HC Deb 25 March 1998 vol 309 cc655-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jon Owen Jones.]

12.2 am

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter this evening. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for his personal courtesy in being present to respond to the debate.

The situation to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is simple and deplorable. By screening the programme "National Lottery Big Ticket" next Saturday, the BBC is, in the most specific terms, violating its charter. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I will not allow this to happen in the Chamber. A right hon. Gentleman has an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Kaufman

To be precise, the BBC is violating section 7 of its charter. The charter says: It shall be the function of the Governors to exercise the powers and discharge the duties of the Corporation in accordance with this Our Charter and in particular (but without limitation) to:- … (f) … ensure that the Corporation and its employees and all programme makers engaged by the Corporation comply with the provisions of any code which the Corporation is required to draw up for the treatment of controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality and comply with any other code or guidelines applicable to programme content and standards". The "Big Ticket" programme violates the BBC producers' guidelines and therefore the charter. In a letter to the Secretary of State, the chairman of the BBC governors, Sir Christopher Bland, denies this. He denies it in a letter 10 pages long, in the course of which he says several times that the BBC has taken counsel's advice. Taking counsel's advice implies that one had doubts about the legality of what one has been doing—it is rather like a woman taking a pregnancy test to prove that she is a virgin—but those are the lines on which the BBC is acting.

In his letter to the Secretary of State, Sir Christopher Bland denies my statements that ITV companies would be prohibited from broadcasting a programme equivalent to the one to which I refer. On page 6 of his letter he says: The BBC believes that the format of the BBC programme would be allowed under ITC codes. However, I have here a letter sent to me this week by Peter B. Rogers, the chief executive of the ITC. He says: last summer Camelot approached the ITC and asked about the terms upon which we"— the ITC— would allow the National Lottery to feature in ITC's licensed television services. The note attached to the letter states: A programme could not be based upon a National Lottery game or include such games. It would not be possible for games to be based, for example, upon National Lottery scratchcards ("Instants"). So the chief executive of the ITC totally contradicts the chairman of the BBC.

Richard Eyre, the chief executive of ITV, wrote to me on 23 March. He said that the programme to which I refer confers a benefit on Camelot in that the audience for the show will be selected on the basis of a lucky number from a Lottery competition. The ITC would not permit this on ITV because it would compromise the editorial independence of the broadcaster. This is particularly the case with Lottery show programmes where the audience actively participates in the show", as they do in this programme. Mr. Eyre continued: In fact, this issue of editorial independence was of concern to ITV and the ITC when, in 1993, ITV and the BBC were bidding for the rights to broadcast the National Lottery. Then, as now, Camelot proposed a method of audience selection based on a Lottery draw. ITV withdrew from the negotiations to broadcast the programme … if "TV Dreams" were to be broadcast on ITV, the ITC would require at least half the audience to have gained a ticket in non-Lottery related ways. Such tickets would have to be as accessible to the general public as Lottery tickets or cards. In other words, ITV says that Sir Christopher Bland is not telling the truth.

Also on 23 March, I received a letter from Ray Gallagher, the director of public affairs for British Sky Broadcasting. He says: neither BSkyB nor any other ITC licensee could, unlike the BBC, have set up a programme in cooperation with Camelot based on scratchcards. Therefore, SirChristopher Bland makes a statement that is blatantly untrue, and expects the House to accept it.

In his letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Sir Christopher says that the producers' guidelines have not been broken. Let me draw the House's attention to those guidelines. With reference to prizes, they say: BBC programmes should normally pay for the prizes they offer in game shows and viewer and listener competitions. Programme makers should aim to offer original, rather than expensive prizes. The prizes in this show are paid for by Camelot, and go up to £100,000. The guidelines continue: Cash prizes should usually be avoided in viewer and listener programmes". Cash prizes are offered, in violation of the guidelines. Anthea Turner, in the press conference launching the programme on Monday, said that the new show's attraction was that viewers would be able to see people winning enormous sums of money. She said: This is serious money, this is money that can make and change someone's life. The guidelines state: Donations of more substantial prizes are only permissible in exceptional circumstances which do not bring the BBC's editorial integrity into question. For example it might be possible to accept a more substantial prize if offered by an educational institution or research foundation. I do not think that Camelot claims to be either. The guidelines state: If programmes accept donated prizes, the changes should be rung to ensure that the BBC does not appear to favour any institution or company. However, the changes are not rung; Camelot presents all the prizes.

