BBC Mid-term Charter Review

– in the House of Commons am 2:59 pm ar 9 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 2:59, 9 Mai 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the BBC mid-term charter review.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for this debate on the BBC charter and its performance. I must add that my application was supported by no fewer than 33 colleagues from across the House. Good weather, a one-line Whip and local election fatigue, I suspect, have intervened, but have not diminished the importance of the debate to all those voters who watch and hear the BBC and pay for it, and for whom I speak today.

The reason for my proposing this debate is that the Government’s mid-term review of 22 January 2024 was only announced by written ministerial statement and not on the Floor of the House itself, and therefore was not properly discussed. The question I will deal with is whether this mid-term review satisfies the genuine concerns about the manner in which the charter should operate.

I was somewhat involved in the 2015 charter review that led to the new charter, in that I proposed a defined new purpose for the charter specifically on the question of impartiality, which was inserted. I also proposed a conditional licence on the impartiality issue as long ago as the debate on the Broadcasting Act 1990 for broadcasting licence holders, which was incorporated in the Act—so at least I have been consistent.

The new charter provided that the BBC would be governed by a new unitary board and regulation would pass to Ofcom as an external and independent regulator. The question is whether that has worked effectively in delivering for licence fee payers in the national interest, by strengthening the oversight of the BBC’s complaints procedure with proper independence and enabling Ofcom to regulate the BBC’s online public service. The Government tell us in their review that

“impartiality is core to the BBC’s responsibilities under the Charter”.

The BBC ran a £220 million deficit in 2022-23, with an annual income, believe it or not, of £5.7 billion and operating costs of £5.9 billion. In comparison, the democratically elected House of Commons, our bastion of freedom and accountability, together with the House of Lords, merely costs around £847 million a year. Given that the BBC has a massive influence on public opinion and is unelected, that makes the rule of impartiality fundamental to its justification. The Government review also points out that impartiality is one area where the BBC is seen by surveys to be “less favourably compared” in the provision of news, and exhorts the BBC to improve that and to maintain the trust of the public and the audience.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I think the hon. Gentleman has somewhat lost the House. None of us understands what the connection is between expenditure by Parliament and expenditure by the national broadcaster. Can he further develop why that is relevant?

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have not lost anything at all. It is very simple. The fact is that in Parliament, we have proper debates by elected people and decisions made on matters of public importance, whatever the outcome and whatever the views expressed. They are democratically decided. The decisions put across by the BBC quite often are the result of a kind of centrist viewpoint, which I will come on to later, which is inevitably not consistent with the views of the public who pay for the benefit, if that is what it is to be called, of watching and listening to the programmes in question.

The Government review recommends that the BBC publishes more information on how it carries out its work on impartiality and how it responds to Ofcom’s challenge to improve its performance. A new complaints system has been established under the principle of “BBC First”, but the question remains whether that has worked. The number of complaints made to Ofcom about the BBC’s impartiality has increased, and the evidence is that the BBC is not meeting this challenge.

It is understood that there has been substantial disagreement between the Government and the BBC during the creation of this new complaints system, but it is still found wanting and Ofcom needs to improve its own performance. It is also understood that many former BBC employees with BBC sympathies remain in Ofcom and are involved in this process. That also represents a problem, the ultimate result of which is unsatisfactory. Clearly, the Government are not sufficiently satisfied with the BBC at the moment, or with Ofcom’s performance on this vital question. That is bad news. As the Government point out, the BBC has failed to have a sufficiently robust internal system for identifying the statistical data to determine its analysis of complaints. The Government state that the independence of complaints handling indicates that the BBC can do more to ensure that audiences feel that their complaints will be fairly considered.

A number of points need to be made. I know something of this, because the European Scrutiny Committee, which I chair, took evidence from the BBC nine years ago on the issue of bias. We criticised the BBC on the question of the European issue before the referendum took place. The distinguished Lord Wilson of Dinton made same kind of criticism of bias in his own report. All these years later, the Government remain concerned even now that the manner in which complaints are dealt with, and the data involved, continue to be profoundly unsatisfactory.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

I am afraid that I am one of those who has been distracted, and I will not be able to remain to speak in the debate. I took a very great interest in the report by Lord Wilson of Dinton, not least because it did not denigrate the integrity of people in the BBC. It did uncover, however, an unconscious preconception about what certain views on the European community meant. The report was about the impartiality of the BBC when reporting matters concerning the European Union. It made a lot of people in the BBC extremely angry. People from the BBC told me that it should never have been commissioned, even though it was a totally objective report. When confronted with it, the BBC still gets very angry about it, which suggests that there is a different atmosphere in the BBC about certain issues. Nobody ever thinks that they themselves are biased, and the BBC does not think it is biased, but it can unconsciously produce a very one-sided approach to a particular issue such as the European Union—and, in that case, about the single currency.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Indeed. The proof was in the pudding and was demonstrated by the outcome of the referendum on 23 June 2016. My hon. Friend is right. Actually, this is about unconscious bias in some cases and very positive groupthink in others. That is where the problem lies—somewhere in between.

On a limited budget, the voluntary organisation News-Watch does the job extremely well. It states: “The BBC's continued stonewalling of complaints, inadequacies of Ofcom in its watchdog role and the lack of effective reforms proposed by the mid-term review to ensure impartiality remains a fundamental problem.” Thus, the national interest is undermined, and the right of the licence-fee payer to have a proper system in place is denied him. News-watch is calling—rightly, in my opinion—for much more radical reforms to ensure impartiality, with a fully independent complaints system, more transparency and accountability, and efforts to improve diversity of opinion among BBC staff through new staff-training initiatives to ensure impartial research and analysis. All those are urgent.

The mid-term review does not, in my opinion, provide a proper system for determining breaches of impartiality, and allows the BBC and Ofcom undue latitude in interpreting what the words “due impartiality” mean, leaving the BBC as its own judge and jury. Indeed, in the past year, the new BBC editorial complaints unit—otherwise known as the ECU—has upheld only one impartiality complaint. People simply will not believe that, but it is a fact. Neither the BBC nor Ofcom routinely publish detailed data on the vast majority of the nearly 2 million complaints received since Ofcom became the regulator in April 2017. The system is, therefore, not fit for purpose.

Ofcom’s own figures indicate that complaints relating to bias make up as much as 39% of the complaints, and complaints about misleading and dishonest content make up a further 26%, amounting to approximately 800,000 complaints about bias since Ofcom took over. Of the 155 complaints upheld or partly upheld by the new ECU system, only 33 were accepted as relating to bias, which is an absurd and minuscule proportion. We do not yet have the latest figures, those relating to 2023-24, but the provisional information indicates that the ECU considered 374 complaints, of which only 2.7% were fully or partially upheld and 89% were not upheld. The situation is shocking and demonstrates an intrinsic failure of the system. It must be made fully independent, and must not be judge and jury.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Clean Power and Consumers)

I wonder what the hon. Gentleman thinks about the mid-term review’s own conclusion that

“there is clear evidence that adherence to impartiality and editorial standards is now at the heart of the BBC’s priorities”.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

It is at the heart of the BBC’s priorities in theory, but not in practice. Ofcom is insufficiently independent, and it is understood that there are deep concerns about the entrenched ties between its content board and the BBC—which still persist—and, therefore, a lack of accountability. A mere 56% of the public now believe that the corporation is impartial. The BBC refuses to engage with complaints that do not refer to single programme items, and there is a lack of comprehensive research into audience perceptions of bias.

I noticed an important letter in The Daily Telegraph on 23 January this year from Baroness Deech, a distinguished Cross-Bench peer and King’s counsel who was a governor of the BBC from 2002. Regarding the publication of the mid-term review in January, she wrote that

“Complaints are seen by the BBC as very sensitive matters, threatening the independence of the editors: witness the lengths to which it has gone to keep secret the Balen Report on its bias against Israel.”

She argues that

“The best way to handle complaints would be to appoint an independent ombudsman from outside the media industry, supported by experts on the topic at issue.”

I believe she is right. She confirms that

“Ofcom is heavily staffed by former BBC and media professionals who may be as touchy as their current counterparts at the notion of bias at the BBC.”

It is not just a notion: it is clearly apparent, and that is what the public think.

It is also interesting to note the views of distinguished BBC insiders, who know how the system works on a daily basis and have been openly critical of the BBC’s performance while they were employed as top-line and experienced presenters and commentators within the BBC for decades. I recommend that anyone who is interested in this subject reads Roger Mosey’s book “Getting Out Alive”, which gives a very good insight into issues of bias by the BBC on the question of Europe. He recalls a “Today” programme meeting when Rod Liddle was confronted by a producer who said disparagingly,

“‘The Eurosceptics believe Germany is going to dominate Europe!’ This generated laughter from bien pensant colleagues” about the ridiculousness of that idea.

