§ 3.21 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood) rose to move, That this House takes note of the drafts of the BBC's new Charter and the Agreement between the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the corporation. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move. The Royal Charter is the instrument which establishes and defines the BBC and regulates the way it functions. The BBC's first Royal Charter was issued in 1926 and the document which we are discussing this afternoon will supersede the current Charter which has been in effect since August 1981 and which would otherwise continue in force until the end of this year. As is customary, I have made available to your Lordships the draft of the proposed new Royal Charter for which the Secretary of State intends to make a representation to Her Majesty following debate here and in another place. Once it has come into effect it will extend the life of the BBC until 31st December 2006.
The Agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State for National Heritage runs concurrently with the Royal Charter and complements it. It sets out how the corporation will meet its general objectives and describes in more detail inter alia the television and radio services to be financed from the licence fee and the World Service operations to be financed by grant in aid from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; the BBC's obligations in relation to programme standards; and the BBC's independence in matters of programme content, scheduling and management. The Agreement is required under Standing Order 55 to be approved by the House of Commons before it can take effect. As I have already pointed out, the Charter is granted under the Royal Prerogative and so is not subject to parliamentary approval. But this occasion provides an opportunity for your Lordships to debate the documents; and if it is clear that your Lordships' House finds either document unacceptable the Governmet will consider whether changes are necessary before proceeding.
As I shall explain, the Agreement that we are now considering is a largely new document. It will supersede the current combined Licence and Agreement. Licences under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 are now the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and a further licence is to be issued to run concurrently with the new Charter and Agreement. However, that licence is a largely technical document dealing with the broadcast of wireless telegraphy signals on specified frequencies and from particular sites and will not come before either House.
The new Charter and Agreement give effect to the policies set out in our July 1994 White Paper entitled The Future of the BBC. In formulating these policies we were able to draw on some 6,500 responses to our Green Paper and the report of the National Heritage Select Committee of another place, and have subsequently benefited from a further 200 contributions responding to 14 the White Paper, debates in your Lordships' House and another place and the work of a number of expert groups and individuals, including the painstaking and authoritative contribution of this House's informal Broadcasting Group chaired by my noble friend Lord Caldecote assisted by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing. I very much hope that what I have to say today will reassure them and satisfy my noble friend Lord Caldecote as to the position of the governors of the BBC.
The overwhelming view was that the BBC should continue to be the United Kingdom's main public service broadcaster; that it should keep the licence fee as the main source of finance for its public services for at least five years while developing its commercial activities separately; that the BBC's independence was paramount and that it should therefore continue to be established by Royal Charter but with clearer responsibilities to its audiences. We have been most grateful for all the constructive contributions we have received and, as a result, I believe that the new Charter and Agreement provide both a strong and secure framework for the BBC's public service broadcasting activities and the flexibility necessary to enable it to develop commercial services to meet the challenges of the revolution now taking place in broadcasting which will continue into the next century.
I should now like to explain more fully some of the principles behind the new Charter and Agreement. First, we have defined the role of the board of governors, led by the chairman, more clearly. In the past it has been argued from time to time that the role of the BBC board of governors is not clear. To an extent this must he so with a body such as this established under charter with responsibilities both for broadcasting and for regulating the standards of the programmes broadcast. That is inherent in this way of organising the corporation, which, as I have already pointed out, commands such wide support. But in the new Charter and Agreement we have sought to build on the BBC's own work in defining its internal arrangements and to set out the functions and responsibilities of the governors more clearly. It is made quite clear in Article 7(1) of the draft Charter that the governors exercise the powers and discharge the duties of the corporation. This, by definition, gives them very wide scope. In particular, Article 7(1) contains in addition to this general responsibility a number of specific functions.
Against this general overriding role as the persona of the corporation itself, we believe that the governors' principal roles are to represent the public interest and to regulate the BBC. The governors make key appointments to the board of management, which is subordinate to them and which must, of course, work harmoniously in partnership with them and set the strategy for the organisation. They ensure that the BBC meets its obligations and commitments to its licence-fee payers. To do this effectively they set the appropriate framework and then stand aside from day-to-day managerial involvement in programme-making decisions while exercising rigorous oversight. Management is held accountable for implementation of 15 the agreed strategy and for individual programming and editorial decisions. Indeed, the governors report on their compliance in the annual report.
As I have already mentioned, some of the key responsibilities of the governors are set out in Article 7(1) of the draft Charter. This establishes their responsibilities for setting the objectives of the corporation, for ensuring that the corporation, its employees and its staff comply with the BBC's obligations, including its obligations on programme standards and due impartiality, for overseeing strategy, for ensuring that the National Councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are consulted on matters of interest to them and for ensuring the proper handling of complaints and other correspondence.
Secondly, we have enhanced the BBC's accountability. Separately from the Agreement with the Secretary of State, which specifies more detailed obligations, the Charter provides in addition for a further strand of accountability in a statement of pledges produces by the BBC. In the White Paper we recognised that the BBC's accountability to its audiences would need to continue to develop. Its establishment under a Royal Charter rather than by statute and its funding by the licence fee place a special obligation on the BBC to maintain a close relationship with the public and to respond to the public's views on its services. The BBC already does much to ensure that it knows its audience's views through the national and regional councils, through is own research and through the public meetings which it organises. But the new statement of pledges, an outline of which has been made available to your Lordships, provides a means by which the BBC can improve its responsiveness to the public and demonstrate its accessibility.
Against this background, the BBC will be consulting widely on the statement of pledges so that a more comprehensive set of commitments can be made at the time of the publication of its annual report. That statement would then form the baseline known to the public against which the BBC would regularly assess whether it was fulfilling its promises to its audiences. An annual assessment could then he made publicly available at the time of the annual report. This assessment would be another of the governors' responsibilities, and your Lordships will perhaps have noted that the BBC has already drawn a clear distinction in the last annual report between, on the one hand, the annual assessment by the board of governors and its report on compliance and the director-general's review, on the other. The statement of pledges will increase significantly the BBC's transparency and accountability to its audiences.
A third major characteristic of the new Charter and Agreement is clarification of the BBC's responsibilities for impartiality and for taste and decency and programme standards generally, placing the BBC under obligations equivalent to those placed on other broadcasters by the Broadcasting Act 1990. I know the importance placed on these issues in this House, in the 16 other place and in the country at large and I should therefore like to spend a little time explaining our approach.
It is axiomatic that our broadcasters must treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality and that they should abide by proper standards of taste and decency. On this latter point in particular I fully share the concern about the potential impact of unacceptable material on viewers, particularly the young. While portrayals of sex and violence may constitute only a small proportion of total output, they may equally well have a disproportionately greater capacity to influence impressionable minds. I know that the chairmen of both the BBC and ITC take these issues most seriously. Indeed, the BBC chairman last November convened a seminar which looked very frankly and critically at the difficult editorial decisions involved in this area.
Given the importance we place on the proper handling of these issues, we thought it right to clarify in the new Charter and Agreement the legal framework within which the BBC will act in the future and to spell out these obligations at the heart of the arrangements under which the corporation operates. We have done this by stipulating that the governors are under an obligation to ensure that the corporation, its employees and all programme makers engaged by them comply with certain codes and guidelines.
First, Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter provides that it shall be a function of the governors to ensure that the standards and practice of the corporation as applied to its programmes reflect the relevant parts of the Broadcasting Standards Council's code on the portrayal of sex and violence and standards of taste and decency for such programmes. The BSC code is drawn up under the provisions of Section 152 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 and applies similarly to the independent sector. It refers to practices to be followed in connection with the portrayal of violence in programmes; practices to be followed in connection with the portrayal of sexual conduct; and standards of taste and decency.
In conjunction with this express requirement, the provisions of paragraph 5 of the Agreement, which spells out that the corporation shall do all it can to ensure that the rules are obeyed, also apply. In relation to taste and decency, these follow the policy in the Broadcasting Act 1990 applying to other broadcasters, specifying that the BBC should not do anything which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or lead to disorder or be offensive to public feeling.
Secondly, under paragraph 5.3 of the Agreement the corporation is required to draw up a code covering accuracy and impartiality. The terms of the obligation are taken verbatim from the Broadcasting Act 1990, so that the BBC operates on the same formal basis as the independent sector. Paragraph 5.3(b) specifies that the corporation shall:
do all it can to ensure that the provisions of the Code are observed in the provision of services and programmes".
But, as with the other codes and guidelines, the governors also have an obligation under Article 7 of the Charter to ensure compliance by its employees and programme makers.
Thirdly, the governors are to ensure that the corporation and its employees and all programme makers engaged by it comply with the provisions of any code or guidelines applicable to programme content. These reinforce paragraph 3 of the Agreement and echo Section 7 of the Broadcasting Act 1990. This is a wide-ranging provision which embraces compliance with the whole of the Producers' Guidelines, a document of over 250 pages giving detailed guidance to programme makers about the proper approach to the application of editorial and ethical principles. These guidelines (a copy of which is in the Library) deal with specific legal issues and obligations such as those relating to taste and decency. But they also require, for example, that warnings should be given about the dangers of imitating hazardous activities such as climbing in programmes children are likely to watch. There is discussion of the considerations programme makers must bear in mind when making editorial decisions and the requirement for upward referral to more senior members of staff in certain circumstances.
I know that in the past a number of your Lordships, Members of the other place and the public have stressed that there must be compliance with these guidelines, and that is exactly what we have provided for. This is a clear legal requirement on the corporation under the new Charter. The means by which the governors, led by the chairman, enforce these requirements are for them as those responsible. It has been suggested that such codes might be signed by programme makers to demonstrate that they had read them. Our view is that it must be for the governors to determine how they can most effectively carry out their responsibilities. They might well consider the suggestion, but it is a matter for them. The governors have no discretion as to whether or not they discharge duties placed on them. They do, however, have discretion as to how they fulfil their duties. We believe that that is how it should be.
We also recognise that the BBC's public service responsibilities extend not only to the content of programmes it broadcasts but also to their production. The BBC is a national organisation and we believe that the economic and cultural benefits of its activities should be shared across the United Kingdom. We have therefore provided at paragraph 3.2(h) of the new Agreement that the BBC must make a reasonable proportion and range of its network programmes in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and in the English regions outside London and the south east. Progress against production targets in each area is one of the key performance indicators noted in the outline statement of pledges.
In addition, we have set out in more detail the role of the National Councils for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The national councils have an important function in representing the interests of programme makers and audiences in each of the home countries. They report annually on how well the BBC is meeting the needs of the audiences in each country and 18 contribute both directly and by way of audience research to the formulation of the BBC's objectives for its services. Article 7(1)(d) of the Charter places a requirement on the corporation to consult the national councils on a range of issues related to the interests of each country.
The new Charter and Agreement fulfil the commitment made in the White Paper that the BBC should be able to develop commercial services, but in ways which are separate and clearly and transparently distinct arrangements from licence fee funded services. Commercial services will continue to require the approval of the Secretary of State, but there are clear obligations placed on the BBC not to fund such services from the licence fee and to carry out its activities in accordance with the corporation's fair trading commitments.
The BBC is renowned throughout the world for the quality of its programmes and its independence of political control must not be jeopardised. The reputation of the BBC brand name is a valuable asset and we believe that there are enormous opportunities in the expanding international media market for the BBC to exploit commercial opportunities for the benefit of its own investment in programmes. Much of the money generated will be spent on UK productions and to support the BBC's public service activities, thus benefiting licence fee payers without risking licence fee funds.
We have a recent example in the success of "Pride and Prejudice", which was greatly enjoyed by audiences in the UK—myself included—and which has been sold very successfully internationally. Its popularity looks set to bring further opportunities for international co-production of quality drama, thus producing a spiral of benefits.
There are two further areas of the corporation's work I should touch on. The BBC is a major patron of the arts and is the UK's main provider of arts programming. Last year it spent some £43 million on music and arts programming for television and £70 million for radio (excluding Radio 1). The corporation supports five orchestras and is the largest employer of actors and musicians in the country. In Britain we are blessed with a marvellous range and quality of performers in all art forms and the BBC's support for the arts enriches all parts of our cultural life. We believe that the BBC has a key role as a cultural patron and as an engine for cultural activity and we have therefore introduced a requirement that it should stimulate, support and reflect in drama, comedy, music and the visual and performing arts the diversity of cultural activity in the United Kingdom.
In its educational activities too the BBC is committed to strengthening and developing its programming. As well as generally educational programmes such as Sir David Attenborough's fascinating series on "The Private Life of Plants", BBC education produces a range of specifically educational material and will he broadcasting 4,200 hours of programmes this year. Nearly 80 per cent. of primary schools use BBC schools broadcasts, and, of course, the BBC works to great effect in partnership with the Open University. The 19 corporation therefore has an enormous influence on education in this country, not only at school age but for everyone the length and breadth of the land.
A recent NOP survey showed that 63 per cent. of those interviewed thought that the BBC had a good influence on life in Britain today, compared with only 11 per cent. who considered the influence bad. That is substantially higher than any of the other national institutions in the list and, since 95 per cent. of British households watch and listen to the BBC for at least two hours each week, it is something to be proud of. The BBC is a unique and hugely valuable national resource. Not all of its annual output of 13,000 hours of television programmes and 40,000 hours of national network radio is perfect, but it is good, and the BBC is getting better at accepting that things have gone awry when it falls below the high standards we all expect of it.
We intend in the new Charter and Agreement to move the BBC still further towards a responsive and accountable relationship with its audience. We have aimed to provide it with the flexibility to take new opportunities to develop and grow. We have balanced a firm commitment to its independence with clear obligations on programme standards. We believe that the new Charter and Agreement provide the right framework to secure the future of the BBC in a rapidly changing world.
Before sitting down, I should like to make a short statement for your Lordships' benefit which is very relevant to what we are discussing this afternoon. The Prime Minister's Office has just announced that Her Majesty has been pleased to approve the nomination of Sir Christopher Bland to succeed Marmaduke Hussey as the chairman of the BBC. It is intended that Sir Christopher will take up his post from 1st April, following formal approval of his appointment by the Queen in Council.
Marmaduke Hussey informed the Prime Minister early in 1994 of his intentions to stand aside before the end of his term of office to allow his successor to take up his post at the start of the new Charter period. I know that your Lordships will share with me our gratitude to Marmaduke Hussey for guiding the BBC through testing but necessary reform. He has ensured that the BBC's traditions will continue into the 21st century and that the BBC remains the world's leading broadcaster.
