§ 3.29 p.m.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter rose to call attention to the importance of maintaining the independence of British broadcasting; and to move for papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the debate on this Motion is intimately concerned with the liberties of the people of this country. In particular, it is concerned with the future of the BBC and the IBA and with the future of public service broadcasting more generally. In addition it will probably need to take into account the technological changes which have taken place and which at some date in the future will offer viewers as many as 20 television channels, so we are told, some controlled from abroad and a huge variety of radio frequencies.
It is in many respects a continuation of the debate of 2nd March initiated by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead in which he drew attention to the present Government's disapproval of, in his words,
the great independent public institutions in our national life." [Official Report, 2/3/88; col. 183.]
Among those he mentioned in this context on that occasion were the local authorities, the Church of England, the universities and the BBC.
§ In that connection I must repeat a factual statement. This country, unlike the United States of America and France for example, does not have a written constitution. Hence our liberties depend on self-restraint on the part of the Government, no matter how large their majority; on convention and precedent; and on the independence of those great national institutions to which I have referred. It is an independence which allows them to resist the pressure of governments, which will occur at all times whatever their complexion. They will try to exert such pressures; but this Government do so more frequently than most.
§ The questions at issue are these. Is broadcasting to remain independent, protected by boards acting as buffers between broadcasters and governments? Or is it to become a creature of political manipulation, as it is in France, or of commercial interests as it is in the United States? There it was recently described as a consumer product comparable to toasters with pictures. Or, as in my view seems more likely, is it to be fettered by a whole hierarchy of quangos, those animals once deeply disapproved of by the present Government. Each of those animals will be appointed by the Government; each will be more or 907 less politicised, if not tamed, by the threat of politicisation; and each will act with creeping restrictions and with more and more intrusive supervision.
§ I should like to recite the present Government's record in relation to the BBC. In 1983 the late Stuart Young was appointed chairman of the BBC with Sir William Rees-Mogg as vice-chairman. They were both quite open members of the Conservative Party. In my view their appointments are without precedent in the history of the BBC. In March 1985 the Peacock Committee was set up. Its terms of reference were virtually instructions to find ways in which the BBC could be financed by advertising. Nobly, the Peacock Committee disobeyed its instructions. None of its members was shot and none sent to do community service in the House of Lords. In July 1985 the "Real Lives" fiasco started with the right honourable Leon Brittan's letter to the chairman of the BBC. In April 1986 the right honourable Norman Tebbit attacked the BBC's coverage of Libya and the partiality of its views. In January 1987 there was the "Zircon" episode. Meanwhile The Times, in a pre-Peacock anti-BBC campaign, published no fewer than six leading articles.
§ This series of events I regard to be what is known as "systematic". In other words, and according to the Oxford Dictionary, it was "an organised scheme or plan of action" to put the frighteners on the BBC's board of governors.
§ The latest step in this history is the Gibraltar affair. I do not propose to dwell on that matter for long, except to say that the first official statement about the shooting was inaccurate; that the local police inquiries were transparently inadequate; that an inquest is not to take place until August, so we are told, and is no substitute for a proper inquiry given the important issues at stake; that the sub judice issue was successfully blown up, destroyed and demolished by the letter from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, published in The Times; and that the calling in aid of the Salmon Report by the Prime Minister and the right honourable Sir Geoffrey Howe was a classic piece of selective quoting. The Salmon Report condemns rather than supports their cause. That hardly encourages one in regard to the Government's openness in these matters.
Finally in this connection, the following quotation seems apposite and, if I may say so, conclusive:
It is the interest of rulers that the people should believe all their proceedings to be the best possible: everything, therefore, which has a tendency to make them think otherwise, and among the rest, all strictures, however well deserved, government will use its most strenuous exertions to prevent. If these endeavours could succeed, if it could suppress all censure, its dominion, to whatever degree it might pillage and oppress people, would be forever secured.
This is so palpable, that a man must be either insincere or imbecile to deny it: and no one … will openly affirm that rulers should have the power to suppress all opinions which they may call mischievous …".
Needless to say, that was John Stuart Mill on Democracy and Freedom. I do not believe that I really need to continue my speech for much longer—however, I shall.
§ It is against that background that we must look at the Broadcasting Standards Council under the 908 chairmanship of Sir William Rees-Mogg—an old friend to whom I have told my opinions—and announced by the Home Secretary on 16th May. It appears to me to be a classic case of solvitur ambulando; a half-baked idea which has been worked out on the move; a non-statutory body which in due course is to become a statutory body; a council which so far has only one member. It is to monitor and report on sex and violence and standards of taste and decency on television and radio received in the UK and in video works. It is to undertake research—this Government have rarely before shown interest in research—on the effect of sex and violence on human attitudes and behaviour.
§ I should like to say that there has been massive research on this subject in the United States, here and elsewhere. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Swann, will agree, almost all of it has been inconclusive. Perhaps the worst aspect is that the chairman is to make arrangements to preview fictional material acquired from abroad. At the moment the material is from abroad and we do not know that it will be fictional for much longer. This is creeping censorship. The Government create an appointed council to decide whether or not certain mischievous opinions should be suppressed. Once the principle is accepted will it creep beyound sex and violence to other matters? Some Members of another place appear to believe that it should.
§ As regards previewing, that was abolished in the case of the written word in 1694, I believe. It seems strange that it should be introduced for television and radio in 1988. The written word is subject to law, libel, obscenity and, bad though it is, the Official Secrets Act. What is so special about TV and radio that makes it impossible for them to be subject to law? In so far as these matters warrant supervision we have the board of governors and the IBA about which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, spoke so forthrightly in the recent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. He was quite right, and I hope that he will repeat his forthright statement today.
§ What the Broadcasting Standards Council reveals is a fundamental contradiction in the Thatcherite philosophy. A free market in money and a captive market in morals appears to be the definition.
§ Lastly and briefly, I must say a few words about the future of broadcasting in this country in the light of the new technology. The future of broadcasting is in the melting pot because of the new technology. The structure by means of which we respond to that new technology is a matter of great public interest. How is it being planned? It is being planned, so we are informed, by a Cabinet committee of which the Prime Minister is chairman. Who are the other members? I should be grateful if the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will tell the House who the other members are. It is important that we should know, but I shall be surprised if we learn.
§ In the past these matters have generally been decided by Royal Commissions, committees of inquiry, Crawford, Beveridge, Pilkington and Annan, which tried to reach a consensus which took evidence from the public and from interested parties and which produced results working openly and publicly. Has that policy now been altered? Will the 909 country be presented with a White Paper and Bill, in the fullness of time—we are now told that it will be later rather than sooner—concocted in private, in which the Home Office appears to be playing a diminishing role? All we know at present is that the Prime Minister is chairman and that private meetings are being held by Sir Jeffrey Sterling, chairman of P & O, and Professor Griffiths, with Mr. Rupert Murdoch, Mr. Robert Maxwell, with senior figures in the broadcasting world from the BBC, the IBA and independent companies.
§ All these meetings are being held and at none of them, so far as I can discover, is a representative of the Home Office present. Will the noble Earl tell us the significance of the meetings, the position which Sir Jeffrey Sterling, who is an adviser to the DTI, and Professor Griffiths hold in, or in relation to, the Cabinet Committee? It is, I think, public knowledge that the DTI has long wanted to get its hands on broadcasting. Am I right in thinking that it looks as though it is succeeding?
§ Broadcasting is most obviously a matter of public interest. I hope that the Government will take the public into their confidence and tell us how and in what direction their mind is moving. The drift of events—what I have described as "system"—is to me profoundly disturbing and I look for reassurance.
§ British broadcasting, as the Peacock Committee discovered, is widely admired abroad. The Home Secretary has a heritage which he has a real obligation to protect, on the one hand from the censors and on the other hand from those who would sell it off to the highest bidder—and to hell with standards, impartiality and all the rest of it. I hope that on this occasion, as he did on an earlier occasion, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will be able to provide reassurance and to persuade your Lordships that the fears which I have expressed are unjustified.
§ Viscount Monckton of Brenchley
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he not agree that censorship is a two-way matter? Does he agree with the censorship of that play which happens to support Britain in the Falklands? Does he agree with the censorship of my eldest son, cut off in midstream on television, about to tell the truth of the man behind the Gibraltar programme?
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I was unaware that the BBC treated the Falklands in any way differently from the way in which it treated other conflicts in which this country has taken part. I beg to move my Motion for Papers.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, it is a good thing that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has raised this matter today for it enables some subjects which were raised in our debate on 27th April to be amplified and clarified. I shall be expressing my own views, but I hope very much that many of my noble friends agree with them.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said that the Government's record with regard to their attitude to the BBC is without precedent. I must say that I find that rather a strange comment in view of the speech 910 made by my noble friend Lord Ferrers at the end of our last debate. However, I feel bound also to say—and I shall be giving some reasons for doing so—that some of the BBC's recent programmes are also without precedent.
Most of what is shown on television is well done, including the reports of proceedings in Parliament. I know that your Lordships will join in paying tribute to the impartiality and excellence of the programmes showing debates in your Lordships' House. I live mainly in East Anglia, and I frequently and keenly watch the programmes both of the BBC and of ITV, and I have never had much to complain about there. The BBC's wildlife programmes, their sporting, their documentary and most of their humorous programmes are well worth watching. "Mastermind" is, of course, a winner. When so much of their work is well done, I suggest that it is tragic that they should let their record be spoiled and should ignore their responsibilities by showing so many programmes depicting violence, sex and political and social bias. The legal position of the BBC is mainly contained in its charter of 1926, which, by the way, does not expire until 1996. It is also, of course, subject to its licence, and the annex to it.
The Government regard all those provisions, whether in the charter or in the licence and its annex, as being incapable of enforcement. At any rate, the Government are not willing to enforce them, and to that extent those provisions are "a dead letter". The Independent Broadcasting Authority and ITN are in a different position from that of the BBC. They are subject to the Broadcasting Act 1981, and have observed its terms pretty faithfully with only rare exceptions.
However, let us consider the current attitude of the BBC. In our debate on 27th April the programme "Airbase" was condemned by nearly every noble Lord who spoke. My noble friend Lord Ferrers quoted the chairman of the BBC as saying that there was little merit in it and that it wasone of those failures which are inevitable in such a wide and varied dramatic output.I must say that I felt then, and I have felt increasingly since, that the board of governors of the BBC seems to think that the governors themselves should not exert much influence over their own programmes. We have it on record that generally speaking they do not see them before they are broadcast.
On Tuesday night the BBC will present "Tumbledown", which we learn is a production of a pacifist, Mr. Charles Wood, who has declared somewhat proudly, it seems, that all his work is subversive and that he is not interested in writers who are not subversive. That programme—and this has been stated in The Listener—cost £900,000 to produce. It will be shown for 115 minutes in prime broadcasting time. This pacifist play, which has already been shown at the National Film Theatre, presents an extreme, one-sided view of the Falklands war. It is to be shown in place of a production by Mr. Ian Curteis, which was based on our determination to resist the unprovoked aggression in the Falklands of a Right-wing dictator. It was aggression against the then defenceless British people in the Falklands. It was going to be shown before the last general 911 election, but it was withdrawn because it was thought to favour the present Government. Mr. Ian Curteis was told that it would, however, be shown after the election. It never has been. We are to have "Tumbledown" instead. I remind your Lordships that "Tumbledown" follows an earlier anti-Falklands TV transmission by the BBC called "Queen's Arms".
The BBC commissioned a six-part series, entitled "Secret Society", by Mr. Duncan Campbell, who has been twice convicted—on the last occasion after a long trial at the Old Bailey following an offence under the Official Secrets Act. That series includes a programme on our secret signals intelligence satellite, called "Zircon".
The BBC also commissioned another six-part series called "Heartlands", this time by a self-confessed Marxist, Mr. Trevor Griffiths. That series extols Mr. Scargill and his Left-wing supporters to the exclusion of the independent miners. It ignores and, I am told, up to a point condemns the steadfastness of the police. Of course, it also criticises Her Majesty's Government. One is not opposed to the Government being criticised from time to time, even on the BBC—indeed, we must become accustomed to it—but the BBC has, I shall show in a moment, a duty of impartiality. Where is the impartiality in all those programmes?
As we know, the BBC has immense power. The Independent Broadcasting Authority and the BBC have access to nearly all the 23 million homes in this country. They can and do use that power to mould the opinions of people on political, economic, social and moral matters. As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, stressed, the BBC insists on having complete, untrammelled freedom to exercise that power.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I speak now in all ignorance, but perhaps the noble Lord will tell the House whether there are any programmes which point in the opposite political direction.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I have yet to know of programmes which will balance those programmes I have mentioned. Obviously there have been programmes from time to time which run the other way, but the present trend in the BBC seems to be such that anything that is anti-Government, anti-Establishment, and anti the opinions of vast numbers of people in this country shall be shown without any programmes to balance them and without any refutation.
In saying that the BBC should have complete independence, the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, presumably means that no democratically-elected Government who are answerable to Parliament and, ultimately, to the people should even warn the BBC, much less criticise it, and should not in any way inhibit it, however it behaves and however sleazy or biased its programmes become.
Therefore, in reality the BBC is to have power without responsibility. The corporation claims to be 912 responsible by stressing, as it does on page 63 of its annual report for 1986–87, that,its impartiality and its independence go hand in hand".Impartiality and independence, hand in hand! It adds:Without genuine independence there cannot be a genuine aspiration to truthfulness and impartiality, and the credibility which follows".Those are fine words, but nobody in authority is to dare to say anything even when the BBC has failed to be impartial or truthful. Other people can do so and the board of governors is supposed to take on board the complaints made to it. But one does not often hear the outcome of those complaints. The truth is, therefore, that the BBC claims to be the only judge of its own behaviour. As I say, it has power without responsibility.
In our debate on 27th April my noble friend Lord Ferrers in effect confirmed that. One can read that in col. 277; there is no need for me to quote it now. The situation arises not because the Home Secretary has no legal power over the board of governors—he clearly has such power, acknowledged under Article 20 of the charter—but because he does not intend to use it. Article 20 of the charter is the ultimate deterrent, but if it is never to be used it is no deterrent at all.
Similarly, although the licence and the annex to it give express authority to the Government to intervene, it is a reserve power which has never been invoked and which the Government will never use. The licence and the annex in practice do no more than provide internal guidelines which, as I have said, are not always followed.
We are therefore left with the situation where the BBC is its own master and its own judge and is de facto in possession of even greater independence than Her Majesty's judges who can at least be dismissed by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament or be asked by the Lord Chancellor to resign. That has happened from time to time—not often, I am happy to say, but occasionally, even in recent years.
In our last debate the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill of Harrow, a former governor of the BBC, in what struck me as a wise and penetrating speech, recommended that there should be refresher courses on the charter and that it should be signed by members of the staff. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Ferrers can say whether he has heard that the BBC intends to take any action on the lines of that excellent recommendation, but I should like to know whether anything has been done. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill of Harrow said, the BBC must play the charter rules.
Next year we are to have a Bill to cover the work of the new Broadcasting Standards Council, the appointment of which should, in my view, be welcomed. I suggest that that Bill should be used to turn the merely formal responsibility of the BBC into a constitutional reality.
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, it is clear that today's debate is particularly timely, and we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for initiating 913 it. However, I feel that I must immediately take up some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton. What particularly worries me is that someone like the noble Lord, who I have always known as an extremely kindly and, I thought, libertarian figure, holds the views that he does and sees the BBC in that light; but his opinions do not at all fit in with the facts.
For example, the noble Lord said that some of the BBC's recent programmes are without precedent. I wonder which programmes the noble Lord means. There are programmes that many do not like but which some of us do like. The reaction varies according to the person because we are making subjective decisions all the time. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, also said that many programmes depict sex and violence. That is a phrase which seems to be used very widely and generally, but without coming down to specifics. The fact remains that people should detail and explain exactly what they mean, otherwise opinions are passed from ear to ear and from mouth to mouth. As regards sex, various surveys have been conducted on that subject and they seem to indicate that, on the whole, people—I am not necessarily talking about people who watch a pornography channel—find that there is very little sex (perhaps not enough) in the programmes they see.
