HL Deb 29 March 1983 vol 440 cc1507-23

6.30 p.m.

Lord Ferrier rose to move, That this House takes note of the First Report from the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting, Yesterday in Parliament.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the House takes note of the First Report of the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting. I feel that as I must be critical of certain aspects of the operation of the BBC, I ought to declare that I have a profound respect for the way the corporation addresses itself to most of its manifold tasks and I especially single out the overseas services. There are exceptions, of course, but my respect is indeed the very reason for my criticism as to the manner in which the Corporation sometimes fails.

The Select Committee were instructed by the House to consider whether or not the recent change in the format of the programme Yesterday in Parliament and its inclusion as an item in the Today programme is in conformity with Clause 13(2) of the current licensing agreement. Having taken counsel's opinion (which is set out in the report as your Lordships will have seen) the committee concluded that the BBC are not in breach of the obligations under the clause by virtue of the fact that they produce a programme each evening entitled Today in Parliament, which is broadcast at 11.30 p.m.

Many of the details are set out in the report but I would quote from paragraph 5, which states: Nevertheless, the Committee were aware of the strong feelings expressed by Members of the House that the new presentation of Yesterday in Parliament, particularly its considerably shortened length,"— (14½ minutes instead of 29 minutes)— has meant that the House of Lords has received much less coverage in that programme than it used to have in the past. My own view is that, as in the present case of Today in Parliament, our proceedings in the House have generally received a very fair crack of the whip. The committee, as your Lordships will have seen from the report, had a meeting with officials of the BBC, a report of which is set out in paragraph 2. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees was kind enough to encourage me to attend as a spectator, which I did.

I have followed for years, off and on, the BBC's reporting under Clause 13(2) and have always held that same view as counsel and the committee hold; namely, that the BBC's treatment satisfies the obligation under the clause. However, I have held this view reluctantly, feeling that though the corporation has indubitably complied with the letter of the clause, they have always failed to comply with the spirit of it. Why, my Lords? Because 11.30 p.m. and 8.30 a.m. are unsuitable times for the bulk of potential listeners. There are of course complications, as was brought out in the record of the meeting, but these do not alter the fact that most people are abed by 11.30 p.m. or at work by 8.30 a.m.

In July 1946, the White Paper on Broadcasting Policy contained the following words: Daily reports are already being given in the Corporation's programme, in addition to weekly talks by Members [of Parliament] and the Government have now laid upon the Corporation an obligation to broadcast an adequate and impartial daily account by professional reporters of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament. I emphasise the word "adequate" because it did not appear in the Licence Agreement dated November 1946. The clause in that licence, which was then Clause 4(2), is identical with the present Clause 13(2) of the current licence and is the one to which I have referred.

Perhaps some of your Lordships may recall what happened before the war. I do not myself, because I was working overseas between the wars. However, I recall a long meeting that I had with the late Lord Reith in 1966 and I remember him saying that he had instituted some such link with Parliament from the earliest days of radio. I would link that with what I have quoted from the White Paper, namely, that daily reports were already being given. That was in 1946, and Lord Reith said that it was one of his principles when he first established the BBC.

The system which had been established after the war, in 1946, continued for many years. There have, of course, been minor changes linked with technical advances such as the recording of speeches, which are set out in the report. But the change in the format of the morning programme last autumn was an important departure and has given rise to this debate. The reduction of some 14 minutes in the programme introduces a new problem. If what took 30 minutes on the previous night is reduced to 14½, what is being cut out and why? Is there any trace of censorship? I do not think there is, but nevertheless something has got to be cut out. What generally happens is that a whole item which was covered overnight may not appear again, and no amount of predigestion by "political correspondents"—and I put the words in inverted commas because that is the phrase used in the current Today programme as the creators of this predigested matter which is given in Today at about 8.35 a.m. —can make up for that. I should like to quote the 21st and 22nd March as forming a typical example. Adequate overnight coverage of the Transport Bill was followed in the morning by no mention of the fact that the House of Lords had sat at all.

And what about the other word which is still in the clause; the word "impartial"? Was it impartial, again for "a political correspondent", to say on the 17th March, regarding the previous day's trade union debate which had been well reported overnight: Actually whatever the ostensible reasons for this reform, the real political nub is that the Government want to loosen the connections between the unions and the Labour Party by, for example, instituting new procedures by which union members have to contract into, that is agree to, paying the political levy, rather than as now having to make a positive political decision to contract out"? That is part of the predigested version made by "a political correspondent".