Noble Lords will also recognise that in Sir Christopher we have an outstanding successor. He has almost 25 years' experience as both a regulator and senior figure in the broadcasting industry. His experience and expertise will be invaluable in the development of the BBC. As a previous deputy chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority he has the regulatory experience in public service broadcasting which is central to the role of the board of governors as the public guardians of the BBC.
Moved, That this House takes note of the drafts of the BBC's new Charter and the Agreement between the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the corporation.—(Lord Inglewood.)20
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ Viscount Caldecote rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert ("but regrets that these documents do not adequately clarify the responsibilities and authority of the governors of the BBC.")
The noble Viscount said: My Lords, before speaking to the amendment I thank my noble friend Lord Inglewood and also his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for their unfailing courtesy, patience and co-operation in discussing aspects of these documents that some noble Lords feel are not satisfactory and require amendment and on which we have given my noble friend written proposals. I am most grateful.
Secondly, I must express my strong regret that this legislation—for that, in effect, is what the documents are—has been presented to Parliament in a way that prevents us going through our normal procedures with opportunities for discussion and, when necessary, amendment if the House so decides.
The main argument, as I understand it, in favour of a Charter rather than an Act of Parliament appears to be that a Charter makes the BBC more independent of government. But the existence of the Agreement with the Secretary of State giving him substantial powers in relation to the BBC makes the independence argument somewhat spurious.
Nevertheless, my noble friend and the Secretary of State have given assurances, on which of course we can rely, that anything said in debates in this House and in another place will he fully considered and amendments made to satisfy dissent clearly indicated by Parliament. However, since those assurances were given in slightly different forms on various occasions, it is of the utmost importance that my noble friend confirms them clearly today.
Broadcasting, and particularly television, is a very potent influence in our lives today. It can be a most valuable force for good and upward progress or a degrading factor in our national life. I have no doubt that public service broadcasting, as typified by the BBC, largely financed in effect by a ring-fenced tax, has over the years made a most beneficial contribution towards a fuller and more interesting life for millions of people and should continue.
I have had the good fortune to travel quite widely around the world. 1 have no hesitation in saying that our standard of broadcasting, led by the BBC, has been the best in the world—in creative drama, wit and humour, education and documentaries, and news and comment on public affairs.
But times have changed. Competition in broadcasting has vastly increased, together with the variety and quality of programmes available. Our task now in considering the new draft BBC Charter and Agreement is to ensure, to the hest of our abilities, within the limits imposed, that our BBC regains and retains its pre-eminent position and is not tempted to follow standards downwards in response to some erroneous theory of reflecting public opinion in the face of increased competition. Independent creativity, so often 21 rightly quoted as essential to lively broadcasting, need not be crude. Humour need not be offensive, nor comment destructive, to national institutions which have served us well for a long time.
Sadly, as I believe many noble Lords will agree, evidence has been accumulating that the high standards which should be expected, particularly from public service broadcasting, are being eroded and that these trends are contributing to violence and crime, to the degrading of sex, and to the corruption of young people before they are old enough to set their own standards. There has also been an unhealthy tendency to confuse comment with reporting of news, which should invariably be the truth and nothing but the truth with no risk of misleading innuendo by omissions dictated by limits of programme timing, nor indeed any departure from true impartiality on political and public affairs. Even more serious perhaps is that the governors seem powerless to prevent this decline in standards for it is hard to believe that they are willing participants in it.
These important issues all require a degree of regulation and control under the authority of Parliament. It is encouraging that the documents we are discussing today are a real improvement on present arrangements. Nevertheless, in many respects they do not go far enough and need to be further strengthened and improved without in any way infringing the principle of independence from government influence.
Independence is essential to creativity and variety in programmes. But independence, if it is not to lead to disorder, must be combined with responsibility. Its limits must be clearly defined at each level of the organisation, through rules and codes of practice consistent with the law established by Parliament. To enforce these rules, appropriate sanctions must also be available when they are transgressed. And there must be a well understood structure of leadership and direction at the top, backed up by a strong thread of confidence throughout the organisation.
The effect of the improvements in the two documents is clouded by the complex cross-references required between the Charter and the Agreement, leading in particular to confusion as to the precise meaning of rules, codes and guidelines, the latter being merely ways of explaining the codes to those who have to implement them.
As regards maintaining high standards of programmes, problems will arise, not least because the governors of the BBC are virtually judge and jury in their own case. The Broadcasting Standards Council can, and sometimes does, uphold complaints made against BBC programmes. But when a complaint is upheld, the BBC is under no obligation to take any further action except that, under paragraph 4.4(f) of the Agreement, it must publish in its annual report:
The number of complaints made to and upheld by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council".
But no effective sanctions prevail such as exist in the differing circumstances of the commercial sector regulated by the ITC and the Radio Authority.
22 Effective sanctions in the case of the BBC are difficult to devise. However, a real improvement could be made by amending the Agreement so that the BBC was required not only to report the number of complaints upheld but also to report on the action taken within the corporation to prevent a recurrence of the subject of the complaint. That would give substantially more effective power to the BSC and the BCC. We shall be able to return to this issue when considering Part IV of the Broadcasting Bill, which provides for the merging of the BSC and the BCC. However, I must say that a first reading of that part of the Bill indicates that the new BSC will have hardly any greater powers of sanction than the existing bodies. But that is an issue for another day.
Further problems arise because programme controllers and other senior executives do not always regard as mandatory the codes and guidelines laid down and all too often interpret them as they think fit. In some cases, there is no doubt a genuine lack of understanding of the codes or ignorance of their importance. To avoid that kind of problem arising in the future, Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter needs to be strengthened so that the governors have an obligation not only to,
monitor and supervise the corporation's fulfilment of its legal … obligations,
but also to enforce them. A new obligation is also required to ensure that all controllers, senior executives and any persons having programme responsibility sign a copy of the relevant codes or rules laid down and published by the governors indicating that they have understood them and will abide by them. I am very sorry that my noble friend indicated that the Government do not share that view. It seems very odd. Surely, if we believe that this is an important matter, as I certainly do, it should, like the other important matters that are included in the Agreement and the Charter, also be included. So I hope that my noble friend will reconsider this matter and, most importantly, will be able to give assurances that the shortcomings that I have mentioned will be rectified.
Finally, I come to the position of the chairman and governors of the BBC. In Article 7(1)(a) of the draft Charter, they are required:
to approve clear objectives … and monitor how far the Corporation has attained such objectives".
Those are normal functions of those responsible for the direction of any public body. But paragraph 2.1 of the Agreement states:
The Corporation shall be independent in all matters concerning the content of its programmes …and in the management of its affairs".
Noble and learned Lords may well be able to interpret the subtleties of the apparent contradictions between those two statements. But for the vast majority of licence fee payers it will he difficult to understand who really runs the BBC and where the buck stops. The interrelationship between the two documents causes difficulty and confusion. The two statements appear to establish a gulf between the governors and the management of the BBC which must be damaging and cannot be conducive to the smooth running of the corporation in accordance with its obligations. A recent
glaring example occurred in the case of the broadcast by the Princess of Wales when the director general failed to inform the chairman in advance that the programme was being made, apparently because he had no confidence in his chairman and presumably feared that the programme might be banned or interfered with in some other way.
I submit that the proposed framework for running such a great and influential organisation as the BBC is unacceptable in its present form in that the relationship is not clear between the governors, who must carry, and be seen to carry, ultimate responsibility, and the management appointed by them. The well-known question Quis custodies ipsos custodes is also very relevant. We know who are the custodians. But who will bring them to task if they fail in their duty? That is the nub of the problem and the cause of many of the lapses from the expected high standards of the BBC.
I hope that my noble friend will be able to give firm assurances that this muddled situation will be clarified and that the other matters I mentioned will be rectified. The documents can then be resubmitted to Parliament, appropriately amended. I beg to move the amendment.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert ("but regrets that these documents do not adequately clarify the responsibilities and authority of the governors of the BBC.")—(Viscount Caldecote.)
§ 3.57 p.m.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, I wish to thank the Minister for laying the BBC Charter and Agreement before the House for debate and for meeting—as he made clear—several of the points of concern that we previously expressed. But several points remain and I propose to outline them. Since this is the only opportunity for us to discuss the future of the BBC, I hope that the House will bear with me if I cover several of the main issues. First, I must take the opportunity to thank the Minister for providing, before Christmas, the informal pre-debate discussion which many noble Lords attended. It enabled us to clarify several issues and so will save the time of the House today. I personally concluded that it was a helpful procedure which we might follow on other Bills and improve the quality of our debate.
Today's discussion of the BBC comes just ahead of next week's Second Reading of the Broadcasting Bill. Taken together, they enable us helpfully to survey the whole British broadcasting landscape. In my view, our aim should be to set out a framework which encourages growth in what is one of our most dynamic and rapidly changing technological activities, while at the same time preserving and encouraging the best of traditional British broadcasting values.
Today's discussion is of great importance to the future of British broadcasting because the BBC is of such great importance. It is important, indeed, to the standards of world broadcasting. It is one of our great cultural assets. It sets standards which others try to follow and by which others are judged. It was because of the BBC's unique quality, representing the best of public service broadcasting, that we on this side for long 24 feared the destructive intentions toward it of certain neolithic Thatcherites who, in the 1980s, from a blind belief in ideological market forces and that the BBC was a nest of Marxist revolution, wished to kill off our public service broadcaster. We are greatly relieved that that virus—a kind of political mad cow's disease—has been contained, at least in relation to the BBC.
Therefore we welcome the fact that the Charter enshrines the public service broadcasting commitment for the BBC and that it retains the licence fee funding which is essential to it. I regret however that it does not extend the licence fee for the full 10-year term of the Charter, which would have been logical and would have assisted the BBC's long-term planning. We understand that in a fast-moving technological world the Government wish to retain some flexibility. But I must warn the House that the reality is that such flexibility, if utilised, will work only one way; that is, towards the end of the licence fee. This is therefore a reprieve and not a permanent guarantee of public financing.
Two aspects of the funding framework particularly concern me. The first is that, with the licence fee review in 2002, the BBC will feel pressures in pursuit of commercial survival to degrade quality and neglect minority interests such as education—to which I shall return later. In the recent past a previous Secretary of State said that the future of the licence fee depended on the BBC's capacity to maintain audience share. That suggests that, in order to obtain renewal of the licence, the BBC must focus on crude audience numbers and neglect minority quality. We would regret that.
The second funding aspect relates to the provision in the Agreement for other revenue sources—advertising, sponsorship, pay-per-view, and so forth. Such developments may erode the distinction between the BBC as a public service broadcaster and the other commercial broadcasters. It increases the competition for limited commercial revenues and may, in practice, reduce the independence of BBC programme producers to produce a wide range of quality programmes.
At this point I must mention an even more profound anxiety. The previous Charter allowed commercial funding—advertising and sponsored programmes—with the permission of the Secretary of State. The new Charter, in Article 3(c), is significantly different. It states that it is a Charter object of the BBC to provide programmes,funded by advertisements, subscription sponsorship, pay-per-view system, or any other means of finance".That is a profound change of emphasis. Therefore, though the verbal commitment to the principle of public service broadcasting is clearly contained in the Charter and is very welcome, the accounting reality beneath the rhetoric is a full-speed-ahead drive towards commercialising the BBC, to prepare it for full commercialisation when the licence fee ends. That is the reality and I am not happy with it.
The appointment of a new chairman of the BBC has just been announced. For a long time he was head of a leading commercial TV company and, I note, a former Conservative counsellor on the GLC. Presumably therefore he will not delay the process of 25 commercialisation. I make two comments on that appointment. First, the Labour Party is totally committed to public service broadcasting and assumes that the new chairman will totally support that purpose and objective. Secondly, this is a sensitive appointment in what is in reality an election period. We are totally committed to the editorial independence and political neutrality of the BBC. We assume that the new chairman will see his role as totally to defend that neutrality and independence and not the electoral interests of the Conservative Party during the election campaign. We assume that is the case and on those standards Sir Christopher, for whom I have much respect, can expect to be judged.
I shall not bore the House by going through the whole long menu of specific sections of the Charter and Agreement. However, I shall try to focus on a few major items which particularly concern us on this side. In relation to the governance of the BBC, where the central question is the role and accountability of the governors—both the accountability of the broadcasters to the governors and of the governors to the British public—one sometimes feels that there is a degree of confusion between the roles of the board of management arid the board of governors. We welcome the fact that the role and accountability of the governors is spelt out more explicitly than hitherto. But we must point out that their power appears to be greater and more centralised, though not clearly more accountable, while the powers of the national governors and councils are reduced to advisory functions.
The key roles of the board of governors under the new Charter will be, first, to approve the clear objectives and promises for the BBC's services; and, secondly, to monitor and to report annually on how those objectives and promises are carried out. Of course, much depends on how precise and meaningful the objectives and pledges are. The published statement of pledges to audiences is not wholly reassuring because it reads so vaguely. Can the Minister say whether that document was seen and approved by the governors? I am told that it was not, which does not promise much for accountability in the future. Perhaps it could be redrafted more precisely in time for the debate in another place.
When one examines closely the two main functions of the BBC governors, one detects an inherent conflict of interest. They are responsible both for developing the BBC services and for regulating them. To some extent therefore they are both judge and jury. That situation is not satisfactory and we need—this whole new raft of government proposals would he an opportunity—an independent regulator to monitor the BBC and its governors and to hold them publicly accountable. After all, huge sums of public money are involved. I say that as a great friend and fan of the BBC. It would increase public confidence in the BBC. Such a body may also regulate the whole of broadcasting—commercial as well as public service—basically to protect the consumer of broadcasting, and I am sorry that the Government retreated from a related idea floated in the White Paper.
26 The situation in relation to the national broadcasting councils seems to reflect a degree of centralisation in the constitution. Previously those national councils had the power and duty stated in the charter to "control policy" in their own countries. That has been eliminated in the new Charter. The new role is to "advise and assist"; control of policy goes to the governors, though after first consulting the councils. It remains to be seen how that balance of power works out and much will depend on the membership of the national councils. Can the Minister say who selects those members? Can he confirm that it is the governors?
I remain troubled therefore about the accountability of the governors to the public and particularly the accountability of the corporation to the governors, though the situation is much improved. I am troubled also about the process of centralisation at the BBC which leaves the nations and regions within the United Kingdom with too little power in the BBC constitution. I am also troubled that the BBC is no longer required to appoint any advisory committees. Certainly we hope that the BBC retains from the old regime the particular advisory committees—the advisory councils—on education, science and religion. These, regrettably, are no longer specifically referred to in the new document.
