My Lords, I am pleased to introduce this debate on the Communications and Digital Committee’s report, Public Service Broadcasting: as Vital as Ever. I declare some interests. I was a guest of S4C at a Wales v Ireland rugby match in March 2019 and of ITV at the National Television Awards in January 2019. I was invited to participate in the Royal Television Society Cambridge conference in September 2019 in my capacity as committee chair. The conference was hosted by ITV, which provided hospitality and accommodation.
I am grateful to the committee staff for their assistance in preparing the report. Our clerk was Theodore Pembroke and our policy analyst Theo Demolder. They and the committee were provided with great support by Rita Cohen. I also thank Professor Steven Barnett, who provided expert advice throughout the inquiry, and the many witnesses who gave us evidence.
I am looking forward today to hearing from noble Lords who were members of the committee at the time of the report, and others who have joined the committee since. As always, they have bought extensive experience and expertise to the work of the committee and the deliberations of this House.
We issued our call for evidence a little over two years ago, in March 2019, and reported 18 months ago in November of that year. Since then, much has changed. Covid has hit us all and led to huge disruption for PSBs, accelerating some changes already under way in the industry while bringing new challenges to the thriving production sector and the wider creative economy and, in particular, its large freelance workforce.
The Government have announced what looks like a blanket and untargeted pre-watershed ban on HFSS advertising that will impact the business models of commercial PSBs while leaving online platforms untouched.
Ofcom has published its five-year review of PSBs. Like us, it found:
“Public service content still matters hugely to people and society” and that PSBs
“underpin the UK’s creative economy.”
However, it argued that
“radical changes to support PSBs shift … to online” are needed.
The report from Lord Dyson shocked many of us who want a strong, independent and trustworthy BBC. The Government, in their so-far measured response, have indicated further changes in the way the BBC is governed, which I hope the Minister will be able to say more about today.
In introducing this report, I cannot help feeling that the hard work of Select Committees, the engagement and commitment of our witnesses and the time put into responding by Ministers and officials deserve more timely debate in this House while reports remain topical. This inquiry focused on the role of PSBs—both the BBC and commercial PSBs—the financial pressures they face, the nature and future of the PSB model and the impact of the changing production landscape in the age of video on demand.
We looked in great detail at drama and factual content, which account for around 70% of Netflix and Amazon programming, with eye-watering budgets of up to £15 million per hour. News and current affairs, barely covered by the SVODs, was not a focus of our inquiry but was considered in more depth in our subsequent report on the future of UK journalism, where we called for much greater diversity in newsrooms and highlighted the danger of groupthink and narrowness of thought.
Trust, though, is everything, and that trust has been badly hit by what Lord Dyson found at the BBC. Drawing on our inquiry, it seems to me that it is vital that we restore that trust because, as we concluded, the evidence we heard indicated that public service broadcasting is as important as ever. The Government agreed and, in their response, said that PSBs provide
“significant cultural, economic and democratic value to the UK” and that the broadcasters
“will need to adapt to the changing media landscape to sustain their value”.
As we all know, the way in which we watch television is changing—20 years ago, most people relied on five free-to-air channels provided by the PSBs. These broadcasters now face competition from hundreds of other channels and online services. Subscription video on demand services—or SVODs—such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have enjoyed rapid success. They have made available thousands of hours of content and offer each viewer a personalised experience. More than half of UK households now subscribe to an SVOD, while YouTube is also a major competitor. SVODs operate globally and have enormous resources, leading to concerns that PSBs are being priced out of the market for making high-quality television, limiting their ability to create drama and documentaries that reflect, examine and promote the culture of the UK.
We sought to understand the contemporary role of PSBs and whether the compact—the obligations they take on in exchange for privileges—is fit for the age of video on demand. I would like to outline the importance of the committee’s recommendations for the thriving of public service broadcasting. Our evidence, like Ofcom’s, overwhelmingly indicated that public service broadcasting is as important as ever to our democracy and culture, as well as to the UK’s image on the world stage. PSBs contribute to the economic health of the UK and support the wider creative industries.
A wide range of witnesses told us how PSBs inform our understanding of the world, reflect the UK’s cultural identity and represent a range of people and viewpoints. Although other channels and services offer high-quality UK programmes, the availability and affordability of PSBs through digital terrestrial television remain unmatched. Their availability allows them to provide “event television”: moments that bring the nation together, such as major sports events, documentary series and landmark drama such as the virtual water-cooler drama “Line of Duty”, commissioned by the BBC from an ITV-owned production company, and Channel 4’s powerful and important “It’s a Sin”, which told a story that needed to be heard and which was public service broadcasting to a T. To strengthen the availability of event TV, we recommended that the Government should review the listed events regime to extend the availability of significant sports events on free-to-air television.
I should add that, while the committee was clear that losing universal and affordable public service broadcasting would make our society and democracy worse off, we recognised the contribution of great content from non-PSBs that met many of the broader public service objectives—content of great quality that was original and made for Britain—and recommended that Ofcom should consider the contribution of content from non-PSBs when reviewing the PSB landscape. But we found that PSBs are struggling to achieve their mission to serve all audiences in the face of increased competition and changing viewing habits. They are not serving younger people and people from minority backgrounds well enough. Their legitimacy depends on serving these groups better.
To do this, PSBs must be willing to take creative risks and do more to involve people from different backgrounds in developing and making programmes. We recommend that Ofcom should be empowered to gather data on the diversity of commissioners and production crews making programmes for PSBs. We heard concern about representation of the nations and regions of the UK. Investment in TV production is too heavily concentrated in London. Many viewers believe that London and the south-east, as well as hub locations such as Glasgow and Cardiff, are overrepresented at the expense of other areas. Although progress has been made and new entrants have made high-budget series outside the capital, the economic benefits of investment have not spread widely enough.
Public service broadcasters are obliged to commission a certain percentage of programmes outside the M25, in the regions and nations of the UK. This is critical to building a skills base in different areas and ensuring that viewers see their localities represented on screen, but Ofcom must ensure that PSBs uphold the spirit of these obligations. The best way to support production in the regions and nations is to invest more in returning—rather than one-off—series and to commission production companies with headquarters outside London.
The UK TV production sector has enjoyed impressive growth in recent years, including in exporting programmes. SVODs and other commissioners such as HBO and AMC have driven significant investment, encouraged by high-end tax relief. However, public service broadcasters remain essential to the UK production sector. They spend considerably more than SVODs and other broadcasters on original UK programming.
The terms of trade—the code of practice drawn up by PSBs setting out principles for agreeing the terms of commissioning independent productions—encourage independent production companies to work with them. We heard from many witnesses that the terms of trade were one of the main reasons they work with PSBs. Their success relies on both PSBs and the production sector being willing to update the terms of trade as the market changes.
PSBs are also vital to the success of SVODs, as part of the UK’s thriving mixed ecology—a mutually reinforcing system of specialist skills, labour, production companies, broadcasters and other assets that are supported by both public and private investment. This ecology is integral to the wider creative industries. It nurtures creative and other skills used in filmmaking, and it is a vehicle for exhibiting British talent to an international audience. PSBs are at the heart of this ecology. We heard from Netflix that co-production
“works extremely well for us as a model and it seems to work extremely well for the rest of the industry as well.”
Between 2014 and 2018, co-commissions between SVODs and broadcasters almost doubled, from 16 to 30.
The health of the independent production sector depends on maintaining the supply of production crews to meet increased demand. There is a serious risk of the sector reaching full capacity and overheating. We recommended that the Government should address skills shortages in the sector through urgent reform of the apprenticeship levy and extending the high-end TV tax relief. Public service broadcasters are especially vulnerable to further cost inflation. The apprenticeship levy simply does not work for much of the creative sector; the committee has illustrated this time and again in a number of reports. The Government’s response is largely one of denial, with commitments to some small-scale pilots. As we shape up for a post-Covid national effort to train young people for the roles of the future, what plans do the Government have to do something really impactful to sort out this failing policy area?
If public service broadcasters are to continue to serve us, and to be able to afford to make world-class programmes, they must remain financially viable. The BBC should not be given further responsibilities without a corresponding rise in income. We expressed concern that the integrity of the licence fee, the guarantor of the BBC’s financial independence, has been undermined. In particular, the Government should not have asked the BBC to accept responsibility for over-75s’ licences, nor should the BBC have agreed to take it on.
A new, independent and transparent process for setting the licence fee is necessary. We recommended establishing a new body, to be called the “BBC Funding Commission”, which should be in place in time for the next round of negotiations. The Government have not chosen this route, but will the Minister commit today to a transparent and open process next time round? When we call for transparency, we have the BBC as well as the Government in mind.
The obligations public service broadcasters take on and the privileges that they receive in return must be balanced. However, we heard that, in a competitive environment, the PSBs’ traditional privileges were becoming less valuable. Most importantly, public service broadcasters have historically received mandated prominence, listed as the first five channels on the electronic programme guide. We supported Ofcom’s proposals to update this principle for the digital age, so that it covers on-demand viewing, but implementing a solution seems to be taking for ever, and I cannot understand why.
Digital terrestrial television will remain essential for the many viewers who cannot afford, or do not have access to, internet or pay TV, and free access to spectrum for PSBs must continue to be guaranteed. Given the pace of change in the market, we recommended that Ofcom should review whether TV platforms should be required to pay commercial PSBs a retransmission fee for carrying their channels.
Much of the regulation affecting broadcasting and TV production dates from a time when PSBs were dominant. They remain the largest producers in the UK, and regulation has enabled smaller players in the ecosystem to thrive. However, the sector is facing major changes because of the rising popularity of US-based SVODs, which are themselves likely to become consolidated.
As we found in our report, Regulating in a Digital World, regulation needs to become faster at reacting to changes in the digital economy. An example of this was the Competition Commission’s decision in 2009 to block the creation of Kangaroo, a joint venture of the PSBs to aggregate content from BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4. In a report at the time, the committee strongly regretted the Government’s failure to intervene on public interest grounds. In 2018, Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, said that the PSBs will need to “collaborate to compete” in the new environment. The opportunity that Kangaroo presented for Britain to be in on the ground floor at the start of video on demand is not the kind of opportunity that comes along often. That it was stopped on the runway is an example of a regulatory approach that harks to the past rather than looking to the future. It illustrates the need for much more flexible, forward-looking and joined-up regulatory thinking than we have.
If the UK is to continue to be a world leader in the creative industries, public service broadcasters must be enabled to thrive in the digital world. They must be held to account for their obligations, afforded full access to the commensurate privileges and supported to ensure that the important work that they do remains financially viable in an ever-more competitive environment.
I started by looking at the changes that have happened in the industry since we reported. Of course, the other big change is that the Government were re-elected with a thumping majority, an agenda to level up Britain, and no hesitation at all about playing a role in helping business to thrive in this fast-changing world. From their response, we know that the Government believe that PSBs play a central role in the ecology of the creative industries but that they need to adapt quickly to survive. I ask the Minister: what role do the Government envisage for the creative industries in their industrial strategy? How do they plan to support the production and content distribution sector? How can skilled work in production and content distribution contribute to levelling up? Will the Minister tell us what the Government will do to help to ensure that PSBs continue to provide, in the Government’s words,
“significant economic, cultural and democratic value across the UK”?
In particular, what will the Government do to help PSBs to adapt to the changing media landscape so that they continue to make that vital contribution? I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the members and staff of the Communications and Digital Committee for its impressive work on this report, so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, who has just made a powerful and informed case that public service broadcasting is, as the report says, as vital as ever. I am of the view that public service broadcasting has a place in not just our hearts but our heads. Therefore, it is absolutely right that this report highlights the need for public service broadcasters to adapt to a changing media landscape, while shining a light on the need for a legislative and regulatory framework with the public interest at its core.
As we have heard in this House and the other place, there is no doubt that the BBC has issues to address about accountability, trust and integrity in the wake of recent revelations. However, it is important to acknowledge that, in recent times—times which have been so heavily defined by the global pandemic—the BBC’s universal mission to educate, inform and entertain has never been more critical and appreciated. Indeed, it has been a focus for bringing us all together, as well as supporting the wider creative industry. Covid-19 and the BBC’s showing of press conferences and films has highlighted the importance of a platform for information, while its entertainment and education offerings have helped many households through a deeply difficult and troubling time.
While the report is mainly focused on the entertainment side, it is a credit to the BBC that it delivers trusted news to millions in the UK and across the globe. Ofcom research bears this out: at the start of the lockdown, which we remember as a time of great uncertainty, 83% of people expressed their trust in the BBC’s coverage. This had a particularly important impact on those who were more vulnerable to the impact of misleading news sources—a topic I am sure we will return to as part of the upcoming online safety Bill. In respect of recent events, I urge the Government to resist political opportunism and the pursuit of vendettas. If public service broadcasting is diminished, the public suffer, and it is hard to back-track in the future.
This report discusses the long-standing debate around BBC funding. DCMS recently confirmed that it stands by the licence fee format, and we welcome the clarity that offers. However, I urge the Government to revisit the over-75s concession scheme. We are all aware of the need to strike the right balance between cost savings and ensuring a quality service, but increasing the burden on the over-75s was and remains unclear and unfair in its outcome.
Where the BBC can save, it should do so. However, the Government must provide a fair funding settlement. After all, we can remind ourselves that universality is an essential part of public service broadcasting. The licence fee underpins that. It is also a critical foundation for investment in the UK’s creative economy.
As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, the continued success of online platforms presents challenges to public service broadcasting, but it is noteworthy that the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have come up with interesting initiatives, including commissioning more varied content in terms of casting, location and so on.
The time lag on commissioning means—we must remember this—that there is no such thing as a quick fix. We must allow time for recent changes to filter through and for the creative industries to return to their capacity after this pandemic. So, while it is true that on-demand services put much money into UK production, the sector would suffer if a poor settlement for the BBC and Channel 4 meant a reduction in their commissioning or prevented the type of innovative, alternative content that adds such value to our world. After all, it is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
The media landscape is changing, and the pandemic has brought new and defining aspects to it. I welcome this timely report and look forward to it shaping the future of public service broadcasting to provide ever greater service to the public.
My Lords, as a member of this committee, I record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, for steering us through this and more recent reports. I also associate myself with his thanks to our advisers and staff. I started in this report’s final stages, so I also record my thanks to my noble friends Lady Bonham-Carter and Lady Benjamin— who preceded me and my noble friend Lord Storey from these Benches—and to all other members of the committee.
Little did we know when this report was published in November 2019 that, a year later, we would be in the midst of a global pandemic, when trusted sources of information, regulated to provide the public with impartial and accurate news, would be such a vital lifeline for so many of us, alongside high-quality online education such as BBC Bitesize and, of course, as much entertainment as we could get our hands on. How wonderful it is that this was all available to every household in the country, free at the point of use for those unable or unwilling to pay subscriptions for Netflix, Amazon or Sky.
This debate comes in the wake of the BBC’s independent judge-led Dyson inquiry into events of 25 years ago. While Bashir’s behaviour was shocking and subsequent management action lamentable, there have been fundamental changes in BBC accountability since then. The BBC is now under external regulation by Ofcom, and any such lapses in editorial standards would be swiftly exposed. It should certainly not be our focus today.
I intend to confine my comments to some of the broader strategic questions which this report set out to address—in particular, how the unique ecology of public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom can survive and thrive in a future where subscription video on demand, or SVOD, appears to reign supreme.
Why does it remain so important in the context of so much available content? We need only take a short hop across the Atlantic to get our first answer. In the US, fake news and polarisation of opinion ultimately ended with a President promoting violence to suppress the results of the ballot box. It gave us a graphic demonstration of a dystopian, unregulated future without well-resourced and trusted PSBs committed to accuracy and impartiality.
In the UK, we have a unique blend of publicly and commercially funded public service broadcasters which enhance our economy, culture and democracy. Indeed, last year’s Ofcom research, The Impact of Lockdown on Audiences’ Relationship with PSB, found that most audiences had a greater sense of its value on behalf of society as a whole. It also highlighted its value for older and more vulnerable audiences. That research revealed that audiences put greater value on the need for news that reflects the regions and nations. I guess if you live in Bolton or one of the other seven areas right now with constantly changing government advice, accurate information about what exactly is going on is an essential public service. Therefore, our recommendation that Ofcom should ensure that public service broadcasters uphold the spirit of regional news and production quotas is even more critical today. The BBC’s “Across the UK” plan and the move of Channel 4 headquarters to Leeds are both welcome initiatives in that area.
Even before the pandemic, the evidence in our report that PSBs are vital to our democracy and culture and to the UK’s image on the world stage was overwhelming. Commercial rivals in the UK also see our PSBs as a critical part of the make-up of the creative sector; the Commercial Broadcasters Association described them as the bedrock of the UK audio-visual sector.
PSBs have invested £2.6 billion in the UK, delivering 32,000 hours of original home-grown content—125 times more than Netflix, which is still, even in a time of Covid, lockdowns and “The Queen’s Gambit”, not making a profit. PSB investment gives underpinning stability to our creative industries that the uncertain funding of streaming services cannot. As the report concludes:
“PSBs provide a stable investment platform for a diverse range of content, made for UK audiences, and freely available on a reliable over the air platform.”
PSBs also provide event television, bringing the nation together. Just look at the nearly 13 million who watched the epic finale of “Line of Duty” or the 4 million who watched Jenny tearing up her notes on “Gogglebox” while watching the same programme.
Last year, sadly, we lost a member of this committee: Lord Gordon of Strathblane, whose long-standing experience in media was a huge asset to this report. He particularly advocated event television and extending the listed events regime, especially relating to sport. I am sorry that the Government rejected that recommendation and would like to hear why.
Finally, but vitally, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, mentioned, mandated prominence is critical for PSBs across all devices. PSBs must be easy to find in a fragmented media environment, whether as channels or hubs or through their own portal. The Ofcom proposal to update this is critical; I hope the Government will support this initiative and bring forward legislation this year.
This is a nation that needs to heal from division and disease. Public service broadcasters have a vital role to play in that process. We must give them the resources and support to get on with it.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for his inspired chairing of the Communications and Digital Committee, of which I am proud to be a member. For me, this report is driven by the statement that
“public service broadcasting is as important as ever to our democracy and culture, as well as to the UK’s image on the world stage.”
As other noble Lords have said, the 18 months since this report’s publication have seen huge changes in the PSB landscape. The ecosystem is threatened by the relentless advance of the US-owned streaming giants and the revelations and fallout of Lord Dyson’s report.
I was profoundly shocked by the Dyson report and the evidence of Martin Bashir’s fraud. Its findings were personal to me because I was working in BBC News and Current Affairs in the 1990s. Contrary to media reports, the fraud was not widely known across the corporation. I was particularly shaken because the fraud was so far removed the public service ethos that I believed in so passionately. With the corporation, I filmed across the world and the UK, often being met by obfuscation and downright lies as I tried to get to the heart of the story. It was my job to cut through to the truth and broadcast the facts to the viewers across this country. I was guided by the corporation’s editorial guidelines, which were rigidly enforced by great BBC lawyers, such as Roger Law. However, there was a rigid hierarchy and a culture of control by editors of programmes and heads of department. In the organisation, the key to a long and successful career was almost entirely in the hands of a few bosses. As a result, their favour was eagerly sought and they had the power to make or break careers. I was able to argue an editorial case with my bosses but, if I failed and was still dissatisfied, there was no mechanism for whistleblowing where my case could be taken seriously without damaging my career.
Martin Bashir’s original fraud, and the 25 years the BBC has taken to admit the fraud, are dreadful failures of management within the organisation. However, I believe it would be much more difficult to repeat today. The appointment of the BBC’s unitary board and the corporation’s regulation by Ofcom have introduced objectivity and a degree of independence into the management of the organisation. In 2019, Ofcom reviewed 3,059 complaints about the BBC, under its own independent code, and found two breaches of content standards against the BBC. However, there is always room for improvement, so I am glad the governance of the BBC is being reviewed by both the Government and the organisation itself. The Government should look at the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, for an independent editorial oversight board, but independence both from the Government and the BBC must be the overriding criterion in appointing its members. The BBC’s whistleblowing unit needs to be expanded, so it does not deal just with management issues but with journalistic concerns from the staff. Maybe it could be attached to this board.
The overpowerful, London-based hierarchy that I experienced when working at the BBC in the 1990s, which contributed to what the Culture Secretary calls “group think”, is being diluted. Today, across the PSB sector, production staff are, in the majority, drawn from freelancers who are not beholden to a single boss, and in line with the recommendation of the committee’s report, action is being taken to increase ethnic diversity in production and commissioning teams. The BBC’s 250 interview champions and anonymised application forms are contributing to a wider recruitment base, while the mandatory 20% diverse production staff quota for independent content commissions is already bringing in a much wider range of storytellers. At the moment, many smaller production companies are struggling to fill their quotas. Across the industry, more needs to be done to train up a new cadre of diverse production teams.
The report also recommends increasing regional content commissioning production, which is playing its part to break group think. The BBC has moved major content production to Salford, Glasgow and Cardiff, and with it has drawn other PSB providers to generate powerful regional creative centres. Just as importantly, BBC News teams have been moved out of London: the team covering technology is to be based in Glasgow, with climate and science in Cardiff and learning in Leeds. Now, if young people want to build a career in television, they will no longer have to move to London and sofa surf until they are established. The next generation of content makers can now enter and pursue a broadcasting career in the regions. I am convinced that will provide a powerful regional counterbalance to allay the Government’s concern about metropolitan group think.
I hope these reforms will strengthen our PSB channels, and their crucial ability to reflect this nation back on itself. The Home Secretary’s message after the Dyson report’s publication is that the BBC risked becoming irrelevant in an era with streaming giants. She is right, but not as she alleged because its journalists are systematically flawed and distrusted but because it is being outspent by streaming giants. The new Discovery-Time Warner merger will pour $18 billion next year into content—nine times more than the BBC’s television content budget. Is the sensible response to the threat of irrelevance of the PSBs to ensure that the mid-term charter review is both transparent and increases the license fee in line with inflation, while looking for an alternative funding model in the long term? Subscription can be part of the mix but, if we are going to continue with universal provision, we have to include public money, maybe in the form of a household tax or a share of the digital services tax. Likewise, the threat to privatise Channel 4 is going to damage its ability to reach underserved British minorities. I, like millions of people across the country, want the public broadcasting sector to thrive as a British beacon for truth and editorial independence, shining across the world. The Dyson report must be responded to, but the response must be bolstered to help a sector that is under threat.
My Lords, I refer to my declarations in the register of Members’ interests. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, for being on the Front Bench, and say how jealous I am of her meteoric rise. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Gilbert. I am very lucky to serve on his committee, although I did not contribute to this report. He is a superb chairman who clearly has an extraordinary ability to herd cats; he keeps us all in order and produces great conclusions from many dissenting voices. I am sad that I am speaking before my noble friend Lord Hannan, because normally he provokes me to such paroxysms that I give better speeches. Last time, he proposed the privatisation of the British Library, and I look forward to what is coming next.
