope we will not, we shall be left with the licence fee as—with all its faults—the least worst option. As I have said, I am delighted that the Government have agreed to retain it and also to retain the charter for 10 years. That is a crucial decision.
I welcome the Green Paper's proposals to define the BBC's service remit more tightly—although it is fair to say that the BBC has already been moving in that direction, with the help of Michael Grade and Mark Thompson, both of whom deserve the praise heaped on them by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. The Government have added to the original five proposals a sixth relating to the BBC's responsibility for helping to drive forward the switchover to digital. As I said to the Secretary of State—I did not receive an answer on that occasion—I hope that we do not expect the BBC to take all the responsibility, because that is a job for the Government. I also hope that we do not expect it to write a blank cheque. The Secretary of State should give us some idea of how much money the BBC can reasonably expect to receive. She said earlier that that would be specified in documents still to be produced, and I hope that it will.
My one significant disagreement with the Government and the Green Paper concerns the governance of the BBC. I think the whole House accepts that we cannot continue the current arrangements, with the BBC both flag-waver for itself and its own regulator. Under its new chairman, the BBC has already embarked on a bid to separate the governors from the rest of the corporation, but they are still part of the BBC, and the proposals in the Green Paper would perpetuate that. I do not see how the trustees can be truly independent of the BBC. At the very least we need an independent governance working alongside Ofcom to regulate the BBC, but I would go further: I would prefer a totally independent regulator with responsibility for all public service broadcasters, ensuring that they all met their individual remits.
As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, Ofcom is working on the definition of public service broadcasting. We already have approved public service broadcasters alongside the BBC: ITV and Channels 4 and 5. I do not doubt that in due course other companies will bid for listings to gain the benefits, although they may have to meet the requirements as well.
If there is to be a deal allowing a broadcasting organisation to define itself as a public service broadcaster, in return it must fulfil a remit. That remit will differ from organisation to organisation—just as ITV's remit differs from the BBC's, and Channel 4's differs from Channel 5's—but I believe that a single regulator could deal with all broadcasters that are defined as, and get the benefits of being, public service broadcasters.
Despite that significant area of disagreement with the Green Paper, we broadly support many of its recommendations. We believe that overall, it will protect the BBC and ensure that it continues to be strong, independent and well and securely funded. This country has had such a BBC in the past, and we have seen enormous benefits as a result. It should continue in the very different future that we will see in the next 10 to 15 years.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Foster, who spoke with typical energy and enthusiasm, although I disagreed with him on a couple of points. For example, so long as Mr. Whittingdale occupies his current position, I doubt whether the Elstein report is necessarily dead. We should not underestimate the hon. Gentleman's intellectual vigour and power.
I want to start by briefly quoting The Observer:
"many of the BBC's present popular programmes would have been condemned by the BBC itself five years ago as intolerably shoddy . . . What has happened to the . . . BBC ideal that the invention of television would make it possible to reunite our splintered modern society by giving a common cultural background?"
That was written in 1960, which is before I was born, although admittedly not long before. As many Members have pointed out, many things have changed in broadcasting since that time. For example, let us consider the point that the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford made earlier concerning popular good programming. I think it was Sir Hugh Carlton Greene who said that the BBC's mission is to make the good popular and the popular good, and far more people now watch the BBC's quality output, such as the programme on Auschwitz and "Blue Planet". Those programmes have audiences of between 4 million and 5 million, but in the old days of the 1970s, which some people regard as a golden age, perhaps as few as 1 million people watched programmes such as "Civilisation". So in many ways, the BBC has renewed its mission in recent years.
It is a pity that my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman, who has been a distinguished Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has left the Chamber. I have made two or three attempts to become a member of that Committee in the past eight years, and because I failed, I was not invited to the tremendous dinner that took place the other night. My right hon. Friend was perhaps a little harsh in his assessment of Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC. Everyone has their ups and downs and their pros and cons. My right hon. Friend described BBC4 as his favourite, but that was very much part of the Dyke agenda. Moreover, it is unlikely that Freeview would have been driven through quite so energetically without Greg Dyke's entrepreneurial skill.
Various Members have mentioned sports coverage, and I agree that there is a great deal of competition in that regard these days. Sky Sports does a tremendous job and Channel 4 has made a marvellous contribution, but Greg Dyke revived BBC Sport. There is tremendous pleasure—is there not?—in watching the greatest national and international sporting events without the interruption of adverts. So there is something to be said for Greg Dyke.
