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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this debate tonight. I think we have five hours for the debate, so I feel a speech coming on, but I promise you I will try not to go on for more than 4 and a half hours. I called for the debate because BBC regional programmes could well be under threat. MPs across the House will be alarmed at the direction of travel.
During covid-19, valued programmes such as “Inside Out” and the regional “Sunday Politics” shows have had to be taken off air, with no return date as such at the moment, although I just learnt today that ITV’s programmes are returning by September. BBC executives have said that the cuts are to do with safety, but a review of English programming is taking place, which is looking to save costs. Many regional journalists fear that they will be cut and never return to work on those vital programmes. If that were the case, that would be a great loss to all of us and our constituents.
The “Sunday Politics” show covers 11 regions of England, from the south-west to the north-east and Cumbria. Those shows are a crucial part of our local and national democracy, holding us all to account throughout the year. All our regions have their identities. This is essential. With the Government looking towards more regional representation, such a step by the BBC would be a retrograde one.
I congratulate the hon. Member on bringing the debate to the Chamber. The number of right hon. and hon. Members present illustrates how deeply interested we are in it. Does he not agree that the boost that regional TV provides to communities, and the information it contains, is essential to addressing regional issues? While the BBC must cut its cloth to suit, perhaps it should look at renegotiating contracts with some of its higher paid broadcasting staff as well as its directors, which would easily pay for regional programming.
My hon. Friend Jim Shannon—I got the constituency right—makes a really good point. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have quite a lot of regional coverage, and rightly so. They could do with more, but so could the rest of the regions.
The merging of those 11 shows into one “Politics England” programme deprives local communities of properly funded regional and relevant politics.
My hon. Friend is also from the fantastic south-west of England. He has touched on the BBC’s discussion about costs. Is he, as I am, struck by the fact that when we visit Broadcasting House we see lots of costs having been spread about, but when we visit our regional centres, be it BBC Gloucestershire or the BBC’s headquarters in Bristol, we see a very cost-effective organisation—far more cost-effective, dare I say it, than BBC HQ?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have BBC Gloucester, BBC Bristol, the BBC in Exeter and the BBC down in Plymouth. Even in our region, there is a massive difference between Devon and Cornwall, and Gloucester and Wiltshire. Having, at one time, as an MEP, represented the whole of the south-west, I can assure Members that it is a massive region. We could probably do with a regions cut up, rather than cutting the regions—I hope that makes sense.
The hon. Gentleman was starting to make an important point about the fact that the work done in the regions is very local. Does he agree that one great value of the work done on those regional political programmes is that it is done by local reporters who live and work in the communities themselves? Therefore, they can bring greater insight and analysis than would be the case if we had a single programme produced in Salford. No matter how good the reporters based in Salford may be, they do not have that same level of knowledge that local reporters have.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. Whether we are talking about a steelworks in Scunthorpe, a farm in Devon or a fisherman in Cornwall, all these people have a particular link to those particular areas. That is why, especially with regional newspapers now getting less and less all the time—they are cutting their numbers, the number of journalists and offices—we need the BBC programmes to really focus on our local issues, so that not only we, as politicians, but constituents and business can also be represented in the media.
As a former BBC editor and journalist, I am acutely aware of the fantastic opportunity the BBC has to super-serve our communities, and it only does so through programmes such as “Inside Out”, “Politics South West” and “Spotlight. My hon. Friend was mentioning local newspapers, whose demise we have seen in the past 10 years. In my area, I am lucky to have the Sidmouth Herald, the Exmouth Journal, the Express & Echo, and other great newspapers, and an independent local radio station in Radio Exe. But without the BBC providing real investigative journalism, journalism in our region will be eroded greatly. It is about time the axe fell somewhere else in the BBC.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is my neighbour and it is great to have him here in this debate. I will forgive him for the fact that he has been part of the BBC; we will allow him that much. He raises an incredibly good point. Although we have got regional newspapers, all the time they are getting less. The Western Morning News is not a fraction of the size it was and the Western Daily Press is not what it was. When it comes to representing not only a given area, but a region, those newspapers are very weak compared with what they were.
In addition, BBC local radio feeds into local television. As much of our media is London-centric, it does not always pick up what is going on out and about in the country. We have high-quality journalism and it picks up stories from the counties that otherwise would not be picked up.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Without being too controversial and repeating the debate we had for three years over Brexit, it could be argued that the BBC and the media generally were very London-centric, and that is why the result was different from the one expected here in London. It is not only its representing views but its representing political views that is sometimes found wanting.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, which is incredibly important. I am a great defender of the BBC and will happily defend the licence fee. I feel strongly that one of the things the BBC gives us that would be lost in its absence is regional accountability—the ability for people to find out what is happening in their local area, so that they can hold their politicians to account. The BBC risks losing that if it carries on in this way, so I support the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Does he think we should say to the BBC that if it wants to continue to justify the licence fee, it needs to protect the things that are precious about the BBC?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Most of us—especially as we represent an area over the years—have a very good rapport with our regional BBCs. Not only do they hold us to account, but we can feed stories and things that matter to our constituents into them. These regional programmes would therefore be a great loss. Let us imagine trying to achieve that in a London-centric system—it is bad enough feeding in what we want from our given areas with our political parties sometimes, and it would be even more difficult with the BBC. It would be a huge loss, and once it is lost, it will be very difficult to regain.
I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene. As a London-centric Member of Parliament, may I point out to colleagues that we who live in London very much appreciate having a London programme that is not just London-centric—it is about London? We want to know what is going on in London and outer London too.
My hon. Friend is right. We from the provinces and the sticks—not all Members present are, but I am—want those different types of flavour, and London wants its flavour as well. That is the whole argument for regionally-based programmes. London is a very large region with a lot of people, so it is right that it has not just the national news but London-based news.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the importance of local, regional opportunities so that people can shine and then move on to bigger jobs elsewhere—for instance, in the London circle? Many people in my constituency and in Northern Ireland as a whole have had opportunities in the regional BBC and then progressed. Does he recognise that that progress is very important to bring us all together? This is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, all together.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Sometimes when we publish a Select Committee report, I do regional radio across the whole country, and I often have to ask which radio station someone is from because their accent is not from the region. It just shows that, through radio and television, people move around the whole country, and that is really good. My hon. Friend and neighbour, Simon Jupp, is a case in point: not only did he do well in the BBC, but he is now here in Parliament. That is probably a retrograde step—I did not say that, did I?
The hon. Gentleman has touched on an important point. In many parts of the media—this also applies to ITN—the reporters stay for a long time, and they become fixtures for the public as, basically, the people who give them the truth. That is one reason why there is now far more cut-through from regional programmes to the public than anything they are seeing on the national news or, indeed, in national newspapers. A lot of that is about continuity, but it is also about relevance.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman too; I am agreeing with everybody tonight—it is very dangerous. He raises a really good point. People recognise the local face on the television and have seen them for a long time, so they trust them. I expect that he and all hon. Members usually find it much easier dealing with our regional BBC colleagues; we have much more rapport with them than with the national journalists and BBC presenters. That, too, is very useful.
As someone who is pro scrapping the licence fee, I put it on the record that while the licence fee and the BBC are in place, we have superb local and regional reporters—Sophie Calvert was on the phone harassing me to make sure I was here for this evening’s debate. The fear is that if we lose the BBC’s regional media, there will be an impact on ITV and it will also be likely to remove its regional media. Therefore, we will have no regional outlets at all.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I do not know what ITV has done in his region, but in my region it has had to consolidate, so it does not have as many offices across the region. The south-west is more than 250 miles from top to bottom, so it is a massive region in length. It is therefore split up by the BBC. We would not want to lose that, and the trouble is that ITV has already done it.
The BBC bosses need to be aware that if they were to lose this regional base, regional coverage and regional support, they would weaken the BBC terribly. Therefore, it is not only in our interests and the interests of our constituents that it is maintained; I would argue that it is in the interests of the BBC.
I hope I will not break the sequence of the hon. Gentleman agreeing with all hon. Members who have intervened. Like me, he must have received a letter from the BBC this morning, proudly saying that it spent two thirds of its money in the regions and other nations. Of course, London is not a third of the economy. That shows that there have already been cuts to the regional broadcasting service, and we are suffering from them. We do not want any further cuts.
While I do not want to be a little Englander or a little UK-er, does the hon. Gentleman also agree with me that there is an imbalance in the obsession the BBC has with Donald Trump? It is more likely that we get reports from Washington DC than from Washington in the north-east.
Again, the hon. Gentleman—he is also my hon. Friend—makes a very good point. We are, by our very nature in this country, London-centric, for obvious reasons to do with Government and so on. Therefore, in order to try to dissipate that across the whole country, we need the regional strength of the BBC. The hon. Gentleman also makes a point about spending. The funding is not spent equally now. He made the point that London already gets more than its fair share.
It would be remiss of me not to join colleagues in praising our local newspapers—a useful thing for any politician to do. As my hon. Friend Lia Nici will know, we are served by the daily Grimsby Telegraph, which is magnificent. We are never, ever critical of it.
