HL Deb 24 July 1973 vol 344 cc1801-13

10 p.m.

LORD FERRIER rose to ask Her Majesty's Government.

Whether they will reconsider their decisions (as set out in Command Paper No. 5244) not to implement the main recommendations from the Second Report of the House of Commons' Select Committee on Nationalised Industries but to take steps to extend the franchises of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. till 1981 without further inquiry.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name. It is one that is dear to my heart. I assure the House that I would have moved it to another day, if there had been another day, but I will be as brief as I can.

On Wednesday last, at 1.15, lunch-time, only a couple of hours after the delivery of a unanimous judgment by the House of Lords in its judicial capacity, the B.B.C. "World at One" broadcast an interview with the Editor of the Sunday Times, who had lost his case for the second time, in which he poured scorn upon the House of Lords judgment for millions of people to hear. Admitting that the programme in question, "The World at One", is quite often a mischievous one, I would ask: was this wise? To my mind, my Lords, it was outrageous. I am tempted to open my speech in this way, having read Mr. Wilson's letter in The Times this morning in which, inter alia, he said, quoting from what he had said at a rally: No one will presume to challenge the authority of the House of Lords in their interpretation of the law as it stands. Where do we stand when the B.B.C. put someone on who does so presume?

When I put down this Question on the "No Day Named" list some weeks ago, I was reluctant to take up your Lord-debated to some extent on an Unstarred ships' time because this matter was Question of mine on February 21. In March, the White Paper to which I refer in my Question had been published announcing the Government's intention to extend the existing franchise of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. on the same terms until 1981, contrary to the recommendations of the Select Committee. One has only to read Hansard of the debate in the other place on May 3 to realise that this decision has been viewed with some alarm. However, in the last few days events have occurred which lead me to believe that the issue raised in my Question is a very live one. In view of these more recent events, I inquire whether the Government will reconsider their decisions set out in that White Paper.

My Lords, I am not going to refer to the Payola scandal or to the continued prevalence, in my view, of violence and the like in some of the programmes on television. It is the political implications of the power of the broadcast and the dangers of its misuse which activate my mind. Take, for instance, the extraordinary case of the programme, "A Question of Confidence" on Sunday, the 15th July, under the heading "The People Talking". A long "blurb" in the Radio Times contains the following words: When we read reports of Parliamentary debates and watch political arguments on television, do we continue firmly to believe that politicians are the men who really rule the country? Further in the "blurb" these words appear: Do we trust M.P.s more or less as a result of television exposure? What happened? Perhaps millions of listeners saw and heard exchanges in which, despite the best efforts of Desmond Wilcox to control the proceedings, scorn was poured upon Members of Parliament, and through them on our whole system of Parliamentary democracy. Then the Chairman of the B.B.C.—more strength to his elbow! And I recall that the Chairman of the I.T.A. in another connection took this step previously—wrote to apologise to the Members of Parliament who had been ill-treated. Subsequently, a number of B.B.C. producers challenged the Chairman's right to do what he had done. Who was in charge?

In the debate on February 21 I expressed the belief that in an organisation like the B.B.C. there must be people who, if not dedicated to disruption, feel that their mission in life is to promote discord and unease. I was struck during the course of the debate this afternoon by the speech of my noble friend, Lord Selsdon, in which he emphasised, as other speakers had done, the importance of confidence in our national life to-day. In my view, this is impaired by much of what we see on television. Again, what about the absolute folly of the broadcasting in Scotland of a televised programme (I do not know whether it was shown in England) called "Scots on the Rocks". I will not waste your Lord-ships' time by describing it, but I can assure you that it was a most ill-judged act to put this piece on at this time when so much controversy was brewing across the Irish Channel. Again, whose idea was it that the B.B.C. should run a programme on which the Member for West Fife was to appear, attacking the Monarchy? Was it Mr. Hamilton himself, or was it some B.B.C. planner?

