HL Deb 02 December 1992 vol 540 cc1416-48

7.54 p.m.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the arrangements made by the Independent Television Commission to implement Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 and by the Radio Authority to implement Section 90 of the Act with regard to impartiality.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, just over two years ago your Lordships were debating the 1990 Broadcasting Bill. Your Lordships can claim that the Act was considerably improved in the final version by the important amendments passed in this House and accepted by the Government, in particular those setting out strong obligations on the ITC and the Radio Authority to draw up adequate codes on the exercise of due impartiality. Those will be in full force from 1st January 1993, though of course the codes of conduct largely based on the Broadcasting Act 1981 continue to operate.

The BBC has pledged to take "due cognisance" of the codes. Also, in its 1992 Guide to the BBC, it declares that the Corporation cannot, express its own editorial opinion on current affairs or matters of public policy". It adds that the BBC, undertakes to maintain overall impartiality and fairness".

I should like to give three cheers for the Independent Radio Authority code. It goes as far as insisting that, Impartiality within a daily series must be achieved within a fortnight: within a weekly series within three weeks: and within a monthly series within three months otherwise one off programmes must be impartial within themselves.

The Independent Radio Authority has done much better than the other broadcasting organisations and taken its obligations far more seriously. Already the Radio Authority has fined six licensees for breaches of its code and upheld 57 of the 326 complaints. Records of upheld complaints will be a serious factor in considering the re-awarding of new licences.

I can find no record of the BBC being much bothered about breaches of its code, although on paper it looks admirable. Nor does the Independent Television Commission galvanise itself to discipline offenders against its code. For example, on 26th April this year there were subliminal insertions in a musical video programme by Granada. That was just before the local council elections and voters were told to vote Labour. That broke the law—not only under the 1990 Act, but also under the Broadcasting Act 1981. It was the duty of the ITC to prosecute Granada for that offence. Astonishingly—or perhaps not so astonishingly —it did not. Nor did the Government take any action as they should have done.

On paper the ITC code looks fairly good. I concede that the code issued in March 1991 has since been improved, but it is still inadequate. For example, there are wriggles on the impartiality required on major matters of political or industrial controversy. Your Lordships will remember the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, eliciting a clear statement from the Government that though a subject being dealt with happened in the past, nevertheless the rules of impartiality still applied and apply.

There was, and is, no licence to re-write history from a slanted angle. A Marxist account of the Civil War or fulsome praise of Mr. Scargill's behaviour in the 1984 coal strike are simply not allowed. Consequently, this part of the ITC code does not comply with the Broadcasting Act 1990.

In 1991 there was a vivid illustration of that. A few years previously the BBC refused to broadcast the last programme in a series called "Secret Society". That final programme called "Cabinet" consisted of an onslaught on the Conservative Party for attacking the CND campaign for nuclear disarmament during 1982–83. Even the BBC considered this too biased to be shown. In 1991 Channel 4 did a remake of "Cabinet" by the ultra Left-wing Duncan Campbell who had been responsible for the programme which the BBC would not show. Typically, Channel 4 billed that programme under the heading "Banned". The updated version included attacks on Mr. Winston Churchill and Dr. Julian Lewis who were both denied a place in the programme.

They complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. That mysterious body reported that the programme was misleading in a number of respect; but it refused to say whether the complaints were upheld or not as your Lordships heard recently at Question Time in this House. So a fat lot of good it is complaining to the amorphous Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Who was it who arranged for the programme to be broadcast by Granada? It was a lady called Liz Forgan, Channel 4's director of programmes. It is strongly rumoured that she is about to be made deputy director-general to the new director-general of the BBC, Mr. John Birt to whom, by the way, I give a cautious welcome and for whom I have modest hopes.

I shall be obliged if the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, can tell us that there is no intention, ever, of employing Liz Forgan in any public affairs capacity whatever at the BBC. She epitomises the obstacles that there are in the way of the BBC and the ITC having any codes of impartiality implemented under any broadcasting Acts. This fearsome lady denounced the provisions of the 1990 Act and blames in particular the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and myself for most of the provisions which she did not like in it. We did not mind that because it showed that we must have been right all along.

Miss Forgan proclaimed that the rules on impartiality would lead to a spate of legal actions jamming up the courts which of course they did not and will not, because of the enormous cost of any private person bringing such an action.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. I am a great upholder of Parliamentary privilege and I do not believe that it should be derogated in any way. But when we move from attacks on people for their opinions to personal attacks, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, are we not going a little far?

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, not at all. Miss Forgan has been very free with her attacks on me and they have been far more violent than the terms in which I am referring to her.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if the noble Lord wishes to respond to her attacks he has the power to do so through the courts, but she does not.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, that is absolute nonsense. I do not claim that she has said anything libellous about me and I am not saying anything libellous about her. There is an absurd touchiness on the part of those people who do not want impartiality imposed on broadcasting.

Miss Forgan also said that the impartiality provisions were unworkable. By that she means that she, and many others like her, do not mean to observe them. In my view she is not fit to be in charge of any programmes anywhere which have any bearing on matters of political or industrial controversy. However, she might do well on gardening programmes although the flowers will be mostly red, with a few yellow and none blue.

This lady has made numerous statements that she intends to break the law. She is a staunchly Left-wing person. She pleads in her defence that about 10 years ago she was responsible for a series sympathetically discussing ideas of the new and radical right. She did another series with the Right arguing with the further-Right, whatever that may be. That does not balance the huge weight of her biased programmes neither do the pathetic "Right of Reply" that she offers amount to anything at all serious.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, perhaps I may follow up what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. Some of the recent sentences which the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has uttered, if made outside, I would certainly consider actionable. Is it not an abuse of the privilege of this House?

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, nonsense. If noble Lords wish it, I will take steps to republish outside what I have said. If she cares to bring a libel action she will find herself at the wrong end of the stick.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe that the noble Lord is aware of the condition of privilege in this House. If he republishes what he has said in this House he still has privilege available to him.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, I do not know why the Opposition is getting so touchy about this. Obviously I am touching on a raw nerve. The Opposition knows very well that Miss Forgan is breaking the law, has broken the law and intends to continue doing so. Miss Forgan believes that however slanted and Left-wing—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I beg to move that the noble Lord be no longer heard.

Moved, That the noble Lord be no longer heard. —(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Viscount Astor

My Lords, this is a debate that we should have, and in which we are all prepared to speak. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has a view. After all, it is his noble friend Lord Donoughue who will be replying on behalf of his party. We should allow this debate to go forward.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Motion that I have moved is a debatable one. I suggest to your Lordships that this is the most flagrant abuse of the privilege of this House which I have heard in the 10 years that I have been here. The noble Lord is deliberately making actionable statements against Miss Liz Forgan, the controller of programmes at Channel 4. He knows perfectly well that if he were to make these statements outside this House he would be liable to action from her. He is doing so with a callous disregard for the warnings that have been given to him which initially were polite warnings; but now I am afraid that it is necessary for us to go further with the matter. I persist in my Motion that the noble Lord be no longer heard.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, I am very surprised that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has suddenly become wedded to censorship. I have said that I am quite prepared to make the same statements about this lady outside Parliament as well as inside this House. I can recouch them in different words. If she wants to bring a libel action she can. May we get on now or is that not allowed?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Motion before the House is the one in my name.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not want to take any part or any side in the argument between the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh and Lord Wyatt. We are in the middle of the debate. It is obviously a matter of strongly felt opinion between the two noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has made his position clear and I believe that he has been quite helpful. I fully understand the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. However, in the light of that, I hope that the noble Lord will allow us—as is customary in this House—to proceed with the business. I beseech him to do that. It sets a rather unenviable precedent for the future that a debate should be suddenly cut short because of some disagreement.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I yield only to the view of the Minister. In no way do I retract anything that I have said about the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt. His behaviour in this matter has deserved the Motion that he be no longer heard. I do not believe that he has treated the House properly. It is because of the view of the Government Front Bench that I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I have a very great admiration for him actually and have always felt he is a fair and reasonable person, but I suppose he is not quite so reasonable on these matters of broadcasting. If I may continue, Miss Forgan believes that, however slanted and Left-wing producers and presenters are, they should be allowed complete freedom over what is shown. In an article in The Times of 28th June 1990 advocating this, she wrote: Nobody suggests that Lord Wyatt's pungent News of the World column, 'The Voice of Reason', should be followed by a column expressing the quite commonly held view that he represents the voice of prejudice". I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will be pleased by that observation. However, in saying what she did she has missed the entire point of why impartiality is a necessary legal requirement on those responsible for broadcasting. They have a Government-given monopoly, which cannot be attacked by others who might like to start profitable TV or radio stations. If I were to set one up without government authority, I should be prosecuted and put in gaol, as no doubt some of my not so friendly friends would like. But the "licences to print money" as the noble Lord, Lord Thompson of Fleet, once described them, are jealously protected by the government authorities awarding them. Even attempts to start radio stations at sea are eventually sabotaged.

