HC Deb 21 April 1966 vol 727 cc199-214

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

9.50 p.m.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Poplar)

Any Member of this House who ventures to initiate a debate on the Adjournment on the day of the Gracious Speech is both the author and the victim of a major piece of anti-climax. After the excitements of the day, after the Gracious Speech delivered to a full House in another place, after major statements by the leaders of the political parties to a full House in this place, after a well-attended, wide-ranging debate to which many Members on both sides of great experience have directed many important statements, it really is sticking one's neck out at the end of the day in a relatively empty House to seek to raise one, as some might think, small and separate question which is not connected at all with any of the important things on which Her Majesty was good enough to address us this morning.

Nevertheless, I venture to do so today. I do so in the belief that the subject I am about to raise is no less important than any of the very important things which have occupied the attention of the House today. To that extent I am deeply grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for having selected the subject for debate on the Adjournment. You, Sir, will recall that you were good enough so to select it in the old Parliament just before that Parliament came to an end.

The subject is the interference which has taken place by Ministers of Her Majesty's Government, exercising what I consider to be grossly improper influence with the administrators and producers of television programmes on political subjects, to induce those people to include or not to include certain Members of this House in their programmes. I repeat, Sir, that you were good enough to select that subject just before we rose, but I thought at the time that the Prime Minister, who ought to have dealt with my observations on this matter, having announced the date of the election, had plenty of other things on his plate besides this, and so, with your kind consent, I withdrew the matter and you have been good enough to let me raise it again. I repeat that this is of major importance because it touches on freedom of expression in instruments of mass communication. I know of nothing in a democratic society which is more important than the question of freedom of expression in instruments of mass communication.

I notice that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General is here, deputed to answer what I have to say. When I call him my right hon. Friend, I use the word "Friend" not in the limited and conventional sense in which we use it in this House but in its full sense, because he and I are long and dear friends. Therefore, I know that he will not take it amiss when I say that it is absolutely nonsensical that he should be sitting here with the job of answering what I have to say because he has practically no knowledge of the matters which I wish to raise except the knowledge that I have passed over to him myself, and certainly he has no responsibility for the misdemeanours of his right hon. Friends which I am going to bring before the House.

To the best of my knowledge and belief, my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General, who has himself been in his day a very great contributor to television, has never in his life sought improperly to interfere with a television programme or to exercise any bad influences with it. My right hon. Friend today is in the position which would arise if a ship had run on the rocks and, instead of the captain being put in the dock for hazarding the ship, there had been put in the dock the stoker who was down in the bowels of the ship not knowing which way the ship was going. That is he, there—the stoker. He does not know all about what has been happening and all that has been done behind his back, but he is put up with the obligation to answer. It is a little like accusing Portia of the murder of Julius Caesar when she was at home doing her embroidery and not knowing what was going on at the Capitol. It is really the Prime Minister who should be sitting here, and if he is too busy it should be the Leader of the House, or the Chief Whip, because they are the main actors in this rather unsavoury drama which I shall unfold.

The drama begins some time ago, in the autumn of 1964, when there was the first dust-up, as I understand, between the Prime Minister and the B.B.C., on the ground that the latter had chosen somebody to speak in some programme and who, although a supporter of the party, could not be relied upon to produce into the television camera the pure note of the gospel as conceived by the Government, and I gather—this was during the party conference—that there was a rather unsavoury scene about it. I was not present, so I shall not say anything about it in detail. I merely quote The Times, which on 4th October, 1965, reported at some length that pressures had been exercised by Ministers on the television authorities with regard to the selection of persons, and especially hon. Members of this House and especially hon. Members on this side of the House, for participation in discussion programmes on politics. The Times, having reported those pressures having been exercised by Ministers, said: In July they made strong protests to the Independent Television Authority about the employment of left-wingers on the current affairs programme, 'Division'. Then The Times went on: Left-wingers were left out of later programmes. I make no comment on the behaviour of those who are responsible for the programme "Division". Some people less charitable than myself might think they were a bit gutless and that their attitude to Ministers who came along and told them what they should and should not do in their programme ought to have been, "Go take a running jump." Nevertheless, it seems to me that this was not the case and this influence exercised by Ministers bore fruit.

