Bishop of Leeds speaks of value of UK public service broadcasting

On 3rd November 2022, the House of Lords held a debate on public service broadcasting to mark the centenary of the BBC. The Bishop of Leeds spoke in the debate, with specific reference to the value of UK public service broadcasting worldwide, and the future of Channel 4:

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, for securing this very important debate. Before saying anything further on the theme, I want to express thanks to and admiration for those who prepared the Library briefing. I have been knocking around these issues for a couple of decades, and this briefing is a model of narrative accuracy and concision.

Public service broadcasting in the UK is unique on the planet and one area in which this country is genuinely a world leader, which is why it is so important that, in the centenary year of the BBC and the day after the 40th birthday of Channel 4, we assess the value of what we have and steel ourselves against the ideologically driven impulse to diminish it. Yesterday, I asked a friend who works in public service broadcasting what she would focus on in a debate such as this. Her response was immediate: imagine a world without it. That is, imagine a world in which broadcasting serves only narrow cultural or political interests and is subject purely to commercial or transactional persuasion. I might put it like this: look at broadcasting in the United States. Price is not the same as value.

The broadcasting landscape has changed, as has been noted by a number of speakers, and is changing by the day. Technology drives both the pace and nature of such change, but there remain principles which, if neglected or sold down the river to the highest bidder, will sell our culture short—and not just the UK’s but that of the global audience who rely on the BBC for accuracy and integrity. Does it get it wrong sometimes? Yes, obviously; but it is also open to scrutiny, challenge and critique. To understand the global importance of the BBC and what the loss of soft power might look like, just ask Arabic speakers what they think of the recent decision to close our Arabic service, at a time when it is most needed.

The main point about PSB is surely that, as the report by the House of Commons DCMS Committee makes clear, it is characterised by universality of access, accuracy and impartiality, and independence. It is surely not coincidental that we read on the walls of New Broadcasting House the words of George Orwell:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

For this freedom to be guaranteed, there needs to be a well-resourced facility for universality of access, accuracy and impartiality—which is not the same as neutrality—and independence.

Yes, technology has changed everything, and it is timely that there should be some serious scrutiny of legislation for a rapidly moving digital and legal world. But, as I wrote in a newspaper article some years ago,

“If the BBC needs to hear what it doesn’t want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform PSB cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries that are not admired for their democratic credentials.”

As we have heard, PSB is not the sole preserve of the BBC. The landscape has changed; there are different media with differing offerings, which are funded by different models. This provides a balance that is precarious and must be respected. Please can the Minister update us on the future of the media Bill, particularly the threat to privatise Channel 4, which is a clear success story of the last 40 years and for which there is no popular mandate to privatise?

Following the appointment of the new Prime Minister, the Government said the Secretary of State was

“carefully considering the business case for a sale of Channel 4”.

Might I suggest that business is not the only case to be considered here?

The Minister might like to help us with further questions. For example, how will the current drastic squeeze on BBC local broadcasting impact local democracy, community cohesion and accuracy of reporting? How will the drastic squeeze on the BBC World Service, and its consequent reduction in service, impact UK soft power in parts of the world where our reputation as a leading democratic and free nation is fragile, and matters?

Young people are accessing the BBC less than ever, but does this not emphasise the need to reach them more effectively with PSB, rather than simply diminishing its resources according to some numbers equation that takes little account of power that cannot be cashed out in a profit and loss spreadsheet? If PSB is reduced as a source of public funding—my assumption here is not incidental—what does this say about the encouragement and nurturing of a new and younger generation of journalists and programme makers who need to embody cultural values, not just technical skills? Do the Government value the fact-checking credibility of the BBC in a world being flooded with disinformation, with a serious impact on truth, democracy and culture?

A reform of legislation may be needed in the wake of radical technological change, to say nothing of the wild west of digital streaming and social media, but please will His Majesty’s Government commit to ensuring the cultural and democratic future of PSB in the UK, in order that we do not lose what has taken a century to build, but could be lost in weeks?


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con): Channel 4 also celebrated its 40th birthday yesterday. It is an integral part of our public service broadcasting system and a great UK success story. Over the past four decades, Channel 4 has done an excellent job in delivering on its founding purposes, providing greater choice for audiences and supporting the British production sector, including in the diocese of the right reverend Prelate following its move to Leeds. The Government want Channel 4 to continue to deliver for audiences for the next 40 years and long beyond. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is carefully examining the business case for the sale of Channel 4 and will set out further detail on our plans for the future of the channel in due course. As the right reverend Prelate and others said, there is much to be considered. The principal conclusions of the Government’s review of public service broadcasting were set out in our White Paper earlier this year and my right honourable friend will be able to draw on those conclusions when considering her decision.

Lord Foster of Bath (LD): The Minister will have heard that there is a great deal of support for public service broadcasting all around the Chamber. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly those who emphasised important reasons for supporting it that I did not mention. There were references, for example, to science, children, sport and even the importance of trusted news in conflict areas.

I am also conscious that, in the back of our minds, many of us support the public service broadcasters, including the BBC, because of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds called the “nightmare alternative” of having a broadcasting landscape like that in the United States—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, put it, “Heaven preserve us from Fox News”.

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