Let me try to out-provoke him to begin with by saying that when it comes to the public service broadcasters, it is important to be a critical friend and ask tough questions. I have, for example, once been on the front page of the Sunday Times proposing the privatisation of Radio 1, because it was only set up to take on the pirate radio stations, and I wondered what the purpose was of having a popular music channel funded by the BBC when there is now so much choice. I opposed BBC Jam education services because, in my constituency when I was an MP, lots of my constituents worked for education publishers and they asked me how on earth they were meant to compete with free services. I initially opposed John Whittingdale’s proposal of a content fund, because I saw how criticised the BBC was and wondered if we wanted to create another one, but it has been a great success. It may be that, as the debates about the future of public service broadcasting continue, we may have debates instead about public service content.
What this report says is true: the BBC has to look very hard at how it serves minorities and young people, and it must look very hard at whether it is simply producing popular services or producing services that the market cannot provide. If we are to help public service broadcasters, we should deregulate them, if that does not sound like a contradiction in terms. I completely agree with the report’s conclusion that imposing the free licence fee on the BBC was a terrible error. I was the Minister at the time, and I have said before that I probably should have resigned, but I did not. It was made worse when the Government campaigned against their own policy by telling the BBC that it should keep the free licence fee, when it had already agreed that the BBC could change it. The noble Lord, Lord Hall, deserves a great deal of credit for absorbing that policy change and reforming how free TV licences work. I supported the deregulation, for example, of some of the regulations around commercial radio. I think we could support advertising minutage changes for ITV. I supported changes to product placement for ITV. The market is now so saturated that, in effect, broadcasters should be given as much freedom as possible because they will regulate themselves. We will not get ITV putting on 40 minutes of adverts every hour, because it competes against advert-free subscription channels such as Netflix.
The key, for me, is that public service broadcasters are a bit like B corps: they do not have shareholders and they have to take into account the wider community interest. Some public service broadcasters are too focused on the metric of audience share, rather than their role in supporting communities. It should not be Government intervention that puts the BBC in Salford or Channel 4 in Leeds or that drives the agenda on diversity. I was very struck that when I campaigned for greater diversity in the media, the BBC issued dozens of reports whereas Sky simply said “Yes, you’re right, we’re going to get to 20% by such and such a date” and just went on and did it. The public service broadcasters, the BBC and Channel 4 in particular, have a great opportunity, sheltered as they are to a certain extent from market forces, to really move the dial on issues such as diversity, regional production and skills—just as the excellent report from the communications Select Committee makes clear.
I conclude simply by saying that I firmly believe that we need public service broadcasters. It is obviously fashionable to look at our crystal ball—or, indeed, the screen in our sitting room—and say that we now live in an age of streaming and that the young no longer watch television, but the BBC in particular does not make the case effectively enough about the myriad services it produces; that may not be its fault. When we had floods in my constituency in 2007, I was fond of referring to BBC Radio Oxford as the “fourth emergency service”. From orchestras to local radio, public service broadcasting makes a massive difference; it is not simply about whether you like “Strictly”. The BBC needs to be careful to get out of the way and to realise that commercial broadcasters need to make a living. However, in an age of disinformation, as has been referred to, we need public service content that reflects British culture in all its shapes and sizes. That is why the thrust of the report—that the BBC and public service broadcasting should be supported—is so important.
Finally, do not read into the conspiracy theories in the newspapers. I genuinely do not believe that the Government have a hidden agenda to close down the BBC or knobble it in any way, although it is going about some of its business in very odd ways.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, with his enormous experience as a very distinguished DCMS Minister. I encourage him to spend a bit more time sharing his experiences with us, since he clearly has a lot to say on some of the most topical issues, some of which we will discuss later. I declare my interest as a member of the Communications and Digital Committee, although, like the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, I was not a member when this excellent report was published. I also declare my interest as a former director of the British Film Institute.
Like others, I thank the committee’s chair, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for his fine introduction of the report and his excellent questions, which I hope the Minister will respond to at the end of the debate. I also echo the noble Lord’s concerns about the delay in debating this important report. The committee system of your Lordships’ House is one of its absolute crown jewels, and it is extraordinary that we have had to wait so long for a debate on an issue such as this. The good thing is that it is still timely, although that may not be true for some of the other reports waiting in the queue. I also welcome my noble friend Lady Merron to our Front Bench and thank her for covering the important DCMS brief.
Given the time constraints and the fact that I was not then part of the committee, I will focus on two important issues touched on in the report that may not get much attention today: archiving and the process for setting the BBC licence fee. Having said that, I welcome the Government’s general approach—they share
“the Committee’s view about the importance of public service broadcasting … and its continued relevance”.
Together with evidence from Ofcom that shows that PSB programming remains popular and is valued by UK audiences, that provides a very good basis for the proper debate and discussion that I hope will accompany the light-touch mid-term review of the current BBC charter and the licence fee settlement negotiations for 2022 to 2027.
First, on the BFI national film and TV archive, the report says it is important that UK TV programmes of cultural significance are preserved for future generations. It also recommends that:
“The Government should broaden the requirement to provide programmes to and fund the BFI National Archive to non-public service broadcasters and SVODs which produce content in the UK.”
The Government’s response is welcome but limited: they recognise that the remit of the BFI national film and television archive
“includes the preservation, restoration and dissemination of culturally British screen content” and that
“this should include programmes and films produced or commissioned by non-public service broadcasters and SVoDs”.
These are fine words, but they will not achieve what is in essence a voluntary scheme. The response goes on to say:
“The Government hopes that these entities share a desire to contribute to British heritage in this way and strongly encourages these entities to entrust guardianship of their screen content to the BFI National Archive, making a ‘reasonable contribution’ to the BFI.”
But this is not the basis for a long-term sustainable plan.
PSBs currently pay £1.5 million per annum and contribute to various one-off projects, such as digitising legacy collections held on myriad obsolescent videotapes with fixed shelf lives, but the BFI needs much more. It is not given the statutory powers or funding it needs to achieve its aims. For example, there is no Sky output—despite the existence of loads of original UK productions —and no streamed TV in the BFI’s collections. Like it or loathe it, most people would expect to have the Netflix series “The Crown” in the national collection, but it is not there. There is no Amazon Prime and no Apple TV. Who is to be responsible for holding examples of material from YouTube and the wider web? Future historians will find that omission very strange indeed.
Unlike the public service broadcasters, none of these new players, streamers and content originators have to supply materials, with a contribution to costs, to the national archive. I believe that the long-term solution is a “statutory deposit” scheme, but there are other options that could achieve the desired outcome. I am glad that the Government say in their response that they
“will monitor progress in this regard” and remain
“open to considering the full range of options to deliver this outcome, including statutory support for collecting as currently exists for the PSBs.”
This certainly would be welcome, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on that.
My second point is on how the BBC licence fee should be determined. The committee reaffirms a previous recommendation that there should be
“an independent and transparent process for setting the licence fee”, and recommends that the Government should establish a BBC funding commission to oversee that process. I strongly support this proposal. The BBC licence fee is a tax, and as such should be levied by the Government, but the processes of negotiating a charter and of recommending a licence fee to ensure that the BBC has the resources to do what the charter asks of it should be separated and transparent. However, those of us who have had some involvement in the process know that this is not quite how it works. The connection between the two processes is indirect and shrouded in political pressures. The result of all this is bad not just for the BBC—which faces increasingly intolerable pressures to deliver what is expected of it without the right money, and faces threats to its operational autonomy and independence—but for the Government, because of a growing suspicion of unwarranted political interference in the BBC, and for viewers.
The Government say that they have
“no plans to introduce a licence fee commission”.
However, I note that the response also says that the Government will set out in more detail the processes to be followed in due course. I hope that the Minister can elucidate further on this issue when she comes to respond. I look forward to hearing from her.
My Lords, I went through this report desperately looking to find something I seriously disagreed with. I failed miserably. I have then come to the conclusion that I do not disagree very much with anything anybody has said in this debate. We have a problem here: we are debating something which came out in 2019. As someone who predominantly watched the BBC as a child and is still something of a fan of “Doctor Who”, I feel that the TARDIS has come and missed out a bit of our history. It has taken it away and pulled us back through.
The pandemic has displayed many of the BBC’s merits. The fact is that it backed up the education system and helped with entertainment, which is something I do not think any other body could have done. If ever something has been damaged by the pandemic it is the education system, and the BBC stepped in. It did not replace teaching in classrooms, but it did not do a bad job of making sure that there was a decent sticking plaster. I cannot see any other body ever doing that—unless you get something that is free to air and publicly funded—or having any incentive to do that without going through a commissioning process that would make PPE look like a simple task. You have to have something that will act, and the BBC fulfilled its role.
Then you look at Lord Dyson’s report on the Bashir fiasco. It is not so much that the mistake was made, but that it seems to have been ignored and that the whistleblower was persecuted. This must be looked at and identified so that it can never happen again. It may be too much to hope that we will never make that initial mistake again, but we must make sure that whistleblowers are protected. We have a right to expect that from an organisation which we fund.
Going back to the footballs that were in play in 2019—and probably still are—on the licence fee, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, has probably done it justice, but the fact of the matter is that, if you expect the BBC to provide good content, you have to give it the money to provide the content. I have had conversations with people who say, “I want my licence fee back,” and I say, “What are you going to cut?” They reply, “What do you mean cut?” I say, “Well, it’s money. Production costs money. What do you want to cut?” He—it was a gentleman—then muffled through this process of going down, “Well, I’d get rid of X and Y that I don’t watch”, to which his wife said, “But your grandchildren watch that.” We will always have a real challenge here. If we want broadcasting to do all this stuff, we have to fund it—and fund it by the licence fee. I do not think we want this to be part of a Budget and something that is paid for out of income tax, to be perfectly honest. Can you imagine the rows then? It is almost unimaginable that there would be any continuity to go on.
I will not go on at any length about the BBC, because I am not a great expert, but what about the World Service? If ever there was an extension of soft power for Great Britain, it has to be that. It just is—it is all over the world and touches the rest of the world. We are lucky that English is one of the universal languages of the day, and we have a way of going forward. But once again, it must be seen to be reliable and truthful, at least to the best of its ability. The fact is that, when foreign powers stop challenging what the BBC says, we should worry. When Russia stops challenging, then worry.
I end with one other thing that public service broadcasting has a wonderful record on, and that is educating the world on sport and making sport available. There has been a massive improvement in the growth of women’s football on TV. The universal medicine—the wonder drug—is exercise. People do not take exercise because it is good for them; generally speaking, they take it because it is fun. Playing sport is one of the ways forward. We must also bear in mind what Channel 4 has done with the Paralympics and how it has carried forward that work. At its best, public service broadcasting has the ability to entertain and educate at the same time. We need to look at the way it has made different aspects of sport available.
All of us who have access to video-on-demand services know that they are great—they are wonderful—but we are looking into a closed room with one closed set of information coming in. The fact that you can find your old TV series, fall asleep and when it comes on again you recognise both episodes is great. But the fact is that you are talking in your own little echo chamber. Public service broadcasting does not do that, and more power to its elbow because of that. We all need to be shaken up just a little bit.
Finally, if there is political bias in public service broadcasting, I hope that the party opposite realises that it has been in power for most of the time that it has been going on, so it is not that successful. It is the job of public service broadcasting to have a go at those who are in power. We all have the scars to show for that.
My Lords, in the 1980s, while both my gender and geography were against me, I was able to begin my directing career at Channel 4 and subsequently build it at the BBC. Since that time, I have worked across the creative industries from Hollywood studios and streamers to independents and PSBs. With that in mind, I draw the attention of the House to my interests on the register in relation to the tech sector and as director of a TV and theatre company. It was a privilege to be a member of the Communications Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, at the time of the report’s inquiry. I would like to associate myself with his words at the beginning of the debate.