In an intervention on my neighbour Mr. Greenway, the BBC's digital future was mentioned, as was the question of whether it is advertising its own services too much. The BBC cannot win on this one. The Government have given it the job, at least in part, of getting us to the digital future and of encouraging people to buy Freeview boxes and, hopefully, services such as Freesat. It is true that some BBC digital services have been very successful. For example, the two children's channels are a big driver of such services. Many parents are getting Freeview boxes precisely because they provide children's channels that do not run adverts, and which are of a reasonably high quality in most cases. So in a sense, the BBC has a duty to let licence-fee payers know that such services exist.
Will the hon. Gentleman also congratulate the BBC on the fact that it is moving its children's department to Manchester, and on recognising that everything good does not have to emanate from London? There are regions outside London, and I am sure that the children's department will flourish in Manchester.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Indeed, if my memory serves me right, BBC Sport and BBC 5 Live will also move to Manchester. The governors will have an interim role to play, in that they will have to sign off the move to Manchester. They said that it was dependent on the outcome of the licence fee settlement, so I suppose that we will have to wait some months yet. The sooner the move happens, the better, and not just for the north-west, as there will also be a ripple effect across the whole of the north of England.
One of the good things about the BBC's moving north is that it might stimulate the independent production market in the north-west and in the north as a whole. Currently, all the top 10 independent production companies are in London. However, we need to introduce some balance into that debate. It is true that independent producers have great virtues in terms of creativity and speed of reaction, but there is also a virtue in the BBC's continuing to be not just a broadcaster of programmes, but a major producer. Over the years, it has had a great training role in the industry and its production departments have been very creative.
I hope that the governors will scrutinise carefully in the next few months the different proposals emanating from BBC management. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford mentioned various privatisation proposals, and BBC Resources in London—the technicians—is up for privatisation, as is BBC Worldwide, which is the BBC's play-out function. So in London, at least, the BBC will be left with lots of in-house lawyers but very few in-house technicians. I am not sure that that constitutes the correct balance, particularly given that in the rest of the country, BBC Resources is being kept in-house.
Does my hon. Friend think that the drive toward maintaining quality of production can be maintained in the light of the proposed overall budget cut of 15 per cent. and the laying off of 3,500 staff?
That is a good question, and the governors have a big role to play in the next few months in ensuring that quality is maintained in areas where cuts and savings are made. For example, a saving of 10 per cent. in respect of some local radio stations could make a big difference to quality.
Mention has already been made of parliamentary coverage, and I am pleased to hear that "Yesterday in Parliament" is safe, but I hope that coverage of political conferences is also safe. Such coverage, which the BBC has previously contemplated cutting back on, is an important function of the BBC. It is important that it maintains a quality presence in those areas, and the governors have a key role to play in insisting on that.
I welcome the many white tinges to the Green Paper. On the licence fee and governance in particular, the BBC needs to start planning almost immediately for the future. I do not believe everything that I read in the papers, but the Secretary of State does appear to have had a considerable political victory, about which I am pleased. Those two chaps Burns and Birt are indeed noble Lords, but they seem to spend far too much time hanging around No. 10, which is good neither for them nor the nation—golf is a good and much-recommended alternative. Their agenda involves slicing up the licence fee and introducing a public service broadcasting commission, but I have doubts about both. If one top-slices the licence fee and gives it to commercial broadcasters, it will be difficult to convince oneself that the programmes that such broadcasters then make would not have been made anyway. That is a fundamental difficulty with that suggestion.
I disagree with the detail of Lords Burns and Birt's proposed public service broadcasting commission in a number of ways. They are suggesting that the chair of the BBC executive board be appointed by the Government. That would be a retrograde step for the BBC's independence. When it comes to the stewardship of the BBC, I believe that the new trust model has much to be commended in exclusively representing licence fee payers. The public service broadcasting commission would have the power, as I understand it, to top-slice the licence fee, which would be for ever hanging over the BBC, leading to confusion and continual lobbying.
I am glad that the Secretary of State decided that Ofcom should not assume a greater role. It is establishing itself as a regulator, among other things, of commercial broadcasting, and the skills involved in that are very different from those required to regulate public service broadcasting.
I had the pleasure of attending a BBC function last night. I have at least two roles in this Parliament: one is chairing the all-party BBC group, the other acting as vice-chair of the all-party Mongolia group. The BBC has just produced a programme on Genghis Khan—classic public service broadcasting that will go out at prime time in April. We had a preview of the programme last night. The BBC is known throughout the world, and in Mongolia particularly, for the World Service and for the output of BBC journalists. I hope that the BBC will produce such quality programmes and put them out at prime time for many years to come. BBC 1 is still the most popular television channel in our nation. It is a channel that people dip in and out of and gain experiences that they would not otherwise have. I commend the Green Paper and hope that it will soon be a White Paper.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Grogan. We last participated in a debate together on Second Reading of the Communications Bill some two and a half years ago, when we clashed slightly. I have always enjoyed his speeches and we shall miss them after the next general election.
