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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 25th November 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, as has been said, the gracious Speech contains no proposals for legislation directly relating to broadcasting. Nevertheless, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, in his excellent maiden speech, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, in his equally excellent speech, have demonstrated, there are major challenges for Her Majesty's Government over the next 12 months.

In highlighting my concerns, I should declare an interest as an independent television producer. Broadcasting is changing, and changing rapidly. The advance of the digital age means that there will soon be a multi-channel landscape very different from the one we inhabit today. This will pose particular challenges to the role of public service broadcasting of which this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said, has a unique system that is the envy of the world.

So I welcome the setting up of Ofcom and its excellent report, both phases 1 and 2, on the present and future state of public service broadcasting. Its rigorous and detailed contribution to this very important debate is, I believe, invaluable. Its warnings about the effects of the digital TV age on this area of broadcasting should be heeded. Its strong endorsement of the BBC and its assertion that the BBC should continue to be funded by the licence fee should be applauded, as well as its affirmation of the need for a not-for-profit Channel 4.

Some of Ofcom's conclusions awaken in me cause for concern, however. Like the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, I am concerned about regional programming. ITV is to be allowed to reduce its off-peak regional output. This, it is argued, is eminently sensible because nobody watches those programmes. I am reminded of the tactics employed by British Rail when it wished to close down local railway stations. The timetable would become more and more impractical; passengers, used to catching trains to get to work, to go shopping and to pick up their children, would find that they no longer existed. And what a surprise—they would stop patronising the station, leading to its closure as unused and uneconomic. In the same way, ITV regional programmes have been shunted to graveyard slots, as well as being severely underfunded.

That brings me to another concern—that of content. There is much talk about quantity, but not enough about quality. When there were only three or four channels, there was fierce competition to make striking programmes that achieved critical acclaim and wide audiences. With the explosion in the number of channels, the pressure on broadcasters is increasingly to make money and minimise investment in unprofitable areas such as news and current affairs. It is essential that an eye is kept on quality of content.

As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, said, Ofcom has a big idea: the setting-up of a public service publisher, a channel devoted to public service broadcasting, created to maintain plurality. That is intriguing—indeed, thought-provoking, as the speech given by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, proves. But again, I have concerns. Where will the £300 million a year come from, which Ofcom suggests the channel will need? One suggestion—a tax on commercial broadcasters—seems odd, as the multiplication of channels squeezes revenues. Another, an enhanced licence fee, risks damaging the unique relationship between the BBC and the public. And where does it leave Channel 4? I am alarmed at the plight of Channel 4, whose nightly news is public service broadcasting at its very best. Would not the existence of a second publicly funded competitor undermine Channel 4 as the public service alternative to the BBC, pushing Channel 4 even further away from its original remit?

Finally, what of the BBC itself? As we have heard, the process of charter renewal will be a big factor in the forthcoming year—this against the background of unprecedented internal upheaval. As my colleague in another place, Don Foster, put it, the war led to regime change not only in Iraq but in the BBC. It also exposed a crucial problem in the area of governance. It cannot be right that BBC governors are both champions and regulators of the corporation. In a changing world, the BBC must change, too—and I believe that it recognises that.

In a recently published favourable independent review of its digital radio services, the BBC is described by the distinguished former TV executive, Tim Gardam, thus:

"I see the BBC like a well meaning herd of elephants, stomping through the jungle, trumpeting its achievements, each executive holding onto the tail of the one in front. They are undoubtedly a force for good, but unfortunately can be oblivious to what might get crushed under their enormous feet".

I wish I had written that. The image is taken from Walt Disney's "The Jungle Book".

The task is to ensure that that force for good is ready to meet the challenges of the future, that it learns where to place its enormous feet and to pick its way through the jungle—as I believe that elephants can—rather than stomp. As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said, a well run, independent and securely funded BBC has to be the cornerstone of high-quality public broadcasting in the digital age.