Friday, 12 November 2010

Defending the Future Funding of the BBC

This week I spoke out in defence the BBC World Service in Parliament and raised concerns over the future funding of the service following the Coalition Government's Comprehensive Spending Review.

The BBC is a fantastic and unique institution and we must do everything possible to preserve the quality of programming and editorial independence which has made it the envy of the world.

Below is a transcript of my addition to the debate in Parliament:
Graham Jones (Haslingden and Hyndburn) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing this vital debate. We all recognise the role of the BBC in the world. The then shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), said that the World service is an independent

"credible voice in parts of the world where the only other messages blend threats and propaganda".

That is quite true. I echo those words and support the World Service, which is a vital service.

The changes being made following the comprehensive spending review raise serious concerns about the future of the BBC World Service and about the BBC's ability to continue providing a public broadcast service that is informative and represents value for money. Transferring budgetary responsibility from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Treasury to the BBC opens the door to editorial cuts. There has been concern recently that the BBC World Service could be forced to pull out of certain countries, which would be a tragedy given the turbulence in Burma and Iran. I know that the BBC has reinstated its World Service in those areas, but we do not want future cuts to compromise Britain's interests.

I recognise that the BBC, as a publicly funded body, is obliged to consider its expenditure and whether savings can be made, but that cannot be at the expense of a public service that is valuable at home and abroad. The BBC World Service is one of Britain's most effective and vital assets and we should protect and promote it. We should not reduce our investment in international broadcasting. The National Union of Journalists has said it will fight any proposed cuts, adding that the BBC World Service is a "clear success story". The cuts represent a threat that we can ill afford to that vital service and to jobs. We have to think of the BBC as a world employer because it does not operate only in the UK.

I am a passionate defender of the organisation and I believe not only in retaining the licence fee but in extending the BBC as a British institution. I have experienced television in many countries, most notably in the USA where freedom and open markets have resulted in massively dumbed-down television and a race to the bottom, with programmes between adverts. The quality of BBC broadcasting provides a high water mark for others to match and raises the bar of programme quality. The BBC leads the world in quality, innovation and impartiality.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC is the envy of broadcasting institutions the world over and that we parliamentarians, who are being broadcast live as we speak, should be very proud of it?

Graham Jones (Haslingden and Hyndburn) (Lab): My hon. Friend is quite right: the BBC is the envy of the world and is a good business that we should promote. We should see it in that way rather than as a drain on public resources. It is one of the last great vestiges of British influence abroad. BBC online and BBC news provide the world with a British perspective and a brand that should be protected at all costs. A commercial, or part-commercially dependent, BBC would need to survive from advertising revenue and would have to focus on mass-market universal appeal, but that market is filled by ITV, Sky and Channel Five domestically. That would involve, in short, a dumbed-down, broadest-appeal schedule. I cannot support anything that undermines the BBC and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South again on securing the debate.

Does the Minister approve of BBC World Service television and its commercial success? Does he think that it should be expanded as a business, or that the service should be reduced because it is not what the BBC is about?

The Minister and other Government Members have mentioned crowding out, but is it not the case that The Times and The Sunday Times have a paid-for service that is beginning to wipe its face? If the BBC were impinging on the profits of the online print industry, would The Times and The Sunday Times be able to wipe their face with that paid-for service? It seems to be quite successful, and there does not seem to be any evidence of crowding out. Does he accept that point?

A full transcript of the debate is available at: