Julian Knight MP: 'To stay relevant, public service broadcasting must reflect the entire country'
Julian Knight secured the chairmanship of the DCMS committee on a platform calling for reform to the BBC. A former journalist at the corporation, he has vowed to be a “critical friend” in his new role. The Tory MP talks to Georgina Bailey about why the Beeb must reflect the views of the nation as a whole.
Surprise Conservative scalps have been a feature of recent Select Committee chair elections. In 2017, Tom Tugendhat defeated the incumbent Crispin Blunt for the Foreign Affairs Committee, by 317 votes to 184. When Julian Knight beat out Damian Collins at the end of January this year, it was a lot closer.
“Only nine votes,” the new Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee tells me as we meet in his Portcullis House office. He puts his victory down to his experience of beating Liberal Democrats in general elections, having secured the largest swing against them in England and Wales when he took Solihull in 2015. “I’m not being boastful, but I do have a skill set when it comes to data and how to use that data. I just applied exactly the same principles I would do to any election. I canvassed properly.”
Knight reckons he must have spoken to between 350 to 400 MPs over his campaign, with “different leaflets for different parts of the tearoom”. On election day, he missed PMQs for a “full get out the vote operation”. “It’s the job I’ve always wanted,” he explains. “I had no particular desires to be a bag carrier or do this or do that. All I want to do is be a good parliamentarian, scrutinise properly, be conciliatory and try and do a good body of work.”
With 17 years as a journalist under his belt, and having authored several books, Knight’s experience meant he felt “well placed” to take the role. He is also a self-declared “sports enthusiast”; he opens the batting for the Lords and Commons Cricket Team and is a keen cyclist. To his “shame”, he supports two football teams – Manchester United, his family team, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, his “secret dark web-type arrangement”. “When United were really successful, I was secretly watching Wolverhampton Warriors, who at the time were in Division Four, so I was no glory hunter,” he explains.
Having first joined the DCMS committee in 2016, he was the longest-serving Conservative member (aside from Collins himself) on the scrutinising body, with the previous iteration often making headlines. Its inquiries on fake news, disinformation and Cambridge Analytica were particularly high-profile, as well as its ongoing battle for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, to appear to answer questions on those topics. What did Knight make of the ‘grand committee’ style of his predecessor?
“Look, it got us incredibly well known, it got us incredibly noticed. It obviously had a huge influence particularly pertaining to fake news and to Facebook. You know, we really shifted global political opinion on that. So, that was hugely successful. And it was risk-taking, out there. And you know, that's all credit to him.”
Knight adds: “I have enormous respect for Damian. He was in many respects a terrific chair, and I think that’s the hardest part of it… I never took it as anything personal, it’s simply politics.”
Now he has the role, how is he finding it? “Last year was probably the worst year of my professional life,” he says, citing the “low-level radiation of stress” across the Parliamentary Estate over Brexit and the “powerlessness” he felt as reasons. “This year so far is turning out hopefully to be the best.”
Another professional period he reflects upon fondly is his five years as a journalist as the BBC – an institution his committee will be scrutinising closely this Parliament. In fact, we meet two days before the BBC’s Director-General Lord Hall, Chair David Clementi and Director of Policy Claire Summer are due to appear in front of the new DCMS committee for their first evidence session of Parliament. Knight, who has previously stated he wants to be a “critical friend” of the Corporation, says he is “very fond” of his time there and still has friends working there too. “I found it to be an amazing repository of knowledge, of skill, of real warmth as well actually. It was a really pleasant place to work.”
When he joined the BBC, Knight was asked which Oxbridge college he had attended (he actually got a “Desmond Tutu” in History from Hull University, more commonly known as a 2:2). This is one of the reasons he would like to see more “diversity of thought and background” at the broadcaster. He credits the reforms pursued in the early 2000s by Greg Dyke, the former BBC director-general, on improving ethnic diversity in the organisation, but says there is still much to be done to ensure it properly reflects regional voices. “Outside of London and Manchester, there are genuine concerns over the footprint of the BBC in terms of not just in terms of its employees, but also maybe in cultural terms”, he explains.
“It needs to be a bottom-up organisation. It needs to reflect the views of the nation as a whole audience but also have that diversity of thought and challenge [the notion of a predominant view]”.
He adds: “To make public service broadcast relevant, we need it to effectively not just reflect people like me, and not just reflect Westminster. It needs to reflect the entire country.”
"Any idea that you could move instantly to a subscription service straightaway is really not practicable"
The Committee will be undertaking a “really granular” inquiry into the long-term future of public service broadcasting – although Knight prefers to call it “public service content”, explaining that “it’s multi-channel now, it’s not just linear.” He expects the investigation to cover how public service content connects with younger people, how it remains “relevant” and “special” in a multi-channel world where people resent the idea of “being led by the nose”, and how it interacts with the public.
