Whittingdale, the BBC and “bullying” – Maria Eagle’s speech on broadcasting

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Maria Eagle Feb 16

This is the full text of a speech given by Maria Eagle, shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, at the Voice of the Viewer and Listener Conference on the future of the BBC and public service broadcasting today.

 

I am pleased to be addressing you here today about the future of the BBC and public service broadcasting in this country.

The VLV has always fought to improve the quality and diversity of British broadcasting on behalf of the viewer and listener.

By acting as a clear and consistent champion of the consumer, you have helped to make the BBC the force it is today, and the UK’s media landscape the envy of the world.

The BBC is one of our great British institutions.

It is as well-known and as loved as the NHS.

According to the BBC Trust, 97 per cent of adults in the UK use the BBC’s services for an average of 18 hours a week.

And the results of the recent public consultation into the future of the BBC – conducted to inform Charter renewal – show just how much the public value the BBC and how deeply they care about its future.

With over 192,000 respondents this was the second most responded to Government consultation ever.

What a way to demonstrate the strength of feeling that the public have for the BBC, and the scale of concern there is for its future.

The results are impressive.

81 per cent believe the BBC is serving its audiences well.

Around two-thirds of respondents believe that the BBC has a positive wider impact on the market and that BBC expansion is justified.

And 73 per cent of the public want the BBC to remain independent.

They are very clear statistics – not to be ignored by Ministers.

And public perceptions of the BBC have improved over the period of the current Charter.

For good reason.

It is clear that the BBC is loved by the public, who want it to carry on doing what it has been doing so well.

So when the public have such strong and clear views on what they want for the future of the BBC, the Corporation deserves our support in standing up to pressure from Government, especially whilst Charter Renewal is ongoing.

So why has the Government taken the approach that it has?

The Secretary of State says he believes in the independence of the BBC.

As the results of the recent public consultation have confirmed, that is what the public want.

Following a series of interventions, however, it is obvious that this is not what John Whittingdale actually envisages.

He has bullied the Corporation over its editorial line on Europe, and continued his habit of dictating to the BBC what content it should and should not be commissioning.

Following his call last year for the BBC to stop making programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, he has now recommended axing the Voice, all the while claiming that BBC One has been ‘dumbing down’.

It perhaps should be pointed out to the Secretary of State that BBC One was recently rated as the world’s best channel in surveys of perceptions of TV channel quality conducted amongst those who watch in countries around the world.

Most ominously, however, the Government have again raised the prospect of further top slicing of the licence fee, which the Secretary of State recently described as “not necessarily entirely the property of the BBC”.

Reports surfaced last week of another top slicing of the licence fee to fund children’s programming, showing just how much pressure the BBC is clearly under from the Government.

This is something ministers promised they would not do, and something the BBC had been led to believe was off the table following the funding agreement last year. It is also something I have said we are utterly opposed to.

In last year’s agreement between the Government and the BBC, the Chancellor bullied the BBC into agreeing to pay for free TV licenses for Over 75s in exchange for a promise – which has yet to be fulfilled – that there might be a CPI increase in the license fee from 2017.

There was also an understanding that there would be no more top slicing of licence fee money.

I have said before that I believe that the BBC was wrong to agree to this.

I think it compromises the BBC’s financial independence by forcing it to fund Tory Party manifesto pledges, whilst undermining its long-term finances.

It also makes the BBC look like an arms of the DWP – not healthy.

With Charter Renewal on the horizon I can of course understand why the BBC felt they should agree to this.

But the reports from the weekend that the Corporation could be forced to sell its stake in other television channels should be seen as nothing but another ministerial attempt to bully the Corporation whilst the negotiations around the next Charter are still ongoing.

Let’s be clear, it is just not on for the Government to undermine the commercial activity the BBC undertakes to keep the TV licence cost down.

A forced sale of this stake would be a huge blow to the Corporation, given that it provides about a third of BBC Worldwide’s profits.

What possible good can it do to strip the BBC of its commercial profits?

