My Lords, I thank the House very much for the opportunity to introduce this debate. It is a privilege to open a discussion on such a subject.
I work for BBC Radio 4 and Sky Arts as a freelancer. I joined the BBC in 1961 as a trainee. My first television posting was to Huw Wheldon, editor and presenter of “Monitor”, the arts programme. Huw was a man full of terse advice, chiefly plucked from his distinguished military career. One example is: “You ignore the obvious at your peril.” He also said that the BBC is the “sum of its programmes”.
I begin by stating obvious things about the BBC. It is regularly sniped at, sliced up, and its parts disparaged. It is blamed for this, that and the other, and every current malaise. It purpose is often punctured. Few of its detractors take on the obvious—the full darts board—and concentrate exclusively on a double top to make a splash. I think that the BBC is unique in the world of broadcasting; so, in my experience, do many world broadcasters. Its strengths are even more valuable now when all around us, at this tipping point in our history, so many other institutions seem to be failing.
No other single broadcasting company in the world is as targeted, comprehensive, Hydra-headed, cross-class, successful on several levels and knitted into the audiences as the BBC. Of course it makes mistakes and stumbles, and is subjected to justifiable criticism, but on the whole, over almost a century, this institution has grown into one of the most reliable staples of our troubled society. It is all the better for being neither propagandist nor fawning on its public. Despite many assaults, it is still independent and arm’s length from a Government who are slow to praise, quick to blame and sometimes eager to interfere.
At a time like this, the BBC deserves to be appreciated for what it really is and not presented as the obstacle to certain factions, corporations and individuals who see it getting in the way of their own broadcasting ambitions. Unfashionable though it is, it seems that, by and large, the BBC’s ambition is now as it was when Lord Reith invented it almost a century ago, which is to reach all of the people some of the time and many of the people all of the time but, most of all, to weave itself into the texture of this country and serve it, which the BBC has always attempted to do. It is called public service. That original vision was to inform, educate and entertain the UK without favour or prejudice. It was a bold and tall order but, on the whole, it has been steadily pursued.
Reliable statistics show that the BBC is still on track. The findings are remarkable. The BBC is used by, on average, 90% of UK adults and 80% of young adults every week. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the BBC extended its role as a broadcaster to bring programmes to audiences safely, while creating new shows and events. Nearly 6 million people watched “Lockdown Learning”, and 45% named the BBC as their number one source for information and news on Covid. The nearest runner-up was 13%. Who else would have done that?
Radio 4 is the UK’s most listened-to speech station. In any year, it broadcasts over 3,200 hours of news and current affairs, 375 hours of documentaries, and new strands of drama and the arts. Its many experts and reporters at flashpoints all around the world keep us up to date. There are news programmes that feature probing, feisty discussions that skilfully dice with impartiality, bias and wokeism on issues of the moment. There are programmes on science, the arts, philosophy and sociology that pick out some of the most relevant intellectual arguments of the day.
At the BBC’s pinnacle are the Reith lectures, which are currently on air, but it is also in the context of quizzes, comedies and quirky niche shows that make many people’s day. I see it as an ingenious, illogical patchwork, inspired by the tastes of its audiences—from “Strictly” to “Panorama” to David Attenborough. Half the output of Radio 3 is live or specially recorded music. Last year alone, 50 new musical works were commissioned. Then there are the magnificent Proms and the BBC orchestras. This directly feeds into the quality, wealth and reach of classical music-making in this country. Without BBC support, that would deflate like a burst balloon.
Another example is BBC Radio 2, the most listened-to of the BBC radio channels, with high production and presenting values in popular culture. Oh dear: some who want the BBC to be exclusive rather disapprove of popular culture. But what is wrong with it? I would like to know. Popular music can be transformational and Radio 2 satisfies millions with its carefully orchestrated shows in a vital aspect of the arts. It is part of the BBC’s broad culture.
BBC television drama, such as “Line of Duty”, “Small Axe”, “Sherlock”, “Doctor Who”, “Call the Midwife”, “I May Destroy You”, “Normal People” and “Killing Eve”, hold their own in world television drama, despite the jumbo bombers coming across the Atlantic, powered by budgets that could buy a small country. Along with the Americans, we mop up the prizes. BBC drama is at the heart of the outstanding and profitable arts, media and entertainment industry in this country. More than 2 million highly and particularly skilled people are employed in the sector. They bring back profits in the billions—more than many of our great industries.
I wonder why the Government do not double the subsidies—or should we call them investments?—in the arts and the BBC. These areas could be at the forefront of an energised British recovery. They have grown unstoppably since 1945. It is not too fanciful to imagine the arts, universities and media—culture—becoming the dominant part of our economy before too long. Why not play to our strengths now? The future is already here. We need to recognise it, back it, celebrate it and hang on for the ride.
We get all of this from the BBC for about 40p a day. By the time one adds together the basic subscriptions just for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV, that alone is more than double the cost of the licence fee, despite the limited range of their programmes. The BBC can also produce big figures when it has to: 25 million people watched Euro 2020; 25.8 million people watched the last Wimbledon on BBC TV; and over 28 million people come to the BBC every evening for their entertainment on an average day.
The BBC World Service is a triumph. Almost a billion people listen to its voice—our voice—which carries authority around the world. Yet, for incomprehensible reasons, the Government are presiding over cutting its budget and producers are being forced out. At such a crucial moment in our history, it beggars belief. I am tempted to say that if around the world our Government were accorded the same respect as the BBC, we would be home and dry.
In another area, the BBC is being resolute in its determination to nurture diversity on radio and television nationwide. Greg Dyke, a previous director-general of the BBC, called it “hideously white and middle class”. That is being steadily eroded in London and the regions —an underrated part of the BBC.
So why is the BBC so often attacked, and why by the Government? It makes no sense. Over the last decade, the BBC’s income has been cut by 31% in real terms through the freeze in the licence fee from 2010 to 2017. The Government have stopped paying for the World Service and removed the funding for free licenses. In short, the Government have fleeced the licence fee paying public to dig themselves out of a hole in social services.
The multiplication of new channels continues to test the BBC but, on the creative side, it has not buckled. The press, some of which has its own fish to fry, keeps up a relentless offensive against the BBC. Sometimes the criticism is fair, and the BBC has often benefited from competition, such as when ITV came in and challenged the BBC on its news and documentary values. Sometimes it can seem that the BBC is taking on too much. Can it still, as Lord Reith hoped, serve all the people? The answer is in the programmes. The BBC is not letting that down. Many of those programmes stand up with the best on the spectrum wherever one looks.
This Government seem bent on making the BBC weaker at the moment, when every indicator suggests that the opposite course would be the wiser. The Government seem to be ignorant of the BBC’s deeply held strengths and the affection in which it is held in this country for its reliability, talent, fun, originality and the feeling of being part of a nation that it engenders. It belongs to us, the licence fee payers.
Recently, it has sometimes seemed that, sadly, we are becoming a lesser country by the year. I hope that the BBC is not allowed to become part of this surrender to a creeping deterioration. Indeed, I believe it could be one of the forces that leads by example the fight against what is happening and organises us to get out of this mire. It comes down to what sort of country we want this to be. The BBC has earned our respect and repaid our support, in war and peace, over many years. It has built itself in our image. Surely, now that it is so clearly up against it, we cannot let it down.
My Lords, it is a huge honour and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. I know that this is sometimes a pro forma that people say in these debates, but his has been a reassuring voice throughout my life: informing, educating and entertaining. He is a genuine polymath, as I discovered when I once appeared on his show on the anniversary of the Great Charter. He is one of those people who can take your special subject and argue as though it were also his. His has been a life of public service.
I do not think that anyone of us here would disagree with the strengths he has identified in our national broadcaster. The question is whether, as implied in the Motion for debate, these strengths depend on more government support and subsidy. Very often, government support, which is always well intentioned, ends up having a very different effect. There was a time in this country when it was thought that it was the role of government to install telephones, to manage airlines, to build cars. Those things did not work out very well —for the same reason that some of the rival broadcasters the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, mentioned are outperforming some of the older ones in audience share.
How do we preserve the strengths of our national broadcaster, while allowing it to enter into an age of streaming, Netflix, YouTube and all the other innovations? I do not think that my children are ever going to own a television set—it just is not how young people expect to watch programmes these days. To them, the idea of a poll tax on the population belongs—as it literally does—to a previous century. It made perfect sense when there was only one broadcaster. It is much more difficult to justify today.
There has always been a traditional attack on the BBC from some in my party on the grounds that it is biased, partial and so on. It is a line of reasoning that goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s observation that it is sinful to force a man to furnish money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves. I hope it is still okay to quote the third President, as his statue is taken down in New York City Hall. He had some useful things to say about this, but that is not really my argument today. I do not think it matters nearly as much that the big, flagship news and current affairs programmes have been losing audience share. There is now a multiplicity of broadcasters. Out of the cacophony of differing interpretations, we can usually discern something close to the truth. We have that pluralism that is so necessary for impartiality. The problem is simply that we are trying to defend a 20th-century behemoth as though the technological changes of the last generation had not happened.
The question for the BBC is whether it can retrench and defend what it does well, rather than squandering its resources and capital defending things that are no longer sustainable. For example, do we really need a state broadcaster engaging in local radio? That area was perfectly well served by the private sector before. Do we need all these unbelievably unfunny comedy programmes on BBC2 and Radio 4? Are they a core part of what makes us a nation, shaped and defined by this relationship? Can we not retrench and make the line more defensible? We still have five or six years left of the existing funding system. I hope that figures within the corporation will use these years to think imaginatively about how to go with the changes, rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. If there is a future for a state broadcaster, it will have to be more agile, cheaper and apter for the demands of our current age.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing his timely debate in such a comprehensive and authoritative way. Although I do not agree with many of the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, I follow him in saying that no one has done more than my noble friend Lord Bragg successfully to demonstrate the quality of public service broadcasting in this country, through his own very distinguished programmes.
I must declare my own, more modest interests, having been employed by the BBC over many years in various roles, as a producer and reporter. I want to mention that today because the corporation’s record as a good employer is rarely mentioned, and I think it should be. For example, even many decades ago, when I was a very junior producer, there was almost no discernible gender bias in the corporation. Even in the 1970s, women at the BBC were not treated in any way other than as equals. Although it is obvious that we have not yet seen a woman director-general, none the less, there are many women visible at senior levels. My noble friend Lord Bragg has already mentioned diversity. Just last month, the BBC was the only broadcasting organisation ranked as a top employer in this year’s social mobility index. When we talk about the multiplicity of broadcasting organisations, I hope that this will be noted.
In introducing this debate, my noble friend referred to the invaluable role played by the BBC during our ongoing national pandemic crisis, but I want to focus a little on the global role it has played, because that has been possibly even more significant. It is worth remembering that, through its multimedia platforms—and they are multimedia platforms—the international news services now reach record levels, with 450 million adults using them every week. Today, the total worldwide audience is a staggering 489 million and is confidently expected to reach 500 million in 2022. Vast numbers of people have accessed the special programming designed to help populations, particularly those in less well-developed countries, to navigate and understand the dangers of the pandemic. For example, a daily podcast—the coronavirus global update—is coupled with a mini, specialist radio bulletin, with individual separate versions for India, Africa and Latin America. Enormous efforts have been made to tackle the wild rumours and many myths about the virus—and indeed the vaccines—which have spread frighteningly quickly, particularly in vulnerable societies. The Trusted News Initiative is well established, and BBC Africa has set up its own dedicated misinformation hub. In general, the World Service has greatly expanded its work on media literacy to try to undermine the influences of so-called fake news.