Over the years, I have regarded myself as a critical friend of the BBC, although in the last year or two that has been strained somewhat. Does my hon. Friend agree that the one thing we should expect from the national publicly funded broadcaster is regional news, and that regional political news is a vital part of that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am sure he is now guaranteed the front page of his local newspaper, at the very least. Again, he raises the point about keeping these regional identities. We still have many regional accents. As far as I am concerned, speaking with a Somerset accent, I would like to keep some of those accents. There are lots of accents heard in this Chamber, and that is absolutely excellent. They link in very much to what we want to see in our regions as well. We all have different types of business interests in our regions, and they must be focused on.
I do not want to upset the consensus too much, but far be it from a Scottish nationalist to say that we are far too London-centric and the money should be going elsewhere. While it is good that we are having this debate about regional programming, it would be remiss of me not to introduce the issue of funding for the likes of BBC Alba, which is the Gaelic language service. There is an absolutely massive imbalance between funding for the Welsh language services, for example, and funding for BBC Alba. I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying and congratulate him on securing this debate, but we have to look at that again as well. If we are talking about preserving the Gaelic language in Scotland—many of us are trying to do our bit on that—we have to get the funding for it.
I am not an expert on the Gaelic language, but I can understand the hon. Gentleman wanting to make sure that there is enough coverage. I think it is about the number of people who speak a language at a given time, and there is an argument as to how much coverage there is, but he has certainly put a good point on the record.
I can see how much my hon. Friend is enjoying this four-hour Adjournment debate. There are presenters on the BBC’s “Newsnight” who earn more than the entire BBC South politics team put together, but the show they put out in our patch achieves a bigger audience than Andy Marr. May I disagree somewhat with his thoughts on regional coverage? Yes, there might be regional parts of local broadcasting, but in the digital age we should be able to achieve more local television broadcasting, because, with the greatest respect to what goes on in East Sussex, it is not of huge interest to my constituents in Winchester and Hampshire. We should really be seeing investment in localised broadcasting by the BBC, not disinvestment.
Yes, my hon. Friend makes a really good point. As I said, the south-west region is split up by the BBC, so we could get even more local. He is saying quite clearly that in the digital age we can break it down much more, almost by county or even town. That is a very interesting point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I apologise for arriving slightly late, but I was at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, where we were talking about devolution and regional accountability and democracy, which is absolutely relevant to this debate.
On the point about the digital age and local reporting, “Look East” in the eastern region goes all the way out to the coastal regions, and someone might say, “What’s that got to do with Luton?” I would say, look east and west, my friend, because we can take it right down to the issues that impact Luton but do not impact the coastal regions of Norfolk. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the ability to focus on the local is absolutely vital to the future of our scrutiny of politicians?
The hon. Lady is echoing so much of what has been said in this debate. The message we need to send to the BBC is that we not only want the regional BBC to be saved—we want it to be broadened and made even more local in this digital age.
We have all got much more used—certainly I have got much more used—to using the computer for the Zoom, the Microsoft Teams and all these things, and being able to link in wherever. We sometimes almost spend too much time on creating the best-quality television—not the quality of the programme but the quality of the production and the science behind it—rather than making it as broad as possible. If there is anything we can learn from this epidemic, it is that we can probably widen things by doing more Zoom stuff and getting people in from all over the place—we can do that much quicker and more easily and get a better message. Quite a lot could be learned. I hope the BBC is listening to this debate and that by the time we finish, it will be open to many more ideas than it was before we started.
I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on securing this Adjournment debate. Does he agree that programmes such as “Inside Out” are incredibly cost-effective? I understand that it costs about £6 million a year for all 11 regions that it covers, which, to me, indicates great value for money. The BBC’s charter says that the BBC should reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions, and that it should offer a range and depth of analysis and content that is not widely available from other UK news providers. This is a point that so many hon. Members have made here tonight. If regional news and current affairs are not an essential part of any offering from a public service broadcaster, then what is? Surely, when looking at making savings, cutting investment in these programmes should be the last thing on the list rather than the first.
Order. Just before the hon. Gentleman answers, may I say that the interventions are getting very long? They are almost mini speeches, dare I say it? Hon. Members may be wishing to catch my eye later, and they can indicate to me if so, but I would just point Members to the fact that interventions should be fairly short.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think that most Members are probably making interventions rather than speeches. I promise you that I do not intend to speak for four hours, despite what I said at the start of my speech.
My hon. Friend Ruth Edwards makes a very good point about “Inside Out” and the value that it offers for £6 million. She also emphasises the fact that we are, all the time, looking for a much more local basis for our politics today, which means that this would be going in completely the wrong direction. Whatever the party politics of this country at the moment, we have shown over the past few years that politics is not all about London, but about the whole of the country. People’s views are significantly different across the country and that is what we do not always see.
As somebody who launched and ran the first local television station—run from Grimsby—I know that a very high-quality local television station can be run, producing news and political programming, for around half a million pounds a year. That is a challenge that I would give to the BBC. What is vitally important is that our local radio and television is impartial, which is not something that our online services and papers have to do. It is very important to get good quality impartial news to our constituents.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point about impartiality. Of course, that is very much what the BBC is set up to do—to be impartial. Sometimes some of us, from all parts of the House, wonder about that impartiality, but it is quite clearly there, and it is what the BBC represents. We therefore want that impartiality in both the regional and the local BBC. I have to say that, in our own BBC in the south-west, the people I deal with are pretty good and I must pay tribute to them. I will not name them here tonight, because that would be embarrassing to them. None the less, we are well represented and we have good people across the regions. It would be such a shame to lose them, it really would.
It is amazing to see the cross-party support and work on this subject, which is sadly not something that is often shown on our national television. I note that, in the west midlands, we have had more than 100 Labour Members of Parliament and councillors sign a letter, with Conservative backing, to the BBC’s “The Politics Show”. Will my hon. Friend be willing to lead the charge by going on “the Zoom”, as he says, and setting up a call with the director-general, so that we can all have our say?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I will make that offer to the director-general of the BBC; it will interesting to see whether it happens. I agree with the Secretary of State’s position, and I have confidence in him being able to put our case very firmly to the BBC. As my hon. Friend says, this is a cross-party matter, because we are all politicians; we are all in politics and we believe in representing our constituencies and getting our message across. We need the BBC and the media to deliver our message, irrespective of what party we belong to. It is at these moments that we can come together. Perhaps the public ought to see us on occasions such as this, when we are agreeing with each other. They watch Prime Minister’s questions and ask, “Why are you always shouting at each other?” but in fact we do not; sometimes—occasionally—we agree.
One of the reasons why we—colleagues—like local radio and television is that it tends to give us a better crack of the whip than going national does, and we are allowed to express ourselves a bit better. We like it, and that is why we support it.
I think what my hon. Friend means is that on BBC national news, the moment you open your mouth you are interrupted, whereas on our regional programmes we often have a chance to make a point before we are stopped. I have probably put a few words into my hon. Friend’s mouth, but I think he is absolutely right. I should probably make a little progress now, or I will be on my feet for four hours.
This weekend, “Politics England” has Hilary Benn and my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price on the show to discuss freight travel and Brexit. Leeds and Essex are a long way apart. England is clearly too large to be a region that can be covered in one show. There are 533 English MPs in the House of Commons, and political issues differ from Yorkshire to Cornwall, from Essex to the west midlands. Brexit, as many interpreted it, was a statement against over-centralisation and a demand for more control over decision making. As more power is devolved away from Whitehall through greater local authority powers and new regional Mayors, the BBC should prioritise more investment in regional programmes, not less. It is vital that local politicians are scrutinised fairly, impartially and specifically on the matters that affect those regions.
Like the “Sunday Politics” show, “Inside Out” broadcasts across 11 English regions; it was due to return in September, but the autumn series has now been cancelled. As I said earlier, ITV is bringing its programmes back in September, and I think the BBC should do the same. Shall we send the message loud and clear from this House tonight that that is what we want the BBC to do? “Inside Out” has consistently won awards for its investigations and in-depth coverage, despite being made on a relatively small budget. It is the BBC’s most popular current affairs programme, outperforming “Panorama” and “Newsnight”, as hon. Members have said.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really powerful case on behalf of “Inside Out”. Does he agree that it is one of the programmes that have made a real difference? Iain Wright, the former Member for Hartlepool and a former Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, said that “Inside Out” was the key first step in exposing the exploitation at the Sports Direct factory in Shirebrook. It had a direct impact, not just on the people there, but on our work here. That would not have happened if local journalists had not been listening to local people and taken up that story.
I think it brought the situation of workers at Sports Direct to the forefront, and hopefully much has been done to improve the situation since that was revealed. She is right to put that on the record.
