HL Deb 25 February 1970 vol 308 cc57-69

3.2 p.m.

LORD GLADWYN rose to call attention to the proposed reorganisation of the B.B.C. sound programmes and in particular to the suppression of the Third Programme, generally regarded by those competent to judge as the most satisfying and culturally significant programme in the world; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I begin my remarks I should like to say how pleased we are that the Leader of the House will be present for the first part of this debate, and will sum up, although he may have to go away in the middle of the debate. I understand that he made a great effort to be present, and we are all grateful to him: this shows the importance that he attaches to the occasion.

When I first put down this Motion a little while ago it was in a mood of great indignation at what I conceived to be the total suppression of my own favourite programme—the Third. Since then I have come to recognise that the B.B.C. have at least made certain concessions —notably the retention of Radio 3 on the medium-wave band so that we can all continue to listen to it, if we want to, in our cars; the suspension of the liquidation of the orchestras (which is a real concession), including the Training Orchestra, which costs a great deal of money; and rather more "word" content than was originally proposed to the Third Programme. These are all very welcome. It shows what public opinion can do when it tries, and that is a good thing.

But we on these Benches, at any rate, still have some real apprehensions regarding the future of this programme, and still more about the whole new sound broadcasting policy of the B.B.C, which, as your Lordships know, was outlined last summer in a document called Broadcasting in the 'Seventies. That is why we have now put down this Motion on a Liberal day. We believe, in any case, that this is a subject very well suited for debate in your Lordships' House, and I should hope that we should debate it not in any spirit of political partisanship, but rather as an impartial investigation. Judging from the debate in another place on December 3, it looks as if the major Parties were divided to some extent on this issue, and it is even possible that all three Parties may be.

Since I feel that the reactions of us all to this problem are necessarily rather subjective, perhaps I may, with your Lordships' leave, describe in a few words my own general attitude, which can scarcely be described as that of an "egg-head"—at least, I do not think it can. I am not, admittedly, a great television fan, though I appreciate both B.B.C. 1 and B.B.C. 2, and indeed Anglia, which covers the region where I live. I believe that all these programmes make a genuine effort to achieve quality, in spite of the real difficulties in so doing. In particular B.B.C. 2 seems to me to be greatly superior to any foreign television programme I have seen, though I admit that I have not seen many.

I am, however, particularly devoted to sound radio, to which I hope this debate will be limited, partly because I personally much prefer listening to viewing, as it is called, and partly because I spend many hours in a car and thus depend on my wireless set during long and tedious journeys. I am not particularly musical, but I much enjoy listening to much modern music, to classical music and to opera. Though I recognise that there are some splendid modern songs, I confess that I am pretty allergic to "pop", much of which seems to me, frankly, to be verging on the drivelling; and I simply detest the greater part of what I believe is now called "sweet" music. I like listening to talks—that is, if the speaker knows what he is talking about and is either interesting or amusing. In general, I like the strange, the unexpected, the provocative. I like drama, whether classical or modern. [...]To 6e Gocunccarov f]6u,[...] as the Greeks had it: it is the astonishing which is the thing. It is said that when Diaghilev met Cocteau he used to lean back and say: "Etonne-moi". That is basically what I expect the Director of the Third Programme to do to me; and I must say that so far he often has. All this explains why I am personally much attached to the old Third Programme.

But I find the present Radio 4, the old Home Service, to have many good features, too. I often listen to the golden voice of Jack Di Manio, which puts me in a good humour before breakfast (but I have heard a sinister rumour that he is not going to continue, and I hope that this can be contradicted); my favourite comic character is Monty Modlin; and I think the new "Petticoat Line" is very funny. I also like the brisk journalism of "The World at One", and I usually listen to the later versions of the "News" and subsequent comment. In all this I suspect that I am typical of a fairly large section of reasonably well-educated and moderately intelligent listeners. Nor do 1 suppose that all those with my tastes necessarily belong to my top-level age group. Can it really be supposed that all, or even an overwhelming majority, of our young people tune in to nothing but "pop", or that all our middle-aged ladies are entirely dedicated to unadulterated saccharin?

