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The breakdown was also caused by what happened when the corporation was attacked. In this case it was my Government who were doing the attacking, led by Alastair Campbell. There was a disgraceful onslaught on the BBC, arising from a 6 am news broadcast—most of which was correct, but some of which was inaccurate. That was followed by the disgraceful
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whitewash of the Hutton report. When that happened, and the Government attempted to scalp Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies—which they ultimately succeeded in doing—instead of defending the institution and its chief executives, the governors stabbed them in the back and demolished the ground under their feet. In doing that, the governors sealed their own fate.

How is the trust to work? That is still an unknown area. The trust will be the advocate of the people and a watchdog for the people. If it is going to be those things, it needs to be powerful, effective and representative. It needs, for instance, to include a trade union representative, a representative of employees of the BBC, and representatives of the varied interests and regions of this country. It has to have its own roots and tentacles reaching out into society to know what the people think. If it is just a vehicle for pressure from outside by the press, pressure groups and competitors, it will undermine the BBC rather than give it effective leadership. That is still to be worked out, and I have certain anxieties.

I do not agree that the proportion of BBC programmes being put out to competitive tender should be increased to 50 per cent. That is disastrous. The BBC has a reputation and a role as a trainer of staff, a sustainer of quality staff and a developer of new programmes. The independent sector is much more cheap-jack. It does not train people; it employs people trained by the BBC. With one or two exceptions—“Big Brother” is one—it does not innovate. It goes for established personalities and programmes. It does not risk new ideas as a big corporation like the BBC can. The 50 per cent. requirement will be damaging to the BBC.

I do not see, either, why Ofcom has to be given new responsibilities to vet new ventures and new initiatives by the BBC. Those are a matter for the BBC. It is certainly true that the BBC has been too prone to build an empire. I was a strong critic of News 24, which started five years too early. That meant that it was an enormous waste of licence fee payers’ money. It appealed to a very small audience—for years, it had an audience of about 50,000, although its programmes are financed by all of us as licence fee payers. Now that the audience is beginning to build up, there is a case for News 24.

However, now there is also the over-extension to new digital channels on radio and television, and in relation to the internet. There has been boastful and unnecessary talk of challenging AOL and Google. That is a delusion of grandeur, not a necessary development. However, the responsibility for deciding on those new channels should be left to the BBC, with public service issues in mind, rather than censured or controlled by a body outside the BBC that is more concerned with the commercial operations of the market.

My further point of dissent is the issue of the licence fee. We are all ambivalent about the licence fee. We do not like it. Certainly, we do not like the fact that it is an oppressive poll tax, particularly for the less well-off. In the past, the means of enforcement have been fairly brutal. A number of women were sent to jail because they were the ones at home—while their husbands were out having a beer—when the detectives called, and
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were therefore responsible for using the television set without a licence. That was an absolute disgrace. Fortunately, the numbers have been reduced, but the machinery for enforcement is still brutal.

On the other hand, although we do not like the licence fee, we can see no real alternative. We have to bring public money into the field of production. Advertising cannot support everything. If the pigs are all swilling from the same trough, they are going to produce the same manure. We need a variety of funding, such as the licence fee provides for the BBC. Not to have it would lead to cheap-jack programmes and would cut out public service programmes. We need the licence fee. However, I do not see any reason why the BBC licence fee, which is a precious and fragile instrument—things are getting increasingly difficult as it gets higher—should be required to bear the cost of digital switchover. That benefits all the other competitors in the market. Why should they not pay for it too? It is a Government responsibility, since the Government will derive profit from selling off the channels freed by digital switchover. Why, therefore, should the cost be put on the licence fee?

We have a responsibility to audit the BBC’s claims publicly. I think that a 2.3 per cent. increase is unacceptable. In the last period, the increase followed the retail prices index plus 1.5 per cent. The figure of 2.3 per cent. is too high. The public need confidence that things will be properly controlled. Mercifully, the Government are now assessing the matter, with an outside examination of the BBC’s claims to that licence fee increase—rightly so, because the public need to be reassured that it is acceptable and necessary, and that it has been effectively audited.

