HL Deb 12 January 1994 vol 551 cc171-209

6.15 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury rose to call attention to the level of pornography and violence exhibited on television by the BBC and other broadcasting agencies; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving the Motion which stands in my name, I should like to thank the many Members of your Lordships' House who have put down their names to speak in this debate and to express my pleasure that the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Lincoln has chosen this debate in which to make his maiden speech. I am sure that I shall listen to it with great pleasure.

The number of working days between the Ballot and this evening have been rather eroded by the holiday, for which reason I asked my old friend Mary Whitehouse to prepare a brief of which I circulated a number of copies to those who had promised to speak and who, in some cases, had already put down their names. On Monday, I placed a copy in the Library so anybody who wants to confirm anything that is said can have access to it either during or after this debate. Time has been too short for me to do anything more than that.

I believe that many Members of your Lordships' House will deal with points of detail. For my own part, I shall give your Lordships no more than a tour d'horizon, ranging over what is to be covered in general terms. Dealing with the Motion as drafted, it is not intended primarily to be an attack on the BBC, although one will emerge later. I am much more concerned with what follows under the words "other broadcasting agencies". People have asked me whether that covers the circulation of video nasties, to which I have replied in the affirmative, "broadcasting" in the Motion having a lower case initial letter. In the dictionary, its primary meaning is given as "to disseminate, to scatter". Therefore, by whatever medium pornography or violence is disseminated or scattered, I believe that reference to it is in order under the terms of reference of the debate.

Man, in a state of nature, untaught, undisciplined has two characteristics which in principle debar him from ever becoming civilised: violence and sexual promiscuity. But man is capable of learning and of spontaneous insights which he can adopt before he fully comprehends them. By curbing sexual promiscuity, we can provide nuclear families capable of curbing our children's violence in the home at the hands of parents dedicated to their children's future. Children's violence? Oh yes, have not your Lordships seen a child in a temper, breaking and destroying some of its toys, pulling pussy cat's tail and screaming hate at other children in the school playground? Perhaps some of your Lordships have been bullied. I was—until I discovered that if I gave a bully a black eye, the bullying ceased. That was more violence—mea maxima culpa.

The nuclear family and its indoctrination of children into pacific behaviour, good manners and tolerance are civilisation's only defence against collapse. Children cannot learn the three R's at school until the home has prepared them for obedience and attention to teachers. Learning at school and learning in the home must pull together in partnership. One will, of course, yield primacy to the other as the years draw on, but it must begin in the home.

The nuclear family implies an embargo on sexual promiscuity. This is in some sense a sacrifice and although something fewer than 100 per cent. are prepared to make it, a sufficient number are so disposed as to stabilise the system. If one-third of marriages break down, two-thirds of marriages survive. We may be at a bifurcation point where one regime could pass over to another. Your Lordships should have no illusions as to where we would find ourselves if civilisation were to collapse in general. The media ignore that possibility because, short term, there is money in so doing.

Let me refer now to bad language and its association with what I have said. I shall begin with the old Anglo-Norse term "flyting", which has nothing to do with the flight of birds or aeroplanes. Flyting was a slanging match between champions upon an occasion of challenge and response. It is very old. It was commented upon by the Venerable Bede. It was still an understandable term in Chaucer's day. It falls under the general heading of what animal ethologists call "epideictic" behaviour; that is, showing off—the substitution of mock combat for real combat. The effect of that from the evolutionary point of view is rather spectacular, because in the case of a fight to the death, although the vanquished may be dead upon the spot, the victor may survive sufficiently damaged as to be not so good a parent for a future generation. Therefore the substitution of mock combat for real combat has evolutionary survival value. I brought in flyting to illustrate that term.

Swearing is like flyting. It is better to utter a forbidden word than to do a forbidden thing. I imagine a situation in which a Member of your Lordships' House has a problem to solve. He wants to hang a picture. In his left hand there is a nail. In his right hand there is a hammer. Bang, he goes, and then, "Oh!" He has hit his noble thumb instead of the nail and under those circumstances he may relieve his feelings by uttering a forbidden word rather than by losing his temper and throwing the hammer out of the window where it will break the glass and possibly land on the head of some innocent passer-by.

How do we choose words for embargo? We choose them from the vocabulary of forbidden subjects, usually sex, excretion or blasphemy. We always have a duplex vocabulary, part of which is clinical and can be used for serious discussion, and part of which is a four-letter word used for purposes of prophylactic exercise against the temptation to violence. But if those forbidden words are used too often, they lose their effectiveness; they lose their connection with their original meaning; and finally have to be substituted with others. I shall give your Lordships an instance in French. The Latin for "sexual intercourse" is "future". That goes into French as "foutre". But it may mean almost anything. It can mean, "I couldn't care less". It can mean, "Shut up". It can mean, "Buzz off". It can mean that something is broken beyond repair. I do not need to go into the French language. Those are the English translations of what the word can mean.

Although the word has ceased to mean anything to do with sexual intercourse there still remains a flavour of the forbidden about such French terms. They were not in general use on the stage in Paris when I was young. I cannot report progress on them in Paris because I have not been there for a long time, but they are coming into general use in Britain, where I believe their effect is to reduce their capacity for prophylactic exorcism of the temptation to violence.

In the immediate aftermath of my being a governor of the BBC and the arrival of a new programme called "TW3", which used language which was much more permissive than customary, I remember writing to the former governor, Arthur Ford. I said: Have you taken leave of your senses? This is a new step further downhill". On Sunday 2nd January, the BBC put on a two-part programme from a book called A Dark Adapted Eye. The second part was broadcast on Monday evening. It included a scene of one young man buggering another in a toolshed. There was no question about the interpretation to be put on what we saw. It was a tergo cum intromissione penis per anum, which I leave in Latin for the sake of parliamentary decorum.

A married woman of 50 (my daughter) the mother of two, with her daughter (my granddaughter) were viewing it. She told me that she was disgusted by what she saw. It was totally unexpected. We remembered receiving no warning. It was unnecessary to tell the story. Why, in heaven's name, should the BBC be free to import that contamination into an unsuspecting household? The 9 p.m. watershed is a totally bogus alibi—the pornographer's secret weapon by which corruption can be facilitated. Children, during Christmas, New Year and school holidays, do not go to bed at nine o'clock.

I come, lastly, to the challenge that this debate presents to the legal profession. I am no lawyer. My competence in drafting a parliamentary statute to punish those who offend is negligible. But there are noble Lords who are members of the legal profession. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, with whom I have discussed this subject previously, is in his place. My noble and learned friend Lord Ackner will speak in the debate. I hope that learned lawyers will get together to produce a draft Bill, which can be a Private Member's Bill in due course and which will have the effect of punishing those who offend against it.

The present Obscene Publications Act is unsatisfactory, dealing as it does with a tendency to corrupt and deprave members of the jury. How can one have evidence of tendencies? Who is ever so corrupted by reading something once, under instruction to do so because he is a juror? A juror will ask himself, "Do I feel corrupted?" His answer of course will be, "No". Yet some solution to the problem must be found so that civilisation does not deteriorate. I can only hope that the legal profession will go to it with a will and give us a viable statute. I beg to move for Papers.

6.27 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I am sure that it is the wish of all noble Lords that I thank the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for initiating the debate, and congratulate him on the admirable and penetrating way in which he did so.

In this country there is now more violent crime than ever in this century, and standards of sexual behaviour have been declining for years. The extent to which those trends are influenced by television programmes which are seen in every home is something which should be examined by Parliament and by the Government, without attempting to interfere with the independence and freedom of the broadcasting authorities.

Some broadcasters claim that no firm conclusions can be reached on the vital question of whether their programmes have, or have not, a bad influence, but it would be idle to pretend that they have no influence at all. Some of the programmes produced by all the broadcasting authorities are splendid. There are the educational programmes, music or, at any rate, most of the music programmes, and most of the news programmes, but I must say that with the news programmes there is sometimes a tendency towards heresy hunting and witch hunting. However, many of the fictional programmes are deplorable. It is assumed by the broadcasters that the great mass of viewers enjoys fictional programmes in which unpleasant people are being unpleasant to one another. It is assumed also that most viewers are positively thrilled by scenes of violence and that many of them are keen to see the most explicit sex that can daringly be shown. I do not believe that most viewers wish to be entertained in those ways. But if there is a minority of viewers who wish to see such awful programmes, why should producers of programmes pander to their deplorable instincts?

I know that those responsible for TV programmes feel that they must not pander to elitism. Shortly before Christmas Mr. Birt of the BBC said that at a meeting of members who are interested in this matter. It is true that elitism represents only a minority point of view, and therefore broadcasters say that they must ignore that and go only for what the majority wants. However, I am sure that they are not meeting the wishes of the majority when producing programmes which contain violence and pornography on the scale which the noble Earl described. I trust that television producers will take note of what is said in your Lordships' debate this evening.

6.31 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, my wife and I were conversing recently in a theatre bar when a strange man in an educated but slurred voice butted in. He began using coarse language. When I asked him to take his obscenities elsewhere, he said, "What do you mean by 'obscenities'? You hear those words on the television every day", and so you do. What we used to call the language of the barrack-room is now frequently voiced on radio and television. In a play it may sometimes be defended as realism, but comedians use it too. You can argue that there is no harm in all that and no sin against the light, only bad taste. That may be so, but I should rather keep it out of my living room.

Forty years in Fleet Street hearing and often employing coarse language make it impossible to claim that I am shocked. I just believe that crude language should be brought less often into our houses.

I did not know what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, had in mind when he condemned the level of pornography. I merely say that I am tired of seeing sexual intercourse on television. I do not wish to be a voyeur and yet it seems almost to be a necessity for producers to picture the thrusting and panting in any story of love, although it adds nothing to our understanding. For example, it is better for us to imagine what Madame Bovary did technically behind locked doors or how Don Juan dealt with his 1,003 ladies of Spain than to be given a realistic picture.

As regards violence, most of us are of the age when we prefer our crime stories to be sanitised, but if we enjoyed the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot or the shrewd old-maid charm of Miss Marple, that is a concession to us. If we are to continue to have television, we must put up with violence and overt sex too. But whether it depends on licence fees or on advertising, television can survive only by a perpetual successful search for a massive audience. I have no doubt that violence and pornography has a bad effect on some viewers; and yet the peak hours will never be filled with material which raises the spirit.

The complaint against television is not against its quality. Each item may be justified. The curse of television is its quantity. Any single programme might be harmless, but a diet of violence has its dangers and a diet of pornography can subvert the tenderness of love. We can never ban those things but I hope that we can press for them to be cut back and toned down to protest, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, demands, against its current level.

6.35 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, few of us can doubt the powerful effect of television on our perceptions and feelings. To deny that would be to fly in the face of the evidence of the effectiveness of television advertising. However, what is disturbing is the way in which television can play havoc with the feelings of the young and the vulnerable.

My wife, who is a GP, tells me from time to time of children brought to her surgery who are troubled by insomnia or some other form of hidden fear. On investigation it is usually the case that the fear stems from scenes of violence on television.

I visited a young offenders' institution early in December in my capacity as bishop to prisons. I was concerned to learn from the chaplain how many young inmates were exposed to screen violence through films and videos on television in their leisure periods. "Child's Play 2", condemned in the Bulger trial in Liverpool, was one of the videos currently being shown. His protests about that had been ignored.

I am well aware that debates of this nature draw in a host of concerns. Briefing Note 44 of June 1993 from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology draws attention to the effects of screen violence and, more disturbingly, identifies a recent rise in complaints about the level of violence on television. All that surely demonstrates the need for continued watchfulness on the part of the general public and by our public watchdog bodies, especially where children, as we have already heard, now frequently watch television long after the so-called watershed time.

In particular, it seems to me that care needs to be taken in the way in which actual crimes of violence are handled on television, whether in documentaries or in dramatised programmes involving reconstructions. I visited a village school in my diocese early last year and talked to the children. I tried to be at my most engaging. I asked, "What is grey, lives in a tree, eats nuts and has a bushy tail?" A small girl put up her hand and said, "Please sir, I know that the answer should be Jesus but it sounds like a squirrel to me". Bishops have to earn children's respect and hearing as much as anyone else these days, and the innocence of children is extremely precious.

Margo Norman in The Times asked yesterday: Can the bishops lead us back to basics? She quoted some wise words by the Archbishop of Canterbury, himself no stranger to the depredations of the media. He said that the consequence of privatising morality is that we shall stumble about lacking any vision upon which to base the inescapable moral judgments of public policy.

Those are words worth heeding. The level of pornography and violence exhibited on television is a matter of public anxiety and morality. It cannot simply be a matter for private judgment. That is why I am glad to support the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in drawing our attention to that matter today.

6.39 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure on behalf of the House to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on a first-class, entertaining and robust maiden speech, exactly what I should have expected from a Cambridge man. Although green is associated with Lincoln, I assure the right reverend Prelate that there was no sign of that colour in his performance today. We look forward to many more contributions from him in the months to come, in particular on prison affairs on which he possesses such expertise. I am happy to inform the right reverend Prelate that there is to be a debate on that subject in early February and perhaps he will make a note of that on the episcopal sleeve.

I am sure that the House is grateful to my noble friend Lord Halsbury for airing this subject today. No topic is more important, striking as it does at the very heart of civilised society. The fact is that today scenes of an unacceptable sexual and violent nature appear almost daily on one TV channel or another. Indeed, some directors and producers seem to regard the inclusion of at least one explicit scene in every production as an essential part of their macho image. In a phrase they would recognise, it gives them "street cred" among their peers. In recent weeks on television I have seen numerous acts of sexual congress, most of them totally irrelevant to the development of the plot, and, like my noble friend, I saw an explicitly portrayed homosexual act in what was otherwise an excellent production at peak time on New Year's Day.

It is a mistake to regard pornography as only sexual; there is the pornography of violence, too, and in my view the latter is more serious. When they are both present programme makers are indeed trawling the depths. I believe that in this area the greatest danger lies in the video market, which is a subject serious enough to warrant a whole debate to itself at a future date, as I am sure noble Lords will agree.

But television has little cause for satisfaction in this respect. In the autumn an otherwise excellent series called "Cracker" was marred by excessive violence. Only in the past week a new series opened with the shot—shown more than once—of a murdered and battered corpse hanging upside down. How do the producers of such programmes get away with it? For years creative people have adopted a belligerent, unyielding attitude towards the executive arm, playing on people's largely unjustified fears that for them to query anything artistic would be to reveal their cultural ignorance and insensitivity. It is a con trick of course of staggering proportions, but over the years it has succeeded.

We are told that such and such a scene is essential to the spirit of an author's work—never mind that he or she has omitted to put such a signpost in the work in the first place. We are also confidently told that the vast body of viewers are not influenced by what they see. I am sure that that statement goes down like a bomb in the advertising industry. One wonders about the millions of pounds being spent by public companies on what is apparently a fruitless exercise.

But even if only a small proportion of our people are affected by what they see—and research has shown conclusively that this small proportion largely consists of those with some kind of behavioural disorder or those who live in problem homes; in short, the very people that we ought as a caring society to be protecting—that surely is enough. The more we come to accept debased standards as the norm, the quicker we shall reach the "anything goes" level. With digital television on the horizon, that is indeed a terrifying prospect.

How can controls be strengthened? I believe that much of the ineffectiveness in regulation today lies in the multiplicity, and therefore fragmentation, of regulatory bodies. That not only divides responsibilities between such bodies to an unacceptable degree but also confuses potential complainants, making it less likely at the end of the day that they will bother to do anything.

It remains a mystery why Parliament has not decided to establish a single regulatory body—a broadcasting council, call it what you will—whose remit runs not only over the whole ITV spectrum but also over the BBC. I am afraid that in this day and age it is no longer desirable for the latter organisation to be self-regulating in this respect. Time is not on our side in grappling with this complex but desperately important problem.

6.43 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, perhaps I may join in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln on a splendid maiden speech.

I believe that the case has already been adequately made that all is not well in this field. I should like to ask some questions about government policy which I hope my noble friend will be able to answer when she replies. First, do the Government accept that there is a serious problem to be addressed in raising standards, particularly in television and videos? Secondly, are the Government satisfied with the existing regulatory arrangements and the way the authorities carry out their tasks? It is a somewhat complex situation as the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, indicated.

As far as independent television is concerned, the Independent Television Commission has been set up under the Broadcasting Act 1990. That places a clear statutory duty on the commission to ensure that licensed services do not include material which offends against good taste and decency, or is likely to encourage or incite crime. The commission is also under a duty to produce a code of practice binding on the licensed broadcaster. The ITC has adequate sanctions, whether they be fines, licence restrictions, or, in the last resort, cancellation of licence. Are the Government satisfied that those powers are properly used? I believe that there is a widely held view that those powers are not used as they should be. Sometimes complaints are upheld, but seldom is any punishment meted out for failing to obey the code of practice.

The regulation of the BBC has already been referred to. That is a much less clear and, I believe, totally unsatisfactory situation. The BBC has no statutory duty to enforce the code and no regulatory authority to whom it is responsible. The governors are responsible solely to themselves. If the law, such as it is, is infringed, governors cannot be punished as can directors of a PLC who infringe the Companies Act. I believe that we shall be dealing with all of those matters when we consider the renewal of the BBC charter in a few years' time. However, I submit that the present position is most unsatisfactory.

I should like to deal with the related matter of videos, to which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has already referred. Videos are easily obtained and many show degrading and depraved material on violence and sex. They are controlled by the Obscene Publications Act and the Video Recordings Act. Under the Obscene Publications Act a programme is obscene if it would tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely to read, see or hear it. But prosecutions under that Act can be brought only with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is apparently reluctant to set about those prosecutions.

The Video Recordings Act sets up the British Board of Film Classification which has the duty to classify all videos in relation to suitability for different age groups. But that board has no standards and no public accountability. The circulation of unlicensed, obscene videos is illegal. Prosecutions can be brought under the Obscene Publications Act but it is virtually ineffective because of the way it is drawn up. Do the Government intend to rectify that unsatisfactory position?

Lastly, reference has already been made to the code of practice and the so-called nine o'clock watershed. It is intended to prevent children seeing damaging television programmes but, as other noble Lords have said, it is wholly ineffective. Do the Government intend to take steps to alter the concept of the nine o'clock watershed perhaps to ten-thirty or eleven o'clock?

6.49 p.m.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I should have liked to spend more time congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln on his maiden speech, but given the amount of time available I hope he will not mind if I am fairly brief and merely say that I found his speech delightful and that I look forward to hearing him often.

I should declare an interest in that until fairly recently I was vice-chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC. That does not mean that I do not share the concern' of all who have spoken in this debate about violence, pornography and the rest of it. I share that concern, as do the chairman of the BBC and all other members of the Board of Governors.

On 16th December in another place Liz Lynne, the honourable Member for Rochdale, referred to some of the matters already mentioned in this debate. I agree with much of what she said. But the real question is not whether there is violence, pornography and bad language on television. I do not dispute that; we know that there is. However, it depends on the context and definition, and also the judgment of the broadcaster. Some of your Lordships may take a different view from the producer or director of a particular programme. That does not surprise me. It is a matter of judgment.

However, the real question that we should be asking ourselves is what are we going to do about the situation. We should not be asking ourselves whether it is there; indeed, we know that it is. I am afraid that, so far this evening, there has been a shortage of practical solutions to the problems that we see on television or on video—that is, apart from the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, who talked about having one regulatory authority. That may be a solution. I am not sure. One would have to look into the matter.

In the debate in the other place to which I referred, Liz Lynne proposed the usual solution of a Royal Commission. In fact, on the 8th December in this Chamber, while speaking as a Home Office Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, said that over the past 30 years there have been more than 1,000 studies into the whole issue and that nothing had been found. I am interested to see the Minister who is to reply tonight nodding her head in agreement. Indeed, it would be difficult for her to do otherwise because she would not disagree with her noble friend Lady Cumberlege.

I agree with much that was said by the Minister in reply to the debate in the other place. He said: We have developed a system of media regulation in the United Kingdom based on 'arms length' principles and it is a long standing tradition that the Government do not seek to intervene in matters such as programme content or scheduling.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/12/93; Col. 1402.] In other words, they leave it to broadcasters and regulatory bodies. I very much agree with that view, although just before I, or the present chairman, Duke Hussey, joined the BBC, there had been intervention by governments. Sir Leon Brittan, the then Home Secretary, sent a letter to the former chairman and vice-chairman, who accepted the intervention and withdrew a programme called "Real Lives" from the broadcasting schedule. It may have been sensible to do so, but that was intervention by government which I hope will not happen again in the future. I like to think that if Duke Hussey and myself had been there at the time we would have told the Home Secretary what to do with his letter, though perhaps in rather better language than some that we have heard.