This is the whole difference between what can be written in newspapers and what can be broadcast. There are many newspapers of varying political outlooks, and anybody can start one; and many do. For example, the successful Independent required no government licence and therefore it can say what it jolly well likes. Actually, journalists like myself frequently write in contradiction of the views of the editors and proprietors concerned. However, if I were responsible for a programme on the BBC or the ITC it would soon be "off with my head" if I put out programmes disagreeing with those who paid my fees on a contractual basis. You can be sure of that.

Whenever I talk to BBC producers or presenters, they tell me that they have an absolute and inalienable right to deluge the public with any views they choose. I have never met one who has read the BBC or ITC codes, and they would not take any notice of them if they had. The crew which the notorious Miss Forgan, director of programmes of Channel 4, sent here to make the "send-up" programme on your Lordships' House called "Cutting Edge" had clearly never heard of the impartiality code. Of course there should, as the law requires, be another programme showing all the immensely good, serious and hard work your Lordships do on the Floor of the House and in Committees, to show the other side. But it is not surprising that both Miss Forgan and Channel 4 reject this plea for impartiality, as the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, will explain in more detail.

Politicians are not the only people who suffer from the BBC's lack of impartiality. Just before eight a.m. on BBC's Radio 4 last Thursday, during the "Today" programme, I was startled to hear a BBC announcer advertising a discussion programme to follow the 9 a.m. News by saying these words: You and I and every other taxpayer in the country are going to have to pay to restore the fabric of Windsor Castle and the family that lives there, arguably one of the richest, certainly one of the most privileged in the world, will not have to pay a penny towards it. For many it is the speed with which the Government has offered as much of our money as it takes to make it perfect again that has raised a coachload of questions about the privileged status of the Royal Family, particularly its immunity to tax, about the status of supposedly national treasures, private often when it comes to people seeing them, public when it comes to paying the bills". The announcer went on: Is Windsor Castle more important than paying £60 million worth on our decaying schools? Should the Royal Family, whose bills seem rarely to be questioned, be at the top of our spending priorities when there are so many crying and desperate needs in our society? Our "Moral Maze" live this morning: who should pay for the rebuilding of Windsor Castle?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord will forgive me? I apologise to the House but the noble Lord's own Question refers to the Broadcasting Act and the Independent Television Commission rather than to the BBC. Would it not be helpful to the House if he restricted his remarks to that issue?

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord's zeal has overtaken him. I explained right at the beginning exactly why the BBC would be covered in this debate, because it has agreed to adhere to the codes provided and to observe all the same rules; so one is obliged to ask: are the BBC actually doing this?

Now may I get on? I hope that I am not going to be taken up again by the noble Lord. There was no hint of another side to the Windsor story or of the fact that it was only the staterooms used by the Queen for state purposes that were damaged and that the private apartments were unaffected.

In its manner of reporting the BBC has been part of the more or less republican campaign against the Queen. Yet the BBC loves to boast its superiority to all other broadcasters because it operates under a Royal Charter given by the Queen. Also, the Queen in Council appoints the governors of the BBC. There could hardly be greater disloyalty, and the governors of the BBC should be ashamed of themselves. In honour, they should resign. It would not matter much if they did, because they make a very poor job of running the BBC and their staff ignore them. But at the very least they should write a humble apology to Her Majesty.

I do not want to annoy the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, again, but I have to raise another point. The BBC has a code for interviewers. This is: Interviewers should avoid impressions of bias … The BBC should be known for a dispassionate approach to contentious issues. Questions such as 'Are you in this mess because you are stupid or just foolish'?' are out of place at the BBC". That is what the supercilious Jeremy Paxman of BBC "Newsnight" asks all the time. The BBC code goes on: Interviewers must always be well mannered, not aggressive, hectoring or rude". Obviously interviewers like Jonathan Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman, Brian Redhead, John Humphries, and company, never read the BBC's rules for interviewing or, if they do, they know they can safely ignore them. Interviewers like Brian Walden, Robin Day and David Dimbleby are well informed, firm but impartial and courteous. Both the BBC and the ITC are in breach of their own codes by not seeing that all are.

I am not in the least impressed by figures put out by the BBC and the ITC, claiming that the majority of their audiences believe them to be unbiased. It is a ridiculous statistic. The simple art of being biased is to omit or play down matters favourable to one side of an argument and to highlight and allow more coverage to matters, true or false, favourable to the preferred side. It is as easy as winking to conceal from the public what the true facts are —as, by the way, the announcement I have just read out referring to a programme just before the eight a.m. News has made clear.

In the case of the BBC and the ITC, we all know that the Left-wing producers and presenters overwhelmingly dominate the affairs of both organisations and they are solidly anti-Government. They appear not to be to the general public, by their manipulation of what the audience sees and hears. In the example I have just given of the BBC announcer talking about Windsor Castle, the public could have had no conception of how biased the BBC was being.

I hope that others in this very short debate will deal with the flagrant breaches of the codes on violence. Our screens are spattered with blood, and filled with murders, guns and all kinds of sex maniacs and so forth—Even the programmes, I regret to say, of BSkyB, part-owned by News International, which employs me to write for them. The other owner is the Financial Times, that very respectable organ.

This debate will not convert the sinners to righteousness, but it will make clear to them that some of your Lordships are always ready to expose their breaches of the law. It is a great pity that Members of this House should think it in order for the great broadcasting organisations frequently to flout the law and set such a bad example to the rest of the nation in law keeping.

I have noted that after such debates there is a tendency towards better behaviour; but it does not always last long, particularly if the Government are insufficiently interested in the law breaking itself, and thus allows it to go on when it should not. But the knowledge that some of your Lordships will return to the charge may have a mildly restraining power. That is the nub of the reasons why I think we must see that the law is maintained in regard to the codes of practice. It is the law, and people must not think of it as a kind of voluntary arrangement like a private club.

8.21 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I hope that we shall proceed now rather more smoothly. The ITC has completed a year of reports on complaints about impartiality, sex, violence and other matters submitted to it—exactly the task for which it was set up. I recommend the reports to anyone who takes an interest in the subject. They are published every quarter, and they take the same form. I shall quote one or two instances.

I have to say that 29 of the 62 complaints concerned Channel 4, and I hardly dare mention that Miss Forgan is the programme director there. Incidentally, I do not think that she is likely to join the BBC. My information is that not only has Michael Grade been paid £500,000 as a golden handshake but I think she also has a golden handshake that locks her in. Therefore, it would be very expensive for the BBC to buy her away.

Lack of impartiality is at the root of all these cases. The ITC records, whether or not they are about separate complaints, say "upheld" or "not upheld". It receives a total of 1,500 complaints a year. If you read them all, as I have done, it is puzzling to see why sometimes the commission says "upheld" and sometimes "not upheld". It seems to be just the luck of the draw. Nor is there any indication given, although it may happen after 1st January when its full powers come into being, as to what admonishments or sanctions are levied against repeated transgressors. There are two examples given. The one mentioned by my noble friend occurred just before the local elections when there was a "vote Labour" subliminal flash, which is completely against the law. Unfortunately, it is now out of time. We did not read about it until September or October, and as it happened in April it is now out of time for judicial examination.

There are many examples, and I have some here. They show the need to have some regulatory authority with teeth. Funnily enough, "Cutting Edge" was one of the series that did us down last week: it was ably dealt with by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in the "Answer Back" series. There was a "Cutting Edge" programme on Paths of Conflict. No complaints were received. This also shows, by the way, that the ITC has an obligation on its own to try to keep in touch with what is being broadcast on the various channels.

Another one was "Dispatches". It reported on Shining Path, one of the most brutal minority movements in Peru and found against it. There were complaints from seven viewers, which is more than normal. The report says: The programme presented not a comprehensive picture of the complex political situation in Peru, but rather a profile of one active element within it. Viewers were unlikely to be left in doubt that Sendero Luminoso's [The Shining Path] objective was political change frequently by violent means. That was a left-wing organisation. There was criticism but it was not upheld. There were others. I could go all the way through them, but I shall not take up the time of the House. I shall make some suggestions later as to how the public might be brought more closely into this and in touch with the new regulatory authority.

