§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that the broadcasting authorities discharged their statutory responsibilities during the period leading up to the general election.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, my intention, so far as it may prove possible to achieve it, is to consider this issue outside the narrow context of party political confrontation. Broadcasting, and more especially television, is, for better or worse, the medium by which the great majority of people in this country receive information and form their opinions. 1339 It therefore seems to me that the standards set by the broadcasting authorities should be a matter of serious concern to intelligent people right across the political spectrum.
My Question this evening arises partly from an answer given by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, when he replied to a Question which I asked on 29th June. In the course of replying, the noble Earl said, on the subject of impartiality, that,
taken as an overall spectrum, I gather that the results from the BBC would perhaps be judged to be fair".—[Official Report, 29/6/87; col. 27.]
In the light of certain events which took place during the general election and in the light of certain comments made as a result, I thought that that was a judgment of very considerable significance. I should like to explain why.
§ It seems to me that in answer to the Question which I have tabled today, there are, for practical purposes, three ways in which the body politic, as represented in your Lordships' House, might react. The first is that there might be a general expression on all sides of the House of complete satisfaction with the way in which the broadcasting authorities discharged their responsibilities, If that were the case, I should be driven to the conclusion that my own doubts were unfounded and unjustified.
The second possibility is an expression from all of dissatisfaction and criticism. That would be a somewhat different matter. In the past, we have had experience of broadcasting spokesmen, when faced with universal disapprobation, replying along the lines of, "If we are attacked on all sides, we must have got something right". A moment's examination of that kind of fallacy will show it to be totally empty. It was disposed of by no less a person than Mr. Alan Protheroe who was, until recently, the assistant director-general of the BBC. In a paper which he prepared for the General Advisory Council of the BBC in 1983 he wrote:
Such complacency no longer serves as a defence in a society which is increasingly complex".
He was right. If a broadcasting organisation, enjoined by its statutory obligations to balance and objectivity, is attacked on all sides for lack of those qualities, it is not getting something right; it is getting everything wrong.
§ The third possible reaction is a mixed one. One side of the political spectrum might profess itself to be satisfied with the performance of the broadcasting authorities and the other side might profess itself to be dissatisfied. If that were the case, it would seem to me that there is at least a presumption of some kind of lack of balance and objectivity. It is in that spirit that I wish to air the matter briefly today.
I begin by reminding the House of the relevant statutory obligations to which I referred. The most important is contained in the licence and agreement granted to the BBC by the Home Secretary subject to the terms of the Royal Charter and renewed, as your Lordships will recall, in April 1981. Clause 13 of that licence provides that,
The Corporation shall at all times refrain from sending any broadcast matter, expressing the opinion of the Corporation on current affairs or on matters of public policy".
That seems to me a very straightforward injunction. A similar duty is laid upon the Independent Broadcasting Authority in the Broadcasting Act in the following words:
It shall be the duty of the Authority to secure the exclusion from the programmes broadcast by them of all expressions of opinion by the authority or their subsidiary, or by any programme contractor, on matters other than broadcasting which are of political or industrial controversy or relate to current public policy".
That is the same injunction in somewhat different words.
§ When an election is pending, those prohibitions are reinforced by Section 93 of the Representation of the People Act which deals mainly with the appearance of candidates in broadcast items. Having reminded the House of those statutory obligations, my question is whether there is general satisfaction on all sides of the political establishment of this country that those obligations were fully discharged specifically in the period leading up to the general election earlier this year. My own impression is that, to say the very least, there is room for doubt. I say this especially in respect of the BBC. It seemed to me, from my own experience of the broadcast matter during the election campaign, that independent television made a much greater effort at impartiality than the BBC, even if in some cases it was not always entirely successful.
If my perception that the BBC departed from the highest standards of balance and objectivity is justified, what was it that went wrong? Clearly, the BBC (and those who run it) know what is expected of them. In a resolution of the board of governors in 1981, annexed to the licence and agreement when it was issued by the Home Secretary, the following declaration appears:
The Board recall that it has always been their object to treat controversial subjects with due impartiality and they intend to continue this policy".
As recently as June 1987, in its booklet, the BBC endorsed the view that it should have no editorial views of its own and went on to repeat the responsibility of the corporation for reporting political and other matters objectively, fairly and impartially. Such sentiments are unexceptionable. However, I seriously contend that during the recent election campaign those sentiments were ignored to a very disturbing extent. As I watched and listened to what I thought was super-saturated cover of the election, it seemed for a while that there was nothing else happening in the world except a general election in the United Kingdom. Often, during that coverage, I had some difficulty in recognising the commitment to fairness and impartiality. However, I had much less difficulty in identifying the editorial view of some of the BBC producers, interviewers and presenters.
§ I fully expect, indeed I know, that the corporation will be able to produce some convincing evidence based on fairly meticulous stop watch-work, that every one received a fair allocation of time. Of that I have no doubt. That is not the whole story. Anyone with any experience of television—from either side of the camera—knows what can be done by a producer with camera angles, reaction shots or the running order of a news programme. We may hear more about that before our brief exchange concludes this evening. We know how an aside by a radio reporter, 1341 or a knowing smile by a television interviewer, can colour the whole content of an interview or programme. And, of course, a great deal can be learned about the political leanings of an interviewer from whether or not his or her questioning is friendly or hostile.
No-one who shares my view that the BBC's output was less than scrupulously fair during the election is likely to be altogether surprised. I suggest that one of the reasons is that the BBC as a whole seems to have decided there is no longer any merit in one of the basic tenets and principles of serious journalism; namely, the strict distinction between fact and opinion. Nowadays, on broadcast programmes, the most inexperienced reporter or presenter is permitted, indeed, encouraged, to introduce his or her own opinion into what should be a straightforward account of facts and events, which is what a news programme is supposed to be. Mr. John Birt, the new deputy director-general of the BBC, has accepted that too many programmes in the past have taken sides. He also expressed a refreshing view when he said:
a programme should inform, not tell the listener or viewer what to think".
Again, that is an unexceptionable point of view. However, if he really means it and if the new regime which we are told is operating in the BBC intends to put these principles into effect, may we now expect that the corporation will, for example, cease to make its editorial views known about the situation in South Africa? Mr. Alan Protheroe, when he was still assistant director-general of the BBC, in answer to a question, said:
No, the BBC is not impartial as regards apartheid".
We must be absolutely clear about this matter. I am entitled to express my views about apartheid and have done so many times in the past. Any Member of this House, or the other place, is entitled to express views on South Africa; as is any newspaper, or private citizen. But, my Lords, the BBC is not. It is forbidden by its licence to do so. When the assistant director-general expresses such views, he is in direct breach, at least of the spirit, if not of the letter, of the licence issued to the BBC by the Home Secretary.
The same applies to official secrets. The assistant director-general— I am sorry to get at poor Mr. Protheroe so much, but he was assistant director-general at the time—said in a broadcast on Radio 4 in February 1987,
the Official Secrets Act is really a dreadful piece of legislation, which I don't think should remain on the statute book".
Now that to use the words of the BBC's licence, is broadcasting an opinion on a matter of public policy. The Official Secrets Act is an Act of Parliament passed through both Houses of Parliament. It is not for the BBC to comment on such matters. If I wish, I can say that the Official Secrets Act is a piece of nonsense, as indeed can any of your Lordships, the head waiter at Claridge's or the publican at the Cross Keys. But the BBC may not. It is forbidden to do so by the terms of its licence.
Given the fact that we now know the editorial views of the BBC about the Official Secrets Act, it is perhaps not surprising that it commissioned to play
a leading part in a series of television programmes dealing with national defence, intelligence and security, a notoriously disaffected journalist who is known to have been obsessively concerned with revealing to the public official secrets which successive governments of both parties have regarded as being better left unrevealed. I wonder what the aims were of the people who engaged this man, and what conclusion we are to draw from the statement made by the assistant director-general of the BBC who, when questioned about the matter in a radio programme, said, apparently seriously,
I do not know whether Duncan Campbell is Left-wing or not".
I wonder where he has been. It may be said that this is all old-hat or past history. It is not quite past history. Noble Lords reading their newspapers this morning may have noticed a small item concerning a new series which the BBC is about to introduce, addressed to our Asian community. We learn that the presenter is to be Valerie Vas. I do not know whether the director-general knows the political opinions of Valerie Vas. I do. She has been the chairman of the police committee of the Ealing Borough Council. On two occasions she has delivered herself of some very interesting comments. She said, for example, that the police can now only be seen in the context of another branch of capitalist agencies in collusion. She went on to say of this country and of her borough:
Let us make no mistake. Police state South Africa style is only a heart beat away.
That was said by the new presenter of a programme directed to the Asian community in this country.
The dangers of this must be fairly obvious and perhaps they might best be summed up if I may mention one more case—the celebrated case of Mr. Vincent Hanna. Some of you may know Mr. Hanna from his work on the Programme called "News-night". It is reliably reported that Mr. Hanna is to cover the party political conferences for the BBC this year. Last November, on behalf of an independent production company with which he is involved he wrote to several trade unions offering the services of that company. Part of the letter which he wrote reads as follows:
Once you know the techniques of TV presentation, you can use the medium to infiltrate and control people's lives. It has been a source of irritation to me that the Trade Union movement has not had the advantage of using these techniques".
It is true that you can infiltrate people's minds and their lives by manipulating a medium. I think, however, we are entitled to be somewhat surprised that that should be a statement made by someone employed by the BBC to cover party political conferences.
