HC Deb 27 November 1968 vol 774 cc653-82

11.0 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 7, line 36, leave out 'candidate' and insert 'person'.

This is a drafting Amendment. The Clause is intended to regulate broadcasts in which candidates take part. The restrictions of the Clause are stated to apply before or during a parliamentary or local government election". So the restrictions are intended to cover persons who intend to seek election, even though the time has not been reached where a writ has been issued.

Unfortunately, the use of "candidate" in line 36 on page 7 attracts the definition in Section 103 of the 1949 Act which, in the case of Parliamentary elections, distinguishes between successful candidates, who are treated as having been candidates at all times, and unsuccessful candidates, who are treated as candidates only from the moment when, after the dissolution or vacancy giving rise to the election, they declare themselves to be candidates or are nominated.

It would seem to be clear that the restrictions of the Clause should apply equally to successful and unsuccessful candidates; and this can be achieved by the Amendment. Without the Amendment, it would not be possible to say whether there had been a breach of the requirement before the results of the election were made known.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

How does the Attorney-General propose to define the period before the latest time for the delivery of nomination papers? How far in advance of an election does the right hon. and learned Gentleman visualise this operating?

The Attorney-General

It would cover the whole period. This would last for the whole time, including prior to the election period itself.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Lubbock

I beg to move Amendment No. 17, in page 8, line 1, leave out subsection (2).

I return to the point which I raised on Second Reading, when I received a profoundly unsatisfactory answer from the Secretary of State for Scotland, who told me that the subsection had been introduced as a result of a recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference. I could not recall such a recommendation at the time. Since Second Reading I have refreshed my memory, and I can find no such recommendation.

As regards the use of broadcasting at elections, Mr. Speaker's Conference said that broadcasting should be exempted from the provisions relating to election expenses in Section 63 of the 1949 Act. The words which the Secretary of State used about fairness in broadcasts which take place during an election do not appear anywhere in the Report of Mr. Speaker's Conference, nor, indeed, in that of the Home Office Advisory Committee. This provision has suddenly appeared from nowhere without any warning and, as far as I am aware, without any consultation with the broadcasting authorities.

Did the Attorney-General consult the B.B.C. and the Independent Television Authority before this subsection was introduced into the Bill? My opinion is that it has been done in a stealthy and underhand manner without giving an opportunity for those who will be affected by the Clause to express their views.

The Clause creates a new illegal practice which is very vaguely defined and which consists of favouring any of the candidates taking part in a broadcast. The illegal practice may be committed by any person who in managing or taking part in the management of the item does this act.

This is extremely broad, and my next question to the Attorney-General is why it should be thought necessary to introduce this provision when both the B.B.C. Charter and the Television Act already require the observance of fair treatment of candidates in broadcasts at election times. We have had the B.B.C. Charter and Television Act for a number of years now, and no one has ever accused television interviewers or producers of unfairly discriminating against a candidate. I do not see why it is necesary to introduce this provision, unless the Attorney-General is following the example of the Prime Minister and pursuing a vendetta against the B.B.C.—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite may groan, but why otherwise is this provision being introduced at this stage? [Interruption.] I prefer to hear the answer from the Attorney-General and not from the hon.

Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) and other hon. Members below the Gang-way opposite.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

Before the hon. Gentleman drags in silly allegations, he had better wait for the answer.

Mr. Lubbock

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman has got to talk about; so far as I am aware, he has not taken part in any of the debates this afternoon.

Mr. Mendelson

I have been here all day.

Mr. Lubbock

The hon. Gentleman may have been here all day, but he has not taken part in any of the debates. An intervention like that is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman, and unless he intends to make a speech he would be better to keep quiet and let the Committee get on with its business.

Mr. Mendelson

I am saying to the hon. Gentleman, and now I want to put it on record, that this is a serious debate about a serious matter. He was asking a serious question and I objected to his silly dragging-in of the Prime Minister in this serious debate.

Mr. Lubbock

It was serious until the hon. Gentleman intervened. I was asking a straightforward question and I reiterate it. Has this provision anything to do with the dispute which is being pursued, as we all know, and it is useless for the hon. Gentleman to deny it, between the Prime Minister and the B.B.C.? [Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Gentleman clucking like a disappointed hen in the background. I am putting a straight question to the Attorney-General. [Laughter.] I do not know what hon. Members opposite find so funny. I thought that the hon. Member for Penistone was asking me to treat the debate seriously. That is what I am trying to do, if the levity of hon. Members opposite can be suspended for a few moments.

I hope that hon. Members will take a serious interest in the Amendment and the effect of the Clause on those who take part in broadcasts, or who are concerned with their management or production. Has the Attorney-General had any representations from the broadcasting authorities since the production of the Clause, or from those who might be held to be guilty of an illegal practice if the Clause goes through in its present form? Those to whom I have spoken and from whom I have taken advice on this subject have expressed the gravest anxiety, and it has even been suggested to me by a person concerned with these broadcasts that, if the Clause goes on the Statute Book unamended, there will not be any election broadcasts at the next general election, because the interviewers who would otherwise have taken part in them will not dare to chance their arm in view of this extremely vaguely worded and broad Clause which could catch them as being guilty of an illegal practice purely because they had accidentally and with no ill intention favoured one candidate.