I feel I have said enough to satisfy at least some of your Lordships, who do not already think so, that there is something wrong here—and by "here" I mean in the B.B.C. In the light of these recent events, is it prudent to wait until 1981 before revising the conditions and structure of our broadcasting system, despite the weight of the purely technical reasons on which the Government based their decision in March? Will the Government reconsider the matter and clarify their intentions?

I have said nothing about the I.T.A.'s approach. I do not follow the Scottish Television programmes which for me represent Independent Television. I do not follow them closely, although I prefer the I.T.A. News to that of the B.B.C. I feel that they have a much more tolerant, realistic and objective approach to the whole thing. To enact Sir John Eden's proposals will require major Parliamentary debate, but when will that be? It cannot be soon. Ought not something to be done at once to remedy the present malaise? I believe that it cannot be done too soon. Accepting that the B.B.C. programmes, "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament" are first- class, it must also be accepted that their ratings are very small, largely because they are put on at hours when ordinary working folk cannot, and therefore do not, listen. I repeat, the ratings are very low. The "Box" if I may call it so, is now the main medium of communication with the people. Why do not the B.B.C. put an item such as "Today in Parliament" on the "Nationwide" T.V. programme at, say, 6.20 in the evening? Can anything be of greater nation-wide interest than the proceedings in Parliament?

What are they doing on the radio? What they are doing there may comply with the letter of their obligation under Section 13(2) of their Licence and Agreement (I was going to read it out, but your Lordships will know what I mean) to report the proceedings of Parliament. But television has overtaken radio and should carry effectual Parliamentary news, not processed stuff. That, my Lords, is what I believe should be done. The B.B.C. have the power to do it now: why do they not try? They themselves instigated "Today in Parliament". I do not know whether it is generally realised that "Today in Parliament" was broadcast before any Charter of the B.B.C. contained an obligation for them to include such a programme. The problem of producing a similar programme from the I.T.A. would be much more difficult, and I can leave your Lordships to consider the reasons for this.

I am not—I repeat "not"—suggesting the televising of the proceedings of Parliament. That is a hot potato which I prefer not to pick up. It may be years before televised proceedings reach the screens, as I believe they will some day. The remedy that I suggest is only a partial one, but it need not take much time to introduce. There will be more opportunities for Parliamentary discussion, as I said, when the legislation comes forward. And there are other matters which ought to be discussed: violence, moral issues, pressing problems in Scotland, both in terms of technicalities, content and so on. However, I am persuaded that, whereas there are millions of viewers who do not want to be bothered about Parliament, there are millions who are sufficiently serious minded and who want to be informed. They get little or no political information from the Press, other than from the "heavies"—and little enough in them—unless there is some scandal or sensation. As I said before, when I referred to Lord Selsdon's speech, it is the presentation of the position of Parliament in our national life that I believe is so at fault.

In closing, I should like just to add that if I have criticised almost ad nauseam the B.B.C.'s political presentation on television, I now declare my admiration for the wonderful contribution that the Corporation make to our way of life in many other directions. Their Overseas radio services, for instance, are splendid. Should they not have more financial support for these particular services? Be that as it may, while I may be alone in my view—very nearly alone in my view!—that the absence of true and adequate presentation of Parliament is a major and urgent problem of the day, I hold this view sincerely and I look forward to my noble friend's reply this evening. I hope that the Government will reconsider their decision. My Lords, I beg leave to ask my Question.

10.13 p.m.


My Lords, I hesitate to enter on a subject about which my noble friend Lord Ferrier is such a great expert, but I once took part in a debate on B.B.C. affairs (I do not think it had anything to do with the I.T.A.), and I said on that occasion that if ever the day arrived when the Government of the day were pleased with the B.B.C. I should be worried. I should like to repeat that, because nobody hated the B.B.C. more than the Labour Government and the Leader of the Labour Party when they were in power. I will not go into the details of that: maybe there are certain members of the present Conservative Government who to-day are equally critical of the B.B.C. It is the function of the B.B.C. to assert whatever independence they may have. Secondly, I should like to support everything that the noble Lord said about "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament", especially so far as your Lordships' House is concerned. While I appreciate that we get our fair rapportage in the quality Press, were it not for the programmes "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament" your Lordships' House would not get a fair crack of the whip.