My Lords, what about this morning when, in reporting the debate in another place about Mr. MacGregor, came the words "Then came the tricky bit"? That was the £1½, million. But it was not what was said in the other place. However, I had better say nothing about the other place, although I welcomed—as I think other noble Lords have done—the letters from my right honourable friend the Member for Chelmsford, which have been published in The Times. Indeed, it remains to be seen how the other place addresses itself to this problem for their reaction is of paramount importance.

I may say that my heart goes out to the skilled team who prepare the excellent programme, Today in Parliament, which used to be the basis for Yesterday in Parliament the next morning, and was, therefore, in those days, heard by some 3 million or more listeners, instead of by only 100,000 to 150,000, as is the case today. That team are the true "professional reporters" who are referred to in the clause.

I confess that I am taking more of your Lordships' time than I had intended, because the corporation indicated, in paragraph 29 on pages 14 and 15 of the report, that they await "the response of Members of both Houses", and the pages of Hansard seem to me the best place to record our feelings. I therefore welcome the forthcoming debate and the speeches of noble Lords who have been kind enough to put down their names.

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the corporation really take the trouble necessary to analyse the situation properly, not merely "counting the heads" but thinking of the serious listeners who want to know what is going on in Parliament, untrammelled by saxophonic fanfares and the other horrible noise which the programme makes—is it a xylophone?—in the morning. I sometimes think—but I shall not develop the subject—that, in respect of this programme, the BBC are engrossed or obsessed by the demand for ratings. Surely, ratings do not apply in a matter like this when competition does not exist, or should not do so.

I could go on, but I will not. For instance, I could remind the corporation that they might try to do some more about informing Scotland and the jungle north of Watford. Also, titles, such as The Week in Westminster and Inside Parliament, are sometimes downright misleading. Finally, may I repeat what the 1946 White Paper said: The Government attach great importance to the part which broadcasting can play in keeping the public informed of parliamentary proceedings". That goes for me, also. Our thanks go to the Select Committee and I look forward to the rest of the debate, and to the debate which will, I assume, follow the new format which will emerge from this unfortunate experiment. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the First Report from the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting, Yesterday in Parliament—(Lord Ferrier.)

6.43 p.m.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, for having put down this Motion this evening, drawing attention to the First Report by the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting. I am quite sure, too, that my fellow members of my committee will be delighted to have this opportunity of putting the views of the committee to the House. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has for many years been a most active watchdog on the broadcasting of the affairs of this House, and we are all greatly in his debt for what he has done. He modestly said that he was a spectator at our committee meeting. He certainly took a much more active part than that and he, in fact, gave evidence to the committee. As your Lordships will see in the report of the committee, we say that we share Lord Ferrier's view that the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings is vital to the health of parliamentary democracy", As the noble Lord has said, the committee were instructed by the House to consider whether or not the recent changes in the format of Yesterday in Parliament, and its inclusion as an item in the Today programme, is in conformity with Clause 13(2) of the Licence and Agreement of the BBC. We had a very clear and concise opinion from my counsel, Mr. Derek Rippengal—we have come to expect this sort of admirable report from him—and he came to a very definite conclusion with which the committee concurred. He said, if I may quote from the report, I conclude that the 'Today in Parliament' programme"— that is, the programme that goes out at 11.30 in the evening— satisfies the obligation to broadcast a day by day account of proceedings in Parliament contained in Clause 13(2). It follows that there is, in my view, no obligation to broadcast a 'Yesterday in Parliament' programme at all. That does not dispose of the question whether if such a programme is broadcast it must comply with the requirements of Clause 13(2). In my opinion, however, there is no obligation for it to do so". That opinion was accepted by the committee and is now reported to the House.

But we certainly did not leave the matter there. We went on to discuss with the representatives of the BBC the various complaints that had reached our ears about the new format of Yesterday in Parliament. We explained to them that we had no general complaints about the Today in Parliament programme. In fact, if anything, we were very much in favour of it; we welcomed it. We certainly get a great deal more coverage from that programme than we get in the press, and we left them in no doubt on that fact. It followed from that that we had very little general criticism of Yesterday in Parliament in its previous form, because, in fact, it was a repeat of the Today in Parliament programme, except that five minutes were lopped off the end. If we had any complaint, it was that those five minutes usually came from the report on your Lordships' proceedings. But, in general, we welcomed that programme, too.

What has caused so much criticism is the fact that, since this new experiment was started, a much reduced programme in length—only some 14½ minutes—has been broadcast, that it has appeared as part of the Today programme and that political commentators have been substituted for reporters. This point was made very forcefully by the committee to the members of the BBC who came to see us. I believe that they were a very distinguished number of people, very high up in the BBC, and we should have regard to the reasons that they gave for this new format.