On the question of violence, both the BBC and ITV edit programmes and they are very careful as to what goes into a programme. When programmes are imported the companies see a pilot programme and make comments upon it. Sometimes they refuse to accept the rest of the series or they insist upon certain changes. Another matter which must be brought out into the open concerns plays; for example, "Tumbledown" which has not yet been shown. During the last debate on 27th April three plays were mentioned constantly. One was called "Airbase" and I believe it was agreed by all who saw it that it was very unpleasant and probably it ought not to have been shown because it showed American airmen in a very unfortunate light. I also quoted from the letter that the chairman of the BBC had written to the Home Secretary in which he said that the programme had no merit and that it had been a mistake.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, that is correct—a failure. I am very grateful to the noble Lord because that brings me to another point. I believe he said that that programme was one of those failures that are inevitable. I have worked for many years as a journalist and I do not believe it is possible to have a fair share of creativity and the freedom to exercise it without on some occasions making a mistake. Sometimes one falls absolutely flat on one's face. That is part of what one has to accept in a democracy. We believe in freedom and I do not consider it too high a price to pay. If we were squeezed so tightly that nobody could take an adventurous leap without glancing over his shoulder and wondering whether they were going too far, our whole culture, literature, and broadcasting—which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, quite rightly said is admired all over the world—would be far less rich, far duller and far less good.
914 There is one other point I need to raise because the author wrote to me about it. The noble Lord referred to Charles Wood, the writer of the play "Tumbledown". It is an illustration of how these issues develop. During the debate on the 27th April, many noble Lords mentioned three plays out of about 800 produced in the past two years by the BBC; namely, "The Monacled Mutineer", "Airbase" and "Tumbledown". During that debate I meant to refer just to "The Monacled Mutineer" and "Airbase". I did not particularly like them. I included in that list "Tumbledown" because everyone else had referred to it and somehow it slipped in. I realised afterwards that it had not been shown and I had not seen it. I do not think any other noble Lord has seen it.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, it has been shown at the National Film Theatre and a good deal has already been written about it, including articles in The Listener.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, it has not been seen on television. However, I shall be interested to know whether the noble Lord has seen it because I value his own judgment rather than what he has heard from other people.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I have not yet had the advantage or the disadvantage of seeing it, but when one has heard so much about a play one should not be inhibited from expressing some views about it.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, if I may say so, that is a rather dubious judgment and I am rather surprised that the noble Lord made it. I felt that I owed an apology to the author for inadvertently mentioning "Tumbledown" when I had not seen it. However, that is probably neither here nor there.
The noble Lord also said the BBC has complete and untrammelled freedom. He added that the Home Secretary can use his powers but that he does not. As regards political prejudice I believe that, looking back, whatever government are in power—this applies to Labour or Conservative governments—there is always the feeling that the BBC or the broadcasting authorities are being unfair to government. Somewhere in the middle one should give the broadcasting companies credit for having got the balance right.
Before one considers the question of the Home Secretary using his powers against the BBC we have to think very carefully what that means. If such a course is taken it means the end of a free broadcasting system in this country. I find it very difficult to sacrifice that freedom, because even if there were a run of programmes that were not very good and which many people found to be offensive, I still believe it would be too high a price to pay. It worries me to hear the noble Lord, Lord Renton, express such views, and I hope he will reconsider these matters and come to a different conclusion. I am sure he understands why the BBC and ITV have developed in the way they have. It is true that the charter and licence provide the legal basis upon which the BBC rests and it is asked to do what it considers best in the interests of broadcasting and to 915 act—to use a phrase first employed in 1977—"as trustees of the public interest". Therefore, the various commitments to taste and decency in programming derive historically not from statute but from the codification of the BBC's own thinking and practices.
Parliament drew the parameter of broadcasting in this way because of the repeated recognition that if we as a society wished to have an independent broadcasting service acting in the public interest, a system that is free from the partialities of political or commercial commitment, then it did not make sense to try to define in detail the operation of that service. In the same way, it was felt that it did not make sense to force the BBC to fund itself in an aggressively commercial market. That same thinking motivated what happened in the creation of the IBA and the ITV system. In the first instance it was committed to public service values and only then to commercial criteria. This may be seen in the character of the Broadcasting Act and in the parliamentary debates over many years concerning the terms of that Act.
The IBA provides the protective layer of political independence as well as being the guarantor of the demand that over-commercialism should not be the prime consideration in the programme making activities of' the ITV companies. That is why many of us are most disturbed at the recommendation in the Peacock Committee's report that the ITV companies should be auctioned off to the highest bidder. We feel that way because, should that happen, all we can see is a great deterioration in the quality of the programmes that we shall receive from ITV. Similarly, the privatisation of the innovative Channel 4—which is an extension of the principle which has provided the keystone in the arch of British broadcasting—will also, in my view, have a most unfortunate effect.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, referred to the coming changes in broadcasting; namely cable—which has already been started, if somewhat slowly—and then satellite. He also referred to the broadcasting committee who are discussing such matters. Today's edition of the Independent carries an article which refers to the rejuvenation of the cable system which is now, according to the author, underway. It says:despite the slow start, the industry is being rejuvenated with recent surges of North American investment".It also says:The Government, in a controversial step, is considering whether to make cable an exception, relax the rules, and allow foreign investors to control franchises".I hope that when the Minster replies he will tell me whether there is any truth in that statement.
The need for the coming along of those other methods of transmission is probably one of the reasons why the Government are using it as an assault on public service broadcasting, of both the BBC and ITV at the IBA. In the coming along, as I mentioned, there is the possible privatisation of Channel 4; the auctioning of the companies; the linking of the licence fee to the retail prices index; the establishment of the 5th and 6th terrestrial channels; the creation of a new radio authority; the removal of 916 radio from the purview of the IBA and public service commitments of the independent radio system; the creation of new national commercial radio channels and the establishment of a network of community radio stations. That is quite a shopping list when we consider that in addition we have the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council and the appointment to the position of chairman of Sir William Rees-Mogg.
I do not intend to say anything about him personally, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, seems to have covered our fears in respect of the job. Further, so much has already been written about him, and I think one of the most brilliant last words appeared in today's Financial Times in a letter from the television critic addressed to Sir William. It must be said that that gentleman could not create the council on his own; it was created by the Government, and he has been appointed as chairman. As chairman, he is of course entitled to press for the powers that he needs and should try to obtain as many powers as possible. Therefore it is not really at him that those of us who do not like the idea should direct our fire, but at the Government.
In regard to the other proposals, I am not suggesting that they are all bad; indeed, there are some that are to be welcomed. Nevertheless, I should like to ask the Minister: how far has this delayed what we understood would be two broadcasting Bills? Further, is it true that it will be at least two years before we have any changes, and then it will all be in one enormous Bill?
The net effect of the various structural changes proposed by the Government will only serve to damage and possibly even destroy that vital oxygen of independence on which the most successful broadcasting system in the world has thrived. I believe that there will be a sharpening of the competitive necessities of television by diminishing the ability of the regulatory bodies to ensure that public services values are preserved in anything other than a rump form, and by placing the Broadcasting Standards Council above the governors and the authority in the editorial pecking order.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, pointed out, there is a curious dichotomy between the free-market policy of deregulation which is in line with the Government's economic strategy on the one hand, and the heavy controlling capability of the British Broadasting Council on the other. I think that the council is an example of an engineering change without going through the process of thorough public debate. While there should be a tension between broadcasters and government, the suspicion has now developed into a most unhappy mutual antagonism. Now that the council has been established there is no point in our saying that it should not have happened, because it has happened.
However, we are most concerned, and shall continue to be so, about the power of preview, as we understand it, which is to be given to the council—although we do not think that there is much hope that we shall be able to persuade the Government to change their mind in that respect. In a lecture on 17th May the chairman of the BBC, Mr. Marmaduke Hussey, said: 917We are not happy about the preview of foreign imported programmes. All our imported foreign material is viewed and if necessary re-edited here with special concern for sex and violence before we transmit them. What is the logical difference between asking to preview a BBC edited bought-in foreign programme and a BBC edited programme made in house or by an independent producer?Therefore it is understandable that some of us feel that this could be the beginning of a creeping censorship. All the soil is ready for it, if that is what is going to be pressed and if that is the line which the Government will adopt.
In my view the changes that we have seen, currently in progress, have not a jot of moral or cultural necessity to sustain them. There has grown up an increasing autocratic attitude on the part of the Prime Minister and those of her acolytes, because we see a narrowness of vision which favours material values—even if they have some theological backing—rather than those other more complex, more subtle and ultimately more enriching values which may not serve the political and economic interests of the Prime Minister but which have, on the whole, served the nation rather well. Such values are also envied by the rest of the world. Therefore I beg the House not to throw out our healthy broadcasting baby with the sometimes impure bathwater in which it finds itself.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, it is over 10 years since I had the luck to be appointed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, to be chairman of the committee on the future of broadcasting. Like the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I thought I should refresh my memory by re-reading the report. The report had two sets of recommendations. One concerned the organisation of broadcasting and the other concerned standards.
The first set of recommendations had a pretty rough passage when they were published. They were thought to be far too bureaucratic and inflationary. I must say that I do not think that committees always get matters right the first time but, nevertheless, the results were greatly helped by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, and also by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, when he was Minister in the Home Office. Between them those two gentlemen knocked the recommendations about and made sense of them. However, what emerged looked quite like what we recommended. For example, Channel 4 was set up upon the lines recommended by the committee; we now have a body to deal with complaints of individuals, the broadcasters' hold public hearings; and this year the Government's Green Paper acknowledges the fact that some authority for local broadcasting is needed.
On the other hand, there was generous praise for the two chapters on programme standards and on news and current affairs. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Swann, was good enough to tell me at that time, as chairman of the BBC governors, that he saw to it that copies of those chapters were sent to all the producers of programmes who were concerned with these topics. I am bound to say I do not think they read them. They did not read the chapters—and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, was entirely right on this—on due impartiality and the difference between 918 that concept and the concept of balance and neutrality.
The reason we are having a debate today is because we want to find out why in fact they disregarded them. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, is absolutely right to remind us, as he does, how important is freedom of expression on our broadcasting system. We are unique in Europe in this way. Enormous pressures are brought to bear upon the BBC governors and upon the IBA; and I am very sorry that the noble Lords, Lord Wilson and Lord Callaghan, are no longer in their places—they were sitting just in front of me—because I wanted to ask them how many times they had intervened with the governors of the BBC and the IBA. Of course they intervened—and rightly. The Home Secretary is responsible for security in this country; the Foreign Secretary is responsible for the security of British subjects abroad. Of course they are right to intervene if they think that there is some danger which the broadcasters have not taken into account. And the broadcasters—that is to say, the governors and the IBA—are absolutely right to say, "We have thought about this: we do not agree with you, but of course the consequences, if there are any, will be on our heads and not on the Home Secretary's or the Foreign Secretary's".
One of the reasons why governments interfere with broadcasters is the emergence of situations which were never envisaged when television began. The first is the emergence of terrorism. For the last 20 years this country has been fighting a war of attrition against the IRA. The Government regard any programme which gives the faintest degree of publicity to the IRA as damaging to national security. The broadcasters believe that the public is entitled to know what is going on. In other words, they think they ought to explain the motivation, as well as the actions, of the IRA. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Britain is fighting a war and the broadcasters are singularly insensitive if they do not realise how profoundly the Government are concerned and involved. It seems to me odd that the "Real Lives" incident to which I shall refer in a moment came after the Cabinet had nearly been blown up in their hotel at Brighton—a fact that seemed hardly to have impinged on the consciousness of the broadcasters.
I do not think the Government are always right when they intervene on questions about Northern Ireland. In 1972 I think that the programme which went out called "The Question of Ulster", an open debate, an open forum, about the problems in Northern Ireland, was a harmless programme. But they were right to be outraged by the "Panorama" filming at Carrickmore, where the broadcasters filmed IRA men setting up a road-block and apparently governing part of Northern Ireland—very cleverly staged by the IRA. And it does perturb me that Mr. Roger Bolton, who was responsible for that, still to this day seems unable to understand why he was disciplined in any way for what went on then.
The most notorious example of this is the "Real Lives" programme. I think one is bound to have to say in retrospect that everybody got this wrong. The 919 Home Secretary was most ill-advised, not in complaining to the governors, but in giving his letter to the press before the governors had received it. That put the governors on the spot. I think the governors were therefore quite right to preview the programme. The trouble was, of course, that the governors by that time were in a very bad temper because, through the usual series of kerfuffles and nonsenses, the system of reference up in the BBC had not worked. Lady Falkner, who was the governor for Northern Ireland, had never been informed that this programme was being made, as she should have been under all the rules. So when they did view it they were disposed to think it a bad programme and they banned it. That, I think, was a mistake.
However, my severest criticism is reserved for the BBC's staff and top brass, because they deliberately staged a confrontation with the governors instead of finding a way to defuse the situation. All that was needed in connection with that programme was a "talking head" to be put on—either of the chairman of the governors or the director-general himself—before the programme was transmitted, to say something on these lines:The Home Secretary has expressed doubts about this programme. We believe that it shows just how difficult it is for the Government—any Government—to obtain peace in Northern Ireland when family men with religious principles are willing to murder each other in a partisan war.Indeed, the odd thing is that when the Board of Management reviewed that programme they themselves thought that that ought to be done; but when the governors considered it they never came up with that proposal.
What then happened was, I think, a disgrace to a great national organisation. The staff went on strike, aided and abetted of course by the NUJ chapel, and the World Service went on strike, and of course that gave great comfort to all our critics in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe who dislike hearing us boast of our free service. You might have thought, from the way the broadcaster talked, that Dr. Goebbels had taken over. Is that really the way a national corporation should behave? And what seemed to me worse than the self-righteous hysteria was that the top management itself blew upon the flames. You felt that what they were really after was the humiliation of the governors. That was an occasion, as I say, when I think everybody got it wrong.
When we come to the Gibraltar incident, I think the Government were perfectly right to draw the attention of the broadcasters to this. But they were not right in urging that these programmes should be banned. I thought it was ludicrous to argue that an inquest was pending. An inquest was pending after the "Zeebrugge" disaster, but no one suggested at that time that the pictures and comments were an infringement of the court. Where the broadcasters went wrong was to transmit a programme which was palpably one-sided on a matter of national importance. Anyone would have known that to highlight one witness—I have no doubt she was honourable and truthful—was wrong unless one emphasised and make it quite clear that there were 920 other witnesses who would almost certainly have conflicting views. It is that delight in trying to create conflict and a scandal which sometimes governs too much of the transmission of news.
I maintain that the broadcasters owe a duty to the State. The State is quite different from the Government. The State is our nation and its institutions—the Monarchy, Parliament, the law courts and those who are in the service of the State. That does not mean that individual departments cannot at any moment be criticised unsparingly, but it does mean that in certain circumstances the broadcasters owe an overriding duty to the State. Why do the broadcasters find it so difficult to accept this? One may say they are arrogant, but I do not think that that is a sufficient explanation. I think it is due to two events which during the 1970s occurred in America and which I believe had a profound effect on the broadcasters.
The first was the Vietnam war in which I believe it is generally agreed that the television reporters helped to bring about a change of opinion in America about the justice of that war and the claims of the military to be winning the war. Their success in changing opinion had the effect of making broadcasters in Britain believe that they had a mission to redress the folly of governments.
The second event was the unmasking of Watergate by two remarkable investigative journalists on the Washington Post. That led, incredible though it sounded at the time, to the resignation of the President of the United States. That gave the broadcasters a romantic notion that they too might acquire the fame, and indeed the wealth, of Bob Woodward, and that they too might expose the sins and chicanery of statesmen in high places.
I sometimes have the luck to meet and talk to some of the young Turks in the BBC and ITV. They sometimes astonish me. Just after the Falklands War I remember meeting a reporter who said that he was extremely vexed with his superiors for forbidding him to go and interview the widows of the Welsh guardsmen who had been killed in the explosion on the "Sheffield" in the Falklands. I asked the reporter whether he felt that that was a proper thing to do at that time. He replied, "Oh, yes. You see there were a lot of us who thought that the war was a very bad thing". I told him that both the Opposition and the Government were in favour of that war. He replied, "You cannot expect the other side of the case to be left simply to Mr. Benn and Mr. Dalyell".
The idea that reporters have the right, as it were, to dictate what the policy of the country should be struck me as odd. Let me give another example; that is the Tripoli bombing. I was again talking to some reporters after that incident. They said that they thought that they could prevent any war from being fought in future. I asked them whether they meant that they could have prevented the Falklands War. They said, "No, it was too far away. We could not get at them. But if we could have got at them, I think we could have stopped it". I told them that if I had been the commanding officer I would never have allowed them anywhere near my front.
There have been complaints that drama is consistently subversive. It has also been argued that 921 the directors of drama productions are biased, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said. I do not think that it matters very much whether we have seen or have not seen "Tumbledown". It is absolutely right that that play should be put on. It is an honest expression of opinion. What is not right is that that is the only kind of play which should be put on.
