Debates between John Whittingdale and Christian Matheson during the 2019 Parliament

Channel 4: Privatisation

Debate between John Whittingdale and Christian Matheson
Wednesday 21st July 2021

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have a presumption against privatising successful public assets, simply because among Conservatives there is an ideological presumption in favour of privatisation. However, if he will bear with me, he may well find that I address that point in my speech—at least, I hope I do.

It may well be right once in a while to review the make-up of Channel 4. However, it seems that the Government have simply presented a done-deal proposal rather than an inclusive and thought-out consultation. The decision to press ahead with the proposal to privatise Channel 4 has surprised many in the industry, as there does not seem to be any solid evidence behind the Government’s proposals. In fact, as we have heard, Channel 4 has just had one of its best financial years on record.

Many people do not realise that Channel 4 is publicly owned but funds itself almost entirely through advertising, and it reinvests any profits into new British programming. In other words, although it is publicly owned, it does not cost the taxpayer a single penny. When the advertising market dropped last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government saw an opportunity to attack the broadcaster once again. However, despite the hit to advertising spend, Channel 4 has bounced back stronger than ever. It has reported a record £74 million pre-tax surplus and an increase in viewing figures across all its platforms, and it is on track to top £1 billion in revenues for the first time this year. Its streaming viewers are up by 30% on last year, the linear portfolio is up by 4% and there have been 4.2 billion content views on social platforms.

As hon. Members have alluded to, we are all aware that the Government have had a bumpy relationship with “Channel 4 News” and a number of close run-ins with it—indeed, that is true not just for the Government, but for MPs from across the political spectrum. However, the Government cannot simply run away from scrutiny and throw a tantrum every time they dislike something. The Conservatives—or, I say with respect to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, some Conservatives—complain about a cancel culture, but this is a perfect example of the sinister trend with this Government of closing down or selling off any mechanism that can scrutinise or oppose them. In view of the figures mentioned earlier and the information available, can the Minister assure us that any decisions on the future of Channel 4 are made on the basis of concrete evidence and not simply based on an ideological vendetta against the broadcaster?

Not only do the Government’s proposals make no sense, but they would be catastrophic for the creative sector, particularly independent British TV companies. Channel 4’s success has been instrumental in helping to grow the UK’s world-beating creative industry. The channel has invested £12 billion in the independent production sector, and each year it works with more than 300 production companies.

Channel 4 has also been investing in regional TV and production, and giving voice to communities right across the UK, long before “levelling up” became the latest empty Tory slogan; other hon. Members have already mentioned that today. The channel is crucial in both representing people and providing jobs for people right across the country.

As well as people directly employed by Channel 4, the channel supports over 10,000 jobs in the supply chain, 3,000 of which are in the UK’s nations and regions. As hon. Members have mentioned, Channel 4 is now a truly national organisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West has said, it has opened up its new headquarters in Leeds; he and Tracy Brabin, our former parliamentary colleague, are fighting hard to support that move. Channel 4 has set up creative hubs in Glasgow and Bristol, to make the channel more reflective of UK life. Nearly 400 Channel 4 roles will be located outside London by the end of 2021, and the channel is also committed to investing at least 50% of its spend outside London from 2023, bringing jobs and investment to all parts of the UK.

Changing the very DNA of Channel 4 will mean that indie TV production companies simply will not have the opportunities that they have now. They will be hit by a double whammy. Not only will they not be able to make programmes, but they will not even be able to own the IP, and they will essentially become service provider companies to potential buyers. The plan would suppress the brilliant entrepreneurship and innovation of the UK’s production industry. If the Government’s proposals go ahead, they will clip the wings of one of the most successful industries in Britain.

The creative industries are a key growth area and will be crucial to the UK’s economic recovery after the pandemic. Office for National Statistics data show that in summer 2019, 9% growth in the TV and film sector was key to the UK avoiding recession. The sector has been growing at five times the rate of the UK economy and contributes £111.7 billion to it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) have asked, what assessment has the Department made of the impact of its proposal on the wider creative sector? Was an impact assessment made when drawing up the proposal?

The proposal would also impact on the UK on the global stage. Channel 4 is a national asset with a global reach. As an exporter of uniquely produced content, Channel 4 projects British talent, culture and soft power around the world, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). It was created to reflect the cultural diversity of the UK through programming, boosting Britain’s reputation overseas and showcasing British values to the rest of the world.

Channel 4 has commissioned formats and shows that producers can then sell around the world, helping to launch hundreds of UK creative businesses on to the global stage and generating British IP. The UK independent sector is now worth £3 billion, and it exports soft power around the world through formats, talent and sales.