It would be interesting indeed to speculate how many other media practitioners share Mr. Hanna's view of the role of television in a democracy. I know we shall be told that the BBC now has a new team at the top and that it will institute much needed changes. I say at once that I share the regard that was expresed in this House only a few days ago for the new chairman of the board of governors whom I know well and whom I have admired over many years. But I will watch with interest some of the key decisions that are going to have to be taken. For example, on production decisions, will Mr. Ian Curteis's play on
the Falkland Islands now appear on BBC television? It was, we were told, moved only because of the proximity of the election. Or will it be replaced, as I rather suspect it will, by another play of a Mr. Charles Wood called "Tumbledown"? If your Lordships wish to know something about "Tumbledown", I quote from Mr. Charles Wood talking about his play. He said that he wrote it because,
the Falklands War should never have happened; the fact that it did happen is a reason for shame, regret and anger".
I do not think one need be in any doubt as to what the general message of that play is going to be. Mr. Ian Curteis whose play, for some people, was a little too admiring of the performance of the armed forces in the Falkland war, has been told by the chairman of the BBC that the BBC is under no obligation to proceed with his play. That is the decision I shall look forward to with very great interest because I think it will tell us a lot about the new dispensation at the BBC.
§ It may well be that what is wrong at the BBC cannot by put right simply by appointing a new chairman and a new director-general and making some changes in the top management. If we take television and broadcasting seriously in this country we must ask a few more fundamental questions. Should we not now end the domination of television output by two enormous giant monopolies? Should the BBC—and I ask these questions not rhetorically but in the hope that the Minister may be able to answer them now be decentralised and broken up into smaller and separately accountable units which can be not only more efficiently administered but also kept more usefully under editorial control? Should there be an independent regulatory body to ensure that the statutory obligations are discharged? Do we need, as Professor Richard Clutterbuck of the University of Exeter has suggested, an institute on the lines of the General Medical Counil or the Law Society to impose professional standards upon broadcast practitioners? I ask the noble Earl who is to reply to examine the text of Sir Denis Forman's Dimbleby lecture delivered last week in which he will find some interesting material.
§ Television and radio are communications media of enormous influence and importance. As I have said, for a great majority of people nowadays, television is the principal and, perhaps for some people, the only source of news, views, and opinions. It formulates their tastes, habits, prejudices and political opinions and it forms them instantly. It is beyond doubt the most potent and significant medium of communication and it is likely to remain so for a very long time.
§ I conclude with these words. I believe it is developing, expecially in the case of the BBC, into an acute example of a modern tendency which has been called "adversary journalism". This is a concept of journalism in which all existing institutions are regarded as alien, hostile and threatening. In the old days of serious journalism, reporters and commentators examined political and social problems almost as though they were thinking carefully as to how they would solve those problems 1344 themselves if they were responsible and as though they were searching, as serious journalists, for measures and solutions which they might, in other circumstances, be putting into effect. Adversary journalism, on the other hand, is something quite different. It is instinctively destructive. Its purpose, quite simply, is to criticise, oppose and attack.
§ The BBC was once the standard bearer of serious journalism; it was synonymous with balance, objectivity, journalistic integrity and the highest standards of language, sensitivity and concern for the public which it served. There is no reason why it should not be so again. I ask the Minister to bear those considerations in mind when he comes to answer the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, I think we owe a debt of gratitude for the immense amount of work which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has put into that Question and the points which he so forcefully and accurately made.
I am on record, over a period of more than 50 years in involvement with television, as supporting independent public service broadcasting. I wish to see standards and integrity restored. It does not need restoring among a large number of loyal producers. Their professionalism and their standards are not those of the younger generation who used to be called young Turks, but who are now getting rather more senior but not more responsible.
I shall not repeat the quotations and the obligations which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has so ably put before the House. However. I draw attention to a new book which was published last month by the BBC called Fairness and Impartiality in Political Broadcasting. On page 1 of the preface—line one, in parliamentary terms—it says:The BBC has no editorial view of its own.It may not, and does not wish, to, express an opinion on matters of public polio.. Parliament has down the years, confirmed its opinion that the BBC, as a public corporation, should not have its own editorial opinion. The BBC's task is to report political and other matters objectively and dispassionately, fairly and impartially".There will not be one noble Lord or noble Baroness in this Chamber who would not say, "Hear, hear". Every one of us believes exactly in that. It was prepared in reply to a case brought by the Alliance against the BBC and, incidentally, was signed by the late chairman and the assistant director-general, by their legal adviser and by the editor of BBC television news. It is on the record and carries out what is laid down by statute. However, our purpose is to question whether the above statements have lost some of their meaning for some of the day-to-day conduct of BBC news and current affairs. I was sad to see that these two will be merged in a new headquarters under the same staff because, once and for all, this makes a muddle between what is comment and what is news. That, I think, is unfortunate.
Although I shall concentrate more on BBC television programmes, that is not because IBA programmes are perfectly balanced, but they seem to make more effort to achieve impartiality. The ITV 1345 companies have an independent regulatory authority of their own to examine any errors that they may commit.
Moreover, the BBC is a public service with 25,000 employees and an annual income from the licence of £1,000 million a year. It is an immense organisation. On another occasion one might say that it is far too big to carry out its functions with efficiency, economy and effectiveness.
I want to re-examine briefly the statementThe BBC has no editorial view of its own".However, the views of producers and presenters seap through into many programmes, as those of us who listen assiduously will have noted. If the BBC let us know how many complaints it received about "Newsnight", "Panorama", "Today" and so on, the extent of public disquiet would be clear, but it publishes none of this.
The BBC has abandoned its policy of no editorial views in a number of areas, and I shall select three briefly. I shall not repeat what the noble Lord said about South Africa. As an individual I am totally opposed to apartheid. I would fight it wherever I could. However, that is not the task, and the BBC is not allowed to take up a position on that. I thought that it was interesting to see what happened when media control was imposed in South Africa. When this was first announced by the BBC it mentioned no fewer than 10 times—at the behest, by the way, of the National Union of Journalists—in one programme that this was now controlled and therefore it was not free to say what it wanted to. However, its correspondents in every Soviet country, in every Soviet satellite and in 100 countries throughout the world which have dictatorships and not parliamentary systems are always under control. It chooses only South Africa to say that it is inhibited in what it says.
Another area in which the BBC has opted out is tobacco smoking. I am not a smoker. If one starts selecting items in regard to which one does not feel bound to abide by the charter, the licence and the conditions laid down by Parliament, where is it to stop? There was a programme on BBC Radio London about which the producer was admonished. It was quite clear that he was totally against smoking, and he went on and on against it. That is taking an editorial viewpoint on a BBC station.
Incidentally, the BBC imposes its own standard on the tobacco companies in regard to sport and advertising. A voluntary agreement was reached between the industry and the broadcasting authorities as to how much advertising on the boards round Lord's and other places was allowed on television and what size it should be. The BBC goes further than any of that: it imposes its own standards. Incidentally the IBA imposes even stricter standards. Once one is on this slippery slope—the Official Secrets Act was the third area, but I shall not repeat what my noble friend said—it seems to me that one may go much further.
I am not at all sure that the anti-American anti-Reagan bias in many programmes is not a sign that 1346 in this area the BBC is beginning to feel that it is exempt from its statutory obligations. Has any noble Lord or any Member of Parliament ever heard the BBC put forward arguments in favour of the strategic defence initiative, SDI? Is the abuse of the USA the main preoccupation of the foreign desk of the newsroom, as some allege? In times of crisis—one remembers well Suez, the Falklands and Libya —does the BBC adopt a knee jerk anti-government policy initially, although it may modify its views later? It is sometimes argued by the BBC's supporters that, because the majority of the national newspapers lean to the Right, it is the BBC's duty to restore the balance. If the BBC staff take this view and the programmes reflect it, they are totally ignoring the responsibility laid on the BBC by Parliament.
We now have news bulletins. In the old days the news was sacrosanct; it was straight. In Sir John Reith's day it had to be read on the radio by a gentleman in a dinner jacket just to show he was a very responsible person. Until recently, it was straight news. Now it has progressively become a mish-mash of news, views and comments by carefully selected people to produce the result that the producer wants, sometimes interspersed with slices of investigative journalism hung on some small peg that may have occurred in the news.
Now that 90 per cent. of newsreaders are journalists, there is an increasing tendency to finish an item by adding a barbed and loaded remark. Perhaps this is to prove their journalistic prowess, perhaps to please their like-minded editors. I notice that a newsreader publicised last week that she is to receive £50,000 a year from ITN when she leaves the BBC and goes to the IBA. For £50,000 a year, one must be a pretty good journalist and newsreader. We are muddling the two tasks. One is comment and one is news.
There was a classic example of the barbed additional item that I noted and reported at the beginning of November. The main item was the decision by the International Olympic Committee to choose Barcelona and not Birmingham for the 1992 Olympic Games. At the end, the newsreader added some words in the following sense: "You could count this as one more casualty as a result of Margaret Thatcher's attitude to sanctions against South Africa". Honestly, my Lords, how can one possibly put that tag on a news item about the selection of Barcelona by the International Olympic Committee?