What upset me about our own review was not only bad production with a lot of good material thrown into the bin, which always happens, although it does not seem to me as a Scot a very economical way of producing, but also, as everyone has said, the complete triviality of the programme. It gave very little time to the work of our House, which we all know is important. It was rather less than one-third. One-third was given to the wedding of the daughter of one of our Members and one-third to the eating habits of one of our respected elder statesmen.

That is not a representation in any way. I therefore wrote to the chairman, Sir George Russell, with whom I have been in touch ever since the commission was set up. I suggested that as this was such a failure, and clearly seen to be a failure as representing the workings of this House, then in accordance with its proposals there should be a balancing programme that would be more in touch with what happens. That is recognised in all sorts of ways by the ITC. It says: Regularly scheduled programmes sharing the same title such as 'World in Action', 'A Week in Politics', 'Dispatches' and 'Walden'". I may say here that "World in Action" has always been consistently left-wing ever since it was set up. "A Week in Politics", which I have watched once or twice under Vincent Hanna, certainly leans to the left. Vincent Hanna has not changed his spots since he was in the BBC in charge of the 1987 political broadcasts. "Dispatches" has always been left, and "Walden" tends to be left.

"Cutting Edge" is a mixture. I have just criticised one programme. Why is not the balance allowed there? The answer I have had from the ITC is that it does not think that a second, balanced programme should be made. It did not consider the programme loaded. That is not the view of most in this House and the view that the Clerk of this House has now firmly put to Channel 4.

Nor do I take the view, which has been much stated, that if you have a biased programme but there is the right of reply, you put things right. You do not. The right of reply in the case of our programme had as producer a young woman who, I think, said that she had been in Parliament twice in her life. That was a strange choice of person to make a programme about this House. Against that, there was the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who was very effective, and another Conservative gentleman none of us had ever heard of, but who was perfectly reliable. Therefore, you had a sort of 50–50 in the right of reply, and 100 to nothing in the other programme. Half a bite at the cherry was trying to put it right, but it still was not balanced after a right of reply, which of course takes a much shorter time. That did not last for threequarters of an hour; we were left with probably five or 10 minutes.

I do not take it that you set things right. The best way is not just to set things right with another programme, as the Radio Authority does. I would like to add my praises too to the Radio Authority. I have those statistics. It is conscientious. It is nice to know that you actually get fined £1,000. I am afraid £1,000 is not going to make much of an impact on some of the independent companies, or some of the producers. Anyhow it shows a desire to have some teeth and to bite.

If you watch football and you see a foul being committed you are not surprised when the yellow card appears. If we transgress when we are driving we also tot up points against us. I do not see why that should not happen to people who consistently transgress. The New Zealand regulatory authority has a good system. Where someone disobeys the rules, the company's programmes on a certain day are allowed no advertising support. That has the advantage of not leaving the screens bare for the customers; and it becomes horribly expensive for the company. It has spent money on producing programmes but is not able to carry the cost in advertising. When the ITC has its full powers on 1st January 1993 something like that should be put in place.

My feeling is that the ITC can be made to work. We need to help it to work. It has been in a rather close relationship with the programme companies with which it grew up. I wonder now whether it should not seek to build an understanding with the viewers. I have never seen advertised how one gets in touch with the ITC. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has. Who should one telephone or write to when one sees transgressions, shocking programmes, indecent programmes, brutal programmes, cruel programmes or imbalanced programmes? Why should that not be advertised on the screens of the companies which the ITC controls.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their patience. I hope that we can take seriously the need to help the regulatory authority to work efficiently. We should examine and continue to monitor its achievements and make sure that when someone transgresses he is punished.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Hollick

My Lords, I must declare an interest as chairman of Meridian Broadcasting, the new ITV licensee for the South and South East of England. I should first like to comment on the attack which has been launched by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, on Liz Forgan. If this attack had been launched outside the House, apart from attracting a libel writ, she would have had the right of reply. It is unfortunate that the attack was made in the House where of course she has no right of reply. That is a clear breach of the code on impartiality.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, a great deal of nonsense is being talked about this. I have only used the statements of Miss Forgan herself. I am sure that she would stand by them. She has masses and masses of them in print. What I have done is merely to draw attention to them. I do not mind drawing attention to them again outside the House in exactly the same manner.

Lord Hollick

My Lords, I come to the issue of ITV regulation and the issue of impartiality as very much a new boy—and I hope that the House may find the reflections of a new boy helpful. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, asks the Government whether they are satisfied with the ITC's arrangements for implementing the provisions of the Broadcasting Act on impartiality. I should like to tell your Lordships about Meridian's experience of how the ITC goes about discharging its responsibilities because I think it will indicate the approach that it will bring to the particular issue of impartiality.

Although some have described—possibly hopefully —the ITC's approach as "regulation with a light touch", I can assure your Lordships that compared with regulators of other industries where I have direct experience I detect no lightness; rather the ITC keeps a firm grip on all of the key elements of the broadcasting business. The ITC takes its responsibilities as a regulator very seriously and exercises them with due diligence and with considerable attention to detail. From all that I have seen and experienced I have no doubt that the ITC will be rigorous in implementing Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act.

I should tell your Lordships what the Act and the code mean to an ITV broadcasting company like Meridian. First, with effect from 1st January responsibility for compliance with the Code on Impartiality is a condition of the licence to broadcast. If an ITV broadcaster is found to have breached the code, it is subject to a series of sanctions. These include warnings, instructions to broadcast apologies, fines —substantial fines—and in some circumstances a shortening or complete revocation of the licence. These sanctions have real bite, and it is right that they should. I can assure your Lordships that these sanctions are being taken extremely seriously by broadcasters. As licensees, ITV broadcasters will be responsible for ensuring that all relevant employees and programme makers, whether independent or on the staff, are fully familiar with and observe the provisions of the code.

I am glad to be able to tell the House that in the first week in June, when Meridian's 30 most senior executives and managers came together for the very first time—for a two day meeting—the Code on Impartiality was high on the agenda. Our lawyers were brought in to explain exactly what the code meant in practice—and that was just the start of a training programme which is designed to ensure that everyone who needs to understand the code does understand the code and also understands the importance of seeing that the Code on Impartiality is not breached.

I am confident that all ITV companies are taking the same steps to make sure that their staff and suppliers know the code and the serious consequences that can flow from breaching it. The ITC has left broadcasters in no doubt of the importance of doing that. Last month it called a meeting with Meridian to make sure that we were up to the mark. I know that other meetings have been held with the other ITV contractors.

I am aware that in previous debates on this topic some noble Lords have expressed a concern about personal view programmes; those programmes where an individual expresses his own particular point of view. It is a matter to which Meridian is giving particular attention and I should like to give two specific examples. Robbie Coltrane, the actor and comedian, is currently travelling across America making a series for us called "Coltrane In A Cadillac". He buys a second hand Cadillac in San Francisco and sets out to get back to his home in Glasgow by the most economical method. The journey will essentially be a vehicle for his observations about life in America.

We do not know exactly what he will be saying until he gets back. It may be that he will have some views about controversial matters, but I do not yet know. If our executives judge that Mr. Coltrane does touch upon controversial matters then we shall see to it that each programme is clearly identified as giving a personal view both in advance announcements and at the start of the programme itself. We shall make sure that none of the opinions expressed rests upon false evidence and we shall see that a suitable opportunity for response will be provided—perhaps in a right to reply programme or in a pre-arranged discussion programme. These are the safeguards specified by the code in the area of personal view programmes covering controversial topics. Those safeguards seem to me to be wholly adequate and proper.

In our own region we will broadcast a programme called "3 Minutes". This programme will go out four nights a week—just ahead of the evening news—and it will be a forum where volunteer groups, local charities and local people will be able to respond to Meridian programming. Rather than using experts, the programme will feature members of the public saying what they want to say in the way they want to say it. One of my colleagues at Meridian has described the programme as a compliance minefield.

We believe it is right that we should seek to tiptoe through this minefield and we shall rely on our programme executives to act as mine detectors. That is their job. They know that they must take care to ensure that a sufficiently broad range of views is expressed in any series of these programmes, and that views expressed on controversial matters should be kept in reasonable balance throughout the progress of the series. As a licensee, this is something that Meridian must be able to demonstrate. That is what the code requires.

I have spent a little time talking about two of Meridian's programmes because I thought it would be helpful to describe what the code means to broadcasters in practice.

