HC Deb 07 February 1973 vol 850 cc429-34
1. Mr. Riggs-Davison

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will introduce legislation to amend Section 3 of the Television Act.

The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Sir John Eden)

No, Sir.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Did my right hon. Friend hear the Leader of the House on two occasions express our disgust at the ITV interview with Mr. O'Connell of the IRA? Has the IBA expressed any regret at not carrying out its duty under Section 3 of the Television Act? If it is a dead letter, should it not be amended?

Sir J. Eden

I am sure that the IBA, as well as all hon. Members of this House, will have taken note of the views which were expressed about that particular programme. But, as my hon. Friend knows, that is a matter for the authority.

Mr. Kilfedder

Will my right hon. Friend tell us how much was paid by ITV to Mr. O'Connell for that interview? Will he persuade ITV to contribute a similar amount to the funds which exist for victims of IRA terrorism, or to the Army, Navy and Airmen's Association, as O'Connell and the men under his command have been guilty of fiendish and terrible murders and mutilations?

Sir J. Eden

I think that those views should more properly be directed to the chairman of the authority.

Mr. Whitehead

Is it not a fact that the same programme at a later stage carried interviews with militant Protestants which certainly constituted a balance within the meaning of the Television Act?

Sir J. Eden

I do not think that that particular programme gave rise to the use of the reserve powers which are available under the Act.

3. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will now answer Questions asking him to use his powers in relation to the Independent Broadcasting Authority on matters of programme content.

13. Mr. Evelyn King

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will now answer Questions relating to programme content of programmes broadcast by the BBC.

21. Mr. Stratton Mills

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will now answer Questions asking him to use his powers under Section 18 of the Television Act in connection with programmes put out by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

24. Mr. John Grant

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will now answer Questions on programme content.

25. Mr. Milne

asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will now answer Questions concerning the use of his powers under Section 18 of the Television Act 1964 in connection with programmes broadcast by independent television companies.

Sir J. Eden

Programmes and their content are the responsibility of the broadcasting authorities. My powers under Clause 13(4) of the BBC's licence and Section 18(3) of the Television Act are reserve powers.

Mr. Whitehead

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that answer gives some cause for relief, as in recent days it has been impossible to see whether it is the courts of law, the IBA or the programme companies who are responsible for the origination of programmes? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is serious cause for concern in a free society at the sequence of events which has led to an individual taking action in the courts, the courts overruling the IBA, the IBA overruling programme companies in the matter of the Poulson documentary, and the programme companies themselves saying that they will exercise some censorship? Is not that an intolerable state of affairs if we are to preserve at least the outline of proper television journalism in a free society?

Sir J. Eden

I am very much aware that a number of aspects involving programmes are of concern to people in this country and, obviously, are equally of concern to hon. Members. Recent events before the Court of Appeal have reaffirmed both the degree of independence and the degree of responsibility in these matters of the governing authorities in both broadcasting media.

Mr. King

This is important. Does my right hon. Friend accept this distinction, that while it is probably wrong for him personally to intervene or, indeed, for the courts to intervene in matters of this sort, none the less, unless one accepts that the voice of the BBC is the voice of God—a concept which I am unable to accept—it is right that hon. Members, whether they come from the Right or the Left, and whatever replies they get, should be able to raise these matters on the Floor of the House? Will my right hon. Friend, in his reply, try so to phrase it that nothing he says will inhibit the Table Office from accepting Questions, whatever the answers may be, about programme content?

Sir J. Eden

What the Table Office chooses to pass for inclusion on the Order Paper is a matter for it. I am well aware, however, that apart from Parliamentary Questions there are probably a number of occasions on which hon. Members have an opportunity, if they choose to take it, to raise matters of the kind to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mr. Grant

Will the right hon. Gentleman none the less reconsider what he said about the Act? Does he not feel that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) said, there is a case for some clarification here so that we can minimise still further the risk of legal intervention in situations of this kind—despite the fact that the IBA was, broadly speaking, found correct—because the legal profession has become very much a growth industry in this country and we may he able to alleviate that somewhat?