The regional “Sunday Politics” shows and “Inside Out” are examples of the best of British broadcasting, and to lose or reduce them would undermine the values on which the BBC is built. At its best, properly funded local journalism engages the public, shines a spotlight on local issues and can change the country for the better. Recently, “Inside Out South West” broadcast a piece about the fate of amputees following surgery. A Mr Hopper, a vascular surgeon at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, developed sepsis and unfortunately had to have both legs amputated. Having performed thousands of amputations himself as a surgeon, he found as a patient that there was a gap in the rehabilitation care for amputees in the NHS. His story was broadcast in depth by “Inside Out” and it helped to spark a debate that led to changes in the allocation of resources by Public Health England. So again, real change can come from the programme. “Inside Out” was able to do the story justice and effect real change: it just shows how valuable properly funded local journalism can be.
Local news delivers local stories, a training ground for journalists and, importantly, a way for the BBC to demonstrate its commitment to and knowledge of the local area. A decade ago, ITV slashed its regional coverage, and MPs received assurances at the time that the BBC would not do likewise, and we want that honoured. With local newspapers struggling, the market cannot provide the depth of regional coverage the BBC is currently providing to our constituents.
As the BBC reviews its regional programmes in England, I sincerely hope that the views of MPs in this debate—we have had many great contributions tonight and I thank all Members for them, because it sends a really loud and clear message to the BBC—will be taken into account. The debate has shown how passionately we care about our communities, local journalism and local democracy. I hope that the Minister will join us today in asking the BBC to continue providing high-quality regional programmes. They are vital, valued and cherished in the south-west, as they are across all our English regions.
I pay tribute to Neil Parish for securing this debate. The level of interest that there has been shows the desire across the country to protect this incredibly important institution. He was encouraged by Jonathan Gullis to lead the campaign by setting up a Zoom call for us all to contribute to, but it seems to me that he has created a sort of face-to-face Zoom call that might be familiar to some of us who were here before the coronavirus era. It is a way for us all to get into the same room and discuss this, and that is great.
Taking up the challenge set by Martin Vickers, I think it is incredibly important to recognise the contribution that the BBC makes in my area, not just with “Sunday Politics”, but also with radio stations such Radio Sheffield and Radio Derby and, of course, to recognise the broader role of local media such as the Derbyshire Times and Peak FM, which ensure that, as local Members of Parliament, we are held to account and that we can communicate with our local communities and be on the receiving end of some wise and frank advice from our local constituents about the issues.
It is incredibly important for our democracy that we are not just 650 people here to serve our parties, but we are people here to serve our local communities, to hear about local issues, to be asked about those local issues and to respond to those local points. That is the role that “Sunday Politics” plays, and there is no way that a politics programme for England would be able to do that. The idea that the issues that my constituents care about in Chesterfield and the local issues in the north-east or in Cornwall are all the same is just nonsense. The local holding to account that “Sunday Politics” does is incredibly important.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is a particularly bad time for the BBC to be considering this move? We heard in the previous contribution about devolution to metropolitan mayors, and the like, which needs extra examination. Our response to covid has, in large part, been led by our county councils and second-tier councils, as well as by local resilience forums. Those bodies are increasingly powerful, and increasingly relevant to our constituents and the population of the regions. Now, more than ever, the BBC should be focusing on that issue, and not withdrawing from it.
I could not agree more. Coronavirus has brought into sharp focus the need for a local response, given the extent to which local areas are experiencing a global pandemic in different ways. In London, coronavirus hit hard up front, and there were then regional variations as it went on, and differences in local responses. Local clinical commissioning groups responded differently regarding testing and the availability of personal protective equipment, and the public must be able to learn about such issues locally, and to scrutinise and question their politicians about that response. Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and been asked to respond on a national basis, but politicians must also be held to account for what is happening in our local areas with testing, PPE, care homes, and all those sorts of things.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is as sad as I am, but over recent weekends, I have switched on the Parliament channel, and people can see coverage of virtually all the general elections there have been since television started covering them. One really interesting factor from those BBC archives is that the swing across the country in 1955 was almost uniform. In 1959, commentators were shocked when there was a slightly smaller swing to the Conservatives in the north-west—it was a big change. The four countries of the United Kingdom are increasingly diverse. Does my hon. Friend agree that that means there should be more regional coverage, not less?
Once again, I absolutely agree. I think it was Tip O’Neill who was credited with the phrase, “all politics is local”, and in the last general election we saw that more strongly than ever before. I represent Chesterfield, an area that, as long ago as 2010 when I came to Parliament, was surrounded by Labour seats, but there has been a big change in our area. Similarly, in the cities there has been a change in the opposite direction. I am very conscious of that point, and as colleagues such as my hon. Friend Luke Pollard know, in areas where there is perhaps less representation from one party, it is particularly important that people still get to hear a voice from the Labour party, or, in areas where Labour is strong, a voice from the Conservative party. I think that “Sunday Politics” does that, and it is important to ensure that in areas where one party is in the minority, that voice is still heard in a local dimension.
As Member of Parliament for Chesterfield I have both the privilege and the slight irritation of being straddled between two areas. The majority of my constituents watch the Yorkshire version of “Sunday Politics” and regional news, but we are also covered by the east midlands region, and different people in my constituency watch different programmes. Because of that, when I have been on the two separate programmes, I have been minded of how different they are, and how they reflect the different issues that exist in West Yorkshire at one end, and Northamptonshire at the other end of the east midlands coverage. That gives me a strong sense of how different those areas are.
I would not say that my constituents appreciate my appearances, but they certainly respond to the appearances I make and appreciate that local coverage.
I noticed that the “Sunday Politics East Midlands” Twitter account has now been taken down. Someone at the BBC has made the decision, while the review is apparently still ongoing, to take down that account, to which people could go and see the coverage produced by the “Sunday Politics East Midlands” team. Recent such programmes have brought a local dimension to national stories: we hear a lot about HS2 on a national basis, but we have been able to debate what it means locally in the east midlands. Areas of the east midlands such as Chesterfield, Derby and Nottingham will be served by HS2, whereas in other areas HS2 provides a blight but will not provide a service. There is a perspective that is different from the national debate about HS2.
If “Sunday Politics East Midlands” disappears, I worry about how the people of the east midlands will learn about the latest prediction from Andrew Bridgen as to when the scrapping of HS2 is going to be announced. I do not know how they would ever find that out. Every six weeks or so, the hon. Gentleman comes on to tell us that it is about to be cancelled. I worry how people would find that out without the “Sunday Politics East Midlands” programme.
I enjoy the hon. Gentlemen’s contributions; he is a big thinker on these matters. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am fortunate to be a member, is currently holding a big inquiry on public sector broadcasting. What the hon. Gentleman and everybody else is saying goes to the heart of the question of what we want a public sector broadcaster to be. Do we want hundreds of thousands of pounds to be spent on salaries for small, niche programmes on national network television? Do we want a commercial entity such as Radio 2 to be financed by the taxpayer—by our constituents—on penalty of going to prison if they do not pay? Or do we want the sort of coverage that the hon. Gentleman is talking about? Ultimately, as we lead up to the charter review—I am sure that the Select Committee’s report will feed into that and into Ministers’ thinking—the debate is really about what sort of public sector broadcaster we want to have, is it not?
It absolutely is. I am conscious that local media—particularly radio—are very much under threat. I have previously mentioned Peak FM, which has been a great, small local radio station in my area. It has recently been taken over by Bauer and its programming is going to go to the east midlands. We are now told that a traffic jam just outside Corby is local news; that makes no difference to people in Chesterfield. As the local dimension of the private sector media increasingly diminishes, there is an opportunity for the BBC to say, “Look, this is what we are great at. Of course we are going to compete on a national basis with national programmes on a Saturday evening, but this is what is special about the BBC.” It will lose that at its peril: if the BBC loses programmes such as “Inside Out” and “Sunday Politics”—if it loses that sense of its ability to influence things locally—it will rue the day and we will all be the poorer for it.
Other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, have mentioned the extent to which there is a sense that if something happens in London, it is national news—that if there is flooding in London or riots in London, we should all care about that. We all know that when we have flooding in different areas, it gets much more difficult to get local coverage. I entirely accept the point made by Bob Stewart about London having local news too, but for many of us who are more distant from London, there is a strong sense that what happens in London is given greater import than what happens in our areas. We are going to have the local elections in 2021, and we all know that what happens in London will be seen as national news. The London mayoralty is of course an important national post, but there are elections everywhere, and it is important that those elections are covered too. I do not think that will happen if these programmes disappear.
I could say other things, but I shall end my speech there because many other Members wish to speak. I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton for securing this debate. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will give a really strong assurance that the strength of feeling in this debate will be conveyed to the BBC, and that it will be conveyed in the strongest possible terms just how crucial these programmes are to our constituents.
A few thoughts occurred to me when I was listening to my hon. Friend Neil Parish and some of the interventions that I think the BBC board would do well to reflect on.
The first is the question of the licence fee. I have my thoughts, and although I have not reached a conclusion about the licence fee, I can see both sides of the argument. One of the important things for the BBC to reflect on is that if it wants to retain the support of people across the country—although David Linden is no longer in his place, this is a debate that happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in England—it needs to retain the support of people from across the country for a compulsory fee. My hon. Friend Steve Brine said that if people do not pay that fee, they will go to prison. The BBC does need to think about what it is delivering. If it is not going to deliver anything different from what is available on a purely commercial basis, actually the licence fee is difficult to justify, so that is worth its reflecting on.