The guidelines state: Occasionally, a viewer or listener competition may be run jointly with a suitable outside body such as an academic or artistic institution. Programmes should not mount viewer and listener competitions in conjunction with commercial organisations. That is exactly what is happening in this case.

The guidelines state: The BBC should pay a substantial part of the cost of any prize given. Only modest donated prizes may be accepted from a third party for a jointly organised competition. That guideline is violated.

The guidelines state: A competition must not risk being interpreted as gambling or a lottery. It is perfectly clear that the use of scratchcards is gambling.

The guidelines state: The Act may be contravened if a viewer or listener competition is based on a game of chance and some sort of donation, purchase or contribution is made to enter. To enter, one has to buy a scratchcard for £2.

Sir Christopher says in his letter that the guidelines do not apply to competitions and programmes organised under the national lottery. There is nothing whatever in the guidelines, which I have examined carefully, that says that the guidelines are somehow invalidated in the case of the national lottery. They run alongside the national lottery guidelines—the national lottery guidelines are additional, but not contradictory.

Let us look at the national lottery guidelines. They state: The BBC retains editorial control over all BBC programmes and promotions featuring National Lottery draws or games. However, it not the BBC which is in control. As was pointed out in The Guardian last week: The 40 contestants chosen to appear on the programme, who each immediately win £1,000 … have to enter a competition … to get a chance to be on the programme. So it is the scratchcard which decides who is on the programme, not the BBC. As a result, the guidelines are violated again.

The guidelines say: BBC programmes should not actively promote the purchase of Lottery tickets or Lottery scratchcards. Sir Christopher Bland denies that the programme violates that. He says, on pages 4 and 5 of his letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: The BBC's Controller of Editorial Policy confirms that the programme devised by the BBC does not breach any of the BBC's editorial policy guidelines". Well, he would, wouldn't he? Later in his letter, he states: BBC programmes must not convey the impression that it is promoting any service, product or publication: The proposed BBC programme will not promote sales. Viewers will not need to have purchased a scratchcard to enjoy the programme. That is all very well, but if we want not just a contradiction, but a total controversion of that statement, let me read the following to the House: The show is closely linked with the lottery's new £2 TV Dreams scratchcards, which offer three ways to win: instant cash prizes of up to £1,000; prizes of up to £50,000 for a new TV Home Play game; and a chance to join the studio audience for the new show, including the chance to win a special £100,000 jackpot … anyone who matches three TV symbols on their ticket is eligible for the TV Home Play game; they win if the numbers on a second scratch-off area on the ticket match those drawn on the show. To get yourself on TV you have to match the three-star symbols on your ticket-then you can join the National Lottery Big Ticket, as well as win a guaranteed £1,000. Once in the studio, 40 winners will form into four teams of ten, each team rooting for the pair of contestants playing on their behalf. At the end of the show, one member of the winning team of supporters will compete for the £100,000 jackpot. I emphasise this part: The BBC's difficulty is that the show will indeed promote scratchcard sales: that's its job. When they were first launched, lottery scratchcards sold at the rate of 44 million a week—far more than even Camelot expected. But last month they were down to 15 million a week. The new show is a crucial part of Camelot's strategy to revive scratchcard sales by as much as 20 per cent, and so far it seems to be working: three million extra cards were sold in the week TV Dreams first went on sale.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Kaufman

If I have time, I shall certainly give way, but I should like to complete this argument.

That quotation does not come from me, or from some prejudiced journalist; it comes from the newly published issue of Radio Times. It is the BBC's own journal, saying that the show promotes scratchcard sales, and that that is its job.

The author of that article, totally exposing and controverting the chairman's claim that the BBC is not violating the guidelines and, therefore, the charter, is none other than Nick Higham, the BBC's media correspondent. So if anything demonstrates the lack of truth in what Sir Christopher Bland has been saying to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it is the BBC itself, through its media correspondent and Radio Times.

The Radio Times listing of the programme says: the new extended show … offers members of the public the chance of a cash prize of up to £100,000 in addition to the regular National Lottery draw. The BBC has arranged the programme in co-operation with Camelot to promote the sale—successfully, it is turning out—of Camelot scratchcards, in violation of the producers' guidelines and, therefore, in violation of the charter. It is a disgrace that the chairman of the BBC should send my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a letter littered with untruths, deliberately designed to deceive him and to mislead the public.

But it is even worse than that. It is an even bigger disgrace that Sir Christopher, in his letter to my right hon. Friend, should be able to say that the governors, at a meeting on 18 March 1998, decided unanimously that the planned programme complies with the Charter and Agreement and the Producers' Guidelines", yet it has been demonstrated, not just by my going through the guidelines, but by what Mr. Higham says in Radio Times, that the guidelines are blatantly and continuously violated, and that therefore the charter is violated.