A little while afterwards there was a discussion programme. I am now going to quote examples of a couple of cases. I shall not weary the House with many because my right hon. Friend is going to need quite a lot of time to reply to these things he has got no responsibility for and knows practically nothing about, and so I shall not take much more time. Nevertheless, I have a dossier of the correspondence which I can exhibit in order to show that in quoting I am au pied de la lettre, and that I have documentation right down to the last detail.

Some time afterwards there was a discussion programme, among other television programmes, about Vietnam, and the producer of this programme, or those who were responsible for it, chose an hon. Member from the other side of the House to participate in it, and chose my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson). The programme was arranged a little while before it was due to go on the air. The Leader of the House got in touch with the television people and said, This will not do. We cannot have this. You have got to put in somebody else who will be closer to the Government line"—than the hon. Member for Penistone. On this occasion those responsible for this programme exhibited a bit more spirit than on some of the other occasions, because they said, "No. Certaintly not. To turn the programme from a bipartite to a tripartite one, with one against two, will spoil the programme." This was quite a good judgment—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Mikardo

The persons responsible for the programme said, "Rather than do this, we will abandon the programme altogether", and they did abandon it. This, of course, resulted in my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman opposite being silenced, but at least it was a less craven retraction—indeed, it was no retraction at all—than putting in people at the dictation of Her Majesty's Government.

A little while after that, there was a programme about nuclear disarmament. Again, one of the television companies thought that it would be a good idea—it was to come on a day when we had a debate in the House initiated by a Motion moved by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten)—to have the matter discussed on its television service. The television company asked the hon. Member for Banbury and me to come and speak on the programme. We both went along, but, to our great surprise, without any forewarning at all, we found when we got there that someone else had been interpolated, and this had been done on the intervention of the Chief Whip. In the previous case I have instanced, it was done on the intervention of the Leader of the House, and this time it was the Chief Whip who had intervened in order to dictate to the producer who should and should not be on the programme. The programme on this occasion turned out to be a mess, because one cannot muck up a programme in that way at the last minute.

These are two examples, which, I repeat, I have documented. I have reason to know that they are only the tip of the iceberg. If I wanted to go to the trouble and spend further time, I could find a number more to bring to the House, including instances affecting both Independent Television and B.B.C. television.

I have heard some people argue, when this question has been raised in private conversation, "If you have a discussion programme on a political subject in which a member of Her Majesty's Opposition takes part together with a Member from this side of the House who does not altogether agree with the Government's point of view, it is an unbalanced programme because the Government's view is not represented at all". On the face of it, that sounds like a very plausible argument, and in some cases I would accept it as being conclusive. But all the cases which I have instanced were cases in which the official Opposition view and the official Government view were either identical or so near to each other as to be virtually identical. Therefore, the effect of excluding the minority view on this side of the House was to exclude anything which might be critical of the Government, because on those particular issues no criticism of Government policy was to be expected from hon. Members opposite, who broadly supported Government policy on those issues, as they had every right to do.

I put down a Question to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to ask about this interference and how many times Ministers had intervened. Unfortunately, in the hazards of Question Time, with Questions not being reached, it was answered in writing by the Prime Minister, who said "None". I then sent to him this dossier of all the occasions, authenticated by correspondence with the managers of the television programmes, Lord Hill of the Independent Television Authority and so on, the most concrete written, indisputable evidence that at least two members of the Government had interfered with programmes in this way.

I put down another Question to my right hon. Friend asking about this interference and how much there had been. Again the Prime Minister said "None, Sir." I know why he said that. He said "None" because he was answering that the activities of the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House on that occasion were carried out not in their capacity as Ministers but in some other capacity such as officers or servants or emissaries of their party.

This is the first day of a new Parliament, and on such a day I and everyone else will be full of good will and charity. In that spirit I will say that the answers by the Prime Minister were disingenuous, choosing a highly charitable word. If it had been on another occasion I might have said that they were devious, tricky, misleading, cunning or dishonest. But as today is the first day of this Parliament I will merely say that the answers were disingenuous, because any real examination will entirely invalidate any suggestion that in this matter the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House were acting in any capacity other than as Ministers.

The suggestion, as I understand it, is that they were acting on behalf of their party. They are not officers of their party. They are members of and representatives of their party on a committee which negotiates with the broadcasting authorities exclusively about party political broadcasts and has no function and no powers whatever beyond party political broadcasts. There can be no question about this. I have it on the authority of the television authorities—I hope that my right hon. Friend will not seek to controvert this point—that they listened to our right hon. Friends in their capacities as Ministers. So it is with the utmost charity that I say that it was a little disingenuous of the Prime Minister to say that there had been no interference by Ministers because the Ministers' interference was done in some capacity other than their Ministerial capacity.