I appreciate the suggestion which the noble Lord has made that as something like 90 per cent. (I do not know what the actual figures are) of the people watch television and only 10 per cent. listen to the radio, there is a case for going into the possibility of having some kind of television programme based on "Today in Parliament" on sound radio. There are some difficulties. If, for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Denham, were reported as having said something, we should expect to see a still photograph of him on "the box"; and that of course would have the effect that the general public would come to know exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Denham, looked like. The same would apply to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. The B.B.C. should go into this matter and consider it, to see whether it is not possible, despite all the difficulties involved, to conduct some kind of programme covering Parliament on television. I accept the difficulties, but I feel that the B.B.C. should give further consideration to this matter.

Having had either the good fortune or the bad fortune (I do not know which) to go to North America on many occasions, and having myself appeared on television in, I think, every major city there, I always come back from America, although I enjoy their television very much, and say to myself, "Thank God for the B.B.C.!" Maybe I ought also to say, if the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, is not here tonight, "Thank God for I.T.A.!" So, while I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, for raising these matters, I think at the same time that we should be only too conscious of how fortunate we are in this country with the television and sound radio that we possess.

Not having intended to take part in this debate, and while supporting in part, but only in part, the noble Lord in what he has said, may I add that I hope the Government will realise that there are many people in this country who are critical but at the same time grateful for the television and sound radio programmes which they receive. I hope that the B.B.C. will give further consideration as to whether or not it would not be possible to give some kind of "Today In Parliament" programme, or "Yesterday in Parliament" programme, on the medium of television.

10.16 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene for three reasons. The first is that at ten minutes to eight I telephoned my wife to the effect that at the very worst I should be home by half-past nine, so by speaking at sixteen minutes past ten I can make it quite clear that I was in your Lordships' House. The second reason is in a sense to support the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, in the Question which he has asked Her Majesty's Government. I agree wholeheartedly with him that there ought to be a review, as was recommended most strongly by the Select Committee in another place—a full review right across the board of television and radio—before Parliament is called upon either to renew the Charter of the B.B.C. or to deal with the renewal of the Television Act, which will be due in 1976.

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, spoke as he always does about the B.B.C. He was perhaps a little unfair, because I think he rather misled the House since the Report of the Select Committee was really concerned with the I.T.A., which is a nationalised Board. The B.B.C. entered into the scheme of things only because the Select Committee found it necessary to take a short view of the B.B.C. I agree with Lord Ferrier that the reasons given by the Government for not having this review are extraordinarily thin—certainly that was the opinion of the Economist. To say that because a new Chairman has just been appointed that is a reason for not having a review is to me quite nonsense. Is it really conceivable that the present Chairman is likely to be in office in the 1980s? I doubt it very much. There are other aspects, too, which were very thin indeed. But this is not an occasion when we could or should go into this matter because I feel that it is something of wide-ranging importance that should perhaps be dealt with in the new Session of Parliament, at a more reasonable hour.

But I could not—and this is the third point—refrain from dissociating myself, as did the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, from the sort of criticisms that were made of the B.B.C. I heard the programme on the radio in which the Editor of the Sunday Times expressed a very strong view—as he was quite free to do—about the judgment given by the House of Lords in its judicial capacity. My Lords, is this not what democracy is all about—the right to dissect? There are many programmes on both I.T.A. and the B.B.C.—they are not necesarily political—which make me slightly hot under the collar. But is not this what democracy is all about? I should hate to think we have reached the stage when all that was done on the B.B.C. or the I.T.A., whether on television or sound, was completely acceptable. There would be very little democracy, I suggest, if such a situation arose. So I am not unduly worried when occasionally programmes go wrong. I would perhaps not side with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine. It seems to me that, so far as human nature permits, both the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. provide a general balance—and that is what Parliament has required of them: nothing more and nothing less—across the political field.

