Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Government must ensure BBC remains strong and independent - 01/1

In a speech in a House of Commons debate on BBC cuts today I said:




Mr Speaker, can I thank members who have tabled this motion and the backbench committee for choosing BBC cuts as the subject of today’s debate.




Debates in this House always reflect the huge importance of the BBC to this country




And the importance of the BBC to Britain today is hard to overstate




The point about the BBC is its unparalleled breadth, its depth, its reach and its appeal




It is – along with the NHS – one of the things about Britain which is most trusted and most valued.




It is a source of national pride - for its quality and reach internationally.




Whether it’s sport, drama or just Saturday night family viewing - the BBC is an integral part of life in this country.




The truth is we could have had a whole debate just on the BBC’s children’s programmes, or just on the World service, or on BBC news, or about the BBC’s sports coverage or on the importance of the Proms and great BBC orchestras to music in this country.




But I want to take the opportunity to address some points to the Secretary of State about his responsibility for the BBC.




His responsibility is to ensure the BBC remains strong and independent




If he wants a strong BBC, that means that he – like we did - will sometimes need to stand up for the BBC against the commercial sector.




Of course it is important that we have a dynamic commercial sector but it is good that when we were in government, the BBC got more channels on radio and TV, that they developed major online services, that they expanded into digital.




But, not surprisingly, this attracted opposition from the commercial sector - pressure which we withstood.




I hope he will stand up for the BBC’s strength, independence and future development and resist unwarranted pressure from the commercial sector and when and, if he does that, he will have our full backing.




And when it comes to fighting the BBC’s corner isn’t it bizarre that it is the BBC that has to pay Sky to carry their channels rather than the other way round? In the next five years the BBC will pay 50 million pounds in satellite access fees – more than all the costs the BBC is planning to take out from local radio and BBC four combined.  That cannot be right.




As well as standing up for the BBC against commercial pressure, he’ll need to stand up for the BBC against some on his own side.




The Leveson Inquiry and Ofcom are both looking at media plurality.




The dominance of the Murdoch empire – which was so much the root of the wrongdoing which is now being exposed – would have been even more dangerous without the BBC. 




Now, I don’t think we will see James Murdoch repeating his attacks on the BBC in the immediate future – but some who support the anti-BBC stance Murdoch set out in his 2009 Edinburgh lecture will see the Leveson proceedings and the Ofcom review as an opportunity to re-launch their attacks on the BBC. That view still lurks amongst some in his party and on his backbenches.




So if he wants a strong BBC he will also need to stand up to some on his own side  strongly and publicly– and when he does he’ll have our strong support.




He needs to stand up for the independence of the BBC.  At the heart of the issues to do with independence of the BBC is the question of the licence fee.




And that is why there has been so much concern about the way the deal was done on the licence fee in October last year.




Having appeared to have failed to successfully fight his department’s corner with the Treasury and accepted cuts that were too deep, the Secretary of State then, in a rushed deal behind closed doors, imposed on the BBC major new financial responsibilities to pay for from within the funds from the licence fee – like the cost of the World Service.




Of course, like all organisations, the BBC should be efficient.  But the agreement on the licence fee should be about the settlement between the British public and the BBC.  It should not be, or be seen to be, an opportunity for government intervention in the BBC. 




That is why there should always be an open process, based on evidence and involving consultation – particularly with the public who pay the licence fee and receives the service.




But that is not what happened.




The licence fee stands till 2017 – after the next election – but I am asking the Secretary of State to acknowledge now that the way it was done was wrong and to protect the BBC’s independence it should never happen like that again. 




With a frozen licence fee, new financial responsibilities and now the increase in inflation – forecast up from 1.6% to 4.5% - the BBC is having to cut back at least 16%.




The BBC faces invidious choices and hard decisions which cannot but affect services, jobs and all the sectors for which the BBC is the creative heart.  




The cuts to local radio and regional TV have prompted particular concern.




BBC radio gives a sense of place in what are sometimes fragmented communities.  It is about local identity. It reports local sport, and events as well as local news.  Local and regional TV offers a ladder of opportunity into the media for people outside London and the outcry against the cuts is heartfelt and genuine – no fewer than 45 Hon members spoke in last month’s Westminster hall debate.  




The BBC Trust should respond to this and review their proposals.  I know that the BBC’s room for manoeuvre is tight but, like others in the House today – I urge them to think again.




The BBC must constantly innovate, modernize and blaze a trail. And I know that they do that.  But sometimes they slip back.  So, before I conclude my remarks can I take the opportunity to suggest one thing to the BBC - and it’s something that would cost them nothing – they should ensure that they add some women to the shortlist for this year’s BBC sports personality of the year. 




Finally, can I ask the Secretary of State to join with me in condemning the totally outrageous remarks of BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson on live TV yesterday when he said striking public sector employees should be executed in front of their families?




The BBC has apologised for his remarks,  does the Secretary of State agree with me that Jeremy Clarkson should do the same?




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