BBC Charter: Regional Television News — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 12th July 2022.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 9:30 am, 12th July 2022

Before we begin the debate, I should tell Members to feel free to remove jackets if they wish because of the temperature.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the BBC Charter and the closure of regional TV news programmes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. When I was 15, I wrote to BBC Radio Oxford to say that it should make programmes for teenagers. Its reply offered me the chance to make those programmes myself. Thus began my career in broadcasting. After I had graduated, I worked for BBC News for seven years before moving to Channel 5, where I stayed for another eight years. I declare an interest: I have a background in broadcasting and spent a considerable period working for the BBC.

One of the things that made BBC Radio Oxford great when I was there was its connection to the audience. Its presenters, reporters and producers knew the local area, understood the local issues and related to the local people. That is the case now for the Oxford television newsroom, which each evening produces dedicated programming in “South Today”. The title sequence shows the names of the places that feature: Abingdon, Bicester, Brackley, Buckingham, Didcot, Witney and, of course, Aylesbury, my constituency. The Oxford programme has a dedicated presenter and a dedicated team of journalists who produce dedicated programming for their local audience, yet that programming is under threat.

At the end of May, the BBC announced that it will

“end the local TV bulletins broadcast from Oxford on BBC1 at 6.30 pm and 10.30 pm on weekdays.”

From November, regional coverage for the area will be merged with the “South Today” programme broadcast from Southampton. Instead of there being TV news for my area, the BBC says it will be

“strengthening its local online news services.”

The BBC has decided to do the same with its bulletins produced in Cambridge—scrap the TV programme and put the local news online instead. I know there are colleagues here today who are affected by that decision.

The BBC has a unique and privileged place in our country. It is funded by a licence fee that is imposed on everybody who owns a television set, irrespective of how much they earn and how much BBC output they watch, listen to or read. In return for that funding model, the BBC is governed by a royal charter that sets out the corporation’s responsibilities. The charter lists the public purposes of the BBC, and this is the first among them:

“To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world. Its content should be provided to the highest editorial standards. It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers, using the highest calibre presenters and journalists, and championing freedom of expression, so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens.”

The debate is not the place to discuss how fully the BBC complies with everything set out in that paragraph—there are certainly different views about how well it complies with the requirement to be impartial, for example —but I draw the attention of the House to certain key elements of the first of the public purposes of the BBC. Those key elements are to

“provide… news… to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom”, enable all audiences to

“engage fully with major local… issues” and offer material

“not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers”.

I submit that, with its proposal to close the Oxford edition of “South Today” and the Cambridge edition of “Look East”, the BBC is failing to comply with those charter requirements.

The BBC needs to continue providing local news in the way people want to get it, because others have ceased to do so. Many local newspapers have closed in recent years. In August 2020, Press Gazette reported that, according to its analysis, 265 local newspapers had shut since 2005. Just last month, a report entitled “Local News Deserts”, published by the Charitable Journalism Project, set out a stark picture. It said:

“The current local news landscape of the UK is unrecognisable compared to 25 years ago…Average daily print circulation for the local regional and local press in 2019 was around 31%...of 2007 figures…The loss of revenue from print sales and the migration of advertising online has brought about successive shocks to the business model of local news. It has led to multiple title closures, redundancies, the ‘hollowing out’ of newsrooms, office closures and centralisation…Most local journalism is no longer written by separate editorial teams associated with a specific title.”

The report says that people

“want a trusted, locally based, professional and accessible source of local news, that reports and investigates local issues and institutions…provided by journalists local to their communities.”

The chairman of the project wrote in his forward:

“The collapse of local reporting is a slow-burning crisis in Britain.”

He pointed out that the income that kept local newspapers afloat in the past will not return.

That, then, is the picture for local print journalism, but it is not just newspapers that are leaving town. In September 2020, Aylesbury’s much loved and very widely respected commercial radio station, Mix 96, effectively closed down. It was subsumed into a new regional station called Greatest Hits Radio (Bucks, Beds and Herts), owned by Bauer. The dedicated team who had served Aylesbury with news, current affairs and local information were no more. The studios in our town have closed. Bauer promised that there would still be coverage of Aylesbury stories, but there are far fewer than there were. The reporters who lived and worked locally have gone.

Of course, I recognise that the way we get our news is changing. Many of us use our phones, for example, to see updates on Twitter or Facebook, but there is still a sizeable audience who want to get their local news from a local television programme, and that is especially the case for older people. Indeed, the BBC itself says that 75% of the viewers of “South Today” are over the age of 55. While many people in that age bracket are highly digitally savvy, plenty of others are not, and they should not be cut off from what is happening in their local area. They should still have access to information about local news. They should still be able to see their local politicians being held to account on their television screens.