I want to talk briefly about three things: the urgent need to support a national broadcaster; the funding model of the BBC; and who the competition really is. It is striking that, for a much-loved institution, the BBC attracts so much ire. It manages to upset the left for its failure to give it a platform and the right for being a hotbed of liberals. It is accused of failing the young as they abandon it for YouTube, and failing the old, in the debacle of the over-75s licence fee. Perhaps it is the role of a Cross-Bencher to point out that, if it is upsetting both sides, it is probably doing a reasonable job.
In a time of division, culture wars and disputed realities algorithmically pushed to highlight our difference, the nation’s broadcaster should not be a comfort to any one view but an instrument for, and a mirror to, us all. The danger of this moment is that our divisions—symbolised by our fragmentation north and south, Brexit or not, urban or rural, nationalism or unity—overwhelm our common interest. The vast majority of our witnesses made the case that, more than ever, we need a broad expansive space in which to see our collective selves, not a narrowed-down public broadcaster doing only what commercial players are not motivated to do, which, ironically, is likely to result in a diet that feeds only an urban elite.
I would like to underline that it is breadth of experience, shared across class and region, across all of our fault-lines, that must be the ambition: to enjoy the talent shows, our national obsessions of housebuilding and watching other people cook; to watch “Small Axe” or “Line of Duty”; to hear the nightly news—which is still trusted above any other—as one nation. Streamers and video-on-demand services are deliberately designed to offer a personalised world. When I choose content based on my interests or characteristics, I am offered more of the same. While it feels comforting to be reflected, it automatically demotes content based on other interests and alternate characteristics. The BBC is unique in that its role is to ensure that we all see ourselves not as individual islands but in the context of each other.
Turning to the licence fee, the Committee was clear that the process should be transparent and based on the duties that are set out. It is not right that the BBC is asked to invest in infrastructure or give free licences if that takes away its ability to provide the programming that the nation demands. I support the recommendation absolutely but, perhaps somewhat controversially, I increasingly accept the argument of those who say that times have changed and that the licence fee, while still extraordinary value for money, is organised as something of a poll tax—neither based on usage nor ability to pay.
My personal view is that the BBC should have a ring-fenced settlement from central taxation. While I share the fear of political interference, I am not sure that the perennial threat to the licence fee—whether freezing it, forcing it to be spent inappropriately or legitimising non-payment—does not amount to political interference by less transparent means. It is in the national interest to fund and protect our national broadcaster, because our prosperity and identity are better held in public together, rather than as an ever increasingly divided nation distracted by its own atomised furies. Undoubtedly, it is irksome to each successive Government to feel the bite, especially when they hold the potential to defang it, but while it is a temptation to disempower the BBC, it should be resisted. Whatever our starting point, we all lose if we do not have one eye on building our common identity.
Finally, can we put to bed the notion that the battle for control of our attention is between the BBC and commercial radio, local press, Sky or even the streamers? It is, of course, the platforms—YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok—that dominate our cultural and information technologies and who fuel the ever more fragmented and personalised realities, artificially promoting false binaries and extremities at the expense of a collective experience.
Neither culture nor politics is a zero-sum game. It does not follow that, if the platforms or streamers have content, we need none in our collective hands. The PSB system offers the opportunity of a contemporary and collective vision of what binds us at a crucial time in which we are readdressing our role on the global stage and working out what being a United Kingdom means. By all means, let us continue to discuss the detail, but let us not misunderstand the purpose. As this excellent report concludes, the PSB system is more vital than ever.
My Lords, mine will be a lonely voice in this debate. As my noble friend Lord Vaizey forecast, the note that I strike will be dissonant—indeed, given the tenor of your Lordships’ debate so far, not just dissonant but atonal, jarring and downright cacophonous. I must stand back and ask whether anybody, today, would propose funding one television and radio network with a poll tax on TV sets. That you would not invent something today is of course not a knock-down argument; I am enough of a Burkean conservative to see that. There are lots of things that we would not invent today but that we rather like, such as the use of French in diplomatic invitations; those resonant phrases about monarchy in the Book of Common Prayer, like shards left over from some ancient quarrel; or, indeed, the presence of hereditary legislators in the United Kingdom, who do such a disproportionate share of the unthanked and workaday tasks and who should stay, at least until the original deal is complied with. But I am not sure that the BBC is in that category.
A poll tax to fund one station made absolute sense when there was only one station. In 1922, it was very difficult to argue with, but even by 1955, when there were commercial alternatives, it was becoming difficult to justify in theory. Now, in an age of streaming, Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube, it has become unsustainable. The report that your Lordships are debating today took the figures up to 2018, and it is pretty clear that the lockdown has accelerated the trends that it identified.
There are a number of standard oppositional arguments levelled against the BBC: that you cannot justify the licence fee if you are trying to level up; that it is a poll tax on poor people; that the Bashir affair is part of what happens when an organisation is convinced of its rectitude because it is a public service dispenser; or that it is biased. I was surprised to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, say that it was attacked by both sides and that this showed it was doing something right—I would have thought that, if you are being attacked by all sides, there is at least a case to be made that you are doing something wrong. It seems to me that you cannot have total impartiality in any broadcast or newspaper—one person’s idea of impartiality is another person’s idea of tendentiousness. The closest you can get, therefore, is to have a multiplicity or plurality of differing voices, so that out of a cacophony of clashing interpretations, the listener discerns something close to the truth.
The reality is that, as our viewing and listening habits shift, even within the corporation people are realising that change is coming. I do not think that the BBC has much to fear from change. We are creatures of habit, and there is such a thing as first-mover advantage. Thirty years after the privatisation of telecoms, BT was still by far the largest producer of landlines, with more than 40% of the market. The idea that, if the BBC moved to a subscription-only system, people would suddenly give up watching “Strictly”, “EastEnders”, or whatever programme they enjoy, just does not take account of human nature.
Some aspects of the corporation’s work may be unsustainable. For example, I never understood why the BBC needed to get into local radio—it struck me as an area already well-served by commercial operators. But the things that people regard as gems, and always bring up in these conversations—the Attenborough nature programmes and so on—are precisely the pieces of programming that would be profitable under any dispensation and that will continue to be export revenue-raisers for this country.
I finish by addressing those in the corporation who are capable of looking at reform positively. If this change is coming and technology is ineluctably moving this way, the only choice is to stand there and be pummelled by the waves or to scramble nimbly on to your board and try to ride them.
My Lords, I welcome the report and endorse strongly its central conclusion, as expressed in its title, Public Service Broadcasting: As Vital as Ever. The report is comprehensive, dealing with the whole range of public service broadcasting in the context of what is referred to as the broadcasting market. I will focus on its application to the BBC and its independence.
Paragraph 184 of the report says that:
“The BBC has a unique funding model based on the licence fee which is intended to safeguard its independence from the Government and the market.”
That is independence from, first, the Government, and, secondly, the market. As far as the market is concerned, I see a glimmer of hope in the Government’s response. In paragraph 2 of the response we read that:
“The Government expects public service broadcasters to deliver high-quality, distinctive content for all audiences and licence fee payers across the UK. This is important in order to deliver … the wider objectives of PSB … In many cases this content would be underprovided or not provided at all by an unregulated market.”
So we are agreed that there is significant market failure that has to be addressed by public service broadcasters, although it would be good to hear from the Minister that this is still the Government’s view over a year later.
The news about independence from the Government is not so welcome. The BBC charter says in section 3, on the independence of the BBC:
“The BBC must be independent in all matters concerning the fulfilment of its Mission and the promotion of the Public Purposes, particularly as regards editorial and creative decisions, the times and manner in which its output and services are supplied, and in the management of its affairs.”
The important words there, which are particularly apposite at the moment, are those in the reference to “editorial and creative decisions”. You do not get to pick and choose what is meant by being independent; it is absolute. I would argue that the BBC’s independence extends to its ability to make its own mistakes.
This is certainly the position until the review of the charter in 2027. But what we now have is the introduction of the mid-term review of the charter, which has to be completed by 2024 and which is, in effect, being employed as a threat to the BBC’s independence. There was some indication of this in the Government’s formal response to the report, going back to February last year. Paragraph 21 says:
“The Government believes that the Charter mid-term review, due to take place by the end of 2024, is the appropriate milestone to consider whether the current regulatory arrangements for the BBC are working effectively and whether any reforms are necessary.”
That was uncomfortable enough, but now we have Oliver Dowden’s recent tweet:
“Lord Dyson’s report reveals damning failings at the heart of the BBC. We will now reflect on Lord Dyson’s thorough report and consider whether further governance reforms at the BBC are needed in the mid-term Charter review.”
Let us look at section 57 of the charter, which deals with the mid-term review. It says that
“The Secretary of State may undertake a mid-term review”, and that
“The Secretary of State must determine the scope and terms of reference”.
So there is much power in the hands of the Secretary of State, without, it should be noted, any requirement for public consultation. Subsection (5) goes on to say that
“The review must not consider … the Mission of the BBC … the Public Purposes of the BBC; or … the licence fee funding model of the BBC for the period of this Charter.”
If you analyse that, and compare it to what is said in the charter, it is quite clear that the BBC’s role as a public service broadcaster is not up for review in the mid-term review. That is outside its terms, so why does the Secretary of State refer to it in his original comments on the report and again in his recent tweet?
It is important to note, therefore, that Lord Dyson’s report covered events only up to
My Lords, the report from the Select Committee on Communications and Digital is even more timely now than when it was published. It is wise and welcome. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and members of the committee have done a brilliant job. We live in a world where there has been an explosion of competing, often inaccurate and untrusted news and information. Our public service broadcasters provide a rock of reality on which people can depend. As such, they provide a vital resource for us all.
Public service broadcasters’ mission, of course, is to inform, educate and entertain. By and large, they do all those things well. They provide impartial news and trusted coverage of great national events. They are the places people turn to for information at times of crisis—something we have seen clearly over the past year. They create wonderful, thoughtful and insightful programmes, from Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation” more than 50 years ago to Simon Schama’s recent series on the Romantics. They give us bewitching drama that has the whole nation talking, whether “Downton Abbey”, “Line of Duty” or “It’s a Sin”. They exist, above all, as a benchmark of quality. They are, in fact, among the best broadcasters in the world. We damage or diminish them at our peril.
The committee identified a number of ways in which public service broadcasters’ value can be sustained and enhanced—for example, by extending the availability of major sporting events by enhancing the “crown jewels” list. I am sorry that the Government did not respond positively to that when they replied to the report. I hope that they will think again. Proposals also include: reinforcing the obligation for programmes, including series—not just one-off programmes—to be commissioned from outside London and other metropolitan areas; monitoring the diversity of commissioners; ensuring that licence fee funding is not siphoned off to yet more non programme-making purposes; a new independent process for setting the licence fee; and ensuring mandated prominence in programme guides, not just for the main PSBs but for their digital versions. All these are welcome proposals. I hope that the Government will take notice and implement them.
Much has been said and written during the past week, and, indeed, in this debate, about the BBC in the wake of the Dyson report. Let us be clear: the BBC failed, not only in allowing Martin Bashir to use fake documents and dishonesty to secure an interview but, above all, in not acknowledging the error when it investigated and knew about it. The BBC failed in its basic duty to be transparent. For all this, there is no excuse. Those are not the standards expected of and insisted on for a public service broadcaster.
What must not happen, however, is for this matter to be seized on by the enemies of the BBC to tear down its place in the life of the nation. The sight last weekend of the tabloid newspapers salivating over the BBC’s discomfiture was risible hypocrisy at its worst. Some spokespeople for the Government, though happily not all, have also leaped on an anti-BBC bandwagon. In that context, I worry that the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel announced by the Government seems to have an agenda that is too sceptical about public service broadcasting. There have been some arguments that the BBC should be subjected to external control—even government-directed control. That would be an immensely dangerous road to take. The BBC is a public broadcaster; it is not a state broadcaster and must never become one. Genuine independence is crucial.
