Helen speaks in Broadcasting debate

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Yesterday I spoke in the Broadcasting debate to raise my concerns about the government's plan to increase outsourcing in production of radio programmes, issues with the BBC Trust and the government's top-slicing of funding.

"I begin by saying that I chair the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group, the secretariat of which is included in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who was an extremely able and successful Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, holding the post of arts Minister for a record six years. He demonstrated again this afternoon that with wit and charm he is able to defend some really poor policies.

The BBC is a first-class institution, but it is now at risk. As everybody knows, Lord Reith’s vision was to educate, inform and entertain free from political interference and commercial pressure. We now have a much weaker commitment to reflect the UK and its culture and values to the world. A large part of the draft agreement, which I thought was a strange document when I read it, between the Secretary of State and the BBC relates to the limitations that will be placed on the BBC’s independence and how it will fulfil its role in a competitive environment. We seem to be moving rapidly away from Lord Reith’s vision.

An early section of the draft agreement deals with the role of the BBC as a UK public service and the public interest test. The agreement states that the BBC must consider public value relative to

“any adverse impact on fair and effective competition”.

In other words, when the BBC makes changes to its delivery of the public services set out in the document, its first thought is the impact not on listeners, viewers or citizens, but on its competitors. That undermines the distinctive role of the BBC. When the Secretary of State was appointed, I thought that that was really positive and that we would have somebody in this role who had not spent years in the media milieu and would therefore bring a fresh approach. I was therefore extremely disappointed to discover that she had appointed as her special adviser the former chief political correspondent of The Sun. The obsession with the BBC’s impact on other broadcasters seems to suggest that the hand of Murdoch is evident in the document.

Let us look at some of the specifics in the agreement. Paragraph 67 is headed “Defence and Emergency Arrangements”, but it covers far more than just those things. Its provisions set out no limit to the Government’s power of censorship, and it is possible that the Government could interfere with editorial judgments and broadcasting content. Now let us look at the section on competition. Obviously, the BBC, supported by public money in the form of the licence fee, is in a special position and there are risks of it abusing that position. There was a long-standing argument about whether The Listener was competing unfairly with the New Statesman, The Economist ​and other weekly and monthly magazines, and now the argument is about whether the BBC’s web content is competing unfairly. What is strange about this charter, and this is where it goes wrong, is that there has been a move from the margins—from a small problem that was acknowledged and needed to be dealt with—to place the position of the competitor right at the centre of BBC decision making about what public services it needs to provide. The BBC will have to consider the positive and negative market impact of its activities, and Ofcom must keep that in mind when reviewing new and changed services. There must be concern that commercial broadcasters will be able to launch anti-competitive challenges against the BBC, including to existing programmes and scheduling.

The right hon. Member for Wantage talked about radio, and there is a particular concern about what is proposed for BBC radio. At the moment, the BBC contracts out to the private sector the production of 20% of radio programmes, but it is proposed that by 2022, at least 60% of BBC radio programmes will be contracted out. That is a massive change in how radio programmes are made, and I am concerned about it from two points of view. First, and most importantly, in what sense will we have BBC radio, with its characteristic and distinctive quality, if more than half of it is produced by the private sector? Secondly, there is the question of the practical feasibility of doing this. When more than half the radio programmes are made by external producers, the BBC’s in-house capacity will be limited. Members who are concerned about that matter might like to sign early-day motion 551.

The performance of the last BBC Trust seems to have been absolutely abysmal. I am sorry to say that that was due to not structures, but the people who were in positions on the trust. It was completely irresponsible of them to take on responsibility for free licences for people over 75. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has insisted on an open appointment for the head of the new structure, but I do not think that the new unitary board, which includes five Government appointees, can truly be said to be independent.

The right hon. Member for Wantage pointed out that there had been a lot of top slicing. Since 2010, if we take account of the freeze on the licence fee and of the constant slicing away of money for different purposes, the BBC has experienced a real-terms cut of 25%, which is extremely significant.

I am pleased that the National Audit Office will be involved in looking at whether the BBC is properly managed, as it seems that its major problems are related to management, not editorial matters. I very much hope that that the growth in contracting out will not simply be a mechanism for people to evade scrutiny regarding high pay.

The Secretary of State began her speech by saying that the BBC is a trusted, valued and much-loved institution not just here in Britain, but across the world. I regret to say that those fine words do not seem to be supported with an approach on the charter that would preserve the BBC free from commercial pressure and political interference.​"

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