The Secretary of State for Scotland said that clearly a matter of ten seconds more given to the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) over others taking part in a broadcast with him would not constitute an offence. I am going to ask what would. Would it be twenty seconds or thirty? How will the courts interpret a provision as vaguely worded as this? It is, as I pointed out to the Secretary of State for Scotland on Second Reading, difficult when ore is on a programme with the right hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Ouintin Hogg) to get a word in edgeways, so it is likely that he may succeed in getting more of the attention of the interviewer than the Secretary of State for Scotland or me, if we were appearing. Then Robin Day, or whoever it was, would be guilty of an illegal practice under the Clause.

I do not know what the penalty would be, because I have not seen under Clause 9 how provision is made for dealing with an offender under subsection (2). I would ask the Attorney-General where there is such provision. I beg the Attorney-General to appreciate that there is the greatest anxiety among those concerned with the conduct or management of television programmes. Perhaps there has not been an opportunity for them all——

Sir G. Nabarro

Not only those concerned with the management or conduct, tut those unfortunate politicians who, as candidates, take part in elections and broadcasts. They are equally culpable if offences are proved against them. It is offensive in that sense to many hon. Members who will be offering themselves, God willing, for re-election in the next election.

Mr. Lubbock

He is perfectly safe, because it says taking part in the management of the item". It does not say that the candidate would be guilty of an illegal practice if he is showing favour to somebody rather than to somebody else. It is accepted that the candidate shows favour to himself.

Sir G. Nabarro

I do not. I am completely impartial.

Mr. Lubbock

The hon. Member, we all know, is a shrinking violet who allows other people to have the lion's share of a television programme in which he appears. The hon. Member should not worry himself about the Clause. He should concern himself about the management and especially those conducting interviews. This Clause will place them in an impossible situation. I appeal to the Government to take this away and have proper consultations with the British Broadcasting Corporation and Independent Television Authority and the programme companies and come back with something more precisely drafted, if what they require is to ensure fairness in these programmes.

The B.B.C. Charter and the Television Act already carry out the intentions of Parliament in ensuring that favour is not shown to one candidate rather than another. I would rather trust the good sense and fairness of interviewers and television producers than put this on the Statute Book.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

I would reinforce the points made by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) and emphasize strongly to the Government that there is deep apprehension on the part of responsible and moderate non-political television producers as to the precise effect of Clause 9. Only last evening I had a long conversation with a gentleman who produced "Panorama" for BBC and "This Week" for ITV. He was expressing precisely the fears and apprehensions which have arisen. It is important that one should look at the wording of this Clause and see whether it tackles the problem which has to be faced: the relationship of television and politics, not just at the next election, but perhaps for the next decade or two. The apprehensions felt by producers and those taking part in television programmes may or may not be justified. Perhaps on a strict legal interpretation of the whole Clause it might be possible to convince a lawyer that there would be no lack of impartiality and no favouritism if they produced a programme in the same way as they have in the past. Nevertheless, the fear exists and the Government should try to allay it before the next General Election.

11.15 p.m.

The background to the Clause is that both the television authorities—the I.T.A. and the B.B.C.—already have imposed on them obligations of impartiality and fairness. Over a fairly long period, there are ups and downs in the relation to each authority and in re-relation to each party from time to time, but on the whole they have maintained a fair standard of impartiality and fairness, at least in their domestic political coverage. I say nothing about the way in which they handle international events. But by and large over the years both parties have had a fair crack of the whip from the television authorities.

Two matters particularly worry people in the business. The first, which concerns subsection (1) is whether an idiot candidate, a sham candidate who refused to take part in a television broadcast could not only shut out other candidates in his constituency, but, if he chose to stand in Bexley, Huyton or Devon, North might keep the leaders of the three main political parties totally off the air during a General Election campaign.

Sir G. Nabarro

Worcestershire, South.

Mr. Richard

I was not yet putting forward the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) as the leader of the Conservative Party. I am happy to say that I have taken no part in the leadership squabbles on the other side.

The television authorities are seriously worried that if, for example, an English Nationalist candidate stood in Huyton they would be prevented from showing the Prime Minister making speeches not only in Huyton but in London, Manchester, Birmingham and anywhere else. He would therefore be effectively shut out of the whole campaign. That is clearly not envisaged by the Clause, but the television authorities are worried about it, and the Government should consider the matter.

The other main difficulty is posed by subsection (2), which the Amendment would delete. It imposes a new and additonal obligation on the television producers and those concerned in the management of programmes not to favour any of the candidates. Elections are touchy things, as all hon. Members will agree. They will also agree that those engaged in elections are liable to be extraordinarily touchy when considering whether they have received fair treatment at the hands of the media of mass communications. I can imagine nothing more encouraging to electoral neurosis than that everybody who appears on television in the course of the election campaign should be entitled to sit down at home to watch and weight up whether favour has or has not been shown to him.

I should like to quote a paragraph from last weekend's Sunday Times, in which a lawyer was reported as saying: In a climate like that,"— in an election campaign— I don't think you could possibly produce a broadcast without one of the candidates complaining. How can you define' favouritism? Is it using one more light bulb to film one candidate; is it photographing one candidate kissing two babies and his rival kissing only one baby? The situation could become impossible for the producers. That is a real fear which the Government should consider again, and I appeal to them, moderately to do so.

