HC Deb 16 March 1959 vol 602 cc161-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North)

I rise to draw the attention of the House once more to an act of irresponsibility by an independent television programme company in making a bogus news broadcast which had the effect of causing great distress to many people throughout the country. In raising this matter I ought to say that I have what I might call a neutral interest in the matter, because I have written television plays both for the B.B.C. and for the Independent Television Authority. In a sense, therefore, in criticising a programme company of the I.T.A., I am tonight biting the hand that partially feeds me.

But I believe that a considerable number of abuses have crept into the presentation of television programmes on the independent service. I believe that the Television Act is not being effectively administered by the Independent Television Authority, and that if commercial television is not to become an objectionable, and indeed a corrupting element, in our public and social life, some of the irresponsible conduct which is included in the matter that I hope to raise tonight will have to be ended, and the Act will have to be properly administered.

The Television Act of 1954 is quite specific about the duties incumbent upon a programme contractor. Section 3 (1, a), provides that nothing is included in the programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to he offensive to public feeling or which contains any offensive presentation of or reference to a living person. It is my submission that the programme to which I am principally referring offended in every particular against that paragraph, with the possible exception of the phrase dealing with incitement or encouragement to crime—and I hope to deal with that in a few moments.

The facts about this bogus broadcast are well known, but I will venture to summarise them again rapidly. On the night of 20th February a programme was presented by Associated-Rediffusion entitled, "Before the Sun Goes Down". It was a play. I must make it clear that I have no objection to drama or melodrama which is known to be such and which involves a voluntary suspension of belief. I have no objection. On the contrary, there is everything to say in favour of drama which produces catharsis, the purging of the emotions through fear and sympathy.

This was something entirely different. The play was preceded by a so-called newscaster, broadcasting from what was apparently a television news room. I have taken the trouble to ask Associated-Rediffusion for the script, and I am about to quote the exact statement made by the broadcaster: We are interrupting the programme for an urgent announcement. Tonight a new and terrifying satellite has been launched into outer space. Defying all previously held scientific theory, it hangs stationary over London. Then it was shown on the screen. Here it is, seen from a camera on the roof of Television House. The question is—is this an enemy space platform armed with H-bombs aimed at the heart of the City? Before we know the answer, remember—there is no need for panic. This was the invitation to the millions of viewers who were looking in: There is no need for panic. There has been no ultimatum from any other Power. The Prime Minister"— I mention this because of the reference in the Section of the Act to the offensive representation of a living person— has called an emergency Defence Council meeting. He has asked us to broadcast the following message: 'Fear is our greatest enemy, not bombs. Carry on as usual; but stay in your homes with your families. Our trust is in God '. In compliance with the Prime Minister's request, the Civil Defence has ordered all traffic and pedestrians off the streets at once. In a Parliamentary Question, a short time ago, I asked the Joint Under-Secre-tary of State for the Home Department, who I am glad to see present tonight, whether it was desirable, whether it was not hostile to public order, that a bogus news broadcast should be made which apparently involved the mobilisation of Civil Defence. Being perfectly literal, she quite rightly replied that there had not been any mobilisation. This was a pretence that the Prime Minister had asked that the Civil Defence should order all traffic and pedestrians off the street at once.

The broadcast had all the hallmark of authenticity. The room, the broadcaster, the manner, all combined to give the vast public looking in at the programme the feeling that it was a genuine news broadcast. While it is true that a preliminary announcement had been made in the Television Times that there would be some simulation of actuality, there were probably many millions of people who had not read the Television Times and had no idea of what was to happen.

