HC Deb 18 April 1969 vol 781 cc1537-50

Order for Second Reading read.

2.43 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The genesis of the Bill is interesting and may help to explain to the House why I have sought a Second Reading for it. Some months ago the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that it would discontinue the radio serial programme "The Dales" at the end of this coming week. At the time I was somewhat irritated by this decision. I considered that a programme with a listening audience of 3,700,000 people in the daytime, and not, let it be noted, at a peak listening hour, must be of some special social value. I protested publicly at the decision and stated that I would raise the matter at Question Time in this House.

The results of this statement were two-fold and unexpected. First, I received a vast number of letters from all over the country supporting my protest, and, although I had anticipated, or at least hoped for, support, I had not dreamt that it would be as widespread, or that "The Dales" gave so much comfort to the sick and elderly, or that there were so many hundreds, if not thousands, of people in homes and hospitals for whom Mrs. Dale and her family have become a major part of daily life.

The second consequence was in a different category altogether and resulted in this Bill. The Bill is not intended as a last ditch stand to save "The Dales", although, quite understandably, some members of the Press have interpreted it in this way because of the inevitable link between my protest and the presentation of the Bill. The second consequence is curious. In spite of every possible assistance from the learned Clerks at the Table, I could not devise any means of tabling a Question on the subject of Mrs. Dale and her diary to the Postmaster-General. This is because the Postmaster-General has no power to enable him to require or even to request the B.B.C. to retain a programme, even if it has a very large listening audience. He cannot request the B.B.C. even to retain a programme which this House might consider to be in the public interest. "The Dales", of course, does not fall into such a category, but it does not seem to me to be beyond the boundary of reason that such programmes might exist in the future.

My researches revealed that not only is the Postmaster-General unable to exercise any practical control over B.B.C. programmes, but that it follows that there are very few ways open to hon. Members to question the Postmaster-General on B.B.C. programme content. In certain circumstances the Postmaster-General may require the B.B.C. to discontinue the programme, but these circumstances are extremely limited.

I am not seeking through my Bill to enable the Postmaster-General to become an unofficial B.B.C. programme censor, nor am I seeking powers for Parliament to exercise independent control through the Postmaster-General over the B.B.C. I believe that this can be done properly only by the Governors of the Corporation, although some hon. Members may consider that the powers of the Governors are too narrow.

All I am seeking to do is to give the Postmaster-General powers, in agreement with the Governors of the B.B.C.—and I emphasise that the Bill contains the words "in agreement with the Governors"—to require the Corporation to retain certain programmes if, in his view, those programmes are in the national interest, are of an essentially educational character or give special comfort to persons who are sick, elderly or housebound and, therefore, dependent upon the radio in a unique manner.

It may be argued against the Bill that the powers are almost meaningless, since the agreement of the Governors would be required before the Postmaster-General could act, and there is nothing to prevent the Governors from taking such action themselves; but I do not disguise that my main purpose is to provide legislation which would have only one major practical effect: namely, to enable hon. Members of this House to raise with the Postmaster-General the content of programmes in the way which is at present denied to them.

It may also be argued against the Bill that if the Postmaster-General should require the B.B.C. to continue programmes which, in the opinion of the programme directors of the Corporation, had outlived their usefulness or could not be continued for technical reasons—for example, the non-availability of suitable scriptwriters—programmes would rapidly deteriorate. In practice, this argument could not apply since the controlling words in the Bill are in agreement with the Governors". It is, therefore, unthinkable that the Postmaster-General and the Governors would be so insensitive or irresponsible as jointly to insist on programmes being retained which the programme directors could show should be abandoned for technical reasons.

My main argument in support of the Bill can be stated simply. The British Broadcasting Corporation has a total monopoly in the matter of sound radio in this country. In television it also has certain built-in advantages over the independent companies. However, it is sound radio with which I am chiefly concerned today.

This monopoly is capable of serious abuse. The B.B.C. has carried out its duties to the public with a sense of its great responsibilities. By and large, it has provided programmes of an astonishingly high standard. They are perhaps higher than those of any country in the world. If I dislike, as I do, what I consider to be a muddled use of the various sound radio channels and object to the increase in the number of television programmes containing excessive violence, this does not diminish my respect for the overall record of the Corporation.

Nevertheless, any monopoly is dangerous, and in my view it is essential that certain basic safeguards should exist when the monopoly has such vast powers over the minds of the country's people.

