HC Deb 15 September 2003 vol 410 cc579-82
9. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

If she will make a statement on the (a) governance, (b) independence and (c) accountability of the BBC. [129559]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport(Tessa Jowell)

We are committed to a BBC that is independent of Government and accountable to Parliament and licence fee payers and to a governance regime that delivers on those requirements. The forthcoming charter review will provide the opportunity for a full public and industry debate about those issues.

Hugh Bayley

When does my right hon. Friend intend to launch the review of the charter of the BBC and what form will it take? Who, for example, will undertake it? Will it be civil servants in her Department or an independent commission? Among other things, will the charter review look at the proposition that the BBC should be regulated in terms of the quality of its programmes by Ofcom, in the same way that ITV and independent radio are?

Tessa Jowell

There are two answers to my hon. Friend. First, when I spoke recently at the Edinburgh television festival, I made it clear that, over the next few weeks, I would set out in detail the way in which the Government intended to approach the charter review, which will run over a period of time. The present charter is in place until 2007. I repeat today that I attach enormous importance to the charter review involving public consultation in every way that we can. That will be one of the features and I will make the announcement over the next few weeks.

Previous charter reviews have coalesced in about four areas. Governance, funding and the BBC's position as a monopoly—less the case now, but certainly an issue in the past—have always been issues. Also, building on the Communications Act 2003, we will want to look at the BBC's role in a multichannel world. These questions are not new and recur every time the BBC charter is up for renewal. We are strongly of the view that the voices of the people of this country, who pay for the BBC, should be powerful in shaping the charter review argument.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

Does the Secretary of State accept that despite her assurances that the charter review will not be influenced by the Government's arguments with the BBC about Andrew Gilligan and the "Today" programme, the process has not been helped by the reports of threats against the BBC from Ministers and, indeed, former Ministers? Does she agree that it is all the more important that the process is seen to be objective and transparent? Given that we have known for 10 years that the review is to happen, why is she not in a position today to announce how the Government intend to go about it?

Tessa Jowell

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I can state categorically that the conclusions of the Hutton report will impinge on the charter review only where any conclusions are relevant to the process of the charter review. I have made that clear and the position has not changed. There have been no threats, nor anything else that would undermine the integrity of the process, which is crucial. Given that the charter review process will take up to three years, it is right that all the preliminary work—leading on from the Communications Act, which received Royal Assent in the summer—is done properly. We will make an announcement when the work has been undertaken, rather than at the prompting of the Opposition.

Mr. Whittingdale

The report of the Secretary of State's interview in The Times said: Ministers have long favoured handing the board of governors' regulatory responsibilities over to Ofcom. That came as news to the Opposition, as we argued that case throughout the passage of the Communications Act. Does she accept that the events of the summer have once again highlighted the need for the BBC to be made accountable to an external and independent body, rather than the rather cosy arrangement that exists at present?

Tessa Jowell

During the passage of the Communications Act, it was clear that the issue of governance would be revisited at the time of the charter review, but that the Act represented a broad settlement for now. As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), that is not new. There will always be malicious forces seeking to misrepresent and distort, but I restate that decisions about the future funding, organisation and governance of the BBC will be affected by the outcome of the Hutton inquiry only where there is clear and direct relevance. That is the position, whatever kind of mischievous or malevolent spin Opposition Members try to put on it.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is not the current state of the governance and accountability of the BBC utterly unacceptable when the head and deputy director of BBC News and the editor of the "Today" programme are allowed to get away with colluding in the back-door briefing of members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and that editor is able to get away with approving a contentious article written by Andrew Gilligan for The Mail on Sunday? Apart from the resignations at all levels that we need to expect from the BBC, is it not time that, instead of buckets of whitewash, the BBC's accountability should be the sole responsibility of the new body, Ofcom, as recommended by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee?

Tessa Jowell

My right hon. Friend has set out some of the evidence received by the Hutton inquiry. I do not intend to be drawn into that—we will wait until the inquiry has concluded before making any judgment on any of the points that he raises. My right hon. Friend refers also to the governance of the BBC. His Committee's view is well known, but the Communications Act 2003 takes a different view. However, none of us must forget the BBC's importance not just in this country, but in term; of the way that the rest of the world sees us. That is why it is so important that we get the charter review right, and that at its outcome we have a BBC that is strong and independent of government, and that does the job for the people of this country, and across the world, for which it is so respected and admired.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Leaving aside the Hutton inquiry, and given that members of the public both abhor fence-sitting by politicians and applaud those politicians of all parties who say openly what they think, can the right hon. Lady tell the House this afternoon, on the criteria of governance, independence and accountability, what marks she would award the BBC on a rising scale of one to 10?

Tessa Jowell

With great respect, that was an elegant but insubstantial question. The hon. Gentleman has repeated the framework of first-stage questions for charter review, which we will engage with over the next two to three years.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that through their recent actions, the BBC governors have in fact confirmed the value of their role, independent of government and of commercial regulators, first by stoutly rebutting claims of anti-war bias; secondly, by instituting a review of the rules on BBC journalists writing for newspapers; and thirdly, by upholding a complaint about the use of footage of two dead British soldiers during the "Correspondent" programme—a complaint which, unlike that of Mr. Alastair Campbell, was formally made to those governors?

Tessa Jowell

My hon. Friend will be aware that the duty of impartiality and accuracy defines the governors' regulatory responsibility. The contributions that we have heard give a flavour of the debate to come, in the context of charter review, on the future governance, funding and nature of the BBC.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley)

Notwithstanding what the right hon. Lady says about her willingness to consult the people about their continuing desire to pay £116 a year for the privilege of watching "Fame Academy" and so on, can she say whether she and the Labour Government remain committed in principle to the licence fee as the means of funding the BBC?

Tessa Jowell

Again, the charter review will address that issue. As I have said on many occasions, we want the review to be wide-ranging and fundamental, so it would be wrong at this stage for the Government to express a view that would constrain a debate that is just beginning. No doubt the hon. Gentleman, in his characteristic way, will have many robust contributions to make in the months ahead.