HL Deb 26 July 1978 vol 395 cc879-90

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"The White Paper on Broadcasting published today sets out the Government's proposals for the future constitution, structure and organisation of broadcasting in the United Kingdom. It has been prepared in the light of the report of the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting, under the Chairmanship of Lord Annan, and of the many comments received on the Committee's recommendations.

"I would first pay tribute to the performance of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the independent television and radio companies. The Government's proposals are designed to ensure that the quality and range of broadcasting services are maintained and, wherever possible, improved. We also want to ensure that our broadcasting system will be able to respond to the technological developments which will take place over the next decade or so.

"Our principal conclusion is that our broadcasting services should continue to be provided as public services and the responsibility of public authorities. But our proposals are also designed to encourage diversity in the range and variety of material available to the public and to enhance the accountability of the broadcasting authorities.

"The BBC will continue to be responsible for all the broadcasting services it now provides, but changes will be made in its internal structure to enable the Board of Governors to concentrate on their supervisory role as trustees of the public interest. In particular, three new Services Management Boards, responsible to the Board of Governors, will be set up to take responsibility for supervising the programme strategy and management of each of the BBC's main services—Television, Radio and the External Services. Half of the members of each Board will be independent persons appointed by the Home Secertary from outside the BBC's staff—persons who are qualified to make a positive and distinctive contribution to the work of the Boards. The changes will also encourage diversity among the BBC's various services as regards programme-making and the approach to news and current affairs.

"Independent television and radio will continue to be provided by companies under contract to the IBA. The IBA will also supervise other local broadcasting services, such as cable and pilot schemes of pay-televison.

"A unique opportunity will be missed if the capacity to provide a new television service on the fourth television channel is not used to widen the choice available to viewers. An Open Broadcasting Authority (OBA) will be established to supervise the new service on this channel. The OBA will not itself make programmes but will act as a publisher, free to commission programmes from any source. The independent television companies will be regular suppliers of programmes and, particularly in the early years, the source of a significant part of the output of the fourth channel. The OBA will also be able to commission or buy programmes from the BBC and independent producers. The fourth television channel will be engineered by the IBA, which will also be responsible for transmitting the fourth channel service. The OBA will, therefore, need only a relatively small organisation to carry out its functions.

"The OBA will have a special obligation to seek a variety of material including programmes for tastes and interests which cannot be covered on the present services. It will include educational programmes and also be able to develop its own news service in due course. As regards programme standards, the OBA will be bound by the same obligations as the BBC and the IBA, with one exception. Although it must ensure due impartiality (that is, treat controversial matters fairly), it will be relieved of the duty to preserve a proper balance of programmes and wide range of subject matter on the service as a whole because to do so would he inconsistent with its primary duty of promoting diversity.

"The Government accept that a service of this kind is bound to need a measure of Government assistance, particularly in the early years. But the Government will expect the new authority to look to advertising of various kinds—spot-advertising, block advertising and sponsorship—to provide an important and increasing source of finance for its operations.

"Local radio will be further developed. The existing services of the BBC and the IBA have proved deservedly popular and both authorities will be permitted to expand them. The Government are not persuaded that there is need for a new authority to supervise local radio such as the Annan Committee recommended. The ultimate intention will be for as many areas of the country as possible to have two local radio services. A working party is to he set up at once to plan the immediate and long-term development of local radio.

"The Government have been mindful of their acceptance of the commitment in principle to the provision of more television programmes in the Welsh language. The Government propose, therefore, that in Wales the fourth television channel should accommodate an expanded Welsh Language programme service which it is hoped to start in the autumn of 1982. The detailed arrangements are discussed in the Home Office Working Party Report which I am also publishing today. The supervision of the service will be shared by the three broadcasting authorities (OBA, BBC and IBA) through their representation on a new Welsh Language Television Council.

"In future, it is proposed that the responsibility for our broadcasting services will therefore rest with three authorities: the BBC, the IBA and the OBA. Their independence must be preserved. But they must also be fully accountable to the public. To this end, they will be required to hold public hearings from time to time in different parts of the country to ascertain the views of the public on their respective services. Public hearings will also be an integral part of the IBA's future procedures for awarding franchises.