Like the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, I travel a great deal, and some ten days ago I was in the United States of America. I share with him that same feeling when I return home and look at my "box". I have only one question to ask, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, may object to it. There is of course a big debate taking place in America in regard to the Presidency and the previous Election. It is fascinating television viewing, hut it is part of democracy, seeking to exert power over the Executive. I wonder whether, if we ever had such a situation here—and I am not complacent enough to believe that it could not arise, though I think it very unlikely—it would be possible under the Charter of the B.B.C. and under the Act for exposure such as is now taking place in America to occur here. To that extent I think the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, may rest assured that there is that particular guard against what he might regard as provocative political questioning.

I hope that we shall have an opportunity to come back to the whole question of television, both the I.T.A. and the B.B.C., some time next year, because I believe that we ought to have a good look at it, certainly in debate. And the noble Lord, Lord Denham, might also consider, since we have set up a number of Select Committees which have done important work, whether this is not a subject which the House of Lords could well deal with by setting up its own Select Committee in anticipation of being asked by the Government of the day for the renewal of the Charter of the B.B.C. and the continuation of the Independent Television Act.


My Lords, before the noble Lords sits down I should like to assure him that I listened to that radio interview. I am not concerned to express any view on the matter at issue. I understood the speaker to criticise the judgment in law of the House of Lords.


But, my Lords, that is still democracy, is it not?

10.25 p.m.


My Lords, broadcasting is one of the most powerful media, if not the most powerful, of communication and it ought to be sensitive to the play of public and Parliamentary opinion. I believe that debates in both Houses are the most effective way of ensuring that broadcasting authorities are kept in touch with public opinion, and this short and interesting debate on my noble friend's Question has proved to be no exception to this. Noble Lords will not be surprised if I refrain from commenting on individual programmes. As your Lordships know, there is a long-established convention that the Government of the day do not intervene in matters of programme content. The policy of Her Majesty's present Government, as of previous governments, is that the responsibility for broadcast programmes rests with the Governors of the B.B.C. or the members of the I.B.A.

In the light of events reported in the Press during the last few days I should perhaps stress that the Governors of the B.B.C. and the members of the I.B.A. are the trustees of the public interest in broadcasting. They have a duty laid upon them by Parliament to maintain proper standards and to ensure, so far as is possible, that their programmes do not offend against good taste or decency and are not offensive to public feeling. We must leave it to them to live up to their responsibility. Some noble Lords may say, "But what if they do not live up to this responsibility?" Noble Lords may have noted what my right honourable friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications said in another place in the debate on May 3 when he made it clear that if there was a consensus of opinion in Parliament that the I.B.A. had failed in the observance of the duties placed on it by Parliament, it would be open to the Minister to replace the existing members of the Authority by others; and this applies equally to the Board of Governors of the B.B.C. If my right honourable friend were to intervene in programme questions, no matter how justifiable it might seem, it could set a precedent for political control of programme content. We must guard against this. This is more important than the occasional lapses which may occur in conditions of comparative freedom. Government intervention in programme content might begin relatively harmlessly, but might end by dealing a serious blow to the freedom of speech which we all value so highly and which includes the freedom to express views that many of us dislike.

My noble friend Lord Ferrier has repeated a view which he expressed in this House in February of this year, that there ought to be a short daily programme on television equivalent to the radio programme "Today in Parliament". The noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, supported him in this view. It is obviously most important that the public should be fully informed about Parliamentary debates, but this is not primarily a matter for Her Majesty's Government. Each House could invite the broadcasting authorities to broadcast their proceedings, but so far neither your Lordships nor the Members of another place have felt inclined to take this step. As television cameras are not allowed into either House, the B.B.C. and the I.B.A., who are wholly and solely responsible for the programmes broadcast, must decide how best to inform the public of what takes place within the Palace of Westminster.