Together, as my noble friend has said, all these global services play a major role in enhancing the United Kingdom’s international reputation. In the five- year review of the World Service, published in October, new research showed that
“awareness of the BBC … is strongly linked to … positive perceptions of” this country. This is soft power at its very best, and the Government should give it their utmost support—the support for which my noble friend calls in today’s Motion.
However, although the Government’s autumn spending review mentioned continuing to invest in the World Service, no specific funding figures have been confirmed beyond next March. This must be immediately addressed. When the Minister replies, perhaps he will be able to give us positive, official information about the next financial grant. I hope that it will be increased, so that the BBC can successfully go on expanding its international role and remain one of this country’s strongest brands.
My Lords, first, I send my good wishes to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on making his maiden speech. My parents were both born in Old Swan; they gave their allegiance to the cathedral at the other end of Hope Street. Successive bishops of Liverpool have worked hard to eliminate religious intolerance, and Hope Street is well named in housing those two cathedrals.
My first task is to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for introducing this debate with such authority. His words of wisdom, delivered in that mellifluous Cumbrian accent, always put me in mind of another iconic author and broadcaster: JB Priestley. The noble Lord’s “In Our Time” programmes are not just brilliant radio broadcasts in their own right; they will be repeated as source material for the study of all aspects of our social, scientific and cultural life for decades to come.
In the world of fake news, it is more important than ever to safeguard the impartiality of broadcast news. In its 100-year history, the BBC has been able to rely on cross-party consensus to support and protect our values. It would be a tragedy if that consensus were to break down now. As I have said before, much depends on the courage of those on the Government Benches to defend the BBC from this death by a thousand cuts.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said, one area where this consensus still seems to exist is in the recognition of the soft power and global influence that we receive from the BBC World Service. Today’s Motion
“takes note of the BBC’s value to the United Kingdom and a wider global audience”.
It would be helpful if the Minister could spell out in his reply the ongoing support and financial commitment to the World Service, which achieved its highest-ever global audience, of nearly half a billion people last year. Not only that, but all the research shows that listeners and viewers worldwide believe and trust the BBC. The research also showed that World Service users have positive perceptions of the UK and are more likely to use British goods and services.
Around the world, the BBC is associated with distinctive British values of fairness, integrity and impartiality. The quality of its coverage is underpinned by a two-way flow of experience and expertise between the BBC at home and the World Service. We all know from our own experience that, whenever a crisis hits the headlines, wherever it is in the world, people will switch on the BBC to find out the facts. We also know that to be true because of the way in which authoritarians seek to block BBC broadcasts and expel BBC journalists.
Brand Finance’s respected Global Soft Power Index said in its latest report that:
“The UK ranks 1st globally in the Media & Communications pillar—overtaking the US this year to clinch the top spot”.
It went on to say that the BBC
“is arguably the most respected and well-known media outlet in the world … and acts as one of the nation’s greatest soft power tools.”
That is the asset that this Government and Parliament must defend and nourish. We know the benefits that the BBC brings us, both home and abroad. We know who its enemies are and the damage that they have caused elsewhere to other broadcasting ecologies. Since this is a Labour Party debate, I think I can quote Nye Bevan: “Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?”
“When people around the world think of Britain, they think of the Royal family, and the Premier League. And they think of the BBC. From the moment its first radio transmitter crackled into life a century ago, our oldest broadcaster has been a steadfast national institution, a champion of British values across the globe … The pandemic has illustrated what the BBC does best. It has helped us educate our children, and been a trusted source of information on the virus. And it has provided a national gathering place for millions tuning in to hear government updates or watch the first live Premier League game”.
The value of universal service broadcasting, with the BBC at its heart, has been essential over the past two years. The BBC has delivered on its mission to “inform, educate and entertain”.
If you put it in context, in real terms, the licence fee costs less today than it did a decade ago, yet the amount of BBC services has increased in that time. You get 10 TV services, 10 national radio stations, 40 local radio stations, plus everything on iPlayer, BBC Sounds, the BBC website, the World Service, all for just over £3 a week. In many ways, it is phenomenal value for money, which is why more than 90% of people in the UK use the BBC every week.
With fake news abounding around the world, one of the biggest advantages of the BBC is that it is seen as impartial and trusted news and information, which is more important than ever before. It is the best at countering misinformation and fake news, supporting local communities and, of course, providing educational services—particularly during lockdown, when they reached 4.5 million pupils. Of course, providing high-quality entertainment is key, whether that is coverage of the Proms, the FA Cup, the World Cup, the Olympics, the jubilee, Remembrance Sunday, “Line of Duty”, Sir David Attenborough—a national treasure—I could carry on.
The World Service matters a lot to me as someone born in India. My grandfather in Hyderabad listening to the World Service when I was a child is embedded in my memory; I can picture it now while I speak. Ongoing government investment in the World Service—in particular to boost digital, tackle disinformation and reach new audiences in India, Africa and the Middle East—has enabled BBC News to play a critical role in helping people across the globe safely navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. The BBC has strengthened its position in markets of need such as Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where access to trusted impartial news is more important than ever. Its added value is £5 billion of economic output, according to KPMG, which reported that, for every £1 of direct economic activity generated by the BBC, there was £2.63 of economic output; and that, for every job it creates, a further 1.7 jobs are created.
We all know about the challenges that the BBC faces. We all know about the criticisms of it as well. However, at the heart of the BBC’s values are providing impartial news and information, supporting learning, showing the most creative, highest-quality output—the BBC is renowned for that and is a phenomenal example of it—and reflecting the United Kingdom, its culture and values. We are one of the most creative countries in the world. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for initiating this debate. He is a legend in his own lifetime and an example of Great British expertise.
During the pandemic, 84% of UK adults came to the BBC in a time of need during both lockdowns. Through its international audience, the BBC reaches 489 million people per week. That is almost half a billion people; it is absolutely phenomenal. As other speakers have said, the BBC is one of our strongest elements of soft power. When it comes to its reach, 12 new language services have been launched and—this is one of the most surprising statistics—a Reuters report showed that the BBC is the “most trusted news brand” in the United States, with it coming
“second only to local television news, and ahead of all major US news brands.”
The Soft Power 30 2019 ranking cited the BBC World Service as one of the two British institutions that are key to British soft power. The other tangible benefits are that it encourages people to do business with the UK and inspires people to visit the UK. It inspires international students to study in the UK; as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students and the president of UKCISA, I see this at first hand. Most importantly, the BBC is associated around the world with the amazing respect that Britain and we as a country have for fairness, integrity and impartiality.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to address your Lordships for the first time and on this subject, and for the privilege of following the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his kind words. I thank all noble Lords for the warmth of the welcome that I have received, and, for the quality of briefing and induction from the officers and staff of your Lordships’ House, which has been exemplary and profoundly helpful.
I speak as one whose first degree was in drama and theatre arts, and who was almost employed by the BBC as a trainee script editor in what was then called “English Regions Drama”, at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, in 1975. With whatever wisdom, I chose instead to enter the ordained ministry of the Church, and there have been times when I have felt that I chose the lower calling. Forty-two years of ministry in six different dioceses have culminated in the enormous privilege of my being appointed Bishop of Liverpool in 2014. I have been preferred to your Lordships’ House late in my ministry, but I am very grateful to be here and to receive wisdom for at least a few months.
Among its many dimensions, I want to speak of what the BBC does uniquely in our fragmented public square. To me, the gift and value of public service broadcasting is a matter of form before it is a matter of content: it rests on the decision to assume a tone of voice. The value of the BBC to this nation and our global position is rooted in its decision to be calm, to choose a particular volume and quality of scrutiny and to sustain it, no matter how unpopular it may be.
I have described the public square as fragmented. Increasingly, it is one where to be opinionated is to be rewarded, and where volume and shrillness of tone have become praiseworthy in themselves. In such a world, it is surely the role of a public service communicator to still the waters so that they reflect the truth. Calm scrutiny will cause people with power, whoever and wherever they may be, whatever they may say, however loudly they may speak, one and all, to be uncomfortable. This applies as much to the Bishops of the Church of England as to anyone else.
Calm scrutiny is a gift, but it must also be proclaimed. In the Hebrew scriptures, we are told that
“Wisdom calls out in the street”.
To me, the impartiality of a public service broadcaster rests in impartiality of scrutiny and courage in scrutinising, rather than in attempting the even-handed presentation of increasingly strident points of view. In Liverpool, the work of my distinguished predecessors, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, and Bishop James Jones KBE, rested on this commending of quiet scrutiny in the face of riot after poverty or institutional defensiveness after tragedy, for example, or any other falling away from coherence, community and the common good.
Your Lordships will know of the recent terrorist incident in Liverpool. It faced us with a mystery. To this day, we do not know why that young man did what he did, and we may never know. In the face of that mystery, the response of the English media was diverse. For some, the journey of the young man concerned provided a fine opportunity for the naivety of people of faith to be exposed, or for the systems by which people seek refuge to be deplored. These words had little purchase in Liverpool, where a number of organs of commercial media have been deeply and permanently distrusted for 40 years.
The BBC, on the other hand, nationally and regionally, genuinely provided the impartial platform of scrutiny which I have described, and it continues to hold the significant trust of people across my community, where few other voices do. In this case, that trust rested on a readiness, particularly on the part of local BBC journalists, to explore on its own terms the self-understanding of communities of faith as places of God’s welcome. In other words, it rested on a platform of religious literacy.
The BBC is not perfect, but it should be treasured and supported. Having said and meant all these nice things about it, I also underline the urgent need for that religious literacy to be intentionally sustained and intentionally deepened, if the BBC is indeed to hold its value for a global audience in a world that remains, predominantly, a world of faith.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate on the occasion of his excellent maiden speech. He describes himself as a late arrival in this House, but we greet him with eagerness and look forward to further contributions. His speech emphasised calm thoughtfulness and scrutiny, and his approach epitomised what he advocated. We have much to look forward to. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on securing this debate. His speech, like his broadcasts, epitomised all that is best in the BBC.
I declare an interest. My father worked for the BBC throughout his life, albeit in a humble capacity, away from the cameras and microphones. However, he instilled in me a reverence for the institution, and I still have a great affection for the BBC, even though that sentiment is not reciprocated. I admire the quality and breadth of its output and I have no desire to end the licence fee, although it may become more vulnerable through technological change, as my noble friend Lord Hannan pointed out.
None the less, the BBC should not be exempt from criticism, as the right reverend Prelate has just said. It is not perfect. Despite its tedious obsession with gender and racial diversity, the BBC suffers from a lack of diversity of opinion and an overwhelming liberal metropolitan bias. That manifests itself less in what is said than what is not said, the voices not heard, the questions not asked, the issues not addressed.
The three areas in which this bias and censorship are most blatant are the EU/Brexit, energy/climate change and immigration/skills. Time permits only brief examples of these. As far as the EU is concerned, last week on “Today”, Nick Robinson, who can be one of the most perceptive and rigorous of interviewers, interviewed the Irish Foreign Minister, who claimed that the EU’s proposals on Northern Ireland were far-reaching and would reduce checks on goods from GB to Northern Ireland by 80%. Nick Robinson could have asked whether the EU was offering to reduce existing checks by 80% or to reduce the demanded additional checks by 80%. Instead, he argued that the EU should not be making any concessions to the UK at all:
“Isn’t the problem with the concessions that the EU have made that they feed a sense in Downing Street that the EU only responds to threats? What those around Boris Johnson believe is that the EU blinks if you’re tough.”
I cannot imagine any other state broadcaster urging the Minister of a foreign country not to make any concessions towards his own country’s position, but that was the approach taken by Nick Robinson, without comment or subsequent apology.
