BBC: Government Role in Impartiality

– in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 14 March 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 1:47, 14 March 2023

Urgent Question To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on the Government’s role in upholding the impartiality of the BBC.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The BBC is a world-class broadcaster, a creative engine and a cultural institution producing some of the best television and radio in the world. The impartiality of the BBC, as a publicly funded broadcaster, goes to the heart of the contract between the corporation and all the licence fee payers whom it serves. That is why the royal charter, which is the constitutional basis of the BBC—along with the underpinning framework agreement—enshrines the need for the BBC to be impartial in both its mission and its public purposes.

The BBC’s mission and public purposes, as set out in the charter, require it to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain, helping people to understand and engage with the world around them. The BBC’s first public purpose is to provide duly accurate and impartial news and information to help people to understand and engage with the world around them. It must also represent and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions. Both the charter and the framework agreement also explicitly guarantee the independence of the BBC. As such, the Government have no say in the BBC’s operational or editorial day-to-day decisions or staffing matters, including as they relate to the application of the requirement for impartiality.

The Government stand fully behind the requirements of the royal charter. We are clear that the BBC must truly reflect the nation and guard its impartiality in all of its output. The BBC’s director-general has repeatedly said that the corporation’s impartiality is a priority for him and must be protected. We welcome that the BBC accepted the findings and recommendations of the Serota review and is committed to reform through its 10-point impartiality and editorial standards action plan. It is Ofcom, established by the Government as the independent regulator of the BBC in 2017, that is responsible for holding broadcasters including the BBC to account on the impartiality of their news and current affairs coverage, against the broadcasting code under the Communications Act 2003.

In November last year, Ofcom published its annual review of the BBC. It found the BBC’s impartiality to be a key area of concern among audiences and one where they consistently rate BBC news less favourably for trust and accuracy. Ofcom stated that addressing audience perceptions on this matter is challenging, and the regulator recognises that this is a complex area. It will continue to monitor the performance of the BBC and has urged the BBC not to lose momentum in its efforts to address this issue. It remains a priority for the Government to ensure that Ofcom delivers an effective and proportionate regulatory framework that holds the BBC to account while maintaining its creative freedom and operational independence.

In May 2022, the Government launched the mid-term review. This is a new mechanism established by the current charter, focusing on the governance and regulatory arrangements for the BBC, given the reforms that were introduced when the charter was granted. One area of focus in the MTR is impartiality, and it will assess the efficacy of the governance mechanisms and Ofcom’s regulation in ensuring that the BBC meets the high standards that licence fee payers expect of it. It is also an important milestone in our road map for BBC reform, and work is well under way. The charter specifies that the review must take place between 2022 and 2024, and we will publish our findings and conclusions in due course.

The BBC is respected globally. It reaches hundreds of millions of people across the world every week. No other country in the world has anything quite like it. We have been clear that the BBC must place a firm emphasis on accuracy, impartiality and diversity of opinion. It can never be the BBC’s role to judge, or appear to judge, the diverse values of the people from across the country it serves. In the era of fake news, public service broadcasting and a free press have never been more important, and the BBC has been and should be a beacon that sets standards to which others can aspire.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

This week’s whole sorry saga has raised serious questions about the Government’s role in upholding BBC impartiality. They have their fingerprints all over it. It is no wonder the Secretary of State has gone AWOL. First, it exposed how susceptible the BBC leadership is to Government pressure. After days of holding off, the BBC capitulated to a Tory cancel campaign, orchestrated by Ministers and Conservative Members with their friends in the press, and took Mr Lineker off air. These are the same voices, by the way, who claim to be the champions of free speech. What changed? Can the Minister tell us what contact she or any member of the Government had with any BBC executives or board members during this time? What does she think it looks like to the outside world when a much-loved sports presenter is taken off air for tweeting something that the Government do not like? It sounds more like Putin’s Russia to me.

