BBC: Future Funding (Communications and Digital Committee Report) Debate

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Department: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

BBC: Future Funding (Communications and Digital Committee Report)

Lord Hall of Birkenhead Excerpts
Friday 16th December 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Hall of Birkenhead Portrait Lord Hall of Birkenhead (CB)
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My Lords, in my view, the most important thing about the report that we are discussing today is that it casts light forensically to inform the debate about the big question of how to fund the BBC. The committee took a large amount of evidence from a broad range of opinion, both in this country and, as has been mentioned, importantly, from across Europe. The result is a careful analysis of the options laid out in a way that I have never seen before—the pluses and minuses of every conceivable way of funding the BBC.

Rightly, advertising looks difficult, and so too does a model based wholly on subscription. That is because it would not deliver on the important principle of universality—in other words, that broadcasting should deliver good things that everyone should have access to equally. That principle is as important now as it ever was, in my view, and defining what it means now and for the future is going to be important. What I drew from this work is that the key objective from now until 2027 should be to find a way to pay that is fairer. Poorer people should pay less and the better-off more, which to my mind points to a reformed licence fee of some sort or some form of household levy.

The point that I really want to make is this: the report laid out options clearly for how to fund the BBC but, in my view, the question of how to fund it and at what level should follow a debate at scale about what we want from the BBC in its second century. The last time the charter was renewed, when I was director-general, the BBC had the financial settlement imposed before discussions took place about its role. Today there is time to get that right and engage the people who pay for the BBC, the licence fee payers, and important stakeholders in a way that makes sense to them. What do they want from the BBC?

Where should that debate begin? There are three big areas to look at. It has to begin with the BBC’s role in news and journalism, which is central to what it does. We all know that news is the bedrock of any democracy. The threats to that are clear now that people can get news from anyone, anywhere and any place; bad news and fake news travel faster than the truth. Every person, rich or poor, wherever they live and whatever age they are, should have somewhere in the noise and mayhem of the world where they go to find out what is actually happening. That is what the BBC is there to do, in my view, and the pandemic underscored those arguments.

The public debate needs to examine the BBC as both local and global. No other organisation in the UK or around the world can offer this. In my time, I saw how important local radio was as part of what the BBC offers, both in representing and celebrating communities. This is increasingly an area where the market fails us. That is why, for example, the local democracy reporting service established a few years ago is so important. As noble Lords probably know, the BBC pays for 165 journalists who cover local news for any outlet. About 1,000 individual news outlets have signed up. They have so far syndicated nearly 250,000 stories. That sort of scheme needs to go forward.

Then there is the global: do we want, as a society and country, to build on this? In the past months we have seen brilliant reporting from the Persian service, for example, and from Ukraine. The ability of the BBC to bring this all together to us depends upon its reach worldwide. The global numbers are big: 492 million people each week, of which the largest share is to the World Service. This increased by 42% between 2016 and 2020, which was in no small measure due to the increased funding won from George Osborne when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The evidence is there, and the BBC could do so much more for our soft power around the world.

Away from the journalism, there is another question about the important role the BBC plays for us all— that is, culture. By funding and making programmes by us, about us and for us, it helps define who we are and what we stand for. In the last 12 months, public service broadcasters as a whole provided approximately 35,000 hours of original content, whereas Netflix and Amazon Prime combined provided only 831 hours. That is why the role of the BBC matters. This applies to drama, comedy, music, sport and, if we think back, to the many days of national mourning and commemoration for Queen Elizabeth. Programmes and services that reflect who we are, give expression to our lives and bring us together in joy or in sorrow are an essential and necessary part of our culture going forward—and should be available equally to all.

Of course, the BBC’s cultural role in all of this extends to education. This can often be in the mainstream schedules. “Blue Planet II”, for example, showed how powerful scenes of plastics in the oceans led to a change in people’s behaviours by reducing the use of single-use plastics. This educative role could also be more specifically targeted. In the first weeks of Covid, for example, the BBC stepped up to the plate. Two-thirds of primary school pupils and 77% of secondary school pupils used the resources of Bitesize during the Covid crisis. The fact that this all could be turned on at such speed again shows the value of a media organisation of scale that has education as one of its primary purposes. This should be debated.

The third area we need to look at is the BBC’s role in the future growth of the UK. As we know, the screen industries represent an area of real global competitive strength. At the heart of that is the BBC, and its impact has been real. A brilliant example of that is Cardiff. Since the BBC opened its studios in Roath Lock, the creative sector has grown by over 50%. It is good that the BBC is building on this to ensure that it does more in the nations and regions, and it is aiming to deliver even more than it does now.

Equally, it should be backing people with ideas, continually looking for the talent of the future and developing its role as a trainer for the sector in technical skills through apprenticeships and so on. So many people who have gone on to successful careers point to the BBC as the place it all began—think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge or even Ed Sheeran. For the success of the creative industries, and therefore of us all, the BBC’s role in the future is vital and that should be amplified and debated. We are going to want a BBC for information, for our culture and for our creative industries. The BBC is a part of our national infrastructure, but we need a debate—starting now. We need to discuss and define what we want from the BBC, discuss how it is best delivered and then work out how we fund it in a way that allows it to carry out our needs properly.

Finally, I have a word of caution. The BBC is right to plan for a future where everything is delivered online, quite possibly through a single app. I am sure this is going to happen, and it is exciting. However, we have also got to remember that there are still 8 million people—mostly people who are poorer, live alone, have a disability or are old—who rely on television as it comes now through Freeview. In this debate, their voice matters too.