Lord Birt debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport during the 2019 Parliament

TV Licence Non-payment: Women

Lord Birt Excerpts
Tuesday 5th March 2024

(3 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Ofcom, not the Government, regulates the provision of news, whatever channel people receive it on. The BBC receives some £3.8 billion in licence fee income; that income allows it to provide its important and impartial news, both at home and around the world.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, this is indeed a troubling and concerning matter. Does the Minister think there is a case for moving the licence fee to a monthly payment, paid by standing order, in line with other broadcast subscriptions? At the moment, that would mean a payment of £13 per month.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The Simple Payment Plan does help people pay the television licence fee at present. As I say, we are looking at all the ways in which the BBC might receive its funding in the future, taking into account the declining number of people paying for a licence, but looking at all options to make sure that it has the revenue it needs to continue doing the work for which it is much admired.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, I will start by saying that I think the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, are absolutely unanswerable. This Bill includes some welcome measures in support of our public service broadcasters, particularly on prominence, but I intend today to identify the issues that the Bill should address but does not.

One hundred years ago, both main parties had the wisdom, in contrast to their US counterparts, to create a single, publicly funded public service broadcaster, the BBC. In the 1920s, a Conservative Government even had the wisdom to deny Winston Churchill his wish to take over the BBC during the General Strike, thus cementing its independence ever since. When ITV was launched in 1955, with Churchill now Prime Minister, it was of course commercially funded, but very heavily regulated, with substantial public service obligations. Ten years later, I joined the creative hothouse of Granada TV as a graduate trainee, and a few years later, LWT.

In subsequent decades, ITV would give the BBC a real run for its money: in current affairs, the investigative “World in Action” and “This Week”, both in peak time; an authentic northern voice with “Coronation Street”; “Brideshead Revisited”; the anthropological masterpiece “Disappearing World”; “Spitting Image”; and the first ever recording in the Cavern of an unknown Liverpool group. One of the greatest of ITV’s achievements—indeed of all global culture—was Melvyn Bragg’s painstaking chronicle, over three decades, of the world’s most renowned artists: Bergman, Sondheim, McCartney, Satyajit Ray, Walton, Lean, Callas, and many more.

ITV spent as much money on its local programmes as it did on its network. At LWT, the “London Programme” employed a young Peter Mandelson before his change of career, and was as well resourced as a network current affairs programme, famously rooting out corruption in the Met. ITV made Britain’s first programmes for ethnic minorities, with two young novice producers: one Trevor Phillips, the other Samir Shah. Whatever happened to them? ITV raised the BBC’s game too, forcing the somewhat highbrow broadcaster of the 1950s to embrace and brilliantly develop popular entertainment and drama programmes of quality: “Morecambe and Wise”, “The Two Ronnies” and “All Creatures Great and Small”.

Channel 4 was launched in 1982, when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. Again, it was a deeply wise decision by government not to have an ITV2, pressed at the time, but rather, another publicly owned public service broadcaster, mandated to innovate and break the mould. And it did: “Gogglebox”, “Big Brother”, “Saturday Live”, “Dispatches”.

Of course, we had and have the contemporary BBC itself: the BBC of John Ware’s revelatory “Panorama” last week on Hamas; the BBC of unsurpassed coverage of the Coronation; the BBC of “Dad’s Army”, “Absolutely Fabulous”, “The Office”, “Fawlty Towers”, and “Fleabag”; the BBC of “Gardeners’ World” and “Countryfile”; of “Horizon”; of the Proms and “The Archers”; of the whole life’s work of David Attenborough.

No other country in the world comes even close to matching the dazzling success of British public service broadcasting. Though a BBC executive at the time, I attended—to criticism—Sky’s opening night in 1990. I unequivocally welcome the streamers for the explosion of riches they bring, but they are an expansion of choice and are not, and never will be, a substitute for what 100 years of UK PSB has brought us—for the PSBs, unlike the streamers, are rooted in British culture, identity, creativity, expression, experience and values.