The rules and regulations laid down by the BBC are clear. They seem to be somewhat disregarded lower down the line of responsibility. Let me quote one incredible letter written by a senior assistant, Mr. Richard Dunn, in the director-general's secretariat in response to a viewer complaint about the lack of balance. I have the letter.A party which is in government is bound by its nature to be making controversial decisions every day. The taking of such decisions is the exercise of power, and in a democracy such as ours, it is the job of the BBC to question whether that power is being exercised in the best interests of society.But who gave them the right on society's behalf?
He followed up by writing this:You will appreciate that it is the job of an independent organisation like the BBC to question the actions of politicians. When1347those politicians are in power, that questioning must be even more rigorous, and when the party is as active and radical as the present government, it is natural that the BBC finds that it has many areas of government action to examine on behalf of the democracy.The director-general's secretariat I suppose is the equivalent of a Minister's private office. This gentleman must therefore be reflecting a general view in that office. In the election campaign a temporary secretary with Tory sympathies was working there. She was amazed to find that every morning when they gathered the conversation was, "What can we do to help defeat the Tories today?" This is the perfectly balanced, objective, unbiased BBC.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I have restrained myself in most of this speech, particularly on the remarks about South Africa.
The noble Lord is quoting from somebody who he has not even named. He is mostly using hearsay and gossip. There is a great deal of nitpicking but very little substance to this. I think that we would prefer to hear something realistic and practical.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, I shall be delighted to name him. I do not think he will ever be admonished, but I shall be delighted to name him. He is Mr. Richard Dunn and he is described as senior assistant secretary. Does that satisfy the noble Baroness? Perhaps I may now go on.
During the campaign my wife and I used to stop canvassing at 8 p.m. for our son who was standing, hopelessly I may say, in Middlesbrough. We therefore had a chance of seeing the Nine o'clock News. My admiration for the slickness of the Labour Party's production was considerable but the loading of the news and the reporting was to me definitely biased. I have now had an opportunity—and, my gosh, it is boring—to sit through 50-minute programmes of video tape. I have examined these, especially those concerned with the last 10 days or fortnight of the campaign. There are many ways of achieving balance, and I am sure that in the timing the BBC was careful. But you can slant a programme, as I know only too well, by the selection of items, by the selection of witnesses or by the production techniques. A dominant part can be played by the order in which you cover items from the three different parties. This is particularly important when a programme goes on for 50 minutes. I cannot get any statistics on this but from my personal poll I suspect that half the audience—and it was expected to start at 10 million—probably switched off after 10 minutes, and probably another half after a further 10 minutes. So if you were not the first item you suffered.
On Monday 1st June the lead item was the Kinnock campaign. On Tuesday 2nd June the lead item was the Kinnock campaign. On Wednesday there was an exciting analysis of opinion polls, and Jon Snow could not hide his delight that the Labour Party was progressively closing the gap. On Thursday there was tremendous and extensive treatment—it was the main item—of Labour's claim about the health service and the well prepared story about the sad case of a boy who had been waiting so long for 1348 a heart operation. And so it went on. On several occasions the Alliance Party came second and on one occasion came first ahead of the Tory Party. No wonder the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was moved to write his article in the Daily Express on 5th June and no wonder so many members of the public supported him.
I come now to public accountability. The assistant director general said on Feedback on 20th February:The BBC's responsibility lies directly to Parliament and to the public at large".Yet there is absolutely no evidence that this is being carried out meticulously. My Lords, 140,000 letters are received by the BBC a year. Not all of them are complaints. Two-thirds are about television. Many people who write feel that it is a frustrating occupation and find they do not get the attention or make the impact that they should. I think the BBC sees itself as representing the public. It should certainly listen more carefully and more sympathetically to the views of the public on a whole host of subjects.
The new regime seems to be tackling its gigantic task with dedication and guts; and it needs both. Professional standards have been slipping progressively over 30 years and it will take many years to restore them. Unless the chairman, governors and management take action to live up to their statutory obligation and their stated intentions, the pressure will mount for an independent regulatory authority. Any government of any complexion may be forced to create such an authority. Perhaps this will have to be done in any case as new forms of broadcasting by satellite, cable and pay-as-you-view emerge. Unless the new BBC regime succeeds, no government could continue to allow it to be hostile to public criticism and to be the only part of the media to remain judge and jury in its own case and invariably to conclude that it is not in error.
§ 8.14 p.m.
My Lords, I echo the thanks of the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for introducing this interesting and important subject. Indeed, by putting his Unstarred Question in the manner in which he has done, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, had done us another service. He had demonstrated beyond all possible doubt that the fact that a noble Lord sits on the Cross-Benches should not be taken to indicate that he is impartial; nor should it indicate that somehow the noble Lord should be placed somewhere in the middle of the political road. I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that, from what I have heard him say on this occasion and on many others, it seems to me that he belongs to the authoritarian wing of politics of which, I am sure noble Lords will accept, there are two—one at each extreme of the political spectrum.
I have watched with great interest over something like 30 years the noble Lord's career. It seems to me that he has progressed slowly from the one wing to the other. But be that as it may, I do not question for a moment the perfect right of the noble Lord to raise 1349 these criticisms and to voice his anxieties. Indeed, I think that is a duty—a duty which he shares with everybody who is concerned about the freedom, the impartiality and the independence of broadcasting. We should all make our views known and we should criticise when we wish to do so; but I am bound to say, having listened most carefully to the noble Lord's speech—and I shall read it with care again in case I missed any points—that his individual criticisms were not all that strong. Some of them (and others that have been made by people with whom I know the noble Lord is in touch) are answered thoroughly and excellently by a BBC publication which came out very recently, Fairness and Impartiality in Political Broadcasting. It goes in great detail into some of the matters which have been raised, and answers those matters to my satisfaction if not to the noble Lord's. It seemed to me that his criticisms were aimed not so much at the broadcasting authorities which are referred to in the Unstarred Question but at individual people employed by those authorities. On that I think he is on rather dangerous ground.
The noble Lord appeared to want all the people who appear on televison as interviewers and presenters to have no opinions at all about anything. I do not want my television screen to be monopolised by people who do not have any opinions; but what is important is that enough variety of opinions must be expressed and must be expressed in different programmes. The noble Lord seemed to be talking about individual programmes presenting a view as if each programme should present a precise balance. There was time when the IBA operated in that way and appeared to suggest that every programme should be balanced within the individual programme. In my own case many years ago I was prevented from presenting a programme on smokeless zones, and the need for them, by the intervention of the Independent Broadcasting Authority's officer in the north who said that I could not do that unless I could drag along a reluctant representative of a backward local authority which did not believe in smokeless zones.
When the noble Lord, Lord Hill, became chairman he swept that away and required balance overall rather than balance in the individual programme. While the noble Lord is right to ventilate his criticisms, we do not want people who have no opinions. Of course they must have opinions. He has named some of the people who we know have opinions. But that to my mind does not take away from their ability to be broadcasters. What we really need is enough variety of people operating with enough autonomy and independence that we make sure that the whole spectrum of different views is adequately represented.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, I intervene only to make the point that my main criticism was based upon the fact that the BBC itself expresses editorial opinions. I am not against people having individual opinions, but the BBC is debarred by its licence from expressing opinions as it has done.
My Lords, that of course I entirely support. I understand the terms of its licence and I endorse that fully. The BBC must not have an editorial view and must not express one. I note what the noble Lord said about what the BBC is reputed to have said about apartheid. It is right that these criticisms should be made. That is part of the price of the freedom of our broadcasting institutions. It is right that the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority should listen to these criticisms and consider them carefully. I think that the BBC has considered many of these criticisms carefully and has answered them. I would say this. When this kind of criticism is made in one or other of the two Houses of Parliament the broadcasting authorities should listen but I hope they will not automatically support what is said.
I have to remind your Lordships (and I think all noble Lords know) that we have gone to great lengths in this country—and rightly in my view—to distance the control of broadcasting from Parliament in general and from government in particular. It is immensely important that we keep broadcasting free from the control of both central and local government. We were absolutely right some years ago when we insisted that local government should have no stake in local radio. Local radio should be the critic of the local council not its mouthpiece and the same applies to central government.
We have set up with the charter the governors of the BBC and with the Independent Broadcasting Act the chairman and members of the authority. They operate under the Act, which has been described by the noble Lord, and under the charter and have a statutory duty to fulfil those obligations. They also have statutory duties under the Representation of the People Act, as the noble Lord rightly said, but in the main people who might be in breach of that during a pre-election period would be candidates rather than the broadcasting authorities. The broadcasting authorities have a duty to ensure that they do not knowingly lead candidates into breaches of the Representation of the People Act. I am not aware that they have done so.
There is a problem in relation to balance and political impartiality with regard to the governors of the BBC and the members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. That arises from the fact that the chairman and governors of the BBC and the chairman and members of the IBA are all appointed by the government of the day. These people serve for a comparatively short period. It seems that governments now last for a much longer period. In the past six months five new members have been appointed to the Independent Broadcasting Authority. I have no doubt that these are all excellent people; but I believe there is a possibility—bearing in mind that it is the Government who appoint the governors and the members of the Independent Television Authority—the time could come when a government lasts for a very long time and when we have both those bodies packed with people who are perhaps rather more responsive to the views of the government of the day than some of us might regard as being wholly satisfactory. 1351 The same kind of thing is happening in another context in the United States of America where we now find that the Supreme Court is giving judgments wholly in accordance with the views of President Reagan—not surprisingly, for he has appointed them all. The same kind of thing happened in the old days under President Roosevelt when that Supreme Court came in the end to reflect his views. I mention this because I believe that if we finish up with members of the authority who are a little bit too favourable to the government of the day, whatever that government is, we shall possibly begin to undermine the very elaborate system we have devised (I believe it is an excellent system) whereby we ensure the independence of broadcasting from government.
