§ 2.57 p.m.
§ BARONESS EMMET OF AMBERLEY rose to call attention to the use and misuse of mass media communication; and to move for Papers. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I feel it is a great privilege to be opening this debate in our House to-day as I am convinced that the subject is of the utmost importance. I thought it incumbent on me—your Lordships arc, after all, an expert audience—to prepare myself as well as possible, 1192 including reading more pornographic literature than I have come across since I studied my classics for my Greats Finals at Oxford. It seems to me in retrospect that the Greeks and Romans had a greater sense of humour and a lighter touch than we have. Nevertheless, there seems to be a rather sinister likeness in some respect in the degeneracy of morals at the end of the Roman Empire and our own. Be that as it may, due to a paragraph in a daily paper that I saw a little while ago suggesting that this would be a highly critical debate, I should like to indicate that, I have not come to bury Ceasar but to praise him.
§ I am going to start by quickly running through the ways in which mass media communication has developed. There are, of course, in the first instance, the African tom-tom and war drums, and other such primitive, but effective means of communication. In our two Houses these have been superseded by the Division bells. One of the most dramatic instances of the interruption of mass media communication came to my mind from the Old Testament. It was in the Tower of Babel, when Jehovah took exception to the presumptuous skyscraping ambitions of the Babylonians, and introduced the Diversity of Tongues, an immediate and very imaginative form of intervention, which entirely disrupted the proceedings. It occurred to me the other day, in the Gallery of another place, how grateful the Speaker of that place would be if he had such powers from time to time. It seems to me that a little of the Hubris and pride of the Babylonians has communicated itself to our television services. The Babylonian drawback to communications was restored in an equally dramatic intervention in the New Testament with the Gift of Tongues at Pentecost so that the Disciples should not be handicapped in spreading the Gospel.
§ Other forms of mass media communication in the old days were the ballads passed on from generation to generation; Royal Proclamations; the town crier; the pulpit; the orator able to command a big forum, and the simple bonfire on the heights, such as we had at the time of the Armada. That is commemorated in our particular village by a bonfire on every great occasion. I remember that at the end of the last war we were all so tired we could not get quite to the 1193 top of the Downs, and we lit it half-way up.
§ However, most of these mass media were in the hands of the ruler for the time being, be he king or dictator or military commander or the leader of temporary importance. And it was not until the printing press came into its own that this monopoly of the ruling classes was broken. From then on, thinking man had the opportunity of expressing himself to the general public, and the general public had the opportunity of reading and choosing what they wished to read. This might be described as the childbirth of democracy for the world in general. The printing press also gave the impetus to the challenge to established religion (the Reformation) and established Government (the abolition of the Divine Right of Kings). After that, books, plays and pamphlets multiplied; Shakespeare and other great writers and philosophers must be considered from then on as an important form of mass media.
§ Let us come to the development of the daily newspaper, and we must not forget the rich empire of films. In our present time we have also the powerful advertising medium and, more vociferous still, the demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise. Mass communications have now reached a greater variety and influence in our lives than at any other time in history. Moreover—and this is an important point—the repercussions are immediate the world over. This is a vital aspect. I wonder sometimes how soon we shall have mass communications from Earth to the stars. Even looking at this very wide perspective, I am not at all sure that the little village does not still hold the blue riband for communication. It is quite extraordinary, certainly in our village, how whatever happens at one end of the village is known within seconds at the other end, without any apparent medium of communication.
§ My Lords, we must accept a tremendous new force in our daily lives and more especially in our own immediate homes. I am speaking here, of course, of radio and television. For many years we have had our daily papers, but they are coloured by our own choice, and there is much good sense in that. Incidentally, it is becoming more and more difficult to obtain house delivery of news-papers. 1194 Even in my case, in a residential part of London, I am unable at the present time to get delivery of the Daily Telegraph and The Times. I have a feeling that the newspapers, who are now very much up against it financially, should really make a better effort at selling themselves. It is not much good printing a newspaper if it cannot get to its customer.
§ Radio and television, on the other hand, are there by your chair in your home, and you can of course choose the programme and turn it off if it does not appeal. I must confess that I myself am more addicted to radio than television. And here I should like to say how very much I enjoy Radio 4, the Home Service. Perhaps my preference for radio is because I like to do things with my hands, whether it is necessary housework, embroidery, painting, pressing, or whatever the task may be, all of which can be done while listening—or occasionally not listening—to the radio. But you cannot do that with television; television needs attention. I am therefore more attracted in television to news, immediate live events, serials such as the Galsworthy serial and that absorbing series we are having at the present moment on Henry VIII and his six wives (I do not know whether this would be described as a sex film or not) and, of course, nature films. I feel I want to get away from the kitchen-sink type and the complicated psychological plays—problems which I hope will not be bothering my own grandchildren.