Instead, with its latest proposals, the BBC plans to subsume the news from Aylesbury into a programme from Southampton. Frankly, stories about sailing and the coast are not terribly relevant to one of the most inland towns in England. The simple truth is that people in Witney do not have a great deal in common with people in Winchester. News about the havoc caused by HS2 in Buckinghamshire is not very high on the agenda of those who live in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. The BBC is proposing to create a TV region that simply has no geographical identity. The result will be even lower audiences, as people tune out from a programme with stories to which they simply do not relate. This matters.

The broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, also highlights the importance of television as a source of news. Its most recent report on news consumption says:

“TV remains the most common platform for accessing local news.”

In addition:

“Use of TV is most prevalent amongst the 65+ age group, while the internet is the most- used platform for news consumption among 16-24s…BBC One remains the most-used news source across any platform”.

It is twice as popular as the BBC website and app: the figures are 62% for TV, 31% for online and app. Yet, the BBC wants to close its TV programmes, and put the content online.

The BBC says that when it closes its Oxford and Cambridge TV programmes, it will devote more resource to its local radio stations. But Ofcom says that fewer than half the population now use the radio for news—it is just 46%, whereas 79% use television. Again, the BBC is knowingly cutting programmes from a platform it knows is used and relied upon.

Some may say that this Government’s decision to freeze the price of the BBC licence for two years has forced the corporation’s hand. It is true that the BBC will have to make some cuts in some of its expenditure, but not in this case. The acting director of BBC England told me in simple words, “This isn’t about savings. I haven’t got to save a single penny.” In the correspondence I received from the BBC to tell me that it was planning to close the Oxford programme, it is confirmed:

“The BBC will be maintaining its overall spend on local and regional content in England over the next few years.”

Let me repeat that: the planned closure of BBC Oxford’s “South Today” programme is not driven by the need to save money. Instead, the British Broadcasting Corporation wants to shift more of its output online and away from television.

Having been a journalist and always wanted to hear two sides of the story, I went to the BBC to ask it to put its case. When I asked what evidence it had that people in my local area wanted to get their news online instead of on screen, I was told it would take some time to gather all that information from various sources. That was from the director who had made the decision to close the service. I was a bit surprised that he did not have the facts at his fingertips and could not immediately tell me the justification and why he felt that it was needed or desired, so I waited for a mass of evidence to arrive from various sources.

After 10 days, I got one page. It could not be said to provide the compelling facts that I had eagerly awaited. First, it set out some raw numbers. The BBC said that the average number of viewers for “South Today” was considerably lower in 2022 than in 2020. In 2020, however, all regional news programmes experienced a big increase in viewers because of the pandemic—a point proudly emphasised by the BBC in its annual report—so it is somewhat disingenuous to take that specific high point as a comparator to justify cuts now. Indeed, the BBC told me that the decrease in viewing of regional news programmes is happening more slowly than the decrease in viewing of other programmes.

On my one page of evidence, there was a single paragraph that could perhaps be said to touch on digital versus traditional ways to get local news. It said that the BBC’s own qualitative research showed:

“Amongst older respondents (55+) there has been a long-term trend away from traditional platforms (especially print media) and towards online sources, most significantly Facebook.”

The BBC added:

“This is supported by Ofcom data which reveals over 55s are as likely to access news online as through radio or print. This group expects to be able to access tailored local news online.”

Those listening closely will have heard two references to print and one to radio, but the word “television” is not mentioned in the evidence that the BBC provided to support its decision to cut a television news programme. It certainly did not say that older viewers were switching away from TV news, let alone that they wanted to do so and get their local news online instead. In fact, it says that of the weekly visitors to BBC News Online, 37% are aged 55 or older—in marked contrast to the 75% aged over 55 watching “South Today”—so there are serious concerns about older people being able to get easy access to increased online local news. I should also mention that there is a threat to the jobs of those who have dedicated years of their lives to producing high-quality local TV news. They have not been guaranteed new posts, and they should not be forgotten.

The BBC is a British institution. It does a great deal of good for our country, and I am very proud to have worked there. Its role providing news and information is crucial to our democracy, but with its plans to cut dedicated news programmes on television in the Oxford and Cambridge areas, it will reduce access to local news and information for many people. For the reasons I have set out this morning, I believe that contravenes its charter requirements, which is why I say it is not simply a day-to-day operational decision for the BBC, but a matter for this House and the Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:43 am, 12th July 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson, and to follow the excellent introduction by Rob Butler. It was very thorough and considered. I suspect that this is one of those occasions on which people in both his and my part of the country can speak with one voice. I will make broadly similar points to his, but more in reference to Cambridge.

This issue is part of a wider debate about the BBC and how our major news programmes and broadcasters will cope with the challenges of the future. I am not entirely sure that it is our place as politicians to dictate to the BBC how it should run things. On the other hand, it is very important that it hears from the public and their representatives about the likely impact of these changes. I am sure I am not the only one in this House who regularly receives comments from constituents along the lines of, “Oh, I saw you on the telly the other day.” It is generally followed by me saying, “What was I talking about?” and they have no idea. Some of them say, “But I’m sure what you were saying was very sensible,” and others say something very different, of course.

I am struck by the number of people who respond when I have been on “Look East” or “The Politics Show”, compared with when I stuff leaflets through their door or even get pieces in print or on the radio. Television really matters locally, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Aylesbury explained: with the decline in print media—in Cambridge, we are fortunate still to have a daily paper—journalists struggle, because it is harder and harder, and there are fewer and fewer of them. Much less investigative journalism is done now, compared with when I started on my trail in Cambridge 20 years ago. The investigative journalism that I have seen in the past seven or eight years, since I have been in this place, has come from the BBC at a regional level.

I draw a bit of a distinction between the BBC at a national level and a regional level. I increasingly find myself watching “ITV News at Ten” these days, because I think the BBC has been too supine in its approach to the Government over the past few years, but at a local level the regional journalists are superb. They are incredibly professional and they produce really good programmes that people like, watch and identify with. It is invidious to name particular journalists, but one who stood down, Stewart White, was a legend in the east of England. He was a friend in the sitting room to many, many people.

The question today is whether the BBC is right to make these changes to its regional output. I and other political leaders in the region have written to it asking it to think again. The introduction of the west-east split a couple of years ago was a big plus—certainly for politicians, as it meant that we got covered more because more journalism was being done and there were more opportunities—and it dealt with the difficult problem, which the hon. Gentleman alluded to, of regional identity.

There is a bigger debate to be had about regionalism, but I have always said whenever I have met the broadcasting companies that, to some extent, the TV regions define the east of England. It has long been argued whether the east is six counties, three counties or whatever, but the TV region really matters because that is what people see coming into their kitchens and homes. The split was a really good step forward, so I cannot say how disappointed I was to hear about these changes. Whatever one feels about the wider questions of whether this is the way to reach people in different demographics and whether people pick up more of their news digitally, this will mean less local journalism—there are no two ways about it—and that is bad for democracy. At a time when our democracy is, frankly, struggling in lots of ways, this is a step backwards.

There are some other factors particular to the east. The census figures from a couple of weeks ago revealed what many of us had known for a long time: the Cambridge sub-region is growing at an extraordinary rate. I have stood in this very place and argued with Ministers about public service spending and allocations. The Cambridge region is woefully under-resourced because the figures fail to keep up with the reality on the ground, and that is borne out by the most recent census figures. It is one of the fastest growing regions in the country, and the BBC is turning away from it. That makes no sense.

So I say to the BBC: please, you have an opportunity. Suddenly, the whole world is changing in front of your eyes. You do not have to be cowed by the Government who have just gone. A new Government are coming along, and another will come along after that. Spot what is going on, think hard about what the future looks like, and listen to the people who represent those who pay the licence fee. I think that if the BBC listened to those people, it would come to a different conclusion. There is still time to stop this change.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 9:49 am, 12th July 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. My hon. Friend Rob Butler has been far too modest about his achievements in broadcasting. It may come as a surprise to some Members, but he taught me all I know about broadcasting on both sides of the table. I remember appearing before him at the BBC as an interviewee, and a little later succeeding him as the presenter for BBC World Service Television broadcasts. Being a presenter for World Service Television meant that we could walk down a high street in the UK and not be recognised. However, when we got off a plane in Delhi, we were absolutely mobbed—an interesting experience.

We need to look at what right the BBC has to organise its own services. I would not want to ban the BBC from organising its own services or looking at the competition that it faces, which includes, as we have already seen, things such as Facebook, which I will come back to in a minute. It is right for the BBC to look at how we as consumers use TV and radio, but it is important for us as politicians to stand up and say what we value most in our television broadcasting, and what it would be a great shame to see end. For me, that starts and almost finishes with investigative journalism at a local level.

I am not saying this because I use “South Today” and BBC Radio Oxford, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury does as well. It is not for want of another forum for expressing our views, but—I pick up the point made by Daniel Zeichner—when both Oxford and Cambridge are expanding so quickly and so much, it is extraordinary to see the BBC turning its back on them.

I accept the point about costs, but one question that will have occurred to the BBC is that investigative journalism is not cheap to run. It requires a lot of human costs and takes an enormous amount of time to make it work. Journalists have to go out and see, talk to and film people. When they get back to the studio, there is all the editing of the tapes as well, but the product is much the better for that personal intervention. I wonder whether anyone at the BBC has undertaken an analysis of how it manages the important elements of the charter that we have already mentioned—the impartiality of the news and information—and manages to keep them current and in place in the fight with digital broadcasters.