Secondly, the Government have seriously damaged the BBC’s reputation by appointing a chair who is embroiled in the personal finances of the Prime Minister who gave him the job. No doubt the Minister will tell the House that that is under investigation, but it is an investigation that I instigated, not her. Her boss is the only person with any power to fire the BBC chair. Does she agree that he is now completely unable to carry out his role of providing confidence, credibility and independence? What is she doing to put this right?

Finally, the Government have pursued a deliberate strategy of undermining the BBC in order to keep it over a barrel to get themselves more favourable coverage. That was on full display overnight and I am sure it will be on full display here today. They threaten the licence fee, cut the BBC’s funding and undermine its credibility, all in pursuit of keeping their foot on the BBC’s throat. Will the Minister today finally call off the dogs behind her and stand up for the BBC’s independence from the Government?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank the hon. Lady for her spirited questions. I have watched her valiant attempts to kick this political football across the weekend and into this week. As Politico notes, we are now on Lineker day 8. She shouts about a political campaign to undermine the BBC that is akin to Putin’s Russia. She professes that she is the shield trying to protect the BBC from political interference, but all the while demanding that the PM gets more stuck in and telling the BBC that it is in the wrong. Forgive the bewildered licence fee payer for wondering why W1A and SW1A are still focusing on this individual case—one that the Government have consistently made clear is for the BBC to resolve internally, which we note it has now done.

As the hon. Lady knows full well from the Secretary of State’s reply to her correspondence over the weekend, our Department regularly engages with the BBC on a range of issues. At no time have any of us as Ministers sought to influence the BBC’s decision on this case in any way. The events of last week are rightly a matter for the corporation’s determination, and we as a Government do not seek to interfere. I have not added, and do not intend to add, my views on this specific case in response to this urgent question. In response to assertions yesterday that he bowed to political pressure from the Government, the BBC director-general, Tim Davie, said:

“That is a convenient narrative. It’s not true.”

The hon. Lady has sought to make the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, the ultimate arbiter of such matters. In fact, the BBC charter is clear that it is the director- general, as editor-in-chief of the BBC, not the chairman of the board, who has final responsibility for individual decisions on the BBC’s editorial matters. On the issue of Mr Sharp, she will be aware that previous Governments have appointed people to senior positions in the BBC who have declared political activity. That is not prohibited under the rules. Once appointed, however, all board members are required to adhere to the code of conduct for public body board members. She will know that there are separate independent inquiries into Mr Sharp’s appointment process, and they must be left to conclude. When it comes to the timetable of that, the Government are also awaiting the outcome, and it is right for the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the investigator that it has appointed to determine the timetable for that process, not the Government.

The hon. Lady said that the Tory Government had long wanted to undermine the BBC. Not true. This is an organisation with a near-guaranteed licence fee income of £3.8 billion per annum until the next charter review in 2027. We back the BBC. We want it to survive as a thriving cultural, creative and democratic engine for many years to come. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office announced just this week that it is giving an extra £20 million to support the BBC World Service over two years, building on the additional support that we gave it for its Ukraine and Russia reporting operations.

The social compact that underpins the BBC’s funding arrangement depends fundamentally on the broadcaster maintaining the trust and confidence of viewers. The BBC’s currency in a world of misinformation and “shout the loudest” public discourse is truth, impartiality, accuracy and editorial integrity. It remains our priority as a Government to work with the regulator, Ofcom, to deliver an effective and proportionate framework that holds the BBC to account in its duties, including to impartiality. In May 2020 we launched the mid-term review, a key focus of which was impartiality, and we will assess Ofcom’s regulation in ensuring that the BBC meets the high standards that licence fee payers expect of it.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I call the acting Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