What was the effect of this public mischief. I cannot better illustrate its effect than by reading to the House a letter I received from a lady living outside my constituency. I shall quote it exactly as she wrote it, because in its simplicity it states the tragic effect which the broadcast had probably on more people than we can ever know. She writes: Dear Sir, Please do something about the people who frightened us all so last Friday night with the play. We were so happy before, laughing, and suddenly we could not believe what we were hearing. The shock was awful. I could have dropped dead on the spot. We thought it was real, because the play was not announced. The man just said, So sorry to interrupt the programme for an urgent warning. Don't panic', and when he mentioned the Prime Minister we thought it was true. We were frightened to death as we turned off the television at once and turned on the radio to stand by, like he said, so we did not know it was a play for one hour and in that time I was waiting to be killed. It felt so long I went to the kitchen and looked hard with dread thoughts at the gas stove. It was horrible, horrible. Surely they are not going to be allowed to do this and go unpunished. My confidence in the television and radio is no more as anyone can say anything in it and get away with it. It is what the writer says next that I want most to stress: Some time ago I suffered a thrombosis. and that night, directly after I had the shock, it returned and I was in pain all night and I now feel very nervous since. That letter was from a viewer who was going about her affairs, happy with her family, and suddenly shocked by what she rightly called this "terrible bogus news broadcast." Her reaction was not unique. In saying that, I go only by my own postbag. I have spoken to a large number of people who heard the programme, and one of them—and I say this to show that those affected were not what some superior people call "morons"—is a Queen's Counsel with whom I am acquainted. He told me that he himself had been greatly shocked by the announcement and this his wife had suffered a minor heart attack. It is no exaggeration to say that all over the country people suffered from shock, varying from the minor trauma that can be corrected by a swig of whisky to those other cardiac attacks of which I have quoted an example—and the example could be multiplied.

It is perfectly true that the Independent Television Authority warned Associated-Rediffusion that this programme might cause panic. It is equally true that Associated-Rediffusion very properly investigated the matter, and sent a letter of apology to the Independent Television Authority. But can the matter be allowed to rest there?

If a person—and this analogy was contained in another letter—were to dress himself as a newsvendor and go about purporting to sell, say, the Evening Standard, claiming that the Civil Defence was about to be mobilised and that invaders were about to land, causing distress and panic, and the dreadful anxiety that such an announcement would inevitably cause, would he be allowed to get away with it? Would not that be a public mischief, punishable by law?

I do not raise this matter because I want to revive this offence against the public or to seek to punish those who perpetrated it. On the other hand, it is not enough for the Postmaster-General—so admirable in very many respects—merely to say, as he has done, that he has discussed the matter with the television companies and that they have promised to be good in the future, and not to include news broadcasts in any future programme.

That is all right so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Under the Television Act, the Postmaster-General is entitled to give specific directives. It may be quite true that a voluntary agreement can be more desirable than a directive. None the less, the television companies have been getting away with far too much under this Section, and strong action is called for by the Postmaster-General.

The difficulty is that the object of commercial television is to keep the viewer in a state of permanent excitement, so that not only is his attention held, but if any viewer breaks into a programme he is immediately involved in the excitement that is going on. In other words, the purpose of commercial television is to make an immediate assault on the viewer's emotions, and it does so in the most direct way that an assault can be effected — by presenting violence as a means of holding the viewer's attention.

In other places as well as in this House I have referred to the increasing amount of sadistic violence that is shown on television - and Independent Television, in particular—and which offends against Section 7 of the Act. There is no doubt that criminals on television are glamorised and romanticised. What is the use of police patrols in Richmond, hauling in gangs of Teddy boys, when night after night the whole of television constantly exalts violence in one form or another? I say this as one who regularly looks at television, and I am convinced that that is the case.