If we compare television news broadcasts with Facebook, we are not comparing like with like. Facebook is incredibly biased, and Twitter even more so. If that is the way the BBC is going with its digital broadcasts, I want nothing more to do with it. Like the hon. Member for Cambridge, I no longer watch BBC TV news. It is anathema to me to see the values that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and I were imbued with simply wasted, and I do not see that as a good line for the future. The impartiality point is a crucial one, and one that my hon. Friend did not touch on much. However, I think it is a point that we need to get right if the BBC is to make a change. I have seen nothing in the thinking of the BBC about how, in a digital age, it will preserve its impartiality. If we look at today’s news online as an example of that, there is absolute relish in the idea that tomorrow there will be a vote of no confidence in the Government. There is no objectivity about it; it is a piece of gratuitous journalism—if I can call it journalism—that does the BBC no credit whatever.

There are many aspects to the problem, and we can only touch on a few of them. However, I think it is important that we restate our commitment to local investigative journalism, which I agree does a tremendous job. I have seen such journalism at a local level develop into large-scale news programmes, because of the careful work undertaken by local journalists. I have no idea what I am going to do when I finish in Parliament. I will probably not go back into broadcasting, but if I were to, I hope that I would find the values that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury and I grew up with still alive and present in whatever form the BBC takes, but I sincerely doubt that that will be the case.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 9:57 am, 12th July 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I will bring, as is my wont, a highland perspective to this short debate. I congratulate Rob Butler on a thoughtful contribution. I say to John Howell that if he is short of things to do when he decides to leave this place, he is welcome to come and do some investigative journalism in the highlands of Scotland. Twenty years ago we had a half-hour bulletin from BBC Inverness; today we just have a five minute one. That has seen an erosion of investigative journalism and the coverage that was so good 20 years ago. I regret that enormously.

Of course I welcome and acknowledge the contribution that the BBC in the highlands makes to the Gaelic language. It has a large team of perhaps as many as 20 people, who are important to arresting the sad erosion of the language, but we now have about seven broadcasters speaking English covering the vast geography of the highlands.

I make the simple point that in the highlands we have challenges of distance and sparsity of population. Investigative journalism is important to enable the functioning of democracy—be it the Highland Council, NHS Highland, or the doings of a Member of the Scottish or Westminster Parliaments—but we do not get the coverage that we used to 20 years ago. That is not a complaint about me not being on air as much as I could be. The point is, in the past, if someone was not doing their job properly, at whatever level they were at in politics or the NHS, the BBC’s investigative journalists would dig it out and flap it around.

I remember coming a cropper; I learned a very hard lesson 25 years ago as a local councillor. I went on the BBC and said that the amount of money that we were proposing to increase councillors’ expenses by was absolutely shocking—it was a proposal from the Administration. A journalist, very adroitly replied, “Will you be taking the rise, Mr Stone?” I coughed, spluttered and had to say, “No.” I learned the lesson to beware journalists. However, it was a testing question and it needed to be asked.

I point out, anecdotally, that my former party leader, Mr Charles Kennedy—of happy memory in this place—started his career with the BBC in Inverness. I remember his voice broadcasting. I think he honed many of his skills that proved invaluable in this place through that work, as did the hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Henley. It augments what these people do.

I talk about the news coverage and the aversion to what is happening, and I very much hope that one day the cuts can be reversed. It is odd, is it not, Mr Robertson, that Orkney has a half-hour coverage of news and so does Shetland, whereas the whole of the highlands has one short bulletin? I say to BBC Scotland that something is wrong with its planning in that regard and I hope it will be looked at again.

In the past, programmes were made in Inverness. There was one called “The Kitchen Café”, which was very popular, and got local people involved and on air. I see the UK like a diamond; every facet is slightly different. British people do not particularly enjoy being homogenised all together, into one exact sameness. We enjoy hearing about the different ways that things are done in Oxford, Cambridge, the highlands or Wales. We love that; it is part of being British. The erosion of regional programme making cuts into that, and I regret that enormously because it is part of the British psyche and the way in which we do things.

When I was first elected as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I took part in one of those shows. Every Monday I would have a 10-minute slot, which was rather hilariously called “Stone of Destiny”, in which I would talk about the Scottish Parliament, which had just then been set up. It may seem ridiculous to experienced Members, but I had to explain how Hansard worked and what a pager was—we do not have pagers now. Of course, the title came to be used against me by an independent candidate in one of my elections up in Scotland, who called me the “Stone of density”. The humble crofters in the township of Rogart were rolling in the aisles at that one! Again, it was good because the new democracy in Scotland was being aired. I hope I helped to explain it to people, and that they enjoyed it.

I will add one last thing. I hear the arguments expressed on the Government Benches, and I do not know if it is about the cuts or the licence fee, but I do know that something as basically important to being British and the way we do things—British democracy—is eroded and damaged by the cutting back of regional investigative reporting.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 10:02 am, 12th July 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank Rob Butler for raising this important topic. I welcome the Minister, who I see has been reshuffled back to where he rightfully belongs.