I wrote to Mr. Checkland very shortly after he became director general and suggested that it would be a very good idea to put on the Curteis play if he could find the money because then the viewers could see both sides. Anyone who was interested in drama and moral and political affairs could have seen that an interesting argument would develop. I am very sorry that he refused.
I thought Mr. Curteis's play was gripping television material when I read it. I think he was wrong—after all, this was a naturalistic drama—to portray Secretary Haig as someone who could only talk in "Haig speak". I also think he was wrong to portray General Galtieri as a drunken bore, drunken though he often was.
But I think that drama producers are too obsessed with the notion that a serious play should have a message or, at any rate, be ambiguous. Every play, in other words, should be what the Germans call problematisch. That is a difficult word to translate but I can best try to explain it by saying that "King Lear" and "Hamlet" are problematisch but "Macbeth" and "Othello" are not. Both "Othello" and "Macbeth" are serious plays. They are not at all ambiguous. Both make marvellous theatre and are highly exciting.
There are rumours that the BBC staff hated Mr. Curteis's play because it was patriotic and favoured the Prime Minister. I must say that from what happened afterwards, in all the rows that followed the cancellation of that play, I think there is something in that. Some of the top brass of the BBC were devious and dishonest on that issue and displayed no more understanding of the ethics of broadcasting than an earwig.
But one must not fail to understand that many dramas will be critical of the establishment. The greatest writers have nearly always criticised the society in which they lived. We have only to think of Dickens and his continual criticism of the Victorian age as one that worshipped money and was indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. We have only to think of his satire upon the Poor Law, the Civil Service, the indolent, arrogant aristocracy and the self-righteous puritans and evangelicals.
Those in authority will always feel that they do not get a fair deal from the writers of their time but it is only touchy Ministers and insensitive governments which would try to intervene and silence those critics. Every time a play is put on by Mr. Dennis Potter there really should not be an outcry. Governments should recollect what happened when Jean Paul Sartre tried his very best to enrage the Government and get them to imprison him and create tension in 1968. President de Gaulle said, "One does not arrest Voltaire". The contempt, as well as the judgment, was superb.
But what about the authorities themselves? I think the report of the Committee on the Future of 922 Broadcasting got it wrong when it criticised the IBA for interfering too much in programming. The truth is that the IBA on the whole rarely gets blamed and the BBC, which has a far greater output, gets blamed very often.
Both the IBA and the governors of the BBC get attacked for "going native" as it is called. They are appointed, as the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, was, by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, to put the BBC in its place and then, like Thomas à Becket, the Prime Minister of the day finds that the chairman of the governors has taken a decision totally against the one the government wanted.
But I was glad to hear Mr. Hussey say in public that when he came to the BBC he found that he was expected to write to disgruntled correspondents denying that anything was wrong with the programme or the incident of which they complained. That endorsed what our committee stated when we accused the BBC of adopting the posture, when there was the slightest breath of criticism, of a hedgehog at bay. They are specialists in the brusque brushoff.
It is for these reasons—the fear of violence on television and the standards which have not been observed—that the Government have set up the Broadcasting Standards Council. It is very unwise to criticise whoever is appointed to this job. I think that very unwise because I so well remember that when I was appointed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, to be chairman of the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting, Sir William Rees-Mogg, who was editor of The Times, printed a leader stating how utterly unacceptable I would be to the Conservative Party and how wrong my appointment was. I believe that we should say to Sir William that we wish him well and hope that all goes well with his endeavours. I am certain that he will do the job sensibly, provided that the remit he has is observed and is not altered. It is a reasonable and understandable remit.
What would worry me is the possibility of a plea from another place to extend that remit and create what would in effect be a broadcasting commission or a broadcasting council. I ask the Government, before they ever consider such a thing, to read what the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting had to say about that matter.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Lord Aylestone
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for introducing the debate I am very conscious of the fact that probably within months we shall have one and perhaps two new broadcasting Acts. That will certainly happen in the next Session of Parliament. I am concerned as to what is likely to be contained in those Acts if the present Government or any government take into consideration everything that has been said this afternoon by the noble Lords, Lord Renton and Lord Annan.
We should remind ourselves that all governments since the beginning of radio and television, and even since the introduction of the first BBC charter and the broadcasting Acts, have felt that they should be absolutely free from any governmental censorship or 923 interference. There are items, under the charter and the broadcasting Acts, which we may never touch—for instance, anything of a party political character. The Acts make that absolutely clear. Governments have been of the opinion and have continued to say that freedom from censorship and interference is essential to broadcasters.
We should also remind ourselves that broadcasters are required:to disseminate information over a wide range".which I believe they do. In doing so, they are required to be impartial. That is an instruction which, from the broadcaster's point of view, makes doing a worthwhile job almost impossible. Broadcasters must deal with both sides of a case accurately. Nevertheless, I believe that they try. In my own experience, there is very little interference by the Government or the Opposition in the general run of broadcast programmes. One hears very little about the mass of programmes which are produced. Hundreds of them on both the BBC and the IBA appear on the screen and are viewed and enjoyed. Nothing is said about them.
I am concerned about the words we so often hear from the Dispatch Boxes in both Houses of Parliament. Whatever may be the views of the various Ministers, the usual words are:This is not a matter for the Government but for the broadcasting authorities".I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Ferrers, has used those precise words. I am sure that if he has not, he is likely to, because that is the position. Those words are an encouragement to broadcasters to do a worthwhile job and to do it fairly.
I shall not pretend for one moment that there are no programmes which ought to be criticised. However, we are discussing what is known as investigative journalism. If the press were to produce such an investigation, it would be balanced according to the newspaper producing it. For example, if you wanted a Conservative Party slant on an issue, you would buy the Sunday Express. If you wanted an Opposition slant on an issue, you would probably buy the Daily Mirror. However, that is the press and not broadcasting. Heaven help us if we ever have a government which interferes with a free press. That is one of the reasons why broadcasters have to be more careful than the press. I believe that they are. Within the terms of the BBC charter and the broadcasting Acts, they do a worthwhile job.
I propose to say nothing about complaints of sex and violence. We can never please everyone in those areas. I remember addressing a meeting of thousands of ladies from women's institutes at the Royal Albert Hall on the question of sex and violence in television programmes. I had a vote of thanks at the end. I understand that after I left there was a vote of no confidence. I am not surprised. The problem is difficult to deal with.
We are to have a new Broadcasting Standards Council. My view is that it may work. It should be given a chance to work. However, we have already had from the proposed leader of the council an indication of the sort of programming he will not 924 allow. That is jumping ahead of what I regard as the statutory authority for doing the job. There is as yet no statute setting up the body. I hope that he is not going to take up the job—and from what we read in the press he is indeed going to take it up—in what might be regarded as a Whitehouse frame of mind.
We should also bear in mind that within a few years we shall have programmes beamed in to us about which we are able to do very little. They will come from satellites. Our own broadcasting from satellites may be handled by the Government, if they wish to do so. But only the viewer who receives foreign broadcasting will have the opportunity to use the on and off switch. Governments will not be able to interfere with that.
I am concerned about one programme which has caused much trouble within the last three weeks. That programme concerned the shooting of the three terrorists in Gibraltar. What amazed me was that the complaint about that programme came not from the Home Secretary, as one would have imagined it would, but directly from the Prime Minister, supported by similar comments from one or two colleagues. So far as I know—I may be wrong—there has been no complaint from the Home Secretary about that programme. The Home Secretary is responsible for broadcasting. The Prime Minister is, finally, I suppose, above him. But it looks to me as if the Home Secretary was gazumped by the Prime Minister and one or two of her colleagues.
There is a great difference, as regards such a programme, between previewing it in the knowledge of what is coming and complaining about the programme before it has been seen. That is what happened on that occasion. It was an attempt to stop the broadcasting of the programme. I hope that I am right in saying that that attempt did not come from the Home Secretary.
There have been many other instances in which governments have made complaints. However, they have never been of quite that kind, with a Prime Minister complaining directly to the broadcasters. I am conscious of the fact that there may have been one such instance. I am thinking now of the occasion of Suez, something like 30 years ago, when the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Anthony Eden, attempted to prevent the BBC from filming the landing of British troops at Port Said.
The whole Suez issue was one of great controversy at the time, as many noble Lords will remember. An opinion poll showed that the country was divided 74 per cent. against the exercise and 26 per cent. in favour. The Prime Minister himself, we are told, approached the BBC with a view to preventing any programme on Suez being shown. Rumour has it—and I put it no higher than rumour—that he sent an official to Bush House, Aldwych, with a view to monitoring what the BBC was doing in its news programmes on Suez.
I have some knowledge of the events because at that time I was Opposition Chief Whip in another place. The Prime Minister decided that he would make a ministerial broadcast to put the Government's case on the Suez situation. As Opposition Chief Whip I felt that the Opposition 925 should have the right of reply. I was refused. The Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that the Leader of the Opposition should have no right of reply. Of course that started a terrific argument which went right through the greater part of the night, conducted by telephone between myself and the Government Chief Whip at the time, the right honourable Edward Heath, and the Leader of the Government in another place, the right honourable R. A. Butler. The argument went on at length and finally the Government conceded. As a result, the night after the Prime Minister's ministerial broadcast there was a broadcast by the right honourable Hugh Gaitskell. I quote that example to show that here was an example of prime ministerial interference in broadcasting. It was not the Home Secretary who was responsible.
During the period, about eight years, that I was chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority of course there were complaints. They were looked at. But there was never one complaint from the Prime Minister of the day, either Prime Minister. They were from individuals, from Chief Whips or in some other way. All those complaints were looked at most carefully.
I think that it is the undoubted right of broadcasters to cover the Gibraltar shootings. I do not know, and have no way of knowing, whether or not the people who were shot down were challenged. All I can say from my own experience during the war years is that I sincerely hope that they were. However, that has nothing to do with the broadcast. I find it difficult to accept the Government's excuse that they were concerned only about the coverage of the shootings in Gibraltar because they felt that it might prejudice the accuracy of the evidence given by witnesses. If one accepts that one must accept also that the prejudice, if there is such, of witnesses at the coroner's court could be on either side.
The chairman and governors of the BBC and the chairman and members of the IBA are all selected and appointed by government. They are appointed as individuals, usually by the Home Secretary. I hope that no one questions their integrity. I know that the Prime Minister's request not to broadcast the film would have been looked at seriously from every possible angle and full consideration would have been given to it. Certainly in the case of the IBA—because it is only in the case of the IBA that I have personal knowledge—the authority would have looked at every aspect of the programme, would perhaps have previewed some of it, and would have taken legal opinion as to whether or not the evidence of the witnesses was likely to be prejudiced by the film itself. I am quite sure, in my own mind at least, because I can speak only for myself, that after careful consideration the BBC and the IBA were right to go ahead.
The ladies and gentlemen of the two broadcasting authorities could be replaced. If the Government so wished they could be replaced almost overnight. If they were to be replaced by people who would acquiesce in every Government wish and desire it would be one of the saddest things—the saddest thing—that ever happened in this country. Of course it is not likely to happen. This Government would not 926 do it. No government would do it. If it happened it would be a sad day for democracy and a devastating day for this country.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord McGregor of Durris
My Lords, ideally the media serve democracies as the chief institutions in a market place where day-to-day information, news and ideas are exchanged. They inform their readers about the world and interpret it to them. They stand as sentinels scrutinising concentrations of public and private power. They act as a means of communication among groups within the community, thus promoting social cohesion as well as social change. From a political point of view, the most important function of the media is to provide the main channels along which information runs reciprocally between government and the governed.
The indirect control over government which regular elections give to citzens in a democracy will be ineffectual unless they can rely upon a flow of accurate news and honest commentary upon government policies. That is one reason why the press in a democracy ought always to be independent of governments, and governments for the same reason should be very cautious of exercising their necessary power and influence over broadcasting. Inevitably, the relations between politicians and journalists—whether in print or in broadcasting—are generally likely to be sour and hostile.
Freedom of the media may therefore be defined as that degree of freedom from restraint which is essential to enable broadcasters, newspaper proprietors, editors and journalists to advance the public interest by publishing the facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments. Of course, the media will entertain as well as instruct, and that function should not be dismissed as trivial. But it is in the discharge of their serious role that their crucial importance to a democracy lies and about which I shall speak because I think that the new institution—the Broadcasting Standards Council—may have dangerous consequences for the press.
Few democrats would dispute the maxim of the noble Lord, Lord Acton, that:Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice, nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity".But all democracies must balance the right of citizens to know against the claims—as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights—both of national security and of individuals to safeguards for their reputation and privacy except where those are overridden by the public interest. Freedom of the media cannot be absolute. It is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society. There must be boundaries to it and the real question concerns where those boundaries ought to be set. Such boundaries should be set by law and interpreted by the courts.
In principle the less that government intervene in the media, the healthier it is for freedom. From its origins, broadcasting in every country has been more under government control than has the press. The Home Secretary has legal powers over broadcasters 927 but, happily, not yet over the press. Anyone can launch a newspaper and indeed new technology makes it more probable every year that a wider variety of newspapers will become available.
My anxiety about the Broadcasting Standards Council is rather different from that of many noble Lords. Against the background that I have just sketched, I wish to draw attention to the possible implications for the print media of the establishment of the council. Currently being discussed in Parliament are a number of proposals that severely affect the press. Your Lordships will recall that earlier this year the noble Earl, Lord Longford, initiated a discussion on a press standards council. There are two Private Member's Bills—one to establish a right of privacy and the other to establish a right of reply—which are likely to be discussed in another place very soon. I understand that the broadcasting Bill, which will give statutory shape to the broadcasting council that we are now discussing, will be in another place after Christmas.
With that potential legislation and in an environment in which public disrespect for the press has never been so great, were there to be another major excess by the tabloids it would result in all likelihood in a serious discussion—indeed, the Government have said that in such circumstances they would discuss the matter seriously—about abandoning the self-regulatory Press Council and setting up a body with statutory powers. In those circumstances may we not end up with a media council and direct government intervention in the press for the first time?
Such an outcome would not be disagreeable to the Government and would certainly not be disagreeable to a large section of the Labour Party which numbers among its members those who have adopted and disseminated authoritarian attitudes towards the press. Those attitudes were set out in the party policy document of 1974 entitled The People and the Media which so far as I know has not yet been redrafted. They are seen at their sharpest in a speech on the media made by Mr. Moss Evans to a TUC conference 11 years ago in the course of which the TUC's attitudes to the press were hammered out. I shall quote a few sentences from his speech. He saidThe problem of the media, from the trade union point of view, consists of four principle elements: 1, the ownership and control of newspapers and television networks; 2, establishing a means of monitoring the output of the media to establish balance or lack of balance; 3, devising a practicable code of objectivity, balance, fairness and accuracy, to govern presentation of news and opinion; and 4, a means of policing and enforcing any such publicly agreed criteria".Mr. Evans went on to say that those who possess powers of command over the press,must be required to exercise them within the terms of an 'operator's licence'. The qualification for holding such a licence must be the acceptance and practice of clearly defined standards of responsibility and accountability. TUC policy has already defined the instruments necessary to the attainment of these ends".The chief instrument was, and still is among those who hold that view, the commission. Mr. Evans added:The commission envisaged would be thoroughly representative of all major sections in the community, through public appointment following consultation with unions and employers in the industry and would, of course, be responsible to the appropriate minister".928 In short, the TUC wanted—and wants—a Ministry of Truth. Those views may be 11 years old but they have never been repudiated by the Labour Party and are frequently advocated by people and groups within it. Is it not time that the party looked again at its policy in this general field?
I feel that there will be little public opposition to the present heavy pressures toward regulation of broadcasting. There is always the likelihood that administrative machinery designed to monitor or control the representation of sex and violence in 1988 will be applied to the press in 1990 and utilised for other, perhaps political, purposes in 1993. Unless held in constant check, governments of all political parties tend to tyranny. The democratic form possesses no magic to make it different from any other system in that respect. I believe that Tom Paine was right when he said that government even in its best state is but a necessary evil and in its worst an intolerable one.
Independent media are the most powerful of all constraints upon that evil. The media sustain a critical, because informed, electorate by enforcing openness within the law. For democrats no political faith is possible save faith in the argument itself. We can acknowledge no leadership except the argument whithersoever it goes. Today, as yesterday, I believe that the argument goes to the Duke of Wellington's command, "Publish and be dammed!"
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Lord Buxton of Alsa
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for giving us this opportunity to express views at this juncture in the existence of broadcasting. I ought to express a somewhat muted vested interest, being a shareholder, last month having retired as chairman of Anglia Television after 30 years in the industry, during some of them as chairman of ITN. Since the noble Lord, Lord Annan, gave such a brilliant account and review of matters over the recent decade or so, I should like very briefly to speak of things as they are from the inside.
