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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:30 am on 16 December 2022.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 11:30, 16 December 2022

Let us settle down. How the BBC is funded is the big question. There seems to be a reluctant agreement about the licence fee, but, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, put it, a bit of rebranding is required. It is known as the TV licence fee, but my daughter does not watch television programmes on a television but on a laptop. It is surprising to discover the different ways to consume things that the licence fee covers—for example, using a mobile phone—so a bit of rebranding is required.

On the idea that we should consider people’s ability to pay the licence fee, it seems quite appealing initially when you look at local taxation levels and banding levels, until you realise what a gin trap they are for anybody who goes anywhere near them, and how they are totally out of date, et cetera—and on and on into the night. The most dominant Prime Minister of my lifetime was brought down—or at least, the process was started—by playing with that. So, we have to get a degree of consensus, at least about what we do not want.

In terms of advertising, the cake is not big enough, and there is also the universality of streaming and subscriptions; these factors are pulling at each other. Some form of paying for the BBC through a licence fee seems to be the only option for the moment, although it probably cannot carry on as it is unless everybody decides that the other things are far too scary and we do not want to do them.

The idea of having a basic, worldwide news provider more tightly controlled by the Government it is primarily criticising is totally unacceptable. If that were to happen, the entire future of the BBC would be called into question. It would become the party in power’s body, not the nation’s. If we lost that, nothing could do the work that the BBC did, and led the other public service broadcasters to do, during lockdown. There is nothing else that gets close to or has the capacity of the BBC. We would have to invent something—a very weird creature—that would take it on. I hope that when we hear from the Minister, he says that the Government are behind the idea of having something that is independent and looks fully at the public service duty.

As for the TV licence, let us just call it a licence and grade it. How would we do that? Well, your Lordships’ answer is going to be as good as mine at the moment. However, making sure that the BBC is not under the control of the political group of the moment is absolutely essential. We must have something with a degree of public reaction—we are probably doing that now, but we can always do it better—and a degree of independence. Without that, you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Political advantage should not be a factor here. I think somebody said it is dreadful that the BBC is competing with online news—well, yes, but it could be better and more distinctive. You can go to your particular lobby group, but that is not what the BBC should be. Can we have an idea from the Minister when he responds—and indeed from the noble Baroness, Lady Merron—about what the Government think this institution is going to be? If it is going to be very different, the Government need to justify that.

I have one final point, which was mentioned earlier on. I have championed women’s team games at the BBC, which then led the other public service broadcasters on this, and we now expect to see those games. More than half the population enjoy their triumphs and disasters and buy in to that. The job is not finished yet, but that could not have happened without the lead of the BBC quietly breaking the idea, pushing it forward, and pushing forward the raising of standards of professionalism within those sports. That is something the BBC has done that has affected the lives of just about everybody. We all think that there is too much music we do not listen to, and people who do not like sport will think the same, but if we do not allow the BBC to take that initiative and push something forward, we have lost something very important. I hope the Minister will give me his thinking on how this can be achieved when he comes to reply. I say this to the Government: please, do not get rid of something that is basically good. Allow it to change.