“‘But what if it’s true?’ was the response from the editor, and he set the team thinking about items that would examine whether Euroscepticism had some well-founded beliefs”

As Members will recall, at that time nobody thought for a minute about the simple question that those of us who were campaigning on the European issue—in my case, having come into the House in May 1984, I have campaigned continuously for 40 years—were trying to get across: “What does the European Union and its related matters mean for the British people?” That is an example of how the system can work—when reason prevails, as demonstrated by the editor of the “Today” programme.

Mosey also refers to the issue of asylum seekers in the summer of 2003, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Mosey said that the people he describes as the “editorial policy people” asserted in this context that the issue was being led by an

“angry tabloid agenda and extreme Right-wing groups”.

Mosey replied strongly to the editorial policy team, saying among other things that the

“asylum debate is one in which we’ve done rather badly in reflecting the concerns of our audiences or the genuine crisis faced by the government in dealing with the issue”.

That was in Tony Blair’s time, let along now. Later, he mentions:

“Two years ago when it started being raised, we did not realise the level of unease about the issue”.

Now, two decades later, the position remains the same.

I also recommend John Humphrys’s book “A Day Like Today”, particularly, after 33 years of political interviewing, his conclusion:

“Today presenters and their stablemates do have questions to ask themselves. Does an interview always have to be so combative? Does there have to be a winner or loser”—[Interruption.]

John Humphrys, and he knows what he is talking about, unlike Sir Chris Bryant, says that

“if it does, the loser might very well be the public. If we interviewers succeed, albeit unintentionally, in convincing the listener that all politicians are liars, the real loser is our system of representative democracy that has served the nation so well for so long”, to which I say, “Hear, hear.”

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

My hon. Friend is making a very important speech. I would just draw the House’s attention to when I was new young Back Bencher in the early 1990s, and two or three of us, including my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, finally got a meeting with the “Today” programme’s editorial team, which I think included Rod Liddle. We started to explain to them why joining a single currency in the European Union might be a rather bad idea and they were very interested, but they were greeted with derision when they went back to the BBC and suggested that our arguments should be taken seriously.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

The short answer is that we got the verdict on 23 June 2016, as we all know.

The problem is that the BBC is incapable of enforcing its own rules on impartiality, largely because the overwhelming majority of the corporation’s journalists as pivotal staff—as one hears, even from Members of this House who have worked for the BBC—are signed up to a left-liberal political worldview in which group-think and woke prevail, and any who diverge from the worldview they hold makes those who differ from them targets for criticism and worse, including ridicule.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Annibynnol, St Helens North

I neither deify nor damn the BBC, and like most of my constituents, my household’s interactions are with BBC Merseyside, CBBC, “Match of the Day”, the Proms and the latest new drama. However, I will say that I have never worked, engaged with or had dealings with any member of BBC staff—political staff, journalists—who has been anything other than professional. I have never assumed, and I have never asked about, what their political leanings are. Having listened to what the hon. Gentleman says, and I respect him very much, I do think that we have had a lot of subjective opinion and perhaps some score settling, but not a lot of objective evidence.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I will only say that, as he will have noticed, I have been quoting some highly experienced, knowledgeable and famous presenters and commentators, who have made their own remarks.

What the corporation desperately needs is more political diversity. One of the problems is the BBC’s hiring policy, which should be seeking out journalists, researchers and programme makers with divergent views if they are genuinely to present commentary on a fair and unbiased basis. Despite Director-General Tim Davie’s avowed intent to reform the BBC and maintain a proper reputation for impartiality, that has not happened. This can be seen, for example, by the total failure—I have myself mentioned it frequently in the press—to restrain the likes of Gary Lineker from making political statements on the issue of small boats, and getting away with it scot-free. The same applies to outrageous examples of aggressive interviewing, far beyond objective questioning, that have recently centred on the Hamas-Israel conflict. This was the subject of an important debate led by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis in Westminster Hall only a few weeks ago.

The so-called thematic review published only this week is a good example of how things are still going wrong. The report claims to have considered more than 1,500 output items but deliberately opted not to undertake any statistical content analysis, as the BBC knows only too well, and, as before, ignoring the report on the BBC’s coverage led by Lord Wilson 20 years ago. The BBC knows that real statistical analysis is required and can do so but simply refuses to provide it.

The licence fee is inevitably under attack as a result of this failure and the loss of trust with taxpayers that goes with it. It is also embedded, I am afraid, in the failures I have identified in the well-intentioned BBC mid-term review itself. This raises the question of why those who pay the licence fee and who feel that the BBC disregards their views, and can demonstrate to have experienced that, should be forced to pay for the running of the BBC, a subject upon which the wise and reasonable Lord Charles Moore has frequently written in the past.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections) 3:20, 9 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Sir William Cash. He made a wide-ranging speech more at times perhaps suited to the History channel than to BBC Parliament, but I am sure the viewing public will have listened to what he said with great interest. He made some important points, and the attendance at this debate does not reflect the high regard in which people hold the BBC and its importance for our nation, which is why this review is of importance.

I was not familiar with the term “BBC sympathiser,” but I suspect that many members of the public would recognise themselves as BBC sympathisers because it does hold a special place in many people’s hearts and is respected around the world. That should not make the BBC immune to criticism, however, and because of the unique way it is funded it is often held to a higher standard than many of its competitors.

It is right that the BBC should respond to public concerns and reflect the way society is changing, otherwise it will find itself consigned to the history books alongside silent movies and video cassettes. The sad reality is that the BBC’s traditional rivals on free-to-air terrestrial TV are already on life support because they cannot compete with online subscription services in terms of quality and they cannot match the ways online services can target adverts and reach people, which were inconceivable not long ago. So the BBC could become the last man standing in terms of wholly British broadcasters.

But the warning signs are there for the BBC too. A recent survey found that 43% of people did not know what the TV licence was for and 66% agreed that the TV licence should be scrapped in 2027. I do not agree with that, but that survey should be ringing alarm bells. It may only be one survey, and I do not know the age breakdown, but I suspect we would find from it that younger people are less likely to see the value of the licence fee. After all, they will have grown up in a world where on-demand subscription services are the norm, so paying for something regardless of whether they watch it may well seem outdated and probably unfair.

But when we look at the hard facts, not just at surveys, that also paints a worrying picture. The number of people not paying the licence fee has doubled in 10 years, and that is despite the threat of large fines for non-payment. If that non-payment rate increases at the same rate over the next few decades, we can all see where that will take us. So we need to ask serious questions about why non-payment rates are growing. Clearly that is in part because people are voting with their feet and their wallets, and that is a challenge for the BBC in its overriding mission, which I will address shortly, but it is also a question of enforcement.

When I ask questions of Ministers about enforcement action, it is clear that none has been taken against anyone over 75 for non-payment. I certainly know of a constituent in that age bracket who has decided for their own reasons not to pay the licence fee and so far has received 23 letters with various degrees of threat within them, but no actual enforcement action has been taken. It seems to me that the BBC has taken the decision not to prosecute over-75s for non-payment. I certainly have no issue with that—we should not be criminalising pensioners—but that does jar with the other stories we hear about seriously ill and vulnerable people being prosecuted for non-payment. It seems that we are ducking the hard decisions that need to be made about how we deal with the licence fee.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

Is there not another issue here, which is that the BBC is a successful programme maker and broadcaster, yet it is completely unable to compete with the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix, because it is not allowed to run subscription services in the same way? Is there not a case for replacing a large proportion of the licence fee income with subscription income for those programmes, albeit that it would still be necessary for the BBC to have some public subvention for its public service broadcasting, which plays such a key role in our national life?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

That is where the debate takes us, and that is a debate we need to have. We need to decide as a House and a country whether we think that the current model is sustainable. There is evidence mounting that it is not. Equally, I want to protect the BBC, what is good about it and what I value about it. That means that we have to face these issues. Not many businesses that decide not to charge 10% of their customers will survive for long, and people in a free society should not be criminalised for refusing to pay for a service that they do not use, so something will have to change. Either the BBC will have to change tack, or the Government or this place will have to fill that gap. If a council saw such levels of non-payment for council tax, the Government would be sending inspectors in to ask the council to deal with it. We are in a strange situation where we are ignoring a serious issue.

I note with interest that the annual report on the licence fee produced by the BBC claims that it visited more than 72,000 premises without a licence, but the report mysteriously fails to say what action was taken as a result. While it is difficult to find out precisely how many homes should be paying the licence fee, we can state with confidence that 72,000 visits is in itself a small proportion of the properties not currently paying the licence fee. It is time for an honest debate about our expectations over people paying the licence fee.

The flipside of failures in licence fee collection is whether the BBC is run efficiently as an organisation. It is a cliché—I am sure we will hear plenty this afternoon—that it is a bureaucratic monster stuffed with BBC lifers, but we have to ask whether it is run effectively. I have been told that six different stakeholders from four separate BBC departments attend pitches for new TV series. When an organisation has so many internal stakeholders, we have to question who exactly they are serving. Those tasked with governing the BBC have to ask serious questions of it and of themselves as to whether they are delivering true value for money in that respect.

I will reflect on the subject of governance for a moment. I take the point that the hon. Member for Stone made earlier, but I come to a different conclusion. The debate today will clearly have a large element about the BBC’s impartiality, and I do not think it is constructive for us to trade off instances where the BBC has failed in recent times to get that right. We can all say that it can and must do better. I agree that how internal complaints are resolved needs to be looked at with some independent oversight. However, I will focus on how the BBC reflects the diversity of viewpoints in its broadcasting and decision making.

Broadcast is not just about which political party has its voice heard, but who from those political parties speaks. It seems to me and my constituents that political coverage is massively dominated by voices from London. That same London-centric view is presented through all politics coverage, and frankly it plays into the impression of large swathes of the country that politicians are out of touch and obsessed with the comings and goings in Westminster, far removed from the realities of people’s lives. Fair play to the BBC, it does deign to visit the regions with “Question Time” and “Any Questions?”, although I recall a recent occasion when “Any Questions?” came to Cheshire, but the BBC still had to bus in the Labour spokesperson from London. It proves that you can take the BBC out of London, but you cannot take London out of the BBC. The same applies to programmes broadcast out of Salford, when everyone jumps on the first train back to London after the show finishes.

This is not a BBC for the whole country; it is a BBC that is still shaped by the same privately educated Oxbridge, London and home counties viewpoint that has dominated it since its inception. Every member of the board that I have been able to find schooling details for was privately educated. That means there is a real lack of diversity of thought, and that is reflected in the make-up of the senior echelons of management and editorial staff, raising serious questions about the BBC’s commitment to social mobility. It is no wonder that sometimes my constituents look at the BBC and ask, “Who are they speaking to?”

That does matter, because as figures on non-payment of the licence fee continue to rise, the more that people feel the BBC is talking down to them and does not have a voice in their community, the more likely they are to join the millions who have decided not to pay. If we are not careful, we will soon reach a tipping point where the licence fee model becomes unsustainable. As someone who actually wants the BBC to survive—maybe that makes me a BBC sympathiser—I want this place to look seriously at how we square that circle.

I declare an interest as a licence fee payer, not once but twice—I am sure that many other hon. Members who split their time between here and their constituencies are as well. Even if I were only paying it once, I am sure that I would think it represents far worse value for money than any other TV service that I pay for in terms of pounds per hour watched. On one level, that should not come as a surprise—I pay for the subscription services I do because they have things that I want to watch—but could I honestly say that, were I given a free choice, I would pay the licence fee? I probably would, but more and more constituents are asking that question, and will continue to ask it. It needs a serious, sustainable answer.

I do not think that the BBC can compete with on-demand subscription services in terms of quality or frequency of output. It does some great TV, but it cannot compete with the investment that some of the on-demand services provide.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s indulgence. He is talking about the BBC’s TV services, but the BBC provides far more than just TV. He has not mentioned radio. I think that the BBC provides some of the best radio in the world, and that simply could not be provided by commercial operators. Does he agree that our nation is better served by having a diversity of voices from commercial providers and the BBC on the radio scene?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I agree that BBC radio is absolutely fantastic. If I choose to listen to radio, I usually end up listening to the BBC, and not just for the sports coverage but for all other coverage. The BBC’s radio offering is probably the one part that it has got right in getting a good spread of voices and opinions from across the country.

BBC local radio is really important. Radio Merseyside is important to a great many of my constituents, as my hon. Friend Conor McGinn will attest. Some of the cuts to BBC local radio have been extremely regrettable, because it is a strength that we should be building on.

More generally, it is the BBC’s news element—be it on radio, online or on TV—that is critical to the BBC’s future. While some clearly think it has a bit of work to do to have everyone’s confidence that it is impartial, it is really important to our democracy in this era of disinformation and division to have a new source that is still trusted by the majority of people.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind the extraordinary examples of the Bashir interview, the Jimmy Savile scandal and the Cliff Richard scandal—those things that seem to envelop the BBC periodically in a way that completely destroys its credibility. Alistair McAlpine is another example. Does he agree that it is astonishing that an organisation that has such a reputation in certain quarters can fall down so badly in others?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

Those are some interesting historical references. Any organisation that has been around as long as the BBC, and with that amount of output, will fall down at times. However, it is clear from surveys about what people think about the BBC’s impartiality and their trust in what it broadcasts that it is well ahead of anyone else. That is something we need to preserve and treasure. I commend the work of Marianna Spring on the online disinformation being pushed by states and people who are hostile to this country and who want to sow distrust and undermine our democracy. Her work to expose that is vital.

If the BBC were to have no other role—though I think it should—it should be a trusted source of truth and transparency for everyone in this country and around the world. It will have a challenge persuading people that it is relevant in other areas. In the next few decades, the majority of the population will have grown up in a world where the idea of paying for a service on a TV set that they do not own for a bunch of channels they hardly ever watch feels anachronistic at best and indefensible at worst. The sooner we recognise that to keep the BBC at all we need to address that challenge, the sooner we can decide as a Parliament and a country that it is worth saving. I believe that it is, but we need to address the challenges before it is too late.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Here is a funny thing: while I have been sitting here, I have received a text message from the BBC asking me to do “Any Questions?” tomorrow evening in Sedbergh. I have had to break the news that, as Deputy Speaker, I am unable to do so. How peculiar.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Ceidwadwyr, Ashford 3:35, 9 Mai 2024

That is terrible news, Mr Deputy Speaker. The nation has been deprived of your views for too long, and we should hear more of them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir William Cash on securing this debate and on a fascinating speech in which he adduced some interesting evidence, particularly from books written by former senior BBC people. He may not be shocked to discover that I would deduce different conclusions from much of that evidence. I may have misunderstood what he said about the Roger Mosey story of Rod Liddle at the “Today” programme editorial meeting, where most people around the table laughed at the idea that Eurosceptics might have a point, but Rod Liddle ordered them to do some stories about it to investigate whether it was true. That seems exactly what I would want the editor of the “Today” programme to do—question his own staff and perhaps his own prejudices, and say, “Okay, let’s report a wide range of views.” If that is what is happening, that is a good thing.

I also slightly take issue with my hon. Friend’s praying in aid the thematic review of immigration that the BBC produced this week, which was very self-critical of some of its immigration coverage. That report was commissioned by the BBC so that it could flagellate itself if necessary and, hopefully, improve its coverage. That seems to be the sort of thing that I would want an organisation as powerful and important as the BBC to do—to retain the capacity to criticise itself. I suspect that he and I would share the view that, at times, the BBC can be exasperating, arrogant and wrong. Nevertheless, as chair of the BBC all-party parliamentary group, I believe it is one of our great national institutions. We should wish it success. We should constantly prod it and try to improve it but, in the end, we should take a positive view.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I hope that my right hon. Friend will appreciate that my intention is to point to how statistical data is analysed, which may sound extremely boring but lies at the heart of whether we can properly evaluate the analysis in the public domain. I agree that there are moments when the BBC does very good things, but on some occasions it does very bad things, and there are reasons for that which need proper investigation.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Ceidwadwyr, Ashford

I do not disagree at all. There is an interesting point about statistical analysis as opposed to other qualitative, perhaps more fuzzy analysis of the BBC’s output and performance. There is clearly a case for both.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the timeliness of the debate, because although our Benches are slightly denuded today, the country’s attention will be on the BBC over the next few days, particularly on Saturday night when there are two new episodes of “Doctor Who” followed by Eurovision on BBC1. I can tell hon. Members where the nation will be on Saturday night: watching the BBC. It is the only institution that can do that. Even in the completely different media world in which we now operate and that we all enjoy, there are times when the nation comes together, and that will be one of them. This is the second debate in a row where I quote a former tourism Minister who said that his experience of what attracted people around the world to this country were three institutions that they held in the highest regard: the royal family, the premier league and the BBC. We put them in peril at our own peril.

As Members, we all inevitably have a skewed perspective, because we concentrate on news and current affairs. Like everyone else here, I share many of the irritations and frustrations. I sometimes shout at the TV and the radio when I am at home, and I sometimes want to shout at the interviewer when I am on TV or radio. The BBC must get its news coverage right as part of its core mission. On that, the mid-term charter review is clear: it finds that there is clear evidence that adherence to impartiality and editorial standards is now at the heart of the BBC’s priorities, and so it should be.

Justin Madders gave the impression that the BBC was a dying institution, with fewer and fewer people watching it or listening to it. However, eight out of 10 adults in this country on average consume BBC news every week. That is double the figure for the next nearest provider. At the same time—this is directly relevant to the mid-term charter review—the BBC is overwhelmingly the UK’s most trusted source of news. Some 45% of UK adults say they would turn first to the BBC. In second place, on 6%, are ITV or Sky. Regardless of the political views of the individual, BBC news is more trusted by people in the UK than any other institution. Interestingly, it is also the most trusted news brand in the US. At a time when the challenge to democracy and the capacity to have balanced debate is under threat as never before, that is really important. This House should acknowledge, for all our frustrations and irritations, that we are lucky in this country to have an institution that has that reach and that level of trust, and that we should therefore seek to preserve and enhance it.

