HL Deb 28 June 1995 vol 565 cc745-8

2.:37 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any, and if so what, action has ever been taken against Channel 4 for breaking the regulations laid down in Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, the Independent Television Commission has issued formal warnings to Channel 4 on two occasions. The first was for excessive violence and use of a knife in an omnibus edition of "Brookside" on 8th May 1993 and the second was for taste and decency transgressions in editions of "The Word" broadcast on 9th and 23rd December 1994. In addition, the ITC reported a total of eight interventions for breaches of its Programme Code in 1994. These involved on one occasion requiring Channel 4 to deliver an on-air apology for a grossly offensive remark in another edition of "The Word" broadcast on 12th December 1993.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that detailed reply. Is he aware that a large number of people write in with complaints to the commission? I believe that last year it was over 3,000. Very few of those were upheld; and it is alarming that when complaints are upheld we never hear what follows. While the commission may admonish, no penalty seems to follow in monetary terms, as regards the producer being stood down or programmes being cancelled for onward transmission.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe that broadcasters take the judgments of the ITC, the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission very seriously. They take note of those judgments. As I said, on one occasion Channel 4 had to deliver an on-air apology and on another occasion quite recently Granada Television was fined by the ITC.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, have the Government asked the ITC for an explanation of why it saw fit to show the film of "The Last Temptation of Christ", which is manifestly a blasphemous film and completely contrary to the Broadcasting Act 1990; and, if not, why not?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as regards showing the film, it is a judgment for the ITC to make under the 1990 Act. These are difficult judgments which involve balancing a number of considerations. The commission did not consider that showing the film was in breach of either the Act or its Programme Code.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many Christians find the film "The Last Temptation of Christ" at best banal and at worst offensive? The serious effect of its being transmitted on Independent Television is that it is made accessible to a large number of people. There is no real physical or financial control exercised over people watching it. That causes deep offence not only to Christians in this country but to many other decent people as well.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I understand the concerns of the right reverend Prelate. However, the ITC considered the matter carefully. It is always difficult to make these judgments. There will always be certain viewers who will be upset if it is broadcast and others who will be upset if it is not. We believe that the 1990 Act works. It is a longstanding principle of the Government that we do not intervene in programme matters regarding either arrangements for scheduling or content.

Noble Lords

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I know that there is an enormous amount of interest in this subject. Perhaps noble Lords will allow the noble Viscount to speak.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, arc we not in danger of becoming overheated on the subject? Does the Minister agree that if a broadcaster transgresses he must pay for his actions? In this case a most extraordinary hysterical attack on Channel 4 and Mr. Grade has been whipped up in the press. No doubt many of the comments that have appeared have been offensive and have offended people. However, let us not forget that Channel 4 has been a most successful British television enterprise. Does the noble Viscount further agree that the film industry has now been recognised, but we would have no film industry at all had it not been for the work of Channel 4 and Mr. Michael Grade? Surely things must be kept in proportion.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Viscount aptly demonstrates that there is more than one view on such matters.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, if a similar film about the Prophet Mohammed were shown in this country, what would be the consequences?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is up to the ITC to decide in that scenario. The commission said quite clearly that in its view the Act and the programme guide were not broken by the transmission of the film. Therefore, no action was called for by the ITC.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, are Starred Questions the best forum for this complex subject? The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, has put down an Unstarred Question on television programmes on no named date. Can the usual channels collaborate to bring the debate forward so that we may have a proper discussion before we go away on holiday?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is up to the usual channels, and I am sure that my noble friend the Chief Whip will take note of what the noble Earl says. It is important because the subject is complicated. It is difficult to give short answers to many of the questions asked which are hypothetical because they concern broadcasts which may or may not happen in the future.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the ITC and the Broadcasting Standards Council share the responsibility for examining the matter? Would it not be better if one or the other had full responsibility so that it could be answerable to this House and anyone who wished could question it?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission was announced in the White Paper on the BBC. That will reduce the potential for duplication between the two organisations. Under the Broadcasting Act, we believe that the ITC has the necessary powers. Indeed, it can impose heavy financial penalties of up to 3 per cent. of qualifying revenue on ITV or Channel 4.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I did not see the "The Last Temptation of Christ" because I was sure that I would not enjoy it? Might it not have been better if other noble Lords who had the same feelings had done the same?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, in considering complaints, the ITC has to balance the considerations of good taste, decency, privacy and fair representation with the important right of freedom of expression in this country.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Broadcasting Act 1990 requires, among other things, that the commission shall ensure that nothing offensive or, under Section 6(1) (d) nothing abusive, of the religious opinions of any religious denomination or member of it shall be broadcast. My noble friend said how difficult is the decision that has to be made by the ITC. How can he maintain that it is difficult when before the broadcast 1,454 people wrote to tell the commission that the film would be offensive; that a steadily growing number of people wrote in afterwards saying it was offensive; and that the few of us who forced ourselves to watch that regrettable performance can confirm that it was deeply offensive to Christian opinion?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend has a strongly held view on the subject and I respect that view. But under the 1990 Act it is for the broadcasters to make judgments about the content of individual programmes and the time at which they are broadcast in the light of the responsibilities placed on them by Parliament and the ITC Programme Code.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, like, I suspect, most noble and indignant Lords, I did not see any of the programmes mentioned. But they appear to have gone beyond the always uncertain frontiers of good taste. Does the Minister agree, however, that it is the unique remit of Channel 4 to pursue minority tastes in experimental programmes? We should understand that and also that sometimes Channel 4 gets it wrong. When it does, it is quite right that the ITC should hammer Channel 4 firmly.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is not for me to defend or attack the judgment of Mr. Grade. It is for him to decide what should be broadcast. However, it is for the ITC as the regulator, through its Programme Code, to regulate Channel 4. That is what it did and it issued a warning to Channel 4, as well as insisting on an on-air apology.