I talked about cost in my intervention earlier; that is actually very interesting, and again the BBC should reflect on it. I was looking at an interesting tweet from Chris Mason yesterday about technology. He had the example of a piece to camera that he did for the “Six O’Clock News” yesterday. The camera in question was the size of a highlighter pen, and the monitor used to film it was on his mobile phone. It seems to me that the developments in technology—I know this from interactions I have had with our own journalists from BBC Radio Gloucestershire about some of the technology now—mean that people can do things remotely. We do not have a whole swathe of people turning up; it is an individual, and those individuals do the recording, clip up the programmes and transmit them electronically straight into the studio. Technology should enable the BBC to deliver more local coverage more cost-effectively than ever before.
Of course, the BBC also has more platforms. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton talked about some well-watched television programmes in our region including “Sunday Politics West” and “Inside Out”. However, it is worth reflecting on the fact that these BBC local journalists not only produce content for BBC local radio, such as the fantastic BBC Radio Gloucestershire, and for television—for example, “Points West”, the evening news in our region, and “Sunday Politics West”—but also generate content for the BBC’s own website. I know that that can be controversial, because many local journalists and local newspapers think that that local content unfairly competes with them, and indeed it does, but we should just think about the fact that if the BBC is producing local content, it is a bit silly if we cannot access it on all the different platforms. The cost of producing regional and very local content is coming down and the number of platforms available for people on which to view that content is going up so people can see that content more effectively. Those are both questions for the BBC to focus on.
Mr Perkins also focused on accountability. This is not just about holding us here in Parliament to account on how we conduct ourselves locally and on our records as parliamentarians; it is also about local government, which he mentioned. It is important to have important local outlets—both newspapers and the BBC—because otherwise our local councils will not be held to account by anyone. Even in the time I have been involved in politics in my constituency, the level of coverage of what goes on in local council chambers has plummeted. We do not get the dedicated local government reporters that we used to get. There may be a big story going on in a local council—for example stories about social care or how we look after people with learning disabilities and how effectively we get them into work—but such local issues are never going to be covered properly by national broadcasters unless we have a truly national scandal. Instead, we have to depend on effective local coverage, which in terms of reach means the BBC.
It is also worth focusing on how many people actually see this content. I may not be completely up to date with the figures, but I remember, on my most recent visit to BBC Radio Gloucestershire, asking about the number of people who listen to its programmes. Its morning breakfast programme, the drive time programme, is listened to by many people in my own constituency as they commute —or at least as they used to commute by car, in the days pre-coronavirus—and in Gloucestershire more people listen to that programme than listen to Radio 4’s “Today” programme. So more people in Gloucestershire listen to that local radio station for their news and current affairs and to hold their democratically elected politicians to account than listen to a national leading broadcast programme.
That is really important, and it says two things to me. First, it says that if we did not have that local programme, we would not be holding local politicians, local business leaders and local decision makers to account. Secondly, the fact that the listening figures are so high suggests that my constituents and other Gloucestershire residents find that content more relevant and more interesting to them than that of the national broadcasting programmes that are available at the same time. If the BBC is thinking about its attractiveness to the public—this comes back to my point about the licence fee—it would do well to reflect on that before it wantonly casts these services aside.
My final point, on the cost-effectiveness of the regional services, is the point I made in my intervention. When I visit Radio Gloucestershire—and also when I visit BBC Bristol when I am there for “Sunday Politics”—I look around the studio and see how the staff have to multi-task to put programmes together. I do not see a lot of fat, a lot of waste or a lot of unnecessary fripperies. I see a very cost-effective operation covering what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has described as a big region in the south-west. It is a shame that our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, has gone, because my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Robertson, is fond of saying—I checked this once, to ensure that it was accurate—that his constituency in Tewkesbury is closer to the England-Scotland border than it is to Land’s End. That just demonstrates the size of one region in England, and it shows the nonsense of suggesting that even that one region can be adequately covered from London, let alone all the regions in England. That is a really important point for the BBC to bear in mind.
Those of us who have had the opportunity to go to BBC HQ at Broadcasting House will have noted the disparity in the resources put into the BBC centrally. I remember having a conversation with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, who told me that, when he did a press conference, he used to marvel—that is perhaps not the right word—at the number of questions he used to get from different bits of the BBC. Every single BBC programme insisted on sending its own person, rather than there being a single person to ask a question. There would be a question from the “Today” person, a question from the “Newsnight” person and a question from the BBC’s political editor. That did not suggest an organisation that was focused on delivering value for money. The BBC should bear that in mind.
On that point, sort of, has it not been fascinating during the Downing Street press conferences to see the regional reporters ask their questions? They do it with a straight bat, without an agenda and without a tone. They just get to the nub of the question that matters to the people in their area. Has not that just been so refreshing?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is absolutely accurate, and the questions from the local journalists are often far more difficult for the Minister to answer because they are focused on the issue at hand. They do not have any of the Westminster aspect to them; they are straightforward questions. Those journalists are doing what journalists should always do, which is to ask us the questions that the listener or viewer at home wants them to ask. The journalist should be putting the question that the person at home, looking at the screen or listening to the radio, has in their head to the people making the decisions. If they are doing that, they are absolutely doing their job properly.
My final point is about some of the subjects covered, which I think the hon. Member for Chesterfield also touched on, as did my hon. Friend for Tiverton and Honiton. I will pick two examples. The first, which was a little while ago—well, it seems like a long time ago, but it wasn’t really—is flooding, which impacted different parts of the country in different ways and was something that sadly we experienced ourselves in my county of Gloucestershire. That is one set of circumstances when local reporting is at its best—when journalists get out into communities and report on the aspects of the issue that really matter to individuals.
I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the coronavirus outbreak, two aspects of which are worth noting. The first is that the huge amount of very locally focused responses in our communities—through local resilience forums, county councils, district councils, volunteers, and town and parish councils—has been covered in local media outlets, including the BBC, in a way that it simply would not have been, and has not been, in national broadcasting.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the local context has been different. What is also different is local accountability, because councils have decisions to make about the local response to coronavirus, and politicians have to answer for those decisions, whether they be council leaders or Members of Parliament. That is the other dimension to the point he is making.
I am grateful for that spot-on intervention, which leads to my final point, about one of the things that we will now be focused on. The Prime Minister tomorrow will announce further moves, I hope, to enable us to get our economy back on track and functioning. One of the important ways to facilitate that is through the test and trace system, which is starting to be up and running, and that is being dealt with not just by the NHS nationally. There is also an important local component, in that locally based, locally employed and locally accountable directors of public health will be responsible by the end of this month for putting together a local outbreak plan to deal with the inevitable local outbreaks—I say inevitable because we have already seen outbreaks in our country and others, whether in specific localities or specific businesses. That will be absolutely critical in getting the country functioning again while keeping people safe, and those outbreak plans will be locally developed, by locally accountable officials and councils.
That aspect is important, but when the inevitable outbreaks of coronavirus happen, it will also be really important to have quality journalism to report on what has happened in a non-sensationalist, factual way, so that local people know what is going on, what the facts are, what is being done to keep them safe and what they need to do to keep themselves and their communities safe. If we were to get rid of that local reporting and accountability, the country and our communities would be the poorer for it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton should be thanked for his wisdom in securing this debate, but also for brilliantly planning it to occur on a day when he would have a little more time than is often available in an Adjournment debate, thereby ensuring what I think will be quite a full debate. I hope the powers that be in the BBC watch BBC Parliament, which is another very valuable service delivered by the BBC, listen to the clear cross-party message—that should sound an alarm with them—from both main political parties and some of the smaller parties, and think very carefully about whether, come September, they should bring back BBC regional coverage and protect it in the months and years to come.
I congratulate Neil Parish on securing this debate. As he knows, I had hoped to intervene during the debate, but I have waited so that I can give my contribution with the full force of a speech.
I am keen to ensure that this issue is fully considered. I raised it in the House at business questions a couple of weeks ago, and had a tremendous response from people in the region and from other colleagues. It seems that we are practically all in agreement on this issue. Whatever party we are from, we are all convinced of the need for regional coverage.
In my case, that coverage is “Inside Out North East and Cumbria” and “Sunday Politics North East and Cumbria”. And therein lies an interesting point; we have talked about having localised coverage, and to those of us in the north-east and Cumbria, we divide into distinct areas. For us, that region in itself is a large area to cover all the local topics. I am sure that other hon. Members will have had the same experience—dividing the issues and dividing the coverage. But regional coverage is a hugely important part of ensuring that local issues—things that are of importance in the region or in part of the region—are considered. In the case of “Inside Out”, it is important to ensure that things that are important locally, and local aspects of national situations, are covered. I am therefore keen that we retain our regional coverage in “Sunday Politics” and “Inside Out”; it is hugely important.
