HC Deb 24 October 1968 vol 770 cc1589-97

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister whether the public speech made by the Minister of Technology in Bristol on 18th October on the control of broadcasting in our modern society represents Government policy.


To ask the Prime Minister if the speech by the Minister of Technology in Bristol on 18th October regarding the British Broadcasting Corporation represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.


To ask the Prime Minister whether the public speech on broadcasting, delivered at Bristol by the Minister of Technology, on Friday, 18th October, 1968 represents Government policy.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission I will answer this Question and Questions Nos. Q9 and Q12 together.

As my right hon. Friend made clear he was expressing his own personal views on a constituency occasion. His speech in no sense purported to be a statement of Government policy.

Mr. Taylor

Does the Prime Minister appreciate the seriousness of a public speech of this sort by a Cabinet Minister on such a vital issue as broadcasting freedom? If the Minister of Technology was not flying a kite for the Prime Minister in his apparent vendetta with the B.B.C., will the right hon. Gentleman at least repudiate the reported statement that broadcasting is too important to be left to the broadcaster?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend said in his speech—this has not had as much publicity as the parts which have excited the hon. Member: I am not proposing direct or indirect Government control of the mass media, to which I would be wholly opposed".

Nor is there any vendetta with the B.B.C.'

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Ashley.

Mr. Ashley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's reaffimation of the independence of the B.B.C. will be warmly welcomed? Is he also aware, however, that the Chairman of the Governors of the B.B.C. has said that its independence was in doubt in both 1926 and 1956? Would my right hon. Friend therefore agree that although representation should legitimately be made by all parties in this House, it should not be shrouded in secrecy but should be made and answered in public?

The Prime Minister

I do not remember 1926, but I remember 1956. Certainly, recent disclosures here suggest a situation in which hon. Members opposite should be singing very small on these questions.

There is no question here about the independence of the B.B.C. There is adequate machinery for complaints by any member of the general public, by the Opposition, by the Government, or by any political party. I am perfectly satisfied that this machinery is adequate. Indeed, I am able to record that I have received a large number of apologies from the B.B.C. for breaches of its practices and principles, apologies not in cases that we took the initiative in raising with the Corporation.

Mr. Dance

Does the Prime Minister agree that in view of recent events he should look into the whole question of setting up a completely independent—I repeat, independent—viewers' and listeners' association?

The Prime Minister

These matters have been considered in the past. There was a suggestion some years ago—I see that it has been revived recently—of having a television council comparable to the Press Council to which complaints could be addressed. In the case of commercial television, we have an Act which was approved by Parliament and of which the Authority is the custodian. The fact that it is there is to some extent a deterrent against possible breaches of the Act. In the case of the B.B.C, we have the Governors.

At this stage, although I am prepared to listen to submissions from the hon. Member or other hon. Members, I do not see a case for a television council comparable to the Press Council, because the safeguards exist in the one case under legislation and in the other case under the Charter.

Mr. Molloy

There is another side to this question. Would not my right hon. Friend agree that while probably all of us in this House would defend to the limit the right of the B.B.C. to be free, at the same time, if the tough newscasters and tough interviewers hit individuals and corporations, as is their right, there is something distasteful about the fact that there is immediate complaint if somebody wants to hit back at them and they start appealing to the referee?

The Prime Minister

I think that the concern of this House, irrespective of party, is for neutrality, independence and impartiality. Any hon. Member, any party, has the right to complain when they think that this is infringed, as from time to time it certainly appears that it may be being infringed.

As for tough interviewers, I would have thought that any experienced Member of this House, as, I am sure, the Leader of the Opposition will confirm from his experience, only gains to the extent that the interviews are tough. I think that most of us who are trained in Parliamentary batsmanship gain from fast bowling from these interviewers. Certainly, none of us has anything to lose from toughness, even rudeness, by interviewers.

Mr. Bryan

Is the Prime Minister aware that his answer might be acceptable to the House in respect of any Minister except, perhaps, the Minister of Technology, with all the weight which he has as ex-Postmaster-General? Therefore, even if we are to have no Government interference with broadcasting, will the Prime Minister give us his view on the Minister of Technology's idea of some other nongovernmental authority which should have power to override the B.B.C. in choice and form of programme?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that that was at all suggested by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology, who speaks, of course, with authority as a former Postmaster-General, just as the hon. Member speaks with authority as shadow Postmaster-General. I do not think that my right hon. Friend suggested that.

My answer to a previous question makes it plain that I would need a lot more arguments to be produced before I felt that there was need for a change from the custodianship of the Independent Television Authority, on the one hand, and the Governors of the B.B.C, on the other.

Mr. Tomney

Does not my right hon. Friend realise that all that is really involved here is the continuing story of "Wedgie" Benn, who staggered from calamity to calamity and seems to survive?

The Prime Minister

I note what my hon. Friend suggests about my right hon. Friend, whose reputation in technological matters during these two years has grown enormously—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] —with all parties—as has been shown by the independent comments on the great success of the Ministry of Technology in the restructuring of industry.

Mr. Hogg

While I would accept certainly a good deal of what the Prime Minister has said about the position of the Governors of the B.B.C., would not the right hon. Gentleman accept, too, that I he relationship between the Governors and the Director-General as an official has always and from the first been a matter of controversy? Is not part of this trouble, which has arisen for some time, that the Governors have not, on the whole, exerted the authority which Parliament originally intended them to do?

