HC Deb 02 February 2004 vol 417 cc531-6 3.31 pm
David Winnick (Walsall, North)(Lab)

(urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will explain the procedure for the appointment of a new chair of the BBC governors.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome the opportunity to respond, for several reasons. First, whatever the strength of the disagreement between the Government and the BBC over Mr. Gilligan's story, I want to place on the record the appreciation of the House for the outstanding contribution made by Gavyn Davies, both as vice-chairman and as chairman of the BBC. I regret that we now have to appoint a new chairman. [Interruption.] The fact that the decision to resign was Gavyn's, and his alone, is a mark of his honour and integrity and demonstrates his overriding concern for the interests of the BBC.

In similar vein, I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the director-general, Greg Dyke, for his inspirational leadership. It is now, of course, for the governors to appoint his successor. [Interruption.] The whole House will note how the opportunists on the Conservative Benches are not even prepared to observe the normal courtesies.

The two resignations happened over the past week, and this has been a very difficult period for the BBC, but we must now look to safeguard its future. The corporation needs strong leadership. stability and the capacity to engage fully with the charter review process, which is already under way. We will therefore move swiftly to appoint a new chairman The process for appointing Mr. Davies's successor will follow in full the Nolan rules.

Specifically. that means that we will publish a role specification against which all candidates will be assessed; the post will be advertised in the national press and on the internet; and the shortlisted candidates will be interviewed by a panel including an independent assessor, who will be involved throughout the process. Under the BBC's royal charter, the appointment will be made by the Queen in Council, following this process, on the advice of Ministers.

It is worth recording, for the benefit of the House, that Gavyn Davies was the first BBC chairman to be appointed through the transparent Nolan process, which is now, under this Government, standard for all public appointments. The process is held in wide respect, but because of the public interest in this appointment, we have decided to enhance it further.

Dame Rennie Fritchie, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, has agreed to act as guarantor for the fairness of the process, and she will convene a scrutiny panel to ensure its integrity. The panel will be made up of Privy Councillors from the three main parties, and I hope that their names will be announced in the coming days. I hope that the double lock of Nolan and the scrutiny panel will give the public, this House and staff at the BBC the reassurances that they deserve about the independence of this process.

We all want a strong BBC that is independent of government, and anyone who cares about politics, standards in public life and the quality of our media knows just how much the BBC matters. It provides this nation and the wider world with a cradle-to-grave public service. Because of that, it should have the self-confidence to promote those values and to defend them against all corners. Central to that independence and self-confidence is the leadership of the BBC chairman. I can assure the House that whosoever is chosen will be chosen fairly, freely and with the best interests of the BBC at heart.

David Winnick

I am not sure why the panel should be confined simply to Privy Councillors, but let that be. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in this country want to ensure that the BBC will retain its independence, and that its integrity will be respected by all—I repeat all—Governments? Will she resist those who want to use the current situation as an opportunity to put forward the agenda that they have had over the years, which involves the downsizing, or even the privatisation, of the BBC? Unfortunately, that view is held not only among the Tory ranks; one or two of our own colleagues have also put forward such ideas.

Should we not understand that the BBC has a reputation for the excellence of its broadcasting, not only in Britain but throughout the world? We should not be in the business, under any circumstances, of undermining that fine tradition.

Tessa Jowell

I agree with my hon. Friend, and central to the BBC's responsibility—it is a source of both its strength and its independence—is the responsibility that rests with the governors to ensure accuracy and impartiality in news reporting. That is important not just in terms of the BBC as an institution, public expectations of it and the integrity that flows from that; it is also important because the BBC has to be a bedrock of accuracy and truth that the public understand in our highly diversified and polemical media, which are unregulated so far as newspapers are concerned. The contract, as it were, between the BBC and the public relies on precisely the characteristics that my hon. Friend outlines.

Miss Julie Kirkbride(Con) (Bromsgrove)

We Conservatives would like to pay tribute to Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies, the outgoing chairman and director-general of the BBC; that is in stark contrast with the Secretary of State's crocodile tears. We welcome the fact that Dame Rennie Fritchie will oversee the appointment. She comes with a distinguished record, having already exposed the Government for stashing health quangos with Labour placemen.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that, had she accepted our amendment, which would have placed the BBC under Ofcom, this whole sorry business of having to find a new chairman might not have arisen? Does she accept that the public are rightly concerned about Greg Dyke's accusation that he and journalists at the BBC were systematically bullied and intimidated by this Government, and that that makes it all the more important that the process of appointing a new chairman be free, fair and impartial?