Over Bashir, the BBC got it badly wrong. It must be held to account for it by Ofcom, and I supported the shift in responsibility for oversight of the BBC to Ofcom when it happened. However, the role of the BBC, like that of the other public service broadcasters, must be sustained and supported. We need our public service broadcasters. They should be impartial, informative, trusted and creative. They should part of our national life that we can be proud of. The Government must ensure that the PSBs are not damaged. They are, quite simply, too valuable for us all.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I declare my interest as the BBC’s former head of public affairs from 1996 to 2003, notably from one year after the famous broadcast in question. I noted that this report—vital as ever—underlined the two key themes that democracy and culture are fundamental to the existence of the BBC, let alone that of public broadcasting.
Although the committee’s report is 18 months old and the debate has been held back, perhaps for obvious reasons, the issues are similar to those on which I contended, fought and debated—even with your Lordships before I became a Member—on behalf of the BBC between 1996 and 2003. In many ways, little has changed. I contended on: three successful licence fee campaigns and two successful charter renewals; critical legislation on public service broadcasting’s “must-carry” cable provisions from Baroness O’Cathain, who is no longer with us; and, of course, listed sports events, to which the noble Lord, Lord Smith, referred, along with the special engagement back in 1996 of the noble Lord, Lord Archer.
Those who were excoriated and shamed in the past week by the Dyson report—senior executives and correspondents—exposed something that was clearly a major difficulty at the time and which has some shavings of it currently. The BBC back then sought to trivialise and tantalise to get younger and more populous audiences. It is exactly the kind of attitude in the news dimension of the BBC that caused the extremely expensive and invasive attack on Sir Cliff Richard, which was endorsed by the previous director-general as legitimate journalism but then thrashed in the courts as an abuse of judgment and an unacceptable waste of public money. It gave us the appalling realities that the Dyson report considered.
However, let us look at the other side. In the past year, all of us have depended extensively—yes, my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Hannan—on local radio and local news. We have depended extensively on coverage to inform us of what is going on in the coronavirus pandemic in the UK and internationally, and now, of course, on vaccination detail. I am grateful to the wonderful Julia Harris, public affairs manager at the BBC’s World Service division. Her exceptional brief on domestic BBC interests and those of the World Service is compelling reading.
However, I want to add three things into that brief which I feel your Lordships will benefit from noting. During the course of last year, when so much could not be done, the BBC still did Comic Relief: live public broadcasting to raise resources for those on the edges of life in the poorest parts of the world. The BBC still hosted Children in Need, for those domestic realities and pressure points—and, especially, there was the supplemented £10 million commitment to Black Lives Matter realities, rather than organisations. As a vice-president of UNICEF, I wish to thank ITV for hosting Soccer Aid, raising nearly £11 million on behalf of UNICEF. These are unique events in the BBC’s case, facilitating financial assistance in excess of £100 million from the British people because of the trusted status of the broadcaster.
The Government’s response says that the organisations called public service broadcasters, including the BBC, must adapt, but what does it mean to adapt in this new, comprehensively platformed age in which everything is available in an instant? Certainly, to adapt does not mean to be populist and trashy. It has been my long-held conviction, from my times of responsibility at the BBC to now, that the BBC is an outstanding national and international asset, and its value is like that of our own homes, if we have one, fine wines, if we invest in them, or jewellery, museums, libraries, galleries and universities. Assets grow in value not by lowering their value to attract greater interest, but by protecting their value through the relentless pursuit of excellence and exceptionalism.
I firmly believe it is time to call out what has to be one of the most essential changes for the BBC for the future: to keep faith with its long-established public purposes. Over the last year we have all suffered the endless amount of news called “fears”: “scientists fear”, “officials fear”, “the public fears”. Fears are not facts. News should be about facts, data and information, hence the need to put right the agenda of the BBC’s news organisation by letting it be led by the World Service. We need to see the quality of World Service news in our domestic news following; that way, we will be truly informed and educated. I will give just two examples. Today, the Times newspaper refers to Russian nuclear bombers being placed in Assad’s Syria to hold up the regime. There is no mention of that on the BBC. Alternatively, with an interest in the Black Lives Matter realities of the US, there has been no mention on the BBC over the last week of America’s black middle-class. These perspectives come from having a wider, deeper knowledge, and I encourage the BBC in future to abandon the trashy attitudes of fear-thinking and appealing to popular audiences, and to go back to detail.
My Lords, this is an important debate on a valuable report and I welcome it, perhaps as much despite the tribulations currently facing the BBC as because of them. That is because the noise that that scandal generates may drown out other, at least as important questions which need consideration. Before proceeding, I declare that I am a director of Full Fact and the Public Interest News Foundation.
I first became engaged with the question of public service broadcasting in 1995, when, unexpectedly—to me at least—I became the Minister for Broadcasting in the last chapter of the John Major Government. Before then, it was not a topic with which I had had serious political engagement. The title of this report would have been as apt then as now, and the document under its banner could equally have been written at that time. However, thanks to technology, the world about which it would have been written would have been more or less entirely different.
Of course, unless you are establishing radio and television from scratch, you are always caught by the hangover from the immediate past. Paradoxically, therefore, while the political case is strong for public service broadcasting in some form at the inception of radio and television services with monopoly characteristics, it may, superficially, at least, appear to be weaker as the number of channels increase. Is that right, and what should the response be?
As we all know, one of the revolutionary changes in recent years is that the means for transferring information, including the media, have been transformed. The constraints imposed by spectrum scarcity have more or less disappeared, and broadcasting, which in simple terms at one point was a multipoint service, has evolved into a whole series of varying versions and combinations of point-to-point, point-to-multipoint, multipoint-to-multipoint, on-demand and mobile services. This is a revolution and, I suggest, a beneficial one which has been life-enhancing and life-improving for many people. The effect of all this is that we have in the most general sense moved from a world of scarcity to one of abundance—some might say excessive abundance—which of course poses problems, just as scarcity does.
Having ended my much-enjoyed stint as chairman of the Communications Committee in 2004, because I believe that when one gives something up one should walk away, I deliberately took a step back from engagement in the politics of the media. However, I did not leave my interest in it behind, and my involvement with the wider media world continued in some respects. It is this change from scarcity to abundance which strikes me so strongly. During the whole of this period, public service broadcasting has been at the heart of UK media thinking, and, while things keep evolving, it has remained there while being consistently challenged.
We must be clear that public service broadcasting is not only what used to be known as television; it is also radio, and, as has been mentioned, it is not only the BBC but Channel 4, ITV and Channel 5. Together, they comprise our public service broadcasters; equally, each is an interconnected part of the whole, and they should not be wantonly and rashly reverse-engineered or disaggregated. In a world of information overload, they together provide a kind of datum point at the centre of what is on offer more widely.
In recent years and months, the incidence of fake news and its younger brother, dodgy information, has been at the heart of political debate in this country, both as a phenomenon but also as an influencer of voter behaviour. In my view, public sector broadcasters’ role is to provide an accessible gauge against which people can look at these wider media offerings. Because public service broadcasting is plural in its suppliers, there is no monopoly in its source, something which is very dangerous in a free society.
Our society has a number of national services with which everyone can engage if they feel the need to do so—that is the way we do these things in the 21st century. Of these, perhaps the National Health Service is the most obvious. Public service broadcasting in some ways—but only some—is similar, in that it is available to all. Just as the NHS relates to health, ultimately, public service broadcasting, given its plural character, provides guidance and commentary on the accuracy, truth, relevance and quality of material which is so important to the political and wider social health of the nation. It is available to all and compulsory for none.
Our country, it is said, is in an unhappy political state. I believe that public service broadcasting can and does contribute to resolving some of the differences and tensions across the United Kingdom, in a way that the simple dialectic of competition in the market will not do by itself. We have inherited public service broadcasting and, as has already been mentioned, I do not suppose that anybody would invent it in its present form now. However, it is a reality and I believe it is serving a valuable purpose. We just have to remember, in the well-known words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard, that it is necessary that things must change for things to remain the same.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this take-note debate. In doing so, I declare my interest as a board member at Channel 4 Television. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, for his excellent, coherent and extraordinarily timely report. I also thank him, and other colleagues, for doing so much of the heavy lifting with the statistics and the strategy —which, happily, leaves me with much of the content. Ultimately, that is what so much of this is about. Be it linear, VOD, SVOD or streaming on platforms, quality content should be at the heart of any offer.
Here is a personal story. I grew up in a grey, post-industrial West Midlands, and when I was an 11 year-old, a fabulous light was switched on, in the form of a multicoloured figure 4. Even before the broadcasts started on
Perhaps the greatest test of any public service broadcaster—indeed, of any institution—is how it coped through the Covid crisis. Channel 4 not only informed, entertained and educated us but cheered us up. We all got our artistic streak going with “Grayson’s Art Club”, and 9.2 million of us crowded into the cake tent for the final of “The Great British Bake Off” for some sugary comfort against the Covid pandemic.
To bring us right up to speed, and already rightly mentioned by other noble Lords, we have “It’s a Sin” —three words that define what public service broadcasting is all about. Covering the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and played out in the midst of the Covid crisis of our time, it told us so much of what it is to be human—and indeed to be humane. I said at the time that the head-hurting, gut-wrenching moment on the seafront in the finale was the most powerful moment on UK television in 2021. We can come back to that point on New Year’s Eve, and it will still be so.
Then there is the cricket—the first time test cricket has been on terrestrial telly in 16 years. Some unkind tweeter said that it looked as if the same studio was used from 16 years earlier, when it was previously shown, but that aside, think of the Chennai sunshine cutting through our Covid-laden wintery skies. That is how, as other noble Lords have said, sport can cut through.
I was lucky enough to be involved in the Paralympics in 2012, and indeed to do the deal with Channel 4 for the Paralympic broadcasting rights. I knew that the channel could do something different—not just sensational sports production but something beyond that: an attitude-altering opportunity for broadcasting to create. Yes, there were fabulous sporting heats and events, but, more than that, there were programmes such as “The Last Leg”, with its “Is it ok to?” section, challenging, pushing and changing—as with “It’s a Sin”. Does PSB change stuff? Well, our recently retired Lord Speaker was moved by that programme to go back to his HIV/AIDS campaigning. That is change; that is dynamic; that is fluidity. That is what we are here for.
As for levelling up, Channel 4 levelled me up. I believe all PSBs have a role in levelling up and the build-back agenda. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that PSB is an economic, social and psychological good, and a happily heady cocktail of soft power and hard coin? With a national headquarters in Leeds, and offices in Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol and London, Channel 4, located throughout the UK and commissioning across the UK, is a channel for all the UK.
My Lords, I have no direct interest in broadcasting, but I have shared a breakfast table for the last 38 years with Caroline Thomson, who was a senior figure in Channel 4, and went on to be a deputy director-general of the BBC.
There have been many excellent speeches in this debate, and I cannot think of a better defence of public service broadcasting than that which we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond; it was a fantastic speech. We also had a very good speech from the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, introducing his excellent report.
I share the usual complaints about the usual channels in this House, who delayed the debate on this report for an unacceptable 18 months. That should not be allowed to happen in future. However, in some ways it is fortuitous. Because of the scandal around Bashir, it is fortuitous that, at this moment, the case for public service broadcasting has to be remade—and we have heard excellent speeches today trying to do that.
The only speech that I profoundly disagreed with was that of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan. The question I put to him—fortunately, he cannot reply—is this: does he really want to end up in a world like that of the United States, where two parts of a divided country occupy their separate cultural bubbles, listening to separate media channels and using separate social media outlets? One side watches Fox, and the other side something else. Is that the kind of world we want? Is that what the noble Lord really wants? Under the policy that he advocates, that is where we would end up.