I come to this debate as a layman, and I want to express a layman's view. I have to confess—it is a confession, having sat through debates on the Broadcasting Act 1996 and the Communications Act 2003—that I want to convey the impressions of many people in this country, which are certainly borne out by my constituents.
I was brought up on the BBC after the war, when schoolmasters used to tell me about the opening bars of Beethoven's fifth symphony, which presaged the news and used to go out around the world. It was heard by the resistance in France. The BBC was a great national institution of which I and my parents were proud. I thus approach this debate on the BBC more in sorrow than in anger.
I was brought up on Reith and Reithian principles. I was brought up hearing the news read by Alvar Liddell—[Interruption.] A bit before my time, perhaps, but I think he was still alive then. I was also brought up on the World Service, which provided a fantastic image of Britain around the world. We always watched the BBC news because is was self-evident that it would be better than any other news provision.
There have been dramatic changes. I realise that the future of the BBC is a very complicated matter. I do not want to go into too much detail about the Green Paper, but to point out how the BBC has changed for the worse. If the BBC can be reformed, so be it, but it does not look much like it at the moment. We have heard about the dumbing down of the BBC, and spending licence payers' money on make-overs of people's houses and gardens is, frankly, pretty shocking—and many of my constituents agree. There is "Fame Academy", whatever that may be! It is certainly not what the BBC was set up to produce.
No longer does the BBC provide what everyone wishes to watch. I watch the World Service, or BBC Worldwide television as I believe it is now sometimes called, from time to time when I am abroad with the International Development Committee. I have to say that it is not producing the image of Britain that I would wish to see portrayed outside this country. I find it extraordinarily politically correct and not at all what I would like to see.
I am trying to follow the thread of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he agree with the recent outburst of his Front-Bench colleague that the BBC is full of dangerous left-wing radicals?
As it happens, I recall it being said when I was at Oxford university that if anyone wanted to get a job in the BBC, it was necessary to be really left-wing, because Conservatives do not want to change things, which is not very interesting, whereas the left want to change things. A friend of mine, who is still with the BBC, bears that out. I am not sure whether it is populated with dangerous left-wing radicals, but I suspect that many there are left-wing.
I want to point out, by referring to the Gulf war of 2003, where the BBC has particularly let us down. I supported the Government's position on going to war and, funnily enough, unlike some Labour Members, I still do. Speaking as a former soldier, I understood a little of what was happening on the ground, but I found that BBC reporting seemed more designed to back up the anti-war sentiments and prejudices of some reporters. After hearing that the British Army was "bogged down" and had moved only 100 miles in a couple of days, I eventually switched off the BBC and started watching Sky. I reiterate the point that I am someone who was brought up to believe that the BBC was the best news channel. It was clear that the BBC reporting of the war was biased and, frankly, it still is. I say this not in defence of the Government, but I often notice that, in respect of what is happening in Iraq, the negative aspects covered by BBC journalists are much greater than the positive aspects.
Andy Burnham asked me about political bias in the BBC. James Naughtie, in a dialogue with a Minister last week on the "Today" programme, spoke about "when we win" the election. I have to say that that is both extraordinary and telling. I do not know James Naughtie, but I do know which way his politics lean. The Government complain about the BBC—we know that it has been critical of the Government from Hutton and so forth—and it is interesting to note that the BBC tends to criticise the Government from the left, not the right.
Many MPs wake up to the "Today" programme. Having reflected on it yesterday, I was driven to participate in today's debate by listening to the "Today" programme this morning. Two things emerged from it. First, the BBC no longer reports the news on a programme such as "Today"; it prefers to make it. This morning, it featured an undercover investigation of an event in a prison in Scotland. I question whether it was right for the BBC to send an undercover reporter there. Is the BBC there to report and inform or to make the news? That seems a perfectly fair question. That problem crops up all the time. The story made the headlines in the news, but it was actually only a story about what the BBC had done.
What will the BBC do next? Will it entice people to break the law? That is not so far-fetched when we discover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford pointed out, that the BBC paid £4,500 to a nasty little criminal who should probably still be in jail. Was that in the public interest? Certainly not, according to the person who wrote the guidelines for the BBC, as was mentioned earlier. What all that boils down to is the vanity and arrogance of the programme makers, who believe that they should set the agenda, they should make the news and they should report it.
