Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

In connection with that, I was delighted when the imaginative plans for MediaCityUK in Salford were announced because among the combination of creative ingredients there seemed to be a clear commitment to enhancing some of those core elements of public service broadcasting. The BBC insists that its plans for moving departments are on course, and that includes children’s programmes, but what children’s programmes? Many of us are dismayed about the diminution of quantity and quality in children’s television provision. Some noble Lords will be too young to remember “Blue Peter”, “Crackerjack” or “The Railway Children”. Such programmes owed much to the fact that those who commissioned them were deeply conscious of their role as cultural mediators and, in a sense, still bore the Reithian torch of,

Of course, we are no longer in a Reithian age, but nevertheless there are certain norms that are true in each generation. As the Voice of the Listener and Viewer has astutely observed, the quality of programmes children watch as they grow will affect the quality of our society when they form the adult population. I find it enormously disappointing and deeply concerning that this aspect of public service broadcasting appears to be given such short shrift.

Meanwhile, ITV has pulled out of the Salford plans and will now remain in Manchester in new accommodation. With both those cities in my diocese,

4 Jun 2009 : Column 389

for me to make an appropriately judged comment would require more than the wisdom of Solomon. However, I can say that this withdrawal by ITV may have a significant impact on the training facilities and experience that are a key aspect of MediaCityUK’s proposed role. As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, told our Select Committee in its current taking of evidence, when ITV was released from so much of its PSB obligation, it virtually walked away from its commitment to training. That is very serious, not least for the future of public service broadcasting of quality.

The third major ingredient in MediaCityUK was heralded as the independent programme-makers, which were part of the trio with BBC and ITV that would make it a world-class centre and enhance public service broadcasting. But the chairman of Northwest Vision and Media, a strategic authority for the creative industries in the region, said last month that broadcasters and educational establishments, which include the forward-looking media studies department at Salford University, will need to have the resources to get the benefit of the lower-cost content that could be made in these more modern methods. He said:

“The whole thing is a bit of a circle”.

That reinforces my huge concern that the training opportunities, which were such a key part of the imaginative MediaCityUK plans, may become much less than hoped for. That is so serious because our national reputation for high-quality public service broadcasting in particular has depended on high-quality training. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, will forgive me for quoting him again. He said that an abundance of talent of every kind is the only certain way of ensuring a bright future for the whole of the sector. Another department destined for MediaCityUK is religion and ethics, which, along with children’s programmes and local and regional television news, is an aspect of public service broadcasting mentioned in our report and specified as a requirement in the Communications Act 2003.

In 2007, an Ofcom survey showed that 75 per cent of people believe that,

This week, two top award-winning programmes came from the BBC religion and ethics department. They were called “Around the World in 80 Faiths” and “Miracle on the Estate”, the latter of which was filmed in Manchester’s most deprived area. Those programmes demonstrated well PSB’s role in promoting understanding and social cohesion.

I am glad to note that the BBC has established a standing committee on religion and belief. No other genre in the BBC has this. It is to be chaired by my friend, the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Norwich, who cannot be in his place today. It will reflect the diversity of the nation’s religions and those of no faith. The director-general of the BBC has personally assured me of the corporation’s determination to strengthen its religious output as part of the BBC’s public service broadcasting remit. I welcome that and will watch and listen closely for it.

4 Jun 2009 : Column 390

Public service broadcasting that fails to reflect the complex realities of faith in the modern world will fall short of helping people to understand themselves, the communities in which they live and the global issues we all face. The composer, James MacMillan, in a lecture to the Sandford St Martin Trust, which I chaired last year, said that,

Therefore, I find it curious that although the Select Committee’s first recommendation specifically mentions programmes dealing with religion and other beliefs, the Government’s response mentions all the other core elements of public service broadcasting that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, cited, included in our recommendation, but they exclude religion and other beliefs. Why?

Perhaps it is included in the phrase, “among other things”. But what does that mean? Is it meant to cover a multitude of sins or a plurality of religions? If it is the latter—for I hope that there can be no other conclusion—why is it so squeamish? In the light of what must have been a conscious omission, the final sentence of the Government’s response to our recommendation sounds a bit ominous. They say:

“There may well be a need to balance competing priorities”.

Perhaps I have succumbed to a fit of paranoia and, if so, I am sure that the Minister will be quick to reassure me.