I should now like to turn to the broader issue. The issue of impartiality is one that arouses great passion. Impartiality is very much in the eye of the beholder and interpretation of what is or is not impartial is a highly subjective one which the Broadcasting Act wisely delegated to the ITC and experienced broadcasters.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has given us some examples of programmes that he believes have fallen short of the requirements of the code. Fortunately, I have not seen those programmes and so I am not in a position to address the specific points that he has raised, but I do believe that it is important to put these programmes into context. The examples mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, add up to just a handful of hours from the output of ITV and Channel 4. Together, ITV and Channel 4 broadcast 14,715 hours of programmes a year. More than 4,000 hours Lre factual programmes.

Even if the noble Lord is correct in his view that the examples he cites are breaches of the code, and not merely programmes that he dislikes, taken together they would amount to no more than a small fraction of the substantial body of factual programmes that stay well within the impartiality code.

I am bound to say that I think that it would be surprising if some programmes did not from time to time test the boundaries of the impartiality code. In a democracy testing the boundaries is something to be expected, and welcomed, so long as it does not occur too often. I do not advocate breaching the code, but nor do I think that broadcasters should seek to emulate the muzzled tradition of Pravda and Izvestia. Broadcasters should seek to reflect the broad range of views that are to be found in a nation that enjoys a dynamic political and intellectual life, within the proper freedoms and constraints that the impartiality code allows.

It is important to understand the nature of ITV. ITV is a revenue-driven system. The pursuit of revenue drives the pursuit of the viewer. The advertisers are our customers and they seek access to the audience through the broadcasters. The advertisers want what they call a quality audience, and that audience wants quality programmes, so there is a virtuous circle: it is only by being sensitive to the needs of our viewers that we can be sensitive to the needs of our advertisers. All broadcasters are sensitive to the needs of viewers. We commission research into the tastes and interests of the viewers in our region and we have a team of liaison officers charged with keeping in touch with the communities we serve.

I occasionally detect a somewhat elistist tone creeping into the debate on impartiality. There is a presumption by some commentators that the viewer is unable to spot a biased and controversial programme. The viewers whom we serve are not fools. I believe that viewers can certainly smell a rat, and we do not want to risk our viewers smelling a rat in anything that we transmit. That would be a sure way for us to lose viewers.

As broadcasters, the viewer is central to everything that we do; so, having read a number of the debates in the House, I am struck by the extent to which consideration of the viewers has been left out of the long-running debate on impartiality.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, poured scorn on surveys of the public. I am not surprised by that, because they overwhelmingly reject his views. The latest survey of the public's view of impartiality on ITV was undertaken by the ITC in 1991. Members of the public were invited to compare television, radio and newspapers. In answer to the question, Which medium gave the most complete, the most accurate, the most fair and clearest understanding of national and international news? television won hands down. The highest score in any of the categories for newspapers was 15 per cent. The lowest score for television in any of those categories was a thumping 68 per cent. So viewers were in no doubt that television provided the most complete, accurate, fair, unbiased and clearest account of the news.

But what about perceptions of political bias on television in general that exercised so many of your Lordships? Seventy-one per cent. said that ITV did not favour any political party. Of those people who thought ITV did favour a political party the survey found that they were split evenly: 6 per cent. thought ITV favoured the Conservative Party and 6 per cent. thought ITV favoured the Labour Party. One could ask for no better balance than that unless of course one is a Liberal Democrat.

I understand that those findings mirror the findings of similar surveys in earlier years. The verdict of the viewers is clear: ITV is seen as impartial. The survey results for Channel 4 were similar: 2 per cent. thought Channel 4 favoured the Conservatives; 6 per cent. thought it favoured Labour and 1 per cent. the Liberal Democrats.

Television broadcasting has developed dramatically since the requirement of impartiality was first included in broadcasting legislation in 1954. We now have four terrestrial channels and a host of satellite channels. Cable is being installed at a rapid rate and brings with it the promise of many more channels by the end of this decade. That range of channels offers the opportunity for the expression of a whole range of views and opinions. The viewing public is increasingly sophisticated and is accustomed to hearing opinions from television commentators which they recognise to be only one opinion on the spectrum. I venture also to suggest that the viewing public is less deferential today than it was 30 or 40 years ago and is not likely to be taken in by any programme seeking to disguise partial and prejudiced opinions behind the mask of impartial programme-making. In short, I believe that we can be confident that the television audience can be relied upon to exercise its good judgment in this matter.

I believe that we can also have confidence that the ITC and the ITV companies will discharge their respective obligations under the Broadcasting Act. The legal requirements relating to impartiality which are imposed upon ITV companies are clear and the penalties for any infringements are painful and, in the final analysis, could result in a loss of licence. I can attest to the fact that the ITC is no slouch on those matters. It is not a laid-back regulator; it is fully engaged and closely involved.

We can take comfort from the fact that licensees are staffed by people who, from the start of what for many of them has been a long and very successful career in broadcasting, have been imbued with the need to achieve the highest standards of impartiality. Their record of success on this important matter augurs well for the future.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Annan

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, for not being in my place when he asked his Question. I was upstairs in the Hansard office after five hours in my place in the Chamber. When I came in I thought that I should leave immediately and bring back a barrel of oil to pour on troubled waters. That now seems unnecessary. Although the noble Lord sometimes expresses himself with vigour, especially when the talks about governors resigning immediately after something has been said on television of which he disapproved, I cannot help but remember that it was in the 1950s that in the Labour Party, he took on almost single-handedly, the question of the infiltration of some trade unions by the communists. It was an unpopular thing to do. I believe that in the end his business was ruined by union action taken as an act of revenge. I am aware that he feels strongly on those matters. I may be somewhat less ardent than he is.

I do not believe that it is a question of one political party being favoured as against another political party. I do not believe that party politics comes into it very much. What I think we are seeing is a bias of a particular kind which covers the whole of our entertainment and television. We should look at the problem in perspective. In days gone by, when Lord Beaverbrook ran the Daily Express he based it on the belief that one should always give good news, because that is what people want to hear. It bucks them up. However bad their situation, they feel that if the newspaper is saying something jolly, they feel jolly too. He went on doing that. Your Lordships may remember that even in 1939 he kept on saying that there would be no war that year.

That approach has changed. What people like today is bad news. it is an interesting change in our society. It is caused by people's perception that things in this country have been deteriorating over the past 50 years. I shall not talk about a national decline, because so many things are so much better than they were 50 years ago. Yet people sometimes have a sense of disappointment over the way things have gone. Everyone senses that our place in the world has changed greatly. After the war we found we had become a client state of America. That was a great shock to many people. We now find ourselves in an equivocal position in Europe. Again, in the 1960s—I remember well—Mr Ben Pimlott pays tribute to this in his biography of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson—the sense of excitement and the feeling that we were entering some new age when Mr Harold Wilson, as he then was, was elected Prime Minister. We were going to see a major change in our society.

By 1970 there was a great sense of disappointment about what had been achieved and had not been achieved. It can be argued that the same thing has been happening in the 1980s. The moment one thought that things were going to get very much better —there was a great new surge of energy and the Government were full of initiatives,—the recession hit us and made one feel that it was again a false dawn.

That has had an effect on public opinion. What people want with this general dissatisfaction is reflected in the television, the press and in our programmes. It is a dissatisfaction with every branch of authority. That is the way in which the dissatisfaction expresses itself, whether it is with politicians, the Civil Service, the police, the judiciary, schoolteachers or even the monarchy. They are all subjected to this general sense of dissatisfaction. People wish to hear them abused, to hear those in authority exposed as being economical with the "actualite".

The first television company which cottoned on to this was Granada, in Lancashire. Lord Bernstein and Granada realised that this was a new development, and that was how "World in Action" began. There is no question about it, the programme undoubtedly tried to express this. It was always an anti-authority programme.

We may well be pursuing a hopelessly invisible sprite with impartiality in broadcasting. It is difficult, with an ethos of this kind, to see how there can be impartiality. I am sceptical about it. I do not doubt that the noble Lords, Lord Wyatt and Lord Orr-Ewing, are right when they say that it is an instruction laid on broadcasters and they are not fulfilling it.

The only time I had any dealings with Liz Forgan was in a programme on Greece between 1945 and 1947 at the time of the civil war there. A programme was made whose theme was that it was a great tragedy that the communist-run ELLAS EAM had failed to gain power because it had been prevented by the reactionary British forces. The British had stopped Greece from being a true democracy.

