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It is sometimes said that because our media system is fragmenting in the way that our society is fragmenting, the BBC therefore cannot go on being the kind of institution that it has been in a society and a media system that were different. I would turn that argument on its head and say that the more our society and our media system are fragmenting, the more we need somewhere where we can nourish what we used to callI know it sounds old-fashioneda common culture. We either think that the moment has gone or that that is not worth doing, or we think that it is pretty fundamental to a society. I happen to think that it is fundamental, and that the BBC plays a pivotal role in
the future of that common culture in all kinds of ways that go beyond some of the considerations that have been suggested today.
I worry about what is happening to this society in a number of respects. I worry about what has happened over the past generation or so. I was told just a few days ago by someone no less than a bishopI apologise for putting it in this way, but it is the only way I can do itthat the French now refer routinely to the English as les fuck-offs. They do that because our culture has changed and because the presentation of our culture has changed in our media.
It used to be said in a different and older Reithian age that it was the mission of the BBC not to go to where people were, but to go to where people are and to take them to a better place. It seems rather arch and old-fashioned to say that now, but the presentation of our culture in the media now has helped to contribute to what has happened to our society.
It used to be said, again, that we did not have to worry about presentations of violence and coarseness on our media because people were protected from their effects by the structures of family and of community. Those structures have weakened and been eroded, with the effect that for many people now, what is presented in the media is their version of how they think life is livedof what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. That gives a particular obligation to a public service broadcaster, a guardian of the common culture, in how it responds to that situation. It is the distance between Yes, Minister a generation ago, a programme of pure wit, and a programme like The Thick of It in our time, both garlanded with awards, but very different in terms of the kind of language and behaviour that they reflect.
The challenges facing the BBC in binding the common culture together are enormous. They are enormous on the political front, too. It has been said that there was a loss of confidence in the wake of Hutton, and I am sure there was. My charge against the BBC is not institutional bias, as has been said by some hon. Members, but a kind of weary cynicism, a lack of civic engagement. It is the BBCs role to do something about the civic ills that beset us. That is what it is charged with doing. The new purposes that the Government have given it under the charter tell it to do precisely that.
I conclude my brief remarks by saying that the founding mission of the BBC is as important now as it ever was. Yes, it infuriates us. Yes, no doubt it can be a bloated bureaucracy. But the purpose that it was established to perform, which was to prevent our culture from simply being commercialised, to be the yardstick of excellence, which is different from elitism, remains as true now as ever beforein fact, more so, because the pressure crowding out that commitment to excellence across the board is greater now than it ever was before. The pressures of fragmentation in our society are greater than they ever were before. That gives a new, particular and pressing role to the BBC in affirming the purpose for which it was set up 80 years ago, but doing so in new, different and very challenging circumstances.
My hon. Friends have spoken well, although I do not agree with every word of every one of them. I pay tribute to three of the speeches from the Labour Benches. The House listened intently to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), who spoke in a way that is a tribute to him and an indication of the fact that one can come into the Chamber and hear speeches of rare quality. The speech from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) showed both his experience and his interest in broadcasting. Leaving aside one part of the speech of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the whole of his speecheven the part that I shall not refer towas delivered with an interest in the purposes that the BBC has managed to maintain over the years.
At one time one of my great-cousins was the deputy chairman of the BBC. When asked why he was not contributing to debates on television, he said he did not have one, so Sir James Duff was provided with a television. I also remember, when I was 12, lodging in a house in Rowan road in Hammersmith when the administrative work for the campaign to save the Third programme was being done by my landlady and by me and the various other people she had staying in her house. That taught me that campaigning for causes that one considers worthwhile is worth while. Essentially what I am saying is that I trust the BBC. The right approach was to trust the governors, and if we have to move on to this trust arrangement, which I think is unnecessary, we need to be able to trust the BBC, as both the trust members and the other corporate members, who will be the board of management, both executive and non-executive.
Reference has been made to the Alastair Campbell-induced vendetta against the BBC, and there have been some words about the Hutton report. Much of the Hutton report was interesting. Where Hutton went very clearly wrong was that, first, he did not acknowledge openly that in so far as the original report early in the morning on the BBC was not justified, it was corrected twice within an hour and a half. The fact that the Government waited another three weeks before letting Alastair Campbell loose makes one realise that the reason for the attack on the BBC was not what had happened on the first day, most of which was right, and what was not right was corrected fast, but was for some other purpose.
My hon. Friend may have heard me say that I trust the governors; trust in the BBC means trust in the governors. I would not have made that decision, but they did it for their own reasons. They may argue that they accepted the resignation offer that
Greg Dyke sent and expected to have accepted because they thought that it was the best way to save the BBC, which in a way is a commentary on the Governments attitude at the time.