The second point that goaded me into making this speech—and, by the way, getting it off my chest—was listening to John Humphrys interviewing Martin McGuiness. John Humphrys is well known as the scourge of politicians. We can all agree with that, and to be fair to him, he was fairly tough with Martin McGuiness this morning—as well he might be, as Martin McGuiness's organisation is almost certainly behind the biggest bank robbery that has ever taken place in this country and is heavily implicated in the murder of Robert McCartney.
John Humphrys had good reason to be fairly tough, and he was. Normally, he would not let a politician get a word in edgeways, but he gave Martin McGuinness well over 30 seconds to make an opening statement. Humphrys is normally tough with politicians and, to be fair, Martin McGuinness at least has some accountability in electoral terms. However, as they say in Belfast, even the dogs in the street know that he is a member of the Provisional IRA's army council, but Humphrys did not ask him about that. The questions that he wanted to ask were quite tough, but more reasoned.
When discussing the murder of Robert McCartney, did Humphrys ask Martin McGuinness about the murders that took place in Londonderry when he was head of the IRA there? That they happened is well documented. My right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley gave a description in the House last year of an interview that he had with Martin McGuinness in Londonderry in the early 1970s. He said that McGuinness admitted—or boasted, if one wants to put it that way—that he had ordered the deaths of more than 10 Catholics whom he considered to be informers.
I found the interview irritating because Humphrys did not do what he is there to do. He should have asked the difficult questions, but did not. That is what I mean when I say that the BBC's agenda is set by people like him. Their arrogance when challenged is worrying in the extreme. As I said, though, at least Martin McGuinness is elected, as are we. Like us, he can be held accountable, but broadcasters—pace Hutton—are not accountable, except to the BBC charter and Parliament. Therefore, this debate is our opportunity.
I can understand the traditional allegations that the BBC is pro-Labour, left wing, and all the rest of it, but is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that John Humphrys and others are supporters of Sinn Fein or the IRA? Does he think that the BBC is some sort of cell of the IRA army council? That would be a bizarre allegation.
I believe that the BBC no longer provides the public service broadcasting that it should. Far too much, it follows the whims and ideas of arrogant, self-important and unaccountable broadcasters. Some are very good, and many programmes are also very good, but I want the BBC to uphold Reith's principles much more.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, I believe that there is a role for public service broadcasting, but we need to consider how it is delivered.
My hon. Friend is concentrating on the problems with the BBC, and wants it to do more in respect of public broadcasting. However, Friday is red nose day. Does he accept that the BBC has played a vital role for many years in raising millions of pounds for charity? That money goes to lots of good causes, especially ones that help young people.
I am always delighted and thrilled, of course, when people give money to charity, by whatever means.
I turn now to the licence fee, which I consider to be a wholly outdated tax. I resent it, as do a great many others. It is extraordinary and illogical that the Government should force all citizens with a television to pay a licence fee even if they never watch the BBC, for which that licence fee money pays. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, it is now possible to watch television on a mobile telephone. The licence fee has been left behind by technology, as much as anything else, but it has also outlived its usefulness. I believe that it contributes to the BBC's bloated sense of self-satisfaction. We need to move on and lose some of that bloated organisation.
Finally, I was asked whether I thought that the BBC was made up of dangerous left-wing radicals. When it comes to bias, it is pretty extraordinary that, some years ago, the Government got away with appointing Gavyn Davis as chairman. He has now gone, of course, but it is alleged that he wept at Labour headquarters when Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 general election. His wife is still an adviser to the Chancellor.
The BBC also got away with appointing Greg Dyke, a Labour donor, as director-general. He has many attributes, but he too has moved on. In addition, the Government—and it is no good suggesting that it was not their decision—also got away with appointing a former card-holding member of the Labour party as its political editor. That suggests that there is not as much balance as one might like.
People may say that the Conservative party in government was just as bad, but it was not.
It is true that Sir Christopher Bland was once a member of the Conservative party, although I do not know whether that is still the case. However, John Birt was appointed BBC director-general when those gentlemen were on watch. That shows the sort of balance that is required, but both have now moved on.
I said that I would speak in lay terms about what a lot of people feel about the BBC, which should not be simply dismissed. Earlier, I went to my office for a pre-arranged meeting, and found on my desk a pile of correspondence. The top letter was from a 70-year-old constituent, a carer in Lutterworth, and I am pretty sure that she is not a member of the Tory party. There are not many in my area, and I know most of them. Her husband is blind and her daughter is deaf, and she cares for both of them. I was amazed at her prescience in writing to me yesterday, and I should like to read some of her letter to the House. She wrote:
"With their lies, they are destroying this country of ours. They stoop at nothing. The BBC is completely controlled by Labour. It's like everything comes straight out of No. 10 which we hear on the news. We have to pay a licence fee and the BBC should be fair. We seldom watch BBC for news."