Some of the issues covered by our local “Inside Out” team over the past couple of years include the future of local newspapers, which, as others have said, are going through their own difficulties; railway services in the north-east, which we have had difficulties with in the past; the introduction of universal credit across the region and what that has meant for families; the Medomsley Detention Centre in my neighbouring constituency; and how frontline care workers are affected by the current coronavirus pandemic and what it means for them.
I was particularly pleased that “Inside Out” two years ago covered the situation at the Blaydon Quarry landfill site in my constituency, where we have had enormous problems over the years. At last someone was able to give proper time to understand what was going on, and to communicate that to the wider community. I thank the team for highlighting that issue. It is really important to my constituents—and to other hon. Members’ constituents, no doubt—that we have the space to discuss issues that matter to us on the ground and that make a difference to the lives in our communities.
Last week, over 100 stars and celebrities joined the call to retain regional programming, and to save regional current affairs and regional political coverage. They have written a letter to Lord Tony Hall, the outgoing chair of the BBC—I think he has actually gone now—and to Tim Davie, the new chair of the BBC, calling on them to reconsider the issue and stressing the importance of regional coverage, as we have done. I, too, wrote to Lord Tony Hall, or copied him into a letter to Helen Thomas, the director of regional programming for England, in which I raised the issue with her. I had quite a brief reply from Helen Thomas. I have not had one from Lord Tony Hall or from Tim Davie, so I hope that the stars do better than I do in getting a full response in response to their concerns.
Like many hon. Members, I suspect, I received a response from Caroline Cummins at the BBC yesterday evening, ahead of this debate. She talked about the issue of regional broadcasting. One of the things she pointed to was the ambition to have two thirds of BBC staff in the regions by 2027. None of us would disagree with that ambition, but we do not just need staff in the regions covering national issues; we need regional staff covering regional issues, ensuring that they get the coverage they deserve. So that answer simply does not wash.
Caroline also said that it was good that some of the crews had been doing pieces for “Look North” and other regional programmes over the period that we have not had the “Sunday Politics” or “Inside Out” regionally. It is good to see those issues being raised, but it does not give us the depth of coverage that we get on the “Inside Out” and “Sunday Politics” regional shows. It is good to carry that on, but it is not good enough for what we need in the future.
The one thing that Caroline does not mention is the future of the regional “Inside Out” and “Sunday Politics” shows. She needs to hear loud and clear—and I am sure she will from all of us—that we need to see those regional programmes continue. We have excellent regional reporters, producers and teams putting together those vital local programmes, and we need that to continue. Before I finish, I want to refer to some of the comments made on Twitter about “Inside Out” locally, but having held my iPhone, I cannot find them, so I will ad lib.
Perhaps this will give my hon. Friend an opportunity to find the relevant page. She was talking about the wonderful staff who produce these regional programmes. Does she share my concern that the National Union of Journalists and the other trade unions that represent those staff have so far been excluded from the review, and therefore their valuable insight and voice has not been heard by the BBC?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that intervention, and I most certainly agree; there needs to be a great deal of consultation with the public and the regional staff about the future of their programmes. They deserve that consultation, and they deserve to know what is happening and have a say.
Thankfully, I have managed to find what I was looking for. These were some of the comments on the Twitter feed about “Inside Out”:
“Local and regional BBC news and programming like Inside Out and Politics is where the rubber hits the road between BBC and local/national communities. Consistently watched with quality ratings. What a loss it would all be.”
“Inside Out has been a beacon of investigative journalism in the region, your report on the Medomsley scandal was an outstanding example.”
“Inside Out from the BBC is set to be axed. It’s the last bastion of local North East news. Not everything should be about London”.
“Inside Out has been at the cutting edge of investigative journalism for years, we need MORE programming of this calibre not less.”
“So many important stories will fall through the cracks without @InsideOutCJ &
his team & @BBCRichardMoss &
his team are key to ensuring regional political scrutiny &
issues like the #levellingup agenda are monitored.”
I agree with every word. I could probably fill the rest of the debate with the comments, but I will not, because I know that other Members want to contribute.
The BBC needs to understand and recognise how important these programmes are to our regions and to think again. All of us will know that being on “Sunday Politics” is not always easy or pleasant, but it is necessary. We need to be able to give an account for ourselves and discuss what is happening locally, and I certainly hope that the BBC will think again about this proposal and reinstate the “Inside Out” and “Sunday Politics” regional programmes.
I also thank my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing this very important debate. I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary media group and as somebody who has spent most of my working life working in regional media, having ran small local radio stations and big regional radio stations. I have never worked for the BBC, but I have always seen the BBC as an incredibly important part of our media landscape. The BBC helps commercial broadcasters to be as good as it is, because the BBC, when it is good, is the best in the world.
I want to place on record how supportive I am of the appointment of the new director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie. He has run one the most important divisions of the BBC: he ran BBC radio, so he understands the value and the intrinsic inputs and outputs of a broadcasting division such as radio. I wish him well and I know he will not shy away from the challenges that the industry and his organisation faces. Most important is the challenge of helping to switch the BBC off its metropolitan bias, which, by its own admission, it accepts.
The director-general’s job, of course, is to ensure that it delivers the BBC’s public purposes. What are those public purposes? They include providing impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them—that sits at the cornerstone of what the BBC is about; showing the most creative, highest quality and distinctive broadcast output in the world; and being a beacon to support learning for all people of all ages. I want to put on record my thanks to the BBC for its work on BBC Bitesize during the recent lockdown. More children than ever have gone back to schools programmes. Many of us will remember growing up watching those programmes on a TV that was wheeled into the classroom. Nowadays, the TV sits in the corner and it is the iPad on which most BBC programmes are consumed. I am really pleased that the BBC has taken it upon itself to re-engage with schools programmes. The most important purpose for this debate is the requirement to reflect, represent and serve all the diverse communities in the United Kingdom, its nations and regions, and in doing so support the creative economy across the United Kingdom.
Those are not just broad words. The media regulator Ofcom reiterates those public purposes in the BBC’s operating licence. It is a requirement for the BBC to do those things. Specifically, when we look at the importance of the BBC’s public service role for our regions, the BBC
“should ensure that it provides output and services that meet the needs of the United Kingdom’s nations, regions and communities.”
That is absolutely at the cornerstone of what the BBC is about.
Let us be clear: the BBC must comply with those regulatory conditions. If it does not, it can have its licence revoked. Now is the time for our regulator, Ofcom, to look very closely at what the BBC is offering. Having worked in the commercial sector, I know that the role of Ofcom—as my hon. Friend Lia Nici will no doubt recall—in ensuring that media providers deliver against their licence requirements, is forceful. It can close you down. It is time that the BBC understood that Ofcom has a role to play and that, as the regulator, it should intervene if the BBC decides that it is not going to deliver its licence requirements.
At a time when the BBC’s regional news service at 6.30 pm is delivering the highest level of audience in the history of regional television—it is the most watched news programme on TV at that time in the evening—and we can see the evidence of demand for regional content, I really struggle with why the BBC should be thinking about taking that content out of the schedules. I know that people in Warrington value services such as “North West Tonight”. I know that, because when I appear on them, I get calls from people to tell me they have just watched me. They are not sure what I have actually said, but they tell me that they have seen me on the programme. People watch these services and they really value their content.
Beyond news, Ofcom specifically says that at least 700 hours of regionally made programmes should consist of non-news content. That is where I again question the decisions being taken by BBC management. “Inside Out” has had its forthcoming series cancelled and the future of 11 regional departments in England are under review. That really needs to be examined very closely. From the BARB—Broadcasters Audience Research Board—reports we see that regional output is attracting record audiences, so why is the BBC making those decisions when there is no other broadcaster serving those areas and those audiences?
This issue is even more important because vast swathes of local radio stations are about to lose their local programming in the coming months. Regional, local broadcasting from the BBC will be even more crucial at this time, as local services, hard fought for by communities, are lost in the coming months.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know only too well the challenges that local media, and local radio in particular, are facing. As chair of the all-party group that deals with commercial radio, I have seen some of the figures from local radio stations around the country, whose revenue has been hit by more than 90% in the past three months. Their ability to deliver those programmes is incredibly challenged. The BBC’s delivery of local services provides for demographics of audiences that no other commercial operators will be able to service; I am thinking, in particular, of older members of the community who are not served well by other commercial operators. That is where the BBC plays an incredibly important role.
I congratulate BBC local radio on the vital role it has played in explaining what is happening locally on an hourly basis to audiences around the country. With BBC local radio it is not about high-falutin presenters being brought in; it is about local personalities. It is about people such as Mike Sweeney in Manchester, who has been on the radio for 40 years and is now in his 70s, delivering fantastic local content in the middle of the morning. He is able to interview with real precision because he knows his local area. It is about people such as Roger Phillips in Merseyside. Christian Matheson will have doubtless have been interviewed by Roger, as I have. He is a fearsome interviewer, but he will say that he is not a political reporter; he is a great local broadcaster who understands the area and recognises the value of delivering great local content to that area.