There are those who complain about BBC left-wing bias, so it is good to see two former BBC News anchors, both elected as Tory MPs, joining a Tory donor as BBC chair and a former Conservative party candidate as the director general. My colleagues, the hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Henley (John Howell) talked about their history at the BBC. I must declare some bias, because I was a BBC News reporter and anchor. I presented “BBC Breakfast” for a number of years, and was a reporter on “Newsnight” and other programmes. Every morning I found myself saying “Over to you, Rob” on “BBC Breakfast”, where the hon. Member was a much respected BBC business correspondent.

I also began my career by writing in and saying that I was interested in news and current affairs. I wrote to Janet Street-Porter, who invited me for dinner. I was ridiculously overdressed. She was ridiculously underdressed. She asked me if I would like to front youth programmes. I was shortly afterwards rejected for John Craven’s “Newsround” on the grounds that I was not boyish enough; I think I was 21 then and John Craven was probably approaching his 70th birthday. He was the editor at the time and took that brutal decision.

Politically, culturally and socially, as we saw through the pandemic, the value of the BBC is immense. It reaches every part of these islands and every demographic in them. Whatever people’s views on the shortcomings of the BBC—there is disquiet about some of its news direction, especially in Scotland—there can be no doubt whatever about its importance to our national life.

One of the proudest boasts of the BBC has always been its strength in depth, especially in local news and regional journalism, so the closure of regional news programmes and the accompanying job losses are tragic. However, they have almost certainly been inevitable, since the Government bullied the BBC into taking on responsibility for a social service: TV licence provision for the over-75s. A stronger director general would have resisted the bullying or even threatened to resign. One previous director general did precisely that, and the BBC board threatened to resign. I think I am right in saying that it was a former Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Cameron premiership who put the pressure on.

Alas, under Tony Hall, the BBC succumbed to the pressure and signed up for a disastrous deal. The deal, agreed behind closed doors between Baron Hall and the UK Government, places the burden of licence fee payment for the over-75s on the BBC, and it should never have been so. The BBC is a broadcaster. Its job is to deliver public service broadcasting. Without doubt, it is right that the over-75s should have their licence fees paid for, but it is the Government’s job to fund that.

When Tony Hall came before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I sit, he claimed that his staff were delighted with the deal. I said, “Well, you’re obviously not talking to your staff, because I can tell you that they’re not.” From spending a moment with any member of staff from the BBC, it was clear that they thought there would be huge job cuts if the BBC took on this responsibility. I predicted the job cuts, and I am sad to say that I was right. Those cuts have also come with a cut in services, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury has outlined.

With more cuts comes less choice and a less informed public. That is bad at a time of widespread disinformation, and especially during the pandemic. In Scotland we have our own specific concerns about funding. During the Select Committee’s pre-appointment hearing of Richard Sharp as BBC chair, I asked Mr Sharp why only 80% of the licence fee raised in Scotland was spent in Scotland. I wrote down his answer. He said, rather phlegmatically,

“You can ask me, but I do not have the answer.”

That was admirably honest.

Last autumn, after Mr Sharp took up his post as BBC chair, I asked him again if he had learned the answer, having been in the job for some time. Once again, he told me that he did not have it, but that as a result of covid the figure had actually gone down. Tim Davie, when appearing before the Select Committee, told me that the percentage of the licence fee raised in Scotland that is spent in Scotland has dropped to only 67%. Clearly, that does not align with the BBC’s pledge to better deliver value for all audiences.

A Culture Secretary hostile to our public service broadcasters and underspending in Scotland means that Scots can be forgiven for having a pessimistic view of the BBC’s future. Given that I spent the formative years of my career at the BBC, issues affecting its future are very important to me, as I know they are to Members across the House. I will continue to argue for the devolution of broadcasting, but until that time comes, BBC management needs to do all in its power to resist further cuts by the Conservative Government. With our current Culture Secretary at the helm, and the history of political interference at both the BBC and Channel 4, those of us who champion public service broadcasting have cause for concern.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 10:09 am, 12th July 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson, and to be speaking in this debate on behalf of the Opposition. It is good to see the Minister back in his place. I want to speak about the wider issues around the charter and licence fee as well as the issues we have heard about local news in the south-east. I congratulate Rob Butler on securing the debate and providing a good overview. As a former broadcast journalist, he speaks with authority and is acutely aware of the importance of having well-resourced public service broadcasters delivering for local people, particularly in the light of the decline of local print journalism. He made some interesting points about striking the right balance between local TV news and digital provision in the digital age.

For the BBC to remain a world-class institution, it needs to be properly resourced so it can deliver for the digital age and beyond the 2020s. When the Secretary of State announced the licence fee freeze in January and suggested that it might be the last licence fee settlement—which happened just as Operation Save Big Dog commenced and, indeed, perhaps as part of it—we were worried. Thankfully the licence fee has lasted longer than Big Dog, but after—as usual—briefing the media first, the Secretary of State eventually made a statement to the House and told us about the freeze. She intimated that the licence fee would end in 2027 and, in future, the BBC should look to the models of American streaming giants, such as Amazon or Netflix. Since then, Netflix has lost over 200,000 subscribers and seen its share price fall by over 60%.