Of course, that is just one person's view. However, I assure the House that many people in the country feel the same way.
I used to work at the BBC, but it is not often that I am referred to in those terms.
It is dangerous when politicians spend too much time obsessing about the party political affiliations of journalists. It is important that journalists who use the written word—scribblers, so to speak—and those who work in television and radio should be free to have political views of their own. The political correspondent for ITN, for instance, is a former member of the Conservative party. I applaud his professionalism in the conduct of his work. He is a very good broadcaster, and it is best to leave matters of political allegiance to one side.
The hon. Member for Blaby also referred to Sir Christopher Bland, for whom I used to write speeches. Having been a member of the Conservative party, he was first appointed to the post of chair of the BBC governors by the previous Conservative Government. However, it is important to recall that the Labour Government, on coming to power in 1997, reappointed him for a second term.
I concede that the hon. Gentleman is knowledgeable and thoughtful on these matters. However, I believe that the BBC lacks balance, especially given the appointments that I mentioned earlier.
The appointment of Gavyn Davis as chairman of the BBC was not a wise move, for some of the reasons outlined by the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he would always have to try to take the side of the BBC, even if that was wrong. There is always a difficulty in appointing someone with a political affiliation to the chairmanship of the BBC, but that does not mean that a chairman must never have had any political views—which seemed to be the way in which the hon. Gentleman was moving—nor do I believe that the BBC should appoint people to senior positions as journalists on the basis of their having or not having political affiliations, or because other people in the organisation have political affiliations that need to be mathematically evened up. It is important that journalists be appointed on merit and nothing else.
I shall return to the main substance of the debate. We are considering the next 10 years of the BBC. The Government have been entirely right in advocating support for the licence fee. Unlike my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman, I support the licence fee. Elements of it are regressive, because everyone must pay it, so it falls as a greater percentage of income on the poorest people, but it is a good principle because it enables everyone in the country, whether rich or poor, to watch the best programming. That could not be achieved without a universal licence fee, as can be seen in other countries that do not have the same system of funding and rely more on subscription services for providing the best programming.
I believe that although the licence fee may have a regressive tinge, it is important in ensuring—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blaby has incited Mr. Whittingdale to further hyperventilation. His therapy has clearly not finished.
I merely question how the hon. Gentleman can possibly say that a flat rate tax of £121, payable by everyone, with no means-tested assistance, has only a tinge of regression.
I have already accepted that it is a regressive tax, but the benefits accrue primarily to the poorest people in the country. That is one of the great strengths of the licence fee.
It is important not to succumb to the market failure argument for the licence fee and the BBC. I do not want a BBC that provides only programmes that would not be provided elsewhere, such as Shakespeare, Schiller and Shostakovich. I know from speaking to my constituents that they value many of the programmes on public service broadcasting that I suspect the hon. Member for Blaby least enjoys—
Yes, so he has no idea whether they are good.
It is important that the licence fee ensures that something is available for everyone. Historically, the BBC devoted too much of its time, energy, budget and creativity on a particular brand of middle England listening and viewing. It is entirely right that in recent years it has been more courageous. One of the best programmes produced by the BBC in recent years, although it is not much watched or commented on, is "Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps". Everyone in the Chamber seems to be staring at me as though they had never heard of it. It is a fine programme.
We have heard reference to the fact that the BBC makes provision for the cultural elite of the land through BBC4, but that it reaches wider audiences through BBC3. If the licence fee is to be sustainable into the future, it is important that the BBC makes provision for young people and people from different ethnic backgrounds, and not simply to the political class that likes to hear itself on Radio 4 at the end of the day or the next morning.
The licence fee is a good principle, because other methods of funding public service broadcasting around the world simply do not work and are inadequate. Conservative Members have argued that it is important that the licence fee should not be used as a means of rigging competition in the market. They should acknowledge that countries such as Germany, where there is a mixed system with a licence fee and advertising funding, have precisely those problems, but writ large. It is important that the licence fee alone should fund the BBC.
The system of funding public service broadcasting in Holland was changed recently. The licence fee was abolished, and it is now funded with a percentage of tax take every year.
If the licence fee is important in maintaining what is good about the BBC, which it may be, is it not important by the same logic to get rid of at least part of the licence fee to put right what is wrong with the BBC? If the means of funding protects what is good, does it not also protect what is bad and prevent reform?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I shall come to some of the dangers of a monolithic BBC. My hon. Friend Kevin Brennan referred to the BBC sometimes being too focused in London. Similarly, in Wales it is sometimes too focused south of the M4. It is difficult to hear voices from the valleys or north Wales on BBC services.