There is a great difference between the broadcasters and I wish to imply no criticism of any broadcasters. I certainly do not wish to criticise any programmes of the BBC where I have, and have had, so many friends in the past, including the noble Lord, Lord Swann, who follows later this afternoon. Nevertheless, it would be absurd to say that on the whole the majority of producers and directors are not middle of the road, or of Left-wing tendencies. There is no need to be either ashamed or embarrassed about that. It is a fact.
Some producers in television think that they have a right to absolute freedom. However, at the same time they fail to recognise the obligations in a democracy which that freedom implies. As the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said, some of a more activist nature feel that they have a great mission to change the country and even the world. But every time a producer fails to exercise responsibility in exchange for this freedom and is called to task for it publicly, in particular on matters of national security, something else happens. There are shrill and piercing howls of rage. The unfortunate aspect is that the 929 outcry is invariably boosted by parties who should really know better in the case of the public interest or of national security. These are the intelligentsia, the trendies, many politicians, and even some of the media. This tends to give encouragement to the notion among producers and directors that such a mission is their role in life.
Obviously, editorial freedom should not be regarded as a licence to shock, to insult, to undermine the confidence and wellbeing of society, and certainly not to undermine national security. I believe that it is absurd to suggest, however, that any government would be tempted to introduce controls if there had never been any abuse. Frankly, in television I have seen the situation arising for at least two decades, and if some measure of control is the unfortunate and wholly undesirable penalty, nobody regrets it more than myself, but certain broadcasters have little but themselves to blame.
I am not welcoming any form of control by government. It is not the producers and directors whom, I believe, we should be blaming. In my experience I would let them off the hook. Nor do I blame the IBA who are once removed from the action and can usually react only over particular incidents after the event. The responsibility for programme output, whether concerning bad taste, but in particular national security, is clearly the responsibility of the boards of ITV companies and the BBC. If, as a matter of routine, they do not scrutinise the forward plans and question the content and purpose of future current affairs and politically sensitive programmes, how can they be said to exercise their responsibility?
Without, again, implying a criticism of the BBC, there is a very considerable difference among the categories of television organisations. There are 15 television companies in ITV and at least 12, so far as I am aware, have never had any public outcry about a programme in well over 30 years. There have of course been incidents—and there must be in every single walk of life and organisation, including government—of own goals and clangers, but they are almost invariably confined to one or two of the national companies who have a much bigger responsibility and a greater output than the other dozen or more.
Therefore I wish to make it clear that such scrutiny is the responsibility of the boards. The boards of most of the regional companies have a much closer scrutiny and interest in the programme controllers' forward planning than may be the case in the BBC and one or two of the larger companies. It is nonsense to suggest that if the hoard, directors, or governors knew more about the future it would jam up the works. It would not cause operational problems because this process of scrutiny would apply only to a handful of sensitive current affairs projects over the year. It would be a simple duty for management, or one or more board members, to monitor the programme controllers' plans and decide whether or not it was necessary to refer any particular item to the board for judgment.
However, this does not happen in certain organisations. It is quite obvious from the way that 930 every time there is an unseemly clash in public—say, on a political issue as recently—the entire board, of whatever organisation it may be, closes ranks and mans the barricades behind the producer against the so-called interference with editorial freedom. As the noble Lord, Lord Annan, made quite clear, there is nothing wrong with broadcasters admitting, and no reason why they should not admit, that there has been an error or that there is a difference of opinion, or whatever it may be. The tendency is invariably to batten down the hatches and defend whatever has happened. It is inconceivable in my view that a group of distinguished, experienced, intellectually competent peole, such as are on any of the boards concerned, could possibly have a unanimous, identical view about items such as the Gibraltar programmes. The suspicion must be, therefore, that they knew nothing about the matter until afterwards and were closing ranks as captives of their own routine.
Government circles have often been accused of paranoia about broadcasting. But I believe that there is another paranoia of greater proportions in broadcasting circles about any criticism of their more way-out projects. So shrill is the outrage about any criticism from the Prime Minister, or Ministers, or those responsible for running the country, that one is tempted to conclude that in certain cases the whole purpose of a programme, so far as concerns a producer or director, has been to provoke, stir and enrage. If that is not the case, then what have the appointed members of the boards, who are fundamentally responsible, been doing before it has been produced?
The point that I wish to make this afternoon is this. Once a programme has been made it is extremely difficult to stop its transmission without an uproar about censorship and interference with broadcasting freedom. This is what makes the IBA's position difficult. But this difficulty applies to no other body. Consideration of all the issues and implications should take place before a sensitive project goes into production. Once that has happened one is on a slippery slope.
The directors and producers may not like the idea of previous scrutiny because they have been allowed, and have come to expect, so much rope over more than 30 years. But in the press no reporter or journalist is allowed to publish without the knowledge of the editor or someone else in the hierarchy. Sections of the press may be offensive at times, as we all know, but then one knows that the proprietor or editor intends it. It is not just the whim or custom of a reporter or sub-editor. In some quarters television has permitted the wholly erroneous notion to grow up that an individual producer has freedom to inject personal dispositions on the screen and this is contrary to the edicts of parliament.
Broadcasting organisations, before or after an uproar, usually rely on a reference to lawyers. All that the lawyers can do is to tell one whether one is likely to suffer financial damages or to go to prison. What use are lawyers to an intelligent board on judgments affecting the public interest or national security? The lawyer's involvement is irrelevant.
931 Bias is nothing new. Something has not suddenly happened which has brought about the debate which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has so helpfully introduced. I much regret the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council, but it is something that could be said to have been brewing from the outset. There has always been a tendency to produce controversial programmes, and as the years go by people have become bolder and bolder. What has happened in my view is that boards have become more remote and had less control.
I remember that possibly some 20 years ago my company, Anglia Television, produced two programmes of a highly controversial nature, one introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, and another by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. One was called "Red Under The Bed", about the creeping nature of communist activity in the trade unions, and the other, so far as I can remember, was called "Who Said It Can't Happen Here?" which showed how a bloodless communist takeover was conceivable overnight in any country. Those programmes were totally impartial, very well balanced and highly thought of. They received considerable acclaim, but were described in industry documents as Right-wing programmes. To my knowledge, there has never been something described as a balanced programme. The whole of broadcasting, especially in my industry, was so used to Left-wing programmes that the moment they saw one that was not Left-wing they immediately called it Right-wing.
I suggest therefore that we are not in a new situation. It is unfortunate that we have at last reached the point where a Broadcasting Standards Council is said to be necessary. I believe it is unnecessary and wholly illogical in view of the statutory responsibilities of the existing authorities.
Here again, I have to explain a difference. I am not seeking to impose any additional restraints on the BBC, but the BBC in structure is more like a large ITV company. It has a board of governors which is equivalent to the board of a large network company. That is where it stands. All ITV companies already have a supervising authority in the form of the IBA. Therefore if a broadcasting standards council were imposed on the BBC—I am not recommending it—it would merely be coming into line with the rest of ITV. We should then have the two public services balanced, each independent in a sense, but with a supervisory body to take account of what it does. If the Broadcasting Standards Council were also to be imposed upon ITV, that is a slightly hysterical situation. I venture to suggest to my noble friend Lord Ferrers that the Government have lost their way on that because there would be two supervisory bodies on one service and one on the other. Of the two options I would recommend that they do not go ahead with the Broadcasting Standards Council and that we are just left with one body, the IBA.
Finally, I should like to add that it is quite absurd for anyone to object to the Prime Minister, or any Minister or the Opposition criticising programmes, if they wish. But I should like to take up a matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, in that I think the Prime Minister was absolutely correct and quite 932 proper because the Prime Minister is head of all the security services and is responsible for the security of the nation. She was intruding in a matter that directly concerned that role. But why on earth should the Prime Minister not criticise programmes if she wishes? I venture to suggest that there would be no harm in a few biblical quotations in certain cases. It is ridiculous to equate criticism with interference.
One hears the producers proclaim so frequently that the public must be given the truth. I believe that on matters of public and national security the real truth is that the vast majority of the public would prefer not to know when national security is at stake. Because of the wisdom and instinct of the British public, these subversive programmes fortunately have little impact at home. But they do immense damage abroad and give comfort to our enemies.
I was in the United States during the course of the Gibraltar affair. It received the most appalling coverage in every publication one could imagine, from the New York Times right across the nation. I felt acutely embarrassed and uncomfortable and thought, "My God, what on earth are we trying to do?"
The boards of broadcasting organisations have a personal responsibility, each one of them. If they are unaware of programmes until after the event, it is no use getting paranoid about interference with independence. Freedom will already have been abused, and that is what we must stop.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, we seem to be divided between those who think that the programmes are generally Right-Wing with the occasional Left-Wing relief and those who think that programmes are generally Left-Wing with occasional Right-Wing relief. As we cannot agree about what the situation is, I wonder how likely we are to be able to come to a conclusion about what ought to be done in the future. However, we must ventilate the subject, and I believe we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for giving us the opportunity this afternoon.
Of course it is proper for government to seek to get their way, but it is in the nature of bad government to resent opposition. Such a bad government will endeavour to constitute themselves as the sole maker of decisions; hence, for example, the abolition of the GLC. But our elected dictatorship not only cannot stomach competing sources of power but finds criticism intolerable.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has done us a service in pointing out that broadcasting is in danger. Even now the changes in the BBC governors mean that dissent at the highest level is thought to have been taken care of. That is why they believed in the corporation. Safe choices are beginning to occupy the main seats of authority at lower levels. The corporation grapevine carries the message that the Government do not like being contradicted and do not like being exposed, charged with error, with concealment and still less with lying, expecially when the charges are well founded.
933 The secret service, as has been said, is secret. Its mistakes are particularly secret. It follows, as is thought in the corporation, that if one wishes to prosper in that service investigative exposure of the harmful consequences of government policies is hardly the way forward. When yesterday Nick Ross invited listeners to contribute to one of his programmes on Radio 4 he seemed to suggest that the questioners should be those who thought that Thatcherism had gone far enough and those who wanted it to go still further. Some of us believe that the acquisitive society is a form of sickness, and further that Thatcherism is a particularly virulent form of the disease. It still does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Ross that the Government are still not satisfied. Broadcasting as a whole must be brought to heel. Once that is done any remaining elements of dissent in the tame press can be eliminated at leisure.
We shall then have the ideal. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, will be entirely satisfied. All power will rest in 10 Downing Street. Dissent will of course be permitted under licence, which Sir William Rees-Mogg and Mr. Bernard Ingham will have the power to withdraw or suspend at any time. Perhaps a satirical journalist—Mr. Andrew Rawnsley of the Guardian is a possibility—will be appointed as Cabinet jester and allowed to gesture rudely in the direction of the lady protector, perhaps once a week, so as to make it clear that journalists never, never, never shall be slaves.
Incidentally, the noble Lord, Lord Renton—I am sorry he is not here—I think did Mr. Duncan Campbell an injustice. I shall check on the point, but I do not think it is correct to say that Mr. Duncan Campbell has been twice convicted. Certainly he has been prosecuted—some think persecuted—but I think not convicted. However, I shall check the point, and I do not have the slightest doubt that if I find I am in the right the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will apologise as easily as I shall if I find that I am in the wrong.
Even more serious, the Government's direction seems to be alarmingly wrong. While Mr. Gorbachev struggles towards the Right, Mrs. Thatcher seeks the shade of conformity and begins to snuff out the candles of pluralism. If the object of setting up the proposed Broadcasting Standards Council was not to bring existing broadcasters under still closer control the council would have been given responsibility for the new sources alone—for cable, for satellite and perhaps even for video; and that, I think, no one could have argued with. It would not have been set up in competition with the judiciary and above the BBC governors, the Independent Television Authority and the D-notice Committee. The new council is to be the watchdog of the watchdogs, answerable through the Home Office, which also handles secret service matters (so far as anyone handles them), to the Big Sister herself.
"There is no need to worry", says the noble Lord, Lord Renton, "my friend the Home Secretary is a 'Right' honourable man and he has said that Sir William will be confined to sex and violence—well, for the moment." But, of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, says, the council's powers might be 934 diminished, "or", he adds, "they may be added to, of course". Once the council is established, it will want to be influential. In the nature of things the direction of change, even now, will not be to muzzle the new dog; it will be to unchain the beast.
Even with the present intention, the idea that sex and violence have nothing to do with politics is naive or disingenuous. Let us consider how long the BBC itself suppressed the brilliant documentary "The War Game" because it showed, with an attempt at realism, something of the horrors which may accompany a nuclear war. Was there nothing political in that? Of course there was. Those separations cannot easily be made. In fact, gratuitous, unnecessary, immoral violence is allowed. It is shown all the time. It is precisely violence shown as a warning of the consequences of the policies they are following which upsets governments. That is the violence which the Government do not want to see. In other words, the council will be likely to stop what should be allowed and to allow what should be stopped.
I should like to add something about sound radio—the wireless as it was called when, as a boy, I struggled with the many wires that made up a crystal set. I retain that early interest in this unique and pioneer medium—the daddy of them all. I must also declare the additional interest that in recent years I have been writing, and am still writing, radio plays for BBC Radio 4.
It seems that the Government are to set up yet another body, the Radio Authority. Their passion for the creation of expensive quangos knows no bounds. It will be a regulatory body, but surely in granting or refusing licences the new body must take into consideration factors which will also concern Sir William Rees-Mogg's council. What with those two bodies, plus the Independent Broadcasting Authority, plus the BBC governors, plus the D-notice Committee and the law itself, there will be a fine old mess! Will anyone dare to broadcast anything to which Mrs. Thatcher might conceivably object—except, perhaps, satire so coarse as to create sympathy rather than scorn for its target? There is some of that already.
There can be no doubt that when it comes to creating confusion the Government are in a class by themselves. Of course, confusion damages not the confuser, the Government, but the confused, the broadcasting media, writers, producers and, most of all, the wretched public, who are the helpless source of money to pay for bureaucracies galore. They are bureaucracies which the Government spawn as the direct consequence of trusting no one but themselves and in striving to create enough strings, appointments and channels of control so that everyone and everything is ultimately answerable to one person. Guess who?
Some Conservatives are aware of these dangers. The Home Affairs Committee of the other place, chaired by Mr. John Wheeler, MP, and of course with a substantial Conservative majority, reporting last month finished up with this recommendation:We consider that the secure future of public service radio should be a priority in any Government legislation. To this end, the Government should ensure that the BBC, as the sole provider of 935 public service radio, is not under financial or other pressures to reduce its standards in this field in the face of competition from commercially financed competitors".I hope that we shall hear, perhaps from the noble Earl when he replies, that the Government accept that recommendation, which I believe will be widely supported throughout the whole House.
However, the reduction of standards is not the only problem. There are others, as that excellent body Voice of the Listener makes clear in its evidence to the Home Office committee. On this issue it calls for the establishment of a consultative consumer body to ensure proper public debate before any major change is implemented; that is, such a change as the establishment of a broadcasting council. I think that that is a sensible proposal.
The most alarming development—this brings me to my final point—is the loss of freedom, the introduction of fear, of caution and of anxiety in case the highest authority should be offended. The noble Lord, Lord Renton—again, I am sorry that he is not here—was, I think, wrong about the BBC Radio 4 documentary about the secret services called "My Country Right or Wrong". It was stopped by legal action last December despite the fact that the Secretary of the D-notice Committee had not only raised no objection but had agreed to be interviewed in the programme. The BBC sin was that it refused to hand over the scripts to the Treasury Solicitor before the programmes were broadcast. It rightly said that that would be State censorship and would provoke uproar.
The injunction remains in force. The programmes have not been broadcast. The Government have established a legal right to see the script of the first programme and have said that they have no objections to it. However, they insist upon seeing the second and third programmes. That point is still subject to legal argument. The programmes have still not been broadcast. If that can be done now, what on earth do we need all this apparatus for?
If Sir William Rees-Mogg's committee were in existence it would have a right to vet the scripts—a right which even the governors of the BBC have correctly in my view, traditionally not used; this series, which attempts to put together information on the secret services all of which has already been made public in one form or another would never even have been attempted; there would not have been a legal battle and the public would have been denied access to information which they are entitled to have simply because it served the convenience of the Government that they should remain ignorant. The Government want the people to know as little as possible about what they have been up to over the past few years because if they did know perhaps the Government's days would be shorter than they may be otherwise. Hence the burgeoning of concealment. It is for Parliament to see that the light of knowledge is not switched off.
§ 5.41 p.m.