As well as the increase in the subscription cost, another key reason why subscribers are turning away in their droves is the lack of original and distinct programming being commissioned by the streaming giant, with many saying that the subscription was no longer value for money. Netflix announced last month that it has to lay off 300 employees. Is that the future the Government want to see for the BBC?

The past few months have demonstrated the instability and volatility of a streaming model. It would not deliver the long-term security and stability for the BBC that the Government claim to be the objective. Labour values and cherishes our great British institutions, such as the BBC. The BBC is loved at home and envied around the world, but as it approaches its 100th birthday—when we should be celebrating its success—its future once again looks uncertain. It is worth reminding hon. Members just how much we get out of the BBC. It is not only a news and broadcast service envied around the world, it provides a huge number of skilled jobs for people the length and breadth of the UK. It gives us a sense of—particularly regional—identity and unity, and that has been reflected in today’s contributions.

The BBC has a diverse range of content across multiple platforms, which appeals to people of all ages, areas and backgrounds. It is because of the licence fee that BBC Bitesize came to the aid of 5.8 million children during lockdown as parents juggled work with the challenges of home schooling. BBC content creators pulled out all the stops to continue educating our young people during the biggest public health crisis in a century. It is far more than just a producer of programmes; it is a curator of content from children’s television to hard-hitting documentaries and in-depth global news reporting. Of course, the digital and streaming revolutions are upon us, and the BBC must continue to keep pace with the changing media landscape as it has done with BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds. However, the Government need to be clear about how the broadcaster will be funded beyond 2027.

With inflation running at a 40-year high and in the light of the licence fee freeze, the broadcaster has already had to start prioritising some sorts of programming over others. Further delay will only lead to British jobs and content being outsourced abroad. As the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Lucy Powell, said,

“cultural vandalism is not patriotic.”

The BBC is one of the most powerful aspects of our soft power. Around the world the BBC is trusted and respected for its impartiality, professionalism and skilled reporting. Nowhere has that come more to the fore than in its reporting on Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. The Government like to talk about the UK being a soft power superpower, but how can that status be enhanced or maintained when they place such uncertainty on a cultural institution as important as the BBC? It is the only public service broadcaster from any country that reaches half a billion people a week.

Many questions remain on the future capability and ability of the BBC to continue as a world-class news broadcaster. It is still unclear how the merger between BBC News and BBC World News will look in practice and what effect that will have on how much it can cover, particularly when it comes to investigative international reporting. Our international news reporting is the envy of the world but, as we have heard clearly from around the Chamber, we must remember the dedicated teams and crews that make up local news reporting across the United Kingdom. Local news reporting is such an important grassroots component of the BBC, connecting communities to the issues happening locally around them. I therefore agree that it is disappointing that, as part of the digital first strategy, local news coverage is being squeezed, with dedicated frontline reporting one of the casualties.

As we have heard, local news bulletins on BBC One in Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire will be scrapped, with a single pan-regional edition of “South Today” from Southampton taking their place and covering the whole region. The recently launched regional investigative news programme “We Are England” is also to be scrapped barely a year after it was commissioned.

My hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner and others talked about the importance of the local aspect of news reporting, and many communities outside the big cities will fear that with a reduction in frontline journalists and more regional programming, they will become merely a footnote in the broadcaster’s output. The BBC says that it will keep its news gathering teams in both the Oxford and Cambridge hubs, but I absolutely understand the worries expressed by Members from those areas that they will not have their own dedicated regional coverage.

An increased digital presence is welcome in the modern age, but it cannot replace journalists on the ground in their communities, reporting for their communities, understanding the issues on the ground and reflecting them in regional coverage. The Government say that their priorities are to ensure that the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, and not just London and the south-east, are prioritised for jobs, infrastructure projects and economic development. The BBC’s Media City in Salford, close to my constituency, provides more than 3,000 skilled jobs and has helped to foster a dynamic economic cluster. I have to say that it has raised house prices in my constituency. That would seem a model example of what levelling-up looks like in action, creating more skilled jobs and roles outside the capital.

To appreciate the BBC, we should look at the statistics. BBC services are used by nearly 100% of UK adults every month. The BBC is the most popular media brand among young people, reaching 80% of young adults on average per week. Over the covid period when schools had to shut their doors and move online, millions of families discovered the brilliance of BBC Bitesize.

Even those who are sceptical of the BBC, when tested, had a new-found respect for it. The BBC recently published the findings of a deprivation study in which 80 homes had no access to BBC services or content for nine days. It found that 70% of those who initially said they would rather do without the BBC, or prefer to pay less for it, changed their minds and were willing to pay the full licence fee or more to keep BBC services and content.

Rather than the constant sniping and funding insecurity that we see under this Government, a Labour Government would work towards a long-term settlement that would ensure that our great British content and great local reporting could survive and thrive. We would talk up rather than kick down the brilliant reporters, presenters, musicians, actors and technical staff who make our soft-power giant what it is.