The B.B.C. take the view that unless they can televise the proceedings of Parliament, a television version of "Today in Parliament" would not offer much more than the radio programme. In general, as my noble friend has said, radio does not reach nearly as large an audience as television. But the picture is not quite so gloomy as he painted. I am told by the B.B.C. that they reckon that 30 million people listen to their radio programmes through the course of the day. This figure does of course include a fairly large audience who listen to Radio 1—not notable for its Parliamentary content. Although "Today in Parliament" may have a relatively small audience on sound radio (I believe, at its lowest, this is something like 100,000), the sister programme, put out in the morning, "Yesterday in Parliament", does have a fairly large audience of between a quarter of a million and 1½ million. I think that this total is largely made up of people who listen to this programme as they travel to work in their cars.


My Lords, if I may intervene, I agree with the noble Lord's figures; I have had those from the B.B.C. The trouble is that the working folk cannot listen at a quarter to nine in the morning or at eleven o'clock at night.


My Lords, that may well be so. But detailed accounts of Parliamentary proceedings are a specialisted taste. I know that the B.B.C. will consider very carefully all the views expressed this evening. But it is the view of Her Majesty's Government that it should be left to the Board of Governors to decide what is best in the interests of the viewers.

The main point made by the noble Lord this evening has been that there should be an independent Inquiry into broadcasting before the B.B.C.'s Charter and the legislation establishing the I.B.A. is extended; and I think this was the main concern of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. He has pointed out that this was the view of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, who considered that there should be a widespread and informed public debate about the past performance and future organisation and structure of broadcasting. My Lords, the Government accept the need for informed public debate, but we do not accept that it is necessary for this to take place by means of a Committee of Inquiry before 1976. My right honourable friend the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications explained why in a debate in another place on May 3. He pointed out there is nothing special about 1976; in fact, it is rather an inappropriate date. The new local commercial radio service which Parliament has entrusted to the I.B.A. will come on the air this autumn, and it would be premature to try to review its progress before it has begun.

Moreover, my right honourable friend's Television Advisory Committee, including representatives from the radio industry and independent members, who have no interest in maintaining the present arrangements, have advised him, after very careful consideration, that developments such as cable, satellites and cassettes are not likely to have a significant impact on broadcasting in the present decade, and that the completion of the present U.H.F. colour television coverage programme is the most urgent problem. So my right honourable friend has concluded that changes in the structure of broadcasting are not made necessary during the 1970s by any immediately foreseeable technical developments. He considers that changes may well be necessary in the next decade, and that it would be preferable for the whole position to be reconsidered in a few years' time when the technical outlook for the 1980s will be a good deal clearer than it is at the moment.

The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, will no doubt consider that this decision does not take into account the performance of the broadcasting authorities in the last ten years and the standards of programmes which they broadcast. My Lords, the broadcasting authorities are human, and occasionally there are programmes which fall below the high standards which we have come to expect. It is right that noble Lords and Members of another place should draw attention to such programmes and my right honourable friend made it clear on May 3 that he would not hesitate to draw the attention of the broadcasting authorities to the views of Parliament if he considered they had underestimated the strength of feeling on any particular issue. But my right honourable friend does not accept that the present organisation of broadcasting is unsound or that occasional sub-standard programmes would be prevented by changes in the present constitutional arrangements. My Lords, my right honourable friend is confident that the B.B.C. Governors and the members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority are well aware of the high standards of programming which the public expect, and he considers they will be more usefully occupied in ensuring that good programmes are provided than in producing evidence for a Committee of Inquiry. Noble Lords may ask whether there are to be no changes at all in broadcasting until 1981. This is not the Government's intention, though it is their view that any changes can be made within the present constitutional arrangements.

My Lords, broadcasting will not be fossilised in the next eight years, and before seeking approval for the extension until 1981 of the B.B.C.'s Charter and the legislation establishing the I.B.A., the Government will bring before Parliament their proposals on the matters which have been reserved for further consideration: the allocation of the fourth channel, the representation of viewers' interests, the findings of the Committee studying the coverage of broadcasting services in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and rural England, and the future of cable television. We shall have opportunities in the future to debate these matters at greater length. In the meantime, my right honourable friend will be grateful for the advice expressed in your Lordships' House this evening.