The BBC has very strong new guidelines. I believe that it is worth mentioning them. They include, for example: Is an incident appropriate within its context? Is the material appropriate for its screening time? What will be the impact on the home viewer? If programmes containing violence are scheduled close together, the cumulative effect must be taken into account. Has the viewer been given enough information to enable them to decide whether they want a programme to be watched in their households? The latter at least goes some way towards what I hope your Lordships would like to see. I must point out to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, that I am nearing my conclusion. I hope that no one will bring forward a solution of censorship. That is the last thing in the world that we would want to see as a potential solution to the problem.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Halsbury for calling this evening's debate. He is, I think, by years alone the second most senior speaker tonight and I the most junior. I find it reassuring that our views on pornography and violence are the same. I share many of the views which have been discussed tonight and I believe we have reached the moment when it really is time to have a crackdown on the levels of pornography and violence on television. The media, and here I include the video market, are responsible for the way we eat, sleep, drink and, perhaps most importantly, act socially. As such, society has broken down. It is for that reason that I want to concentrate on issues on the wings of my noble friend's Motion.

As many speakers have said tonight, television undoubtedly encourages children and, indeed, grownups to swear. My three children aged between eight and 13 use language which when I was their age I did not know existed, let alone knowing what the words meant. During the Christmas Recess I decided to introduce a swear box with a fine of 50 pence per swear word. I was amazed at the immediate reaction and to date there is but £2.50 in the box and I am ashamed to admit to £1.50 of it being my own. I quote that example only to emphasise that if our regulatory bodies are to have teeth, then they must use those teeth to the utmost. A £5,000 fine to a company like Channel 4 is equivalent to the revenue of a 10-second advertising slot.

Just before Christmas there was a story in the national press which shattered me. Few people seem to have seen it and it certainly caused the minimum amount of press commentary. To me it just summed up how tragic a state we are in. The story that I am referring to is of a man lying dead in his flat in a council block—and I emphasise the word "block"—for very nearly four years. How can that possibly happen in a so-called civilised society today? I do not believe that even five years ago that situation could have arisen.

Why is there so much pornography and violence on television? It must be that television producers think we want and need it. If we really want pornography (and, of course, it is a vast industry) then we can buy it in the form of naughty magazines, sex chat-lines, videos, live shows and so on. My main abhorrence is that what is broadcast on television sets can be videoed by many young children so often left alone at night or indeed during the day. I think none of your Lordships would disagree that children are far more adept at working such machines and therefore the so-called safety net of nine o'clock, as mentioned by many noble Lords tonight, is totally meaningless.

In order to create a society with values, that society needs to be taught those values and that must come from all levels of our infrastructure: from parents, schools, Churches, voluntary bodies and the like. Surely we need a Royal Commission, or something similar, to look into the way we conduct our lives and endeavour to reform them so that we do not breed a race which delights in mugging and raping old ladies, killing 3-year-old boys and leaving old men dead for nearly four years. That commission ought to encourage the television companies to have a far more constructive and caring attitude in influencing our lives.

There is a philosophy that it is so much easier to be nice to people than nasty. I believe it is that philosophy which is needed to make our society respectable and law-abiding—a society of which we can be proud and, it is to be hoped, of which future generations can be proud.

6.57 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, as we are limited to a four-minute speech, I am afraid that there can be no frills, no niceties and no jokes; but I hope that there will be some construction. Broadcasting with a public service like the BBC or independently under the regulation of the ITC is, I think, best discussed in this House. I really believe that we are more independent. We are not looking over our shoulders to see how many votes we will lose if we criticise one thing while praising another.

I noticed in the Select Committee's report that, of all the members present, only one was bold enough to say in a report in the Evening Standard that he was rather critical of the BBC. The remaining 11 believed, perhaps, that should there be criticism they were unlikely to be asked to appear on all the programmes that they hoped would have some influence in their constituencies. After all, that is only natural. Therefore, because the House of Lords is more experienced and less politicised between the Benches, it is a very good place—indeed, many Members have had experience as governors—to discuss such matters. With the huge improvement in technology which is now coming forward, it is particularly appropriate that we should be thinking about such issues between now and 1996.

If people are critical of the BBC, it is because it has been its own judge and jury for a long time. The corporation recognises that fact. However, the only snag is that the ITC does not seem to have got on board a way to correct the situation. It has not devised any sanctions: things are either upheld or not upheld. The case last year of the television programme "Spitting Image", where Jesus Christ was portrayed, produced a. volume of complaints of over 140. Indeed, could anything be more offensive to the mass of people who take Christianity very seriously? The complaints were partially upheld. But how can one satisfy respectability, decency and balance when one allows Jesus Christ to be featured in a "Spitting Image" programme that is to be shown in a Christian country where 70 per cent. of the population consider themselves Christians? There are no sanctions and there have never been any sanctions in this area. The Radio Authority has had sanctions, however. It has deprived of its licence a body that continued to disobey the law and the codes and it has fined others. However, we have simply not found any way of punishing—if that is the right word—those television producers who consistently break the codes and break the law.

The Government have suggested in a Green Paper that a broadcasting council should be the regulatory authority. Looking back over the past 43 years I have been in Parliament, I do not believe the Press Council has been a tremendous success. We simply do not have a formula to regulate the press and I wonder whether we shall be able to devise anything to regulate terrestrial broadcasting and the satellite and alternative forms of broadcasting. I endorse the words of my noble friend Lord Halsbury. Perhaps the lawyers will pool their thoughts and be a little more constructive in this regard than we are able to be.

The 1990 Broadcasting Act stated that programmes must not give offence to public feeling and that companies must not transmit programmes likely to, incite crime or to lead to disorder". Some producers shelter behind the 9 p.m. rule when breaking the codes. Like many other Members of your Lordships' House I do not accept that all children are in bed by 9 o'clock at night. I have grandchildren and I find that when I am sitting down to supper a small face appears at the door and the child asks for a drink or asks to be allowed to watch television.

Noble Lords


Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, noble Lords are indicating that I am going on for too long. The clock is not working properly.

Noble Lords

You have had five and a half minutes!

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I conclude by saying that many teachers have noticed that children are tired when they come into school as a result of having watched television until midnight. I believe this state of affairs could be corrected quite simply by a Private Member's Bill. I believe that would be acceptable to most people.

7.3 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I rise to speak as I have long had a deep interest in anything which concerns the moving image; that is, largely matters which concern television and the cinema. Last year I was asked to sit in a prominent place in the audience of a television programme transmitted on Channel 4 in which the issues we are debating tonight were being discussed. I did not intervene in the debate as the crossfire of vituperation was too hot for me. I thought that, unlike many parliamentarians, I would sit and listen for a change. My thoughts on that programme were confirmed by what was said in the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett.

There is a problem as there is too much violence and sex on television. No one wants to take responsibility for that and no one wants to take the blame for it. There are no easy solutions as regards how to deal with the problem. However, one thing is clear to me and that is that the imperatives of television programme making have changed dramatically. The imperatives of television programme making of the old public service television broadcasting, with which we were so well served for many years by the BBC, have changed because of the advent of satellite and cable television. The imperatives of the old BBC were to provide entertainment for the licence payer. Sometimes the BBC went astray and there were rules to bring it to book if it stepped over the line.

However, the imperatives of cable and satellite television are concerned first of all with their duties to their shareholders and sponsors. Therefore the imperatives are concerned with money and the conventional wisdom as regards making money through the moving image. The noble Lord, Lord Attenborough, said in America last week that the conventional wisdom that sex makes money is now being overdone and those who make films and television programmes should consider that matter carefully.

At the weekend a radio programme was transmitted in which the new production for television of "Gone with the Wind" was discussed. It is a remake of the great Hollywood version of that film. It was said on the programme that the new production would be vastly different from the glamorous film that was made over 50 years ago and that the new production would rely largely on the sexual chemistry between the two leading players. I do not wish to criticise those two leading players in any way but I believe they are faced with a difficult job. It was stated in the radio programme that the new production would contain explicit love scenes which were not evident in the original production. The original production which featured Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable relied upon glamour. Glamour does not make money nowadays; sex makes money.

The two leading players in the new production of "Gone with the Wind" have appeared on television. They were shabbily dressed and I should have thought there was more sexual attraction between my neutered cat and the dog next door than between those two leading players. I should imagine they will have a difficult job achieving the kind of sexual chemistry which they say will be needed for the production. I do not think the new production will be a success and I do not look forward to any more heaving, grunting and other expressions of love-making which too often are foisted upon the unsuspecting viewer, as the noble Earl said. We must deal with that aspect also.

I believe the only way to deal with this matter is to encourage selectivity and discrimination, particularly among young people, so that they turn the television off if a programme appears to them to be unsuitable. If we develop this selectivity, young people will not pay to watch offensive films at the cinema. In my view that is the only way we can deal with this problem. I agree with the remarks on bad language that have been made by noble Lords. I believe this is a matter of one's generation. Nowadays young people do not care about bad language whereas people of my generation and people who are older than I—perhaps even people who are younger than I—worry about bad language. The board of film classification is concerned about language. However, I think it is over-concerned with language and that it should turn its attention to curbing explicit sex and violence on the screen. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for giving me the opportunity to speak on this subject. I also thank the right reverend Prelate for his excellent speech and for his squirrel joke, which is the best joke I have heard this week.

7.8 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I have heard it argued that pornography should not be banned because sex therapists find that it has a therapeutic effect on some of their patients. The operative word is "effect". The proponents of this argument believe that it has an effect on people, as do those who advertise on television.

We have all heard the dictum, "You are what you eat", which does not mean that if you habitually eat roast pork you will eventually turn into a pig but that the quality and nutritional properties of what you eat will have an effect on your physical health and well-being. I do not think the medical profession would disagree with that. But if you accept this, I think that you also have to accept that you are what you read, what you hear and what you watch. It is simply idle to pretend otherwise, or that the viewing of violence on television does not have a pernicious effect especially on children, who are still forming their ideas of what is right and wrong and what constitutes acceptable behaviour. At the very least it can put ideas into their heads which otherwise might never have got there.

Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, I believe that all television programmes should be censored by an independent board, as films used to be when the Lord Chamberlain's Office was responsible for doing it, and that all videos not classified as suitable for family viewing should be banned so that they are no longer available for sale or hire in the high street. "But that will drive them underground", I hear in my mind's ear some people cry. Well, why should that not happen? At least they will no longer be easily obtainable, out of idle curiosity, by irresponsible people who at present obtain them with no difficulty and do not keep them away from their children any more than they turn off the telly when unsuitable programmes are being shown.