Mr. John Birt, the director-general of the BBC, says in his preface to the guidelines: The BBC aims to set the highest editorial and ethical standards in programme-making"— but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is perfectly clear that the guidelines have been violated—and do not ask me; ask Radio Times. The violation of the guidelines is a violation of the charter. The governors have connived at the violation of the charter that it gives them the responsibility to uphold. They are not fit to hold their jobs as governors of the BBC. Moreover, they expose the danger of a collection of the great and the good being given the responsibility of upholding a charter bestowed by the House of Commons.

I look to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to deal with this, because what we are dealing with here is a violation of everything that the BBC is supposed to stand for. The BBC is—or has been—respected throughout the world. The BBC created the concept of public service broadcasting, which is one of the glories of broadcasting throughout the world. Now, it has reduced itself to staging and transmitting this shoddy, seedy programme, which it seeks to justify by a farrago of deception. As the BBC is not fit to save its own reputation, I look to my right hon. Friend and the Government to save the BBC from itself.

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

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) for securing the debate. It is clear, following last week's private notice question, that the BBC's involvement with the "TV Dreams" scratchcard is a matter of considerable concern to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I welcome this further opportunity to air some of the particular concerns. I welcome also the opportunity to discuss the wider issue of how the BBC is regulated, especially its accountability to Parliament and to licence fee payers.

I say at the outset that this is an issue that has troubled me greatly and given me considerable cause for thought. The values embodied in the BBC's charter are precious and must be treated by us all, especially the BBC, with the greatest respect. It is because I regard this as such an important issue that I wanted to respond to my right hon. Friend's debate personally.

I should also set out clearly the limits to the Government's role in this matter. The obligations placed on the BBC's broadcasting services are established in its royal charter and agreement. For its domestic public services, they include the number of television and radio services, objectives and programme content and standards and scheduling. Within the charter and agreement, framework decisions about programme content and scheduling are wholly matters for the corporation; the Government have no locus to intervene.

I have to say this strongly: in a democracy there is a vital overriding principle that the Government should not tell any broadcaster—public service or commercial—what and what not to transmit. We can, of course, tell broadcasters that they must stand by their charters; we cannot dictate the nature of their programmes.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I wish to pursue a point that I put to the Secretary of State when he responded to the private notice question of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I understand that the Government do not have a strict locus in this matter, but we are now told by the BBC that the right hon. Gentleman's Department, before the right hon. Gentleman became the Secretary of State, was consulted—in September 1994—about the precise details of the arrangement. He was not able to tell me that the other day but apparently that is what the BBC is now telling us. It also tells us that the Department was consulted on the basis of counsel's opinion, but apparently that of counsel employed by Camelot—not the BBC's counsel and certainly not the legal opinion of the Secretary of State's Department. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify precisely on what basis the Department was consulted, if, as he says, he has no locus in this matter?

Mr. Smith

I understand that. Following the hon. Gentleman's question a week ago, I sought information on what had happened. I understand that the BBC approached the then Department of National Heritage seeking guidance on whether the then Secretary of State's approval would be required under clause 12 of the then licence and agreement for the proposed scratchcard programme. The Department's advice at that time was that the Secretary of State's approval was not required. I understand that that was the advice that was sought and given at that time.

The charter and agreement contain specific provisions relating to the sponsorship of BBC programmes. Clause 10.10 of the agreement provides that the BBC may not, without my prior approval, receive payment for broadcasting sponsored programmes and advertising or promotional material. The BBC has set out in detail its approach in this area in its producers' guidelines, which all programme makers and staff are required to observe.

The producers' guidelines contain specific provisions on the coverage of national lottery games and draws, because of its exceptional and unique nature, as well as general provisions on sponsorship and product placement and provisions that deal with prizes and competitions for general entertainment programmes. The national lottery provisions specify, first, that BBC programmes should not actively promote the purchase of lottery tickets or scratchcards or give details of where they may be purchased. I shall return to that point in a moment as it seems to be the kernel of the argument. Secondly, although the term "national lottery" may be used on air where appropriate, there should be no on-air credits for Camelot. Thirdly, the BBC retains editorial control over all BBC programmes and promotions featuring lottery draws or games.