On climate change, anyone who argues that there is a trade-off between the costs to poor people in current generations of achieving net zero and the benefits to future, far richer generations, is labelled a denier—even though the very existence of a trade-off means that you accept the science of global warming—and is banned from Broadcasting House, as I am. By contrast, claims that global warming will lead to the extinction of the human race are never challenged, even though the Government have confirmed that no peer-reviewed studies predict the end of the human race as a result of climate change. Alarmist claims about the supposedly catastrophic impact of climate change, which have no basis in the IPCC report, are never challenged. The IPCC says:
“For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers … Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.”
Could you possibly reach that conclusion from listening to the BBC’s output on the subject?
On migration, the BBC invokes shortages of nurses and doctors as totemic reasons why we need a continued inflow of skilled workers, but it never reports—and it challenged and rebuked me when I said it—that, annually, we turn away over 20,000 British applicants for nursing courses in this country and the majority of the applicants for medical schools. I recently asked a politically literate audience who got most of their information from the BBC whether they were aware of this, and they were astonished to learn that it is true.
These three issues are immensely important to most people outside the metropolitan bubble. If the BBC fails to cover them in an informed and balanced way, if it believes its job is to convince and censor rather than to educate and inform, it will not secure the support that this Motion calls for.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Bragg on initiating this debate. He covers the waterfront so well that I do not need to go over his arguments, but I will focus on some of the challenges that the BBC faces.
I am a very eclectic listener and viewer. I am such an old fogey that I still get a printed copy of the Radio Times, which is a good thing to have because it shows the extent of the competition that the BBC faces. I am puzzled by some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, who said that most children do not own a TV. Well, no, they usually depend on their parents or grandparents, but they still watch the things that they want to. But I agree that one of the challenges the BBC faces is to capture the next generation of both viewers and listeners. Talking to young people about where they get their news from is quite illuminating. Many of them do not read newspapers or books but rely on social media channels such as Reddit. It is not that they do not watch the BBC at all, but this is a challenge that the BBC faces.
Then there is the argument of whether we really need the BBC to do things such as local radio. My answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, is yes, we emphatically do, because it is one of the largest groups bringing on the next generation of journalists—its record on apprenticeships is second to none—and it serves a real audience. Do we need the BBC to provide comedies, et cetera? The answer is yes; look at the standard and quality of what it produces. I always think back to the amazing mission statement of Lord Reith, to inform, educate and entertain. That is part of the challenge to the BBC: can it still entertain an audience in the 21st century?
I am not ashamed to say that I enjoy watching “Strictly”—it is first-class entertainment. Interestingly, this year, it tackled two issues of diversity and inclusion. It included a young woman who is deaf, and a whole new group of people is now thinking about the value of sign language. Even more controversially, in a way —and even I was not sure—two gay men are dancing together; they have been an inspiration and are a contribution against homophobia. Who else would have done that in the middle of an entertainment programme? It is not perfect, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said—and maybe there are times when I agree with some of what he says—but I think there is diversity of opinion on the BBC.
I think also about children’s programmes—the Prime Minister is clearly obsessed with “Peppa Pig”. Of course, it is one in a long line of great BBC achievements. Those of us who are as old as some of us are can go back to the glories of “The Magic Roundabout” and, even further, to “Muffin the Mule”, which was quite an interesting proposition. Children’s television and radio are important things, and I think the BBC still has a wonderful role to play.
I will end on this, because I am conscious of the time. If I have any criticism, it is that I am worried about impartiality and integrity. I forgot to thank the right reverend Prelate for his maiden speech, which I found inspiring, in which he mentioned impartiality. I am glad to see, at long last, the recent decision of the BBC to withdraw from Stonewall—an organisation that I do not believe had a good influence and, in some ways, undermined its ability to demonstrate that it would hear a range of views. I am aware that this is a controversial issue, but I think it is important.
My concern about the future of the BBC is whether it is worth the funding and can still cut the ice in today’s broadcasting circumstances. I believe it can and I wish it well, but it has to think carefully about impartiality and integrity. I thank my noble friend Lord Bragg once again.
My Lords, in my brief time, I will talk about the educational work of the BBC. First, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for his thoughtful contribution. As a Liverpool resident of 40 years, I look forward to hearing other contributions from him.
As we have heard, the first director famously said that the BBC should inform, educate and entertain. As a young teacher, I remember using the BBC’s radio “Music and Movement” programmes for PE, dance and drama lessons, and the BBC’s school programmes were inspiring and invaluable. Who, for example, could ever forget Harry Armstrong? Who? Harry Armstrong brought the world of science alive for young children in the 1970s. The BBC has impressive world firsts in education. In 1924, it launched the first schools radio broadcast; in 1928, it launched the first adult education radio broadcast; in 1957, the BBC schools television service was launched; in 1971, the BBC and Open University partnership began; in 1981, BBC Micro launched, as part of the BBC’s computer literacy project; and, in 1998, BBC Bitesize, the flagship education website, was launched. In 2016, BBC micro:bit, a pocket-sized codable computer, was given free to every year 7 child.
Then Covid came along and lockdown occurred, including the shutdown of all our schools. The BBC sprang into action and, in literally a few weeks, launched Bitesize Daily to support learning for our schoolchildren and students during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bringing together top BBC talent with the best teachers across the UK, Bitesize Daily delivered a fun curriculum linked to lessons focusing on English and maths, as well as covering key curriculum subjects and student well-being. It reached an average of 2.7 million unique visitors every week, with a peak of 5.2 million unique visitors. Bitesize Daily TV shows reached over 6 million viewers on iPlayer and the red button; they explained learning in a fun and exciting way, and children and students loved them. Bitesize was used by 80% of secondary school pupils and 80% of GCSE students, who agreed that it made them feel more prepared for their exams. The Prime Minister called the initiative “fantastic”, and the Culture Secretary said:
“The BBC has helped the nation through some of the toughest moments of the last century, and for the next few weeks it will help our children learn whilst we stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”
Lord Reith was general manager and managing director of the British Broadcasting Company. He resisted the US commercial model and campaigned for the BBC’s royal charter, and the British Broadcasting Corporation was established. Would education have flourished if he had chosen that American commercial model? I doubt it.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannan, talked about things that the BBC should perhaps not do, and he mentioned local radio. He suggested that the commercial sector could do local radio, but we have local commercial radio stations and guess what? They might be commercially successful but they are no longer local—the programmes come from London and are broadcast to local communities. They have got rid of—sacked—local presenters and local production staff, and even closed down a local studio, I think in Brighton, so they do not seem very local to me. I was delighted to hear the right reverend Prelate talk about the importance of local radio to our community in Liverpool during Covid. Guess what? Radio Merseyside’s audience has increased dramatically.
My Lords, it is a thrill to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on calling it. I praise the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for his wonderful maiden speech, and I am glad to be the warm-up act for the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, who is one of the best discoveries that I have made since I joined your Lordships’ House.
I love debates about the BBC, mainly because we all suffer from “Strictly” syndrome—all our speeches descend very quickly into the programmes that we like or dislike on the BBC, and from that we extrapolate some grand stratagem about its future, but I want to concentrate a bit more on its structures because I am a critical friend of the BBC. In fact, the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, teed me up quite nicely, because as a Back-Bench MP I actually campaigned against the BBC’s education services and succeeded in closing some of them down. I did this because, as an Oxfordshire MP, I had a lot of publishing companies and education companies coming to me and saying, “We are private companies, and we employ hundreds of people in your constituency. We cannot compete against ‘free’”. That is why we now have the market-access test for the BBC’s new services, because sometimes the BBC, despite the much greater media world that we now live in, ends up stamping on the commercial sector.
I once found myself on the front page of the Sunday Times because I had mused to a journalist—thinking that I was in a seminar and not having an on-the-record drink—that perhaps Radio 1 could be privatised. The point is that we forget that Radio 1 was established in the 1960s to combat pirate radio. We now have Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6 Music, all existing in a highly competitive and commercial popular music environment. It is legitimate to ask these kinds of questions. I always start from the premise that it is important to ask these questions, just as it is important to ask the question about whether Channel 4 should be privatised. I do not know what the right answer is, but we should not shy away from these kinds of questions.
I was the Minister who froze the licence fee when we came into government in 2010. Again, I have always wondered—it sounds like a dinner party one-liner; it is a dinner party one-liner—whether it would be interesting to have a director-general who came into office saying, “My ambition over the next five years is to cut the licence fee by 10% without having to have a fight with the Government.” These are the sorts of questions that I feel we should be asking about the BBC. I share the sentiment of this debate, which is that the BBC is a national treasure that we should support, but we should also ask critical questions of it.
There are three or four points that I want to make as I wrap up. The first is that the BBC never thinks enough about how it can support the wider commercial sector. For example, commercial radio companies complain to me that they do not want to go on BBC Sounds, because it is called “BBC Sounds”. The BBC has created an amazing radio digital platform that the commercial sector cannot work with. If one talks to the commercial sector about how easy it is to work with the BBC, they all say that it is impossible; similarly with the iPlayer. I would love to have the BBC see as one of its aims support for the wider commercial sector.
The absolutely core reason why we should support the BBC is precisely because of what we talk about when we mention companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney. The clue, of course, is in their names. These are huge, global, US companies. We need to find a way to preserve—and I make no apology for saying this—UK content for UK audiences, and to have a quality anchor for our broadcasting landscape.
The BBC must support market failure, and this where I part company with my noble friend Lord Hannan’s brilliant speech. BBC local radio is a vital service that we do not talk enough about. I do not think that anyone else apart from the BBC can really provide the local radio that I still believe is vital.
Finally, the BBC should be there—in a complicated media world that is now rife with disinformation—as a trusted source of news. That has never been more important than it is today. Moreover, the BBC should—and I welcome the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay—do the kinds of things that are difficult to do: really push in the area of diversity and people from diverse backgrounds, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Young, when he, like all of us, succumbed to “Strictly” syndrome.
My Lords, it is indeed a pleasure to be part of this debate, brought forward by my noble friend Lord Bragg. I have had the honour, twice on television and once on radio, to be part of programmes that he has put out, and it was a learning experience in its own right. It is almost as much a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, who has made my task infinitely more difficult by his mention of me, gracious as it was, a moment ago. It was also a pleasure to hear the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool—I must call him my noble friend or noble colleague—as he gave us an indication of what we should expect from him in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, and I are both members of the Select Committee on Communications and Digital. Just last week the committee interrogated a Government Minister on the subject of online safety. I asked the Minister how the fine principles he was adumbrating might command respect and solidarity in the international community. We were, after all, discussing the worldwide web. The Minister informed us that he had recently attended conferences in various countries beyond our shores. He wanted to impress upon the committee the respect and trust in which we were held by countries abroad. They trust us, he said, and they know that we will keep our word and that we have integrity; they revere our culture. I am sure that we all wish that were true. Indeed, I venture to suggest, as others have in this debate, that if it is true, it owes more to the BBC than to Her Majesty’s Government—especially, perhaps, the present one.
I will limit my brief moment on the stage to the BBC’s radio output. For over 30 years, in a cameo career, I have worked on Radio 4, Radio 2, Radio Wales, the World Service and regional stations of the BBC. For a number of years, in faraway Haiti, run as it was by a dictator, our understanding of what was happening—really happening—in the world at large was provided by the BBC. I know that is as true now as it was then. Indeed, the BBC dominates the radio waves, with a 51% share of total audiences.
