I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of her statement this morning. As she rightly says, the BBC is one of Britain’s greatest achievements and greatest treasures. It is indeed the broadcaster against which other broadcasters across the world are judged, and the quality of its programmes is second to none. The BBC must be protected and sustained both in its independence and its funding. Does the Secretary of State accept that both of these are under some degree of threat?
Will not the charter sustain a degree of Government pressure given that the BBC will have Government appointees on its new board? More significantly, does the Secretary of State accept that the introduction of mid-term reviews of the charter in the 10-year renewal cycle will put pressure on the BBC to look over its shoulder and seek to avoid upsetting the Government of the day, when it should be genuinely independent and free to comment without fear or favour on what Governments do and when Governments get things wrong? How will viewers and listeners be assured that the five-year health check will not put undue pressure on the BBC, or be interpreted as a de facto charter review? The fact that the new board has a number of Government appointees—including the chair and deputy chair with responsibility for editorial decision making—could weaken the BBC’s editorial independence. What guarantees will she give that undue Government pressure will not affect BBC independence?
On funding, what answers does the Secretary of State have for Lord Patten—the former chairman of the BBC and Conservative Cabinet Minister—about whether the BBC’s financial security will be affected, now that the cost of TV licences for the over-75s has been foisted on it in what he described as a “heist”? The Opposition take the view that welfare benefits, such as free TV licences, should be decided on and paid for by Government, not squeezed out of the BBC’s staff and programming budgets, other licence fee payers and, as will probably happen, some of the pensioners too. What answer does she have to that fair and logical case?
The Government have suggested that the BBC should have “distinctiveness”, in a departure from the Reithian view that the BBC should “inform, educate and entertain”. Channel 4 was created to bring distinctiveness to our viewing, but as a direct effect of the squeeze on BBC funding, great BBC entertainment programmes are being transferred to Channel 4. Is there not a risk that more of the BBC’s brilliant programmes will follow?
Even more worryingly, the BBC’s funding might be further top-sliced in the future. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that that will not happen? Will she look again at Government policy, and its relationship with the BBC, and guarantee that the charter will not diminish the scope and effectiveness of the BBC? Does she accept that the changes being brought forward by the Government will damage the BBC, in respect of its crucial independence and, most significantly, its ability to put on the finest of programmes, because of the impact on its funding? The BBC should be able to continue to put on the finest programmes across the whole range of its broadcasting. What assurances will the Government give that when the regulation of the BBC is transferred to Ofcom, it will retain its editorial independence? Above all, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that the BBC will be able to continue making the programmes we all enjoy? Finally, will the draft charter be subject to the most rigorous parliamentary scrutiny by both Houses and the devolved Administrations?