Another problem arises from the relatively short tenure of members of these bodies, the governors of the BBC and the members of the authority. It seems to me that just when some of these people are beginning to learn a great deal about the broadcasting off they go. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, referred to the excellent Dimbleby lecture given by Sir Denis Forman last week, which I did not have the pleasure of hearing in person, but I read it in full in The Listener and I commend it to noble Lords. It makes some valid and important points. Sir Denis says that he believes that,The old English convention of gentlemen and players (amateurs on the board, professionals running the show) needs a fresh look".We need on these boards governors and members who are a proper mixture of the great and the good, but we need also people with detailed professional knowledge of what is a very professional matter. We may possibly see some changes in that direction as time goes on.
I have voiced my anxieties; but I feel a little alarmed by the tendency of some members or former members of the present Government appearing to wish to intervene rather more in editorial matters than was formerly customary. I could have said the same 10 or 11 years ago when a similar thing was happening under another government. Here I quote again some words of Sir Denis Forman in his Dimbleby lecture. He said this:If the government of the day does not resist the temptation to get its hands on to television, we shall be on a downward spiral towards the French model of almost direct political control. The ultimate effect of this will be to ensure that a change of party means a change of person in television right down to the editor of the news".We should think about that very carefully. I feel the greater threat to broadcasting in Britain—I have not the slightest doubt that our television and our radio is pre-eminent in the world and is far and away the best—is not the threat of political interference or political lack of balance. It is the threat of market forces, in that with an increasing number of channels, with satellite and so on, we are pushing the broadcasting authorities into the possibility of a mad rush for ratings and perhaps for money. Thereby broadcasting standards could suffer.
The noble Earl who is to reply to this debate has a formidable task. Perhaps he will forgive me for reminding him that nobody has done more than the noble Viscount the Leader of the House to maintain standards in broadcasting. I accept that partiality 1352 and balance are absolutely essential, but I believe that the maintenance of our standards in broadcasting is even more important. I venture to suggest that some of those matters are under threat.
I note that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, is to speak shortly. He chaired a most distinguished commission which brought out a wonderful report, but I think I am right in saying that it too showed a little more anxiety about standards than it did about balance and matters of this kind. It is essential that we maintain total freedom from government control of broadcasting and of those who broadcast.
I conclude again with some words from the Dimbleby lecture by Sir Denis Forman. He said:To our political masters of whatsoever party, I would say: first, be calm, be cool about broadcasting. Abuse each other on the screen as much as you like, but please do not move behind the screen and take over the controls".To that I say, "Hear, hear".
§ 8.27 p.m.
§ Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon
My Lords, I confess that I find it a little difficult to relate some of what the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said to the precise Question on the Order Paper. However, there is no doubt that this is an extraordinarily difficult subject because it is always productive of subjective views. It is almost impossible to have a completely objective view about the content of broadcasting and the motives behind it. When I was, for an unhappy period, allegedly in charge of government communications, I always received a great many letters from constituents of all parties complaining about the bias of the BBC and the other broadcasting authorities against the party which they supported. So I had all these broadcasts carefully monitored and found that over the period in question the political balance of the programmes was impeccable.
I came to the conclusion after some thought and after studying the correspondence that what happened was that when the listener heard something being said by a spokesman of his own political persuasion he really took no notice of it at all. It went over his head: he regarded it as plain common sense and did not really feel impressed one way or another. But if he heard a strongly expressed or tendentious view from somebody from another party, his blood pressure rose appreciably. At once, he reached for a pen and wrote to the BBC complaining of bias against his party. In fact the bias is, nine times out of ten, subjective. It is in the ear of the listener.
I feel a little sad that I should be criticising the BBC, because my relations with its interviewers and producers have always been excellent ever since I made my first sound broadcast rather more than 35 years ago. But I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing have a point in what they have been saying. It was not only during the election campaign that this bias was perceptible. In my view, it preceded the beginning of the election campaign.
I could not help noticing, for example—and I do not suppose for a moment that this was in any sense a breach of the BBC's charter of obligations—that for quite a long time before the election campaign 1353 began or even before the election had been called, when the Government had taken some action or made some important statement the normal procedure, at least on the radio after the 10.30 news (or during the 10.30 news, because, as my noble friend said, news and comment are not always rigidly segregated) was to have an interview with the Minister (and I would not criticise that; the questions were probing without in any sense being unfair) which was followed by equal time being given first to a spokesman of the Labour Party and then to a spokesman of the Alliance.
The psychological effect was obvious. The Minister had his innings, but then twice as long was taken up with Opposition spokesmen rubbishing what the Minister had said, and the Minister had no right of reply at all. The effect left on listeners was often that the Government must have been wrong. I have no doubt at all that this does not offend against the rules in any way, but there was no doubt what the psychological effect on the listeners was, and I do not believe that that effect was created unintentionally.
There are quite a lot of other things that one could quote.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I dislike interrupting the noble Lord, because I agree with some of the things he has said. What does the noble Lord propose should be the answer to this? There is a party grouping, the Alliance. Should they not have their say? I did not want to lose that point because I did not know what the noble Lord's answer to this was going to be. This is the way our electoral system works.
§ Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon
My Lords, I take the noble Baroness's point. I am not sure what the answer should be. All I am saying is that the effect of having a three or four minute interview with the Minister, however fair it is, and then having two consecutive interviews with spokesmen who oppose it and are trying to prove it wrong, with no right of reply from the Government, however brief, leaves an impression adverse to the Government. It cannot fail to do so.
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me? Would this difficulty not arise from the attempt to balance the programme within an individual programme, rather than present perhaps several different unbalanced programmes?—the kind of thing that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, objected to.
§ Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon
My Lords, I see all this, but the fact is that for many months before the election campaign started this had been going on, and it became more noticeable the more obvious it became that an election was going to be called. I do not pretend to know exactly the answer to this. The answer is probably that if you give four minutes to a Minister and then four minutes to a 1354 Labour spokesman and four minutes to an Alliance spokesman to rubbish him, you ought to give the Minister one minute to reply. That seems to me to be a way in which some semblance of balance might be achieved.
However, there is not much doubt in my mind—and I think I am a pretty impartial viewer and listener; as I said, I have always had the best relations with the BBC and I respect it enormously— that a general anti-government atmosphere seemed to be developing. Of course it came to a climax on polling night when the BBC's election programme was introduced by a beaming David Dimbleby who announced, almost rubbing his hands, on the basis of one entirely inaccurate exit poll that this was going to be a very close-run thing, and obviously was delighted with it. But this sort of bias had been showing all the way through.
It really is not any good saying, "Ah, but the BBC was not offending against its charter or against the rules laid down for it". Technically it may not have been. But anybody who has listened to the views of ordinary electors around the country or canvassed people of different parties knows that the general impression was that the BBC was not being impartial in its treatment immediately before and during the election campaign.
What one is to do about this I am not sure that I know, but I think that the new dispensation at the BBC have to think seriously about it. Since we hope that they have another four years or so to think out how to handle the next general election campaign, they had better start now and do this seriously, whether by means of a committee or commission of some kind I am not sure. Commissions and committees do not always come up with sensible answers.
I am certain that there is point in what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing said. Unless we grasp this fact as a reality and bear it in mind and try to do something about it, the situation is only too likely to get worse because people who stray just beyond the bounds of propriety and get away with it will stray even further beyond the bounds of propriety if they are not checked.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Lord Renwick
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for bringing up this subject. I make no apologies for taking one or two minutes to mention my past history because I had experience some time ago when my father was chairman of an independent television company. I had some opportunity then of talking to the senior directors and executives of that company on the formation, the running and the birth of "Independent Television News".
I remember well one conversation which stuck in my mind because, funnily enough, the problems of impartiality came up then with one of the directors who became a good friend of mine. He likened it to being the editor of a newspaper. I remember him saying that every night the news had to maintain a 1355 factual presentation without being boring and that there should be the due responsibility of an editor of a newspaper.
I was tempted to intervene when I heard the response from my noble friend the Minister to Lord Chalfont's Question on, I think, 29th June because I too found it difficult to understand how anybody could have failed to notice bias among newscasters and among interviewers on the lead-up to the election, and definitely in the pre-election period.
I watch quite a lot of television. I respect—and I think everybody respects—that the newscaster and the interviewer should certainly have political views of their own. I believe that a lot of people who watch some of the main and respected and experienced newscasters might for some time not be aware of an individual's own political bias. I was pleasantly surprised by the fair treatment given to political leaders in many interviews. The politician on either side was asked many strong questions and was allowed good time to give his views. Unfortunately, we look and listen to other interviewers and newscasters who are not aware that there is a restraint upon them as regards bias. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, is right in saying that they are out for ratings and are competitive for viewers. That applies to both morning television and radio programmes. There is no doubt in my mind that some interviewers use political bias and antagonism to gain viewers and that that is expected of them. That is a sad statement to make.
I am in danger of incurring the wrath of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, if I am not specific in naming names. My father and her husband were directors of ATV and worked together in the old days. I well respect the noble Baroness's husband as having experience in this field, much of which I am sure has rubbed off on the noble Baroness. I am looking forward to hearing her comments.
