HL Deb 09 May 1995 vol 564 cc5-7

2.57 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that the new Charter and Agreement between the BBC and the Department of National Heritage will apply exactly the same high standards of impartiality to the corporation as are applied by the Independent Television Commission under Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act.

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

My Lords, the Government intend that the obligation on the BBC to observe due impartiality will be stated in the Agreement. The wording will follow very closely the formulation used in Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer, and for making clear that we shall have a further occasion on which to debate this matter in this Chamber. I hope that all parts of the House will join in.

Can my noble friend say whether the Representation of the People Act 1983, already somewhat out of date, which lays down that there should be at least 25 working days between a broadcast with political consequences and an election—whether local elections or a general election—is supervised? If so, is it supervised by the BBC? The Clause 4 debate was conducted five days before the local elections, not 25 days as laid down in the Act. I am not clear where the responsibility for monitoring lies.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Representation of the People Act 1983 has a narrow purpose. It is designed to prevent an election candidate taking part in a broadcast about his or her constituency without the consent of other candidates. Broadcasting a programme which breaches the statute is an unlawful act and enforcement of the requirements is therefore a matter for the courts and not for the Government. However, the Act provides no criminal sanction against broadcasters. The courts may issue an injunction to prevent an unlawful broadcast. In drawing up the code on impartiality, which gives guidance on the rules to be observed, the BBC must take account of any Act of Parliament which is relevant to its duties.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the duty of impartiality for public service broadcasters is at the heart of their obligations to informed democracy? Is he aware also that the BBC's judgment in these matters seems to have gone badly to pot recently? Does he remember that it was ready to give the Prime Minister the rights of "Panorama" on the eve of the Scottish local elections which had to be stopped by the Scottish courts? When it came to the Clause 4 debate by the Labour Party, the BBC bent over backwards under Tory pressure, so much so that it cut short Mr. Tony Blair's final speech. Is it too much to hope that when the new Charter and Agreement are finally in operation the BBC's self-confidence and wisdom will be restored?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, mentioned the "Panorama" programme. I understand that that may be the subject of further action in the courts and therefore it would be wrong for me to comment on the facts of the case. However, the BBC producers' guidelines are designed to help producers stay within the BBC's obligation to be duly impartial. They must have regard to those guidelines. It is for the BBC's governors to ensure that they do. For the avoidance of doubt, the new Agreement will require the BBC governors to draw up a code as to the observance of the rules in exactly the same way as the ITC presently does for commercial broadcasters.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, can my noble friend say—I am not clear from his Answer—who is responsible under the present arrangements for monitoring the impartiality of the BBC? Also, who is responsible for initiating such action as can be taken in the event of clear breaches of that impartiality?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is the responsibility of the governors of the BBC to ensure that it keeps to the terms of its Charter and Agreement. In regard to Section 93 of the Representation of the People Act, which covers elections and broadcasts, it would be a matter for the prosecuting authorities to take any action if they felt that there had been a breach of the statute.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, can the noble Viscount inform the House what, if any, are the sanctions that can be imposed when the so-called "guidelines" are flagrantly breached, and by whom they are imposed?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the governors of the BBC must ensure that their guidelines are adhered to by the producers. That is subject to the Agreement between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the BBC. My right honourable friend must ensure that the Agreement is kept.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I suspect that the difference between impartiality and partiality often lies in the eye of the beholder. Can the Minister assure the House that ahead of the next general election there will be no efforts by senior members of the party opposite to intimidate the BBC in the way that occurred before the last two general elections?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, Ministers have as much right as anyone else to point out to the BBC instances where they feel that it has failed to meet the high standards we expect of it. Having said that, we must remember that the BBC is a robust institution. It has an annual income of £1.8 billion; it employs 25,000 people; it broadcasts 300,000 hours of programmes in this country each year; and it reaches over 90 per cent. of all households.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, without wishing to enter into the merits of any specific case, can my noble friend say whether it is acceptable that there should appear to be a different form of dispensation on either side of the Border?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend draws me on the difference between English and Scottish law. I am afraid that I cannot answer his question. If I may, I shall write to my noble friend.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it not disingenuous of the noble Viscount to say that Ministers have as much right as anyone else to make representations to the BBC when in fact Ministers who telephone the BBC get straight through to the director general while other humble mortals have to make do with the duty officer?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I never manage to get through to anyone but the duty officer.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does what my noble friend said in relation to sanctions on the BBC being exercised only by the Government confirm my suspicion that the Broadcasting Complaints Commission has no powers whatever to alter the standard or content of broadcasts by the BBC? Will that block to an official watchdog and monitor be removed in the new Charter?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we see a continuing important role for a merged Broadcasting Standards Council and Broadcasting Complaints Commission in policing standards in two areas of particular public concern: the question of taste and decency and the fair treatment of individuals. These powers relate to both the BBC and commercial broadcasters.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that while I am second to none in my respect for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, I believe that it is a very dangerous road to go down to be suggesting sanctions against the BBC? There are a variety of opinions about various programmes but the independence of the BBC should be respected by Government and by Opposition at all times.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. What matters is that we get the Charter of the BBC and the Agreement between the BBC and the Government absolutely right. Your Lordships' House will have the opportunity to debate both those instruments.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, to go back to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, does the Minister agree that regulatory bodies which are unable to impose sanctions must have a dubious place in the regulatory system? What is the point of having them?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the BBC governors have sanctions over their own employees. It is up to the BBC and the board of management to make sure that their employees follow their guidance.