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I thought I dealt with Wales last week.
Some things never change. I was struck by the Secretary of States comparison of the BBC with that other great three-letter acronym of public life, the NHS. There are some similarities: both are large-scale public sector organisations, which are, sadly, slightly anomalous in these days of privatisation, but continue to have a reservoir of public good will, with the exception of one or two people on the outer fringes of the Conservative party.
However, in one sense, the NHS in these islands has diverged because we have at least three national health servicesand I imagine that there is a different model of delivery in Northern Ireland, too. We have different national health services, all based on the common principle of being free at the point of delivery, but differently managed and organised in the nations of the United Kingdom.
The BBC has had to respond to devolution, which has, however, thrown its position into sharp relief. Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish listeners are
constantly served up a series of England-only policy discussions, on, for example, foundation hospitals and specialist schools, which are entirely irrelevant to our education and health services because those matters either are or should be devolved. I hope that those that are not devolved will be soon.
We are considering the broadcasting equivalent of the West Lothian question. If licence fee payers in England are not subjected to news about health and education policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because it is not directly relevant to their lives, why should licence fee payers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland be constantly subjected to news that is not relevant to our daily lives? There is cross-party support for that point. Even the Scottish Executive made that point in their recent submission to the review.
Wales makes it on to the main news bulletins in London only as a bit of local coloura Quixotic or and finally story. Hence the recent story about the Labour Minister in the Welsh Assembly who pressed the wrong button made it on to network news. However, the underlying story, which was the reason for the debatethe assertion that 500 people in Wales had died unnecessarily because of chaos in the Welsh ambulance servicedid not. Surely that was the more serious story, but it did not make it on to the network, whereas the slightly comic story about somebody pressing the wrong button did. That unfortunately reflects the underlying attitude that persists in the news media in London towards Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and, indeed, anything that emanates from outside London and the south-east.
However, the BBC is a house divided because BBC WalesI am sure that the same is true of BBC Scotlandhas also been the promoter of a national consciousness and identity. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said in the Chamber in the debate last month that a senior BBC executive had told him, in a rather colourful turn of phrase, that the Welsh Nationalist party was born in the bowels of BBC Wales in Llandaff. I think that the hon. Gentleman intended the comment to be disparaging but I agree with him in some ways because in no other nation in Europe has broadcasting performed such a central role in creating a modern national consciousness. The Welsh historian John Davies has even gone so far as to say that the Welsh nation was an artefact created through broadcasting. I understand what he means by that.
The BBC in Wales produced the Welsh language radio service Radio Cymru, which has managed to increase the number of young people who listen to that station by more than 50 per cent. in the past decade. The BBC produced the Welsh language online service and the Welsh language news content for S4C. The BBC in Wales has made great strides in expanding its domestic news coverage to reflect the new political landscape.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP):
I am following the hon. Gentlemans points closely, especially about the role of BBC Wales in promoting the Welsh language. Does he share my concern about the lack of prominence that BBC Northern Ireland gives to promoting the Ulster Scots language and
culture, which had only six hours of radio and half an hour of television provision last year?
Adam Price: Yes. I am aware and strongly supportive of the call for the promotion of Ulster Scots, which the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages recognises. The Government have signed up to the European charter, and the agreement with the BBC will require the trust to have regard, among other things, to the importance of appropriate provision in minority languages. I therefore hope that the BBC Trust will move forward in enhancing its promotion of the Ulster Scots language and culture in Northern Ireland.
If I can receive my national and international news in the Welsh language from the BBCs current provision, why cannot I, as a citizen of Wales, receive my national and international news in the English language through a Welsh sixth television news service that reflects all the information and news that is relevant to the citizens of Wales? A similar demand has been made in Scotland. The problem lies at the centre of the BBC, not in BBC Wales or BBC Scotland, where there is untapped potential and some frustration at their inability to move forward with provision.
On Newsnight recently, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) commented on the attitude of the BBC in London, which referred to Scotland as up there and to the Scottish as them, as if they were not licence fee payers or citizens in the same United Kingdom multinational state. Only the creation of distinctive Scottish and Welsh news services can overcome that problem.
Adam Price: The 20-minute opt-out on Newsnightor Newsnicht, as some people call ithas been well received in Scotland. On that basis, why is there opposition to moving forward with full Scottish and Welsh sixth stations? I believe that it is because a distorted view persists in London. That was literally and graphically demonstrated in the new weather map. We are tired of being at the wrong end of somebody elses telescope, seeing ourselves through their eyes. We want our window on the world in Wales and Scotland. We want to be seen through our eyes, not the prism of someone elses prejudices.
If news coverage reflects the balance of political power, that of cultural power is reflected in the production and content of drama. Wales has traditionally done poorly in the proportion of network output that is produced there. In the 1990s, BBC Wales produced 11 drama series for the network, but only one was subsequently commissioned for a second series, although there has been some progress. It was not always that way. Bangor was home to the variety department between 1940-43. The entire department was transported from Bristol overnight on a special train, which carried 432 people, 17 dogs and a parrot. I do not know whether that is a model for the relocation to Manchester. According to the Daily Post:
Bangor lost its innocence overnight with a transport of actors.