I shall leave others in the House—I see the names of the usual list of distinguished suspects among our speakers today—to explore the highly subjective, and in my view ultimately insoluble, dilemmas concerning taste, bias, accuracy and so on in programme standards. Many of the concerns of the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, derive from that area. I sympathise with a number of his points, though I would not vote for his amendment. These documents go further than previously, and in my view go better, to commit the BBC to the highest programme standards. It may be seen as a weakness that the Charter suggests only guidelines, which are ultimately unenforceable. In the modern media world, where the trashy gutter standards of tabloid journalism are increasingly infecting television, that may indeed he risky. Bad television drives out good. Perhaps that should be nailed down with an enforceable code, as with the Radio Authority. That would bolster good management against had journalists. But it is not desirable to be too nannyish. Ultimately good television is creative. To shackle its creativity excessively would be to inhibit its quality. Certainly in the fields of the broadcast arts, I would not want the BBC to be forced to conform, say, to the Cromwellian puritanism of the political right, or to the yobbo philistinism of the Sun newspaper, and I wish it would not conform to the neo-Stalinism of the politically correct thought police. The problem is to achieve balance between achieving creativity and avoiding too much offence. What is before us is not a bad balance—with a little more authority behind the code. After all, people can always switch off the television.
There are a number of particular points which concern me which I wish to raise with the Minister. The first is about the BBC's support for the arts. Currently its arts expenditure, at around £300 million, is vitally important to our cultural world. It is Britain's biggest patron and 27 sponsor. But the huge financial pressures on the BBC to go commercial, to go down market, to cut costs must put some of its arts support in doubt, especially the support for new music and arts, which are less popular, and for live performances, which are more expensive. In that threatening context I view with concern the alterations in the words in the Agreement referring to the BBC's crucial obligation to support the arts. In the previous Charter, in the so-called "governors' resolutions", there was an unequivocal commitment to new arts and to live performances. That is now weakened, with just a mention among the vague pledges. I would urge the Government, even at this late hour, to amend and strengthen that commitment.
There is also in that section a reference to the BBC's commitment to programmes of "an educational nature". That is not good enough. All kinds of programmes —general nature programmes—are generally educational. That is not enough. Indeed, it is worrying that programmes such as Esther Rantzen's chat show are alleged—I say "alleged"—to be funded under the adult education budget. We are particularly concerned that there appear to be cuts planned in the schools television and radio programmes. Because of that threat I believe that the Charter and Agreement should contain not weaselly words about "programmes of an educational nature" but specific commitments to a minimum output and guaranteed standard of specifically educational programmes, as indeed already applies to Channel 4.
The issue of the privatisation of the BBC's transmitters is bound to arouse concern on this side of the House. We will have a further opportunity to debate that in the Broadcasting Bill. Our approach will be influenced by the proposed arrangements to regulate the future transmission pricing costs to the BBC and for the proceeds of the sale to go to the BBC. I hope that the Minister will give us some details and some reassurances on that point.
I have two final points. On radio, with its new commercial character, could the BBC now launch a commercial radio station based on advertisements, competing with and indistinguishable from the commercial radio channels? It appears so. On the World Service, we are deeply concerned about the most recent savage cuts which threaten the range and quality of this unique broadcasting asset. But I should like to leave that very important issue to my noble friend Lord Dubs when he speaks later.
This Charter and Agreement are much better than we might have feared. I must congratulate Ministers on resisting the barbarians who were earlier at the gates. We still have concerns about the obligations on arts and educational programmes and about the provisions for borrowing and for the privatisation of the transmitters. We are not fully satisfied with the accountability of the governors or the role of the regions in the new constitution.
But my final concern is more general and is about the whole future of the BBC, whoever are in government. Looking at the dramatic changes taking place in the media, the immensely costly digital revolution in technology, the rapid expansion of satellite and cable 28 competition, the convergence of media forms, the huge multiplicity of channels to be on offer, the growing number and public acceptance of subscription channels, I actually worry about the real capacity of the BBC to survive in that immensely costly world. It will certainly and inevitably suffer a big decline in market share. It has already lost coverage of some of its precious sporting jewels. As the BBC is steered by the Government towards even greater commercialisation, and as it grows less distinct from other commercial broadcasters, I wonder whether it will be able to maintain the case for taking the licence fee from a public who is watching it much less. Personally, I am not too optimistic. It will be the responsibility of a future government to fight that important battle for public service broadcasting even more strenuously and to preserve it for this country.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
My Lords, I should begin with a declaration of interest as a member of my family works for the World Service of the BBC.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in thanking the Minister for his explanation of the Charter and Agreement as an introduction to the debate, and particularly for his useful experiment of a preliminary briefing session which, like the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, I hope might be repeated in other circumstances.
In democratic politics it is always a wise thing to count your blessings. So my starting point with the draft Charter must be a sense of relief that the Government have abandoned the ideas which attracted the previous Prime Minister of a commercialised and advertising-funded BBC. Instead the essential public service broadcasting role of the BBC was strongly endorsed by the Minister in his opening remarks, and the BBC is to continue to be publicly funded by the licence fee for at least the next five years.
The BBC is fortunate that its Charter did not fall at the time of the Broadcasting Act 1990 or it might have faced the kind of destructive change that was forced on commercial broadcasting, with its crazy system of auctioning franchises. We shall have the successor to that deeply flawed Act before us next week. It is sufficient at this stage to say that I regret in principle that the future of the BBC is not being dealt with as part of that Bill. There could then have been a consideration of the future of the BBC against the changing landscape of broadcasting as a whole.
I recognise that the Select Committee of another place came down in favour of preserving the existing ritual of the Royal Charter and Agreement. I certainly recognise the importance of preserving and protecting the distinctive character and independence of the BBC. Nevertheless, I hope that it is not too irreverent to say that I believe that the ritual of the Royal Charter for the BBC may have been appropriate in the years when the BBC was the single, dominating organisation in the broadcasting field, but now that the world of broadcasting has changed tremendously, I believe that that world should he seen as a whole. I find it a curious 29 anomaly that while the larger half now of British broadcasting should be subject to the normal parliamentary legislative procedures, the BBC—the traditional and well deserved centrepiece of excellence in our broadcasting—should be treated in isolation.
I believe that this situation puts a heavy responsibility on the Government to treat the draft Charter as truly a draft Charter and to be ready to make changes in it in the light of the brief parliamentary debates here and in another place—and in that respect I agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, said. Otherwise the institutions of the BBC for the next decade will have been largely determined behind closed doors in Broadcasting House and in the Department of National Heritage. There are some serious questions to be answered about the present proposals, some of which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I do not wish to repeat unnecessarily, given the time constraints, what he has already said.
I remind the Minister as a starting point that in December 1994 the Government signed a ministerial resolution of the Council of Europe committing themselves in some detail to maintaining the principles of public service broadcasting. I believe that Parliament is entitled to be satisfied that this policy commitment is fully and adequately spelt out in the new Charter and that there will he adequate safeguards to prevent the BBC sliding increasingly into a purely commercialised organisation. One of the factors is this. While the Government are giving the BBC the obligations of a 10-year Charter of public service broadcasting, they are guaranteeing the licence income for only five years. I do not believe that that can be right. I do not know whether it is too late for that matter to be reconsidered, but for an organisation to engage in the kind of long-term planning that is required for broadcasting these days I would have thought that the licensing arrangements and Charter should have marched in hand with each other.
I entirely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said about the new statement of pledges to audiences that were promised by the BBC, which the Minister mentioned at some length. Having read the document that we have at the moment, I can only say that it is so bland, imprecise and lacking in detail that it is worthless in practice. By the time that this matter is discussed for a second time in another place, I seriously say to the Minister that the Government really owe it to Parliament to get the BBC to put some substance into the statement of pledges.
There is the attempt to deal with the concerns about the role of the governors, which is the centrepiece of the arguments of the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. Here at least I thoroughly agree with him in that the present situation is unsatisfactory. I rather regret that the Government were not ambitious and imaginative enough to produce some new independent regulatory organisation covering the whole field of broadcasting, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. Certainly in the present circumstances I am not sure that there is any totally satisfactory solution to the role of the BBC governors. They are public trustees to the nation and simultaneously broadcasters, publishers and 30 employers of the programme makers, of whom they are naturally and properly proud. These two roles simply do not sit well together. Very often they are in conflict with each other, as I well recognise from my own experience in the past in rather different circumstances as the chairman of the old Independent Broadcasting Authority. However, the role of the public trustee undoubtedly comes first and must have priority over loyalty to the programme makers.
The independence of the governors from inevitable and perfectly legitimate pressures from government and opposition and a wide range of other interest groups is their most precious quality. The responsibility for ensuring that independence starts with the government of the day to appoint men and women of stature, integrity and independence of judgment and to resist absolutely the temptation to apply the pernicious doctrine of recent years of: "Is he or she one of us?".
We listened with interest to the announcement of the appointment of the new chairman of the BBC. I have reason to know well the work of Sir Christopher Bland in broadcasting and have a healthy admiration and respect for him. He will take on the post of chairman of the governors of the BBC, especially because of his own personal political background, where his showing of independence of character will be absolutely crucial, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, has already said.
The governors in their turn in the present system have a duty to defend the independence of the programme makers but equally a duty to enforce the standards laid down in the various codes of conduct and guidelines. I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, referred to Article (1)(f) of the Charter and the duty of the governors to monitor and supervise the corporation's fulfilment of its obligations. I believe that he should have perhaps read on further because it goes on to say in particular to,ensure that the Corporation and its employees … comply with the provisions of any code".The real test is going to be whether the governors ensure compliance with the code.
I agree that there are special difficulties about what are effective sanctions for the governors of the BBC in the very different circumstances that they face from that of the regulators of commercial broadcasting. Personally, I believe that there is no higher duty on professional broadcasters than to strive to achieve, as far as possible over a reasonable period of time, of course, due impartiality on matters of controversy. Broadcasting more than any other media has a special responsibility because it has a special influence over the whole climate of opinion and culture in our society. My experience over a long life in public affairs is that controversial issues are rarely as black and white as crusading journalists would like to think—and I started life as a crusading journalist. Long before John Birt became Director-General of the BBC he championed the concept of "a mission to explain", which seems to me to he a sound doctrine.
Accordingly, I welcome the spelling out of these matters for the first time in the Agreement in paragraph 5. However, I do not share the degree of distrust of, and 31 almost a sense of hostility towards, the programme makers which underlay the speech of the noble Viscount. Perhaps I may say without offence that I recognise both the reality of the problems he has analysed and the strength of feeling that he and other colleagues have about these difficult problems: but it could very easily become an illiberal approach. Therefore, I believe that the noble Viscount and the House will not be surprised that on these Benches we prefer a liberal approach to these matters and have a greater degree of trust as regards the programme makers themselves than is perhaps wholly shared in some other quarters of the House.
There are other major matters of concern about the arrangements for the governors. I fully agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said about the strange change of language which dilutes the responsibilities of the national governors of the BBC. I would like to add a point to that. The regions of England have no national governor or formal link with the board of governors. Perhaps as a Scot I may put in a word for the English in that respect.
I am told that the Government gave serious consideration to a proposal submitted by the Broadcasting for Scotland organisation which suggested that there should be four national broadcasting councils, one for each of the home nations, including England. That would put Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a equal footing with England and would end what has basically been a rather second-class constitutional relationship. More importantly, however, it would signal a serious new commitment to regionalism.
The English broadcasting council and its governor would be non-metropolitan in character and would prove a powerful force in countering what is undoubtedly the increasing centralism that arises from some of the changes to the present Charter. It is true that some effort has been made by the BBC to disperse programme-making out into the provinces, but not very much. Scotland is certainly a long way from enjoying anything like the Goschen formula in terms of its share of programme-making. There is a very long way to go indeed. I strongly press the Government to reconsider that point.
I also feel that it is important to strengthen the Charter and Agreement specifically in relation to educational programmes. The Minister commended the BBC's scale of programming, but I think that a production target needs to be written into the Agreement similar to that which Channel 4 has to face in terms of the Broadcasting Act.
Another new issue for the BBC is the expanding scale of its commercial activities. I regard them as welcome in themselves as an additional source of income. Indeed, they are essential if the BBC is to compete effectively in the new age of digital broadcasting. However, keeping the proportions right and ensuring that the public service, publicly funded side of the BBC remains dominant is of great importance. There are legitimate concerns that the BBC should not compete unfairly. As the Consumers' Association stated in its representation, there must be strict external controls in place to deal with those dangers. I should have thought that there is 32 a good deal to be said for the BBC doing what certain charitable foundations do, and setting up a separate but wholly owned subsidiary to carry out its commercial activities, transparently insulated from the public funding of the licence fee.
It is against that background that I should like to say a final word about the privatisation of the transmission services. I see that in the face of the Government's obsession with privatisation the BBC has decided to surrender, as the IBA was compelled to do at the tail end of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. Privatising terrestrial transmission raises the same issues as privatising the Royal Mail. Both have to provide the same universal service to remote listeners and viewers, whatever the cost. Two transmitters can reach the whole of Greater London, with its population of 12 million, but it takes 90 transmitters to cover the 1 million people who live in the Grampian region of Scotland.
I think that the existing terrestrial transmitter system is a silly one. It was silly when it was publicly owned both ways and it is still silly. The BBC and commercial broadcasting share the same transmitter sites and towers, each side acting as the other's landlord over half of the sites. A single public corporation serving both sides would always have been much more sensible, but I recognise that that is not going to happen. The logic is that if there has to be privatisation, National Transcommunications Ltd (NTL) should he able to bid for the contract for the BBC side of broadcasting and therefore be able to provide a single integrated service under effective and firm regulation by Oftel. I am happy that the BBC should receive funds from the privatisation, but I hope that when the matter is dealt with the Department for National Heritage will consider whether the public interest might be served by an outcome which provides a single integrated service.
The fact remains that, despite those various strictures on the new proposals, for all the BBC's flaws which at times irritate its admirers (of whom I am one) and for all its internal neuroses which must at times have driven its governors and senior management to distraction, it remains one of the Britain's greatest national treasures and one of our biggest national and international assets. Despite Royal Charters, it is ultimately Parliament's responsibility to enable the BBC to continue that role into the new digital age of multi-channel television and information technology.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Southwark
My Lords, I am delighted to have an opportunity of contributing to this debate and thank the noble Lord for tabling the Motion that stands in his name. I am delighted also to he able to agree with the Secretary of State for National Heritage when she says that the BBC "is a national jewel".