§ I also have one criticism to make of announcers. I know they try to be entirely objective, but there is a very important point which has worried me a good deal, because there is a great difference between announcing news and making comments. I am sure the announcers do their best so far as this is concerned. However, the tone of voice; the felt though not seen smile; the eagerness with which disasters seem to be announced, do betray the man or woman behind the voice, and occasionally give offence. I know this is a difficult matter especially in the regions of politics, religion or medical science. Few are chosen to do this particular job and one feels bound to ask: Who chooses the few; and is note taken of the individual performance? Quis custodiet custodes?1195
§ There are complaints of political bias in the B.B.C., and I have suffered personally, with no redress. I suppose it is bound to happen from time to time, but I think we can appeal to this great institution, and not in vain, to remember their unique and immense responsibility in the matter of trustworthiness, for which they have a very deserved reputation, not only in this country but abroad. It seems to me that whereas the nuclear bomb is probably the greatest instrument for destruction in the world to-day, so radio and television are now the greatest instruments for good in human hands. Let us make the most of them. I should like to see the first sentences of the Gospel of St. John sunk deep into the hearts and minds of the operators in this field. Perhaps there will be a rush to the Library to look up the Bible after I have finished speaking, but I mean this quite seriously.
§ Importance must be attached to trends. We are living in an era where violence seems to have superseded persuasion. How far are our forms of mass media communication counteracting this tendency or encouraging it publicly? Persistent viewing of violence and reading about it tend to affect, even harden, the ordinary, normal person. Violent demonstrations are unpleasant and frequent occurrences in our present times. The hijacking of planes; kidnapping—incidentally, I was in Uruguay and had lunch at the British Embassy the day our Ambassador there was kidnapped—and the ridiculing of law and order, are all serious symptoms of underground activities in our present times. Again, the boring exploitation of sex shows a lack of maturity and good taste which is a reproach to our educational system and our parental responsibilities. These are matters in which mass media communication could do an inestimable amount of good. Are they playing a sufficiently responsible part? I am not quite sure that this is always so; and it is for these reasons that I thought that a debate on this subject, in this really very wise House, would be in the public interest.
§ I have had some correspondence with extremely sensible people. I have been sent posters and literature distributed 1196 widely and on sale which, frankly, do no credit to our society but are difficult to pin down as transgressing the law at present. I rather think that the permissive outlook has gone too far. Some of the beautiful things in life are in danger of being besmirched and destroyed, and the British character undermined. The joy of innocent childhood; a happy family life with the security of father and mother providing for their children; the comfort of close companionship between husband and wife in old age; the respect for a good life, holding on to the great ideals to the end; the belief that a man's word is his bond, that our country's history and glorious episodes have real meaning—these things we should like mass media communication, not to preach, because nobody wants to be preached to or at, but to keep in mind and not let us be swamped by the sensational, the sordid, the degrading and the animal side of life.
§ I am sure noble Lords who are taking part in this debate will touch on many other sides of the mass media communications which I have not mentioned—Arts, advertisements, educational media, et cetera. I do not want to speak for too long, as we have many speakers, and however tempting the subject I very much hope that they will bear this fact in mind. I should now like to thank all noble Lords who have put down their names to support my Motion and I will leave the subject in their hands. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.11 p.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, I am certain that I shall have the whole House with me if I congratulate the noble Baroness on the Motion that she has brought before us, and in particular on the commendable brevity with which she has introduced it. I shall certainly do my best to follow her example.
I think I ought to make it clear that, unlike other noble Lords, I find myself perhaps in the same position as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, and the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in that I am a conscript. I myself would not have volunteered to speak in this debate, because when I saw the Motion I was uncertain whether it was to be a debate on (shall we say?) a broad philosophical argument on the media, whether it was 1197 to be an orgy of criticism of the media—that there is too much sensationalism; too much sex and violence; too much portrayal of the sordid and sick society that does exist, but only in a minor degree—or whether we should be involved in criticism of political bias at the B.B.C. or the I.T.A. No doubt these matters will be raised, but I hope that they will not dominate our debate this afternoon.
I suspect that on this subject the only difference between noble Lords on the Benches opposite and us on this side of the House is, perhaps, the general approach as to the extent to which commercial interest should be involved in radio or television. I think we have now grown used to commercial television and I do not know of anyone who would advocate the abolition of the I.T.A. Clearly, commercial local radio raises particular and special problems. I do not intend to say anything on this subject this afternoon because I think it would be unwise until we have the Government White Paper on the subject.