I contrast the situation with news and debate here with that in the United States, where people increasingly get their news from a channel that reflects the views they already have. There are right-wing news channels and left-wing news channels in the United States. Therefore, its political debate is polarised and increasingly toxic. Anything we can do in this country to avoid going down that track seems to me to be very worth while. It is an essential part of public service broadcasting, and public service broadcasting by and large works.

We have talked about the changing landscape and the arrival of the streamers. The question is often asked: who needs the BBC when we have Netflix, Prime, Disney, Apple and Paramount? It is a good question, and the answer is: anyone who cares about having a distinctive British voice in media, drama, comedy and all the things that people want to watch. The thing that unites all the streaming services I mention is that they come from the United States. Sometimes they make programmes in Britain—we welcome them here to keep our media industry thriving—but nevertheless, in the end, they are not going to reflect the voice of people in this country, and in particular people in the parts of this country that are furthest away from London. Therefore, having a broadcaster whose basic role is to do that seems to me to be very important.

The BBC contributes £4.9 billion to the UK economy each year, with 50% of the gross value added generated outside London, and supports about 50,000 jobs around the country, again operating largely outside London. We know that the creative economy is one of our strongest economic sectors, and we know that the BBC is the largest single investor in original UK content. Knowing those facts seems to me, again, to reinforce the argument that, for all of the reviews and investigations that need to be conducted, on the whole the BBC is a force for good.

Another criticism, which must be taken head-on, concerns over-expansion. Has the BBC tried to provide services that could be provided by private operators or by the market, and in doing so has it tried to make itself too all-embracing in the British media landscape? I think that is a permanent discussion that is well worth having. It is important to ensure that the BBC is only doing things that would not be done otherwise, or doing things better and in a way that others would not do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone was very critical of Ofcom. I am sometimes critical of it myself, although less so than he is. Nevertheless, it is absolutely right to identify Ofcom, in the era of regulation that we have entered, as a crucial element of ensuring that the BBC sticks to doing what it needs to be doing. If there are signs that Ofcom is not doing that job effectively, this House—perhaps through the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—will play an important role in ensuring that the BBC stays on the right track.

The overall context of this is, of course, the funding settlement for the licence fee, which has lasted for more than a century now and is increasingly under threat. We know about the short-term pressures; for reasons good or bad, the Government have not kept the licence fee in line with inflation levels over the past few years, and the BBC has therefore suffered painful rounds of cuts that have affected services that many of us value hugely, such as local radio. That is an important enough debate, which we have had in the Chamber previously, but an even more important debate is this: how long can a licence fee settlement continue?

I can reveal that the licence fee has survived for at least 30 years longer than some expected. I did some work on the 1990s licence fee and charter review, and in those days the much maligned—and unfairly so—John Birt was saying that he thought that it might be the last licence fee settlement, because he could see what was going to happen with the internet and new modes of delivery such as video and, at that time, just text. He thought that those would ultimately render the licence fee untenable.

Having sat through those debates in the 1990s, I find it fascinating that we are sitting here, 30 years later, still debating the same issues, and that by and large the people of this country are happy to pay the licence fee, although I agree that an increasing number are not doing so. Given what we get for it, it is still relatively cheap in comparison with the amount that many of us will spend on streaming services. It has survived longer than we expected, but in an age of declining linear viewing, whether it can continue is genuinely a key question. To those who wish to trot through the options, I can only commend the report that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a few years ago.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Ceidwadwyr, Ashford

I am grateful for that vocal support from the Opposition Benches.

Having run through the options, the Committee concluded that, as things stand, technically it would be quite difficult to find a better way of doing this. We all know what the imperfections are, but there may not be anything better at the moment. The key principle, it seems to me, is that because everyone in the country has some stake in this, perhaps a financial stake—everyone is, in some way, buying BBC services—everyone is entitled to some education, information or entertainment in return. It is that striving to provide a universal service that keeps the BBC honest, and keeps it doing the things that only it does. If we take away that obligation, we may have a successful programme maker, but we would not keep the BBC doing the things it has done successfully for more than a century.

I often feel that the licence fee settlement works in practice but does not work at all in theory. Nevertheless, anything that might be theoretically better might actually be worse in practice, so I do not envy the Ministers who have to grapple with this matter. It is a genuinely difficult and hugely important issue to which there is no obvious answer.

I hope that the House agrees that the UK has a hugely valuable asset in the BBC and that, regardless of whatever changes need to happen, we need to preserve and enhance its ability to make a significant and positive contribution to our national life. That should be the test that Parliament sets itself when it considers the future of the BBC.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee) 3:50, 9 Mai 2024

I served on the former Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee during the last charter negotiations in 2015-16, and I thought then that the charter period of 11 years was very long—it is a substantial extension. Although that allows the BBC to make longer-term decisions, a lot changes in the media landscape in that period of time. When the last charter was negotiated 11 years ago, the social media companies that dominate our media landscape today barely existed. They arrived on the scene in 2015-16 as major market players but were not yet what they are now: the principal way in which many people access their entertainment and news.

Looking at Ofcom’s “Media Nations” study, it is clear that younger viewers—people under the age of 40 —increasingly look first to social media or subscriber platforms for their content, rather than doing what people would have done in the past, which was to turn on the television and see what was on. That is a dramatic change in the way people consume news and information, and it is not just about a change in the type of content that they can access; it is also about broadcasting moving away from a true broadcast service, whereby a very large number of people choose to see the same things, and towards a personalised service, whereby the content that people consume is designed around them and their viewing habits. That applies to news just as much as it does to any other form of content.

That is the very big change that we have seen, and the prospect of artificial intelligence reducing the cost of production, particularly for news content, will only accelerate the process. The shift in people’s habits towards consuming media through online platforms and social media apps will accelerate the personalisation of the content they see. In fact, such tools have been designed precisely to achieve that end.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

As ever, my hon. Friend, who has enormous experience of all this, will add a lot to this debate. He mentioned what was done some years ago compared with now. Has he been watching BBC Four’s repeat of the entire “Civilisation” series by Kenneth Clark? Does he not think that it is one of the most remarkable examples of what the BBC can do fantastically well, and that people should be watching it now? That is not a bad plug for the series.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

I agree with my hon. Friend. If I may briefly digress on his theme, I once hosted an event in Parliament for the Royal Television Society at which that programme was discussed. It was said that commissioning budgets and commissioning editors behaved very differently in the past, and that David Attenborough commissioned the entire series without having to ask for the director-general’s opinion; he just did a 14-part epic of factual content. Alan Clark’s father, Kenneth Clark, opens the “Civilisation” series by asking, “What is civilisation?” He says, “I don’t think I can define it, but I think I recognise it when I see it.” I sometimes think that the debate about whether the BBC is distinctive enough and what distinctiveness looks like at the BBC is rather the same: it is hard to define, but we think we recognise it when we see it.

The reason I wanted to open my remarks by talking about the changing nature of viewing habits and of the media, and the fact that it would have seemed impossible 10 years ago that the centrality of a broadcaster such as the BBC could be challenged by a service such as YouTube, is that it is changing viewing habits too. The one big difference between the charter negotiation in 2015-16 and the build-up to the new charter, which will come into effect in 2028, is that those changing habits are leading licence fee payers to make different choices. Increasingly, they are choosing not to pay. This is the great challenge we now face.

In the past, the BBC had to ward off Governments that sought to load substantial extra costs on to it without compensating with a large increase in the licence fee. We previously saw that with the cost of the World Service and then free licences for the over-75s. This time around, the BBC faces the challenge of potentially declining licence fee revenues, alongside the reluctance of consumers to pay much more than they are being asked to pay now. It is doubtful that licence fee payers would support a substantial increase to the licence fee, and I do not think either the Government or the Opposition would be inclined to do it.

The BBC will therefore have to continue challenging itself to consider how it can prioritise resources while maintaining its core principles, which I believe are fundamental to the BBC: that it is a publicly funded and universal service, in which there is something for everyone who pays into it. The challenge of how to deliver that in the modern era requires the BBC to look for alternative forms of revenue.

In many ways, the big change in the last charter renewal empowered the BBC to develop the commercial potential of BBC Studios. In the director-general’s recent speech, I was pleased to hear that he has set a target to increase those revenues to over £3 billion within the charter period. BBC Studios would then bring in a very substantial part of the BBC’s revenue.

Making more programmes for more people and selling them around the world is an excellent way for the BBC to make money, but we also have to consider how it can monetise its current programmes. In the pre-internet world, people would watch a programme they liked, and they could watch it again when it was repeated—some say that it would be repeated too often, but it would be repeated. If they wished to own it, so that they could watch it on demand, as we now say, they could buy a cassette or a DVD in a shop.

