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21 Jun 2006 : Column 1359
2.50 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who spoke with great verve and style about the international role of the BBC and the importance of the BBC’s independence, as well as costume drama. I will concentrate on perhaps the oldest service that the BBC has provided, although it is one in which there has been plenty of innovation in recent years: BBC radio. Before I do so, however, I wish to make a few observations.

It is possible to overstate the strength and power of the BBC. I respond directly to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale)—we have discussed this matter before. We should consider the total industry revenue. I admit that advertising has declined in the commercial sector, but Sky’s subscription revenue and online revenues are extremely buoyant. When Mrs. Thatcher left office, the BBC had more than 40 per cent. of total market revenue, but now it has 23 per cent. Even if the BBC got what it wanted from the licence fee settlement, best estimates suggest that it would have a fifth of industry revenue. It is thus worth putting the power of the BBC in perspective.

As the Minister pointed out, the licence fee has fallen as a proportion of people’s income in recent years, and it will probably continue to do so. Importantly, the licence fee has also fallen as a percentage of the income of the bottom 10 per cent. of the population, although that is not to say that it is not a burden on many households.

We must consider the overall output of our system of broadcasting, of which the BBC is such an important part. In Britain, $75 a head is spent on home-produced programming each year, which is more than is spent in the United States and Germany. That is a product of a strong BBC and a strong licence fee.

We have heard about the BBC’s plans to innovate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked about the success of Freeview, and we have heard about the success of BBC Online under Greg Dyke’s predecessor, John Birt. Those proposals were controversial in their time. The commercial sector asked whether it was right for the BBC to go into those areas, just as it now asks whether it is right for the BBC to create an open and a creative archive so that licence fee payers can access BBC content. People ask whether it is right that the BBC produces local television news. There are many options for partnerships with commercial interests. For example, in the west midlands, where local television news is being pioneered, the BBC has signed a joint letter of intent with Trinity Mirror, the commercial organisation that runs the main evening newspapers in Birmingham and Coventry.

It is thus possible for the BBC and the commercial sector to be partners, but I would urge hon. Members to be sceptical about some of the commercial sector’s claims that the BBC crowds it out. Since the BBC’s inception, it has been in competition with the private sector and has thus distorted the market. BBC Parliament is probably the only BBC product that does
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not distort the market because it does not have a commercial competitor— [ Interruption. ] It is unlikely to have one, too.

To respond to a point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, is it not one of the great glories of the independence of the BBC that all the different views expressed in this debate, some of which will be critical of the BBC, will be reported on “Today in Parliament”? After the Hutton inquiry, output at all levels of the BBC reflected the different views expressed. Sky News would never broadcast a discussion on the Murdoch empire or the fact that no one is watching test match cricket on Sky and that access to one of our crown jewels of sport is thus being reduced. One of the great things about the BBC is that it has such independence and thus no thought can be unspoken.

Let me move on to radio, as I promised. The commercial sector makes three criticisms of BBC radio: it is too big; it should be more involved with the independent sector on programming; and Radio 1 and Radio 2 should perhaps be privatised. It is true that the BBC has a 56 per cent. share of the radio market. Two or three years ago, the BBC and the commercial sector were saying that given the advent of more stations due to digital radio and the powers in the Communications Act 2003 to allow commercial radio stations to merge, the BBC’s share would have gone down considerably by this stage. To an extent, the BBC is embarrassed by its success. The situation reflects not only the decline in the independent sector’s advertising revenue, but the sector’s lack of ambition. The programming on many commercial stations is in exactly the same format.

The Commercial Radio Companies Association has a case to make, but sometimes it overstates it. For example, its briefing for today’s debate says:

BBC Radio 2 has changed in recent years, so I wondered whether the allegation that it had suddenly abandoned the middle aged and elderly of Britain and gone for 15 to 24-year-olds was true. The audience of Radio 2 is very homogenous. The average age of listeners to Terry Wogan is 52, as is the average age of listeners to Jeremy Vine. The average age of listeners to Jonathan Ross—we have heard about him—is 52, and the average age of listeners to Steve Wright is 50. That makes me feel like a young man again.

Radio 2 has innovated and has a broad range of programming. Radio 1 and Radio 2 play much more original music than the commercial sector and have a much richer range of programming. We have heard about the importance of involving youth in the BBC and the media. “Newsbeat”, which is broadcast on BBC Radio 1, is the news programme that attracts more 16 to 24-year-olds than any other, as it has done for many generations. In debates in previous Sessions, Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen talked about privatising BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2. I am glad that we have not heard such comments today. Such privatisation would be a shame, not least for the commercial sector, because unless the advertising market expanded by 25 per cent., many existing commercial stations would lose out.

