This is the text of a speech I delivered in the House of Lords today in a debate “to take note of the future of public service broadcasting in the year of the BBC’s centenary”.

My Lords, I am grateful to Lord Foster for securing this important debate. Before saying anything further on the theme, I want to express thanks and admiration to those who prepared the Library Briefing. I have been knocking around these issues for a couple of decades, but 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 fortieth 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 PSB what she would focus on in a debate such as this and 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.

Or, I might put it, look at broadcasting in the United States.

Price is not the same as value.

The broadcasting landscape has changed 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 that of the UK, but also the global audience that relies 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. If you want 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.”

My Lords, PSB is not the sole preserve of the BBC. The PSB landscape has changed: different media with differing offerings and 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 and, particularly, the threat to privatise Channel 4 – a clear success story of the last forty years and for which there is no popular mandate to privatise? Following the appointment of the new Prime Minister, the government said that the Secretary of State was “carefully considering the business case for a sale of Channel 4”. Might I suggest that ‘business’ isn’t the only case to be considered here?

Further questions the Minister might like to help us with might be:

  • How will the current drastic squeeze on BBC local broadcasting impact on 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 on 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 emphasise the need to reach them with PSB more effectively, rather than simply diminishing its resourcing according to some ‘numbers’ equation that takes little account of power that cannot be cashed out in a profit/loss spreadsheet?
  • If PSB is reduced as a source of public funding (and my assumption here is not incidental), what does this say about the encouragement and nurture of a new and younger generation of journalists and programme makers who need to embody cultural values, not just technical skills?
  • Does 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?

My Lords, a reform of legislation might 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 HMG commit to assuring the cultural and democratic future of PSB in the UK in order that we don’t lose what has taken a century to build, but could be lost in weeks?