Last weekend was embarrassingly terrible for the BBC, and anyone who cares about the future of the BBC will want this furore to die down and to move on as fast as possible. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the responsibility of the BBC management to produce a set of clear and enforceable guidelines on the behaviour of presenters, whether freelance or staff? Does she also agree that, in return, presenters whose reputations and bank balances are enhanced by regular appearances on popular BBC shows also owe a reciprocal responsibility to the BBC, which may include some self-restraint in what they say and do in public?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important question. I agree that anybody who cares about the BBC will want this furore to die down so that it can focus on how to ensure that it operates to the terms that create confidence in the public. He asked about the BBC guidelines, and I agree that they are fundamentally important to how the BBC organises its staffing. One of the key recommendations of the Serota review was that the guidelines on how presenters operate are fundamental and should be applied no matter the seniority, profile or role of the employee. This is something that must be revisited by the BBC as an organisation in the light of this furore.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

On Saturday, BBC bosses said that Gary Lineker would have to apologise before being allowed back on the air. Yesterday, the BBC director-general apologised to Gary Lineker, who will now go back on the air without compromising. What a mess. A humiliating retreat for BBC bosses.

Normally, the BBC chair would hit the airwaves to steady nerves but, of course, the chair is Richard Sharp, a Tory donor who facilitated an £800,000 loan to the Prime Minister who then appointed him. Mr Sharp appears to be in hiding. I know many Conservative Members loathe the BBC and public service broadcasting, but does the Minister agree that her Conservative colleagues have overplayed their hand by trying to influence BBC decision making? Moreover, does she agree that we need a new system for plum public service appointments, with no more party donors, either Tory or Labour, appointed in future?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I make it clear that Ministers have not sought to intervene or interfere in how this process has been handled by the BBC. I will not be commenting on the Lineker case specifically, because I want to maintain the independence of the BBC and the ability of the director-general to make decisions based on how he wishes to organise his institution.

On Mr Sharp, as I said to Lucy Powell, the BBC charter makes it clear that the director-general, as editor-in-chief of the BBC—and not the chairman of the board—has final responsibility for issues such as the ones we saw over the weekend.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Mindful that the Minister does not want to comment on self-indulgent, out-of-touch, insensitive, avaricious, smug, arrogant football pundits, and in mind, too, of the BBC’s important role as a national institution, made special by both its charter and the mode of its funding, will she affirm that impartiality is critical to the BBC’s continuing role? The BBC is respected throughout the world for its impartiality—the World Service springs to mind. When that impartiality is compromised by anyone in a privileged position, that flaw undermines the BBC we want to support.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is the mode of the BBC’s funding that makes it different in how it must respond to such cases. Trust and impartiality are fundamental to the social compact that underpins the licence fee. If that trust and impartiality are seen to be broken by people in the organisation, it is for the organisation to take that into account and to take action accordingly.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

The Minister says Ministers are not getting involved, but the Leader of the House, reading from a prepared script at business questions last Thursday, said:

“Labour is borrowing from the Gary Lineker playbook… This country does not need goal-hangers;
it needs centre-forwards.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2023;
Vol. 729, c. 413.]

That perhaps shows her slight lack of understanding of football, but is not the key point that these guidelines were changed in 2020 specifically because Conservative Members were trying to nobble Gary Lineker? That is why it has been such a disaster this weekend.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The Leader of the House is entitled to comment on the nature of Mr Lineker’s comments but, as far as I am aware, she applied zero pressure on the BBC to take action in relation to his contract.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

I hope the shadow Secretary of State will reflect on her comparison of this Government to the Putin regime, which is of course engaged in war crimes and the murder of men, women and children in Ukraine. That was beneath her.

I am perfectly content with the BBC’s funding model and output, but one element of Mr Lineker’s statement on Twitter is completely unacceptable. I grew up surrounded by people who had their lives turned on their head by the Nazi regime in Germany, so I hope the Minister will comment on Mr Lineker’s references to 1930s Germany. He can say what he likes about the Illegal Migration Bill, but he should have the decency to apologise for comparing any action of a democratically elected Government in this country to 1930s Germany. It was disgusting.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for setting out how he feels about the comments that were made. I very much appreciate the deep sensitivities of this matter. I also think it was distasteful to compare the Government’s actions, or otherwise, to the Putin regime. That is a disgraceful comparison to make and I think it is way off the mark.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles

The BBC’s decision to take Gary Lineker off the air for his criticism of the Government’s immoral, inhumane and unworkable Illegal Migration Bill justifiably angered both the public and the professional staff working for the corporation, many of whom are in my constituency. Sadly, confidence in BBC management was already at a real low following revelations about the circumstances of Richard Sharp’s appointment as chairman. This week, members of the National Union of Journalists across the BBC in England will be taking strike action in defence of our local radio services. Does the Minister agree that the issues with the BBC are much more fundamental than just how presenters use social media? Will she join me in calling on Richard Sharp to resign so that trust in BBC impartiality can be restored?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The hon. Lady talks of BBC staff in her constituency. They signed contracts and are aware of the standards to which they must adhere, because impartiality is so fundamental to the organisation, its future success and the trust in which the public hold it. As an organisation, the BBC strives to adhere to those principles, so I suspect there is a conversation happening between staff at every level as to whether consistent standards are being applied to the professional terms to which they all signed up.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

The way in which the BBC has reacted over the last week or so has been nothing short of appalling. Does the Minister agree that the BBC needs to set clear rules, rather than guidance, on what is expected from its presenters, particularly high-profile presenters—erring on the side of caution rather than encouraging political commentary —and that the BBC should not be pushed around by privileged and overpaid elites?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. The Serota review was designed to do just that: to make sure there are very clear guidelines to which BBC employees sign up, and to make sure people undertake impartiality training when they take on roles within the BBC. The Serota review also talks about the importance of making sure those standards apply no matter a person’s seniority, profile or role. There are questions for the BBC to answer on the application of those standards in this case.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

The only disaster this weekend has been for the BBC, given the despicable way in which it handled the Gary Lineker affair and then caved in to this man and his friends who rallied around him. Does the Minister agree that the BBC has shown once again that, because of its inherent bias, it is impossible for it to be impartial? It is now time we no longer forced people to finance the BBC through the licence fee, especially when the BBC takes 1,000 people a week, 70% of them women, to court for refusing to pay this poll tax on propaganda.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of impartiality to the trust in which licence fee payers hold the organisation, and its importance to the future of the licence fee, not least because fewer people are now paying the licence fee—we are concerned the public are losing support for the licence fee. Fundamentally, the way in which people consume television is changing very rapidly, and we need to make sure the BBC has a sustainable future.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I support the right to free speech and the BBC’s public service broadcasting principles. I think we need a public service broadcaster, and I support a licence fee to pay for it, but full impartiality is required for a public service broadcaster to be trusted. Whatever people say about Gary Lineker’s comments, whether they are right or wrong, they cannot argue that his comments are not political, as yesterday’s debate showed. Does my hon. Friend agree the BBC needs to ensure that it has strict rules in place on impartiality, and that it applies those rules evenly? If a person works for the BBC, whether as an employee or as a contractor, they should have to follow the same rules.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of impartiality. The BBC already has a set of rules on that but, in the light of this incident, it is also looking at how social media is governed and making sure that the organisation is adhering to those principles and that the guidance is working as it should.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

Whatever review is undertaken now, Richard Sharp is currently the chair of the BBC. The specifications say that one of his responsibilities is the “delivery of impartiality” at the corporation. Does the Minister have any confidence that, in his current situation, Richard Sharp can properly undertake that role?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. There is a bit too much shouting as soon as the Minister or others say anything. Can we just listen to the answers?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

From my Department’s perspective, the appointment was undertaken to the letter. There have since been events that have come to light that we need to investigate, and those things are being investigated. On Mr Sharp’s ability to do the role, as I have mentioned, it is possible to hold political views and be appointed to that role. That has been the case over many years and across different flavours of Government. The question is whether that person carries out their role in an apolitical and impartial way, and I believe there is currently a BBC review as to whether those duties are being carried out in that way.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Impartiality is public purpose No. 1 of the royal charter, which I helped to negotiate in 2016. Given that guidelines simply do not work, may I suggest the setting up of an independent adjudicating body for impartiality, alongside Ofcom, given that the BBC receives £5 billion a year, largely through the licence taxpayer, and that last year out of the 430,000 complaints made to the BBC only 325 were dealt with and only 14 fully upheld?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for not only his question, but the way in which he has engaged with me over the mid-term review. I know he has a number of ideas as to how the governance and regulations of the BBC need to be changed. I look forward to engaging with him further on the mid-term review. He is right that it is looking at the complaints system, but also at editorial standards and impartiality, and I hope that we can continue to engage on these matters.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Labour, Battersea

