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.