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A Bone to pick with the BBC

by Paul Goodman

As some MPs prepared for the Easter recess, one in particular was still in the Commons yesterday - that inveterate attender, Peter Bone (Wellingborough).  He moved the second reading of his Broadcasting (Public Service Content) on behalf of Christopher Chope (Christchurch), which succeeded the Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill, also originally introduced by Chope  -

"The aim of the Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill was fairly modest: it just wanted to abolish the licence fee in total. I do not think that that is right. I want to retain the licence fee, but I want it to cost a lot less, and I want its benefits to be available to non-BBC broadcasters. At the moment, it is not so much a licence fee as a BBC fee. All the money goes to the BBC, and none goes to other broadcasters...I am told that the current licence fee, which is in effect a poll tax, is £145.50 a year. Almost no one can avoid paying that if they are under the age of 75. Anyone who has more than one television set in more than one location has to pay more than one licence fee. It is a very regressive tax. Also, anyone who does not have a television is still hounded as though they do have one. I had a constituent—this is not made up—who told the BBC licensing authorities that he did not have a television set. They did not believe him. They sent inspectors around to inspect every room in his home to see whether there was a hidden television. That is the sort of thing we might get in a totalitarian state, but surely it is not acceptable in the United Kingdom at any time, and certainly not in this century?"

Bone went on to explain what the effect of his Bill would be, if passed -

"The public service content is mentioned in clause 1(1) and is defined in some detail in clause 1(2). Let me outline the idea behind the Bill. The licence fee will be available to all broadcasters and it will be paid out in return for public service broadcasting content. It will not be left purely to the BBC, but be open to ITV, Channel 4, Sky and any other broadcaster and to local radio. The licence fee, which many people think is paid directly to the BBC, is, in fact, paid to the Secretary of State, who then dishes it out. I believe that the licence fee should be allotted for a specific purpose—in this case, the provision of public service content broadcasting. That is what my Bill would do."

Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) opposed what he described as "dragging the National Audit into editorial policy" - a defect, in his view, of the Bill, but explained that he had sympathy for its aims -

"Before sitting down, I want to say that I believe very strongly that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough have done a service, because it is very important that the BBC is aware that there is considerable feeling in Parliament that there might be alternatives to the present structure. Is it right that the licence fee, which is paid for by the taxpayer, should just fund entertainment? The taxpayer should fund programmes that are educational and definitely concerned with public sector information, but in the modern world there are so many other broadcasters and possibilities. My hon. Friend is right to make that point.

The BBC has become a vast tree and all other broadcasters are in its shade. Public sector programmes are declining in value and content. We know that independent broadcasters are under enormous pressure. One need only compare the quality of the weather forecasts on the BBC with those on independent channels to know that much more money, resources and expertise go into those on the BBC. Undoubtedly, independent television is under enormous pressure to try to produce high-quality programmes. It would be an entirely positive step if some of the licence fee could be diverted to them. That would aid competition and ensure an explosion of new and interesting programmes, including educational and religious programmes, not only from the BBC but from independent broadcasters.

I hope that my hon. Friend does not think that I am unduly negative, as I am strongly in favour of opening up the entire debate. I do not believe that the BBC’s funding structure should be set in stone. What was appropriate for the 1930s or 1950s may not be appropriate for 2015, 2020 or 2025. It may well be the case in future that the BBC’s entertainment programmes should be funded by subscription, advertisements or other means. The Bill is an important first step in raising the profile of those arguments, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing it and in speaking in support of it."

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) had similar reservations -

"My hon. Friend appears to want to turn the Secretary of State, the National Audit Office or both into some sort of latter-day Lord Chamberlain’s Office, to adjudicate on what is appropriate for public service broadcasting. We could end up with programme makers, uncertain about whether the programme that they wish to put on air will qualify for public service subsidy, going script in hand to the Secretary of State, saying, “Here you are, sir. Read this. Do you think you’ll give us the money for it?” That would put the Secretary of State or the NAO in an invidious position. Neither are equipped for that role and they should not be asked to undertake it.

On the basis that I do not think that we can properly define public service and that the Secretary of State or the NAO should not be responsible for deciding what is aired and what is paid for, I oppose the Bill. I would rather have Lord Patten, who is a big man who can take it on the chin, trying to sort out the BBC, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough examining closely the way in which the BBC spends our money—how much more than other broadcasters it spends on sending journalists and technicians off, for example, to the Olympics or to Libya—than try to interfere in editorial content."

David Nuttall (Bury North), who supported the Bill, cited figures for costs -

"Indeed, it might benefit the House to look at how, in very broad terms, the licence fee was spent in 2009-10 and how that equates to a monthly cost for each household. For example, the cost of the television service—which covers the main BBC channels, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC News, BBC Parliament, the HD service and the red button service—was £2.351 billion. That means that two thirds of the licence fee went on television. The radio service—Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7—took up 17% of the licence fee, at a cost of £604 million. Online services—BBC online, iPlayer and BBC Mobile—cost £199 million, at 6% of the fee. One might think, “Well, what’s left?”, but under the final heading, “Other”, £406 million was spent on, for instance, “digital”, investing in new technology—one might ask what that has to do with public service broadcasting—running costs and collecting the licence fee. To break that down into monthly costs for each household, the television service costs £7.85, radio costs £2.01, online services cost 67p, and “Other”, including collection, costs £1.35. Those are important figures to bear in mind for what I will say later about what I see as the future of broadcasting in this country."

In response to the Bill, Ed Vaizey (Wantage) suggested that it would pain him not to receive a submission to a forthcoming Government Green Paper on media and communications - presumably touching upon the BBC and the licence fee - from both Bone or Chope or both.

"As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State announced in January that there is to be a thorough review of media and communications over the term of this Parliament. We hope that that will lead to a new communications Act, with the aim of ensuring that we have a dynamic communications market that continues to be world-leading. If possible, we would like to deregulate where we can and ensure that we encourage growth and innovation. For the purposes of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and colleagues who support his proposals, there is a great opportunity, because we will be publishing a high-level discussion paper very soon. That will help us to draft a Green Paper, which we hope to complete by the end of the year. That offers an opportunity to my hon. Friend, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, to make a submission setting out their concerns. It was clear from the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, and from a speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch when a similar Bill was introduced two years ago, that their knowledge of the broadcasting sector and their understanding of the many challenges that it faces are among the highest in the House. It would be a matter of personal regret if that knowledge and depth of interest were not reflected in a submission to the discussion paper that could inform the Green Paper."

Indeed, responses to the Green Paper would be so important to the Government, he explained, that it left him unable to support the Bill -

"I summarise by saying that the Government review of media and communications will cover investment in content, including public service content. The review provides an opportunity for all to contribute their views. Given the importance of looking at such matters in the round, it would be unhelpful to address the case for a new definition in isolation through the Bill. On that basis, I am afraid that I cannot commend the Bill to the House."

Two Conservative MPs, Philip Hollobone (Kettering) and Leigh (despite his earlier reservations) supported the Bill.  They were joined by the Labour MP Frank Field (Birkenhead).  Bone and Nuttall were tellers for the Ayes.

Three Conservative MPs, Peter Bottomley (Worthing West), John Randall (Uxbridge), and Jacob Rees-Mogg (North-East Somerset) joined Vaizey in opposing the bill.  Two Government whips, Stephen Crabbe (Preseli Pembrokeshire) and Philip Dunne (Ludlow), were tellers for the Noes.

The Bill was defeated by 16 votes to 3.


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