What covid-19 has shown us is just how interconnected every part of our society is and how important local media is for delivering messages to people living in local areas. It is crucial that we decentralise media and ensure that local broadcasting is allowed to be at the forefront of what the BBC does. As a proud northern MP representing Warrington, I know that the issues we face in Warrington are split three ways. Part of the constituency looks south to BBC Stoke, part looks east to BBC Merseyside and part looks to Manchester. One thing I would really like to see the BBC do is invest in areas such as that and put more content into them. It is time that the BBC recognised that local content is crucial to the lives we live today. I urge the BBC to think again, as it sends completely the wrong message to communities in the regions and about the stories that need to be heard if it is cutting regional content.
It is a pleasure to follow Andy Carter, and I congratulate Neil Parish on securing this important Adjournment debate. I hope that the level of interest will not be lost on the Leader of the House and that he might consider trying to restore Westminster Hall debates as soon as possible, so that we can have more of these sorts of debates, on a range of issues, including and beyond covid-19, that our constituents care deeply about.
It is also a welcome novelty to be here in a debate where people are celebrating the contribution that the BBC makes to our national life. Every great nation is built on a set of shared values and shared institutions, and the BBC is one of our great institutions. We deride it and lose it at our peril. I have always thought it impossible to demand outstanding BBC services while also demanding the end of the licence fee, and although Jonathan Gullis gave it a go, I still think it is impossible.
The BBC should pay close attention to the speech made by Mr Harper, because although I do not think it would become impossible to defend the licence fee, it would certainly become a great deal harder if we lost the kind of unique content that includes BBC regional political coverage. There is nothing like it. It is an important part of the BBC’s public service remit. As someone who strongly supports the BBC and the licence fee, I hope that message is well understood, and I hope that the fact that it is coming from both sides of the House will serve to reinforce the point.
I come to this debate with the perspective of one who represents a constituency that, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, looks out towards Essex and in towards London. Depending on who I am speaking to and in which part of the constituency I happen to be, I am either the MP for Ilford North in Essex, or the MP for Ilford North in London. To try to bring some consensus, I think it is really those dreadful people in inner London who we ought to be railing against, not London as a whole. Let us have less anti-London sentiment in this House, and instead unite against zones 1 and 2.
BBC Essex provides a really great service not only to my constituents, but to those right across the modern county of Essex. There are journalists at BBC Essex who really know the patch, such as Simon Dedman, a political correspondent who came to the station from “Look East”. Having that ecosystem, where we recruit, train and retain experienced political reporters and broadcasters who focus on regional content, provides an enormous public service.
I also want to commend the BBC for the role that it has played through the local democracy reporters. This addresses the point, which we have heard expressed this evening, that the BBC competes with local newspapers that are already under considerable strain and financial pressure. The support for those reporters has been a really welcome innovation, fulfilling the BBC’s public service remit while also providing practical support for local newspapers, so the sense that the BBC competes with local newspapers can be remedied.
I joked earlier about the perils of being a London MP, and the extent to which we are reviled outside our great city, but there are some serious points to be made about that. London-based media is not the same as London journalism. I find it frustrating that in this place London is often presented as a city whose streets are paved with gold, where everything is wonderful, bright and rosy, and where every part is filled with prosperity. This city does have some of the greatest concentrations of wealth and success in the world, but it also has some serious issues with poverty and wider disadvantage.
Having London journalists reporting on London does a really great service to our diverse city, because London is about much more than the two cities of London and Westminster; boroughs such as mine, the London borough of Redbridge, and outer-London boroughs such as Havering, Bromley and Hounslow, are also part of this great and diverse city. Without the London regional political coverage, so many of the issues facing outer-London boroughs as well as the heart of London would be missed.
It is important also to recognise the powerful role of investigative journalism. I am thinking in particular of some of the reports that have stayed with me from the BBC’s “Sunday Politics London”, such as its groundbreaking reporting on female genital mutilation in our city. It reports not just on the problems we face, but on the great successes we have seen. There was a really great report and discussion one Sunday in which I took part with panellists from the London borough of Waltham Forest. As my hon. Friend Stella Creasy knows, I hate paying tribute to the London borough of Waltham Forest, but on that occasion it really did deserve it.
There has been great reporting on the challenges in the provision of sexual health services in the city, and on the unique pressures faced in London. Crime is a concern in every part of the country, and to all our constituents, but we know that in London crime manifests itself in a variety of ways, particularly serious organised crime, violent crime and the crime associated with county lines, which starts in London but travels across the country. We have seen some great reporting on that too.
I have alluded to the awful and completely unjustifiable levels of poverty that still exist in this city—the children who are moved from pillar to post in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation because they do not have a decent home to call their own, the levels of hunger and the levels of homelessness. All of that is given an airing and greater salience across the city, particularly among Londoners who may not know what it is like to live in poverty. That is an enormous public service.
As my hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins said, we have to bear in mind the trend towards the devolution of power in our country—long may it continue. I do not think it is a coincidence that as well as having striking levels of poverty and inequality in our country, we have enormous regional economic imbalances. It is no coincidence that there is so much wealth, prosperity and opportunity concentrated in London and the south-east, and that we have one of the most concentrated systems of political governance in the western world.
I hope the trend of the devolution of power will continue, but with it has to come the scrutiny that local and regional journalism brings. I know that even the Mayor of London can sometimes find himself at fault—even he is not perfect—and it is important that, whether it is the Mayor of London or other great local leaders across the country, they are held to account by strong regional political journalism. In London, we have that in abundance.
To conclude, it seems to me that with its review, the BBC is conducting one of those exercises that we in politics will find very familiar: we are told that there is a consultation and that there are open minds, but in fact the result is predetermined. I deeply hope that my cynicism is unjustified in this case. If not, I hope that the strength of feeling in the Chamber this evening, with an unusual turn-out for an Adjournment debate, helps to change minds at the heart of the BBC.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Parish on securing this very important debate. There has been a fair bit of consensus in the Chamber today; I fear that I may make a few comments that do not secure consensus across the House, but I will speak freely.
This is an important debate because, unfortunately, the BBC’s plan is to cut local news coverage is, in my view, another sign of the BBC badly missing the mark and demonstrating how out of touch its national leadership has become from the majority of its audience. Public confidence in the BBC is, I would argue, hanging by a thread, not least after increasing instances of political bias in its national news coverage. At the height of the covid-19 outbreak, for example, five doctors and nurses were interviewed as part of a “Panorama” programme on the supply of personal protective equipment, and were critical of the Government’s response. It emerged later that all of them were long-standing Labour party activists or supporters. The BBC either failed to realise that or, worse, went ahead with such a one-sided piece anyway.
Public confidence in the BBC has also been knocked recently—I am not saying this just because it is my favourite comedy—by high-minded executives removing programmes such as “Little Britain” from its iPlayer platform, over theories that some of the characters could be construed as offensive. This senseless decision, taken on viewers’ behalf, implies that those of us who continue to enjoy comedies such as “Little Britain” have something fundamentally wrong with us and that we cannot be trusted to watch a comedy programme from just over a decade ago without taking away the wrong messages that fall below today’s standards of political correctness.
It is actually quite chilling that a state broadcaster, funded by taxpayers and licence fee payers, is taking decisions to erase parts of our past, with no consultation or democratic process. The national leadership of the BBC therefore needs to be careful what it wishes for when it looks at cutting local news coverage to make just £125 million of savings.
I turn to some things that other Members on the Government Benches might agree with—I have some slightly fluffy, positive things to say. Unlike the BBC’s often contentious national coverage, which is out of touch on many decisions, the BBC’s local news and politics coverage is one of the few BBC outputs that still unites many of us in support of the corporation. In the BBC’s local news coverage, including the excellent BBC Radio Suffolk and BBC Look East, we have household names such as Andrew Sinclair and Mark Murphy, who has the morning show on BBC Radio Suffolk. I mention BBC Radio Suffolk because I fear that the decision on regional politics TV coverage will have implications for our brilliant local BBC stations.
The message that must be sent to the BBC is that many Members of this House are very much undecided when it comes to the future of the BBC and whether the licence fee should be looked at. My hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis is slightly more robust in his view and has obviously come to his decision, but those such as my right hon. Friend Mr Harper and I are undecided. I remember sitting down with the head of radio content for Norfolk and Suffolk, who asked me for my position on the matter. At the time, I thought the BBC nationally could be treated separately from the BBC locally, but, of course, he explained that we could not. I had all sorts of issues with national BBC coverage—I have just outlined some of them—but, for me, BBC Radio Suffolk and BBC Look East are incredibly important to our local democracy in holding politicians to account.
That the BBC could not be separated out was the reason why I said, on balance, that I just about supported the licence fee. Of course, in the last few months more concerns have been raised about BBC impartiality in some coverage, and now we have this debate about the future of BBC regional political shows, which could easily morph into the future of local radio stations. My message to the BBC is to think carefully about the decisions it makes in the coming months, because they could just have an implication for the corporation’s future.