It is all very well for us, two or 2½ years from the next General Election campaign, to decide that taking favouritism out of it would be a good thing. It would be very difficult in the heat of an election battle to try to make the subsection, which I do not find very happily drafted, in any sense enforceable. Further, through this provision it is illegal for a candidate to agree to appear in a broadcast made before the latest time for the delivery of nomination papers. It has even been suggested that if this is passed in this form not only would the other dangers arise but it might even shut out the television authorities from showing pictures of the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition or any of the party leaders handing in their nomination papers. If this is a possible construction—I think it is not straining the rules of interpretation too much to get that position—it is something at which the Government must look again.

Finally, this is a sort of Bill that Parliament does not consider very often. It has been said that we shall be lucky if we consider the representation of the people again for a decade or two decades. Television will, clearly, play an increasing, not diminishing, part in politics in the years to come. Whether one approves of it or disapproves is neither here nor there. It will play an increasing part. One has only to look at the way in the United States it is becoming increasingly intrusive into politics and a part of election campaigns, how the party leaders have to appear on television, and the way in which one's "image on the box" is becoming very important to candidates.

Since television will play an increasing part, I wish the Government had thought about this a little more coolly and tried to grapple with the impact that it will have on politics in the next decade or so and regularise it sensibly.

By and large, my approach is very similar to that of the hon. Member for Orpington. I would impose, if they are not imposed specifically already, obligations of impartiality and fairness on the television authorities. Having done that, I would let them alone to get on with the job of reporting domestic politics. Let us try to keep allegations of whether one or the other has been favoured out of this sort of thing.

If I might make not too pointed an appeal to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, I hope the Government will look at the wording of the subsection again and also think seriously about the merits of the issue.

Sir G. Nabarro

This is one of those rare occasions when I find myself substantially in agreement with the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) and the Liberal Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock). [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) wish to intervene at such an early stage in my speech? If so, will he rise and do so? No, the hon. Gentleman remains sedentary.

The fact is that the provision in subsection (2) is utterly unenforceable and unprovable and, in my judgment, super-fluous. In any event, the Secretary of State for Scotland was wrong on Second Reading when he pronounced in relation to the valid and valuable point made by the hon. Member for Orpington: On the point raised by the hon. Member for Orpington about how to adjudicate fairness in respect of a political broadcast during an election, we are trying to follow through a recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference that there should be fairness and that it should be seen to be fair. This obligation is laid on those conducting these broadcasts or television programmes. If they do not meet the obligation they might be guilty of an illegal practice under the Bill.—(Official Report. 18th November, 1968; Vol. 773, c. 1027.] In fact, Mr. Speaker's Conference did nothing of the sort. What Mr. Speaker's Conference said, and I quote from paragraph 37 on page 7 of Cmnd. 3550, was: Exemptions from provisions relating to election expenses 35. Broadcasting should be exempted from the provisions relating to election expenses in section 63 of the Representation of the People Act 1949; but a programme covering an election in a particular constituency and including candidates in that constituency should not be broadcast unless all the candidates have agreed to take part personally and are given an equal opportunity to state their views.

Mr. Hamling

That is rubbish.

Sir G. Nabarro

In practice, that cannot be borne out. Take, for example, Independent Television in the Midlands and the General Election of 1966. Midlands Television covered a very large number of constituencies; about 100 constituencies were covered by this particular form of Independent Television.

The Labour Party was asked to nominate their spokesman for a party political broadcast, and the Tories were asked to nominate their spokesman through the party machine. The Labour Party chose, not unnaturally, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins), then Home Secretary and now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Tory Party chose, not unnaturally, the candidate for Worcestershire, South.

I do not know why the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) is jeering. My party did not choose me for fun. My party chose me because I clobber the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and indeed I did clobber him and silenced him in appropriate fashion.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

Mr. Chairman, is the right hon. Gentleman now about to break——

Hon. Members

Hon. Gentleman, never right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Huckfield

Is the hon. Gentleman now about to break into his commercial for natural gas?

Sir G. Nabarro

That is characteristically flatulent. I am quoting an exact case of a television broadcast during an election a few days before polling day. Whatever were the reasons, and I do not attribute any valid reasons this evening for the particular choice by the political parties, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of today was the Labour Party candidate on this election broadcast and I was the Tory Party candidate, for reasons best known to the parties. I did not advocate my own participation in this broadcast.

The selection of questions was very important. The Chancellor of the Exchequer happens to sit for the constituency in Britain which manufactures the largest number of commercial motor vehicles in any constituency in Britain. I happen to sit for a lush and productive agricultural and horticultural constituency.

Now the questions on the television broadcast were beamed to industrial matters. There was not a single question on agricultural or horticulture. Thus I was placed at a disadvantage.

Hon. Members


Sir G. Nabaffo

I look after myself in General Elections, as always, but the fact is that the beaming of questions to industrial matters placed me at a disadvantage. Within the terms of this Clause, that might have been interpreted as bias against a particular candidate, because bias against a candidate does not consist of one matter alone. It can consist of the selection of questions. It can consist of the selection of candidates if, for example, a weak Labour candidate is put up against a very strong Tory candidate. If a feeble and vapid Tory candidate were put against the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), he would savage him. Similarly, if a feeble and vapid Labour candidate were put against me, I would savage him.

Mr. Russell Johnston


Sir G. Nabarro

I am not a cad. These are methods of exercising television and broadcasting bias, and any hon. Member who sneers at me or mocks me for saying that has insufficient knowledge. The editing of television or broadcast programmes, the selection of material for them, the selection of candidates for them, are all means—and I make no accusations or insinuations or innuendos—of beaming propaganda against one candidate or the other but are largely unenforceable within the Statute and are unproveable. That is why the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) was correct in stating that this subsection is non-enforceable and why I am correct in saying that it is unproveable.