That leads me on to two separate practical points. The first is that I believe that the BBC should decide and declare that all political pressure, whether it comes from the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Government or the Opposition, should be published. There should be a special website where both recordings or reports of pressure are published. We need openness. There is lot of talk about what role the National Audit Office or Ofcom should have. I happen to believe that we do not need the NAO or Ofcom for the BBC, but leaving that to one side, if people start putting a barrage of pressure on the broadcasters, the BBC should make that available to the listeners and the viewersthose who are having their BBC interfered with. No civil servant or political adviser should say anything to any editor that they are not prepared to have reproduced. That would make a significant difference to the way in which people treat the BBC. One can use persuasion or inducements, but make sure that one is prepared to have them known about by other people. I pay tribute to Nick Jones, one of the journalists who has managed to give a running commentary on the way in which people have been behaving.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): My hon. Friend will recognise, though, that the NAO would never interfere in the editorial independence of the BBC or express any view on what was broadcast. It would simply publish reports on the corporate governance of the BBC.
My second point concerns money. We have not spent much time referring to the agreement between the Government and BBCBroadcasting. An Agreement Between Her Majestys Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Seeing a reference to the Secretary of State, I should declare that my wife, when in government, was involved in helping with BBC senior appointments, and she is now a headhunter, and her firm, although not her personally, might still be doing the same sort of thing. I put that on the record, although I shall not draw a point from it.
Paragraph 78 of the agreement refers to compensation for free television licences. It is odd that we can have this sort of debate without referring to the fact that the Government are providing a great deal of support for the BBC directly because of their support for those over 75. I say that as a way of coming on to my practical point, which is that I hope that the Government and the BBC will find a way of saying to students who are in university lodgings that they do not individually require a television licence. It is bizarre that a child or grandchild of mine living in my house and doing a university course is not required to have a separate television licence, but in a hall of residence every student is in theory supposed to have a television
licence if they are to have access to television or broadcasting through either their mobile phone or a television in their room. Speaking on behalf of mature and younger students, I hope that the Government will resolve that in an acceptable way. If it is not possible to build that into this measure, I hope that they will find a way of tackling it.
I come to the general issue of the BBC around the nation. I happen to spend most of my time listening to Radio 4 in the car; Radio 5 from 5 to 6 in the morning; and then Radio 4 when possible and Radio 2 on Sunday evenings; my consumption of BBC output is usually radio rather than television. That reminds me of one more point that I offer to the BBC through the Secretary of State: can it please try to get the sound from television broadcasts available on digital radio? It is possible in the United States on most radios to pick up television sound, and we should be able to in this country. Many people, for one reason or another cannot have access to a television, perhaps because they are on a bus or a train, but do have access to radio, but having the continuity of picking up television programmes that they are interested in, even if they cannot see them, would be a worthwhile objective.
The BBC has interesting purposes, which are about bringing the world to the UK and the UK to the world. The idea that the BBC is getting involved in broadcasting around the world does not worry me at all. When I go round the world I want to be able to have access to BBC broadcasting. I understand that in some cases it is done commercially and in some cases it is done otherwise.
Historically, many of the BBCs initiatives have not been either approved of by Government or funded by Government, including the World Service, the World Television Service, and a number of others. We can trust the BBC to try things and if they do not work, to acknowledge it, and those that work successfully are either continued or modified, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) said with regard to the single composer downloads. He and I may agree on some parts of that, but he illustrates a case where the BBC was prepared to pay attention when it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.
I know that a number of hon. Members wish to speak, and I agree with some of the points made about high salaries. For example, for all my fondness of the Dimblebys, I would be perfectly prepared to have Nick Clarke continue doing Question Time because he does it very well.
Peter Bottomley: I do not think that it is a shame to say that someone does something well. It would be a shame if I said that he had done it badly and my hon. Friend disagreed with me. I often think that listeners are prepared to have the person who is prepared to do a job at half the price but with 95 per cent. of the public esteem, because that is the way even the Dimblebys started.
I pay tribute to the BBC especially for the way in which it has provided much more opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to work in it, not just
as presenters. We are no longer at the stage we were at 20 years ago, when I was a Minister and nearly every sound technician or lighting person, assistant stage manager was white. The people who were doing the media courses in the colleges and the polytechnics were able to get work experience at the BBC and then apply for jobs with the experience and training, instead of relying on links through one of the great broadcasting families, or treating working for the BBC as though it was the London docks or the print industry. I pay tribute to the BBC for the action that it has taken there.
On the question of the people in the BBC being paid well for doing a good job or having pensions, I calculated that my public service pension will be £40,000 a year, which grossed up comes to about £800,000 worth of pension. The idea of someone who is in the commercial world of broadcasting, including the BBC, being able to do three times as well as that does not frighten me at all. We should have a sense of perspective when we consider these issues.
As and when the trust is established, I hope that we will have no more premature retirements of chairmen or directors general. If we get to the stage where any form of popular pressure, from the Government or anywhere else, hits the BBC, I hope that the members of the corporationthe trust members and the members of the board of management, as I think of themwill be sufficiently robust to see it off. It would be a good thing for the BBC to win some of these bloodyto use the word in its proper sensebattles.
Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I am grateful that the late start of this debate enables me to speak. It therefore follows that I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at short notice.
I have in my constituency a substantial amount of the BBCs real estate and a substantial proportion of its work force. I should put it on record that many years ago, for a short period, I enjoyed, if that is the right word, a BBC salary. It was such a short period and such a low salary that I would not even aspire to the £10 a week pension that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) boasted he will receive. My constituency also has a growing number of independent media businesses that rely directly or indirectly on the BBC. I get many representations from management, staff and independent contractors, who are not always of one mind.
I will not abuse the time that I have been given by doing anything other than making a limited number of specific points. It is perhaps therefore inevitable that I will be somewhat critical of the BBC, so I bracket my remarks by saying that I share with many Members on both sides of the House a general appreciation of the BBC. I should also say that I support the Governments proposals for ensuring the future and the independence of the BBC, as set out in the charter and agreement.
The BBC remains the sine qua non of independent media in the UK, however self-satisfied its promotional ads. I sometimes think that these days we see more ads between programmes on the BBC than on ITV; I do
not know whether that it has more to do with the collapse in commercial advertising or with preening at White City. The presenters can seem so smug that I sometimes wonder whether we will see John Humphrys interviewing Andrew Marr about what John Simpson meant by his last report. If the Government wanted to get on to the programme, they would probably have to send a text message from the Prime Minister to be read out at the end. We saw the efforts that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) had to make to get on to the BBC. Nevertheless, whatever its faults, and however dumbed down its programmesI am not of course referring to the right hon. Member for Witneyits resilience stops Sky News becoming Fox News in this country. I wonder if that is why, at root, Labour Members generally wish the BBC well, and Conservative Members sometimes wish it ill.
The BBC made a mistake in its recent decision on executive salaries. It was an inappropriate sleight of hand involving giving back as contractual rights most of what had previously been discretionary bonuses, and doing so at a very sensitive time. Many BBC staff are facing relocation, outsourcing or job cuts, and there is considerable anger at the sums of money that are being paid. It is glib of the chairman to say that it is necessary for the purposes of competition. Often, the trouble with the BBC is that it wants to have it both ways. It says that it is the public service broadcaster, yet when it wishes to pay large sums of money to its staff, it says that it has to be a direct competitor with the commercial sector. I support the licence fee, but it brings with it obligations, including economy with public money and accountability.
The same convenient foot-in-both-camps manner often applies locally, if I may be parochial for a few moments. The BBC is not always a good neighbour. The White City site sits directly next to the White City estate, which is a significant area of deprivation and low income in my constituency. I am not sure that the residents of that estate have always been welcome as employees or, indeed, as visitors to what is now called the media village. I wonder whether the BBCs management have thought through, in land planning terms, the effects of their intended outsourcing, relocation to Salford and redundancies. It has significant land holdings in the area, not only on the existing White City site, where there has been a great deal of office-building over the past few years, but on the White City development area, which is one of the largest brownfield development sites in Europe. If jobs are going from the area, what will happen to the buildings there? What will happen to Television Centre, which is the hub of that area, or to the local economythe people and businesses who are dependent on the BBC?
As I said, many independent media companies are now, rightly or wrongly, big employers in the area and an established part of the local commercial sector, in TV, in radio and in support services. They, too, are suffering from uncertainty. For example, there is clear guidance in the agreement on the role of independent providers in television, but not in radio. I am not advocating greater externalisation of BBC radio services, although some of my constituents would wish
me to do so. However, the fact that radio gets a second-class serviceit is always an afterthought in these respectscreates uncertainty for the directly employed staff as well as for contractors. That point is highlighted by the fact that in the agreement independent radio producers are lumped together with online services, with which they have no connection whatsoever.
I do not want to trespass too much on the Houses time. In conclusion, I believe that the thrust of Government policyto safeguard the licence fee and thereby to safeguard the independence of the BBCis right. However, in return the BBC has to earn the trust of its viewers, its staff, and its neighbours, wherever it intends to end up. At the moment, as far as I can see, it will still end up substantially in my constituency.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): It is a rare bit of serendipity for me to be called after the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush (Mr. Slaughter), because my theme is the London-centricity of the BBC. I am sorry to hear about some of his problems as a neighbour of the BBC. Unfortunately, many of us in the United Kingdom would not know about those problems, as we do not have the benefit of having the BBC as such a strong local employer. Even after the relocation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the BBC will still be overwhelmingly concentrated in London in terms of employment, expenditure and commissioning. That has political, cultural and economic consequences.
About 30 years ago, Abba briefly overtook Volvo as the most important contributor to the export potential of Sweden. People thought that strange at the time, but now we realise that the creative industries are the real motor of the modern economy. Therefore, the jobs, expenditure and investment that flow from the BBCs concentration in London have important economic consequences right across the United Kingdom.
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