|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I welcome all colleagues who have decided to participate in the debate, particularly the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich who is to make his maiden speech. We look forward to hearing it.
I should declare a past interest as vice-chairman of the BBC and for three months acting chairman in rather better circumstances than the current ones. I want to make clear at the start that I sought the debate because I care passionately about the need for a truly independent BBCindependent from government; independent from advertisers; independent from sponsors; and, above all, independent from the many siren voices we heard particularly after the publication of the Hutton report.
The Hutton report brought many of these issues to a head, especially when charter renewal is being considered. Let me say at once that I agreed with much of the criticism of the BBC. Indeed, immediately after Gilligan had made his very serious charge that Alastair Campbell had fraudulently changed a major document to justify sending British troops to be killed in a war in Iraq, I telephoned a senior executive at the BBC. I told him that while I was personally opposed to going to war, I did not believe they could possibly have evidence to justify the claim made by Mr Gilligan. It was so serious a charge, they should immediately issue an apology.
As we know, that advice was rejected. But while my advice was rejected, I believe that the Hutton report would have been better balanced if there had been some perfectly justifiable criticism of the Government, especially the MoD and Alastair Campbell in particular. I fear that Alastair Campbell's over-the-top and non-stop attacks on the BBC led to the seriously misjudged and ill-informed response by the BBC. Let me say that if I had been wrongly accused of such a serious charge, I, toowhile, I hope, not being an Alastair Campbellwould have been very angry, to put it mildly. Sadly, this all led to the resignation of an excellent chairman and director general. The resignations were inevitable, in my view, following a bad piece of journalism and, more importantly, bad and inadequate management of that seriously flawed journalistic charge.
These flaws must of course be eradicated; indeed, I hope that the necessary changes have already been made or will be soon. But Hutton should not, and must not, be allowed to determine the future of an independent BBC and the renewal of its charter. We now have a new chairman-elect, Michael Grade, and I offer him my congratulations and best wishes in a difficult job. He does not need to look back as far as Reith for an example of good management of the BBC. He need look no further than the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, with whom I worked closely for seven years. I am confident that Michael Grade will be strongly resistant to pressure from governmentnot
Most will agree with me that it has not stopped views being expressed on governance during the current debate on renewal of the charter. Some of those views, if implemented on renewal of the charter, could have serious consequences for the very independence of the BBC that everyone professes to support. Let me take a few of the more serious proposals that have been suggested from time to time.
One of the favourite proposals relates to the "regulatory" role, at present mainly conducted by the governors. The "knee-jerk" reaction post Hutton is that this should be removedor at least partially removed. Ofcom, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Currie, who I am delighted to see will participate in the debate, already regulates the BBC's commercial and economic activities. It is responsible for basic standards of taste, decency and fairness. It oversees quotas for regional production and relations with the independent production sector. This morning I received an excellent document from Ofcom and I look forward to commenting on it to the noble Lord, Lord Currie, at a later stage.
The former chairman, Gavyn Davies, felt that the BBC was forging a fertile relationship with the noble Lord, Lord Currie. Knowing them both, and Michael Grade, I am sure that that relationship will continue. However, I am concerned that pressure will continue for that regulation to widen further. I hope that the Government will resist such pressure. The compromise agreed and supported by the scrutiny committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Puttnam should continue. Again, I am delighted to see that my noble friend is to participate in the debate. It leaves the governors in sole charge of the vital public service remit. If the governors fail, it would of course be a very serious matter.
Another important question is the one that would have the audit of the BBC carried out by the National Audit Office. As a former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, to which the National Audit Office reports, I need hardly say that I believe the National Audit Office does a tremendous job in the crucial area of value for money. It always has. When I was chairman of the PAC, I was delighted to be able to work with such an important body. A simple statement that the National Audit Office should be given responsibility for auditing the BBC sounds sensible. But one is bound to ask: is it sensible? There are two areas of NAO audit; one is financial and the other is value for money.