There is also success at the award ceremonies. Channel 4 spends more on British film than any other UK broadcaster does. Film4 films have collectively won 37 Academy awards and 84 BAFTAs. As the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) mentioned, in 2021 “The Father” won best actor and best screenplay at the Oscars. From the outside it looks as though the Government are punishing success. In reality, they are passing on British success to their mates and big companies in America, once again showing where their true loyalties lie.

We all know that big foreign tech companies have only money on their minds, so I simply cannot see them showing any sympathy for Channel 4’s current remit and structure. That is bad news for the TV production industry and the unrepresented voices in the UK. We cannot lose Channel 4’s distinctive remit and let it simply become Channel 4.5—in other words, like Channel 5.

The Government may well argue that this change needs to be made for Channel 4 to be able to keep up and compete with giants such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney+, but they are simply missing the point. Channel 4 was created to be different, diverse and daring, and to champion the under-represented voices of this country. It does not need to splash millions of pounds to compete with Netflix. It simply needs to do what it does best—make fundamentally British content that speaks to and represents British audiences. As we heard, a prime example of this is the fantastic “It’s a Sin”, a masterpiece that broke down barriers and demonstrated the true brilliance and success of Channel 4 and the British TV production industry.

Our TV industry is a British success story. We cannot allow the Government to place a huge “For sale” sign on Channel 4 and lose it to the highest bidder. Great British TV belongs in the UK, and I would very much like it to stay that way.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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I thank you, Ms Fovargue, and Mr Deputy Speaker, for presiding over our debate. Neither of you expected to be in this position today, so we appreciate your giving up the time to join us. I also thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for securing this debate. As she says, it is a very important subject, so I am glad that the House has an opportunity to debate it.

However, I do not think a single speaker has talked about the revolution taking place in television at the moment. Every speech has been backward looking. Each one has been a list of admittedly terrific programming over the past 40 years, but there has been no looking forward and no reference to what is happening to television viewing and how the landscape is changing. Linear viewing is in rapid decline. Young people are no longer looking at scheduled programmes on the traditional broadcast channels. The competition for eyeballs, which comes from streaming services, a new one of which joins the market almost every few months, is completely changing. Therefore, what we intend and wish to do is look forward. Yes, Channel 4 has a terrific record and is doing well at the moment, but it is the Government’s job to ensure that Channel 4 has a viable future going forward—not this year or next, but in 10 years. That is the purpose of the consultation.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between John Whittingdale and Christian Matheson
Thursday 1st July 2021

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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The hon. Gentleman is wrong on several counts. It is the case that Channel 4 recorded a profit last year, and I commend the management for taking the action that made that possible, but the reason they did so was because they cut the amount of money that they spent on content by £140 million in anticipation of a big fall in advertising revenue, which indeed took place. It is to sustain Channel 4 going forward that we are looking at the possibility of alternative ownership models, and it would certainly be our intention that Channel 4 would do more outside London and across the United Kingdom, not less.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
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“Countdown”, “Derry Girls”, “Gogglebox”, “The Word”, “It’s a Sin”, “Chewing Gum”—which gave us the astonishing Michaela Coel for the first time—“Educating Yorkshire”, “24 hours in A&E”, “24 hours in Police Custody”, “Location, Location, Location” with Phil and Kirstie, “Friday Night Dinner”—

--- Later in debate ---
Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson
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I will simply finish with “Hollyoaks” and “The Secret Life of the Zoo”, Mr Speaker, which as you know have something in common with me—[Laughter.] They were both filmed in Chester. For four decades, Channel 4 has reflected and given voice to the diverse parts of the United Kingdom. Why do the Minister and the Government want to take that voice away and, as other hon. Members have said, sell it off to foreign tech companies that have no loyalty to the United Kingdom?

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I am extremely impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s viewing habits, although I notice he left out “Naked Attraction”, which certainly does appeal to diverse tastes. However, I absolutely agree that Channel 4 has been responsible for some great programmes over the years, and it is our intention that it should be able to continue to do that in the coming years. It is precisely because it is going to need access to investment capital in order to maintain that record that we think now is the right time to consider alternative models, but we have not reached any conclusion yet.

World Press Freedom Day

Debate between John Whittingdale and Christian Matheson
Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and to follow what has been an excellent debate. In an unusual opening gambit for a shadow Minister, may I first pay tribute to the Minister who, in Opposition as well as in Government, has made this issue a priority? I know it is something that he really believes in.

