HL Deb 14 December 1983 vol 446 cc242-51

3.8 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford rose to call attention to the BBC Annual Report and Handbook 1983; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, about 12 months ago I asked an Unstarred Question about the annual reports of the BBC and the IBA, and in particular called attention to their failure to fulfil the undertakings which they had given in 1980 with regard to recording the complaints which they had received on obscenity and violence and the action which they had taken to meet them. In the event, the IBA had given some attention to it and the BBC none. My noble friend Lord Elton, who was answering the debate with his customary skill and diplomacy, did not take direct responsibility for this, but said no doubt both the corporation and the authority would take note of what noble Lords had said. As usual, his assurance has been justified. In the event, the annual reports of both the corporation and the authority, published this year, have given the numbers of complaints received and have analysed them into various categories, the IBA rather more fully than the BBC: and the IBA has also described its complaints review committee and its working. I should therefore like to start by thanking both the corporation and the authority, on behalf of your Lordships, for this response to our complaint.

It is noticeable from the figures of both the corporation and the authority that the numbers of complaints are very small compared with the huge numbers of viewers. I think it is reasonable to assume that most dissatisfiedviewers—and there are dissatisfied or, rather, offended viewers—regard a letter of complaint as unproductive, and simply switch off. In this connection I have to thank Mrs. Mary Whitehouse for providing me with a voluminous dossier of correspondence from the National Viewers and Listeners Association, of which she is the indefatigable president.

There is not time in this Short Debate to give details of offensive programmes, but I shall just give two instances. One was a BBC schools broadcasting programme for teenagers. It presented a choice of three relationships for their future lives. The first was a couple engaged to be conventionally married; the second was a couple not married but "shacked up", in modern parlance: the third was a couple of homosexuals. To teach youngsters that promiscuous and perverted relationships are a serious alternative to marriage as a way of life is both dangerous and irresponsible. It is treating them as bodies without souls, and cannot but deform the future spiritual balance of their lives. The BBC defended the programme as being educational.

The other example that I should like to give, to be fair, was broadcast by IBA's Channel 4, which showed a picture of the Crucifixion with the Christ figure hanging on the Cross with a cigar in his mouth, as a parody of an advertisement for cigars. I am glad to say that the IBA had the grace to apologise. Those are two particularly bad examples of what comes over on the television screen, but it is true to say that the worst of these examples are very rough. I must also say, from seeing a number of them, that the replies from the corporation give very little encouragement to those who go to the trouble of writing in.

On the credit side—and there are credits—last summer the BBC published a guidance handbook to their staff on violence in programmes. The impression recorded in recent months is that there has been less violence in programmes before nine o'clock. This is very much to be welcomed, but we have to note that, nowadays, youngsters watch until late hours, and with video recording it is possible for programmes to be seen at any time. I would express the hope that both the BBC and the IBA may be encouraged to publish similar guidance on obscenity, had language and blasphemy, because I believe that the trend is still steadily downwards.

Like most noble Lords, my deep concern is at the erosion of standards in our national life today. Noble Lords will remember, I am sure, the recent debate initiated by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the belief of many noble Lords (and, I think, many outside) that the trend of TV programmes to show more sex and violence influences young minds to contribute to the national scene of violence and immorality. A recent schools report which I referred to in the House tells us that the average viewing by schoolchildren is 23 to 24 hours a week—more hours than they actually spend in the classroom. So there is no doubt that television is the most powerful influence in our lives today.

On the other hand, one cannot read the reports of the BBC and the IBA without recognising that the authorities are trying to discharge their great responsibilities fairly by the nation as a whole. Their basic problem, I believe, is that violence and sex are both of them dramatic, and the public like them up to a point. But judgment of what is excessive is inevitably subjective. In making a judgment, the television authorities are continuously reminded of the standards that are acceptable on the live stage. The playwrights and directors, who produce their huge flow of programmes, are the same people who produce the programmes for the live theatre. I am sure that the BBC and the IBA are conscious of their obligation to educate and inform as well as to entertain, but reviewing the record of the past 20 years it is evident to all of us that they can do no more than slow up the downward trend. They cannot stop it.