The BBC has its own independent financial audit and it has a governors' audit committee, which is chaired by a very responsible governor. National Audit Office involvement would run the risk of both duplicating and undermining the successful arrangements already in place. I imagine most people would accept that, but still argue that the National Audit Office should be given power to conduct value-for-money audits. But it should be clear that the BBC is not the same as a government department. It is a creative, risk-taking body with many commercial activities. Fear of risk-taking would be fatal to the role that I hope we all want the BBC to pursue; namely, to take creative risks. I therefore hope that the Government will accept that National Audit Office involvement would be wrong for the BBC.
The other major area of criticism of the BBC has always been described as "dumbing down" or winning ratings but losing its purpose. That is a sort of no-win issue for the BBC. Thus, let us say that it mainly put out the kind of programmes said to fulfil the Reithian mission to inform and advocate, or to serve the prejudices of white middle-class and middle-aged viewerseven, possibly, Members of your Lordships' House. If the audience figures were then low, critics would want a major cut in the licence fee. If the figures are high, as now, the critics level the charge of dumbing down. So the BBC cannot win.
One argument often put to support a cut in the licence fee is that it would release the BBC from what are called its present shackles and that it would be free to carry out its public service responsibilities. Again, one is bound to ask, "With what size of audience?". I am not sure about Members of your Lordships' House, but in the other place we did not watch an awful lot of television. Of course, that did not stop us criticising it.
I fear that such a policy could lead us down the sad path of the US public service broadcasts. It is said that such commercial freedom would enable the BBC to exploit its own powerful brand name and assets. It does that now, and it does an incredible job through that powerful name in its broadcasting around the world, especially on radio through the wonderful World Service. I hope that we will never allow such so-called commercial freedom to destroy the essence of a truly independent BBC.
I recently asked my noble friend Lord McIntosh to consider completing the consideration of charter renewal before the general electionalthough neither he nor I know when that will be. However, it has been thought that it will be some time next year, or perhaps the following year. I am of course aware that renewal is not due until 2006, but Parliament could be asked to decide on the kind of renewal that it wants in 2005 and it could be signed, sealed and delivered in 2005 to come into effect on the due date in 2006.
If, during a general election, the great British public, who will, of course, have read all the documents, made it clear that they disliked what had been done, it would still be open to a new Parliament to rethink. However, I am happy to find that most political parties seem to be broadly in agreement with the proposal for the
I hope that I have made clear that I do not support the idea that the BBC never gets it wrong. Of course it does, from time to time, as the Hutton report found. Its so-called "popular" programmes are often, and inevitably, not "popular" with everyone. The BBC's essential problem with a vital policy of making risk-taking programmes is that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. Making popular TV good and good TV popular has to be decided by someone. I hope that Parliament will decide in charter renewal that the decisions are best made by an independent BBC. As I said, from time to time, the BBC will get those decisions wrong. Occasionallybut, I hope, not all the timeit will allow some broadcasters to let their prejudices show, if perhaps not as firmly as happens in the tabloids or even the broadsheets.
I cannot believe that what is called commercial freedom will be better able to focus on public value. We are speaking here of an institution that provides a vital public service both at home and abroad, an institution that is truly independent and will continue to improve the quality of life in Britain and overseas. The chairman and governors have grave responsibilities in carrying out their mission. I do not believe that commercial freedom would help. I hope that renewal will be carried out speedily, as I have indicated, and preferably by political consensus. I hope that the House will agree that a strong, independent BBC setting standards for the rest of the media is vital to broadcasting generally. I beg to move for Papers.
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I begin with my usual declaration of interest as a modest pensioner of the former IBA and also as the father of a BBC executive, one of whose programmes I once banned when I was chairman of the IBA. I hope that that is taken as a sufficient sign that, to use the old broadcasting jargon of due impartiality, I can claim a reasonable degree of that in approaching the subject of the review of the BBC Charter. The House's thanks are due to the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, for the way in
The charter review could hardly have begun at a time of greater turbulence for the BBC, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said. There is the new giant regulator combining both broadcasting and telecommunications. We welcome the chairman of that body to this debate. Ofcom will subsume half a dozen previous regulatory bodies. It has duties covering both the BBC and commercial broadcasters. Indeed, it has just published its own approach to a review of public service broadcasting, which I look forward to reading.
Naturally, it will take time for Ofcom to settle down to its great new responsibilities over such a broad area. Some of us noticed with regret the other day that it appeared unable to distinguish adequately between the interests of consumers of broadcasting and those of viewers and listeners. There is a significant difference between those two important groups and Ofcom must be able to deal with that properly.
