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 6:16 pm on 15th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 6:16 pm, 15th July 2019

That is a reasonable point as far as it goes. The BBC has not only paid very high salaries in a discriminatory way over the last five years; when it was found to be discriminating, it increased those salaries. It is the case that there are places within the BBC that have to compete commercially, but the fact that it has increased the number of people presenting sports programmes surely shows that there is not a shortage. It could get very high-quality people at a lower rate. Let us say that Gary Lineker goes to BT or Sky; I think that the people at the BBC who are earning a lot less are as good. I understand the argument advanced by Huw Merriman, but I do not think that it stands up in that case or many others.

I think that John Humphrys is one of the best interviewers there has been on the BBC. He has dropped his salary, but I do not think that he was ever worth more than £600,000 or that the private sector was going to pay that amount of money for him. I have no idea what Andrew Neil gets paid at the moment, but it is a great pity that another great interviewer is leaving the BBC. I do not know whether that is down to commercial pressure or just because he is a bit cheeky and teases the BBC management, but it is a great pity. He gives politicians all round the clock a pretty tough and torrid time when he interviews them, and that is a great thing for democracy. But I think that, from that narrow base, we do get a distorted view.

Incidentally, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle that £20 million would not pay the licence fees for the over-75s. I accept that; it is just simple arithmetic. But—it is a big but—£20 million is still quite a lot of money, and one of the aspects of the BBC that I appreciate is the quality of regional radio, which is massively underfunded. In regional radio, £20 million would go a long way. Compared with when I started out in politics, which was a long time ago, what is put out by BBC Radio Manchester now—its political coverage and the rest of its coverage—on less resources is not as comprehensive. The quality of the people doing it is excellent, but there simply are not as many of them and there is not as much. That is because of underfunding.

I want to give three or four examples, if I may, of where I think this cohort of south-eastern, Oxbridge-educated people get it wrong. I will say, and the point has already been made, that any organisation with human beings in it is going to make mistakes. The mistakes themselves are mistakes, but they do indicate a larger problem with the BBC.

The BBC procured and presented on BBC Three, when it was a channel, a series of programmes called “People Like Us”. That was based in the ward that I used to represent as a councillor and that is still in the constituency I represent. Frankly, it was poverty porn. It gave the most distorted view of one of the poorest wards in the country. Depending on how we count these things—it is not a competition that any ward or constituency wants to win—Harpurhey is the poorest or the third poorest ward in the country. Cameras went along and the people making the programme pretended—it was a pretence—that they were following how people in Harpurhey lived. They were not; they were distorting it. They paid girls to fight each other. They opened a pub and created a most peculiar party of transvestites. I have nothing against transvestites, but that kind of situation had never happened in that particular public house, which was being closed for a couple of years. They got a pretend landlord in to talk about how he was very happy for his tenants to take drugs. It was clearly a put-up job. And some of the people who said outrageous things were taken on holiday by the company doing this. It was a shocking and terrible thing, and I do not believe that if people from that kind of background had been part of the BBC, that programme would ever have been made. Fortunately, there was not a second series. The head of BBC Three was good enough to see me and Councillor Karney, who represented the ward. I do not know whether it was down to our lobbying, but there was not a second series.

I want to talk about two other matters. One is bias on the EU. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South made a speech that I half completely agreed with and half completely disagreed with. There is quite a lot of evidence, in terms of the numbers of people interviewed about the European Union, that there are more pro-EU people. In the run-up to the referendum, virtually every business person who was interviewed on the “Today” programme was asked how Brexit was going to damage their business. In fact, it became a standard form of question or statement that “in spite of Brexit”, this benefit or that increase in jobs had happened.

A number of independent research groups have shown the bias in the run-up to the European elections. They have counted the number of people who were pro-EU compared with the number who were anti-EU, and the pros win by about three to one. In fact, one of the senior political journalists said, “We have no need to be balanced in this matter,” which I think is at odds with the BBC’s constitution.

The difference, during the run-up to the referendum campaign, was striking. The BBC did what it does in general elections: it was perfectly well balanced. That was in contrast with what happened afterwards and what happened before the period of the referendum. I think that that is partly because the people who run the BBC in London are essentially all pro-EU and think that there is something peculiar about people who are not.

My background is as a scientist. I believe in the scientific method and I practised for 10 years, running an analytical laboratory, so I am not, in the way some people mean it, a climate sceptic. However, some of the science from the likes of the University of East Anglia and in the leaked emails is a bit dodgy—very dodgy in that case. Some of the policies proposed to deal with climate change are expensive and one needs to be sceptical about the cost of those policies.

Not only is the cohort running the BBC from Oxbridge, but it is happier speaking about the subjunctive than the second law of thermodynamics. They have clear views on what the perception of science and climate change is. I will give an example, which I think is quite extraordinary. I appeared on a programme with Lord Lilley—with whom I disagree with about almost everything—about the Met Office, with Quentin Letts conducting the interview. Lord Lilley has a scientific background. He has a degree from Cambridge in physics. We agreed that climate change is happening and the planet is warming up a bit, but that the response is probably overblown. I said that the Met Office was very good at short-term forecasting, but hopeless at medium and long-term forecasts.

It is now impossible to get a recording of that programme, because it is banned, like the Catholic Church in the 16th century. We are on a banned list, because we agreed that the discussion was unbalanced. On the EU, there is no balance, but on a relatively trivial matter, the scientifically illiterate people at the BBC have decided to ban us. There will be real problems in the future if the BBC does not sort these things out.

I have spoken slightly longer than I intended. Finally, I will speak about the issue of free licences. It is not really worth a great deal of further thought. It is quite obvious that the Government—not the BBC—should be responsible for a benefit such as free television licences for the over-75s. The licence fee, however, is worth further consideration—not next week, but in the near future. I find it strange that on my side of the House there is enthusiasm and support for—I could name many such issues, but I will not—flat-rate taxes, which are regressive. If there is a public good and a public benefit from television, which I think there is, it should be funded by progressive taxation coming out of income tax.

The argument against that often put by BBC executives is that it damages the independence of the BBC. My hon. Friend Christian Matheson knocked that argument on the head on a very specific case. The people running the BBC are part of the informal ruling class in London, and they scratch each other’s backs, so there is not complete independence there. Further, Governments have always set the level of the licence fee, so every five years the Government have a say. I do not see why we should not have progressive rather than regressive taxation for what is undoubtedly a public good.

The BBC has had a lot of support, but it has to look at how it funds its regional organisations and how it stops being a cosmopolitan elite, with all the narrow views that that implies.