It is a fact that throughout its history, not only in our country but throughout the world, the live stage has had a decisive influence on the standards, the life and the morality of a nation. Few instances would be as dramatic as the contribution that the great composer Verdi made to the Italian Risorgimento in the last century, hut I think that it would be true to say that Garibaldi, with all his marvellous courage, could not have succeeded in uniting the nation to follow him without the wonderful songs and music of Verdi to support him and warm the hearts of his supporters.

All playwrights and composers, to some extent, exert a critical influence on the customs and standards of their people. There will always be some who seek to cause shock or sensation by carrying the trend downwards. The reason for the lack of restraint on the live theatre today, as we all well know, is that the statute law of the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964 has proved to be a broken reed where a conviction before a jury has become almost impossible. Its effectiveness is limited to the magistrates' courts. But Her Majesty's Government, I do not need to remind my noble friend Lord Elton, continue to take a stand on these Acts, even to relying on them next week, as noble Lords will know, in the cable television Bill, to provide safeguards for maintaining standards in regard to the vast range of new material shortly to he discharged upon an expectant public.

In the meantime, it is evident that the Government stance on these Acts undermines the position of both the corporation and the authority. Neither the Normanbrook undertaking for the BBC nor the 1973 Act for the IBA are strong enough to insulate them. Inevitably, the live theatre gives the lead that the television programmes follow. The logic of my argument is that Her Majesty's Government have a compelling obligation to reform and strengthen the obscene publications legislation as the first step to the BBC and the IBA restraining offensive material from television programmes. I beg to move for Papers.

3.18 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, blessed is the person who in a short debate avoids repeating what previous speakers have said and manages to speak rapidly. I intend to abide by that opening maxim. However, in doing so I must say that those of us in this House who hold the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, in affectionate regard—there are such noble Lords in all parts of the Chamber—will first be grateful to him for having put down this Motion. Furthermore, we will not have been surprised by the content of his speech, attacking, as it did, violence and sex in the theatre, in other places of entertainment generally and, today in particular, in broadcasting. Many of us—and here I include myself and my noble friends—admire the noble Lord's campaign and think that it is justified. Having said that, I need not repeat what he has said so eloquently.

It would be ungracious—would it not?—if, in looking at a report that covers the 60th anniversary of broadcasting in the United Kingdom and the 50th anniversary of external services, we did not, as a House, say how grateful we are for the general standards of our broadcasting, which are really an example to the world. There are many nations who are jealous of us, whether they be over the Atlantic or nearer home.

It is a fact that over the past year there have been two great events that have allowed our broadcasting system to show all the virtues and powers that it possesses. First, there was the Falklands battle. Without any doubt at all that campaign was shown to many viewers in a way that was exemplary. In other ways the manner in which that campaign was handled in broadcasting, and especially on television, was questioned. To some extent the broadcasting authorities were exonerated by the committee which sat upon this matter, but I must confess that I shall wonder until the end of my life how it came about that, in the course of a campaign in which our country was involved and in which our servicemen were in jeopardy, our broadcasting authorities called to the television camera former admirals and former generals in order to discuss with them how the future of this campaign would, from their point of view, be organised. I shall never understand that; but there it is. Generally, as I have said, the broadcasting authorities earned credit for the way in which they dealt with the Falklands.

There was also the visit of the Pope—a great historic event which brought joy not just to the Roman Catholic citizens of our country, but to those of all denominations and no denomination at all. For all of us it was indeed a great national, spiritual event and we are deeply grateful to the broadcasting authorities for what they did in regard to that programme. We have also seen, for the first time, "Breakfast Television". Some of us find that it increases our appetite for breakfast, others that it increases our appetite for television, and others still, that it does not have any effect except a deleterious one on our appetites generally. Nevertheless, it is a welcome innovation and most of us think that it has been handled extremely well.