Broadcasting, sound or visual, is the most important means of mass communication. The power of programme content requires no emphasis from me. Millions of words have been written by people of great eminence on the subject, and I can add nothing today. Yet, in spite of its monopoly position and in spite of its powers, the powers that the Corporation wields, we have this incredible situation in which the elected representatives of the people, we in this House of Commons, have virtually no power to make any effective representations through the responsible Minister, the Postmaster-General. Often we hear of power without responsibility. This is the reverse. The Postmaster-General has the responsibility but scarcely any effective power.

Finally, the B.B.C. is the indirect recipient of a licence fee. That fee is paid to the Postmaster-General through Crown or other official offices within his control. He receives the money which, in turn, provides the Corporation with the financial means to discharge its duties. The law is rigorous. There are severe penalties for persons who attempt to receive transmissions without payment of the licence fee. Those penalties have been prescribed by this House; yet we have no means of suggesting ways in which those fees may be used to the public benefit.

I conclude my submission by emphasising again that my Bill contains nothing which would give the Postmaster-General or Parliament arbitrary powers over the Corporation. It contains nothing which would enable the Postmaster-General to extend his powers to require the B.B.C. to discontinue programmes or to censor them in any way. What it contains is a simple provision, and even that is extremely limited. It is a provision which would enable the Postmaster-General, if he could obtain the agreement of the Governors, to require the B.B.C. to continue certain programmes, and only those which had some very special public significance. Most important of all, it would remove a gag from the mouth of this House which at present prevents any hon. Member from raising effectively on behalf of licence holders, his constituents, subjects which are the prerogative of a public body which is well-managed but which nevertheless enjoys a complete monopoly.

2.56 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I rise to oppose the Motion. What the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) said towards the end of his speech was really a recommendation to hon. Members not to support it. At the beginning of his remarks, I was rather carried along with him. In his affection for "The Dales", I think that he was a little carried away and said that he would do something about it. As a result, he found himself stuck with it. He found himself having to produce a Bill. I think that he has produced the best one possible, having agreed to his commitment, and he has done all that he can.

Even in the negative sense, however, it is not a very good idea to establish a situation which can have some very odd effects. Let us suppose that a programme on sound or television has established itself as one of which the public is very fond. I can recall an occasion when one of the characters in "The Archers" was killed off, and there was a tremendous outcry in the country. "The Archers" has been going for many years, and I hasten to point out that at the time the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Kenneth Baker) was probably still at school. The character concerned appeared regularly in much earlier instalments of the programme. "The Archers" was a very popular programme at the time, and there was a public outcry when the character concerned died.

If the Postmaster-General had been swayed by that wave of public emotion and had decided to issue a directive to the Governors along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman, a peculiar situation would have arisen in which the artist playing the part, who wished to be written out of the series, might have been directed by the Postmaster-General to continue in the rôle. In the event, the character was written out of the programme, and "The Archers" has remained with us.

The continuation of a programme is not a matter which the British Board-casting Corporation can always control. It depends on the co-operation of a large number of people. It depends on a director wanting to go on with its production. He may have put his individual stamp upon it. It may depend on a number of actors wishing to continue in the programme.

On reconsideration, the hon. Gentleman may come to the conclusion that his aim is impracticable. It might be practicable in the case of a news programme which has a personality quite independent of those who take part in it. That might be an area in which we could discuss on the Floor of the House whether it should continue, but it would have the effect of placing the news or current affairs programme concerned in the position of being regarded as a Labour Party, a Liberal Party or a Conservative Party programme, according to which party decided to support it.

We are on the thin end of a rather dangerous wedge and I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will come to the conclusion that it is not only dangerous but perhaps an illiberal step.

I agree very much with what the hon. Member said about the unfortunate monopoly position of the B.B.C. I look forward to the day when, without surrendering to commercial radio interests, it may be possible to have an alternative sound broadcasting agency possibly financed by other means than licence revenue. However, it would be wrong to attempt to go further into that possibility in a debate of this kind. All I would say is that I hope those remarks may be of some assistance in enabling the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his Bill.

I think that many of us who have grown up in the world of "The Dales" will regret their passing. I hope, however, that there will be other families for us to become acquainted with in due course and that we shall not wish to place the Postmaster-General in the position of having to retain in being any programme. I rather suspect that "The Archers" may prove to be immortal and may go on after all of us. Whether this is desirable or not I am not sure, but the Postmaster-General should not be the man to decide.

