We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

BBC — [Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:52 pm on 15th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 4:52 pm, 15th July 2019

Thank you, Mr Wilson. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I suppose I should start by declaring an interest. For a number of years I worked as a presenter for BBC World Service television. I presented such well-known programmes as “World Business Report” and “World Business Review”, which I am sure trip off the memory of those who managed to catch them. I was not one of the mega-rich presenters. Helen Jones spoke of people in the talent pool who do not have much talent. I like to think that I did have the talent but was not paid enough for it. However, anyone who had that role realised that it was a wonderful role to have, because they could walk down any high street in the UK and nobody would recognise them, but when they got off the plane in Delhi they would be mobbed, because that was the distribution of the programme.

As a presenter at the BBC, I was made very aware of its editorial policies. I like to think that I did not infringe those policies at all during my time as a presenter, so I do not think an accusation of bias on my part would have been either made or appropriate. I fully accept that the BBC is not a perfect organisation. I fully accept that it makes mistakes. However, as my right hon. Friend Damian Green said—he is no longer in his place—it is an enduring British institution that carries much weight and is held in much esteem by people in this country.

When I was a presenter at the BBC, few would have doubted that it was value for money—I cannot recall the issue ever being raised. However, it is raised in the BBC’s annual report for 2018—and it is glossed over somewhat. That report states that, based on the BBC’s survey of people who watch it, its value for money rating was six out of 10. The very next words of the report state that that is “within target”. That is an absurd thing to say. It is absurd to describe getting only six out of 10 as remaining “within target”. Far more needs to be done before the BBC can achieve value for money.

I suspect that the value for money argument is influenced principally by three factors. The first is the news coverage and whether there is an appreciation of bias in that. I suppose that comes down mostly to whether the BBC is biased in one way or the other in its coverage of Brexit. Personally, given the way Brexit has divided the country, I think it would be difficult not to see BBC presenters divided in the same way.

The second factor is the range of content. A constituent contacted me to say that he objected to the way a programme he was watching on one BBC channel suddenly switched to another so something else—I think it was the tennis from Wimbledon—could be run. That is not an acceptable way of behaving.

The third factor is the arguments about salaries and the gender pay gap. Going back a few years, the 2013-14 annual report asked for a reduction in the overall cost of talent. I cannot see that any appreciable change took place between the publication of the 2013-14 report and the current year. I happen to know that the director-general is working on that, but we need to see progress pretty quickly.

Looking at the range of content, which is one of the arguments I suspect people may have used to justify the BBC’s value for money, I shall point out two programmes. The first is “Bodyguard”. I thought that was a fantastic programme, and it will have been of interest to all of us in the Chamber, covering the subjects it did, but it was made by a production company owned by ITV. I will say a little more about that, and about how the nature of the media industry is changing, in a minute.

Secondly, in the field of investigative journalism, I praise the “Panorama” programme that covered the issue of antisemitism. I watched it from end to end and became more and more disturbed as I watched. I noticed that the hon. Member for Warrington North said bias can be seen when we hear what we do not want to hear. That is a prime example of bias being shown, because it is clearly something that people do not want to hear. I thought that was a very good programme, and it is one that I have recommended that people should watch on iPlayer.

I mentioned that “Bodyguard” was produced by an ITV production company. That illustrates in part the changing nature of the media industry. When I was the chief executive of a production company, I went over to New York to see the foreign editor of Fox. I said to him, “I’ve come here to sell you some lovely programmes that I’ve made about foreign and interesting places”—places such as Mongolia. I was the first journalist into Mongolia to interview the new democratically elected president. He looked at me and said, “Foreign—you mean Californian?” That line would not be appropriate today. The world has changed, and the media world has completely changed.

One area in which the BBC competes is online programming. We have seen it compete fully against Netflix, with quite a lot of dissatisfaction in working out the value for money score from Netflix. BritBox is coming online shortly from ITV, so there will be even more competition in this area. Whether in such circumstances the BBC can maintain its position on the licence fee is certainly open to question.

The commercial element in the BBC is not new. We tend to think of the BBC as having no commercial advertising. That is simply wrong. BBC World Service television carried substantial commercial advertising, and I did not find that it interrupted the flow of my presenting in the slightest, and nor did viewers find that it interrupted their enjoyment of the programmes.