HC Deb 01 March 1955 vol 537 cc1881-3
48. Mr. Foot

asked the Prime Minister whether he will initiate discussions to revise the notice given to the British Broadcasting Corporation concerning the 14-day ban on radio or television debates about issues to be debated in Parliament.

52. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Prime Minister whether he will state the basis of his refusal to reconsider the ban on political broadcasts and discussions by the British Broadcasting Corporation in certain circumstances; and by what authority this agreement was reached, in view of the established principle that there shall be no interference in programme matters.

The Prime Minister

As the rule was adopted by the B.B.C. itself with the agreement of the official leaders of the major parties, and as this arrangement continues up to the present to be the basis of its operation, no authority is required. For many reasons, some of which I indicated to the House on 23rd February, I do not see why the rule should be reconsidered. Certainly I should not propose to reconsider it until reference had been made through the usual channels to the leaders of the other side.

Mr. Foot

Although the Prime Minister expressed his own view on this matter very strongly, does he not think that it is properly a matter to be decided by the House of Commons and not by party leaders or party Whips? Will he, therefore, make arrangements so that the House of Commons may be able to debate the matter and vote on it, and give its own decision?

The Prime Minister

That is certainly a matter which could be taken into consideration through the usual channels.

Mr. Shinwell

Although it may have been convenient in 1948 to come to such an arrangement—[Laughter.]—it was agreed to by the right hon. Gentleman himself, and I hope that note will be taken of that—ifthe B.B.C. should now wish to revise the agreement, and makes representations to the right hon. Gentleman and others concerned with it, would the Prime Minister be prepared to reconsider it? Would he direct attention to any clause in the B.B.C. Charter which permits any outside body of persons to interefere with B.B.C. business?

The Prime Minister

The two sides of the House would have to go through the preliminaries. So far as I am concerned, I am a convinced and obstinate opponent of a change. I think that the liberty of the individual must be sustained. It must be sustained against the tyrant, it must be sustained against the mass, and it must be sustained against the machine.

Mr. Attlee

Is it not the general view that the authority of this House as the main forum of discussion must be sustained against any attempt by an outside body to usurp its position?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question sets forth principles worthy of the responsible leadership of a great party.

Sir R. Boothby

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he will take steps to ensure that any future negotiations of this kind which take place with the B.B.C. shall be conducted by the Government, which is responsible to the House, rather than by the party caucuses behind the back of the House, without the knowledge of the House?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly consider that. I am not quite sure that the hon. Member, who is one of these great stars, is entirely impartial.

Mr. C. Davies

While agreeing with what the Leader of the Opposition has said about the House being the principal forum, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he will not agree that there is no right whatsoever for anybody, even in this House, to deny the right of private discussion and free speech to anyone? Does he not also agree that on a matter as important as this, it should not be left to any particular section of the House, but to the House itself, to make any report on the matter?

The Prime Minister

I am all for liberty of private discussion and free speech, but it does seem to me that new and different series of considerations arise when we have to deal with the use of modern machinery which addresses very often, whether they are prepared for it or not, over 13½ million persons.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is no party decision on this matter, either on that side of the House or on this? Will he not agree that individual Members of the House have a right to express an opinion on a matter which concerns not the Government alone, nor the party leaders, but every hon. Member?

The Prime Minister

Of course, if there were any very strong opinions on either side of the House—even more if there were strong opinions on both sides—I have no doubt that the various facilities open in the course of the Session would, one way or another, be made available.

Mr. Bellenger

If by any chance the House decides to reverse this rule, would the Prime Minister do all he can to see that the B.B.C. is not used as a monopoly by certain individual right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen?