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BBC Governance

Oral Answers to Questions — Culture, Media and Sport – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 20th January 2011.

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Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 10:30 am, 20th January 2011

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the governance arrangements for the BBC; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

We have made good progress in improving governance at the BBC, including the announcement made in September by my right hon. Friend Mr Foster about allowing the National Audit Office unfettered access to BBC accounts.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. When considering the governance of the BBC, will he also examine BBC impartiality? On "The Alan Davies Show" last year, BBC employees likened the Freedom Association to the British National party and its founder, the late second world war hero Norris McWhirter, to one of Mosley's brownshirts. When I wrote to the BBC I received a ridiculous letter from Mark Thompson refusing to apologise. Will my right hon. Friend demand that the BBC starts to live up to the obligation in its own charter?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I agree that impartiality at the BBC is paramount and that the particular comments to which my hon. Friend refers were totally inappropriate. I can understand why many people found them offensive. By way of reassurance, I say to him that in the selection process for the new chairman of the BBC Trust, which is responsible for impartiality, we have said that all candidates must show commitment to improving governance at the BBC. I hope that these issues will continue to be addressed.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State and I agree about the importance of the impartiality of the BBC. With the withdrawal of Sir Howard Davies from the shortlist for the chairmanship of the BBC Trust, there is growing speculation that the favourite is now the former chairman of the Conservative party. In those circumstances, it is particularly important that the appointment process is transparent. Will the Secretary of State therefore agree that the all-party Culture, Media and Sport Committee should scrutinise the two candidates referred to him by the appointment panel before he makes a recommendation to the Prime Minister?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Let me reassure the shadow Secretary of State that the process is transparent and fair. If he does not like it, he and the last Labour Government should not have set it up when they established the BBC Trust.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

I thank the Secretary of State, from the bottom of my heart, for what he said about the disgraceful attack on the reputation of Norris McWhirter, whom the BBC was delighted to have as one of its star celebrities for decade after decade. May I tell him that I worked with Norris McWhirter for many years in politics, and one could never find a more dedicated opponent of totalitarianism? That is hardly surprising given that at the age of 17, he volunteered for the Royal Navy and took part in one of the most successful anti-U-boat organisations in the battle of the Atlantic. It was a particular disgrace that someone-David Baddiel-who, like me, is from a Jewish background, should denounce that admirable man as a fascist or a Nazi sympathiser simply because he disagreed with him politically.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I echo what I said about the importance of impartiality, and say simply to my hon. Friend that given his sustained interest in that, many people at the BBC are gutted that he did not put his name forward for the chairmanship of the BBC Trust.