Lord Hall of Birkenhead debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport during the 2019 Parliament

Media Bill

Lord Hall of Birkenhead Excerpts
Lord Hall of Birkenhead Portrait Lord Hall of Birkenhead (CB)
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My Lords, it is important to hear so much affirmation today that one of the United Kingdom’s great assets is its public service broadcasters. In my previous roles I was always struck by how much they were admired outside this country. When you occasionally went abroad, people would say to you how much they would like a BBC, too. That is good for the UK, and actually very good for the soul.

It is great that we have been able to reflect on what these broadcasters—the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5—deliver for us: of course the news that our democracy depends on to inform our citizens but also, and we have heard this a lot, local news, regional news and programmes in the languages that are also important on these islands: S4C and BBC Radio Cymru in Wales, BBC Alba and Radio nan Gàidheal in Scotland.

Think also of the dramas that reflect who we are, our concerns and our identity. A number of noble Lords have mentioned ITV’s recent, brilliant “Mr Bates”. I do not believe that would ever have been made by the streamers. PSBs also make services and programmes that are unifiers, which act as a sort of national glue. We saw that very strongly during Covid, and we see it when they deliver sporting events such as the Six Nations rugby over the weekend—not always with the results you want but certainly with the coverage. I could go on. What our public service broadcasters are doing is not only necessary but extremely popular. People on average spend six hours and 15 minutes a week watching BBC TV or iPlayer. That is more than Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ combined. People want the PSBs.

At the same time, public service broadcasters are helping the broader audio-visual sector to grow. For example, Cardiff has been transformed over the last generation into a thriving media city. And this is a sector that is globally successful, as we have heard, with the PSBs at its heart. It is something that we really are world-class at. So there can be no doubt that British democracy and society, and our economy, would be worse off without the public service broadcasters. Where do we want our culture to be determined and reflected in all its breadth? We will need public service broadcasters more in future, not less.

That is why the Bill is welcome and important. It seeks to ensure that the British public will continue to have access to this extraordinary breadth of programming and services that reflect who we are. We all know how the environment in which our audiences are consuming television and radio has been transformed in the 20 years since the last Act. We now live in a world of apps, smart TVs and streamers, something hard to imagine back then, so it is really good that the streamers—which, let us be clear, offer so much to our audiences—will be regulated alongside the UK broadcasters. I have long argued for a level playing field, and I hope that the code that is talked about in the Bill will be just that.

As a former deputy chair of Channel 4, I too am pleased that Channel 4 is now safe to pursue its own future. I am pleased that it is being allowed to produce some of its own programmes, although I am sure it will do so without damaging its important role as a commissioner for independent producers. My hope, along with the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, is that it will focus on growing a new generation of small independent producers.

I really am pleased that radio has a section all to itself. Radio or audio—call it what you will—is often sidelined, but we all know it is thriving and important. Again, the Bill recognises the changes in the way that radio or audio is consumed, ensuring that, for example, on voice-controlled speakers it will be easy to find the PSBs. That is really important. I have been keeping a close eye also on the systems used in cars, where about one-quarter of all listening occurs.

I welcome the Bill’s commitment to ensuring that the UK’s biggest sporting events are freely available to everyone across the UK. These listed events are an important part of the national conversation. Here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson: it is a pity that at present the Bill does not take into account the viewing of these events in an on-demand world. Catching up with events, maybe because they are late at night in a different time zone, is a significant way in which people now use media. I think the Government recognise that and have consulted on it, and it would be great if they could help us on this.

There are two other areas where I welcome the Bill but hope that more work can be done. The first is around genres. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron: this goes to the very heart of why public service broadcasting matters. We want our public—our citizens, our viewers, our listeners—to be able to find programmes and information on as wide a range of issues as possible. “What do our audiences need?” is one of the questions that public service broadcasting is out there to answer.

The Bill sets out provisions to ensure that, among other things, audiences have access to news, current affairs and content that reflects their lives and concerns. But the Bill does not define in a more granular fashion what that means and what the remit of public service broadcasting is—to provide, for example, programmes in education, science, the arts and religion. Faith, as we have heard, is so important for matters of international significance.

One of the great benefits of the public service ecology is that it is not just the BBC doing this: other broadcasters contribute in their own way. The Communications Act 2003 defined those genres, and maybe looking to incorporate those definitions could be helpful. Without data, and without defining those genres, I am not sure how we know whether what we want to happen happens.

Then there is the question of prominence itself. Let us use plain English and talk about the “discoverability of content”—that is horrible—or how you find the PSBs. This is so important, and that is why the Bill is so important. I urge the Government to be as strong on what prominence means as possible. We should give Ofcom the most powerful language we can to ensure that our audiences can find the public service broadcasters that we are so proud of. I, for one, argue that we should mirror the buttons I have on my handsets at home for Amazon and Netflix. Why not a button for our public service broadcasters? This is why I urge that the language should be tougher than “appropriate prominence” and instead should speak of “significant prominence”.

Finally, I am concerned that so much in the Bill is, necessarily, being handed to Ofcom, which I admire. It will need resources, skills, determination and robustness for the battles over what prominence actually means. It will be taking on teams of lawyers and others from the streamers, TV set manufacturers and so on. The more powerful the message from here, the more power Ofcom will have for what it has to do.

BBC: Future Funding (Communications and Digital Committee Report)

Lord Hall of Birkenhead Excerpts
Friday 16th December 2022

(1 year, 5 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.