One other regret is the decision of the Government not to continue with the Annan Commission on the Future of Radio and Television. Radio and television are an evolving industry and production. The extent to which they make an impact on our lives is at the moment relatively unknown, I think, but I am quite clear that if there are any changes to be made those changes should emerge from a public examination by independent people and not from (shall I say?) the rooms of Ministers or Departments. In this particular field, which has such an important bearing not only on our entertainment but also on our knowledge, the public are entitled to know the reasons for any particular change of policy.
I am glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, is to speak this afternoon because I think this is a recognition that the theatre plays a very important part in the communications media. I know that there is great concern among many people about recent developments in the theatre. I can well imagine the position and can sympathise with the noble Viscount and the Arts Council in the very difficult decisions they have to take as to whether grants should be made available for this or that type of production or theatre—because, of course, if a grant 1198 is withheld from a particular class of production or theatre, it is in a sense a form of censorship. I do not know whether the noble Viscount is in a position to say something on this matter this afternoon.
To me, however, the great interest of this debate is to examine the extent to which the media succeed or fail in providing education and informing the general public of the great events and the challenges of our time. Therefore I should like to concentrate my remarks mainly on radio and television and the newspapers. My Lords, democracy demands of its members an active and intelligent participation in the affairs of its community. It assumes that they are sufficiently well informed about the issues of the day to be able to form a broad judgment required by an election, and also the vigilance necessary in those who govern. Democratic society therefore needs a clear and truthful account of events, of their background, of their causes, and the means whereby individuals and groups can express a point of view and advocate a particular course.
We lay great stress—and quite rightly so—upon the freedom of our Press and our television and radio. Throughout our history there has always been a clash between those in authority and those who work in the media. This is true of all Governments, of all shades of opinion, and it was interesting to read the other day of the deep concern within a Coalition Government of the views that were expressed in certain remarkable programmes by J. B. Priestley during the war. Even the "Brains Trust" was regarded as a dangerous forum of new and radical ideas. Perhaps a more startling clash, and certainly the most prominent, was that of the Coalition Government with the Daily Mirror.
The problem of media and Government is perhaps best set out in some remarkable words of Mr. Oliver Whitley, the B.B.C.'s Managing Director of External Broadcasting, in this year's B.B.C. Handbook. He writes as follows:Any broadcasting organisation"—and I suppose this can be taken for the Press as well—which consistently aims to tell the truth is bound to make things difficult for the Government of its country and will only be tolerated, let alone sustained and encouraged, by that Government so long as the politicians and the 1199 civil servants who comprise it are persuaded that the long-term benefits of having a broadcasting service trusted more than themselves exceed those very real short-term irritations.He goes on, a little further down:It cannot be a comfortable position to be in. It is no small thing for politicians, and even more so perhaps for civil servants, to support the constitutional independence and practical freedom of broadcasting, in spite of the thorns in its own path, at all times when the freedom of broadcasting depends eventually upon their readiness to stand up and be counted in its favour. This demands their foresight, wisdom, patience and restraint. The broadcasters' credibility could not exist without these sophisticated official attitudes, any more than without the steadfastness and perception of the broadcasters themselves.I think we must recognise that there will always be, and I think perhaps rightly so, this clash of view between those who are responsible for the media and Government.
How do we judge the present media? I suppose—and here I speak only for myself—the very best example of informing and educating people is the B.B.C.'s overseas broadcasts. I have lived overseas and know how much people overseas value them. The extent to which the general public overseas place deep faith and trust in the news that comes forth from the B.B.C.'s Overseas Service is extraordinary. This trust has been built up over very many years; but, oddly enough, many of my friends overseas, despite anything one may say, still do not believe that the B.B.C. Overseas Service is independent of the Government. If you discuss it with them, they ask, "Where does the money come from?" You immediately find yourself on the defensive, because you say, "The funds come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office". Which produces the comment, "Ah, you see; it is controlled". My Lords, I wonder whether the time has not come when we should finance the overseas broadcasts in a different way. I think it would certainly strengthen the argument with our friends overseas if the funds for that service came from elsewhere. The sums are not all that large, and I should have thought there is no reason why they should not come from the general licence revenues.
At home, television and radio, I believe, provide us with standards that no other country enjoys, not only in terms of the production of comment and entertainment 1200 and sport, but also as to quality of picture; and I believe, too, that both services provide about the right balance between sport, entertainment, education, news and comment. We shall all be watching with the very greatest interest, and I know sympathy, this exciting venture of the Open University, which is so much a consequence of the tenacity of my noble friend Lady Lee of Asheridge.