"In addition, an independent Broadcasting Complaints Commission will be set up to consider complaints of misrepresentation, or of unjust or unfair treatment, or of invasion of privacy in programmes broadcast by any of the authorities. The Commission will also be able to comment on other complaints about any failure by the broadcasting authorities to observe acceptable standards, for example, in relation to the portrayal of violence or as regards due impartiality.

"There is considerable public concern about the portrayal of violence on television. The Government believe that the only safe course at present is for the broadcasting authorities to assume undesirable effects from the portrayal of violence. The authorities should review their present codes and guidance, and monitor the amount of violence in their programmes.

"The White Paper deals with a great many other detailed points, but these are the main proposals. Discussions with the broadcasting organisations about the proposals will take place in the near future. The Government will also wish to consider the views of any other individuals and organisations who may wish to comment on the proposals. Legislation will be introduced as soon as possible to give effect to these proposals, and a new Royal Charter will be sought for the BBC. Above all, the Government believe that these proposals will provide a structure for the next decade which, in the public interest, will accommodate technological change and encourage all that is best in our present system." My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, we are most grateful to the noble Lord for relaying the Statement which has been made in another place. Overall, it is a very large box of chocolates, of which I am afraid, in some cases, we do not like all the flavours, although we are in agreement with what has been said in many cases. Specifically, some of the points which I think concern us most are those regarding the BBC and also the allocation of the fourth channel. However, coming back to the points with which we are in agreement, obviously, I shall not list them all but I am glad to see the proposals on local radio and shall look forward to seeing what happens when the working party gets under way. The complaints procedure is also something which I think is an excellent proposal.

However, so far as the BBC is concerned, I think from this side of the House we are somewhat concerned at the proliferation of "quangos" being set up. I do not see how you can fight bureaucracy—and I know the BBC has been criticised for being monolithic—by introducing more bureaucracy. The point that is most worrying about it is that, in the case of these service management boards, half of the members are going to be appointed from outside by the Home Secretary. This is a new system. I do not think it is one that is of advantage. In fact it could be extremely dangerous, as certain views could quite easily take over. We shall need considerable undertakings and reassurances as to how these organisations will be set up.

As to the fourth channel, this is the point that comes across. It is an attempt to produce a diversity of interests, but the problem will be the financing. Although I have not been able to go through the White Paper fully, it did not seem to be exact in saying how the system was to be financed, for instance in terms of producing a certain amount of income from advertising. Unless it is made far more attractive to the advertiser, I cannot see much income coming from that side.

This is a good proposal so far as the Welsh are concerned, although the worry is—and I am sure that the noble Lord will give us some reassurance on this—that many of the Welsh are not too keen on having entirely Welsh language programmes. There are certain dangers if they did take over on that side. Overall, we are grateful to the noble Lord for relaying the Statement and for some of its aspects. It will require considerable study. There are some aspects about which we are concerned.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, we too are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement, which was a summary of the White Paper and which in very large part, although not entirely, adopts the recommendations of the wholly admirable, comprehensive and perceptive report of the Annan Committee.

I would only raise one matter at this stage; that is, the proposal that the BBC should have three service management boards, one of which is to be responsible for the external services. I urge upon the noble Lord the crucial importance that those very highly praised external services of the BBC should continue to he accepted by their large listening public in overseas countries as being entirely free of any Government interference or intervention. I entirely accept that the Home Secretary would be not only able but anxious to appoint wholly impartial people to the membership of those boards. But there is a very real danger that, however independent those members may be, their presence will be widely regarded abroad as indicating a wholly undesirable degree of Government control over the programmes.

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, I am obliged for much that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. Dealing with one or two points, I am grateful for what Lord Redesdale said about his agreement with our proposals for the complaints procedure, which think will be widely welcomed—they were in the debate which we had in this House—and indeed on the Welsh channel, although he entered a caveat. There is widespread dissatisfaction in Wales about the existing situation. What we have announced today will go a long way to reassure Welsh public opinion, which is profoundly dissatisfied with the present situation.