I want to give a further example, and I hope that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale will rise and support me on it, because it is one from his own personal experience as a West country man in origin. In the 1959 General Election I was called upon by my party to take part in a similar party political broadcast. I have quoted an example from the 1966 General Election which involved the Chancellor of the Exchequer; this is an example from the 1959 General Election when the "Any Questions?" programme on the B.B.C. was turned into a party political broadcast and was announced as such.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

I thought it was that all the time.

Sir G. Nabarro

I have been privileged on numerous occasions to take part in that programme against the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. I reckon that we are equal weight.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

A bantam.

Sir G. Nabarro

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) considers the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale a bantam. I do not. I consider him a he ivy weight. I never under-estimate my opponents. I like participating with the hon. Member because when the B.B.C. put us on together we have a very good time. We are equally matched. That is fair, and it is what the B.B.C. conscientiously tries to do. As the hon. Member for Barons Court observed, the B.B.C. acid the I.T.A. are scrupulous in their observance of the statutory requirements of impartiality in regard to television and broadcasting. There is no greater or better example, no finer epitome of that impartiality, than is manifest by having the hon. Members for Ebbw Vale and Worcestershire, South on the same programme.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Member mistakes me I did not accuse him of under-estimating his opponent's weight, but rather of over-estimating his own.

Sir G. Nabarro

I am sorry, but I have never felt at a disadvantage with the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. He may have felt superiority.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale) indicated dissent

Sir G. Nabarro

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman indicates dissent.—[Interruption.] All this discourse has arisen from a ribald intervention by the hon. Member for Salford, West.

I want to go back to the General Election of 1959, when the B.B.C. announced, quite properly, that the programme "Any Questions" would be converted into a party political broadcast. The Labour Party nominee on that occasion was the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy). The Liberal Party nominee was Mr. Mark Bonham-Carter, then the Member of Parliament for the Torrington Division of Devon, who lost his seat in the election. I was the Tory nominee.

In the course of the programme, because we had had several weeks of drought and the West of England was afflicted severely, a question arose about the responsibility of the Government for water supplies in Devonshire and Cornwall. The constituency most seriously affected was Torrington, where the Liberal candidate was defending his seat. He made a great brouhaha of the incom- petence of the Government in not supplying water to Devonshire. In fact, it was an act of God, as I exclaimed at the time. It had not rained for weeks. I remember the General Election singularly well, because from beginning to end I drove an open motor car. I had a ruddy tan by the time polling day arrived.

That question might have been interpreted as bias in favour of the Liberal candidate to cause farmers in the Torrington Division to pin the blame for the shortage of water on the inadequacies and deficiencies of a Tory Government—[Interruption.] In fact, the Liberals do not change their spots. We have six Mark Bonham-Carters sitting behind me.

It was an act of God, but a malignant political mind might have said that it was devious management on the part of the B.B.C. to throw bias against one political party, the Tories, in favour of the Liberal Party.

Subsection (2) is nonsense. It should be excluded from the Bill. It is unenforceable. It is superfluous. As they exist, the general statutory requirements, needing impartiality from both the B.B.C. and I.T.V., are adequate for all circumstances and for the protection of all party candidates. Those of us who are long in the tooth and experience——

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Come on. Wrap up.

Sir G. Nabarro

I propose to go on until I have finished. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) ought to be particularly quiescent.

Mr. Atkinson

The hon. Gentleman has made his point. The Tories chose culture in preference to agriculture.

Sir G. Nabarro

The hon. Gentleman has not a blade of grass in his constituency and does not know a farm from an oil refinery, but I am glad that he rises to support me. As he rightly says, I have made my point and, though this is not entirely a free vote, I would enjoin my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Liberal Party in this matter. This is largely non-political and, if the hon. Member for Orpington wishes to tell against the Government on this occasion, he may be the first Teller and my political mentor and leader. I shall follow dutifully behind him and support what I regard as good common sense and opposition to what is a superfluous subsection.

The Attorney-General

It may be convenient for the Committee if I indicate the Government's attitude to this Amendment and to the matters which have been raised in this vigorous discussion.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) has done less than just justice to himself tonight. He has quite unjustly attributed bad motivation to the clause and quite gratuitously tried to drag in an allegation of some so-called vendetta. I am surprised that he should descend to such political vulgarity.—[An Hon. Member: "Disgraceful."] The fact is that Clause 9 as a whole derives from, and is inspired by, Recommendation 35 of Mr. Speaker's Conference. That has been read in ringing tones by the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro), but I remind the Committee of its terms: Broadcasting should be exempted from the provisions relating to election expenses in Section 63 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949…". That is achieved in Clause 9(4). That is a very important measure, so far as the broadcasting authorities are concerned. It frees them of major restrictions which have hitherto hampered them from reporting on parliamentary and local elections. Therefore, so far from the Clause being directed against the broadcasting authorities, on the contrary it opens out new avenues of freedom for them to do their job of informing the electorate about the policies and personalities of election campaigns. Subsection (4) relieves the broadcasting authorities of a good deal of worry, because they were not exempted by the 1949 Act in the same way as newspapers and periodicals from consideration of election expenses.