I know that there are those—I am sure not here tonight—who see a sinister motive behind every action of the BBC. I am not one of those. I spent several years happily working as an employee of the corporation. But recently, also, I have come into contact with them, both over the Nationwide programme and, more recently, over the projected series on Parliament and the Palace of Westminster, and I found all the officials that I have dealt with most co-operative and most responsible.

What did they say about the reasons for the new format? I would quote Mr. Francis, who is the managing director of BBC Radio. He said: it is not simply a question of putting things on the air, it is a question of attracting listeners". He went on to explain that in the previous form, when Yesterday in Parliament was broadcast, there would be a considerable drop in audience figures. The Today programme, which used to precede it, was listened to by something like one in seven of all those people who were listening to radio at that time. As soon as Yesterday in Parliament came on the air, that figure dropped to one in eleven. This problem, they pointed out, would have been accentuated at the present moment by the competition that would have come from breakfast television.

If I may again quote Mr. Francis: If we put the matter of Parliament before a diminishing audience and one which is switching off, we may not be fulfilling the other element of our responsibility, which is to entertain the public and interest the public and illuminate the public's understanding of Parliament. That is the dilemma we face". It was to counteract this fall in audience numbers that the BBC decided to try out this new format. To that extent—audience numbers—it has been successful because the Yesterday in Parliament programme now enjoys the one-in-seven audience of the Today programme.

But we left the members of the BBC in no doubt at all that this had been at the expense of coverage of the proceedings in this House. We had quite an array of facts and figures, which we put before them. It was quite clear, as my noble friend Lord Ferrier said, that on several occasions there was no mention of this House at all; on several others, it was less than one minute in the 14½-minute programme; in general we received less than 10 per cent. of the programme; and even important debates were ignored. To give them their due, the BBC representatives were sympathetic to our point of view and promised to consider it. Your Lordships will see that in the minutes. In my opinion, since we met them there has been an improvement so far as coverage of the affairs of this House are concerned.

The position is that this experiment, which was for a period of six months, will end at Easter. During the Easter Recess the BBC will be evaluating its success, or lack of success, and they wish to take fully into account the views of Members of both Houses of Parliament. I feel sure that this debate will be most valuable in making known the views of the Members of this House for that review by the BBC.

6.52 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, for giving us an opportunity to debate this subject, but I do not go along with him entirely. I do not believe that we should cavil too much about Yesterday in Parliament. The BBC, as we have discovered, is under no obligation to give this second report of our proceedings. They do so because they think it will interest a sufficient number of listeners. We who believe it is important for the nation to know what is going on in Parliament should regard this as a bonus—all the more so because the BBC is not merely performing a pious democratic exercise but is trying to make Parliament of interest to a wider audience of listeners.

The programme Today in Parliament has a small audience, not only because it goes out very late at night but also because, for most people, a straight record of proceedings, even when enlivened by live quotes, is a dead bore. It is enjoyed by those of us who are serious students of politics. It is also enjoyed, of course, by my fellow insomniacs. But it is because Parliament is extremely difficult to report in a way that interests a considerable number of people that the popular newspapers have ceased to report it as a whole. Indeed, they give it hardly any attention at all. The serious newspapers, except for The Times, have cut down their reports. Indeed, all the serious newspapers have developed a facetious parliamentary sketch that may make fools of us all—and not always when we are making fools of ourselves.

In order to attract a wider audience, the BBC are now attempting what I know, as an old hand at the written form of this game, is a very difficult technical feat. Instead of a straight report, a microscopic Hansard, instead of a serious summary, they are attempting a sketch report—at once an explanation and a description of what has gone on, enlivened by the living voice. Moreover, it enables them to put subjects in context. I do not believe we should be afraid of the voice of the political correspondent who explains something to us in the way which the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has described. We should not be too "touchy" about these matters. I do not believe that there is anybody, outside the ranks of the parties, who would think that either of the remarks which were quoted was anything but objective reality. The new programme is holding a larger number of people whose hand would once fly to the "Off" switch the moment they heard the word "Parliament".

A much more difficult problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has suggested, is the balance of the report between the two Houses. Of course the elected House must get the lion's share of the time, but the other place has sometimes got the lot. Some of our important debates, or our brilliant phrases, or our unique perceptions, have been ignored. In moments of blackest despair I sometimes feel that nobody takes this House seriously except we ourselves and those who would abolish this House. But this House, which performs an important legislative function, surely must have a modicum of time devoted to it in anything which purports to be an account of Yesterday in Parliament. Sometimes, as has been pointed out, we have not even had a mention, although never a day passes on which something important is not said and done in this House which may never be available to the mass of people unless it goes out on the BBC.