I think programmes should be free to air on services such as iPlayer for a period of time, but do they really need to be free for a year? Should there not be a point at which the BBC starts to charge people to watch on demand, just as any other subscription platform would?

The same goes for audio content. The BBC has tried to take a big position in the podcast market, although it has been very effectively challenged by new entrants that are producing programmes of the same quality as Radio 4, on a wider range of topics, and attracting very big audiences. Again, I think those programmes should be free to air and available to all, but should access to the full archive remain free forever, or should there be a charge? It is perfectly legitimate for the BBC to consider such commercial revenues in the same way as it sold books, DVDs and CDs in the past. These are ways in which the BBC can seek to bring in more revenue to reinvest in the programming that it needs to make.

The BBC also needs to consider the distinctiveness of its local newsgathering. This is a very important part of the BBC service. I think most Members are concerned about the apparent dilution of investment in local radio, which is an area where the BBC can deliver something in a way that no one else is delivering it. I think there should be increased investment. These are often among the BBC services that local audiences value most, and I am not sure those local audiences would have made some of the investment decisions that the BBC has made.

The breadth of services that the BBC offers has changed dramatically throughout its history. It may well be that the BBC needs to consider whether to prioritise certain services over others, while still remaining a universal broadcaster, because it may not be able to deliver the breadth that it delivers now while maintaining the quality standards it wishes to maintain. These are going to be very important considerations.

In terms of distinctiveness, I would like to see the BBC taking creative risks. It can afford to take creative risks because it is not reliant on advertising revenue to fund its programming. Holding an audience at a certain level throughout the day might be a demonstration of universal appeal, but it is not a commercial necessity for the BBC because it is not dependent on advertising revenue. It is a fair criticism to say, “Are the services on the BBC schedule, particularly the daytime one, distinct from what we would see on other channels?”. We largely see the same menu and diet of quiz, antique and property shows, which, although popular, are widely available. Could the BBC afford to take more risks and be more distinctive there?

The principle of the BBC being publicly funded is important. An aspect of this debate that is not mentioned enough is that under the alternative where we say to the BBC that we want it to be a voluntary subscription service, the volume of those subscriptions is almost certain to add up to less than we are talking about for the licence fee today. We would therefore have a much smaller BBC, largely making programmes for a smaller group of subscribers who wish to pay. That would be a gross act of vandalism against an important national institution.

If we have a fully commercial BBC, with full advertising, the biggest losers would be the other commercial broadcasters—ITV and Channel 4. They would discover that the revenue pot from advertisers for live TV audiences in the UK is not infinite and the BBC would simply be soaking it up. We would weaken our creative sector and our television market in the UK by doing that. We cannot disturb one part of the ecosystem of a great success, British television and film production, without disturbing the other component parts of it. That is why the BBC’s remaining publicly funded is important, although the mechanism has to be open to challenge.

As Justin Madders said, younger viewers, in particular, see the licence fee as a type of subscription, no matter how the BBC wants to see it. In effect, people see this as a monthly charge they pay, just as they might pay for Amazon Prime or for Netflix; they do not understand it as a device levy if they are watching TV through a computer or on their laptop. It might be that the BBC will have to be funded in a different way, be it a property-based tax, as has been discussed before by the Select Committee and is the case in Germany, or some other mechanism. If the BBC was funded publicly in that way, it is perfectly legitimate to say, “What amount, what proportion, of that funding should be contestable? To what extent should another free-to-air broadcaster, or even a subscriber broadcaster such as Sky, be able to come along and say, ‘We will make this instead, we will make it better and we will make it free to air.’”? What proportion of that revenue should be contestable in that way? There will be a legitimate debate on that, but opening this up too widely would make the BBC’s sustainability difficult to protect.

As we look forward to the end of this charter and the start of the new one, we face a lot of challenges on getting this funding mechanism right. It needs to give the BBC the revenue and flexibility it needs to do what we want it to do. It needs to be funded through a charging mechanism that makes sense to the public. We also have to consider the viability of other services such as the BBC World Service, which is of huge strategic value to the UK but is largely funded by licence fee payers now. We must consider the extent to which there should be government support for that, particularly in respect of services that are further afield.

In closing, I just wish to say that I regard the BBC as a vital national institution. In a world that is becoming more fractured and where audiences are more scattered, the role of a trusted national broadcaster that can be impartial—although that will always be open to challenge from people who hold different views—that is resolutely focused on trying to get to the truth, and that can be a trusted source of news and information in a world riven by disinformation, conspiracy theories and lies, is of the utmost importance. As my right hon. Friend Damian Green said, a national broadcaster can put on those moments that bring the nation together, be it a royal wedding, royal funeral or the coronation, Eurovision or major sporting events. At such times, the nation can come together and the BBC becomes the national town square. That is a fundamental part of its role in our public life.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Ceidwadwyr, Warrington South 4:03, 9 Mai 2024

Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend Sir William Cash on securing this important debate. I class myself as a critical friend of the BBC—I am not sure whether that makes me a sympathiser or not. I want to see the BBC prosper in the new media age, but that inevitably means we will see change at the BBC, in response to the global creative boom we are witnessing. As my right hon. Friend Damian Green said, we should not underestimate the soft power involved here: the selling of UK plc around the world by the BBC and its work. However, we simply cannot expect the British public to accept an ever-increasing licence fee if they perceive the values and approach of the BBC to be out of kilter with their world.

My constituents tell me that they value the BBC. They value a British public service broadcaster, particularly for news and current affairs, but it seems that the BBC does not value the type of news and current affairs that my constituents want, particularly around local news. It is disappointing that the one area where the BBC can genuinely make a difference—local provision—has been the area that has been cut and withdrawn in recent months. My constituents are concerned about opinions that are presented as facts. They want creativity and innovation, but they want to see the world through eyes that are from their local area. They want to see their town or their street reflected on the screens or heard through the speakers of their BBC radio station.

Its best and most distinctive content is unrivalled in range and quality, while being highly valued by listeners and viewers. Some of its services and programmes would simply not be possible to provide on a commercial basis. As I said earlier in response to Justin Madders, services like Radio 4 simply would not exist in the commercial marketplace.

The majority of my remarks will pick up on the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford about what the BBC should be doing as we move forward post the mid-term review, and thinking about the next licence fee settlement. The mid-term review provided a valuable insight into the BBC’s governance and regulation arrangements, and whether they have successfully enabled and effectively delivered the BBC’s mission and public purpose. I particularly welcome the mid-term review agreement with Ofcom and the recommendations to change the framework agreement, so that new BBC services are not automatically considered material changes.

There is lots of value in Ofcom publicising an annual view on the BBC’s position in the local news sector, and setting out its approach to considering the competition impacts of changes to BBC local news services, particularly in relation to the local press, which is struggling significantly. The BBC’s decision to move more of its resource online has a consequence and impacts local journalism that is supported by advertising. For me, Ofcom should take serious interest in that. Ofcom has said it will set out a view for the first time in November 2024, and subsequently use its annual report on the BBC to update its view. I particularly welcome that.

I will take a few moments to specifically look at the competition and market impact in relation to the audio and radio sectors. For context, let us start by looking at the audience of BBC Radio. The combined weekly audience for all BBC and commercial radio in the UK remains extremely healthy. Some 49.5 million people, representing 88% of the population, put their radio on every week to listen to a linear service. In the last quarter of 2023, the most recent figures published by Radio Joint Audience Research, BBC Radio’s share of total listening is 43.2%. One operator has 43% of the radio-listening market; that remains a significant, dominant position. The remaining 56% is split between myriad much smaller commercial operators. The BBC holds an extremely privileged position because of the scale of funding it receives, its unrivalled broadcast network and its ability to cross-promote its services, the like of which is not available to any rival operator, be that in television, radio or online.

I advocated changes to the BBC Trust back in the early 2000s, but it is fair to say that there has been a relatively light-touch approach to defining and policing the activities of the BBC that most closely resemble the commercial sector in the radio and audio world. Traditionally, this has included the main pop music services—Radio 1 and Radio 2—but the BBC is also increasingly leveraging its position in radio and audio into its online activities provided on the BBC Sounds platform.

This debate provides me with an opportunity to highlight the current process of consultation over the launch of new services on all platforms, including BBC Sounds, as well as the effectiveness of regulation and governance from Ofcom in ensuring its distinctiveness. Specifically, the review looked at how the BBC and Ofcom assess the market impact and public value of the BBC in an evolving marketplace and how this relates to the wider UK media ecology, including with regard to commercial radio and local news sectors, and other content makers and distributors. It is important that regulatory conditions for BBC radio services are not diluted and that the drive for the BBC to deliver distinctive output remains.

The BBC has been repeatedly and rightly criticised by Ofcom for not meeting the required standards of openness with stakeholders, especially when new services are being developed. Earlier, I detailed that a more structured consultation is required, which is what Ofcom is urging the BBC to do. The current framework places too much emphasis on the BBC’s own judgment and assessments of impacts, especially when considering the significance of change to its own services. This undermines the credibility and independence of the process. Ofcom can and should do more to make sufficiently robust assessments of competitive impacts, and needs to set out a clearer and more consistent requirement for the BBC.