It was perfectly all right to put a programme of that kind on because, after all, that was the policy of the then Greek Government under the younger Mr. Papandreou. What was not acceptable in that programme was that British officers or ex-officers who had been parachuted into Greece during the war and had served in the guerrillas or as intelligence officers, such as Monty Woodhouse and Mr. Nigel Clark, were interviewed. But their interviews were so skilfully cut that a totally different impression was given from the one that they thought they had given to camera. That is the only time I have ever had any dealings with Miss Forgan personally. In the end, Channel 4 apologised for the way in which the programme had been made.

It is difficult to get across to broadcasters who are brought up in this ethos that they have a duty—though perhaps it is difficult for them—to imagine what a contrary programme of any kind one likes to name would be. I have mentioned before in the House that Mr. Ian Curteis's play on the Falklands was turned down by the BBC because the producers could not understand that it was an acceptable and interesting form of drama. When I raised this recently with the head of drama, he said, "We simply don't think it is a good play". There were faults in the play, but none which could not have been put right.

There is sometimes an inability of broadcasters to understand that there are alternative ways of looking at life. When one works in a closed circle, as one does in any profession—and let me tell you that the academic profession is as closed as any—it is difficult to think about how things look from a different angle. Perhaps that is what has happened. However, I am at a loss in asking the noble Viscount who will reply to the debate what he thinks ought to be done because I am quite sure that I do not know.

8.55 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, it may come as a relief to noble Lords that I do not know Ms. Forgan and I shall not mention her in my speech. We are grateful to my noble friend Lord Wyatt for giving us the opportunity of discussing this most important topic. I believe we can all agree on that. It is also timely in view of the recent government Green Paper on the future of the BBC.

The Question specifically refers to the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority. In that context, I was particularly interested to listen to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, and hear of the great trouble that is taken at the ITC to get it right. I found that comforting.

However, although the Question refers to the Independent Commission and the Radio Authority, since during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill 1990 the BBC made it clear that it would take cognizance of the Bill and the codes associated with it, I believe it to be quite proper to include the corporation's record in this respect. The debate on its future will engage us all for months to come and it is no part of my remarks tonight to enter into the wider issues involved. However, the question of impartiality is bound to be central to any discussion. That is how it should be, wherever the use of public money is concerned. Control must always be exercised to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.

Bias can take many forms, as many of your Lordships will have noted in the recent, perhaps unfortunate, "Cutting Edge" film about this place to which other noble Lords have referred. I hope that those who have responsibility for the affairs of this House will accept that any discussion about future programmes will only be undertaken by those on our side who are familiar with the mechanics, objectives and ethos of those making such programmes. I can assure the House that it is a different world and we ignore that fact totally at our peril.

I am aware that the hour is late and I shall not detain your Lordships long. However, perhaps I may give another example of what I regard as a certain lack of control in the question of impartiality. It is this which, so to speak, has flushed me out of the closet so that I am speaking tonight because I regard it as so important.

This event took place last summer as part of a social programme on racism in this country, embarked upon jointly by the Commission for Racial Equality and Radio 1 FM. Perhaps I may make it clear that any balanced programme which authoritatively draws attention to the problem and which seeks to inform concerned people of their rights in this respect is to be commended. Racism, which is an evil against which I have fought for most of my life, regrettably exists and should be stamped out by the full force of the law and by showing people how stupid and evil it is. However, by entering into a joint partnership with the Commission for Racial Equality, the BBC was in my view abusing the terms of its Royal Charter, thereby incidentally showing what an unsatisfactory method of running the corporation a Royal Charter is. However, that is another matter.

Back to the programmes. The picture painted in the "sound bites", as they are known in the trade, inserted between the records was one of unrelieved gloom about the racist problem in the country. There were no compensatory facts, no attempts to balance the books. This doom-laden policy was repeated in the jointly produced follow-up publication Race Through the Nineties.

Throughout the publication, survey results are quoted based on statistics produced by the Runnymede Trust in 1991, along the lines of, "x per cent. of black people think we should have tougher race laws than white people". Indeed, the publication itself goes so far as to say, "The law needs to be still tougher". But since when has the BBC been in the business of urging changes to the laws of this country outside areas of its own competence? I take two quotations from this book simply because they cover areas of which I have some knowledge. The first states: Race inequality is a fact right through the Criminal Justice system in Britain". The book further states: You could get a longer sentence than a White person for the same offence". Let me repeat that. The book states: You could get a longer sentence than a White person for the same offence". I can assure noble Lords that in the court with which I have been actively associated for nearly 20 years that is simply not true; nor is it true, I suspect, in the vast majority of other courts. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would quickly see to it that any magistrate who abused his position of power in that way would quickly be shown the door, and rightly. But what is the BBC doing giving its name, as part publisher, to a publication in which such statements are made? The action would certainly appear to infringe the terms of its Royal Charter which requires it, To refrain at all times from sending any broadcast matter expressing the opinion of the Corporation on Current Affairs or on matters of public policy, other than broadcasting and matter contained in programmes which consist only of proceedings in either Houses of Parliament". Article 1 requires the BBC, to apply the whole of its income solely in promoting its objects". I maintain that, however admirable the objects of the CRE may be, they are inevitably different—they must be different—from the objects of the BBC, which on this occasion mistakenly used taxpayers' money, no matter how beneficial the end product was thought to be; and this at a time when we are told its revenue of £1.5 billion is not thought to be sufficient. I have made that point because I think it is important.

I conclude merely by saying that all these paths, and many more, will be crossed and recrossed in the months to come. That is as it should be, for the country will be determining the pattern of broadcasting in this new electronic age for years to come. Whatever the outcome, let us be sure that whatever system is adopted we incorporate in it safeguards for due impartiality, together with the means to implement them properly.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, has once again ridden his favourite hobby horse, "Impartiality", round the broadcasting course. I do not know what odds he would have obtained on his mount from his Totalisator; but, judging by the way he behaved in the earlier part of the course, he might well have had some trouble with the Jockey Club.

I do not wish to continue the exchanges at a personal level about Ms Liz Forgan, but I am bound to say to the noble Lord —I say it with sorrow—that I always enjoy his pugnacity and his polemics, but I thought he fell far below his normal standards of fair play in using the prestige and power of the debating Chamber of your Lordships' House to make an attack on officials. I was brought up in a tradition that if one wished to tackle an institution and felt that it had been behaving badly, one went for the chairman as that is what chairmen are for. I can only join in deploring the way in which the noble Lord conducted that part of his argument.

The trouble with the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, is that due impartiality in broadcasting is not really a subject that suits him. It is hard to see him as an apostle of impartiality; rather one sees him as an apostle of pugnacity as we know from his articles in The Times or the News of the World, those great temples of journalistic balance. When the noble Lord goes on, as he does go on, about impartiality in broadcasting, all he means by impartiality is that he objects to certain programmes on the broadcasting channels because they are too Left-wing for his current tastes. As the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said earlier, we have all been together on the political scene for a long time. I remember when the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, was far too Left-wing for me when we were young politicians together. We were together for a period as ardent Gaitskellites. Now the noble Lord has left me far behind—I must say he has left me sadly behind—in terms of tonight's discussion.

I therefore beg the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, to see the problems of impartiality in broadcasting in some sort of perspective. Of course broadcasters rub all of us up the wrong way from time to time, especially if they are dealing with subject matter which is close to our hearts. Channel 4's treatment of your Lordships' House in the programme which has been much mentioned is a perfectly good example of that. I agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said in his final remarks. If there is to be a balancing programme there, those of your Lordships' House who are responsible for any of the arrangements should be very vigilant and cautious and not quite so naive as may have been the case formerly.

For goodness sake let us not become too apoplectic about individual programmes. It always struck me in the years I struggled as chairman of one of the broadcasting authorities how extraordinarily obsessed people became with broadcast programmes. Broadcast programmes stir up feelings at the time they are broadcast but they are ephemeral, much more so than the articles of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, enshrined as they are for posterity in the files of The Times. I call in aid on that argument for a proper sense of proportion and perspective perhaps an unlikely witness in Sir Bernard Ingham who had many battles with broadcasters during his time with Mrs. Thatcher at Downing Street. I noticed he was writing last week in the Daily Express about the BBC, but what he wrote could equally apply to ITV and Channel 4. Sir Bernard wrote: Some Thatcherites were profoundly shocked when I publicly described the BBC as a national asset … But I have never gone along with those Tories who think that the BBC is a Trotskyist enclave in the Establishment. Nor with those Labour Ministers who regarded it as a nest of fascist vipers. In my experience, it ranges itself against all governments who must be put through the hoops. It exists to challenge authority —especially that of the Government". That is in the nature of broadcasting as it is in the nature of a free press and free media in a democratic society. As the noble Lords, Lord Wyatt and Lord Orr-Ewing, have said, the ITC, the Radio Authority and commercial broadcasting companies all have a legal obligation. That is an obligation which the BBC accepts. The words of the statute are significant as reflecting the limitations of human endeavour in this difficult field. Under the Broadcasting Acts they have an obligation to "do all that they can" to ensure due impartiality on controversial matters.