I pass rapidly to deal with some of the programmes in which I believe your Lordships are particularly interested, and "Today in Parliament" is one of them. With great ability those who organise that programme manage both to quote and, indeed, to summarise the deliberations of Parliament in both Houses with great skill. That programme is of great interest to the public. Some of us regret the time at which it is broadcast, but we realise that it has to be at a fairly late hour at all events in order to deal with the late debates in both Houses.

I turn to "Yesterday in Parliament". I am not very original in raising this matter but I must raise it in regard to this debate which has been initiated so well by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. When it comes to "Yesterday in Parliament" I really wonder whether those who represent that programme do us the honour of spending more than a fleeting minute, if that, in this your Lordships' House. So many debates of great interest to the ordinary citizen go completely unannounced, not even summarised and not even mentioned. Many is the day when we are not even mentioned at all—it is as though we had not sat. I remember well one particular debate, and I do so not just because the Opposition happened to win it. I am thinking of the debate on equal pay, which is of so much interest to so many of our citizens, especially our women citizens. It was a fact that the Government were defeated, and that is exciting enough because it occurs all too rarely from the point of view of my noble friends and myself. However, it did occur and it was an exciting event. But apart from that it was not even mentioned. The Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Bill is of great interest, not only because of what it says but also in order that people should know that what the media had said about it was not quite accurate. It was very briefly referred to in regard to the first Committee day, but not referred to at all, so far as I remember, on the second Committee day, and that is bad.

In order to keep the balance, let me talk about some programmes that really are good. If we are thinking as parliamentarians—and I suppose we are allowed to give ourselves that description—I am sure we all agree that "Yes, Minister" is a brilliant programme. How enjoyable it is to all of us who know and respect civil servants and who know and respect Ministers. The relationship between them is depicted on that programme with such skill, amusement and expertise that I believe that it does merit praise. Another programme (especially from the point of view of those of us sitting here) is the recent film of "The Palace of Westminster". My noble friend the Leader of the Opposition was good enough to whisper in my ear before I rose, "Do not forget the programme called 'The Palace of Westminster' ". I have not forgotten it. I am sure your Lordships think that your Lordships' House was very well depicted, with such dignity and with such love of tradition, in that programme.

Those of us who are interested in ensuring that the public are safeguarded—and I suppose that applies to noble Lords on every side of the House—appreciate very much, on behalf of the consumer, the courageous programme entitled "Checkpoint". It must be the most intricate task, for any lawyer advising the BBC on the law of defamation, to pass the various programmes that take place, but one notes that few, if any, writs for defamation seem to follow and therefore the situation must be very well handled and much, if not all, of what is said must be true.

In my last minute before the No. 9 goes up on the clock I must pay tribute to two other services: the language services and local radio. I was going to read to your Lordships the portion of the report that tells us what is happening in Eastern Europe, but I will leave your Lordships to read it for yourselves. For my part I should like to offer to a very great service my congratulations on their anniversary.

3.28 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, for introducing this debate. I hope that this precedent will be followed by debating the annual reports of other large institutions that affect our daily life. In pursuit of our parliamentary duties we are compelled from time to time to read reports—annual reports, Government reports, and so on. In anticipation of this debate I read the annual report which we are now discussing. I found it easy to read, most impressive and an excellent record of good work done in our name. I would add my congratulations to the BBC for the contents of that report on the discharge of their immense public responsibility.

I should like to discuss not programme content—that will be covered by many Members of your Lordships' House—but the balance in broadcasting. I am a little disturbed about the present balance between the commercial sector and the BBC. This emerges in many aspects of the report, particularly in the field of new technology, DBS, satellite broadcasting and so on. We are fortunate in Britain to have established the right balance with on one side a commercial venture and on the other side a fee-funded broadcasting system. It is important that those two separate broadcasting systems should not regard themselves as all the time in strict competition, and that we should encourage a degree of co-existence between the two broadcasting systems, rather than have them feel all the time that they are competing in the race for ratings. It is important to the commercial sector that they have high ratings as a measurement of their success for their advertising clients.