2.59 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Baker (Acton)

I am sure that we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) for bringing forward this Bill. He has highlighted an important problem, namely the problem of the content of B.B.C. programmes where minority interests are concerned.

I do not often find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins), but I cannot bring myself to agree with the hon. Member for Bodmin that his solution is either practicable or desirable. He seeks to extend the powers of the Postmaster-General to keep alive a programme which would be better killed. Irrespective of whether one likes "The Dales" or not, programmes do run themselves out, and if this Bill were to receive a Second Reading and became law the Postmaster-General would have the power of keeping going indefinitely any programme that he particularly liked, or for any particular reason. This raises the shattering possibility of the eternal existence of "The Archers", for example. It is an entirely negative power.

Mr. Bessell

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech. The emphasis that I place in the Bill is on the fact that the Postmaster-General could not do this arbitrarily. It would have to be done in agreement with the Governors.

Mr. Baker

I will come to that point in a moment. Undoubtedly this Bill gives the Postmaster-General more powers. Admittedly he may have to discuss these matters with the Governors, but the object of the Bill is to throw responsibility on the Postmaster-General and on hon. Members of this House, and I would have thought that this was undesirable.

The Postmaster-General will not be given any positive powers under the Bill; they are purely negative powers. I would not have thought that they were powers which we want to impose on a politician or, indeed, upon the House. It will not have escaped the attention of the hon. Member for Bodmin that there is a Post Office Bill going through the House which seeks to reduce the powers of the Postmaster-General in the day-to-day administration of the Post Office. I am very much in support of the general tenor of that Bill. This Bill would have exactly the reverse effect and would give him additional powers.

None the less I would not want to be hostilely critical of the hon. Member for Bodmin, because he has done a valuable service to the House and to the public by raising this question. He is inviting the Postmaster-General to decide upon the content of B.B.C. programmes and to decide whether a programme is in the national interest, or of an essential educational nature, or of comfort to persons in hospitals or old persons' homes, the elderly or others who deprive special social benefits from such programmes. I cannot help feeling that this is rather a narrow selection of minority interests. One minority interest in this country, the cultural interest, is catered for in the Third Programme. This is not mentioned in this Bill, and I hope that the Postmaster-General will give a very clear undertaking that he has no intention of discontinuing that service.

If the Bill were to become law it would raise most difficult problems in practice. The Postmaster-General would have to decide what sort of programmes sick people like to listen to. Are they encouraged on their road to recovery by watching such programmes as "Emergency Ward Ten" or "Dr. Finlay's Casebook", or programmes of that sort? Are people in hospital encouraged by seeing people in a more sick condition than they are themselves, or are they encouraged by seeing people in a healthier condition? I have no idea what the answer is; neither, I am sure, has the Postmaster-General. Therefore, to impose this obligation upon him to decide what sort of programmes sick people like is an absurdity.

When it comes to old people, the absurdity is even more evident. What sort of programmes do old people like? I think it was Chesterton who said that it is the young people who read the history books and the chronicles but it is the old people who read the newspapers. I think he was very perceptive. If I had this invidious duty of deciding what sort of programmes old people like, I think I would err on the side of cheerful, happy, optimistic programmes. I do not think that old people, on the whole, like intimations of mortality; they like to be kept up to date. But to impose this upon a Minister who has to answer to the House for his decisions would be totally unfair to that Minister.

The important consideration is that the B.B.C. television and sound broadcasts should provide such a variety—as they do now; I readily acknowledge it—that people, whether they be old or young, healthy or sick, can tune in to almost anything they want and be relieved, made happy, or whatever they wish.

However, there is great public concern about the content of B.B.C. television and sound programmes and about Independent Television programmes as well. It is apposite that there appears on the Order Paper today a Motion down for debate on Thursday, 1st May—it refers not to the B.B.C. but to Independent Television—calling attention to the violence shown on television. I welcome the opportunity which this debate gives the House briefly to discuss the content of television programmes. I am greatly concerned about the degree of violence which is shown on both B.B.C. and I.T.V. from time to time.