The noble Baroness, Lady Emmet of Amberley, spoke about the question of comment programmes and the interviewer. I must say that I have a degree of sympathy with her on this matter. I cannot help feeling that both organisations, both producers, feel that the public like confrontation. This is the reason, I think, why Question Time in the House of Commons is the most popular period to take visitors there. But I think there is a danger (and I should like to dwell on this later) that the interviewer, particularly if his face has become as familiar as if he is a member of the family, can dominate and seek to put too much influence upon the course of the interview. Indeed, I should like to go one stage further in this: I think that occasionally interviewers do something which I regard as utterly unforgivable, and that is to seek to put words into the mouth of the person who is being interviewed.
Having said that, I would add that it seems to me that the radio and television have about the right balance. Sometimes things do go wrong, it is true; but I think that the authorities, within the means that are open to them, seek in a later programme to counter any faults. I have dwelt for a moment on radio and television; and I believe that they have an assured place, not only in our homes now, but also in the future, and that money will be found for their development.
My Lords, what about the Press? We in this country perhaps have more national and provincial papers than any other country in the world. To that extent, I think, we are well supplied. But I think the question Parliament will have to ask itself in the near future is: how long are we going to continue to be well supplied? It can be said, I think, that the layout of papers is attractive and easy to read; their news service is highly organised and is resourceful; their feature pages display imagination, and at best 1201 are both imaginative and informative. On the face of it, it is a very successful Press, and one that matches the needs and the appetites of the community. But the fact is that most of our papers are running at a loss. This debate is about the use of the media, and not about the structure or the economics of the publishing industry, which is wide open to criticism. I will not dwell overlong on this point. But if we believe, as I do, that a free and varied Press is an essential to the democratic society as Parliament itself, then there arises the question, can Parliament fail to have concern about the future of its Press—its quality, its breadth of opinion—in which ever-increasing concentration of ownership is an essential factor and a real threat?
The Royal Commission on the Press in 1949 said that at the time of their reporting the degree of concentration of ownership in the national Press did not call for any action, but that they would consider any further concentration undesirable. Since then there has been further concentration of ownership. Therefore we should view with very great concern the future of the Daily Mail and Evening News group of papers, and take particular note of the continuing losses of The Times, the Guardian and other important papers.
THE EARL OF ARRAN
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? So far as the Daily Mail is concerned, there is no question of risk. I speak with some authority, and the Daily Mail has no plans for closing down.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, I know the noble Earl is to speak later and he will no doubt make his point then. But, without developing this matter, I know there is considerable concern, and I share that concern. There are some who say that provided the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. provide a proper coverage of news the loss of national papers is not at all important. I believe that to be very wrong. I would regard newspapers as complementary to radio and television, providing within the medium something that the B.B.C. and I.T.A. cannot provide. All of us would accept that the B.B.C. and I.T.A. should not have an editorial line or a commitment to any particular view, although there are occasions when they come pretty close to it. But a strong clear line of opinion is essential to 1202 democracy, and that is for the newspapers to provide.
I believe newspapers provide something else. What they report is on record. This is important, for it gives the community the opportunity to think about the problem itself. You may not agree with the leading article of the Daily Telegraph or The Times, but in disagreeing you are forced to argue the problem yourself. But with the B.B.C. and I.T.A. there is no record, and I suspect that one reacts as a consequence of the presentation of that news, and that by the time one starts to think about the problem one is looking at or trying to absorb some other piece of news. But I believe the impact remains, and if it is true that democracy depends on people thinking and making judgments, then the loss of the medium which provides them with a record and the opportunity to think is dangerous.
May I develop this thought for a moment? Noble Lords will remember the great moral and political issues of the war in Nigeria. If you took a transcript of the B.B.C. "24 Hours" programme or "Panorama" and compared that transcript with the reporting of events in the national Press, you would not see a startling difference; but if you took a transcript and compared it with your memory of the programme you would, in fact, question whether you were comparing your memory with the same programme. The noble Baroness herself touched on this point. The difference is not in what is said, but how it is said. If you had a hostile approach to the person who was supporting the Government, and a sympathetic approach to those who were supporting Biafra against a background of starving children, there could, I think, be only one conclusion for the general public if they did not know the facts: that the Government of the day were supporting the Nigerian Government and, by so doing, had a responsibility for those starving children.
There is a real risk that the manner of presentation on television and the comment programmes can distort, quite unintentionally, the issues on which they are reporting and commenting. How often have we remarked that a newspaper headline has little bearing on the full report in the paper? Often our approach to the article is the impact of the headline. 1203 But with a newspaper one can at least go back to the article and compare it with other papers. With television and radio that course is not open.