Furthermore, the Government have gone further than Mr. Speaker's Conference in proposing that some candidates should be able to take part in a broadcast about their own constituency even if not all the candidates take part, so long as none of them objects. Those measures of greater freedom from restriction for the broadcasting authorities are welcomed by them, but it is true that they are critical of some of the restric- tions in the Clause fettering their freedom.

The restrictions arise from the second part of Recommendation 35 of Mr. Speaker's Conference, which is in these terms: …but a programme covering an election in a particular constituency and including candidates in that constituency should not be broadcast unless all the candidates have agreed to take part personally and are given an equal opportunity to state their views. Subsection (2) seeks to give legislative form to the principle which is embodied in the recommendation that all the candidates should be given an equal opportunity to state their views.

Sir G. Nabarro rose——

The Attorney-General

I will give way in a moment. That is the idea behind the subsection. There is nothing sinister about it. It seeks to meet that point of view.

Sir G. Nabarro rose——

The Attorney-General

If the hon. Gentleman would bear with me, it may be that I shall say something to his satisfaction before long.

Sir G. Nabarro

I accept what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says with all the authority of a Law Officer. But what is the situation when 100 constituencies are covered by a television broadcast and there are three candidates in each constituency? All the constituencies are affected by what is shown and said, but we cannot have 300 candidates taking part.

The Attorney-General

I do not think that anybody suggests anything of the kind, neither the Bill nor the broadcasting authorities. In considering the necessity of the provisions in subsection (2), I take note of the point that already the broadcasting authorities are required by law to be impartial. That is a point of importance and substance and it has certainly affected my view in looking at this subsection.

11.45 p.m.

Section 3(1)(e) of the Television Act, 1964, requires the Independent Television Authority to secure that due impartiality is preserved on the part of the persons providing the programmes as respects matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current policy. In applying paragraph (e) of this subsection, a series of programmes may be considered as a whole. The B.B.C. also is obliged by its Charter to observe its impartiality. The safeguards which already exist are sufficient to preserve impartiality between the parties.

The question arises, however, whether these provisions are sufficient to prevent unfairness to an individual candidate in a particular constituency. That is the problem with which subsection (2) seeks to deal. It has been the Government's view that in order to be faithful to the approach of Mr. Speaker's Conference that there should be equal opportunity, if candidates are to be asked to take part in broadcasts they should have some sort of guarantee that if they agree to do so in relation to their own constituency matters rand their own electoral campaign no favouritism should be shown to one of their number in the broadcasts.

That is the ideal that is sought to be achieved by the subsection, and the requirement it imposes is that those in charge of a broadcast shall not arrange things so as to favour any of the candidates. The subsection is not drafted in terms of the length of time allowed to each candidate. It does not require that each shall be asked the same questions. It does not state that all the interviewing must be equally friendly or equally hostile. I cannot conceive of proceedings being brought—certainly brought successfully—save on the rarest of occasions and in regard to the most flagrant breach if subsection (2) became part of the law.

There is no implied criticism of the broadcasting authorities either intended by the provisions of the subsection or hidden within it.

Mr. Orme

On the question of impartiality, cannot the Attorney-General reverse the position in which a candidate can refuse to take part, which is detrimental to the other candidates who wish to participate, so that the electorate can see and hear them? Why should they be prevented from doing this because one candidate censors the right of the others to appear?

The Attorney-General

If a candidate refuses to take part the broadcast cannot take place.

Mr. David Steel

On a point of order. I am sorry to interrupt, but I am anxious to discuss this matter, which is now being debated as a result of an intervention by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), which is not in order on this Amendment but would be in order in the debate on the Clause, since it refers to subsection (1), and has nothing to do with subsection (2). If you are going to allow it to be discussed on an Amendment to subsection (2), Mr. Irving, I would wish to intervene on this point.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Member is quite correct and I must not submit to the blandishments of my hon. Friend when he seeks to intervene——

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

Would my right hon. and learned Friend explain why he wishes to attach this duty to the officers of the Corporation rather than to the Corporation itself? Does he wish to single out in the Clause the actual officers, producers and others, rather than rely on the general provision with regard to the Corporation as a whole?

The Attorney-General

The Corporation itself would be caught by the language of the subsection. But before this matters extends further in debate, I must say that my view is that the necessity for the subsection needs to be reconsidered. Nevertheless, I urge upon the Committee the point that whereas it is, I think, reasonably clear that the requirements imposed upon the broadcasting authorities can be relied upon to preserve overall impartiality between the parties, there is a point of anxiety as to whether that might not be achieved at the risk of injustice to particular candidates in particular constituencies. However, I feel that this matter should be looked at again, and I accordingly give an undertaking to the Committee that that will be done between now and Report.

Mr. Paul Bryan (Howden)

We are certainly grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his last few sentences. The early part of his speech was little more than a legal tour around Clause 9, it brought us little comfort with regard to subsection (2). I am glad to hear that he will have another look at the subsection. May I suggest the direction towards which he should look?

I do not wish to raise the temperature of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), or to descend to vulgarities, but I must say that one is bound to see the shadow of the Prime Minister behind this Clause—[Interruption.]—for factual reasons. Before 1964. the Government depended in general for protection from bias upon the well-known duty laid on the broadcasting organisations in the Charter and the Television Act to maintain impartiality. For particular queries the Government depended on the recognised channels of communication. If the Prime Minister wished to complain, he complained to the Chairman of the Governors or the Director-General. If the Chief Whip wished to complain, he complained to someone at his own level, his opposite number, in either organisation.

