BBC Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate

BBC

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Monday 15th July 2019

(12 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 5:57 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to take part in the debate opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who gave an outstanding introduction, as usual. She talked about the “not me, guv” Government, and she is right, because their consistent modus operandi with public services is to slash a public authority’s funding and blame it when it is unable to deliver the service. Alternatively, when the public authority has to put up its prices to compensate for the lack of money from central Government, they will attack it politically for doing so. We have seen that happen with failures of local government services, such as the fire service and the police. The epidemic horror of knife crime is apparently nothing to do with the 20,000 fewer police officers, or the cuts to children’s services. Apparently it is all the fault of the Mayor of London. A similar thing can be seen in the debate about the BBC licence fee. The BBC was presented with huge cuts to its budget and was forced to take the blame when it had to charge the licence fee to over-75s. It is part of a consistent practice by the Government that needs to be exposed and resisted.

[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) talked about some of the services that would be affected were the BBC to have to take on the whole amount. In total that could be £700 million a year. That would be the cost of BBC 2, BBC 4, BBC News, BBC Scotland and BBC Radio 5 Live and, crucially, local radio stations. Given the crisis in local newspapers, the BBC is in some areas often the only real provider of the quality local news that binds communities together. It can do that because of the licence fee.

There is what is known as an ecosystem in broadcaster funding. Each broadcaster in the UK is funded differently. ITV is funded largely through advertising, with some production work. Sky has a subscription and some production work and advertising. It all knits together particularly well. I must say that, if we move away from the current model to one where the BBC or parts of it had to either use subscription or enter into advertising, I am pretty sure not only that existing channels would be unhappy but that it would damage their operations. That is not to mention the question how we take on the influence of the global giants based on the west coast of the United States.

I, too, have a problem with the size of some of the salaries paid to BBC presenters. I have a particular problem with the use of the word “talent” to describe on-air performers and presenters, whether on radio or TV, because it suggests that the whole attraction of a particular broadcast is based on the individual who presents it. Make-up artists, production designers and junior producers are all talented, and the quality of the programming is vested in all of them and not simply in the person who is in front of the microphone or the camera.

Why on earth did the BBC accept this cut to its budget and the enforced taking on of the licence for over-75s? The simple truth, as other hon. Members have already mentioned, is that it was forced to do so. If we speak to senior BBC management, we hear that they were left in no doubt that this was being forced on them. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), who was on the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with me, called it a “drive-by shooting”. A Treasury Minister—I think this was while George Osborne was Chancellor—told the BBC, “This is the way it’s going to be, so make the best of it.” When BBC management said that they were quite happy with the solution, that was not the case—but what else could they say when they had a gun to their head?

There is also another, more sinister reason. I was on the DCMS Committee when Rona Fairhead, the then chair of the BBC Trust, attended a pre-appointment scrutiny session for the position of chair of the new BBC board. Before she appeared before us, we were informed that after her meeting at Downing Street with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, she had a private meeting with him without any civil servants present. That was put to her, and she admitted that it was the case. As it happened, the Committee declined to confirm her appointment, but the situation does give rise to the question why the BBC governors at the time did not resist the idea of the over-75s licence fee being deposited on them. Coincidentally, Rona Fairhead was shortly afterwards appointed to the House of Lords and made a member of the Government. I am not suggesting that those two incidents are linked—

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:02 p.m.

But of course you should be.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard

My hon. Friend suggests that I should be. It does not give off a particularly pleasant smell to have a part of the Government giving out favours to get a policy through. It stinks, and it ought not to be allowed. Even the perception that a deal was done—because that is one of the possible perceptions—ought not to be allowed.

The BBC licence fee, as we have heard, represents so much more than simply a broadcasting service for older people in particular. I simply ask: if we do not provide the service and social isolation continues, what is the cost then of having to look after more people with more advanced dementia? What is the cost of having to provide social services elsewhere for older people whose quality of life is deteriorating? There are hidden costs involved, and we find once again that the BBC licence fee gives huge value for money in a much broader context than that of simply listening to the radio or watching television.

