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BBC — [Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:10 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage 5:10 pm, 15th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, not least because my hon. Friend Sir William Cash is speaking in the main Chamber, so this is a safe haven for the next 45 minutes, I estimate.

I am an unashamed fan of the BBC. We keep talking about the TV licence fee, but it is worth rehearsing the fact that the BBC provides a huge range of services in at least five or six distinct areas. What I would loosely call the social aspect of the BBC is hard to define, but people forget that it funds five classical music orchestras. We could debate whether that is a good use of licence fee payers’ money, but there it is.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last week I hosted an event for the BBC at which it launched a new app called Own It, which is designed to help children to navigate social media. This week, I am hosting an event with the BBC for a scheme it is doing with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund doctoral students. Of course, we all celebrate the Proms. The BBC does a lot that no commercial organisation would do, much of which strays into the area of social good or the work of the Arts Council England. Frankly, I do not think it spends enough time telling people like us what it does in that field.

We refer to the TV licence fee, and we have heard a lot of citations from pensioners talking about how much they love television, but let us not forget radio. The BBC accounts for about 70% of radio listening. There are not just the national channels that we all listen to—Radio 4 and 5 Live for this demographic, I suspect, and also Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and 6 Music—but local radio, which is absolutely vital. In my constituency we have BBC Radio Oxford and, nationally, 39 local radio stations provide vital local coverage, in particular local news.

It is often BBC News that gets the BBC into trouble—there is always something for Brexiteers, remainers or Corbynistas to get their teeth into and object to. I thoroughly enjoyed the speech of hon. Friend John Howell—I had no idea about his life as top-flight media executive; he was a star of the BBC World Service. There is also the Parliament channel, local radio news and the BBC’s website. However often we disagree at times with how the BBC covers particular aspects of news, we can all agree that in an era of fake and very biased news being disseminated on social media—we see the effect that that has had on politics in the United States—we are lucky to have, broadly speaking, an unbiased and objective news service at the heart of the BBC, which is widely respected in the UK and abroad.

Then there is BBC drama and entertainment, including “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Poldark”, which we all watched last night, and “8 Days”, which I watched this morning with my Cavapoo at home. Quality drama pervades the whole of the drama output of British television. One reason why British television is so respected around the world is because the BBC sets a quality anchor—a quality level—that everyone else aspires to, which would not be there without it.

Then there is the BBC’s foray into the world of commerce. It generates its own revenue to keep the licence fee within reason and sells its programmes all over the world. BBC Studios, which makes programmes, is now in profit. The BBC has made a foray into commercial television with UKTV, to which I shall return.

The BBC does much work to make itself as accessible as possible. The iPlayer is probably the most user-friendly TV platform—I include Netflix in that. The BBC has also supported the roll-out of digital radio, and it has constantly innovated in relation to apps, as more and more people are obviously accessing content on smartphones. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, BritBox, which it launched in the US with other commercial players, is now potentially being launched in the UK.

It is important to remember that there is a lot going on in the BBC. When people criticise it, they should ask themselves what we would do without it. I have to admit that it is a bit like the royal family—it is a bit of an anomaly. I am not sure whether we would invent it if we were starting from scratch, but it permeates our culture and I could not imagine a life without it, even though, as my hon. Friend said, it is not perfect and gets things wrong.

The issues facing the BBC include the licence fee itself, which we looked at when we undertook the charter review. We concluded that, rather like democracy, it is the least-worst option of funding the BBC. It maintains a level of independence from the Government and gives the BBC a secure income. By and large, it still works. It is not destined to last forever. It may be that the BBC eventually moves to a subscription model—we will have to wait and see. Let us not forget that the licence fee has evolved. There used to be a radio licence fee that people took out separately from the TV licence. There may be debates about whether there is a licence fee aspect of funding the BBC and a subscription aspect.

The BBC will continue to look at savings. It has taken about £1 billion in costs out of the organisation over the past 10 years, and it is right that it has done so. It has an existential challenge, in terms of competing with the commercial sector. It is a big elephant in the room, in so far as the UK media scene is concerned. Ten years ago, we could not move without every media organisation, including, funnily enough, The Guardian, complaining about its reach and scope. That has been dwarfed by the advent of Netflix, the resources that Sky will have following its takeover by Comcast, and Disney. The competition to fund content, and for eyeballs—not least given the changing ways that people are consuming content—will present real challenges to the BBC to remain relevant, particularly to a younger demographic. I do not envy it that.

The BBC faces challenges on which it can lead the way. It focuses far too much—this slightly contradicts what I just said—on saying, “How do I compete against ITV or Netflix?” and not enough on saying, “What does the privilege of a secure income from the licence fee allow me to do for the UK as a whole?”