What, I wonder, is the proportion of our now highly educated young people who listen at any rate occasionally to Radio 3. I believe that about 1½ million people tune into it at least once a week, which is considerable. According to Mr. George Mansell, the B.B.C. Director of Programmes, Radio's traditional intellectual categories were based on cultural and educational assumptions that may well have been valid immediately before the war", but they are invalid now (he goes on to say), owing, first of all, to the Butler Education Act of 1944, then to paper-backs, then to the "rise to culture", as he says, of masses of young people now in their twenties and thirties, and finally, to "the impact of television" Maybe. But if that is so, then surely the conclusion is either that our postwar education has been a ghastly failure, or that people under 30, as opposed to their unregenerate elders, should increasingly be tuning in to Radio 3. In other words, I just do not believe that the present audience of Radio 3, though obviously a small minority, is limited to a few dons and specialists and representatives of an out-of-date and largely forgotten intellectual era.

It is for that reason that I disagree profoundly with a recent pronouncement of the Economist, echoed by quite a few organs of the more popular Press, to the effect that, whether we like it or not, the only thing that now matters is television, and that we had much better disregard the present public criticism of Broadcasting in the 'Seventies and allow sound radio to die a natural death. For if this does happen we shall, I fear, have taken a long step towards the abandonment of those intellectual standards and disciplines which have so far been our glory as a great European country, and towards the largely mindless society of 1984, when you may remember, my Lords, if you have read the book, a leading article in The Times (not, of course, under its present enlightened editor) gave currency in the "newspeak language" to the unforgettable phrase" Oldthinkers unbellyfull Ingsoc", or, as we should say in our old-fashioned jargon, "those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English socialism". While I am on the subject of The Times, I should like to congratulate it on the great part it has played recently in bringing the present controversy into the open so that it may at least be the subject of intelligent debate.

Is it not, on the contrary, possible that if "old-fashioned" intellectual values are to some extent retained, quite a number of young people, after a few more years exposure to television, will (more especially if standards are lowered) get heartily sick of the box itself, and concentrate on records and tapes, and special "library" facilities, as I think they are called, for getting any programmes they like repeated, with no doubt disastrous results on the sales of colour sets and the advertising industry generally? That, indeed, would be one of the ways in which the new generation, if they so desired, might really change our present industrialised society, with which so many of them profess to be disenchanted.

But all this, my Lords, is only by way of introduction to show that I am not perhaps myself in a small cultural minority, and in the hope that it may stimulate you to produce some really constructive and practical ideas of your own. What, then, do we continue to object to? When I say "we" I mean those of us on these Benches. We have indeed objections to the B.B.C. proposals, even after the welcome modifications to the stark, schematic programmes laid down in Broadcasting in the 'Seventies, which, surprisingly enough, was approved in all its original rigour by the B.B.C. Governors, including that great academic, the noble Lord, Lord Fulton. The noble Lord seems, on this issue, to be rather out of step with his fellow academics, except, one need hardly say, Mr. A. J. P. Taylor.

Before explaining our objections, may I just say that I believe much heart-burning could have been avoided if the management of the B.B.C. had taken the staff fully into their confidence at a rather earlier stage and paid at least some attention to their views? I know that consultations took place, and I believe they were in strict accordance with the rules; but sometimes it is a good thing to stretch the rules a little. With regard to my general criticism, then, in the first place I wholeheartedly agree at least in this with the Leader of the Tory Party: that the B.B.C. should have as its principal aim the preservation of quality. After all, it has a monopoly of sound radio, and there is no desperate need for it to go in above all for popularity, as any commercial system is bound to do. The judge of quality must, in other words, be itself and not the audience. If you just go by mass ratings, quality will inevitably fall off. A referendum on whether we should continue to spend millions on the opera would certainly result in the abolition of Covent Garden. Even a referendum on the maintenance of the National Gallery might have a similar result. Vox populi, in other words, is not in the realm of culture, Vox Dei, at all.

It would seem to follow that while the B.B.C. must, naturally, cater for all tastes if it is not to lose its audience altogether, it should be especially careful not only to cater for minorities—and those who care for good music and intellectual drama are in a small minority —but also to see to it that even on the most "popular" programmes some effort is made to escape from complete vulgarity, in the proper sense of that word. But it would surely also follow that this—and more especially in catering for minority tastes—can be accomplished only if the money is available. And, as we all know, the Corporation, largely owing to the lamentable failure by the Government to collect £7 million of listeners' fees, and another £2 million on unlicensed car radios, is now in the red.