Break in Debate

Hugh Gaffney (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab) Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:11 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, in this important debate for pensioners across the country. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing the debate and the 170,000 people who signed the online petition calling on the Government to protect free TV licences for those aged 75 and over. They join the 600,000 people who signed Age UK’s petition calling for the Government to act on this issue.

There is a real sense of public anger at the injustice of the decision to end free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over, with many saying that they will not pay. I have felt that public anger in my constituency. Many of my constituents cannot understand why the Government refuse to stand up for pensioners. I have spoken to constituents who will be directly affected by the Government’s inaction, coming from the more than 3,000 local households set to lose a free TV licence.

The Government have betrayed my constituents, along with the pensioners of this country. There was a clear promise in the 2017 Conservative party manifesto that free TV licences would be protected until the end of this Parliament, yet the Government chose to outsource the responsibility and the financial burden of free TV licences to the BBC. They have successfully shifted the blame on to the BBC for the decision to end free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over. However, the Government must take responsibility. They made a cynical promise to pensioners that they had no intention of keeping. I have repeatedly spoken out in Parliament to highlight the fact that the Government’s promise to our pensioners now lies in tatters. When the Labour party held an Opposition day debate on this issue, the Government Benches were all but empty. The Government did not dare vote against Labour’s motion, because they know that they have betrayed the trust of pensioners across the country.

When I confronted the Prime Minister on the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, her answer could not have been weaker. She told the BBC to “think again”, but it is the Prime Minister, whose days are numbered, who must think again. She was the architect of the 2017 Conservative manifesto, which contained a clear promise to protect free TV licences for those aged 75 and over. In one of her last acts as Prime Minister, she should live up to the pledge she gave when she first entered Downing Street to tackle the burning injustices in our society. She should protect our pensioners by ensuring that free TV licences for all those aged 75 and over are maintained.

As things stand, from June 2020 free TV licences will be restricted to those aged 75 and over who claim pension credit. The BBC claims that this will ensure that the poorest pensioners are protected, but its own analysis suggests that just 11% of the poorest households would keep their free TV licence if it was linked to pension credit, and that the poorest 10th of over-75s would have to spend more than 2% of their total income on the TV licence.

There are also clearly issues with the take-up of pension credit. As has been mentioned, the DWP’s latest estimates highlight the fact that two out of five people aged 75 and over who should be claiming pension credit have not done so. Independent Age found more than £7 million of pension credit going unclaimed in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill alone. If there is £7 million in my constituency, how much more is out there? However, the Government appear to be doing little to encourage greater take-up of pension credit among those aged 75 and over.

Let us be clear that the decision to restrict free TV licences will increase both poverty and, more importantly, loneliness among our pensioners. One in four over-75s say that the TV is their main source of company, after having brought up their family and then being left alone. I know that. I lost my mother last year, and I know that my dad depends so much on the TV nowadays.

This decision will do nothing to stop the continuing rise of pensioner poverty across the UK. We are often told by the Government that they are on the side of pensioners, yet they still refuse to act to protect pensioners’ interests. It is time for the Government to stop blaming the BBC and start taking responsibility. It is time for them to keep their promise and protect the TV licence for the over-75s.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:16 p.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Dame Cheryl—having recently supported HS2, I am sure.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan (in the Chair) - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:16 p.m.

I think the hon. Gentleman is very much mistaken on my support for HS2. [Laughter.]

Graham Stringer - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:18 p.m.

Right.

David Plowright was one of the great leaders of commercial television. He was the chief executive of Granada Television for many years, where great documentaries and “World in Action” were produced, as well as groundbreaking drama and excellent regional news, and he went on to become the deputy chair of Channel 4. His criteria for the BBC—one of his main competitors—was that it was there to keep the commercial side of television honest. He wanted to support it, and he wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be. It is interesting that, all around this debate, people have to different degrees supported the BBC. Nobody would create it as it is today if we were starting afresh, but there is enormous support, respect and affection for it.

On bias and other aspects of the BBC, my worry is that there is a certain decadence within the organisation, by which I mean a decaying of standards in all sorts of areas of reporting, which, if it continues, might mean that if this debate took place in five or 10 years, there would not be as much support for what is in effect the state broadcaster, supported by a flat-rate tax. I agree partially with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) that there is one obvious reason for that, although there may well be others: the people who run, report and work for the BBC are primarily drawn from London and Oxbridge, and they have a common view of the world that leads to certain conclusions.