In their reconsideration of this programme over the Easter Recess I believe that the BBC should beware of another temptation: to give some lively, amusing but trivial passages simply to get away from what had been given the previous night. Ideally, Yesterday in Parliament should surely make the main events of the previous day available in a more widely acceptable form, skating with professional skill around the problem of repetition. That being said, I thought that this morning's effort was wholly admirable and perhaps might be regarded as a model for the way the job should be done.

6.58 p.m.

Earl Cathcart

My Lords, I, too, should like to add my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Ferrier for giving us the opportunity today to debate the First Report from the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting, of which committee I have the privilege to be a member. The six-month experimental period for the new format of Yesterday in Parliament ends on Wednesday. After the Easter Recess, as noble Lords have heard from the Lord Chairman of Committees, it will be reviewed by the BBC to see what changes must be made for the future. Indeed, as a result of a most interesting meeting of the Select Committee with senior members of the BBC's sound broadcasting staff, which has also been referred to by the Lord Chairman of Committees, they have undertaken not only to review the experiment as a whole but to look at the allocation of broadcasting time between the two Houses. Therefore, the point I am making is that your Lordships' debate today is not only important but extremely timely.

In response to a suggestion that the experiment might represent a radical and deliberate change of policy, the managing director of the BBC agreed that he would prefer to describe it as an adjustment; but I have to say that it is a pretty radical adjustment. The reduction in overall time allotted now to Yesterday in Parliament and the feeling that the BBC's contractual obligations under Clause 13(2) have been totally satisfied by their programme Today in Parliament has led not only to much reduced coverage of the proceedings in your Lordships' House in Yesterday in Parliament, but often that coverage is confined to small snippets of newsworthy items rather than the important work which very often goes on.

As an example of what I mean, on 19th January there was an important debate on education, proposed from the Opposition Front Bench, in which 20 speakers took part, and due to other important business that day the House did not rise that evening until a quarter to eleven. Yet the only reference next day in Yesterday in Parliament to your Lordships' proceedings for the 19th January was to a Starred Question which only lasted five minutes.

One must admit that much of our business in Committee stages is unlikely to inflame public interest or to catch the eye of the BBC's radio editor. Nevertheless, it is important work, and if the BBC's account is to be professional and impartial, it deserves a mention to indicate the wide range of work carried out in great detail in your Lordships' House on many Bills. And in particular they should point out—and to my mind it cannot be repeated too often—that since we have no guillotine procedure in this House we need to go through every Bill very thoroughly and in detail.

As the Lord Chairman of Committees said in his opening remarks at the Select Committee, many, if not most, of your Lordships feel that the experimental period represents for this House the worst option. I believe your Lordships will agree that we have no complaint with our representation in Today in Parliament broadcast at 11.30 p.m. in the evening to an audience of about 150,000, whereas we have done much less well in the new experimental Yesterday in Parliament broadcast at about 8.45 a.m. to perhaps very nearly 1 million listeners. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Ferrier that we need to be criticial of the actual times chosen by the BBC for the broadcasting of these two programmes. Whatever time they were to choose it would be inconvenient to somebody, and in this respect I think the BBC probably knows best. However, in conclusion, I believe this short debate will not only indicate the views of this House to the BBC when they review this experiment after Easter, but show with what close interest we all watch these broadcasts.

7.3 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and I have at least one thing in common, which is that neither of us is a member of the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting. We therefore bring to these proceedings an eye which is uncommitted to the document we have before us. Nevertheless, I am bound to say that I think that the conclusion, in so far as there is a conclusion, to which the report comes was an inevitable one. It seems to me that, within the present legal requirements, and within the resources which the BBC feels obliged to give to fulfil these requirements, the corporation is doing as much as it can be expected to do. I myself appear occasionally in the night-time proceedings—rarely, but occasionally—but I cannot easily recall an occasion on which the night-time proceedings quotation has been followed by a further quote in the morning. I really make no complaint about that. Within the present context I think my noble friend Lord Ardwick is right in saying that there must obviously and rightly be a priority given to the elected Chamber, and within the situation as it is at the present time we cannot expect to do much better than we do.

Our real problem is a rather wider one than this. It seems to me that in our rather meretricious society we are presenting inadvertently a picture of Parliament and its proceedings which, taken all over, is a falsehood. This is because even our newspapers have their own idea of how parliamentary proceedings should be presented, and presentation has now become more important than content. At one time The Times used to do a presentation of Parliament which was very dull indeed but extremely factual; it was rather like a condensed version of Hansard. But now even The Times deems it necessary, following modern fashion, to divide up, to present, to package. Our problem, therefore, is that we are becoming more package and less and less content all the time. The BBC, in its present change, is doing precisely that. It has decided that as far as the content is concerned it is too dull, and therefore it must be packaged and presented in a more palatable form so that it can be consumed by a wider audience in the morning. Therefore, I think it would be wrong to complain to the BBC.