That was a rare golden age. When, in 1994, the BBC wanted to produce a film on the life of Aneurin Bevan by the Oscar-winning writer, Trevor Griffiths, it was told that it would not get a penny for it. It went ahead and spent the entire drama budget for BBC Wales on that one production, which was eventually aired on the network on BBC2 on a Sunday at 11.20pm.
Things have improved since then, however, and we have seen some increases in production. Indeed, two of the leading productions on BBC1Life on Mars and, of course, Doctor Whowere produced in Wales. We have seen a trebling of the amount of network money being spent in Wales in three years to £50 million, and we are grateful for that. We notice, however, that very few of the network productions so far have contained any Welsh characters, Welsh accents or Welsh settings. Scotland has traditionally done betterMonarch of the Glen is an examplebut productions there tend to be culturally stereotypical. The Scottish press says that they are either heather and highlands or urban and gritty.
One wonders whether there is a problem at the commissioning end. Ruth Caleb, who was appointed by BBC Wales in the 1990s to drive forward drama development, talked about a fundamental prejudice towards Wales by commissioning editors. It wont be too Welsh, will it? was the constant refrain. She was regularly asked to get rid of Welsh characters, settings and storylines, and Welsh accents were a definite no-no, so I am glad that I chose politics over acting as a career.
This is a serious problem, and it continues even now. Ruth Pitt resigned from her post as the creative director of the very valuable Out of London project in May because of her frustration at what she described as the attitude of commissioners and programme makers in London towards developing network production beyond Manchester. They have reluctantly accepted that there seems to be a creative cluster up there in the north-west of England, but they are not too sure about the rest of the United Kingdom. The talent is there, however, as the success of BBC Wales with Doctor Who and other recent productions has proved.
I hope that we are moving away from the kind of monolithic monochrome world that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referred to earlier. We live in a polycentric state. We are not one nation; we never have been, and we never will be. The BBCs motto is Nation shall speak peace unto nation. It does not say that one nation should speak, leaving the rest unable to speak even to themselves.
The White Paper talked about fostering national cohesion, and gave the broadcasting of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race as an example. I am not sure that the boat race was ever a symbol of social cohesion, even less a basis for national unity. The Government said that the BBC should provide access to sporting events such as the World cup to unite the nation. Well, which nation did they mean? The rather feverish coverage of those, including the First Minister for Scotland, who had the temerity to suggest that they would not support England in the World cup has
shown that we have different ways of looking at the world. We are more than one nation, and that needs to be reflected within the BBC.
The agreement represents an improvement, because it does not contain any old-fashioned, outmoded greater Englandism. It talks about representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities. It also employs much softer tones than the White Paper when suggesting that the BBC should, on occasion, bring audiences together for shared experiences, including those sporting occasions on which our natural national allegiances in these islands inevitably mean that licence fee payers will sometimes find themselves on opposing sides.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who presented his case with his usual vigour and humour. His was one of several memorable speeches in todays debate. I will always remember two in particular. As a loyal Labour Back Bencher, I was shocked by the relish with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) announced his first ever rebellion against the Labour Government, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip will not use her new powers too harshly against him. I will also always remember the passionate defence of the cultural role of the BBC put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). Perhaps he was fortunateunlike poor old Zidane last nightthat there was not a fourth official present to provide the benefit of an action replay at the crucial moment.
One of the iconic BBC programmes, Top of the Pops, is coming to the end of its 40-year run on 30 July. In recognition of that, I want to give the House my top 10 reflections on the BBC charter process. When I mentioned this idea to a colleague in the Tea Room this morning, he said, Well, at least youre not giving them your top 40! I will try to be brief. For those of us of a certain age, who probably reached our peak at the same time as Top of the Pops did, its passing will mark a moment.
My first reflection is on the role and the reach of the BBC in our society. Despite what my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, 94 per cent. of people still come across some form of BBC output each week, and 80 per cent. watch BBC1, the most popular channel in the nation. Nearly 70 per cent. of all BBC income is still spent on original programming, a far greater proportion than that spent by any of its commercial rivals. The proportion of Skys income that is spent on original programming is very low indeed, for example.
The BBC still has a hold on all generations in this country, despite its worries about what the young think of it, and whether they consume media in a different way. The other day, I happened upon a survey of 3,000 graduates, including engineering, business and humanities students, asking them who they most wanted to work for. The answer from all categories was the BBC. I do not think that it was the prospect of Jonathan Ross-style salaries that attracted them so
much as the reputation of the BBC and the opportunities that it offers to excel across a whole range of activities.
My second reflection is about BBC sports coverage. When Ofcom carried out a survey of what was important to viewers about the BBC, its news coverage was No. 1and quite rightly so, when we consider the values of BBC news. However, BBC sport was at No. 2. It is worth reflecting that, last night, 18 million people watched the World cup final on the BBC, which was a record for more than 25 years.