It is horrific to apprehend that these very same PSBs are facing an existential threat. ITV has seen its share price fall by almost 80% since 2015, and—forgive me—is a shadow of its former self. Channel 4’s revenues fell by 20% in real terms in the decade following 2010. Since the pandemic, it has seen an uplift, but it is currently signalling stormy seas ahead.

The BBC is a prime victim of the culture wars, the governing party over the past 14 years wholly lacking the wisdom of its predecessors. From 2007 to 2022, BBC licence revenues declined by around 27% in real terms, yet in the same period the BBC has been handed further responsibilities which were previously funded by government. In 2014, it was required to fund most of the World Service from the licence fee; from 2018, some over-75s licences; and, since 2022, the whole cost of S4C. In all, these cuts and obligations add up to a 33% drop in real terms of the funding for core BBC programming. Unavoidably, the BBC is pulling back in every area of programming, and for me that is a personal tragedy.

Yet, in spite of these reverses, 96% of the population still consumes the BBC every month. On average, UK adults consume BBC services for around 17 hours per week, more than Netflix, Disney and Prime combined. Moreover, licence payers do so for a bargain £13 per month versus the Netflix subscription of £18 per month and the mighty £105 paid by a football fanatic such as me who wants to be able to watch any Premier League match across the three services that now carry Premier League games live. My football obsession now costs me six times as much as I pay each month to consume the BBC.

In conclusion, I look not just to the Minister, who is young and, I think, probably redeemable, but to other Front Benches and to all sides of this House, and I issue a challenge: whatever form a new Government take after our imminent general election, one of our national priorities simply must be to identify how we can ride to the rescue of one of our most precious and hard-won achievements of the past 100 years: British public service broadcasting.

BBC: Funding

Lord Birt Excerpts
Wednesday 17th January 2024

(5 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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That is fitting for a Question begun by the noble Lord, Lord Morse. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is right. So many of the world’s democracies go to the polls this year, and this is an issue which will face broadcasters, but the BBC particularly, both at home and through the World Service, does a brilliant job at making sure that the claims of politicians—wherever they are in the world, whatever party they come from—are rightly scrutinised and that people are informed so that they can make decisions about the societies and countries in which they live.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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It is right against the backdrop of an ever-more complex digital universe to review the funding model for the BBC, as the Government intend. However, will one or more of the panel of experts to be appointed to advise the Government be an expert in the evolution of the BBC, with an understanding that its emergence as one of the most renowned institutions in the whole world, noted for its values, its creativity, and its devotion to public purposes, is inextricably bound up in the fact that for 100 years it has been publicly funded?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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We will ensure that the expert panel helps to inform our thinking in the round, looking at both the things that have made the BBC so successful over the last century and the challenges ahead. We have also already been consulting the BBC itself as part of the process.

BBC: Royal Charter

Lord Birt Excerpts
Monday 15th January 2024

(5 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Although it is up to the BBC to decide how to deliver its services, the Government are clear that it must make sure that it continues to deliver its remit as set out in the royal charter and the agreement. The Government expect Ofcom, as the BBC’s regulator, to ensure that the BBC is held to account in the way it does so. We recognise the strength of feeling on the importance of news coverage, both nationally and locally. We have raised the concerns expressed in your Lordships’ House and another place about cuts to local news reporting services, but it is up to the BBC to decide how it delivers these services with the money that it gets.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, my final act in departing the BBC in 2000 was to negotiate a licence fee settlement for seven years at RPI plus 1.5%. That was with a Prime Minister who was crystal clear—to repeat a phrase from earlier—that he wanted to see a well-funded BBC in a rapidly expanding new digital universe. A quarter of a century later, we find the BBC with its finances brutalised and forced to pull back in every area of programming. Is it not time to restore the scope and scale of our most important national cultural institution?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The BBC is indeed a beacon that shines brightly around the world, reflecting British values and doing great credit to us as a nation. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the work that he did at the corporation. However, since he left, we have seen the number of people paying the licence fee falling. It has fallen by 1.7 million people over the last five years. Therefore, as well as ensuring that there is a fair settlement that gives the BBC the money that it needs and is fair to the people who pay the licence fee, we are looking at the funding model to ensure that the BBC is able to continue to get the income and to shine brightly as a beacon in an increasingly competitive media landscape.