I should like to quote another letter. I apologise for quoting so much, but I think that it is relevant to my argument. They are the testimony of experienced people. I should like to quote a letter from one of the most experienced security officers of one of the largest commercial firms in the country which is concerned in the collection and delivery of millions of pounds worth of bullion annually in and around London. He says: The portrayal on T.V. plays of suggested methods of attacking money-carrying vehicles, if adopted by thieves, is an added danger to the security measures of genuine firms and personnel engaged in this exacting occupation. Although so many of these television programmes, these fictionalised documentaries, end by pointing the moral when the thief is captured, this security officer says: … the very moral of the stories presented in plays and pictures of this type of crime where the thieves are always caught, is an added danger, as bandits would take steps to avoid the mistakes made by their prototypes and so make it more difficult for the police to capture them as well as dangerous to the personnel of the money-carrying vehicles I think that I have said enough in these two dramatic illustrations of the irresponsibility of television to show how the central Section in the Television Act to which I have referred is constantly being flouted by the television companies. The Minister has done good work in many directions, but this continuing corruption of the nation's life through the degradation which is portrayed on television results in a medium which could be used for good being precisely that incitement to deplorable actions which the Television Act was created to avoid.

It is not enough for the Postmaster-General to slap the Television Authority on the wrist. It is not enough for him merely to make reprimanding noises to the programme companies. I believe that we have now reached a point where either the Television Act must be made to work by the Postmaster-General or, if it cannot be made to work, it must be changed The Postmaster-General has a direct responsibility under the Act to ensure that the Independent Television Authority discharges the purposes for which it has been set up. I submit that that is not the case.

If the Television Act itself is incapable of being made effective, that Act should be changed and the ill-gotten gains of the programme companies which have been acquired by the doubtful methods to which I have referred should be 'restored to a television authority or council which can help to ensure that this powerful agency of communication is used in the public interest and not to its detriment.

10.29 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) for raising this subject, since there are some aspects of it which the House can profitably clear up.

Let me deal first of all with the general relationship which ought to exist between Members of this House and the broadcasting authorities in their various stages, from the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Television Authority through to the programme companies and finally through to the actual producers of the programmes.

Members of Parliament have a public duty to guard the public interest and to bring before the House what they think to be offences against that public interest or dereliction of public duty if it seems to them that someone has been guilty of that offence. They have an obligation too to guard against the pursuit of selfish, mischievous or frivolous courses. They have a responsibility to acquaint themselves so far as they can with the whole story before they draw attention to what seem to them to be weaknesses or defects at any stage in these processes.

Let me here say something which I have said to the House before, but which I think to be absolutely paramount in our consideration of this matter and any matter relating to broadcasting. It is that the House has frequently absolved itself from responsibility for the day-to-day content of radio and television programmes. The House is neither equipped nor qualified to arrange, or purport to arrange, what should go out from day to day on the various broadcasting systems. The existing legislation, both as it affects the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Television Authority is specific in defining that relationship between the House and the two authorities.

Now let us look at the precise facts of this case upon which the hon. Gentleman has pegged some very serious and searching criticisms of the Authority and into which he has read far more than seems to me to be justified by the facts. The Authority regards itself as the guardian of the way in which the programme companies operate the various Sections and provisions of the Television Act. The House is entitled to know how the Authority sees itself as discharging those obligations and how it saw itself discharging them in this case. The programme companies submit about a month in advance of the programme to be broadcast a schedule showing the nature and broad details of the forthcoming programmes. That was done in this case. When the Authority received from the programme company the outline and preliminary details of this programme it saw that a simulated news broadcast of the kind with which it was proposed to open the programme would very probably cause alarm. It advised the company accordingly.

A little later, the company submitted to the Authority a full script of the play, and for a second time the Authority, in pursuance of its duty of observing the provisions of Section 3 of the Act, drew the attention of the company to the fact that this kind of opening would create alarm of some kind. The Authority was assured that this point had been noted by the company, and the company issued the necessary instructions to its staff having regard to the nature of the proposed opening and of the nature of the warning issued by the Authority in pursuit of its duty. But at a lower stage in the chain of command the warning was either omitted or ignored, at any rate inadvertently not followed, and the programme opened as the script had forecast.

Mr. Edelman

This is really the crucial point. Did the programme company at the request of the Authority decide not to include at all what I call the bogus newscast? Did it decide to suppress it? That is the point.

Mr. Thompson

Yes, the necessary instructions were issued by the company to the producers lower down in the command that it should not be broadcast in that form because of the inherent dangers in it.

