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8 Feb 2005 : Column 411WH—continued

BBC Charter Renewal

3.59 pm

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): I rise to raise some extremely important issues, both on a personal note and on behalf of constituents who have contacted me and many other MPs following the controversial screening of "Jerry Springer—The Opera" on BBC 2 on Saturday 8 January. For me, the issue is programming and standards at the BBC. We should debate the matter now, prior to publication of the Government's Green Paper, which will set the context for the next, and most important, stage of the renewal of the BBC charter later this year. I do not want to knock the BBC or to compromise its integrity, but I wish to put on record concerns that have been expressed by my constituents, and by other people around the country, who have been offended or upset by BBC2 management's decision to allow that programme to be televised.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Accepting that the hon. Gentleman will probably give specific examples, can I raise at this early stage a principle on which I should be grateful for his perspective? Surely the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, has a duty to challenge—at least occasionally—what has traditionally been broadcast on television, especially given that nobody was forced to watch the Jerry Springer programme. Would he accept the school of thought that holds that such challenging programming is useful, not least because it prompts the kind of debate that we are having?

Mr. Luke : I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but we must address the issue. Everybody who watches television pays a licence fee, and those who have been upset have as much right to have their views aired in Parliament as those who are not offended. I am raising the matter for debate because the Green Paper, which will be available next month, will set the context for the debate, and the issues will come into sharper focus as that debate progresses.

Those who have contacted me have a simple point: given that we are all licence payers, should not the views of the majority, common good taste and religious beliefs be considered when decisions are taken to screen such a show? Following the screening, on 13 January, I put a question to the Leader of the House, asking him to make the standard of programming at the BBC part of the charter renewal programme. His response was dismissive. He indicated that it was solely a matter for the BBC and that Ministers should not be interested or involved in the content of programmes. That response disappointed me. It also disappointed my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who, in a subsequent question that day, asked an additional question about further debate or discussion of the matter.

Let me say straight away that I am a strong supporter of public sector broadcasting, and an active member of the all-party BBC group. Last night, we attended a reception held by BBC Northern Ireland. I am also a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I am very interested in the variety of attitudes to programming that can be found across the United Kingdom. I continue to believe that licence fees are the best way of funding the BBC.
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It would be wrong, indeed dishonest, of me not to indicate that the screening of the show has raised doubts in my mind, and in the minds of constituents who have contacted me. They have raised the point, which was reiterated by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire, that they hope that it is not a trend under a new chairman of adopting the lowest common approach to improving ratings. I raise the issue in that context, in the belief that parliamentarians have a responsibility to make their views known, especially on issues as important as public service broadcasting at the time of the 10-year charter renewal of the BBC.

I hope that, in responding to the debate, the Minister—whose responsibility is for sport rather than for the media—will make clear the Government's commitment to ensuring that standards at the BBC are maintained and not debased. In tandem with the debate, I have written to the controller of BBC2, Mr Roly Keating, making clear the views of all who have contacted me. They strongly object to their licence fees being used to give airtime to a programme that mocks their strongly held religious beliefs and is seen by many as an affront to good taste. In the letter, I also make the point that

The issue rumbles on. It is the subject of numerous official complaints—the largest number ever: something like 40,000—and a court action.

I felt strongly enough to write in those terms, because I believe that the BBC got it badly wrong and blemished its aims to "inform, educate and entertain" and


That is why we must take time, as we progress through this year of charter renewal, to reflect on how those laudable aims can be safeguarded and promoted.

I believe that those points were acknowledged by Mr. Grade, the BBC's chairman, when he addressed a media conference in Oxford on 20 January. He highlighted the problems that I have raised today and pointed out that one of licence fee payers' strongest concerns is whether their money is being well spent. The response that I have had on this matter shows that many feel that it is not being well spent and that the BBC's core principles would be met by greatly increasing accountability to licence fee payers. In that context, unhappiness would be more strongly dealt with by a greater increase in accountability.

In his speech, Mr. Grade outlined the core principles —

and balanced them against the need to retain editorial independence, which he says is a "non-negotiable" commodity. That puts the BBC board of governors in the highly sensitive position of having the ultimate say on what is acceptable and fit to be screened, whatever the licence fee payer feels. Such arbitrary decisions should be considered more closely. There should be
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more discussion on that in the Green Paper and, perhaps, more criteria against which the BBC should operate its programming.

The real litmus test that should be applied when taking screening decisions are those set out in the December report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, "A Public BBC". At page 48, paragraph 197, it states that the BBC's annual report should

That theme was developed by the BBC in its contribution to the charter renewal process debate, which is entitled, "Building public value", which was published in June, in which it defines its key role as aiming to "maximise public value" to broadcasting, and voices its hopes that that will become the touchstone for all its services and activities. My constituents' view would be that "Jerry Springer—The Opera" fails to fulfil either of those criteria: it neither provides added value in comparison to other broadcasters, nor maximises public values.

I agree with the recommendations in the Select Committee report, which looks forward to the charter renewal process. Recommendation 37 is that the improvement of accountability will be a crucial test for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in its detailed proposals for its prospective Green Paper. It may also be a vital question for the future of public service broadcasting and the BBC's monopoly over the licence fee.

As I said, I was yesterday at the presentation of research put on by BBC Northern Ireland. It contains an article by Raymond Snoddy, the media editor of The Times, in which he sets out his perspective:

If the BBC decides to promote such programmes more regularly, more and more people will question the need for monopoly of the licence fee by the BBC.

I have made it clear that I do not support that argument. The BBC should be funded solely by the licence fee, but it is an issue that must be addressed. We have talked about the goals of the BBC, about an inclusive attitude towards the programmes that it produces and about being creative and trusted. We must remember that if such programmes continue to be screened, the trusted and valued position that the BBC has in our society may be questioned.

As I was reading through the publication, I came across a small quotation on the back page—a final statement by BBC Northern Ireland about how it sees the role of the BBC. It is a small extract from one of Philip Larkin's poems:

If we are reaching the best of what we are, many people would think that "Jerry Springer—The Opera" perhaps did not reach that ideal.
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I shall be glad to hear what the Minister has to say. I am not here to knock the BBC; I am very supportive of it. However, there is a need for a debate on this particular issue.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has indicated a wish to speak. He cannot do so without the permission of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke).

Mr. Luke : I am happy to give that permission.

4.13 pm

Lembit Öpik : I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to the Minister for not giving notice, and I am grateful for their willingness to let me speak.

I wanted to make a few observations that require no response today. It would be inappropriate for me to ask that much under the circumstances. I am one of those people who has taken a great interest in the transmission of "Jerry Springer—The Opera", of which I admit I watched only a part. The hon. Gentleman has eloquently and clearly described the concern of many thousands of people. My perspective is in line with my view about public service broadcasting and the BBC itself. I agree that many people found the opera offensive, and others felt it inappropriate for the BBC to broadcast something of that nature. I take a different view. First, it is indeed appropriate for the BBC sometimes to push the envelope of what is broadcast. If it had not, I am not clear about who would have taken the initiative.

Secondly, it is important to allow the BBC what the hon. Gentleman alluded to: editorial freedom to make judgments about what is and is not acceptable for broadcast. One must be careful about binding decisions to the criterion of taste. If the programme had caused harm, or incited racial hatred or something of that nature, there would have been a powerful case to prevent its transmission. In my view, the broadcast did not do that.

Thirdly, even accepting and respecting the hon. Gentleman's sincere concerns—I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to them—we must be careful to protect the freedom and liberty of the BBC to make such editorial judgments on its own initiative. One could argue that people fiercely opposed to religion may find some religious programming offensive, but it would be unreasonable to use that as a basis to ban such broadcasts.

This is an important consideration. To the BBC's credit, its broadcasting of the programme has caused us to revisit the extent to which the BBC should be at liberty to broadcast such programmes. I support its right to broadcast such items as long as it does so with deep consideration of the potential consequences. I look forward to hearing the Minister's perspective on this valid and important subject.

4.15 pm

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn) : May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on securing this
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debate and on the objective and fair way that he presented a case that he passionately believes in and which represents the views of many of his constituents? I also congratulate him on the way that he defended the BBC, even though he might disagree with it over this particular show. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) had a different opinion and put forward his case well.

The debate comes at an opportune time. As my hon. Friend said, we will shortly be publishing the Green Paper on the review of the BBC's royal charter. It will be the result of an extensive round of public and industry consultation. More than ever before, licence fee payers have had a say in the review of the BBC's charter and in the future of the corporation—the keystone of public service broadcasting in this country. The review process has been conducted openly and has benefited from our transparent and constructive relationship with the BBC. The Green Paper is not the end of the story. We want to hear what the public and industry will have to say about the issues raised in it, and there will be opportunities for wider debate, including in both Houses of Parliament.

Since the start of the charter review process, we have been guided by three key objectives, which I hope will reassure my hon. Friend that we consider the interests of licence fee payers to be the absolute top priority. Those objectives are: a strong BBC committed to the highest quality programming and independent of Government and commercial pressures; a BBC with an unprecedented clarity of purpose; and a genuine sense that the BBC is owned by and accountable to the people who pay for it.

