HC Deb 22 December 1965 vol 722 cc2188-97

3.39 p.m.

Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Lady-wood)

First, I want to say how grateful I am for the opportunity to raise this afternoon the subject of the standards of our television programmes. I also want to say how much I appreciate the presence of the Postmaster-General. It shows the interest and concern which he has for the feelings of many people. Many questions have been raised by hon. Members recently concerning programmes which have become offensive to public feeling—those which portray sex, violence, crime and vandalism to an unnecessary and sometimes alarming extent.

I recently raised with my right hon. Friend the question of how we could institute a wider inquiry into the impact of television upon all sections of society, especially youth. He replied that a committee had been appointed by the Home Secretary to inquire into this matter. My right hon. Friend will, no doubt, recollect that the announcement of this inquiry was in response to a Question I put to the Home Secretary on 3rd April, 1963. I had previously called the attention of the Postmaster-General's predecessor to the fact that I had found that no fewer than five children had been found dead from hanging after listening to television programmes. He replied to the effect that an inquiry would be made, and I was very grateful. I reminded him in a supplementary question that another young boy had been convicted of murdering his mother, and it was stated in court that he had been looking at television. I thought that this was a matter of urgency.

The committee is examining the problem and is carrying out research into the matter. I therefore naturally referred to the first paper that it published in March, 1964. In the foreword by a Mr. Noble, it said: It will therefore be some years before results of new research projects begin to be published and in the meantime public discussion of the influence of television will go on. In the meantime untold damage to character and more damage to the spiritual welfare of our youth will continue to exist. I should like to see a much wider examination of this problem.

Since I raised the matter originally I have read the report of the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation's special research into the effects of television on children and adolescents, published in 964. We were told in this report that These results are not entirely reassuring because they leave little doubt that violent programmes on television do not serve to reduce agression but, if anything, increase it and encourage its later expression … children with high levels of aggression are especially attracted to violent programmes on television. If television now feeds rather than reduces children's aggressive tendencies and if it gives them hints to take out agression with knives or guns then an opportunity may come to use those weapons at a moment when they are angry. There is little to make us believe that violent programmes on television reduce the likelihood of violence in real life. On the whole, the weight of the evidence is behind the Berkowitz conclusion. He submitted a paper on this matter, in which he said that a heavy dosage of violence by way of a mass media, although not a major determinant of crime or delinquency, heightens the probability that someone in the audience will behave agressively in a later situation. This reminds me of the words of Shakespeare in "King John": Sight of means to do ill deeds Means ill deeds done. I therefore felt it right to express my view of this matter in respect of the B.B.C. and the I.T.V. I am not concentrating especially on the B.B.C. The B.B.C. has been under a good deal of legitimate criticism, but both channels are putting on programmes which are not the most healthy for the youth of our country.

I then discovered that Lord Norman-brook, the Chairman of the Governors, had written a letter to my right hon. Friend's predecessor on 19th June, 1964, in which he said: The Board accept that so far as possible the programmes for which they are responsible should not offend against good taste or decency, or be likely to encourage crime and disorder or be offensive to public feeling. In judging what is suitable for inclusion in programmes, they will pay special regard to the need to ensure that broadcasts designed to stimulate thought do not so far depart from their intention as to give general offence. We are bound to recognise that the B.B.C. has been obliged on about six occasions in the last seven weeks to apologise. This shows that there is something wrong.

I wrote to Lord Normanbrook and explained that, while I was in no way anti-B.B.C., I was concerned about the level of television programmes. I said that I, like many others, had become increasingly disturbed about the deterioration of programmes calculated to have a detrimental effect, especially on the young. I added that the problem of crime, violence, juvenile delinquency and vandalism was giving concern and the gravest anxiety and no programme likely to encourage crime and disorder should be permitted.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

When my hon. Friend wrote to Lord Normanbrook, did he explain, define or write down the word to which he objected?

Mr. Yates

I was writing not about a particular word but about programmes. Therefore, I thought that I should get an answer when I asked him if he and his fellow governors would take early action to ensure that this great medium would set higher standards and ideals in an endeavour to elevate the minds of the people.

I think that it was reasonable, but all I received in reply was a letter which said: I have now seen the answer which the Postmaster General gave to your Question. I do not think that there is anything I can usefully add to this. Yet when I looked to the Press on 16th December, six days after I sent my letter, I saw headlines like "Governors seek more say in B.B.C. TV shows" in the Daily Mail; "Governors of the B.B.C. take grip on TV shows" in the Daily Express; "B.B.C. chiefs to tighten grip on TV "in the Daily Sketch. If this was the case, the Chairman of the B.B.C. Governors might have told me what steps he was taking to tighten up.

I was pleased to read that such was the case, but I had to turn to The Guardian to find out exactly what was being said about tightening up. I found that the B.B.C. had sent out a letter—signed by Mr. Sidney Newman, the head of the B.B.C.—giving advice. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would tell me if this is correct. I asked if I could have a copy of this letter and the Director-General decline. I accept that it was an internal communication, but it went out to the Press and I thought it reasonable that I, too, should have a copy.