There are problems with the licence fee, but we must ensure that there is scrutiny, not by politicians trying to tell broadcasters what to put on television, but by exposing them to the scrutiny of those who pay the licence fee and whom we represent. I do not believe that there is much support in the land for advertising to support the BBC's finances. That would make it more difficult for other commercial operators, and as the Government's consultation shows, people value the fact that the BBC is without adverts. They sometimes become irritated by the BBC's adverts for itself, which we hear too regularly now during an evening's broadcasting.
The BBC must be big enough to make a difference in the market. When I worked for the BBC, a taxi driver in Brussels asked me who I worked for. When I said the BBC, he said, "I love the BBC and the programmes it produces, especially 'Inspector Morse', 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'The Jewel in the Crown'." I did not like to tell him that none of those was produced by the BBC.
It is important that the BBC is a large enough organisation and has a large enough pot of money to produce serious quality programmes and to provide competition for quality in the market. That helps other UK broadcasters to rise to a higher standard, because they know that they must compete for audiences on the basis of quality and not just in the bargain basement. However, the BBC should not be a monolith, and one of the problems in recent years has been to ensure that it fulfils its statutory requirement to purchase programming from the independent sector, which can provide the vibrancy, excitement and variety that the internal BBC model simply cannot provide.
Year after year, the BBC failed to reach the 25 per cent. level, which Mr. Greenway referred to as a ceiling. It is intended to be not a ceiling but the minimum. If we are to have a strong audiovisual sector throughout the UK, it is important that the BBC moves further out of London and the M25 circle and commissions programmes not just from companies with a brass plate on a door in Banbury and so on, but from companies that are genuinely based further afield around the country. It should increase the amount of commissioning from the independent sector.
It would be remiss of me not to say something about access. My constituents do not have access to Freeview, which cannot be rolled out there until the digital switchover. That is why some 70 per cent. of households have already moved to digital through Sky. However, many cannot afford to take out expensive subscription services. Some might say that we now have the Sky Freesat option, but it is a little like the Holy Ghost—I know that it exists, and I have read about it in lots of publications, but I have never actually seen it.
The Sky Freesat option is phenomenally difficult to purchase. Before Christmas, Sky tried to increase the take-up of its services with an enormous publicity campaign, but it did not publicise the Freesat option at all. I hope that the Government will consider pushing the BBC a little further not only to support the Sky Freesat option, but to consider an alternative free satellite option that might allow equal access to all who pay the licence fee.
It is a convention that when we talk about broadcasting we spend nearly all the time talking about television, but radio is a still-growing area of broadcasting in this country and the BBC's radio services are just as important as its television ones. I have in mind not only the services that we all listen to, such as Radio 4, Radio 3 and, increasingly perhaps, Radio 2—
My hon. Friend is just reminding us of the programmes that he appears on. We should underline that BBC radio should provide a genuine alternative to commercial services, and not always just ape them.
My hon. Friend supports the BBC and so do I, but will he accept that in the past 10 to 15 years the BBC has significantly undervalued and underinvested in its local radio services?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because that is precisely the point that I was going to make. The BBC needs to understand that local radio services should mean genuinely local radio services. For example, it is astounding that the BBC in Wales has no ISDN link for people to be able to do interviews anywhere in the valleys or in mid-Wales. That is the sort of issue that the BBC needs to resolve for the future if it is to maintain its regional strength.
The hon. Member for Blaby mentioned the World Service briefly, and it is an important part of Britain's contribution to the world. One need not talk to many politicians in countries that have experienced dictatorships or restrictions on state broadcasters to realise what an important part the BBC has played, through the World Service, in maintaining Britain's reputation and enhancing human rights. However, I wish the BBC had more freedom to provide a better international television service. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could address that point when she winds up. I would like to see a BBC television world service, because that could offer the world something very significant.
It is a pleasure to follow Chris Bryant, who is knowledgeable about BBC matters, although I do not always agree with him. I share with him the privilege of working under the chairmanship of Sir Gerald Kaufman. I joined the National Heritage Select Committee—now the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—in 1992 and I have been a member since, apart from a brief aberration when I joined the Home Affairs Committee.
The BBC is a subject to which we often return, and it is interesting that in this debate we have come to praise the BBC, not to bury it. Although some hon. Members have expressed their disquiet about individual aspects of the BBC, we all recognise that, as someone said earlier, the BBC is the pre-eminent public sector broadcaster, not only in the UK but in the world—
Another hon. Member demonstrated that he spends much time outside the Chamber travelling by mentioning that the South African Broadcasting Corporation had only recently praised the BBC model—
Well, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has come to visit the Chamber today.