But, with the advent of the Labour Government, we had new practices—[An Hon. Member: "Come off it."] The Committee can judge whether these were better practices——

The Attorney-General

On a point of order. I submit that this has nothing whatsoever to do with the Amendment.

The Chairman (Mr. Sydney Irving)

I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he is coming to the Amendment.

Mr. Bryan

My speech is about to be very relevant indeed. I will state facts as shortly as possible so as not to raise the temperature. For the first time, we had a Prime Minister dealing with the junior executives of the organisation, as opposed to dealing with those in charge of the organisation. This new attitude is faithfully reflected in the Clause. At the beginning of the Clause——

Mr. Hamling

On a point of order. My hon. Friend was pulled up earlier for mentioning a matter better dealt with on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill", when we are supposed to be dealing with the Amendment.

The Chairman

The hon. Member must allow the Chair to listen to the debate and draw its conclusions about order.

Mr. Bryan

I was about to quote the subsection with which the Amendment deals. It starts with the words: Without prejudice to any general duty of the British Broadcasting Corporation or the Independent Television Authority to maintain impartiality… They do not mean simply "without prejudice to any general duty". It means in addition to that duty. It then imposes other duties on other people. It states that the responsibility for the impartiality still rents with those in command of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A., but henceforth it will also rest specifically on the shoulders of directors, producers and others. We have, therefore, a new level of executive with responsibility on their shoulders.

That, however, is not what will happen. If we put the responsibility directly on the shoulders of juniors, as the Government are doing in subsection (2), we are automaticaly removing that responsibility from the shoulders of the seniors. Under present conditions, if the Director General of the B.B.C. is watching a programme and sees one of his interviewers behaving in a biased fashion, he feels, "I am responsible. I must take action. I have this duty to perform." Under the subsection, however, he could see the same programme and say, "We will see whether this man is sued or not." If the interviewer is not sued, the Director General can feel that perhaps it was not so bad after all. Therefore, not only is his judgment coloured at that point, but it is coloured on future occasions.

The most important point of all is the shifting of responsibility which we see in subsection (2). I dislike the subsection for that reason. I prefer to leave the important responsibility on the shoulders of the heads of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. and not on those of the junior employees.

I confirm the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) that it is impossible to make the subjection effective. The duty, as now, of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A., under the Charter and the Act, is a possibility, because they are enjoined to maintain impartiality over a series of programmes over a period. One can never obtain impartiality on each individual programme. That is what subsection (2) is trying to do. For all these reasons, I am glad to hear that the Attorney-General is having second thoughts about it.

Mr. David Steel

I wish briefly to put one point to the Attorney-General since he was kind enough to say that he wants to reconsider the subsection. In so doing I ought, I suppose, to declare a passing interest in that for a short time before coming to the House of Commons I was a television interviewer, and in the event of any aberration of judgment on the part of the electorate of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles it is conceivable that I might at some future occasion also be involved on the other side of the fence.

Mr. Lubbock


Mr. Steel

I am certain that my hon. Friend is right, but I have to consider these possibilities.

Since becoming a Member of the House I have continued to participate professionally on the other side of television interviewing in programmes which do not involve politics. I should like to relate to the Attorney-General an experience which is relevant. I remember taking part in a programme and waiting at one end of the studio to conduct the interview while an interview was going on for another part of the programme at the other end of the studio.

During that other interview, it became clear that the person being interviewed was not doing justice to his case, nor was he contributing much to television entertainment or enlightenment. My colleague the other interviewer therefore cut short the interview contrary to the producer's prior instructions, and switched immediately to my interview. Therefore, his interview was one minute shorter and mine was one minute longer than had been arranged, but it was the kind of programme in which that did not matter.

Suppose, however, that it had happened, as it might well have done, in a television production of an election programme. It might be said under the Clause as drafted that the interviewer had favoured one candidate by giving him longer screen time, when intentionally he was trying to protect the interests of the programme by cutting short one of the interviews.

12 p.m.

I will give another example, this time outside television. When I was fighting the by-election in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles a number of politicians suddenly took a great interest in the constituency and arrived to participate in the respective campaigns. Some of my Liberal hon. Friends were among them. They will not take it unkindly when I tell them that none of them made as substantial a contribution to my campaign as did the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) who came to speak ostensibly for my opponent.

If the various speeches made on that occasion from platforms had been made on a television programme and if the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South, and I had been participating in a programme not about, for example, floods in Devonshire but about a Border matter—and if he had been supplied with inaccurate statistics by the Conservative Central Office—great credit would have accrued to me through no effort of mine or my colleagues but because of the extraordinary observations of the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South. In that event the television programme would have favoured me, but it would have been no fault of the managers of the programme, as a result of no endeavour on my part but entirely as a result of the hon. Gentleman's performance. If the Attorney-General were introducing in the Bill a suggestion that there should be legislation to make it an offence to rig a programme in favour of a candidate, that would be correct and would have my support. But that is not what the Clause says. It simply says that …any person who…favours any of the candidates…shall be guilty of an illegal practice. The phrase "whether or not intended" does not appear. I hope that, in reconsidering the drafting of the Clause, the Attorney-General will remember that such a penalty should apply only where somebody has wilfully distorted a programme.