Part of public service broadcasting strength in this country is its ability to touch mass audiences and not to be consigned to a ghetto. The opportunity now is for PSB to be available on as many platforms as possible—in other words, to expand and not to decline. Further withdrawal, for example from local TV news, would have an adverse effect in many of the places where I serve. It would hit local pride and community cohesion. So I hope very much that the Government will soon come to a decision about, for example, Ofcom’s proposals for independently funded news consortia and the BBC’s counterview, to ensure the continuing plurality of regional news. It really does affect places such as Manchester. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, mentioned the decline of local newspapers, and that is demonstrably true across Greater Manchester. Only last week, I stood among the few remaining staff in the huge, almost empty building that contained what was Rochdale’s once hugely successful newspaper. Although still valued, it is sadly only a shadow of its former self.

What is clear in our report and the Government’s response is that public service broadcasting simply must not be left to the BBC alone. Partnerships would be a step in the right direction, but funding issues require tenacious long-sightedness and a genuinely sustainable model that does not risk scuppering the long-term future of PSB because of short-term expediency, an unwillingness to face up to tough questions or a desire to shrink from radical interventions.

Ofcom research showing that the public are willing to pay for PSB over and above the licence fee should not be jettisoned just because of the recession; that will end. Nor is the advertising situation terminally hopeless. The rise of internet players such

4 Jun 2009 : Column 391

as Channel 4’s 4 On Demand opens new doors for internet advertising, and the on-demand audio channel Spotify is an example of the successful provision of free advertising-funded web content. On that subject, a pot of money from which broadcasters could bid for PSB funding could be part of the solution. While we all agreed on the committee that there is opposition to top-slicing the licence fee, and from some quarters to the proposed diversion of ring-fenced digital switchover funds to help other broadcasters after 2012, I wonder whether negligible inflation allows enough slack in the RPI-linked licence fee to make this at least worth revisiting.

Whatever options for funding are chosen, securing a sustainable future for public service broadcasting cannot be left to chance. The Government’s response, so far as it goes, is encouraging and I look forward to their forthcoming report on digital Britain. I pray God, and it must be permissible for me to say that from these Benches, that a thriving dynamic plurality of public service broadcasting, which for so long has been such a key ingredient in what has made British broadcasting the envy of the world, will continue to inform and enlighten our culture in the United Kingdom.

5.28 pm

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, in his opening remarks, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said what a privilege it was to serve on the Communications Committee under my noble friend Lord Fowler. I do not want to gainsay that, but it is a pleasure and a delight to do so. My noble friend had considerable trouble getting this debate, and in so doing I dare say he abandoned his customary congeniality, but it is important that he has done so because it appears that there is an immediate problem with public sector broadcasting. That being the case, it is only right that Parliament should discuss it. Moreover, given that there is a problem with public service broadcasting, the Government must get involved. If they do not, there is likely to be blood on the carpet and wreckage from the sector as we have come to know it. Again, it is important to note that if that were to happen, Parliament should discuss it.

I believe, first, that public service broadcasting as we have it continues to be important. Secondly, I believe that PSB should not be a BBC monopoly, and in this as in other areas of life, pluralism must be what we aspire to. Finally, PSB must be at arm’s length from the Government.

I declare an interest as chairman of the CN Group, a local newspaper group in Cumbria. It has been suggested by some that the Government should subsidise local newspapers. I should like to put it on record that, for my part, I am entirely opposed to that. Equally, I think it is right that the taxpayer should not bankroll publications that are in competition with local newspapers. As has already been touched on today, in our report we have considered whether contestable funding has a place in the context of the current crisis. Even bearing in mind my caveat about chairing a local newspaper group, I think it may well do. It is an important possibility that needs to be looked into with care.

But, because of the nature of the immediate problems facing the public service broadcasting sector, I suspect

4 Jun 2009 : Column 392

that there is a fairly narrow range of options in front of us; these are, in general terms, outlined in the report. I am extremely anxious—I use that word in a general sense—that the matters described in the report will be a precursor to a series of much more intractable problems. It is not simply because I have spent too much time listening to the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that I believe convergence between the internet, radio, TV, film and newspapers is taking place; it is more or less on us now. Because of this we need not only to identify what a public service broadcaster might be, but what a broadcaster, pure and simple, might be. At the same time we need to identify the kind of intellectual property regime which will form the legal framework within which all this will be carried on in the future.