7.10 p.m.

The Earl of Stockton

My Lords, I must offer your Lordships my apologies as I shall be unable to stay for the conclusion of this interesting debate. Perhaps I may congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his début, although I have to say that my worst childhood nightmare came after reading The Turning of the Screw by torchlight under the bedcovers.

Although I share many of the anxieties of your Lordships about the content of individual programmes, I feel that I must stress that the majority of programme makers—whether in- house or independent—are careful, responsible and sensitive in the way they address difficult and potentially upsetting topics. The basic issue is not whether I or any of your Lordships is outraged by any individual programme but whether society is damaged in any way by that programme. I would suggest that in many areas of broadcasting your Lordships threshold of outrage is rather lower than that of the majority of our fellow citizens. I am not saying that that is a good or a bad thing; I merely state it as a fact of life.

It ill behoves the House, and little serves the broadcasters, if your Lordships produce a litany of complaint because they have seen, or been told of, television programmes where rather more of the female or male anatomy has been shown than they regard as seemly, based on the judgments of a society as they knew it. In the dramatic sphere, art has always been linked closely to life and to contemporary society. To our eyes the witches of Macbeth may seem faintly ridiculous, but to the ordinary people of Elizabethan England they were terrifying and disturbing, for ordinary people believed in witchcraft.

In my opinion, all art, but especially the performing arts, has to be dangerous. If it is not daring, innovative and experimental, it soon degenerates into a boring, repetitive pastiche. The exposure by Charles Dickens of the exploitation of young people in David Copperfield or of the debtors' prisons in Pickwick Papers was as shocking to his readers as Nell Dunn's portrayal of the lot of unmarried mothers in Up the Junction was to the readers of 25 years ago.

I would, of course, be the first to say that not all attempts to be daring and innovative succeed. But as a publisher I can tell your Lordships that there were a large number of 19th century novels which tried to do what Dickens succeeded in doing and failed. I should know; my firm published many of them.

I concur with the view that the watershed must be strictly adhered to. In some cases—perhaps marty—I would suggest that, given the trend of television viewing by the young, there is an argument that the watershed should be 10 p.m. I would urge consideration of a voluntary rating system along the lines of the voluntary system in the cinema in which the appropriate symbol (PG 16 or 18) could be displayed in the corner of the screen and on programme listings.

In the case of violence, we live in a violent world. In news and current affairs man's violence to man, the animal kingdom and the planet needs to be reported. It may shock us, and if it does maybe, just maybe, we may seek to do something about it.

Portrayal of violence is another issue, and one that I know broadcasters take seriously. The producer guidelines, revised last year, and the guidelines for the portrayal of violence issued last year are examples of their concern. Clearly the transmission of material showing murder, torture and abuse would be extremely damaging to society. Equally, similar torture and abuse meted out to Tom by Jerry, to Elmer Fudd by Bugs or Sylvester by Tweetie-Pie is not damaging to society.

There is a middle ground. If at the present time we feel that the broadcasters have erred too far in one direction we can switch off.

I do not believe that television can or should be made the scapegoat for our unease about any malaise in our society. We have the television programmes we want. I trust that we do not get the ones we deserve.

7.13 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, since its inception, television has had a special role in society because it is in our homes. It is part of our family and of our day-to-day life. That is why we have recognised that there needs to be some form of control. The difficulty is that we are not a society with an agreed set of values and what one person would regard as obscene—whether pornographic or violent—another may not. Equally, to say that one person should act as the moral policeman for all that we view is a difficult argument to sustain. It is a difficult task indeed.

The reason we are talking about television is that it comes into our homes. However, that is not the only area, now or in the future, where there will be that immediate access to our homes. There is the development of video. In future there will not be video shops in our high streets. One will dial via the telephone to get the individual video one wishes to have on one's screen. There is the development of fax and video phones. One of the areas with which I am concerned is the development of premium-rate telephone services. There are telephones in 21 million homes in Britain, giving direct access to pornography, if that is what people want. That is one area of concern. We have to consider the debate as a whole.

One of the areas of concern in the organisation with which I am involved was explicit advertising—far more explicit than anything we see on television—in some of the national tabloid and regional newspapers and magazines. From 1st January this year ICSTIS—the organisation with which I am involved—decided to ban those advertisements, limiting them to only two top-shelf magazines. Almost the whole of the industry, except for a small group, supported us. But some in the industry took the matter to judicial review. I am pleased to say that on this occasion the courts, in my view, saw much sense and refused that. They upheld our decision to restrict such advertising to top-shelf magazines only.

What happened? Your Lordships may have read in the press that last week those involved tried to circumvent that decision by advertising services available in Chile and Guyana. With the support of British Telecom those services were disconnected within hours. Therefore, control is possible, with the support and general acceptance of those concerned. From July this year British Telecom and Mercury will be providing those pornographic services only by specific opt-in arrangements.

Therefore the debate is not exclusively about television in our homes; it concerns developments in our society. We have all heard about virtual reality, which is the next step. If one wants an expert on computers who does one go to? One goes to children. They know how to get into such systems better than most of us in this Chamber.

It is not a simple issue, and it is not an issue which can be dealt with by one organisation. It needs to be considered in great depth before we take major steps which we may regret in retrospect.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Annan

My Lords, in 1977 the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting, of which I was chairman, said that the broadcasters ought to mend their ways when two such disparate figures as the late Lord Clark and Mrs. Whitehouse criticised what the broadcasters beamed into the family sitting-room. Therefore, I have much sympathy with what the noble Earl said about violence, but I am afraid that I have much less sympathy with what he said about pornography.

Pornography has two features. It intends to inflame the audience sexually. It does so by showing explicitly the sexual organs of men and women and showing them engaged in sexual activities. Neither the BBC nor ITV have put on such programmes. When the Dutch satellite channel Red Hot TV did so the Government blocked the programmes under the EC broadcasting directive.

Therefore, when people speak of pornography they really mean the erotic and the obscene. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon gave a marvellous erotic performance in the film of that great romantic novel Wuthering Heights. Different again was a film shown by the BBC a few nights ago, Bunuel's classic Belle de Jour about a wife's frigidity. I can well understand some people being shocked by the way the wife set about conquering her frigidity. However, apart from one brief scene in which Mlle Deneuve walked away from the camera clad only in a see-through nightdress, there was no scene in which she was nude, let alone displaying any sexual organs.

If one is to say that such films are to be banned then we will go back to the days of the Hays code, when if a man and a woman were shown in a bedroom together the man had to be shown with one foot on the floor. Even today there is a convention in which a man and a women getting into bed are nearly always shown he wearing pants and she knickers. Is that like life?

The noble Earl was good enough to tell me in advance that he intended to cite a BBC drama in which buggery was simulated. My Lords, I have here the tapes of that programme. I watched it last night. In a very brief scene only the heads and shoulders of the two men were visible. Though I do not want to quibble, and though I will speak in Latin, the act simulated could just as well have been intercourse inter crures. The scene was joyless; it was non-erotic. The purpose was to express the horror and the shock which struck a young girl when she saw that act involving her cousin and her discovery of the secrets that her family kept hidden. I mention that only to say that there can be two reactions to the same programme.

It was precisely because of the concern which noble Lords have expressed tonight that the Government set up the Broadcasting Standards Council. Yet how few of the complaints does the council sustain? Between January 1991 and October 1993, out of 407 findings only 36 were upheld against the BBC. Of those only one was about sex and three were a mixture of sex and violence. And who during that time was chairman of the council? It was not some tearaway radical arguing that sex on television has a cathartic effect, not Mr. John Mortimer, but the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg. Is it suggested that he has been a negligent gatekeeper?

Perhaps I may return to the question of sanctions and the BBC. During the past decade the Director-General of the BBC was sacked and, to my certain knowledge, three of the producers did not have contracts renewed.

Two hundred years ago, Britons had a robust attitude towards sex. When Harriette Wilson's publisher tried to blackmail the Duke of Wellington by disclosing that he had been to bed with her, the Duke replied, "Publish and be damned". Then came a great revolution in taste and morals inspired by the evangelical movement—a movement which transformed public life in this country. That movement was every bit as noble as the Oxford Movement. But bad as well as good things flow from revolutions and the revolution brought about the rule of Dickens' Podsnap, who was determined that nothing should bring a blush to the cheek of the young person.

Then 30 to 40 years ago another revolution took place and John Bull and Britannia were released from the sexual prison into which Podsnap had put them. Again, bad as well as good results flowed from that change. Speech has become proletarianised. I entirely agree with those who say that they are bored by the endless scenes of bonking which are simulated on television. But you cannot expect producers to ignore the change of taste about sexual practices any more than Thackeray was prepared to ignore Podsnap's rules.

I have time to ask the noble Baroness only one question. The French tried to protect their industry against offensive American imports by refusing to allow this matter to come under the recent GATT agreement. Will the noble Baroness tell us whether our Government w ill go down that road?

7.23 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, we have always been used to violent death on the film screen, as cowboys and Indians kill each other, and this was never offensive. But now we have to witness the viciousness of every attack and to see animals and people killed in detailed, agonising and lingering deaths. We are also shown explicit sex, and even explicit homosexuality as if to promote that as normal and acceptable behaviour.

Producers do not portray sex and violence to enhance their stories. That is just their excuse. They produce them purely to pander to base instincts, just like the drug dealers, to make the maximum profit regardless of the effect on crime and moral standards.

The film producers and the press editors say that sex and violence is what the public want, and indeed many people do. But surely there is no limit to what the public may be said to want; and the corollary is that producers should show details of every perversion and sordidity that they can dream up, if some people can be found who are prepared to watch it.

The same applies to the gutter press. I have not the slightest doubt that the constant lurid stories on every page encourages some people to emulate what they think everyone else is up to. Meanwhile the leaders of the glitter press excuse themselves by saying that they are only the messengers. But in fact they will print anything to increase their circulation regardless of good taste, accuracy, or of the distress to the individual or the effect that it may have on other people.

It is probably true that most people are now so inured to violence and sex on the media that they are able to ignore it. But there is no doubt whatever that there have been many cases of copycat crimes by people stirred up by what they have seen or read who otherwise would not have conceived such action, and whose sense of decency has been dulled by constant exposure to violence on the box.