At the same time as the new body, Ofcom, has been establishing itself, Downing Street and Broadcasting House have been having one of their confrontations, which are, fortunately, not too frequent but which are unfortunately a recurrent phenomenon of broadcasting history in this country. In this case, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said, it was over the Iraq war. Both sides made mistakes in that confrontation, which resulted in honourable resignations at the top of the BBC. One consequence, if not a direct result, was that the Government's principal spin doctor made way for some old-fashioned civil servants. We hope that that may help to avoid mistakes on both sides in the future.
It was greatly to the credit of the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, that she sought to put the whole of the Hutton inquiry episode firmly behind her. She declared that it would have no effect on the Government's approach to the issues raised by the charter review. I am bound to say that she has lived up to that in the arrangements that she has made for the independent selection of a new chairman of the BBC, Michael Grade. Perhaps I should confess a degree of interest, which may undermine my claim to total impartiality: I once appointed him as the chief executive of the Channel 4 corporation. He was an extremely successful chief executive.
Michael Grade is an experienced broadcaster. He has no political past that could create problems and he has an impeccable family pedigree on the popular side of the media. I am sure that other noble Lords will join with me in wishing him every success in his new task. His first job will be the appointment of a new director-general. I hope that the governors will find a new director-general who will complement, rather than replicate, the particular qualities that Michael Grade brings to the chair of the BBC.
My main point is that I believe that a central issue for the charter review is that the BBC, encouraged by those who wish it well and encouraged by the Government with their responsibilities in this area, takes a fundamental look at the framework of relations between the management of the BBC and the governors of the BBC. They are the product of a great history. The other day I was reading the memoirs of Lord HillCharles Hillwho moved from chairmanship of what was then the ITA to the BBC and on arrival he discovered that he had to share secretarial facilities with the director-general. That was perhaps an unduly cosy relationship at the time, and he took steps to deal with it.
A central issue for the experience of the BBC in the new broadcasting landscape is that the interrelationship between the board of governors and the board of management of the BBC needs a radical, fresh look. It is important that they move closely in partnership with each other but they have separate responsibilities. I hesitate simply to draw the analogy with the Independent Broadcasting Authority, of which I was once chairman. When I occupied that position and when I was a colleague in broadcasting of the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, I thought that I had an advantage as chairman of the IBA over the chairman of the BBC: those in the IBA were not as intimately close to the broadcasters whom we regulated as the governors of the BBC found they were compelled to be. I offer no dogmatic formula for that, but it is important that a new framework should come out of the review of the BBC Charter, in which the governors of the BBC are more at arm's length than they have been in the past to the professional managers of the BBC and that they have their own separate infrastructure to support them in their duties as public trustees.
One cannot copy the special arrangements that were appropriate for the regulation of commercial television under the IBA, but there are great merits in some of the aspects of that relationship. At the IBA we were able to take a pride in the support and encouragement that we gave to the creative broadcasters of the various companies that held the franchises and at the same time, at arm's length, we were able to act as a critical regulator of their standards. If I were to pick on one particular issue that needs to be looked at seriously in terms of the role of the BBC in the future, I would say it is that.
In the BBC one has, warts and all, one of the great British institutions of which this country can be proud. It is important to sustain that in the changing circumstances. Paradoxically, those who 10 years ago thought that the growth of the new communications technologiesdigital technology and the proliferation of channels that bring us a richness of choice that we never had in the pastwould wipe away the need for a properly financed BBC at the heartland of public service broadcasting values have been proved wrong. It is important that the new charter review produces that kind of consequence.
Why do I choose to open the few minutes available to me with those two quotes? During the passage of the Communications Bill, we discussed a number of times the issue of so-called cross-media ownership. I and others found it quite frustrating to get the House and the Government fully to appreciate how very different the new era of digital television would be, and the form of competition that the BBC would face. That piece from the Guardian illustrates that rather well. It is a different world and everything that I say should be understood in that context.