I agree with what has been said a number of times in this short debate, that in factual programmes it is of the highest professional importance and goes to the heart of the standards and quality of broadcasting in this country that every effort should be made to sustain due impartiality.

In the days when I had some responsibility for the matter—and, I concede freely to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, I had my failures—I never ceased to preach due impartiality to keen young journalists who all had Watergate batons in their briefcases. I never ceased to preach to them that due impartiality was not a dull and timid doctrine but was a very demanding discipline calling for the highest qualities of journalism. It is taken very seriously by the broadcasting authorities and will continue to be once the new Broadcasting Act comes fully into operation.

I was happy to hear the tributes that were paid to the way in which the new Radio Authority has dealt with the matter. Without wishing to detract from those compliments, I would only say that commercial radio is primarily music-based these days and therefore the volume of current affairs material is much more limited than it is on the television channels. Therefore the task is a more manageable one. Nevertheless, it is good that the authority has got off to such an excellent start.

The ITC takes the matter seriously. Its record is a strong one which is borne out by research. I acknowledge that a certain scepticism has been expressed about the research. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, indicated that the sample was not made sufficiently clear in some of the material which had reached him. I believe that it was a professional sample according to the normal standards of such surveys. According to the 1991 survey, as the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, has already indicated, seven people in 10 trust television to provide the most accurate, fair and unbiased coverage of events compared with about one in 10 who opt for newspapers or radio. Only a small minority of viewers perceive any political bias in the programme services. That minority who see political bias is almost equally divided, as the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, said, between the Right and the Left. It is important in terms of the tone of this debate that television retains its position as the nation's primary source of impartially presented national and international news and compares more than favourably with what I am sorry to say, as an old print journalist, are the deteriorating standards of much of the national press.

The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, mentioned in some detail some of the complaints which appeared in the quarterly reports of the ITC. The one to which he drew attention, relating to subliminal broadcasting, which was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, is very serious. I for my part can hardly think of a more serious offence than that, whatever the background. I do not know the detail, but it would seem to me to be exactly the kind of offence in relation to which the full sanctions of the new Broadcasting Act, which comes into operation from 1st January, might well be brought into being. Those include fines, although it was mentioned that fines might not mean much to commercial contractors. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, quoted my namesake, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Fleet, as saying that commercial television had been a licence to print money. For a number of the new contractors starting work on 1st January it is more likely to be a licence to lose money. The point I make is that fines should be applied in serious cases.

The 1991 annual report listed a total of 248 complaints about ITV and Channel 4 programmes. When one examines those more closely one finds that a number of the complaints, as one would expect, relate to matters well outside political and industrial controversy. They include complaints about fairness in programmes such as—and I sympathise with the person who made the complaint—that Jimmy Greaves was unfair to Manchester United on TV-am. Therefore, one has to judge the matter on the basis of serious complaints about impartiality. In 1992 there have been 177 complaints about impartiality so far. Of the 41 complaints which relate to Channel 4, only 11 relate to matters of impartiality under the terms of the Act.

I do not want to minimise the importance of the matter. As I said, impartiality is one of the most important obligations in running the system. However, I simply repeat the general point about seeing the issue in proportion.

Channel 4, has been the target of much of tonight's debate. It is worth recalling that, in Section 25 of the Broadcasting Act, Parliament lays down a requirement on Channel 4 to appeal to minority taste and engage in innovation and experiment in the content of programmes. It is almost by definition a formula for controversy set by Parliament itself.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I remind the noble Lord (who has been very fair) that it was he who said that Channel 4 had special responsibilities. It was under just the same obligation to maintain impartiality. It was no less responsible. We have been building on his confirmation of that in discussing this matter.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I totally agree with his recollection of what I said in the past. I battled long and hard with Channel 4 on these matters, not least on the programme about the secret war in Greece to which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred. The obligations are exactly the same. But it also has the obligation given by Parliament for this rather special remit, and it is quite a difficult task balancing the two. I think one should have a bit of understanding about that. It is not true to say that Channel 4 produces nothing but Left-wing programmes. It produces a lot of controversial programmes which come from a wide political spectrum. In 1991, I am told that the channel transmitted 2,698 hours of factual programmes. So the complaints relate to a very small proportion of that sort of output. Nor is it fair to think of Channel 4 as only providing a platform for those on the left of politics. Their opinion-slots, for example, in which I am sure a number of noble Lords in this House have taken part over the years, are a good example. Recently included were voices like those of Dame Shirley Porter and Janet Daly. There is a series called "The Devil's Advocate" which included a vigorous attack on the African National Congress for leading people into massacres, and a programme accusing black councillors in Brent of adopting racial policies. So one has to try to see Channel 4 fairly as a whole.

For those who disagree with particular programmes, there is "The Right to Reply", mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing. Although what he said is perfectly true that in some ways "The Right to Reply" gives the original programme maker a second chance, it is a great deal better, I believe, than exists in any other channel in this country. It was pioneered by Channel 4 from its foundation. I have said in this House before, and I say it again, it ought to be part of the obligation in all broadcasting channels to have a proper weekly right to reply programme giving full opportunity for those who feel aggrieved about particular programmes.

Channel 4 certainly makes its errors of judgment. The noble Lord mentioned one that had been brought to my attention. That was the one about the Maoist group in Peru, the Shining Path group. It aroused justified complaints of being one-sided, of dwelling on atrocities by the Peruvian government forces and almost totally ignoring any atrocities on the other side. I think this was recognised by Channel 4, and a corrected and revised version of the programme went out as part of a series on Latin America.

Noble Lords have made various criticisms of the arrangements regarding the operating arrangements for the new code on due impartiality. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, wanted to know: to whom do you write? The new Broadcasting Act in which the noble Lord played a fairly big part in shaping some of its characteristics has removed from the Independent Television Commission the daily duty of being the broadcaster. Now, under the new arrangements and the deregulatory framework of the present Government, it is the individual contractor to whom people will have to write, though the ITC will remain with quite an important residual responsibility. If there are problems in the new system, they are likely to be the result of the thrust of the Broadcasting Act which some of us were critical about, but which the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt (who seems to have disappeared from the scene) were particularly enthusiastic about.

Fortunately, there are signs in the Government's Green Paper on the BBC of a more sensible and enlightened approach now to broadcasting policy than we had during the disastrous reorganisation of commercial broadcasting in this country under the 1990 Act. Therefore, in concluding, I content myself in referring your Lordships to the Government's new Green Paper on the BBC if it is a Green Paper, a very green paper on page 23, paragraphs 4.24 and 4.25. I am sorry that the quotation is substantial, but it will stand in place of a peroration. The report states: There could be a code for programme standards, setting out how the requirements on taste, decency and due impartiality in the treatment of controversial issues were to be achieved and enforced. However, there are risks in devising more stringent arrangements for enforcing programme obligations and standards. Closer regulation might open up more opportunities for political influence or control, so encroaching on the BBC's editorial independence. Moreover, the new framework could be too rigid to allow for change, so the BBC could not respond to the changing interests and needs of its audiences, and would be prevented from exploring new ideas for programmes". The concluding sentence is: It would be a dull and timorous broadcasting service which did not adapt, experiment and provoke controversy". I cannot think of wiser advice for the noble Viscount who has the delicate task of replying to the debate.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we have been kept rather late. I am sure that those of us who have not had dinner look forward to the debate's conclusion. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, expressed his own views. I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber because I shall refer to him. He spoke in an excessively personal way as regards his perceived enemies in television broadcasting. I do not see myself as one of the noble Lord's enemies and I do not see the noble Lord as an enemy.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, I too recall the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, as a senior political colleague in the Labour Party. However, I found him worryingly to the far left of me. That then aroused question marks about his judgment which were not totally satisfied by the subsequent expedition of his political career. I share the noble Lord's love for horse racing but I must say that I have rarely felt so far adrift from a speaker in this House. I trust that he will not mind if I too see a personal dimension in his contribution.