It was a sorry day when the European Directive on Transfrontier Broadcasting was signed allowing into this country all the pornographic Dutch and Danish programmes; and that directive should be renegotiated.

Many people do not realise the extent of the horror that is available on the various media. They simply do not watch or know what goes on. We know that sex and violence is not meant to be shown on television until after nine o'clock when the children have gone to bed. Who do we think we are kidding? Responsible parents are concerned as to what their children are subjected to and try to monitor both the quantity and quality of what their children watch. But there is no doubt that many parents allow their children unlimited access and children grow up unable to converse or to entertain themselves, with their senses dulled from what they have seen. I am assured that some parents actually record late night programmes for their children. But apart from that, many children now have their own computers and tv sets in their rooms and can switch on as they wish, including watching horror videos. Where parents have access by dish to foreign pornography, so presumably have the children in their rooms.

If there is to be a clean up, there arises the insoluble question of who is to be the censor. The only answer is for the public to say, "Enough is enough". That will require a crusade against pornography, violence and homosexuality, not led just by the Government, but by every institution and, above all, by individual pressure. It is not so different from the drug situation where there are large numbers of people who want to use drugs, but the silent majority have managed to ban them.

Recourse to the courts has consistently proved a failure ever since the trial concerning Lady Chatterley's Lover. But in America there is a shift of public opinion starting to revolt against the mindless horror churned out by the media and on screen. That shift of public opinion has begun to be recognised by producers. I hope that this country will follow the American lead, as it so often does, although usually to our detriment, and that the public will express its concern over violence, pornography and bad standards by ever-increasing complaints to the media, producers and to Members; of Parliament.

7.26 p.m.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, I should like to start by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for initiating the debate. We have one of the best, if not the best, television services in any country, but it is marred by the repeated failure of the broadcasting authorities to meet their statutory duty not to broadcast material that offends against good taste and decency or that which is offensive to public feeling.

One kind of offensive material is bad language, in particular the misuse of the names of God and Jesus Christ. It is on that that I wish to speak. Their names are frequently misused on television as expletives, in a way that puts them in the same category as the alternative word for excreta. In a film shown by the BBC on 1st October 1993 at 9.30 p.m. there were 10 instances of misuse of their names. On 3rd September there had been a film, again shown by the BBC at 9.30 p.m., in which there had been 26 such instances. More recently "Prime Suspect 3" shown by ITV, was full of foul language, including misuse of the Lord's name.

A recent reply to a viewer's complaint demonstrated that at least the BBC knows that such misuse causes offence to Christians and to others. They seek to justify that misuse on the grounds that it is a part, even if a shameful part, of our language. In other words, it is necessary for realism. That is not good enough when broadcasting itself has contributed significantly to making it so. In any case, there is a lot to be said for leaving something to the imagination.

I offer three reasons why misuse of the Lord's name on television should be stopped. First, it is deeply hurtful to those who love the Lord. How would we like it if the names of our loved ones—our spouses, parents or children —were used as swear words on television? Secondly, it sends out a message that we do not mind if God's name is misused in public. Before every business day, noble Lords pray "Hallowed be thy Name". After that prayer, how can we stand by and do nothing when the Lord's name is repeatedly misused by organisations which owe to the public authorities their very right to broadcast? I do not agree with much of the Moslem religion but I admire it for the way that it takes seriously the need for God's name to be honoured. Thirdly, I have often heard the argument that God can take care of himself. Of course he can, but that is not the point. It is we ourselves who run into danger. God has said that he will not hold guiltless those who misuse his name; and that surely applies also to those who fail to use their influence to stop that misuse. If God were to withdraw his protecting hand from this nation, then our position would be dire indeed. I therefore urge the Government and the directors and governors of the various television companies, as well as the programme sponsors, to look hard at the matter and do what they can to stop the misuse of the Lord's name on television.

I should also like to see the chairmen of the various television broadcasting companies to be asked by some body like the National Heritage Select Committee in another place to give a public account of their actions and to explain how these square with the obligations and duties laid on them by Parliament.

I end by saying that I look forward to the time when this nation of ours echoes the cry of the psalmist: O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth".

7.31 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for introducing the debate so effectively. Clearly, it is a popular topic from the number of noble Lords speaking on it. I should also like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his most interesting maiden speech and like others, I look forward to hearing him again on, I hope, many occasions.

I am not too concerned about the effect of television on your Lordships. I am concerned about its effect on the vulnerable members of our society such as the young, those with learning disabilities and those with some measure of psychological disorder. The effects of the media can perhaps be said to be two: first, they encourage imitation. This may be good if the media are giving cookery lessons: I am sure that everyone would gain by imitating what is being portrayed. But, when the effect is to imitate a portrayal of violence, then it is significantly bad. We need to be aware of that.

The second effect is to cause emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. There is a clear link—whatever people may say—between television violence and aggressive behaviour. It is not the link, it is a link, and it certainly has an effect, as has been said in the debate, particularly on the vulnerable members of our society who are unable to make a fair judgment for themselves.

What annoys me, for example, is that I believe that between 90 and 95 per cent. of sexual acts portrayed on television are between those who are unmarried. That does not reflect life in this country, where I believe that far more sexual activity goes on between those who are married. But that is not what is portrayed on television, therefore it breaks the television guideline of reflecting life. It encourages people to imitate the urge to have sexual activity outside marriage.

The BBC guidelines, which I have read, are thorough and well thought out but they seem to me to ask the questions and point the issues but not to give the guidelines. The BBC may feel that it cannot measure what it considers to be immeasurable, but that is what the country needs. It should not just be for producers to think about matters but to take action. The BBC says that the producer must consider where to strike the balance between truth and desensitising people, but it does not give a guideline on how to implement that.

The use of "Jesus Christ" is something that offends me, as it offends the noble Lord, Lord Robertson. If someone uses that name blasphemously as a swear word in my presence I ask him if he would kindly not do so. I cannot ask the television screen not to do so. I was glad that I received an answer to a complaint about that which upheld my complaint. What disappointed me was that the reason was that it was before 9 o'clock.

Three practical conclusions: I believe that the watershed should be moved to 10 p.m., as has been suggested. That is a small practical point which could be adopted immediately and I believe that it is important for the protection of our children today. Secondly, we must write complaints to the councils concerned and encourage others to do so. With respect to the right reverend Prelate, a clergyman complained to me the other day about television violence and pornography. I asked him: "How often have you written to complain and encouraged your congregation to do so?" His mouth dropped open: he had never thought of it. I said: "Well, you think about it".

The third point is that I believe that complaints councils need to apply the guidelines much more strictly. I see no reason why the present structure should be changed if it is made clear that the guidelines must be followed.

7.35 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I join other speakers in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, on opening this debate in such a distinguished fashion. It is a long time since I heard someone speak in three languages in the same debate; that alone constitutes some kind of record. I also congratulate him on attracting such a fine body of speakers, perhaps almost too many for those who want to speak at length. At any rate, he has achieved that, and I am only sorry that that wonderful woman Mary Whitehouse has not been included in the list. No one has done as much as she in fighting the battle. In fact, she has effectively done more than all the rest of us in this House put together, so let us regret her absence and proceed with the debate.

I wish to pose three questions to the House; two are easy to answer, the third is much harder. First, does pornography tend to promote sexual licence? In other words, fornication and adultery. The answer is pretty plain: it does. The next question is: is there much of this pornography on television today? I would say that there is a certain amount. I am not deriding all television. By and large television has been a great educational force, but some programmes are undoubtedly pornographic in the sense described. Therefore, there is no difficulty in answering that question.

The third question is, what to do about it. If I may say so, the noble Earl left that open at the end of his speech. It was difficult over 20 years ago when I initiated the first debate on pornography in this House. I moved the Motion that pornography had increased, was increasing and ought to be diminished. That was 23 years ago and I sat on the committee which reported 18 months later. What we do about it is a difficult question.

In these few remarks, I shall not deal with what we might call hard pornography, others have done that. I am talking about soft pornography, which is an exceptionally elusive subject. The example which the noble Earl gave us was what I would call hard but most of the material about which we Christians and other enlightened humanists complain is not hard but soft pornography. That is more corrupting for the nation than hard pornography, it creeps through in all kinds of peculiar ways. How do we deal with it?

Leaving out the important proposals made by the noble Earl and others about improving the law, I say that we should find a way of strengthening and giving new inspiration to the Broadcasting Standards Council. That council is a fine idea. It had an excellent chairman in the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, and in the present chairman, Lady Howe. However, the fact is that it is ineffective, it cuts no ice. No one in the country is the slightest bit frightened of the Broadcasting Standards Council. How do we give them more strength? There are various ways of doing that, and I only have time left to lay one thought before the House. It is that the council should be given much firmer guidance from the Government, represented tonight by our much admired, noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. I do not expect a positive answer tonight, and for her to create a positive policy in the next hour or two is too much to expect., but perhaps she will lay all these thoughts before her colleagues.

How shall we give more strength to the council? We must give it more guidance. What kind of moral guidance will the present Government give? They have said some good things, and John Major came out for something called "traditional family values". I am not talking about "back to basics" which means absolutely nothing, as everyone knows. Traditional family values do mean something and I am saying that that is what we want the Government to impose on the Broadcasting Standards Council. Will they come forward arid say that they want the council to make sure that no programmes are soft porn, to put it crudely? Will they say: "We want to improve the moral life of the nation"? John Major, the Prime Minister, said that he wanted to improve the moral life of the nation, but then he backed away from that and said that it had nothing to do with personal morality. That, of course, makes absolute nonsense of the whole concept. But let us forget that. It is perhaps not very likely, but he may have studied the works of Hegel, the German philosopher. The noble Earl will of course have studied Hegel.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

It is time.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the Chief Whip says to leave it there. All right, we shall leave it on Hegel.

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Wharton

My Lords, television does not operate in a vacuum. It only reflects us as a society. It exaggerates that society, and by the exercise of artistic licence violence and sex are normalised. The viewers eventually become anaesthetised and need more stimulation; and so it goes on. No one producer wishes to call a halt for fear of slipping in the ratings war.

If we ourselves continue to blur the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, how can we possibly get the programme makers to change? Besides reflecting us, television also tends to build up a preconceived idea of what we want to watch. We need to restore more pride and compassion in ourselves. We need television to reflect the better aspects of us. If we feel that it has failed, we have the power to switch it off. We must take that responsibility ourselves. It is not right or fair of us to expect the broadcasters to be the sole arbiters of taste.

