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Future of the BBC — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:28 pm on 14th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 7:28 pm, 14th July 2015

My Lords, the number of noble Lords speaking in this very short one-hour debate on the BBC shows the interest and concern that there is around the House on this issue. Contributions in the debate are obviously very limited in terms of time, but it is to the credit of a former chairman of the BBC, a former chairman of the BBC Trust, a former director-general of the BBC and a range of other experts that they have thought it worth while to speak in it. The hope must be that the Government will take note of the great concern that I think there is in this area and, I might add, organise a much fuller debate than the one we have at the moment.

Even in these black days of policy on the BBC, there are moments of humour. After the Minister’s Statement last week on the transfer to the BBC of the cost of free television licences for the over-75s, I was puzzled why it was impossible to find the usual copy of the Statement from the Printed Paper Office. A little later, I found out what the reason was. The copies had been withdrawn after it had been discovered that the Minister’s briefing had been mistakenly published with the Statement. So, unfortunately, we have been sadly deprived of the lines to take and the “if pressed” answers to questions, but I gather that it did not include the famous advice given to one Minister, “This is not a very strong case, but probably good enough for Parliament”.

I remember back in 1986, when Margaret Thatcher personally cancelled a ministerial broadcast that I was about to make on AIDS. We had no reply whatever to the charge that the Prime Minister had vetoed the whole plan; that was exactly what she had done. Later, I saw the less than useful instruction given to our press office—if challenged, it was to say, “Don’t get drawn”. For current Ministers, there are a number of “don’t get drawn” issues on the over-75s Statement. Ministers would be well advised not to get drawn on the conflict between what the Secretary of State said in his previous incarnation as chairman of a Select Committee that the charter process should be open and transparent and that licence fee payers should be consulted about the part that was carried out, in this case, in complete secrecy and behind closed doors. Ministers would be well advised not to get drawn on why the process was carried out without full consultation with the BBC Trust, which we are told is there to represent the licence fee payer. And Ministers would certainly be well advised not to get drawn on why a cut in the social security budget can be passed on to the BBC. As a former Social Services Secretary, I simply wonder at the ingenuity of it all.

It is easy enough to lampoon what has been taking place over the last few weeks, but in fact it is a deadly serious issue. Various colleagues have complimented me on the timing of this debate, but the truth is that I put down the subject some weeks ago, not because of the over-75s or the imminence of the so-called Green Paper but because of stories that had appeared in every newspaper in the land that the Government had declared war on the BBC. As the Daily Telegraph reported on 12 May:

“Tories go to war with the BBC … David Cameron, infuriated by the corporation’s election coverage, appoints BBC critic to ‘sort out the BBC’ ahead of the royal charter review next year”.

My noble friend is a very bright Minister who I know will not try to palm us off with claims that this was just newspaper talk. It was clearly briefing from the top, from No. 10, and it is that which makes it all the more concerning. Frankly, briefings and leaks have been the characteristic so far of what is billed as an open and transparent process. If you want to know what is going on in the discussion on the future of the BBC, do not ask the BBC Trust, read the Sunday Times, which on Sunday had the friendly headline “Taming the BBC Beast”, with a picture of King Kong being attacked over Broadcasting House by aircraft.

I should make my position clear. In my experience, the BBC is under unprecedented attack, but of course I believe that there are changes that can be made. No organisation in the world is beyond that. The BBC Trust itself must come under question and, frankly, had the Government listened to the Lords Select Committee report last time round it would not have been created. The future of BBC Worldwide is also an entirely legitimate area for debate. But changes must take place with the aim of improving the corporation, not undermining it, and I am afraid to say that at the moment that does not appear remotely to be the case.

I am not going to set out what I see as the merits of the whole vast expanse of the BBC—the drama and music, the television but also Radio 3 and Radio 4. As an ex-journalist, what I find most objectionable is the charge that the BBC is in some way biased. It is not exactly a new charge. Having fought elections with Margaret Thatcher and John Major, I have heard it before. I recall Margaret Thatcher’s comment that, if ever she was tempted to say something nice about the BBC, Denis persuaded her not to. But what never seems to be understood is that the role of journalists and politicians is fundamentally different. One is to report and expose the truth, the other is to persuade and win support. Of course, I recognise that in the heat of an election campaign feelings run high. But the real complaint is not that the BBC is impartial; the real complaint is that the BBC is not following to the letter the very partial guidance given to it by the army of advisers that now inhabits Whitehall.

In my journalistic days, I was taught to be accurate and to be fair. My editor at the Times was William Haley, a former BBC director-general. This has been the hallmark of BBC reporting over the years, whether it is about the complications of Middle East or the rival passions of party politics. If you go abroad, the reputation of the BBC is entirely built on its objective reporting. That is why it is trusted so widely around the world and why so many overseas broadcasters see it as the best in the world. That is why the BBC World Service is so respected; it is trusted to report objectively on what is taking place—it is not the opinionated editorialising of Fox News and, frankly, thank God for that.

However, I fear that I must warn those who support the BBC that we have something of a fight on our hands. The cards are marked and somewhat stacked against us. The advisory group advising the Secretary of State clanks with special interests and past opinions. Even more, the charter process leaves decisions in the hands of the Government, who make much of their Green Paper—but the fact is that, at the end of the day the royal charter process means that they do not have to listen to anyone. They can draw up a new charter and agreement as they please; it does not go to Parliament or come under parliamentary scrutiny. Decisions rest with the Government, and anyone who doubts that should look back to the last time. The BBC Trust was set up against the advice of a whole range of organisations, including my committee.

Fundamentally, what causes me such concern about what is taking place at present is that the BBC is a British corporation rated by most people as a world leader. It is not an organisation badged as British but with control elsewhere. We do not have that number of British-owned world beaters to be careless about our position. I would have thought that, if we had any sense at all, we would want to support the BBC, to improve it certainly but, equally, not to undermine it. I hope that the Government will now do all they can to regain the trust that I fear they have lost in the past few weeks.