I am also surprised that, from a prominent Brexiteer, we did not hear even a bit of a defence of the BBC, as one of the emblematic parts of the global Britain that the noble Lord is supposed to favour. Surely the BBC is something of which this country can be proud—something that people all over the world admire. I remember once being with Caroline on a broadcasting trip to Los Angeles. We got into a taxi with an Ethiopian driver, who asked, “Well, what do you do?”. Caroline said, “I work for the BBC,” and he said, “Gosh, wonderful! I listened to that every night when I lived in Ethiopia, and I still do now, in Los Angeles.” You cannot get much more global than that.
I would have expected someone who is a member of the Conservative Party to be strongly in favour of something that brings the nation together—and that is what the BBC does—at times of crisis. In my own county of Cumbria, when we had the floods in Carlisle, it was BBC Radio Cumbria that people turned to for reassurance and information. It had a fantastic listenership at that time of crisis.
Similarly, if I were the Prime Minister, what would I think about the BBC? There are a lot of Cummings and goings at the moment around what the Prime Minister did, and when, at the start of the Covid lockdown. None the less, he managed to go on television in this country and address 27 million people, arguing for the policy that he had eventually decided on. I put this to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan: what vehicle other than the BBC would provide that? The noble Lord has got to rethink.
The BBC faces huge challenges. The challenge of appealing to our divided society is very difficult. Another challenge is keeping the interests of the old and young together and appealing more to the young, although in fact the old are the core vote—a lot of it Conservative vote, of course—in support of the BBC. That element gives the BBC its political strength.
I would like to see a stronger broadcasting presence in the regions. The move to Salford by the BBC, which has not been talked about today, was a tremendous thing for the north-west. I remember going there and hearing about the schoolchildren whose aspirations and motives had been transformed by the fact that they now realised that in their locality there was this significant cultural presence for which they could aspire to work.
I think there is a lot in what the report says about having an independent mechanism for determining the future licence fee. There are big issues, but on the fundamentals, as a whole nation, across our parties, we must support public service broadcasting.
My Lords, I welcome the several speakers who have talked about the need to get more broadcasting content out of London. As a resident of Saltaire, I have to make a certain comment and declare an interest. We are a wonderful 19th-century model village. We have had four television crews filming at weekends in the last two and a half years, most recently for the BBC’s next series of “Gentleman Jack”, which does make it a bit difficult to get around the village.
We are all aware that the idea of public service broadcasting in the UK is now in question. The advisory panel on public service broadcasting appointed last November was tasked, in the first of its terms of reference, to consider:
“Whether the concept of public service broadcasting is still needed”.
I was happy to read that it went on to add,
“and, if so, what a modern PSB system should contribute to economic, cultural and democratic life across the United Kingdom”.
This is not just about market economics.
I welcome this report and the report in March this year from the Commons DCMS Committee, The Future of Public Service Broadcasting, which comes to very similar conclusions—no doubt to the dissatisfaction of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan. As others have, I note the firm conclusion that:
“Public service broadcasting remains essential to the UK media and losing it would leave UK society and democracy worse off”.
It also says:
“Our evidence overwhelmingly indicated that public service broadcasting is as important as ever to … the UK’s image on the world stage.”
I also welcome the emphasis on bringing the nation together rather than tearing it apart, as the bitter war between partisan media has done in the United States. I was struck by the comment that Frank Luntz, the American conservative political strategist, made in the Times two days ago, in which he deplored the “unbearably toxic” polarisation of American politics and went on to say:
“I’m here to warn you that if you don’t learn from what happened in the US you’re doomed to repeat it”.
There are those on the right of British politics who are doing their best to provoke a culture war here, the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, among them. It is a wonderful way to distract attention from inequality and social and economic disadvantages, attacking liberal elites while sparing the rich from criticism. A new report from King’s College London remarks that
“culture wars are a top-down phenomenon, where political and media discussion encourage division”.
In contrast, a healthy democratic society needs to share a common discourse, and public service broadcasting as part of the mix of media helps to maintain that common ground.
We all recognise that the Martin Bashir affair has shaken the BBC’s reputation and clearly requires lessons to be learned, but we should also recognise that it pales in comparison with the behaviour of News Corporation in phone hacking and corrupt payments over several years. That has not stopped News Corporation attacking the BBC. I am bored stiff with the stream of negative stories that the Times publishes to denigrate the BBC, alongside its attempts to promote Times Radio. The Daily Mail is worse, of course, but for the full Fox News paranoia one has to turn to the Spectator or the Telegraph. Charles Moore, the noble Lord, Lord Moore, who sadly is not here today, wrote in the Telegraph on
“the BBC’s greatest single aim is to get rid of Boris Johnson.”
That is a statement worthy of Donald Trump.
Oliver Dowden has called on the BBC to reassert British values. With all its faults, the BBC does represent British values, and is respected around the world for doing so. It nurtures and promotes British talent, at the heart of our thriving cultural sector. Its children’s TV and educational content are invaluable, including BBC Bitesize—as I discovered when teaching my grandchildren during the lockdown.
In contrast, many of those who bang on about sovereignty and Anglo-Saxon superiority sail under false flags. GB News, to be launched with union jacks flying, is owned by a consortium of American investors and British expatriates and promises us a programme called “Wokewatch”, modelled on right-wing American attack lines. The Daily Telegraph, for which the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, writes his nationalistic op-eds, has long been owned by brothers who avoided British tax by commuting between Monte Carlo and the Channel Islands. News International is headquartered in Bermuda and run from New York. In David Goodhart’s terms, these are the people from anywhere, in contrast to the staff of the BBC, who are rooted in the UK.
A purely commercial media sector, largely foreign owned, would impoverish British culture and society and undermine the sovereignty that this Government claim to be reasserting. Public service broadcasting is an important phenomenon in maintaining a coherent society and helping to promote a reasoned political debate. Yes, the corporation makes mistakes, and the toleration of Martin Bashir was a serious error. Yes, the funding model will have to be adapted as new media continue to reshape communications. Yes, it has to do a lot more to attract the younger generation. But the experience of the pandemic has shown the value of a trusted source of news and information to which all our citizens can turn. That is a vital part of a democratic, open society.
My Lords, I welcome the report wholeheartedly, but with one reservation, which I shall come to. I declare my interests as listed in the register, and indeed I have been public service broadcasting—if I can put it that way—for over 40 years.
One thing I have come to realise, and it is germane to the Princess Diana scandal, is that as with every other organisation I have worked for—including the NHS, ITV, the press and indeed here at the Palace of Westminster—there is a reluctance and an inability to accept criticism. I am afraid it is human nature. Like other artists, though, as a composer I really had to learn all too quickly that a degree of self-criticism is absolutely vital and constant for a thriving mind. For that reason, I rather welcome the dodecaphonic contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan. It certainly lit the fuse of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle.
Many decades ago, I was a member of something called the General Advisory Council to the BBC. Forty of the great and the good, and doubtless several not so good, would assemble in the Council Chamber at Broadcasting House. People such as the Right Reverend David Sheppard, the Bishop of Liverpool, the MP Alf Morris, the actress Jane Asher and the conductor Jane Glover would give feedback and advice to the corporation to what appeared to be, I am afraid, absolutely negligible effect. It was eventually disbanded, but in embryo it was an interesting idea that faltered because, as we see in government and in fact in all areas, people just do not like to be criticised.
This has led to the “whistleblower”—a term disastrously traduced by some as being synonymous with betrayal and disloyalty. Without these brave souls stepping forward—as the graphic designer in the Diana case did, only to be promptly sacked—how are we to know what is going on? How are we to know that a whole clutch of babies are in danger in a maternity wing? In other areas of life, we salute selfless sacrifice, including ultimately life itself, so why do we not recognise the loss of livelihood when given in the interests of society?
I have recently been on two courses to keep me on the straight and narrow: the Valuing Everyone course here at Westminster and the BBC’s impartiality training. As a presenter, I was quite rightly required to do the latter by the new DG, Tim Davie. So awareness is growing, but there is a much deeper cultural and philosophical gear change that organisations such as Parliament and the BBC need to make if we are going to deliver fair and considered programmes and legislation. It has to start at the top, at No. 10, where we have to have trust in what we are being told and not feel that everything is being spun. For that reason, I hope the next chair of Ofcom will have a reputation free of the things that the Dyson report has unveiled.
It has always seemed to me that, if the BBC is doing its job, every Government, of whatever hue, should feel “got at”. As with the Lords, that is what scrutiny amounts to. Trust and loyalty have to be earned, but when they have been, we must learn to listen. We should note carefully the thoughts and suggestions of my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross, whose experience speaks volumes.
Like everyone else, I was appalled at the falsification of documents to help secure the Diana interview, which led the apology from the noble Lord, Lord Hall. I was a member of the board that appointed him at the Royal Opera House and was asked to interview him for the board. It is important to put on record that I concur with Esther Rantzen’s comments on “Newsnight” that, whatever has gone wrong—and a lot clearly has—the noble Lord always struck me as essentially an honourable and gifted man. With the other Tony—Pappano—and Monica Mason at the Royal Ballet, he transformed the fortunes of the Royal Opera House. But, sadly, the BBC is a very different and much more complicated animal. However, we must not, in the interests of this country, throw the baby out with the bath water, so I salute the restraint of the Prime Minister and the Government in not indulging in knee-jerk reactions—and I imagine that the Minister would endorse this.
I agree with the committee’s emphasis on the importance of the role of public service broadcasting, an independent licence-fee-supported BBC and the role that it plays in our lives, and the fact that it can contribute programming that is hard for commercial stations to sustain. I salute Freeview, which allows a democratic dissemination of ideas. I also hugely value arts programmes that other stations, such as Channel 4 and Sky Arts, contribute.
Here is my little caveat: I am sorry that the entire report is so television-dominated, as we have heard from other Members. There is scarcely a mention of radio, either national or local, which is hugely under threat, or even the World Service, the best soft-power vehicle that we possess. Hopefully, we are about to see and listen to another Proms season, admired universally but under threat from the post-Brexit problems of visas and work permits.
I love public service broadcasting. I think it adds a huge amount to society and the reputation of our country.
My Lords, one premise of the report that I found very stimulating is that public service broadcasters are
“struggling to achieve their mission to serve all audiences in the face of increased competition” from streaming services
“and changing viewing habits.”
This could identify the wrong problem, and it ignores the elephant in the room. There is a serious issue of broadcasters failing to serve all audiences, but I do not think it has much to do with video on demand. There is a much more profound identity crisis, and I am glad that the Government’s public service broadcasting advisory panel has tried to dig a bit deeper and ask whether, as has already been mentioned, the concept of public service is needed and, if so, what a modern PSB should look like.
That is a bit more like it, because it seems to me that, especially in the last five to six years, there has been a growing chasm between public service broadcasters and the public. More and more of the public feel alienated from mainstream media and often feel that they are being done a disservice by PSB channels. It seems significant that we are about to see the launch of a new channel, GB News, which has already been maligned and demonised in this place. It is being launched on
“We can sense a real hunger for something fresh and different in television news and debate.”
He is right.
It is worth noting that this new channel is headed up by Andrew Neil. He was one of the best public service news broadcasters at the BBC—but they did not know how to use him and lost him. GB News is a start-up that has attracted presenters and production talent from across the PSB landscape, and a whole swathe of young producers and employees—diverse, passionate and eager to make a difference—recruited by an enthusiasm for the project of covering stories and voices neglected by PSB channels rather than by some special HR-designed diversity charter. I think it is exciting and although, according to one noble Lord we have heard, we should be worried because of its foreign owners—my goodness, xenophobic or what?—what is to say that GB News is not a new kind of public service broadcasting? We should at least allow it to shake up any complacency.