Not everything is rosy in the garden. There have been changes in the environment, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton said. In 1998, all broadcasting was analogue, but now more than half of all television transmissions are received digitally. The Government have a programme for analogue switch-off, but as the right hon. Gentleman also pointed out, we must ensure that we do not develop a digital divide that prevents people from viewing television when all analogue transmitters are switched off—in the same way that we do not want a digital divide in access to the worldwide web. The Committee addressed that issue in its report, "A public BBC".
The licence fee has been debated since the start of the National Heritage Select Committee. We all—at least, all of us bar one—accept that the licence fee is a regressive tax. My hon. Friend Mr. Whittingdale described it as a poll tax. However, we must accept that it is the least worst way to fund the BBC. No one has so far pointed out the effect on ITV and Channels 4 and 5 if the BBC were funded by advertising. The advertising cake is a defined size and if the BBC were to take just a £1 billion slice, let alone the amount it receives at the moment, it would cripple all forms of terrestrial commercial broadcasting, which at the moment offers a counterbalance to the BBC. We may not like that, but it is economic fact.
I emphasise how pleased I am that the Secretary of State has rejected the ridiculous idea of top-slicing. It would have created real political pressure on the BBC and the Government's wish for
"A strong BBC, independent of government" would not have been maintained.
The Government have severely passed the buck on the trustees. Whether the trustees will work as independent arbiters is not the point. The point is that justice has to be seen to be done. When complaints are made against the BBC by individual viewers and listeners, or by commercial organisations who feel that the BBC is competing unfairly, a final adjudication by the governors of the BBC is never seen to be fair whether the BBC is judged guilty or not. My fear—indeed, my prediction—is that whether the trustees are independent or not, their adjudication will not be seen as fair. The trustees will be seen as an integral part of the BBC, no matter how hard we try to ensure a distance. The only way to ensure that the BBC is seen to be judged fairly is to allow an independent organisation to adjudicate. That might be a Beebcom or Ofcom, although many members of the Committee believed that the latter has enough to deal with without adding the BBC.
We must also consider the BBC's provision of programming. My hon. Friend Mr. Evans has asked me to emphasise yet again the good work that the BBC does to encourage charitable contributions, such as red nose day. Of course, the coverage that the BBC gave to the tsunami was one of the reasons why so much money was raised for that. It is worth remembering that the BBC was able to cover that event well—not just at the time, but in the immediate aftermath—because of the large number of its broadcasters and correspondents based overseas. Let us remind ourselves that the BBC has more foreign correspondents than CNN, all three American television networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—Fox and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation combined. The BBC provides a tremendous resource through not only the World Service, which several hon. Members have commended, but its correspondents, who are seen on television stations in America and throughout the world via news syndication. They promote the values of not only the BBC, but Britain.
The Green Paper, which followed on closely from the Select Committee report, had a lot of good in it. However, it does not address the main problems that face the BBC or the population's perception of it. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to respond to those points and, especially, tell us how the board of trustees will be seen to be independent and separate from the corporation's management.
I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to the debate. Let us remember that we are debating both a Select Committee report and a Green Paper. Hon. Members will not need reminding that Green Papers are Government proposals for further consultation, and I think that our debate has made a significant contribution to that process.
Before I deal with the substantive matters that have been raised, I join other hon. Members in paying the warmest possible tribute to the distinguished leadership of the Select Committee provided by my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman. In addition to inspiring our awe and putting us on our mettle, he has earned our affection and greatest possible respect for the seriousness with which he has treated each of the many subjects that his Committee has investigated and the loyalty that he has attracted. The Committee's reports are taken seriously by not only my Department, but the many interested bodies—one might say stakeholders—in the wider industry. He has a remarkable and distinguished record and we are all in his debt.
I would also like to thank Lord Burns, who has been the independent adviser during the process of charter review. He has done an invaluable job, together with the literally thousands of members of the public—the licence fee payers—who have contributed to the consultation.
Let me begin by setting out the context in which the charter review and the Select Committee report are being considered. Debates about the BBC sometimes seem to be predicated on the question of what we should do about it, almost as if it is somehow an unintended consequence of our broadcasting policy. Let me make it absolutely clear that successive Governments have supported, albeit in different ways, a BBC that represents a substantial intervention in the broadcasting market. That has the consequence that policy, and especially and increasingly competition policy, must be adapted to fit in with that fact. That situation exists because the BBC enjoys great support among the British people. A high level of support for the BBC was dramatically shown in the consultation and polling that we undertook.