But I do not think that the same pressure need necessarily exist on the BBC. They have, of course, to obtain consumer acceptance of their programmes, and in that respect they do remarkably well. But it does not necessarily mean that they have to be two weeks ahead of ITV in starting up breakfast television, having already established a first-class radio network, comprising Radio 1, with several million listeners, the pop radio system, with 6 million, the light entertain system, with 2 million, the cultural channel, Channel 3, with 100,000 and Radio 4, which is a great programme, with 2½million listeners. Having spent money in order to create this excellent radio network, there is no necessity to spread local radio BBC with 50 or 60 stations to supplement or compete with the local radio which is supported by advertising revenue.

In their ambitions I think that the BBC are determined to beat the IBA, and this seems to have become an obsession. The BBC must recognise that they operate within the limits of a £46 annual licence fee per person. While that is relatively cheap for the viewer—indeed, according to the London Business School survey, it works out that ITV costs the viewer 1½p per hour's viewing and the BBC costs 2p per hour per viewer—the BBC will need to recognise that £46 per annum is a considerable burden on old-age pensioners who enjoy the advantages of television, which is an important element in keeping them reasonably happy at home. So in examining their ambitions. in my view the BBC must not pursue the independent stations in every area with a consequent increasing burden on their resources. This applies not only in the multiplication of local radio, but in the introduction of the breakfast television system, because I am quite satisfied that we do not require two breakfast television stations, and there is no need always to introduce competition in every area of broadcasting and television.

I now turn to the matter of the direct broadcasting satellite system. I should be interested if the Minister could tell us a little about where the BBC now stands in relation to the DBS system. At the weekend the press told us that the BBC was going ahead with the direct broadcasting satellite system, and a few days later, in yesterday's Financial Times, there was an article expressing the view that there is some doubt whether the BBC will pursue its ambitions in this direction. This is a very expensive business. It is a very expensive system. We all want to see Britain in the high technology communications field, but this is another area in which there could be complete collaboration between the independent broadcasting system and the BBC in order to use the same satellite systems. We are already co-operating in terrestrial broadcasting systems, and there is no reason why that should not continue in relation to the DBS system.

I have looked at the accounts of the BBC, and though the annual report is very informative, it is not as informative on the breakdown of its expenditure. It does not tell us how much the BBC is spending on research and development. The BBC has great experts, who are very good. The work that they are doing is impressive. But I wonder whether this is an area which could be shared between independent television and the BBC, so imposing a lesser burden in relation to the fees required to maintain the BBC, I should very much like to see a greater degree of collaboration between the two systems.

I should like the Minister to tell us a little about the BBC's ventures into commercial enterprises. I am not referring simply to the success of the computer, but I notice that the BBC is pressing Thorn EMI for a 50 per cent. partnership in relation to the satellite system. In so far as Thorn EMI has a 50 per cent. holding in Thames Television, I wonder whether there is any danger of blurring the edges between the fee-funding system and the commercial system, which I believe should be kept quite separate. Whenever one becomes involved with commercial ventures, there is always an element of risk, and I wonder whether the BBC should be in this field.

There are many questions that I should like to ask, and in particular one relating to the structure of the BBC, I have always believed that the chairman of the BBC—and we are fortunate to have had many good chairmen—should be in a position to exercise a great deal of authority in the BBC, I notice from the annual accounts that he is paid £23,500 a year, and that there are 24 executives in the BBC who receive anything between £30,000 and £50.000 a year. I believe that the chairman is the key to bringing the outside view to the corporation and its technocrats, and that he should be up-graded so that he can exercise the degree of authority which is commensurate with his responsibilities.

3.37 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, naturally I am very predisposed towards this magnificent glossy report for 1984, although, according to our Order Paper, we are discussing the report for 1983. However, because bishops are always well ahead of everybody else, I am presuming that this is the document before us. I am predisposed to it because it starts with a most magnificent picture of our lovely Norwich cathedral during "Songs of Praise", and when we are on television as well as the air I hope they will come close up to the cathedral and once again we shall enjoy seeing that noble and magnificent cathedral which my predecessor started to build in 1096. Therefore, I am predisposed to the report.

