HL Deb 17 June 1991 vol 530 cc7-9

2.58 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further action they will take to check the use of obscene and blasphemous language in television programmes.

The Minister of State, Home Office(Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the content of individual programmes is a matter for the broadcasting authorities. But the Government have recently established the Broadcasting Standards Council and have extended the Obscene Publications Act to broadcasting.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that factual Answer. However, it does not meet the point with which I am concerned. Is he aware that last month a report was published by the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, which regularly monitors the programmes of BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV and Channel 4, which finds that the number of obscenities and blasphemies in programmes has increased threefold over the past three years? The incidence is about 40 a week.

My noble friend played a distinguished part in placing the Broadcasting Act on the statute book. That Act states that nothing likely to offend against good taste and decency or to offend public feeling should be transmitted. Does he acknowledge that further action is now needed? Will he ask the authorities to take action to restrain their producers from this increasing debasement of the language?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's anxiety. Very often the use of bad language is completely unnecessary and adds nothing other than to give offence to the viewer. However, that is a personal observation. The Government have to remain separate from the issue. The broadcasters have to be constitutionally independent of government. Arrangements have been made for satisfactory programmes to be made and to be monitored. If people have cause to complain, they can complain either to the BBC or ITC—the regulatory bodies—or to the Broadcasting Standards Council. But it would not be right for the Government to interfere in such cases.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, while we understand the independence of the broadcasting media, is it not also a fact that by raising the matter today the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has served notice on those who seem to believe that the media belongs to them that their influence upon standards in this country is too great for them ever to feel so independent that nobody has a right to put a brake upon them?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a very good point. I believe that some people feel that they are sufficiently independent that they can do what they like. The television companies do not belong to the producers but nor do they belong to the Government. All that the Government can do is to set up a regime in which standards can operate and through which people may make complaints if they feel that standards are not upheld. Let us remember this. If a licensee does not keep to certain standards, the Independent Television Commission has the right to reprimand him and fine him 5 per cent. of his net advertising revenue. A company which earns £200 million can be fined £10 million and its licence revoked.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, we understand the difficult problem that faces the noble Earl. But does he not agree that if some of the language that we hear on television were uttered on the streets, those who make such foul utterances could be arrested for using bad language?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand that those who use such language do so because they believe that it is the language that people use on the streets.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government's duty to stand back makes it all the more important that opinions should be expressed publicly in this House? Having read the report to which my noble friend, Lord Nugent, referred, does my noble friend the Minister accept that much of the language reproduced in it would have been startling and shocking on the lips of a trooper 20 years ago, let alone on the lips of a fishwife? Is it not regrettable that the change of standards that has occurred over that period should now be influenced by an authority which has exercised a downward pressure over the past three years?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. Although the Government may not be in a position to dictate what should or should not be broadcast, as he knows too well, it is perfectly right for concern to be expressed. But I was a little anxious if he felt that a fishwife's language was rather worse than a trooper's. My experience is that it would be the other way round.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, none of us appreciates gratuitous use of bad language. However, is the Minister aware that according to the latest 1990 attitudes to TV survey published by the Independent Television Commission (which covers ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC) there has been a significant decrease in the offence caused to the public by bad language? Is that not a more accurate index than simply counting up the incidence of certain words in late night films, as the survey did to which the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, referred? Monitoring by a count was the method used by the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, and it related entirely to late night films. The survey did not ask people whether they were or were not offended.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I believe that the method of research used on the two occasions was different. The occasion to which the noble Baroness refers indicates overall approval or otherwise of the programmes which are broadcast. The research carried out by the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association is a mathematical calculation of how many times such words were used. I thought that was horrifying.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the point has been made very neatly. The broadcasters have an enormous effect on national standards. It is regrettable that those standards should be lowered.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is quite right.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, does the noble Earl accept that the function of swearing and bad language is, like all aggressive displays, to substitute psychological or verbal violence for physical violence? Does he further agree that the more commonplace its usage the less effective that prophylactic is?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I certainly agree with the second part of the noble Earl's question.