All 1 Lord Hall of Birkenhead contributions to the Media Bill 2023-24

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Wed 28th Feb 2024

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.