I am well aware that we live in an increasingly violent world, and I do not suggest that we remove it all from our screens. However, in a fictional setting could not more of it be "off screen", thereby lessening the invasive impact? Film is the main culprit. Children too have access to such films. Nobody can convince me that they have no effect whatsoever on potentially violent behaviour later on. Young children find it difficult to separate fictional violence from the real thing, and have no problem in mimicking what they see.

When we buy a cinema ticket we make a conscious choice about what we are going to see. But when that film appears on television, there it is for all at the touch of a button, irrespective of whether or not it is suitable. Therefore I feel that certain types of film portraying both excessive violence and explicit sex should be on very late or not at all. After all, television has a duty to protect its viewers.

I personally would like to see more women in creative roles on television. At the moment it is heavily male dominated. For quite some time I have noticed that when sex and/or violence is called for in a script, the subject appears to be handled differently. "Prime Suspect 3", a thriller written by Lynda la Plante, was a two-part drama shown just before Christmas. The subject matter was murder and the abuse of young rent boys. We were not shown in detail close-ups of the abuses, and yet this drama lost none of its visual impact with the viewer for not having indulged in needless violence. The writer dealt with a very difficult subject caringly, but left us in no doubt as to the horrors inflicted on young boys by paedophiles. In spite of the subject matter, this was quality television.

One director among several to whom I talked noted that the top rated shows had little offensive material. Agreed, they were all before 9 p.m., but were nonetheless good television. Children are rarely in bed before 9 p.m. Frequently they are in front of the viewing set, as has already been said, so why is there not perhaps a case for moving the watershed to 10 p.m.?

More and more people watch Sky Television. At the moment Sky is able to pump out endless unsuitable material during the day. It has no watershed to protect its younger viewers.

Already we have the ability to shop from the comfort of our own home, and to keep in touch with our bank accounts by computer and even by telephone. In the very near future, we shall be faced with the multiple choice of hundreds of stations and the terrifying potential, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, of "virtual reality", the ability to access a video from a library through a cable and on to our own television set.

Having said all that, I still believe that we have the best television in the world. We have a great tradition for quality. However, I have a word of caution. I read today that the BBC wishes to make future pay reviews, performance-related, and I quote: This could mean some being rewarded with higher-than-standard pay rises if their show does well in the ratings, and others being punished with lesser deals if viewers switch off". Are we to understand that somebody working on the "God slot" will thus earn less than somebody who is lucky enough to work on "Only Fools and Horses"? Are the ratings to be the arbiter of taste and quality? The BBC is our flagship; but we are its paymaster. Therefore, as a society we must play our part in protecting it, even if that means protecting it from itself.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I view—I hope realistically—my position in the list of speakers as that of a long-stop. Accordingly, I do not propose to stop long. I should like merely to raise two issues. The first is what the lawyers would call "causation". To what extent can it be established that pornography—I take the definition given by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, of "inflammatory sexual material"—may give rise with some people, perhaps the inadequates or unstable personalities, to sexual offences? To what extent can it be adequately established that an unremitting diet—I stress "unremitting"—of sadistic violence on TV, or video nasties, not only de-sensitises, as it obviously does, or ultimately brutalises the viewer but can give rise, again in some people, to the commission of crimes of violence?

In raising this issue one should bear in mind the analogy of the tobacco market. There is still the strongest resistance in the tobacco lobby to accept that there is a clearly established connection between smoking and cancer. Noble Lords may expect that the same resistance will arise in this particular market. There are big financial stakes. There are strong profit motives for saying, "This has no connection at all". I believe that that overlooks the ability of the media to hijack the individual's imagination. We have only recently seen the power of a radio soap, "The Archers", in regard to the plight of Susan Carter, who was sentenced by some sensible judge, to six months' imprisonment for aiding and abetting her robber brother to escape. Letters have been published in The Times about the matter. There have been letters to the Home Secretary, to which, apparently, he has reacted.

I understand that the TV soap opera "EastEnders" has recently had this experience. The actor who plays one particularly unattractive character who was involved in violence was recognised in the street. He was set about, and the passing bystanders, or those that remained, seemed to treat the attack with considerable support. A juvenile or a child not only watches a TV nasty, but watches it repetitively, probably over a period of several days. It is not a "one-off" film. Having found that it is exciting, the child may watch it several times during the day. I submit that it is a gross insult to anyone's intelligence, or to one's common sense, to think that a child's imagination, battered and distorted by that material, emerges unaffected by it and does not in many cases seek to act out what it has seen—perhaps initially in an innocent way, but subsequently, obtaining little satisfaction from that, transferring the imagination of the video nasty in ways which have been suspected recently.

My only other contribution is a very short one. It is on the question that has been raised of the "watershed". The French are viewed as a very practical race. They are also not viewed as a race given to puritanism. In France, the watershed is 10.30 p.m. I cannot see why we continue with the gross unreality of resisting this alteration. It would not only have the advantage of children to a large extent being protected, but adults are likely to be more selective because the effort of staying up after 10.30 p.m. for some may necessitate better quality in the films.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for putting down the Motion for debate today. Sadly, we live in a violent society, where new crimes of horrific proportions seem to happen with increasing frequency. What we can say with certainty is that there have been huge advances in technology since our youth and that television dominates our lives today in a way that it would have been hard to imagine 50 years ago. There is an increasing proliferation of channels, so that it is not uncommon today for 15 channels to be available in this country and as many as 50 channels to be available in the United States.

Against that background of more channels and more television sets, I want to address two specific issues. I wish to congratulate the Government on one and raise a serious concern on the other. I shall deal first with one aspect of the "bad news". It seems to me that television is becoming increasingly dominated by films that were originally made for the cinema. That is not surprising because of the cost of making TV programmes and the amount of air time that has to be filled. It is easier and cheaper to show a film that has already been made. But those films often include sexually explicit and violent scenes. I disapprove of that when it is shown in the cinema but I approve of it even less when it is coming into people's homes.

There is a grading system for films which the British Board of Film Classification administers. I contend that it is often much too lenient with its classification. But for better or worse it is there. But the television companies themselves do not have any similar classification system. They make their own judgments about what is suitable for their channels. That denies to the viewer a helpful guideline. Should not we be told more about the nature of the material in a film before it starts and possibly through a symbol at the corner of the screen?

Noble Lords may feel that the answer should lie with the individual, the parent or the family watching. In my view that is wholly inadequate. Broadcasters have a responsibility, as does any company, accurately to describe the product that they are selling and not to market unacceptable products. That responsibility is all the greater because the product is delivered straight into the living room or even the child's bedroom.

I should like to call for two actions. Firstly, there should be much higher standards in the selection of films by broadcasters and the rejection of violent and' sexually explicit material. Secondly, there should be a grading system, perhaps based on a more restrictive version of the BBFC system, which would appear in the Radio Times, the newspapers, all other listings magazines and in the corner of the screen. Such a system could be extended from films to all programmes.

I turn to the "good news", where the Government have taken firm action. Eighteen months ago a new satellite channel appeared, initially called "Red Hot Dutch", transmitting from Holland what can only be described as pornographic filth of the most depraved kind. "Red Hot Dutch" changed its name to "Red Hot Television" when it moved to Denmark, but the material did not change. "Red Hot Television" was disgusting material. There was no attempt at a storyline; it was just a diatribe of explicit sexual activity. Thankfully, the broadcasting authorities and the Government for once recognised the threat and acted with commendable vigour in proscribing the channel. By preventing it from advertising or collecting subscriptions in this country, its commercial prospects were strangled.

However, I gather that there have been attempts to revive the channel with subscriptions sent to Spain. I have no doubt—I warn the Minister about it—that the pornographers will try to find a way around any ban. They think that they can make easy money from that disgusting material. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether they know about the Spanish arrangement and what other actions the Government intend to take, especially with other countries, to prevent another "Red Hot Television" from even getting past the starting post.

Finally, let us be under no illusion about the power of the media and its potential for good or evil. We ignore TV at our peril. I call on all broadcasters to take the advice of St. Paul to concentrate on portraying things that are: lovely, pure and of good report". The BBC has that quotation in the entrance hall of Broadcasting House. Perhaps its staff should be encouraged to read it every day when they arrive for work. All of us would benefit if that standard were followed by all broadcasters.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln on his excellent maiden speech. I am sorry that it had to be so brief. We all look forward to hearing him at greater length on future occasions. I should also like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for raising this important issue in his characteristically erudite, philosophic and fascinating way. It is clear from the debate that he has been the source of an expression of considerable concern about the impact of television on society today.

I am inclined to agree with the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, that the concern expressed in your Lordships' House is perhaps greater than the concern among the general public. That does not mean that your Lordships are wrong. But I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that it is a little dangerous for your Lordships' House to become too remote from the reality of the outside world, the new technological developments that are taking place in the field of telecommunications and indeed the general feelings; of people as a whole.

There is a very real problem. There is unanimity in this House on the matter but there are no easy solutions to the problem. I myself do not believe that either the single Broadcasting Council or the Private Member's Bill will be miracle cures. It is useful to try to look in some fair perspective at some of the facts about viewers' attitudes toward British broadcasting which, for all its warts and flaws, remains the best in the world.

The Independent Television Commission, for example, carries out a regular annual review of viewers' attitudes. The last one showed that for both the commercial television and the BBC it is bad language that offends most. I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick. I belong to a generation which finds bad language inserted into the sitting room by television extremely offensive. But bad language comes top of the list of what people feel strongly about, some way ahead of violence and with sex some way behind both.

The Broadcasting Standards Council, which has been mentioned, has established a reputation for excellent research studies in those areas. Its study of sex on television in 1992 came to somewhat similar conclusions to those of the ITC. Roughly two-thirds of viewers felt that there was too much violence and too much bad language on television. On the other hand, 54 per cent. of viewers felt that the amount of sex on television programmes was about right, compared with 41 per cent. of viewers who thought that there was too much sex.

The conclusion that I draw from those figures is that they show a need to be very vigilant about the impact that television makes in our homes and particularly, as the right reverend Prelate said, on our children. There is the danger that the constant drip of violent programmes will have a damaging effect, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, argued. That is a particular risk with BSkyB, which, while it is encrypted, relies very much on a continuous diet of violent American films.