In spite of this, however, the Corporation will shortly have to spend large sums of money on 40 local stations, only eight of which are at present operating. It is widely believed (although I think denied by the Corporation) that it had to do this in order to induce the Government to increase the licence fee by about 5 per cent., bringing in an additional £5.5 million a year, all of which, and more, will go to the local stations. Since, however, this will still result in a general shortage of cash, it has had to stream-line the national programmes and largely demobilise the three existing regional systems. Hinc illae lacrymae, to use the expression of a vanished cultural epoch. In other words, that is what the present row is about. Of course, if only the Government could be induced to put another 10s. on the licence fee, most of our troubles would disappear, since they could then have local broadcasting and a satisfactory Third Programme as well. Is this really impossible? That is the first question I should like to ask the Government; and it is a question to which 1 should like the noble Lord the Leader of the House, if possible, to give a reply.

A general criticism of the present policy within the existing financial limits is, however, valid on several grounds. In the first place, the whole idea of "streaming", or of what is now called "generic" broadcasting, though it has, as the B.B.C. points out, to some extent been acceptable in the Music Programme, is surely vicious and almost bound to lead in the long run to a drop in standards. Its chief object, clearly, is to save money and to assist administration; but in so doing it diminishes the responsibility of the producers and inhibits their ability to turn out original work. All these artists—for that is what they are—will now simply have to adapt themselves to their particular stream. And the whole thing will become increasingly standardised, which is inevitable if money is the chief, if not the sole, consideration.

It is not an adequate argument, I suggest, to say that a number of items previously appearing on Radio 3 may now figure on Radio 4, thus improving the quality of the latter. The point is that the old Third Programme was encouraged to produce plays, for instance, that were frankly experimental, and some of them, obviously, were a terrible flop. This kind of thing cannot be done on a popular programme, any more than it can be done on television, without an uproar. Much material, in other words, which is admirable for Radio 3 is just not suitable for Radio 4, even if some of it can be adapted.

It is true, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, that the full rigour of streaming has been modified to some extent so far as Radio 3 is concerned, but it has not been modified enough. That, at any rate, seems to be the almost unanimous opinion of those concerned in its production. And it is certainly, if we judge from the Press, the reaction of the bulk of the minority audience of Radio 3, also. The danger is surely there. However good the intentions of the Corporation may be—and I do not accept that they are wholly good; because I feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been driven along by their political paymasters—the principle will gradually erode the Third Programme and deprive it of its special character. That is really my grouse.

Let us now, therefore, look at some famous individual contributions in the past to the Third Programme. About twenty years ago the Third Programme staged a fascinating two-hour dialogue between the great Bertrand Russell and Father Coplestone on the existence of God. Does anybody think that anything like this would from now on have a chance of appearing in the seven or eight hours a week devoted to "words", much of which of course will very probably be drama, in what will from now on anyhow be predominantly a musical programme? I can well imagine, for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton—whom I am very glad to see in his place, even though he cannot, owing to what I believe is an unfortunate rule (which I hope may be changed) participate in the debate—saying, "Two hours on the existence of God! What a waste of time, when we could stage the debate on ' Panorama' and Robin Day could sum up the whole thing in two minutes!"

But, more seriously, my Lords, is it really that Radio 3 as it may now emerge is in the least likely to produce, as it has done in the past, the works of new and controversial dramatists, who subsequently become accepted and greatly increase our cultural reputation abroad? And what about the recent 2½-hour discussion on" the permissive society "in which Michael Foot and the Warden of All Souls took part; or the three-hour discussion on "War and Morality" chaired by Philip Winsor? Are we going to hear this sort of thing again if Mr. Curran has his way? Not on your life!


My Lords, I wonder whether I might interrupt the noble Lord. Could he tell us what his reasons are, and what his evidence is, for his statements that it is very unlikely that programmes of this kind will go on in the future? I have heard it constantly asserted, but I have never seen any direct evidence on the particular type of programme that he was talking about.


