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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 16 December 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 11:38, 16 December 2022

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, for her comprehensive introduction to this excellent report, and I congratulate the Communications and Digital Committee on its work. It was a real pleasure and most insightful to hear from so many members of the committee as well as its chair. I say to the Minister, for once, that I welcome the speed with which the Government have responded to the report and scheduled this debate. As he knows, committee reports are not always dealt with so swiftly, so I want to acknowledge the smooth way the process has run on this occasion, and I look forward to many more such occasions.

Like other noble Lords, I start by reiterating our congratulations to the BBC on 100 years of innovation and public service. As my noble friend Lord Griffiths said, the BBC is integral to our national life. This debate, rightly and unsurprisingly, has been marked by much praise and affection for a trusted institution that is particularly important, given the crying need to raise levels of media literacy—something we often discuss in this Chamber—so that people can distinguish between what is true and what is false in order to make up their own minds, with the proper information before them.

The role of the BBC has changed much in recent years. As noble Lords reminded your Lordships’ House today, its professionalism following the passing of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and the importance of its news output, whether during the Covid pandemic or throughout the war in Ukraine, have made the BBC an absolutely essential pillar of our daily lives. Yet these are uncertain times for the BBC; as the report notes, we are

“in the midst of a rapidly transforming media landscape.”

Furthermore, as my noble friend Lady Rebuck said, there is a great need to keep pace with technological change. Not only are more broadcasters operating but the content that people want and how they access it is changing: Sky TV, for example, is transitioning away from satellite dishes towards smart TVs and streaming boxes, which would have been almost unimaginable just a few short years ago.

The director-general recently announced the BBC’s own plans to go “online-only” over the next decade, and while this will need to be fully worked through in the coming years, those plans suggest that the BBC is far from the dinosaur that some perhaps claim it is. Of course, the organisation is also faced with Ministers who wish to tear up the licence fee system without there being a suitable replacement for it. That is where the report is so helpful.

While successive DCMS Secretaries of State have been unable to identify a workable alternative, this report makes helpful suggestions to be considered, including a universal levy linked to council tax bills, a ring-fenced income tax, or a reformed licence fee with new concessions for low-income households. We are pleased that both the BBC and the Government have responded positively to this report, even if neither is yet in a position to commit to a particular funding system because there is more work to do on that.

As Tim Davie notes in his response to the committee, the priority must be to agree a broad vision for the BBC’s future with the funding question to be answered thereafter, and we agree with him that

“the public must be at the heart of the debate.”

On the matter of vision, I share the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, who talked about the need to shape the BBC in a positive way, not in a way that simply mops up where the market leaves a gap. As my noble friends Lord Chandos and Lord Lipsey said, we need to hold on to the principle of universality, not just for the benefit of the public but because it means that a rich mix is being offered to support the wider economy and the creative industries in particular.

In her letter to the committee, Minister Julia Lopez committed to public consultation on the charter review and new funding models, as well as to publishing an assessment of the market impact of any decision given the knock-on effects that will inevitably arise. From these Benches we welcome those commitments but, as ever, there are several key questions which I know the Minister will want to answer. When will these processes begin, how long will the consultation last, and how will both the BBC and the DCMS encourage people to engage in the process so that we can get to the right place?

Another area that is perhaps not adequately addressed in the Government’s response relates to the future of the world-leading World Service. Paragraph 11 of the Government’s response states that the upcoming review

“will be expected to work closely with the FCDO and ensure that the World Service is given proper consideration.”

However, consideration is not the same as safeguarding and, given recent changes to the World Service, I hope that the Minister can address that in detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Hall, my noble friend Lord Liddle and other noble Lords referred to the importance of local radio, and I absolutely share that view. The noble Lord, Lord Hall, spoke about the fact that local radio celebrates as well as represents communities, and about how it defines who we are and what we stand for and gives expression to our lives. Anybody who has been a constituency Member of Parliament, as I have, will know the importance of local radio in the way that was described. For me, local radio took on a whole different level of importance when it questioned the then Prime Minister Liz Truss. Who could forget that moment when local radio came together to take on such a role and function of national importance?

This report has made an important contribution to ongoing debates around the BBC’s future. We all have a stake in the future of the BBC and, if it is to have the chance of another successful 100 years, we must get decisions right.