HC Deb 06 May 1968 vol 764 cc173-82

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

11.1 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I ought to put on record that I have been advised about the limits imposed on me in this short debate by the rules of the House. I will strive, as best I can, to conform, even though that will impose on me a very severe restriction as to the scope and temper and the language of my speech. I make those opening remarks lest my moderation be misunderstood as the onset of premature senility.

Most hon. Members in all quarters of the House have criticised the B.B.C. at one time or another for a variety of reasons. Some have alleged—I have heard this myself—that it is a den full of Communists, Trotskyists and Left-wing long-haired intellectuals. Others have accused it of being ultra-Conservative, Establishment-minded, prissy, cautious, timid, and Auntie B.B.C., prim, proper and prude. Yet others more recently have attacked the B.B.C. for its alleged vulgarity, its coarseness, its immorality, and even its insensitivity.

The constitutional position of the B.B.C. has remained almost unchanged since it got its first charter in 1927. That position was largely determined by the British Broadcasting Company, as it then was, between 1922 and 1926 under the general managership of Mr. J. C. W. Reith, as he then was, now Lord Reith. It was in those early years that the company embarked on the policy of complete impartiality in its presentation of news and views, whilst seeking at the same time an increased measure of independence in dealing with events and news and opinions. It was in that atmosphere, created largely by the energy and ability of Mr. Reith, that the Crawford Committee, which had been set up by the Government of the day, recommended the taking over of the British Broadcasting Company in its entirety by a public corporation. That is how the B.B.C. came into existence in 1927—the best piece of nationalisation ever initiated by a Tory Government, and the whole world is grateful to them for it.

I think that it can be claimed that the British Broadcasting Corporation is a unique institution, profoundly British, renowned the world over for its truthfulness and its objectivity in war no less than in peace. Like, I fear, so many of our institutions, it is probably valued more by foreigners than by our own countrymen, with their highly developed capacity for self denigration.

As the House well knows, the B.B.C. acts through its Charter, under which it must acquire a licence from the Postmaster-General, and let me say how glad I am to see him here personally to reply to this debate. The Licence and Agreement set out the terms under which the B.B.C. is allowed to establish and use its transmitting stations and apparatus for radio, among other things, but from the political point of view by far the most important part of the Licence is Article 14(4). Under that, the Postmaster-General may from time to time by notice in writing require the Corporation to refrain at any specifield time or at all times from sending any matter or matters of any class specified in such notice". The terms of that sub-clause give the Government an absolute power over B.B.C. programmes, though it has always been treated very much as a reserve power. Successive Postmasters-General have steadily resisted attempts by individual Members of this House and members of outside organisations to interfere in the day-to-day activities, so far as the programme content of the B.B.C. is concerned. Nevertheless, the power is there. Similarly in the Charter in Article 10(5) the following words are used: If and whenever in the opinion of Our Postmaster-General emergency shall have arisen in which it is expedient in the public interest that the functions of the National Broadcasting Councils or any of them under this Article shall be suspended, the Postmasetr-General may by notices in writing to the National Councils or any of them and to the Corporation give directions accordingly, and directions so given shall have effect according to their terms during the currency of the notices". The powers implied in that Article in the B.B.C. Charter and Licence respectively are very wide indeed, but that they can be used has been brought very frighteningly to our notice by the autobiography recently published by Mr. Harman Grisewood, the book, "One Thing at a Time". I should explain to the House that Mr. Grisewood had an outstanding career with the B.B.C. He finally retired in 1965 as the chief assistant to the Director General. The book clearly indicated that Mr. Grisewood was a very staunch Tory, down to his fingertips. Bearing that in mind, his account of the Suez crisis of the late 1956 becomes all the more disturbing. By late August of that year Mr. Grisewood records, Eden"— that is, the Prime Minister—was hampered by …the stubborn impartiality of the B.B.C. The Prime Minister had, according to Mr. Grisewood, been in direct contact with Cadogan, then B.B.C. Chairman, about the broadcasts on Suez.

In the last week of October, 1956, the B.B.C. were told that military operations which were soon to start would involve the revival of war-time measures, and this would mean that the B.B.C. would become subject to censorship and other controls.

I quote again from Mr. Grisewood's book: Throughout the whole affair from July to November Eden's aim was secrecy and the B.B.C.'s was enlightenment. It was clear that the B.B.C. at that time was determined to portray the truth, namely, that the nation was bitterly divided, that the military operation contemplated was not a national commitment, and that it was not a national war in which the nation was united. Anyone who was in the House at that time, and who lived through it, knows that that was just a statement of the facts.

