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Philip Davies: I agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. The commercial broadcasters are concerned about the fall in advertising revenues and the looming triumph of the nanny state in banning the advertising on television of Maltesers and other such things. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is another reason why an above-inflation increase in the licence fee would be completely unacceptable, as it would lead to commercial broadcasters being crowded out?
Mr. Swire: My hon. Friend, as is customary, makes a good point. There are a number of reasons why we feel that there should not be an increase of RPI plus 2.3 per cent. in the licence feeand the Secretary of State probably shares our view. My hon. Friends will no doubt want to articulate why they agree with their Front-Bench spokespeople that such an increase would be too much, and that the new figure would be too high.
The divorce between the two areas of the debate that I referred to is a flaw that the Secretary of State has built into the process. By delaying the announcement of the licence fee until the end of the year, we are further separating the two elements of the debate. I am pleasedI genuinely would like the Secretary of State to listen to thisthat the Department for Culture, Media and Sport charter review website has at last woken up to the fact that the announcement has been delayed. The website manager cannot have been at the drinks party at which the Secretary of State announced thatand the Secretary of State, or her officials, clearly forgot to inform the new Minister in her team, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), about it at all.
Today, we will be setting in stone what we want the BBC to do for the next 10 years, but we will not be saying how much we are prepared to pay for that. In the fast changing world of broadcasting, how can we say, This is what we want, while not at the same time agreeing how much it is going to cost?
According to reports, the Secretary of State has already agreed that the BBCs licence fee proposal is too high. That raises the following question: which, if any, of the things that the BBC is proposing to do does she think is unimportant? Ultra-local television? The move to Salford? High-definition television? Or does she, like many of us, have concerns about the figures that the BBC have used to come to the conclusion that RPI plus 2.3 per cent. is the magic number? It is ludicrous for us to be ordering from the menu without knowing whether we can afford to settle up when the bill arrives.
The Secretary of State may be coy about revealing the reasons for the delay in the licence fee settlementas the other Minister was when we debated the same subject a few weeks agobut it seems that between them, the BBC and the Government have somehow got their figures wrong. Two reports, one commissioned by DCMS and the other by ITV, have pointed to anomalies in the BBCs bid. Both PKF and Indepen have undermined the BBCs submission to the
Government; PKF considers that the BBC does not necessarily need the extra funds that it has requested. Also, it seems that the cost of the move to Salford has suddenly been reduced by £200 million. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that an overfunded BBC could lead to super-inflation in the industry? Will she today agree to make available the full current figures on which the level of the licence fee will be agreed?
There is another reason why the licence fee bid is so high: the Governments digital switchover policy. We are now just two years away from the start of analogue switch-off, but we still have no idea about the costs of targeted help schemes, which the licence fee payer will have to bear. The director-general of the BBC thinks that they could cost on
the far side of a billion
pounds. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that she can provide the House and the BBC with a final figure for targeted help? If not, will she at least guarantee that we will know those figures before any licence fee settlement is announced?
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is an additional unnecessary cost in the switchover to digital broadcasting? In some areas, including mine, the local service providerWrights Radio in my areahas found a way to pipe digital network provision to houses that still have analogue television. Unfortunately however, some of the Government-sponsored materials that advise on digital switchover suggest that all that will be switched off. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with me on the specific point that the Government must recognise that in areas where there is no barrier in principle to making a simple change on a central basis for digital switchover, they should save a lot of time and money, and prevent those businesses from going bankrupt, by giving accurate information to the local public?
Mr. Swire: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I hope that the Secretary of State has listened to his concerns. There is also concern, as a result of the delay in the licence fee announcement, that Digital UK will have to order equipment without knowing whether the BBC can pay for it. All such matters need to be discussed in the round. The hon. Gentleman has made a good point, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made a similar point in the debate that we had a couple of weeks ago. I hope that Ministers listen to such special pleas.
Such confusion over the BBCs licence fee bid shows how important it is for the National Audit Office to play a greater role in setting the fee. I have maintained throughout the renewal process that a Conservative Government would bring in the NAO to examine the BBCs figures. The case for that is overwhelming. The NAO could assure licence fee payers that they were getting value for money and could assure this House that the licence fee had been properly scrutinised. Also, given that there is no longer any distinction between a mandatory licence fee and taxation, I further believe that this House should have a full debate, and vote, on any future increase. But in this case we have, to borrow a phrase, taxation without representation. Why do the
Government continue to resist repeated calls both from within this House and across the industry for there to be further scrutiny of the licence fee settlement?
As I am mindful that others wish to contribute to this incredibly important debate, I have focused on only some of our concerns about the new charter. Other Members will want to discuss that in greater detail. We come to this debate as strong supporters of an independent and properly funded BBC, but also as champions of the licence fee payer and the commercial sector.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I should declare an interest of a kind: as a former employee of the BBC, I will receive a pension of £508 when I reach whatever is the appropriate pensionable age. I spent several happy years there, until I helped to organise the first ever strike by BBC journalists some 30 years ago, and that was the end of my BBC career. But I have gone on to otherlesserthings.