Mr. Edelman

We have here an important question of fact. I have in front of me the actual shooting script of the broadcast. That being so, this was the shooting script distributed to all who took part in the programme. How could they have done otherwise than broadcast the newscast?

Mr. Thompson

I am trying to deal with the basic point which the hon. Gentleman raised, which is not "whodunit" but whether the Independent Television Authority is applying itself to seeing that the terms of the Act are followed. The Authority twice drew the attention of the programme company to the dangers inherent in the programme. What happened from then on is within the programme company and does not affect the basic question of whether or not the Authority is doing its job or did its job.

As we know now, the programme company at some stage lower down the hierarchy omitted to take notice of the warning that had been given about the broadcast, and the broadcast went out with the consequences which the hon. Gentleman has described, with which I entirely sympathise, as does the Authority, which is on record as having said so. So the Authority, far from meriting the strictures which the hon. Gentleman has passed on it, had taken steps which accorded with its duties under the Act before the broadcast. Nevertheless, due to what we, so far as we can discover, believe to be an error, the broadcast went out.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to ask what the Authority then did to ensure that, since it was exercising its powers under an Act of Parliament, it was not frustrated in doing so. The Authority immediately called together those who were responsible for this kind of thing in all the programme companies, and as a result of an agreement reached after free and, I imagine, frank discussion, decided that simulated news broadcasts of this kind should not go out again. That was a decision reached by negotiation and agreement, and I am sure—the hon. Gentleman himself said so—that that is the right way to deal with this of kind of matter in a changing, growing industry of this kind. As new problems arise—there will be many more of them—we must reach a satisfactory solution which meets the point as the point occurs.

An instruction has been issued to the programme companies, as I announced to the House on 26th of last month, that this should not be done again. So once again the Authority is on record as having performed its duty under the Act to see that under Section 3 matters which are objectionable in one or other of the ways described in the Section shall not be broadcast.

It seems to me that that entitles the Authority to ask the House to absolve it from having failed to do its duty. Indeed, it seems to me that the Authority is entitled to ask that it should not be condemned to the kind of treatment which the hon. Gentleman wants us to give it—that is, for the Postmaster-General to use what are basically reserve powers to issue directions about the kind of matter which shall or shall not be broadcast. Indeed, I think that, the Postmaster-General—and also the hon. Gentleman—would find himself in very great difficulty in defining in terms that were acceptable or understandable how one should put this proscription upon the programme companies. Since it has been found possible on this occasion to find words which are comprehensible and agreeable to all parties, I hope we may look for this kind of mistake to be avoided in the future.

Let us have no doubt about it that this is a growing and changing industry. New situations will arise from time to time which will produce problems of their own which will have to be solved as the occasions arise. A case law will be provided out of the discussions which will follow these new situations. From that case law we will probably get, in years to come, a better Television Act. It will not be produced by this House sitting down now at this early stage in the development of a comparatively new art form and trying to prescribe for it a legislative straitjacket, into which every kind of programme has to fit.

The hon. Member terminated his remarks with some references to the displays of crimes of violence on television. How shall we set about prescribing the limits within which programmes of violence, or aggression, or competition between the forces of law on the one side and of evil on the other, are to be limited? It would defy description. Shall we limit ourselves to preventing the presentation of crimes of violence as being corruptive, or venture into the field of sex discussion, or of plays which rely on the relationship between a man and a woman, perhaps the woman not being his wife?

The hon. Member is not without experience in these matters; indeed, he is on record as having himself presented on television—certainly with some artistic success—plays with the dramatisation of human situations which are not uncommon. Whether he has contributed to the sum total of human happiness in doing so I do not know. I do not know whether there is some residuary good or evil, but I do know that it would be beyond the wit of man to define in simple, understandable and universally accepted terms the boundaries beyond which all these things which happen to men and women should not go. I feel that the Independent Television Authority is facing a difficult task with courage and resolution, and, I think, with a large—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.