Where I probably disagree with my hon. Friend is my guess that that gives them an almost coherent, homogenous view of the EU and what our relationship with the EU should be. Although this is more difficult to substantiate, I nevertheless think that it also means that, privately, they think they are right and that their view of the world is correct, and that the people who I represent—who are, by and large, not as well educated and do not have the same level of income or educational achievement—are probably wrong.

That is never stated publicly, and I have many friends who are BBC executives and reporters and who do their best. I would never question the integrity of individual BBC reporters. They are doing their best, but it is a fact that there will not be many people working in the BBC who are from the poorest parts of the United Kingdom and would give a different view on the matter. I think that is one reason why we see such high salaries. To someone in the organisation from the background that I have described, having a salary of nearly £2 million might not seem as obscene as it does to most of the people I represent. I do not believe that Gary Lineker was a great footballer; I do not believe that he is—whatever it is—20 or 15 times better at his job than Gabby Logan.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:21 p.m.

The point that I want to make is not so much about Gary Lineker; it is just the fact that the BBC operates in a commercial environment. If it does not pay its talent a commercial wage—many of them actually earn less than the commercial wage—it will lose that talent to other organisations, and then people will switch off the BBC and it will lose viewers.

Graham Stringer - Hansard
15 Jul 2019, 6:22 p.m.

That is a reasonable point as far as it goes. The BBC has not only paid very high salaries in a discriminatory way over the last five years; when it was found to be discriminating, it increased those salaries. It is the case that there are places within the BBC that have to compete commercially, but the fact that it has increased the number of people presenting sports programmes surely shows that there is not a shortage. It could get very high-quality people at a lower rate. Let us say that Gary Lineker goes to BT or Sky; I think that the people at the BBC who are earning a lot less are as good. I understand the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), but I do not think that it stands up in that case or many others.

I think that John Humphrys is one of the best interviewers there has been on the BBC. He has dropped his salary, but I do not think that he was ever worth more than £600,000 or that the private sector was going to pay that amount of money for him. I have no idea what Andrew Neil gets paid at the moment, but it is a great pity that another great interviewer is leaving the BBC. I do not know whether that is down to commercial pressure or just because he is a bit cheeky and teases the BBC management, but it is a great pity. He gives politicians all round the clock a pretty tough and torrid time when he interviews them, and that is a great thing for democracy. But I think that, from that narrow base, we do get a distorted view.

Incidentally, I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle that £20 million would not pay the licence fees for the over-75s. I accept that; it is just simple arithmetic. But—it is a big but—£20 million is still quite a lot of money, and one of the aspects of the BBC that I appreciate is the quality of regional radio, which is massively underfunded. In regional radio, £20 million would go a long way. Compared with when I started out in politics, which was a long time ago, what is put out by BBC Radio Manchester now—its political coverage and the rest of its coverage—on less resources is not as comprehensive. The quality of the people doing it is excellent, but there simply are not as many of them and there is not as much. That is because of underfunding.

I want to give three or four examples, if I may, of where I think this cohort of south-eastern, Oxbridge-educated people get it wrong. I will say, and the point has already been made, that any organisation with human beings in it is going to make mistakes. The mistakes themselves are mistakes, but they do indicate a larger problem with the BBC.

The BBC procured and presented on BBC Three, when it was a channel, a series of programmes called “People Like Us”. That was based in the ward that I used to represent as a councillor and that is still in the constituency I represent. Frankly, it was poverty porn. It gave the most distorted view of one of the poorest wards in the country. Depending on how we count these things—it is not a competition that any ward or constituency wants to win—Harpurhey is the poorest or the third poorest ward in the country. Cameras went along and the people making the programme pretended—it was a pretence—that they were following how people in Harpurhey lived. They were not; they were distorting it. They paid girls to fight each other. They opened a pub and created a most peculiar party of transvestites. I have nothing against transvestites, but that kind of situation had never happened in that particular public house, which was being closed for a couple of years. They got a pretend landlord in to talk about how he was very happy for his tenants to take drugs. It was clearly a put-up job. And some of the people who said outrageous things were taken on holiday by the company doing this. It was a shocking and terrible thing, and I do not believe that if people from that kind of background had been part of the BBC, that programme would ever have been made. Fortunately, there was not a second series. The head of BBC Three was good enough to see me and Councillor Karney, who represented the ward. I do not know whether it was down to our lobbying, but there was not a second series.