As regards violence, professional broadcasters—and I am bound to say, with a certain amount of shame, sometimes professional regulators—are inclined to fall back on the argument that research in the UK and elsewhere has not demonstrated conclusively that there is a causal link between television and violent behaviour. I was glad to hear the Standards Council stating robustly that while the extent of any relationship has yet to be established it is foolish to proceed on the assumption that none exists. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, that it is a singularly weak line of defence for the broadcast medium in which hard-headed advertisers spend millions of pounds to change people's shopping behaviour and hard-headed politicians devote their lives and vie with each other to change people's voting behaviour via the television medium.

I was therefore happy to note that recently the ITC told its contractors in terms: Terrestrial, cable and satellite licensees should all take steps to ensure that there is a reduction in the amount of violence shown. ITC staff will monitor the programmes shown and will, report the extent to which such a decline has taken place". Both the ITC and the BBC have guidelines on violence, taste and decency which are regularly revised. It is important that they should be rigorously applied by the regulatory authorities. There is, however, a limit to what regulators can do in a world where global standards of taste and decency have become much more permissive and where global technology produces some hard-core pornographic satellite channels and a flood of horror videos for the domestic video-cassette recorder which would never conceivably be allowed, and are never allowed, on the BBC or ITV. In my view, therefore, more government regulation would help in toughening the classification of videos to outlaw a whole layer of violence and pornography which is at present freely available in the video shops. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, we shall soon be in a world where we can telephone and receive a video down the telephone line.

We must try to keep a sense of proportion. The real world in which we live is violent and nasty and television makes its horrors instantly available to us as we sit at home like comfortable voyeurs over our evening cup of cocoa or, in my case, my evening whisky and soda. The fantasy world of film reflects the same horrors and frequently embroiders them. In a free society we cannot all share the same tastes. As has been said by more than one noble Lord, the most legitimate and practical form of censorship is the self-censorship of the on-off switch.

As in many other fields there is no getting away from attempting to encourage the maximum sense of parental responsibility. It is easy to poke holes in the broadcasters' nine o'clock watershed. I am not dogmatic about the particular time that that is set but a watershed there must be. Grown-ups have their rights too and parents have their responsibilities and they should be persuaded to live up to those. So do professional broadcasters. I agree with my noble friend Lord Falkland, whose knowledge of the film business is considerable, that one can use one's creative skills to portray implicit instead of explicit sex and implicit instead of explicit violence. The example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, of "Prime Suspect" was relevant. In the past great cinematic art never needed every grunt under the bedclothes to portray passion or every clinical crunch of bones to convey violence.

I conclude by echoing the words of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. I hope that in all our efforts to persuade broadcasters, parents and regulators to live up to their responsibilities we are not tempted to go down the road of governmental censorship. I remind your Lordships' House that during my time the countries in which there was no pornography and no violence of the kind to which we are objecting on their television systems were Stalin's Soviet Russia and the old South Africa of apartheid. They are the examples that we must do everything that we can to avoid. There is no way forward for Britain in that direction.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his excellent maiden speech. I also thank the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for raising this undoubtedly important issue. Given the vast amount of violence currently being perpetrated by the British gutter media against the alleged sexual activities of various politicians, it may be deemed timely.

We begin with a difficulty in the debate because the existing evidence does not reveal any secular trend of increasing violence and pornography on television. Nor does it show a significant percentage of viewers expressing great concern about that, so perhaps more Members of this House should complain. Indeed, no research has convincingly demonstrated a conclusive causal link between violence and pornography on the screen and anti-social behaviour in society at large. Common sense suggests an influence and nobody has proved that there is no causal link.

Having set out those caveats, I suspect that they may not convey the full picture. For a start, the situation may have deteriorated recently. Most of the research published by the ITC and others pre-dates the appalling Broadcasting Act 1990. Under its baleful influence, bottom-line accounts matter more than the quality of programmes or the amount of violence. It may be significant that since the passing of the Act the number of complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Council increased by 10 per cent. in 1991–92 and by 21 per cent. in 1992–93.

But whatever the evidence, there is undoubtedly serious concern about violence, pornography and even more about obscene language transmitted through various media channels.. The long list of speakers taking us so late in this debate demonstrates that. It is an anxiety that I fully share. Whatever the precise level of screened violence, it seems too much. And, I may add, many responsible broadcasters share our anxieties. It would be wrong in this House to underestimate the amount of time and effort and the pages of manuals devoted by the BBC and ITV to this question.

But it is very important to identify the correct villains and the correct targets. It is not usually mainstream, prime-time television, although it is not innocent, which is a major original purveyor of violence and pornography. The finger of rebuke should be pointed elsewhere, to video nasties, computer software, Hollywood films and Murdoch's Sky film channels. In the video area young people can buy video magazines on open sale, fill in a coupon claiming that they are over 18, which is uncheckable, and acquire unregulated videos of extreme violence and pornography. As regards films, those originating in America are the main repositories of screen violence. Recent research showed that 81 per cent. were found to contain significant violence; that is double that found in British films. Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the latest Hollywood output is officially considered unsuitable for transmission before 10 p.m.

Yet, Sky's satellite movie channel often buys its films in bulk from America, many sight unseen, and of those three-quarters of unsuitable films the vast majority will appear on Sky TV, although sometimes edited. The American film is the source of violence and pornography on our TV screens. I regret, almost deplore, the lack of support given by the British Government to the French Government when they were rightly defending European cultural values in the recent GATT negotiations. So British television producers are not the main source of this problem.

I would argue that even more importantly it is wrong to look at television as though it were a discrete and unique source of violence and pornography. In fact, I suspect that to most British people the main problems of violence and pornography in society lie not on the BBC and ITV screens but are seen in their every-day lives, especially in Britain's inner cities. Violence stems from the collapse of our physical, social and moral infrastructure. It is not TV producers who have caused that, but they do reflect it and may aggravate it. I do riot propose to identify the guilty since we all have our share. But a Government who have so neglected our physical and social infrastructure are not exempt.

When we turn, as my noble friend Lord Barnett did, to ask what we should do about our media problem and violence on television, the debate usually grows—I suggest that it did tonight—a little more nebulous. It is not clear what we can do, for instance, about the fracturing of our moral framework. Occasionally Peers may seem to speak as though there is an agreed common framework of values and moral certainties relating to matters such as the presentation of sex and violence. There is no such consensus, as my noble friend Lady Dean said.

The Government themselves have made that mistake and are now painfully discovering that no three Cabinet Ministers can agree among themselves on the basic values which we are supposed to go back to. Perhaps the apparent ambivalence of television producers about these matters partly reflects the absence of any moral consensus in society as a whole.

An even greater problem is the media revolution which lies ahead—the globalisation of multi-media operators and the multiplicity of channels which will result from the technology of digitalisation and the multiplication of satellites and local cable TV stations. That lies immediately ahead and means that our ambitions, if we have them, to control the content of programmes will almost certainly prove over-ambitious. It is certainly so unless it is done, as I believe it should be, on a pan-European scale.

I imagine that by the end of the decade operations such as the dear Broadcasting Standards Council and even the ITC as presently constituted will seem like cottage industries spitting in the gale of multi-media violence and pornography originating from abroad.

Therefore, I ask the. Minister this. Are the Government content with the present regulatory framework? Will they give the ITC more—which may mean any—teeth? Will they press for a later watershed? Have they any plans to clarify their powers to regulate pornography beamed from Europe, especially given the ambiguities of the EC directive? Have they any plans to regulate the flow of violence from the Sky movie channels, or do they accept that new technology may render all traditional regulatory endeavours obsolescent? If so, how do they propose to regulate this new technological world? Would it be more sensible simply to rationalise and make enforceable the existing laws on pornography and obscenity covering the whole of publishing.

I look forward—I confess more with hope than with faith —to enlightenment from the ministerial reply. I finally ask the Minister this. Does she not agree that any hope of limiting violence and pornography and maintaining civilised values on TV must have as its foundation the kind of public service broadcasting which this Government spent so much of the 1980s attacking?

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, by initiating this important debate the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has clearly provoked your Lordships into expressing their views on a subject which deeply concerns not only this House but also many people in the wider world outside this Chamber. I have, of course, listened to your Lordships' speeches with the greatest care. I can assure the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will take careful note of your Lordships' views when he reads Hansard. Both of us have read the views of the group of noble Lords chaired by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing.

At this stage perhaps I may add my congratulations to those already received by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. What a splendid speech that was! I would also like to join the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in paying tribute to Mrs. Mary Whitehouse, who has, as we all know, contributed valuable briefing to several of your Lordships and who has for so many years pioneered the way concerning the very matters which we are discussing this evening.

Television is a subject on which very few people do not have an established view. My task this evening is to state the Government's policy and to explain the roles and responsibilities of the independent bodies which regulate broadcasting in the United Kingdom.

First pornography. Pornography is an emotive term. It is not a word which has any specific meaning in law but I am sure we all have our own view of the sort of material that is pornographic. Perhaps the most common use of the term "pornography" is to describe material which would be considered obscene within the terms of the Obscene Publications Act.

May I remind your Lordships that the Broadcasting Act 1990 brought broadcasts within the provisions of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. It is an offence under Section 2 of that 1959 Act to publish an article, including a broadcast programme, whose effect, taken as a whole, is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt those likely to read, see or hear it.

I remind my noble friend Lord Caldecote and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, that the action, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, reminded us, by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in proscribing the satellite television channel "Red Hot Dutch" earlier last year should make it clear to anybody in doubt that the Government will not tolerate such broadcasts and will maintain their vigilance.

In the Government's view, free media are an essential component of a democratic society. However, I would emphasise that we must always balance the rights and freedoms of individuals with the need to protect the young and the vulnerable in our society from degrading and unsuitable material. We so do by having a firm framework of regulation which is as tight as anywhere in the Western world. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the regulatory position for television in this country.

As many noble Lords will know, the responsibility for what is broadcast rests with the broadcasting regulatory bodies and the broadcasters themselves. The regulatory bodies, the BBC, the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority and S4C (the Welsh fourth channel authority) are independent of Government and are responsible for safeguarding the public interest in broadcasting.

It is a long-established principle that Ministers do not seek to intervene in the day to day content or scheduling of programmes. Our whole regulatory framework is based on this arm's length approach. But that is not to say that the Government have abrogated their responsibilities for broadcasting.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 created a clear framework for the independent broadcasters to follow with regard to broadcasting standards. Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act sets a clear statutory duty on the ITC to ensure that every licensed service includes nothing in its programmes, which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling". The Act also empowers the ITC to require an apology to be broadcast, to impose financial penalties and ultimately to revoke a licence where the conditions of the licence are not met. Related provisions are contained in the annex to the BBC's own licence and agreement.