The BBC has some brilliant journalists and staff, who work hard to make it the world’s leading public service broadcaster, but the decision to remove Gary Lineker from the air at the weekend just demonstrates its fear of this Government; it bowed to their pressure. However, the real focus should be on the BBC chair, who is a Tory donor, arranged for a loan for the former Prime Minister and is a friend of the current Prime Minister. Surely he has eroded trust and confidence in the BBC. Could the Minister say whether she agrees and whether his position is tenable?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I believe I have already answered that question, but I reiterate that no pressure was applied on the BBC by Ministers and that having political links to a party does not preclude someone from taking on a role within the BBC—it is about how they dispense their obligations within that role.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

What role do the Government have in ensuring that the BBC delivers for the audiences it serves? Will the Minister join me please in pressing the BBC to look again at its shocking decision to close the 99-year-old choir, the BBC Singers?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

On some of the musical operations the BBC currently funds, I know that this matter is causing a lot of alarm and concern. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, it is not for me to set out to the BBC how it should spend licence fee payers’ money, but it does have certain duties upon it to deliver cultural good. The matter of the BBC Singers is still open to staff consultation and I encourage staff who are concerned about these changes to fully engage with that consultation.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I trust, or I hope, that I am seen to be fair-minded in this place. First, the Minister has said that she will not instruct Richard Sharp to go, but does she accept that his continuation, his lingering on, as chair does nothing for the reputation of the BBC, and that he should reflect on his position and consider accordingly? Secondly, although she claims that the process of his appointment was transparent, many of us in this place, including many Conservative Members, feel that it was very far from that indeed and should be looked into.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The process, from a DCMS perspective, was fully transparent. We followed the process to the letter and that process was subsequently approved in a hearing by the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Things have subsequently come to light that are under investigation, and I am afraid that I cannot comment on that investigation.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

I understand that an independent expert has been appointed by the BBC to review social media guidance, particularly in relation to freelancers. Does the Minister agree that it is important that those who are paid vast sums by the taxpayer and are widely perceived to be BBC presenters do not avoid paying taxes and disregard impartiality guidelines by hiding behind freelancer status? Does she also agree that until that review is completed, somebody such as Gary Lineker must continue to follow the existing guidelines, which means refraining from politics? Monitoring of his social media account over the past 24 hours, as he retweets The New European and Alastair Campbell, would make interesting reading.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

It is incredibly important that the BBC is left to conduct its social media review in a way that allows it to bring clarity, particularly on this question of freelancers versus people who are paid employees. As the highest paid employee, Mr Lineker will, understandably, be held to account for his views by the licence fee payer, and that is difficult to ignore as an issue relevant to whether the BBC is impartial.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

The BBC prepared a statement to be read out on “Question Time” last week in the event that the assault by Stanley Johnson on his wife was raised by one of the panellists. That statement said that Stanley Johnson had not commented but that a friend had said that the incident did take place

“but it was a one-off”.