I want to focus especially on the problems of the BBC. The BBC is an institution whose ideals I love and want to defend, but I find it increasingly hard to do so. It feels as though somewhere along the line it lost track of its public service mission. I do not doubt the BBC’s commitment to serve and reflect communities across the country but, sadly, this is conceived in rather a technical way by focusing on regional production sites and programmes commissioned outside the M25. That is all good, but why then in the same month last year did we hear of £25 million cuts to established regional programmes while a pledge of £100 million was made to a new diversity initiative? I worry that obsessing about a particular interpretation of “diversity” does not serve all audiences and does not stress what we have in common but rather plays on differences.
My fear is that there is a balkanising of audiences going on by attempting to tailor programmes to different demographics and identity groups. It is true that this reflects one aspect of modern Britain—the divisive and essentialising identity politics so fashionable in metropolitan echo chambers. It can lead to the crassest form of programme making. Look at how broadcasters do not so much cater for 16 to 34 year-olds as chase after them, flattering and fawning to prove that PSB is relevant. It is excruciating witnessing the resulting soft bigotry of low expectations. Look at the tangle that Radio 3 and the Proms get into. “Add a bit of grime and rap and the audience will love us,” you feel them saying. Too many PSBs seem convinced that the young are an undifferentiated blob with the attention span of a gnat. The irony is that what the young are watching on streaming services are complex, nuanced, challenging long-form documentaries and drama series.
Another problem that I have with the focus on diversity is that too often it neglects diversity of opinion and thought. Even though Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, used the word “impartiality” 11 times in his inaugural speech, the most common complaint that I hear about the BBC is that it is partial by offering a narrow worldview. The problem with the present strategy is that it assumes that a Geordie or Yorkshire accent means diversity—but you can talk metropolitan orthodoxies with a northern voice, believe me. The BBC may have dumped received pronunciation, but its embrace of a suite of received opinions feels even more stifling and condescending.
Often the BBC cannot hear itself. It just does not realise that it is tone deaf about diverse values and worldviews that it does not share. This became apparent to me personally in 2016. I was a panellist on Radio 4’s “Moral Maze” for 20 years. I have done all the current affairs and news programmes that the BBC has to offer—a bit of a “BBC luvvie” if you want. No doubt I was seen as a bit of a maverick, but I was accepted on the scene. However, when I mentioned that I was going to vote leave, it was met with disbelief. “But you’re an intelligent, well-educated person, Claire,” said one senior producer—and from then on, in studios and green rooms, a growing sneer. And that sneering was even more viscerally observed by audiences.
The virtually unanimous view that Brexit was a foolish, backward and inexplicable idea meant that those called public service broadcasters did not have a clue what the public were thinking and were totally shocked at the referendum result. Many news reports before and since that democratic vote have given the impression that PSBs just do not like the public.
It is sometimes suggested—it has already been said here—that anyone who makes such criticisms is whipping up grievances and fuelling a culture war. I often think it is the other way around, and I worry that the BBC is inadvertently behaving like an activist in the culture wars. There are endless examples: the bizarre statement from “Countryfile” about the UK countryside being a “white environment”, and the “Rule Britannia” saga at the BBC Proms.
It was not the Defund the BBC campaign that clipped a section of a BBC Sounds podcast featuring two young women hectoring older white women for being “Karens” who should educate themselves about their white privilege, saying, “get out of the way” and ordering them to “basically leave”. The BBC eventually deleted the clip after a backlash, but what was it thinking? “Educate yourselves, you Karens” makes the old-fashioned, patrician Reithianism sound positively egalitarian.
The BBC is owned and paid for by the public, and it has a moral duty, not just a financial one—
My Lords, the way we watch television is changing. Twenty years ago, most people relied on five free-to-air terrestrial channels provided by public service broadcasters. These broadcasters now face competition from hundreds of other channels and online services, such as subscription video on demand services. SVODs such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have enjoyed rapid success. They have made available thousands of hours of content at relatively low prices and offer each viewer a personalised experience. Almost half of households now subscribe to an SVOD, while YouTube is also a major competitor.
This is at a time of widespread distrust of news, with digital technology playing an increasing role in public life. SVODs operate globally and have enormous resources, leading to concern that PSBs are priced out of the market for high-quality television, limiting their ability to create drama and documentaries that reflect, examine and promote the culture of the UK. We sought to understand the contemporary role of public service broadcasters, the financial pressures they face and the PSB compact—the obligations they take on—in the age of video on demand.
Our evidence overwhelmingly indicated that public service broadcasting is as important as ever to our democracy and culture as well as the UK’s image on the world stage. A wide range of witnesses and contributors have said how PSBs help to inform our understanding of the world, reflect the UK’s cultural identity and represent a range of people and viewpoints.
We are all aware of the competition faced by BBC and its budget and editorial problems, but, in most people’s minds, it is a national treasure, always reliable and mostly open to criticism. The BBC has always had a culture of reinventing itself as time moves on. Lastly, the BBC is the only place to get correct news from in most third-world countries, and it is extremely useful for that purpose.
My Lords, I first welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, to the Front Bench; I hope that she has a very long stay. I am just passing through, but it was a great pleasure to hear what she had to say. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Jimmy Gordon, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, who sadly died during the Covid crisis.
However, my first duty is to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, and the members of his Select Committee, including the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, my noble friend Lady Grender and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who spoke today. Although delayed in coming before the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, pointed out, the report has proved to be most timely.
Our debate takes place in the shadow of, and the fallout from, Lord Dyson’s report into the methods used by Martin Bashir to obtain his interview with Princess Diana in 1995 and the failure of the BBC to investigate promptly and properly concerns about those methods. To borrow from Shakespeare, what has been revealed were grievous faults, and grievously has the BBC’s reputation suffered as a consequence.
We now of course have a feeding frenzy, calling for radical reform of the BBC. It is often led by financial and political vested interests that have long wanted to see the BBC underfunded and marginalised. Perhaps the only genuine link between today’s debate and Lord Dyson’s report on the errors and misdeeds of 25 years ago is Prince William’s observation that:
“In an era of fake news, public service broadcasting and a free press have never been more important.”
As the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, pointed out, before rushing to yet another round of governance reform in response to events of 25 years ago, let us remember that the BBC’s new chairman, Richard Sharp, and new director-general, Tim Davie, were both appointed by this Government quite recently. They will work to a governance structure again created only recently by this Conservative Government. This recently introduced governance provides for the BBC a unitary board to run the institution, but with Ofcom as a wholly external regulator, ensuring that the BBC is held to its charter and agreement obligations.
As recently as
“The Government have been very clear about the value of the BBC, particularly in the pandemic, during which it has served to educate, inspire, inform and act as a crucial and reliable source of news.”—[Official Report, 18/3/21; col. 437.]
Lord Reith could not have put it better.
The pandemic has conclusively demonstrated the importance of having well-funded sources of education, information and entertainment freely available to every household in the UK. Of course, there has been an explosion of choice from the subscription streaming services, which has been a welcome distraction for many of us. However, these are all US-based, cost money, do not offer news and analysis and do not reflect British culture or the nations and regions of the UK.
The PSBs are key to the framework that sustains British culture, exports it abroad and helps to ensure that the soft power the UK has exerted around the world for decades is still potent today. Despite the overwhelming financial muscle of the subscription video on demand services, thanks to the multibillion-dollar corporations and American hedge funds behind them, the UK still punches well above its weight in the audio-visual export market. The vast majority of that comes from PSB investment. It is the interactive nature of the ecology delivered by the PSBs that brings the cultural and economic benefits to the UK.
Just before Christmas, Ofcom published its consultation on the future of PSBs. The Ofcom headline was that the UK media sector is a success story, with public service broadcasting at its core. Lest it be thought that I am concerned only with the BBC, let me point out that ITV plays an important part in that success.
It was a stroke of genius by the Conservative Government to create ITV as a regional confederation in 1955. I was born in the north-west and I still think of myself as coming from “Granada land”. The late Lord Bernstein brought to Granada an ethos and a regional identity which is still reflected in ITV today, and ITN remains a worthy competitor to the BBC, Sky News and Channel 4 News. While talking of Channel 4, I entirely endorse the very powerful speech given by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. To even consider the privatisation of Channel 4 would be an act of ideological vandalism.
The report we are debating reminds us of the value of PSBs, and we should embrace it in its entirety. However, there are two particular recommendations I commend to the House. First, the recommendation for an independent and transparent process for setting the licence fee is urgent. Even as we speak, the BBC is negotiating behind closed doors with the Government for a licence fee settlement from April next year. There is no transparency, and the Government have not been slow to show their teeth over the last few days. The committee recommended that the Government
“should establish an independent body … the BBC Funding Commission, to oversee the process for setting the licence fee”.
It also stated explicitly:
“In the current competitive and fast-moving environment the BBC needs to be properly funded.”
That funding commission would consult and make recommendations to the Secretary of State. The Government should demonstrate their commitment to transparency by setting up such a commission immediately.
Secondly, there have been increasingly urgent calls, including from Ofcom, to update the prominence regime so that PSB can be found easily across all platforms by consumers. As the report states,
“the current regime is centred on linear TV, which will increasingly devalue over time” and the prominence regime must be
“updated for the digital age to reflect new ways of accessing content.”
This legislation cannot wait, and there is no reason why this could not be put into the online safety Bill to ensure its safe passage.
I hope that the Government will use this report and the recommendations it contains as a road map in plotting the way ahead on PSB. My noble friend Lord Wallace and others talked about the dangers of deregulation. In a debate in this House on
“We are ripping down those institutions, large and small, within which democratic culture was intended to be undertaken. Institutions that once destroyed, amidst the whimsical destructiveness of the market, will be extraordinarily difficult to reconstitute”.—[Official Report, 25/3/03; col. 669.]
That is a warning from the past, but it is a warning about the future. That is the crossroads at which we now stand. The members of this committee will be able to look back with pride on the work they have done. Let us hope that the Prime Minister and his Government will be able to look back with similar pride on the decisions they are about to make on the future of a media ecology which has been essential in determining how we speak to each other and how we speak to the world.
My Lords, before I get into the subject matter, I too would like to join my good friend the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in congratulating my noble friend Lady Merron and welcoming her to our Front Bench. As she demonstrated today, she will add greatly to its talent with her thoughtful and reflective comments and observations. I also pay tribute to my late noble friend Jimmy Gordon who, as a member of the committee, I am sure made many fine contributions and had great knowledge and experience of the media world.
The Communications and Digital Select Committee, led by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, has rendered the House a great service in delivering this report on public service broadcasting. The stellar cast of contributors responding to it today has amply demonstrated its value. The timing of today’s debate—as others have noted —could not have been better, as it has stimulated a thoughtful debate on the media’s role in its current form. The downside, of course, has been that the report itself has been so delayed.
The noble Lord made a passionate and persuasive case for public service broadcasting in an ever-changing media environment, challenging the Government to play their role in ensuring it has an active place in a mature democracy. The noble Lord’s questions themselves to the Minister today would provide ample material for a further debate.
Recent events, not only the Bashir findings from Lord Dyson but also the launch of Times Radio, GB News and so on, will be cited by some as evidence that the role of public service broadcasting is diminished and therefore that it should receive less funding. The opposite is actually true; we need to retain a strong offering from public service broadcasters to keep other platforms honest and ensure access to a plurality of views and a range of quality content.