What I think we ought to recognise is the inevitability of this process, because it is the way in which society is moving. There are some of us who, possibly as one of the consequences of growing old, do not like the way society is moving in certain respects, and this causes us to blame the corporation for something which, if we are prepared to accept the responsibility, must really devolve upon us. The fact of the matter is that if we want to arrest these packaging processes we can only do so by placing a legislative compulsion upon the corporation, or upon the broadcasting authorities more widely, perhaps, which will make them resist the way in which modern developments must necessarily drive them.

This raises the question whether there should be an obligation for a continuous programme on activities in parliament. This happens in some countries. In some countries there is a continuous record of what happens in Parliament, and it has a small but, of course, very interested audience. It has the advantage of providing a permanent record which is available to anyone, in the same sense as the permanent record which is taken in this Chamber is available to us. I believe there would be an advantage if it were possible for academic people concerned with politics, and for newspapers and for other people, to have available a cassette which they could use at any time, a recording, for historical reasons. That would be a development which would be of great advantage. The fact that it would attract, except on very special occasions, a rather small audience seems to me to be no argument against it.

My own view is that within the present context the corporation is doing all that could be expected of it. In order for it to do more we should have to require it to do more. We should have to say that there will be, possibly on VHF on a certain wavelength, a continuous record. That need not necessarily be very dull; the record could move from Chamber to Chamber, from committee room to committee room. It could be quite an entertaining programme for those who are interested in the subject. There are some people who are interested, and once you become interested in politics you become very interested. So the degree of interest by those who were listening would be very high indeed.

This is one factor which I think we do not measure enough. We are rather inclined to assume—the polls rather lead us into this procedure—that all degrees of interest are the same. Of course, they are not. It is possible to be slightly interested in something or deeply interested in it. The quality of interest in such a programme, although the numbers might be smaller, would be very high indeed.

The conclusion to which I come is that we must not blame the corporation for the fact that we do not require it to do more. Perhaps we ourselves in both Houses should look again at this question to see whether a change could be made whereby the corporation would go on doing what it is doing at present but there would be, as it were, a Hansard of the air which would be available in the same way as the printed Hansard. It would be our duty to create that Hansard of the air. I think it is time Parliament looked at that possibility.

7.11 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, it is interesting to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney. I think I have more in common with him than with even my noble friend Lord Ferrier because not only was I not on the Select Committee but I did not even attend the meeting of it. I think the same applied to the noble Lord. I also find myself very much in agreement with the imaginative ideas that he put forward and I only wish he had limited his address to broadcasting matters instead of referring to some of the things on which we violently disagree.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ferrier, as others have done, and also the Select Committee on a very balanced report. On the whole I congratulate the committee on the conclusions that it was forced to reach, but particularly paragraph 9. My excuse for addressing your Lordships is that it fell to me to ask a Question of the Government on this matter on 29th November and much of what I have to say, which I hope will put some new ideas in the mind of the BBC, is in column 1060 of the Hansard for that date. I start by saying that I entirely agree, as others have done, that Today in Parliament—at whatever time—is an admirable programme and I hope that it will remain so. Also, for what it was originally intended to do I think that the Today programme is an excellent programme. However, I did say when asking a supplementary to my Question that I thought that perhaps it had a reputation as much for entertaining as for informing. I do not criticise it for that because I think that Messrs. Timpson and Redhead, and their good colleagues, are excellent at providing a special flavour to the news which makes it more interesting. But that is the news and I think that a parliamentary report, even if it is underpinned by Today in Parliament the night before, especially a parliamentary report with live transmissions of what we are actually saying, is required to provide news about parliamentary affairs rather than snippets of news about Parliament. I think that is where there is perhaps an error, but we have been over this ground before.

To take the timing point and whether Today in Parliament at 11.30 p.m. is good enough, I wonder what the legal adviser to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees would have said if the BBC for some unpremeditated reason, instead of doing what they have done, had broadcast Today in Parliament at a respectable time of, say, 9 o'clock when everyone could hear it readily and conveniently, and had broadcast Today in Parliament at that time in the general format that we now have the morning broadcast, and put Yesterday in Parliament in the form that Today in Parliament now is—that is, a proper account of Parliament properly divided between the two Houses—at two o'clock in the morning to be listened to by the insomniacs, a few motorists and a few night workers who could take the time off.

I am making the point seriously. Would the fact that there has been a proper report at some time during the 24 hours have satisfied the legal advisers of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees? I rather suspect that without warning it might have done, from the sense of what he wrote, but I may be unfair in saying that. But the point is that it is not good enough for the BBC to feel that provided it has a good programme at some time, even if it is extremely late and very few people listen to it, that this would do.