The extent of the BBC’s significant dominance in sectors such as radio and the implications of this for both distinctiveness and market impact must be reflected more clearly. BBC services must be measured and held to account to the highest possible standards of distinctiveness. Just last week, when I met people from the BBC, I asked for some data relating to digital audiences. The reply I received is that they would be publishing them annually. That is simply not good enough.

In February, the BBC announced plans to launch new spin-off radio stations on DAB and BBC Sounds, which would directly imitate radio services provided currently by the independent radio sector. My view is that these new services are duplicates and they fail to deliver distinctive output to listeners already concerned about changes to their beloved BBC local radio services. The changes require regulatory approval from Ofcom, and I have raised my concerns directly with the Minister and the regulator. I am concerned that the BBC is attempting to fast-track proposals on BBC Sounds, which is subject to less regulatory oversight than the DAB services.

As listening habits continue to shift online, there is a real risk of harm to popular and innovative commercial stations developing across the UK. Stations such as Boom Radio have moved in to deliver popular services for the over-50s when Radio 2 moved its services to a younger age group. If this service is launched exclusively on BBC Sounds, and it inevitably receives significant cross promotion on BBC 1 and on Radio 2, it will drive audiences and can impact commercial operators significantly.

In March, the BBC confirmed new plans, for the first time in the UK, to run advertising around its podcasts and on-demand content on third party platforms, such as the Apple podcast app. If these proposals are introduced, listeners who do not use BBC Sounds would, in effect, be paying twice for BBC content. They have already paid their licence fee, which has contributed to making the content, but then they will be paying again through advertising revenues. The BBC is unfairly forcing licence fee payers to pick between ad-free listening on BBC Sounds or their preferred podcast platform. Listeners should be entitled to access BBC audio content, such as “Desert Island Discs”, via whatever means they choose. Although the podcasting advertising market is in its relative infancy, the BBC is dominant in UK audio, which is different from the TV market and, as a result, its impact could and probably will be significant. There is only a limited pool of audio advertising revenue, as my hon. Friend Damian Collins referenced, with commercial audio broadcasters relying solely on that revenue to fund their services and invest in professional content.

Ironically, there is a risk that the new proposals will have an unintended consequence for the BBC. As we look at the future of the licence fee, observers may reasonably question, if some BBC audio services could be funded by advertising, why not do that to all their radio provision, or to the BBC as a whole? Analysis conducted by an audio think-tank has already identified that, were that to be the case, probably only Radio 1 and Radio 2 would continue to be funded, because they are the only services that would be commercially viable. I am very supportive of public funding for the BBC under the current licence fee model, simply because I do not think that a suitable alternative could be proposed at this stage. Given what I believe to be the unworkable nature of alternatives such as a subscription model for DAB or FM audio, we simply cannot allow anybody to railroad us into scrapping the licence fee at this stage.

I support the Government’s aim of ensuring that a strong, distinctive, independent BBC can continue to thrive for years to come. I also want us to take opportunities to improve the BBC where we can. My hope is that the mid-term review is a staging post in the charter that will help the BBC to live up to that ambition, support the corporation to fly the flag for Britain in all corners of the world, and address the risk that the BBC, which is not regulated and focused on distinctive content, risks the very future of public service broadcasting and innovation within the independent creative sector.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:16, 9 Mai 2024

When the mid-term review of the BBC was published, one commentator described it publicly as a

“great big hard hammer, badly disguised inside a not very velvet glove” used to batter this key public institution. There was much criticism of the report over the BBC’s perceived failure to achieve balanced coverage. The sight of some right-wing Conservatives attacking the BBC over its record on impartiality was something to behold. Many hound BBC journalists over objectivity, yet the Conservatives are happy for their Benches to operate as a sort of green room for GB News, with half a dozen or so Tory Members popping up there regularly, masquerading as journalists. Ofcom, the regulator, has explicitly condemned GB News and its Tory MP presenters over their continuing breaking of our broadcasting rules. Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg moonlights as a newsreader daily on GBeebies—a clear breach of Ofcom rules, which the regulator is sadly too weak to enforce.

I worked for the BBC for many years as a freelancer. Most BBC journalists, I sincerely believe, try to be fair and impartial. They sometimes fall short. I think they did so during the independence referendum—not individual journalists but the BBC as an institution, because the BBC is deeply establishment as an institution. I do not believe for one moment that journalists go to work daily with the objective of spreading disinformation. Sir William Cash cites as an example of woke Europhile bias the views of Brexiter Rod Liddle. Who was this lowly figure when at the BBC? In fact, he held the powerful role of the “Today” programme editor. The hon. Member for Stone mentioned Roger Mosey. Another junior figure? No, he was also the “Today” programme editor, who became head of news.

Setting aside the surreal comparison that the hon. Member for Stone made between the cost of the BBC and Westminster—that is Westminster One, Two, Three and Four, Radio Westminster and Natural Westminster History, presumably—he moved on to some more BBC woke bashing, conveniently forgetting that the current BBC director general was a Conservative party candidate, the last BBC chair was a major Tory donor, and the last chair but two is now a Tory peer, like Lord Grade, Lord Patten, et cetera, et cetera.

In my position on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I regularly aim to hold BBC bosses to account over their party political loyalties, their judgment and their treatment of staff. That is all part of a healthy democratic critique. This Government, or any Government that hold office in this place, should back public broadcasting as a basic fundamental concept, and celebrate the BBC for its many present and past achievements, while of course remaining a critical friend. The constant baiting of the BBC during these last 14 years by so many senior Conservatives has given us, sadly, a weaker public broadcaster, on a shooglier financial footing, with a less positive impact on our democracy than when the Conservatives came to power.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I think the hon. Gentleman has slightly misinterpreted what I said, and is on the verge of being misleading. I happen to think Ron Liddle was an exceptionally good presenter, as was Roger Mosey and John Humphrys, but their experience demonstrated a degree of awareness that all was not necessarily well in the organisation or the manner in which their programmes were put together. That is all I am saying. I was not criticising them; I was commending them.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Hold the front pages! The hon. Gentleman thinks that right-wing Brexiters are fundamentally good things when they appear on the BBC. That is a shock to us all, is it not?

I agree with Damian Green, who he said that the recitation by the hon. Member for Stone of the events of one particular editorial meeting showed a journalists’ office operating well: somebody says something controversial, other folk argue, and we all have—what was it Mrs Merton said?—a “right good debate”. I remember when I sat with Michael Gove and various others on “On The Record”; we were all reporters and we all held very different views, but we did our very best to make sure we were impartial when on air. That is just as it should be.

The Conservatives spent a good deal of time arguing that the licence fee should rise only with inflation. Then, when they trashed the economy and inflation rocketed, they demanded that the BBC not increase the licence fee with inflation, leading to further financial pressures. The Government also imposed a social responsibility, TV licences for the over-75s, on the BBC, leading to a widely predicted set of draconian cuts. Much faux surprise and outrage ensued from some on the Tory Benches. Those measures have had a huge negative impact on our public broadcaster, which we as a state have been building now for more than a century. An underfunded BBC suits none of us, because the BBC’s role in providing scrutiny for politicians, especially in an election year, is vital.

Reform of the BBC is certainly needed: pay equality for women; more black, Asian and minority ethnic staff in senior management posts; and more LGBT people in management and elsewhere. The BBC needs to end its fruitless battles with female staff, having lost or settled every single pay case it has fought against those women, at huge cost.

Having seen two Tory BBC chairs improperly appointed and forced to resign in the last decade, we surely need a new system for public service appointments. We will have a Labour Government soon. Will we see the same old British principle of Buggins’ turn, with Labour donors replacing Tory donors in senior posts? The Leader of the Opposition should rule out the appointment of any big-money donor as BBC chair. I notice he has conspicuously failed to do so. Now would be a good time to promise meaningful reform.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 4:23, 9 Mai 2024

I congratulate Sir William Cash on giving us this opportunity to discuss the BBC. He brought up the concept of “BBC sympathies”. Virtually everybody in the Chamber—in fact, I think literally everybody, including him—has expressed at least some BBC sympathies in this debate. That is testimony to the fact that Members with all sorts of views on the BBC’s future, past and present have managed to find something they love about the BBC.

My hon. Friend Justin Madders recognised, for instance, the value of radio, which was mentioned by Andy Carter. My hon. Friend also rightly raised concerns about the BBC’s future and spoke about the possible implications of different funding options. He demonstrated that he values it as a trusted news source, and mentioned that that must continue, but without a proper funding arrangement, it could be weakened. I value his contribution.

