Don Foster MP


Don Foster in Parliament - "The BBC must rethink cuts to local radio"

December 2, 2023 by admin in Don in Parliament, News

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting such an important subject for debate and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on introducing the debate with his usual panache. Bearing in mind his current attire, I was slightly taken aback by his attack on pinstriped mandarins. Other than that, I agree with a great deal of what he said.

The motion says that the BBC is

“the most respected public service broadcaster in the world.”

From the contributions that we have heard already, it is clear that it is the best public service broadcaster in the world. It is the best because of the high quality of its output on television, radio and online. Its news is both impartial and highly trusted, which is reflected in the fact that it produces only 27% of television news, yet secures 72% of all news viewing.

Bill Esterson: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about television. The same is true of radio, and local radio in particular. BBC Radio Merseyside and other regional radio programmes achieve high listening figures among the over-65s. The loss of such a service will be a blow to those people. Is it not true that the core of the BBC’s business is its regional news service and it should rethink its decision?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I have already said that interventions need to be brief. Brief means short and not a speech.

Mr Foster: Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that I will discuss local radio a little later in my speech. The BBC provides a significant training function for many parts of broadcasting-not just for the BBC. One of the things that has not been mentioned is the vital role that local radio provides as the training ground for many of the people who go on to be national news presenters or who get involved in national news production. The intangibles of the BBC are many and varied. It is, for example, one of the best technological innovators. We have seen that with the fantastic success of the iPlayer, which, I think, will be replicated when we have the launch of YouView some time next year.

The BBC also makes a huge contribution to the creative industries in this country. We are well aware not only of its technological and training achievements but of the way in which it provides support for fantastic orchestras and for the Proms. It will make a huge contribution to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The BBC, in the many ways in which it operates, is critical to this country. We have already seen a number of cuts to its service. Under the previous Government, huge cuts were required. Indeed, it has already had to find savings of about £1 billion since 1998. That has included reductions in senior management and in salaries and that could go still further.

I was delighted that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to the crucial role that the National Audit Office is now playing in scrutinising the accounts of the BBC. I was very pleased indeed when that role was introduced by the coalition Government.

Before I come on to the cuts, I want to address one other matter that worries me-and this is a criticism of the Government. At a time when the BBC has to deal with these significant problems, some of its attention will be diverted by the Leveson inquiry. It was wrong for the remit of that inquiry to be widened to include broadcasting when there are so many other important issues that need to be addressed.

It is absolutely right that the BBC cannot be immune from the cuts that are facing the public sector at the current time. Lord Patten, the new chairman of the BBC Trust, was right to say that it should be possible to run an outstanding broadcaster on £3.5 billion a year. While the hon. Member for Great Grimsby was castigating the Secretary of State earlier on in his contribution, he should have been aware that the size of the cuts imposed on the BBC could have been considerably higher had the Chancellor required the BBC to fund the free licence fee for the over-75s. Some credit must go to the Secretary of State for his role in ensuring that the cuts were not as great as they could have been. Nevertheless, there are serious cuts facing the organisation and additional responsibilities that it must take on. It is not surprising, therefore, that the director-general has said that the BBC simply cannot take on further responsibilities if there are further cuts coming down the track.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The work that the BBC has done over 30 or 40 years of violence in Northern Ireland is a credit to public broadcasting, but would the BBC not do itself more good if it were more transparent and, for instance, revealed exactly how much each presenter and employee gets? The public have a right to know.

Mr Foster: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the BBC has already made great strides in making public that information, but with some individuals there will be issues of commercial confidentiality and contractual relations. It is difficult but the BBC has made progress, and I hope that if we enable the National Audit Office to consider these issues, more information will be forthcoming.

As I said, these are deeply challenging issues, and they include the increased responsibilities of the BBC. Unlike the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, I am pleased that the World Service will come within the wider remit of the operation of the BBC. That will be to the benefit of the excellent World Service, which reaches 165 million people around the globe every week. I recently visited the Arabic and Persian services, which are doing fantastic work and whose contribution during the Arab spring has been immeasurable. We should be praising their work. However, bringing the World Service and the BBC together will bring real benefits. I am pleased that Members on both sides of the House raised concerns about the level of cuts to the World Service-we should all be concerned about that-but I am pleased that additional funding has been found, and I hope that we can find more to ensure that it can continue its excellent work.

I am pleased that, with the management arrangements for taking on some of the responsibility for S4C having been sorted out, the channel now has a secure future, which means that it can continue to provide an excellent service through its Welsh-language service not only to the people of Wales but to the growing diaspora of Welsh people throughout the rest of the country.

I am perfectly sanguine about the need for the BBC to make a contribution towards the roll-out of high-speed broadband. After all, it is part of the BBC’s remit that it delivers services and helps to develop different platforms. It is right, therefore, that it is involved in high-speed broadband roll-out, although I would say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State-I have said this to him several times-that one contribution that the BBC could make but is not allowed to make as much as it would like is on demand management to help people to understand the benefits of high-speed broadband and to provide training activities.

I am lucky enough to be the chairman of the all-party group on the BBC, and recently we held a meeting at which Lord Patten and the director-general, Mark Thompson, came before the group to answer questions about its Delivering Quality First plan. It will not surprise Members that more than 50% of questions asked were about local radio and expressed concern about the cuts. I want to make it clear that I join all Members who urge the BBC to think again about the cuts. They are seriously damaging. As a proportion of radio stations’ budgets, the cuts might seem small but, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, given that a high percentage of their budgets will go on fixed costs, the impact on many local radio stations’ cash budgets-used on programmes and to pay presenters-will be significant
and do great damage.

I have already mentioned the training issue. I simply do not understand why something as important to so many of our constituents as local radio is under attack like this. It is worth remembering that about 20% of people listen only to local radio. It is a lifeline for such people, particularly older people and the disabled. I hope that the BBC will reconsider that matter, just as I hope that it will look again at regional television. After all, regional television provides journalists with particular insights into, and an understanding of, what is happening in a locality that cannot be reflected by people stuck in Salford, Cardiff, Bristol or wherever.

I hope very much that the BBC will consider one other issue that has not been raised so far today but which has been raised by members of the all-party group: the BBC’s coverage of European issues. It is concerning, for instance, that the BBC has not yet implemented the 2005 Wilson report, which recommended additional training to journalists about the operation of the European Union. Bearing in mind how important the EU is to this country, it is worrying that the only major programme covering European issues, “The Record Europe”, might be axed.

There is one area where the Government could quickly do something to assist the BBC. I find this matter bizarre. In the vast majority of the world, if someone were running a satellite or cable programme, they would be begging to have on their platform the programmes that the BBC produces. They would be paying it to make that contribution. The Government need urgently to address what are called in the jargon “retransmission fees”. If Virgin does not charge, other than for the costs of the operation, to have BBC programmes as part of its popular package, I must question whether it is now appropriate for Sky to receive so much money from the BBC. I urge the Government to look at that.

I end where I began. Notwithstanding the forthcoming cuts, I am confident that the BBC, despite all the changes taking place, will continue to be not only, as the motion states, the most respected public service broadcaster in the world but the best public service broadcaster in the world.