I also pay tribute to my good friend, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who gave a fantastic opening exposition. He spoke about news deserts, and other hon. Members also spoke about the problems of local news and media. He also mentioned the importance of not forgetting online news and disinformation, on which I know he has done so much work in the past. It was a fantastic introduction.

Let me say first of all that we have to get our own house in order, starting here in this place, in Westminster. Too often, there is a tendency to attack journalism. It is still a matter of shame for me that four or five years ago, Laura Kuenssberg felt that she had to have a bodyguard to attend the Labour party conference. Once again, I send my apologies to her for that. More recently, a Conservative Minister caused the Twitter pile-on of a journalist who was asking perfectly innocent questions, and we have heard some unhelpful comments from the Prime Minister attacking all journalists. We have got SNP Members who attack the BBC because they do not like the way it covered the independence referendum. Plenty of Conservative MPs are always undermining the BBC and calling it for it to be defunded. We have Democratic Unionist party MPs who have a beef with Stephen Nolan and attack the BBC and its integrity. Those attacks need to stop. By all means complain about individual broadcasts, but stop undermining independent journalism.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) mentioned, the UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Restrictions on freedom of information and active threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland continue to mar the UK’s press freedom record. We heard about the murder of Lyra McKee and her search for the truth. She was shot in 2019 during the riots that took place in Derry. It is truly shocking that on our shores journalists still face such a hostile environment.

The situation in Northern Ireland, incidentally, is becoming increasingly hostile. I heard recently the horrific story of Patricia Devlin, who has been subject to continuous and serious threats and abuse in recent years. In 2019, she reported receiving a Facebook message—I hesitate to say this, but I will—that suggested threats of rape against her baby. That is to a journalist in the UK. In a case in Barrow-in-Furness, Amy Fenton was run out of town by far-right gangs. We still have something to do in the UK. We need to make that a priority.

The focus of the debate is international. Numerous hon. Members referred to the disgraceful case of Roman Protasevich, which, frankly, was an act of piracy by the Belarusian Government. To those who would suggest that Mr Protasevich is not a journalist but merely a citizen blogger, when all the press in Belarus is so tightly controlled and not independent, citizen bloggers become the only source of independent information and, as has been mentioned, an essential independent voice.

In the debate, we heard that the number of journalists being killed is at an all-time high, with 387 being detained and 50 journalists killed around the world in 2020. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned the gunning down of the three female media workers in Afghanistan. In fact, the past decade has been the deadliest one for the profession, with a total of 1,059 journalists killed in the past 10 years simply for doing their job. That has to stop. Every year, every statistic, has a human side—the death of a mother or father, a brother or sister, a community left without information, denied that human right to be properly informed.

Let us not forget that the threat does not come only from authoritarian Governments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) talked about Mexico, a country that he knows well. Journalists have been murdered for investigating powerful organised crime groups and drug cartels. Reference was made to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, with suggestions that elements of organised crime were working in concert with Governments. I ask the Minister for us to do more than simply condemn the detention and killing of journalists all around the world. More must be done to support those who are being silenced.

The BBC World Service does a fantastic job of projecting and promoting not just British values, but truthful and honest journalism. That is known throughout the world. Given those who say that we need to cut the BBC licence fee, I remind hon. Members in the Chamber and elsewhere that 70% of World Service funding comes from the licence fee—be careful what you wish for.

The BBC World Service is under threat. In China, the BBC World News TV channel has been banned by the Chinese authorities. In Hong Kong, the BBC World Service has been removed from the airwaves, after criticism of the BBC for its reporting on coronavirus and the persecution of the Uyghurs. World News distribution in mainland China was limited to international hotels; nevertheless, its loss is symbolically significant. John Sudworth, the BBC’s China correspondent whose reporting exposed truths about the Xinjiang detention camps, including sexual violence against Uyghur women, has now had to move to Taiwan, following pressure and threats from the Chinese authorities.

In Myanmar, BBC Burmese correspondent Aung Thura was taken away and detained along with a colleague towards the end of March, while reporting outside the court in the capital. The licences of media companies have been revoked and nightly internet shutdowns have been used to restrict news coverage and access to information.