My Lords, like many noble Lords who have spoken this evening I warmly 936 welcome the announcement of the Broadcasting Standards Council and I am confident that the chairman, Sir William Rees-Mogg, will perform his task admirably. The size of the reaction against this appointment indicates surely that those committed to the breakdown of traditional morality are gravely perturbed. Unlike many noble Lords, I believe in the type of constraints on our broadcasting which this council envisages. In this respect it is the interests of the children that I have principally at heart. There is abundant evidence, despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has told us, that sex and violence can, and do, harm young minds.
One asks for the evidence of this. Mrs. Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association tells me that no fewer than 850 pieces of research into this problem have been carried out over the years in Britain, America and other English speaking countries. Nearly all have come to the conclusion that such influences are harmful. I think here of programmes such as "EastEnders", "Dallas", "Dynasty" and so on.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, the problem is that there has been no definitive finding. Quite recently the Wyatt Committee, which was set up by the BBC to look into violence, commissioned a piece of research from Dr. Cumberbatch of Aston University. The results, which came out fairly recently, showed that no link could be found. One cannot find any scientific or properly approved research.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that intervention. We would all agree that it is a difficult and complex problem. However, those people who have studied the problem in depth—perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who is to speak later will confirm this point—would agree that there is a good deal of information based on sound research to indicate the harm that these programmes do. One has only to look at the correspondence of Mary Whitehouse and several organisations with which I am connected to see that that is the case. However, I do not think it is profitable to pursue this point in any detail at this stage.
As we have heard less recently about the extent of this pollution, as I would call it, it may well be argued that the tide is diminishing; but, sadly, it is not. Perhaps I may liken what is happening to a sewage outflow. I should like your Lordships to imagine a cesspit in the garden of a large old-fashioned country house. I am thinking of my grandmother's house. I can well remember how this cesspit adjoined a tennis court. As it overflowed, so the court gradually became unplayable. However, after a while, players grew accustomed to the sewage and play was resumed, although somewhat cautiously. So it is with the evil influence of the broadcasting media—pornography and violence. We are gradually accustoming ourselves to them and so are our children. Nevertheless, the stench remains as powerful as ever, and so does the potential harm they do.
As vice-president of the Christian Broadcasting Council it gives me the greatest pleasure to welcome 937 the new council. It is also welcomed by at least two bodies with which I am connected, which seek to promote family values. I am thinking here of the National Family Campaign and the Conservative Family Campaign, and certain smaller groups. These groups have been nibbling away at this problem for some while. It may interest your Lordships to know that Mrs. Whitehouse's NVALA has been campaigning for no less than 20 years for the formation of such a council. Another campaign has been going on for 17 years. These bodies and others, and many individuals too, have been nibbling away at the problem. Although they may have the teeth of mice, they have the hearts of lions and the pertinacity of beavers.
I want to make three points about the new council and I should be interested in the Minister's reaction to them. First, it must have strong teeth and it must be able to make positive recommendations. Secondly, it should be able to receive and deal with complaints. I am told by several people that, hitherto, when someone has written to the BBC to complain about a certain programme, he or she has been told, "We are sorry to hear this, but you are the only person who has complained". That is rather surprising. Thirdly—and perhaps this is the most important point of all—the proposals for this new council cover only the BBC and IBA. Surely they should also cover cable and satellite broadcasting as well.
I have two general points to make. First, broadcasting should be placed under the umbrella of the Obscene Publications Act. This is quite possible because legally the word "publications" can include broadcasts. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a need for international action. The dual problem of violence and pornography—the two go hand in hand to a large extent—has become a truly global one and we need the fullest possible co-operation with our European partners and also with other countries. Here I should like to pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, for her courageous stance in regard to broadcasting standards. As the House will know, the noble Baroness is a member of the European Parliament.
My next point concerns broadcasting advertising. We hear from the Prime Minister, Ministers and others that this country needs to return to Christian standards on morality, but the broadcasting authorities are to some extent handicapped in this respect by the prohibition under the Broadcasting Act 1981 of broadcasting advertising. Schedule 2(8) to the Act reads:No advertisement shall be permitted which is inserted by or on behalf of anybody whose objects are wholly or mainly of a religious or political nature".I have heard the argument expressed several times, and there is much in it, that if one were to lift the restriction it would open the way to proselytisation by a whole mass of phony religious creeds. I suggest to the House that the best way round that would be for material to be submitted through the Churches and passed by the Broadcasting Standards Council. I believe that that would overcome the difficulty. I shall be pleased to hear the views of the Minister on that point.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
My Lords, I have not taken part in a debate on the BBC for a long time. During the 1950s I moved several debates on the question of our overseas information services, which received hardly any money in those days. I believe they received only £2 million or £3 million, but that was raised to £13 million within about two years. I have always considered that to be the most important function of the BBC and it carried it out very well.
I am sorry to say that the BBC has declined a little since those days in some of the programmes it broadcasts. There are cultural programmes on houses, pictures, wildlife and the environment that one cannot better; they are excellent. However, I believe that it falls down when an element of politics creeps in, as the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, has said.
As regards children's television, "Children's Hour" is harmless. However, during the holidays and when the children come home from school, the custom in many of the 23 million homes appears to be that they turn the television on, leave it on and the children have completely free access to pornographic filth or violence. I believe that that is deplorable. I do not know how one can stop that, but it should be stopped.
As other noble Lords have said, the sex, pornography and violence must be toned down. One sometimes hears that in courts young offenders make the excuse that they saw such things on television. I believe that that is a pointer that such programmes must be toned down. Indeed, unless the programmes are shown very late at night, at midnight or afterwards, they must not be shown.
Independence more or less is the same as freedom. The BBC has always treated me very well. I have been on the screen a few times. One has to be a little careful of recorded programmes but one often forgets that. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, is asking for complete independence for the BBC. We certainly do not want a state-run BBC, which would be disastrous. However, it cannot be completely independent—nothing can be. If one wants complete freedom one must go and live in the jungle and not in a civilised country and an organised society. To a certain extent the same applies to independence; one must abide by the law.
I know that the BBC has a charter, but my experience has been that when in the old days I asked questions of the Government the answer was always, "We cannot interfere with the BBC. It has its charter and it has complete freedom". One always receives the same answer from the Government and there have been occasions when one hoped for a better answer.
I must not be too long and I am not going to be too long. I remember the occasion on which I made my maiden speech in this House and was afterwards interviewed by BBC television. The first question I was asked was, "How do you like all the privileges of being a Peer of the Realm?" I said, "There are no privileges; there are only duties and responsibilities. After all I am not a member of a trade union". They 939 were very shocked to hear that. Afterwards one of the camera men said to me, "Sir, you should never have said that. They will never forgive you." However, I said it and I think that they have forgiven me. It was a long time ago.
As has been mentioned by another noble Lord, I am extremely worried about terrorism. The BBC seems to exploit terrorism on the screen. I do not mean that it throws bombs, but it exploits terrorism on the screen. There is no doubt that it often builds up a small incident into a large incident by renting a mob and causing a crowd. It should try to stop doing that. Terrorism is one of the most appalling problems of our age and anything that is done to encourage it is deplorable.
In the days of the Rhodesian crisis plenty of Africans were seen on television. They were the terrorist Africans, the hotheaded nationalists. However, there are plenty of moderate Africans but none of them could get on television. I tabled a Question about that and received the usual stock government Answer, which was, "We cannot interfere with the BBC. It is impartial. One cannot interfere". That is not good enough. The BBC interferes too much in politics and takes sides, but it is supposed to be an impartial body. I believe that I received an answer from my noble friend Lord Ferrers, but probably he will not remember because it is some time go. However, that is not good enough. As regards these plays which my noble friend Lord Renton mentioned, as well as the programmes, I agree with every word he has said on them.
We live in an age of debunking. This is a great country, a very tolerant country. I wonder why we should have people trying to debunk our traditions the whole time on the television screen, as they do. If people are rogues then by all means debunk them, but if they have been very good men and done their duty and nothing wrong why should programmes go in for this debunking? It can only help eventually to destroy the democratic state. Those are strong words, but that is what it means. I was impressed by the brilliant speech of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, who is not here now. He was correct in almost everything he said, as was my noble friend Lord Renton.
I shall not say much more, but the other matter which infuriated me—although I never show my infuriation—was the Falklands. As we all know, here we had a small island which had been British for donkeys' years, 99 per cent. of the inhabitants being of pure British blood. Here they were threatened; invaded by Argentina which had no legal claim to the island. If it had a legal claim then it was only necessary for it to go to the court at The Hague. The BBC did not back up this country over the Falklands and I think that was bad.
I think I have said enough. I have spoken for 11 minutes but it does not seem like that to me and I shall shortly sit down. I have great admiration for the BBC, apart from its certain lapses; it has always treated me well. However I have this view of broadcasting organisations: they do very well but they cannot expect to be completely above the law. The BBC is the only organisation in the country that 940 is above the law and I would say that it is the most powerful organisation in this country. There used to be an old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword, and of course it is. If you want to start a revolution, you write a book. Today you would go perhaps not to the pen but to television.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, the noble Viscount said that there are no privileges here. If he had not ruled out the idea of privileges I should have said that it was a privilege to follow such a charming speaker. However, he will forgive me if I do not follow his apparent line of argument too closely. I came here prepared with a suitable compliment to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, but as he is not here I think I shall have to administer it on another occasion, rather than allow the noble Lords on the Liberal Benches to transmit it.
I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, made a very effective speech, but no more effective than the speeches of my colleagues, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. I go a long way with all three of them, but as will be apparent before I finish, not the whole way. I entirely agree that this Government have shown themselves ludicrously sensitive to criticism, anxious to bring pressure to bear on all those who seem to disagree with them—almost frenetically so. I do not know what the trouble is. If I were a psychiatrist—which heaven forbid!—I should explain it as being due to insecurity; but the Government have been there for some time and one would think that they would have settled down by now.
The fact is that at the slightest sign of anyone causing trouble, whether it be the Churches, the universities, the BBC or anybody else, they come tearing along and do all they can to suppress it, without actually breaking the law. Therefore I go along with all that has been said to that effect by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and by my acting leader, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. I am sure that much the same will be said very effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, when the time comes.
I must, however, make plain that I am one of those who, like the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, consider that there is altogether too much sex and violence in broadcasting today. I speak, as he does, from a Christian point of view. That has become a rather dangerous phrase these days. As soon as somebody says that they are Christian, someone else begins quoting Pontius Pilate or Timothy or Paul. The argument becomes rather remote and far removed from the subject under discussion, so we shall leave out the theology for the moment.
I was explaining that I was about to pay a compliment to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. Rather than lose it altogether and forget to pay it the next time I see him, I must say that in the short time he has been here he has established himself as one of our most effective speakers.
As I was saying, I am afraid that I am one of those who feel that there is altogether too much sex and violence. I realise that we are dealing today with 941 broadcasting and not with the press, but it has come home to me rather more forcibly than previously that there is a very close connection between the values established by the tabloid press and what the broadcasters consider they must put on because of its news value. A few days ago—last Friday—I made one of my rare appearances on television. I was asked to appear in a programme which I understood was going to deal with sex and marriage. I was going to offer a few homely thoughts, as one who had been happily married for 57 years or thereabouts. When I got there the first person I met was a lady famous—as she herself said a little later in the programme—for keeping a brothel. We were being made up together, so that while they dabbed powder on my forehead they did whatever was necessary to effect her beauty.
We settled down and the discussion took place, but I realised that it would be a completely different programme from the one I had expected. It was going to deal with massage parlours and we were going to have a number of performers in these parlours, masseurs and masseuses. (I do not know how one writes that, from the point of view of Hansard.) They were male and female massage practitioners. They were going to explain that they were pursuing a legitimate trade which was being ruined by the wrong sort of publicity. However, there would also be other practitioners who were prostitutes, and they had prostitutes on the programme.
I do not know whether noble Lords think that that is a good idea. It takes all sorts to make the world and we want to hear the other person's point of view. We arc broadminded these days. However, the whole treatment of the subject, including the statement by the lady—"I keep a brothel"—brought resounding cheers and laughter. Should that be shown? Your Lordships may say that it should not be stopped, that we could not pass a law to make that programme illegal. But that is symptomatic of a tendency which is altogether deplorable.
When I asked afterwards why they had gone to these lengths, a very charming person in charge—I had better not specify more closely—explained that they sympathised with my point of view, because at one point I had refused to take part in the programme. Then they had agreed to allow me to say my little piece about marriage, which hardly fitted in with the rest of it. But I had insisted on that, so I got it off my chest. They explained that they understood my point of view, but that the News of the World and other tabloids had created so much interest in the antics of a certain gentleman indirectly connected with the Royal Family that it was impossible for television to ignore it. I am making these points seriously—more seriously than I should have done a little while ago. In other words, the values of the tabloids are establishing themselves as creating the news values of television.
At this point I cannot help mentioning the fact that there may be other old hands who were here in 1954—the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, for example. In those days the champions of the BBC fought like tigers to prevent the coming of commercial television. In fact, they divided the House on the Second Reading of the Bill in order to 942 prevent the arrival of commercial television because it was thought that it would corrupt broadcasting by the BBC.
It is not for me to say whether the champions of the BBC think that that has happened, but they are, I gather, standing together to resist the idea of a council to advise on programmes containing sex and violence. They are particularly resistant to the appointment of Sir William Rees-Mogg as chairman of the council. The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, referred to him as his old friend, but I am not sure whether or not that was meant to be ironic. I do not imagine that he welcomes that appointment any more than, apparently, Sir William Rees-Mogg, when he was editor of The Times, welcomed the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, as chairman of an important body.
As I said, the House was divided by the champions of the BBC to prevent its corruption by the arrival of commercial television. We have now had 30 years of commercial television and I must leave the House to say whether or not those who divided the House on that occasion were right or wrong. However, today we have all this sex and violence on broadcasting.
I am no stranger to the subject, as some older Members will be aware. In the spring of 1971 I moved a Motion in this House arguing that pornography had increased, that it was increasing and that it should be diminished. The report that followed my speech was published in the autumn of 1972 and the House again debated the subject. On each occasion the majority of speakers in this House supported my general position. That is not to say that there were not some weighty speeches made from the other point of view. I said all that in 1971 and 1972, and so did our far-reaching committee. I argued that there ought to be a voluntary council—not necessarily of the kind set up by the Government, but some sort of advisory body. I am much more likely to say that now. Can anyone say that there is less pornography now than there was in 1971 or 1972?
That can perhaps be argued about sex because people will tell me that there is much less sex visible in Soho. There may be some improvements there, but no one can doubt that there has been a great increase in violence since then, not only in the tabloids but in broadcasting. In that long report we devoted only one chapter to violence. It seemed to be altogether a subsidiary issue. However, no one doing a report today on pornography would devote only one chapter to violence—at least half the report would be devoted to violence. There has been a great expansion of violence in broadcasting since that time. Therefore we have this grave situation confronting us.
In the speech I made before the report was published I said what may be obvious, but it cannot be said too often—that most of us dislike pornography and that most of us dislike censorship. That sets the problem. How do you cope with pornography without something that is called censorship? The word "censorship" is vague and ambiguous. Very few people believe in total freedom of speech. Few people would say that there should not be any obscenity laws. The great liberals—using the word in its most honourable sense and not only in the party sense—would be the first to applaud the 943 fact that we have laws against racism. Some advanced thinking people among my friends are now saying that we ought to have laws against sexism. Hardly anyone seriously suggests that we should have no laws which interfere with human freedoms. There must be some kind of balance.
Something must be done. The Government have made a certain move by setting up a council. I do not suggest that there is any perfection in the way that the council is being set up or in its precise terms of reference, about which I am not clear at the moment. However, I will say that I have the highest admiration—I do not say this in the conventional sense but in a genuine way—for Sir William Rees-Mogg. He is a gentleman who has been belaboured a great deal in recent weeks. If anyone should wonder what that gentleman is like they can of course refer to his record. It is quite remarkable. He has been editor of The Times, deputy chairman of the BBC and chairman of the Arts Council. However, if people really want to know the value of the man they should read his book of religious reflections. If they can find a better book of religious reflections written in the past 20 years I hope they will let me know. He is a very fine man and I am glad that he has been given the job.
Certainly I would not suggest Sir William if there were any political censorship involved. He is a Tory. Tories of course can be fine men, although that may be a bit harder.
§ The Earl of Longford
Yes, my Lords, but it is possible. He is a Tory and would be most unsuitable if politics were involved; but so would anybody with a political persuasion. We do not want political censorship of any kind.