I particularly want to contribute to the debate because one of the responsibilities I have is to chair the Central Religious Advisory Council—CRAC for short—and it is CRAC's responsibility to offer advice to the BBC and ITC in connection with religious programmes.
33 There have been many changes in society since the days when Lord Reith saw the religious responsibilities of the BBC in such a particular way. Religious affiliation has declined as far as the Christian denominations are concerned and we now live in a multi-faith environment. Religion is an ever-broadening and ever-changing concept within society. Yet the broadcasters continue to have a responsibility to provide programmes that both celebrate religious faith and explore it in an intelligent and meaningful way.
When we compare the present output of the BBC and the ITV channels we find another significant change. The 1990 Broadcasting Act required the independent companies to provide sufficient time for religious programmes. The ITC has defined this as being two hours each week and this has been scheduled for Sunday mornings. There seems, on the face of it, some logic in that. Sunday mornings are perhaps the remaining time in the whole week when people are likely to feel slightly religious. The housebound and the sick who would have been in church are also able to join in the acts of worship. Yet for the vast bulk of the potential audience for religious programmes Sunday mornings are the least suitable time. After all, they are out of their homes and away from TV screens worshipping God with their fellow Christians. The fact is that the ITV companies now provide no programming of a religious nature on a regular basis at peak times that can meet the needs of this part of the audience. Sadly, ITV's average audience for its religious programmes has fallen to 0.6 million viewers. This is despite the programmes being of excellent quality and in many ways just the sort of thing that the Churches would want to see being broadcast.
This leaves the BBC as the only broadcaster providing programming of a religious nature at peak viewing times—and not just on Sunday morning. The continuing popularity of "Songs of Praise"—it had an audience of 6 million viewers the other week when presented by Sir Harry Secombe, who ironically used to front ITV's Sunday evening religious slot—and the passionate and committed nature of the correspondence regularly received by the religious broadcasting department, show that there continues to be a large demand and a real interest in something that is often dismissed as being very much of minority appeal.
I am pleased to see that once more the Agreement as presented to us requires the BBC to include in its home services,programmes of an educational nature—including specialist factual, religious and social issue programmes".In doing so it gives a firmer commitment than before to the place of religious broadcasting within the BBC. It goes on to say that no programming should exploit or abuse,the religious views and beliefs of those belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination".I would ask, on behalf of the Christian community but also, if I might he so hold, on behalf of all faith communities in this country, that the religious programming as foreseen in the Charter and Agreement is viewed as being vital to the work of the BBC; that it is not sidelined as competition with terrestrial and satellite 34 broadcasters becomes ever more intense; and that quality is always foremost in the minds of producers and commissioning editors.
Some might challenge me by asking why religion should be catered for in such a way in this day and age. As I have already indicated, there is still a substantial audience for popular religious programming. As Grace Davey found in researching for her recent book Religion in Britain since 1945 over 70 per cent. of the people of this country still profess some faith in God, even though that faith may not be practised in an organised way. It is the real and deeply held spiritual needs of our people that must be catered for.
Religious broadcasting also has an educational role, particularly in teaching us about our neighbour. In my diocese of Southwark we have representatives of all faith communities and there is a pressing need for each of us to understand what our neighbour holds dear, to appreciate the deep beliefs that give them identity. Thoughtful broadcasting can help us to understand one another in such a way that the sense of community is enhanced. This is true within the Christian community as much as within the wider nation Many Roman Catholics will have had their only taste of Protestant worship from the TV or radio; many Protestants will have shared in a Catholic Mass through the same media. It can only be for the good.
The BBC has had a long tradition of drawing the nation together. We saw that demonstrated powerfully last year in the excellent coverage provided for the VE and VJ commemorations. In a remarkable way, the programmes caught the national mood and helped us all to share in events that were important for so many. Although this kind of coverage is not always solely or even mainly of a religious nature, there is often an element of worship there, and always present is the mission of building up community, something to which members of all faiths are committed.
I want to mention briefly two other factors that need to be considered as we look at the draft Charter and Agreement. The first is something that the membership of CRAC deems to be important but it is not solely the concern of those who would call themselves religious. I refer to standards of taste and decency.
I believe very strongly that the BBC', along with all broadcasters and media companies, has a responsibility to maintain standards of decency. The question is always: what is considered tasteful and decent? Watching television I sometimes ask myself what kind of dinosaur I have become. The standards we have always held as a family—and I speak personally—are not always reflected in what is happening on the screen in my sitting room. Yes, I use the on/off switch frequently but there are many young, vulnerable and impressionable people who do not and who, I believe, are deeply affected by what they see.
The debate on what is and is not acceptable on the broadcast media has to be ongoing and so I welcome the fact that this Charter clarifies and emphasises the responsibility of the BBC to uphold standards of taste and decency.
35 This leads me to my third and final point. I support and agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. This Charter enhances and stresses the importance of accountability. The national jewel is the people's jewel. The BBC is there to serve the public, to respond to opinion, to need, to opportunity. This can be achieved only by real accountability at all levels. I welcome the fact that the needs and the opinions of the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to be represented directly to the Board of Governors through national broadcasting councils. This is an excellent proposal. I would simply ask: what about the people of England?
As a native of Northern Ireland I feel that I can justifiably ask this question. It would seem to me, from my time as a bishop in Yorkshire, that there are sufficient regional variations within England for there to be the need for proper regional and national representation.
I am aware that the regional advisory councils, many members of which come from particular faith communities, have already written to the Secretary of State registering their deep concern about the gaps and the shortfalls in the provisions for accountability within this draft Charter. They have a deep concern and feel no little alarm that although regional advisory councils are to be retained no mention is made of local radio advisory councils or of the English National Forum.
In each of the three national regions (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) there is a governor whose specific task is to represent the interests of the national region concerned. Would it not have been wise to make the same provision for England? This has to be put right if the BBC is to be responsive to the needs of the people of these islands into the next millennium. Therefore, I would ask that the Secretary of State look again at the whole structure of accountability as it has been proposed.
The BBC is very much a jewel in our national heritage. Its standards of programming, of production and of responsibility are exemplary. I would ask that the Charter and Agreement that are finally agreed should enhance and reinforce a commitment to religious broadcasting, to standards of taste and decency and to a realistic accountability to all our people.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, it would be right to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his admirable speech. We cannot hear too much from our Bishops. I know that they have many other things to do but we need to keep the flame alight in this House all the time. His presence and his participation in the debate helps us in that direction.
Some years ago when we debated the Education Bill we had a tremendous tussle about religious education. The Government's viewpoint was that one merely mentioned religious education but not Christianity. Many Members of your Lordships' House believed that the word "Christianity" should appear somewhere in the Charter. There is an obligation on the BBC but it just 36 mentions religion. We ended up with a compromise in the Education Bill which provided for mainly but not exclusively Christian education. That was a good compromise because the name is kept in front of the nation.
I was greatly interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. I call him a good friend because for much of our lives we have been closely associated with television. I believe that the word "charter" is being slightly over used. I am not sure that it does not add to the unnecessary arrogance of some members of the BBC.
This morning I went to the Library and asked how many Royal Charters there are. Someone rang the Privy Council Office and then told me that there are now 449 Royal Charters. That is five more than when I asked the question six months ago. Therefore, a Royal Charter is not unusual and I wonder whether the BBC, as it becomes more intertwined with the commercial aspects and development of television, is right to continue to use that term. In particular, this House is very well equipped to debate such matters. I have checked and have discovered that there are 10 governors or ex-governors in this House, most of whom arc taking part in this debate. Therefore, their approach to the BBC, even if it is sometimes rusty, is enthusiastic and very solid. We should encourage them to speak in our debates. We are better equipped to debate such matters than is the other place and we do not have to look over our shoulders to see whether we are offending a few voters in the criticisms that we make. In this House, that consideration does not exist. In the other place I had a majority of 600 in a constituency of 10,000 Jewish people. I had to watch my step as regards what I said when I was dependent on that majority.
I am surprised that no regulatory authority has been established. I was extremely pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, mentioned a regulatory authority. The group of which I am a member discussed that matter over and over again and asked what sort of formula there should be for a regulatory authority. I hope that this House will ensure that the proposed regulatory authority has the powers that it needs when we begin our discussions on the Broadcasting Bill next week.
The monopoly was broken up some 40 years ago, when I was a Member of the other place. We had hoped that there would he no need for a regulatory authority in relation to public service broadcasting. However, there is now such a great deal of sex, pornography and bad taste that it is clear that there is a need for some improvement in the present organisation. We sought to solve that problem by strengthening the governors' responsibilities. I was going to say that that makes them bisexual but what I mean is that they are wearing two hats: one as a regulatory authority in charge of organisation: and the other, as regulator of programmes. That will he extremely difficult. We wish them well. When my noble friend replies to the debate, I ask him to say whether he will agree to the amendment tabled by my noble friend which seeks to give the governors extra strength and responsibilities so that they can carry out their duties and accomplish what we hope they will achieve.
37 During the past five years, tremendous regulatory powers have been granted to oversee public utilities. That started with Oftel. I believe that that was established in 1984 and it has been extremely successful. The first head of Oftel was Sir Bryan Carsberg who set the right standards. But in this one field of radio and television, we have never dared to create a regulatory authority. Because of the multiplicity of interests, the time is coming when a decision about that will he forced on both Houses of Parliament.
In 1988, in anticipation of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, I founded a group open to all parties. We had some extremely talented Cross-Benchers and some Tories from these Benches and one or two others. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, was able to attend once or twice, which was particularly appropriate. I only wish that we had been able to attract more people because this is a cross-party matter. There is no point in trying to make this issue highly political because it cannot be, if we are to be realistic.
I do not know who were the fierce people quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, who threatened the Government with the abolition of the licence, but that threat did not come from any members of our group. All 20 members of the group agreed that public service broadcasting should exist and that it should be preserved and purified in the process.
The Commons Select Committee made a very strong point that the new Charter and Agreement was of such importance that it should no longer be included as an annexe. It advocated that it should be part of the new Charter. That was not accepted by the Government who took the view that it should be part of the Agreement. Their view was that that would provide more flexibility and allow adjustments to be made in line with changing technology and competitive requirements. We submitted our recommendations to the Government. We had difficulty in ensuring that where producers and editors disregarded codes of conduct, sanctions were exercised. There is no purpose in levelling fines because they would be merely paid from the £1.8 billion which the BBC collects.
Some of us pointed out that sportsmen who disregard the rules may be suspended. For example, a footballer is shown first a yellow card as a warning and then a red card which means that he is suspended from playing football for some period of time—and sometimes quite a long period. We pointed out also that car drivers have a licence and if a driving offence is committed, that is marked upon the licence and ultimately, the driver may be disqualified. I cannot see why it is wrong to suspend editors and others in the BBC who make sound bites and nasty snide remarks which are not necessary and which do not add to the entertainment in any way.
There should be standards of morality in relation to sex, violence, pornography and personal abuse. In those areas, standards seem to be falling progressively and are not upheld although we still see some wonderful programmes, an example of which is "Pride and Prejudice". I understand that each programme in that series cost £1 million. Therefore, it is certainly necessary to watch the budget. All those demands will 38 put the BBC under tremendous financial pressure. I hope that my noble friend will tell us whether the BBC's finances will be open to examination by the House of Commons. I cannot see how else that can be done independently and I suggest that the House of Commons is the right place to provide that facility.
Some friends of mine who do not sleep easily listened to night-time radio on Radio 5—"Radio 5 Alive". They tell me that they were horrified on the night of 9th/10th January of last year to hear a regular broadcast asking people to telephone in if they thought that the Royal Family and their children were misbehaving. I hope that a fairly small audience heard that sound bite. But my friends tell me that on Radio 4 early that morning it was said that the BBC had conducted a poll during the night about the Royal Family and that 1,000 people had telephoned with their criticisms of the Royal Family. When I wrote to complain, I was told that no records were kept or something like that. But that is a totally uncalled-for smear on the Royal Family.
After that, I looked carefully at the Producers' Guidelines and they are meticulous on that subject. They say that one must be very careful in relation to polls. Polls should be conducted over a wide spectrum of people who represent all types in all parts of the country and they should not be used lightly. That poll on the Royal Family was used unnecessarily lightly. I asked what penalties had been exercised against Radio 4 and Radio 5 on that occasion and I was told that none was exercised.
That is not the only example. On 30th October at 5.30, during Radio 4's 5 p.m. programme, there was a sound bite which said:The Queen won't have had any difficulty recognising a fake Prime Minister. She has been dealing with John Major now for some few years".That is both insulting to the Queen and to the Prime Minister of the day. Moreover, it was an unnecessary, nasty little sound bite. I hope that one can exorcise that situation. It does not come from the top division; it does not come from the second division: it comes from chaps and ladies in the third division. I am sure that they could be brought into line.
On an earlier occasion, Radio 5 broadcast a Sunday programme imitating the voices of Prince Charles and of Camilla in a telephone conversation to the effect:I'm divorced now, are you going to get divorced now darling?",and so on. It epitomises bad taste when such comments are put into an entertainment programme. For example, we all know that almost every institution from the Royal Family to the Church, to Parliament, to our police, to our judiciary—indeed, almost every institution upon which the solid foundation of our nation has been built—comes in for derision and insults from time to time. But we so seldom hear a programme which is dedicated to the praising of those institutions upon which we are so dependent. I hope that the governors can influence the situation in the long run.
I have been reading various papers from organisations such as Mary Whitehouse's NVALA (the National Viewers and Listeners Association) membership of which is 180,000 which makes it a substantial 39 organisation. One reads in the papers about how listeners' branches will be started up in different parts of the country. That is all very well, but there are one or two very large organisations—for example, the Consumers' Association is another with over 150,000 active members—so why are they not used to deal with the feeling about the BBC?
Incidentally—and I must remind the House about this horrifying thing—Mary Whitehouse was suspended in the days of Sir Hugh Greene for 11 years because she criticised a programme as being not as she or her members would have wished it. She was suspended. A notice was put out, of which she received a copy, saying that any member of the BBC staff who invited her to take part in a programme or who attended one of her functions or organisations would find that his job with the BBC was at risk. That was written by the Director General at the time, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene. I find it surprising that that situation existed for 11 years and that not one of the 20,000 or so people employed there spoke up for her independence, whereas, if any politician makes any sort of reference to such a situation he is slain alive before he gets home. The Consumers' Association has sent me a brief containing very good material. I believe that the association should also be used as consultants.