The next point to bring out is the question of professional reporters. One sees, in the answer to Question 7 that the change in team for Yesterday in Parliament was to BBC political correspondents. I suggest that that might be satisfactory to persons in another place but I also suggest that it is not satisfactory to your Lordships. I say that for two good very practical reasons. The first point is that in the answer to Question 7 it was said that these political correspondents met Members of both Houses in their respective press areas. Your Lordships well know that in this House we do not have an effective press area. The question whether we should have and where it should be is another matter altogether on which I do not want to spend time now, but it might be necessary to tackle that later and for a different reason.

But the important point is that your Lordships' contribution—except for the contribution to the routine passage of a Bill through Parliament—is more in influencing Government in the longer term, and possibly even more fundamentally, rather than day-to-day and in the short-term. Hence, the kind of things that we know about and about which we can tell correspondents in regard to affairs and what is going on are understandably of considerably less interest to practically every journalist. That applies to radio journalists just as much as to others. So even if we did have a recognisable press area, because of the nature of our contribution—which in some ways is very fundamental and is not ready to be reported the next day—we still would not get the press people to come and talk to us. I do not know that that can readily be solved.

Therefore, I believe that Today in Parliament, and a morning version of it as it used to be, is of importance in getting across the value to the country of the working of this House. I am not in the least embarrassed about saying "the value to the country" because what your Lordships say and do is of great value to the country, regardless of where we sit in the House and of how long we sit here. But it is of more importance to us than it is to the Commons. I should like to leave what I have just said very much in the mind of the BBC because I believe I am right in saying that that particular aspect was not brought out at the meeting of the Select Committee and certainly was not apparent as being understood by it in any of the answers given by the BBC.

I briefly turn to the question of audiences. Here I referred to my pocket calculator and took the figures given in the answers to Questions 2 and 16. One finds, if the figures are accurate, that the morning audience in total is about 6.3 million; that for Radio 4 at the start of Yesterday in Parliament it is about 900,000 and at the finish of Yesterday in Parliament the audience used to be 575,000, or thereabouts; and for Today in Parliament it is between 150,000 and 200,000. From those figures it appears that even with the reduced numbers listening at the end of Yesterday in Parliament there are about three times as many as the average for the late night Today in Parliament broadcast. Furthermore, although there are probably some people who will listen to both programmes voluntarily—I stress "voluntarily" because they do not have to do so—it is surely equally probable that many, if not most, people who switch off or tune to Radio 1, Radio 2 or to local radio, as suggested by the BBC in answer to questions do so for reasons other than boredom, like going to work or wishing to get ready for Jimmy Young or whatever. So you are going to get a reduction on the programme whether you have a proper Yesterday in Parliament or not. In any case, what is wrong with a large—over half a million—audience for a specialised programme for a period, I would think, of 25 minutes, right at the end of the breakfast-time programmes? Even the rather doubtfully valuable and not altogether effective television breakfast programmes are starting to run down at that time.

To sum up, the present balance to convey a report on Parliament may technically meet Clause 13(2) of the BBC's licence of agreement, as probably a broadcast at 2 o'clock in the morning would also have done. However, it is questionable whether this meets the principle of Clause 13(2), as my noble friend Lord Ferrier said in his introductory speech, because it limits the proper presentation of the report of Parliament to a late night audience. The morning report seems to be agreed as not fulfilling Clause 13(2), and, by its nature, for reasons I have given, is involuntarily biased against this House rather than another place. I trust that the BBC will take account of the differences which I have outlined, when reviewing the present unsatisfactory arrangements, and make a change.

7.21 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I should like to join with other noble Lords in thanking the Select Committee for their report and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, for bringing the report to the attention of the House. All noble Lords will be very much aware of the noble Lord's perseverance over many years in pursuing this matter in various different ways. I know that he would like to see an obligation placed on one of the television channels to include a similar report each day.

Let me say at the outset that I agree with the final conclusion in paragraph 9 of the report in which the Select Committee say: In their opinion, it is most desirable that, whatever the outcome of the present experiment, there should be a more satisfactory coverage of Lords' proceedings in 'Yesterday in Parliament' ". The objective reporting of your Lordships' debates does nothing other than enhance the prestige of your Lordships' House. If the reporting is reduced to a matter of triviality, it tends to debase the work of your Lordships' House. I appreciate, as other noble Lords have appreciated, the need for the BBC to produce a programme which will hold an audience at 8.35 in the morning. I feel on occasion that unnecessary triviality is indulged in. But I must say, as in fact I think one noble Lord has already mentioned, today's programme was a model programme when it reported our proceedings of yesterday. Indeed, I think that it was almost unique in that it reported a Lord's reaction to a Government statement which had been made in the Commons. It may be, of course, that the BBC were not unaware that your Lordships would be debating this matter this evening.