But there is a problem also with newspapers. The Royal Commission on the Press said that if a newspaper purported to record or discuss public affairs it should at least record them truthfully. It may express what opinions it likes, but opinions should be expressed without suppressing or distorting the facts. If a newspaper adheres to a political Party, that should be plain to the reader, but from the columns of opinion and not from the colouring given to the news. I think it is fair to say that, perhaps due to the shortage of Press space, it is harder to-day to see the difference between comment and news. Certainly one has to examine it most carefully. I believe that the conclusions of the Royal Commission remain valid to-day and that the Press, by the number and the variety of the papers, should, as a whole, give an opportunity for all points of view to be effectively presented. By and large, that is done to-day, but any further loss of national provincial papers will, I believe, be serious. Perhaps one could go further and say that this applies even to the reduction in the size of certain of our papers.
For the Government or Parliament to provide ways and means for newspapers which fail to attract readership sufficiently to make them viable will raise serious problems. The freedom of the Press may appear to be threatened. Yet we have so many checks and counterchecks within our sophisticated society that none of us would question the independence and the integrity of the Governors and the Boards of the B.B.C. and I.T.A. Therefore, I myself would not rule out provision for the maintenance of the wide and varied Press that we have to-day. But is it right, as has been suggested, that provincial newspapers which may lose advertising space as a consequence of the coming into being of local commercial radio should be encouraged to become part of a consortium for local commercial radio? I take the view that there is considerable risk that we in London may have only one evening newspaper, and I believe there are suggestions that the Beaverbrook 1204 organisation may be part of the consortium for commercial radio in London. I suggest that such a concentration of ownership in participation in a news medium in this particular locality would be wrong and open to the risks to which the noble Baroness in her Motion refers—the misuse of the media.
Before I conclude I would say that to some extent I think that the media fail to inform and educate public opinion. Why this is so I do not know. If one takes, as an example, the Industrial Relations Bill one finds that there are many who believe that this Bill will cure strikes and there are others who believe that as a consequence trade union leaders will be imprisoned. In fact, I suspect that neither will be the case. But few people really understand the Bill, what it does and how it will be used. Then, what about the Common Market? There are some who say that our entry would solve our economic difficulties, while there are some who believe passionately that it will result in the loss of our sovereignty and in mammoth price increases. So far, the media have failed to get the full challenge across. I wonder to what extent the Government, the opposition, those who are for going in or not going in, should be given greater opportunities to inform the public than have so far been made available to them, both in the Press and on television. I do not know. The question raises considerable doubts. Sooner or later, the British public will have to be consulted. I personally am against a referendum, but I believe the British people are entitled to know. I have tried to think how it could come about.
I should not wish to raise the delicate problem, at least for another place, of the televising of Parliament, but I am clear in my own mind that, having regard to the importance of our entry into the Common Market—a decision which is perhaps as profound as any that this country has been required to take—the British public are entitled to know the basis on which Members of Parliament and noble Lords in this House give approval or otherwise. I strongly believe that at least on the occasion of the major debates for entry into the Common Market the public should be able to see and hear our deliberations and decisions by way of television and radio presentations 1205 from both Houses. When speaking of the Press we talk of "the right to know"; and I should have thought that there is no other way in which the public could be so informed. I am sorry my speech has been longer than I intended. Like the noble Baroness, I believe passionately in the independence of the Press and the media. I believe that they have the responsibility. Sometimes they err; but when they err they seek to put it right.
§ THE PAYMASTER GENERAL (VISCOUNT ECCLES)
My Lords, we on this side of the House wish to join with the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Emmet of Amberley, for introducing a debate on a large and very difficult subject, one on which none of us knows all the facts, let alone what ought to be done. The Government are concerned about the problem of the use and misuse of the mass media, which we judge to be troubling a growing number of people. What we do about it is essentially a matter for public opinion. We are, therefore, most sincerely anxious to have any advice which noble Lords may care to give us in the course of the debate.
Looking at the long list of speakers, I think it must be a record for the House of Lords that there are no fewer than 10 noble Baronesses on the list. Whether that points to a particular concern of noble Baronesses in the use or misuse of the mass media or to the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Emmet, is an exceedingly good unofficial Whip, I really do not know, but I think we shall be particularly interested in this quite exceptional contribution from noble Baronesses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Emmet, said something that struck me very much. She said that she thought that the permissive society had gone so far that the British character was in danger of being undermined. That is a striking statement, and I welcome it because I think it focuses our attention on the central issue. What are we doing to ourselves when we suddenly let loose a quantity of material in print and pictures—quite unprecedented—which to many seems out of our character and to others deeply offensive? Does this really matter? This is not a problem that is going to be settled by legal action. As I see it, the 1206 crucial battle is being fought on this side of the law in the area in which prosecutions either cannot be brought or are not brought, but where standards are sometimes so low that most of us want to do something to improve them. The noble Baroness was concerned about this area, and it is to this area that I shall direct my remarks.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, made a very interesting speech, and I am sure that the whole House appreciated the thought behind many of the constructive remarks that he made. I shall have something to say about them, but I will not follow him on the structure of the Press, or whether the proceedings of this House should or should not be televised. The Motion refers specifically to the mass media, but, as the noble Baroness said, the question of standards which they adopt is also affected by what goes on in the field of the arts; the Arts being quite often the pace-setters in the removal of conventions and restraints. I hope that the debate will range over the whole of this area.