But by the end of October, Mr. William Clark, who was at that time the Prime Minister's secretary for Press and broadcasting relations, told Mr. Grisewood that the Prime Minister was fast losing patience with the B.B.C. and was hatching plans to take it over altogether. In fact he had instructed the Lord Chan- cellor, Lord Kilmuir, to prepare legislation to compel the B.B.C. to be the mouthpiece of the Government. Even more disquieting than that was the rejection of Lord Kilmuir's draft instrument by the Prime Minister on the grounds that it was not strong enough.

All this took place before the bombing and the landing of British troops in November. Fortunately for the country, the Board of Governors of the B.B.C., backed by the whole staff, resisted the pressure. I quote Mr. Grisewood: If Eden had had his way, it would have been the end of the Corporation as it had been known up to then".

The Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman knows that he can criticise a Member of either House only on a substantive Motion. I am afraid he is going very close to doing that now, and I must ask him to desist.

Mr. Hamilton

I know that I was sailing pretty near the wind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I was doing very nicely. I will move on from that point, but I think it is no great exaggeration to say that the courage and the firmness of the B.B.C. Governors and the staff at that time played a decisive part in preventing the nation from being dragged into what could easily have been a third world war.

The conclusion I come to, despite what I thought was the complacency of my right hon. Friend when he was answering Questions on this matter—I think the day just before the Easter Recess—is that it is quite clearly possible for some other Prime Minister on some other occasion to make a bid to take over the B.B.C.

The fortuitous circumstances which combined to thwart that bid in 1956 may not repeat themselves. The Director General, the Governors, the staff of the B.B.C. and the Prime Minister's Press secretary might be weaker, they might be less principled and more corruptible than they proved to be in 1956.

I would, therefore, like to ask my right hon. Friend to take this matter very seriously indeed. I would urge him to enter into discussions with the B.B.C. to see whether the Clauses in the Charter and the Licence to which I have referred can be re-worded in some way so as to prevent the threat of censorship of broadcasting that occurred in 1956.

The uniquely high reputation which the B.B.C. has achieved in the world is based on its independence. Any threat to that would undermine the whole basis of British broadcasting, and for that reason, as The Guardian said in an excellent editorial on 25th March: It is right to be suspicious of political appointments to the posts of Chairmen of the B.B.C. Governors and of the I.T.A. The Wilson Government has made political appointments in both cases, Lord Hill to the B.B.C. and Lord Aylestone (a one-time Labour Chief Whip) to the I.T.A. I do not make very much of that, but I emphasise and alert the public to the inherent dangers that lie within the Charter and the Licence Agreement of the B.B.C. I urge my right hon. Friend, as a matter of great importance, to see whether he can contrive, with the Governors of the B.B.C. to prevent, by means of amending Clauses, or by adding new Clauses, a recurrence of the squalid activities that occurred in 1956.

11.16 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Roy Mason)

Any hon. Member who knows my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) would not charge him with premature senility. I think that his restraint reflected the importance of the subject raised by him, which is of fundamental importance. I am sure that the House is grateful to my hon. Friend for affording us this opportunity of recalling the constitutional basis on which broadcasting is conducted in this country.

As my hon. Friend said, he was prompted to raise the matter by the publication of Mr. Harman Grisewood's book "One Thing at a Time", and, in particular, by the account given by Mr. Grisewood of the conflict which occured between the B.B.C. and the Government of the day during the Suez crisis of 1956. It is no part of my purpose now to re-open the argument on the rights and wrongs of the policy pursued by that Government with respect to Suez. It is enough to say that the policy was one which deeply divided the country. There was much, and widespread, opposition to it.

The House will, of course, be aware that I have no access to the previous Administration's papers about the events of 1956. Nor is it any part of my function, even if I did know what took place, to defend or explain the actions of the Conservative Administration. Nor shall I, speaking from the Government Front Bench, hazard any guesses at the accuracy of Mr. Grisewood's account, but will make just one point, and that is that the substance of Mr. Grisewood's allegations does not seem to have been denied by those in a position to answer it.

The House will therefore understand why I am not here to make any comment on the allegations to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. But this will, I feel, be a useful opportunity to remind the House of the position of the broadcasting authorities in the life of this country.

The B.B.C. is barred from broadcasting expressions of its own opinions on matters of political or public controversy, or relating to current public policy. So, too, is the I.T.A. Thus, the B.B.C. may not broadcast what I might describe as an editorial opinion on any matter of public moment. Newspapers have their leading articles, which may take sides in controversies. The B.B.C. and the I.T.A. do not. Hon. Members will recall the reason. It is that to confer on the broadcasting authorities the privilege of taking sides would be to concentrate into their hands an immense and incomparable power to persuade viewers and listeners to their opinion. And once the B.B.C. had become committed to a particular view on this or that controversy, could it then be relied upon invariably to give other views a fair hearing?

