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My Lords, I begin by explaining to the House that I am chairman of CN Group, a local media company. Two Sundays ago, over my breakfast, I was told by the Sunday Times of recent developments that had been agreed between the Government and the BBC, which came as a surprise. The following Sunday, there was a further surprise, with another report of further developments between the Government and the BBC, some of which appeared to be at variance with what I understood were the facts behind the previous week’s story.
As my noble friend Lord Fowler has said, the relationship between the media and politics has always been tense, as can be seen most recently from the hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry. The sensitivity of that relationship is why the BBC has been set up under the charter and agreement, which appears to be the preferred option for the Government once the existing charter and agreement expire in 2016. This is why there is a very important need to keep politicians and the Government and the licence fee-funded public service broadcaster at arm’s length from each other. Yet, in this case, it seems that the negotiations between them are being orchestrated through discussions that are taking place behind the arras in the so-called smoke-filled rooms. That is not what was originally envisaged.
When I was Minister responsible for broadcasting some 20 years ago I was subject to pressure for much greater parliamentary involvement around the process of charter renewal. Since then, concern about that has grown and is still growing—and rightly so. For this quasi-clandestine ritual to take place does no favours to either the Government or the BBC and does little to encourage confidence in the wider public, viewers or licence fee payers, albeit a number of aspects of what are being suggested seem quite sensible.
My suggestion to the Minister, to echo the noble Lord, Lord Birt, is that the Government should put on the statute book a BBC charter renewal (procedure) Act 2015, which would set out a road map for this process and for future occasions. Thus, things would become clear. I dare say that the Minister will respond that it is an interesting idea, with all the damning overtones that that entails. Rather, in addition, I suggest that she should write to me, and put a copy in the Library, to give full reasons for the Government’s response to the idea.