One of the burdens of the charges of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, is that he felt that 11.30 in the evening was a bad time for listening and that it was too late, and, likewise, that 8.35 was too early in the morning. As the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, has said—and I must say that I agree with him—it would be impossible to find any time which is suitable to everybody. For myself, I find these times reasonably convenient. Indeed, if the programme was brought forward very much in the evening it would be impossible for the programme to be put together and to give the full coverage that it does.

I must say that I share the concern which several noble Lords have voiced that sometimes there is no coverage at all on the programme of the proceedings in your Lordships' House. I think we are right to insist that there should be some coverage each day in Yesterday in Parliament, of course in respect of days on which the Lords have been sitting as well as the Commons. I agree that the figure of 10 per cent., which was quoted in the report and reported by the Lord Chairman when he spoke in the debate, is a figure which is not good enough, although of course I would not disagree with my noble friend Lord Ardwick, who said that we must necessarily accept that the lion's share of the coverage will go to another place. But 10 per cent. does seem to be an excessively low figure. I understand—and, indeed, I have noticed this myself—that that figure has seen some improvement since this matter has been raised in your Lordships' House.

My noble friend Lord Ardwick said that we should regard Yesterday in Parliament as a bonus. Indeed, he sympathised with the difficult task of the BBC in producing an editorialised programme. I think that we all accept that this is so, but I do not think that there is necessarily a problem of the programme being repetitive. It will very largely be a different audience who will be listening to the programme in the morning from the audience who will be listening to the programme in the evening. Therefore, if items are repeated I do not think that this is something that need cause concern to the BBC. If something is worth reporting both in Today in Parliament and Yesterday in Parliament, that is something which should be done and one should not be worried about the question of repetition.

My noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney raised the question of continuous sound broadcasting. He admitted that this would have a small audience and felt that this is something which might be looked at in the future. He also raised the question of whether it was possible to obtain cassettes of the proceedings of Parliament. I understand that these cassettes are available and can be obtained and listened to. Indeed, over the years several noble Lords have spent considerable time to get right the exact inflexion of what was said in a particular debate by listening to a particular cassette.

We welcome the fact, as I have already said, that the experiment is being reviewed at the end of its initial period. I think that the programme Yesterday in Parliament is one that we would want to be beamed to as wide an audience as possible; it should be a programme which is serious, which is interesting, and which is not too trivial, But I think that, above all, the general feeling of your Lordships this evening is that when the BBC come to review it they should look closely at the amount of time that they devote in that programme to the work of your Lordships' House.

7.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I should like to add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Ferrier for giving us the opportunity to consider the report from the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting. My noble friend's interest in the broadcasting of Parliament is well known. Indeed, it is almost legendary, and it was at his suggestion, as well as a suggestion from other noble Lords, that last December this matter was specifically referred to the committee. I should like to congratulate the committee and its chairman on the brevity and clarity of the report. Its conclusion on the main question that it was asked is perfectly clear. The recent changes in the format of Yesterday in Parliament do not mean that the BBC is in breach of Clause 13(2) of its licence and agreement, because the Today in Parliament programme satisfies the obligation which has been placed upon it to broadcast a day-by-day account of proceedings in Parliament. Like other noble Lords, I think that that is worth stressing, because whatever may be the strength of feeling in the House on the new presentation, it is important not to lose sight of the clear conclusion of your Lordships' committee on that particular issue; and I am sure that the House will accept that conclusion.

Like your Lordships' House, the BBC is in the unenviable position of being in the public gaze, and whatever it does, it is criticised. On the whole I think that we can be very grateful to the BBC for fine and balanced reporting of our proceedings. I would only commend to the BBC the philosophy that I always have: you can never expect to do the right thing; all that you can hope to do is the least wrong.

For all that, it is only right that as Deputy Leader of the House I should recognise the strength of feeling which clearly exists on this matter in all quarters of the House. This was best illustrated by the Starred Question that was asked on 29th November last by my noble friend Lord Mottistone; and the exchanges which then took place between noble Lords and my noble friend Lord Elton showed that the new experimental presentation had found few friends among your Lordships. My noble friends Lord Orr-Ewing and Lord Campbell of Alloway, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Liberal Party, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, all made their views known—and you cannot get much more formidable than that.

It was therefore quite proper for the committee to go a little wider than its strict remit, and to consider the experiment in more general terms, bearing in mind the strong feelings which your Lordships had expressed; and that the committee did. I commend the committee's conclusions to the House, and I, too, hope that during the Easter recess the BBC will reflect very carefully on the best format for the programme, in the light of both the report and what your Lordships have said today. I am sure that the BBC will, because it gave a very clear commitment to do so in answer to Question No. 29 in the Minutes of Evidence.