BBC Worldwide returned £113m to 250 companies in the independent production sector last year and invested over £180m in content – directly assisting our creative industries.

And BBC Worldwide’s commercial activities give almost £230m annually back to the licence fee-funded BBC, showing just how wrong-headed these Tory threats are.

Now, there have been a lot of things said about the Secretary of State lately.

I’ll say one thing about him.

Since taking Office he has very clearly sought to undermine the independence of the BBC.

In an interview recently, the Culture Secretary outlined his plan to stuff a new unitary governing board with Tory appointments, going way beyond the proposals outlined by Clementi.

And as we learned last week, Sir David Normington – the outgoing Commissioner for Public appointments has been clear that the Government are increasingly appointing Tory supporters.

But a new unitary board will have significant influence over the Corporation’s editorial content and programme commissioning, making its independence even more vital.

It is not acceptable for the Government to appoint the replacement for the BBC Trust and the new unitary board as the Secretary of State suggests.

With the BBC’s independence under real risk from this Government, I believe that the Chair of a new board must be appointed through a demonstrably independent process, not subject to more Tory fixes.

The Clementi review into governance also recommended transferring regulation of the BBC to Ofcom.

The BBC currently handles around ten times more complaints than Ofcom. If Ofcom is to take on entire regulatory oversight of the BBC, it is obvious that the Government must provide sufficient resources for them to do a proper job.

While the Secretary of State is meddling with the BBC against the wishes of the pubic, but has the gall to state—somewhat implausibly—his view that the independence of the BBC is sacrosanct.

It is no wonder that the public just do not trust the Government with the BBC.

The findings of a YouGov survey this weekend should make sobering reading for Ministers.

62 per cent of over-60s are suspicious of government intentions towards the BBC, which is more than double the 27 per cent who say they have faith in the Tories to make the right decisions on the Corporation’s future.

And 53 per cent of the public do not trust the government with BBC news, local radio and coverage of sporting events.

There are also legitimate concerns also that completion of the process of Charter renewal is up against a very strict timetable, which many people will fail to have confidence in.

The Government have been far too slow in getting on with the necessary work.

They started late, suffered a number of delays, and have therefore left themselves with little time.

The BBC Charter expires on 31 December. The uncertainty and delays to the process so far has been hugely damaging to the BBC and across the broadcasting industry as a whole.

Throw into that the inevitable prospect of the political fallout from the EU referendum in June – after which the PM is likely to want to carry out his own “revenge reshuffle” – or perhaps he will call it a ‘reconciliation reshuffle’ – either way heads will roll.

In recent weeks we’ve all had to witness the unedifying sight of the Government embarking on a bout of infighting on Britain’s EU membership that has blown apart any suspicion that the Government can reunite after the referendum.

Ministers across the Cabinet and within Departments are deeply split.

And there are still ten weeks to go.

Of course, the Culture Secretary is on the other side of the argument to the PM and the Chancellor of the Exchequer over what is the defining issue within the Conservative Party.

It is clear that a change of Secretary of State in the summer following the referendum, the prospect of which was not ruled out by spokespeople from Number 10 last week, could cause yet further chaos and delay to the BBC Charter renewal process and timetable.

But their infighting over Europe can be no excuse for administrative paralysis.

Last week, Ed Vaizey told the House that the White Paper on the new BBC Charter would be published in May.

He also confirmed that the new Charter would be in place by the end of the year.

This is of course welcome, but comes just weeks after Ministers confirmed that they were looking into the possibility of extending the current Charter for a short period.

Whilst an extension is technically feasible, it would create damaging uncertainty at the BBC in a way that would be needlessly harmful.

We should be in no doubt that Charter Renewal must be completed on time.

This is a timetable that they themselves have set.

Any potential delay would be completely unacceptable, and they must now stick to the promises that they have made and get it done on time.

It has been suggested by some that the next Charter could be just five years in length.

However, for the BBC to have the stability they require to operate in the fast changing world of broadcasting, the timescale of the next Charter period must not be reduced.

This is a point the Culture, Media and Sport Committee have made.