It is a pleasure to follow Tom Hunt. May I add my congratulations to Neil Parish for bringing about the debate? I also congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist on raising this matter last week in the Chamber and really pushing the debate along.
I am not going to bash the BBC. I am very proud of the BBC. It has been one of our most fabulous exports and one of the great institutions of this nation. Just witness the exports it has driven for us and some of the original programming it has created. In the agenda it has driven, whether it be political, environmental, social or whatever, it has made a huge contribution, and the cost that comes at to a household is presently 43p a day. I remember it running an advert when it was 20p a day—it does not seem that long ago; it was probably 15 or 20 years ago—but when we take into account cost-of-living rises and inflation, we see the value we derive from it is huge, given its cost per day to the average person.
The great thing about the BBC has been its regionality. I have lived in different regions of England and spent several years in more or less every place, and what is interesting is feeling part of that region and its identity. One of the greatest achievements of the BBC, with the demise of the regional ITV network, has been the strength and sense of cohesion within regions that it has helped foster. Latterly, I have established myself in the midlands again, where I find myself with Nick Owen. Some hon. Members may remember Nick Owen—a great TV professional, who was on national TV for many years and now fronts “Midlands Today”, and so on. I think about credibility and trust, which many hon. Members have raised, and these individuals have earned, over many years, the confidence and credibility to present programming and give a sense of cohesion and regional identity. That also translates into the political programming that they deliver.
Shortly after getting elected in 2017, I found myself on the “Sunday Politics” programme and it was great. I cannot remember quite what the issues were, but there I was with Margot James—until recently, the Member of Parliament for Stourbridge—and we had a good discussion about all sorts of things. We were in front of the cameras presenting our case on those particular topics. I think that that has been really important and is worth fighting for.
It seems counterintuitive to be here discussing this when we are pushing for, and the public want, greater devolution, with more mayors, more combined authorities and perhaps more police and crime commissioners—although the jury is out on that one. They should be held to account. They should be on these programmes explaining to the public how they arrive at their priorities, how they are spending the money and what they see as important, and without this sort of programming, those people will not be visible. They will not be seen and heard. They may have a very good case to make, but they will not be heard. It is really important for our democracy that these platforms are available to them. Of course, it is important that we as MPs have that visibility, scrutiny and accountability as well.
After that first appearance, I was amazed at the number of people who texted me to say, “I saw you on ‘Sunday Politics.” I did not realise that so many people had watched it, but it just goes to show that it did have an audience. One of the realisations of the last few years—with the trauma and seismic upheaval of Brexit, and now with the crisis of covid-19—is just how many people are tuned into political programming, because they want to understand what is going on. This is where the platforms are so important. It is about having the chance to explain why, with covid-19, there may be a regional disparity and why there might be different reactions from local authorities on how they are going about their programmes for recovery.
I can think back to times over the last few years when there has been programming challenging some of the issues in our region—for example, on Northamptonshire County Council and how it spent all that money building itself a new council office. Regional programming was needed to bring that out and expose it to the public. More locally, I have been campaigning against Warwick District Council, which is trying to do a similar thing. We have managed to stop it, but that was put out in the public sphere and we had that debate. That is why regional programming is important.
We have heard a lot in this debate about the value of “Inside Out” as a programme and how cost-effective it is. We think of its annual budget of £6 million for 60 people, with 11 regions serviced, and of how much it has fed into the different platforms in national news, online and so on.
Given our levelling up agenda and all our creative jobs around the country and in the different nations, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the proposed cuts to programmes such as “Sunday Politics” and “Inside Out” will have a huge impact on freelancers who are already struggling to keep their earnings going as productions are reduced throughout the covid period? This news will be absolutely devastating for them, but it also means that our creative industries will only be able to be run from the big metropolitan areas. What we want is good creative people across all our nations.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member. One of the great strengths of this country is its creativity and its media output. We are a huge exporter, as she will know very well from her own background, which she was describing earlier. She will know not only how valuable that export is, but how influential and how powerful it is in terms of the soft power that we project, or have projected perhaps until recently. It is something that we need to hold on to.
Just to go a little bit further into “Inside Out”, it is an extremely valuable strand because of how much it feeds into other programming. The story about Sports Direct and the investigation that was undertaken were mentioned earlier. That programme investigated that issue in the old-fashioned way. Its team realised that there had been 50 or 60 emergencies where ambulances had been called to a warehouse. They undertook that investigation to understand what had been going on, because so many workers were working in such shocking conditions in terms of the hours they were working, having too few breaks and so on. That is why these sorts of programmes are so important.
I understand that there is huge financial pressure on the BBC. The fact that households are paying 43p a day, I think, is quite ridiculous for such a fantastic service. One cannot even get half a chocolate bar for that kind of money. If we compare that with the cost of a pint or a coffee, I think that 43p is a very low cost for impartial, quality news programming and proper investigative journalism to ensure that politicians are held to account. That is why this issue is so important.
The future will be challenging for all sectors, including for the BBC. I understand the challenge with this particular programming—with the “Sunday Politics”, for example—because live programming is expensive. On the one hand, it is unaffordable, but then the recorded programming is unacceptable when we are so used to having immediate live content. With the changes in technology and how we have managed to adapt in recent months, I urge the BBC to think about finding ways to ensure that those in power are still held to account and are able to try to make their case for whatever is being debated that day.
With charter renewal coming up and future funding debates looming, the BBC must be careful that the issue does not play into the hands of its detractors, because it is vital that the case is made on the BBC’s behalf. The BBC provides an incredibly valuable service. The public want political news, whether that is Brexit, covid-19 or other things, and they want visibility and accountability.
To conclude, the BBC is a great asset and the regionality it provides has been so important for many decades. It is an incredibly valuable thing that we have in this country. We are one of the most centralised nations in the world—certainly in Europe—and the devolution of power that I think many of us are seeking needs to be held to account, and that is why the programming of “Sunday Politics” and of “Inside Out” should be retained and is so important to us all.
There have been many good contributions this evening in which hon. Members have raised all the broad issues relating to the decision the BBC has to make. I will not follow those; instead, I will focus on a single specific issue, which is the nature of political discourse and the contribution that local and regional BBC coverage makes to supporting good-quality political discourse. That is a very important issue for our time.
Perhaps it is because of the rise of social media, but there is an amplification of anger, which we all experience in our political lives and in the political life of the nation. Anger and confrontation, the virtue-signalling “gotcha” moment, the classification of the opponent as the “other”, the near-dehumanisation of political opponents —all these things are corrosive of our national political life. In my view, the BBC’s national political output is running very close to following that negative development.
One has only to look at “Newsnight” to start thinking of it as the telecast equivalent of the “gotcha” tweet, with constant interruptions and the imposition of the journalist’s viewpoint over that of the politician, regardless of their party or political viewpoint, who is being asked to express their view and is then prevented physically from doing so. Compare that with “Sunday Politics” and the regional coverage of the BBC, where we see time being given to politicians to make their political point and then to be challenged on it—not shouted at or interrupted, but respectfully challenged in a hard-hitting manner in a discourse that is polite, where the nuances can be seen, rather than the black versus white that the “Newsnight” type of environment encourages. It is discursive, not abusive, and it can focus on local issues which, as I mentioned in an intervention, are becoming more, not less, important as time goes on. As we devolve power to the regions, as we get more elected metropolitan mayors, as the impact of the actions of our county and second-tier councils is more apparent in the lives and the quality of life of our constituents, so we should focus more, not less, on local issues.
I regard the national political focus of the BBC as being more equivalent to PMQs, and “The Politics Show” and the time that is given to it as being more equivalent to the quality of this debate. I leave it to the House to decide which is the most edifying.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Parish on holding this important debate. It is certainly one of the best attended Adjournment debates that I have been present at, as well as one of the longest, but perhaps more important is the fact that there have been a large number of excellent contributions and a large degree of agreement across the House on the importance of the BBC’s regional politics and current affairs coverage. I welcome Christian Matheson, who has been in his place throughout the entire debate. I am delighted to see him in his new role as Opposition spokesman.
I will also take this opportunity to congratulate Tim Davie on his appointment as director-general, and to pay tribute to Lord Hall, who has served as director-general for seven years. He took over the position in challenging times, and I think it fair to say that they have remained fairly challenging throughout his time, but he has done an excellent job in bringing leadership to the BBC. I certainly enjoyed working with him during our debates on the renewal of the BBC’s charter.
As my hon. Friend Andy Carter said, the BBC has also played an extremely important role in the course of the past few months during this crisis. It has provided important factual information and reinforced the Government’s messaging. It has also provided great entertainment, and it has done a great job in providing programming for children unable to attend classes in schools through BBC Bitesize.