Among these subjects to be watched carefully are needlessly lengthy violence, reference to sexual parts, underclothes, contraceptives, the showing of near nudity, too much emphasis on the physical side of sex, in particular the portrayal of couples in bed, and the use of offensive words. Our responsibility to the public equals our responsibility to television. I have read statements made by ministers of religion. One made a statement in his December bulletin calling attention to the I.T.A. He spoke of a scene in which a young girl was undressing in, so to speak, a couple of million front parlours, and inviting her young man to terminate her virginity because her parents thought that she had lost it anyway. This is not the worst that has appeared on Independent television, in spite of the efforts made to control it.

As my right hon. Friend knows, much discussion about the B.B.C. concerned the use of a word which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire has mentioned.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

What was the word?

Mr. Yates

My hon. Friend is very anxious for me to tell him, but I will not satisfy him. In any event, it is not the word about which one is most concerned, but the setting in which the word was used. Mr. Kenneth Tynan was asked, Does this mean that you would allow a play to be put on the National Theatre in which, for instance, sexual intercourse took place on the stage? He replied, Yes, I think so, certainly. He then used the word, which I think is of secondary importance. What follows is much more important, for he said, I think anything that can be printed or said can also be seen". It seems to me that we must examine this. The best answer is in a brilliant article in the New Statesman by J. B. Priestley in which he referred to the people who wanted this complete freedom and who wanted to champion the intelligent and sensitive dramatist. He said, But a dramatist who insisted upon showing sexual intercourse on the stage would be neither intelligent nor sensitive". He went on to say that there seemed to be no truth in their notions that we can be purged of our love for violence by having our noses rubbed in it at the playhouse". I would say that that also applies to television. All the evidence proves this. The glaring face of violence may be seen everywhere now on stages, on screens, and in hundreds of millions of printed pages, but where is all the purging? Who wants to go to the theatre, he asked to feel sick? One thing about people who watch television is that they watch it in their own homes. Apparently they have to feel sick in their own homes.

I will restrict my remarks, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. But I was interested in a leading article in The Guardian this morning to which I draw the Minister's attention. It contains a reference to the Annual Report of the Independent Television Authority. I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to one paragraph from the Report: It could well be that, in broadcasting, a separation of powers which leaves a final judgment in matters of standard to an authority which is detached—though not too far detached—from the problems and pressures of production is a valuable safeguard of the public interest. We should consider that. I do not know whether this is true but, according to the leading article in The Guardian, the I.T.A. appear to be much more efficient in the control of their programmes than the B.B.C. If that is so, let us find out how they do it. In the article, we read, … the I.T.A. Programmes Department, with a senior staff of nine, has found it possible to inspect no fewer than 7,500 advertising scripts in a year (and to reject one in five), and a great many other scripts as well. If the Governors really want to exercise editorial control this is the way to do it. I am not calling for a restrictive censorship. I want something much more intelligent. I want a proper understanding between all those responsible for this so that we may get a better control over what we believe to be damaging to the public interest. The Government more than exercise this censorship. Indeed, they have gone so far as to ban the advertising of cigarettes on television because they believe that smoking is injurious to one's physical well-being. That is complete censorship. Are the Government as concerned with the nation's spiritual and moral welfare as they are with its physical well-being? If so, they must find a way of having better supervision and control over this medium.

I appeal to my right hon. Friend to consider the importance of having a conference at which will be represented both the broadcasting agencies, the Home Office and others so that there can be a complete examination of television programmes and the bearing they may have on juvenile delinquency and vandalism. Let us, in the new year, have a thorough examination of this problem with the object of being certain that both broadcasting agencies will set higher standards and ideals in an endeavour to elevate the mind of the nation.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I will not detain the House for long because I realise that other hon. Members wish to speak. I intervene to emphasise a point which was extremely well put by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Victor Yates)—to whom we owe a deep debt of gratitude for raising this subject today—that this is a matter which is worrying millions of people throughout the country and that it is right that it should be aired.

I would also like to express my gratitude to the Postmaster-General for being here this afternoon. I appreciate that he takes this matter seriously. In an exchange in the House last Wednesday the Postmaster-General said, referring to programmes designed for juveniles: I know that this arouses very strong feeling, and if the hon. Gentleman"— that was my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty)— feels so strongly about it he should, as many hon. Members do, make representations to the B.B.C. and I.T.A. either directly or through me."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th December, 1965; Vol. 722, c. 1254.] That is exactly what we have been trying to do, and I wish to underline what the hon. Member for Ladywood said about our not seeming to get that sort of co-operation. In the past there has, I am sorry to say, been a somewhat arrogant attitude on the part of the Governors of the B.B.C. in their complete and utter refusal to meet their critics. That also applies to their receiving praises because, after all, we are not confined solely to criticism. I believe that had the B.B.C. shown more willingness to cooperate the present sense of recrimination which exists would never have arisen.