I believe that although this report emphasises well the regional work of the BBC, both in sound and on screen, it needs to obtain a better balance of the use of the money from the licence fees paid by people throughout the country. I was surprised to hear that £10 million is being spent by the corporation on its Christmas programmes. I was delighted and imagined that there would be a tremendous number of new church programmes of all sorts being broadcast throughout the Christmas period, but the Foreword suggests that it is to be spent more on entertainment programmes. However, there is money to spend and I believe the report shows us that if more of it could be spent in the regions than at the centre, great and good things would come, We were encouraged to find that one of our small programmes on job hunting, which went out from our studios at Norwich, on "Look East" and "BBC East", in fact, produced a number of new jobs for people. This is a very strong social concern of the corporation and shows how well it works in relation to the regions. So I would stress that the corporation should consider whether it has the right balance between the money it spends at the centre and the amount it spends in the regions.

I now come to the question of language, and even the bad language in the home, which the corporation brings to us. I make no criticisms of the corporation as against the authority, because our debate is specifically on the corporation's report. Therefore, what I say could relate also to the authority but is specifically here, by our debate, to do with the corporation. I wonder, in the sacred name of freedom, whether we need to have so much bad language, for the sake, I gather, of verisimilitude. If the argument is that as people swear in other parts of the country they had better swear on the screen, so that we really feel comfortably at home, it is a rather weak argument. It comes under the same heading as we give in our sermons, when we have a little note in the margin: "Argument weak. Shout a bit here".

We stand in debt to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, for both instituting and initiating this debate and speaking so straitly and courteously about the need of standards. I would follow him in saying how grateful I suppose nearly all of us in the House must be to Mary Whitehouse and NVALA for the unpopular but resolute way in which she keeps going on this question of standards. However, sometimes this question of standards is sheerly a matter of self-control. For instance. I happened to switch on and find myself watching, for a few brief moments, a bridge game. I am such a simple Prelate that I do not really understand how bridge works, but clearly there was a bitter argument between one bridge expert and a lady bridge expert opposite him. Quite gratuitously, she used the sacred name angrily and grumpily. I saw no reason for that. As the sacred name is precious to millions of people in the British Isles it would have been the simplest of things to edit that out. I do not believe that the sacred name of liberty would have been harmed if the precious name of the Saviour had not been used as lightly as that.

Therefore, I believe that there should be constant vigilance on behalf of the corporation in the matter of terms of blasphemy and of obscenity. I am interested in pages 52 and 53 of the report where the corporation honestly and openly has its chapter on the complaints it receives. They let us know that there were 132 complaints about particular "bedroom scenes", as it rather coyly describes this particular action on the screen. But its way of answering it is to say on page 53: Many [complaints] were from people who would clearly prefer BBC drama to present a moralistic view of the world". Why the BBC should consider that it ought to present a licentious view of the world rather than a moralistic view is not clear. It is probably a good thing for us sometimes to ask, "Why not be brave enough to present a moralistic view because of the influence sound and vision have upon people?"

A word, therefore, about the religious programmes. I congratulate the departments concerned on their volume, their output, their balance and their sensitivity. Here, again, locally we find that the opportunities are immense. But I have again to say that we have to pay the clergyman who acts as our representative at Radio Norfolk, because the BBC cannot afford to offer any money at all, even towards his petrol. He does tremendous work on local Radio Norfolk as our religious representative for all the churches in Norfolk.

Having said that, I would say that the department is a good one, it works very hard indeed, and I believe that the corporation should put more money into it, especially with Christian Heritage Year coming up next year and with the visit of Dr. Billy Graham, which will be news indeed. Therefore, let the corporation's religious department not fear the danger of proselytising but accept the opportunity of proclaiming the Christian gospel in a Christian nation, especially in a year called Christian Heritage Year and in Mission England and the visit of Dr. Graham. It is worth remembering that more people watch "Songs of Praise" on BBC than watch "Match of the Day"—even when Norwich City are carrying on their winning ways, and are marching from strength to strength.

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