To return to the election night, my noble friend Lord Maude was quite right in what he said. I attended two parties that night. At the first party after dinner we turned on ITV and the exit poll showed an immediate lead of 40 for the Conservatives, increasing to 60 within a few minutes. I then went to another party, arriving after about an hour. It was attended by many people who, after having dinner, were watching BBC. I thought I had entered a different world. I had come from a party where we were happy and confident that we would have a majority of at least 50 or 60. However, at this party I saw a noble Lord who was in this House earlier and I said to him, "What is the matter? Haven't you heard the news? Don't you realise that it is now 11.30 and we are well ahead? The first two results have come in and the Conservatives are well ahead". He said, "No, is it true?" I asked him what had been happening and he said that they had been watching BBC for the last hour and a half. The news filtered through and we had a good party, but it took some time.
I do not want to take up any more of your Lordships' time except to ask: what is there to do? I agree that it should not be government policy to have 1356 too tight a rein, or any rein at all, over broadcasting. In talking about broadcasting are we talking about the distribution of information or the production of programmes? I believe that the new management of the BBC should carefully look again at the original role for which it was established in the 1920s. Things have changed and we have a totally different media environment. We have an international information industry which is growing up and needing a system of distribution. The BBC runs one of the methods of distribution of news and information; the IBA runs another; there is cable television and there should be DBS.
That is for the future and there may well be argument that the whole system should be examined in order to form a clearer idea of the role and responsibilities of the national broadcasting corporation. Is there still a need for one? I only ask and I believe that a re-assessment of the situation is in order.
I am aware of the Peacock Report and others but I am not sure that they have fully taken into account the enormous multinational and international industry of news, current affairs and information dissemination. If we have worries of political bias in the current constitution of the BBC, we should also be worried in future about bias in other forms of information. As the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, rightly said, television is the most powerful medium and an enormous former of opinion. It goes right into one's front room. It has an audio and visual impact far stronger than radio, and if one is watching television one is hooked and its views are impressed upon one. As such it has a responsibility of which the Government must be aware, and the Government should create the environment in which, in the future, we can be happy and satisfied that undue influence and bias cannot exist.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, a few moments ago the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was mildly rebuked for going further than the scope of the Question. It seemed to me that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, went far wider in asking the Question and opened up all kinds of problems which we are now trying to debate. I came to your Lordships' House thinking that we should be talking about the coverage of the general election. It is difficult for someone outside party politics, such as myself, to understand why this should be a problem. I should like to ask the noble Earl whether he has any information from the BBC or IBA indicating that they have received formal complaints from any political party about the coverage. I find it difficult to believe that the Government have heard from the authorities that they have been accused of bias of that kind.
I do not see how either of the two major parties could complain. Everyone agrees that the Labour Party fought a competent and brilliant campaign and I cannot believe that it would consider that the medium was biased against it. Equally the Conservative Party won the election with a far greater majority than was forecast before the result. I cannot believe that it would consider itself hard 1357 done by and that it lost many votes owing to the bias against it. I do not know what the Alliance feels. But I must put it to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that one must have massive research on the election coverage in order to make his case; namely that there has been substantial bias on one side or the other. You would have to run the whole coverage; you would have to get a panel of three impartial people to look at it and to make judgments. So, as I said, I was surprised that we strayed so far from the original Question, and I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, whether during the election he looked at Channel 4, because his speech was almost entirely about the BBC. Channel 4 is something for which I have a very soft spot in my heart. I think it is an excellent channel. But if you ask me, "Does it have any particular complexion politically?" I am bound to say that I think it has a complexion which favours the Left rather than the Right. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was going to weigh in about Channel 4.
I like Channel 4 because I think it does something which Mr. John Birt, who is now in a very responsible position at the BBC, advocated long ago. He said then that there was in the news a bias against understanding. If you just give the bare facts and nothing more it is very difficult sometimes for the public at large—of course I do not mean your Lordships, who are extremely well informed—to catch the import of the news. I think that is one of the reasons why the BBC has taken to having a member of its staff who, after the newscasters have given an item of news, will make a comment on it. It is perfectly clear that it is a comment and not just a news item. I think that was done perhaps to meet the point that Mr. Birt made before he ever went to the BBC.
There is another thing to which I should like to draw the attention of the House. Much play has been made about the BBC having an opinion about South Africa and apartheid. Should the BBC, or any other broadcasting organisation, have an opinion about communism and democracy? I ask because there are some things in our political life in which it seems to me that we have a rooted assumption in our political life. We say: "This is the way we believe the world should he ordered and that is not the way that the world should be ordered". Can a broadcasting organisation completely ignore an assumption of that kind?
Of course I take the point about South Africa, which I imagine Lord Orr-Ewing had in mind: the question of how South Africa moves—if it ever can move—from the kind of political setup it now has to one which all parties in this country believe is desirable. How that is to happen is indeed difficult, but I think that to say "no broadcasting organisation has any right to express an opinion about apartheid itself", is going to land you in deep and troublesome waters.
When I spoke of Channel 4, I had in mind the fact that all broadcasters when dealing with items of current affairs, are going to appear to those in authority to be hostile to authority. As someone who 1358 sometimes has been in a position of authority myself, I know exactly how disagreeable that is. You try and talk to the press and express your point of view; and you are then amazed that they show no disposition to believe you at all. And yet it is very important that those in authority should realise that people are going to be sceptical of the explanations they give.
If you look at the broadcasters' flagships—"Panorama" for the BBC and "World in Action" for ITV or at the output of Channel 4—you will find that they question authority. I think, too, that one has to recognise that people who are in the broadcasting organisations do not regard themselves as speaking with the voice of the BBC or of the particular commercial independent company of which they are a member. They think of themselves as speaking with the voice of the programme that they are on. I think here that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was somewhat unfair to the broadcasters. He was entirely within his rights when he criticised Mr. Prothero, because Mr. Prothero was speaking as a senior official of the organisation. But on the programmes themselves you have to recognise that the people in them have a particular role in the programme.
It is true that broadcasters can go far too far in their criticism of politicians and I think there is one important case to bear in mind. I have this case in mind when I remember a statement which was made about a former Prime Minister. I cannot quite remember the exact words but it was something like:When his lips are moving you know he is lying.Yes, it may sound funny, I know. But it was in fact calumny. The quotation I want to read to your Lordships comes from a famous case of Entick v. Carrington in 1765, when Lord Chief Justice Camden said:All civilised governments have punished calumny with severity; and with reason; for these compositions debauch the manners of the people; they excite a spirit of disobedience, and enervate the authority of government; they provoke and excite the passions of the people against their rulers, and the rulers oftentimes against the people.So I think that in fact there are cases where broadcasters go far beyond the limit which I believe is permissible and which can do very grave harm. I think also that the broadcasters have got to realise that they are public service broadcasters whether they are in independent television or the BBC.
Let me try and meet the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. I, too, have criticised the BBC in recent years. It is not two years ago since I gave a long talk on Channel 4 in which I criticised the BBC severely for the attitude they took for instance on the Falklands War when reporters in radio went to interview the widows of those Welsh guardsmen who had lost their lives when their ship was struck by a missile in order to find out what their opinion now was of the war. That seemed to me to be totally inadmissible.
I also criticised the BBC at that time for the injunction to use the phrase "British troops" instead of "our troops". The nation was at war and it was a war which was supported by all the political parties, though of course there were dissidents who thought that the war was wrong. It seems to me that the BBC as a national corporation has a duty to remember that it owes obligations to the nation.
1359 I think that the BBC has in recent years got into great difficulties. There was the "Real Lives" controversy. I said in public that I thought that the then Home Secretary had behaved most unwisely. However, so did the staff of the corporation. There was no sense of obligation to the corporation and to my mind the strike by the journalists was a disgraceful affair which did great harm to the BBC and to Britain in the world east of the Iron Curtain.
It is not that I think that the BBC has been and remains without fault. I think some things went wrong. The libel suits showed lamentable error of judgment. Jeremy Isaacs once said about journalism: "Comment is free but facts come very expensive". That is something which all broadcasters ought to remember.
We now have a new deal at the BBC. We have a new chairman, a new vice-chairman, and a new director general and deputy director general—and, I might add, quite a number of other new faces are beginning to appear. There has been a very substantial reshuffle at the corporation and we ought to pay tribute to the new chairman, deputy-chairman and board of governors who are taking very seriously the criticisms that have been made in the past. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, rather pooh-poohed that fact. He went on to say something that I deeply deplore; namely, that the time had perhaps come to break up the corporation and to destroy something which is the admiration of the world.
The BBC is far more important than a few silly, mistaken ignoramuses among the junior staff, who will always make mistakes. The BBC is something for which this country is still enormously admired not merely for its presentation of news and comment on news but for its remarkable artistic output and for what it does for the arts in the country as a whole. I very much hope that the understandable irritation that is sometimes felt about the corporation will not be developed into a venomous attack on its very existence.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Baroness Lane-Fox
My Lords, like all other noble Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for tabling this Unstarred Question. Memories can grow foggy about facts and events shown on screen and therefore it is especially important and salubrious that the noble Lord has paraded chapter and verse of so many very relevant happenings.
People such as I who cannot get about much are indebted to the BBC for bringing to us sporting events, wonderful scenery, documentaries, drama and much else. Basically we are its allies but not to the extent of being blinded to the bias that has been displayed in recent months and years. Credibility as regards its impartiality has been stretched too far.
