§ Lord St. John of Fawsley asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ What is their policy on the relationship between satellite broadcasting and religion.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, under the Broadcasting Bill the Independent Television Commission would have power to allow religious groups to own non-domestic satellite channels, such as Sky, if it were satisfied that this would be appropriate. The Bill also includes requirements that religious broadcasting must not be offensive, exploitive or otherwise irresponsible.
§ Lord St. John of Fawsley
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I very much welcome the lifting of the proposed ban on religious bodies owning satellite television stations, which occurred since I put down my Question.
Is the noble Earl aware that extremely complex problems now arise? First, can he assure the House that on-the-air fund raising will not be allowed on religious stations? Can he also give some indication of the criteria that will be used to distinguish between mainstream religious bodies whose broadcasts would be welcome and fringe bodies, such as the Moonies, whose broadcasts would not be at all welcome?
My Lords, on the second part of my noble friend's question, it will be up to the Independent Television Commission to decide the criteria on which licences are allocated. It will obviously take into account the safeguards in the Bill which are intended to ensure that religious broadcasting is carried out responsibly and is not open to abuse by religious extremists. It will obviously expand upon these requirements in its code on programme standards.
On appeals, Clause 7(1)(b) of the Bill puts the Independent Television Commission under a duty to issue a code, including rules which will have to be observed, on appeals for donations of all kinds. I expect the commission to take great care in covering the areas to which my noble friend referred.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, in the light of the genuine concern about the ownership, as opposed to religious programming, of channels by religious bodies, are the Government satisfied that the ITC will be able to regulate the religious content of 294 broadcasting from non-domestic satellites if the channel is based outside the UK? What action can be taken over unacceptable religious broadcasting from non-domestic satellites?
My Lords, it will be open to religious organisations, if they so wish, to purchase non-domestic channels for broadcasting. If they abuse this position they will come under the scrutiny of the ITC, which in the end has the power to remove such rights.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
My Lords, what provision is being made for the large section of the population which has no religious faith at all?
§ The Lord Bishop of Chester
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the immense relief and gratitude felt by most Christians that their views will be considered regarding religious broadcasting and that amendments to the Broadcasting Bill are being made? However, there remains a concern about satellite broadcasting of religion. It is that in the very proper desire to balance religious freedom with responsible control and so to exclude cults or narrow Christian sects, there should not be exclusion of major Christian groups such as the Evangelical Alliance which are not totally ecumenical yet are far from being narrowly cast.
My Lords, I quite understand the anxiety of the right reverend Prelate on this matter. That is something that everyone shares. The ITC is the body that must decide the criteria. That is an important point. That body must take into account the safeguards that the Bill contains which are to ensure that religious broadcasting is carried out responsibly and is not open to abuse by religious extremists. I hope that covers the point made by the right reverand Prelate. The ITC will have to draw up its own codes of practice. The position will be made clear when that happens.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, on a point of order, is it right to use Question Time in order to anticipate the Second Reading of this Bill?
My Lords, I was not aware that anyone was anticipating the Second Reading. I answered the questions that were put to me, and I believe those who asked the questions were perfectly entitled to ask them.
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am deeply disappointed that he did not achieve his usual high standard in answering my question? Surely, he must agree that one of the purposes of religious broadcasting is to put over a certain viewpoint. It seems to me quite proper that someone who does not hold that viewpoint should also be allowed to put across his opinion.
My Lords, I do not think there is anything to stop anyone from putting over their viewpoints. The anxiety that my noble friend has is whether or not religious organisations can own channels. Religious and non-religious organisations can own channels. I am certain that many of the points which the noble Lord opposite has in mind are fully covered in what is disseminated on television at the moment.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a tradition of Christianity in this country, and that most of us feel that all the values which we hold most dear to our hearts and our way of life stem from Christianity? We would expect therefore that legislation in this field would cater for that view.
My Lords, the point my noble friend makes is a fair one. There has been a long tradition in British broadcasting which applies the concept of religious broadcasting in a way which reflects the range of religious views which exist in this country while giving proper weight to the tradition of Christian belief. I do not think it is easy to put that into a specific formula.
§ Lord Mowbray and Stourton
My Lords, will my noble friend explain to me how Her Majesty's Government can control religious broadcasting in a good or a bad way if the programmes that are broadcast on satellite television come from areas outside the control of the Government?
My Lords, Her Majesty's Government do not try to control what is broadcast. It is up to the Independent Television Commission to do so.
§ Lord Glenamara
My Lords, how will the codes to which the noble Earl referred distinguish between blatant fund raising and genuine alms-giving which is surely an important part of religion?
My Lords, that is also a valid point. The ITC will have to produce codes of practice and rules which will have to be observed. When producing those, the very points which the noble Lord refers to are bound to be taken into account. However, I cannot anticipate what the commission will state in the codes of practice.
§ Lord St. John of Fawsley
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one way forward in this difficult and perplexing area would be to have a religious station jointly owned by the mainstream religions, including the Jewish faith, from which we draw a great many of our values? Would that not be a truly ecumenical venture?
My Lords, I daresay it might be. I have no doubt that it would also have a certain amount of acrimony attached to it as these things usually do. However, that does not matter. There is nothing to stop such a conglomeration of people getting together and purchasing a station. I remind my noble friend that for the first time under the Bill 296 Christian and other religious groups in the United Kingdom will be able to own the following: radio stations; channels carried on cable; and channels carried on non-domestic satellite services. That is a great step forward.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, in view of the complexity of this matter which has been demonstrated this afternoon, will the Government require the ITC to publish the criteria on which it will judge whether to license religious broadcasting channels? I fear that if it does not, there will be even more confusion and anxiety.
My Lords, I should like to consider the point made by the noble Baroness. I should imagine that the criteria will be published; but I prefer to reserve judgment on that point, if I may.