We must take seriously the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, on the subject of impartiality or particularly, on the other side of the coin, of partiality and bias. I recognise the noble Lord as a great expert in that area. More impressively, he is a great practitioner. His columns in the Murdoch press give a practical and sustained demonstration in the art—no, it is not an art —in the trade of bias and partiality that is rarely equalled by others in this House. So we should listen to him as a great theorist, I presume, and certainly an exponent. Fortunately for the noble Lord, there is no Act and no code to limit and to regulate his written performances.

Despite his expertise and experience in the field of partiality I am less certain that he has much experience of impartiality. I have not seen or read examples of the noble Lord practising the art of impartiality; I suspect that he has much less experience in that field. That may explain why he seems to me to be so far off beam tonight.

The background to the debate is the Broadcasting Act 1990 which comes into force in the near future. I believe that in 1990, before I held my present position, the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, wanted an even stricter set of impartiality rules written into the Act. The Government almost conceded but finally compromised. It is said that the noble Lord was unhappy that the Government did not concede his full, tough censorship. Perhaps we see this debate as a follow-up to that. Fortunately the noble Lord's full wishes were not granted. In that context, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to, among others, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and in particular my predecessor as Front Bench spokesman in this area, my noble and personal friend Lady Birk. She took part in the successful fight against illiberal measures. I note also her excellent work elsewhere in this sphere.

What are the facts? One must confess that it is difficult to approach a subject such as impartiality with scientific pontification and certitude. So often, impartiality, or partiality, is in the eye of the beholder. However, there is some evidence and I believe that the research which exists cannot be dismissed. Perhaps it lies in the hands of those who dismiss it to attempt to generate other respectable research. That research is about what viewers and listeners feel about partiality and impartiality of our television and radio channels. It has been referred to earlier and I need not go into detail. However, that points in a direction quite contrary to the assertions of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt. The crucial ITC survey in 1991, which has already been mentioned, reveals that seven out of 10 people trust television to be fair and unbiased. That cannot be dismissed out of hand. I doubt whether research into the views of the readership of the columns of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, or the two newspapers for which he writes would reach similar conclusions.

The IBA survey found that 27 per cent. thought that the BBC was somewhat pro-Tory. I presume that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, is out of touch with that very large block of viewers.

If one takes the recent election, there was considerable observation of the conduct of our broadcasters. I believe that no evidence of bias was found. Of course, the Nuffield general election studies —on some of which I have worked —since the Second World War have examined media coverage and have documented fully two facts: first, the fairness of television and radio coverage; and secondly, the consistent Tory bias of the majority of our newspapers.

The overwhelming conclusion of independent researchers and observers—and I do not include the Tory media monitoring unit in that category—is that television and radio are remarkably impartial. Any tilt, mainly in the BBC, is to the right. I ask the Minister to confirm that conclusion in his reply. If he has any evidence to the contrary, perhaps he will lay that before the House.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, does the noble Lord include the "Today" programme as being unbiased or pro-Tory? He would be way out of touch with most of my ex-constituents and friends if he so believed. I believe that the "Today" programme is the single most biased programme that has ever been put out by the BBC, certainly during the election period.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not share the noble Lord's view of that programme. I have listened to it for many years. It has irritated me and my colleagues as often as it has irritated the noble Lord. Certainly my understanding, from contacts in the television and radio world, is that the ITC, which is specifically referred to in the Question, is exercising its regulatory functions and obligations very seriously.

Apparently, according to what my noble friend Lord Hollick said, that is being done almost with a heavy hand.

Both the ITC and the broadcasters appear more than surprised at the implied allegations in this Question. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has been fed for so long on the heavy diet of the Right wing press in this country that he comes to define extreme Right wing views as being balanced and impartial and defines any fair view as being intolerably Left wing. Perhaps he has come to define bias as anything with which he disagrees and impartiality as anything with which he agrees.

There are several other issues relating to television and radio which are much more relevant and interesting than the red herring which this Question raises. It is perhaps appropriate if briefly, while discussing television and radio, I touch upon them. I believe that the main issue is not some obsession that the broadcasting media has been penetrated by legions of militant moles. Anybody who knows the real world of broadcasting knows that that is a fantasy. Anybody on the political Left knows that there are few comforts to the Left in our television and radio, except when the political Right of the Government shoot themselves in the foot, which is an occupational hazard today. I believe that it is not bias when the often stupid antics of an incompetent government are fairly reported.

The main issue of broadcasting, as it is and as it was when we discussed the many unsatisfactory aspects of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, is actually that of quality, not impartiality. On this side of the House we are still concerned that the structure of independent broadcasting which has emerged may lead to a decline in quality. We do not prejudge that, but we shall be watching that factor most carefully. We are also concerned that the basic instincts behind the Question, the political and perhaps psychological instincts, are towards greater censorship. We shall resist that. I am confident that we shall be supported by Conservative broadcasters in that regard.

In that context I must say that the repeated attempts by some Conservative politicians to impose censorship on the BBC by using threats in relation to the future of the licence fee at the time of the recent election were little short of despicable. But in resisting censorship we do not imply that all is perfect in broadcasting. It is not and cannot be. Many of us regret the increasing examples of bad taste and bad language in broadcasting. I object to the increasing trivialisation of which the recent "Cutting Edge" programme on the House of Lords was only a mild example. But that is not a question of bias; it is triviality and the programme provided a right to reply.

I would have been more sympathetic if the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, had related to that trivialisation. I would also have been more sympathetic if he had dealt with what I equally regret —the way in which some of the seedier aspects of what I call "private eye journalism" are beginning to set an example to some broadcasters, as they have to many newspaper journalists, and the way in which so-called investigative journalism—invented honourably by my close personal friend Harry Evans when we worked together at the Sunday Times—has been adopted, distorted and trivialised into an excuse for baseless innuendo as a substitute for facts and information. That sometimes applies in broadcasting but much more often in newspapers.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, is obviously benefiting from the dinner the rest of us would like to have. Had he raised those serious issues in a non-partisan way, we could have had a fruitful debate on the quality of broadcasting. But none of those areas of increasing anxiety relates to bias and impartiality. The trivialisation, the innuendo journalism, is done on my observation on a completely impartial basis. The sneers which often replace intelligent comment are implied impartially to all, Left as well as Right.

I believe that there is no basis in substance to attack the ITC for its operations in that field and certainly not the BBC. Moreover, were such a code, as is referred to, to exist in relation to newspapers and to be operated as fairly and rigorously as the ITC operates in its field towards broadcasting, then I suspect that none of the newspapers for which the noble Lord writes would ever appear again.

We reject the thrust of the Unstarred Question but look forward to the time when the genuine issues which exist in radio and television broadcasting, especially concerning quality, are raised in this House.

9.34 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is customary at this point for the Minister to say that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, for initiating this debate. Well, initiate it he did! I am sure that we are all grateful to him for doing so. Attention may have been focused more on the BBC recently, but it is important not to overlook the wider broadcasting context.

I have listened with great attention to all the contributions. I shall say more about the particular points that have been raised in a moment, and try to offer a Government response. Perhaps I could begin by saying what I think the debate tonight has highlighted. First, the importance of due impartiality in television and radio broadcasting, which reaches almost every home in the land and, secondly, the essential role of vigorous discussion in a parliamentary democracy. We have certainly had that tonight.

The subject of due impartiality has been debated many times in Parliament, in the press and elsewhere. It is a subject which deserves to be properly discussed, not least because circumstances change. It is some three years ago that the proceedings in another place were televised for the first time. Some of your Lordships may remember the time when nothing could be broadcast about a subject for 14 days before a Parliamentary debate on the topic.

People sometimes forget that impartiality requirements are nothing new in broadcasting legislation. It has long been recognised that broadcasting is too important to be used unchecked as a vehicle for cranks and eccentric or partisan opinions. The Broadcasting Act 1990 therefore follows earlier statutes in containing a requirement for due impartiality in broadcast programmes. I say "due impartiality" because the law quite properly stops short of an absolute requirement of achieving even balance in all situations. Impartiality should not be confused with neutrality or indifference.

Broadcasters in this country operate within a system of parliamentary democracy and are expected to share its assumptions. They are not expected to give equal weight, or to show an impartiality which may not be due, to those who seek to destroy the democratic system by violent, unparliamentary or illegal means. There is no obligation to be neutral between truth and untruth, justice and injustice, compassion and cruelty, tolerance and intolerance. But because we live in a parliamentary democracy, the broadcasters are expected to reflect the cut and thrust of Parliamentary and political debate. They are not expected to propose the view that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Due impartiality is not a matter which can be reduced to some simple mathematical formula; nor can its achievement be guaranteed through any mechanistic statutory requirement. The Government do not believe that Parliament could provide an adequate definition of due impartiality in statute, or that they should try. Perhaps of all people, politicians are the least able to be seen as impartial, especially on matters of political controversy. That is why the Broadcasting Act 1990 leaves the interpretation of due impartiality to the regulatory bodies. It is their job to ensure that the statutory provisions are upheld.