I very much welcome the appointment of Michael Grade. He is a friend and a colleague. I have known him many years. It is a bold appointment and one that brings enormous credit to the Secretary of State, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said, and to the officials who had to shepherd through a very difficult appointment in record time with no leaks and to general approval. That is quite remarkable. The media found it almost impossible to find anyone wholly critical of the appointment, which is enormously to Mr Grade's credit.
This is possibly the right moment to pay a rather overdue tribute to Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke. They both performed heroic service for the BBC. The nature of their departure was honourable and possibly necessary. That does not in any way deflect from the fact that they were admirable public servants and that the BBC today owes and will continue to owe them a very great debt. In particular, Greg Dyke's influence will undoubtedly be missed at the corporation.
Turning to the charter review, the BBC must become more responsive to the citizens who pay for it. That has been identified rightly by the Secretary of State. I suspect that it will be an ongoing feature of the way that the charter review is both carried out and scrutinised.
The citizens who value public service value it a great deal. They do not just see it as a market-place, whatever the enemies of the licence fee may tell us. The licence fee remains the most effective and equitable form of funding that has ever been created for a public body. We all benefit from it. Even the figures, which were rather disparaged this morning by one or two of the papers, show that "only 84 per cent" of 25 to 35 year-olds watched the BBC once a week. That is not a bad statistic. There are not many businesses in the country that would be unhappy with that type of reach on a weekly basis.
Today's report by Ofcom, which I have only had a chance to scan, is an extremely interesting document. First, it certainly gives the lie to any notion that Ofcom is setting itself up in opposition to public service or as anything other than a complementary organisation there to keep intact what I still like to refer to as "our broadcasting ecology". It contains some interesting points that I have already picked up. One finding in the Executive Summary states that while,
The BBC must step up to the plate in fulfilling both the letter and the spirit of its legal commitments to a broad public and indeed to the world I came fromthe world of independent production. It must stop resorting to evasions and obfuscations or the inappropriate exercise of its power in the market-place in pressuring independent production down to a minima rather than acknowledging what is actually required of it.
The Secretary of State was absolutely right to insist that the licence fee should represent "venture capital" for the entire independent sector. Independents are the lifeblood of creativity and innovation across the sector. I know that this matter is exercising BBC governors, and I am sure that Michael Grade will be able to put many of the mistakes of the past behind them.
A commitment to a strategic and sustained investment in training is just as crucial in developing creativity and new ideas. The BBC is the single biggest employer of staff and freelancers in the industry. The critical creative mass it represents, combined with its public service remit and its unique funding formula, means that it is very well placed to absorb its responsibility to invest in the development of its own and, indeed, much of the rest of the industry's workforce. Both in relation to the industry and in playing its part in raising the skills game, the BBC should remain the flagship employer. It should act as a beacon, demonstrating through its practice its commitment to public service within the industry, and in providing an example of excellence in supporting the delivery of the Government's skill strategies across the UK.
I believe that the assets of the BBC are national assets. Perhaps the content assets which its holds are not necessarily being exploited as effectively as they might be in the new digital world, where there is an ever increasing premium on the value of intellectual property. I should like to return to that subject in a future debate. Suffice it to say that I am interested in exploring all kinds of alternative ways in which the intellectual property that belongs to the corporation might be exploited overseas in ways which bring a variety of direct benefits to the licence fee payers.
I have a last word to say on governance. Looking back on the joint scrutiny committee, I think that we were somewhat timorous in our consideration of the governance of the BBC. We rather took the position that "If it's not broke, why fix it?" We should probably have been more alert to the fact that the world was changing, and probably had changed more than the governance system was able to accommodate. The BBC needs different areas of expertise on its board of governors and a better understanding of what is going on in the broad global world of broadcasting.
I am in entire agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, that what has always been lacking is the detailed ability of the board to challenge the executive. I think that we had an extremely well managed board. As we have discovered recently in all sorts of corporate situations, boards are not there to be managed. For example, that is clear from recent experience at Shell. Its chairman just did not have access to the information that was absolutely vital to retaining shareholder confidence. Something of that was true of the BBC.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I am very grateful for the many courtesies that have been shown to me since I became a Member of your Lordships' House last month. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, for promoting this timely debate. I should immediately declare an interest. I have recently become the chairman of the Central Religious Advisory Committee of the BBC. That committee, long known by the now rather unfortunate acronym CRAC, advises the BBC on all matters related to religious broadcasting. It has also been recently adopted by Ofcom, which perhaps places it in a unique position as advising the new regulator as well as the BBC.