I think that this is a serious subject. I believe that it is the thin end of a wedge of which the thick end contains some very serious implications for our democratic system. The first manifestation of a drift towards totalitarianism is interference with the free choice of the means of mass communication about the people who shall communicate. What is to come after? Are we to have gentle hints dropped from Downing Street to the newspapers about whom they should get and whom they should not get to write for them? If one newspaper is going to do a series of articles on, say, east of Suez, and it is proposing to have Mr. A. from the Conservative benches, Mr. B. from the Liberal benches and Mr. C. from the Government benches, are we to have a gentle hint dropped from Downing Street that Mr. C. is not quite on the party line and that the newspaper had better not have him, or if it does it must have Mr. D. as well? If a newspaper is to run a series of articles on the steel industry and it chooses to invite my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) to write one article, are we to have a hint dropped from Downing Street that that will not do at all unless it has my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) writing as well? There are very considerable dangers in this.

I end as I began, by saying that I know that I have run the risk of creating an anti-climax and of boring the House in raising this matter at the end of this day. I run another risk. It is pretty certain that after what I have just said any chance I ever had of being asked to appear on any of these television programmes has now evaporated into thin air. But this is a price I am prepared to pay in order to pick up the stone and bring out into the light of day the rather crawly things which in this matter have been crawling about underneath it.

I end by expressing to my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General, who is utterly guiltless in this matter, who is as pure as the driven snow, who bears no responsibility for any of the misdemeanours I have quoted and who has been made to carry the can for his bosses, my sincere condolences in the task which faces him.

10.10 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) for his many kind references to me. I have been called many things but never before a stoker in the ship of State or—even less likely—a stoker pure as the driven snow carrying the can for his bosses. At any rate, he acquitted me of any participation in the instances he quoted. Indeed, I was afraid that he would go so far in acquitting me from responsibility that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule out my right of reply.

I listened with keen interest and I agree with him that the subject is one of undoubted public interest. It is one that interests me particularly, for I have studied the problem personally over many years. I have had the opportunity to look at it from many different angles, first as a producer of broadcasts myself, responsible for picking people to speak, thereafter as a participant, then as Chairman of the Labour Party's Broadcasting Committee and as a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party—a membership I share with my hon. Friend—and now as Postmaster-General. Of course, on all occasions I have taken an interest both as a citizen and as a viewer.

In view of the importance of what my hon. Friend has said, it would be helpful if I explained to the House exactly what relationship exists between the broadcasting authorities and the politicians generally. This is not widely understood and although it will necessitate disentangling some very tightly woven threads, it is worth while to make an attempt to get it explained and on the record. First, let me deal with the relationship between the Postmaster-General and the broadcasting authorities.

In this respect, as Postmaster-General—and this is why I am replying to the debate—I am the sole official contact between the Government as a Government and the broadcasting authorities. I have certain powers under Statute in relation to the I.T.A. and by virtue of the Licence and Agreement in relation to the B.B.C. These are reserve powers and for that reason are hardly ever used and when they are used they are deliberately made public. For example, it was as a result of a directive by me that cigarette advertising was prohibited on television.

For the rest, I have accepted the doctrine of my predecessors that programme content, including the choice of speakers, is a matter that lies within the responsibility of the Board of Governors of the B.B.C. and the members of the I.T.A. Indeed the very width and scope of the reserve powers possessed by the Postmaster-General effectively sterilises him from any sort of intervention in any programme that may be planned, but I must make it clear that these reserve powers exist and have, of course, particularly in war time, been used.

Secondly, I come to the quite different relationship known to exist between the Government party and the Opposition parties in the House of Commons and the broadcasting authorities. It is well known that negotiations take place between them all in connection with the allocations of party political broadcasts and preparation of plans for election broadcasts as well. These plans do, of course, place within the responsibility of the parties the choice of speakers. There is no doubt that the choice of speakers for party political broadcasts and election broadcasts is made by the parties themselves.

The arrangements that flow from these discussions between the Government parties, the Opposition parties and the broadcasting authorities are made public, and the point of contact here has been provided through the Chief Whips on all sides and the usual channels, broaden and widen to permit continuing contact on the many details that have to be settled.

