Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 8th February 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Viscount Colville of Culross Viscount Colville of Culross Crossbench 4:45 pm, 8th February 2017

I declare my interests in broadcasting as set out in the register. I support this group of amendments. I think it is about time that we seriously considered statutory underpinning to protect the independence of the BBC so that it can operate free from the influence of Ministers and other public authorities in the UK.

The last two charter negotiations have both ended up being a smash and grab by the Government on the BBC’s funding and independence. In my view, the negotiations for the 2017 charter have been the most egregious attack by Ministers in the history of the corporation. The new charter has been portrayed as a great victory that has not only saved the licence fee but also extracted an annual inflation-linked increase in the fee. However, the director-general and the strategy team at the BBC spent a great deal of the last three years constantly anticipating and fending off attacks by Ministers—surely a serious distraction at a time when public service broadcasting has been under unprecedented attack by satellite and internet rivals.

I particularly welcome the new clause that would be inserted by Amendment 218, which states that the BBC should be independent in all matters concerning,

“the content of its output, the times and manner in which its output is supplied”.

There is a groundswell of opinion among many politicians that the BBC needs to concentrate on content that cannot be provided by the market. Noble Lords have only to look at PBS in America to see that, although its programmes are very worthy and wholesome, they are watched by a tiny minority of the audience and are not really relevant to national discussion.

What was most extraordinary about the most recent negotiations for the charter was the level of interference attempted by the Government in BBC content provision. Your Lordships should know that the rumours in the press that the Government wanted to interfere not only in the content but even in the scheduling of BBC programmes were true. They wanted to force the BBC to move the “Ten O’Clock News” to another time. Surely that really is none of their business—even if many noble Lords who like to go to bed early might have appreciated the move.

I also welcome proposed subsections (3) and (4), safeguarding the BBC so that it can “exercise its functions” by providing,

“sufficient funds, through the licence fee and otherwise”.

“Otherwise” is an important word for me. As part of the charter negotiations the Government quite rightly demanded that the BBC find sources outside the licence fee to raise revenues. BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s sales arm, has been doing just that—and very well indeed. It promises to return over £1 billion to BBC content provision over the next five years.

As a former BBC programme maker myself, I know that the uplift from worldwide funding for a programme budget can transform its content. The extra money allows an increase in the number of days’ filming, the locations to be used and the ability to work with a craft film crew—all of which means that viewers can see the money on screen and have a better viewing experience. Yet in the last negotiations the Government very nearly managed to privatise BBC Worldwide. I believe that these proposed subsections would stop such a threat in future.

Many attempts to reduce the independence of the BBC were eventually successfully fought off this time round. But the existing charter mechanism allows similar interference by the Government in the BBC in the future. The risk of placing the future of the BBC on a statutory footing is that there are plenty of politicians from all parties who would like to do the corporation harm, or even to interfere directly in how and where the BBC spends its money. Amendments could be made by Peers and MPs which would atomise the BBC so that its content served their own interests or constituency, which would damage one of the great unifying institutions in our country.

However, if noble Lords look at Channel 4 and its statutory underpinning, they will see that it has made public ownership of that organisation more secure. Last year’s threat to privatise Channel 4 was only too real, but in the end it would have needed a very controversial Act of Parliament to carry out that threat. And what did we see? No such Bill was presented to Parliament, and Channel 4 remains in public hands. I am convinced that this group of amendments would give the BBC powerful protection from future government attacks on its independence. I urge the Minister to give them serious thought.