We all have our criticisms of the BBC. That is particularly true of anybody who has worked for it, as I have. When I was introducing it, the BBC decided to call “24 Hours” a day and close down the whole programme; that was my main achievement at BBC television. Frankly, working for Rupert Murdoch was a much more pleasurable experience than working for the faceless, bureaucratic, over-administered BBC. That is where the cuts should be made.

As the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said, as BBC staff were asked to accept a pay increase of 2.3 per cent., the massive increases given to BBC executives were obscene. The huge payments made to presenters so that the BBC can poach all the available talent in the market of commercial radio or television need to be effectively audited and externally controlled. The reduction of effort on politics and current affairs at prime time and on the main channels is deplorable.

In sum, however, those are minor matters. They are pimples on the bum of the BBC’s body politic, and they should not concern us in such a debate when we need to concentrate on the scale of the BBC’s achievements, the quality of its programmes and its role as a nursery of talent and ideas, and a training ground for skills. It is one of the few British institutions that is not only accepted but respected all around the world. We should ask ourselves how we can best sustain that, rather than how we can join in the chorus of carping criticism from interested outside parties. Sustaining that is our purpose and the Government’s purpose, so I will be supporting the Government tonight—a rare occasion!


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7.31 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): There are sometimes advantages to lengthening memories. Some of my first memories are of growing up in a house that was an early adopter of television in a world that was emphatically both monochrome and monolithically BBC. The apogee of the BBC’s national role came at the Queen’s coronation in 1952—

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): 1953.

Mr. Boswell: I stand corrected, because the accession and the coronation itself happened in different years.

Interestingly, for the first time ever, more people watched the coronation than listened to it on radio. People gathered together for a shared national experience in a way that is described as a water-cooler experience half a century later. Three years later, there was the revolutionary and highly controversial introduction of the second channel, ITV. How great a contrast with now because, as the Secretary of State said, there are now hundreds of digital channels that cater for, but are not always watched by, extensive private interests.

The most interesting feature of the digital revolution is the way in which the need to consider limitations of time and place is being eroded. For example—this reflects our country’s transmitter history—although I live in the east midlands, I still find it extremely difficult to receive east midlands television. However, I can immediately do so through digital. Perhaps more significantly, it is only recently that I have become aware of the extent to which overseas people, such as those in eastern Europe, listen to BBC radio broadcasts on the web. They listen to not just the World Service, but domestic programmes, so a huge footprint has developed.

Mention of the overseas situation reminds me of the important and central role of the BBC both at home and abroad. Perhaps the World Service exemplifies some of the traditional virtues more clearly than anything else. However, the essential message—the distinctive proposition—of the BBC, which was well and loyally developed by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), is one of quality and objectivity, alongside which marches independence. Those should properly remain the watchwords of the corporation. However, I would not like to turn that into a coded plea for the BBC to be stranded inside a narrow definition of public service broadcasting as a weird minority activity, as if, metaphorically, the set was tuned permanently to Radio 3, not that I mind listening to Radio 3 on occasions. I am not even absolutely sure what the definition of “market failure” is. I am more interested in providing acceptable choices for consumers. If the digital system and the wide range of commercial broadcasters cannot do that, there is a perfectly proper continuing role for public service broadcasting in the BBC.

It is right to offer services that are targeted at a wide range of interests and groups, provided that the three watchwords that I set out are maintained. As a fairly natural and instinctive supporter of the BBC, it would not be sensible—if I may return to my childhood for a
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moment—to act as the eponymous Mr. Grouser of Toytown on “Children’s Hour”, who was always grumbling and niggling about minor infelicities and errors of taste or presentation. In fact, I would not wish to do so about the commercial sector, either. It is right to consider the range of output as a whole and the fact that the BBC—thank goodness—can still turn out programmes of exceptional quality.

In a month in which many, if not most, of us will have turned our minds towards the World cup—incidentally, hon. Members will have noticed that there has been fairly trenchant criticism of the BBC’s World cup coverage, although I leave that aside—it is right to record that last weekend I watched consecutively on the BBC programmes about the Somme and Italy, both of which were highly educational and informative. One, although perhaps not the other, was certainly entertaining. The best programmes can embrace elements of all that.