Damian Green gave a thorough review of the importance of the BBC to our national life, our economy, our role in the world. He made powerful arguments about the ways in which funding options have hitherto affected the BBC’s output. He mentioned in particular the radio output, as have others. The concern has been raised by many Members, including some who are not here today, that the cuts and changes to local radio, for whatever reason, have had an effect. Future proposals may, as the hon. Member for Warrington South said, have an effect on competition. Concerns about that have been raised with him, as well as with my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock, who has been taking radio stations’ views on the proposals. I think it right that we consider the effects on competition—the unintended consequences, as the hon. Member for Warrington South said.

Damian Collins has been a distinguished member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee over the past 10 years. We have many former members of that Committee here, even in our low numbers, and they bring such expertise. He gave a detailed description of the implications of different forms of widening revenue. I urge all Members looking at the different funding options to read the Hansard report of this debate, because Members have made great contributions with thought and care. The hon. Member for Warrington South described himself as a critical friend of the BBC. I think that was an apt way to describe himself, because he raised concerns about competition and new proposals while also sharing what he believes to be unique and distinctive about the BBC.

It is worth spending a small amount of time on what is unique and distinctive about the BBC. Members have mentioned radio and podcasts. I would add BBC Bitesize, which so many young people relied on during the lockdown years. We have the BBC website. How many Members are getting BBC News alerts popping up on their screens right now? That is so often our method for learning about something that has just happened. We use it to check the weather in the morning, or to listen back to something that we have missed during the day but which we find really valuable. The content that the BBC is able to put out because of the role we entrust it with—a unique role in our public life—is what makes it such a great public service broadcaster.

As the Secretary of State wrote in her foreword to the BBC mid-term charter review, the BBC is an unmatched media institution that

“matters deeply to this country” and to

“people right across the world.”

I agree. The Government have an important role in both scrutinising and championing the BBC, but the Secretary of State and some of her colleagues have had an odd way of showing it. I gently suggest to the Minister that the Government need to focus on supporting the BBC to fulfil its public service broadcasting mission, rather than using it as a punch-bag, as so many Conservative Members—many of whom are not here today—have done consistently in recent years.

I will underline the importance of the BBC to our national life before addressing the mid-term review itself. The BBC is one our greatest institutions. It brings wealth, jobs and joy, alongside other public service broadcasters. It brings people together for shared experiences, as many right hon. and hon. Members have said. From sporting occasions to royal occasions, we were all there. Most people turned to the BBC in the last few hours of the late Queen’s life, but we also turned to it for great moments of rejoicing when our new King was crowned so recently. The BBC brings together people from the world over in news output, which is particularly recognised and trusted, as the right hon. Member for Ashford said.

The BBC is an important part of our soft power, but it is also vital in the ecosystem of our creative industries. It contributes £4.9 billion to the UK economy every year, 50% of which is outside London. Many Members would argue that that percentage should be higher, and we will hold the BBC to its plans to take more investment outside London carefully. I have seen the benefit of that for myself in my constituency of Bristol West, which is home to the BBC’s world-renowned natural history unit. It is not just about the natural history unit itself, but the clustering of creative industries that has developed around it, with independent production companies flourishing. The BBC is the single largest investor in original UK content, creating jobs but also helping us to tell our national story in a distinctive British way. That is the first “B”—it is the British Broadcasting Corporation; it is not anything else but British—and it keeps British life front and centre.

I salute the BBC for its desire to improve and innovate, and to widen its range of content. The hon. Member for Stone talked about a diversity of views, and I believe that that is already with us. We have a diversity of output—of regional output, of regional voices and of stories told—but every Member should always challenge the BBC to go further on that, because championing a diversity of views is one of the things we are here to do in our role as MPs. However, the BBC is now competing for our attention with global media conglomerates that are motivated by profit, rather than by public service—those are different functions. Those include streaming services, but also content across social media, so it is important that we support and work with the BBC to change with the times, as well as challenging it to do so. We need to make sure it gets the support it needs.

Of course, the BBC needs a modern governance framework that is robust, proportionate and fit for purpose. The introduction of the unitary board to govern the BBC and the regulation of the BBC by Ofcom were both new elements in the 2015-16 charter review. That review included a focus on governance and regulatory issues, and therefore the BBC’s mission, public purpose and funding model were written out of the scope of this mid-term review. The Government chose to focus on six themes. The first was editorial standards and impartiality, which many Members have addressed today, and the second was the handling of complaints. I have to mention to the hon. Member for Stone that just because a complaint with which he sympathises is not upheld, it does not mean that the regulator was wrong. He poses an interesting argument: that a large volume of complaints not being upheld means that the complaints system is not good enough. The Minister may wish to address that point in her remarks.

The other themes were competition and market impact, commercial governance and regulation, diversity, and transparency. Overall, the findings of the review indicate that the BBC’s governance and regulation are working well. It says that that is particularly true of the BBC’s commercial activities—something that is worth noting. I welcome the review’s recommendations to push the BBC to continue making improvements in relation to diversity—diversity of view, of voice and of identity—and transparency. If I am the next Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, I will continue to push the BBC to do so. The BBC has made clear commitments in both those areas and is making progress towards meeting those commitments, but there can never be room for complacency in any creative organisation. I will always hold the BBC to account: it takes public money to do the work that it does, and representing the widest diversity of voices is so important.

As other Members have said, it is right that Ofcom should assess the impact of the BBC’s decisions on the wider market, but it should also be noted that of all 35 materiality assessments reviewed by Ofcom since the start of this charter period, it has disputed only one. It is also right that the BBC has a clear, easy to understand and robust complaints process—that is why the principle of “BBC First” was introduced in 2017, so that licence fee payers can hold the BBC directly accountable. It is important to be guided by evidence. Of course, it is right that the BBC is impartial, and that there is a process for assessing that impartiality; that is the only way in which the BBC will remain the UK’s most trusted source of news and, some would claim, the world’s most trusted source. It should therefore be noted that Ofcom has upheld only one complaint against the BBC regarding impartiality in the eight years since the beginning of this charter.

It is important that Members of all views recognise the role of the mid-term charter review, but also the work that Governments of all colours will need to do. In a context of rising disinformation and misinformation spread by highly sophisticated state and non-state actors, and in a year in which the citizens of so many countries are taking to the polls, our public service broadcaster could not be more precious. Our democracy is the richer for it.

The information that the mid-term review gathered on the public perception of the BBC is also evidence—it is evidence of what the public think about the BBC. That is fundamentally important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston raised that in reflecting the views of his own constituents. The BBC spent 100 years building trust, and it cannot stop now and it cannot take its reputation for granted. I believe it is doing neither. I believe it is working hard to move forward, but it will always be held to account.

The next charter review will, I hope, take place under a Labour Government, and we will work constructively with the BBC to make sure it is fit for the 21st century. It will be informed by the BBC’s biggest ever public engagement exercise, which will begin next year. It will be informed by an understanding of the great contribution the BBC makes to storytelling—British storytelling—as well as to the growth of the creative industries in the UK, and its unique role in bringing communities together. Most importantly, it will be informed by a true appreciation of the value of a source of both entertainment and news that we can trust.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 4:35, 9 Mai 2024

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to what has been a genuinely interesting and rich discussion. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir William Cash on securing this important debate on our mid-term review of the BBC. As I approach my—ahem—40th birthday in just under four weeks’ time, I would rather be celebrating his 40th anniversary as a parliamentarian, which passed only days ago. He will be retiring from this place when the general election comes calling, leaving behind four decades of service to our nation and a legacy of relentless campaigning, the crowning achievement of which will be his efforts to restore sovereignty to this place. He has been a parliamentarian of substance and impact, and a parliamentarian who has understood his fundamental role, which is first and foremost to serve the people and interests of this our great nation.

One of my hon. Friend’s techniques as a relentless campaigner—I hope he will not mind my saying this—is lying in wait for Ministers and pouncing on them, with surprising agility for an octogenarian, in darkened corridors or voting Lobbies to advance the causes closest to his heart. So it has been that on many occasions we have discussed BBC impartiality. Of course, his interest in this subject extends well beyond my three years as Media Minister—he referenced 1984, 1990 and 2003—because it is a cause he has championed for decades. Why? Because, as he implied, it goes to the heart of the special contract between the British people and the BBC: that the BBC will be funded in a unique way, via the licence fee, because it has unique duties in how it covers national events, produces content, reports on and shapes public debate, and imbues the British values of fairness, free speech and rigour into the BBC World Service as an international projection of our nation.

As my hon. Friend reflected in a debate last month, he played an important role in putting the issue of BBC impartiality at the centre of the current charter. I regret that he will not be here in the next Parliament with his institutional knowledge, when a new generation of MPs will need to make some very big decisions about the future of the BBC as its next royal charter is drawn up, the foundations for which we are laying now. The mid-term review has been one of the staging posts to that moment, and it will be a huge moment for UK broadcasters, audiences and creators because the world is changing around us, and changing very rapidly.

