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?