Russia is also becoming an increasingly hostile environment for journalists. In recent years, many independent news organisations have closed down or curtailed their operations. Legislation governing the media is extensive and strict. The Russian authorities have made it clear that any action taken against the Russian state-backed TV channel RT in the UK will result in similar measures being taken against the BBC in Russia. Of course, there is the problem of the continuing harassment of BBC Persian staff, and their families, by Iran. It is deeply troubling and continues to escalate. The Iranian authorities have targeted Persian journalists, the BBC and their families since the service launched satellite television in 2009. Intimidation of the family members of BBC Persian staff in Iran is a regular occurrence. This takes various forms, including arrests, detention, questioning, threats that jobs or pensions will be lost, confiscation of passports and asset freezes. I ask the Minister to reflect on the situation of BBC Persian journalists, and ensure that they and their families in this country and abroad are safe.

I refer briefly to the question on the bombing of the news premises in Gaza, mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North and many others. What happened is an absolute outrage. The building was deliberately targeted and that cannot be allowed without massive criticism of the Israeli air force.

Finally, I reflect on an increasingly problematic matter, mentioned by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), the question of SLAPPs—an acronym that I think came first and the words to fill it after—strategic lawsuits against public participation. It is a real problem. Legal threats against journalists are far from a new phenomenon. Yet increasingly, media outlets and freelance journalists—even those with no links to the UK—report receiving letters from London law firms acting on behalf of the people they are investigating. The high costs and long time periods involved in fighting legal threats in the UK pile significant pressure on individual journalists or media outlets to withdraw or refrain from publishing their investigations, even if they believe them to be accurate and in the public interest. Taken usually by powerful or wealthy individuals and entities, the intention is not to address a genuine grievance, but to stifle investigations into matters of public interest through intimidation, and by consuming the target’s financial and psychological resources.

These types of vexatious legal threats can also come hand in hand with orchestrated smear campaigns, offline surveillance and other forms of harassment against journalists. Some of the recent examples include lawsuits filed by Russian billionaires against Catherine Belton; by the allies of the Malaysian Prime Minister against Clare Rewcastle Brown; and a lawsuit filed against OCCRP and its co-founder Paul Radu, by an Azerbaijani politician. Perhaps even more shocking is the involvement of UK legal companies who actively advertise such services to their clients. The UK is the leading international source of these threats, almost equivalent to those stemming from EU countries and the US combined.

To protect media freedom at home and abroad, the UK must take action to address two interlinked trends—first, the role that London continues to hold as an international libel capital, despite reforms to English and Welsh law in 2013, and the impact of such legal action, or even the threat of it, in the UK on journalists around the world; and secondly, the impact that the UK’s facilitation through its financial and legal systems of illicit finance links to political elites in countries with poor democratic records has on media freedom there. It is not surprising that countries with higher rates of corruption tend to have the fewest protections for journalists and the media. The so-called SLAPPs damage the UK’s reputation as a haven for free speech, and I urge the Minister to look into that issue.

It is clear that press and media freedoms are under threat around the world. For a country that is part of the global Media Freedom Coalition, there is a long way to go to promote and protect press freedom. I know that the National Union of Journalists advises that there should be a new convention, which is stronger than the demand solely for a special representative. A new convention would systemise and detail existing obligations, enhance the visibility of the journalists and the protection required for journalism, and codify multiple texts into one comprehensive document. We need to value journalists and their contribution, protect their livelihoods and stand up for universal rights and freedoms, democracy and the rule of law everywhere, and against violations wherever they take place. That must support freedom of expression, and specifically media freedoms.

John Whittingdale Portrait The Minister for Media and Data (Mr John Whittingdale)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate and on his work to promote media freedom. I am particularly grateful to him for taking over as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, which I chaired until February 2020.

A lot of Members have focused on dreadful abuses of media freedom in different countries around the world, and so to some extent Members might have expected a response from a Foreign Office Minister. The Minister who has specific responsibility for the subject is my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, who is doing a great job championing media freedom internationally. He is obviously prevented from taking part in this debate in our House, but I work with him closely.

It is encouraging that there has been widespread recognition across this Chamber that media freedom is a crucial component of an open, democratic society. We may not always like or agree with what is written about us in the press, but the role of a free media in holding Government to account, in exposing corruption or malpractice and in providing trusted, reliable information and reporting has never been more important. However, media freedom is under increasing threat across the world. A number of Members pointed out that 50 journalists were killed last year while doing their job. According to Reporters Without Borders, which does a terrific job of monitoring that and campaigning, already this year 13 more journalists or media assistants have been killed, and there are currently 439 in prison. The summary analysis of its World Press Freedom Index 2021, published in April, said that journalism is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked in the index; that the coronavirus pandemic has been used by Governments as cover for blocking journalists’ access to information; and that journalists find it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the middle east and Europe.