In countries where there is political turbulence, threats to the lives of public figures, one natural disaster after another and, nowadays, the onward and outward march of the pandemic, it is likely that the only proper perspective on a maelstrom of events will come to beleaguered and confused people—even with the competing demand for public attention by television and social media—through the informed work of our beloved BBC radio. I know that, in distant and remote places, in underdeveloped and developing countries, radio is available where television is not. Ask not, then, in these troubled post-Brexit times, who can best help to forge the frequently expressed desire for a nation that bestrides the ocean like a colossus. In pole position, we just have to recognise the BBC: Auntie, global Britain hath need of thee.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his excellent maiden speech, and the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on securing this debate, his incredibly forensic speech and his long and distinguished broadcasting career. As he said, the BBC is probably the best and most trusted broadcaster in the world, attracting international admiration. In an era of fake news, as we have heard, it is more important than ever that there are trusted, impartial news sources such as the BBC on which we can rely. But it is not just for news alone, as we heard. The BBC has an unparalleled range of services, from its education offering to its pivotal support for the creative industries. It is, of course, one of the greatest sources of British soft power throughout the world.
Even the BBC’s rivals share this view. Senior figures at Netflix, for example, talk of the BBC’s impact
“in building the profile of the UK creatively” and their support for
“the long-term sustainability of the BBC”.
Despite significant growth in competition, the BBC continues to hold its own. More people use the BBC than any other media brand. Even when funding restrictions limit what the BBC can screen, it is still the broadcaster of choice. Broadcasting just 2% of sport on TV, it delivers around 40% of TV sports viewing.
So, on these Benches, while acknowledging, as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, said, that the BBC should regularly be challenged, we support a strong, well-funded and independent BBC and will oppose attempts to undermine this by seeking to reduce its funding or remit. Yet, sadly, decisions by the Conservative Government have meant the BBC having to take on more obligations with less income: a 31% cut over the past 10 years with a frozen licence fee, having to fund free licences for the over-75s—a social policy which should be funded by the Government—and additional obligations in relation to the World Service, BBC Monitoring, S4C and even broadband rollout.
“end of the BBC in its current form”, advising right-wingers to work towards undermining the credibility of the BBC because it is the “mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party. There have been numerous examples more recently of that undermining. Following evidence that the decriminalisation of licence fee non-payment would cost the BBC dearly, rather than scrap their plans, the Government have said they will keep the matter under review, adding to what the NAO has called the “uncertainty” about the BBC’s financial future. A broadcasting Minister has argued that it will soon be possible to introduce subscription services as an element of funding for the BBC—a move that would undermine the crucial universality of the BBC, at a time when Ofcom has said that
“universality will still be necessary to deliver the benefits of public service broadcasting in future.”
I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, that he recalls that the BBC was deliberately set up to disrupt the market because the market cannot and will not deliver this universality. We have had Theresa May’s former communications chief trying to block an appointment to the post of BBC News editor and the current Prime Minister’s attempt to the install former Daily Telegraph editor, Charles Moore, as BBC chairman. More recently we saw the Prime Minister desperately seeking, even trying to bend the rules, to appoint ex-Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, as the next chair of Ofcom, the BBC’s regulator, despite his well-known animosity towards the BBC and having earlier been judged by the interview panel as “not appointable”. He could hardly have been a neutral referee on BBC regulation. To cap it all, we have a new Secretary of State who has been so unclear about the sustainability of the BBC that she is not even sure if it will exist in 10 years’ time. The time has come for the Government to cease its attempts to “thwack” the BBC and, as the Motion proposes, start giving it greater support.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on having obtained this debate. I declare an interest, having been a BBC producer for 25 years. I am now a freelance producer working for United Kingdom and United States channels.
I support noble Lords who have spoken in favour of the value of the BBC to this country, but my fear right now is the big cuts taking place in staff in BBC news and current affairs. In BBC studios there are cuts to drama, arts and history, all of which will diminish the broadcasting environment in this country and impoverish viewers.
This afternoon I want to concentrate my comments on one particular area. After all, this debate is about the BBC’s value to a wider global audience. It is a service which is very close to my heart: the BBC Russian service, which faces constant threat of censorship. Every Friday night, the Justice Ministry in Moscow issues a list of journalists and organisations which are designated as foreign agents. From that moment, the designated journalist has to put a disclaimer, “foreign agent”, on all their posts, whether they are news items or on their child’s school’s social media page. Failure to do so three times could earn a prison sentence of up to five years. Not surprisingly, as a result there is great fear among journalists, people refuse to give interviews to them, and their work is tainted.
Independent Russian media outlets such TV Rain and Echo Moskvy have been designated foreign agents. Recently the BBC journalist Andrei Zakharov went on the list. Imagine the pressure on the 144 journalists of the BBC Russian service, many of them working in country, in that environment. Since I first worked in the USSR in 1989, I have known the importance of the Russian service as an independent voice and a projector of British values. At that time, I worked with a journalist from the Russian service who had been allowed to visit the country for the first time in 35 years. Wherever we went, she was greeted as a conquering heroine for keeping the voice of freedom alive through the long years of communism. Since the arrest in January this year of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, repression against independent and opposition voices in Russia has been dramatically ramped up, while this week the head of MI6 warned that Russia poses “an acute threat” to this country.
The BBC Russian service is now more important than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union, reaching 5 million Russian users weekly and seeing a huge rise in young people engaging via social media. In a country where any criticism of the regime or support for the opposition is repressed and rarely heard in the mainstream media, this service has run brave stories. It published an important investigation into Russian mercenaries suspected of war crimes while being paid to fight in Libya, and connected them back to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man they call “Putin’s chef” because of his ability to cook up murky deals for the regime.
Unlike many other outlets, the BBC Russian service has a network of journalists across the country whose reports take the real temperature of what is happening in the country. In the Russian Far East, they covered the firing of a mayor because he dared to be independent from the regime and allowed the voices of his supporters to be heard. In the small town of Dimitrovgrad, the BBC Russian service one was one of the few that reported on an Orthodox priest who was fired and then vilified for saying of the opposition leader Navalny, “I used to criticise him, but now I want to shake his hand”. Last week, when 52 miners were killed in a mining explosion in Siberia, the BBC was one of the few media outlets which carried the voices of the desperate, bereaved families. They said the miners knew the management was ignoring safety protocols and deactivating the methane gas monitors, but poverty and lack of opportunity forced them to continue working in the mine.
The BBC Russian service costs £5.9 million a year, 75% of which is paid from the licence fee. I hope that the Government decide on an inflation-linked settlement. I have no doubt that failure to do so will adversely affect the BBC World Service and its language services. I also hope that the FCDO will very soon confirm its continuing commitment to the additional funding of these services, as laid out in the October spending review but as yet not confirmed beyond March 2022.
I urge the Minister to protect the BBC and ensure that it flourishes. Domestically it is important as a trusted source of news, and internationally, especially in repressive regimes such as Russia’s, it is a lifeline for independent thought and the projection of British values. A strong BBC will maintain our standing in the world, which the Prime Minister says is a central part of this Government’s global Britain policy.
My Lords, the BBC’s value as a beacon of excellence has always rested on the impartiality of its news output, but internationally and certainly domestically, that impartiality is under strain. Ofcom tells us that audiences consistently rate the BBC less favourably than other channels for impartiality, and complaints have trebled over four years. Even the BBC itself has now initiated new impartiality training, as it is worried that its staff do not understand it, which is worrying. Indeed, the BBC head of news, Fran Unsworth, recently had to explain to one staff team that they would have to hear and see ideas and people that they did not personally like. That such “journalism 101” lessons were needed should concern us all.
I will make some remarks as a critical friend—much as the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, commented—and as a contributor, particularly to Radio 4, and a listener for decades. As an educator, I regularly introduced teenagers to the archive of the “In Our Time” programme of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg—that is why I am rather nervous speaking in front of him. By the way, I introduced those programmes against advice from other people at the BBC, who told me that their discussions with academics were a bit too highbrow for teenagers and would alienate urban youth—that was a kind of soft bigotry of low expectations that assumes that only Stormzy and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” will capture young hearts and minds.
But, at the risk of being slightly at odds with the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, I think that criticising the BBC is actually a duty. I appreciate that any criticism of the BBC in 2021 can easily be dismissed as, variously, a Daily Mail plot, a Tory coup against the licence fee and a Rupert Murdoch-driven attempt at stirring up the culture wars—
The noble Lord agrees with me; how brilliant. But, if the BBC is to be of value in the UK, we—its supporters—need to stop being defensive and accept that all grievances are not whipped up by devious political ideologues but arise from perfectly legitimate concerns from the public about impartiality.
Traditionally, a way of judging impartiality was the pride with which impartial broadcasters could boast that no one would know how they voted—their opinions were kept under wraps. But, today, the sense of compromised impartiality is the perception of groupthink at the BBC—not from party politics but from the embrace of values assumed to be incontestable but actually politically partisan and ideologically contentious, such as the BBC’s internalisation of identity politics.
Recently, the BBC’s director of creative diversity, earning a cool £250,000 a year, introduced an allyship training scheme and stated on the BBC website:
“build back better to ensure diversity and inclusion is baked into the ‘new normal’ once the crisis has passed.”
I emphasise the phrases “baked in” and “new normal”. Imagine, then, trying to be staff member in that BBC department who wanted to challenge its decision to spend £100 million on a drive for diversity and inclusion in response to the Black Lives Matter protest. Such an approach does not include but excludes those who disagree—diversity is never diversity of opinion. Try also being a gender-critical feminist working at the BBC—there are many, but they know to keep schtum. I even know people who work at the BBC who voted to leave the European Union, but they could not come out and remain secret Brexiteers to this day. That is how groupthink works: not everyone agrees, but everyone knows the narrative that you are expected to follow.
The embrace of such orthodoxies is rarely spotted as a threat to the impartiality of BBC output, but it is a new and very present danger. Why did no one at the BBC notice the danger to editorial independence when the corporation signed up to a partisan lobbying NGO such as Stonewall? This was so well documented and eventually revealed, despite pressure to drop it, by the Stephen Nolan podcast series—an example of BBC investigative journalism at its finest.
Yet, even now, BBC senior management has announced that it is working with another external organisation—Involve—on trans-inclusive policies, although Maya Forstater, co-founder of Sex Matters, has warned that it might be
“Stonewall in all but name”.
“For the sake of the BBC, its reputation and its audience, it must be open about the exact nature of the relationship and how it will safeguard its editorial independence.”
On another issue, do not alarm bells sound when we see a corporate logo for Albert pasted at the end of current affairs programmes, such as “Newsnight”? I was intrigued and looked it up, and I found out that the BBC has signed up to an initiative in which media organisations pledge to use their content to help audiences tackle climate change and inform sustainable choices. Tim Davie is quoted on Albert’s website, saying:
Is it any wonder that sections of the public will feel patronised, denied choice, lectured and nudged to embrace one true political outlook? That is not impartiality in my book.
To conclude: like the right reverend Prelate, who I welcome here and who gave an excellent, original and thoughtful contribution to today’s debate, I worry about some of the toxic trends in the public square. However, I worry that it is identity politics that is so tearing apart the public square and that it is the groupthink approach to fashionable political causes that threatens diversity of opinion. I hope the BBC will stop succumbing to both.
My Lords, the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Bragg for securing today’s debate, whatever one’s views of the BBC are. Having listened to my noble friend on the radio and seen him on television for so many years, I find it a bit hard to believe that I am listening to him in person. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech, which was very thoughtful and caring. As someone who made a maiden speech only six weeks ago today, I know how relieved he feels— I trust—at the moment.
