BBC: Future Funding (Communications and Digital Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:35 am on 16 December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Vaizey of Didcot Lord Vaizey of Didcot Conservative 10:35, 16 December 2022

My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate and to be a member of the Communications and Digital Committee, which is so brilliantly chaired by my noble friend Lady Stowell. I sometimes have to pinch myself as I look around the room and see a committee made up of a top publisher, a top BBC executive, a top telecoms executive, a top Lib Dem, a top artist and a rock and roll Methodist minister. I declare my interest as a presenter on Times Radio, a superb competitor of the BBC which is eating the BBC’s lunch—at least as far as talk radio is concerned.

I have come not to denigrate the BBC but to praise it with heartfelt love. We are so lucky to have the BBC in this country. Yesterday I talked about our arts ecosystem and how lucky and privileged we are to have that. We are lucky as a country to have such a high-quality state-funded broadcaster that is completely independent of government and continues to raise the bar. We should never forget that.

I am delighted that my speech is almost identical to that of the noble Lord, Lord Hall, because that must mean I am on the right track. There are three reasons why we need to continue to support the BBC. The first, as the noble Lord has already articulated, is trust. In an internet-fragmented world of disinformation, we need more than ever a trusted brand that means that, when we turn on the news, we know we are getting as close to the truth as possible. Secondly, we need the BBC for quality. Reed Hastings, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, noted, has pointed out how the BBC continues to innovate and raise the bar for all commercial broadcasters in this country. Thirdly, and most importantly, the media is so important to our society that it is vital we hold on to home-grown media. While we have a plethora of media choices as consumers, the vast majority are owned in the United States. It is really important that we have, as an anchor tenant, a British media company.

It is true that we have a rich ecosystem and maybe, as an intellectual exercise, you would struggle to suggest that we should create a state-funded broadcaster today. The fact is that the BBC exists, and it is a vital part of that ecosystem. If it was removed, we would be so much poorer. It is very depressing to me that, in the 100th anniversary year of the BBC, there was barely any celebration. Even the BBC’s own celebrations were muted, but as one might perhaps expect in the political climate of today, politicians were few and far between in coming forward to celebrate this extraordinary institution.

The BBC is not above criticism. I also play the parlour game we all play in thinking about the BBC’s reach. I have already pointed out that I am a Times Radio presenter, but even before then I questioned—and I continue to question—whether Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6 Music is perhaps overegging the pudding in terms of popular music and what commercial radio can provide. I remember for many years having the Guardian complain to me about the reach of the BBC online. There are lots of British newspapers that have the opportunity of a global reach, but which find when they open in new markets that they have to compete against the BBC.

I raised in our committee whether the BBC was right to go so heavily into podcasts, which is an emerging market that could perhaps be catered for better by the private sector. These debates are very nuanced, and it is quite right that the BBC does not want to leave itself out of emerging markets where audiences are going. This speaks to a fundamental point: it really is not for politicians to start telling the BBC what it can and cannot do. Those are commercial and broadcasting judgments for the BBC. It is important for us all to avoid what I call the “Strictly” debate, whereby we quickly descend into deciding which programmes we like or do not like and extrapolate from that BBC policy.

However—again I am echoing what the noble Lord, Lord Hall, was saying much more subtly—the decision to cut back on local radio seems utterly nonsensical. It commands huge political support, but it is a vital community service. When I was an MP during the floods in 2008, I described BBC Radio Oxford as the fourth emergency service; it was a vital source of information for local people.

Huge challenges are facing the BBC, including the move to digital—as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, pointed out, Tim Davie made an important speech about how the BBC is going to face that challenge—and addressing the ongoing debate about how impartial it is. I have great confidence in the leadership of Richard Sharp as chair and Tim Davie as director-general. It is right and proper that they address those issues. Some people feel that they are selling the past by daring to talk about the BBC’s impartiality, but it is a live political debate, and silence from the BBC’s leadership would be a denigration of their duty. Having said that, I have some concerns about how Ofcom is leaning into the BBC. When Ofcom took over regulation of the BBC, I hoped that there would be cool, objective analysis of the services that it provides, but I sometimes worry that it has too much of a political slant.

Our in-depth inquiry into how the BBC is funded came up with a lot of arguments with which we are all familiar, and it came to conclusions which I think most of us can support: first, that we need a state-funded, taxpayer-funded broadcaster; secondly, that, rather like democracy, the licence fee appears often to be the least worst option but has its flaws; and, thirdly, that finding an alternative will be incredibly difficult. If we are to search for an alternative, something like a household levy which introduces an element of progressive taxation into the licence fee may be the way forward. The underlying conclusion of the report chimes with what I have thought for many years, which is that we need constantly to question whether the licence fee is the right solution to fund the BBC, but that to pretend that there is an easy answer and an easy alternative is a fool’s errand.