The BBC had time to consider that statement; it was a pre-prepared statement put in front of the chair of the panel. What on earth was in their heads when they agreed that? Who benefited most from it—was it the Conservative party or those women who have suffered domestic violence?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

Without knowing the full details of the statement—[Interruption.] I am afraid that I do not know the statement to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The only commentary I have seen on this matter was on whether Fiona Bruce had behaved professionally, which, from my reading of the situation, she had.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

On duties of impartiality, it is important that BBC presenters, who have such a wide audience, make statements that are correct. Whatever people’s views on Gary Lineker, he did, in a tweet last December, in effect praise a Hamas terrorist who had been involved in the murder of two Jewish pilgrims to a tomb. He did not apologise when that was pointed out and he still has not done so. The key point here is: they can say what they like, as long as they get it right, and if they are wrong, they should apologise.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I was not aware of that case, but some of these questions will, we hope, be resolved by the social media review that the BBC is undertaking. We hope they will give clarity about the rules to which its presenters must adhere.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

The BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, donated £400,000 to the Conservatives and helped the former Prime Minister on an £800,000 loan. The BBC director-general, Tim Davie, is a former Conservative candidate, and the BBC board includes Robbie Gibb, a former aide to a Conservative Prime Minister. The BBC has allowed presenters such as Jeremy Clarkson to say that he wanted to shoot striking workers, Andrew Neil to be chairman of the Conservative magazine The Spectator and Alan Sugar to encourage people to vote for the Conservatives, but it has not allowed Gary Lineker to criticise inhumane Conservative policy. Is it not time for not only the resignations of the BBC chairman and director-general, but BBC reform, with the Government no longer appointing its leadership?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I simply repeat that, as the hon. Lady will be aware, previous Governments have appointed to senior positions in the BBC people who have declared political activity. That does not preclude a person taking a position; it is not prohibited under the rules. Once appointed, all board members are required to adhere to the code of conduct, and as far as I am aware, Mr Sharp has done so.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

When working as a BBC journalist in the south-west, I was acutely aware of the rules on the use of social media and I saw swift action being taken by BBC management when others forgot their duty of impartiality. These rules are critically important for a broadcaster that relies on the licence fee, and they must be crystal clear for everyone. Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC must now be given space to conduct its review of social media guidelines?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I agree that the BBC should be given space to carry out the review and to set out clear guidelines. The Serota review made it crystal clear that seniority, profile or role do not exempt anyone from having the rules applied to them, and I think that is something that needs to be teased out in this review.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee

The behaviour of the Tories in the past week has been shameful and reprehensible. In fact, they remind me of the black-headed gulls harassing that puffin in David Attenborough’s “Wild Isles”, but it is just not working. Fifty per cent. of Britons have a positive view of Gary Lineker compared with 30% who do not, whereas only 25% of UK voters would vote for the Conservative party if there was an election tomorrow. I know the Minister will never become the host of “Match of the Day”—nor will any of her Back-Bench colleagues—but who does she think would win if Gary Lineker went head to head with her in an election tomorrow?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I am not entirely sure what his point was. I have no response beyond saying that there was no attempt to interfere politically with the way in which Gary Lineker’s case was handled.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

I worked for the BBC for seven years, both as a member of staff and as a freelancer. Impartiality was absolutely core to me professionally and personally. Nobody knew how I voted or what I thought politically. I accept that that was before the era of social media, but what that means is that impartiality is even more needed now because fake news is rife in our society. People do not just get their opinions from what they see on the news; they form their judgments and knowledge based on a wide variety of people and personalities. That means that this is a very significant issue. Having said all that, does my hon. Friend agree that ensuring and guaranteeing impartiality must be the responsibility of the broadcasters themselves, and that it is incumbent on BBC senior management now to resolve this case as quickly as they can and to make sure that BBC guidelines are fit for purpose and for the era in which we all live?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for his commentary, especially given his experience as a former BBC employee. His contributions in this regard are always valuable. He is absolutely right: impartiality is core to the purpose of the BBC and fundamental to the trust in which it is held; it underpins the social compact on which the licence fee rests. I am sure that that is fundamentally respected by the vast majority of BBC staff, many of whom will be asking why the rules that apply to them are not always applied consistently to everyone in the organisation.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

British broadcasting is the best in the world. Considering we are a relatively small country, we do phenomenally well in managing to sell our product to the rest of the world. Broadcasting is a mixed economy, and to me, having the BBC funded by licence fee payers, providing something for everybody because it is paid for by everybody, is absolutely essential to ensuring that we maintain that pre-eminence in the world.