I ought to add in that context that, as part of the aide memoire that has regulated those relationships, there is provision for Ministerial broadcasts, and they offer to the Government of the day—with the right of reply if those broadcasts are thought to be controversial—the opportunity to put Ministers on to explain Government policy.

I ought also to add in the interests of greater accuracy that it was part of the current understanding between the Government parties, the Opposition parties and the broadcasting authorities that where during the recent campaign people were to be selected to speak on behalf of their parties—and because of the Representation of the People Act they could not speak in their capacity as candidates in the constituencies in which they were fighting—they were to be chosen by the parties themselves.

That disposes of the second part of the relationship, and we come now to the third part, that continuing dialogue that goes on between the political parties themselves—and I am thinking now principally of the political parties outside the House of Commons, organised in their respective headquarters—and the broadcasting authorities. That is carried on at both national and regional levels about a whole host of programmes seen and heard on the air.

It is an essential difference between the broadcasting authorities and the Press that, since both the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. have a duty to produce balanced programmes, they regularly seek information and advice of party headquarters as to who would be the most suitable person to represent a particular point of view. If a producer wishes to guarantee that a Government or an Opposition view is to be expressed, as my hon. Friend knows very well, he cannot always guarantee that simply by picking a Member of the Government or Opposition parties, and one can think of many examples of that which come to mind.

As I know from my own experience, sometimes a producer specifically wants to represent a minority in a particular political party in order to bring out some stream or strand in current thinking which is not perhaps represented by the Government or the Opposition officially. It is an inevitable part of that relationship that the parties should sometimes protest to the broadcasting authorities about programmes which they think have been badly balanced. That is where I want to stress again the difference between the Press and the broadcasting authorities.

The broadcasting authorities have a duty to maintain a balance, and, although there is no political interference in that, it is open to anyone, whether an individual or a political party, to represent to the broadcasting authorities that that balance is not being maintained. After all, the political parties are important national institutions representing large bodies of opinion, and they are just as entitled to protest as those individuals who regularly do so.

My hon. Friend and I, who are both members of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, have a special responsibility and opportunity to consider this aspect of that relationship.

Fourthly, I come to the position of Ministers, what they do and should do and what my hon. Friend said they should not do. It is really the most difficult relationship of all to define. Some Ministers are also important officials in their respective parties. By coincidence, they may be important officials in their respective national parties, and one can think of some Members of the House who fulfil that definition. Others are important officials in respect of their Parliamentary parties, and even the constitution of the party to which my hon. Friend and I both belong provides and recognises the existence of a Parliamentary Labour Party, which is distinct from, though a part of, a national party. In making their comments about participants or the contents of a controversial programme, those Ministers may have to be seen as putting forward the interests of their parties, and it seems to me that there is nothing wrong with that.

Other Ministers who do not hold specific party offices may be consulted or volunteer some comments about a programme because of their knowledge of or interest in it, and if there was anybody present representing the party opposite who had Government experience—but there are so few of them now that they cannot be spared to attend at this late hour—he would confirm what I am about to say: that Ministers are regularly consulted by the broadcasting authorities both on the subjects that might be suitable to deal with on the air, "What are you planning to do about this? Is it a good idea to do a programme about it?, and who would be the best person to use to talk about this or that subject?"

Often the case occurs that a Minister himself is asked to appear, and when for some good reason he says that he cannot do so, he may be asked by the broadcasting authorities—which it is quite within their rights to do—" Who do you think would be the best person in your absence to represent the Government's point of view which we wish to bring out in this particular programme?". In seeking this information the broadcasting authorities are discharging their obligation to be fair, and they are entitled to consult whom they wish.

They are also entitled—and this is the nub of the whole question—to decide whether to accept the advice or to accept the protest which may be made by a Minister, or not to accept it. My hon. Friend used very strong language. He talked about something being "grossly improper". If I may say so, I think that he is confusing the right of an individual, or a body, or a party, whether a Minister or not, to make representations, and the position of the broadcasting authorities in deciding whether or not to accept that advice.

Ministerial comment is not the same as Ministerial coercion, and, since there is such an essential difference between comment and coercion, it is worth devoting a moment or two to it. There is no question whatsoever of the Government enforcing their will on the broadcasting authorities. My hon. Friend may well say that if it is the opinion of the Minister, or for that matter the opinion of a leading Opposition shadow Minister, that a certain view ought to be represented, and under current plans is not properly represented, that will carry great weight with the broadcasting authorities. But if it carries great weight with the broadcasting authorities, it does so because the arguments contained in the comment or the response to an inquiry come from somebody who is in a position to assess whether or not the particular subject or particular participant reflects the view which the broadcasting authorities themselves seek to bring out in the programme.