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, doubted whether it would be possible to measure the balance or imbalance of any particular programme, but I should like to give just one illustration of that. One morning 1360 during the general election campaign Sue Lawley presented a phone-in programme which featured Norman Tebbit. The questioning on such a programme is generally tough and the questions need close and individual attention. Mr. Tebbit was answering pretty well in what was perhaps a rather gentler manner than is his usual wont when the presenter, Sue Lawley, started to interrupt him, which she did over and over again. To his great credit Norman Tebbit remained calm and cool. He answered a series of hostile questions most effectively despite being chivvied and bombarded throughout with what was an apparently aggressive barrage of interruptions from Sue Lawley. She kept telling him that he was not answering properly, and that line persisted until the end of the programme.
From my slight experience on the fringe of broadcasting I know that it is pointless to make a charge of bias unless one can prove imbalance. After three other shocked viewers had contacted me I drew my courage together and telephoned the BBC where I found an Ansaphone ready to take a message. I said that Miss Lawley had shown a lamentable and horrifying degree of bias and added that I proposed to make a judgment about balance when I had compared the programme with the way in which she dealt with Mr. Kinnock on the same programme the next day. The result of that test was that we saw Mr. Kinnock interrupted once or twice but it was done in a helpful and co-operative, if not to say encouraging manner. Measuring those two programmes for bias, there cannot be the slightest doubt where it lay.
The BBC's election polls provided some very interesting figures. Its forecast was for a majority of 26 against what turned out to be the reality of 101. Later it was promised to set up an inquiry to discover the reason for the discrepancy, and I hope that the public will soon be told the outcome.
Many of the BBC's old allies, as I am, want to be shown that partial mischief and suggestion in BBC broadcasting is on the way out. For this and many more fundamental reasons I wholeheartedly support the tabling of this Question.
§ 9.8 p.m.
§ Lord Auckland
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has raised this Question in his usual buoyant manner. Unlike many noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, I have not been interviewed in this country on either sound radio or television. The only experience I have had was in New Zealand in 1971 when, three hours after landing at Mangere airport in Auckland on an official visit, I was interviewed by a fairly aggressive commentator for half-an-hour. He wanted to discuss the Common Market but that I refused to do, because Sir Geoffrey Rippon had just returned to this country having negotiated the deal. But I did answer a number of other questions and I had an example then of some fairly tough interviewing. As I said, since then I have never been invited to submit myself to the media.
I have taken part in five election campaigns, at least three of which were before the media really took an interest in electioneering as they do now. I take a 1361 rather different view of this matter from some of your Lordships, because, thank heavens, an election campaign is a short campaign and during that time the media have a very tough job to do. If I have a criticism of the media, it is about the overkill in an election campaign.
I remember that two weeks or so before the campaign finished, my dear wife, who was in politics before I was, said to me at 11 o'clock on a Monday evening, "For heaven's sake, dear, find something else besides these damned politicians." Three channels failed to provide an alternative and the fourth channel was showing a rock concert. Anything was better at that time of night than electioneering.
What we really have to do is to think of the future. What we are discussing now is somewhat déjà vu. In the words of the famous song from the Lilac Domino,What is done, you never, never can undo.So what has been done during the last election campaign cannot be undone, but we have to think of the future. As a fairly compulsive viewer of television, particularly during the election campaign, I mourn the death of the Swingometer and Robert Mackenzie, because we then had a fairly impartial view of the campaign. We now have a surfeit of commentators.
I must say that during the election campaign I spent most of my time on business in Scotland, and latterly on the Isle of Man at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference. Election night was spent in a hotel in Douglas with parliamentarians from Gibraltar, Cyprus and the Channel Islands, and what we saw was a whole lot of comment, particularly on the BBC, with an irritatingly measly ration of results.
My complaint—and I think it is the complaint of a lot of people—is not so much about the political bias of the campaign, but about the fact that the commentators themselves spent so much time discussing the various positions of the political parties, whereas what people wanted to know was the result in Eastbourne or Edinburgh, South. My message to the broadcasting authorities, and particularly to the BBC, would be to put that matter right and let us have more news about what is going on in the constituencies.
I like to switch, particularly during an election campaign—I did not get an opportunity this time—between the BBC and ITV, with half-an-hour of each. One can then get a rather fascinating insight into how the programmes are conducted. I do not possess video, so I have not had an opportunity six weeks later of recalling how the campaign went, and can only go by what went on at the time.
One suggestion which could be made—and Australia did this for a time—is completely to ban opinion polls during an election campaign. During the whole of our election campaign and well before it we suffered from a surfeit of opinion polls from all kinds of esoteric organisations. That is the main criticism of the campaign. I do not know whether opinion polls sway the electorate. I rather doubt whether they do but they are very irritating. I shall go almost further and say that for the last week of the campaign at least there should be a virtual ban on 1362 party political broadcasts. By then the electorate have made up their minds.
I conclude by saying that tonight in much that has been said during the debate, for which we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, we have very largely been discussing the past. Whatever our views may be, there is much to learn for the next campaign in four years' time.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Thorneycroft
My Lords, I shall not come between the House and the noble Baroness for more than a few moments, but perhaps it may be helpful, even to the noble Baroness, if I make a few short comments on what has been said. The debate is rather apt both in origin and timing. Its mood comes from a speech which was made from the Cross-Benches by a noble Lord who has a very deep knowledge of a very difficult branch of journalism that is particularly concerned with defence. The noble Lord made a remarkably powerful speech which certainly deserves the deepest consideration by those new men who are now in charge of broadcasting in this country.
I must say that I share with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, a certain concern. It seems to me that we may be faced with a position in which the new masters of the BBC really succeed in gaining control of that organisation. But I agree that that would be difficult and could not be done quickly. But either that shall happen or some new as yet unspecified solution has got to be found. I share with the noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Chalfont, a very strong prejudice in favour of the first solution.
The debate is also apt in its timing. I said in this House a month or two before the general election that I regarded the lady as unstoppable and she was. I did not realise quite how unstoppable she was going to be, I must confess. But with great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, there is really nothing that could be said by the BBC which had very much effect.
A rather rough interview that took place between Sue Lawley and a character as tough as Norman Tebbit was not going to change the course of history. In fact the Conservative Party had the tide well under it and one of the finest leaders that it has ever had and that interview was not going to affect it.
As regards the news bulletins which have been commented on, one never knows quite what their effect will be. I agree with what has been said about the impression they gave. There was a soft lens on Mr. Kinnock. Everybody praised the campaign which Mr. Gould had worked out. Mr. Kinnock was seen kissing everybody in sight and changing a baby's nappy. I thought that that was a brilliant idea. In my day it was much more difficult to change a baby's nappy because one had to hold a great pin and half the audience would be hoping that one swallowed it.
Nevertheless it was a brave stroke and I saluted Mr. Kinnock for doing it. Much later during that programme one heard a little of Margaret, but one mostly heard attacks on her. She was always shown right in the middle of some awful storm over one thing or the other. I am not complaining because in 1363 fact the public did not want to have their nappy being changed. The public wanted something very different. It wanted to see the leader who was under attack and who knew what she was going to do. On the whole, rather than criticise the television coverage, I believe that it rather helped us. Perhaps fortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, cast his speech rather wider than the actual question of the election. I believe that the important thing is that the BBC should read again what their licence says and what it is that they are really licensed to do.
If I may catch the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for a moment (I do not wish to interrupt an important conference) no one is saying that the people in the BBC should not have opinions. They would not be there unless they had some opinions. A man must think about something or other. The important thing is that when he gets on the air, he should not reveal to us what his opinions are. He should get on with his job. We are not asking for nonentities. We are asking for men with a certain amount of background, knowledge and self-control.
People in the BBC can always have opinions. However, when they start expressing their opinions and letting us see what they are, apart from anything else the programmes get so dull, if I may say that to the noble Lord, Lord Annan. Is there anything duller than a BBC programme on Africa? And what a subject! It is a great, exciting and deeply tragic continent. With all its beauty and all its bitterness, one would think that some reporter would be enthused about presenting to us all the arguments and calling people in front of us to present them. But when one gets some rather drab, middle-aged gentleman who has obviously made up his mind long ago, there is no longer any excitement.
I think that what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and I are asking is whether, in this time and with these new leaders, we could not get the leaders of the BBC to do something about educating their staff on how to conduct such programmes. I admit that what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, calls adversary journalism is very much in vogue. It is much easier to slam everything; every institution, every political party, every politician and everything in sight. In a way, one does not have to think because all that simply bubbles up. It is far more difficult to stand back and take a more balanced view and to think, as one looks at Africa, whether anyone could govern it. That was the first thought that struck me when I had been there for any length of time. It seemed to me to 1364 be an almost incredibly difficult problem. It bristles with opportunities for examination and for great men of all views to put them forward.
I also agree with what has been said about the Official Secrets Act. There is a case for not having such an Act or for amending it. However, amending it is probably even more difficult and is desperately hard. The need for, and dependence upon, people keeping the secrets they learn in government and in the Secret Service is a powerful case indeed. Instead of simply putting it out that they do not believe in the Official Secrets Act, why do they not argue that great moral issue and get people to argue it out in front of the public? It would make the BBC a far more interesting medium to listen to.