My purpose in briefly intervening today is to draw attention to the BBC’s role during the pandemic, which I regard as exemplary, in many ways—it is something that we should not forget. When we look back, a year and a half or more, to when the pandemic was unfolding, we remember that an awful lot of us—all of us, I would imagine—did not know what was to follow. It was a time of great uncertainty, and there is a slight hint of that today, with the new variant. But the fact is that there was a great need for trusted information.
I pay tribute to the BBC for, first, the production of factual information: the graphs showing the numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, which became a daily or weekly feature of life. Having worked with many scientific organisations, I can tell the House that all of them relied on the accuracy of the statistics produced by the BBC.
Secondly, the BBC held and invented or created a whole lot of new Q&A programmes because millions of members of the public heard the news but also wanted the opportunity to phone in and ask questions about the situation and how it might affect them. The BBC was not the only broadcaster to do this, but it did this very well. Of course, it also carried the press conferences, which brought people together, in a way—they were must-see viewing to keep us in touch with what was happening.
I bring to the attention of the House some of the statistics available. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, audiences for “News at Six” were the highest that they had been for nearly 20 years. There was a great surge of desire to tune into the BBC to find out what was happening. On the days that the lockdowns were introduced—
The right reverend Prelate talked about a fragmented public square, if I remember the phrase correctly. It is true: the noble Lords opposite have both spoken about the range of providers that exist in the modern world. But there are times when people want to come together. Of course, like other noble Lords, I remember the days, years and years ago, when the viewing figures for Morecambe and Wise at Christmas were astronomic—because there was no alternative, really, and they were very popular. But, at a time of crisis, as in the pandemic, the BBC’s role has been very great indeed.
Internationally, I understand that some of the figures here are just as important to reflect upon. The international channels brought the news about the pandemic in 40 languages around the world. Digital audiences for the BBC World Service surged to over 208 million people a week at the beginning of the pandemic.
Noble Lords perhaps know these figures, but they bear on one of the themes of this debate, especially in relation to the pandemic: trust. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey referred to this, and it is very important. We live in a time when there is an anti-science movement in this country, which you see in different ways—I ask those who may have been in the Chamber six weeks ago today, when I referred to this, to forgive me—and the BBC has played a very commendable part in countering that, to the benefit of us all.
My Lords, I part company, slightly and even-handedly, with the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, over the point about bias. When asked to name the source that they trusted the most, news consumers cited the BBC most often: 49% did, which is far ahead of its nearest rival. Sky News and ITV were both on 7% and the Guardian was on 4%, while all other sources combined totalled 23%. If any noble Lord wishes to challenge that, please do so.
However, it is a remarkable fact—this, I suspect, is what irks the Government—that the “what the papers say” consensus, which is faithfully reported every day at 8.10 am on Radio 4, does not reflect the news provider that people trust most, which is the BBC. With regard to the consensus between the Mail, Express, Telegraph and so on, the people out there do not instinctively trust such tabloids; they instinctively trust the BBC. Let us get that out of the way.
I will make a couple of personal points. First, I join noble Lords who have congratulated the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. I greatly admired his speech, which was what it says on the tin: calm, reflective and analytical. I hope that we will hear a lot more from him.
Secondly, I add my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Bragg. If, at 9 pm or 9.30 pm—I forget which—on a Thursday I fancied hearing a bit more about Aeschylus, or the ideas currently coming out of the community of astronomers, I could get it straight from my noble friend. I said to him once, “You know all this stuff backwards, don’t you?” He replied, “No, no, I forget it all one minute after I’ve finished”. I do not believe that, but we will all have to make our minds up about it. His is a remarkable arrangement, and it is quintessentially BBC.
We have to recognise that there is a difficulty for the commercial market in not having a slight increase in the financial commitment to the BBC. A noble Lord opposite— I think the noble Lord, Lord Hannan—asked only a few minutes ago why, since we had surely got past the stage of running a state motor car company, we should run a state broadcaster. The noble Lord will correct me if I have misquoted him. I query the phrase “state broadcaster”. There is no doubt what that has come to mean: Radio Moscow, Peking radio or whatever. To say that we should criticise the BBC for “allowing” Nick Robinson to say something that the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, clearly strongly disagrees with or believes to be untrue is wrong; it is, surely, the way in which the BBC has to operate.
My Lords, it is a privilege to participate in this debate, which was so ably opened by my noble friend Lord Bragg. He has been a steadfast friend of mine since I joined this House, as a fellow Cumbrian. I have the privilege of representing his home town, Wigton, on Cumbria County Council, and when I go canvassing people say to me, “You’re Melvyn’s friend, aren’t you?” It gets me lots of votes. What he said was a very moving testament to the work of the BBC and a reason why we should support it. I add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on his very measured and well-argued maiden speech. I also confess to an interest, in that my wife was at one time deputy director-general of the BBC.
My own view of the BBC is that it does what it says on the tin: it informs, educates and entertains. I have held that view of it since my childhood. The Home Service news was the basis for all our family discussions of politics when I was growing up in my Carlisle home, and BBC News remains the essential anchor of political debate in this country. Comment is forthright, yes, but not, in my opinion, biased.
However, the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, about representing the views of the metropolitan elite has to be taken seriously. I qualify that statement in two ways. First, my wife was always telling me that the BBC was never overrun by leftists: many of the senior ranks of broadcasters supported the Conservatives. Secondly, as people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, have to remember, it is not just holders of right-wing opinions who feel underrepresented. The hard left hates the BBC because it sees it as the representative of what they call the “mainstream media”. If you want better balance you will have to look in that direction too.
The BBC is wonderful. No organisation in Britain combines local depth and international reach. I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, about local radio. I recognise the very important role played in Cumbria by Radio Cumbria in emergencies such as floods. The World Service also goes from strength to strength, despite the dangers it faces from brutal civil wars and autocratic regimes that, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, described, threaten the independence of its journalists.
The BBC is not perfect; it has to change and competition is good for it. But I believe it is our job as politicians to support the BBC in this essential process of adjusting to change. Our job is not to starve it of resources by freezing the licence fee, or to fiddle with it, as the coalition Government did, or to impose on it the duty to pay for licences for the over-75s. We must not try to weaken the cutting edge of BBC journalism either. I think the BBC represents what is best of Britain, and I honestly believe that those people who are enemies of the BBC are not patriotically standing up for one of the things that is best for our country.
My Lords, I did not expect to have to stand here and take on a patriotic duty, but I will, to an extent. All of us are saying nice things about the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, and so I will pass on one anecdote. I was taking my sister round here—she now lives in the United States—and the thing she always remembers about the trip is not the building, not the great hall, not the nice tea and not my wonderful anecdotes, but the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said hello and waved to me as we went down a corridor. Clearly, his reach goes far beyond the architecture of this building.
When I think of the BBC, I think of an establishment, and of something that has touched all our lives. I also think of it as something that does things others cannot. My noble friend has pointed to the huge work that was done to support our education system during the height of the Covid pandemic—we hope it is on the wane now. Nobody other than a state broadcaster with a degree of freedom could have done that; nobody else could have taken that on and done that work.
For those on the Conservative Benches who are always telling me that the BBC is biased, I have an answer that will stop the BBC looking at you: be out of power for longer periods of time. Come on—the BBC is supposed to be an independent, inquisitive organisation, telling us the news. If you are making the decisions, you are the guys getting looked at. If you do not like it, other people are prepared—quite selflessly—to step into the role. That is the simple answer: if you are in power, you are going to get looked at.
I turn to one other small area in which the BBC has been something of a leader: the growth of elite-level women’s sport. When you arrive in the sporting world, you are covered by the BBC at the right times. The rise of women’s football and women’s rugby, in both codes, has been important and has been taken seriously. It gets coverage, and that has been led by the BBC. If you are out there taking part in sport that is being covered by the main broadcaster, you have arrived and are something to be commented upon. The BBC has found time to fit women’s sport into its schedule and not just into a small slot at the back. Every other broadcaster has for a long time said, “Oh, great, let’s film this nice little girls’ game.” No, this is serious sport, played seriously, at the right time. When your sport is shown on a free-to-air channel such as the BBC, you have arrived. The BBC might have been able to do more, but I think it has done the most. It has also been the most influential when it does this. When something is covered by the BBC, you have arrived.
I would like the Minister to tell me who else could conceivably do that. Who else could reach everybody—not just those who are looking for the coverage but those who discover it is there? I cannot see anybody else who can do it. If you pay for an exclusive service, that keeps it exclusive and you have to pay to get the thing you want. Such a service might advertise something else, but will something that competes with it change your mind and make you move away? Not really. Can the Minister give us some assurance that the Government will make sure that it is a state broadcaster that takes on the public awareness role of showing that elite-level sport is for everybody, or at least for much bigger groups? Elite-level sport inspires people to take up sport; it makes it okay to take it up and encourages people that it is the right way forward. We should be using the BBC to encourage the nations to get fitter in a way that they choose, and in a way that they can take up at their own expense, in their own time, and so saving the NHS money. Surely it is not too much to indulge a broadcaster that will occasionally annoy the Government of the day. Please give the BBC that support.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for this extremely welcome and timely debate, and incidentally for providing an occasion for the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool to give such a thought-provoking maiden speech.
I will focus on the World Service and the foreign language channels, about which I have more knowledge and experience than its domestic output. That experience was most vividly brought to life during the years when I was Britain’s Permanent Representative to the UN between 1990 and 1995. It was during that pretty tumultuous period that I came to appreciate what an extraordinary asset the BBC World Service was to Britain’s soft power, perhaps summed up best by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s remark at the time of the coup against him in 1991 that it was the BBC that had kept him in touch with what was actually happening in Moscow while he was cut off in the Crimea, under arrest.
Why is it an asset? Not because it broadcasts pro-British propaganda—it does not do that—but because it provides a continuous flow of professional, evidence-based reporting and commentary. I believe that that remains the case; all the more so now, when the airwaves are full of the fake news and disinformation which has proliferated in recent years and shows no sign of abating. The facts about the BBC’s outreach speak for themselves: a worldwide audience of 456 million; an audience of 364 million for the World Service, up by 42% between 2016 and 2020; 43 language services. Can the benefit of that in terms of soft power be quantified precisely? I doubt that very much. But is it reality, in terms of influence? Undoubtedly, I would say.
That, in my view, is why it was a major error when the Cameron Government forced the BBC to finance its overseas work from the licence fee. This set up a disruptive tension within the BBC over the allocation of resources between its domestic and overseas work, which did not occur when the latter was financed directly by the Government. What on earth is the rationale for the poorest in society to pay exactly the same as the richest when it comes to financing that oversees output? I suggest that the sooner the old system is reinstated, the better, and I hope the Minister will address this point when he winds up the debate.
I do not wish to conclude these remarks without mentioning the cruel and disgraceful harassment of the journalists who work for the BBC’s Persian service, and their families, by the regime in Tehran. It may not be much solace to those affected by this harassment but, in a way, if you think about it, it is a tribute to the role they play in bringing to the people of Iran proper, facts-based, professional reporting, something which authoritarian regimes invariably fear and resent. The same is true in the case of Russia and China. We should, I believe, be exceedingly grateful to the BBC for what it does to make this possible.
My Lords, I join the chorus not only of the Cumbrians here but of the whole House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on securing this debate at a time when, as we all can hear, there is a degree of controversy surrounding certain aspects of the BBC and its activities. I must declare at the start that I am a supporter, albeit a critical friend and, I trust, a candid one. I also recognise that we live in a fallen world, where the best aspirations are not always achieved but must never be forgotten.
I begin from the perspective shared by a number of speakers in the debate that the BBC has become an institution which helps define this country and its own brand of distinctiveness—Britishness. It is very important to very many people in all kinds of ways, but not to everyone, and it is, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, probably the greatest instrument of soft power and the promotion of British views and voice that we can hope for.
