HC Deb 29 June 1998 vol 315 cc10-1
8. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

If he will make a statement on the (a) provisions in the charter and agreement and (b) legislation which require the British Broadcasting Corporation and independent television and radio to treat politically controversial subjects with due impartiality. [46319]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

The Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority have a statutory duty to do all that they can to ensure that broadcasters in the commercial sector report news accurately and treat matters of political and industrial controversy with due impartiality. The BBC governors have equivalent obligations under the BBC charter and agreement. The regulators set out detailed requirements guidelines in their programme codes.

Dr. Lewis

I thank the Secretary of State for reminding the House about the statutory and other duties laid on the BBC and ITV to treat politically controversial subjects impartially. Is he aware of the fact that, on one of the most politically controversial subjects of the day—British entry into economic and monetary union—in a recent poll, 65 per cent. of people declared themselves against it, 33 per cent. in favour and only 2 per cent. undecided? In the light of that, will he agree that, if the BBC or ITV, in the months ahead, persist with pursuing a Euro-federalist propaganda initiative in their broadcasts, they will be behaving not only undemocratically, but illegitimately?

Mr. Smith

I see no difficulty in the true impartiality with which those matters—as all political matters—are dealt with by BBC and ITV journalists, in a truly professional manner. I notice that it has not stopped the hon. Gentleman, who was once a member of the Labour party in Newham, from doing a perfectly competent job at making a fool of himself on the Tory Benches.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

One way in which the BBC can escape its responsibilities is simply not to broadcast Parliament or any of its hearings—in other words, to substitute programmes in which political journalists interview other political journalists. What effort is my right hon. Friend making to monitor the correct reporting of Parliament?

Mr. Smith

I am very concerned to ensure that the BBC and other broadcasters continue to report Parliament fairly and effectively. I know that my hon. Friend, Madam Speaker and other hon. Members have made strong representations on that matter, and they will continue to monitor how the BBC performs.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Bearing in mind the BBC's reluctance to listen to those who have made representations about its change of policies on the broadcasting of politically controversial issues, will the Secretary of State throw his weight behind proposals to establish an election commission, which would be independent and would be capable of bringing under its purview the whole issue of broadcasting and fairness, in respect not only of elections but of referendums, with which we are becoming more familiar?

Mr. Smith

I am not sure that an election commission is needed to establish the clear principle of impartiality in all such matters, be they parliamentary elections, other elections or referendums. The BBC and other broadcasters must remain impartial; that principle is clearly established, and I emphasise that it is the duty of the governors and of the ITC to ensure that that impartiality is upheld.