Let me say a word about the contribution of the independent sector to BBC radio. I am pleased that
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BBC radio is committed to more than doubling the proportion of hours that it will guarantee to independents. It says:

Although the outsourcing of television programmes to independents has been successful, it is more difficult to outsource radio programmes. Part of the reason for that is the fact that the independent sector is still developing in the radio market and much of radio is live. It would probably be difficult to outsource a lot of programming on BBC local radio, which is one of the jewels in the crown of BBC radio that reaches all our communities. Indeed, there might be cost advantages in keeping programming in-house, and I am pleased that the BBC is addressing the matter. Some radio sport coverage is being outsourced. For example, the coverage of grand prix has been outsourced this year for the first time.

I hope that the Government will continue to value both the international BBC World Service, which, as we have heard, has record audience figures, and BBC radio itself. I am pleased that it looks as if we will have much-needed competition from the commercial sector on speech radio for the first time. If Channel 4 successfully gains digital space, it will be good for the BBC and will probably reduce its 56 per cent. share of the market slightly.

I conclude by saying a word about BBC Sport and the importance of having a well-funded BBC to take on subscription TV in particular. It is a joy in Britain that all the World cup matches are available on BBC or ITV, unlike in Germany, where half are on subscription TV, or in Spain, where more than half are on subscription TV. That is not an accident but the result of an intervention in the broadcasting market, as a result partly of a desire to show the crown jewels of sport, of which the World cup is one, and partly of the fact that we have a sufficiently funded BBC licence fee, so that it can compete in the market and secure such rights. Is not it a joy, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to watch some of the games without adverts? Is not it a joy that every pub and restaurant in London can put up a TV and everyone can watch them? Is not that a contrast with cricket, which is only shown on subscription TV and has only 200,000 viewers on Sky? Long may the BBC have a sufficiently funded system so that, according to the old adage, it can make the good popular and the popular good.

3 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I shall confine my remarks to the future of the BBC as it applies to Scotland, which is perhaps not unsurprising. It is fortuitous that we are holding the debate because I do not think that the BBC has ever been as irrelevant—it is almost approaching irritating—to the people of Scotland as it is now. It might surprise a few hon. Members to know that the vast majority of viewers in Scotland do not want or require an early update on the progress of Wayne Rooney’s foot or Michael Owen’s knee. Sometimes we like watching our football games with the real World cup contenders—the Argentinas, the Netherlands and the Portugals—without constant reference to the English football team. Perhaps at half-time we could get an analysis of
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the game that we are watching, not some extended update about the progress of the England team. All that is fine for English Members—it is great that they are getting that; it is fantastic, right and appropriate— but Scotland does not need the commentary on another nation, but that is exactly what we are getting.

We can use the red button on our remote to get different BBC commentaries, but they range in their support for England from the mildly hysterical to the apoplectic. The button that we in Scotland are using more and more is the volume button to turn down some of that nonsense.

While that is merely irritating, it starts to get a bit more serious when it comes to news coverage, which is increasingly irrelevant to public life in Scotland. The crux of all that is the need, desire and real requirement for a Scottish 6 o’clock news that will adequately reflect Scottish public life and political life post-devolution, with our own Scottish Government.

The history of that campaign has been protracted and is one of the greatest stories of political subterfuge in the past few years. We witnessed the actions of the former director general, John Birt, who took it upon himself to make it a political mission to stop the “Scottish 6” happening. He saw it as a great threat to the Union of the United Kingdom. To support his cause, he involved the most powerful allies he could, including the Prime Minister. John Birt is clear in his autobiography what he got from him. He went to the Prime Minister, who was quick, as ever, to grasp the case. “Let’s fight,” the Prime Minister said. He of course enlisted the help of Peter Mandelson, who at the time was Minister without Portfolio, and his most trusted aide-de-camp, and he worked with the BBC on a plan of action to stop the “Scottish 6”.

That was later confirmed in the diaries of Lance Price when he recorded on Friday 30 October 1998 that

It was collusion at the highest level between the Government and the BBC to stop a “Scottish 6”. That is the campaign that the “Scottish 6” was exposed to. It is entirely at odds with the commitment in the BBC’s royal charter. It is intended to be an independent corporation. That is why it remains such a hot issue. Most recently, the new director-general of the BBC once again ruled out a “Scottish 6”, saying that there was no clamour in Scotland for such a service.

Mr. Devine: The hon. Gentleman says that that is a hot issue in Scotland. I have been an MP only since October, but I have never had one letter or heard from one constituent, one friend or one individual on the subject.

Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman has obviously not engaged in debate in Scotland on that. It is supported across the political spectrum, not just within political parties, but in civic society as well. There is a determination that a “Scottish 6” is a requirement. Opinion polls clearly show that the majority of the Scottish people want it. Let me assure him that come the run-up to the next Scottish parliamentary elections, we will hear a lot about the future of Scottish
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broadcasting. We believe—this is fundamental and important—that we require our own broadcasting in Scotland to develop the talent in our creative industries. There is a great source of people working within the television sector in Scotland.