In reply to a point that was raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, perhaps I may point out that accountability to the viewer, including accountability for taste and decency, is an issue to which we have been giving careful consideration in the context of the review of the BBC. Any changes that we make in that area might also have implications for the independent commercial broadcasters.

It is too early for me to respond substantively to the points raised by your Lordships in today's debate and in the report of the Broadcasting Group. Equally, it is not too late for those thoughts to be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State, who is formulating policy in this area. I undertake to inform him fully of the views that have been expressed by your Lordships today.

It was precisely because of concerns expressed by many members of the public that the Government established the Broadcasting Standards Council in 1988. The council acts as a focus for public concerns about the portrayal of violence, sex and standards of taste and decency in all forms of broadcasting. It has a number of functions, which include the consideration of complaints from members of the public about broadcast programmes, conducting research and undertaking surveys of public opinion.

The council also produces and maintains a code of practice, the provisions of which broadcasters are required to reflect in their own individual programme codes. The council's code was published in 1989, following extensive discussion within the broadcasting industry and by other interested parties. It is important to note that it is presently undertaking a comprehensive revision of the code, and we look forward to seeing the results when they are published later this year. Your Lordships may also be aware of the valuable research which the council conducted for its 1993 annual review into possible effects of violence in factual television, the results of which were published in December.

Lady Howe has succeeded now to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, the first chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council and I wish all power to her elbow. All the evidence suggests that the broadcasters take the Broadcasting Standards Council's findings seriously, and it is important that they do so in view of the weight of public opinion behind the council's work.

A further safeguard exists in the form of the British Board of Film Classification. This body, acting within the framework of the Video Recordings Acts, has been successful in introducing a tight regulatory regime to a previously uncontrolled market and in removing much of the most objectionable material, which could have appeared on our TV screens, from circulation.

My noble friend Lord Ashbourne wondered whether we should introduce a grading system for TV programmes à la BBFC. That is an interesting suggestion which I shall most certainly draw to the attention of my right honourable friend. I am afraid that I do not think that it is free of difficulty but, alas, I do not have the time to go into that now. However, I shall write to my noble friend about it if he so wishes.

I want to turn now to the functions of the independent regulatory bodies. The ITC must draw up and enforce a general programme code which includes comprehensive advice to programme producers and purchasers on such matters as the portrayal in programmes of violence, sex and had language. It includes guidance on scheduling and the broadcast of clear on-air warnings where broadcasts contain material unsuitable for some audiences. All ITC licensees are required to ensure that any programmes they transmit comply with the commission's code and the ITC itself has substantial powers to sanction licensees who do not comply, including fines, and ultimately, the revocation of a licence.

There is at present no statutory duty on the BBC to enforce a programme code. However, the governors reaffirmed their commitment to maintain standards in the annex to the BBC's licence and agreement and have produced guidelines for all levels of production staff.

Your Lordships may be aware that in July last year, both the BBC and ITC issued revised, tightened guidelines for their programme producers and purchasers on the portrayal of violence. In summary, these guidelines are to prohibit the use of gratuitous violence; to require that the consequences of violent acts are not overlooked; to require close attention to the scheduling of violent programmes and advise on the use of clear "on-air" warnings; and, perhaps most importantly, to warn of the dangers of broadcasting material depicting violent behaviour children might imitate, at times when large numbers of children are likely to be watching.

We welcome these positive moves by the broadcasters. We are particularly pleased to note that the ITC has instructed its licensees to bring about a reduction in the amount of violence shown and will monitor the situation to see that this takes place.

A number of your Lordships have spoken about the television "watershed". I would not pretend that all children are tucked cosily up in bed at 9 p.m. or that it is impossible for them to have access at other times of day to programmes which have been recorded after the watershed. But that is not the intention of the family viewing policy which our broadcasters have adopted It is not possible to prevent children seeing anything at all which might offend or be unsuitable if television is to meet the reasonable expectations of the adult population.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, suggested moving the watershed to 10 p.m. I noted that suggestion with interest. It is really a matter for the ITC and the BBC and I am sure that they will take careful note of the noble Baroness's comments. Your Lordships may wish to be aware that both the BBC and ITC guidelines recommend that the most potentially disturbing material should be shown well after 9 p.m.

I turn now to something on which your Lordships have not dwelt perhaps quite as strongly as I had hoped. The primary responsibility for what children watch lies with parents and others who have children in their care. It is their duty to shield children from aspects of the adult world which are unsuitable, and I have in mind that there are many aspects which are not confined to television. The point of the watershed is to help parents in exercising those responsibilities. Parents need to be comfortable (if they allow their children to view material broadcast or taped before 9 p.m.) that nothing which is unsuitable normally will be seen.

I am aware that your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, in his powerful speech, have expressed concern that, despite the care that we have taken to ensure a strict regulatory regime, one which I would remind noble Lords once again is as tough as any in the free world, there has been a decline in standards. There will, of course, from time to time, be individual cases where broadcasts exceed the bounds of what is generally acceptable. In those circumstances, the broadcasters must receive a clear warning with a view to what they show in future. However, the evidence that I have seen does not support the view that there is widespread flouting of the guidelines by broadcasters or that there has been a demonstrable decline in standards in our broadcast television. We also need to look carefully at all the available evidence before we jump to the conclusion, which has been suggested in some quarters, that there is some automatic link between a perceived drop in standards and any increase in violent crime.

There has been extensive research over the years on the possibility of a link between violent television programmes and violent or criminal behaviour. There are, as one might expect in such a controversial field, extensive claims and counterclaims which are not easily summarised. However, the balance of all this research—more than a thousand studies in the past 30 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, and my noble friend Lady Cumberlege have agreed—has not produced any conclusive evidence that such a link exists. I am not being facetious when I ask—and this is produced strictly for children—"What could be more violent than a Punch and Judy show?" Nevertheless, television is a powerful medium, and our simple common sense must suggest that it must have an effect on the choices and decisions of at least part of the audience. The Government believe, therefore, that broadcasters must exercise caution and assume that there may well be some relationship between television and behaviour.

The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, suggested a need for a Royal Commission to look into the way we conduct our lives. Perhaps the noble Lord would care to expand those thoughts to me in writing. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Lincoln spoke about the control of video recordings. The regulation of video recordings is a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I shall bring the right reverend Prelate's words to his notice.

The Video Recordings Act 1984 successfully outlawed video nasties, but a minority of traders continue to supply unclassified videos, or classified videos to those below the specified age. Therefore, a Bill to improve the enforcement of the 1984 Act was introduced last year by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett. It was supported by the Government, and came into force by 20th September 1993 as the Video Recordings Act 1993. The new Criminal Justice Bill also includes measures to tighten enforcement of the video recordings legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan, asked whether the Government would follow the French example of providing protection for its audiovisual culture. As your Lordships will know, the audiovisual sector was the subject of extended consideration in the recent GATT negotiations. In the end, in the absence of agreement on a specific set of understandings between the US and the EU, the matter was left to be covered on the new general agreement on trade in services without special provisions. The result is that the status quo ante has been preserved for at least the time being. So we and the French, and our EU partners, can continue to maintain the range of protections which already exist, such as the European quotas in the European broadcasting directive.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asked me various questions. Here, I hope, are the answers. He asked whether the Government were content with the present regulatory framework. The Secretary of State for National Heritage is currently considering the present arrangements for accountability in the context of the BBC charter review. The ITC, and the Radio Authority, are a recent creation of the Broadcasting Act 1990, but the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council are of longer standing. There have been suggestions about combining the latter two bodies into one. The Government have not reached any conclusions on that proposal and will announce their views in due course.

We should give the ITC teeth, said the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. The ITC already has teeth. It has powers of censure, fine and, ultimately, revocation of a licence. Those powers have not been used to a significant extent until now, but that is not to say that they will not be used if necessary. The noble Lord's next question was about plans for clarifying European powers. I am aware of no such plans at present, but the UK Divisional Court, in considering the Red Hot Television application for judicial review, referred two questions of interpretation of the EC broadcasting directive to the European Court of Justice. One of them related to the article in the directive dealing with the protection of minors from pornography and violence.

A further question from the noble Lord related to the better regulation of Sky Movies violence. The ITC's programme code, which includes provision on violent programmes, applies equally to licensed satellite television services. The enforcement of its code is a matter for the ITC in the first instance. The ITC has asked BSkyB, and it has agreed, to look carefully at its evening scheduling of its film programmes and channels. How to regulate new technology with multi-channels is indeed a big question, and I agree that there is need for vigilance. The ITC and the Broadcasting Standards Council are the Government's eyes and ears. The Broadcasting Act 1990 gives power to proscribe unacceptable foreign satellite services. The Secretary of State for National Heritage used that power to proscribe Red Hot Television. The Government will not hesitate to act, as I have said before.

Plans to reform the pornography laws was, thankfully, the subject of the last of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. The law on obscenity is a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who I know has given long and serious consideration to possible ways of tightening up the Obscene Publications Act 1959. That has proved extremely difficult. The Government have indicated that they will consider sympathetically any suggestions by Members of Parliament for reformulating the test in the 1959 Act but do not themselves have any proposals to bring forward.

It is easy to criticise. It is easy to complain, and it is right to do so, but, living as we do in an imperfect world and, in our case, in a jealously guarded democracy, it is not easy to provide solutions to every problem. As I have said, taken all in all, we in this country are fortunate to have the best broadcasting system in the world. The Government will not let it be destroyed by a gradual erosion of standards, and on that we shall remain firm.

8.37 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, in asking your Lordships' leave to withdraw the Motion standing in my name I add the following. I thank everyone who has found it an acceptable Motion to discuss, and I thank the noble Baroness for the trouble she has taken in replying to the points raised. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech, which I found interesting.

I should like to make just two points. Various definitions of pornography have been given. Pornē, in Greek, means "prostitute", and pornography is the decor, conversations and literature one might expect to find in a brothel. With respect to my noble friend Lord Annan, he recited an enormous amount of experimental work in which witnesses are shown a film of something—a traffic accident, for instance —and are asked to report what it is that they saw. They get the details wrong. Briefed by me, my noble friend had a cassette recorder which he can replay and check on what I told him. The result is slightly different from what I told your Lordships, but I reported it in good faith, and I now accept the noble Lord's description. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion standing in my name.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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