I join a number of those who have contributed in paying tribute to the courage of journalists working in some of the most difficult, dangerous and challenging parts of the world. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) reminded us of our own Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria along with her photographer, French journalist Rémi Ochlik, in 2012. I am sure he heard, as I have, Paul Conroy, who was also badly injured at that time, talk about how the shelling that killed Marie Colvin and her colleague was deliberately aimed at them because they were journalists.

It is because media freedom is so important that the Government have championed the cause of media freedom around the world. As has been mentioned, in July 2019 the UK hosted the Global Conference for Media Freedom, which led to the establishment of the Media Freedom Coalition of like-minded countries that pledged to collaborate to improve the media freedom environment across the world. The UK continues to co-chair the coalition. It is still a relatively young body, but it is growing and currently has 47 members. This year the coalition has already issued statements about China, Belarus and Myanmar, as well as a statement marking World Press Freedom Day. We are working on giving the coalition more impact on the ground by encouraging local collaboration in countries with those who are better able to engage with Governments and lobby them directly.

A number of countries have been mentioned, but I think it is important to speak about the most recent appalling example of the danger faced by journalists, which is of course the hijacking of an aeroplane and then the detention of Roman Protasevich in Belarus. In 2018, I led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Belarus. There was no question: the country was not democratic or free, and journalism was under terrific pressure. We met independent journalists operating there. Reporters Without Borders has assessed Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for media actors. I am pleased that the Government are supporting independent media organisations in that country, and we have already committed £2.7 million of support for independent media in Belarus. Alongside the Government, the IPU has been very active in championing media freedom and organising conferences, and I can remember listening to the relatives of journalists operating for the BBC’s Persian Service. The Persian Service is not able to operate in Iran. Its journalists broadcast from London on the BBC, but their relatives in Iran are being subjected to harassment and intimidation. We will continue to high- light that and to put pressure on the Iranian Government to respect their freedom.

As I said, the World Press Freedom Index, which several Members have referred to and which was published in April, showed that the UK had risen by two places, to No. 33. It is obviously good news that we have gone up in the rankings, but to some extent that is because other countries have gone down. It demonstrates that we undoubtedly still have a lot of work to do. The death of Lyra McKee, a journalist in Belfast, is happily a very rare example of where a journalist in this country has lost their life in the course of their work, but there is no question that journalists in the UK still suffer dreadful harassment and abuse.

The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned Amy Fenton. I have met and talked to her about the abuse that occurred, which led her to have to seek police protection. It was for that reason that we established the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which brings together senior figures from law enforcement, the police, the prosecuting authorities, the campaigning organisations, the Government, and both the Society of Editors and the National Union of Journalists. The aim was to demonstrate a shared commitment to ensure that journalists are free to carry out their vital role without threats of violence.

We have now published the first ever national action plan for the safety of journalists, which sets out the actions that all the partners will take to protect journalists. Every police force will have a dedicated officer to whom journalists can make a complaint, or whom they can contact in the event of abuse against them. The police will be trained, particularly about the importance of safeguarding journalists. Employers will provide extra training, and the platforms where a lot of the abuse occurs have said that they will establish designated journalism safety officers.

There is still more to be done, and one of the first things that we want to do is to get more evidence about the scale of the problem. We will shortly be publishing the call for evidence, and I hope that any journalist operating in the UK who has suffered in such a way will respond to it. I am delighted that our work on that has already been praised at the Stockholm Conference on Media Freedom in the OSCE region, and has perhaps contributed to the promotion in the ranking of the UK on the World Press Freedom Index.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), I can confirm that the UK is using our presidency of the G7 to highlight the importance of media freedom. We will be asking G7 members to reconfirm their commitment to defend media freedom and to provide practical, technical and programmatic support to journalists and media, including through the global media defence fund. The fund was set up with the help of the UK and UNESCO, which currently manages it, and we continue to support it. In 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pledged £3 million to the fund over the next five years, and we are delivering on that commitment. To date, the fund has supported a variety of activities, such as pursuing strategic litigation with the goal of challenging laws and regulations that infringe on media freedom in Zanzibar, and investigative journalism that is focused on cases of threatened, prosecuted, imprisoned, attacked or assassinated journalists in the Philippines.

I thank the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom for its contribution to international efforts to promote media freedom. We are now working through all the recommendations of its report, with a view to responding.