As the House knows, an important inquiry has been going on into this matter in the United States in recent weeks, and some rather disturbing results have emerged. I am even more disturbed about the quality of some programmes which cater for a large minority interest, namely, children's programmes, which, incidentally, are entirely omitted from the Bill. As the father of some young children, I am worried about some of the programmes which my children watch at the weekend. On weekdays, the quality of B.B.C. children's programmes is quite outstanding—I think, for example, of "Play School"—but the quality of B.B.C. programmes at children's time leaves much to be desired, routine and second-rate, for the most part, with quite a lot of violence as well.

Although I cannot bring myself to support his Bill, I thank the hon. Member for Bodmin for bringing it forward. He has a well cultivated knack of throwing his searchlight into various murky places—principally cafés at the moment, I notice—and he has thrown his searchlight today not on anything remotely murky—one could not say that of the B.B.C.—but on a particular aspect of the Corporation's work and the way in which it can and should cater for minority interests. He has done a service in allowing this short debate to take place.

3.8 p.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) presented his Bill with his usual ability, but, although I have some sympathy for his aim, I am greatly apprehensive about his suggested method. The debate has thrown up the question: how can we affect the Governors of the B.B.C. or those who run the Corporation in taking some cognisance of public opinion? This is the real problem. One of the aspects of the hon. Gentleman's proposal which frightens me is that not only does his Bill propose that certain programmes should be kept but it might be interpreted by a future Postmaster-General or by some new Governors as giving them also the right to abolish certain programmes. They might take it as inferred, if they have the right to do the one, that they have the right to do the other. I should regard that as a serious matter.

Mr. Bessell

The hon. Gentleman must take note of the clear words of Clause 1: The Postmaster-General shall have the power, in agreement with the governors of the Corporation, to issue directives … to retain … There is no question of its being interpreted as a means of enabling the Postmaster-General to abolish programmes.

Mr. Molloy

There is something in what the hon. Gentleman says, but I still think that it is possible for the other interpretation to be inferred. What is more, there is the danger that, if a particular programme which found favour with a large part of the population did not find favour with the Postmaster-General or the Governors, if no instruction were given that it be retained, that might be taken as an excuse to abolish it. This is a serious situation. We are grateful to the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) for introducing this Measure. I am sure that if it had been presented on another occasion the debate would have been far more wide-ranging.

The matter to which I wish to refer does not really arise upon the construction of the Measure itself, but arises because I feel that we in this country have been passing through a particular phase. There was a time when an eminent ex-Member of this House tried to force his way on the B.B.C., above a Postmaster-General, and sought to impose his views. Fortunately, at that time we had in Lord Reith an equally dominant personality, who resisted it. We have ever since enjoyed the victory which was then won by Lord Reith for the B.B.C. If only for the reason that, in future, it might be possible for somebody to use this Bill as an opportunity to take a new form of power, I feel that we ought to reject it.

The Bill does nothing to meet a problem which faces many people. The problem is that there are not enough ways and means for ordinary folk—who, after all, finance the B.B.C.—to let those who run the B.B.C. know what they really think about the programmes which are being presented.

It is no use the B.B.C. saying that they have so many telephone calls on a certain day because of a particular programme. That is merely a hit-and-miss method. Therefore, one good thing about the presentation of this Bill is that it has posed the problem about the line of communication between the viewing and listening public and those who run the B.B.C. and how it can be improved.

3.13 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell), when introducing the Bill, said that its genesis—I hope that I took down his words aright—is "Mrs. Dale's Diary." It is true, judging from the reports I have received, that much publicity has been given to the hon. Gentleman's attitude of mind on this problem of a particular programme being kept in being. It is only right and proper for me to intervene at this point and to put the position so far as the Postmaster-General and the B.B.C. are concerned.

The hon. Member for Bodmin has argued the case for his Bill persuasively, as I would expect of him. But I must tell the House that the Government cannot advise the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. Nevertheless, this debate offers an opportunity to take a quick look at the rôle of the B.B.C., at its responsibilities to the public and to Parliament, and at my right hon. Friend's position in relation to the Chairman and Governors of the B.B.C.

We are here dealing with finely balanced constitutional concepts. They are important because they touch upon the basic freedom of broadcasting in this country; and in particular on its freedom from Government intervention in programme matters. The expression of public opinion and feeling is absolutely necessary to good broadcasting. Unless the B.B.C. can keep in constant touch with public opinion and so keep in being an inter-play with its audience, it will not maintain its standards. Parliamentary debate provides a most valuable aid in this respect. Even more important, it offers an opportunity of restating the underlying responsibility which the B.B.C. owes to the public and to Parliament.

