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BBC — [Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:57 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 5:57 pm, 15th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to take part in the debate opened by my hon. Friend Helen Jones, who gave an outstanding introduction, as usual. She talked about the “not me, guv” Government, and she is right, because their consistent modus operandi with public services is to slash a public authority’s funding and blame it when it is unable to deliver the service. Alternatively, when the public authority has to put up its prices to compensate for the lack of money from central Government, they will attack it politically for doing so. We have seen that happen with failures of local government services, such as the fire service and the police. The epidemic horror of knife crime is apparently nothing to do with the 20,000 fewer police officers, or the cuts to children’s services. Apparently it is all the fault of the Mayor of London. A similar thing can be seen in the debate about the BBC licence fee. The BBC was presented with huge cuts to its budget and was forced to take the blame when it had to charge the licence fee to over-75s. It is part of a consistent practice by the Government that needs to be exposed and resisted.

[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

Huw Merriman talked about some of the services that would be affected were the BBC to have to take on the whole amount. In total that could be £700 million a year. That would be the cost of BBC 2, BBC 4, BBC News, BBC Scotland and BBC Radio 5 Live and, crucially, local radio stations. Given the crisis in local newspapers, the BBC is in some areas often the only real provider of the quality local news that binds communities together. It can do that because of the licence fee.

There is what is known as an ecosystem in broadcaster funding. Each broadcaster in the UK is funded differently. ITV is funded largely through advertising, with some production work. Sky has a subscription and some production work and advertising. It all knits together particularly well. I must say that, if we move away from the current model to one where the BBC or parts of it had to either use subscription or enter into advertising, I am pretty sure not only that existing channels would be unhappy but that it would damage their operations. That is not to mention the question how we take on the influence of the global giants based on the west coast of the United States.

I, too, have a problem with the size of some of the salaries paid to BBC presenters. I have a particular problem with the use of the word “talent” to describe on-air performers and presenters, whether on radio or TV, because it suggests that the whole attraction of a particular broadcast is based on the individual who presents it. Make-up artists, production designers and junior producers are all talented, and the quality of the programming is vested in all of them and not simply in the person who is in front of the microphone or the camera.

Why on earth did the BBC accept this cut to its budget and the enforced taking on of the licence for over-75s? The simple truth, as other hon. Members have already mentioned, is that it was forced to do so. If we speak to senior BBC management, we hear that they were left in no doubt that this was being forced on them. My hon. Friend Paul Farrelly, who was on the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with me, called it a “drive-by shooting”. A Treasury Minister—I think this was while George Osborne was Chancellor—told the BBC, “This is the way it’s going to be, so make the best of it.” When BBC management said that they were quite happy with the solution, that was not the case—but what else could they say when they had a gun to their head?

There is also another, more sinister reason. I was on the DCMS Committee when Rona Fairhead, the then chair of the BBC Trust, attended a pre-appointment scrutiny session for the position of chair of the new BBC board. Before she appeared before us, we were informed that after her meeting at Downing Street with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, she had a private meeting with him without any civil servants present. That was put to her, and she admitted that it was the case. As it happened, the Committee declined to confirm her appointment, but the situation does give rise to the question why the BBC governors at the time did not resist the idea of the over-75s licence fee being deposited on them. Coincidentally, Rona Fairhead was shortly afterwards appointed to the House of Lords and made a member of the Government. I am not suggesting that those two incidents are linked—