The BBC underpins the principle of universal access to free-to-air broadcasting, which is important for this country. As the debate has reflected, we are well aware of the challenges to that founding principle that are created by the growth of digital television. The Government and the Opposition strongly support that growth—or revolution—because the British people also back it. However, as we navigate our way towards a wholly digital Britain, we will have to ensure that the principle of free-to-air access is not lost. It will be a challenge to ensure that vulnerable and elderly people and those on low incomes continue to enjoy such access. Hon. Members will know from the research that has been published that an enormous amount of work is being done to ensure that we get the situation right. We need to deal with the important individual elements that will make this big policy work, so the timetable for switchover will be finally confirmed only towards the end of the year.
We should not underestimate the trust that people put in the BBC. Michael Fabricant referred to its coverage of the tsunami. We know that there is a clear settlement in this country. People understand that when they buy their newspapers, which are part of our free and unregulated press, they are increasingly buying opinions. When they turn on television or radio news, however, they expect to hear impartial news that presents fact. That explains the importance of the impartiality and accuracy requirements that we place on our public service broadcasters.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton made an important point about future-proofing the BBC's structure, although I know that he will not like that term. The currents incumbents in the posts of chairman and director-general are excellent. The structure must be flexible enough to adapt to the changes that the BBC will be called on to make between now and switchover. Like any functional organisation, the BBC is not built around the identity or skills of the present incumbents. I am confident that the structure will ensure that.
The BBC will have a critical role in leading the digital revolution and securing universal cover through digital terrestrial television. Pursuance of free-to-air universal access is an important objective and I take all the points that have been made about the benefits of Freesat. I hope that we shall begin to see competition in the development of the free satellite offer to supplement and create choice.
My right hon. Friend is describing the broad policy context in which the BBC operates. The future of the BBC will in part be shaped by the future of ITV and she will know that today ITV announced a 57 per cent. increase in profits. She will also know that during the recent Ofcom review of public service obligations, Members were given a clear commitment about regional programming, so does she share my shock at the revelation that ITV plans to axe the Sunday politics programme from its autumn schedule?
I cannot deal with the specific programme decision to which my hon. Friend refers, but I can put on the record, in the strongest possible terms, the House's agreement to ITV's public service broadcasting obligations. ITV has clear obligations in relation to regional broadcasting and the whole House will expect the company to stand by them.
As a north-west MP, too, I stress the importance of the ITV regional politics programme to us. Although we cannot expect the Minister to give us an answer about the security of that programme in the future, the "Sunday Supplement" could at least tell its viewers that the company believes in regional broadcasting and that it has a social obligation to ensure that politics in the north-west is given fair air time in the Granada region. The viewers should be told on Sunday that the future of the programme is assured.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I hope that ITV and the regulator, who oversees compliance with the public service broadcasting obligation, will have heard both those interventions.
Time is short, so I shall quickly go through the remainder of my concluding remarks. The role of the BBC in not acting in a gratuitously competitive way in relation to other broadcasters is an important part of retaining plurality in broadcasting. The new regime set out in the Green Paper provides clear strictures, including service licences, fining and the window of creative competition, to constrain what has, in the past, been unacceptably predatory competitive behaviour by the BBC. I underline my support for the comments made by several Members about the important contribution of the independent sector. The BBC licence fee should be seen as venture capital for creativity in this nation. There are great possibilities, as yet underdeveloped, for the independent sector to make a contribution.
Three models for changes to governance were set out in the Green Paper: the BBC's preferred model, which relied on behaviour change; the Burns panel model which envisaged a plc structure that was Higgs-compliant; and the model we opted for, which is a BBC-specific solution—the BBC trust. The House should understand the radical nature of both the change and the challenge that it poses the BBC. The model deals with the unsustainability of the present position, whereby the governors of the BBC are both its cheerleaders and its regulators, but it does something else as well. It sets out the accountability of the BBC trust and its members to the licence fee payer. That is explicit. It was only after careful consideration of the Select Committee's alternative recommendation that we reached that conclusion.
The final point in deciding on the governance model we chose was to secure the strength and independence of the BBC—not to create a model that moved the BBC nearer to the Government but one that brought it closer to the licence fee payer. There has been considerable discussion of the licence fee in the debate. The licence fee will fund the BBC for the next 10 years but with two important break points. The first will be to determine its level. The second relates to alternative models of funding in the knowledge of the impact of switchover and whether licence fee payments should be used to ensure plurality in public service broadcasting.
The structure that we have proposed and the options we have considered provide the BBC with the strength and flexibility to meet the great challenges it will face over the next 10 years. Most of all, the confidence and faith held in the BBC by its licence fee payers recall the founding Reithian values—the BBC's role to educate, inform and entertain. I would summarise that as being a good example of traditional values in a modern setting—
It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings, pursuant to
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2005, for expenditure by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £63,523,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 325,
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.
Madam Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Questions relating to Estimates which she was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to