The Attorney-General

I assure the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) that I will give attention, in my reconsideration of the drafting of the Clause, to the points he made. He accepts that there is the problem of avoiding unfair treatment being given to a candidate who might—to use the vivid expression of the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro)—be massacred by some selective treatment of a broadcast of the kind we are discussing.

Sir G. Nabarro

While rejecting absolutely the interpretation put on my visit to the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election on 9th March, 1965—when I spoke in the Borough of Innerleithen and contributed to the Tory vote on that occasion—I would be ungenerous indeed if I did not warmly thank the Attorney-General for his characteristically kind, objective and constructive interpretation of the few party political comments I addressed to him. I shall await, pregnant, the further stages of the Bill to see his promises translated into statutory effect.

Mr. Lubbock

Anybody would think that the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) had tabled the Amendment. Like my Liberal colleagues, I again thank him for the support which he gave to my party at the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election.

Speeches from both sides of the Committee have pointed out the defects in the drafting of the Clause. The Attorney-General has been generous in recognising that the Government have made a mistake and, following his assurance that he will look into the matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bryan

I ask one question about the opening passages of the Clause. Will the Attorney-General explain why the operative time is the latest time for delivery of nomination papers? For most of us who fight elections the key moment is when we are adopted as candidates. From that moment the campaign is on and one would have thought that television programmes would operate from then. It would appear that it is impossible to have any television programme until about 10 days before polling day, yet most campaigns go on for about three weeks before that day.

Mr. David Steel

I am sorry to speak again so soon, but I wish to pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme). The wording of Clause 9(1)(b) refers to constituency broadcasts not taking place when any particular candidate has declined to appear and to give consent to the programme going ahead. The Attorney-General will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the law at present is somewhat vague on this subject. A practice has developed whereby if a candidate decides not to take part in a programme, either that programme cannot take place or the programme authorities cover themselves by putting a photograph of that candidate on the screen and reading parts of his election address.

This has been the case when the candidate is not a member of one of the three parties and the likelihood of prosecution has been remote. I remember a B.B.C. programme where the three party candidates appeared and the fourth candidate, standing as an independent, did not appear, but was merely filmed riding a motor scooter through the constituency. I do not know whether the B.B.C. invited him to appear.

Apparently the Government have decided to codify the position and to make what is at present vague absolutely watertight. I have no objection to that, but I think they have made it watertight in the wrong direction. A candidate in a constituency should not be forced to appear on television if he does not wish to do so, but it is quite wrong that any candidate, a party candidate, an independent or someone seeking to get out of the Armed Forces, should by virtue of not giving consent to a programme actually veto a broadcast of constituency affairs. I hope that the Attorney-General, following his excellent precedent of a few moments ago will agree that this is a matter which should be examined more carefully. I should like to pursue it on Report if he does not feel that he has sufficient evidence to examine it now.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

I support the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) because I too came to this House as the result of a by-election and exactly the same happened to me as he has described. Before this debate, I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks), who had the same experience.

If subsection (1)(b) were rigidly interpreted, it would preclude many television broadcasts in by-elections. Many friends in television have told me that if a candidate refuses to appear on a programme it is the custom to show a photograph of him and to read from his election material for a corresponding time to that given to each other candidate. As a result of similar experience to that of the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and conversations with my hon. Friends, I urge that this subsection should be withdrawn. If it is rigidly interpreted it will preclude by-election coverage on television.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) asked for an explanation as to the selection in subsection (1)(b) of the latest time for the delivery of nomination papers. That will be the point of time at which the candidates will have been identified. As the provisions in paragraph (b) involve the participation of the candidates or their consent to the broadcast taking place without participation, that is the moment of time which is effective.

I appreciate that it is a debatable point that the provisions of the Clause permit a veto for the single candidate. I can imagine situations where a proposed broadcast might be highly inconvenient. It might come at a moment which was entirely inconvenient for an individual candidate, and he might well feel entitled to object to the proposed broadcast taking place. Steps must be taken as best we can to preserve the rights and opportunities of each individual candidate in an election campaign. It is thought that the proposal in the Clause, which goes further than was suggested by Mr. Speaker's Conference, achieves about the right balance.

Initially, the proposal of Mr. Speaker's Conference was that a broadcast should not take place unless all the candidates agreed to take part personally. At least the language of the Clause extends the possibility of a broadcast taking place by removing the requirement that all must agree to take part personally and leaving room for the situation in which a single candidate might say, "You can carry on with the broadcast. I do not want to. The best of luck". On the whole, the Clause achieves a fair balance to ensure the protection of each individual candidate and equal opportunity for him.

Mr. David Steel

I am very unhappy with that reply, and it would be wrong of me not to say so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's explanation is unconvincing. We are making a fundamental change in the law. I do not think this fact has been fully appreciated. The Attorney-General rightly says that a programme might be arranged which did not suit the convenience of a candidate and his position must be protected. I agree. Under existing legislation, the practice has grown up—I have had experience of this—that when these programmes are arranged every effort is made to ensure that they suit the convenience of all the candidates. If a candidate objects that he cannot accept a suggested time, other times are negotiated and agreed. Eventually, in practice each candidate is persuaded to say whether in principle he agree to take part.

At present, if a programme went ahead with candidates A and B but not candidate C, simply because it was inconvenient for candidate C, and if it were shown that the broadcasting authority arranging the programme had not adequately taken into account the inconvenience to candidate C, the broadcasting authority would be guilty of an offence.

