Second Reading

Part of Digital Economy Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:05 pm on 2 December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport 5:05, 2 December 2009

My Lords, at the last minute, I was not able to take part in the debate on the gracious Speech, so I start by saying how sorry I am that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, our DCMS "Goat", has gone to pastures new. Not long ago, I welcomed him to the government Front Bench as a distant cousin as well as a colleague. He will be missed. I am pleased that an even bigger beast is to take his Bill through this House.

I will briefly concentrate on those areas pertaining to public service content in Digital Britain. I am glad that the majority of the Bill, and by far the most complex parts of it, will be dealt with on these Benches by the "noble Tims" who sit in front of me. I declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company.

We on these Benches welcome the Government's commitment to Channel 4. Their recognition of the need to update Channel 4's remit will help to secure its role as the main public service competitor to the BBC. Here I echo the Minister. Competition is an essential element to ensuring a healthy future for the BBC and public service broadcasting.

Currently, Channel 4's remit relates only to linear TV and ignores the growth of digital media. We welcome the Bill extending this remit to new formats and platforms, where the channel is already pioneering public service broadcasting. I recommend its "1066" online game, designed to accompany a history programme of the same name broadcast on its terrestrial channel. This was targeted at 10 to 15 year-olds. We also welcome the new specific obligation placed on Channel 4 to produce content for older children and young adults. The channel already has a strong connection with younger audiences, so this is a sensible fit. I join the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in welcoming a commitment to the making and showing of British films being enshrined in the Bill as part of the channel's role.

I have two caveats about the Channel 4 elements. It is important that these new arrangements do not lead to any diminution of PSB on Channel 4's main, terrestrial channel. An essential component of public service broadcasting is that it engages as wide a spectrum of the population as possible so that different kinds of people with different interests and insights can share with society as a whole. Public service content must not be relegated to digital channels with small, niche audiences. This must not be used as an excuse to not commission public service broadcast programmes for the main channel. In the light of this, should Ofcom not be given new powers to ensure that Channel 4 adheres to its existing PSB obligations on its main, linear channel? While we wholeheartedly welcome what is in the Bill, we worry about what is not. It fails to address the longer term problems of plurality in public service broadcasting.

As many noble Lords have said, the multi-channel landscape of the digital future poses particular challenges to the purely commercial public service broadcasters. We accept the need addressed by the Bill to reduce the regulatory burden on ITV. This new landscape has transformed the economics of commercial PSB and put the provision of regional and local news under particular threat. We agree with the noble Lords, Lord Birt and Lord Fowler, and with the Minister that the BBC must not become a monopoly supplier.

The Bill proposes that the underspend from the licence fee money ring-fenced to help pay for digital switchover's targeted assistance programme will be used to pay for the independently financed news consortia pilots that start next April. How do the Government know how much that underspend is when digital switchover is not completed until 2012? We still have London to go.

Although we were against the BBC money being used to fund a social cost, we support the surplus being used to help to fund commercial public service broadcasting, but there it ends. We are absolutely against top-slicing. Once this money is used, that is it. We believe that top-slicing threatens the independence of the BBC and that condoning raids on the licence fee sets a dangerous precedent, leaving the BBC vulnerable to further funding cuts at the whim of the Government of the day.

For the pilots to work, there must be variety and innovation and they must concentrate on the local as well as the regional. As I understand it, the DCMS-not Ofcom-is running the pilots, so will the functions set out in Clause 28, allowing Ofcom to set criteria and conditions for the provision of this type of new service, apply to the pilots? Surely, for the pilots to be of any benefit, that must be the case. I am pleased to see in the Explanatory Notes that Ofcom may set conditions which encourage the provider to support or promote wider benefits to society in connection with the provision of news. That might include commitments to media skills and training. Is that something which the DCMS intends to encourage? Like the proposals for Channel 4, the Bill is silent about what comes next. How will the news consortia be funded in the future? As it stands, it seems that the pilots exist in a strange limbo not unlike contestants on a TV reality show.

I have a couple of questions about the interface with ITV. What quality control will ITV have over the programmes which emerge from the news consortia? After all, they will appear as part of the ITV schedule, and their success or failure will impact on the channel. Given that work previously undertaken by ITV's regional production teams will be taken over by the news consortia, will-I have to use a terrible acronym-TUPE, the transfer of undertakings protection of employment regulations, apply to the affected staff?

I end by picking up on what my noble friend Lord Razzall said about the fact that there is no mention of the BBC in the Bill. Long ago, we on these Benches called for a truly independent regulator of the BBC and argued, at the time that the BBC Trust was established, that that arrangement would only perpetuate the muddle between regulation and governance. Considering that those are the very sentiments expressed very publicly, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and my noble friend Lord Razzall have pointed out, by the most recent Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, does the Minister agree that not addressing the matter of BBC governance in the Bill is a lost opportunity?