There were a number of items on which there was inevitably an element of disagreement. I understand the argument about the fourth channel. Noble Lords opposite would prefer this to have gone to the independent companies. They made their position on this quite clear when we discussed the report of the Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. Of course we must debate this matter in the future. However, we have come to the conclusion that the right way of proceeding when we set up this new fourth channel is to have a new statutory authority, although it will be of a different character from the existing broadcasting organisations. I think that will be welcomed by many people outside this House.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that it is important, especially in relation to our external services, that people abroad should not get the impression that these are in some way being manipulated by the Government. I agree with the noble Lord. There is no intention on our part so to do.

It would be inappropriate, given the fact of such widespread agreement with some aspects of our proposals today, to introduce a partisan point. However, I am bound to say that I was mildly surprised to hear such vociferous cheers from the Opposition at what the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said, because the only recent example where there has been an attempt to manipulate the external services of the BBC was during the Suez adventure in 1956, when a Foreign Office official was sent to Bush House. The response to that incident had a substantial effect on the Corporation. Certainly, we would in no way wish to create the impression, which an incident of this kind did create at the time, that there was any desire on our part to manipulate the external services of the BBC for self-interested Government purposes.


My Lords, the White Paper states, quite properly, that the Government intend to have discussions with the broadcasting organisations before the legislation is introduced. That seems to me wholly appropriate. They intend to introduce legislation at an early opportunity. However, do I take it that this House and another place are not to be consulted before the legislation is introduced? I should have thought it would be extremely welcome and entirely proper that this document, which was presented to Parliament today. should be debated. I should have thought that, in their own interests, the Government would wish to consult public opinion as expressed in another place and in this House, particularly as the discussion may well follow a General Election, and therefore a new Parliament, which will have had the opportunity of bringing itself up to date on the state of public opinion.

It would be reassuring to know that the Government will not just have private consultations—if that is not over-stating it—with the broadcasting authorities, but that another place, particularly, and this House, as representative of and as a sounding board for public opinion, will be consulted.


My Lords, I think that is quite fair. I agree with it. It would be wrong for us not to have debates in both Houses on these proposals. I am sure that we shall do so before introducing legislation.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that following a brief and inevitably inadequate reading of the White Paper in the time available, one's first reaction is to give it a warm general welcome? A further scrutiny of the proposals in detail may change one's view, including the issue raised both by the noble Lord speaking for the Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder—the point of the three service boards. I confess it arouses in me a fear that it will damage the service in two ways: first, by diminishing the responsibility of the managing director in charge of the service and, even more important, by impairing the responsibility of the Board of Governors for the service as a whole. Nevertheless, doubts about detailed issues should not lead one to withhold a warm general welcome for these proposals.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Speaking on behalf of the Government, it is reassuring that the noble Lord said what he did, given his substantial past experience with both the IBA and the BBC. I accept that Parliament will wish to discuss these proposals so far as the service management boards are concerned. This is a new proposal. It was not a proposal of the Annan Committee.

The noble Lord will recall that some anxiety was expressed by the Annan Committee about whether the BBC had not on some occasions been rather too impervious to criticism. We considered those proposals. We considered the minority report, where six members of the Committee recommended the splitting of the BBC. We came to the conclusion that that would be wrong. We considered, in the light of all the circumstances, that what we have proposed today was the right way of proceeding. I accept at once that there must be detailed discussion of this matter in order to reassure Parliament. I would add—I think perfectly reasonably—that this is the right way in which to proceed.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would be good enough to tell us whether at any time during the Government's consideration of the future of broadcasting they have asked themselves whether there is any need to have a fourth programme at all? Have they said to themselves, "There happens to be a gap in the ether", just as there will be two more gaps when we re-engineer bands 1 and 3? Have they by any chance said, "We shall not think about this: we shall just assume that when the gaps appear they will be filled"? Have they taken into account the superb quality—by standards anywhere in the world—of what we have at present? Have they taken into account that within a maximum of two years the video disc campaign will have taken off and people will be able to watch what they like on their sets and not only what comes over the air? In short—because I must not fall into the trap of making a speech—have they said to themselves, "Is this really necessary?"