When, about 100 years ago, the media world—not that it was called that then—went through a revolution with the development of radio and then television, it was recognised that the fourth estate, which is of course an important part of the wider constitution, was changing. The BBC in its current form evolved from that, with its central attributes—and people may accuse me of being a semantic pedant—of being a national broadcaster, not a state or government broadcaster, which has public funding but, at the same time, is independently managed under the rule of law. This includes the rule of impartiality, which, as we all know, is a pretty slippery concept in certain contexts. It is also accountable both to Parliament and to the public. From that British concept, public service broadcasting evolved.
These attributes do not necessarily work smoothly but they do basically work. That is important. Now it seems to me that it is the central datum point around which the rest of the media world in this country relates. It is a touchstone against which other things are judged; some, as we have heard, are better and some less so. I believe that the availability of accurate information is at the core of democracy and voters need to be sure of a modicum of correctness, truth and true understanding properly to play their role, not least because decisions we all take as voters can have as big an impact on our neighbours as on ourselves. The BBC in particular, and public service broadcasting more generally, plays an important part in this. Like the National Health Service, it is always there, even if you do not use it. Furthermore, clearly the public must have confidence—it must be trusted and be impartial. One of the crucial aspects of this in the round, it seems to me, is that the media must never take the Government’s shilling as respects news and current affairs.
I now briefly turn to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, one of its latest initiatives in this context. For more than a decade I chaired a regional media group, principally newspapers, which were very important in the dissemination of local news and information and, as such, performed an important civic function. The well-understood collapse in the classified advertising market led to a collapse in our revenues, which led to fewer journalists which led to less local news, which in turn was a civic failure, I believe. In response to that, the Local Democracy Reporting Service provides money for journalists employed by local newspapers with financial support from the BBC. It then makes their stories more generally available. It is rather like a mini Press Association. The local press still matters in this country and this is an important initiative. I was initially sceptical about it but I am very happy to eat my words and say that it has been a very good example of how the Government and the BBC have responded to collateral damage from the digital revolution. To underline my point, it was only last week that I was metaphorically doorstepped by one of its reporters.
There is a lot of discussion, debate and rumour about where the BBC goes from here. What it seems to me must not happen is that the Government may feel tempted to eye up the BBC rather as Henry VIII eyed up the monasteries. It should remain at the heart of public service broadcasting and at the heart of this country’s media landscape. It is not a cash cow and should be run by Lord Reith rather than Lord Haw-Haw.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bragg, who has done us a real favour by introducing this debate. I also add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. He lit a candle in his speech and, on the seventh night of Hanukkah, I am all in favour of more candles being lit.
We have a limited number of exceptional implements in our soft diplomacy toolbox. My noble friend Lady Jay and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, a few moments ago, made essentially this point. We look for things that are practical and that speak to our values. They are easy to identify, partly because there are not that many of them—the Chevening Commonwealth Marshall Scholarships, Wilton Park, the British Council and, rightly, the BBC World Service, and I share all the anxieties expressed a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about its funding.
The independence and quality of the BBC World Service is based on a broad judgment that people around the world have of the BBC itself. It fulfils many functions as an institution, as the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said in his opening comments, but I want to focus on its independence as a news broadcaster, as an investigative powerhouse and as an entity that is not directed by the UK Government and is globally and internationally understood to have that level of independence.
I get the point that it is sometimes muddled on matters of balance. I think it has been in its climate coverage, for example, but occasional muddles are massively outweighed by the huge quality and independence. In short, the output is based on the BBC’s own processes, not on government processes or anything else. That characterisation of the BBC is, of course, not widely accepted everywhere in the world. The World Service was blocked by China over the years that I was in the Foreign Office. Diplomatic discussions with China were interesting. It alleged that we would not allow China to broadcast unimpeded to us. My view was, “Bring it on. Broadcast absolutely anything you want and let us broadcast to you”. I have no anxiety whatever about the standing of the United Kingdom in that kind of debate.
I want to quickly draw attention to one other area where the FCO, as it was in those days, advised the World Service. It was only a matter of advice, which was to refocus at that time—2005—from east and central European outlets to Farsi TV and radio output. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, it was argued, had become media-rich and diverse in their own rights; exactly the opposite was true in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 in Iran. As we have learned graphically from Anne Applebaum’s remarkable book on the death of democracy, Poland and Hungary have joined countries such as Belarus as thorough dystopias. Their media have lost any distinction between their Government’s view of the truth or the fictions useful to those regimes.
I ask the Minister: will Her Majesty’s Government advise, and it will be only advice, the World Service to focus again—perhaps through enhanced shortwave broadcasting but there are, I think, a number of methods—on the central and eastern European states that I have mentioned? This is not a time for financial cuts in reaching out to broadcast to those countries. We need to understand the threat of dystopian regimes in our own near neighbourhood and recognise the extent to which destabilisation in central and eastern Europe threatens our security absolutely and directly in this country. We are seeing the reinvention in a virulent form of nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in those countries and the World Service is probably one of the best antidotes that we have available.
The qualities of the BBC may be among our best, most honest, best proven, most well-tested attributes in the circumstances I have described. As my noble friend Lord Bragg said in introducing the debate, unprejudiced public service is what the BBC provides us with. It is not designed to be an implement of foreign policy but its impact abroad is very significant, and possibly as significant as any impact it has in our domestic circumstances.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for bringing this timely debate to the House. I note particularly his comments in relation to the cuts to the BBC World Service. Perhaps I should declare an interest in that I was rejected by the BBC for its 1982 graduate training scheme. In spite of that, I would like to focus briefly on the subject of wider global audiences, as I believe that it is here that the greatest opportunity lies for the BBC, while raising fundamental questions about the business model of a public service broadcaster. I speak from my own experience as both a journalist and a publisher, having worked as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and the Middle East and, more recently, in setting up and running an online information provider underpinned by paid subscriptions.
In my experience, the BBC’s brand as a trusted, impartial broadcaster is considerably stronger outside the UK than within it. I apply this statement to almost all regions of the world, with the possible exception of Europe. As my noble friends have highlighted, the BBC brand is especially valued in emerging markets that do not benefit from their own world-class impartial broadcasters. I have witnessed this in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, the UAE, Vietnam and Malaysia, to name a few. The receptive audiences in all these markets are not limited to expatriates but include growing sections of national populations that are hungry for objective information on the world around them.
With this in mind, it is no surprise to me that the BBC achieved its highest ever global audience in 2020: an impressive 486 million people per week, as we have heard. That has been achieved in spite of an increasingly crowded market, with streaming services joined by fast-developing social media platforms, which, rather disturbingly, are becoming the first—and, in many cases, the only—source of news for the under-30s. Dig deeper into the data and we can see that BBC News, including of course the World Service, accounts for 438 million of that reach—some 90% of the BBC’s global audience.
As we have heard, this global reach represents an invaluable asset in terms of the UK’s soft power and influence, all the more so as we embark on becoming global Britain. It is hugely helpful to government relations but also, although this is perhaps less known, to UK multinationals and SME exporters, as I discovered in my days as a publisher. Yet this international reach does not translate into significant income. Licence fees account for £3.75 billion of the BBC’s £4 billion in income and reportedly only £200 million in net income is derived from the BBC’s global content.
The BBC does provide value, especially to the wider overseas audience, but with its current restrictions as state broadcaster, it is unable to commercially harness this huge global opportunity. I am arguing not for privatisation but for changes to the business model, particularly in the areas of tiered subscriptions and content licensing for overseas markets.
For the consumer here, the current licence fee of £157 per household is terrific value for money, as the real subscription value of BBC content is probably nearer £400 per annum, as highlighted in the BBC Value for Audiences report. However, the BBC should not remain so reliant on licence fees when BBC News, which I believe merits increased investment rather than cuts, has the potential to generate billions in income and, in time, contribute the greatest share of revenue to the corporation. That could and should be done, without resorting to advertising and sponsorship, which, in my view, would threaten the very thing the BBC is most valued for outside these shores: trusted information.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for securing this debate and introducing it so beautifully, even if, when I hear his mellifluous tones, I cannot help thinking we are about to venture off into the life of the astronomer Caroline Herschel or, as in a recent favourite episode of “In Our Time”, the evolution of crocodiles.
The noble Lord set out very clearly two of the gigantic threats faced by the BBC, which, although many might like to grumble about this piece of output or that, is, as an institution, a public service hugely valued by the public. Apparently, if you read the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, it is also valued by the Government for its place in international soft power, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, referred.
The first threat is the squeezing of funding. As the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said, it seems that the Government are bent on making the BBC weaker. The second threat is what the noble Lord again so clearly explained as the “jumbo bombers coming across the Atlantic”. The great parasite Amazon, Netflix and other global monoliths are clearly something we need an institution to stand against.
The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, outlined some of the many ways in which the BBC has been cut away at. Unlike him, I am not going to celebrate the loss of free educational resources; nor, I suggest, should the Government, given their often-avowed attachment to lifelong learning.
Like others, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, spoke about our “broadcasting landscape”. The word “ecosystem” has also been used. The BBC is still a big part of that landscape, but is not, as some with certain ideological attachments often like to claim, a part that squeezes out the small, new and innovative. Rather, the BBC is a crucial part of nurturing talent and innovation from such sources.
The BBC is a bulwark. Think of it perhaps as a giant sequoia tree that stands against the threat of not many but a few giants; namely, a handful of multimedia tycoons and giant multinational companies—you might think of them as wildfire and raging flood, as they are certainly equally destructive. As the Media Reform Coalition, working in co-operation with the Center for Media, Data and Society, again highlights in its 2021 report on media ownership, concentration is endemic. Three firms control 90% of the national media newspaper market, up from 83% in 2019—a seven percentage point increase. Three local publishers each control one-fifth of the local press market. Facebook controls three of the top five social media services used to access online news. Two companies own 70% of the 279 local commercial radio stations—a 20% increase since 2018. That is not a healthy ecosystem. If the size of the BBC is reduced, the fat cats of the oligopoly only get fatter.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, on something: the licence fee is a poll tax and should be replaced by a hypothecated share of progressive income tax—far more progressive than it is now—with a level of funding at least restored to 2010 levels in real terms. Changing technological demands will require that.
I also agree very strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about the importance of local channels and stations at the BBC and—in another failure of regulation, of which we see so many—the total failure of regulators to ensure that what are supposed to be local commercial radio stations actually serve those audiences. I should perhaps declare that, a long time ago and in another country, I spent some time working as a producer on a local ABC radio station. That feeds my great respect for the local teams that continue to produce brilliant local content for the BBC under extremely straitened funding conditions.
I think of a young woman who covered the roles of reporter, camerawoman, soundwoman and social media outputter when she interviewed me in North Yorkshire. She was so slick, she was practically juggling the multiple digital tools of those various trades as she deployed them in the hasty 10 minutes she had with me before travelling on to her next job. We are getting very good value for money from that young woman and many like her. Communities value and rely on that output.
My Lords, I start by congratulating my noble friend on the manner in which he introduced the BBC debate today; I think it was important. I would take issue, however, with some aspects of the debate, particularly the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Addington. He and I agree on one thing, in that we both support the same sport, but I had to watch the internationals on Amazon Prime—I had to have a smart television to do it—rather than on the BBC.