I want to talk about two other matters. One is bias on the EU. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South made a speech that I half completely agreed with and half completely disagreed with. There is quite a lot of evidence, in terms of the numbers of people interviewed about the European Union, that there are more pro-EU people. In the run-up to the referendum, virtually every business person who was interviewed on the “Today” programme was asked how Brexit was going to damage their business. In fact, it became a standard form of question or statement that “in spite of Brexit”, this benefit or that increase in jobs had happened.

A number of independent research groups have shown the bias in the run-up to the European elections. They have counted the number of people who were pro-EU compared with the number who were anti-EU, and the pros win by about three to one. In fact, one of the senior political journalists said, “We have no need to be balanced in this matter,” which I think is at odds with the BBC’s constitution.

The difference, during the run-up to the referendum campaign, was striking. The BBC did what it does in general elections: it was perfectly well balanced. That was in contrast with what happened afterwards and what happened before the period of the referendum. I think that that is partly because the people who run the BBC in London are essentially all pro-EU and think that there is something peculiar about people who are not.

My background is as a scientist. I believe in the scientific method and I practised for 10 years, running an analytical laboratory, so I am not, in the way some people mean it, a climate sceptic. However, some of the science from the likes of the University of East Anglia and in the leaked emails is a bit dodgy—very dodgy in that case. Some of the policies proposed to deal with climate change are expensive and one needs to be sceptical about the cost of those policies.

Not only is the cohort running the BBC from Oxbridge, but it is happier speaking about the subjunctive than the second law of thermodynamics. They have clear views on what the perception of science and climate change is. I will give an example, which I think is quite extraordinary. I appeared on a programme with Lord Lilley—with whom I disagree with about almost everything—about the Met Office, with Quentin Letts conducting the interview. Lord Lilley has a scientific background. He has a degree from Cambridge in physics. We agreed that climate change is happening and the planet is warming up a bit, but that the response is probably overblown. I said that the Met Office was very good at short-term forecasting, but hopeless at medium and long-term forecasts.

It is now impossible to get a recording of that programme, because it is banned, like the Catholic Church in the 16th century. We are on a banned list, because we agreed that the discussion was unbalanced. On the EU, there is no balance, but on a relatively trivial matter, the scientifically illiterate people at the BBC have decided to ban us. There will be real problems in the future if the BBC does not sort these things out.

I have spoken slightly longer than I intended. Finally, I will speak about the issue of free licences. It is not really worth a great deal of further thought. It is quite obvious that the Government—not the BBC—should be responsible for a benefit such as free television licences for the over-75s. The licence fee, however, is worth further consideration—not next week, but in the near future. I find it strange that on my side of the House there is enthusiasm and support for—I could name many such issues, but I will not—flat-rate taxes, which are regressive. If there is a public good and a public benefit from television, which I think there is, it should be funded by progressive taxation coming out of income tax.

The argument against that often put by BBC executives is that it damages the independence of the BBC. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) knocked that argument on the head on a very specific case. The people running the BBC are part of the informal ruling class in London, and they scratch each other’s backs, so there is not complete independence there. Further, Governments have always set the level of the licence fee, so every five years the Government have a say. I do not see why we should not have progressive rather than regressive taxation for what is undoubtedly a public good.

The BBC has had a lot of support, but it has to look at how it funds its regional organisations and how it stops being a cosmopolitan elite, with all the narrow views that that implies.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan (in the Chair) - Hansard

I remind colleagues that there is a possibility of votes in the main Chamber during our proceedings, in which case I will suspend and we will have to return. This will be the last speech from hon. Members on the Back Benches, after which we will move on to the Front-Bench spokespeople.