Just before I finish, I will touch on an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and by the right hon. Member for Islington North—the threat to sustainable journalism, especially traditional media, as a result of the growth of social media and the power of the online platforms. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue; it is a matter of considerable concern. As he well knows, we have received a number of reports highlighting the need for action. He will also be aware that we recently established the Digital Markets Unit in the Competition and Markets Authority, which will bring in mandatory codes of conduct to ensure that the relationship between publishers—in other words, media—and the platforms is not abused by the over-dominance and anti-competitive practice of the platforms.

There is still a lot of work to do, but I am determined that this country should address the concerns that have been rightly expressed today about what happens in the UK, and I am also determined that we should continue to champion media freedom wherever it is under threat across the world. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe for giving us the opportunity to show that this House is united in that ambition.


Debate between John Whittingdale and Christian Matheson
Tuesday 21st July 2020

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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21 Jul 2020, 12:40 p.m.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The charter of the BBC makes it plain, as one of the five public purposes, that it is the responsibility of the BBC to reflect, represent and serve the diverse community of the UK’s nations and regions. Ofcom, as he knows, lays down a number of requirements on the BBC and, indeed, on other public service broadcasters, as to how it does that. It is up to the BBC. I have made it clear before, and I do so again today, that I regard the BBC’s news and current affairs reporting of events taking place outside London and in the regions as an absolutely central part of the BBC’s purpose. I very much hope that it will continue to bear that in mind.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on securing this urgent question, which goes to the heart of Members’ concerns about cuts to BBC funding, and the breaking of a promise to millions of pensioners and their families. This issue goes back to the charter and licence fee settlement that was made with the Conservative Government in 2015, when the Government made the BBC an offer it could not refuse: “Take on responsibility for paying the licence for the over-75s, or we will slash funding even further and consider removing the licence fee altogether.”

Since then, in this licence period alone, the BBC has lost £800 million in funding, even before bearing the cost of licences for the over -75s. Members may ask why the BBC accepted the settlement. Is it merely a coincidence that the then chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, was later elevated to a peerage as the noble Baroness Fairhead, and took the Conservative Whip a short time later?

The Conservatives made a manifesto promise to maintain the licence for the over-75s. They broke it. Instead, they passed responsibility to the BBC, knowing that it would never be able to afford that responsibility. Since then, they have tried to blame the BBC at every turn, for every cut of every service, and for every redundancy. No doubt they will try to blame the BBC when bills start landing on pensioners’ doorsteps in August and September.

The Conservative Government themselves were party to this deal, so does the Minister not accept that the Government should own some of the blame? Can the Minister tell the House, as the hon. Lady asked, why the BBC should be responsible for implementing the Government’s social policy?

Cuts to the BBC, as everyone in this Chamber knows, are not merely about spending; they are about undermining the corporation’s independence. The Conservative Government are, at best, relaxed about reducing the BBC’s budget, because it is the only lever they have to control the BBC’s capacity to ask tough questions on behalf of the British people.

Ministers knew that making the BBC shoulder that responsibility in full would lead to cuts equivalent to the closures of BBC2, BBC4, the news channel, the Scotland channel, Radio 5 live and Sports Extra, and a number of local stations. Indeed, the cuts to BBC news reporting and all the redundancies in local and national news, at a time of national crisis, when the BBC is more valued and essential than ever, are a direct result of the Government’s failure to maintain their election promises.

The Minister will have seen evidence from Age UK, detailing how millions of pensioners have relied on their televisions for company, especially during the pandemic. What advice would he give to a pensioner who will face the heart-breaking choice in the coming months between turning off their TV for good, or forgoing other basics such as food or heating? That is the reality of the Government’s broken promise to 4 million pensioner households.

John Whittingdale Portrait Mr Whittingdale
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I remind the hon. Gentleman that at the time of the licence fee settlement in 2015, the Government were still having to put right the mess that they had inherited, due to the financial profligacy of the previous Labour Government. Everybody had to play a part in that, and the BBC was included. It was a tough negotiation. I call tell the hon. Gentleman— I was part of the negotiations—that Baroness Fairhead strongly argued the case for the BBC, and the outcome was satisfactory to the BBC and the Government, as was made clear by the BBC at that time. The manifesto commitment to maintaining the licence fee during the 2015 Parliament was maintained, which is why the exemption is only now being removed in 2020.

Any pensioner on a low income will continue to get a free TV licence if they are in receipt of pension credit. Age UK has rightly drawn attention to the fact that quite a number of pensioners do not receive pension credit, even though they are entitled to do so, and one of the consequences of this move, which the Government would welcome, might be an increase in the take-up of pension credit.