Those water-cooler moments that hon. Members have been referring to are one part of BBC sport; another is the encouragement of minority sports. The Paralympics, for example, would never have taken off in the way they have without BBC coverage. With the demise of Grandstand, it is important that those who are charged with maintaining the reputation of BBC sportwhich comprised nearly 1,700 hours, or nearly 10 per cent. of the output, on the main two channels last yearshould continue to encourage minority sports. They should show them particularly on their interactive coverage. One that appears to be somewhat under threat at the moment is the BBCs racing coverage, which is consumed by many people. There are rumours that that coverage is to be cut in half. I hope that the BBC will look carefully at the coverage of all minority sports.
Thirdly, I want to reflect on the argument of crowding out. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said that in one sense it is the purpose of the BBC to crowd out in order to influence the market. That is true, but we should not underestimate the potential for the BBC to participate along with the private sector. I shall give two examples that have already been mentioned this evening. There are the plans for BBC local television and the protests of some local newspaper owners about such television, local websites and so forth. It is interesting that in Birmingham, where this is being pioneered, Trinity Mirror, which publishes the main evening newspapers in the west midlands, has entered into a partnership and drawn up a joint letter of intent with the BBC. That is one example of where the BBC and the private sector can have a positive impact by working together.
Another example, which we heard about earlier, is the Beethoven downloading, which happened last year when, following the BBCs Beethoven week, millions of people downloaded the composers work. It is well worth remembering that that was done in partnership and in consultation with some of this countrys major orchestras and big music companies. CD sales of Beethoven increased by about 100 per cent. in the wake of that. Both the BBC and the private sector learned the lessons: they saw a market for downloading classical music that no one had thought existed before. When Bach week followed Beethoven week, it was done in a very different way.
Next, just a word or two on governance. I believe that this is a major and welcome departure for the BBC. The new trust and executive are now two separate entities. No longer will the chairman of the trust be the chairman of the whole BBC; he will be the voice of the licence fee payers in a way that the chairman of the governors never was. He will have to consider the interests of the licence fee payers not just in respect of
the BBCs output, but in relation to the BBCs impact on other public service broadcasters as well. It is a radical departure, which is symbolised by the different secretariat that the BBC Trust will now have and by its physically different location.
My fifth reflection is on local radio, which has come up just once in our debate so far when my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to it. This week, BBC Radio Yorkmy local radio stationis the proud host broadcaster of the Great Yorkshire show, which illustrates the part that BBC local radio plays in many of our local communities. One of the BBCs plans for expansion is to fill in the gaps of local radio up and down the country. In Yorkshire, that will mean having a station in Bradford as well as Leeds, which is well worth supporting.
Next, on the opposite side from BBC local radio is the BBC World Service, BBC World and the new experiment of Arabic television. BBC World Service radio has recently gained record listening figures and BBC Arabic television is a worthy experiment that should perhaps have happened long ago. I hope that, if we go down this route of the Foreign Office and the BBC further expanding into television, it will not be at the expense of further BBC World Service radio channels. I believe that BBC World, which is run on a commercial basis, has improved over the years and it is meant to come into profit in 2010. It is well worth reflecting that it is the only news channel in the world that is trying to run on a completely commercial basis, whereas al-Jazeera and the channels recently launched in France are very much the recipients of public subsidy.
My seventh point is about BBC Resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned the importance of the BBCs training function. In the rush to maximise the use of independent producers, which clearly have a role in BBC output, we should not forget the importance of the core in-house service. Bearing in mind the question mark about whether BBC Resources will be privatised after 2007, it would be odd if the BBC had accountants and lawyers directly on its staff, but no longer had technicians. The BBC Trust should think carefully about thatit should perhaps do a value-for-money studywhen so many big corporations are bringing such functions back in house.
In direct response to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, I hope that moving BBC Radio 5 and BBC Sport to Manchester is just the start. Some time during the next charter period, I would like to see one of the big channels moved somewhere in the UK. That would be a major step forward and a major way of combating the London-centric focus, to which, like any London-based institution, the BBC occasionally falls prey.
My ninth point has not arisen in the debate so farthe BBCs coverage of religion. We sometimes talk about great moments in sport, but in the last two or three years, the BBC has provided great coverage of religious events, whether it be the death of the Pope or the recent enthronement of the Archbishop of York. It is important that the BBC continues to provide coverage of all the religions in todays Britain. Last years The Monastery was an innovative programme, which brought an understanding of religious life to a
wide and popular audience. It is also important to show programmes relating to worship at religious festivals.
The Sound Broadcasting Society, which originated in the campaign to save the Third Programme from mutilation, is still keeping up a spirited fight against the declining standards of the BBC...It is sad that the BBC should have fallen so far from the high standards it once set itself.
To a certain extent, it was ever thus: we always look back to a golden age of the BBC. I contend that, perhaps, we are not too far from such a golden age today, with the expansion of Freeview, the success of the BBCs interventions on to the internet, the respect in which it is widely held and the quality of much of its output. BBC radio is still slightly embarrassed to have more than 50 per cent. of the total audience share, largely because of the quality of its output. Perhaps, today, we are in such a golden age. I always remember the words of Dennis Potter, who said of the BBCs mission:
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