All 1 Lord Birt contributions to the Media Act 2024

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Wed 28th Feb 2024

Media Bill

Lord Birt Excerpts
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.