It is clear from the evidence that the Communications Committee has been receiving recently that, for example, the distinction between film and television as it has traditionally been is beginning to break down. Equally, the same is happening between material in the printed newspaper and material on the internet. These are merely two examples of a much wider phenomenon. The character and the means of both distribution and reception of digital material is myriad. Audiences are increasingly flexible in the way in which they consume it, and they approach it differently according to the means of distribution employed. For example, watching a film on a mobile phone or on a laptop is a very different experience from going to see the film in the cinema and are not alternatives to most people who do that.

In a world where there is no monopoly of distribution, everyone becomes a supplier of digital material. This has obvious and massive implications for public service broadcasters and what they do. Equally, as a consequence, it has implications for the way in which they are going to be funded. This obviously includes the licence fee. It may have been set for a period up to 2012 but I am not sure that that will be of any relevance by the time we reach 2012. Given the speed with which change has crept up on us, all this needs to be thought about extremely deeply and thoroughly, and soon. We are facing immediately a crisis brought about by the congruence of the collapse of advertising revenue and technological change. But I do not think it is the end of the story because we are not going to go back to the status quo ante when the current financial crisis is over. I suspect that the broadcasting/digital world may be very different from the one we have been used to. It may well be the case that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

5.34 pm

Lord Puttnam: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for not only securing the debate but for the excellent report on which it is based. His committee goes from strength to strength and I am far from alone in the House in hoping that as soon as possible it could lose its provisional driving licence and have its long-term future secured.

It will not have escaped your Lordships’ notice that we are rapidly approaching what might be described as the end game in terms of the direction likely to be offered by the forthcoming government report Digital Britain.

4 Jun 2009 : Column 393

Here I declare an interest as deputy chair of Channel Four. That is the same hat I was wearing when, in April last year, I accepted an invitation to a very pleasant dinner hosted by the BBC Trust, then quite recently formed. That evening we discussed the future of the BBC and of public service broadcasting more generally, and I strongly recommended that the BBC ensure that it takes on the role of the architect of the future of PSB in this country, which everyone at that dinner regarded as being, in the long term, an endangered species. I got no sense but that this view was generally accepted as being sensible, and certainly the right direction of travel. I probably should have known better—I had forgotten the lessons of history.

From its inception, the BBC has only ever truly been the architect—I could say, the all-consuming architect—of its own immediate future. In this respect, it is probably worth taking a quick canter through the corporation’s history. Originally starting as a private company, it became a public corporation only in 1927. Success as our sole national radio broadcaster was rapid, and the first serious challenge to its sense of self-preservation came, ironically, from within.

Early experiments in television had been treated benevolently, but with little serious interest from the top. It was not until the televising of the 1948 Olympics that things started to get serious, when the number of receivers in the London area increased fourfold to over 66,000 by the end of the Games. The then Comptroller of Television, Norman Collins, was sufficiently jubilant to write:

For daring to question the then received wisdom—that is, the primacy of radio—Norman Collins was quickly given the boot. Lord Reith was no pushover but, as far as I can make out, it was this that set the seal on future decades of autocracy.

The next threat rolled along a few years later in 1952, when on 11 July Parliament started to seriously discuss the possibility of a second television channel, opposed in principle by the then doyenne of television, Grace Wyndham Goldie, who reportedly told a parliamentary committee that the whole idea of a second channel was fatuous as she could barely put together a talented enough team to deliver one channel. Market forces, driven by scarcity, were obviously in play even at that early date.

There then began a two-year struggle for what was described as “the soul of the nation” when the then Conservative Government had the temerity to suggest that the most appropriate competition might be mounted by an advertising-supported channel and not one controlled and operated by the BBC. The corporation mounted a fearsome rearguard action, and the Bill establishing what became ITV was passed by only six votes, to receive Royal Assent on 30 July 1954.

More battles followed. As chancellor of the Open University, it saddens me to recall that the creation of the OU was initially opposed root and branch by the

4 Jun 2009 : Column 394

BBC as being an imposition on its editorial independence. Happily, those two organisations seem to be rubbing along rather better nowadays.

I could go on at great length, but I hope my point is clear: here is an immensely successful organisation that seems compulsively to feel that any development within the media space it occupies represents a threat, possibly a mortal threat, to its survival.