Given that morale at the BBC is clearly extremely low, will the Secretary of State ensure that the new chairman is appointed speedily, in order to give direction to the BBC at this critical time? Finally, will this new, independent process for selecting the chairman of the BBC be made permanent both for the chairman and for all future governors?

Tessa Jowell

The hon. Lady seizes once again what she views as an opportunity to make a political point. However, I would like to remind the House how the appointment of the chairman of the BBC was made under the previous Government. Let me recount Marmaduke Hussey's account of how he was appointed. There was no independent panel, no public advertisement and no Dame Rennie Fritchie. Instead, while he was staying in Ullapool on a salmon fishing holiday, he had a conversation about how the vacant post of chairmanship of the BBC would be filled. In response to that question, Duke Hussey replied: I have no idea…but the BBC is in a terrible state, obviously out of control with some pretty unreliable characters there too. They'll be hard pushed to persuade some idiot to take it on". Three days later, the telephone rang, as he describes in his account, at about 9.30 in the evening: Oh Dukie, it's Douglas Hurd here, with a very odd question to ask you. Would you like to be Chairman of the BBC? Douglas Hurd told him that he was inviting him on behalf of the cabinet", but the problem was that he had to have an answer by Saturday lunchtime. That is the difference between the present Government and the Conservative party: the Government are committed to a fair and independent process; the Conservative party, when in government, did it by patronage.

Mr. Chris Smith(Lab) (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Given that it is my strong view that neither the chairman nor the director-general of the BBC needed to resign last week, and given that the primary task facing us all now is to reassert as strongly as we can the robust independence of the BBC as a public service broadcaster and to restore the morale of a very battered organisation, would it not make sense for the Secretary of State to increase the independent element in both the shortlisting and the interviewing part of the process, so that more than just one independent person is involved in both those processes?

Tessa Jowell

First, it was the decision—and their decision alone—of the chairman and the director-general to resign. Our job now is, through the speedy appointment of the chairman, to enable the organisation to move on. I would like to say that I am well aware of the demoralisation among BBC staff and I would not for one moment—I am sure that the House would not for one moment—want to suggest that the serious shortcomings found by Lord Hutton with specific reference to Andrew Gilligan's story are shortcomings that are generalised across the news coverage of the BBC, which has to meet standards of accuracy and impartiality by constitutional obligation.

In response to my right hon. Friend's final suggestion, I say no. Given that Dame Rennie Fritchie has undertaken to discharge the oversight responsibility, we have to be confident of the enhanced independence of the process which, as my right hon. Friend well knows, is used to fill almost every public appointment.

Mr. Don Foster(LD) (Bath)

Does the Secretary of State agree that events over the past few days have left the BBC rudderless and that staff morale is at rock bottom? In that light, will she join me in praising BBC staff for their skill and impartiality in the way in which they covered their own difficulties? As to the new role of the new chairman of the BBC, will she ensure that it will never be necessary again for a new governor to have to deal with the sort of Blitzkrieg attack launched by No. 10 Downing street over coverage of the Iraq war? Does she agree that that has left fear and intimidation—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are talking about the appointment of the chairman of the BBC.

Tessa Jowell

First. the BBC is not rudderless: Lord Ryder is an extremely fine acting chairman and Mark Byford is an extremely competent and much admired acting director-general whom many people regard as embodying the values of public service broadcasting. Secondly, the BBC has shown its independence throughout its angry exchanges with the Government. Such exchanges happen2014;they happened under Conservative Governments and they have happened under our Government. We are determined to safeguard the BBC's independence, not in our interests but in those of the people of this country.

Tony Wright(Lab) (Cannock Chase)

My right hon. Friend has rightly reminded the Conservative party of how such matters used to be arranged, but I am a little puzzled by her comments about the new process. Dame Rennie Fritchie is known for her robust independence as the overseer and regulator of the Nolan system. Why does she need enhanced scrutiny, and will the arrangement be permanent? Has my right hon. Friend seen last year's Public Administration Committee report, which said that the Committee can see no reason for keeping public appointments within ministerial hands and that such appointments should go to an independent commission? If Ministers want to make key public appointments, a Committee of this House should vet such appointments.