I want to start by saying that I am a strong supporter of the BBC and I also believe very strongly in the independence of the BBC. It is not for the Government to instruct the BBC how to fulfil the objectives that it is set in the charter. The Government have three roles when it comes to the BBC. It is to draw up the charter, which sets out the purposes of the BBC. However, the way in which the BBC meets those is a matter for the BBC under the scrutiny of Ofcom. The Government also have a role in the appointment of the chair of the BBC and some Members of the board and, thirdly, in the setting of the licence fee.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a test for Ofcom? This is the first time that Ofcom, in its role as a regulator of the BBC, will be able to look at what the BBC is doing in terms of its regional content. It will allow the Ofcom members to take a decision and a view on how the BBC will set those out going forward. This is quite an important time for the regulator to step forward and look at what the BBC is doing.
My hon. Friend is right in that it has only been since the new charter was put in place that Ofcom has had the role as an external scrutineer of the BBC, and it is the role of Ofcom to ensure that the BBC is meeting its purposes. He quoted in his own remarks one of those purposes from the charter and I want to come back to that, because he is absolutely right that providing regional coverage is one of the purposes that the BBC is required to fulfil. Having made it clear in my remarks that I do not intend to instruct the BBC, because I think it is completely wrong for the Government to attempt to do so, nevertheless, I entirely understand the concern that has been expressed by hon. Gentlemen from across the House about the BBC’s decision to cancel the autumn series of “Inside Out”.
What tonight’s debate has shown is that, across the House, there is united support for keeping regional programmes and for making them even more local than they are now. We need to get that message across loud and clear. I understand that it not the Government’s perspective to dictate to the BBC, but it is also right that we send from this House a clear message that the BBC should maintain regional programmes and enhance them.
I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I am grateful to him for having applied for and obtained this debate, because I have absolutely no doubt that the BBC will be watching it and that it will take account of the strength of feeling that has been expressed from all parts of this House. I am talking not just about the current affairs programmes, but also about the “Sunday Politics” show. As Liz Twist pointed out, it was only last week that more than 100 of the industry’s most well-known figures, including Sir Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry, Fern Britton and Ken Loach, signed a public letter to the BBC to express their concerns over the future of these programmes and the impact that their withdrawal would have on the communities that they serve. These are programmes that have brought us first-class investigative journalism, and they are at the very core of public service broadcasting. One of the signatories of the letter was Samira Ahmed, who many of us will know having been subjected to questioning by her on the “Today” programme. She wrote:
“I was proud to be part of an Inside Out investigation for BBC Leeds that dared to tackle difficult issues around race and exploitation in the Rotherham Grooming Scandal. Now more than ever we need honest, fearless journalism that is rooted in the long-term expertise and professionalism of BBC journalists who know their local communities.”
I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) that the BBC is one of the most recognised and trusted brands across the world and that it produces some of the best TV and radio across the globe. As the Prime Minister put it, it is an institution to be cherished. Whether it is the recent drama on the Salisbury poisonings or the documentary following the work of the north-east ambulance service, the BBC lies at the heart of our public service broadcasting system, producing world-class content that serves to stimulate our interest, broaden our understanding, and help us to engage with the world around us.
That understanding of the world, and the BBC’s role as our national broadcaster, has never been more important. As we emerge from the crisis caused by coronavirus, we find ourselves at a time of increasing mistrust and facing an almost daily battle against misinformation. In that world, where “fake news” has had to be added to the dictionary, it is vital that the BBC upholds the values and standards we have all come to expect. The public should be able to turn to the BBC for transparent, impartial, reliable news and current affairs.
That applies just as much, if not perhaps even more strongly, in regional and local coverage, which is the focus of this debate. In the past few months, UK audiences have been turning back to television news. In the last week of March, 79% of UK adults watched the BBC network and regional news on television—up 20% on the previous month. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the 6.30 pm regional news programme on the BBC has often been the most watched programme on television on any given day.
BBC local radio has also played a very important role. For instance, the BBC local radio “Make a Difference” campaign, which allowed a number of people to call to ask for help, support or advice and reassurance, received over 1 million calls.
Given the statistics that the right hon. Gentleman has outlined about the success of this output, what does it say about the BBC’s priorities that it would even consider getting rid of these incredibly popular local programmes that are of such importance to people, at a time when it continues to make the other decisions that it does about the kind of output it has?
I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman regards that as a mistake by the BBC, and it is one that I personally would agree with him about. I will go on to set out why I think it is right that we ask the BBC to think again.
As my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Warrington South said, the royal charter sets out the public purposes of the BBC. One of these is:
“To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions”.
It goes on to say that the BBC
“should offer a range and depth of analysis…so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues”.
Regional news and current affairs programmes are at the very heart of this particular public purpose. First, they fulfil a vital role in providing local content, which helps to sustain local democracy. A number of Members have made the point that that is becoming particularly important as we look at devolving more power to regions and local communities. It is essential that that takes place and that, at the same time, people who are holding that power are held properly to account. We all know that many of the issues affecting Plymouth will be completely different from those that impact on Hull, Devon or Coventry. It is important that all those different issues are aired properly and that politics does not seem to be only about Westminster—or, even, the London bubble.
People also want to know that they are heard, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds and in diverse communities across the UK. They need to know that the issues that matter to them matter to us all, and they need the opportunity to engage in balanced debates and participate in the conversations that shape their daily lives. It is only through broadcasting those kinds of stories and conversations through regional TV or local radio that we can build the true picture of British life.
The second area of vital importance for local news and current affairs programmes, which has been referred to by several hon. Members, is the extremely important role they play in forming the next generation of skilled journalists. Without that training ground, some of the best known names in broadcasting today would not have had a start.
I will say a few words about each of the different areas of regional programming that the debate has covered. First, on the regional political coverage, the weekly regional political show plays a vital role in highlighting issues that may be of huge local importance but will probably never make it on to the national news. As my hon. Friend Bob Stewart, who is no longer in his place, pointed out, those shows are often the only opportunity that Members of Parliament have to go on television to talk about the issues that affect them and their constituents. In my region, the “Politics East” programme, with which my hon. Friend Tom Hunt and Rachel Hopkins will be familiar—as, of course, will you, Madam Deputy Speaker—does an extremely good job in covering political developments in the region, as well as the debates that we have here on issues that are relevant to the region. If a Member from a particular region obtains an Adjournment debate on an issue that is of extreme importance to his or her constituents, we can look to the BBC’s regional political show to at least give it some coverage.
The idea that a single politics England show could somehow substitute is wholly unrealistic, as Mr Perkins pointed out. The population of the east of England—from which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I come—is over 6 million. That is more than the population of Scotland, yet Scotland is served by its own channel, BBC Scotland, which was launched in February 2019, and includes a huge amount of coverage of Scottish issues. That is not in any way wrong—it is as much a part of the BBC’s public purpose to provide that programming as it is for any other part—but it does seem to illustrate why it is mistaken for the BBC to provide that amount of coverage of the Scottish nation while diminishing, and almost removing, the equivalent coverage that takes place of the 11 regions of England.
I turn to the current affairs programme that the BBC provides, “Inside Out”. As has been pointed out by a several hon. Members, “Inside Out” has carried out a number of in-depth investigations of huge importance, many of which went on to become national stories, but probably would not have done so had it not been for the initial investigative journalism done by “Inside Out”. The example of the working practices of Sports Direct has already been mentioned; Samira Ahmed drew attention to the Rotherham child grooming case; and there was a recent programme about the impact of smart motorways. All are hugely important stories that, one has to suspect, would not have ever been revealed had it not been for the work of the journalists on “Inside Out”.
At a time when powers are being devolved to a more local level, it is all the more important that the scrutiny that a programme such as “Inside Out” provides is carried out. That is particularly reinforced given what is happening to other local media, as several hon. Members have mentioned. It is the case that both local newspapers and local radio are under tremendous threat. Sadly, we have seen a number of local newspapers shedding journalists or, in some cases, even going out of business, and that has made the BBC’s task of scrutinising and holding local institutions to account all the more important.
Local news production shows the BBC’s unique value compared with strong national and international competitors. The choice available to viewers is growing, with new entrants such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney. That makes it all the more important that the BBC focuses on the role of providing public service broadcasting, which will not be provided by those commercially oriented, market-driven companies. My right hon. Friend Mr Harper questioned the future of the licence fee and rightly said that one of the principal justifications for the licence fee is that it funds a broadcaster which provides programming that otherwise would not exist. That has always been at the heart of the purpose of the public service broadcasting landscape, and particularly the BBC.
The BBC is uniquely privileged in that it receives public funding. It has been protected against the hurricane that has hit the rest of commercial media as a result of the loss of advertising during the covid crisis. The BBC has a protected income, and in that climate, it is all the more important that it continues to provide public service broadcasting. My view, and the general tone of this whole debate, is that regional political and current affairs coverage is at the heart of public service broadcasting.
As I say, it is not for me to tell the BBC how it should deliver the public purposes or use the money given to it through the licence fee, but I believe that regional news and current affairs are of great importance, because they are vital for our democracy, they help to train future journalists and they help the BBC and other public service broadcasters to remain relevant in this changing media landscape. I am confident that the BBC will have been watching this debate, and I hope that it will take account of the feelings and views expressed by all Members and decide to continue—indeed, strengthen—its regional political and current affairs coverage.
Question put and agreed to.