I will concentrate my remarks entirely on the licence fee, because it funds 70% to 75%—depending on what you read—of the BBC’s content costs, and the BBC depends on it to continue. The licence fee was initially introduced in 1924 to cover one radio in a house. TV was then included in the licence fee in 1946, and it covered one television broadcasting the BBC. Since then, it has continued to progress, but it is the same fee for everybody, whether they have one, two, three, four or more devices in their house. Therefore, a poor person with only one TV—a colour TV, maybe—pays the same licence fee as somebody who has two, three, four or five TVs, as we do in our four-bedroom house in Hamilton, in Scotland. We have three televisions, more than one radio and many things we can watch TV on, so we have four or five things that the licence fee does not take account of.
I think everybody should pay the licence fee and I am a supporter of the BBC, but I believe that its funding is wrong in that it ought to, somehow or other, be reflective of the way in which our society has changed and the technology has changed. We should think about the licence fee but, more than that, we should make sure it reflects what has happened in our society. I am prepared to pay more, whether directly, through providers or in whatever way I pay my licence fee. However, somehow or other, I think we have to reflect—and I am prepared to pay more to get more—that the licence fee as we know it is probably the most regressive tax, and it is a tax, even though it is purely to fund the BBC. The ONS has also said that.
I am well aware of the time I am taking up, so I end by saying that I am prepared to pay more for my licence fee.
My Lords, I also declare the fact that I worked for the BBC. In fact, I think I may have been rejected for the BBC traineeship scheme in the same year as the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, but I went on to have a very good and enjoyable career there. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. I think in a previous debate I referred to him as a creative industry in himself, and I would repeat that now. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for a wonderful maiden speech. He comes from a city which is surely one of our most creative.
Last week was a good one for the creative industries. They got recognition, via “Peppa Pig”, from the Prime Minister for the wealth they generate for the UK economy. That is excellent—but, just to put the record straight, “Peppa Pig” was never rejected by the BBC, and though born in the UK, it is now the property of an American company. But the BBC has funded, created and distributed global gold such as “Doctor Who”, “Blue Planet” and “Mastermind”, and BBC Studios has supported the creation of the favourite programme of the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, “Strictly Come Dancing”, and mine, “Small Axe”. The BBC is the world’s leading television distributor outside the US.
The point about our creative industries—the fastest growing sector of our economy—is that they involve an interwoven set of relationships and support systems very much nurtured by our PSBs, and the BBC is the cornerstone of all of this. Pivotal in supporting them through innovation, investment, skills and training, the effect of initial BBC spending is multiplied as it ripples through the economy from region to region and sector to sector.
As my noble friend Lord Foster said, the BBC is emphatically not just about news and current affairs, as so many politicians seem to think. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, that it is not just about comedy programmes either. As well as showcasing British culture and creativity, the BBC functions as a catalyst for the creative industries as a whole. It invests over £1.4 billion in TV content production in the UK and generates for the UK economy the equivalent of £2 of economic value for every £1 of licence fee it receives. In other words, it doubles its money.
The investment and R&D the BBC put into iPlayer, for instance, was a trail-blazer for the global streamers. I have a quote for your Lordships:
“I think the impact the BBC has had over the last few decades in building the profile of the UK creatively, in nurturing talent, in its investment in production and so forth, is one of the key reasons we have chosen to make our home here and why we are such strong supporters of what they do and want to see them continue doing that.”
Those are not the words of BBC DG Tim Davie or BBC chair Richard Sharp, but those of Benjamin King from Netflix. The streamers want to be here because of the BBC—they do not want to annihilate it. This is not politics; it is creativity.
Contrary to what some have said today, the BBC is far from London-centric. BBC investment over decades has helped to develop significant local creative hubs across the UK, with major production centres in Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast, Salford, Bristol and Birmingham, not to mention a network of local radio and TV which ensures a spotlight is shone on important regional issues and, of course, supplies local news.
That brings me back to BBC chair Richard Sharp and a speech he made the other day in which he said:
“I believe that the case for a well-funded, modern and efficient national broadcaster has not diminished over the past decade”— reflecting what the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said—and he added that it has “grown”. His powerfully put argument was largely predicated on what he referred to as
“today’s global news and information landscape”.
We need the BBC, not just for its contribution to our economic well-being and social cohesion but because, so far as the dissemination of true, factual, unbiased news and information, the times we live in are quite frankly scary.
The BBC remains the most trusted broadcaster in the world, as the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria, Lord Vaizey and Lord Bragg, mentioned. In this era of fake news, it is more important than ever as an impartial and reliable news source. Its universal availability and independent, well-informed and neutral approach have been particularly essential during the pandemic, when untruths and conspiracy theories have been rife. Does the Minister agree that we need news that can distance itself from the partisan and that this is provided by the BBC and, of course, our other great PSB outlets?
In my view, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool spoke most eloquently on the question of impartiality. To pick up on what the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, when I worked in the BBC, the noble Lord, Lord Grade, was director of programmes; he now sits on the Conservative Benches. Jeremy Paxman was the “Newsnight” rottweiler; he declared himself a Tory when he left the BBC. The bête noire of the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, Nick Robinson, was once president of the Oxford University Conservative Association; and Sir Robbie Gibb was head of BBC Westminster, in overall charge of BBC political programmes for years. I rest my case—although, of course, the BBC did employ the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and me.
Internationally, the BBC is one of the greatest sources of British soft power, as mentioned by so many across this House—my noble friend Lord McNally, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, of course, and many others. When he was Foreign Secretary, our Prime Minister described the BBC as
“the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values” and a crucial contributor to Britain’s role as a “soft power superpower.” As Prime Minister, he launched his vision for a post-Brexit global Britain in a document presented to Parliament which is redolent with praise for the BBC. We on these Benches agree. As well as playing a hugely important role in promoting the UK, it is the only British media brand with truly global recognition.
Turning to funding, I mentioned earlier that the licence fee doubles its money so far as investment in the creative economy goes. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said—that we have to look to the future—but we believe that for the moment, it continues to ensure that the BBC is an independent universal broadcaster committed to serving everyone. That universality, as my noble friend Lord Foster mentioned, is an essential part of public service broadcasting which cannot survive paywalls and subscriptions; everyone pays less in our present system and everyone has access to the content. Actually, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said last year, there is a direct relationship between your source of finance and the kind of programmes you make; it is as simple as that.
However, the setting of the licence fee has to be free from political interference, so it is worrying to hear the Secretary of State say:
“The perspective from the BBC is that they will get a settlement fee and then we’ll talk about how they’re going to change. But my perspective is, tell me how you’re going to change and then you get a settlement.”
That is the wrong way round. Will the Government commit to setting up an independent BBC licence fee commission? I think I know the answer to that.
Alongside the issue of global Britain, which, in the Prime Minister’s own words, needs a strong, thriving BBC, is the part the corporation plays in levelling up. It feeds directly into this, supplying training and making programmes across the country, boosting local economies and utilising local skills. The BBC has held us together through the pandemic, providing news the people can trust and essential support for home schooling, as my noble friend Lord Storey mentioned. So, can the Minister explain why this Government are seeking to slash the funds of the BBC?
What the BBC needs, alongside the other PSBs, is prominence on all EPGs extended to all digital TV platforms. It needs secure and adequate funding. The Prime Minister in his CBI speech on global Britain called for support for the cultural and creative sectors; in which case, include the BBC. Global Britain needs it; a levelled-up Britain needs it; so, support it, do not unravel it. The BBC is precious; it is unique. As the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said, it is ingenious and illogical, but once lost, it is never coming back.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bragg for giving your Lordships’ House the opportunity to consider the value of the BBC to audiences in the UK and across the world; and, of course, for underpinning the debate with his renowned experience, insight and wisdom. From these Benches I offer the warmest of welcomes to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I can only observe that the BBC’s loss was the gain of both the Church and this House.
It is so important to recognise, as we have done today, the place of the BBC and the need to protect its independence, as emphasised by my noble friend Lord Triesman. As a far-reaching media platform, the BBC commissions production and acts as a stimulus in many different ways and in many media formats. If it is not nurtured, the impact goes way beyond the BBC itself and undermines the whole of the media ecosystem, with a poorer end result. One only has to look at countries that have weak public service broadcasting to understand the downward effect.
As has been said, while the BBC may not be perfect—and it would not be reasonable to expect it to be so—it is a national treasure and internationally recognised as a much-valued broadcaster. As my noble friend Lord Griffiths observed, often, radio is the only means of broadcast available in the developing world.
While there will always be debates about the nature of the licence fee, as raised by my noble friend Lord Maxton, and the correct level of public subsidy for the BBC’s output, there is no doubt that viewers are offered tremendous value for money. The BBC supports our creative industries, engages in international collaborations, runs its own training and graduate schemes and helps to equip future generations with a variety of creative skills. It not only generates an estimated £4.9 billion of economic output but spreads its value across the length and breadth of the country, having been a key player in the evolution of Salford’s MediaCity, for example, while maintaining a presence in the nations and regions. When I was a constituency MP in Lincoln, I knew only too well the importance of local radio, TV and newspapers, because all those were far more influential and trusted than any amount of national coverage I might possibly secure.
Across the world, the global news service carries the flag for the UK’s international brand and reputation, as explained so eloquently by my noble friend Lady Jay. It reaches 438 million people across the world every single week, broadcasting in 43 languages, with correspondents in 75 news bureaux. As the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said, the BBC gives a voice to those who do not have one.
Like so many of our public services, the BBC has had to respond nimbly to the unprecedented circumstances presented by nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, it has been a trusted source of news and facts, globally and at home; it has stepped up to provide educational resources to children throughout the national lockdowns; and it has responded to numerous challenges such as those posed by the rapid growth of online streaming services. My noble friend Lord Stansgate was absolutely right to speak about the increased thirst for facts and information at a time of crisis.
In some senses, the BBC has become a victim of its own success. People have high expectations, and whether it is original programming or sports coverage, they expect the very best—and expect it to be done their way, as my noble friend Lord Liddle said.
Therefore, although one Conservative MP recently berated “Doctor Who” for casting a female lead, which supposedly robbed young boys of a role model, many more argued that it promoted inclusivity. As my noble friend Lord Young said, it ensures that people from all walks of life are able to see characters on screen who reflect their own backgrounds and life experiences.
The recent Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were screened primarily on the Discovery network, restricting the BBC’s coverage and, therefore, disappointing many who had become used to the corporation’s comprehensive sports offering. The listed events regime means that public service broadcasters can afford to bid for the biggest sporting events and ensures that everyone can access them, regardless of ability to pay. This is in urgent need of reform. Very soon, we will see the marketing of the rights to the next four Olympic and Paralympic Games. With both summer Games—Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032—happening overnight for those of us on UK time, digital on-demand services will be critical to delivering this content. Do the Government have any plans to review both the contents of the list of events and the technicalities associated with it? If the Minister seeks to modernise this regime to ensure that digital rights are included—as I hope he will—how will these necessary changes be taken forward?
As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referenced, the BBC has played a huge role in popularising women’s sport. Even though the Government looked at adding the women’s equivalents to the men’s events to this list back in 2019, this has not yet happened. Can the Minister update the House on progress? I urge him to act to rectify this disparity as soon as possible, particularly in the light of the inspiration provided by the recent Olympics and Paralympics. It is important to create a legacy by harnessing that interest in order to inspire women and girls to take part in exercise and sport at whatever level they choose. There is an opportunity here to promote good health and well-being and to close the gap between those who can and those who cannot access it. I urge the Minister to take this on board.
