HC Deb 08 May 1990 vol 172 cc143-9

`( )—(I) The Commission may undertake, or arrange for other persons to undertake, research into matters related to or connected with—

  1. (a) standards of accuracy and fairness in broadcast journalism; and
  2. (b) the portrayal of violence or sexual conduct in television or radio programmes.

(2) The Commission shall publish the results of any research undertaken in pursuance of subsection (1), and any such report may include an assessment of the following, namely—

  1. (a) the attitudes of the public at large towards the standards of accuracy and fairness in broadcast journalism;
  2. (b) the attitudes of the public at large towards the portrayal of violence of sexual conduct in programmes to which this Part applies; and
  3. (c) the potential effects on attitudes of particular categories of persons of the portrayal of violence or sexual conduct in such programmes or of any failure on the part of such programmes to attain such standards.'.—[Mr. Fisher.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Fisher

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 27 —Code of broadcasting practice`( )—(1) It shall be the duty of the Commission to draw up and from time to time review, a code giving guidance to viewers and listeners as to—

  1. (a) standards of accuracy and fairness that should reasonably be expected of broadcasters;
  2. (b) the extent to which privacy of individuals should be expected to be respected by broadcasters;
  3. (c) practices which should reasonably be followed by broadcasters in the portrayal of violence in programmes to which this Part applies;
  4. (d) practices which should reasonably be followed in connection with the portrayal of sexual conduct in such programmes.
  5. (e) other relevant legislation to which they might refer in deciding whether or not their complaint is legitimate.
(2) It shall be the duty of each broadcasting or regulatory body, when drawing up or revising any code relating to standards and practice for programmes, to reflect the general effect of so much of the code referred to in subsection (1) (as for the time being in force) as is relevant to the programmes in question. (3) The Commission shall from time to time publish the code referred to in subsection (1) (as for the time being in force). (5) Before drawing up or revising the code the Commission shall consult—
  1. (a)each broadcasting or regulatory body; and
  2. (b) such other persons as appear to the Council to be appropriate,
including professional associations and other representative bodies to which broadcasters may belong.'.
Government amendments Nos. 232 and 233.

Amendment No. 202, in clause 12, page 10, line 20, at end insert— '(1A) In the case of programmes included in non-domestic satellite services and licensable programme services, those arrangements shall only be made for undertaking research which, in the opinion of the Commission, will assist them in discharging their duties under sections 6 and 7.'. Government amendments Nos. 235 to 238, 644, 645, 646.

Mr. Fisher

New clauses 26 and 27 are self-explanatory, so I shall not need to detain the House for long. When discussing quality and standards in Committee, we used certain hallmarks by which to judge them—accuracy, fairness, privacy and restraint in the portrayal of sex and violence. Although a great deal was said in Committee, many hon. Members spoke subjectively. New clause 26 would permit the Commission to undertake research into broadcasting so that it, and the companies, should know rather more precisely what the public feel about these important matters.

New clause 27 sets out a commitment to a code of broadcasting practice. I believe that the Minister accepts most of these hallmarks of quality. Given that clause 90 puts an obligation for audience research on the companies and that the new clause only puts a gloss on it, makes it more precise, and focuses on the important areas about which there is a great deal of public concern, he has no reason for rejecting it.

Mr. Simon Coombs

Sharp-sighted Members will have noticed that among the professionally drafted Government amendments grouped with the new clause is an amendment prepared by the do-it-yourself brigade; that amendment stands in my name.

My amendment to clause 12—amendment No. 202—would ensure that non-broadcasting programme services such as non-domestic satellite services and licensable programme services would bear only the proportion of any ITC research costs that relate to the ITC's consumer protection functions. Unlike broadcasting services, those services are licensed automatically by the ITC, so they may be made subject to the basic consumer protection requirement that all programmes must obey.

The quality, range and variety of non-broadcasting services is immaterial to their licensing requirements, and what the public think of them is irrelevant to the ITC's responsibilities. Public opinion will determine whether they succeed or fail, and that is a commercial matter solely for the channels concerned. It is not appropriate, therefore, that those services should bear any of the ITC's costs associated with research investigating the content of programming immaterial to their licensing requirements. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will give fair consideration to what is intended to be a fair proposal to help those companies that I have described.

Mr. Buchan

Some of us have waited a long time for the chance to discuss this important part of the Bill. I do not intend to be brief or perfunctory. This part of the Bill is too important for that.

There are two basic problems in the Bill. The first is the problem of quality. We fought that long and hard in Committee, and we have fought it long and hard again today. The second problem relates to the increase in censorship and regulation in a Bill that purports to be deregulatory. In place of the IBA's code and authority, we have introduced six or seven methods of control and censorship over broadcasting. It would have been bad enough if the Government had simply toughened an existing code; at least that would have been honest and could have been understood. With the proliferation of codes and authorities, that which all censorship tends to create—uncertainty on the part of the broadcaster—is created.