Our research has shown that the BBC is not only trusted, but much loved by the general public, who consider it to be the cornerstone of public service broadcasting. The BBC should be stable and strong, but flexible enough to adapt to the post-digital switchover world. It should continue to be the main player in public service broadcasting, but it must also face competition. The Burns panel showed that there is no credible alternative to the licence fee immediately available to us, but we will keep that under review.

All those demands place a considerable burden on the BBC's system of governance and regulation, and it is clear that the old structure is not adequate for the demands of a rapidly changing broadcasting environment. Indeed, I agree with the Secretary of State that the present system is unsustainable. For that reason, we welcome the recent publication of the final advice of the independent panel led by Terry Burns, which emphasises the importance of the separation of the governors' oversight and delivery functions. We also welcome the BBC's moves to reform governance from within, and its commitment to a more transparent, accountable and open system.

Our task is to take the advice, along with the many public and industry opinions offered during consultation, and to ensure that, by the end of the charter review process, we have a governance system that is founded unequivocally in the public interest. That system will be based on the principles set out by the Secretary of State, building on the work done by Lord Burns.
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The BBC should consider a number of points. The system should be appropriate for an organisation built on creativity, and it should protect the independence of the BBC from Government but not from the licence-fee-paying shareholders. It should be genuinely open, transparent and objective, ensure appropriate accountability for public money, command public confidence and involve the public adequately in decision making, and provide adequate protection for those outside the corporation who might be affected by the BBC's activity—principally, although not exclusively, its private sector competitors.

In conducting assessments of impact, the BBC should use criteria that would allow direct comparisons with the rest of the broadcasting market. It should be clear about the distinction between governance and regulation, and include arrangements that would support both. It should be clear about the respective roles of the executive and non-executive, and embody such clarity in ways of working. It should incorporate effective mechanisms for audit and complaint handling and be flexible enough to adapt to change in the wider broadcasting market. I suppose one could put that down to future-proofing.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Green Paper will cover other issues that directly affect licence fee payers. In many cases, those issues were raised in the consultation and through our research as areas where the public would like the BBC to improve its performance. The first issue is spreading the benefits of the licence fee more fairly across the United Kingdom. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will agree with that, coming, as he does, from one of the more northern parts of the UK. I do, as far as Yorkshire is concerned. Another issue is the provision of a structure to ensure that licence fee payers get maximum value for money, and to improve the BBC's ability to achieve high benchmarks in the service that it provides and ensure distinctiveness and innovation.

Securing appropriate programme standards is a key part of the achievement of the high benchmarks that I mentioned in the BBC service. That brings me inevitably to the argument over the screening of "Jerry Springer—the Opera", in which I know my hon. Friend is particularly interested. The reaction from some viewers to the programme, which was broadcast on 8 January, highlighted the importance of a robust and transparent BBC system to ensure that programme standards are upheld. The Government believe that the system should sit within a framework that protects free speech and freedom of artistic expression.

My hon. Friend may be aware that the Government received several complaints about the programme, many suggesting varying types of censorship. My response to those complaints is the same as that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts. Some people have been offended by the programme, but that is what happens when we have free speech. I, and the Department collectively, believe that it is better to have free speech than to try to legislate against offending people.

The broadcasting organisations that regulate broadcasting are responsible for programme content. The Office of Communications, the Welsh fourth channel authority, S4C, and the governors of the BBC
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all have regulatory roles and are independent of Government. In addition, the BBC's governing instrument, the royal charter and the agreement, place broad obligations on the corporation, including some on programme content and standards.

Within that framework, the details of decisions on programme content and scheduling are matters entirely for the BBC, reflecting its editorial independence. As I have already said, the Government are committed to securing a strong BBC, independent of Government. I think that I have also shown that we believe it to be important that the BBC should be aware of the concerns of its viewers and listeners. It is the responsibility of the BBC governors to ensure that the corporation meets its obligations in the charter and agreements of 1996.
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Anyone who does not agree with the governors about programme standards can write to Michael Grade, its chairman. Licence fee payers can also complain to Ofcom on matters of taste and decency. I therefore assure my hon. Friend that the complaints procedure, and the mechanisms for upholding programme standards, will be considered as part of the charter review.

As I have said, the Green Paper will be published soon. We welcome as much feedback as possible. This has so far been the most constructive charter review ever conducted, and we shall ensure that that continues.

Question put and agreed to.

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