Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) on initiating this debate on the licence fee. If ever there was a time when it was right to ask again whether the licence fee should continue to increase, it is now. My hon. Friend set out some of the background to the increase in the fee against the rate of inflation, but the BBC’s income is determined not just by the level of the licence fee, but the number of households that pay it, which also has been going up. As a result, the BBC has enjoyed perpetual income increases, year on year, at a time when the rest of the media sector is facing its worst crisis for 50 years.
The media are affected by the recession in the same way as every other industry. As many people who have been in business will know, one of the first casualties in a recession is advertising spend, and there has been a significant drop in advertising expenditure across the board. On top of that, we are seeing a fundamental structural change in people’s consumption of media. More and more people consume media online, and as they move from traditional media outlets advertisers are following them. The result is that every commercial operator is under greater pressure than ever before. ITV has moved from children’s programming and regional programming, and it has now pulled out of arts programming with the ending of “The South Bank Show”. It has also cut drama. Channel 4 has identified a £150 million gap in its funding. Channel 5 is struggling to survive. Every commercial radio station is now considering its economic prospects and wondering whether it will still be in business in a year’s time. As we know, local newspapers are going out of business every week.
All those sectors face competition from the BBC, and that has always been a matter for concern, but the disparity between the amount available to commercial media and that available to the BBC has now become enormous, and it is distorting the market. For the first time, the BBC’s income will exceed the total advertising revenue of the entire commercial sector. That gap will grow to more than £1 billion.
Philip Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that, as opposed to the BBC press release masquerading as the Liberal Democrat spokesman’s speech, even if the motion were to be passed today, that would not comprise a cut in BBC expenditure? The motion would simply result in the BBC’s not being given a further increase in funding. It is nothing to do with a cut to the BBC’s funding, anyway.
Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservatives are entirely familiar with the claim that there will be cuts when in fact we are talking about a slightly reduced increase in expenditure.
Andy Burnham: The hon. Gentleman is of course absolutely right to describe the pressure on established media businesses, but, given that, will the public get the quality of media they deserve if the licence fee is cut? How can the public in this country get the quality of media they deserve and that democracy needs if the licence fee is to be cut?
Mr. Whittingdale: We simply cannot ignore the environment in which the BBC is operating. That is not to say that the BBC does not do masses of things that are essential. However, my question is whether it needs £3.6 billion to do them. The BBC will always point to its comedy, drama, children’s television, regional television and its religion, arts and education coverage. However, just because the BBC produced “Cranford”, “Life in Cold Blood” or “Panorama” does not necessarily justify £3.6 billion. We have to ask whether we need all the channels that the BBC produces. BBC 3 has cost more than £500 million since it was set up, and to be honest I do not believe that the amount of product that has appeared on BBC 3 justifies that amount.
The Secretary of State said that “The BBC is there to provide content that the commercial sector would not”. I entirely agree, but too often the BBC is providing content that looks very similar, if not wholly identical, to the content that the commercial sector provides. One has to ask whether it is justified for the BBC to go on paying the amount that it does in recruiting talent, top salaries, competing against commercial providers and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey said, bidding against commercial television to acquire imported American television or to acquire Hollywood movies—in that case, the only beneficiaries are the Hollywood studios.
The BBC does not need all the money it receives and, in the longer term, we need to be having a bigger debate necessarily about whether the BBC needs this amount or that amount, but about how we can sustain public service broadcasting in this country. There is a desperate crisis, and it is essential that the BBC is not left as the sole provider of public service broadcasting. If we are to sustain plurality, we must support commercial providers’ continuing to provide public service programming. That might well need public support, and the obvious source for that is the licence fee.
Is it more in the interests of the public and the viewing public in this country that we should go on sustaining BBC 3 or yet another American import, or should we be using that money to ensure that regional news does not just appear on the BBC but continues to be broadcast on ITV? Should there be other providers of children’s programming outside the BBC? I welcome that debate, which Lord Carter is currently conducting, but those points have to be taken into account in this debate.
There is very little time, but I want to finish by saying that I am profoundly disturbed by the comments made by the chairman of the BBC Trust, which was set up to be different from the board of governors. It was supposed to be an arm’s length regulator, yet increasingly the chairman of the trust appears to be a champion of the BBC. When he suggests that it was somehow wrong for the Opposition to table this motion today, I have to say that he is straying on to political territory, which is very dangerous. He is also questioning the right of Parliament to determine the appropriate level of funding for the BBC. Of course Parliament should not interfere in the BBC’s editorial independence, but debating the right amount of public money to go to the BBC is not interfering in editorial independence. It is a function of this House. If the chairman of the trust is suggesting that we should not be having this debate, I believe that he is in severe danger of overstepping the mark. I hope that he will think very carefully before continuing to make that argument.