HC Deb 22 December 1965 vol 722 cc2198-202

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

Mr. Benn

In your absence, Mr. Speaker, there have been some further contributions to the debate, which will not be immortalised in HANSARD but which I shall try to answer, as far as I can, in winding up.

I was making the point that the basic problem of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. is that they reach every home, and one argument adduced as a result of this is that what is shown ought to be limited to what is suitable for all.

My view—I think this would be the view of the House—is that were such a policy or doctrine to be accepted, it would sterilise and neutralise broadcasting to such an extent that the good as well as the bad would be eliminated from it. But if that view is rejected—the idea of universal suitability—how is one to resolve the questions of judgment that arise over different areas of controversy? I should like briefly to go over some of the areas of controversy that exist in connection with programme standards.

First, there is the moral argument. There are some people who sincerely and honestly believe that it is wrong to depict in television programmes, or to describe or discuss, those practices or thoughts which are contrary to the accepted ethics of a Christian society. Those people are ranged against others, equally sincere I believe, who believe that if television is to do its duty to the community it must deal with real life and depict, dissect, describe and diagnose the situation and dilemma of our society. It is a genuine conflict between people with opposite views who are equally sincere in presenting them.

The problem arises again in arguments about religious belief. Some devout people believe it wrong that a broadcasting authority should in any way question, or bring into question, the Christian faith. There are others—call them humanists or what one likes—who have felt in the past excluded from access to the microphone or camera because they were expressing a minority view. In matters of religious controversy—although, happily, the arguments between the denominations have diminished—there are people with strongly held personal convictions that lead them to be gravely affected by what may be said by a member of another denomination.

There are also the arguments to which my hon. Friends referred about the general influence of programmes, the influence of violence on children. Some people think that this is a problem connected with "fighting and shooting"—the cowboy and Indian type of programme. But many psychologists think it is something much more subtle and insidious, that it is the attitude to violence depicted on the screen which may damage the child's chances of development. Others say violence never did anyone any harm when shown in books and other places, and that it is the triviality of television and the acquisitiveness encouraged by advertisements which does harm. Finally, there are arguments about political impartiality, which go on all the time.

I hope I have done enough without identifying my own views—it would be wrong to do so—to show that the areas of controversy over which these arguments range are so wide and the difficulties are so great that whoever was responsible for programme standards would find the task very difficult indeed. We as a Parliament have consciously vested this task in the Board of Governors of the B.B.C. and the members of the I.T.A., who are distinguished men and women dedicated to the task, with a wide variety of experience, and advised by advisory councils. They are people who by general agreement are well fitted to discharge the task. If it is thought that these men and women are not doing their job properly, it is right to criticise them. What I question is whether a view that they are not doing their job so as to satisfy the opinion of one or other person watching, justifies us in moving into the new area of the Postmaster-General exercising his reserve powers.

Mr. Dance

Will the right hon. Gentleman use his good offices to arrange for the Governors of the B.B.C. to meet one or two of us and discuss these problems? That is all.

Mr. Benn

Perhaps I may have an opportunity of discussing that point with the hon. Gentleman afterwards. It is not within my power to arrange interviews, but I will discuss this aspect with him.

I ask the House very seriously to consider whether it is right, because some people strongly feel that those who are responsible are not discharging their responsibility, to try to draw into the controversy a man who, clearly, is not suitable for the task which is required—namely, a political Minister, the Postmaster-General.

The B.B.C. and the I.T.A. are very sensitive to criticism and public feeling. Letters, exchanges in the House and debates of this kind are studied fully by them both, and provide a feed back to the authorities, in whom Parliament has invested this responsibility. Were I to be attracted or driven into an attempt to use my powers to redress an alleged unbalance in programme standards, the case against such an attempt would become immediately apparent for I should at once become responsible for censoring 500 hours of broadcasting on sound and television channels. I should have to control expenditure and justify every single word said.

Mr. Molloy rose——

Mr. Benn

I am sorry. I cannot give way. The next debate concerns the hospital building programme. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, for we are already running late.

One of the difficulties is that even B.B.C. cannot control what is said in a live programme by someone it has engaged to speak and to express views. Anyone who thinks that a participant in a programme who expresses views is expressing views of the B.B.C. misunderstands the B.B.C.'s rôle as a technical publisher in this respect.

It is for this reason that the Postmaster-General accepts the self-denying ordinance imposed upon him by his office. I may add that no one is more frustrated in this than I am. I have less right than any back bencher in this and it is a personal sacrifice for someone like me, who began working life as a B.B.C. producer and is intensely interested in the content of programmes——

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham) rose——

Mr. Benn

I am sorry. The hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not give way. The hour is getting late and other hon. Members wish to speak.

If it is argued that the machinery is wrong, what do we put in its place? A viewers' and listeners' council has been proposed but if we had one it is likely that it would create more difficulties, even if one could find people to appoint to it who were even more worthy to exercise such responsibilities than the Governors of the B.B.C. and the members of the I.T.A. My right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council said in the debate on 13th May that the Government would consider this matter in the context of the review of broadcasting but I do not myself believe that the appointment of a viewers' council would meet the problem.

However, I align myself with some hon. Members by asserting my view that this is a very real and continuing problem which will become more difficult in future, because, on 7th January, pay television begins. It is not governed by the B.B.C. or the I.T.A. It is a licensed experiment under my personal licence. I am respon- sible to this House for everything that goes on on pay television and the House may well have within a short period an opportunity to judge whether such an arrangement is necessarily the best. I do not look forward with zest to my new-found responsibility.

When the new University of the Air comes along, there may well be controversy about some of its programmes. Education is not free from controversy. Who is to be responsible for that? When and if local stations come, who would be responsible? As the House knows, local disagreements are very often more intense than national.

This is a real problem, and I confess that I do not pretend to know the answer. I am grateful to those who have taken part for airing the problem but I do not believe my intervention as a Minister would resolve any current difficulties. The debate will be studied by the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. and the control and supervision of programme standards of any future outlets in radio and television that may be coming are being considered by the Government in connection with the broadcasting review.

I finish by quoting Mr. Winston Churchill, as he then was, in the debate in the House in 1943 when the House was discussing what Chamber it would have to replace the one destroyed by Hitler. He said: We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October, 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.] That applies with equal force to broadcasting and television. It is our job as Parliament to shape broadcasting and television but in doing so we must recognise that, afterwards, broadcasting and television will surely shape us.