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, before my noble friend replies—


My Lords, I shall deal first with the noble Earl's question and then with pleasure with my noble friend's. Of course we asked ourselves the precise question which the noble Earl implied that we should have asked ourselves. We came to the conclusion that there should be a fourth channel as was recommended by the Annan Committee. I have indicated today the framework which we think appropriate as regards the new fourth channel. On the second point raised by the noble Earl, Yes, I agree with him. I entirely share the view of the Annan Committee—as do the Government in their White Paper—that the existing Statutory organisations have done an absolutely first-class job. We almost certainly have the best television and radio services in the world and we should be very proud of that fact.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, I was about to say before my noble friend replied to the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, that he might take into account that whatever happened to English ether, Welsh ether would very much welcome the opportunity of using a fourth channel.


My Lords, would my noble friend accept that the proposals for local radio are to be very warmly welcomed, since it would have been quite wrong for local radio to have been taken away from the BBC and the IBA? What is particularly acceptable about the local radio proposals is the keen sensitivity the Government have shown towards the needs of deprived areas. I should like to ask my noble friend whether he can somewhat amplify paragraph 34 of the White Paper and say how many local radio stations it is proposed should be authorised in the immediate future and what proportion—if it is possible at present to say—of the population is likely to be covered when that immediate-term programme is completed. What is the ultimate aim so far as the coverage of the total population is concerned?


My Lords, there are two issues involved in my noble friend's question. First, the Annan proposal that there should be established a local broadcasting authority. We went over that ground in some detail during the debate which we had on the Annan Report. In the light of that debate, the debate that took place in another place and the discussions which we have had, we have come to the conclusion that it is right to leave local radio with the BBC and with the Independent Broadcasting Authority. I think that there was overwhelming public support for continuing our present arrangements and we certainly recognise that.

My noble friend then went on to ask how many stations there will be. I cannot answer that question today. All that I can say to him is that we want to make some significant progress now in this direction. We recognise that the development of local radio has had to be held up while the Annan Committee was doing its work in the later months and during the period in which the Government have been considering this matter. We shall be inviting representatives of the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority to meet us to discuss these very issues in the immediate future.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and say how very much I appreciate what he said about the monitoring of violence in programmes. The noble Lord no doubt may know that the Composers' Guild, of which I am a member—and I must declare an interest in that regard—recently sent an official protest to the BBC about the very small amount of time given in music programmes to living British composers. Is there any hope that the new authorities will have their attention drawn to this matter? Is there any hope that perhaps the situation may become a little better?


My Lords, certainly the creation of a new channel could conceivably have just that effect. I am certainly aware that there has been some concern in this direction, but the noble Lord has very usefully drawn our attention to this matter today.


My Lords, I should like to ask a specific question about Paragraph 12 in the White Paper in the chapter on the fourth channel which says: The Government share the Annan Comittee's view that the service should include educational programmes, including some additional programmes for the Open University and also programmes which cater for minority tastes and interests". Will the Minister make it plain that those educational programmes could include vocational programmes as well as non-vocational programmes? Are the Government aware that in the view of some people the proposed fourth channel, which certainly I support, could play an important part for mature students in professional life who cannot conveniently attend a university or a polytechnic because of the location where they live? Is he also aware that not only many Extra Mural Departments in universities but also the National Union of Students would like to see added emphasis these days laid on opportunities for vocational courses in all kinds of ways that can be made available?


My Lords, the noble Lord has identified an important matter and I certainly agree with him that this is exactly the area into which the new channel could move.


My Lords, do the Government still feel that there should be a separate news service attached to the fourth channel? If so, how much will it cost?


My Lords, I think that we have made it clear that we want to move in that direction as soon as possible. We recognise that there will be costs involved as regards the development of a new service, but nevertheless it would also create a great deal of opportunity as well. However, we recognise, in the language which we have used, that it will take a little time to establish this.