The BBC is envied and admired, and has a huge reputation across the world

September 07, 2017



Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage): At times this afternoon, the debate has felt like a reunion of former BBC employees. There have been certain complaints about BBC journalism, and at one point I thought we were going to hear the accusation that it was responsible for turning off the sound system and stopping our comments being broadcast to the nation—or the dozens of people following us on the BBC Parliament channel as we speak. Perhaps it is not dozens of people.

As many hon. Members have said, transparency is extremely important. Since I know Mr Campbell is digging deep on this issue, I should reveal my interest in the matter, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have received payments over the last year or so for my work as a musician from the TV channel Dave, which is owned by UKTV, which in turn is 50% owned by the BBC as part of its attempts to raise money from sources other than the licence fee, which of course it does in considerably greater amounts than it originally did. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He raised a lot of issues that I know he feels strongly about in relation to BBC journalism, and in particular the coverage of the issue that, as he pointed out, brought down the Administration in Northern Ireland, which we all hope will be up and running again soon. He raised points about transparency and salary, declarations of interest and other matters, including the vague answers he got to his questions from the BBC.

I will go on to make some positive remarks about the BBC as well, but I think it is better to give clear answers to Members of Parliament—they should be directed to the management, by the way—rather than the sort of vague answers that the Government routinely give to parliamentary questions. I would much rather the BBC answered questions directly, because a lot of the answers the hon. Gentleman gave from the BBC sounded like the sorts of answers I get when I table parliamentary questions. I do not know whether other hon. Members have had that experience when tabling questions to the Government, but I certainly have, and it necessitates further questions, freedom of information inquiries and so on.

Mims Davies spoke very well, as always, and said that—rather like the Government—the BBC’s left hand sometimes did not know what the right hand was doing. She rightly explained the importance of the BBC ensuring pay equality. One thing that came out in the recent publication of BBC staff’s salaries was the issue of gender inequality, and indeed other forms of inequality. It is absolutely right that that information should be published and made transparent, and that the BBC should take urgent steps to address the issue—as should other broadcasters that are not subject to freedom of information requests, and do not have to make an annual report to Parliament in the way that the BBC does. All those in the private sector should also be looking to ensure gender equality, and other forms of equality, when it comes to pay and personnel.

I have known my hon. Friend John Grogan for 37 years, and he has been top talent himself all that time. He made a good point about the exposure that high-profile BBC presenters get, and the fact that that has huge value, beyond the salary that they are paid. I completely agree. He also rightly pointed out the difficult job that journalists have had to do in Northern Ireland, and that we should remember that at all times.

Rebecca Pow told us that she could not reveal her age to us, despite this being a debate about transparency. I intervened on her, because we should be careful about the language we use when we talk about Government “holding to account” the BBC. It is worth reminding ourselves that the BBC is an independent organisation, established by royal charter. If we think for a moment, it is vital that it is not ultimately the Government’s role to hold the BBC to account for its journalism and impartiality, for example, because the Government are extremely partial themselves.

It is a dangerous thing in those countries where the state broadcaster is in effect controlled by the Government. We know the implications of that in countries such as Russia. We want a publicly funded, transparent BBC that is accountable. The proper ways for it to be accountable are: to us as politicians via Parliament and the Select Committee, which is ably chaired by a member of the hon. Lady’s party and has a number of my hon. Friends as members; and through, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley pointed out, an independent regulator, whose job is to make sure that the BBC fulfils its role under the charter, which is negotiated and in partnership with Government, and sets out that broad scope. That is the point I was making: it is a fundamental principle that we should not lose sight of.

Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane: Perhaps I did not express it well, but my point was that clearly that system was not working well enough, hence the Government had to step in to require more transparency, which is now having an effect.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage): We do not have time to rehearse exactly what happened and how all this came about, but I wanted to make that point with force.

Patricia Gibson said something that caused me concern; it was about whether the BBC’s reporting was perceived to be biased. She said—I think I quote her accurately; I am sure she will tell me if I do not—that it does not really matter whether it is true that the BBC’s reporting is fair and unbiased; all that matters is the perception. In other words, if she is saying that it is not about fake news but false perception, that is fine, but she seemed to imply that the perception is right, and that the BBC does not report impartially on politics in Scotland.

Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer affairs): For clarification, my point is that it is a problem if the BBC’s paying customers do not have any faith in the way that it reflects their reality.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage): Of course, the hon. Lady provided no evidence that that was a problem.

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage): Of course, the hon. Lady provided no evidence that that was a problem.

Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer affairs): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage): I do not have time to give way. Surveys of the public perception of BBC impartiality over time suggest the exact opposite. It is important that we stand up to the Donald Trump-like approach to media when it comes to the reporting of the news.

My hon. Friend Justin Madders made some fair and responsible points about the importance of transparency and accountability. Time is short, and there is so much more that one could say; I am sure that the Minister will say some of it. On this occasion, we might even agree on a few things relating to the BBC, much though it would pain him to admit it.

I make a general point about the BBC. We all have our criticisms of it, and we have all been victims of its vigorous journalism from time to time. It once named me on “Panorama” for accepting hospitality at an event that it had invited me to. When I pointed out to the BBC that its right hand literally did not know what its left hand was doing, I felt the pain that other hon. Members have in being taken to task in their role from time to time.

The BBC will make mistakes, but it is important that we remember that it is still genuinely envied and admired, and has a huge reputation across the world. In the words of Joni Mitchell, from “Big Yellow Taxi”:

“you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

In our quite appropriate debate about the transparency that is absolutely necessary for the BBC and the accountability it should have as a publicly funded organisation, let us not lose sight of the fact that it is an extraordinary British institution.