Under the charter and agreement, the BBC governors have an explicit responsibility to ensure that the corporation complies with the terms of the charter and agreement and the producers' guidelines. I, as Secretary of State, have a role only when the BBC is clearly and beyond doubt in contravention of its obligations. Therefore, I have been most concerned to seek assurances that that is not the case here.

On the specific issue of the "TV Dreams" scratchcard, my right hon. Friend is, as he has said, aware of the fact that I wrote immediately to the chairman of the BBC following last week's debate. He has replied, copying his reply to my right hon. Friend and to other hon. Members who spoke in the debate. In his response, Sir Christopher Bland set out the background to the BBC's involvement with the scratchcard. He explained that, in 1994, the BBC began negotiations with Camelot for the exclusive broadcasting rights to the national lottery.

As is made clear in the National Lottery Act 1993, the operator is licensed to create a number of games to be defined collectively as the national lottery. Therefore, Camelot set out plans for a number of games, including the weekly draw, the mid-week draw and a scratchcard game. Camelot treated them as a package of games to which the broadcasting rights would be made available.

Mr. Wyatt

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Smith

I cannot, as I am afraid that time is very short.

One contract covered the broadcasting rights to all the national lottery games. One of the issues that I believe we must consider for any future franchise is whether such a bundling together of broadcasting rights is either sensible or desirable.

Mr. Wyatt

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Smith

Time is pressing, so I ask my hon. Friend to be brief.

Mr. Wyatt

If some other broadcaster had won the rights to the lottery, it would not be allowed to continue with the game. How can it be wrong for ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 or BSkyB to broadcast the programme but all right for BBC1? Where is the level playing field?

Mr. Smith

I have in my hand the Independent Television Commission's principles for the broadcasting of matters relating to the national lottery. It states: The ITC does not regard it as incompatible with its codes for a major Lottery draw to be incorporated in suitable programming, including a light entertainment show. My hon. Friend's interpretation of the ITC guidelines may not be as robust as it appears at first sight.

The BBC signed the initial contract with Camelot in 1994. Since then, plans for the scratchcard programme have changed considerably after full consideration of the legal parameters and the BBC's editorial requirements. In particular, the BBC has insisted on full editorial control, the prominent featuring of good causes, the introduction of games of skill, a format which means that scratchcard participants will not be directly involved in any of the featured games, the programme having a different name from the scratchcard, the purchase of scratchcards not to be promoted on air, and the BBC's name to be used only in a purely informational manner so as to explain on which channel the programme will be broadcast. The BBC has expressly forbidden the presenters of the programme to appear in any advertising or to be photographed holding scratchcards.

I note what the chairman of the board of governors said in his letter, but I remain concerned, and I spoke to Sir Christopher Bland this afternoon to reiterate that concern. One point that stands out among the various issues that have been raised is whether the programme, by its very existence and content, promotes the sale of a commercial product: scratchcards.

I understand that measures have been taken to ensure that no direct promotion of scratchcards takes place on air. I also understand that the BBC has sought eminent legal advice from Michael Crane QC, who has said that there is no legal bar to the admissibility of the "Big Ticket" programme under the charter and agreement. I still remain concerned about the promotion point. Much hinges on the actual content of the programme.

I have made it clear to the chairman of the board of governors that it is his duty and that of his fellow governors to monitor with the utmost care the programme's content and the issue of promotion.

My right hon.Friend is concerned that the "Big Ticket" programme breaches the provisions of the producers' guidelines dealing with prizes and competitions for general entertainment programmes. Sir Christopher said in his letter that the BBC's legal advice is that the programme does not violate the Guidelines which state that a programme must not be interpreted as gambling or a lottery. He explained this apparent contradiction by saying: in the special circumstances of the National Lottery, the Guidelines explicitly say that the National Lottery provides the prize, as it does for the weekly and mid-week draw. I have noted the assurances given by Sir Christopher Bland that the planned programme is in accordance with the BBC's obligations, but the real test will come when the programme is broadcast. I welcome the assurance that the governors will keep a close watch on the programme to ensure that it matches up to appropriate editorial and quality standards. I shall keep a close watch, too.

Before I close the debate, I should like briefly to touch on the wider issue of BBC regulation and accountability. A number of steps are needed to enhance public accountability of the governing structure of the BBC. We need more accountability to Parliament. The Select Committee and I are in touch with the BBC to ensure that that is achieved.

I have also introduced more transparency and openness into the procedures for appointing governors. The forthcoming vacancies for the BBC vice chairman and two other governors will be publicly advertised for the first time ever. I hope that the advertisements will encourage applications from—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to One o'clock.