The two most important points are in paragraph 9 of the report. The first is that there should be a balance between the old format of reasonable thoroughness and objectivity, although with only a modest audience, and the new format of a more subjective report, prepared by correspondents, and attracting a wider audience. The second point is that, whatever may be the outcome of the review, there ought to be a more satisfactory coverage of the proceedings in your Lordships' House.

I think that most of us now welcome the broadcasting of Parliament, and in particular the inclusion of excerpts of our own debates. But I am bound to say that, as the report states, and as many noble Lords have said this afternoon, since last October there have been several occasions when the new version of Yesterday in Parliament has made no mention at all of the proceedings of the House of Lords. Frankly, I think that that must be wrong, and I do not see how the programme can claim to be a review of yesterday in Parliament if it deliberately, or even accidentally, excludes the proceedings in one House. After all, there are two Houses of Parliament, and a description, if only a factual one, of the work of this House seems to me to be absolutely essential if an assessment is to be given of yesterday in Parliament. If that means that the programme has to be extended for a few minutes, so be it. I was glad to see that in answer to Question No. 26 the BBC agreed to consider allocating a definite proportion of time to your Lordships' proceedings. If the BBC does that, it will be a major step forward.

I agree with many other noble Lords, and in no way would I suggest that in this regard we should have parity with another place. The other place is, as it were, the power house, and no one would deny that its business is of pre-eminent importance. But as Deputy Leader of this House I add my voice to those who would like to see the BBC ensure that proper time is given every morning to the House of Lords.

Those of us who have been in the House for some time have witnessed some fairly substantial changes in the way in which it carries out is responsibilities. There are more of us—many more. We talk longer—some much longer. We take important business. We sit increasingly long hours, though I hasten to add that in itself that is not a virtue, even if it is a disagreeable fact. We give the facility for all Bills to be discussed in toto, and on the Floor of the House—which does not happen in another place—including the Bills to which my noble friend Lord Cathcart referred, the details of which another place has not even had time to discuss.

It is generally considered that our debates are of a high standard, other than for the contributions that are made by the Deputy Leader, or the Minister of State for Agriculture. Those two gentlemen apart, the House is, if one may so put it, literally littered with experts on almost every subject. I think it fair to say that, except for a modicum of inevitable constant criticism, which I suppose can be regarded as part of the joys of life, the standing of the House in public life is as high as it has ever been, if not higher. I think that its value to public life is probably more greatly appreciated now than it ever was.

For all those reasons, now that the public have the means by which they can listen to the proceedings in Parliament, I am sure that most of us would consider that the BBC should ensure that the facility of listening to this House becomes a daily reality. I have no doubt at all that the BBC will take note of today's debate. I believe that at the end of the day the House must accept the advice which my noble friend Lord Elton gave on 29th November last, when he stressed that the BBC has editorial responsibility for all its programmes, including those covering parliamentary proceedings.

The format of Yesterday in Parliament is therefore wholly a matter within the BBC's discretion. But I am sure that on behalf of the House, I can say that it would be widely welcomed if the BBC would communicate its decision to the House after the Recess. I am sure that it will, since it so indicated in answer to the last question which was put to its representatives in giving their evidence. I hope that whatever is the conclusion, it will meet with the satisfaction of both the BBC and your Lordships.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, the handbook tells me that it is not up to the mover of a Motion "to take note" to withdraw the Motion. However, there are two things that I want to say. One is that both the Lord Chairman of Committees and myself were right about the meeting that was referred to. I think that I am right in saying that I kept my mouth shut until after the BBC people had withdrawn. So though I was present, it was only after they had gone that the Lord Chairman of Committees was kind enough to let me take part in the discussion.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, spoke about a brief reference to the sitting of the House of Lords. My mind goes back 20 years, to when I first crossed swords with the BBC. I think that at that time the chairman was Lord Normanbrook. He said to me, "Tell me, what do you want us to report? You did nothing". I replied, "I beg your pardon. It is down in black and white in the Licence and Agreement. You need spend only 30 seconds, stating that 'the House of Lords also sat and considered the following matters'". That was that; and that has lasted ever since.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, talked about Yesterday in Parliament being rendered palatable. I do not know. I may have disparaged the Today programme, but I am a devotee. You should ask my wife. The only occasions when I switch it off are perhaps those moments described by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, as rendering the programme more palatable—the saxophonic fanfare and the xylophone. When they are broadcast, I am inclined to switch off. It has to be remembered that Mr. Timpson is at it from 6.30 to 9 a.m., and that the programme is heard by about 9 million people, although they are not listening all the time. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.