I turn now to one more relevant function. It relates to a bad occasion when the Japanese VJ day was celebrated. It concerns a Mr. Gar Alperowitz who is a very Left-wing—that is to put it mildly—citizen of the United States. He is deeply anti-American and deeply anti-Europe or British. He was used as a main adviser. It all started in 1989 when the BBC's historical series "Time Watch" handed over its programme on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan to this radical Left-wing American historian. Since 1965 he has been publishing books arguing that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were known to be militarily unnecessary because the Japanese would have surrendered anyway without the need of an atomic bombing by the allies. Instead, Mr. Gar Alperowitz claimed that the bombs were dropped to intimidate Stalin and for no other reason. The. 1989 programme ended with the claim:There is no doubt that the bombing of Hiroshima was also the beginning of the Cold War and of the arms race".When the BBC was challenged on that preposterous claim the secretary of the corporation responded in July 1990 as follows:You contend that historians do not, in the main, accept that Hiroshima was the start of the Cold War and of the arms race. The BBC believe that it is fair to describe that particular claim as commanding general assent among informed historians".I am glad to say that five historians came forward and said that that claim was outrageous and that history and every other reason and piece of evidence show that that action saved a great many British and American lives. Six leading British professionals swore to that effect and so, eventually; the BBC withdrew and said that it was probably correct. The awful fact is that when VE day was celebrated in 1995 six years later, the same gentleman was asked over here and given carte blanche 40 to make his claims yet again. Surely there must be some way of tackling people who insult the privilege that they have in the BBC and making quite clear that such views are unworthy.
I have mentioned the issue of arrogance which I am sure is not customary, but I should like to mention one other point which I believe to be important. I refer to the fact that the BBC still pick on certain people and will not use them. One of those people is Ian Curteis. His "Falklands Play", which many of us remember, was rejected by the BBC and replaced by "Tumbledown" which was a highly hostile play both to the British attitude and to the British troops who were serving in the area. Moreover, not only was it shown once; indeed, it was repeated three times. Incidentally, two other plays were then shown both of which were violently anti-Thatcher. So impartiality is nowhere there in that connection. We need to watch the situation much more carefully. I should add that Ian Curteis, who is a remarkably good playwright, had two further plays rejected because, presumably, they were too pro Margaret Thatcher. One was on "Yalta" which I would have said was a desperate disappointment and a fiddle. It was so arranged that we and America suffered as a result. Therefore, when a person of that type is taken on, care must be taken to ensure that the history is accurate.
I shall conclude with a summary of the matters which I believe need to be attended to. I have mentioned the financial aspect and the matter of supervision with which, perhaps, my noble friend the Minister will deal. There is also the need to keep in touch with organisations like the Consumers' Association, NVALA and the National Consumer Council. They arc all objective in the area. I wish the best to the governors of the BBC. They give us good service, but they must give us some firm action. They need to ensure that action follows the condemnation and upholds the complaints which are bound to arise. I give the BBC full marks for all that it is doing which is right, but I believe that some correction is needed in that area.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, we are of course wrestling with the familiar problem of the position of the governors both as the public watch dog and as the chief executive of the BBC. There is no doubt that the governors arc the chief executive in the sense that they appoint the director general and a number of other senior officials. Article 7 of the present Charter also imposes upon them numerous other managerial duties. Therefore, people ask, "How can they he the public watch dog at the same time?"
As a result of various things that have happened in the past, I believe that people have formed a new perception of the BBC; namely, that of a great public institution which is partially out of control. If a complaint is held up by the Broadcasting Standards Council, the governors appear to do nothing. No one is reprimanded. Even on the rare occasions when the governors apologise, no head, not even an assistant head, is ever seen to roll. The programme makers simply carry on as they have before.
41 Let me say at once that this new perception of the BBC is at best a half truth and perhaps not even that. There have been a number of hands-on chairmen of the BBC; Charles Hill was one; and Mr. Hussey was certainly another. Indeed, Mr. Hussey and his fellow governors went further than their predecessors ever dared to do. They sacked the director general when they thought he had gone off the rails. But of course that is not a sanction one can use week in, week out. One cannot go on sacking one's director generals; so where does responsibility lie? Of course it lies in the hands of the director general and his senior staff. How, then, arc the governors to ensure that the programme makers do not flout the rules which they themselves have laid down about violence, decency and impartiality? There is no doubt that the Government have taken this matter to heart and the drafts before us show major changes from the past, but are they quite major enough? Instead of requiring the governors merely to monitor and supervise the corporation's work, the Charter should require the governors to enforce the fulfilment of the corporation's obligations. Again, as I think the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, said, the governors should ensure that the controllers, senior executives and programme directors should sign a copy of the codes and declare they will abide by them. When complaints have been upheld, the Agreement should state that they shall indicate what action has been taken to prevent a recurrence.
Anyone who has been at the head of any large institution knows that written directives have limited value. The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, said only the other day that there is only one way to ensure that the will of a governing body or a board of directors is accepted and acted upon, and that is by means of the managing director and his staff. First, the chairman and the managing director must work as one and conceal nothing between them. Secondly, the managing director must communicate with and obtain the consent and co-operation of his chief executives in carrying out the board's wishes. I have to say that that is not the case today. It was outrageous and it was an insult to Mr. Hussey that the director general did not inform him that. Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales was to give an interview on television. I have yet to meet a producer or a programme maker who does not say that morale in the BBC is low today because of the director general's inability to communicate with and carry the staff with him.
Let me say at once that the director general was entirely right to insist on sweeping retrenchment in the BBC. If he had not done so, the BBC would now be bankrupt. He deserves praise for pushing through policies that were bound to be unpopular. Of course, the jury is still out as to whether those were the right policies. The policy of producer choice was designed to encourage producers to shop around to find the cheapest way to get their programmes made. As a result—if I may give one example—a large number of skilled cameramen were made redundant at considerable cost and whole departments were closed. What has happened is that the same cameramen are re-hired as independent operators, often at a higher cost. Whereas once the cry 42 was, "Go outside to independent companies and get your programmes made cheaper", today it is, "Get your programmes made inside the BBC because large areas of production are underutilised". I have no right at all to say whether these allegations are correct and what the right policies should have been. However, there is another matter which I think is much more important than these procedural matters and that is the question of impartiality.
The clause on impartiality in the Broadcasting Act 1990 is now incorporated in paragraphs 3.2(c) and 5.1(c) of the Agreement and it is referred to in Article 7(f) of the Charter. There is no more controversial topic in broadcasting than impartiality. Anyone who wants to enforce programme standards comes up against the same old problem. The words, actions and pictures that give offence to some do not give offence to others. Eighteen years ago the Committee or the Future of Broadcasting came down against establishing a tribunal of taste on the grounds that it would loom over the broadcasters if it were executive, or, if it were not, it would be ineffective. The Broadcasting Standards Council, which of course is not executive, so far from looming usually gives the benefit of the doubt to the broadcasters, in some cases so egregiously that it seems to be excessively wimpish. It certainly is ineffective. Its decisions are often ignored and I must ask where in the Charter or Agreement is it laid down that when a complaint is upheld the governors will insist that the BBC broadcasts an apology and states what action it has taken to prevent a recurrence?
I do not believe that the BBC is biased towards or against any political party but it is the nature of journalism—and perhaps of drama—to criticise government (with a small "g") and authority (with a small "a"). Impartiality cannot be achieved in every programme. However, while it is right—I will defend that to my dying day—that orthodoxy and those in power should be challenged and examined, it is essential that the established view and the problems that face those who take decisions should he put, as they certainly were not in the case of Professor Gar Alperowitz's programme to which the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing referred.
Dons are often accused of living in ivory towers. I sometimes wonder whether the broadcasters do not live in hothouses where the windows have misted up so that they are out of touch with what their fellow countrymen are thinking and therefore do not foresee the offence that their programmes cause. That is particularly true of drama. I remember Sir Charles Curran saying to me that the reason so many polemical dramas hostile to authority were shown was that there were no writers of a different viewpoint available. I suggested that it was up to the drama department to find them. The BBC used to excuse its choice of programmes by arguing that such plays which were anti-authority were balanced by the Trooping of the Colour broadcast. Today it cites "Pride and Prejudice". Both those explanations are puerile. In the report of our committee we stated, 43No writer or producer should have grounds for believing that there is a BBC ideology to which he has to conform if he is to be given a hearing".Today there certainly are grounds for that belief. I am not referring simply to Mr. Ian Curteis. I have evidence emanating from the department itself that that certainly is so.
There is another side to this matter, and I must put it with all the force in my power. Broadcasters are always under pressure not to offend powerful interests. If pressure groups grow too strong they will kill the geese that lay the golden eggs, and they will mislead the public. The price of belonging to a society in which there is freedom of speech is that someone will always be offended.
I wonder whether the Minister remembers Alf Garnett. He may be too young. Alf was a genuine work of creative imagination. His language was true to his nature, and it was terrible. His appalling views were only too true to life and therefore, perhaps, induced some viewers to be ashamed, for instance, of their own suppressed racism.
Most of us know very little or nothing of what it is like to create programmes. The success of many excellent programmes is that their creators go right up to the frontier that divides a challenging programme from an offensive programme. However, good directors accept that there is a frontier and are willing—no doubt often with a sigh—to leave on the cutting floor sequences which go beyond that frontier. That was the secret of those like Sir Tony Jay and his collaborators who devised "Tonight" in the 1950s and 1960s and "Yes, Minister" in the 1980s.
Self censorship is by far the best and indeed the only way for broadcasters to avoid the governors imposing more rules and more codes, and still more to avoid an outside body doing so. I was deeply distressed to hear that both the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, rather hankered after a supra body with executive powers which would loom over the whole of broadcasting. If one creates such a body and it has executive powers it will be at best a fidget and at worst will inhibit the creativity that we have to nurture. It will consist of those who do not understand how artists work and would dislike them if they did.
That is why I found it impossible to go along with those noble Lords who wanted to add in paragraph 5.1(d) to the Agreement after:do not include anything which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encouragethe words "violence or sexual immorality". If one did that, most of literature from The Iliad to Lady Chatterley's Lover would be ruled out on the grounds that it would encourage adultery, in one sense or another, particularly if visual images of the act were televised. One can imagine what Ken Russell would do with the rape of Helen.
If noble Lords doubt that, they should consider what happened when the Obscene Publications Act was passed and the Crown immediately brought criminal 44 proceedings against the publisher of D. H. Lawrence's work. Therefore, I hope that the Government will not add those words in paragraph 5, which would endanger creativity in broadcasting. We should remember that if one imposes over the creators of programmes a body which has no direct connection with them one will destroy the creativity that is needed for really exciting and interesting programmes.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Lord Barnett
My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to follow the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, with virtually the whole of which I agree. I also congratulate the Minister on his opening speech and on presenting the draft Charter and Agreement to us. Like my noble friend Lord Donoughue, I should like to thank him for the innovative idea of inviting us to a private session to discuss the Charter and Agreement in advance. That was a great help and I was delighted to be able to take part. The Minister was right to emphasise the vital nature of public service broadcasting and why it is essential that the BBC should be a central part of that.
I declare my past interest as vice-chairman of the BBC for seven years. I like to think that, together with the current chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, and two former governors who are present—the noble Baronesses, Lady Park and Lady James—who were also a great help, I played a small part in ensuring the renewal of the Charter. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for saying as much.
I see the new Charter as a vote of confidence in the future of the BBC. That is not quite what the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, said. I am in agreement with my noble friend Lord Donoughue in regretting that it is for five years only. I would have preferred a 10-year Charter.
As the current chairman will not serve his full term but will leave on 1st April this year, I should like to pay a personal tribute to him. It was a joy to work with him. He has been an excellent independent chairman of the BBC and has done a very good job, as all who know him will agree. I do not know his successor, but I wish him well in the job that he is taking on.
There are a few taking part in this debate who will always be unhappy about the BBC and any charter and any agreement. Those few are represented by those who have tabled the amendment—the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and one or two others. I have always considered the group as a kind of mafia, if they will forgive me for putting it that way. I mean it in the nicest possible way. I was invited to join them, but I have no intention of so doing. I have a feeling that I would not agree with them. They clearly want the guidelines to be strengthened. They refer to that as clarification. They would like sanctions to be available to the hoard of governors against the hoard of management. We do not usually use strong language in your Lordships' House, but, with the greatest possible respect, the amendment is not only unnecessary, as the Minister pointed out, but it is also absurd, for two reasons. First, the board of governors has the power 45 under the current Charter. Secondly, if we arc not careful we shall destroy the very independence of the BBC of which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, spoke so eloquently. Perhaps I may give one or two examples.
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred to an occasion which I remember well. Marmaduke Hussey and I had just joined the BBC as chairman and vice-chairman. We were in the room with the then director general. We gave him two pieces of paper, one sacking him and one tendering his resignation. I do not know how much tougher noble Lords want sanctions to be. That is what we did under the existing Charter, let alone under a new one.
In those circumstances I do not know how much stronger the mafia—or to put it in nicer terms, the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing—and even the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, whom I certainly would not include in any mafia, would want sanctions to be. It is certainly not clarification that they are seeking. That is quite clear. Clarification is written into the draft Charter and Agreement. The board of governors has already asked for and sought strengthening of the Charter and Agreement. However, I suspect that what the mover of the amendment and its supporters seek is not clarification. In that sense, if I may put it bluntly, the movers, are, frankly, dishonest. That is not too strong a word. They seek to demand a BBC which no longer exists. It is true that the BBC was (I emphasise the word "was") complacent, arrogant, inefficient and bureaucratic. I accept that. But that is not the case today. It is leaner and fitter and, despite that, still produces quality programmes.