The Act does, however, go a little further than the previous legislation in spelling out the duties of the regulatory bodies on this issue. In the past, the IBA was both regulator and broadcaster. It was able to combine the two roles to ensure that the programmes which it transmitted conformed to its own concept of impartiality. In future, the companies licensed by the Independent Television Commission will themselves be broadcasters. We believe it is important that they, and the audience, should be fully aware of what is expected of them in terms of impartiality. It is for that reason that the Broadcasting Act requires the ITC and the Radio Authority to draw up and publish a code on impartiality. Although required by statute, the regulatory bodies are responsible for the contents of the codes, their interpretation and enforcement. That, in our view, is as it should be.

What the 1990 Act does is to specify key areas the codes must cover. For example, the ITC and Radio Authority codes give more detailed guidance on how due impartiality can be achieved over a series of programmes; a question which had previously given rise to some difficulty and uncertainty. The codes also address the ways in which impartiality should be achieved in different contexts, the timescales within which the requirements of balance should be met, and the prominence to be given to the programmes intended to achieve balance. It is right that the code should provide a means for resolving problems of interpretation. But it is our firm view that it is for the regulatory bodies to give effect to these requirements without interference from politicians.

Of course, from time to time the broadcasters will show programmes which many of us find tendentious or downright infuriating. As the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, who I see is not in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, pointed out, bias is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. I think that your Lordships have demonstrated that very clearly in this debate but of course members and ex-members of the Labour Party have been arguing about their differences of view on bias. They know more about bias in their own party than I do, so I would not dream of commenting further on that.

As I am sure your Lordships will agree, parliamentary democracy does not suffer through sharp expression and robust debate. First-class, vigorous news and current affairs programmes are an essential ingredient in our democracy. There would be real risks in trying to devise more stringent arrangements for setting and enforcing programme standards. Greater regulation might open up more opportunities for political influence and control. Too rigid a framework could prevent the broadcasters from responding to the changing interests and needs of their audiences or from exploring new ideas for programmes.

As your Lordships know, broadcasting is going through a period of immense and rapid change. As well as the huge increase in the number of broadcasting services both in this country and abroad, there are significant changes in the way that broadcasting services are organised and regulated and in the way people use them. Cable and satellite services, including specialist news and parliamentary channels, have multiplied in the last few years. Technological developments, such as digital transmission of radio and television services, will enable even more channels to be accommodated. Many programmes are now made for international audiences, and there are more opportunities for broadcasting across national boundaries.

These changes open up new opportunities but also pose new problems for regulation. With many more sources of information, including channels such as CNN from abroad, we are already removed from the closely regulated era when the BBC and ITN had a monopoly of broadcast news programmes for United Kingdom audiences. Of course, this does not mean that broadcasters here can ignore the programme codes on impartiality or other matters but at a time of rapid change it is unrealistic to think that specific regulation is possible for every eventuality.

We believe that the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority codes on impartiality recognise these facts. Both the commission and the authority consulted widely before publishing their codes last year. They continue to keep them under review, as they are required to do under the Broadcasting Act. The Radio Authority published a revised code in September and the ITC is currently reviewing the terms of its code.

The noble Lords, Lord Wyatt and Lord Thomson of Monifieth, talked about subliminal messages and the problems there. The Independent Television Commission has clear statutory responsibilities. These include a duty to secure that independent television programmes do not use images of very brief duration to convey messages or to influence the minds of people watching the programmes, without their being fully aware of what has occurred. The commission's programme code gives effect to this statutory requirement. It provides that as a general rule no image of very brief duration may contain matter which is clearly of a political or controversial nature unless the surrounding programme content makes the general nature of the image clear to the viewer.

I must emphasise that responsibility for what is broadcast rests with the broadcasters and the broadcasting authorities. However, I understand from the ITC that the particular programme mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, was the ITV "Chart Show", a pop music programme which was broadcast after the general election. It contained very brief images of a "Vote Labour" slogan as part of a music video. The ITC was not satisfied that the programme complied with its programme code, and Granada has apologised. Granada had not been aware of the images and has undertaken to tighten up its previewing procedures to prevent any recurrence, in line with the requirements of the ITC code.

My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, spoke about the "Cutting Edge" programme. I understand that permission to film was given by your Lordships' Administration and Works sub-committee in February of this year. However, I should add that it is my understanding that the sub-committee gave permission for the film on the basis that the film would be a serious exercise to show the workings of the House of Lords. Your Lordships have views as to whether that was indeed the case. I know that the Administration and Works sub-committee has caused representations of its own to be made to Channel 4.

The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, also referred to appointments by the BBC. Appointments of senior BBC staff are entirely a matter for the corporation's board of governors. These are not matters on which I can or would seek to comment. We have also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, about bias. I cannot emphasise too strongly that editorial decisions about programme content and scheduling are matters for the broadcasters and not for the Government. It is for the broadcasters to decide how they should meet their obligation to observe due impartiality in the treatment of controversial issues.

The BBC's undertaking on programme standards, including due impartiality, is contained in the annex to its Licence and Agreement. The BBC also issues its own Producers' Guidelines, giving detailed guidance for programme makers, to which my noble friend referred. I know that the BBC takes its obligations on programme standards and treating controversial subjects with due impartiality very seriously. But it is up to the governors to secure the BBC's compliance with them under its present charter.

Your Lordships will obviously be aware that longer term these and other issues can be considered as part of the review of the BBC charter which continues until 1996. The Government's discussion document, which we published last week, sets out the questions for the public debate about the future of the BBC, including programme standards of impartiality. We hope for a well-informed, constructive debate, and we want to hear the opinions of viewers and listeners as well as of the broadcasters and other interested parties before bringing forward proposals.

My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing spoke about the code and its enforcement. The ITC and the Radio Authority are well aware of their statutory responsibilities. Were they to fail to enforce the code's provisions on licensees they would be liable to action for breach of statutory duty initiated by anybody who could claim a locus in this matter. The courts in this country have traditionally shown a good deal of latitude in allowing such actions to be brought.

After 1st January 1993 the range of sanctions available to the ITC and the Radio Authority include warnings, reprimands, fines, and ultimately withdrawal of the licence to broadcast. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, was clear, as a broadcaster himself, on what the code means and what the sanctions would mean. His speech tonight was of great interest to the House on how the code reflects on a broadcaster and, as a broadcaster, how seriously he takes this code.

My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing asked whether the ITC advertises where complaints can be made. Obviously complaints should be first made to the broadcaster, but the ITC has arranged television advertisements explaining its role, which includes responding to complaints. The BBC also responds to complaints, which can be addressed to Broadcasting House.

I should also like to join the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in saying a brief word about his noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. She is a sterling advocate of her party at the Dispatch Box on these subjects. In the two years that I have answered for the Office of Arts and Libraries and now the Department of National Heritage I have always enjoyed her speeches, and I hope that she will speak again, if not from the Dispatch Box.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, she will.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Government believe that the regulatory arrangements for due impartiality that we set up in the Broadcasting Act are the right approach. Their implementation is a matter for the ITC and the Radio Authority. We do not want to impose a straitjacket that could stifle experiment, debate and creativity. It is our firm intention to uphold the traditions that Ministers do not interfere with the content of individual programmes. We have, after all, the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, it would seem, keeping the interests of the Conservative Party very much to the fore, although of course he does not sit on our Benches. Never mind, one day perhaps he will.

We must give the arrangements under the Broadcasting Act time to settle in. The new licensing regime for Channels 3 and 4 begins on 1st January 1993. Clearly, the Government must be concerned with the regulatory framework and whether that framework is being adhered to or whether it needs to be changed. In general though, programmes and schedules are matters best left to the broadcasters and the regulating authorities. As the very substantial work which has gone into the code shows, the ITC and the Radio Authority take their responsibilities very seriously. I believe that they are doing a difficult job with proper consideration and care.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan, has had a marathon day and so we appreciated his contribution to the debate, which is on a subject that he knows so well. We have had an interesting debate to say the least. Even the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, joined in—more than once. Although views were held strongly on the subject, I am sure it was right for this important debate to continue so that, apart from anything else, alternative perspectives could be aired in your Lordships' House which would not have been possible if the debate had been cut short this evening.

House adjourned at nine minutes before ten o'clock.