HC Deb 21 July 1971 vol 821 cc1419-22
1. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications how many letters he has received about his refusal to intervene over allegations of bias and malpractice in programmes of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

9. Mr. Fowler

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications what representations he has received regarding his refusal to intervene over charges of political bias made against the British Broadcasting Corporation.

15. Mr. Goodhart

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications how many representations he has received following his refusal to intervene following allegations of political bias made against the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

Since I took office about 25 people have written to me when, from time to time, I have refused to intervene in matters of programme content.

Mr. Whitehead

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I find that a most satisfactory answer and that it reveals that the public has a very proper appreciation that direct control in these matters should not rest in the hands of politicians? Will he, nevertheless, take note of the feeling of hon. Members, on both sides of the House, that in the recent inquiry into the programme "Yesterday's Men" the B.B.C. governors were acting as judges in their own case, since some of their executive decisions in the sequence of events under examination were, or might have been, open to question? Will he, therefore, look again at early day Motion No. 643 recommending the appointment of an independent broadcasting council?

Mr. Chataway

I will certainly take. note of what the hon. Gentleman says. The Times leader today pointed out some of the essential differences between broadcasting and the Press which make the Press Council not a good model to follow. What a number of hon. Members are arguing for is a radical change in the system so that the B.B.C. governors would no longer have the twin functions, which they have always had hitherto, of both managing and answering to the public. There are arguments, as the hon. Gentleman will know, on both sides of that proposition.

Mr. Fowler

Is it not the position that although the complaints about "Yesterday's Men" have been investigated and substantially rejected, mud is still being thrown at the B.B.C. staff concerned simply because the complaints were not subject to independent investigation? Would not my right hon. Friend therefore agree that not only is the present system unsatisfactory to the public, but it is capable of causing grave injustice to broadcasters and producers?

Mr. Chataway

I do not say that the present organisation of broadcasting is sacrosanct, but for 50 years it has been held to be a good arrangement that the B.B.C. governors, as trustees for the public, should be responsible for both overseeing programme production and safeguarding the public interest. If one were to separate those two functions, one would presumably move to a system nearer to that practised by the I.T.A., and it will be seen that there are advantages and disadvantages in both systems.

Mr. Goodhart

Would my right hon. Friend remember that the Press Council has been widely commended for its fairness and authority? Will he now consider inviting the Press Council to extend its range of activities to cover news and current affairs programmes on television and sound radio?

Mr. Chataway

The Press Council has a job very different from that which exists in broadcasting, and I do not believe that the Press Council would feel itself equipped to do that.

Mr. Kaufman

While totally rejecting any political interference of any kind with the B.B.C—[HON. MEMBERS : "That makes a change."]—I have always rejected any political interference—and while agreeing that internal editorial B.B.C. control of a sensible kind is a sine qua non to rectifying the situation, may I ask the Minister to examine objectively, and later give the House the results of his examination, the possibility of a broadcasting council parallel to the Press Council?

Mr. Chataway

I have considered a number of suggestions put to me under the title of a broadcasting council, and people have a wide variety of ideas under that title. I will certainly continue to consider them.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Is not the truth of the matter that the Leader of the Opposition is behaving towards the B.B.C. like a petulant prima donna? May I ask my right hon. Friend not to give him aid or comfort in these ridiculous antics?

Mr. Chataway

I am sure that the B.B.C, which has responsibility for programme content, will take note of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Richard

Would the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, whatever one's view about an individual programme, there is now a widespread feeling, on both sides of the House and in the country, that it is time that the B.B.C. governors ceased to be the body responsible for investigating complaints of this sort? May I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further and ask whether he is now prepared consciously and actively to consider alternative methods by which these functions may be discharged by a body independent of the B.B.C. and outside the present governing body? Would he undertake to give the House the benefit of his consideration at some stage?

Mr. Chataway

I will certainly continue to give careful consideration to any suggestions put to me. The point I make, however, is that what is suggested is a radical restructuring of broadcasting. If one were to achieve the objective which the hon. Gentleman sets, that would probably mean extending the range of a body like the I.T.A. to cover the B.B.C. as well. That may be what the House would ultimately decide, but I should be surprised.

Mr. Richard

The right hon. Gentleman either did not hear or did not choose to answer the last part of my question. Will he undertake to look at the matter, to try to discover an alternative method and then come back to the House and tell us the result of his considerations?

Mr. Chataway

I will not give any undertaking to make a statement of that kind but I have said that I will consider all suggestions that are put forward.

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