The second reason that the amendment is absurd stems from the first. If the board of governors, whoever its members may be—they will be neither saints, angels or whatever—constantly interferes, one will never gain or keep a decent board of management. That is a plain fact. Of course a board of management will make mistakes. That has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. It did so over the famous "Panorama" programme about Princess Diana. That was a major error. I think that it was right to make the programme; it was a great coup. But the board was wrong in the following respect. Normally it does not tell the chairman of the BBC in advance about programmes. However, this was not a normal occasion; nor was it a normal programme. The board certainly had every right to consult the BBC chairman in advance. That it did not do so, was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, as an insult to the chairman. That is certainly true. It was also plainly stupid. The idea that the chairman would have gone rushing round to the palace when told that the Princess wished the programme kept secret until it was broadcast, means that those members do not know the man. Of course he would not have done that. It was therefore crazy of the director general and others who knew to keep the matter from the chairman.
The director general has been much criticised, not only on this but on many other occasions. Usually it has been over-done. On the whole he has been a great director general who has made changes on both financial matters and programme production which have been of great benefit to the BBC.
46 Perhaps I may add my views to those of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and my noble friend Lord Donoughue, about having a regulatory authority over the board of governers and board of management. If one is not careful, one will not have an independent BBC. One will have one regulatory authority over another. I hope that my noble friend Lord Donoughue, and any other friends to whom he talks, will drop that idea. It is a nonsense. We do not need any more regulatory authorities. I should have no objection to a House of Commons Select Committee, a Select Committee of the House of Lords or a joint committee.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, referred to terrible things that have been done. Members of the board of management, and its "underlings" inevitably will make mistakes over the years. When you are putting out thousands of hours of television and radio, both national and local, it would be unbelievable if no mistakes were ever made. However, the examples given by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, were one sided. I have not heard the response from the BBC; I should like to hear it. But the idea that the board will never make a mistake is a nonsense. Of course it will. However, the use of sanctions is not what is required. That would destroy the BBC as we know it and as we want it.
I refer briefly to the question of impartiality. The BBC has always sought to be impartial. From time to time it will have appeared to all of us that it has been lacking in impartiality. But on the whole that is usually in the eye of the beholder, or in the eyes of different beholders. In other words, one cannot please everyone all the time. That certainly applies, by the spadeful one might say, to the BBC.
We now have further safeguards written formally into the Agreement at paragraph 3.3. There is a requirement for impartiality in the daily account of the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. If I have a complaint, it is that there is not enough broadcasting of the House of Lords. It is usually a much better broadcasting Chamber than the House of Commons. In normal circumstances we have a better quality of debate than in another place. With 20 years' experience, I can say that we have very good expertise here. But the requirement of an impartial daily account is vital and I am delighted that it is now written into the Agreement. Perhaps I may make a plea as regards Question Time: that there is a better selection of speakers, perhaps from the House of Lords. In the House of Lords we have a better selection than in another place. But that is another matter. I am obviously prejudiced.
I return briefly to the question of violence. Again one cannot please everyone. But the amount of violence on British television has been grossly exaggerated over the years, usually by those who do not watch it. Most recent evidence is from an independent survey in August 1995 carried out by Sheffield University. It indicates that violence on BBC. ITV and Channel 4 accounted for just 0.61 per cent. of programme output time compared with 1.1 per cent. in 1986. Therefore it is not a serious problem although any violence may offend many viewers.
47 My complaint is as regards the requirement in paragraph 3.2(d) of the Agreement to,provide wide-ranging coverage o[...]porting and other leisure activities".That is an impossible requirement. How on earth can the BBC do that if major sport activities such as the World Cup, national cup finals, major soccer and rugby, golf, cricket and, eventually I fear, Wimbledon, all go to the highest bidder; namely, Sky? I mentioned this issue to the Minister. I now understand from the Prime Minister that the matter is being considered. I do not normally agree with the Prime Minister, but if he does something about the matter he has my complete assurance that I shall agree with him.
Finally, perhaps I may revert to the need for a truly independent BBC. That does not mean that it can or should be able to do what it likes. The strengthening of the Charter and Agreement rightly puts clear obligations on the board of governors. It is for the board to ensure that public service broadcasting by the BBC sets standards for others to follow. Thus, for example, the BBC is already widely regarded as the most trustworthy of broadcasters. In an RI survey published in April 1994, 67 per cent. agreed that the BBC was excellent or very good at providing,a responsible, trustworthy and balanced coverage of news and current affairs".The figures for ITV, Channel 4 and commercial radio were all significantly lower. That is the best answer to the critics.
There is little doubt that the Charter and Agreement are the best way to regulate the BBC rather than an Act of Parliament or an amended Charter along the lines moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. In the current way suggested by the Government, the BBC is given invaluable flexibility and independence while ensuring that it has to be responsible for setting high standards. Those are not just my views. The all-party House of Commons Select Committee said that it had,heard no decisive argument for changing a regulatory framework which has worked well for nearly 70 years".That is why I congratulate the Government on their good sense in introducing this draft Charter and Agreement. I hope that they will not agree to any amendments.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, if everyone in the BBC always spoke with the lucidity, honesty and practical common sense of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, probably we would not be expressing some of the concerns that I intend to express today. I wish to apologise in advance, as a former governor of the BBC, for being seen, after that very positive speech, to make some continually negative comments. I make them because I care.
I want to pay my tribute to the 99 per cent. of BBC output which is excellent and unique. I especially admire, as everyone does, the BBC World Service. I had the pleasure of seeing the World Television Service last 48 week in Hong Kong. I also admire the unique monitoring service at Caversham, to which I owe so much, the Summary of World Broadcasts.
I could talk, as we all could talk about brilliant TV documentaries like "The Death of Yugoslavia", the 1994 series on Russia, on Solzhenitsyn's return, and many of the "Horizon" and "Heart of the Matter" programmes and splendid programmes like "The Company"; wonderful entertainment like "Middlemarch", "The Last of the Summer Wine" and a hundred others. Of course, Radio 3 and Radio 4 are for me—except perhaps sometimes between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. in the morning—beyond praise.
It is precisely because of my pride in the BBC that I want to be sure that the Charter and the Agreement protect it and us from the damage that can sometimes be inflicted, out of all proportion, on the reputation of a great institution. It should be possible to value and protect artistic integrity and creativity and yet, as the Government do, to see that strict rules, not guidelines, are laid down where we are dealing not with an artist's creation but with documentaries about real people, with fact, not fiction.
The problem is faction. It is shoddy and unprofessional presentation, including such dubious practices as wallpapering and misrepresentation on many occasions. This has been coupled with a degree of arrogance on the part of those who produce such programmes which is difficult to accept. Rare as they are, those programmes shake public trust in an institution whose great glory has been and must he that it tries to tell the truth and to present the facts.
Of course the BBC, like all great institutions, changes all the time. The examples I intend to quote are history now, and in the past, except, I am afraid, that a recent "Panorama" programme suggests that it is not necessarily true that the leopard has changed its spots. I should therefore be surprised if some of the problems do not recur. I quote them only to illustrate our concerns.
The BBC management's treatment of the "Panorama" programme "Maggie's Militant Tendency" put out in 1984 is one example. In that case the management allowed flimsy so-called "evidence", "researched" by journalists (outside the BBC) who should have been recognised as tendentious and unreliable, to he presented to support some very serious allegations. They used what is known as "wallpapering"—unrelated library film which is cut into the text—to appear to offer visual evidence of those allegations. The management went on, when the MPs so libelled took legal action, to ignore the view of the BBC's own lawyers that the case was too weak to have any chance of success in court and to reject all proposals for a settlement with apologies. The director-general assured the governors that the evidence was "rock-solid". The case went to court in 1986 and the BBC was the poorer by nearly half a million pounds in damages and costs—money which could have been better spent on programmes. The case collapsed because it had rested from the first on flimsy evidence, unreliable witnesses and poor, if not disingenuous, research.
49 It is relevant to our concerns today that the NUJ then threatened to ballot for industrial action should any disciplinary action be considered against the BBC journalists involved. The managing director of television hastened to give a public assurance that there would be no internal inquiry.
In this and in other such cases there is always a dilemma for the governors. It is right for the BBC to do fearless investigative journalism, but it is wrong for it to permit itself to be thoroughly unprofessional in its procedures and then to he unwilling or unable to admit fault.
I do not intend to speak at length about the "Real Lives" affair in 1985—in which I was cast as a demon—except to cite three aspects which are relevant today. First, the governors would never have had to view that programme (unusually, but it was and is their right) if the guidelines had been observed. The Standing Instructions and Guidance for Coverage of Matters Affecting Northern Ireland said clearly that:interviews with individuals deemed to be closely associated with a terrorist organisation"—in that case Martin McGuinness—may not be sought or transmitted"—two separate stages—without the prior permission of the Director-General".That was not done. Consequently, the governors were not told by the director-general—who did not know—that such a programme was about to be put out. However, the Radio Times knew well enough in advance to put out a long article beforehand and the press had a preview.
Secondly, confronted with a situation where the procedures of referral had been flouted and the director-general had not seen the programme, the governors decided that in his absence abroad they would have to see it for themselves. Indeed, they felt that it would strengthen their hand and that of the chairman in the political confrontation which they could then expect to follow if they had seen it and could say that, despite the breakdown in the rules, they were satisfied that it was a fair and proper programme. That is what we all expected to be the case. The governors expected to be able to defend it and they could not credibly do so without seeing it. It proved to be unacceptable in a number of ways, and even the board of management admitted that significant additions and amendments needed to be made.
Yet—and this is my third point—when the chairman, speaking for the board, recorded a vital interview with BBC Television to explain the governors' position—that we had taken a decision not to speak ourselves at all to the press—the BBC's own journalists did not transmit that interview. They did not tell the chairman that they had censored him. Only some eight to 10 lines of several other such statements recorded by the chairman for radio and television were transmitted. Ironically, the voice of the governors of the BBC was heard only on ITN's "News at Ten'". Meanwhile, the board of management failed to admit that they too had thought the film needed amendment, suppressed as far as they could any admission that the BBC's own rules had been broken 50 and within the corporation and publicly gave the credit for telling the Home Secretary that the BBC rejected censorship to the director-general and not to the chairman. It was the chairman who actually led the BBC deputation and spoke for the BBC.
It seems hardly credible, but it is true, that 12 BBC documentary features producers actually wrote to The Times to say that the guidelines had been followed,to the last comma and to the last full stop".That was totally untrue and they had to know that it was untrue.
Noble Lords will say that those are old wars. They are, but the issues are perennial. I shall be very glad to be told that nothing of this sort happens now or could happen again. The corporation must in this new Charter and Agreement—in general, they are both admirable documents—be seen to be prepared to work by rules, not by guidelines, on certain sensitive issues and to have both provision for specific sanctions for those who break the rules and the readiness to accept that when the governors, the director-general or the board of management decide to use those sanctions they will be implemented. No one should be above the law in this as in other matters.
The governors, as I well know, care as fiercely as any member of the corporation for artistic integrity and independence, creativity and the fearless presentation of facts. But it must be facts and not faction. There must be the means to correct the damage done by unprofessional, dishonest or shoddy, ill-researched work by a handful of people who can often be as arrogant as they are incompetent—though I do not doubt their sincere conviction that they are always right.
The BBC needs to be seen now to face the fact that it is laughable to say that the governors are in charge of and responsible for the BBC and that they have the ultimate power of editorial control, as they do, if the policies and strategy for which they are responsible cannot be enforced because of a culture that rejects the idea of enforcement.
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, said that we cannot sack the director-general every day. That is indeed true. Much of the uneasy relationship that at times exists between governors and management arises from that special ideology and a lack of trust and definition of respective rights and duties. Flexibility is all very well but not when it degenerates into fluidity and uncertainty. Some plain statements on where particular bucks stop—for this is very difficult anyway with the director-general as (to change the metaphor) the joker in the pack—would be more helpful than not. But the main thing is that the reputation of a great institution is too precious to be put at risk by fudge and compromise. I simply want to see the professionals drive out the unprofessional.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, there was always a danger that a debate on this subject would develop into a confrontation between two schools of thought: on the 51 one hand what might he called the BBC-bashers, who have the same view of Broadcasting House as the Ayatollah Khomeini had of the White House, and on the other those who speak reverently of the corporation as the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world and a paragon of all the virtues. The truth, as we used to say when I was a leader writer on The Times, probably lies somewhere between.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, the BBC World Service is certainly a unique and valuable institution whose standards and integrity we all have a vested interest in defending. On the other hand, it might be generally agreed, even by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, that there is substantial room for improvement in some of the BBC's domestic services, both in radio and in television. I put it for the moment no more strongly than that.
As the noble Baroness just said, it would be deplorable if a small number of ideologically motivated producers and a few self-regarding interviewers and presenters were allowed freedom to damage the BBC's reputation for fairness, accuracy and objectivity. With this in mind, I express my strong support for the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote.
There is a great deal to be said for the two documents that we are debating today, much of it positive. However, their principal defining weakness is that they do very little to impose adequate disciplines on some of the more dubious activities of the BBC's programme makers. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that the corporation as a whole has welcomed this draft charter so warmly. The basic problem, as already advanced by several noble Lords in this and previous debates, lies in the dual role of the governors of the BBC. They are required to act in effect as the non-executive directors of the board of a large commercial organisation and at the same time to regulate the activities of its executives and employees. This would be a difficult enough responsibility if the product of the company were submarines or cuckoo clocks; but the product of the BBC is a stream of news, information and entertainment which has immense—I go as far as to say unparalleled—power and influence over the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of millions of people of all ages.
It is pointless to debate this issue today since the Government have already decided, in my view regrettably, that the BBC is not, like the commercial broadcasting sector, to be bound by statutory legislation (the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, made reference to this) but is to be subject to the provisions of the Charter and Agreement of which we are invited to take note today; that is, in effect, to be self-regulating.
It would in theory be possible for a board of governors to resolve what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, called a conflict of interests and to impose its will on the programme makers in matters concerning taste, standards of decency, objectivity and impartiality. After all, in commerce and industry there is no reason why the non-executive directors of a company should not play a part in running that company as a profitable 52 organisation and at the same time act as the guardians and arbiters of the ethical standards and activities of the workforce as a whole.
Yet many would argue, as did the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that in the BBC that has just not happened. The governors have not achieved that resolution of the conflict of interest. No one who watches television or listens to radio needs to be reminded of the numerous occasions on which acceptable standards of taste, decency and objectivity have been deliberately flouted by producers, presenters and interviewers.
There is a strong impression—which I certainly share as I have personal experience of it—that when the corporation is subjected to criticism from outside the governors are more likely to close ranks with their executives than to ask whether it might be necessary to put their house in order. That may, of course, have something to do with the fact that under the present system the staff who formulate the recommendations to the governors are the staff of the BBC itself. Any suggestion that the governors of the BBC should exercise some form of firm discipline in these matters is met with protests—we heard them again several times in this House today—about the need to maintain the independence of the BBC.