I end where I began, with strong support for the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and my noble friends on this side of the House.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Lord Swann
My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter initiated this debate, even if I am sad that it should have needed to be initiated. There is a need for such a debate. We have heard a wide exchange of views and a great deal of wisdom, and I particularly congratulate my noble friend Lord Annan who knows much about broadcasting. If I do not agree with everything that he said, I certainly agree with a great deal of it. I agree or disagree variously with what other speakers have said. Because my noble friend Lord Annan, and others, have expressed their views so well, many of the points I had intended to make have already been put forward. Therefore, I have reached the conclusion that, although there are a few points I shall make later, I should perhaps speak about a few recollections of my time at the BBC which are relevant to the subject of our debate.
The first thing that one learns is that there have been rows and rumpuses and attempts at government 944 interference from the very first Reithian days of the BBC. Sir Alexander Cadogan, chairman in the 1950s, had more than his fair share of troubles; as did the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton. Both stood up stoutly for independence. I, too, had my share of troubles. I received threats from the Foreign Office and threats, veiled or otherwise, from almost every other corner of government; though never, I am glad to say, from the Home Office. I received threats—as I said, veiled or overt—about many matters including, from time to time, threats not to raise the licence fee.
One such threat caused me a great deal of embarrassment because it came from a senior politician. The member of staff to whom he spoke on the telephone taped the conversation, against all the orders, rules and regulations. It floated, to my astonishment and relief, silently round Broadcasting House for some weeks. Should I ever write my memoirs I shall have to expand on that and other matters.
I must say that Tory governments have no monopoly on wanting to interfere with the BBC. More worrying in my time was the attempt by the Labour Government in 1978 to impose a complicated new devolved structure of government appointees on to what were to be called service management boards: one for television, one for radio and one for the external services.
The BBC protested vigorously, as did the noble Lord, Lord Annan, whose famous report had recently been completed. The press protested, the public protested and so, most notably, did the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, who was at that time shadow Home Secretary. In the other place he said that he feared that the independence of the BBC and its whole character would be threatened. Whether the then government would actually have persevered in the light of so much opposition, I rather doubt; but a general election put a premature end to speculation.
We have heard quite a bit about what has happened since my time. I will not go over it because I believe it was fully aired in the previous debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Chalfont. I wish to remind your Lordships of something that I said in that debate, because I believe it profoundly. I said given that there are 15,000 hours a year of television put out by the BBC and 200,000 hours of domestic radio per annum put out by the BBC, the staff would have to be archangels if they were never to make silly mistakes or errors of judgment. Given that about 50 million people watch with some regularity, it seemed to me inevitable that quite a lot of people will be annoyed for a few hours per annum and a few people including—dare I say it—the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will be annoyed for quite a lot of hours per annum. I continued by saying that I thought this was a small price to pay for preserving the essential element in a free society; namely, the freedom of the media and preserving the internationally visible integrity of the BBC's External Services, uniquely influential as you know they are.
I might have added that the periodic rows between the government of the day and the BBC are an essential prerequisite if the External Services are to be seen to be independent and trustworthy and not, like 945 most if not all other nations' external services, just a propaganda weapon. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in winding up the debate, said something that I warmly welcome and I wish to remind your Lordships and the noble Earl of what he said,it cannot be for the Government to dictate or to determine the quality of programmes. That is, and must be, the … responsibility of the chairman and the governors of the BBC. If we were to accept the principle of government interference or the right to censure the BBC on the contents of any, some, or all of its programmes, then we would be embarking … on a very slippery slope of broadcasting … by government consent. That I think few people wish to see."—[Official Report, 27/4/88; col. 277.]The idea of a body on the lines of the Broadcasting Standards Council is not new. In fact, it is old and distinctly worn. It was seriously mooted by governments in 1962, 1966, 1972 and 1977, but in every case it was ultimately rejected on the grounds that it would be likely to confuse the lines of authority of the board of governors. It is not yet clear what sort of creature the new Broadcasting Standards Council will be. The idea of drawing up guidelines and acceptable standards is attractive, but it has been done often enough before by both the BBC and the IBA. I cannot speak with quite the same authority over the IBA's efforts in that sphere, but I know all too well the BBC's various publications about it and I believe they cannot be faulted.
The problems really begin when staff have to make judgments in the real world, and members of the new council would do well to read the proceedings, for instance, of a fascinating conference called by the BBC to discuss those real difficulties. There is also a short book written by Dr. Colin Morris on broadly the same topic. He used to be the BBC's head of religious broadcasting and now—heaven help him—he is the BBC's controller in Northern Ireland.
Anyone who doubts the difficulties and the broadcasters' efforts to get things right, should read those documents before beginning to apportion blame. I will not try to give all the kinds of examples, but there is a graphic description of the news people trying to decide what to do with some horrifying tape of one of the riots in South Africa where blacks were killing blacks. The broadcasters decided that they must chop it off at the point at which blood started to flow. However, they got into trouble by being accused of wanting to make light of what blacks did to blacks.
The root of the problem is that the views of the public are infinitely variable. If and when the new council starts pontificating, I guess that it, like the BBC and the IBA, will start getting the flak. Indeed, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said it has started getting it because letters are already appearing in the press protesting that the programmes that Sir William Rees-Mogg says he approves of are in fact most disagreeable and, conversely, the ones that he dislikes are innocent to a degree. That cannot come as a surprise to anyone who has worked in broadcasting. In fact, in my more sombre moments as chairman, I used to reflect that there was scarcely a programme that the BBC ever put out that did not upset someone, if not quite a number of people.
I recall now, eight years after having left the BBC, with something approaching affection the letters I used to receive from a category of people known 946 within the BBC as "Disgusted, Bournemouth". They used to say some quite bizarre things. There were a number of letters and they came at intervals. One I particularly liked was an earnest complaint about that infinitely innocent and enjoyable comedy series called "Dad's Army" which, it was held, was subversive. I finally discovered, having received a number of these letters, that the reason was that it mocked the pompous Captain Mainwaring who, you may recall, was the commanding officer of the Warmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon in World War II. I also cherish letters, some of which I have kept, where a particular programme was ferociously attacked for Left-wing bias and simultaneously, by other people, for Right-wing bias.
The longer I continued with the BBC the more I came to revise my views about bias. When I joined I thought, "Yes, on the whole I think the BBC is a bit Left-wing". After a while I came to the conclusion that it was not quite as simple as that, despite my efforts to try to do something about bias. My eyes were opened when I said to a senior member of staff, after I had been there for a while, "You know, I think I am making a bit of progress here, don't you?" He said, "Oh well, with the greatest respect, chairman, it is not you, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer". I said, "What on earth do you mean?" He said, "Don't you recall?"—this will enable noble Lords to identify who he was—"he said that he was going to squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked". Of course, all these young men thought that was a super idea. After a while, they realised that they were rather well paid and came into the category of being rich. They changed their views somewhat to the Right. Whether the present Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to reverse that process has not yet been revealed to me.
There were other aspects of bias, because not long after I became chairman there was a change of government from Conservative to Labour, and almost overnight the complaints we received—the chairman received about 100 letters a week—changed from alleging a Left-Wing bias to alleging a Right-Wing bias. You make of that what you will.
Turning from those random thoughts to the new council, whether it would do much good I rather doubt. The BBC and the IBA are well aware of what the great British public thinks of their successes and mistakes from an elaborate procedure known as audience research. They also receive vast numbers of letters, though I hope that the council will bear in mind that letters are rather a poor indicator. They in no way match the populations of different parts of the country from which they come, largely because they are related to socio-economic status. One of the simplest guides to this status is whether a letter has a printed address on it. Whether other socio-economic groups think the same as the middle to upper-middle class is far from sure, and it is difficult to find out what means what in this rather murky area of social science.
I do not believe that the new council can do much harm unless it starts wanting to preview programmes and veto those of which it disapproves. Other noble Lords have referred to this. Then it will certainly do a great deal of harm because, as the noble Lord, Lord 947 Aylestone, and others have pointed out, that is precisely the job of the board of the IBA and the rather different authority structure of the BBC.
I do not know what the Government and Sir William have in mind on this score, but it has been reported that the latter wishes to preview programmes, and one does not want to preview programmes if one does not wish to influence the broadcasters, or possibly veto their programmes. I must say that I do not like the sound of that; neither, it is clear to me, did the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, nor Mr. Hussey.
There seems to have been some sort of compromise on the issue in that previewing will extend only to imported fiction. Well, that may be so, but the Broadcasting Standards Council has no authority, under the Act which governs the IBA or the BBC's charter, to make such a requirement. I profoundly hope that both bodies will answer with a resounding "no" and put the onus for such a move where it rightly belongs—with the Government. If there is to be a new broadcasting Bill and the Government want to erode the authority of the BBC governors and the IBA, then let them put a clause into such a Bill.
I could continue, but there is not a great deal more that I wish to say. However, in conclusion, I should mention that there are about 150 countries in the United Nations, but no more than a couple of dozen of them are what one would call true democracies. Indeed, many of them make no pretence at being democracies. Only a couple of dozen of those countries have any significant degree of freedom from government control over their broadcasting, or indeed over many other aspects of their lives. Among those 24 countries, British broadcasting, both by the BBC and the IBA, is the most admired, the most emulated and the most envied in the world. Therefore, in my view, it would be a national tragedy if we were to move even a single step in the wrong direction, because freedom is very hard to win and rather easy to lose.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Lord Kagan
My Lords, I should point out to the House that although my name was originally on the speakers list it has since been withdrawn at my request. I decided not to speak because everything that I wished to say had, in fact, already been said. I can only apologise for any misunderstanding that may have arisen as a result of my withdrawal.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Lord Plunket
My Lords, I put my name down to speak in this debate—although I see it is not on the list—for one reason only. I shall therefore confine my remarks to that one aspect and my intervention will be but a brief one.
I have spent most of the past 30 years or more in Zimbabwe, although I am a frequent visitor to this country. I am an avid listener to the BBC World Service, and it is solely about that branch of broadcasting that I wish to speak. So far as I know, the noble Lord, Lord Swann, is the only speaker to have touched upon the external services of the BBC.
948 A case could be made out for the importance of the world service exceeding that of BBC television, ITV, Channel 4 and the four sound-broadcasting programmes on the grounds that that service has a wider listening public than the 23 million households—I think that was the figure quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Renton—which listen in this country. Its audience amounts to more than that for all the domestic services put together. However, whether that is so, it must be said that the real importance of the world service lies in the image it projects of the United Kingdom to its foreign and overseas listeners. That is where the world service differs from broadcasting to UK viewers and listeners. It justifies, I believe, a different approach.
In the sphere of party politics I support the purpose of the Motion which is to call attention to the importance of maintaining the independence of British broadcasting. If independence of the broadcasting media is to be allowed, it must be reciprocated with even-handedness and fairness. However, where the BBC is broadcasting to the rest of the world—whether it likes it or not—it is taken to be the voice of Britain. On the hour, almost every hour throughout the day and night—sometimes for nearly half an hour on end, and more—news and views are beamed all over the world. Some noble Lord may well say, "Perish the thought!" However, it is quite a thought.
News is also being broadcast from other countries—some friendly, but others not. Many are totalitarian and communist countries reflecting their political or ideological beliefs and aspirations. It is unrealistic to ignore that fact and not to recognise that the BBC is competing with such broadcasting. And it competes very well. Its impartiality, despite the strictures we have heard today, is a byword. However, when reporting on political events in this country, I believe it has a duty to support the general policies of the Government presently in power. To put it another way, the reporting of opposition views, without a balancing viewpoint—which would be perfecty acceptable to viewers and listeners in this country—could be completely misunderstood abroad.
Acting independently, in a responsible manner, and maintaining impartiality are always fine balancing acts. It is easy to spot the obvious breaches. Your Lordships may recall the broadcasts beamed from Francistown in Botswana after the disastrous declaration of UDI in Rhodesia, as it was then called. At the time I welcomed such broadcasts, countering as they did the propaganda of the Rhodesia Front and Mr. Smith's government.
However, very shortly the outpourings from Francistown were taken for what they also were: blatant propaganda. Broadcasts became counterproductive. Worse, the BBC's reputation suffered. Mercifully, however, Mr. Smith jammed the broadcasts and that was the end of the matter. It was nevertheless an instance where the BBC was led astray and its independence leaned upon.
More recently I listened to an account on the BBC World Service news of a lively—some may have thought slightly undignified—protest by a Member 949 of another place dealing with apartheid in South Africa and the non-imposition of sanctions. It was broadcast on the ordinary world service news network. However, shortly afterwards, in a daily feature called 'News of the African World", which confines itself to events in that continent, the same news item was again broadcast. I think that the political feelings of a member of the news staff must have got the better of him. It was not in keeping with the bias shaded towards official government policy that I believe should be adopted. That is just one example. If asked, I could give many others.
I shall try to tread carefully on more delicate ground when I refer to the voices themselves. When one is unable to see their owners, they bear added significance. In the old days, when a radio was a wireless, BBC pronunciation of English was a cult. Wilfred Pickles was a fine broadcasting personality. He was put on to reading the news, but not for long. The public was outraged by his accent—I am not sure whether it was a Yorkshire or a Lancashire accent—and he was banished from the newsroom. I am glad to say he carried on making a successful career in other departments.
However, although audibility is still the major criterion, it would seem that in selecting newsreaders and news presenters less attention is now paid to accents. This is as may be to the various home services; but the BBC voices for presenting news programmes should surely be recognisable as BBC voices. Switching to one of the wavelengths recommended for southern Africa—for technical and atmospheric reasons which I am not competent to understand—one finds, tuning in at a particular time, Radio Moscow, broadcasting in English. Using a member of BBC staff with a perfectly acceptable accent otherwise but sufficiently foreign to confuse listeners as to where the broadcast is coming from is just not sensible. Some people might consider it deliberate and sinister. I do not, in fact; but the BBC should not give grounds for anybody to think that.
The BBC World Service broadcast on short wave and it is only too easy to find oneself tuned into a wrong station. This is yet another example of applying different criteria. What is right and good for broadcasting to home listeners—and this really has been the main thrust of the debate today—is not necessarily right and good for the world service. In occasional correspondence with Bush House, I have invariably received very courteous replies and I have a very high regard for its staff. However, I should like to stress that the freedom and impartiality which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, wishes to be allowed free rein should be tempered to ensure that the BBC World Service, with its wider public, and also within these shores, presents the image of Great Britain as a united and democratic country.
§ 6.43 p.m.
My Lords, in rising to wind up this debate from these Benches I should like to say at once that I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Plunket, paid tribute to the BBC's World Service. I think we all believe that that service exemplifies all that is best in the BBC and seldom shows any of the things which are perhaps less good. Perhaps I could 950 also say to the noble Lord that his speech indicated that there are perhaps more ways than one of threatening the freedom of an institution. Your Lordships may remember that the independence and indeed the very existence of the World Service was briefly threatened by a lack of funds. I think I am right in saying that your Lordships' House did a great deal to ensure that the required funds were forthcoming for the BBC's external services.
I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, when he stated that the fact that everybody has already said the things he would have liked to have said is a good reason for not speaking at all. I should also like to say that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Swann, was extremely wise and perceptive, and I personally should like to echo, but not repeat, every single word that he said to your Lordships.
However, there are still some things that I should like to add. Had the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, been in his place I would have said to him that at no time did my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter suggest that he wished to see total independence for broadcasters, with no control at all. He did not say that for one moment. My noble friend said that he wished to see the present degree of independence maintained under the controls which now exist, and in fact he spelt out those controls to your Lordships. None of us on these Benches wishes to see all controls entirely removed from broadcasting. However, as your Lordships know, the Motion stresses the importance of maintaining the independence of broadcasting, and that immediately poses the question: independence from whom? From the debate, clearly it means independence from politicians and from government. It is on those matters that this debate has largely concentrated. But I am a little afraid of that independence being threatened from other sources—and there are two of them.
However, the present position, as I see it, is that over the years since broadcasting was first regulated—the noble Lord, Lord Renton, reminded us that that was in 1926—we have taken the greatest possible care to distance the control of broadcasting from government and indeed from local government as well. I think I am right in saying that in general we all agree that broadcasting should be able to be the critic of government and of local government and should not be its mouthpiece. That position has been broadly maintained over the years. There was a brief period when perhaps it was threatened. That was at the time when independent local radio was first introduced. There were then suggestions that independent local radio should be put in the hands of local government. I think the Government of that day should be congratulated on having resisted those requests to give local authorities a stake in independent local radio. I think that would have been the reversal of a principle to which we have all adhered over many years.
As has been said by many of your Lordships in great detail, we have over the years developed a system under which the BBC operates under its charter and the independent broadcasters operate under the independent broadcasting Act. Both require impartiality, balance and a proper 951 representation of minority opinion. With regard to balance, what is balance? Here I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that I do not regard "balance" as producing a programme in which a prostitute and a brothel keeper appear, and the producer then thinks that the programme is balanced if he arranges for the noble Earl to be present as well. That is not the kind of balance about which we are thinking.
Perhaps, since the noble Lord, Lord Renton, talked a little about balance, I might just remind him of the words of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who at that time was Minister of State at the Home Office, when he replied to a debate on 21st July 1987, at col. 1370. He said:I remind the House that the Broadcasting Act 1981 states that impartiality may be judged over a series of programmes, taken as a whole".I think that is very important. To insist upon balance within a single programme, as happened in the very early days of the independent sector, is very damaging indeed.
I think I have mentioned to your Lordships in the past an experience of mine when I was about to present a programme on the need for smokeless zones in a somewhat smoky area of Manchester. The representative of the local independent broadcasting authority in the North said that I could not do that programme unless I could also drag along a reluctant representative of a backward local authority which did not believe in smokeless zones. Fortunately we have moved away from that. I think in the main it was the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, who saw to it that the interpretation of balance and impartiality was balance overall and not within an individual programme.
I quoted the words of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. I should like to move to other comments that he made in that same debate. The noble Lord, Lord Swann, quoted the words spoken by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, concerning the present position. I am merely quoting those of his predecessor as Minister of State at the Home Office, when he said at col. 1371 of the Official Report for 21st July 1987: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 …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.".In that statement and in the statement made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, which was quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Swann, we clearly have set out the present Government's position. I very much hope that later today we shall not hear that that position has varied in any way at all.
If that is the position, I see two possible threats to it. First, there has always been the threat of the present method of financing of broadcasting which seemed to me, in the past anyway, to put the BBC in a position where every so many years it was forced to go cap in hand to the government of the day for an 952 increase in the licence fee. That to my mind made the BBC at that time unnecessarily subservient to the government of the day. Now it is possible that we are slowly moving away from that, because I believe that there is general acceptance of the fact that that position was not a satisfactory one.
The second possible threat to that freedom is the fact that the people responsible for first, the charter and, secondly, the independent broadcasting Act—the governors of the BBC and the members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority—are appointed by the government of the day. When a government remain in power for a long period—the present Government have been in power for a very long period indeed—and they have to fill the vacancies that arise either among the governors of the BBC or the members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, there comes a time when inevitably the views of the governors of the BBC or those of the IBA begin to appear to reflect more and more the views of the government of the day. That is a possible danger and one of which the Government should be aware.
Whenever it is mentioned, the Government spokesman usually rises up and quotes the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, as an example of the Government's total impartiality. I have the greatest possible affection and regard for the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, but I would not say that one swallow makes a summer. I merely point out that that is a danger and that appointments to those important offices have to be considered with very great care.
My view has always been that the best way of fulfilling those obligations with regard to impartiality is by representing minority opinion properly and ensuring balance. That is done by having a maximum number of individual programme makers operating with a maximum degree of autonomy and freedom. Here I clearly differ from the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, who made a most interesting speech, most of which I wholeheartedly agree with. But I think that he questioned the autonomy as operated by certain programme makers. But I tend to believe that if one has enough different people holding different views, and preferably originating from different parts of the United Kingdom and not all from London, one will tend to have a wider range of opinions, properly expressed, and one will best tend to fulfil the objectives both of the charter and of the Act in that particular way.
I say that people with a wide variety of political opinions are needed. I do not mean people with no opinions. To put on current affairs programmes people with opinions are needed. It is no good having people with no opinions at all. But we must make sure that we have enough different people with different kinds of opinion, and that in their programme making they have a proper opportunity to express those opinions with a considerable degree of autonomy.
Having mentioned that there should be people from different parts of the United Kingdom, I must mention the other threats to the freedom of broadcasting apart from the Government. One of these is the tendency of the overmetropolitanisation 953 of institutions in Britain—the concentration of power in London. My experience of the BBC goes back many years, to the days when I did sports commentaries for it before the war. That is a long time ago. It seemed to me to be the most desperately overmetropolitanised institution that I had ever encountered. I know that the BBC regions have now been abolished, but it had regions up to 1970. The only badge of success in the regions was a single ticket to London. That was unfortunate.
I know that there are exceptions such as Bristol, which has been left with considerable freedom to present some remarkably good environmental and ecological programmes. I also know that other regional stations of the BBC have been able to do that, too. But I have always found the overconcentration on London and the metropolis rather damaging to the freedom of the BBC.
An example of this occurred years ago when there was a threat to the development of the new studios in Manchester—the headquarters of the North region. As a Member of another place I objected to the delay in that development, and so did Mr. Alfred Morris who was then, and still is, the Member for Wythenshawe. The then Postmaster General who dealt with the matter, who was in fact the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, said that this was nothing to do with Government and that it was a matter for the BBC. He said that he would arrange for us to discuss our anxieties with the BBC. He made arrangements for Mr. Morris and I to have a meeting with the then North regional controller of the BBC. That office no longer exists because there is no longer a North region. The controller was Mr. Bob Stead who was an old friend of mine.
Accordingly a meeting was set up for Mr. Morris and I, both Members of Parliament for North-Western constituencies, to meet with the BBC's North regional controller. That meeting took place at Broadcasting House in Portland Place. Mr. Morris and I travelled on the same train with the BBC's North regional controller from Manchester to London in order to have a meeting with him about broadcasting in Manchester before we all went back to Manchester. That illustrates the fact that the BBC did not appear to realise that the people who were concerned about the regions actually lived in them. I merely make that point because I think that there is possibly a threat to broadcasting freedom by the overcentralisation of many things. In that respect I look at the new Broadcasting Standards Council. If that will be anything it could well be a centralising body. It could, as the Independent stated in a leading article, develop into the supreme regulatory body in television, its rulings enforceable even in defiance of the BBC governors or the IBA.
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, on his point that that would put the independent sector in a position of double jeopardy because it would add an additional tier to control in that sector, whereas if it applied merely to the BBC, that in a sense would be equal. However, I am a little worried because I believe that the council will inevitably become a centralising body.
The other threat to the freedom of broadcasting that I see is the general question which everybody 954 talks about now of deregulation. What is deregulation? I tend to think that when the term "deregulation" is used—it is used with increasing freedom by an increasing number of people—it means different things to different people. But very often deregulation conceals a creeping kind of centralisation. That applies whether we are talking about local government or even about broadcasting, as we are now.
If we are to move to a deregulating system in the independent sector and if the franchises are merely to go to the highest bidders, what on earth is the point of the IBA? Its principal power is to award a franchise or to take away a franchise, should that be necessary. But if the franchises merely go to the highest bidder, what price the independence of broadcasting? In that case we find that the independence of broadcasting is threatened by individuals, possibly by Mr. Murdoch or even by Mr. Maxwell. There the threat is not so much to the independence of broadcasting but to the standards of broadcasting.
What I personally am most concerned about is standards. I hope that all noble Lords will accept that I agree with what is being said about the offensiveness and the distastefulness of the amount of violence on television. I personally think that that is damaging to society. I cannot back that statement up with any scientific evidence but I nevertheless believe that to be true. I should like to see the amount of violence on television substantially reduced, but not by political controls.
The noble Lord, Lord Swann, was right to mention the number of hours of broadcasting which are produced by the BBC and by the independent sector in pointing out the relatively small number of complaints. It is easy to pick out bad or offensive programmes, many of which have been mentioned in the course of this debate. However, we ought to balance that by occasionally commenting on programmes such as "Barchester Chronicles", "The Jewel in the Crown" or "Boys from the Black Stuff". There have been a number of series which have been of very high quality.
I am sure that I do not need to remind noble Lords that the first thing that the Nazis did when they took power in Germany was to control broadcasting. The second was to introduce and enforce a national curriculum in the schools. Perhaps we are doing those things in reverse order. However, I very much hope that we are doing them with different objectives.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, debates on the media are becoming as common as debates on unemployment and the National Health Service. Like the firemen's ball, it is always the same people who dance. However, we have not said exactly the same things today. This has been a deeper debate than those which we have had recently.
We are concerned today only with the electronic media with their mass audiences and their multifarious programmes. Television and radio are now national theatres, national opera houses, cinemas, music halls, cabarets and purveyors of 955 novels and short stories. They are also national newspapers, local newspapers, magazines and political meetings. They bring the great into our living-rooms in close up—for example, Sir William Rees-Mogg—warts and all. They are also a school and a university. They are the voice of Britain throughout the wide world.
No wonder we are concerned about the quality of their work and the fairness of their political reporting and comment. No wonder we are concerned about the effect of all that entertainment on our sexual values and experience and on our propensity for violent acts; nor can we escape questions of taste and embarrassment in the family circle. Those problems are the direct responsibility of the governors of the BBC and the IBA.
As several speakers have said this afternoon, until now governments, though often troubled, have coped with those problems with a certain amount of private diplomacy but with an arm's length strategy. It is the right of the Government to appoint the chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC, for example. The governors are the protectors of the public against the lowering of standards and quality. They are also the protectors of the BBC against governmental interference. It is to the credit of British governments that they have never invoked their reserve powers of interference with broadcasting output. The relationship of the Government to the IBA is not dissimilar.
However, all is not well. We are living in the midst of a revolution in sexual mores. Britain today is nothing like it was in 1954, which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned. For the generation which has grown up with the revolution in sexual mores—the 40 year-olds and under—it presents no anguished moral problems. For older people, there are real difficulties. It has all happened so fast.
I go back to the days in newspapers before sexual intercourse was invented. When it was necessary to do so, we coyly wrote that intimacy had taken place and as a consequence a lady found herself in a certain condition. Those of us who are no longer young but who accept the revolution intellectually and find virtue in it are still affronted emotionally by some of the things which appear on our screens. A lady watching alone and captivated by "The Singing Detective" told me that she thought it fit to walk out of the room at a certain embarrassing moment in order not to intrude on private joy.
What is even more disturbing is the cult of pictorial violence, which seems—there is no hard evidence—to be played out in real life. However, that revolution has not been inspired by the BBC or the ITV. It is not confined to Britain. It is worldwide and it goes across the range of what we still call Christian countries. In such a changing world with such a massive output, particularly from television, it is inevitable that broadcasters have sometimes gone too far and will, though perhaps more rarely, do so again.
Most people of an older generation have been vociferously, although marginally, outraged and they forget their general satisfaction with the remarkable provision that is made for them. I believe that one or 956 two speakers this afternoon have recognised that television has enriched our lives tremendously. However, we tend to think of the marginal items which we have not liked rather than the vast bulk of pleasure that has been given to us.
Recently there have been some important changes in the direction at the BBC and a new and vigorous regime is now effecting some stern reforms. Whether they are wise, I do not know. However, they are certainly reforms. Now, before the new men can complete their task, the Government have decided to go ahead with the rather vague idea of a broadcasting council that will weaken, supplement and perhaps finally usurp the authority of the governors of the BBC and members of the IBA. They have done that, they say with false naiveté, because it was in their election manifesto. The noble Lord, Lord Swann, seems less outraged by the idea than he was in a previous debate when he described it as a very silly idea or a dangerous one. I still believe that it is very silly or very dangerous.
In another place, Mr. Hurd said that in the beginning the council will be a non-statutory body and its first task will be to draw up, in conjunction with all the bodies which show things on the small screen, standards of taste and decency. They will include cable, video and satellite. There is a case for a code to provide guidance for those bodies. However, I understand that a code is already in the process of being framed. For the profoundly experienced and responsible BBC and IBA, surely that is not necessary. It is possible to indicate the limits that must not be exceeded. Indeed, the BBC and the IBA have developed their own codes, which have become stricter over the years. However, the creation of general standards will be much more difficult.
All I can say is that they have some hope as far as concerns getting a general consensus on sexual values and sexual presentation. There are the young, for whom there is no limit, with a burning conviction that nobody is going to tell them what they ought to see. There is the older generation, who sigh and suffer even over minor improprieties and wince at the utterance of words whose coarseness has burned out. Thirty years ago when they were making "My Fair Lady" they had to change the word in Shaw's "Pygmalion" because "bloody" could no longer shock even a parson.
Where I wonder is the consensus on moral values and sexual content or on offensive language? It is a question which has plagued us very often in the newspaper industry. Where do we draw the line? The other day a serious newspaper decided after quite a strong internal debate in the office to give the words with which a cricketer had offended an umpire. A tabloid thought that it would be good fun to report that serious newspaper to the Press Council. After grave deliberation the Press Council decided that there was a case for the presentation of the actual words, and the offending newspaper was let off. That is the kind of darkness that I fear will threaten to overwhelm the council when it becomes known that it will consider complaints from individuals on matters within its competence and publicise its findings. If it is not careful its reports could be juicier than the matters complained of.
957 The choice of Sir William Rees-Mogg as chairman has been strongly criticised. I can take no part. He has been for long not a close friend of mine but a professional friend whose company I seek when there is a vacant place beside him at the Garrick. As the Guardian said, the problem is not the man; it is the job that has been created.
The choice of Sir William has also been challenged because he is a Conservative. The fear in the opposition parties is that one day the council's brief will be quietly extended to broadcasts which have some political content. Indeed the whole tenor of this debate has been of political doubts, doubts about the impartiality and the fairness of the broadcasting companies. There is a very strong head of steam behind those doubts. I think that it is justified. It exists.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, in opening the debate talked about the fear that arises out of the political pressures which the Government have been putting on broadcasters and the public rebukes that have been issued, namely over the Gibraltar affair and other programmes. The chaps who run those bodies are robust and they can stand up to criticism. But it affects morale lower down the line and junior people start to fear that they will get into trouble unless they trim a little.
It is a very remarkable Government as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, who find themselves in conflict with the most cherished of Establishment institutions—the universities, the medical profession, the Civil Service. Now this council threatens to take the heart out of broadcasters and their self-confidence. That is always a consequence of censorship. We want broadcasters who have some life in them, some guts in them and some aggression. Otherwise broadcasting will be like the Open University, which is all right at six o'clock in the morning for people who are studiously inclined but the mass of people want something a little brighter.
Newspapers are also intimidated by the proposal to set up the council. They fear that the council could so easily be extended to cover the press as well as the broadcasting media. Indeed my noble friend Lord Longford put up what I thought was a monstrous proposal, that a Press Standards Council should be set up alongside the Broadcasting Standards Council. I am very glad to say that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, gave a most robust refusal.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, the noble Lord has stiffened a good deal since January. In the debate in January he was very polite about the whole thing. I had better not quote him any further because it would embarrass him if I did.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, it would not embarrass me at all. I was polite about the whole thing. I said that, although it would be possible to justify some kind of body exercising supervision over taste and so forth, for a medium that comes into the home and is seen by all the family that was entirely different from a free and independent newspaper press. That was the point I made. It was in order to stress the necessary freedom of the press that I gave a little ground with respect to the council.
958 The noble Earl, Lord Arran, assured us that the broadcasting council was not to be extended to the press. But he added some frightening words which I hope have been heeded:We cannot and never will eliminate the possibility of statutory controls if serious public concern over conduct by members of the Press is not met by present arrangements … Never should the proprietors of national newspapers look upon themselves as being inviolate or at all times able to hang a 'hands off' sign outside their gates. That would constitute the gravest folly.".One hopes that under its new director announced today, Mr. Blom-Cooper, the Press Council will heed that warning and will be more effective in the future than it has been in the recent past.
To come back to broadcasting, its independence is almost our dearest national possession. We have a system of adversarial politics and a system of election which can give one party such power that it is almost impossible to challenge it. We have too a newspaper press which is strongly partisan, with its most popular sections giving scant attention to serious politics. The great point about broadcasting is that it is free to do all that it can within the law or within its charter to inform and to please the people on condition that it does not take sides. I think that it is in the interests of government and opposition, and above all of the people, that broadcasting should retain its full freedom and its full independence.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he would say who is to decide whether broadcasters are acting within the law and within their charters.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, obviously in the first instance that is a matter for the governors. If they are not doing so there is a serious dispute between the Government and the governors, between the Home Secretary possibly and the governors. I understand that there is a complicated procedure involving the Privy Council which can be used if it were considered necessary to remove the governors. I think that it would have to be a very serious offence—perhaps in the form of the broadcasters coming down heavily on the side of one party in a general election—before that kind of sanction would be invoked.
§ 7.20 p.m.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, we have had a fascinating debate this afternoon which seems to have covered almost every aspect of televising and broadcasting. I should like to say that it is a privilege for me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, who speaks from such enormous experience. All his life he has been immersed in the media, and when he makes a speech of such quality one can sense the media all around him. His knowledge of the practicalities of broadcasting comes, of course, from his direct personal experience.