I submit to my hon. Friend and to the House that that is part of the normal and natural interplay and—let us be frank, at times tension—that is bound to exist between those who are responsible for the conduct of events, whether Government or leading Opposition figures, and those who represent and comment on the events with the important distinction, which I cannot stress too much, that there is an essential difference between the Press and the broadcasting authorities, since the House in its wisdom over the years has imposed this duty on the broadcasting authorities to preserve a balance.

Mr. J. J. Mendelson (Penistone)

How does my right hon. Friend's explanation fit into my case which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) mentioned? A definite contract had been completed between the representative of a private television company and myself. I have evidence of that because the company then honoured the contract by making a payment, and I have kept the documents for this occasion. How does that fit in with my right hon. Friend's statement that the party officer will have expressed an opinion whether this Member fitted the point of view which the television company wanted represented? The objection to me was not on these lines. Nobody expressed any doubt that I would represent the point of view which the television company wanted represented. The point was that I would not represent the point of view of the Executive, of Her Majesty's Government. How does my right hon. Friend's explanation fit this case?

Mr. Benn

As my hon. Friend knows, I have not dealt with the individual instances to which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar referred, and I think that is right. But I must stress again that the responsibility for who goes on the air and who does not is the responsibility of the broadcasting authorities. If, in the instance to which my hon. Friend refers—and I have no knowledge of this case—they decided, even at a late stage, to make a change, let us be quite clear that this was a decision by them, taken in the light of what they decided after representation may or may not have been made. [Interruption.] I must stress this because, as my hon. Friends know, I am constantly urged in the House to intervene in matters of programme content, and I am constantly reiterating the doctrine—which I do tonight—that Parliament has placed this responsibility upon the broadcasting authorities, and if they make a decision—and it is not for me to comment on this case or on any other as to whether or not it is the right decision—it is a decision by them. If they seek the advice of Ministers, or Ministers volunteer advice or comment, this is part of the normal and natural interplay, and the criticism cannot be levelled against those who, in a party or personal capacity, may express the view that a certain point of view should be put forward.

I want to say one or two other things before sitting down. There is one relationship that I would not have mentioned had it not been for the fact that we are debating the matter today, namely, the possibility of a direct relationship between Members of Parliament and the public through the televising of the House of Commons. This relationship—the fifth relationship—emerged in a shadowy form today when, in some corners of the House, cameras appeared to report us directly, admittedly only on a very formal occasion.

This is not a matter on which the Government have a specific view, but I think that I can say, in representing the views of others, that one reason why some people are in favour of the televising of Parliament is that they prefer the selection of speakers by Mr. Speaker to the selection of speakers by producers. I say this as a former producer. [interruption.] There is no selection of speakers by Ministers. The only time when there is party selection is when it is agreed between the parties themselves. If my hon. Friend says that Ministerial comment constitutes selection by Ministers he is avoiding my point, which is that the ultimate decision has been vouchsafed to the broadcasting authorities.

I mention this because I am trying to put upon the record this extremely complex relationship that has grown up, and I should complete it by reference to what we have seen today. I agree strongly with my hon. Friend, as he knows, that it is in the nature of Parliament that the widest spectrum of opinion should be represented, and it is Parliament's intention, in putting upon the broadcasting authorities this duty to produce balanced programmes, that the widest view should be presented on television as well. Looking at the whole history of broadcasting and television in this country over the years, very few people could honestly doubt that the effect of having broadcasting and television in this country has been to give far wider publicity than ever existed before to views that may not currently hold majority support in one of the major parties or in the country as a whole.

This debate may have served a useful purpose for a rather different reason. I hope that in what my hon. Friend has said in raising it and what I have said in trying to answer, we have been able to hold a candle to show what, to many people, may seem to be mysterious and even sinister cellars underneath the corridors of power. They are in fact no more than a new and unfamiliar wing of our modern constitutional structure that seems dark because it has not yet been illuminated by the full floodlight of academic scholarship.

It is a good thing to have a debate of this kind. I have always felt that on broadcasting issues the House and the country benefit by bringing as much public light to bear as possible on the nature of these vital relationships, which bear upon the nature of the freedom which we cherish in this House.

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

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.