Mark Harper – 2020 Speech on BBC Regional Politics Coverage

Below is the text of the speech made by Mark Harper, the Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean, in the House of Commons on 22 June 2020.

A few thoughts occurred to me when I was listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and some of the interventions that I think the BBC board would do well to reflect on.​

The first is the question of the licence fee. I have my thoughts, and although I have not reached a conclusion about the licence fee, I can see both sides of the argument. One of the important things for the BBC to reflect on is that if it wants to retain the support of people across the country—although the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) is no longer in his place, this is a debate that happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in England—it needs to retain the support of people from across the country for a compulsory fee. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said that if people do not pay that fee, they will go to prison. The BBC does need to think about what it is delivering. If it is not going to deliver anything different from what is available on a purely commercial basis, actually the licence fee is difficult to justify, so that is worth its reflecting on.

I talked about cost in my intervention earlier; that is actually very interesting, and again the BBC should reflect on it. I was looking at an interesting tweet from Chris Mason yesterday about technology. He had the example of a piece to camera that he did for the “Six O’Clock News” yesterday. The camera in question was the size of a highlighter pen, and the monitor used to film it was on his mobile phone. It seems to me that the developments in technology—I know this from interactions I have had with our own journalists from BBC Radio Gloucestershire about some of the technology now—mean that people can do things remotely. We do not have a whole swathe of people turning up; it is an individual, and those individuals do the recording, clip up the programmes and transmit them electronically straight into the studio. Technology should enable the BBC to deliver more local coverage more cost-effectively than ever before.

Of course, the BBC also has more platforms. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton talked about some well-watched television programmes in our region including “Sunday Politics West” and “Inside Out”. However, it is worth reflecting on the fact that these BBC local journalists not only produce content for BBC local radio, such as the fantastic BBC Radio Gloucestershire, and for television—for example, “Points West”, the evening news in our region, and “Sunday Politics West”—but also generate content for the BBC’s own website. I know that that can be controversial, because many local journalists and local newspapers think that that local content unfairly competes with them, and indeed it does, but we should just think about the fact that if the BBC is producing local content, it is a bit silly if we cannot access it on all the different platforms. The cost of producing regional and very local content is coming down and the number of platforms available for people on which to view that content is going up so people can see that content more effectively. Those are both questions for the BBC to focus on.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) also focused on accountability. This is not just about holding us here in Parliament to account on how we conduct ourselves locally and on our records as parliamentarians; it is also about local government, which he mentioned. It is important to have important local outlets—both newspapers and the BBC—because otherwise our local councils will not be held to account by anyone. Even in the time I have been involved in politics in my constituency, ​the level of coverage of what goes on in local council chambers has plummeted. We do not get the dedicated local government reporters that we used to get. There may be a big story going on in a local council—for example stories about social care or how we look after people with learning disabilities and how effectively we get them into work—but such local issues are never going to be covered properly by national broadcasters unless we have a truly national scandal. Instead, we have to depend on effective local coverage, which in terms of reach means the BBC.

It is also worth focusing on how many people actually see this content. I may not be completely up to date with the figures, but I remember, on my most recent visit to BBC Radio Gloucestershire, asking about the number of people who listen to its programmes. Its morning breakfast programme, the drive time programme, is listened to by many people in my own constituency as they commute —or at least as they used to commute by car, in the days pre-coronavirus—and in Gloucestershire more people listen to that programme than listen to Radio 4’s “Today” programme. So more people in Gloucestershire listen to that local radio station for their news and current affairs and to hold their democratically elected politicians to account than listen to a national leading broadcast programme.

That is really important, and it says two things to me. First, it says that if we did not have that local programme, we would not be holding local politicians, local business leaders and local decision makers to account. Secondly, the fact that the listening figures are so high suggests that my constituents and other Gloucestershire residents find that content more relevant and more interesting to them than that of the national broadcasting programmes that are available at the same time. If the BBC is thinking about its attractiveness to the public—this comes back to my point about the licence fee—it would do well to reflect on that before it wantonly casts these services aside.

