David Amess on the Future of the BBC

7th September, 2011, House of Commons

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): It was a childhood ambition of mine, at the age of 11, to become a Member of Parliament, and I was fortunate enough to be elected in 1983. I remember, as if it were yesterday, first arriving here and being told that this is the mother of Parliaments, that we are sovereign, that this is where laws are made and that Parliament existed to support parliamentarians with their duties. An enormous number of changes have taken place since I was first elected, and I have various question marks over the way in which this place is run these days. However, I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise an important issue that we take for granted—the British Broadcasting Corporation.

I am not using this Adjournment debate to attack the BBC—indeed, I have many friends and some relatives who work for it. However, as this place has been greatly diminished and we were under siege before the previous general election, I made a beeline for the BBC’s chairman and chief executive when we were invited to attend a reception held by the BBC after the election. I told them that I was very concerned about the way the BBC is run and about the salaries that both of those gentleman are paid, and I will discuss that in due course.

The BBC is a blue-chip company of which we can be very proud. Its first transmission was from the roof of Selfridges in 1922. The first royal address was broadcast in 1924, and in 1932 we had the first Christmas address from His Majesty, the then King. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber remembers 1940, when Churchill made his rousing speeches, but the BBC also deserves credit for those. In 1945, there were the wonderful Dimbleby’s revelatory reports about the terrible happenings in Belsen concentration camp. We have the Olympics next year and in 1948, the BBC broadcast the Olympic games. Then, 1960 saw the construction of Television Centre, the first purpose-built TV centre in the world. We then go on to 1982 and Brian Hanrahan’s unforgettable news reporting of the Falklands war. In 1990—it is ironic that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) is in the Chamber, because he and I held different views—we saw our proceedings televised. I was dead against that and I voted against it, but, anyway, our proceedings are now televised. The BBC had an exceptional global reputation for being an excellent source of unbiased and impartial news. Indeed, it was groundbreaking and it was known for having remarkably high journalistic integrity in its reports.

The BBC is:

Institutionally biased to the Left

and that is a “mindset”. Those are not my words, but those of Peter Sissons in an article in one of our newspapers this year. He said that there were

basic journalistic mistakes—wrong dates, times and numbers…and basic political or geographical facts”

were wrong. The BBC tends to run positive stories in favour of the UN and the European Union. When it comes to reports relating to Israel, it only ever half tells the story, favouring stories that show Israel in a poor light and failing to report the rest of the facts—I think in a highly disproportionate manner. For instance, there is an humanitarian disaster waiting to happen in Camp Ashraf, so why do we hear nothing about it? There is a terrible situation in Syria, but we do not hear from relatives of President Assad who do not think he is a terribly good leader.

More poignantly, the BBC is fervently anti-cuts and ensures that that message pervades every aspect of BBC programming. Since the general election, the BBC has embarked on a consistent policy of criticising Government actions, which is rather amusing given that the director-general declared that bias at the BBC—he said it, so he must recognise that there was bias—was a thing of the past.

Over the past few days, we have seen that the former Labour Prime Minister was very friendly with Mr Gaddafi in 2004. A book has now been published that shows that there were tensions at the highest echelons of the previous Labour Government. Given the BBC’s high expertise in investigative journalism, it is puzzling that none of those things was brought to the fore at the time. We need only to think of “The One Show”, which recently ran a segment in which a presenter asked the Prime Minister, “Are you too much of a toff?” Another asked him, “How do you sleep at night?”

The BBC uses the term “independence”—I am still citing Peter Sissons—to mask the fact that it positions itself to serve its own best interests. For example, preference was given to Tony Blair’s party conference speech in 1995. Alastair Campbell berated the BBC editor to give the story precedence above all others based on the speech’s proximity to the next general election. That was what happened.

The BBC consistently gives left-wing politicians and figures a platform to spout policy and denounce the Government. Examples include the differing treatment of guests from different ends of the political spectrum on shows such as the “Today” programme. How politicians allow themselves to be treated so badly on the “Newsnight” programme, and on “Question Time” and so on, I do not know.

One thing that is particularly unforgivable is the constant practice of presenting the opinion of BBC correspondents as fact, as summed up by Peter Sissons, the former long-time BBC news presenter, in an article earlier this year. He said that “the increasing tendency” at the BBC is

to interview its own reporters on air…Instead of concentrating on interviewing the leading players in a story or spreading the net wide for a range of views…It is a format intended to help clarify the facts, but which often invites the expression of opinion. When that happens, instead of hearing both sides of a story, the audience at home gets what is, in effect, the BBC’s view presented as fact.”