The Central Religious Advisory Committee was originally established in the 1920s in the days of Lord Reith. It was interdenominational from the start, not as a result of the wish of the Churches but because Lord Reith insisted that it should be so. So the Churches were brought together to assist the BBC in its religious broadcasting long before they worked together on almost anything else. These days the same committee includes representatives of all the world faiths. Broadcasting and in particular the BBC prompted the Churches and now the faith communities to work together in wholly constructive ways.
The very existence of the committee is at least of symbolic significance in the quest for religious understanding and harmony in a world that is beset by division and incomprehension. It is a public and social good that deserves investment. I believe it accurately reflects the wider public value of the BBC, which should continue to be supported by means other than commercial interests and advertising.
The way in which the world faiths work together in this and other areas of our national life is much less evident in some other parts of Europe, let alone the wider world. We are sometimes led to believe that the relative lack of tensions between our faith communities in this country derives from a tolerant secularism or benign unbelief. I believe that it derives much more from collaboration and cultivated friendships within the leadership of our faith communities, a tradition of which we should be proud, and which the BBC, perhaps to some people's surprise, has done a great deal to encourage.
Noble Lords may have noticed over the Easter weekend that among the television channels BBC1 recorded its lowest ever share of the total television audience, at around 22 per cent. That low figure cannot have been caused by a surfeit of religious broadcasting. Such programmes were conspicuously absent or found only in graveyard slots. The received wisdom is that religious broadcasting does not pull in
However, the overall output of religious broadcasting during Holy Week and Easter across all BBC channels, including radio, was impressivemuch better than in the late 1990sand much of it was of very high quality. That has often been obscured, not least in the print media, by the concentration on television. There is a great deal of creativity in the religion and ethics department, as well as elsewhere in the BBCmore, I fear, than the schedulers seem to encourage.
BBC1's poor ratings reflect a different broadcasting environment, to which the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has already referred; it is one of huge competition in the multi-channel and digital age. So the renewal of the BBC charter comes at a time when the very identity of the BBC seems uncertain. Perhaps a bishop understands better than most what it is to be regarded as a venerable institution rather than a real person, and so to live with several identities. Recently, I discovered that for myself when looking up the telephone number of a fellow bishop's office in the London directory. All my colleagues were listedthe Bishop of London, the Bishop of Southwark, the Bishop of Kensington and othersbut I was surprised to discover the Bishop of Norwich listed among them. It seemed to me unexpected metropolitan recognition. I wondered whether it was the result of becoming a Member of your Lordships' House. Then I noticed the word "reservations" against my name, which is how I discovered that, in fact, I am a wine bar in Moorgate. One must learn to live with such things.
Over the years the BBC has learnt to live with a mixed identity. It needs to connect with a wide audience; otherwise the licence fee will be resented. It therefore seeks to be a popular broadcaster. Yet the public service remit means that ratings alone surely cannot be the sole determinant for its success. There is a proper liberation from those pressures and concentration on ratings that is all for the public good. Yet to interpret the BBC's public service remit simply in terms of programmes that the market would not otherwise provide would be to marginalise the corporation. Public service broadcasting does not have to be mind-numbingly dull. The BBC's output and organisation, not only in religious broadcasting through CRAC but in wider areas, should assist its public purposes in informing and entertaining our citizens, helping to build community and providing some of the social glue that all societies need to cohere and to have a common identity.
It is sometimes in areas of its most modest investment that the BBC provides substantial public good. Consider the value of local radio, for example. It was looked upon with some suspicion a few decades ago in the BBC when it went down that path. A quarter of the total radio audience listens to BBC local radio. The return in community building for little investment that comes through BBC local radio is too little celebrated, perhaps because of a certain metropolitan myopia. BBC Radio Norfolk, for example, contributes massively to the
There are controversial issues of governance that I have been told to avoid, but I hope that it is not too controversial to recognise the BBC's huge contribution to the public good, and to express hope that the renewed charter will give it the capacity to build on its very best traditions.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page