So we reach today and the regrettable possibility of a continuation of the corporation’s them-or-us attitude towards the whole of the rest of the content world. I remain a huge admirer of the BBC but, as wiser heads than mine have pointed out, it seriously endangers itself if it seeks to remain part of the problem instead of becoming that architect of a long-term answer—that is, achieving the plurality of voice that a broad consensus of both Houses and all parties appears to regard as essential to the future of democracy.

I will not delay the House by niggling about the inappropriate parsimony of the corporation’s approach to what it describes as “partnerships”. It will suffice to read the letter from ITV’s chief operating officer, John Cresswell, in yesterday’s Financial Times regarding his frustrations in trying to achieve an agreement with the BBC over the sharing of regional news obligations. Sadly, the experience he relates is all too familiar to those who have ever attempted to design a sustainable future for all the various components of our broad public service offering.

In the coming few days the BBC has a unique opportunity to change the habit of a lifetime by proving my analysis quite wrong in generously and unambiguously setting out a future for public service broadcasting that is plural, inclusive and, in production terms, as broadly based as possible. When I walked off into the night following that meeting with the trust, I was confident that it had in mind exactly this type of outcome. I find it almost tragic that the ghost of autocracy past appears to have come back to haunt its deliberations.

Without unduly delaying your Lordships, I have one very specific proposal that I would like to take the opportunity of today’s debate to float out into the ether. Our public service broadcasters are in receipt of a variety of forms of support from the public purse, which gives them a clear line of responsibility to the taxpayer as well as to the licence fee payers they serve. However, they are often unable to prepare programming and online services in a timely fashion to reflect major political debates, as they have little access to key policymakers and other political thinking on a wider number of crucial social issues. The problem is exacerbated by the long lead times the broadcasters require to prepare the very best of such material. As a consequence, their ability to deliver public value to the taxpayer and to the licence fee payer in the form of public understanding and participation is greatly diminished.

I would like to see a secure and non-partisan channel of communication established between government officials and public service broadcasters to help the latter prepare content, where they feel it is appropriate, that could better reflect the breadth of thinking and the possible options in relation to critical forthcoming debates, at both a national and international level.

4 Jun 2009 : Column 395

I propose that a mechanism be created which would enable the editorial and policy units—particularly, but not exclusively, those attached to the public service broadcasters—to have a formal and privileged access to emerging government thinking on a range of political, social and economic issues, as far in advance as is practicable. To ensure the non-partisan nature of this arrangement, any such discussion should fall under the aegis of the Cabinet Office and, through it, to the relevant Permanent Secretaries, along with such senior officials as they may designate.

This country currently suffers from a crippling trust deficit. Any such scheme that was able to inject trust and co-operation into the widening gap between policy development and public understanding would, in my judgment, be a small but significant step forward.

Let me be crystal clear: in no way is this a proposition that is designed to tame the broadcasters—quite the contrary. In an age often said to be laden with political spin, I hope that it would allow them much more effectively to be the grit in the oyster of many political debates, putting down serious challenges to the Government of the day and to the Executive, but based on fact, not theory. In fact, I think this kind of proposal is all of a piece with the kind of thinking about the public value of public service broadcasters which underlies the whole of the noble Lord’s report. As I say, I also think that it is the kind of partnership which broadcasters would welcome if they are really to step up to the plate on their public responsibilities, most particularly in an age when it is ever more difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, deluged as we are with vast amounts of information every minute of the day.

Today we have gone to the polls to vote on Europe. I do not think that anyone could honestly claim that young people in this country have a clue, or have been adequately informed, about what these issues are. Therefore, any proposal which could enable better, more accurate and more timely information to be available to young people must be a step forward. I recommend it to the House.

5.43 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on his quite exceptional chairmanship of our Communications Committee. It would be hard to find a more diligent and hardworking Select Committee, and I certainly hope, along with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that it will at last be established on a permanent basis.

Debating our report before the Government had fully responded was clearly not ideal. However, I am grateful for their interim reaction which at least gives your Lordships a further opportunity to re-emphasise the points that we regard as crucial if public service broadcasting is indeed to survive in this economically challenged and rapidly changing digital world.

As the report starts by saying, defining public service broadcasting has challenged many of our interviewed experts, quite apart from ourselves. Inevitably, we all have our own preferences. I prefer—perhaps not least because of the citizen consumer battles during the

4 Jun 2009 : Column 396

passage of the Communications Act 2003—the definition proposed by my noble friend Lord Birt of “a programme tradition with citizens rather than consumers in mind”.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page