The question that has preoccupied public debate on the BBC’s future the most is the sustainability of the licence fee, which has been mentioned several times. Be in no doubt but that that will be a big part of the discussion on the charter renewal. The numbers paying the licence fee are falling whether or not people are advocates of it. The way audiences, particularly younger audiences, consume content is breaking their traditional relationship with the linear broadcasters, weakening the loyalty to and the love of the institution. Audiences feel that the BBC is not adequately reflecting them, as has also been touched on. As a consequence, they have lost trust in it and are starting to not want to pay the licence fee.

The fact that most television will be received over the internet will introduce new gatekeepers and promoters of content, and none of us quite knows how AI will shape the information industry. Justin Madders spoke about these challenges with great clarity, as did my hon. Friend Damian Collins, who brings his considerable expertise to this debate. Before I turn in more detail to the mid-term review, my ask of this House, if I may make one, as we debate the BBC in the coming months and years is that we do not lose focus on the very big picture as we fret over the urgent or everyday matters surrounding the BBC, its coverage and its presenters.

Since the second world war, we have understood our country and its values in part through the strength of its great institutions, as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Damian Green. The BBC is surely one of them, but it is not enough simply to will it to have a future and expect that to be the case. As the world changes around us, those institutions whose strength we have perhaps complacently relied upon must go through a process of renewal—a renewal that provides clarity of purpose and a sense of mission for the next decades of the 21st century—and, dare I say it, that includes the Conservative party and a renewal of centre-right thinking.

In the BBC’s case, that mission must surely include the vigorous pursuit of truth in a world in which information and facts are blurred with increasing sophistication and intent. It must not just provide audiences with a narrow diet of content that suits an individual’s taste or caters to their own worldview, but challenge, inform, educate and provoke curiosity in a way that pulls people out of their silos and in a way that serves all audiences, but especially our children, as a counter to malign elements of the online world and the pull of addictive entertainment over nourishing educational content that helps them navigate the real world around them. As this House has made patently clear, that includes local audiences, and my hon. Friend Andy Carter has campaigned particularly strongly on that.

One of the most interesting parts of the director-general’s recent speech about the future of the BBC was about algorithms, which are designed by many organisations to monetise controversy. He set out how the BBC in the 21st century is developing unique ethical algorithms that do not simply double down on an individual’s narrow preferences but guide them into a broader, richer catalogue and bring people together.

At charter renewal, there might also be interesting questions about how we can best create and deliver public service content if younger audiences are moving elsewhere, and about whether a wider range of outlets and creators are well placed to deliver that. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe touched on that.

We will need to look at the BBC World Service as a force for projecting our values globally as malign states seek rapidly to up the stakes in the battle for hearts and minds. Finally, there will be important questions about the BBC’s vital role in feeding the wider broadcasting and creative ecology in a way that will allow us in the UK to continue as a world leader in creativity and to retain our cultural voice. That is an aspect of the BBC debate that is often overlooked or misunderstood when we discuss its value. It has led the director-general to describe the BBC as

“a growth and innovation fund for the UK…to back British storytelling.”

The mid-term review touches on some of these issues, but it should be seen as the staging post that it is—a new innovation introduced at the last charter to understand whether the BBC is operating in the way envisaged at the last charter review, but also to signal where we think things may need to change by 2027. I understand that for some Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone included, the mid-term review did not go far enough on issues close to their hearts and I want gently to challenge that view. The mid-term review delivered a number of significant and necessary reforms, focusing on editorial standards and impartiality, whether the BBC has the right complaints model, and the distinctiveness of the BBC’s content in relation to competition and market impact.

I want to be clear that the discussions within the mid-term review with the BBC and Ofcom, led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, resulted in recommendations she got over the line, with the licence fee payer always at front of mind. Our review was unambiguous that there is scope for material improvement across a variety of areas and it made 39 recommendations for meaningful change.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has previously mentioned, impartiality was at the heart of the mid-term review and we concluded that it continues to be a major challenge for the BBC. Following direct and constructive dialogue with us in Government, the BBC is implementing major reforms building on the Serota review, and that includes thematic reviews of output—most recently, we saw one this week on migration coverage.

A key feature of the mid-term review is the recommendation for Ofcom’s regulatory responsibilities, including its oversight of due impartiality, to be extended to key areas of the BBC’s online public service material, which is where many now go for their content. The BBC also has an important tool at its disposal in its efforts to continue building trust in its relationships with its audiences and that is the complaints process. As Members will know, the BBC is unique among broadcasters in having the chance—indeed, the responsibility—to try and resolve audience complaints about its content first before they are considered by the independent regulator Ofcom. The ongoing feedback of licence fee payers to the BBC and how that feedback flows directly to staff and programme makers is invaluable in helping the BBC understand what its audiences care about and how to make its services better.

We have heard concerns through the MTR about complaints, and that is why they formed a key focus of our review, and it is the area where we made the most recommendations. I recognise the strength of feeling among some Members. For those colleagues, fundamental questions remain about the appropriateness of the “BBC First” principle, and that is why at charter review we have committed to examining whether “BBC First” remains the right complaints model to enable the BBC to deliver against its responsibilities to serve all audiences.

My hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) talked about the BBC’s role in the market and the impact on commercial competitors, and that was also raised in the mid-term review. The charter does not preclude the BBC having an adverse impact on the market, if the BBC and Ofcom believe that is necessary for the effective fulfilment of the BBC’s mission and public purposes. We talked extensively with industry during the review, and we found that a lack of effective engagement has the potential to risk the BBC’s and Ofcom’s decision-making process. We are clear that the BBC needs to drive higher standards for that stake- holder engagement and transparency so that businesses operating in the same markets can be supported. We have therefore made recommendations to ensure that the BBC strengthens that engagement with competitors in the media. In particular, that should include commercial radio stations and local newspapers, especially when it makes decisions that impact them.

While the mid-term review will deliver material improvements in the BBC’s governance and regulation, I reiterate that it is only one part of the Government’s ongoing programme of work to scrutinise the BBC, with more to come as we move towards charter review. This will be a significantly broader process than the mid-term review, considering what the BBC is for and how it is funded. That is why, before charter review, the next major step in our roadmap is the funding model review.

Over its 100-year history, the BBC has proven to be one of the most adaptable, innovative and forward- thinking media organisations on our planet. Across time, the BBC has shown its ability to open itself up to external scrutiny, reflect on challenges and find learning opportunities. We trust it will do so again, absorbing the findings of the mid-term review and improving its structures and processes—not as an end in itself, but to maintain the support of audiences and underline its purposes for truth telling and trust. We all rely on the BBC being the best it can be, and we need to set the foundations for its renewal in the 21st century as a vital British institution, not to protect the institution for its own sake, but because its purpose of truth seeking and having the highest quality content has been renewed and accepted as vital by the people and the nation we are elected here to serve.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 4:47, 9 Mai 2024

May I commend the Minister not only on her speech just now, but on having continually engaged with me on the subject over the past few years? She has been dedicated to her task, and I do not come at this debate with rose-tinted spectacles; I have been critical of the BBC, and I will continue to be so on the terms I expressed. I am glad to note that she has said that the Government believe, as the mid- term review says, that there is room for improvement. That improvement is in part to do with attitudes and with statistical analysis and data, and I set all that out in my speech. It is also to do with the group-think that still gravitates in certain cohorts at the BBC and Ofcom, but I have made my point on that and it is on the record.

I accept entirely that this organisation, which has been going for so long, has an incredibly important role to play in our national life. It is precisely because it impinges day by day, hour by hour on our opinions, thoughts and attitudes that it is so important that impartiality is sustained in the correct manner and by reference to criteria; it should not be judge and jury. As Baroness Deech said in her letter in The Daily Telegraph on 23 January this year, the BBC requires a greater degree of independence, and she even referred to an independent ombudsman. I am not satisfied—the figures I have given perhaps illustrate it better, and there is a lack of sufficient proof—that the ECU system is working as well as some people hoped. I have deep misgivings about it, as I have expressed. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and these improvements, I hope as a result of this debate, will be examined in that light.

I simply say this to my hon. Friends on the Government side, and to those on the Opposition side, some of whom were somewhat more critical about what I have had to say than others. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Damian Green and my hon. Friend Damian Collins. I recognise that they really know what they are talking about and have enormous experience of these matters. This has been an important debate. I am sorry that the 30-odd colleagues who signed my application to the Backbench Business Committee have not been here today—their presence would have been lovely, but to some degree it reflects the difficult few weeks we have had—but, notwithstanding that, I am glad that we have had the debate.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for her response and to the other Members who participated. The debate has been more than worthwhile and is another landmark in considering the improvements that we can achieve in relation to the BBC in the future.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

I suspect that, like me, many of you have watched the Eurovision song contest for many decades with bated breath, expectation and hope. We wish Graham Norton well as he fronts the show this weekend, and we wish Olly Alexander incredibly well—we all hope that he will win. If any of you are free that night, Mr Fletcher, the Government Whip, tells me that he is having a Eurovision song contest party at his house, as will many people throughout the country. Good luck, everybody, on that contest.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the BBC mid-term charter review.