So it is that the B.B.C., and the I.T.A., are not free to take sides in public affairs. The obligation on them is to ensure that, in their programmes, controversial subjects are treated impartially and that the various points of view get a fair hearing. In 1956, according to Mr. Grisewood, the cause of the crisis was not that the B.B.C. took sides against the Government of the day. Rather, it was that the B.B.C. reported not only the Government's presentation of their reasons for their Suez policy, and the views and opinions of those supporting it, but also that it reported the opposition here at home to the, policy and the views and opinions of the opponents. The country was not united in its attitude to the Suez affair. Reports in both the domestic and overseas services reflected that fact.

So much for the nature of the dispute as reported in Mr. Grisewood's book. My hon. Friend will not expect me to go over, and comment on, the various events in the dispute. I might, however, venture a reflection on one of them. We read in Mr. Grisewood's book that Sir Anthony Eden, as he then was …had instructed the Lord Chancellor to prepare an instrument which would take over the B.B.C. altogether and subject it wholly to the will of the Government If this is so, there is surely a moral here. Once a Government—any Government—decide to control in some measure the programme content of a broadcasting service, then indeed they set foot on a very steep and slippery slope. The broadcasting authorities cannot, in matters of programme content and in the day-to-day conduct of their affairs, be almost independent of Government. Either they are independent, or they are not. The B.B.C. and I.T.A. are independent.

How, 12 years after, are we to regard this episode on Mr. Grisewood's account of it? Surely, as an aberration. Since the earliest days of broadcasting, the independence of the B.B.C. from Government has been regarded as a fundamental principle. This was said time and time again by Ministers. Ministers of both parties have reaffirmed this principle in the 12 years since Suez. It is against these statements that I ask the House to set the reported intention in 1956 to …subject the B.B.C. wholly to the will of the Government —an intention which came to nothing, anyway. There can be no doubt that this would be an aberration, a dangerous one, but an aberration none the less.

The House would agree that, having seen this reported episode for what it was, and drawn the moral, there would be no great virtue in trying to get more of the facts, particularly as the outcome was that the independence of the broadcasting authorities remained complete and unqualified. Nevertheless, we may feel a sense of concern at the thought that a fundamental constitutional principle might have been imperilled. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would, I believe, share this sense of concern and also a sense of satisfaction that, when the crisis came, Mr. Grisewood tells us, the Board of Governors of the B.B.C. saw their duty clear. In recognising, though in retrospect, that there was, it seems, a threat to a constitutional principle and that the Board of Governors of the B.B.C. did——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman said that he could not take responsibility for a previous Government. I think that he is devoting his remarks too much to that at the moment, and not to the responsibility which he himself has.

Mr. Mason

I am, with respect, pointing out that, although there may have been a threat at the time, the Board of Governors of the B.B.C. acted accordingly and with strength.

This is, I suggest, the most important consequence of our debate. Earlier I reminded the House of the statements made over the years in asserting the independence of Government of the broadcasting authorities in matters of programme content and in the day-to-day conduct of affairs. Thanks to my hon. Friend, this debate will add to these statements. In a country which has no written constitution, and where there is no fundamental code to which the constitutional relationship between the broadcasting authorities and the Government can authoritatively be referred, we depend on precedent and practice to maintain that relationship; precedent and practice in the operation of a system of checks and balances.

The check against a threat by any Government to the independence of the broadcasting authorities lies, of course, in the willingness of the Board of Governors to oppose that threat, and the ultimate check is the prospect that opinion, and Parliamentary opinion in particular, would see as justified—if it had not already sought—the resignation of the Board.

In 1956, according to Mr. Grisewood's account, the effectiveness of the check against a threat by Government was put to the test. As I said earlier, we may feel a sense of satisfaction at the outcome. As things have turned out, the effect has been further to reinforce conviction as to the rightness of the principle of the independence of the broadcasting authorities. The independence of the B.B.C. and of the I.T.A. in the day-to-day conduct of their affairs, including programme content, is the expression of the often reaffirmed policy of successive Governments since the inception of a public service of broadcasting. I should like now to repeat for the present Government the assurance which my predecessors have given on many occasions, that the independence of the B.B.C. is an essential part of broadcasting policy. For completeness I repeat too that this policy applies with like force to the I.T.A. As my predecessor said in an Adjournment debate on 27th February, to break this principle even in the most trifling case would be to threaten the whole basis of broadcasting.

Towards the end of his speech my hon. Friend referred to there being political heads at the head of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. I do not think that there is any danger in that. As a matter of fact, people who are at the head of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. and who have had experience of this House are aware of its senses and its moods and of how easily it can be roused. They will know how important Parliamentary opinion really is. This in itself may be an even greater safeguard.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.