The answer to that, my Lords, is that there is not enough money to run the programme as previously. It has therefore to be reduced to a large extent. There is consequently not in the time available for "words" place for a two- or three-hour dialogue of the kind I have referred to. There is not enough money and there is not enough time. That is what I think, anyway.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord ought to give more reason. He is talking about some of the very cheapest programmes. He has said that he does not believe, and does not think anybody believes, that programmes of this type will go on in the future. These are assertions of the kind about which I think he ought to have some evidence.


My Lords, I think the result of the reforms may be that we may have 20 minutes on the existence of God, but not two hours. If it is a fact that we are going to have two or three hours on discussions on the existence of God or the permissive society, then so much the better; but I very much doubt it.

The new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds has further suggested that I might recall the pungent series on David Hume, the philosopher, covering his work from every angle—and sometimes very critically; or the series of talks by Ronald Hepburn, Renford Bamborough and others, which explored very fully the religious philosophy of those who, like Goethe's Faust, "hear the message but lack the faith". In spite of what the noble Lord the Leader of the House has said, the essential point is that up to now, at any rate, British sound radio has not, like television, been beset by triviality and the air of show business. From now on, if we do not look out, it will. Even if this point is not appreciated, as it may not be, the maintenance of London as a great cultural centre is surely worth a great deal in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. And if there is any doubt on this point, perhaps the doubters could refer to Miss Jennie Lee, and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, will have something to say on the subject—I hope indeed that he will.

At the risk of speaking for too long, I should like to say just a word here on the musical side. As we all know, Radio 3 is from now on going to consist fundamentally of first-class music, and that in itself is excellent. But there is one matter which is giving rise to apprehensions. There will from now on, it seems, be less relaying of operas and concerts. Since these operas and concerts are often performances subsidised by the State it seems that such an economy might very well defeat its own purpose. That is what I have been led to believe. I should there-fore much welcome the precise figures in regard to relays, if the Government, assisted by the B.B.C., can provide them. It also appears—and, as I say, I speak subject to correction—that much "live" music may now be replaced by records— "more needle-time" as the phrase is, I think. Will not this mean penalising young composers whose works may very well not yet have been recorded? A reassurance on this point would be very welcome, too.

Thirdly, it seems that the Wednesday choral service from various cathedrals, which I think is now transmitted on Radio 4, is going to be largely suppressed; at any rate, a weekly service is going to be replaced by a monthly one. This will be a real disappointment not only to many who love the glorious Anglican Church music but also to thousands of the bedridden who cannot get to then-cathedrals at all. Does this particularly appreciated programme really have to be largely sacrificed on the altar of cost efficiency? Perhaps the Government will answer that question, too.

We thus approach the whole question of local broadcasting and the consequential phasing out, as it were, to a large extent of the present regions. There may be a case for 40 local very high frequency stations—though, incidentally, why 40? It seems to be an odd number—and some of the existing ones are, I believe, functioning very well within their narrow limits. But it seems rather odd that at a moment when everyone, including Lord Redcliffe-Maud, seems to be thinking in terms of regional devolution, we should virutally destroy the chief means of giving expression to a regional, as opposed to a purely local, consciousness. The Corporation says that it can still make profitable use of the great talent embodied in the present three regional organisations; but the persons concerned do not actually seem to think so and fear rather—this fear may be unjustified, but they fear—that all initiative will be lost and that, apart from local news, all regional broadcasts will now effectively be run from London. If this is not so, perhaps I may be given an assurance by the Government's saying that it is not so. Would it not be better to have regional networks that would tie in with Maud and give them real responsibility for at any rate some creative work, and not make them dependent to any large degree for serious programmes on the centre?

While I am on this aspect, may I add just one word to say how much I myself deplore the loss of identity, as I think it is called, of the old European Service, which has now become merged in a World Service. I was wondering whether the Government would be inclined to share this view at a moment when they are doing their best to enter the European Economic Community?