I am very concerned that this change is being made without adequate discussion. If Mr. Speaker's Conference meant literally what it said, I disagree with it, and I do not find it much cheer that the Attorney-General should think that he is moving in a somewhat more liberal direction. I am comparing what we are being asked to approve with the present state of the law. I think that that is the right comparison, and I am very unhappy about the change. If the Attorney-General maintains that it is the right change, I hope that he will at least give further thought to the matter as it has been raised by one or two hon. Members.

12.15 a.m.

The Attorney-General

I intended to give that assurance at any rate, but I cannot give any undertaking that there will be an Amendment. I will gladly look at it in the light of what has been said.

Mr. Mendelson

I have only just decided briefly to intervene in the debate. I have sat through all the other debates today without intervening, but I do so now because I do not want the record to show that all hon. Members who spoke on the Clause attacked it.

The conclusion of Mr. Speaker's Conference was, as the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) has quoted. I support that conclusion, as do many other hon. Members. If the Attorney-General is moving slightly away from that recommendation, I am prepared to accept it, but it should be on the record why the conference reached that conclusion and why I, for one, do not accept the account which has been given.

An important principle is involved. Elections are a matter in the first place for the electorate and for candidates, and that must not be lost sight of. I agree with what has been said about the growing importance of broadcasting and television, but because their importance is growing does not mean that the essential purposes of an election, the decision of the electorate about how the House of Commons is to be composed and what party is to be elected, can be overlooked or become less important. To put it rather more crudely, we cannot hand over the essential purpose of an election to the reporting of an election, and many things have happened in election campaigns which give warning about that.

It was that kind of reasoning which led Mr. Speaker's Conference to its conclusion. The invention of a new instrument of reporting, the introduction of a machine, however useful, into our electoral processes, must not be allowed to begin to dictate changes in those processes themselves, and that is what is involved. I am not putting this in any partisan spirit. This is a matter of opinion and of judgment, but it is of fundamental importance.

I have taken part in four elections, including all of those since television has played a part. It is not as simple as has been represented. I have no personal bias in this matter, for my attitude is simple: whenever a television company asks me to take part in a broadcast, I automatically agree. But that does not give me the right to judge on behalf of all actual or potential candidates who may take part in a future election.

It is not so easy to get the time and date of a broadcast changed. What normally happens, in my experience, is that a candidate is campaigning in his constituency and finds on getting back to his headquarters that there is a scribbled message asking, "Will you please appear for three minutes on television in Manchester?" For me as for other candidates, this may mean three or four hours' travel, or, if the traffic is bad, five hours. The candidate may well have contracted three or four different engagements that afternoon, and one of them might be a big meeting called by the United Nations Association, for instance, at which all the candidates are supposed to appear. Perhaps there is a meeting of old age pensioners, or a meeting with a trade association, or an open air meeting.

This Committee has a duty to safeguard the position of future candidates. If a candidate in such a situation says, "I cannot possibly take part", it should be left to him whether he wants the broadcast to preceed at that time—[Hon. Members: "Why?"]—because it would put him at a serious disadvantage compared with other candidates if they had no engagements that afternoon and he had three or four important ones.

If he has that power in the Clause, it would be a powerful incentive for him to get the television authorities or television company to listen to him. He might say, "I am prepared to take part in principle, but that afternoon or evening is impossible for me, although it is easy for the others and it is unfair to impose it on me and I therefore say 'No' to this broadcast, but I am open to suggestions about others". Because that is the position, the Government should stick to this Clause.

Mr. David Steel

If the hon. Member has had this experience, surely he agrees with me that, in the situation described, the broadcasting authorities do not arrange it so that it is inconvenient for one candidate, if he has agreed in principle. I can think of no case where that could happen under existing law.

Mr. Mendelson

In the past, the practice which this Clause would change, has been different. The practice, with the major party candidates, has been that if a single candidate said "No", the broadcast could not take place; not that they would try to find another time. This has been the case in by-elections and General Elections. The Government are moving slightly ahead of that. The hon. Member is urging a different and much more radical change which would not provide the safeguard. If he was trying to argue that the position should remain as at present, I would go with him. That is another story.

Does he argue that it should remain the privilege of one candidate to make a broadcast possible? Is that his case? I did not understand it to be so. I think he was urging that the Government should move further from the present position. If the Government are prepared to accept the recommendation of Mr. Speaker's Conference to maintain the present position, I will accept that. But if it is urged that they should move further so that individual candidates would not be safeguarded——

Mr. David Steel

Before the hon. Member concludes his speech, can we clear this up? I am saying that the present position should be maintained in the absence of any improvement, but that the Government are creating a position where Screaming Lord Sutch could stand in a by-election which was highly marginal and of national interest as well as constituency interest, and under this Clause, Screaming Lord Sutch, who has been a candidate more than once, could say: "I do not agree to take part in a broadcast with these other three politicians and I do not give my consent". Therefore, it is not the present position. At present the broadcasting authorities would say, "We do not think your lack of desire of any great importance and we consider that it is in accordance with our duty of impartiality to go ahead and have the programme of discussion and show your photograph and say why you are standing". That would he impossible under this and that is why I am against it.

Mr. Mendelson

That is a very useful explanation. If the hon. Gentleman is now urging that we should leave things as they are, which is my original position, I should accept that. If the Government were persuaded to return to it, I should be very happy.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

At this sedate but amiable moment, I beg to move,

That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee report Progress; to sit again this day.

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