I also want to acknowledge the recovery of the BBC under Mark Thompson, the new director-general, and Michael Grade, its chairman, following that dark night of depression and loss of self-confidence that was perhaps wished on it following the Hutton report. I felt that the corporation suffered more than it deserved to, and the situation must have been difficult for staff at all levels of the organisation.

We cannot leave matters in a warm bath of uncritical adulation. When preparing my thoughts for today’s debate, I kept returning to the words in “Measure for Measure”:

“O! it is excellent

To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.”

The way in which the BBC fits into overall provision still leaves me with concerns that temper my natural support for the corporation. Before I move on to the charter, I will thus touch briefly on three matters.

I am still genuinely concerned about the high level of cross-promotion of BBC programmes, which is partly a conceptual issue. I have never quite kept count of whether the advertisements on the BBC for itself are more prevalent than advertisements for other products on the independent sector. However, the number of such advertisements seems excessive from time to time. They are no longer used as fillers. Obviously it is appropriate to use any time that there is to spare, but the BBC seems to have developed two cultures: a radio culture that stills worries about crunching the pips and performs on time; and a television culture that allows the evening to drift on. I am not the kind of person who would argue that the World cup final should be interrupted by the news—I would not want that—but there is a degree of inappropriate sloppiness.

Secondly, there is still more work to be done to improve communication. We have broadly got there with subtitles, except perhaps on BBC Parliament, but the use of audio description and signing is still comparatively minor.

Thirdly, we must consider the role of the BBC as a dominant producer, even following recent changes. This is something on which I would clash swords with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby because I welcome moving the amount of production by the independent sector to 50 per cent. because that is the
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minimum that is required to give that sector sufficient headroom to flourish. I would not mind if the figure eventually went beyond that, although I certainly would not drive it up to 100 per cent.

Behind all that is the reality of a huge income from licence fee payers, which is now more than £3 billion. Incidentally, owing to the growth in the number of households, that is not subject to any significant fiscal drag. However, when one considers the techniques and technology used to raise that money, even if operations are more efficient than they ever were—I have been to see the national television licensing office in Bristol—it is absolutely clear that a pretty old-fashioned approach is adopted.

It is due to such considerations, especially the income, that the giant’s strength needs careful tying down externally. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who opened the debate for our party, was entirely right to express his detailed concerns on exactly those matters that worry me.

In essence, my plea is for greater transparency in our approach to the BBC. I go back once again to the early days—indeed to a time long before my memories of the BBC began—when, leaving aside the listeners, as they were then, there were only two parties to the transaction, the BBC and the Government, and doing a deal was relatively easy. It may not have been entirely reputable and it may not have been the perfect deal, but at least it was feasible, and there were no other players on the field to displace. I would dare to go further and say that only the stern rectitude and independence of Lord Reith—plus, perhaps, the contingent fact of the intervention of world war two, when the BBC’s reputation soared—enabled the BBC’s potentially difficult inwardness to be used positively.

Now, of course, many other players and interests are engaged. Government Members should not think that, if we raise issues, it automatically means that we have an interest or are seeking to diminish the BBC; we raise them because we would like it to be more successful, and that requires a fresh approach. That is particularly relevant to the regime for regulation imposed on the various broadcasting players. For example, on the points made about the way in which the NAO regulates public bodies, I fail to understand why the BBC should be in a different position from any other recipient of public funds. I fail to understand why Ofcom can regulate other broadcasting agencies but not the BBC.

I am glad, and I acknowledge it, that the strains in governance that became apparent after the Hutton disaster have been eased by the establishment of a separate BBC Trust, but that trust still does not have full independence. Nor is there an NAO audit; indeed, we do not have details of the forthcoming licence fee increase or a full justification for it being set at inflation plus 2.3 per cent., despite the fact that even the Department of Health will not receive anything better than that in future, and most Departments will not receive anything beyond inflation. Alongside that, the costs of digitisation, and particularly of the social interventions necessary to make that a tolerable process and to maintain universal access, remain opaque.