One area where the Government disagree with the committee is on the list of free-to-air sporting events. The Government were quick to oppose the European super league proposals—and quite rightly; we agreed wholeheartedly with that. But there is concern across many sports that a lack of availability on free-to-air diminishes public enthusiasm. It is positive that the Football Association Cup rights held by BT are going back to ITV, and the buzz around the return of test cricket to Channel 4 demonstrates that the Government should look again at listed items.
The report rightly identifies the positives that public service broadcasting investment has in supporting the creative sector, which has had a tough time over the last 14 months. Investment from Netflix et cetera is also important, but it is not a zero-sum game. We want a range of quality programming across different platforms, as that will enhance the UK’s global reputation. Netflix itself acknowledge this, saying that a strong BBC is in everyone’s interest.
I am glad to see that the Government are committed to working with employers to make a success of apprenticeships. They need to look again at how the apprenticeship levy works, as the model envisaged under the system does not align with the short-term placements you often see in the creative industries and broadcast sector. Government also should have done more to support creatives during the pandemic, rather than excluding many, particularly freelancers, from help—not least because they are all part of the media ecosystem, working in PSBs and streaming services alike.
On questions such as how to engage young people and reverse the decline in viewing figures for public service broadcast channels, it is clear that finding solutions will take time. The decision to make BBC Three online only may not have been the right one, but that experiment has at least provided additional insight and data to help inform future decision-making.
I take the view that there will always be a place for public service broadcasting, but that the role it performs will have to change over time—as it has continuously in the past. Public service broadcasting provides a platform. It should concentrate on quality. It should provide a benchmark for integrity and honesty and be prepared to be fearless. But I did agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, when he said that public service broadcasters need to take more creative risks. In modern times that might seem like a tall order and, while it might irritate and annoy from time to time, if it fulfils that brief it will be doing its job.
It is clear that the public value public service broadcasting and, so long as it has public support, it is a model worthy of political support. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, has made the case for public service broadcasting and the last year has, as many noble Lords have said this afternoon, demonstrated its enduring value as a trusted source of information and news in an era of fake news. We would be wise to reflect on that before any opportunistic moves are made to disturb our current media landscape. In particular, the Government would do well to take the broader view expressed today by the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, on the future of the BBC as a key element of the public service platform.
My Lords, it has been an absolute pleasure to listen to this debate this afternoon. I echo the thanks of other noble Lords to my noble friend Lord Gilbert for securing the debate and for all his work with his colleagues on the committee. Although 18 months have elapsed since the publication of his committee’s report, the issues which it raises are, as we have heard, no less topical now than they were then. I acknowledge the delay in holding this debate, but I know that my noble friend understands that we experienced exceptional circumstances. I also join other noble Lords in welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, to her place. I feel I shall have constructive but positive challenge across the Dispatch Box, and I look forward to that very much indeed.
As set out in our written submission to the committee, the Government are clear that public service broadcasting provides significant cultural, economic and democratic value to the UK. It is free at the point of use, universally available and works for the public benefit to foster shared experiences, stimulate learning and reflect communities from across the country. As the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, mentioned, it has also celebrated major charitable events during the past year. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, noted, evidence from Ofcom shows that PSB programming remains popular and valued by UK audiences.
However, as many noble Lords noted, in a changing media landscape, there is growing consensus that public service broadcasters need to adapt—in the words of my noble friend Lord Hannan, getting on our surfboards, although I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, will be joining him on a surfboard. Therefore, the legislation and regulation in this area need to evolve to ensure that we have a regulatory framework that is fit for purpose.
With that in mind, the Government are working closely with Ofcom and the sector to consider those issues as part of their strategic review of the future of public service broadcasting. As set out in our response to the committee’s report, the Government want to ensure the continued health of a strong, successful and sustainable PSB system, one that is capable of bringing the nation together through shared experiences, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, put it so eloquently; that represents and serves audiences in all parts of the UK; and that remains at the heart of our world-class broadcasting sector, which is among our greatest soft power assets, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Lords, Lord Liddle and Lord Bhatia, all noted. I very much hope that we will be able to set out our next steps on that later this year and, within that, a strong, independent and trusted BBC is vital.
I start with a brief reflection on recent events at the BBC and try to set the record straight again on this Government’s attitude towards it. I agree with the spirit of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that the ferocity of emotion—those are my words, not his—about recent events is because all of us personally and individually care deeply about the BBC as a national institution. On Lord Dyson’s report on the Martin Bashir interview, noted by many noble Lords in the debate, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said—and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, quoted, it reveals
“damning failings at the heart of the BBC”.
We are now reflecting on that thorough report and considering what further governance reforms might be needed as part of the mid-term charter review.
I will comment on the mid-term review, but so many noble Lords have questioned the Government’s attitude to the BBC, including the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, that I shall just quote from a reply by my right honourable friend the Minister for Media and Data in a debate in the other place last week. He described the BBC as
“a priceless national asset, and one of the most serious consequences of the revelations of the past week is that its reputation and trust in it have been badly damaged. It is essential that it retains its position as the most trusted and reliable broadcaster in the world, and there is work to be done to restore that reputation.”—[
We need to use all our energies to focus on the wider challenges that public service broadcasters, including the BBC, face and resolve them, rather than constantly questioning the Government’s attitude towards them.
On the mid-charter review, I cannot accept the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, that the Government’s behaviour is impacting on the editorial independence of the BBC, which, we are crystal clear, is important. I very much welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, accepting the need for constructive criticism. Sometimes a need for transparency and accountability are seen as criticism, but they are obviously essential.
In response to my noble friend Lord Gilbert’s question about what we mean when we say that we will consider further governance reform, as the Secretary of State has said, the mid-term review provides an opportunity to look at issues such as the performance of the BBC board and the effectiveness of the regulation of BBC by Ofcom. We will start preparations for that now, ahead of the review starting formally next year. Many people in the other place and in your Lordships’ House have used the phrase “never again”. This is an opportunity to check whether the new governance system that we introduced, to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred, would have worked had the events of 25 years ago occurred under this regime.
The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, asked about the wider scope of the review. I have set out the scope—addressing governance and regulation issues only—but we have been clear that we will look at the future of the licence fee model ahead of the next full charter review, which is by 2027.
A number of noble Lords raise the issue of the licence fee settlement for the BBC, including the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, my noble friend Lord Gilbert, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. We are already in discussion with the BBC and S4C on the next licence fee settlement, which is due to take effect from April 2022 for at least five years. As the Secretary of State has said publicly, this is an opportunity for the BBC to consider how it can offer best value for money for everyone across the UK. I note the call to improve the transparency of the settlement process. The Secretary of State has undertaken to publish formal correspondence between the Government and the BBC and S4C on the Government’s website, and he will lay his final determination before Parliament to allow time for debate before the settlement takes effect.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of the concession for the over-75s. Your Lordships will have heard me say on too many occasions in this House that it is clearly the responsibility of the BBC to deal with that issue, and we encourage it to do so urgently.
Turning more broadly to issues affecting public service broadcasting, a number of noble Lords talked about the importance of wider diversity in our broadcasting. My noble friend Lord Holmes spoke very eloquently about the value of regional broadcasting and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, had particular local reservations. But when we talk about diversity, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, put very clearly, we are not talking about just location of production but about commissioning, subject matter, workforce and diversity of thought. Recent commitments in this area have been warmly welcomed by the Government.
As noble Lords will be aware, Ofcom is undertaking a review of PSBs at the moment. I hope I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that the Government have encouraged Ofcom to be very ambitious and innovative in its approach to the review and to explore all issues that it sees as relevant. We look forward to receiving its recommendations this summer.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, raised the issue of the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel. As I hope I have made clear, the Government are absolutely supportive of a modern system of public service broadcasting that remains relevant and meets the needs of UK audiences in future. Your Lordships set out very clearly some significant strategic challenges facing public service broadcasters, and that is why the Government have brought in an advisory panel to provide independent expertise on these critical issues.
My noble friend Lord Gilbert, the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and other noble Lords raised the issue of prominence. We recognise the need to ensure that high-quality public service content is easily accessible to UK audiences. We have committed to act on Ofcom’s prominence proposals and we will take forward legislation on this as soon as the timetable allows.
My noble friend Lord Gilbert asked about the terms of trade. I am pleased to say that Ofcom heeded the advice of the committee and issued a call for evidence late last year to see whether any changes were required. The Government look forward to receiving its recommendations.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about the importance of radio. On behalf of the Government, I echo his recognition of the incredible role that radio, particularly local radio, has played during the pandemic.
My noble friend Lord Gilbert and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, talked about the apprenticeship scheme in the creative industries. DCMS has been working closely with industry and the Department for Education on introducing additional flexibilities to the apprenticeship levy. We hope this will start increasing the number of quality starts in the creative sector from next year. I will pass on your Lordships’ observations to the Minister for Digital and Culture.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, asked about archiving and, in particular, the national film archive. As set in the government response, we strongly encourage non-PSBs and SVODs—I am not sure that is in the Companion, but anyway—to entrust guardianship of their screen content to the BFI National Archive, making it a reasonable contribution to the BFI. I reassure him that we are monitoring progress in this regard and remain open to considering the full range of options to deliver on this, including statutory support for collecting, as currently exists for the PSBs.
We are involved in an ambitious set of plans in a rapidly changing and important sector. I feel that much of what I have said is about the future, so I will reflect briefly on some of the actions we have taken since the publication of the committee’s report to protect UK public service broadcasting. These include: adding the Paralympic Games to the listed events regime, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, referred, in recognition of their special national significance; setting out a clear and transparent process for the present licence fee settlement; as I mentioned earlier, introducing additional flexibilities to the apprenticeship levy, which we hope will really start to translate into an increasing number of quality starts in our world-class creative sector; launching a £500 million film and TV production restart scheme to ensure productions could restart after Covid restrictions were eased—many commissioned by PSBs; and supporting the wider screen industry through the launch of the UK global screen fund, which will help independent film and screen content made in every corner of the UK to export to markets around the world.
Looking forward, this will be a busy year for public service broadcasting. We have already had the conclusion of Ofcom’s Small Screen: Big Debate Consultation and the publication of a report by the DCMS Select Committee in the other place. In the summer, we are likely to receive a report from Ofcom, and in the autumn the PSB advisory panel will meet for a sixth and final time. The Government have already committed to updating the UK’s system of prominence when the legislative timetable allows. We will consider outputs from all these different processes carefully and set out our steps later this year.
I close by thanking my noble friend Lord Gilbert and his colleagues on the committee once again for their important work, and for their ideas, analysis and recommendations. To be clear, the Government continue to consider them and use them to inform our strategy as we go forward. I have greatly enjoyed the debate this afternoon and look forward to carrying some of these issues forward with your Lordships in future.
My Lords, I will be brief. I thank all noble Lords for this excellent debate, with special thanks to members of the committee, past and present. I enjoyed the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Merron; it is great to see her on the Front Bench, in full grip of what I think is the best brief in government. I was moved by the tributes to Lord Gordon. He was a giant in the industry, but that was nothing to his reputation in Glasgow, which we visited during the inquiry and where literally everyone we met knew Jimmy.
Listening to the debate, it is clear to me that the industry will look very different in the years ahead—I do not disagree with everything that my noble friend Lord Hannan said. It seems to me that, in 10 years from now, the funding will look very different too. However, my noble friend Lord Holmes hit the nail on the head when he reminded us that it is all about the content. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, said, our mission is not to see public service broadcasting survive but thrive.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I also thank her, her ministerial colleagues and her officials for their support and co-operation with the committee’s work, and I would be grateful if she would pass that on. She gave full and measured responses. I welcomed her reaffirmation of the Government’s commitment to public service broadcasting and her recognition, again, of its vital economic, cultural and democratic role. I was very glad that she recognised so clearly the role of the Government in helping PSBs navigate the challenging future they face. I beg to move.