In a way, we all ought to be on the same side in this matter. At the moment the BBC staff may be, broadly speaking, a bit Left. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that Channel 4 is probably even "Lefter". It is my favourite programme. I do not know what that says about me or about Channel 4, but there are such views.
The situation is changing and new generations are coming along. There will be a new generation of young men and women in the BBC who will share the views of Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Gorbachev and others who think that corporatism and collective stuff is rather out, and that the new idea of the private sector, enterprise and the market is really in. We do not want them to take charge and say that collectivism is like apartheid, which we are all against. Once you open the door to such people it becomes very dangerous indeed. Once you allow them to judge what subject they think they can have a policy on, there is no knowing where it may stop.
In this debate I am left with a very deep concern. The case that is made out is sufficiently serious to warrant great thought by the BBC. I hope that in his reply the noble Earl will indicate that he will read the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, at dictation speed to the top levels in the BBC and ask them to really think about it. It is not a matter which they can dismiss. We are all concerned because we want that great institution to go on within the terms of its licence. We do not want to see something else introduced; we do not want to see governments interfering; and we do not want to see outside organisations monitoring it. Those would be bad ways of solving the problem. The solution lies with the BBC, but it is urgent, and the BBC should be told so.
§ 9.26 p.m.
§ Lord Ferrier
My Lords, I apologise for jumping in, but I reached London only at lunch time. There is one specific point which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, did not mention which I feel it is my duty to mention. He read from Clause 13 of the licence and agreement. I have done so before in this House. Looking at the Question before the House, I do not believe,that the Broadcasting Authorities discharged their statutory responsibilities during the period leading up to the General Election".Why is that so? It is because "Today in Parliament", a well-recognised programme with approximately 200,000 listeners, used to be repeated the next morning as "Yesterday in Parliament". At that time of the day the listeners numbered a couple of million. But the BBC's "Yesterday in Parliament" is no longer a repeat of "Today in Parliament". The construction of "Yesterday in Parliament" is prepared by the producer, whereas "Today in Parliament" is produced by the parliamentary staff.
As I have said before, I feel that the House has been diddled by the BBC through its not repeating in "Yesterday in Parliament" the details broadcast in "Today in Parliament". In that respect it did not comply with the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont.
§ 9.29 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, the genesis of the debate is quite interesting and strange. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in a Question on 29th June, asked the Government to set up an independent inquiry into the manner in which the Broadcasting authorities discharged their statutory duties. Tonight we are debating whether they fulfilled their statutory responsibilities in the period leading up to the general election, which is really a different question. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, the debate has gone all over the place. Some noble Lords have kept to the aspect of the general election while others have talked about broadcasting in general terms. What I find rather amusing about the whole thing, in view of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Thorneycroft, is that a former chairman of the Conservative Party spoke in, I might say, perhaps more generous terms about the BBC than the noble Lord from the Cross-Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, appears to be to the Right of the noble Lord, Lord Thorneycroft.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way for a moment? In what way is criticism of the BBC Right wing? That is a most curious remark.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, made appeared in an article that he wrote on, I believe, 5th June published in the Daily Express. His comments were constantly decrying people who were anti-Thatcher and anti-Conservative, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Thorneycroft, brushed that aside in an amusing way.
It is worrying that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has not produced very hard or specific evidence for 1366 the accusations that he has made. He has repeated what appeared in the article in the Daily Express about the odd smile, the attitude and the movements, but we have been given no specific instances. It is quite wrong to put forward matters in this way. That applies also, I am afraid, to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, who treated us to a great many generalisations.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way again? I have looked at all the tapes. I specifically obtained the videos and laboriously went through them. I was not speaking without having studied them, timed them, and listed the order in which people batted. I took immense trouble, as did my noble friend who was quoting facts, and very often BBC facts.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord should allow me to finish the sentence. I was about to say that what has worried me is that he and other noble Lords in this debate have quoted themselves as being quite impartial viewers and listeners. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, I felt, was taking a better line when he admitted that these perceptions were subjective, and went on to say that he was an impartial viewer and listener. Not one of us is an impartial viewer and listener. The great thing is to recognise our own partiality or prejudice.
§ Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon
My Lords, I do not think I claimed to be impartial. I am not impartial and I never have been.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I respectfully suggest that the noble Lord reads Hansard tomorrow. I have written down the words, "impartial viewer and listener". I think he will find that he said that. I may be wrong, but I do not think so. I wrote those words as he said them. I thought that contradicted his point about being subjective.
In the Daily Express the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, referred to the resistance of the British public who are suffering from being brainwashed. That is the word he used in the article. It has been pointed out several times, as we are all aware, that if this were true the eventual result of the election points to a very strong resistance on the part of the British public.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Renwick, spent such a miserable hour or so. I was switching from one channel to another. I was among a very Conservative group of people, because they were practically all Tories, and they did not seem to be at all upset. In fact, they were distressingly happy, almost from the beginning when the results began to appear. They seemed to have cottoned on. Comments have been made, for instance, that Peter Snow looked pleased when there was a Labour gain, or something like that. He was like that all the way through the election programme, like a small boy playing with trains. He loved the jumping round and 1367 working it out. It did not seem to be a question of who was or was not winning; the game was the important thing.
To be serious, what I find worrying is that the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, rest very much on his subjective perceptions. They are not backed by what I would call real evidence or proper analysis. This makes the debate somewhat pseudo. It is only natural for some to suspect that the real reason lies in the rather unfortunate attempt to influence broadcasters by using Parliament as a base for engaging in what amounts to unsubstantiated attacks on the integrity of broadcasters and journalists by the BBC and independent television.
We have all heard about Sue Lawley's interview with Norman Tebbit. It is obviously not right, whoever is being interviewed, that people should be hectored or interrupted. I have no qualms in agreeing with that immediately. Politicians or interviewees should be able to look after themselves. Those of us who have been interviewed, of whatever party, have found that interviewers can often be very sharp and at times almost impertinent. However, one always has the right to say if one wants, "Enough of this", and get up and go; or, as Harry Truman put it, if you do not like the heat you must keep out of the kitchen.
Broadcasters sometimes fall short of what I would call professionalism, which is why some of them behave in this way. They can be a touch too aggressive or interruptive. It is wrong when they are, whoever they are interviewing or whatever their personal beliefs; but we must recognise that they are only human and like the rest of us therefore given to mistakes and errors. Indeed, this has been recognized—I do not apologise for repeating what has been pointed out by several noble Lords—by the newly appointed director-general of the BBC, Mr. John Birt, who has responsibility for the corporation's news and current affairs output. He has instituted a review of methods of interviewing as part of his general re-examination of the journalistic output of the BBC. With respect, it would have been far better to await the result of the other initiatives that are being taken within the BBC and of its inquiry into the conduct of the election before embarking on such a debate.
In the last election the BBC set up an election advisory unit at the highest level. The unit met twice every day, was available for consultation by news and current affairs staff all over the country and was on call 24 hours a day. This is the first time that such a unit has worked in an election. Independent television, which did not have as great a political coverage as the BBC, nevertheless asks viewers whether they feel that television provides a fair and unbiased view of news and current affairs programmes. The BBC and ITV, it seems to me, are doing the best that they can, saving the odd mistakes that are made.
I go back to where we started. If television and radio were not impartial, where were they partial and in what direction? If they were lacking in balance, to which end of the electoral scale did they gravitate? If they failed to be objective, whose subjective 1368 judgments did they articulate? To whose tunes were they dancing?
With the exception of two or three speakers in tonight's debate, it has been clear which side they were on. Everybody else seems to have been absolutely convinced that the whole emphasis was against the Conservative Party and on the side of Labour. That is the way it has come over in this debate. If such partiality and imbalance cannot be expressed in very much tighter terms—and I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, has said—it does not really add up to a case for government taking extreme action that would be quite calamitous.
What we have to accept is what any reasonable person will accept, and does accept—that broadcasters discharged their statutory and other responsibilities. That is not to say that their coverage was perfect, that there were not areas for improvement and that at times there was not too much coverage or too little. But to identify room for improvement or suggest areas that might be dealt with in different and perhaps better ways is quite different from laying the ground for the kind of implicit and occasionally explicit condemnation in which the noble Lord who initiated the debate has indulged.
There is ample evidence, as we all know, that the public rely more on television for their information than on any other medium and there is also ample evidence that they trust that information more than any other; certainly, on the whole, more than the press. There is evidence in research undertaken by the Broadcasting Research Unit that the last thing the public want or expect is for the broadcasters to roll over like a pet poodle at the feet of their political masters. The public expect and demand searching, inquiring and critical questioning of all politicians; and on the whole, with perhaps a few lapses, that is what they got during the election campaign.
I must also point out that the phraseology of the Unstarred Question was not quite right. It is of course true that statutory obligations attach to the commerical television system—that it be impartial, objective and balanced—but the situation with the BBC is rather different. No such statutory obligations attach to it, though it has historically been the case that the BBC has recognised that it should be committed to such principles and has articulated this through a series of memoranda which have been issued and have been in force for many years now, and also in the conditions of its licence. Its actual statutory position is rather different.
It is important to be precise and clear in stating the problem, if that is what it be, and in discussing the details which are encapsulated by the problem.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will give way for one moment while I ask her whether she does not regard the BBC's licence as imposing a statutory duty upon it.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, that is what I said, though the position is rather different from that of the IBA and the ITV companies.