The mass media and contemporary art of all kinds both reflect and influence the current standards of taste and behaviour. What goes on in society and what broadcasters, cameramen, writers and artists choose to tell us about it must react the one upon the other. When Parliament relaxes the law in relation to homosexuality, divorce or abortion, or when chemists put an oral contraceptive on the market, the mass media will reflect the changes in behaviour which follow. Equally, if the mass media set out to persuade the public that certain changes in behaviour, frowned upon in the past, are now the height of fashion, the public will take the cue and react accordingly. It is very easy to forget how many things we do now without shame and without risk of disapproval which only a generation ago we should have avoided like the plague. It would help us in this debate if we could agree upon the major reason why such changes in public morality have come about.
I cannot believe that the prime cause of the permissive society has been intellectual leadership of any kind. Psychologists, scientists, artists, priests in disarray and other modern thinkers have, of course, helped to speed up the process, but behind all the serious and the shallow 1207 propaganda a force more general and more profound must have been at work. This I take to be the clash between the collective personality of the British people and the restrictions imposed on the individual citizen by the political and technological changes of the last twenty or thirty years. I mean by our collective personality the sum of the experiences over the centuries which have made us what we are. All our history is a record of the individual's struggle to gain freedom from one kind or another of political or economic authority. But recently, in what has been a very short time in relation to the past struggles, individual freedom has suffered a series of checks—first because science and technology have made us servants of the machines to a degree we scarcely realise, and secondly, because we have imposed upon ourselves a network of laws and regulations which prevent us from doing exactly what we like in one direction or another.
I am not making any criticism to-day of these restrictions; the only point I want to make is that they could not, in so short a time, have destroyed the British passion for freedom. And so because we are now herded together in large conurbations and compelled to work in institutions too large for our personal influence to count for much, we turn instinctively to our private lives as the area in which we continue to explore the possibilities of greater freedom. The permissive society is our natural and, in one sense, robust reply to the concentration of power in industry and Government. We are now making a protest against an economic system which conditions ordinary men and women to want what it wants. That is a system which moulds their lives not as humanity would desire, but as technology and the market dictate. Anyone who shares this interpretation of the permissive society will not want to put the clock back by introducing a whole lot of fresh laws and regulations. That would be a defeat for all of us.
But one has to recognise that if we were to fail to use responsibly the new freedom to do as we like in our private lives we could easily find that we were teaching ourselves to be a sick society. A society is like a person who can make himself ill if his attention is always being drawn to his minor ailments, temptations and weaknesses. Unfortunately, it has 1208 long been a commercial fact that bad news, sensational news, salacious news, whether in print or pictures, sells better than news which reflects the dull, good things that make up so large a proportion of every day.
When, therefore, the communications industry finds that it can print, portray and sell almost everything, there must be a very great temptation to rationalise this freedom by saying that all experiences are equally valuable. This is a pernicious fallacy. It is used, I am sorry to say by some people who ought to know better, as an excuse for condoning anything anybody cares to say or do. The truth of the matter was very well put by Professor Roy Shaw of Keele University, who said this in one of his lectures:The assumption that some experiences are intrinsically better than others is a necessary starting-point to any educational endeavour. Reject it and anarchy will indeed replace culture.This is what our debate is about: the risk that anarchy will replace culture if we do not learn to select with discrimination from among all the experience now offered to us. The child has his experiences selected by parents and teachers. When he grows up it is no less important that what he has to choose from should be the best society can offer him. In the field of the arts I know that those who make programmes and edit newspapers and put on artistic activities tend to underestimate the desire of the general public for high standards. I will return in a moment to this desire and capacity for something better, but first I must say a word following what the noble Baroness said about the prevalence of bad standards.
Discussion on obscenity, pornography or blasphemy will always be confusing, because it is so difficult to agree upon what these emotive words mean. How does one answer the question: what harm does it do us to participate in this kind of experience? I have seen no medical evidence to prove that pornography is catching, like measles. On the other hand, as the noble Baroness said, and as is very widely believed, if someone were repeatedly exposed to representations of lust and violence his sensibilities would certainly be blunted. It is not that he would become perverted or violent himself, though occasionally 1209 that might be the result, but that he would begin to take these ugly things as part of the normal condition of life, and so would become indifferent to them, or even afraid to make any protest when a protest was clearly in the national interest. To what extent is this view true? My noble friend Lord Windlesham, who is to wind up, will give the House the latest, and I understand reassuring, information on this vital point.