Therefore, for the BBC to have this stability the Government must confirm the next BBC Charter will be for at least 10 years.

So why have Tory Ministers approached the BBC Charter in this way?

Put simply, the Tories believe that the BBC gets in the way of commercial broadcasting and distorts what they think would otherwise be a perfect market – they have an ideological dislike of it.

And as I said earlier, the public could not disagree more strongly.

So despite what the Tories may want to do to the BBC, the Corporation doesn’t belong to any Government, any more than it belongs to any Director General.

It belongs to all of us.

We all pay the license fee and in return, the BBC seeks to inform, educate and entertain us all.

It does a pretty good job, which the public clearly cherish.

Britain would not be the country it is today without the BBC.

Try to imagine life without it.

The BBC is an essential part of our national life – it reflects and helps to create and shape and project our UK cultural identity across the world.

The BBC promotes understanding and toleration across our national, regional and cultural boundaries.

It brings us all together.

And the public service broadcasting ethos with which it was created still runs through its veins.

It is trusted, not just in Britain but throughout the world to provide fair, impartial and accurate news coverage – and it has the resources, ethos and commitment to do it.

The recent You Gov poll found that 56 per cent of the public believe the BBC is the broadcasting outlet most likely to produce balanced and unbiased news reporting. This compares to 14 per cent for ITN News, 13 per cent for Sky News and 13 per cent for Channel 4 News.

The BBC remains the world’s leading international broadcaster, with a weekly reach of 308 million people, including 210 million watching or listening to the World Service.

We should never underestimate or forget the value of the BBC’s objectivity and impartiality, and the impact this has on how the rest of the world views the UK.

Of course, there will always be complaints about individual situations in which it is alleged that the BBC has failed to meet the very high standards of objectivity it sets itself.

But I believe the public are right to believe that its news coverage is, on the whole, fair and balanced.

I do not claim that the BBC is perfect.

I see myself as a critical friend.

Clearly, the Corporation has much more to do to address the concerning lack of diversity across the organization as a whole.

This issue was highlighted by a number of my colleagues in a debate in the Commons last week. It is clear that the BBC must do much better in delivering a BBC that better reflects the richness of diversity in the UK.

The BBC is there for all of us, wherever we live, and so it must do more to reflect and portray all of the UK in its output. Media hubs like Salford are a start as are the ongoing partnerships the BBC is fostering in the regions and nations.

On Channel 4 privatisation, I call on the Government to see sense.

There is nothing to be gained from pursuing this and quite a lot to be lost. The Channel 4 model of public service broadcasting obligations financed by advertising has brought an innovative and unique approach to our broadcasting landscape.

No other broadcaster fulfils its obligations in the way that Channel 4 does – and it works.

It has also made great progress in enhancing the diversity of its output, underpinned by its 360 degree diversity Charter. On the back of its outstanding coverage of the Paralympics, this year marks the start of its ‘Year of Disability’. This is all testament to Channel 4’s value to our society and the strength of its public service remit. I say this as a former Minister for Disabled People.

Channel 4 is in a position to take risks that no other broadcaster can.

It commissions all its own productions from the UK independent sector, with all its profit is ploughed back in to meeting its public service obligations and commissioning its programmes.

There are no shareholders to pay. It helps boost UK creative industries whilst fulfilling its statutory public service broadcasting obligations to us all.

If it was privatized some of the money which now goes to commission programmes would be diverted to pay shareholders.

As a result, it could simply become a platform for showing content produced elsewhere, probably outside of the UK.

This would make the UK’s broadcasting landscape immeasurably poorer for its sale.

Tory peer Lord Inglewood – a VLV patron whom I know you will shortly be hearing from – has made this point.

It is clear that the future of public service broadcasting is at critical moment.

I for one hope – as you do – that public service broadcasting in the UK carries on going from strength to strength, and that it is allowed to continue contributing to our national life in the way it has done in this country for decades.

I’d like to thank you all for listening to me this afternoon.

I am looking forward to hearing from all of you how you see the future of the BBC and public service broadcasting at this vital time.

Thank you very much.

 

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