I am unsure whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to watch the last episode of Doctor Who on Saturday night. I saywith the affection that she knows that I have for herthat she could be very well-placed to audition for the role of the next Rose, to replace Billie Piper, because that young lady is an expert in the concept of the parallel universe, which, having watched Doctor Who, I am beginning to understand. I have to say to my right hon. Friend, with affection and respect, that I am not sure that my Rotherham constituents are prepared to be quite as enthusiastic about the BBC as she is.
I deeply regret the rather trivial speech made by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). The Conservative partys game-plan is of course to weaken the BBC and to bring about the introduction of Fox News and the utterly biased reporting that we now see in the United States. Some of the main people lobbying against the licence fee increase include Associated Newspapersas if anybody would want the objectivity of the Daily Mail to determine how the BBC should broadcastand Johnston Press, which is facing a strike because of the appallingly low wages paid to the employees of a very small newspaper in Doncaster. One of the scandals of the British media outside London is not the forcing up of wages, but their continual forcing down. The hon. Gentleman would be well advised to find out just how much the private media sector bosses, barons and chief executives pay themselves. He has no better adviser on that issue than the former public relations flack for Carlton Television, who is now, I think, occupying a post on the Opposition Front Bench.
Surely the crucial difference between the BBC and the private sector is that businesses in the
latter have to compete for their revenue. Entirely voluntary transactions earn them that revenue, but that is not so with the BBC. If it misuses its revenue in the way that it competes or pays its staff, that is a matter of public concern.
Mr. MacShane: I would be persuaded by the hon. Gentleman if he had witnessed at close hand, as I have, the effective monopolisation and control of much of this countrys regional media and broadcasting. In fact, I agree in part with his general point, in that the BBC is seeking to do too much. It is an amoeba that is spreading out and occupying far too much of our countrys media space. I do not share in the rather adulatory remarks that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made about the BBC, perhaps because I spend some of my time in Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), who is no longer in the Chamber, would advise the House that I spend perhaps too much of my time in Europe. I see other broadcasters on the continent that are every bit as good as, if not better than, the BBC, not least in the provision of news, current affairs and political discussion. The BBC has been lamentably lacking in that regard in recent years.
The BBC is a self-referring, self-regulating body and frankly, it is in self-denial. The new media world will not be dominated by any single organisation. I want the BBC to be a British broadcasting corporation, showing what it can do to provide news, entertainment and current affairs to every corner of this country. It does not have to become an American broadcasting corporation. I do not know why it runs mammoth offices in Washington and New York and is seeking to compete directly in the American market. Americans of all ilks at the top of that great nation refer to the BBC. Alan Greenspan told me that the first thing that he read was the BBC news summary on the internet, followed by the Financial Times and then The Economist. So, when Members in all parts of the House complain about American policy, they should remember that the British media are often influencing such people the most.
My principal concern is the enormous pressure put on many of the poorest of my constituents by an unavoidable impost over which they have no say and no vote, and on which this House does not even have any right to comment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly compared the BBC to the NHS, but the latter is making serious efforts to find new sources of revenue, to introduce choice and to link up to private markets, so the comparison is not quite right. Even today, poor people in my constituency have immense difficulty in making ends meet and in finding £113 to give to a BBC whose programmes they rarely watch, whose radio they rarely listen to and whose many magazines and books they do not buy, despite the huge publicity for them. So serious questions have to be asked about whether it should not itself be finding sources of finance other than this deeply regressive licence fee.
I understand the right hon. Gentlemans view, which he is arguing cogently, but does he not accept that there is a different way of
looking at this issue? The BBC underpins much of the very high standard of broadcasting in this country, and in effect, the licence fee does not just buy it the space to work in collaboration with local and regional organisations; I could list examples such as the Shropshire Star and Trinity Mirror newspapers, which all have letters of intent in that regard. The licence fee also means that the BBC is accountable, which is why we are having this debate today, and it is acutely aware of the importance of not irritating those in this Chamber or disrespecting their political wishes. So that is one way in which the BBC can be regarded as being more accountable than just about any comparable organisation on the planet.
Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is an expert on Estonia and I am not really up to speed on Estonian public broadcasting, but there are other countries part of whose broadcasting is supported by a public licence feeI am not arguing against that for one secondand who encourage the equivalents of BBC 1, Radio 1 and Radio 2 to seek other sources of revenue.
The taxpayer is rightly paying out billions of pounds to the anti-poverty programme that we now call tax credits, which the Conservative party has always been so scornful of. But it does seem to be illogical for the taxpayer, having given that money to poorer people in my constituency, to then insist, without any alternative being provided, that a good chunk of the money be paid back to the BBC. I am not going to enter into the debate about pay and whether Jonathan Ross should receive x or y salary, which is rather trivial. There are David Beckhams who receive lots of money to lose the World cup for England, and Jonathan Ross is going to be paid lots of money to do possibly quite considerable damage to the BBCs future status.