The House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for the opportunity to discuss this subject today. I thought that I was going to be able to agree with much of what I anticipated that he would say, but of course he could not resist the temptation to go on a debating hunt to try to discover what the Government were doing wrong. He seemed 959 to have it in a bit for the Government. I do not blame him for that; he likes doing it. However, he said that the authorities must resist government pressure. I am sure that the noble Lord will remember that during our last debate on this topic I explained that it was totally against the Government's intention to have control over the content of programmes. The noble Lord forgot that. He also referred to freedom of expression, as did the noble Lord, Lord Annan. Everyone agrees that there should be freedom of expression, but, of course, freedom does not mean licence.
It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Swann, with all his enormous experience of the BBC, told us how people complain. At one moment the complaints came from the Left and the next moment from the Right. Of course people complain, and they will always complain. They do it for one very good reason: because broadcasting has a very high profile. It affects people directly. It enters everyone's house. And because it affects them, what the broadcasting authorities do and are have become part of a national concern. Therefore, there will not be unanimity about what is produced. That is why today's debate has been so important.
I was glad that my noble friend Lord Plunket referred to the delicate balance in freedom of speech, which we all wish to see held; and he attached much importance to the World Service.
The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said that controls were necessary. I was glad that he did so. Sometimes one tends to forget it. He said that controls were necessary and that broadcasting should be the critic of the Government and not their mouthpiece. I do not think that there is anything between us on that point. Of course no broadcasting authority should be the mouthpiece of government—certainly not in this country. It is right for broadcasters, when they think fit and on appropriate occasions—and I shall have something to say on that point later—to be critics. The noble Lord referred to appointments and to the swallow of summer represented by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. I take his point on that. However, he was a little naughty when he said that the first thing that the Nazis did was to control broadcasting, following which they controlled education by a national curriculum. He drew a tenuous similarity by arguing that the Government were doing things the other way round. I shall not rise unduly to that remark—and I can see that he wishes now that he had not made it, which tempts me perhaps to rise a little more. He knows perfectly well that there is no similarity whatsoever and that the Governent have no intention of controlling broadcasting.
The need to maintain the constitutional independence of the broadcastng authorities is of fundamental importance to the future of broadcasting. Let there be no misunderstanding about that. Throughout the whole of the debate there has been a certain feeling that the independence of broadcasting is being interfered with; but this Government are no less committed than any of their predecessors to preserving that degree of independence. In shaping broadcasting it has always 960 been recognised that the Government need to have an enabling role rather than a prescriptive one. That is the format which has existed since broadcasting was first introduced in this country. It has stood the test of time; and, incidentally, as many noble Lords have said, it is the envy of many other countries.
I do not believe that there has been any change to these arrangements as a result of the issues which have recently become prominent in public discussion. And there have been many issues recently—not only the debate which was initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, but others which have, as it were, hit the public fan lately.
One of those issues has been the Government's approach to the recent programmes concerning the Gibraltar shootings, and several noble Lords have referred to it. There were important points of principle at the heart of that approach. The noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, referred to this matter and said that he thought those programmes should be shown. The Government did not want to see any improper influence being brought to bear on the forthcoming inquest in Gibraltar as a result of the broadcasting of those programmes.
Gibraltar is a dependent territory of the United Kingdom, for whose administration the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is responsible. It would therefore have been wrong for the Government to have ignored the problems which were presented by those programmes, including the prejudicial effect which can so easily take place as a result of the partial presentation of so-called "evidence" on television.
The Government did complain, and I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, agreed that the Government were right to complain. He said so in what I thought was a speech of great breadth and comprehension in all the spheres of broadcasting, of which he has a natural command. I merely say that I was hoping this evening to have heard a second rendition of Troilus and Cressida which was broadcast the other day, but the noble Lord denied me that particular privilege.
Deciding what can and cannot be broadcast is a difficult tightrope on which to walk. It is a matter of great sensitivity. The dangers which result from falling on the wrong side of the wire are clear. So is the resulting responsibility which is laid upon the media. The dangers are the more real in the case of the television medium, because the interviewing of witnesses is allowed to be presented in a much more direct way than in the written press.
But there is no question of the Government seeking to challenge the constitutional independence of the broadcasting authorities. It is a matter of self-discipline by the broadcasters and responsible judgment by the broadcasting authorities. There is no doubt that those programmes were highly relevant to the inquest which is to be held in Gibraltar. It was our view that, in the interests of justice, they should not have been broadcast at the present time.
When the Government make their view clear—as they did and as they were justified in so doing, even though account of their view was not taken—the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, says that that is 961 "putting the frighteners on", to use that rather glorious phrase of his. But that is the Government giving their view in the way that the noble Lord gave his view this afternoon.
I was glad when my noble friend Lord Renton said that responsibility went with independence. That is so. Responsibility is a very important part of independence, and one cannot have the one without the other.
Perhaps I may refer to a more general aspect of the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said that one must allow some risk with programme content. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, made the same comment. He said that broadcasters need life and guts and "go". No one can dispute that at all because, as he said, otherwise broadcasting is dull. That is part of freedom. However, that does not mean that that is a licence to do what one likes. The noble Lord, Lord Swann, said that it would be surprising if no programme was below standard, because if one has a standard for anything something will be above it and something below.
Periodically everyone boxes. If your Lordships are critical enough you might say that noble Lords sometimes make very bad speeches. If I had been in the seat of the noble Baroness I should have quoted F.E. Smith, who once made a very bad speech. When someone said to him, "My goodness! You did talk a lot of rubbish this evening", he said, "When you talk as much as I do you are bound sometimes to talk a lot of rubbish". However, that does not mean that nobody has responsibility. If a producer makes a bad programme that is his responsibility. If the broadcasting authorities broadcast it, that is their responsibility.
I was interested in the speech of my noble friend Lord Buxton, with all his experience with Anglia Television, when he said that once one has a programme that has already been made it is very difficult not to have it shown because somebody else says that that is censorship. Inevitably, someone has to be responsible.
The Broadcasting Standards Council—which has been the subject of concern of several noble Lords this evening was recently announced by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. It has received much attention, not only in your Lordships' House but elsewhere. I thought it might be helpful if I were to give your Lordships the background to it. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, welcomed the council. Our general approach on broadcasting has been to provide a framework which enables programmes of a wide range and of good quality to be made and then shown; but a framework which also weeds out those programmes which fall short of acceptable standards of taste and decency or which are excessively or gratuitously violent.
Most people, including most of the young, who see programmes which show violence as entertainment are able to keep what they see separate from their own lives. They recognise the frontier which marks the distinction between fiction and reality. But there is an important question about how real the frontier becomes when it is crossed and re-crossed too often 962 and too willingly. The frontier then becomes less of an obstacle, less of a deterrent, and its image becomes blurred.
However, there are a minority of viewers for whom such a frontier does not exist. What they view, what they think and what they do form a confused yet significant force at the centre of their lives. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, referred to that factor when he said that violence damages society.
We have to be alert to the possible insidious effect of too heavy a general level of sex and violence on television. Not only can it give a false idea of its prevalence in our society, but it makes it more difficult for some viewers to reject the idea of using violence in order to achieve their individual aim.
There must be a line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. I think there would be few who would advocate no line, that "anything goes", except possibly the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, who I see is no longer here. The dispute is not about whether there should be a line but where it should be drawn or even who should draw it. Those who do not like where it is proposed to draw the line or who is to draw it immediately cry "censorship".
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, embellished that—to use his word again—by putting the "frighteners" on us by calling it creeping censorship. Part of the educational effect at school is directed at giving youth the opportunity of coming into contact with good books on the very simple principle that good books edify and bad books sully the mind. The same is true with broadcasting. Good broadcasting edifies the mind; bad broadcasting can sully the mind. If we are truly concerned about programme standards, we need to have the right mechanism in place to respond to public concern about the display of violence and sex on our screens.
There is, and has been from time to time, quite a public outcry—and with some reason—about the portrayal of sex and violence. "This should not be tolerated. Nor should it be portrayed. The Government must do something", people say. I was interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said that she did not think there was enough sex on television.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I said that people had said that they did not think there was enough, and they were sorry that sex was always linked with violence. While they thought that there was too much violence, when there was talk of too much sex, they asked "Where is it all? We never see it".
My Lords, that is also an interesting concept. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, said that the Government were ludicrously sensitive to criticism. He then went on to say that there was far too much sex and violence on television. Of course all we have done is to try to introduce a Broadcasting Standards Council in order to respond to the very criticism that the noble Earl made.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, that is quite unworthy of the noble Earl. I was talking of two totally different matters. I was referring to reaction to 963 political opposition, and I then went on to deal with a different matter. I was agreeing with the Government. To have muddled the two issues is not what I expect of the noble Earl.
My Lords, I am sorry if I have misdirected my mind. Perhaps the noble Earl will forgive me because he gave us a riveting account of his television experience of brothel creepers, prostitutes, masseuses and massage parlours, and I am afraid that my imagination went into overdrive at that moment. I was glad that he brought in his points about marriage, because I too had forgotten that while he was reciting his experience.
The Government undertook in the election manifesto to bring forward some proposals for stronger and more effective arrangements to ensure the independent oversight of programme standards in regard to violence and sex. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said he thought that was a naive reason; I thought it was rather a good reason to introduce it. The noble Lord said he feared that this would weaken, supplement and finally usurp the authority of the broadcasting authorities. We made it clear that we did not intend to undermine the primary responsibilities of the broadcasting authorities.
We discussed these matters with the broadcasting authorities in October last year when my right honourable friend the Home Secretary set out the broad outline of the Broadcasting Standards Council. Some critical, and perhaps I may say some pretty unkind, remarks have been made about the choice of Sir William Rees-Mogg as chairman of the council.
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, was pleased about his appointment. He was also kind, and generous, considering the rough ride that he apparently was given some years before in a previous incarnation. I was glad that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, also approved of the choice of Sir William Rees-Mogg. I have no doubt, having spent much of his life in the media, that his back is broad enough to stand the criticism which is made of him and that his experience is wide enough for him to expect it. However, in our view he is an admirable choice of chairman and he will bring relevant and very wise experience to the council.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said that one of the points which has been debated in connection with the council is the opportunity which it might have to preview certain programmes. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, suggested that this arrangement would undermine the broadcasting authorities' responsibilities. I do not share that view for this reason. The broadcasting authorities will continue to have the responsibilities for programme standards. They will have to exercise their judgment over them. But they may find it helpful to have the views of the Broadcasting Standards Council in advance of transmission about programmes which cause them some doubt.
In the debate on 27th April about the responsibilities of the BBC, I went to some lengths to explain that the Government were not persuaded that 964 it was proper for them to intervene in relation to programme standards. I make no apology for repeating that again today. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was anxious about that specific point.
These are important matters and confirm that the broadcasting authorities must and do operate at arm's length from the Government. What we have decided is to institute a Broadcasting Standards Council. It will have the opportunity to view programmes, to comment on them and to warn the public. It is not a censor. Your Lordships will be only too familiar with the dichotomy of saying, on the one hand, "Broadcast anything" and, on the other, "That particular programme is offensive". We have sought to set up a council whose duty it is to advise the broadcasting authorities and to say what in its opinion is undesirable. That is not even creeping censorship. What is broadcast is still the responsibility of the broadcasting authorities. It is not the same as giving everyone carte blanche to publish and broadcast anything. I do not believe that your Lordships would wish for that. Authorities can have the advice. It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said, the Prime Minister dictating to the broadcasting authorities. That view is completely wrong.
Responsibility implies the right and the duty to accept or to reject on grounds of interest other than one's own. That responsibility remains with the broadcasting authorities. The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, asked whether the Broadcasting Standards Council would have teeth. Yes, it will, when there is legislation. He asked whether it would be able to make recommendations. It will. He asked whether it will be able to receive complaints from the public. Yes, it will. The noble Viscount was concerned that the council would only cover the BBC and the independent television companies. In fact it will cover all forms of broadcasting. Arrangements are already in place through the IBA and the Cable Authority to prevent offensive material being transmitted by satellite.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, my question arises from what the noble Earl has just been saying. He answered in the affirmative to the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, that the council would have teeth. Can he give any indication of what sort of teeth and how they would work?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will have to be a little patient to know the type of dentures, if I may so put it, that will be accorded to the Broadcasting Standards Council. It has been set up only recently. It is a question of getting it going before it is given a statutory responsibility; at present it has a non-statutory responsibility.
The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, was also concerned that broadcasting should be included under the Obscene Publications Act. It is the intention of the Government, as undertaken in the election manifesto, that that should be so.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, were concerned about the fact that there were to be two Bills but that now there will be one Bill 965 in two years' time. I cannot anticipate the content of the Queen's Speech, but the Government are committed to the introduction of major broadcasting legislation in the lifetime of this Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, referred to a Cabinet sub-committee on broadcasting. The Government are considering the future development of broadcasting in general and we have in mind the possibility of publishing a White Paper on this subject within a few months. He referred to the discussions that various people have had. Many people are interested in discussing a wide range of issues which currently face broadcasting. It is helpful to have open minds and an open debate on these matters.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, will the noble Earl tell me what is the precise position of Professor Griffiths and Sir Jeffrey Sterling in connection with the Cabinet committee or sub-committee which is considering this matter and why the Home Office appears to be playing such a small part in the preliminary discussions?
My Lords, I do not believe there is anything particularly curious about that. The Cabinet has its various sub-committees and they consider matters of interest. Periodically people are spoken to and other people give their views. There is nothing odd about that. The noble Lord will have to be a trifle more patient. I have told him that a White Paper will emerge: when it does I believe that many of his concerns will be ironed out.
The noble Lord, Lord Swann, was kind enough to quote something I said in our last debate. I pointed out that if requirements about programme standards were enforceable under the charter it would place the Home Secretary of the day in an intolerable position. He would be obliged to be the arbiter in all or any representations made to him about programme content. He or his officials on his behalf would have to consider the representations, see the programmes and make a judgment. The Secretary of State would then be obliged to take action where appropriate. That would be censorship. It would be broadcasting by government consent and quite unacceptable as a method of televising and broadcasting. I repeat that again, because of the concern that has been expressed. Some noble Lords have indicated that they were doubtful as to the Government's views.
I hope that this expression of the Government's position makes clear to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that the Government have no intention of disturbing the constitutional relationship between the Government and the broadcasters. I hope that that clarifies the situation for the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, as well.
However, accepting the constitutional position of the broadcasting authorities should not itself prohibit the Government or anyone else from criticising those authorities when it is thought that they were wrong. The Government have the same right to do that in just the same way as anyone else can and does. We all criticise the authorities when we feel that they are wrong. I agreed with my noble 966 friend, Lord Buxton, when he said that the Prime Minister was right to criticise, particularly when he said that criticism is not interference. That was a useful encapulation of the problem.
The media are not above criticism any more than they are above the law. They accept that. Occasional mutual criticism is a natural part of the relationship between governments, broadcasters and journalists. It is also a very healthy manifestation of the freedom of speech and of the independence of opinion which we all want. Sometimes that freedom of view and of expression can be irritating. Sometimes people can be infuriated by it, but that is the price we have to pay for an open-minded society. The noble Lord, Lord Swann, said that freedom was difficult to obtain and very easy to lose. I believe that that is something we should remember.
It is not our intention, as the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, feared, to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have no intention of destroying the system of public service broadcasting with its balances of privileges and responsibilities which have served us so well. We have good reason to be proud of our broadcasting organisations and the programmes of genuine quality and originality which they produce.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I shall not detain the House for too long, after the lengthy debate we have had. However, I should like to take the opportunity to thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for his answer and the words he has spoken, and also to thank all other noble Lords who have participated. The debate has been both useful and timely. I am absolutely convinced of the sincerity of the defence of the present arrangements as described by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, but I am sure that he will welcome constant vigilance on the part of your Lordships' House to maintain the position which he has expressed.
I must admit that I was a trifle worried by his answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, when he talked about the teeth which were to be inserted in the mouth of the Broadcasting Standards Council. I can only hope that they are false! I do not propose to try to survey the debate in any full sense, but I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, to whose speech I listened with great interest, that one formulation which he made can be reversed. He said something to the effect that broadcasters were so used to Left-wing programmes that they found anything balanced to be Right-wing. I sometimes feel that members of the Conservative Party are so used to a massively conservative press, which is politically fairly servile, that they find any balanced coverage of events to be Left-wing.
Like other noble Lords, I greatly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, especially his literary excursions to which we all look forward. I have been listening to his speeches in the House for two years now, and I always think that he is rather like a good wood which is well bowled. It goes straight towards the jack and then, just at the end, turns to the right. However, it is always a pleasure to 967 see that manoeuvre performed, as it is always also a pleasure to listen to the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I was glad to be here in time to receive his kind words. I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I once more thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for his reply, and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.