The problem facing the broadcasters—by which I mean the writers, producers, directors and all those involved in draconian legislation in connection with investigation into their work—is how they can present material that will not be covered by one or other of the varying codes or authorities. As I understood it, an attempt was made to deal with that problem in this group of amendments. That point has not been made clear yet, although I am sure that my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench will make it clear. The new clauses are an attempt to get rid of the proliferation of authorities.

When I read the new clauses in this group, I thought that they were an attempt to replace the Broadcasting Standards Council. The new clauses are meant to cut down the number of authorities and the number of codes. Therefore, the role of the Broadcasting Standards Council would be subsumed within that of the ITC or, as I believe was the original intention of the new clauses, replaced by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, because that is the body to which problems can be brought.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission is a more natural forum, because it deals with complaints. If it is developing codes and standards at the same time, it can better advise people on the areas of difficulty and form a view of the needs of the industry. It has the knowledge and expertise to do that.

Mr. Buchan

That is exactly right, and that is what I had thought the new clause was intended to do. It brought forward the perfectly natural method of complaints being brought in that way. The idea of a complaints Commission will be yet another element that is good in itself, but which becomes another area of potential difficulty for the broadcaster. If the Broadcasting Standards Council was however subsumed in the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, it would give it a more democratic and popular role. It would not be an officially appointed group, but would develop from the popular attitude. That would go a long way to establishing a proper understanding for the broadcaster of the role of the Commission—if it had to have a repressive role—and what its code would be. That is why I hope that the Minister will accept my suggestion. If he feels that we are wrong to refer to the ITC here, let us call it—as it could be if it was placed properly in the Bill—the complaints Commission.

New clause 26 refers to the ITC undertaking "research into matters". That is because areas of research are so spread out. The ITC and other bodies set up by the Bill are entitled to instigate research. The Broadcasting Standards Council itself instituted research to formulate a code. If there is to be research, let us leave it in one area. The Broadcasting Research Unit is a good and objective body, and would be competent to undertake this task for one authority—not for several, or for conflicting codes. I appear to the Minister to understand the seriousness of his proposals.

The Bill goes beyond research, to create a code of practice. That is why there must be a single code applying to all broadcasters. Even if the Minister does not understand that, why does the Home Office not understand it? The Home Office has one criminal code, not several. It has one immigration code, not several. If dog licences are introduced, there will be one code, not one for rottweilers and one for Alsatians. Why in heaven's name have we this proliferation of codes? One or the other should go. Even if the Government want a tough code —and I do not—it should at least be a single code, rather than a conflicting set of codes. The proper body for the role would be the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, so the codes should be brought under the one heading of that commission.

That proposal would put the questions of privacy, sexual conduct and violence into the area where they should be considered. Individual complaints could be brought and considered, but the people doing so could be the people who initiated research.

The Bill has two main aspects: quality, and increasing repression and censorship. The repression and censorship are not because the Bill contains a series of draconian criminal provisions but because it inhibits and represses. It will have failed if action needs to be taken. The effectiveness of censorship is not to take action, but to inhibit the thinker and the writer from coming forward, and to make the publisher afraid. My God, we have seen enough pressure on publishers in the past 12 months. That is how censorship works and that is why we should have a single Commission. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was saying, and I support him completely.

Mr. Cryer

Does my hon. Friend accept that an element of accountability is involved in standards of broadcast journalism in particular? I share his concern about censorship, but the new clauses also provide for a degree of public accountability—for example, research into the extent to which broadcast journalism is attaining the standards of accuracy and fairness that should reasonably be expected of its broadcasters. That would hold them to account, at least to a certain degree. Is my hon. Friend surprised to learn that the NUJ supports the proposals, because it wants standards of fairness and accuracy to be subjected to such scrutiny?

11.45 pm
Mr. Buchan

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and brings the matter into its proper focus. There is a widespread feeling that such scrutiny is desirable, although we are concerned that there should not be a proliferation of bodies dealing with different aspects of it. The new clause would introduce an element of public accountability. I am pleased to learn that the NUJ supports the proposal; it has become so used to authorities that it has tended to oppose them in the past.

The best of all possible worlds would be to introduce these sensible changes in the Bill. Is the Minister prepared to look at the proposals again? Perhaps our reference to the Commission is confusing, but I hope that in these two clauses, "the Commission" can be read as the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists, which supports the proposals.

Given the Government's obsessive desire to interfere in moral matters by setting up a standards council with the ability to Moggify programmes, it is both important and logical that we should show some concern for what we should really be talking about, which is quality and standards of accuracy, journalism and news coverage.