An outside body of viewers and listeners was formed to look into this matter. It comprises chief constables of various parts of the countries, members of the churches, including a number of bishops, members of the B.M.A. and a vast cross-section of the community. It seems extraordinary that on the day that organisation was formed it was immediately called "this lunatic fringe". Such a body of people should not have been referred to in those terms, yet that was the attitude of the B.B.C.

We are not confined to examining only the B.B.C. The I.T.A. comes into this, too. Lord Hill and the I.T.A. were extremely co-operative when I raised a matter with them. Several of us were invited to lunch, at which we had a frank discussion of virtually everything. They also invited Mrs. Whitehouse, who has been fighting for a considerable time in this campaign. We wore shown great co-operation——

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Was it a good lunch?

Mr. Dance

The lunch had nothing to do with it. They were willing to hear our views, and I would have been perfectly happy to have had the discussion over a cup of tea.

The B.B.C. is, or should be, a public service. That being so, it has all the greater bounden duty to listen to outside criticism—possibly even more so than the commercials, which are under the guidance of the I.T.A. The B.B.C. should, therefore, either agree to free discussion with people outside or accept the fact that we shall fight it, as we shall have to if the B.B.C. will not meet us——

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

I have been listening to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance), and I was absolutely shocked when he said that the B.B.C. should be more responsible than the I.T.A. We cannot differentiate between the two channels, when they probably go into the same number of homes. We cannot say that the B.B.C. must observe very high standards but that it does not matter so much with the I.T.A.

Mr. Dance

The hon. Member has got me entirely wrong, but perhaps I did not make myself quite clear. I meant that the public service should certainly be as responsible as the independent service. It is not, at the present moment—or so it would appear from all the criticism we have had. Either the B.B.C. must agree to free discussion and talk about our problems, or it must accept the fact that we will fight—because we have to—for the setting up of a viewers' council, perhaps, or, as I have suggested in the Order Paper—and I think that the hon. Member opposite would agree—a body for viewers, similar to the Independent Television Authority, to cover the whole of broadcasting in this country. It appears that the Governors of the B.B.C. are falling down on their job and that at present the other channels are doing a beter job, although I do not say that they are perfect—nothing is.

Some of the programmes we have seen may be suitable for viewing in theatre clubs, or even in small theatres, where one can read what the critics have said and knows the type of play it is, but I maintain that they are absolutely unsuitable to be put automatically into 13½ million homes. And I want to kill, once and for all, the silly idea of "You can always switch off." One does not switch off until one has been offended, and if one has children it may be embarrassing, because they ask, "Why are you switching off?" I hope that this aspect will be taken into consideration.

I believe that the campaign both inside this House and outside it is having an effect—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has mentioned the directive recently sent out from Lord Norman-brook. Some time ago, I tried to set up an all-party committee on this subject. I hope that we will have such a committee. It should be quite outside party politics. And I hope that the hon. Member opposite and I can get together after the Christmas Recess with a view to setting up a committee of that sort. I would only add that there is no connection between our views and those of M.R.A.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Wedgwood Benn.

4.3 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn) rose——

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it right and proper that a debate should take place, that two speeches should be made in support of the Motion, and that no speaker should be called on to express any doubt at all about the Motion?

Mr. Speaker

There is nothing in that point of order. I noticed, incidentally, that the hon. Member was trying to catch my eye. He was no longer entitled to catch my eye. We are on the Adjournment. The hon. Member has already spoken.

Mr. Benn

I would congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Victor Yates) and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) on their speeches. I welcome the holding of this debate, which is, I think, a great deal better than the exchanges that have taken place at Question Time, when I have been subjected to some difficult Questions and have found it hard to explain at any very great length the reasons for the view I have taken on programmes and standards.

We can agree that radio and television exercise an enormous importance in the lives of the community. They enter into every home, and have a far greater impact—particularly television—than almost any other medium, and they are major forces in shaping the thinking of young people. I believe that television ranks at least equally with formal education in shaping the education of the new generation. We must also agree that if that is right, seriously-minded people of differing views are bound to band themselves together into pressure groups to see that this great responsibility is exercised, as they would see it, in the interests of the community as a whole.

It also follows that, because of the importance of this matter and because of the differences of opinion that will exist between sincere people on the exercise of that responsibility, there will be disagreements, and I would be very sorry if anyone were to knock the arguments about television or those who engage in them on the ground that sometimes they appear to contradict one another.

The hon. Member for Bromsgrove referred to one of the difficulties. It is that, by definition, the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. are in the field of mass communication. Unlike publishers, painters, film makers and newspaper editors, everything that is done by those authorities is available without extra cost in every home in the land, and it is really that problem that makes television so specially difficult for us to discuss.

There is one school of thought—and I thought that the hon. Member for Brooms rove rather moved in the direction of it—that because programmes are available in every house—

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