For my part, I am not prepared to say that because we cannot define pornography to the satisfaction of the lawyers we cannot recognise it when we see it. I think we can tell the good from the bad by sticking to the doctrine of man handed down by the Hebrew/Christian tradition. This tradition requires us to respect the mind and body of every human person, whereas pornography eggs us on to be as cruel as we like with, or to, anyone we can get hold of. These two concepts of humanity are diametrically opposed—the one leading to peace, the other to violence. And surely it is no accident that when the police pick up a sex maniac they expect to find a shelf of dirty books in his home. Someone will say, "But you cannot prove whether he raped little girls because he had read the books, or whether he read the books because he had raped little girls." That rejoinder from the medical side is fair enough, but is it more than a quibble? If a man walks into a bank carrying a shot-gun, the presumption had better be that he uses it for shooting; he might, of course, want it to poke the fire at home. My Lords, a pinch of common sense in these cases is really the best guide we have.
Whatever may be the precise effects of pornography, I do not believe we can cleanse the permissive society by fresh laws, but only by accepting the challenge to provide the public with enough material of a high standard from which they can choose. I suppose it is an act of faith, but I believe that the good will drive out the bad if we accept personal responsibility in this unending campaign. Having, then, declared myself firmly on the side of freedom, I must tell your Lordships that I am under growing pressure to see that there should be one convention that would restrict the freedom to write, produce and perform anything and everything which is outside the 1210 range of a criminal prosecution. Because I am myself sympathetic to this case I wish to act without prejudice.
The question at issue (on which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, touched), is the use of public money to finance works which affront the religious beliefs or outrage the sense of decency of a large body of taxpayers. I would not listen to anybody who wanted the return of the censor on works wholly financed from private sources. But I am responsible for the grants to the Arts Council, which are made with taxpayers' money. If the Arts Council could reach some understanding with their clients that takes into account the moral views of those who are putting up the money, I should be very glad. The Government would like to hear what your Lordships have to say on this delicate matter.
§ BARONESS LEE OF ASHERIDGE
My Lords, will the noble Viscount allow me to interrupt hint? I hope that nothing in what he has said implies that he would in any circumstances consider political censorship or political direction of any kind. I hope he will agree with me that it would be impossible, under that kind of censorship, to obtain the services of the people on the Arts Council.
§ VISCOUNT ECCLES
My Lords, I need hardly assure the noble Baroness that politics are not in my mind or in my speech at all. I am speaking only about the moral views of a large number of people, and about asking the Arts Council to take those views into account, remembering that it is these people who provide the grants.
In this connection I have been asked whether the convention which we have in mind should include nudity on the stage. So far as I am concerned, nudity does no harm and will not make much progress in our climate. But the sexual act in public I regard with great distaste. Here I am in agreement with Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote in his diary that the sexual act is so ugly that if we all saw ourselves in the performance of it the human race would die out—la natura se perderebbe. That is a salutary observation from a great master which modern artists may care to consider. A convention that public money will not be available for financing works which 1211 affront many taxpayers is therefore the only restraint I would suggest in this field.
Apart from this, I am convinced that, provided that we can meet the public demand for programmes, newspapers, journals and artistic activities of high quality, we shall not regret that the permissive society has opened the way to wider personal choice. I am optimistic here for two reasons. The first is that the explosion of the live arts into the primary and secondary schools did not get going until the beginning of the 1950s. This means that even to-day only boys and girls under 25 are certain to have been exposed to this introduction to the live arts which has been well taught in many schools. It also means that every year that passes a larger proportion of the public will have had this experience.
As your Lordships would expect, the results of this change in teaching are just beginning to come through. I was in Plymouth a fortnight ago. The city library has a very celebrated collection of music scores and copies of plays for lending to performers in the area. A sudden and very rapid expansion in borrowing has taken place, and Mr. Best Harris, their admirable city librarian, told me that as many as 25,000 items are now out on loan at any one time. He also said that by far the fastest category in the growth of lending is in plays for reading, not for acting. That shows, my Lords, that we are at the beginning of a new movement of "do-it-yourself" in drama and music. I have no doubt that that upsurge is not only due to the teaching of the Arts in the schools but is also a direct consequence of television—what the Americans would call the "spin-off". I think it is generally accepted that more and more viewers are being stimulated by particular programmes to pursue their minority interest in a more direct way. That, of course, is exactly what radio did for music: now it is happening with television. There are others, perhaps even more, who are getting bored by television, and without knowing precisely what they want they go out in search of more satisfying experiences. I am told that the teenager who not so long ago stayed in and watched with mum and dad now slams the front door. Be that as it may, 1212 I do know that the young to-day are asking us for small theatres, small concert halls and small cinemas, where the platitudes and the generalisations of the mass media can be broken down into more penetrating expressions of the life which they so badly need to understand.
