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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:55 am on 16 December 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Conservative 10:55, 16 December 2022

My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in the debate, although I fear that I will have no anecdotes to come close to those of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Stowell on her excellent introduction and comprehensive summary of the report, and on her outstanding chairing of the Select Committee, on which it has been a privilege to serve.

As my noble friend said, there is a real danger that the subject—the funding of a treasured national institution—will very quickly become polarised and political, and that any challenge to the status quo is seen as an existential threat to the institution itself. We have exactly the same problem in our debates on another beloved institution, the NHS: that suggesting reform can risk being accused of not believing in the principle of the institution. What has been hugely encouraging about the way the Communications and Digital Committee has developed the report, under my noble friend’s excellent leadership, is that we have been able to move away from those kinds of debates and false polarisation.

As the report and today’s debate have so clearly set out, we all fundamentally and passionately believe in the BBC. As many of us said in the recent debate to mark 100 years of the BBC, we all want to see it thrive for another 100 years and beyond; and—not “but”—we are also clear, as the title of the report suggests, that, for the BBC to continue to command the broad support of the population, change is needed. In fact, as the title says, we want to give the BBC licence to change.

The most important reason why the status quo is not an option is precisely because the BBC is so important to our society, democracy and country. As a number of noble Lords have said, technology is driving huge change in society in general, and in our media in particular—some good, and some not so good. Technology connects us directly with people all over the world who share our interests and enables us to access an extraordinary array of content on multiple platforms and devices. However, at the same time, our children and grandchildren face online threats that were inconceivable when we were growing up; the echo chambers of social media are making it harder for people to have civilised debate on our political differences; and the fragmentation of audiences is making it ever harder for a mid-sized media organisation such as the BBC to thrive.

The pandemic and the Ukraine war have brought soaring inflation, and, with that, hardship, uncertainty and fear. That all means that institutions and ways of living that bind our society together are even more important than they were before, so a healthy BBC really matters. It is a public service media organisation that has a mandate of universality to inform, educate and entertain all of us in some way or other, and it brings us all together when it really matters. It helps us to articulate the values we hold dear in our country, acting as national glue in an increasingly fragmented and social media-driven world. However, to do that, the BBC needs to remain genuinely relevant and valued, which means that it needs to change with the times. Change is hard for everyone; the older you get, the harder the change gets. If you are a 100 year-old and much-loved national institution, there is no doubt that change can be quite hard to face into.

I would like to use my speech to highlight three areas that the report draws attention to where the BBC needs to change. The first and most obvious, given the title of the report and its subject matter, is the way in which the BBC is funded. The current funding mechanism is not sustainable. My children’s generation find it baffling that they need a TV licence when they leave home to go to university without a television. If they want to watch anything, they are not watching on a television, as they do not own one, but we expect them to pay something linked to a TV set. It is not surprising that that generation is the least engaged group of BBC viewers. Linking funding to the ownership of a television set will be ever less justifiable—and this matters, because for a BBC to remain relevant to all, the way we pay for it must be relevant and justifiable to all of us. Changing the funding mechanism, as many others have said this morning, is not going to be easy, but not changing sends the BBC down a certain path where gradually it becomes less and less relevant to society.

The report sets out the pros and cons of the various options. It is clear that an advertising model or full-subscription model would not be financially sustainable or consistent with a mandate of universality. Some form of levy will likely be necessary. We are not the first country to face this transition of funding our public service broadcaster based on the TV set and moving towards some form of levy, and there is much to learn from Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries. One of the biggest learnings, as the noble Lord, Lord Hall, highlighted, is that this takes time. If we are going to do this, we need to get started. Even to be in a position to make a decision for the next charter renewal period, we do not have much time left. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm what the timetable is that gets us to a decision point with ample opportunity for full public consultation and debate in time for the next charter renewal?

Secondly, I would like to address how the BBC delivers on its commitment to universality. I know that the BBC reaches 75% of 16 to 34 year-olds each week, but TikTok is ahead of it with 16 to 24 year-olds. We heard directly from young people in Salford and from people of all ages from other communities outside the elite metropolitan bubble we live in here that they do not feel that the BBC fully reflects them and their interests. Just as how we pay for the BBC must reflect modern society, of course the content really needs to too. I appreciate that this is not easy, and cannot mean that the BBC tries to literally be all things to all people. Choices need to be made, and made wisely. But I worry that the BBC leadership finds it hard to admit the scale of this challenge for fear of the debate really being existential. I think the opposite is true: the only thing that could present an existential threat to the BBC is a failure to acknowledge the need to improve and therefore not to listen hard enough to those communities’ needs. The BBC should be more open about the challenges it faces in delivering for all communities and work ever harder to address them.

Thirdly, we need the BBC to lead us in this overall work. It was encouraging, as my noble friend said, to see the recent speech made by the BBC director-general at the television conference and hear that he is aiming to make the BBC a digitally-led public service media company. But one speech does not deliver it, nor does one speech give us sufficient clarity on the BBC’s long term vision and plan to inform, educate and entertain us in the digital era. I know that the director-general is right that no organisation on the planet has delivered a successful digital transformation without investment, but no investment proposal should be approved without a compelling long-term vision and plan. We need the BBC to be brave and to set that out for us. That is hard to do if you think the real debate is about your existence—but it is not, and should not be. It is about how the BBC thrives and continues to play a central role in our society for the next 100 years.