My Lords, after the speeches of great quality that we have heard, I feel somewhat humbled in speaking in this debate. My connection with the BBC is that I was married to it for quite a lot of my life. Therefore, my knowledge is based on outbursts at the breakfast table and some discussions of the huge amount of paperwork that my wife, Caroline, had to get through every evening and at weekends.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on the fair, balanced and well-argued way in which she introduced the debate; it is typical of her, and the report has made an excellent contribution. I want to throw in one idea about the future funding of the BBC and then to talk about the arguments around what we neglect when we concentrate on the core, and how we protect the important bits that we may be losing.
First, on funding, one idea that the report does not mention is the kind of arrangement that we have for overseas aid, whereby a percentage of GDP is automatically devoted to that purpose. I realise that, in the case of overseas aid, the percentage was cut from 0.7% to 0.5%, and we cannot always rule out government intervening in extreme circumstances. But paying a fixed percentage of GDP out of progressive taxation to fund the BBC would be worth thinking about. The worry about the licence fee, which may be the least worst option in some respects, is if politicians like us do not have the guts to argue for putting it up, then the BBC would just be eroded over time. All the arguments about it being a poll tax come up. We have to find an alternative because, if we simply stick with the licence fee, I fear that the BBC will decline over a long period.
Secondly, the financial pressures on the BBC in the past 10 years have been severe and led to the resources available to it being cut back in real terms. Not many organisations have faced similar pressures—I suppose that local government, which I am involved in, would be one. There is a worry that we are losing things that are very important. I worry about what is happening in the World Service; we had a debate about it—I cannot remember whether it was last week or the week before. Some 350 journalists are going; that is a serious cutback in the global capacity of the BBC. By trying to focus resources on the core, are we losing the World Service?
I have even bigger worries about local radio. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hall, made a strong defence of it—I have an interest in it, in that I go on Radio Cumbria an awful lot to talk about politics. Local radio plays a vital role in the community. The noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, mentioned its role during the floods in Oxfordshire. Certainly, in relation to the floods in Carlisle, 15 or more years ago, local radio was fundamental. I recently received an email from the people at Radio Cumbria, who say that the number of journalists’ jobs has been cut back from, I think, six to two. The amount of strictly local coverage is being drastically cut. That is a serious loss. On my side of the House, we are supposed to be committed, as a future Government, to radical devolution in England. If we are serious about shifting political power outside Westminster, we have to have a vital democratic debate to go along with it. Scotland has its own arrangements, which are well protected, but I fear for the future of local radio in England and the vital contribution it makes to local democratic debate. It is particularly important given the decline of local newspapers.
We need to think radically about a new funding model—so I am all in favour of that aspect of the report. But with all this emphasis on the core, we have to be careful that we do not lose both the global reach of the BBC and its local impact.