My final point, on the cost-effectiveness of the regional services, is the point I made in my intervention. When I visit Radio Gloucestershire—and also when I visit BBC Bristol when I am there for “Sunday Politics”—I look around the studio and see how the staff have to multi-task to put programmes together. I do not see a lot of fat, a lot of waste or a lot of unnecessary fripperies. I see a very cost-effective operation covering what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has described as a big region in the south-west. It is a shame that our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, has gone, because my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), is fond of saying—I checked this once, to ensure that it was accurate—that his constituency in Tewkesbury is closer to the England-Scotland border than it is to Land’s End. That just demonstrates the size of one region in England, and it shows the nonsense of suggesting that even that one region can be adequately covered from London, let alone all the regions in England. That is a really important point for the BBC to bear in mind.

Those of us who have had the opportunity to go to BBC HQ at Broadcasting House will have noted the disparity in the resources put into the BBC centrally. I remember having a conversation with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, who told me that, when he did a press conference, he used to marvel—that is perhaps ​not the right word—at the number of questions he used to get from different bits of the BBC. Every single BBC programme insisted on sending its own person, rather than there being a single person to ask a question. There would be a question from the “Today” person, a question from the “Newsnight” person and a question from the BBC’s political editor. That did not suggest an organisation that was focused on delivering value for money. The BBC should bear that in mind.

Steve Brine

On that point, sort of, has it not been fascinating during the Downing Street press conferences to see the regional reporters ask their questions? They do it with a straight bat, without an agenda and without a tone. They just get to the nub of the question that matters to the people in their area. Has not that just been so refreshing?

Mr Harper

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is absolutely accurate, and the questions from the local journalists are often far more difficult for the Minister to answer because they are focused on the issue at hand. They do not have any of the Westminster aspect to them; they are straightforward questions. Those journalists are doing what journalists should always do, which is to ask us the questions that the listener or viewer at home wants them to ask. The journalist should be putting the question that the person at home, looking at the screen or listening to the radio, has in their head to the people making the decisions. If they are doing that, they are absolutely doing their job properly.

My final point is about some of the subjects covered, which I think the hon. Member for Chesterfield also touched on, as did my hon. Friend for Tiverton and Honiton. I will pick two examples. The first, which was a little while ago—well, it seems like a long time ago, but it wasn’t really—is flooding, which impacted different parts of the country in different ways and was something that sadly we experienced ourselves in my county of Gloucestershire. That is one set of circumstances when local reporting is at its best—when journalists get out into communities and report on the aspects of the issue that really matter to individuals.

I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the coronavirus outbreak, two aspects of which are worth noting. The first is that the huge amount of very locally focused responses in our communities—through local resilience forums, county councils, district councils, volunteers, and town and parish councils—has been covered in local media outlets, including the BBC, in a way that it simply would not have been, and has not been, in national broadcasting.

Mr Perkins

The right hon. Gentleman is right that the local context has been different. What is also different is local accountability, because councils have decisions to make about the local response to coronavirus, and politicians have to answer for those decisions, whether they be council leaders or Members of Parliament. That is the other dimension to the point he is making.

Mr Harper

I am grateful for that spot-on intervention, which leads to my final point, about one of the things that we will now be focused on. The Prime Minister tomorrow will announce further moves, I hope, to enable us to get our economy back on track and functioning. One of the important ways to facilitate that is through the test and trace system, which is starting to be up and ​running, and that is being dealt with not just by the NHS nationally. There is also an important local component, in that locally based, locally employed and locally accountable directors of public health will be responsible by the end of this month for putting together a local outbreak plan to deal with the inevitable local outbreaks—I say inevitable because we have already seen outbreaks in our country and others, whether in specific localities or specific businesses. That will be absolutely critical in getting the country functioning again while keeping people safe, and those outbreak plans will be locally developed, by locally accountable officials and councils.

That aspect is important, but when the inevitable outbreaks of coronavirus happen, it will also be really important to have quality journalism to report on what has happened in a non-sensationalist, factual way, so that local people know what is going on, what the facts are, what is being done to keep them safe and what they need to do to keep themselves and their communities safe. If we were to get rid of that local reporting and accountability, the country and our communities would be the poorer for it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton should be thanked for his wisdom in securing this debate, but also for brilliantly planning it to occur on a day when he would have a little more time than is often available in an Adjournment debate, thereby ensuring what I think will be quite a full debate. I hope the powers that be in the BBC watch BBC Parliament, which is another very valuable service delivered by the BBC, listen to the clear cross-party message—that should sound an alarm with them—from both main political parties and some of the smaller parties, and think very carefully about whether, come September, they should bring back BBC regional coverage and protect it in the months and years to come.