I know that I am biased, but we are blessed with an absolutely splendid Home Secretary and a first-class Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I do not criticise them regarding the challenge that lies ahead. In the past, after each election, the new Home Secretary has invited colleagues to come and talk about licensing and whether we should do away with it, but that has not happened this time. One of the main reasons why the BBC is so financially stretched is the cost of digital-only stations such as BBC 3. This youth-orientated channel costs £119 million a year. Shows on it include, “Snog, Marry, Avoid?”, “Total Wipeout”, “Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum”, “Don’t Tell the Bride”, “Underage and Pregnant” and “Jamelia: Shame About Single Mums”. However, I am delighted that Mr Gareth Gates, whom we were honoured to have in the Palace of Westminster today to address the all-party group on speech and language difficulties—he had a speech problem himself—will be appearing on BBC 3 in November on a programme about people with speech difficulties. BBC 4, the more high-brow channel costs £74 million.

I want to focus on the salaries of executives, because I now realise, as a Member of Parliament, that it is not the workers who are at fault in so many sectors of life but the management. The salaries that the management of the BBC are paid are absolutely ludicrous. The director-general is paid £838,000—this is madness! Other directors’ pay, as of March 2011, are: £488,000; £517,000; £467,000; and £452,000—not to mention what the financial controller gets. At 31 March 2011, 13 executive directors had cost us, the British people, £4,792,000, but we Members of Parliament are castigated for what we earn, and the electorate can get rid of us through the ballot box.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Let me give my hon. Friend an opportunity to take a breath of air after pouring out all those huge figures. Does he agree that it would be totally grotesque if BBC local radio, which is in touch with local communities, had to suffer cuts while those huge salaries were being paid out? In my part of Yorkshire, BBC local radio not only reports local sport such as Huddersfield Giants rugby league and Huddersfield Town football club, but is a valuable service when there is heavy snow, because it lets people know whether the schools are open, which shops are open and which roads are open or closed. People who cannot get out and about love their BBC local radio, and it would be totally grotesque if those salaries were still being paid while BBC local radio was being cut.

Mr Amess: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One cannot watch TV while driving a car, but one can listen to the radio. I love radio—Essex Radio is fantastic. I absolutely agree. Frankly, these BBC radio stations have been starved of cash, if you look at some of their software.

The director-general proposed that the executives could increase their annual pay by tens of thousands of pounds through a policy known as “earn back”. I must say that I have the highest regard for Lord Patten, the current chairman of the BBC. I once had the honour of being his private parliamentary secretary for a week, not because I was useless but because my former colleague, Robert Key, had been appointed as a Minister and I stood in for a week. Lord Patten is going to be a wonderful chairman of the BBC. Under the director-general’s proposals, however, the seven members of the BBC’s executive board, as well as the corporation’s 540 senior managers, would have been able to earn an extra 10% on top of their salaries by beating performance targets. The proposal was accepted by the BBC’s executive remuneration committee, but I am delighted to say that the new chairman stepped in and dealt with the issue. It just shows how out of touch they are.

I now move on to the presenters. I do not know whether we have brilliant presenters. I would just say that I find it slightly annoying that when one or two female presenters—I do not know whether they have had too much Botox or something—are presenting the news on a very serious subject, they smile. But their salaries, which we are paying for, are worth looking at. The highest paid stars’ earnings from the BBC cost 1.55% of the £3.49 billion that the licence fee brings in. That is huge.

The seven high-profile presenters involved in this year’s coverage of the Glastonbury music festival for the BBC were not only paid lots of money for going, but given complimentary tickets. Why did the BBC send 400 journalists to the Glastonbury festival? All this goes unquestioned. We are concentrating now on phone hacking and so on. If Parliament was as it used to be, we could properly scrutinise these things.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman has mentioned performance targets. Does he agree that if there have to be performance targets, they should be based on the satisfaction of the TV licence holders, and that plenty of them are dissatisfied?

Mr Amess: I am going to call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with his point, and I hope that will be a subject for another debate.

To save money, headquarters are moving to Salford. Well, I am sorry: London is the capital city. Other TV channels have found that London is the best place for programmes to be based. Indeed, ITV moved “This Morning” to London because it could not get guests to travel to the studio in Liverpool. There are fears that the corporation’s move to the north could turn out to be an £877 million white elephant. It is understood that the BBC has had to offer incentives for people to move to Salford.

On sport, I am sure that many hon. Members used to love watching cricket on the BBC, and wall-to-wall coverage of Wimbledon and so on. “Test Match Special” was so special. Well, all that has gone and now constituents are contacting me about Formula 1. We even had all the anti stuff against Andy Murray. Okay, he is Scottish; let’s get over it. He is a fantastic tennis player.

I end with a thought about the licence fee. I am delighted that the Government have frozen it at £145.50 until April 2017. That amounts to 40p a day, which for lots of people actually mounts up to quite a lot. The completion of the digital switchover in 2012 would be a good time to think once again about how the BBC is funded. The British Broadcasting Corporation is a jewel in our crown, if it is well run and managed. It is pointless to have Adjournment debates unless hon. Members’ arguments are listened to. Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that my words have been listened to and that there will be changes in the ridiculous high salaries that are being paid.