In conclusion, for the BBC to play to its undoubted strengths of quality and objectivity, it needs to be able
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to demonstrate independence, including, critically, independence of governing. It need not fear objective regulation and audit of what is in effect—admittedly, for all purposes—public money, any more than a private sector corporation should fear that when discharging its public duties under licence. The downside of those essentially healthy pressures would be far less damaging than the continuation of cosy and imprecise deals with Government, in which the BBC continues to receive or—perhaps no less importantly—is thought to receive special privileges in return for putting some of its large resources towards discharging what is essentially the Government’s business, for example in digitisation.

The settlement of the charter renewal is essentially an interim one, both in its response to technology, and in its response to governance issues. We will need to go further in due course. In doing so, I hope passionately that we will respect the BBC as a power for good and that we will try to achieve a better mix that enables and encourages it to act responsibly, both to its viewers and to other providers of broadcasting services, and in doing so to maintain its distinctive, remarkable and unique qualities, which have made it a world brand of which we should be proud, and which we wish to support. However, we believe that the best contribution to its support would be not to leave unchanged, but to alter and improve, its arrangements to make it more effective in future.

7.44 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referred to the fact that we have just emerged from a period of saturation football coverage. It is worth recalling that in the early days of televised sport the BBC was required to avoid advertising placards around sports grounds, which, it believed, contaminated its purpose. Today, of course, no sportsman is interviewed unless there are at least 30 logos decorating every part of his body and the surrounding apparatus.

That is a reminder that there has always been something different about the BBC—and I, for one, hope that that will always be the case. The BBC was different—and this relates directly to the arguments about crowding out—because its purpose was to crowd out a view that our culture should be commercialised. It took the view that it was important to crowd out the inferior, the second rate, and things that were culturally corrosive. No doubt, that reflected the view of the time but, I hope, it reflects a larger and longer view, too. I confess to total, irrevocable prejudice in favour of the BBC, which is probably the best thing about living in this country. The idea of life without Radio 4 is unthinkable. I accept that that reflects my age and class, but there are not many things of which I can say so these days. I detected in the contributions of some hon. Members a certain loss of confidence in the institution, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, is one of the few British institutions that is universally admired once one leaves these shores.

It would be unfortunate if a loss of confidence prevented us from seeing the BBC for what it is. In these debates, some Government Members always want to find good reasons to defend the BBC while
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noting deficiencies while, interestingly, some Opposition Members always search for reasons to erode the BBC while making general protestations of support. That has been reflected in what has been said today. The BBC is different for all of us, because we think we own it. Indeed, it often likes to tell us that we own it, and stages events such as “Your BBC”. The problem, however, is that we have delusions of ownership, as our feelings about the BBC are different from our feelings about other institutions. When those institutions misbehave or do things that we do not like, we say, “Oh well, that is simply how the market works” or “That is how the world is”. With the BBC, it is a more personal, intimate relationship, and we think that our institution is behaving wrongly.

To cite an example that has surfaced in our debate, a week or two ago, Mr. Jonathan Ross decided to ask the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition whether he used to masturbate when he looked at pictures of Mrs. Thatcher, and many of us were not just embarrassed but affronted. Such incidents make us feel that our institution has let us down. We feel that it has behaved in ways that it should not have behaved.

When we hear Mr. John Humphrys asking the Deputy Prime Minister last week whether he had affairs with other women, we feel embarrassed for the institution, because we feel it has fallen below standards that we thought made it different from other institutions from which we would expect such behaviour. What is worse about that is not just that it represents a lapse of judgment, but that those who are responsible for these matters inside the organisation proceed to defend what is done. That is the most worrying thing about it—not so much that it is done, as that it is then defended.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on BBC Radio Ulster on a family programme last week, one of the presenters on the 60th birthday of President George Bush indicated that he should rot in hell? The controller of the BBC apologised for that, but the same gentleman will go on saying very nasty things about people and offending the majority of people in Northern Ireland who would support President Bush.

Dr. Wright: I am grateful for the intervention. I must confess that I am not as familiar with the output of Radio Ulster as I ought to be, but I am interested in the example that the hon. Lady gives. It leads on to probably the only general point that I want to make.


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