My Lords, in all this there is a great lesson for the mass media. They did not make the permissive society. They were presented with it; and as a result their responsibility to provide material of high quality is enormously greater than it was when the taboos and the inhibitions of my childhood acted as unseen censors of enormous power. These censors have melted away. The mass media are now operating in a sea of uncertainties. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that in comparison with their opposite numbers in other countries they have stood up very well against the new chaos in standards. But we must ask of the Press and broadcasting more than the avoidance of dirt. On what principles do they select what they communicate to the public? It is this power of selection which is sometimes badly abused, and I offer the House one or two examples. A television director decides to investigate the serious and very worthwhile question whether or not being coloured handicaps a man from getting a job. Twenty random interviews are shot. One person interviewed is dead certain that his colour lost him the job; two others are doubtful; the other 17 or so say that their colour was no handicap at all. But when the programme goes out, only four interviews are included—the three in which colour may have made some difference and one where it did not. I am sure that that is not typical of our television, but it shows how the power of selection can distort the truth. Here, of course, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that the more newspapers we have, and the more channels we have for radio and television, the better, because that is at least one probable safeguard against distortion.
My second example is the television image of the businessman. Having lived among them, I ought to know what big businessmen are like, and I cannot recognise their portrait on television. In far too many programmes they are shown to be thinking only of making money and as being none too careful about the 1213 way they make it. My Lords, that is not a true picture, and it does positive harm to deceive the public about the character of any profession or occupation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education remarked the other day about the image of the student in this country. I think that she was right to say that to-day students have a poor image, largely due to the fact that over the last two years it has been the troublemakers who have always got "on the box". The great majority of students who have been peacefully getting on with their studies have no part in forming the image. This is very bad, my Lords, because the status and repute of our university system is something of cardinal importance to the country.
In conclusion, I come back to those in control of the mass media. They could do more to satisfy the public's desire and capacity to learn the truth about the human condition. We have no substitute for what the mass media do or leave undone in this vital area of our experience. Legislation cannot provide the range of experience which we should like to be available to everybody. Nor can Parliament prohibit large areas of experience which any civilised person would consider were debasing the coinage of society. Progress has to be voluntary because that is the effective way and the way of the British people. We must, on pain of death, learn both to remain ourselves and to absorb the world's technology. Shall we achieve that, or shall we allow a small minority to teach us to be a sick society? My Lords, no one knows the answer for certain, but we can all do something to see that responsibility and good taste win in the end.
§ BARONESS BIRK
My Lords, would the noble Viscount please clarify his answer to my noble friend? He said at one point that the Government would not take any political action; but later he seemed to me to say (unless I have it wrong) that action would be taken on moral grounds if the play, or whatever it might be, was considered to be offensive to some people. Will he clarify what he means by telling us on what grounds the action will be taken; how it will be done, and who are the people to be regarded as offended?
§ VISCOUNT ECCLES
My Lords, the action that we shall take is no more than consulting the Arts Council to see whether a convention can be reached that when a play of really disgusting blasphemy is put on a warning shall be given, if the producer is State-aided, that this sort of thing will not do. I am not going to be drawn by the noble Baroness into saying that we must have a legal definition of what is filthy and blasphemous; we can recognise it when we see it.
§ BARONESS WHITE
My Lords, may I pursue that point a little further? Can the noble Viscount explain what would happen were the Arts Council perhaps not all of one mind—if there were some differences? If a convention were not available would he himself then personally intervene?
§ VISCOUNT ECCLES
My Lords, I will deal with that when I come to it. I have every confidence, knowing Lord Goodman, that we shall in fact arrive at a reasonable understanding. There are a great many people in this country who mind very much about these things; and their money should be protected. If other people want to go down into a cellar and see something thoroughly extraordinary, then let them pay themselves and not ask the body of the taxpayers to put up the money.
§ BARONESS GAITSKELL
My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount what has happened to the Theatre Censorship Act?
§ VISCOUNT ECCLES
My Lords, this has nothing at all to do with censorship. This is a question of whether Government money should be used partly to finance productions which affront the sensibilities of a great many people. The Theatre Censorship Act remains the same. Within that Act, anybody may put on anything from his own resources.