The licence fee still represents excellent value for money for consumers, so the Government need to confirm that any future funding model that they might contemplate will continue to offer viewers and listeners so much and such value. The BBC needs clarity about its future so that it can continue to modernise and continue to inform, educate and entertain for the next 100 years as it has done so brilliantly for the past 100 years.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Minister of State 10:18 pm, 12th July 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and it is a pleasure to be back, however briefly. I thank hon. Members for their kind words.

I feel that I should join the ex-journalist fest. As a former journalist, I never had the pleasure of working for the BBC, but my first job was to be paid to watch its output. I promise that, as a first job out of university, being paid to watch television is less fun than it sounds, but it is pretty unusual. Among a whole host of other things, I covered the launch of BBC iPlayer in 2007 as a journalist, and in some ways I think that tells us how far the BBC has come and how much it has changed since then. It is as much a technology company as a broadcaster.

The thread that runs through all of that period, and which predates it by some way, is the value of regional news output. I think that the continued preservation of that output is something we would all like to see the BBC look to. The Government would, of course, like to see it preserve and enhance its regional output as much as possible, but that is a matter for the BBC. We have all paid tribute to our local news organisations, but I could not stand here without mentioning the giant that is Peter Levy on “Look North”.

Turning to the substance of the debate, as the Secretary of State and many others have said, the BBC is a global British brand. The Government want the BBC to continue to thrive in the decades to come and be a beacon for news and the arts around the world. The royal charter, underpinned by a more detailed framework agreement, guarantees the BBC’s current model as an independent, publicly owned, public service broadcaster.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Has the Minister been struck, as I have, by the similarity between what we are asking for for local investigative journalism and how the brand operates at a global level? It seems that at the global level the BBC has appreciated that it can only achieve its aim by investigative journalism and working in small groups, which is to its credit. We see that every day on the television.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Minister of State

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has read my next paragraph. The value that we have seen recently from the BBC in the reporting on the crisis in Ukraine is not the whole story. We have to look at the huge value it adds in its heroic reporting and investigating of local issues just as much as its value on the world stage.

The charter and framework agreement set the BBC’s mission and public purposes, which establish the BBC’s responsibilities and what it must do. Those responsibilities include the provision of impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them—of course, that is a world that is experienced locally, nationally and internationally.

On 17 January, the Secretary of State announced in Parliament that the licence fee would be frozen for the next two years. The BBC will continue to receive around £3.7 billion in annual public funding, allowing it to deliver its mission and public purposes and continue doing what it does best. Under the terms of the charter, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from Government—quite right, too. As Members have acknowledged today, there is no provision for the Government to intervene on the BBC’s day-to-day operations. That means that it is for the BBC, subject to Ofcom’s regulation, to decide how best to use its funding as it delivers its remit and meets its mission and public purposes. Of course, as my hon. Friend Rob Butler implied, as Ofcom is set up by the Government, there is a role for the Government within this. However, I have to stress that Ofcom regulates that aspect of the BBC, rather than the Government.

On 26 May 2022, Tim Davie set out his vision for keeping the BBC relevant and offering value to all audiences in the on-demand age, with a particular focus, as has been referred to, on a digital-first BBC. This included an announcement that while the BBC will maintain its overall investment in local and regional content, some services and bulletins will be merged or ended, as we have discussed today. In the BBC’s explanation for this change, it set out that a small number of changes to its regional TV output will help strike a better balance between broadcast and freeing up money to invest online.

The announcement also confirmed that the BBC will continue to support the local news sector through the £8 million it spends each year on the local news partnerships and the Local Democracy Reporting Service, and that it will increase investment in local current affairs by creating a new network of journalists to focus on investigative journalism in communities across England. Of course, the Government welcome the maintenance of support for the LDRS during this charter period. It is an effective model for collaborative working between the BBC and local commercial news outlets.

As the BBC’s independent regulator, Ofcom is responsible for setting out the regulatory conditions that it considers appropriate for requiring the BBC to fulfil the mission and public purposes that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury referred to. Those conditions are set out in the operating licence, and Ofcom is conducting a public consultation on proposed changes to the current licence.

The Government firmly believe that public service broadcasting plays an important role in reflecting and representing people and communities from all over the UK. The BBC has a particular role to play and must ensure that it meets the responsibilities set out in its charter. That will be regulated by Ofcom, including through an annual assessment of the BBC’s performance.

Regional news and local current affairs play a vital role in bringing communities together—as Daniel Zeichner said—and providing shared experiences across the UK. In that context, we recognise the continued requirement for the BBC to produce and schedule regional news programmes on traditional platforms. The value of television remains immense; whatever the changing figures of its reach, for a large number of people, it is obviously hugely and uniquely valuable.

