On 2nd December 2021 the Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Revd Paul Bayes, made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, during a debate led by Lord Bragg “That this House takes note of the BBC’s value to the United Kingdom and a wider global audience and the case for Her Majesty’s Government giving it greater support.”
The Lord Bishop of Liverpool (Maiden Speech): My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to address your Lordships for the first time and on this subject, and for the privilege of following the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his kind words*. I thank all noble Lords for the warmth of the welcome that I have received, and, for the quality of briefing and induction from the officers and staff of your Lordships’ House, which has been exemplary and profoundly helpful.
I speak as one whose first degree was in drama and theatre arts, and who was almost employed by the BBC as a trainee script editor in what was then called “English Regions Drama”, at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, in 1975. With whatever wisdom, I chose instead to enter the ordained ministry of the Church, and there have been times when I have felt that I chose the lower calling. Forty-two years of ministry in six different dioceses have culminated in the enormous privilege of my being appointed Bishop of Liverpool in 2014. I have been preferred to your Lordships’ House late in my ministry, but I am very grateful to be here and to receive wisdom for at least a few months.
Among its many dimensions, I want to speak of what the BBC does uniquely in our fragmented public square. To me, the gift and value of public service broadcasting is a matter of form before it is a matter of content: it rests on the decision to assume a tone of voice. The value of the BBC to this nation and our global position is rooted in its decision to be calm, to choose a particular volume and quality of scrutiny and to sustain it, no matter how unpopular it may be.
I have described the public square as fragmented. Increasingly, it is one where to be opinionated is to be rewarded, and where volume and shrillness of tone have become praiseworthy in themselves. In such a world, it is surely the role of a public service communicator to still the waters so that they reflect the truth. Calm scrutiny will cause people with power, whoever and wherever they may be, whatever they may say, however loudly they may speak, one and all, to be uncomfortable. This applies as much to the Bishops of the Church of England as to anyone else.
Calm scrutiny is a gift, but it must also be proclaimed. In the Hebrew scriptures, we are told that
“Wisdom calls out in the street”.
To me, the impartiality of a public service broadcaster rests in impartiality of scrutiny and courage in scrutinising, rather than in attempting the even-handed presentation of increasingly strident points of view. In Liverpool, the work of my distinguished predecessors, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, and Bishop James Jones KBE, rested on this commending of quiet scrutiny in the face of riot after poverty or institutional defensiveness after tragedy, for example, or any other falling away from coherence, community and the common good.
Your Lordships will know of the recent terrorist incident in Liverpool. It faced us with a mystery. To this day, we do not know why that young man did what he did, and we may never know. In the face of that mystery, the response of the English media was diverse. For some, the journey of the young man concerned provided a fine opportunity for the naivety of people of faith to be exposed, or for the systems by which people seek refuge to be deplored. These words had little purchase in Liverpool, where a number of organs of commercial media have been deeply and permanently distrusted for 40 years.
The BBC, on the other hand, nationally and regionally, genuinely provided the impartial platform of scrutiny which I have described, and it continues to hold the significant trust of people across my community, where few other voices do. In this case, that trust rested on a readiness, particularly on the part of local BBC journalists, to explore on its own terms the self-understanding of communities of faith as places of God’s welcome. In other words, it rested on a platform of religious literacy.
The BBC is not perfect, but it should be treasured and supported. Having said and meant all these nice things about it, I also underline the urgent need for that religious literacy to be intentionally sustained and intentionally deepened, if the BBC is indeed to hold its value for a global audience in a world that remains, predominantly, a world of faith.
*speaking before the Bishop of Liverpool:
Lord McNally (LD): My Lords, first, I send my good wishes to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on making his maiden speech. My parents were both born in Old Swan; they gave their allegiance to the cathedral at the other end of Hope Street. Successive bishops of Liverpool have worked hard to eliminate religious intolerance, and Hope Street is well named in housing those two cathedrals.
Speaking after the Bishop of Liverpool:
Lord Lilley (Con): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate on the occasion of his excellent maiden speech. He describes himself as a late arrival in this House, but we greet him with eagerness and look forward to further contributions. His speech emphasised calm thoughtfulness and scrutiny, and his approach epitomised what he advocated. We have much to look forward to. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on securing this debate. His speech, like his broadcasts, epitomised all that is best in the BBC.
Lord Young of Norwood Green (Lab): ..I will end on this, because I am conscious of the time. If I have any criticism, it is that I am worried about impartiality and integrity. I forgot to thank the right reverend Prelate for his maiden speech, which I found inspiring, in which he mentioned impartiality.
Lord Storey (LD): My Lords, in my brief time, I will talk about the educational work of the BBC. First, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for his thoughtful contribution. As a Liverpool resident of 40 years, I look forward to hearing other contributions from him….I was delighted to hear the right reverend Prelate talk about the importance of local radio to our community in Liverpool during Covid. Guess what? Radio Merseyside’s audience has increased dramatically.
Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Con): My Lords, it is a thrill to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on calling it. I praise the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for his wonderful maiden speech.
Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab): .. It was also a pleasure to hear the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool—I must call him my noble friend or noble colleague—as he gave us an indication of what we should expect from him in the future.
Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl): Like the right reverend Prelate, who I welcome here and who gave an excellent, original and thoughtful contribution to today’s debate, I worry about some of the toxic trends in the public square. However, I worry that it is identity politics that is so tearing apart the public square and that it is the groupthink approach to fashionable political causes that threatens diversity of opinion. I hope the BBC will stop succumbing to both.
Viscount Stansgate (Lab):…I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech, which was very thoughtful and caring. As someone who made a maiden speech only six weeks ago today, I know how relieved he feels—I trust—at the moment….The right reverend Prelate talked about a fragmented public square, if I remember the phrase correctly. It is true: the noble Lords opposite have both spoken about the range of providers that exist in the modern world. But there are times when people want to come together.
Lord Lea of Crondall (Non-Afl): I join noble Lords who have congratulated the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. I greatly admired his speech, which was what it says on the tin: calm, reflective and analytical. I hope that we will hear a lot more from him.
Lord Liddle (Lab): I add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on his very measured and well-argued maiden speech.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, for this extremely welcome and timely debate, and incidentally for providing an occasion for the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool to give such a thought-provoking maiden speech.
Lord Triesman (Lab):.. I also add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool. He lit a candle in his speech and, on the seventh night of Hanukkah, I am all in favour of more candles being lit.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (LD): I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for a wonderful maiden speech. He comes from a city which is surely one of our most creative…In my view, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool spoke most eloquently on the question of impartiality.
Baroness Merron (Lab): From these Benches I offer the warmest of welcomes to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I can only observe that the BBC’s loss was the gain of both the Church and this House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay) (Con): I also join those noble Lords who welcomed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and congratulated him on his excellent maiden speech. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, when she said that the BBC’s loss is a gain for the Church of England and for your Lordships’ House. I was struck by what the right reverend Prelate said about the need for calm scrutiny and careful consideration of not just what we say but how we say it. This is an important lesson for this place as well as for public discourse in many arenas.
…I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, who says that we have almost a duty to criticise. I hope that we can do that, in the spirit of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, in a calmly critical way and provide the calm scrutiny which is needed.
…I thank noble Lords for their speeches and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool for such a fine entrance. I am delighted that we have had this debate.