“As a committee, I think we need to look precisely what we want public service broadcast to be,” he explains. “You do have to wonder whether or not the more paternalist views... really resonate quite as much as they used to? You know, 'we know best', is that [right]? Do you think you need to be a bit more bottom up?”
Knight says his ideal end state for the BBC would see it as “still valued” and playing “a full role in the cultural life of this country,” geared towards meeting the needs of the audience and the broadcast sector as a whole. Writing for The Express in January, he said that the BBC “often crushes” the private sector. When asked for examples of “crushing”, he pivots, saying it’s not really about the past, but going forward the BBC needs to think about how it uses its “huge power and huge resource” when interacting with the private sector, while also justifying its decisions “with a really robust regulator”.
In the same Express article, which set out his pitch for the chairmanship, Knight called the licence fee a “poll tax” and an “anachronism in a world of choice”. He set out two options for reforming the licence fee: “to move to a subscription service or to allow people to opt-out from the BBC,” claiming that “the technology is there already” with iPlayer registration. What then is his preferred funding model?
“That’s something the committee is going to consult on,” he starts, before adding: “The truth of the matter is that any idea that you could move instantly to, for example, a subscription service straightaway is really not practicable because the set-top boxes are dumb, and they can't take subscription. So effectively, you would be turning off the TV services for millions of Britons. And that is politically unsustainable in any form, so let's park that idea for now.”
Instead, he believes there are a series of options that the committee and government can look at, including “steady as she goes”, introducing a subscription for some services, or expanding the BBC’s product offer.
For now, Knight says he wants to remove some of the “heat” around the topic, and instead give the committee space to examine the long-term architecture of public service broadcasting and its content. “We need a bit of light.”
“Football is still homophobic, it's intolerant of gay people”
Midway through our meeting, we pause to watch the results of the Tory rebel amendment to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill on the television screen in Knight’s office. Although Knight did put his name to the amendment setting a 2022 end date for Huawei’s controversial involvement in our telecoms network, he was not one of the 36 Conservative members who voted against the Government. “I abstained, mainly because we also have another potential vote in three or four months’ time,” he explains. “I've made my position very clear to the prime minister today in a meeting, that I think that we need to have a firmer timetable for when we transition Huawei out the network.”
He continues: “Security and democracy trumps economics every time, and that's not an easy thing to say in some respects because we all want to go with the option of least resistance. But I do have concerns, and they're quite guttural, about the fact that if some of our biggest allies are worried about this and warning us about it, we need to take that with great seriousness… I can't see why if we're saying that we can do broadband gigabyte in five years by 2025, why we can't have a deadline for when Huawei can leave the network.”
The committee’s first inquiry of the new Parliament will be on the topic of broadband and the road to 5G, particularly holding the government and providers accountable to the 2025 rollout commitment – an issue Knight said came up multiple times in his canvassing of colleagues. Other issues he expects the committee to look at include sports governance, particularly the “treatment of football fans”. Knight identifies “quite serious failings” around kick off times, secondary ticketing, the price of ticketing, price of kits, as well as the governance of clubs and the fit and proper persons test for club owners.
An area he is particularly passionate about is tackling homophobia in football. “It's incredible is it not, in a Premier League of several hundred players… that we don't have an openly gay footballer. Football is still homophobic, it's intolerant of gay people,” he says. Working either as a committee or supporting the Home Office to do so, he would like to bring forward legislation to change the Football (Offences) Act 1991 to specifically outlaw homophobia in football grounds in the same way that racism is (while recognising there is still a way to go in tackling racism in football and society).
“[Amending the Act] is something that has been mooted for a long time, but because of elections, it’s never happened,” he says. “We’ve got a good run now. Let’s go for that.”
An area where the committee will have a more dominant role is in scrutinising the long-awaited online harms legislation. “I'm going to be watching what the government does like a hawk over the next year, as is the committee,” he explains. While wanting big technology companies feel able to operate in the UK, “we do need to be firm about certain things,” Knight says.
His mission, he explains, is to stand up to those who believe that tech companies “aren't just a platform, they aren't just effectively, a megaphone and whatever emerges from the megaphone is not their responsibility. They are part of our society. They have a responsibility and a duty of care.”
The idea of good regulation is that you rarely have to use it as it is so well understood by industry, Knight contends. But he wants the regulator for technology companies to be as “powerful as the Financial Conduct Authority,” with the necessary freedom, resources and clout. He also wants the committee to have a veto on the chair of the regulator – in this case, Ofcom. “They're going to be one of the powerful regulators in the Western world. And I think that needs parliamentary scrutiny,” he says.
The sports element of his new brief has not been untouched by the impacts of coronavirus, with rumours swirling that sporting fixtures may be called off en masse or played behind closed doors. Knight is happy to be led by medical advice on that, and praises colleagues across the House for the “incredibly responsible, thoughtful and respectful” nature in which information has been communicated.
“We need to take less thought off Twitter, and quite frankly trust what the chief medical officer says, because if we don't, then what else do we have?”