I am bound to say that I fail entirely to understand how the independence of the BBC would be in any way diminished by requiring the corporation to accept the same obligations regarding its standards as commercial radio and television are required to accept under the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the codes of the two authorities that flow from that. Under the provisions of the programme codes of the ITC and the Radio Authority, broadcasters who contravene the codes are subject to punitive sanctions, ranging from substantial fines to, in extreme cases, the withdrawal of a franchise or licence to broadcast.
Therefore, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, I suggest that it is not enough for the Charter and Agreement to ensure that the governors have the necessary powers to require programme makers to abide by certain rules; they must also ensure that the governors use those powers and are made to use them, and that they apply sanctions (penalties or punishments, whatever they might be called) against those who break or ignore the rules.
The familiar argument against this approach is that the BBC cannot be expected to fine one of its own stations or networks, as the only money it has is licence payers' money, and that it is perverse to expect the corporation to close down one of its own programmes or stations. That may be so; but there is absolutely no reason, and none has been given during this debate, why programme makers and broadcasters should not be subject personally to public reprimand and, if necessary, to financial penalties or even dismissal.
The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, made a considerable amount of the fact that the board of governors had sacked one director-general. That was indeed a great cause célèbre. But I think it is generally agreed that a great number of other producers, directors, presenters, 53 interviewers and programme makers have got away with something very close to murder in the making of programmes.
Perhaps at this point I may express support for the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue—in spite of the powerful arguments of the noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Barnett—for a single regulatory authority. There should be one single regulatory authority of some kind in this country governing the whole of broadcasting, both radio and television. I do not believe that there is any danger that this would become a board of censors any more than the ITC or the Radio Authority are a hoard of censors. They are perfectly capable of regulating the whole of the commercial sector, and I see no reason why a central regulatory authority should not regulate properly, in a balanced and perfectly democratic and liberal way, the activities of the BBC.
So in considering the Charter and the Agreement, it is important to ask, as does the noble Viscount with his amendment, whether the documents adequately clarify—I repeat "clarify"—the responsibilities and authority of the governors of the BBC. I suggest that they do not. I go further and say that, unless the Government undertake to put that right and undertake on the Floor of the House tonight that they will do so, I hope that the noble Viscount will press his amendment to a Division. I believe that sufficient concern has already been expressed in your Lordships' House.
It is my understanding from the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who opened this debate with such skill and clarity and will reply at the end, that if there is a demonstration that this House and Parliament as a whole are not happy with the draft documents, the Government will reconsider them and possibly incorporate some amendments. I hope that he will repeat that undertaking formally in the House when he comes to reply tonight.
Because of the obvious shortage of time, I intend to limit my remarks to one aspect of the Charter and the Agreement. Perhaps I may take first the draft Charter and refer to page 8, Article 7(1)(f), which states that the governors are required to:monitor and supervise the Corporation's fulfilment of its legaletc. I repeat a feeling that has been expressed in other parts of the House that that is not enough. They must not only monitor and supervise these affairs but they must enforce them and make sure that anything laid down in any code is observed. The Charter goes on to say that they must:ensure that the Corporation and its employees and all programme makers engaged by the Corporation comply with the provisions of any code which the Corporation is required to draw up".That may sound quite draconian and quite firm but when we compare it with the Agreement, we find at paragraph 5.3 a somewhat peculiar formulation and a somewhat odd form of words. It states that:The Corporation shall…draw up, and from time to time review, a code giving guidance as to the rules to be observed".I find it very difficult to know what that means—a code giving guidance as to the rules".54 Surely all that we need say, and I hope that in any revision of the Charter the Government will ensure that it is said, is "draw up a code to be observed"—that is all that one needs to say—and if then that code is not observed, that simple consequences will ensue.
There are many other things that could be said about the two documents, but there is not the time to say them. I should, however, like to deal with one aspect of this matter, in which it has been argued that some of the weaknesses might be rectified when the new Broadcasting Bill comes before Parliament and by the requirement on the governors to comply with,any lawful directions given to the Corporation oy the Broadcasting Complaints Commission or the Broadcasting Standards Council",or any body which succeeds them. But we should bear in mind that the Broadcasting Bill, which sets out the powers of the new body that is to take the place of both the BCC and the BSC. does not have its Second Reading in your Lordships' House until the 16th of this month. No one knows how it might be changed during what I feel might he a fairly long passage for this legislation. I simply do not believe that we should base our approach to the Charter and Agreement on any assumptions made about what the Broadcasting Act 1996 will look like after it has been through both Houses of Parliament. Certainly I expect that there will be numerous amendments to the Bill in its present form. Certainly, having read the Bill, on first impression I believe that there are serious defects in the section which deals with the new Broadcasting Standards Commission, especially as regards complaints about fairness and impartiality.
The documents that we are discussing today should be considered in isolation. They are documents of the first importance. They will govern the activities of the BBC, which is often described by the Government as the cornerstone of British broadcasting, into the next millennium. The BBC itself and today the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, welcomed the Charter as a vote of confidence in the future of the BBC. If, and only if, the Government will recognise the concern implicit in the noble Viscount's amendment and make the necessary changes to the documents, will it he a vote of confidence that we shall all, I am sure, he happy to endorse.
§ 6.5 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to give a very warm welcome to the Government's draft BBC Charter and Agreement. They will take the corporation through the next millennium to the year 2006, when no doubt we shall again have a similar debate.
The BBC was founded by Royal Charter 70 years ago in 1926. It must be right that the principle of a Royal Charter continues. Although perhaps not perfect, it has fundamentally worked extremely well. But the BBC is not just a broadcaster. It has specific duties in its role as a public service broadcaster, funded by the television-owning public who, we must remember, pay whether or not they watch.
I do not believe that the BBC should be governed by an Act of Parliament. I do believe that the BBC should be fully accountable to Parliament. The proposed 55 Charter and the Agreement are not a Bill, as we all know, and therefore are not subject to amendment. But they are as important as any major Bill that comes before your Lordships' House.
Every parliamentary draftsman who produces a Bill always thinks that his or her words are the best ever, absolutely perfect and do not need changing. But, as your Lordships know, every Bill that comes before this House is studied carefully at Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading. Amendments are inevitably made. Bills usually leave this House improved. That is the role of this House. We are a revising Chamber. I very much hope that the Government will not only listen carefully, but, where and if they are persuaded that improvements can be made to the Charter and the Agreement, will be prepared to make those improvements.
Ensuring that the BBC is accountable to Parliament means giving the governors sufficient power to ensure that the corporation not only sticks to the Agreement but also sticks to the spirit of the Agreement. Like other noble Lords, I also am concerned about the role of the governors. Are they to be responsible for the running of the corporation or are they to represent the public interest? As we heard, it is both. The vitally important question that must be asked is: Do the Charter and the Agreement give them the power and authority to do that? I believe that they do.
But there is a conflict of interest here. The commercial broadcasters are governed by the ITC, which is responsible for ensuring regulation. The governors are asked to do that for the BBC as well as be responsible for its management. Therefore they must wear two hats. I hope that the governors will look carefully at the ITC's codes on programmes and practices. They are strict about product placement, commercial relationships and standards; and are enforced by the ITC with warnings, fines and the ultimate sanction of withdrawal of the licence.
Certainly, in my mind, there is some confusion in the Agreement about the code giving guidance to the rules and about the rules themselves, referring in particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, to Article 5.3 and 5.4. Article 5 states:The Corporation shall…do all that it can to secure that the provisions of the code are observed".What does "do all that it can" mean? Whose code is it? Of course, it is the BBC's code. I believe that the governors should have an absolute duty to secure the provisions of the code, not a qualified one.
What happens when the code is broken, and perhaps broken regularly? As we know, the BBC cannot fine itself, so how can producers be reprimanded? The governors have an ultimate power to sack the producers, but that is an ultimate deterrent and so it can hardly ever be used. What can be done to prevent day-to-day minor infringements of the code? I hope that my noble friend the Minister can shed some light on that and explain. I am sure that when he winds up he will be able to deal with some of the anxieties of my noble friend Lord 56 Caldecote—shared by many in your Lordships' House—in relation to how the governors are to fulfil their responsibilities.
Perhaps I can turn to another area which would benefit from a clear statement from my noble friend the Minister. For some years, quite rightly, the BBC has built up its commercial ventures. They are now a successful and huge source of income for the corporation. The BBC has come to arrangements with satellite and terrestrial broadcasters; BBC books are always at the top of the publishers' list; videos and magazines based on BBC programmes fill the shelves of high street newsagents.
The Government have sought to maintain the split between the licence fee income and the commercial income in order to ensure fair competition by including Article 4 in the Charter and Paragraphs 4 and 10 in the Agreement. Those are admirable provisions and clearly set out the split between the two. But they do not demonstrate how that is to be monitored and checked. I understand that that is to be the role of the auditors. Will the Secretary of State give the auditors clear instructions, and a brief to check that the licence fee income is kept separate from commercial income? That is an important issue because we want the BBC to grow and increase its commercial activities. But the independent broadcasting industry—television, radio, publishing and others—must not find itself placed at a competitive disadvantage, particularly as sponsorship now plays such an important part in BBC programming.
I warmly welcome the planned sale of the transmission services and the fact that it will be an open bidding process to raise the most money possible. The funds arising from the sale will enable the BBC to invest in new digital production technology which will become so important in the future.
The BBC has an exciting future as a public service broadcaster. But I am sure that it will need continually to develop and be prepared to change where necessary. More competition out there will mean fewer viewers for each channel. More specialist services and programming will be needed. Does the BBC need to compete in every area? It is in effect using public money to compete with the commercial broadcasters who already make their service available free to the public. Let me give one small example. In London we have not only Radio 1, but also the local BBC radio pop station, GLR, as well as the commercial stations—all after the same audience.
I am not sure that the BBC needs to compete on every level. Of course it needs a mass audience to justify the licence fee; that is what the BBC is all about. But taken as a whole, looking at television and radio, the BBC needs to pick carefully where it should be in the market. The same must go for sports. Not every match or game needs to be on the box. It must be primarily for the sports bodies themselves to come to an arrangement with the broadcasters.
Sport in this country has benefited enormously from the huge rises in sponsorship and broadcasting income. It has made a big difference to sports clubs of all kinds—better stands and facilities which attract more spectators and more young people into playing and 57 competing in sport. I never understood the argument that all sport should be free on the television. After all, one cannot go and see a match for free. Equally odd is the view that without all sport on the television being free, youth will be discouraged. It is the youth who are out there playing somewhere on pitches or watching in stands that have been built with the money generated from broadcasting.
We have the list that was established to protect major events. There is an argument that it should be extended. But we should take great care before rushing down that road. It would cut down moneys going to sport and be a restriction of trade. Satellite has meant that there is now more sport on the television which is of better quality and on for longer. I accept that for some it means buying a dish and the expense that that necessarily incurs. But one cannot have something for nothing. I watched the exciting Ryder Cup on BSkyB—the whole match. I should never have been able to do that if it had been on the BBC; it would have been taken off halfway through as "Neighbours" and the rest of the scheduled programmes took over.
Whether we like it or not, pay-to-view sport, whether on satellite or Cable, is here to stay, and it is the future. believe that we have the situation about right with the list intended to protect some of the major sporting events. Though the 1990 Broadcasting Act prevents the listed events going to pay-per-view television, it does not stop them going on subscription television. It is important that there is free competition for all those who wish to bid and any uncompetitive practices should be immediately taken up by the competition authorities.
As I said earlier, I welcome the new Charter and Agreement. I welcome also the announcement of the appointment of Sir Christopher Bland as chairman. I am sure that he will make a worthy successor to Marmaduke Hussey, who has been such an admirable chairman of the BBC.
I end with a confession. I shall not be able to stay to hear my noble friend wind up. Today is my 20th wedding anniversary and, though I risk incurring the wrath of my noble friend the Chief Whip, that would be nothing compared to the wrath I face if I am late for her Ladyship's dinner. I hope therefore that your Lordships will forgive me on this occasion.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, I do not want to spoil the wedding anniversary of the noble Viscount, but I disagree profoundly with many of the points he made in his speech and hope to deal with them in the course of my remarks.
A number of noble Lords mentioned their interests in and connections with the BBC. Perhaps I should state that I have a considerable number. First, I was a BBC radio and television producer for some 15 years; I was a member of its general advisory council for six years; one of my daughters works for the BBC and, periodically, I work as a reporter in its programme "See Hear". That is the sum of my interests, which are considerable.
58 I was fascinated to watch the clash of views and opinions on this important subject of the BBC Charter and Agreement. One of my great pleasures as a producer in BBC television was working with the noble Lord, Lord Annan. I believe the programme in those days was the "Brains Trust". He certainly justified his intellectual kudos in today's debate with his magnificent speech, though I shall be disagreeing with both him and my noble friend Lord Barnett when I come to discuss regulation.
I welcome both the Charter and the Agreement. The main thrust of those documents is a justified endorsement of the BBC. The detail of the Agreement reminds us of the qualities and strengths of the BBC; of its provision of a wide range of services, all for general reception; of the high quality of programme standards and of course of its vital independence.
Naturally, we all tend to watch our favourite programmes. But on occasions like this we are reminded of the wide range of the BBC; of its important other roles of encouraging people such as writers and musicians; of supporting charities; and of broadcasting beyond these shores. To many foreign people the BBC is Britain.
I welcome the careful and cautious way in which the BBC is moving into the commercial sphere. Avoiding cross-subsidy is a tedious and complicated process but is essential. It is equally important to ensure that all BBC domestic programmes are available free to licence holders. I have no doubt that the BBC will do that. The new media world will be exciting but many people will not be able to afford to participate. That is regrettable.
The extension of the Charter is eminently sensible because we cannot see to the end of the decade, let alone beyond it. Any shorter period would make long-term planning impossible. It is deplorable that the licence fee system is guaranteed only for five years of the new Charter. I see the licence fee as a concomitant of the BBC's public service broadcasting. If the Government are edging—I suspect they are—towards forcing the BBC to adopt another main source of funding in five years' time, they will be reversing the Government's own commitment to public service broadcasting. That will meet with very strong opposition in this House and in the House of Commons.
