Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

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

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Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Labour 4:45 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I should declare that my wife works at Ofcom, so I have an interest of some relation to the BBC. These amendments are crucial to an issue we all care about: the independence of the BBC and ensuring it is not compromised. The Government may protest that they have no intention of compromising the BBC’s independence—I am sure they do not—but I know from the debate and from many conversations over the past few months that I was not alone in being alarmed by the initial proposal floated last year that the Government would appoint a majority of members of the new BBC unitary board, replacing the BBC Trust. I am pleased to say that the Government seem to have moved away from that proposal in response to concerns expressed in this House and elsewhere.

But concerns remain. For one thing, we discovered last week just how close the Government intend still to remain to Rupert Murdoch’s companies, whose hostility to the BBC is well known. Senior executives from Murdoch-owned companies met the Prime Minister or Chancellor 10 times last year—more than any other media organisation. In the past 18 months, News Corp executives had 20 meetings with senior government representatives, 18 of which were with the Prime Minister, Chancellor or Culture Secretary, seven involving Rupert Murdoch himself, whose views on the BBC are very clear. Quite what was discussed in these meetings we do not know, but I would be astonished if complaints about the BBC were not raised repeatedly.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, eloquently set out, threats to the BBC’s independence come in much more subtle forms. The combination of financial constraint plus extra responsibilities has been a long-standing part of the Government’s relationship with the BBC. I worked for Gordon Brown as Prime Minister; we did a bit of that as well. But, as the noble Lord mentioned, in this new charter the Government have raised their sights and shifted more than £500 million-worth of responsibility for licence fees for the over-75s without allocating a single penny to support it. This process of shifting responsibility for government policy on to the BBC while tightening the purse strings even further, and, presumably, reserving the right to complain when the BBC revisits the viability of these commitments, is a serious threat to the autonomy of the BBC. We should be on our guard against it.

When it comes to the new unitary board, I agree with the spirit and content of the amendments. It is important that we have a transparent process to ensure a genuinely independent board. The Government’s current proposal on composition risks lining up a slate of government appointees against a slate of BBC appointees, aiming for some kind of internal balance rather than ensuring real independence for the board as a whole. It is also vital, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, set out, that we have clarity on the terms of appointment to the new board.

We need only look at other countries in the European Union to see the dangers that can quickly arise when the independence of public broadcasters is compromised. For example, last year the Polish Government assumed the right to appoint the heads of state broadcasting authorities and removed the guarantees for independence of public service TV and radio, in breach of Council of Europe norms and the Polish constitution. We are a long way from being Poland in this respect, thank goodness, but the combination of governance change, political pressure from rival organisations, financial pressure and the temptation to offload policy commitments on to the shoulders of the BBC provide a real threat to autonomy and independence. It is right to err on the side of vigilance and caution in the spirit of this group of amendments.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. We on these Benches will then take a view about how to work with others across the House on the issues raised, including this debate, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, just said, will become more and more live, about whether it is time to put the BBC’s independence on a statutory basis.