HL Deb 13 July 1993 vol 548 cc123-6

3 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their reaction to the BBC's proposal to introduce a rolling news programme on Radio 5, thus displacing sports coverage and programmes for young people.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is for the BBC to decide what to broadcast on the frequencies which are assigned to it. The Government would not seek to intervene in editorial decisions of that kind.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not unexpected Answer. Is it not the case that the Prime Minister intervened recently to save "News at Ten"? Is it not just as important that we should save sports coverage and programmes for young people on Radio 5? Is the Minister aware that Radio 5 currently attracts audiences of 5 million people and that the figure is still rising? Radio 5 has been extremely successful because of its uninterrupted sports coverage as well its programmes for young people? In its document Extending Choice the BBC says that it seeks to reflect all dimensions of both popular and minority cultures. Would not the introduction of a rolling news programme, which would displace the programmes I have mentioned, be a negation of that policy?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am not aware of any proposals by the BBC to abandon sports coverage or merge sports programmes with news services. I must emphasise that no decision has yet been taken. Since the debate in your Lordships' House last month the BBC has indicated that it will return to square one on the subject of the news network. I understand that the BBC will look at every frequency and every option and that the review is unlikely to be completed before the autumn.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is it not a fact that we are sick to death of the same news being broadcast every hour? Even at the beginning of the war that was abandoned after some time because it was merely a repetition of what was known. There are many better ways—and sport is one of them—in which the nation can be entertained. We do not want current affairs tacked on to a little news. To have lengthy comment about all sorts of matters, with various people—politicians and so on—giving us the benefit of their views, is extremely boring compared with the entertainment which can be provided.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is for the BBC to determine what programmes to broadcast in order to fulfil its public service obligations. I understand that the BBC carried out research which indicated support for the proposed news service. Consultation is a matter which we are considering in our current review of the BBC.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the prime movers for a rolling news programme are an extremely vocal minority called the chattering classes? It would be to lose a sense of balance if their influence were allowed to outweigh the opinion of a great mass of people who much prefer sport and of the young people who prefer the programmes provided for them. We need to be very careful.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I know that the BBC is aware of the strong feelings in your Lordships' House. The fact that the BBC is reviewing its proposal shows that it has taken note. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, the distinguished vice-chairman of the BBC, has also taken note of your Lordships' comments today.

Lord Howell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the excellence of BBC coverage of sport is unsurpassed throughout the world?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Howell

We should pay tribute to the BBC's coverage of sport both on television and on Radio 5. However, every time there are new controllers and directors, they want to mess about with programmes when the country as a whole would prefer that they stay as they are. As regards radio in particular, blind people depend a great deal upon sporting commentaries. Many of us, as we travel in our cars, appreciate those radio commentaries. Although editorial matters are for the BBC, will the Minister do the House the courtesy of telling the corporation to stop messing about with programmes that we all wish to see continue?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, makes some extremely conservative remarks. The BBC is giving up two medium wave frequencies to new independent national services. The BBC is to use the remaining six networks in the way that it considers best. We believe that simulcasting is considered to be a rather wasteful use of the frequencies which are available, but it is for the BBC to decide what it should broadcast.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most people would recommend to the Government that they keep out of the issue and let the listeners make their feelings known in the many ways open to them?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. I agree with him totally.

Lord Parry

My Lords, can the House assume that the Minister has seen the Order Paper of another place? While he may refuse to be too disciplined by it, does he understand that more than 151 Members have tabled views similar to those expressed in this House? Surely that will persuade the BBC that there is a united front against the proposed change.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am aware of the Order Paper in another place. As I say, the BBC is reviewing its proposals.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a large percentage of the BBC's listening audience is made up of hospital patients and the long-term sick? If you have had your gall bladder removed, the last thing you want to hear about is the Prime Minister's popularity rating. Will the Minister accept that most hospital patients are more interested in whether my favourite football team, Cowdenbeath, has just defeated Brechin City?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sure that if one is in that unfortunate position, it is important that one has a choice between Radio 1, which plays pop music, Radio 2, which plays light music, Radio 3, which plays classical music, Radio 4, which broadcasts news and drama and Radio 5, which broadcasts sport and education.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount not aware that his first Answer was correct and that the views expressed since confirm his original proposition that these matters are best left to the BBC?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, for his support.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, is the Minister not impressed by the almost unanimous view expressed by the House? Will he not agree—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, does—that Radio 5 has been remarkably successful? Its main characteristic is its sustained and uninterrupted broadcasting of major sporting events. It would be extremely regrettable if, for example, at the moment when the England football team were about to score a goal in an international—perhaps its only goal for some months past or ahead—the coverage were interrupted by what some dogmatists believed to be important news such as a mundane ministerial resignation announced from Downing Street.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, makes an interesting point as regards the importance of sport on the radio. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, listened carefully to what he said.

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