Concessions were given. We were denied the “Scottish 6”, but were given “Newsnight Scotland”—a 20-minute opt-out at the end of “Newsnight”. Some of my less charitable colleagues refer to it as Newsnicht, but it has been supremely successful. It has more viewers than the traditional UK-wide programme. People are tuning into “Newsnight Scotland”—

Chris Bryant: People in Scotland.

Pete Wishart: Yes, of course.

Those viewing figures are reflected across the spectrum, whether it is “Reporting Scotland” or the ITN version. People are turning on and tuning in to see Scottish news coverage because they believe that it is important that their national life is seen on the television.

It is a challenge to the BBC. Why does it not accept that? I have written to Scottish Television to say, “Get ahead of the BBC on this one. If you provide a Scottish 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock news service, you could steal a march on the BBC. Grasp the thistle. Go for it, Scottish Television.” It would find that it could probably steal a march on the BBC by securing the viewers for the rest of the evening.

Furthermore, we can do that on radio. We have the supremely important and successful “Good Morning Scotland” programme, which competes very effectively with the “Today” programme—in fact, it beats it in terms of listeners. They want a diet of Scottish news in the morning and it had some 11.2 per cent. of audience share in Scotland in 2004. The question has to be asked: if we can do that so successfully on radio and corner such a large share of the market, why can we not do it on television?

We then have to ask: what do Scottish viewers get out of the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock bulletins? Aberdeen university asked that question, researched it, and came to the depressing conclusion—not very much at all. Just 2 per cent. of stories on the 6 o’clock news network could roughly be called Scottish compared with 34 per cent. of those that could be considered English. It found that there was probably 10 times more English cricket on the BBC 6 o’clock news than there was Scottish politics. We are constantly served a diet of irrelevant news stories, which headline the 6 or 10 o’clock news. They are to do with English health, English education or English criminal justice, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the Scottish people. In fact, they are as irrelevant to the Scottish people as the health and education policies decided by the French Government.

The people of Scotland pay their fair share of the BBC licence fee and are right to demand that BBC programming reflect their interest on an equally fair basis. There is at least recognition— [Interruption.] Does the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland want to intervene?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): No.

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Pete Wishart: There is recognition at last by some of the people and players in the BBC. The former national governor for Scotland said that there was “some way to go” in the BBC

Michael Grade at last recognises that there is

towards Scotland in the BBC’s coverage of the UK in its national news bulletins. Quite, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is not just in the core areas of news and sport that Scotland is short-changed by the BBC. We are told that the new licence fee—the massive inflation-busting hike—is to pay for all the new interactive services that are supposed to be put in place, but many of my constituents cannot access the new digital services. However, they will be asked to pay an increased licence fee.

We have also looked at the disparity of what is collected in Scotland through the licence fee and what we are given back in return. In 2003-04, the licence fee raised was £2.798 billion, of which the Scottish 8.5 per cent. pro rata contribution was £246.2 million. However, Scotland has 9 per cent. of all UK households, suggesting that the licence revenue from Scotland could be as much as £251.8 million. In contrast, BBC Scotland’s income was a mere £160.4 million, of which £10.1 million came from external sources. Under the current arrangements, Scottish broadcasting expenditure is £32 per person. If the full revenues were realised, Scotland’s figure could be up to £50 per person.

If we compare like-sized countries throughout Europe—comparing Scotland to, say, independent Ireland or Denmark—it is clear that less money is spent and fewer jobs are created in Scotland’s creative sector. RTE in Ireland, for example, employs 2,169 people and DR in Denmark employs 3,464 people. That compares with 1,427 employed by the BBC in Scotland. Clearly Scotland is getting a poor return from its licence fee contribution under the devolved settlement, in which broadcasting remains under the control of Westminster and the BBC is controlled from London. If every pound paid by Scottish licence payers were reflected in jobs, Scotland would see an additional 690 broadcasting jobs for no additional cost.

A distinctive BBC in Scotland is now absolutely required to allow us to promote our indigenous culture and to portray Scotland to the rest of the world. A distinct channel would be our window to the world, reflecting our people’s priorities and playing an integral part in everyday Scottish life. By establishing a sustainable television industry north of the border, high-value jobs would be created, boosting our economy and offering opportunities for the skilled media graduates. The charter review provides an opportunity to go down that road, making the BBC in Scotland truly autonomous, giving Scotland control over its broadcasting, increasing the capacity in Scotland and ensuring that the BBC in Scotland reflects the cultural life of our nation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. There is already a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but I notice that the time left for this debate is getting
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shorter, so perhaps Members would like to reduce their comments and then more might be successful in catching my eye.

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