As for local commercial radio—it may be that the Tory policies include it and would encourage it—I must say that I myself cannot betray any enthusiasm. Judging from America it would, in order to pay for itself, and more especially of course if it had a rival in the local B.B.C., have to become increasingly "ghastly"— to borrow the expressive word used in an-other place by the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Besides, since the potential audience of Radio Caroline now has continuous "Pop" anyway on Radio 1, even though it may not be such good "Pop", or so popular, and could, if the B.B.C. modify their present scheme, have full regional programmes as well, I cannot see how the installation of local commercial stations would be in the national interest, even though it would obviously be in the interest of certain sections of our business community. I would not deny that. Naturally, if there were no local B.B.C. services at all a case could be made out for local commercial services. But there are now such services, even though, as I say, it might well be best, in our small country, to run them on, say, eight regional programmes.

There is a case—or so some of my own colleagues believe—for enabling the B.B.C. to derive a large additional revenue by accepting advertisements in certain emissions, such as Radio 1. I do not want to argue that case this afternoon, but I certainly think that it should be considered.

To sum up, my Lords, I would hope that, even at this late hour, the Corporation might not commit itself unequivocally to the present schedules. Even though it will inevitably introduce the new system on April 4, it might do so tentatively and subject to review—in the light, no doubt, of the eventual opinion of some Royal Commission, or perhaps (why not?) of a Select Committee. Could we not even on this vital question have a Joint Select Committee of the Commons and the Lords? I put that suggestion forward for discussion.

In particular, let the Corporation go slow on the proposed extension of local radio; and let it use some of the money saved to increase the quality of all forms of the existing national programmes, more particularly that of Radio 3. Could it not also think again, even if very slightly, about Radios 1 and 2? Is there any particular reason why some non-highbrow minority item of general women's institute interest, such as gardening or bee-keeping, should not sometimes be inserted into the continuous musical treacle of Radio 2? And might it not be possible even to imagine that an occasional word on the subject of drugs might be of some interest to the bemused mass audience of Radio 1? All this might cost a bit more and be more difficult to reconcile with a streamlined machine, but I have no doubt that it would help to avoid the Corporation's sinking into a rather uninspired mediocrity, which it will do if it only pursues business efficiency and cost effectiveness in accordance with the prescriptions of an American business efficiency firm.

It is not as if I thought there was now any real chance of, as it were, bringing back the noble Lord, Lord Reith (whom I am very glad, however, to see in his place), and trying to insert any moral purpose into the activities of the organisation; or even of bringing back Sir William Haley whose idea was that the Third Programme should be the leaven in the loaf, the influence of which would gradually permeate the whole. All that is gone with the wind. It now seems much more probable that the mass will simply eliminate the leaven. We live in a terrible age of mass emotions in which the individual is at a discount. Not even Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge, it would seem, can tame Demos by looking him squarely in the eye. Yet, granted that the B.B.C. no longer represents the conscience of the nation, I think it can represent, in a general way, the still small voice of reason and of decency. If this prevails, we may continue to have the best radio broadcasting in the world, but not otherwise. It depends on the leadership of the Corporation and on the Government. Both seems to me at the moment to be a little suspect. The one tends to be smug and accommodating, the other parsimonious.

But it may well be that we are wasting our time discussing the matter at all. Commenting on an indignant outburst in The Times of February 14 by no fewer than 134 programme planners and producers of the B.B.C., which summarised —if, as I think, a little too categorically and vehemently—the main objections to the new reforms that I have ventured to advance this afternoon, a "prominent figure"—as he was described—associated with the Corporation (can it possibly have been the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, himself?) said: There is no likelihood in the world of this having any effect, because, though the B.B.C. may go through the contortions of public agony, in fact the ineluctable progress of the bureaucratic machine is unstoppable. My Lords, I leave it at that. If we are really in the hands of bureaucratic machines, rather than in the hands of intelligent even if sometimes misguided individual leaders, there is little hope for this nation, and there is certainly no hope for Parliament. We had all better go home and, like Candide, proceed to cultivate our gardens, in so far as the pollution of the earth and the atmosphere will allow us to do so. But this, my Lords, is a counsel of despair. I do not myself accept the dictum of the anonymous apparatchik of Broadcasting House. Some considerable fuss has already resulted in a modification of the present plans of the B.B.C. Some greater fuss may well modify them further. That is the thought I want to leave with your Lordships this afternoon, and I rather hope that you will find it moderately convincing. I beg to move for Papers.