HL Deb 14 May 1981 vol 420 cc623-5

3.20 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make representations to the BBC to ensure that its television news and current affairs programmes give at least as much coverage to the victims of IRA atrocities and their families as was recently accorded to the IRA hunger strikers and their sympathisers.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, under the constitutional arrangements which govern broadcasting in this country, the broadcasting authorities are, subject to the general law and within the framework of obligations laid down in their governing instruments, entirely responsible for the programmes they broadcast. The policy of successive Governments, including the present Government, is that the authorities should be assured of their independence in the day-to-day conduct of their undertakings, particularly in relation to programme content. I am sure that the authorities are fully aware of their responsibilities as trustees of the public interest in broadcasting, in relation to their coverage of events in Northern Ireland, and that they will take note of any views expressed on this matter in your Lordships' House and elsewhere.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Is he aware that on the evening of 5th May BBC 1 devoted approximately 16 minutes of its main nine o'clock news bulletin—or more than half the programme—to the death of a hunger striker and that BBC 2's "Newsnight" allocated no fewer than 33 out of 50 minutes to this event? Furthermore, at least three-quarters of those chosen by the BBC to comment on this matter were broadly sympathetic to the hunger strikers, whereas, for example, the young mother brutally murdered by the IRA in Londonderry a few weeks previously while collecting census forms received very little attention or sympathy by comparison? Does the noble Lord not agree that this is deplorable?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord asked me the view of the Government about particular programmes on a particular evening. Once the Government say either that they approve or disapprove of a particular programme or series of programmes we are on very dangerous ground indeed. However, may I respond to the noble Lord in this way: There is one general consideration which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has previously referred to and which, in essence, I should like to repeat. Terrorists seek and depend upon publicity. Because they make war on society they outlaw themselves from its provileges, including the privileges of publicity.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, since the whole object of hunger strikes is to attract publicity, why is it that we allow them to have publicity? Why do we not forbid any news of a hunger strike or what is happening to come out of the gaol? And, when the strikers die of hunger, why do we not bury them in the gaol?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, again I must repeat that once the Government say that they approve or disapprove of a particular programme, any Government of any political colour is on very dangerous ground indeed. I trust that the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Paget, will be taken account of—indeed, I know they will—by the broadcasting organisations.

Lord Ellenborough

My Lords, on the nine o'clock news on BBC on 12th May at least four minutes was devoted to the coverage of the voluntary suicide of the terrorist Hughes, including a nauseatingly deferential interview with his brother who naturally enough took the opportunity to refer to the "murderess Thatcher". This was repeated at considerably greater length on BBC 2's "Newsnight". Perhaps about one minute of coverage was given to the tragic death of the 14-year-old boy who was killed as the result of Republican rioting and whose father died only yesterday. Does the noble Lord therefore not agree that the whole priority of news items, the whole emphasis and concern on the part of the BBC, always seems orientated towards the IRA rather than their victims?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I repeat the general remarks which I made earlier: because terrorists make war on society they should outlaw themselves from its privileges, including the privileges of publicity. My noble friend asked me specific questions about specific programmes. I should just like to add this. My noble friend may remember that during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill last year, in response to views which were strongly expressed in all parts of your Lordships' House, an undertaking was given that the broadcasting authorities would each year in their-annual reports give an account of complaints received and what they have done to meet those complaints. May I suggest to your Lordships that, in addition to asking questions in your Lordships' House—to which of course I must reply—it could also be the right way to correspond with the broadcasting authorities?

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I as one who has expressed detestation at the atrocities of the IRA many times in this House—more often than most Members—ask the noble Lord whether he will agree that the many atrocities of the UDA should be equally condemned?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the Government condemn atrocities by terrorists wherever they are and whoever they are.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I welcome the statement of the Minister and his refusal to comment on the content of news programmes by Independent Television or BBC. Would he say whether the same detachment was applied in the case of "Death of a Princess"?

Lord Belstead

That is another question, my Lords.

Lord Oram

My Lords, is it not unfortunately the case that even this very useful exchange in your Lordships' House this afternoon may be given very little publicity in the press? Would the noble Lord himself, instead of suggesting that your Lordships should individually write to the broadcasting authorities, call the attention of the BBC to the exchanges that have taken place this afternoon?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I shall make it my business to discover whether the attention of the broadcasting authorities has been drawn to the exchanges this afternoon. If by any chance it has not, then I shall accede to what the noble Lord has asked me.