Mr. Redwood: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not agree that one offensive thing about the BBC is the massive amount of advertising on it, which is all by the BBC itself and brings in no revenue?
Mr. MacShane: That is a fair point. I remember that, when I worked in local radio, it was impossible to get anybody in BBC television to even mention the fact that local radio existed. Perhaps some of those imperial divisions have broken down.
I am disappointed that the Government have been unable to find other mechanisms for bringing revenue into the BBC. I am not convinceddespite the many fine journalists to whom I pay tribute, especially those covering events in some of the most dangerous parts of the worldthat the BBC is helping to shape a new journalism. Frankly, I find deplorable its Project Phoenix, through which it wants to start a weekly political or current affairs magazine. Britain has the weakest weekly political press in Europe, and it is weaker than that in north America. I am talking not
about the marvellous articles written in The Spectator, Tribune, the New Statesman, The Week and The Economist, but about the circulation, reach and influence of the British weekly political press, which is far below that of its equivalents across the channel or across the Atlantic. It is quite deplorable that the BBC is even contemplating entering that market.
I also find it deplorable that the BBCs coverage of Parliament has been seriously downgraded under this Government. I am not suggesting that this is a case of cause and effect, but there was a time when one could listen to Yesterday in Parliament. One cannot do so any more without twiddling on to something called long wave, which I cannot find on my digital radio. I am sure that it is there somewhere, but I cannot find it.
Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I agree that the BBC broadcasts too little coverage of Parliament nowadays, but is that not because the Executive have so much power over this Chamber that our debates are not as interesting as they used to be?
Mr. MacShane: Well, they are certainly a lot more interesting since the hon. Gentleman won his seat, and I am sure that he will contribute to making Parliament once again the focal point of the nation. When I first entered this place, the odd word would occasionally dribble on to the BBC; now, alas, he will be lucky if that happens.
Again, unlike many continental public and private broadcasting systems, which have a serious discursive approach to democratic politics, we have the objectivity of the Daily Mail, the approach to Europe of The Spectator and, as we saw in an interview with the Deputy Prime Minister last week, higher standards with regard to prurience in Hello and Heat than on the Today programme .
While I do not object to the odd high salary for some ladies and gentlemen who amuse us, I am far from convinced that the licence fee should be used for generally upping a huge number of the salaries and pensions paid in what is, after all, a public service profession. Everybody employed by the BBC is paid from that regressive tax. I have been told by the director-general that if he does not pay such salaries, everyone will go off to the private sector. Let them do so. An auction should be held, and the controller of BBC 1 should be paid, let us say, a bit more than the Prime Minister£200,000 a year. Then we will see young men and women transform the BBC, instead of those friends, colleagues and associates of mine from 35 years ago who have been polishing seats ever since on their way to huge salaries and high pensions.
The BBC needs to link up internationally. It should connect with EuroNews, for example, bringing together BBC World and News 24, to create an effective, impartial international news television channel, which the world needs. The best part of the BBC, of course, is the World Service, which is also paid for by the taxpayer, but directly from the Foreign Office grant. I am proud that the Foreign Office has cut back on other vital diplomatic and overseas work to protect the BBC and the British Council.
When I hear the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, representing National Audit Office inquiries, making partisan and often trivial points on the radio, I do not agree that the NAO is necessarily the right body to examine the BBCs accounts. However, because the BBC is funded by the taxpayer, we do have the right to as much transparency in its accounts as there should be in Government or local council accounts. BBC employees are public servants. We have the right to know each and every one of their salaries, and there should be a register of those employees interests so that we know which companies are paying some stars for appearances and how much. When those ladies and gentlemen pump out lines to take, we will therefore know who is influencing them.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), who will reply to the debate, are working hard on this issue. They are right to seek to defend the BBC against the Conservative party and all the other right-wing attempts to Fox-ise it and reduce its role. I am just not convinced, however, by the arguments, which seemif I may finish on a Doctor Who analogyto come from a parallel universe not inhabited by my constituents. The BBC has done important work for the last 80 years, but Britain has one of the weakest media sectors of any modern democratic country. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have much more local television and radio spreading the news about products, services, local ideas and problems in a way that helps to generate economic activity. I am concerned that the BBCs spread into what it calls local television will crowd out independent companies trying to get going.
I cannot possibly vote for the wholly opportunistic amendment tabled by the Conservative party. It is a great regret that the Opposition tabled it because we could have had a much better debate were it not for their rather cheap attempt to exploit the issue. I must announce to my right hon. and hon. Friends, however, that, for the first time under a Labour Government, I will not be able to go into the Lobby with them tonight. Unless we have a new approach to the BBC, I cannot support the huge amounts of money that my constituents have to pay, its lack of transparency, or the way in which it is spreading into every nook and cranny of the media instead of allowing a new media to flourish, create jobs and show that Britain can again lead the world in media development in the 21st century.
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