Last week in parliament I challenged John Wittingdale, the Culture minister, over his plans for the BBC. The government have placed the BBC under sustained attack since the day they took office. For some reason which I honestly struggle to understand, many Tories feel that the BBC is an aberration that negatively distorts the market for media.
Well, in truth it does distort the market, but wholly and demonstrably for the better.
Like any other of our public services, the BBC exists to serve us and no-one else and that’s how it should be. The fact that its news coverage upsets the left and the right and every single government at some point is proof that it broadly gets it right!
In the run-up to last week’s announcement on the BBC there were loads of horrific leaks about what would be announced. This was simply so that on the day the real announcements would not seem so bad. I hate this way of doing business as it damages trust in politics. There are two parts of the government’s plans that really worry me:
Firstly, the government will scrap the BBC Trust which governs the corporation and replace it with a board of directors similar to that of a big company or public sector body. I think this is a good idea. But what is deeply worrying is that the government will directly appoint half of the directors. Can you imagine if one of the countries arriving at the recent anti-corruption conference said that they were going to directly appoint half the board of a major corporation? Britain would rightly say that it’s government interference, and they would be right. It is. BBC independence is crucial to its success and to its ability to serve us all.
Secondly, the government is to impose a ‘distinctiveness’ test on BBC output. This is to stop the BBC from competing directly with other programme makers. Bizarrely for the Tories, who tell us they believe in competition, they see the BBC’s ratings success as a problem to be tackled rather than a success to be celebrated.
Brighton and Hove is a hub for the creative industries. I know many of these companies and indeed I helped found one myself. So I know that you can never know for certain where innovation will come from. You can never predict what will spark the imagination of a nation and become a hit. But now the government doesn’t want the BBC to be popular, it wants it to be ‘different’. This kind of meddling is a total disgrace and will damage the BBC output we have come to love.
It is you and I who pay the licence fee. The BBC exists to serve us all. We do not pay the licence fee so that ministers from any party can decide what programmes they think we deserve to watch, but so the independent and creative experts can produce, innovate, inform, and entertain us.
I promise that I will fight these points in the Commons at every opportunity as the legislation is introduced in the coming months.
I also raised in the Commons that we want to maintain investment in local radio and regional TV news and I got assurances that it would be maintained. I will be making sure they keep good on this promise. All the best, Peter