I am sure that this debate will receive the most careful attention of the B.B.C., because of the hon. Gentleman's observations and comments and the way in which he has presented his case.

Having said that, it must not be forgotten that since the inception of broadcasting it has been the B.B.C. which has had the responsibility of deciding the content and character of its programmes. Vocal public demand, whether expressed in the House or elsewhere, is a factor, but by no means the only one, for the B.B.C. to take into account. Whether, on balance, the B.B.C. should retain "The Dales". "The Critics" or any other programme are questions about which there will be widely differing views, but the principle which has been carefully established over the last 40 years or more is that the B.B.C. is independent of the Government in programme matters.

It is clear that in drafting the Bill the hon. Gentleman has tried to be reasonable. All hon. Members who have spoken have paid him that compliment. Indeed, he has tried so hard that it might seem at first sight that that Bill would not detract from the principle of the supreme authority of the B.B.C. to control its own programmes, for the Bill would limit the power of the Postmaster-General to make a direction only when the Governors of the B.B.C. were in agreement with him about the matter to be directed.

Although the intention behind the Bill may be to preserve the B.B.C. from Government intervention, its effect could not be limited to that. If the intention is that only the Governors shall decide, then that is the position already. But if the intention is that the Government would be given a power or duty to make proposals to the B.B.C. from time to time that it should retain particular programmes—for example, "The Dales"—then that would give the Government power to interfere.

It would imply a shift of emphasis to a position where the Government had the right to take the initiative. Inevitably the status of the Governors would be weakened. There would be an Act of Parliament which stipulated that, in given circumstances, the Government might invite the Board to accept suggestions for retaining programmes.

If a Bill like this had become law a long time ago, I invite the House to consider what would have become of it. Either the Statute would have become a dead letter, or it might have been altered to make the Government's rights and duties something more than merely persuasive. There would surely have been a considerable risk that it would have led to powers of a much more positive and authoritative kind.

The Bill might have an indirect effect, which some hon. Members might welcome, of appearing to widen the scope which hon. Members would have in putting down Questions about programmes on the B.B.C. I have frequently answered Questions in the House on broadcasting matters. Some supplementaries on the subject would not have been asked had they been tabled as official Questions. I have endeavoured, like my right hon. Friend, to answer those supplementaries.

Whatever small advantages there may seem to be, they cannot out-weigh the arguments against the Bill which I have already outlined. I remind the House of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason), then Postmaster-General, said in an Adjournment debate in May, 1968: 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th May, 1968; Vol. 764, c. 179.] This is the cardinal point which the House must face. Either we want the B.B.C. to be independent of Government intervention in programme matters, or we do not. In the view of the Government it is of paramount importance that the independence of the B.B.C. should be preserved at all costs. I advise the House that it would be not only wrong but dangerous to give the Bill a Second Reading, however well intentioned it may be and however well it may have been presented by the hon. Member for Bodmin, for whom I have a great regard. I hope that the House will turn it down.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) has performed a useful service in bringing the Bill before the House. It is rather akin to the service provided by a fairground employees who puts up an Aunt Sally so that it may be knocked down by a good shot. My hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General has provided a very good shot and has knocked down the Aunt Sally. I agree with the hon. Member for Bodmin that it may serve a useful purpose if, from time to time, appropriate representations could be made by the sort of Postmaster-General and Government that one could trust.

It is right to reject the Bill, however, because of the experience we had at the time of Suez, when the noble Lord, Lord Avon, was Prime Minister. It will be within the recollection of the House that he sought to interfere in a quite outrageous manner with the B.B.C. news bulletins, whereas while the party to which I have the privilege of belonging is in power—which will be for a long time—no such thing could be contemplated. But there may be a moment of aberration on the part of the voters which would put hon. Members opposite in power, and then there might be all sorts of impertinent interference with the freedom of the B.B.C. That is why, if there is a Division, I shall support my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General.

On occasions I have had cause to make representations to the B.B.C., sometimes because I have felt that it was being unfair and sometimes because constituents have drawn certain matters to my attention. I have always found the B.B.C. to receive such representations most courteously and to examine them very carefully. I have no complaints about that. For those reasons, although I believe that the hon. Member for Bodmin has done the House a great service in bringing forward this Measure, I regret that I cannot assist him to pick up his Aunt Sally from the floor.

Question put and negatived.