Yes, trust is at the heart of it. I too used to work for the BBC. I worked quite closely with a former Conservative chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland. A very fine man, he would never have allowed this moment to arrive, because he would have known that if he had expressed any political opinions personally, it would have undermined the position of the BBC; and if he had failed to reveal something about his relationship to the Government when he was appointed by a Conservative Government, that would have undermined the BBC. I am absolutely sure that if Sir Christopher Bland had been in the situation that Richard Sharp is in today, he would have resigned by now, because he knew that the BBC was more important than him.

My real worry is that I understand that the Prime Minister has now said that he wants the review into Richard Sharp’s appointment, which the Minister has referred to several times today, to be kicked into the long grass. That is my understanding. Can the Minister tell us when the review will come to a conclusion? At the moment, Richard Sharp remaining at the BBC is bringing the whole of the BBC into disrepute.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing his experience as a former BBC employee. He is absolutely right that in a world of fake news, trust is the BBC’s currency, and one that we should protect. As I mentioned, the FCDO has given additional funding for some of the BBC’s important operations around the world. He is also right to say that people should leave their political opinions at the door when they seek to engage. As far as I am aware, Mr Sharp has not sought to be a politically active person on the board, but as I said, having political opinions and involvement do not preclude an individual being appointed to the board. The hon. Gentleman talks about the Prime Minister trying to delay the process. That is not true. The process is not in the gift of the Prime Minister. We await the timetable as the hon. Gentleman does.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

The self-inflicted chaos of the last few days and the BBC’s apparent unwillingness to enforce its own impartiality rules have made it a laughing stock. It is clear that it is now overpaid sports presenters, rather than executives, who are truly calling the shots. Many of my constituents have long regarded the BBC licence fee as a regressive, decades-old and out-of-date tax. Is it not time that we had a grown-up conversation about its future?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My hon. Friend raises questions about the future of the licence fee. We will examine these questions in advance of the next charter, in 2027. As I mentioned, it is not just a question whether the licence fee still has support; it is a question whether it is sustainable, as the way we watch media changes fundamentally. We need to make sure the BBC can keep up and maintain the consent of those who watch its services.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General

For several months, many Putney journalist residents have been contacting me about the erosion of the BBC’s impartiality by of the merger of BBC World News and BBC News, which is being soft-launched this month. It will be mainly a world news channel, cutting UK news and Government scrutiny by over 80 hours a week. Is this a commercial decision or a political one? Will the Minister say whether there has been indirect or direct pressure on the BBC to reduce its BBC UK news coverage?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The notion that the Government have instructed the BBC to reduce its news content is pretty wide of the mark. How the BBC organises its services is a matter for the BBC. What we care about is that services are delivered impartially and to a very high quality. As I say, it is not for us to determine.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

I have to say, I did not see the revolution starting with Gary Lineker and “Match of the Day”, but I am absolutely here for it. Major respect to Gary Lineker and those at the BBC who have stood up to what most of us, including the dogs on the street, can see is a grossly inhuman policy that shames us all. Does the Minister agree that it is rank hypocrisy to have a go at Gary Lineker when we have BBC broadcasters like Tam Cowan, who put out a reel of women injuring themselves on International Women’s Day, going unchecked? There is clearly no level playing field.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

The BBC is losing connection with the licence fee payer because the Government chose to compromise its independence with the appointment of Richard Sharp, but on the Minister’s watch they have also slashed the BBC World Service and halved BBC local radio, forcing staff out on strike tomorrow. In addition, over the weekend we saw a surreal situation and chaos over sport being taken off air just because someone dared to speak truth to power. What steps will she take to ensure that the public’s priorities are restored at the BBC and that freedom of speech is never dumbed down?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I have to challenge the hon. Lady: we have not slashed services at the BBC. The BBC has a guaranteed income over the next few years of £3.8 billion a year. She seems to be suggesting that we should have had a different financial settlement for the BBC at a time of tremendous financial pressure on households. We were not willing to do that.