Tessa Jowell

It is an oversight, but I am afraid that the detail of last year's report has escaped me. There are three reasons why we are grateful that Dame Rennie Fritchie has accepted the responsibility. First, the circumstances are exceptional. Secondly, we want quickly to appoint Gavyn Davies's successor. Thirdly, although the Public Administration Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend, will obviously further consider whatever general issues may arise about public appointments, it was my view in discussion with the Prime Minister that, given the particular circumstances, we had to raise the bar for this particular appointment, in the public interest, so that everybody can be confident in the independence of the process and in the integrity of the person who is appointed.

Mr. Roger Gale(Con) (North Thanet)

As a former BBC current affairs producer and director, I am naturally delighted to learn about the right hon. Lady's commitment to an independent BBC. That being so, will she answer the question—she has failed to answer it so far—put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride)? Can she guarantee that the next chairman and the next director-general of the BBC will not be subjected to political interference from a mendacious, foul-mouthed spokesman from Downing street?

Tessa Jowell

The chairman and director-general of the BBC were not subjected to interference. As people would expect, the exchanges were robust. I wish that the Conservative party, which the process has left bankrupt and exposed, would not seek to reinvent history.

Mr. Dennis Skinner(Lab) (Bolsover)

Although the Secretary of State refers to the integrity of the BBC—a lot of people will applaud her for that—the truth is that some Labour Members who represent workers in the country take a different view. Twenty years ago, the BBC was a tool of the Government during the miners' strike. I have never changed my view about its impartiality and integrity, especially when one of its senior political operators told me a few years ago that his job was to carry out the role of the Opposition because the Opposition were not capable of doing it—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Skinner

I have not finished—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have. I call. Mr. Salmond.

Mr. Alex Salmond(SNP) (Banff and Buchan)

Will the Secretary of State now answer the question in detail? How exactly will a new system of appointment protect the BBC from the campaign of bullying and intimidation, as described by the director-general? In addition to the process, is not a code of practice for Downing street advisers required, to prevent such political thuggery from undermining the independence of the BBC?

Tessa Jowell

What is important is that the BBC is true to its constitutional responsibilities in relation to accuracy and impartiality and that it is strong and independent. So strongly do we in the Government believe in those principles for the BBC that we are setting before the House today an enhanced process for the immediate appointment of the chairman, in order to ensure them.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman(Lab) (Manchester, Gorton)

Since my right hon. Friend makes it clear that, in the end, the appointment will be made on the advice of Ministers, will she accept that it would be a very serious mistake indeed to appoint anybody who is publicly associated with any political party, as of course was the case when the Conservatives, in their last appointment, appointed an active member of the Conservative party who was also a former Conservative candidate? Independence from political parties is vital for the person, because that is the only way in which the independence and the reputation for integrity of the BBC can be restored. Does my right hon. Friend also accept that it would do no harm if the person concerned had some knowledge of the media?

Tessa Jowell

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. What is clear, and what history and the accounts of past chairmen show, is that when the Conservatives were in government they made no pretence at all of independence or integrity in the appointment of the BBC chairman. We take an entirely different position, because the independence and strength of the BBC are so important.

My right hon. Friend raised the question of whether people who have had—or who have—a particular political affiliation should be discounted from the process. We have to proceed on the basis that we are seeking the very best person to do the job and that the process that I have set out today will subject a range of candidates to that kind of scrutiny. Nobody would believe that it was right for the person who becomes chairman of the BBC to be actively political—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—of course not. The point is that if we put on the advertisement specifically that people will be ruled out because of their past political affiliation, we might rule out candidates, from any party in the House, who were worthy of, and deserved, proper consideration.

Mr. Edward Garnier(Con) (Harborough)

Who will write Dame Rennie's guarantee? Who will be the judge of its effectiveness? How will it be enforced, and what remedies will flow if there is a breach?

Tessa Jowell

Those will all be matters for Dame Rennie.

Mr. Tam Dalyell(Lab) (Linlithgow)

In view of the tenor of some of the questions this afternoon—such as "Blitzkrieg"—would it not be wise to place in the Library the letters that Alastair Campbell sent so that we can make an adult judgment on this vexatious subject?

Tessa Jowell

I understand that the urgent question focuses specifically on the appointment of the chairman of the BBC—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady does not need to answer that question—it has nothing to do with the statement.