Sir Denis Forman, in his Dimbleby lecture last week, from which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, quoted, said: 1369Today the role of broadcasting authorities—the BBC and the IBA—is under threat. There is, for instance, the threat of political interference born of the desire of politicians the world over to have broadcasting say what they want it to say".He went on to mention other threats. I feel that this constant carping at the broadcasting authorities when the criticisms are so fragilely based is an encouragement, unfortunately, for some of them to take more cowardly action than they might in presentation, a discouragement to experimentation unless we are very careful, and thoroughly bad for the health of our democratic society.
With all its faults, we are blessed with a first-class broadcasting system. Both parts are regulated, though one is commercial and the other is the BBC. Let us be very careful that we do not inflict harm on the broadcasting authorities, ourselves or our country. Let us be very careful what we do before taking any actions such as those that have been suggested tonight.
§ 9.45 p.m.
The Minister of State, Home Office (The Earl of Caithness)
My Lords, we have had a most useful debate and are particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for instituting the debate tonight. It is right that I make clear at this stage of the debate that I am not here to defend the broadcasting authorities. They are quite capable of defending themselves on any allegations made against them.
I have listened with great interest to what has been said this evening some of which has been familiar and some less so. I should like to answer some of the points that have been made and some of the questions that have been raised. But before doing so, I should like to remind your Lordships about the arrangement which we have for broadcasting in this country and in particular the special place of the broadcasting authorities.
The broadcasting authorities—and I am referring here primarily to the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority—are appointed to protect the public interest in broadcasting. They owe their existence principally to the fact that, unlike other forms of publishing, broadcasting is a monopoly. This fact is forced on us by the shortage of radio frequencies. In the words of the 1925 report which led to the establishment of the BBC, the broadcasting authorities are the trustees for the public interest. Their responsibility is a very large one. Every day, each day of the year, our four television channels broadcast about 100 different programmes. In addition, there are four national radio networks and about 100 local radio stations, many of which broadcast 24 hours a day. All this adds up to something like 20,000 hours of television broadcasting each year, and several hundred thousand hours of radio broadcasting. Even if we confine our attention to the period of the general election campaign, we are still talking about thousands of hours of broadcasting.
The words of the Broadcasting Act 1981 require the IBA to be satisfied so far as posssible that their programmes meet certain standards. The BBC must meet similar standards. We have discussed in this House on a number of occasions what those 1370 standards are. They include questions of taste, decency and offensiveness; the need for accuracy and due impartiality in the presentation of the news; and the need for due impartiality in the three areas: in news and news features; in matters of political or industrial controversy; and in matters of current public policy. I remind the House that the Broadcasting Act 1981 states that impartiality may be judged over a series of programmes taken as a whole, of which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, reminded us earlier.
The words "due impartiality" are important, because a broadcaster is not required to be impartial on matters such as drug trafficking, cruelty and racial intolerance, for example, on which society is virtually unanimous. Because of this the importance of good management is highlighted so that that line is not crossed.
The broadcasting authorities have a daunting task. It is clear that the individual members of the governing boards of the broadcasting authorities cannot, and do not, watch and listen to everything which their authority broadcasts. Still less do they vet programmes in advance, although from time to time this happens when the subject matter is particularly controversial. Their job is to see that working systems are in place to ensure that the obligations are fulfilled. At the most basic level this means that there should be staff in post of sufficient calibre and authority to be able to take difficult editorial decisions; that there are proper arrangements for referral upwards of awkward programmes; that programmes and programme makers are chosen from a range of backgrounds and points of view; and, most importantly, that producers, particularly in the area of current affairs, understand and respect the responsibilities that each of them bear.
Every year sees a substantial growth in the number of programmes broadcast in the United Kingdom. Not only do we have more terrestrial television channels, but each of those is broadcasting for more and more hours each day and night. We are now about to see the start of satellite broadcasting and we already have the beginning of a cable network capable of delivering an unlimited number of television channels.
The Government have recently put forward proposals for radio that would allow the development of many hundreds of new local stations. Clearly, if it is already impossible for the members of the broadcasting authorities to watch and hear every programme for which they are responsible, it is going to become increasingly so in the future.
However, should we be unduly anxious about this? The Government believe that subject to proper safeguards to ensure that single point of view does not dominate, the more voices that are able to be heard the better. The views of those at one extreme will be cancelled out by the views of those at another. This is the principle which we have accepted for many hundreds of years so far as the printed word is concerned, and I have no doubt that in the future, as and when the monopoly of the airwaves by the BBC and the IBA is diminished, so we shall increasingly come to accept it for broadcasting. That is the challenge that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, put to 1371 me as something of excitement for the future and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, took the opposite view and feared the same challenge.
However, in the meantime, while broadcasting remains a monopoly, the broadcasting authorities have important responsibilities. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, asks whether the Government are satisfied that they have discharged them properly. This question reminds me of the riddle of Juvenal—and I do not go into Latin because Latin was a language that I never got on with at school—and the English translation is, "who will guard the guards themselves?" The answer, I think, is that it is not the job of the Government to second guess the individual decisions or broad policies of the BBC or the IBA. That would be to fly in the face of Parliament's wishes and would be tantamount to saying that the Government knew better than the broadcasting authorities how they should fulfil the role which Parliament has laid upon them; or that the Government were more fully acquainted with the programmes shown during this period than the broadcasting authorities themselves. It is of course unrealistic to assume that that would be so.
We would not presume to tell the broadcasting authorities how to do their job, just as we would not tell the newspaper publishers, the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the Director of Fair Trading how to do theirs. There is only a very small number of people in government responsible for broadcasting matters and they are not paid to watch and monitor television programmes but to advise on the broad thrust of policy. Where the Government do have a role is in keeping in touch with opinion in the country and in Parliament about people's perception of broadcasting in the United Kingdom and whether the generality of opinion is that the present arrangements are producing the results which Parliament expected of them.
The public are not slow to write to the broadcasters, to Home Office Ministers or to their MPs when they have seen things on television which they consider are wrong, unfair or improper. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Maude recounted the days when he was responsible and did such a good job for Her Majesty's Government when he was in charge of broadcasting, and he has much more experience than I have on these matters. He reminded the House of the letters that he got.
If one compares the complaints received in the Home Office about an average cause célèbre with complaints about the coverage of the last general election, it seems clear that the latter was not an issue of major public concern. Complaints received in the Home Office in relation to a sexually explicit scene in Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" were 85 from members of the public and seven from MPs. On the general election coverage there were no complaints from members of the public and only three from MPs. Of these three, two were about ITN announcing the result of individual counts before the returning officer and were not therefore relevant. The one relevant complaint was from one MP about alleged bias by Cleveland Radio. I also could answer the noble Lord, Lord Annan, by saying that as far as 1372 I am aware there has not been a complaint by a political party. There were of course complaints received by the broadcasting authorities from the general public.
As on this test these figures show that no complaints from the public reached the Home Office, it can be argued that this was not a matter of great public concern, and that television had, by and large, a good election. It can be argued, as indeed it was by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that it was perhaps spoiled by some overkill and by one or two instances of boorishness on the part of television journalists Even if this latter criticism is true, it is certainly no grounds on which to condemn the whole system. None of us would suppose that, in all the hours of general election coverage, there was not the occasional programme which was unfair to one side or another, which trivialised the issues, or in which an interviewer behaved in a high-handed manner. It is easy to forget that, not only during a general election but throughout the year, our broadcasting arrangements regularly produce informative programmes of high quality, with serious attempts at analysis of complex issues.
I am sure that the House will join me in expressing a debt of gratitude to the broadcasting authorities for the work that they carry out. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, mentioned the dangers of political bias among members of the broadcasting authorities because they are appointed by governments. I am sure that the noble Lord was talking about a hypothetical situation rather than the present situation under this Conservative Government, where we have a chairman of the IBA and a vice-chairman of the BBC who are both distinguished former Labour Ministers.
It would be a particularly un-listening Minister not to have noted that most of your Lordships believe that there may have been an element of bias in the broadcast coverage of the election, but we must bear in mind the caution of my noble friend Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon about the dangers of a subjective judgment in this area. Although some references were made to the attitude of some employees of the broadcasters, I did not note much in the way of specific example of bias in the election coverage itself. If there are some examples which noble Lords have in mind they should take their specific complaints to the broadcasters themselves. I am sure that the broadcasters will listen to the opinions that have been expressed tonight. As the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said, it is up to anyone concerned about the matters to make specific complaints.
I should remind the House that the governing boards are directly responsible for hiring and firing all senior managers within the broadcasting authorities. Recent events have shown that they are not slow to use these powers when they think that it is appropriate. They are also responsible for issuing detailed guidance for programme makers and editors on the standards which they expect their programmes to meet. In view of what I said earlier, I reiterate that where there is specific complaint it should be made to the authorities as the responsible body. I am sure that those authorities will take due note of anything that 1373 your Lordships say; as I believe they have taken due note of the recent Richard Dimbleby lecture given by Sir Denis Forman, mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont and Lord Winstanley, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk.
Clearly broadcasting is an important and complicated subject. I would not wish to argue that our present arrangements for regulating it are perfect or that mistakes are not made. However, it is clear from tonight that the House is on the same side as that which my noble friend Lord Thorneycroft desires. The arrangements of the authorities must meet the objectives which I believe we all agree are necessary: of independence from government; freedom of expression within the law; safeguards on matters such as taste and political impartiality; access to adequate sources of funding; and at the same time produce programmes of genuine quality and originality.