BBC Funding

Lord Birt Excerpts
Tuesday 12th December 2023

(6 months ago)

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Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, I quote the current Secretary of State: the BBC

“needs to live in the real world”,

and

“We can’t keep putting prices up for the licence fee”.


What is actually happening in the real world? In the last three years, while the licence fee has been frozen, the price of Netflix has risen by 50%, Disney+ by 83%, Apple TV by 40%, and spend on the NHS, excluding Covid costs, has risen in the same period by around 12%. In the period 2010-20, the BBC had to cut spending by 30%. After two years flat, there is a further drop in real terms of something like 12%. Against that backdrop, frankly, this new settlement will be but a drop in the ocean.

It is recognised the world over that the century-old BBC is one of the greatest creations of our times. No other country in the world has so effectively captured its national experience, cultural expression and national dialogue, viz: the exquisite “Planet Earth”, “Horizon”, “Dad’s Army”, “Fleabag”, “Little Dorrit”, “Happy Valley”, “Gardeners’ Question Time”, and the Proms— I could go on and on. The BBC still makes wonderful programmes, but—

Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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My Lords, the Companion is very clear that, in the Back-Bench portion of Questions on a Statement, noble Lords are encouraged to make their point and ask a question.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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I hope noble Lords will allow me to come to a conclusion. I can see all too clearly how much the BBC has diminished in every area of programming since my time as director-general. Last year, the previous Secretary of State tweeted:

“It’s over for the BBC as they know it”.


Let us name the game; the BBC is a victim of the culture wars and, as a result, we are witnessing the long, slow, painful, diminution of this great institution. Will this continue?

BBC: Appointment and Resignation of Chair

Lord Birt Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd May 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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It is right that an independent process was commissioned and allowed the time to run. Mr Sharp himself has said that he regrets the impact this has had on the corporation he has faithfully served. Mr Heppinstall’s report says:

“Overall, DCMS officials conducted a good and thorough process”.


There are some helpful lessons for all in his investigation, which we will look at and take forward as appropriate.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a former director-general of the BBC. This episode will not damage the BBC—there, I agree with the Minister. It has been around for 100 years, and it is a wonderful institution. It will quickly ride through this sorry affair. The damage that has been done is to the Government’s own process for making public appointments. The Heppinstall report is a truly shocking read. Will the Government now overhaul the process for making public appointments?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I agree with the first part of what the noble Lord says. The news today about the BBC’s work launching the emergency radio service in Sudan is another testament to the fantastic work it does not just in this country but around the world. As I have said, Mr Heppinstall’s report concluded that:

“Overall, DCMS officials conducted a good and thorough process”.


There are some lessons in his report. We will carefully consider its findings and respond in due course.

Football: Illegal Entry to Matches

Lord Birt Excerpts
Wednesday 1st February 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The noble Baroness is right that there is action for everybody throughout football to ensure that people can enjoy the game safely. We should not overstate it; the vast majority of people who go to matches do so in a law-abiding way and help people do that. There is a minority of people who want to spoil that. As I have said, we have taken action to toughen football banning orders. The football authorities themselves have taken action, with the FA, the Premier League and the English Football League announcing tougher sanctions, including automatic reporting to the police of anyone participating in anti-social or criminal behaviour. On the fan-led review commissioned by my honourable friend Tracey Crouch, we will be coming forward in the coming weeks with our response.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, it was an absolute miracle that there was no major loss of life at last year’s Champions League final at the Stade de France. It was a terrifying experience for many Liverpool fans who attended, of whom I was one. Four English teams have now reached the last 16 in this year’s Champions League, so one or more may very well reach the final. It is a matter of regret that UEFA’s own inquiry into last year’s events has yet to report. None the less, will the Minister undertake to approach UEFA to seek reassurance that all the many glaring operational failures seen in Paris will not be repeated at this year’s final in Istanbul?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, who has provided some insights from his own experience of attending that match. We were all appalled to see the terrifying and potentially dangerous scenes that occurred there. The French Senate published its report on the final, which rejected the initial response from French Ministers to blame Liverpool FC fans. UEFA’s inquiry is ongoing, but a full report is due to be published soon. We are in close contact, at ministerial and official levels, with both the French Government and UEFA to ensure that their investigations align with experience and point to future matches, as the noble Lord suggested.

Channel 4

Lord Birt Excerpts
Wednesday 11th January 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, in answer to a Parliamentary Question, the Government set out that, in the last financial year, we spent £600,000 on plans for privatisation.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, I unequivocally welcome this decision and recognise that it took some political courage to make it. In effect, the Government are again supporting public service broadcasting. I express a hope that the same attitudes and considerations that brought this sharp reversal will apply when they consider the future of the BBC over the next few years.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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Without wanting to interrupt the harmony that has broken out at the start of the new year, the Government have always had the best interests of the public service broadcasters, including Channel 4, at heart when looking at that issue. As we have noted, the media landscape is rapidly changing. Unlike other public service broadcasters, Channel 4 has limited ability to diversify its revenue or to raise money through borrowing or equity capital. That is why we have looked at a range of options and why we have been very clear that doing nothing is not an option.

Champions League Final

Lord Birt Excerpts
Monday 6th June 2022

(2 years ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The noble Lord makes an important point. In international fixtures, it is important that lessons are learned across jurisdictions so that scenes such as this cannot be repeated. The French Government, who are hosting the Rugby World Cup and the 2024 Olympics in Paris, will want to make sure that they have learned the lessons for those important sporting events. The Home Office will be working with its counterparts, in line with existing protocols of co-operation, to ensure that any appropriate evidence is gathered to contribute to the review, and has undertaken to look at many aspects of the event beyond the policing response.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, I am a Liverpool supporter and I attended this shamefully managed event. The inquiry announced by UEFA needs to explore quite a number of things: first, the manifest limitations of the design and management of the Stade de France; secondly, the prior planning and operational response of the French police; and, thirdly, the quality of oversight of UEFA itself. Will the Minister endeavour to ensure that the inquiry has the power, capability and capacity to do all those things?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The inquiry is for UEFA, and I am confident that UEFA is committed to a thorough review. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his first-hand observations, which I am sure will have been heard, but I shall gladly pick that up with him after this to ensure that they can be fed to UEFA so that the lessons can be properly learned.

Football Governance

Lord Birt Excerpts
Tuesday 22nd March 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

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Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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The noble Lord makes the very pertinent point that football clubs are rooted in their communities and are community assets. That is why we are very glad that the review by Tracey Crouch was fan-led. We are very grateful to all those who took part in it; we will set out our response in full having given it the thorough consideration it deserves.

Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
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My Lords, I am a Liverpool, not a Chelsea, fan. We all support sanctions designed to bring an end to Russia’s acts of sheer evil in Ukraine, but it is surely not right that Chelsea’s fans, players and operational managers should be directly affected by sanction measures while they await new owners. Will the Minister urgently review and remove these purely sporting constraints?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Portrait Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
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My Lords, given the significant impact that sanctions would have on Chelsea Football Club and their potential knock-on effects, Her Majesty’s Treasury issued a licence which authorises a number of football-related activities to continue at Chelsea, including permissions for the club to continue playing matches and other football-related activity, which will in turn protect the Premier League, the wider football pyramid, the loyal fans and other clubs. The licence allows only certain explicitly named actions, to ensure that the designated individual cannot circumvent UK sanctions. However, we are meeting daily with the club and football authorities to discuss further amendments to the licence should they be necessary.