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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:48 am on 16 December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 10:48, 16 December 2022

My Lords, I must declare an interest, having suddenly realised on the way here that I have been broadcasting on the BBC since the early 1970s. I say this with some embarrassment, as well as pride. I am not approaching Sir David Attenborough yet, but the word veteran seems to focus.

Mentioning Sir David Attenborough leads me to say that he is a great advocate of the innovative, the educational and the entertaining. When he was controller of BBC2, he was insistent on those qualities and on the commissioning of new work. We should listen to people like him. How fortunate we are that we still look at and listen to Sir David Attenborough, because he presents us with the kinds of things that the BBC initiated, such as programmes on nature, which have had such an extraordinary effect.

I am really thrilled that the report has come out. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and her Select Committee. As my noble friend Lord Hall mentioned, it offers precisely the kind of scrutiny we must give that vital subject—the kind of scrutiny we completely failed to give the Arts Council cuts we debated yesterday—because so much is at stake. There is an analogy here. The things at stake for the BBC are exactly the same as those we might have discussed, given the opportunity, about the Arts Council cuts; namely, the preservation of the commissioning of new work and of certain qualities and people who are doing work which is perhaps not universally popular initially but still terribly important.

I speak as a composer who has been commissioned by the BBC, for which I am very grateful, but my comments apply to an enormous number of other people, given the amount of music being commissioned. Just recently, the BBC has done quite a sterling job—perhaps travelling a mile to achieve an inch—in patronising women artists, women composers and people from different ethnic backgrounds; it is all there to be seen in the wonderful festival that is the Proms. When I ran the Cheltenham Music Festival, I was always able to ring up a producer at Radio 3 and say, “We want to put on a concert with works by Elliott Carter and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. To get the artists who can do that work from abroad, it would help enormously if I were able to say that Radio 3 would be interested in broadcasting it.” They would often reply, “That sounds like a fabulous programme; yes, we would like to take it.” That is the way in which the BBC and the creative industries can hold hands to make things happen.

Technology has been mentioned. In many ways, noble Lords would be surprised to hear that the BBC is still using some technology which is about 50 years old. When we do outside broadcasts, we use a handheld mic that football commentators have been using for years. That led me to a very awkward situation. When I was introducing a new piece by John Tavener at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm—another progressive series that the BBC put on—and telling the audience that it was all about the immaculate conception and the blessed Virgin Mary, I suddenly heard dialogue in my headphones: “Is that you, Bert?” “Yeah, how are you, Fred?” “Well, the wife’s up the spout again.” I suddenly thought: is my discussion about the immaculate conception being broadcast with a conversation between two taxi drivers going on in the background? Of course, the technology was such that I could not stop to ask the outside broadcast van whether they were picking up that conversation like I was. I had to soldier on about the blessed Virgin Mary and the immaculate conception while those two taxi drivers discussed a definitely maculate conception.

I will now discuss the World Service, as, in the past, I travelled in Czechoslovakia while the Russians occupied it and in Russia itself. The Ukraine situation focuses our minds on that subject. I do not think that the man in the street here realises how colossal the soft power of the World Service is or how vital it is to people who are living in a world of oppression and extreme violence to hear what else is going on in the world. As my noble friend Lord Hall said, the bedrock of democracy is news. To be able to share news with the rest of the world is so important. I know that the Government appreciate that soft power and realise that the World Service is important, but we could do more to make our own population realise what they are paying for, because it is such a valuable thing for those who are living under persecution. That is another element that I would very much like to see preserved.

One of the important things about the report is that it does not pull its punches; it is right about many things. When I was on the BBC General Advisory Council—a rather thankless task, in some ways, because the BBC was simply not interested in criticism—I always felt that people were giving lip service by saying, “Oh yes, thank you. Well, we can tick that box; you’ve been here with three bishops, four ex-cons and whoever else, so we have done our job of consultation.” I felt that it did not mean anything. So the BBC must open up in that way and become more open to criticism.

Overall, the report is a launching pad for looking at how to fund the BBC in future. There is no easy way to do that—there is no obvious solution—but we have heard some suggestions which make eminent sense, so I commend the report and congratulate the people who put it together.