HL Deb 25 July 1988 vol 500 cc4-7

2.45 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the BBC is observing its formal obligations in current programmes portraying police activities.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the BBC is responsible for the content of the programmes which it transmits. It is not a matter in which the Government intervenes.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that not very informative Answer. Is he aware that in an episode of "EastEnders" shown during family viewing time at 7.30 in the evening of 12th July there was a scene with a girl who had been raped reporting at a police station which breached all standards of good broadcasting? Is he further aware that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has already complained to the BBC that the portrayal of the police officer in these very sensitive circumstances as rough and unsympathetic was quite damaging to all that the police have tried to do in recent years? Is my noble friend aware that a complaint was made by Mrs. Whitehouse of the National Viewers' and Listeners Association about the fact that showing a scene of sex and violence during family viewing time is very offensive? Will he please expedite the setting up of the Broadcasting Standards Council to deal with such offences.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend did not find my Answer very informative. If I may say so with modesty, I thought it was peculiarly informative. I understand his concern. As a Minister with responsibility for the police, I have sympathy with those who find it a great pity when producers portray them in an inadequate or insensitive manner. This matter has given a great deal of trouble over the past two years and efforts have been made to make the reporting of such offences less traumatic than it used to be.

I believe some people may find the portrayal of this kind of material not to be very good entertainment. That is a matter of opinion; it is not a matter upon which the Government have the right to intervene..

I assure my noble friend that the Broadcasting Standards Council has been set up and it already has a chairman; a deputy chairman is likely to be appointed in the near future. We hope that the council will be operational before the end of the year. I also confirm to him that the BBC has strict guidelines which it gives to producers, stating what should and should not be portrayed. Nine o'clock is regarded as the hour before which particular care should be taken.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, is it not the case that in the following episode of this programme two days later the rape victim was persuaded to go to the police station? As was shown on television, she received a very sympathetic response from a policewoman. This fact was praised by the real police. Is the Minister further aware that in an interview with the Daily Mail on 14th July, Commander Thelma Wagstaff, chairman of the Fourth Metropolitan Police Working Party on Rape and Sexual Offences, said: it is clear that the male police officer in question had not had special training in dealing with rape victims…we still have a very long way to go"? Does he agree that it is very important that, if a rape victim is put off by an initial brush with the police, she should at least be encouraged to go to the police station to have the opportunity of the sympathetic response that occurred in this case?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. If a person has such a traumatic experience she should be encouraged to go to the police because there are special places set up to deal with such cases. Of course not everyone follows all the cases serial by serial, and very often the damage which is done by one episode is not necessarily rectified by a later episode. That is very much a matter for the producers.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that television companies portray the police either as buffoons or villains? In the view of many noble Lords, they are neither, but ordinary men and women trying to do a decent and a very tough job. Is it not about time that the Government told the BBC and ITV that enough is enough?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord has said about the police being ordinary people trying to do a difficult job. However, it is not for the Government to tell the BBC that enough is enough. It is for the noble Lord to write to the chairman of the BBC to tell him that enough is enough.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, if the noble Earl were sitting at home with his family when a battered woman arrived to complain that she had been raped, would he not tell the children to leave the room while he dealt with the matter? Has the BBC a right to introduce battered women who have been raped into family viewing hours? Is it not time that the chairman of the governors of the BBC, whoever he is, let it be quite clearly understood by all his staff and producers that the next person who causes the BBC to make a public apology will be fired without benefit of anything at all, that the second time it happens his boss will be fired, and so on up the line until one has got rid of the chairman of the governors of the BBC? Thus are men governed.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is a fascinating catalogue of firing which extends the imagination to understand. However, I do not propose to reply to my noble friend's question as to what I should feel like if such an eventuality happened to me, though I realise why the noble Earl asked it. All I can tell him is that, in a private capacity, I have informed the chairman of the BBC that I would find it convenient if he so conducted the orders of his corporation that I was not subjected to answering Questions of this nature which it is not my responsibility to answer.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the BBC produces many helpful programmes such as "Crimewatch" arid many others which are of immense advantage to the police service? Does he not agree that we live in a liberal democracy, which means that the government of the day do not give instructions to the BBC?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is absolutely right, and that is why I have no intention of giving any instructions to the governors of the BBC. The very point he makes serves to underline the vital role producers have in producing the kind of material which is acceptable. On the principle that people are affected by what they see, producers have a large responsibility in that regard. The BBC gives guidelines to producers which say that scenes of violence may well make a programme unsuitable for an early placing. So too may sex, bad language, blasphemy or scenes of great distress.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that, while many of us would agree that due care should be taken, and normally is taken, about programmes broadcast in family viewing time, nevertheless it is right and proper that the bad should be shown in order to show what can be done about it? One cannot illustrate the good without first showing what it is one wishes to cure, as it were. Is he not further aware that if all the propositions put to him from around the House were put into effect by the BBC, we should have nothing but mindless pap?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, is entirely entitled to hold that point of view. I fancy that not everyone would agree with him, but that is why I have no intention of giving any instructions to the BBC. If I did, I would attract a holocaust from your Lordships

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I share the great concern of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, on this matter, but surely to put down Questions of this nature when the Government have set up an independent Broadcasting Standards Council is not the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to send them to the council and not to discuss them in this House. The Government will not forward these complaints when a body has been set up to deal with them.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Broadcasting Standards Council has been set up and will act as a focus for public concern about the portrayal of violence or sex in all forms of broadcasting. It will monitor programmes, receive and examine complaints and undertake research. In the past I have drawn to the attention of the chairman of the BBC your Lordships' views, and I dare say that it would be as well if on this occasion I were to draw his attention to the whole range of views which have been expressed.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is evident from the amount of interest on all sides of the House that this Question was justified? Is he further aware that I am not opposed to BBC programmes generally? I enjoy them very much. It is perfectly possible to show films about the police which are not offensive. We could not look for a better example than those provided in the past by the noble Lord, Lord Willis. "Dixon of Dock Green", a marvellous drama which we all enjoyed, offended nobody.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I quite understand what my noble friend says. The part that concerns a number of people—the subject matter of this showing—is not on the whole regarded as what one might call good entertainment stuff. However, that is the responsibility of the BBC. It has to decide whether or not to broadcast it.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the constitutional position is that the broadcasting authorities are responsible to Parliament, and that it is therefore very much in order that in either House of Parliament Questions of this kind should be raised? That having been said, it is entirely right also, as the noble Earl has been saying, that he can only say that he will draw the attention of the authorities to what has been said in Parliament.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Annan, raises a fine point. The broadcasting authorities are responsible for broadcasting. They are not just responsible to Parliament for broadcasting, they are responsible throughout the United Kingdom.