Nowhere does the Bill—for all its fussy, meddling, moralistic interference in the form of the powers conceded to the Broadcasting Standards Council—show any concern for the basic qualities of television. Those matters are dealt with in the new clauses. We purpose to give the powers to the Broadcasting Complaints Commissions because, given its experience of complaints and the research that it can Commission, it has the ability to build up expertise and lay down codes and standards.

We seriously need codes and standards for broadcast journalism, and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission is the logical authoriy to develop them. I would go so far as to say that, if the new clauses are accepted, as I hope they will be, they will make the Broadcasting Standards Council superfluous, unnecessary and liable to be scrapped, as it Should have been at the outset of our proceedings on the Bill. I strongly support the new clauses, because we should maintain a concern for standards.


Given the hour, I shall deal briefly with the new clauses.

New clause 26 is unnecessary, because research is already well provided for in the Bill. For instance, clause 12 already enables the ITC to Commission audience research for any licensed service programme. Moreover, amendment No. 233 provides for the ITC to Commission research into the effects of programmes on viewers and into the type of programmes that the public would like to see included in future schedules. Clauses 139 and 142 also provide for the Broadcasting Standards Council to monitor broadcast standards and undertake or Commis-sion research into the portrayal of sex and violence and general standards of taste and decency.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

You can do better than that.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman is very bouncy for the time of night. I do not know how he spends the rest of his week.

Mr. Tony Banks

In bed.

Mr. Mellor

I shall not inquire too closely into that.

The singling out of matters to be researched, which new clause 26 proposes, would conflict with an appropriate general policy of leaving such decisions to the ITC's discretion. In enabling the Commission itself to conduct research, the new clause raises issues that we discussed at length in Committee. We believe that it is better that research should be Commissioned rather than done in-house, although I accept that that is not a central point.

The trouble with new clause 27 is that it blurs the areas of responsibility for the ITC and the BSC. Essentially, the ITC codes are aimed at the performance and behaviour of the licensees and are not designed to give guidance to viewers. I hope that I can safely say that the matters raised by the new code are already dealt with either in other ITC codes or in the BSC's duties. The BSC's duties relate very much to viewers. That is why, with respect, new clause 27 would not add to the clarity of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), in amendment No. 202, raises an interesting and useful point. He wishes to have it made explicit that research Commissioned by the ITC must be relevant to its regulatory functions. That is implicit, but I am perfectly content to make that explicit, and I shall do so in deference to what my hon. Friend has had to say.

Mr. Tony Banks

I take the Minister of State's point that the Broadcasting Complaints Commission has sufficient powers in the Bill to do various things as set out in new clauses 26 and 27. It might be helpful if he would say that he favours the Commission looking into those various matters in the manner set out in the two new clauses. It is important. Clearly, the Commission, in judging its programme of work and its attitude towards various matters, might be guided by the words that the Minister of State uses in the House this evening. I hope that the Minister of State will say that the provisions of new clauses 26 and 27 contain a great deal of sense, and that these matters would be worthy of consideration by the Commission when it comes to Commissioning research.

Mr. Mellor

I do not go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman. I have not actually examined every single part of the new clause with a view to knowing whether I think that it would otherwise be desirable. I certainly happily undertake to discuss the intentions of the new clause with the BSC and, where relevant, the BCC, so that we might take a view on that matter. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the outcome of those deliberations.

Mr. Fisher

I am grateful for the way in which the Minister of State has responded. I accept that there are several places in the Bill where audience research is not only mentioned but specified—clauses 12 and 90, for example. Clause 12 allows only for research into programmes. The Minister of State referred to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission's responsibility to look into matters of sex and violence. That is true, but clause 12 relating to programmes and the new Commission as it relates to sex and violence ignore the matter on which new clauses 26 and 27 home in. As has been said, the requirements of accuracy and fairness are supported by the National Union of Journalists. The Minister of State underestimates the importance of those matters for research. They are not covered by research responsibilities or obligations in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan), in a powerful contribution to this short debate, made the good point that, as the Bill progressed in Committee, we stumbled across more and more restrictive aspects. We have a confusing plethora. Not only do we object strongly on grounds of civil and human rights to that enormous paraphernalia of organisations, but we believe that new clause 27 would be a great deal more coherent and give a more considered view about responsibilities.

Obviously on those points the Minister of State is not yet fully convinced, but I am grateful that he has undertaken to consider them. I hope that he will accept that, whereas we understand what he says about clause 12 and clause 19, accuracy and fairness are not covered. Those are matters of considerable public concern. It would benefit everybody involved in broadcasting if there were objective research into those matters as much as into matters of preference and taste in programming. I hope that the Minister of State will bear those remarks in mind. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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