Sir J. Eden

Before answering his supplementary question I should like to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibility on the Front Bench opposite and congratulate him on his appointment.

I think that I should not in exchanges across the Floor of the House at Question Time endeavour to add to the considered judgment of the Court of Appeal, but hon. Members on both sides of the House will have noted that the position and responsibility of the governing body of the BBC and the authority of the IBA have been confirmed in this matter. That is to say, matters of programme content are for them. They have to make the judgment in these cases, and it is not for Ministers to seek to intervene in that. But there are reserve powers, and their extent serves as a constant reminder to the broadcasting authorities that independence and responsibility are two sides of the same coin.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Question No. 21 was tabled in the light of the extensive interview with David O'Connell, the IRA leader? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there was a clear understanding by both the BBC and the ITV, following pressure in this House about two years ago, that they would not show on the media individuals who were rationalising and justifying the theory and practice of violence and shooting troops within the United Kingdom? If that is true, will my right hon. Friend inquire why that understanding was not observed on this occasion, and perhaps consider whether a proper code should be drawn up on this matter about which there is strong feeling?

Sir J. Eden

I recognise the strength of feeling on these matters, and I know that that has already been brought to the attention of the IBA.

Mr. Milne

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is something faintly ridiculous in the idea of the IBA banning a film about which widespread information has been given, and the contents of which have been made known through the Press, radio and television? Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the question of the powers of the IBA in this respect and ensure that when members of the IBA have an interest to declare they do so? In making future appointments, will the right hon. Gentleman see that the members are drawn from a much less restricted section of the community than they are now?

Sir J. Eden

Members of the authority are drawn from as wide a cross-section of society and opinion as is possible with a limited body of that size. I take all these matters into account when making any fresh appointments as vacancies occur. As to the decision to which the hon. Gentleman referred, this was a matter properly within the responsibility of the authority.

Sir G. Nabarro

Does not my right hon. Friend admit that the Statutes which govern television and radio broadcasting are riddled with inconsistencies, and that the time is long overdue for their reform, notably the elimination of the word "offensive", as it is the failure to define what is and what is not offensive that is the principal cause of widespread trouble?

Sir J. Eden

My hon. Friend highlights one of the difficulties of operating this system, in that one must rest upon the collective judgment of a group of individuals. If there were a different group of individuals a different judgment might be arrived at, but Parliament has placed responsibility clearly with those who have been appointed members of the authority.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the greatest dangers of all—far greater than the risk that certain members of the public might be a bit offended or shocked by something—is the danger of censorship, and that a greater danger than imposed censorship by an outside body is self-imposed censorship, where people in positions of authority have pressure put on them from outside by people who are themselves powerful and bend to that pressure? If that happens the public suffer because they are not informed on matters about which they ought to be properly informed.

Sir J. Eden

It is not a question of censorship as regards members of the authority, although there was a recent example of many programmes being blacked out by wholly arbitrary action on the part of one sector of the community.

What these questions are primarily con-concerned with is the exercising by the authority collectively of the responsibility which Parliament has given it in that matter. It must be free to determine whether a particular programme should be shown.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is not one reason for the self-censorship to which the hon. Gentleman refers a lack of clarity? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that it is good enough to allow the IBA to be the sole interpreter of what is offensive and what incites to crime?

Sir J. Eden

A short answer to my hon. Friend's question is "Yes". It was the considered decision of this House to place this responsibility in the hands of those people. The alternatives, which hon. Members may like to consider, could be just as difficult to operate. It would not be very satisfactory, for example, to have Ministers of the Crown taking over the responsibilities of an independent group of people of this kind.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Does the Minister agree that whatever form of words was adopted it would be improbable that the IBA would ever be able to exercise its powers in a manner which was acceptable to all hon. Members? Having said that, is it not quite intolerable that a judge or anyone else should seek to deprive hon. Members and the public of their right to switch off Mr. Andy Warhol and to refuse to see him for themselves?

Sir J. Eden

That matter was fully considered by the courts. It is not a matter for me.

Mr. Milne

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the replies, I beg to give notice that I shall seek an early opportunity of raising the matter on the Adjournment.