The Prime Minister

That is certainly an arguable thesis. There may be some reason for speaking as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has done. I think that the right answer to him is that having appointed the Governors—and there has been, I think, no criticism of the impartiality of the Governors themselves—we must leave it to them to take responsibility for carrying out their duties under the Charter and as Parliament has always intended.

Mr. Michael Foot

Returning to the question of the Prime Minister's alleged vendetta with the B.B.C., may I ask whether he would not agree that the worst affliction that he has imposed on the B.B.C. is the appointment of Lord Hill as Chairman of the Board of Governors? Would he not take it from me that we are all very glad to hear that it is the intention neither of himself nor of any other member of the Government to add injury to insult?

The Prime Minister

I would have thought that the appointment of Lord Hill, with his vast experience and his highly successful administration of the I.T.A., and the neutrality shown by the I.T.A., would carry the confidence of most hon. Members, of all parties.

With regard to the alleged vendetta, which dates from a refusal of mine to appear in a particular programme, which was thoroughly justified—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Certainly. If anybody wants to ask me about it, I will tell him why, too. [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] If it is an inalienable right of the television authorities to be free of Parliamentary interference, it is also an inalienable right of any human being not to go on television if he does not want to.

Dr. Winstanley

Would the Prime Minister agree that it is precisely because broadcasting is so important that it must remain in the hands of broadcasters? If he accepts that public criticisms are preferable to attempts to influence programme content behind the scenes, will he undertake that his party, at least, will make no behind-the-scenes attempts to influence programme content?

The Prime Minister

Responsibility must lie with the Governors and with the Authority in this matter. So far as broadcasters themselves are concerned, there have been complaints in the past—for example, about their being judge and jury and prejudging even cases in the courts. This is a matter for the Authority or the Governors to deal with.

So far as political parties are concerned, there is adequate machinery here. It is some years since I suggested, speaking for the party I represent, that we would be willing, if other parties would agree, to publish and register any complaints made by us in respect of broadcasts, if the Conservative and other parties would do the same.

Mr. Heffer

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that there is much too much sensitivity on the part of the mass media when they are criticised? Is it not quite clear that those who are being criticised by the mass media have the right—a right which the whole country has—to criticise back? Is it not unfortunate that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology's speech was not reported in full in the various newspapers of the country, and that the first part of it made it perfectly clear that at no time was he arguing for Government control of the B.B.C. or of any other mass media?

The Prime Minister

Newspapers must be responsible for deciding the news value of what they print. I do not remember seeing many of the reports of the particular quotations from my right hon. Friend's speech to which I have just drawn attention. So far as sensitivity is concerned, I did express in a recent television broadcast my surprise that these tough, hard-bitten broadcasters and journalists, who are not usually very slow in dishing it out, should be as sensitive as some people say they are. I do not think for a moment that they are so sensitive; they enjoy taking it as well as giving it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, quite apart from the merits or demerits of the Minister's speech, or indeed of the Minister, the serious issue is that the Prime Minister appears to be accepting that members of his Cabinet may make on issues of general policy public statements which are not the policy of the Government, and yet retain their offices? Has he taken into account the serious consequence of his allowing this breach of the old constitutional position?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend is free to speculate—whether that is wise or not is a matter for him and not for me—in this matter, but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), who is a very longstanding member of Cabinets, between 1951 and 1964, should be the last person to talk about private enterprise speeches by colleagues.

Mr. Jay

Would the Prime Minister explain what puzzles some of us, why the Minister of Technology apparently exempted Independent Television from the charges of sensationalism of which he complained?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that it was, in fact, what my right hon. Friend was saying. Indeed, a significant part of his speech was directed against the feeling which is expressed in some quarters that the public service corporation, which is the B.B.C., should be dismembered and handed over to commercial interests. I think that the lesson of his speech was to support the public service while leaving the commercial side free to do what it has to do under the Television Act.

Mr. Hastings

Would the right hon. Gentleman now tell us why he refused to take part in the programme which started the alleged vendetta?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to my exercise of the right not to broadcast, if one does not want to, at the end of the last General Election, during that election, as will be remembered, there was a good deal of interest in the mounting of a particular type of political programme. When I discovered that the B.B.C. was discussing with the Conservative Party the form of that programme, and, having agreed with that party, was putting it to me afterwards, I thought that there was a case for not broadcasting. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]. If the hon. Gentleman has any doubts about that he may look at the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in Liverpool, two Thursdays before polling day, when he said, "The B.B.C. has now produced a perfect formula. Will the Prime Minister accept it?" It was not put to me until two days later.

Mr. Brian Parkyn

Would not the Prime Minister agree that my right hon. Friend's Bristol speech was a speech of considerable importance, raising some really basic issues concerning the sovereignty of this House and democracy itself, and that if only people read the speech they would recognise that many of the assertions made about the speech are not true?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I think that it is important to read the speech as a whole; which I have done, now at any rate. I have also read, as I hope the House has, the very deeply considered speech of my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services—then Lord President of the Council, as he was—on Monday night, which I thought a very well-thought-out speech on all the principles. There was a great deal which was common to both speeches.

I think that that was what my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council was complaining about, but my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council did state very clearly the Government's position in his speech, the rest of which was, of course, a lecture rather than a statement of Government policy.

I would hope that it would be regarded by the whole House as a very fair statement of the way we feel about the television situation and its independence. I think that all of us feel sometimes that deep issues, which we debate here with so much thought and in so much depth, are sometimes treated by the television companies—all of them—with some degree of triviality and over-personalisation to the nation as a whole.