We also recognise that the remits of all PSBs, including the BBC, must be updated to reflect the rapidly changing sector, where that mixture of online and digital distribution is of increasing importance. We therefore welcome Ofcom’s consultation on the BBC’s operating licence to ensure that the BBC continues to be allowed to innovate and respond to changing audience needs through greater recognition of those online services. We look forward to seeing the consultation’s results in due course.

It goes without saying that the BBC needs to consider whether local news meets the needs of local communities. That is, of course, its ambition and what Ofcom looks to ensure that it achieves. However, in my own community for instance, people in Boston will think that Hull is a very long way away, just as people in Oxford and Cambridge may think they do not have much in common with the Isle of Wight, as the hon. Member for Cambridge pointed out.

Among the actions we are taking to support the sector, we have committed to a series of measures that we intend to deliver through a media Bill. It will support PSBs by updating decades-old rules to give them more flexibility in how they deliver on their remits across their services. They will also have their online prominence guaranteed.

While there are some excellent examples of effective news services provided by local TV, the picture is more mixed for local TV as a whole. A number of local stations have been granted permission by Ofcom over the past few years to reduce local news and local content production to sustain services. By the end of the year, we will consult on the process for licensing local TV after 2025, and will gather views on whether to offer renewals, and the terms under which they should be offered. We will consider whether to set minimum local news requirements as a condition of renewal.

The Government also fund the community radio fund, which gives grants to help fund the core costs of running Ofcom-licensed community radio stations, such as management and administration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury mentioned, those radio stations reflect a diverse mix of cultures and interests and provide a rich mix of mostly locally produced content, typically covering a small geographical area. Their value in the mix cannot be overstated. However, specifically on the BBC, we are evaluating how the BBC and Ofcom assess the market impact and public value of the BBC in the local news market through the mid-term review.

To conclude, noting our manifesto commitment to support local newspapers as vital pillars of our communities, it is important, in a debate about regional TV programming, to consider the sustainability challenges faced across the broader local news market, and the extent to which the BBC can help. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is conducting an inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism, and I look forward to seeing its report in due course.

We all know that the BBC is a great national institution; we all want to see it thrive. Over the past 100 years, as has been said already, it has touched the lives of almost everyone in the UK and made a unique contribution to our cultural heritage. The Government are clear that the BBC must continue to adapt if it is to thrive in the decades to come, but, of course, we all want to see it serve local, regional and international audiences to the best of its ability. I think we would all like to see it define that in ways that are understood by the general public.

The BBC needs to represent, reflect and serve audiences, taking into account the needs of diverse communities of all the UK nations and regions. It is vital that the BBC continues to meet that requirement, and it is vital that it is held to the highest standards in doing so. On that note, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury on securing the debate, which has been an important part of holding the BBC to those standards, alongside the work of Ofcom and others.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury 10:30 am, 12th July 2022

I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise concerns in the House of Commons about the BBC’s axing of the Oxford edition of “South Today” and the Cambridge edition of “Look East”, and to set out why I believe that is in contravention of the BBC charter. Axing those dedicated programmes will make a fundamental difference to the way in which people in the areas around Oxford and Cambridge find out what is happening, why and who is responsible.

There has been remarkable cross-party support from hon. Members for local journalism from the BBC. Those who have spoken today did so with a common sense of purpose and of valuing the BBC. Daniel Zeichner highlighted the BBC’s investigative news at local and regional levels, and the disappointment in his local area, which there is in mine, over the plans to close the programmes that we have been discussing, as well as the irony of the BBC turning away from a fast-growing sub-region. A similar point could be made about Aylesbury, where tens of thousands of new homes are due to be built in the coming years.

I thank my hon. Friend John Howell for his kind remarks about our shared background in broadcasting. He highlighted the significance of local investigative journalism and pointed out the lack of impartiality among other online sources of news.

Jamie Stone illustrated the impact of cuts to local BBC services in his area, vividly describing what happens in local communities when those services are cut. I hope that might give the BBC pause for thought.

From time to time, I shared a TV studio with the SNP spokesman, John Nicolson. I do not share all his views on the BBC or many other issues, as he would expect, but I note that he had an experience similar to mine in preparation for today’s debate of struggling to get meaningful answers from the corporation.

Labour’s spokesman, Jeff Smith, underlined the significance of regional programmes in forging an identity. It is important to say in this conversation that local news reporting is a significant grassroots part of the BBC. It is a shame that it is being squeezed.

I am pleased to see the Minister back at DCMS, and I was glad to hear his support for regional news and that the BBC needs to consider whether local news really does meet the needs of local communities. I accept entirely his point that day-to-day operational decisions are for the BBC, not the House or the Government, but my concern is about the BBC’s compliance with the royal charter. Those concerns remain, and I hope BBC management will reflect on today’s debate. The BBC does some excellent work, and I hope that that excellence will perhaps stretch to its capacity to listen to its audiences, listening to Members who have spoken today, and reversing its decision.

I thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I thank all Members who have spoken today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the BBC Charter and the closure of regional TV news programmes.

Sitting suspended.