There will, of course, always be questions asked of the BBC, as we have heard in the debate today. I do not believe that there is any great appetite to see it undermined—whether that be through funding restrictions or other, potentially more back-door, means. With this in mind, if we expect the BBC to continue to do everything we value, the Government need to ensure that it is properly resourced. However, if the Government are determined—for whatever reason—to weaken the BBC, they must be honest with the public about what they would be doing, and why. They must give the public a choice on whether that would be acceptable. I suspect that the answer would come through loud and clear, as has the feeling in your Lordships’ House today.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for securing and for opening this enjoyable and important debate. There are many in your Lordships’ House who have experience of the BBC—either because they or members of their family have worked there. There is no one who can hold a candle to the noble Lord’s wealth and breadth of experience at the corporation. As he said, that began 60 years ago this year when he joined as a graduate trainee. I can only agree with the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, that that was a very good hire indeed on the part of the BBC.
I also join those noble Lords who welcomed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and congratulated him on his excellent maiden speech. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, when she said that the BBC’s loss is a gain for the Church of England and for your Lordships’ House. I was struck by what the right reverend Prelate said about the need for calm scrutiny and careful consideration of not just what we say but how we say it. This is an important lesson for this place as well as for public discourse in many arenas.
The BBC is a great national institution of which we should all be proud. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said, the BBC is a “beacon” for news reporting and the arts around the globe. It is a first-rate broadcaster, a cultural cornerstone and a producer of some of the best television and radio in the world. It holds a unique place in our cultural heritage. In its near 100-year existence so far, it has contributed enormously to the British sense of self, as it has both evolved and endured during the last century.
Beyond our shores, the BBC carries British values and identities to a worldwide audience which has more than doubled in the last decade, and reaches hundreds of millions of people every day. The BBC is the single biggest investor in original British content, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, noted. In 2019 alone, the corporation spent more than £1.4 billion on original UK television content. Some 54% of its commissions went to independent productions, of which 57% were from outside London. The BBC’s focus on British TV production also attracts investment from others. In 2019, more than £1.2 billion of third-party production spend was directly attributable to the BBC’s grass-roots investments. As noble Lords have pointed out, it acts as a catalyst.
The BBC’s UK-wide investments are reflected in its output. As noble Lords have rightly said, this has been a lifeline for many people during the pandemic—whether through the trusted information highlighted by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, or through Bitesize, which helped those who were home-schooling, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned. The invented escapism of new programmes, such as Michael Sheen’s and David Tennant’s “Staged” brought a smile to many faces of people stuck at home.
As my noble friend Lord Vaizey of Didcot said, we all have our preferences and partialities about the BBC. Perhaps we even have our rituals. I wake up to the “Today” programme every morning. I fall asleep to “Today in Parliament”—not, I hasten to add because of the content of the speeches therein.
The BBC is a leader in British programming. Despite increasing competition in the entertainment sector, it is a conduit through which outstanding homegrown talent arrives on our screens, in our speakers and, increasingly, on our smartphones. The BBC’s approach to funding talent will be crucial to our creative industries and the many world-class creative professionals working within them, as the sector recovers from the effects of the pandemic and continues to grow at a brilliant speed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, noted. The Government also welcome the BBC’s pledge to move two-thirds of its staff outside London. This will ensure even more diverse programming and create a BBC that better represents every Briton.
The BBC’s reach and influence extend far beyond our shores. This debate rightly has a global focus too. The BBC World Service is the world’s largest international broadcaster. It provides accurate and impartial news, analysis and discussion in more than 40 languages. The BBC recently confirmed that the World Service audience is now 364 million people—its highest ever global figure. In an era of fake news and viral misinformation, the value of a free press has never been so important. The BBC World Service is, therefore, an essential vehicle for information across the world. Founded in the early 1930s, it continues to be just as relevant today—perhaps increasingly so.
Following government investment of £291 million, the BBC World Service has expanded and enhanced its services as part of the World 2020 programme. Today, it broadcasts in dozens of languages—from Indonesian to Igbo and from Punjabi to Portuguese. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, stressed the importance of the BBC’s Russian output. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, rightly spoke of the bravery of the staff of the World Service in their work. Its comprehensiveness and inclusivity are unparalleled.
A number of noble Lords asked about the funding of the World Service. The framework agreement guarantees that the budget for the World Service must be at least £254 million until April 2022. The Government are engaging with the BBC on the future of World Service funding as part of the discussions about the licence fee settlement. While details of the grant-in-aid settlement are still to be finalised, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is also committed to providing grant-in-aid funding for the BBC World Service through to 2025.
The Government support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to international audiences. It is a crucial asset to Britain’s soft power and influence across the world, and its reporting is a precious resource to many who view it. The Government also support the BBC’s continued focus on global commercial opportunities, of which noble Lords spoke, working in conjunction with ITV and other partners. By continuing that work, the BBC is increasingly able to export great British content and values around the globe.
However, the Government have been clear that there are areas where the BBC can and should improve. It is perhaps pertinent that the BBC is still often known affectionately as “Auntie”, and, like all families, people can speak with both love and frustration about the corporation, with sincere thoughts about how it can improve and continue to flourish. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, who says that we have almost a duty to criticise. I hope that we can do that, in the spirit of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, in a calmly critical way and provide the calm scrutiny which is needed.
The BBC knows this too. The Dyson report and subsequent Serota review identified that significant changes should be made in order to provide assurance to Parliament and the public, and restore the BBC’s reputation. While much has changed since Martin Bashir’s interview with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, there is still scope for improvements to be made. The Serota review’s recommendations include an overhaul of the BBC’s approach to impartiality and transparency, and tackling what staff have called a “culture of defensiveness”.
The review also identified the risks of groupthink at the BBC, something that a number of noble Lords alighted on today. Like all big and long-established institutions, there is a risk, as with so many others, of succumbing to a “we know best” attitude that can be detached both from the criticism and the values of all parts of the nation that it serves. The BBC must continue to commit to improving diversity of opinion and perspectives at all levels in defending the pluralism of which my noble friend Lord Hannan of Kingsclere spoke. The BBC should also enhance opportunities for underrepresented groups of people, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to access and enjoy and have careers at the BBC. It is right that the BBC reflects all communities across the UK, both on and off the screen.
The Government support the BBC. We want to see it rectify the institutional failings that led to the events in the Dyson report. A renewed focus on editorial standards, impartiality and accountability is essential in rebuilding trust. In that context, we welcome the BBC’s 10-point Impartiality and Editorial Standards action plan, and the commitment to implement the recommendations of the Serota review in full. But the proof, as ever, will be in the pudding. As Ofcom outlined in its annual report on the BBC last week, while the action plan is a good start, it needs to be delivered. The BBC must move forward with its plan as quickly as possible and should do so with appropriate transparency. This is necessary to show to the public the BBC’s real commitment to reform.
The Government also agree with findings in Ofcom’s recent report that the BBC
“must keep evolving to be relevant to all audiences”.
That is not a partisan point. Indeed, it was clearly articulated earlier in the week by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who cannot take part in our debate today. I would not presume to paraphrase the noble Lord, who speaks with great care and consideration, but I will quote from the article that he wrote. He explained that he would be unable to be part in this debate as he is chairing another meeting, but that
“if I could, I’d be loud in my praises of the Corporation. But I’d also have some stern criticism. Radio 4 has become so determined to address multicultural diversity, gender issues and identity politics that it forgets about all-embracing inclusion. People who live outside a narrow class of well-off professionals with rigidly right-on opinions, almost all of them in London, no longer feel included by the station.”
While not everyone will agree with every word of what the noble Lord said, it is clear that there are groups across the country who do not feel represented by the BBC, and it needs to do better in engaging those audiences across the UK, so that criticism like that can be met and need not be levelled.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, about the soft but important power of programmes such as “Strictly Come Dancing” in telling stories and increasing the representation of gay and deaf people, for instance. But there are so many other stories that need to be told too—points made by my noble friend Lord Lilley, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in his well-made point about elite-level sport and the diversity that we need there.
On that point, and the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, on listed events for sporting endeavours, we are considering the proposals made by Ofcom on the listed events framework but, at this stage, think that the current regime strikes an appropriate balance in ensuring that significant sporting events are available to as wide an audience as possible, with the ability of sporting organisations to generate revenues to invest in their sports. But we will of course continue to keep that issue under review, with the Olympics and other big sporting events coming up.
The Government will shortly begin work on the mid- term charter review, which will examine the governance and regulation of the corporation. This will consider whether the current arrangements are working effectively or if further reform is required. We have also committed to examining the licence fee funding model ahead of the next charter review. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, knows the answer to that question: work on this will begin well in advance of the end of the current charter period.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, raised the question of gender equality at the BBC. I do not know whether other noble Lords enjoy watching former general election night programmes as much as I do or have seen the broadcast of the 1970 general election, when my noble friend Lady Fookes was first elected to another place. It went viral, as is said nowadays, when her interview with Sir Robin Day, moments after her election to the House of Commons, was replayed. The way he spoke to her as a new female Member of Parliament was shocking to modern ears, and deserves to be. I am glad to say that much progress has been made in the intervening years.
As a public service broadcaster funded by licence fee payers, the BBC has a responsibility to set an example for others and lead the way in promoting equality in the workplace. The Government are disappointed to learn that the median gender pay gap at BBC Studios actually increased to 11.2% from 9% in the previous financial year. It is for the BBC to determine how to close its gender pay gap, and we expect to see improvement in next year’s disclosure. As in so many areas of national life, transparency is vital in this area, and the BBC’s pay disclosure shows that it still has work to do. It is vital that we continue to see these figures in future years, so that licence fee payers can monitor progress.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Vaizey, rather than my noble friend Lord Hannan, on the importance of local radio stations and local BBC work. Local and regional news coverage provide a vital service, providing information about local public affairs, holding local decision-makers to account and providing a forum for community decisions, as well as important information in relation to floods, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle pointed out, or storms, such as Storm Arwen, which we discussed before this debate.
The Government ensured that, in its royal charter, the BBC has a duty to consider its market impact and to ensure that it seeks to avoid adverse impacts on competition. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, also pointed to the welcome and important work of the Local Democracy Reporting Service. Under the new regulatory system introduced by the Government in 2017, the BBC board must ensure that the BBC complies with its charter duties. Ofcom was established as the BBC regulator to ensure that the BBC is robustly held to account.
The BBC is a beacon for reporting and the arts around the world. It provides distinctive British programming, supports our creative industries at a domestic level, and delivers quality output and news on an international scale. It is a priceless national institution of which we should all be proud, and we are. It is because the Government support the BBC that we are focused on encouraging it to improve and reform. We want the BBC to continue to succeed, to meet the challenges of a fast-changing media environment and to continue the mission set by the late Lord Reith to inform, educate and entertain for many more generations to come.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate. There were a lot of interesting speeches. It shows that I am a bit taken by surprise when I use the word “interesting”, because it is an easy and ordinary word. It was fascinating to hear the level of support for the BBC; I had not quite expected it to be so warm and deep. It was equally intriguing to hear people criticise the BBC in such a well-informed way. The BBC, like any institution, does not like to take on critics, even friendly fire as it may be. But there are things wrong with the BBC, as I said once or twice, and things that could be improved. With great respect, I started to get worried when the Minister said that the BBC should do this, would do that and needed such and such—if it is going to be prescribed from the top in that way, especially when these things are coming up in the next two or three years, we will all have real worries again.
When the debate finished, I thought, “Well, we’re in quite a settled state”, but if the Government are going to say, “We’re going to take this opportunity to do this, that and the other, and look at this, that and the other”, there will be worries. The BBC is taking care of itself pretty well. Its critics around the place have been listened to—I hope that more of them will be listened to after this debate because their criticisms were so good—but it also has the support of so many people for the right reasons. It can go in the right direction if it is given that support and that support increases.
I thank noble Lords for their speeches and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for such a fine entrance. I am delighted that we have had this debate.