On the licence fee, I strongly support the recommendation of the Select Committee of another place that payment should be made much less of a burden on those on low incomes, including many pensioners. Even if the licence fee is guaranteed for the length of the Charter, the BBC will be facing unprecedented challenges and difficulties in the complex media world which is changing at a fantastic speed. The erosion of the BBC's coverage of major sporting events is disturbing and must be stopped. It is certainly not in the interests of the viewers; and. in the long-term, if they could only see it, it will not he in the interests of the players, either.
To watch any television programme the viewer has to pay the BBC television licence fee, so the BBC has a very heavy responsibility. Is its accountability, its regulation and its reaction to viewers, and listeners 59 adequate? That is the real question. We have heard eloquent defences of the BBC today—I am one of its greatest admirers—but to what extent will the structures of today meet the consumer challenges of tomorrow? The BBC's Board of Governors has performed a useful function in the past and is rightly jealous of its autonomy and proud of its independence. Long may that remain so. I agree that the board's job is to look after the public interest in this vast corporation and not to manage it. I doubt whether the governors can effectively fulfil that function when the BBC is buffeted by the fast approaching whirlwinds of technological, commercial and consumer change.
In an increasingly open society this closed and in some ways closeted group of distinguished people must withstand the closest scrutiny. How were they selected? On what criteria were they invited? What kind of issues do they discuss? According to the Charter they approve clear objectives and monitor how far the corporation meets them and its pledges to its audiences. But how effectively will they be able to do that in the future? Why cannot we have more transparency? Those questions go to the very heart of the governance of the BBC. Even with the obligations laid down in the Charter it is questionable whether the present structure will be sufficiently powerful and transparent to satisfy viewers and listeners on the issues of accountability and regulation.
The proposed merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission will be a step forward. I believe that we should go further. A broadcasting consumer council with power to investigate complaints, publish reports and carry out research would be a most effective advance on accountability. Such a body has long been advocated by the Consumers' Association but the Government have rejected the proposal on the ground that interposing such a body between the BBC and its audience, as the Government put it, would undermine the BBC's close direct links with its audience. That is a feeble excuse. The policy ought to be that a complaint is made first to the broadcasting authority, and if the complainant is still dissatisfied it should go to the council. It is as simple, as honest, as plain, as straightforward and as comprehensive as that.
Finally, on the issue of regulation, I want to make these points. I have heard a number of criticisms of producers today implying that those few instances are general. That is nonsensical because the high standards of BBC producers are the strength and the power of the BBC. The producers are the BBC. It is absurd to try to tar them all with this brush with regard to the few instances of which we have heard. I am all for encouraging the independence and creativity of producers. But that does not mean that the structure of the governors of the BBC should remain untouched. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, put forward the hackneyed idea that the present structure has worked for 70 years and asked, "Why tamper with it?" He should recognise that we are not now dealing with the past 70 years and that we are not now living in the past 70 years. We are living in the present and we are dealing with the future. 60 Because we are dealing with the future and with the Charter of the BBC we should look carefully at the structure and see whether there are good reasons for change.
Are there good reasons for change? In the Broadcasting Bill which we shall debate next week it is made clear that the technological revolution has already started. We shall soon be immersed in controversies of cross-media ownership, multi-media services, digital terrestrial television, digital satellite broadcasting and the problems of multiplexes. In the debate on the White Paper my noble friend Lord Donoughue put forward a suggestion for a unitary authority. I believe that we now need a new unitary authority in addition to the Broadcasting Standards Commission which could integrate the ITC and regulate the BBC, ITV and satellite and cable television.
When my noble friend put forward that idea—he mentioned it again today—he was trying to cope with all the complex problems which are about to hit the BBC and the whole world of broadcasting. He was quite right. I hope that Members of this House will support the proposal for a new unitary structure for regulation. It is now the time to plan new structures which are flexible and strong and which are capable of coping with the new challenging problems of the future.
§ 6.29 p.m.
§ Baroness James of Holland Park
My Lords, we are today debating the future of the greatest and most respected broadcasting organisation in the world and I make no apology for that description. We are considering the way in which, through the new Charter and revised Agreement, the reputation of the BBC for integrity, independence and excellence can be safeguarded to serve this nation and the world to the millennium and beyond. It is an important debate and I have listened with pleasure and edification to some distinguished speakers.
I was aged three when the corporation came legally into being and for over 70 years, like many of your Lordships, I suspect, I have looked to the BBC for information, education, entertainment, excitement and, indeed, solace in times of peace and through the turbulent years of war. The arrival of television greatly enriched my life, particularly my knowledge and appreciation of the natural world, and although much that it broadcast was trivial and ephemeral, I can recall with gratitude programmes of outstanding quality, particularly in current affairs, drama and the arts, which have left a lasting impression.
Television at its best enables us to know and better understand our world; to know and better understand each other; and to know and better understand ourselves. I have been privileged to serve the BBC, first, as a member of the General Advisory Council and then, from 1988 to 1993 as a governor under the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, and the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, as his deputy. It was a formidable combination. It is largely due to their wisdom, their vision of what the BBC had to do to ensure its future, and their resolution 61 in ensuring that it was done, that we are in the happy position today of considering the new Charter and the revised Agreement.
It is easy for some of us, particularly the old, to enjoy a nostalgic regret for the past and make frequent references to so-called Reithian values while overlooking the vast social and political changes which have occurred since the last war. We owe much to our founding father, but I very much doubt whether he would have made a successful director-general today. His job, in size, was roughly equivalent to that of the controller of Radio 4. He operated a monopoly without fear of competition and with an assured income. The BBC served a largely cohesive United Kingdom, which, although there were grave inequalities of wealth and opportunity, had a common heritage derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition of Western Europe, and common allegiances; a nation more accepting than today of authority, both spiritual and temporal, and affirming moral principles which, although they might not always be followed, were seldom publicly questioned.
The BBC today serves a society which is pluralist; ethnically, culturally, religiously and indeed morally. It is a society in which an ever-increasing choice is available in entertainment as in other personal satisfactions, and people expect to exercise that choice. Lord Reith's paternalistic philosophy of giving his audience not what they wanted but what, under his benign education, they might come to want, would not be acceptable today. The statement in the BBC handbook of 1928 that the BBC is doing its best to prevent any decay of Christianity in a nominally Christian country would find no place in a 1996 mission statement.
But we have abundant evidence, most recently in the public response to the Government's consultation document, that the British public still value the moral and ethical principles on which public service broadcasting was established and expect the BBC to demonstrate these values in its programming and its conduct.
It is on this foundation of trust and integrity that we look to the new Charter and Agreement to provide a firm framework within which the BBC can with confidence meet the challenges and opportunities of the next decade. I believe that, with some small reservations, it does provide that framework.
The system of placing responsibility for the BBC in the hands of 12 governors has served the corporation well and it is right that it should be continued; but it has always had its ambiguities and tensions. The governors, as noble Lords have pointed out, are responsible for the good management of the corporation—indeed, legally they are the BBC—but are required at the same time to safeguard the interests of licence payers by monitoring, assessing and occasionally criticising the product for which they themselves are ultimately responsible.
There has, too, been much discussion over the decades about the different responsibilities of the board of governors and the board of management and where the dividing line between these responsibilities should properly be set. Article 7(1) of the Charter addresses 62 these problems and for the first time sets out in detail the role of the BBC board of governors and separates it from that of the board of management. The governors have the responsibility of approving clear objectives for the corporation's services, determining strategy, ensuring that the public's role is recognised by dealing properly with complaints and monitoring how far promises have been fulfilled. They are also required to ensure that the code, so clearly set out, is adhered to by BBC staff.
A number of noble Lords have expressed concern that this last obligation is not underpinned by a requirement that the BBC should report what action has been taken when there has been an infringement of the code. I have some sympathy with their misgivings. It has, from time to time, been a matter of concern that only too often offenders seem able to escape with their reputations and careers intact. But if the BBC is to be encouraged, even indirectly, to establish formal disciplinary procedures and to punish alleged infringement of the code with appropriate sanctions, then it must presumably include a provision for a formal appeal against the disciplinary findings. This might be effective in a few clear cases, but many complaints are in that difficult area of taste and decency, which is the hardest to define and which is often a matter of individual perception and judgment. The Charter and the Agreement set out unambiguously the responsibilities of the governors. Let us trust them to fulfil what is so clearly committed to their charge. We have, of course, a right to expect that appropriate action will be taken, will be seen to be taken, and will be made public.
The BBC exists for one purpose only: to broadcast programmes by sound and vision of the highest excellence to the largest number of people. Yet paradoxically it is in this area of programme-making that the governors have least power. By tradition they do not preview programmes and I think that that is sensible and proper, although they should retain the right to do so in exceptional circumstances. But they have a responsibility to ensure that the provisions in the Charter and Agreement relating to programme content and standards are met, and this involves full co-operation and trust between the governors and the board of management in the common pursuit of excellence, distinctiveness and impartiality. At the very least, where programmes of national importance or of possible controversy are concerned, the governors have the right to be consulted, to advise and to warn. I share the concern expressed by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, and the noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Barnett, that the recent "Panorama" by the Princess of Wales was arranged, as it were, behind the governors' backs and behind also the backs of the Palace. It was a programme of huge national and international interest and of constitutional importance. So far from the governors being informed, considerable care was taken to keep them in ignorance. Surely here there was a failure both of responsibility and of trust.
The new Paragraph 3 of the Agreement incorporates the BBC's undertakings on programme content and here I would like to make two comments: one in support of the views expressed by the right reverend Prelate the 63 Bishop of Southwark. Religious programmes are included in Paragraph 3.2(e) under programmes of an educational nature and are linked with social issue programmes. I hope that this almost casual mention does not adumbrate a lessening of the BBC's commitment to specifically religious programmes, not necessarily always Christian, but including the broadcasting of Christian services, which I know are broadcasts which are greatly valued by the elderly and the housebound. The spiritual dimension of human life is important and interesting—and not only to those who are committed to a particular creed. Religious broadcasting should not be regarded as a necessary sop to an eccentric minority.
I should also like to see a reference in the paragraph to the BBC's responsibilities as a patron of the arts. The noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Donoughue, referred to that. By commissioning new works of music, the visual arts or the spoken word, the BBC provides a vital stimulus to the artistic, cultural and creative life of this country. We are in no danger of neglecting the classics. The recent highly acclaimed adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" gave immense pleasure, but we need to encourage the new as well as celebrating and reinterpreting the old. I should have liked to have seen included in Paragraph 3 a duty on the BBC to continue its admirable policy of commissioning a proportion of original work in its artistic output.
The new Paragraph 5 of the Agreement formalises the BBC's undertakings on programme standards and places the corporation's duty on a par with that placed on the independent sector by Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act of 1990. This, although not welcomed by the BBC, is surely right. However, I share the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about the wording of Paragraph 5.3(a). The use of the three words "code", "guidance" and "rules" could smudge the clear responsibility set out in that paragraph. I agree that it is preferable simply to say, "a code to be observed".
The BBC is always in some difficulty in regard to ratings. The received wisdom is that if they fall below a certain percentage of the audience—and a figure is quoted from time to time—the public will question the justification for a compulsory levy in the form of a licence fee for services which so few listen to or watch. Nothing would be more fatal to the continuance of the BBC than a Gadarene swine plunging after high ratings. That would indeed be a slippery slope to disaster. Although BBC radio services are in general distinctive, I am afraid that there is a tendency for television to place mass-market appeal above those qualities of distinctiveness and excellence so clearly set out in the BBC's response to the White Paper. I have occasionally felt that if I covered up the channel headings in the day's schedule of programmes in the Radio Times, it would be difficult to know with certainty which programmes were from the BBC.
The issue of taste and decency has already been covered and I make only one point in regard to sexual explicitness. Television should come into our homes as a welcome guest, not a salacious intruder. Sexual indecency, as well as being publicly unacceptable, is artistically bad. "Pride and Prejudice" has shown that 64 one glance between a man and a woman across a drawing room can be more erotic than minutes of naked writhings and heavings on a rumpled bed. There is some hope that directors are beginning to learn that lesson.
I must just mention money. If we want the BBC, we must be prepared to pay for it. The biggest problem facing the corporation is, and will continue to be, finance. We have already seen how Sky television is acquiring rights to major sporting events which many licence payers feel they have the right to expect on terrestrial television. Could there not be a graded licence fee with four banks of income, with the richest people paying perhaps £250 for their licence fee? Many thousands could afford it and it would still be cheap at the price. I am sometimes a little distressed when I go into a post office and see with what care the poorer members of society are affixing their television licence stamps. For them, the licence—good value as it is—is indeed onerous. If we are to be trusted to complete our income tax returns, surely we can be trusted to pay a licence fee in accordance with our bank of income? The BBC would gain; it could not possibly lose.
I have one final point to make—indeed, it is an appeal. It echoes the concern expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Annan. I agree with every word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, in his distinguished speech, particularly his words on the dangers of a regulatory authority. Much of the best of the BBC's output in sound and vision is creative, particularly modern drama—and creativity can flourish only in an atmosphere of freedom. To attempt to circumscribe it by tightly drawn regulations or to monitor every step of the creative process and submit it to over-timid scrutiny will stifle the originality and creative vitality on which the BBC must depend if its programmes are to be distinctive. Of course, creativity cannot be exercised in a moral vacuum and artistic freedom does not imply artistic licence, but I would rather risk occasional offence if the writer's intention is honest than be subjected to a bland and unchallenging diet of conformity.
We are entering a decade in which communication technology will revolutionise broadcasting and open up almost limitless possibilities of additional services. The new Charter and Agreement will enable the BBC to exploit those opportunities and will ensure that the corporation remains in the forefront of exciting technical advances, including digital terrestrial television. But while we welcome this brave new world—and some of us wish that we could understand it—I should like to end by recalling the words of Lord Hill in a lecture given in March 1969:Technical advances, however astonishing, are only a means to an end. What counts is the way they are used. At all times and in all circumstances, the BBC will be judged on the quality of its programmes. To ensure that this quality is maintained and enhanced it must seek out new and exciting talents and provide the conditions in which they can work. It must continue to strive to create programmes which provide not only delight but something more. The BBC has a responsibility to broaden horizons, open up new interests and new areas of knowledge for its audience. It must encourage higher standards of discrimination and appreciation in all fields".Those words remain as true today as they were when they were first spoken.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Quinton
My Lords, I am feeling a little peculiar. I have studied the Charter and Agreement and responded to them and, of course, I share many of the anxieties that have been expressed about departures from impartiality and accuracy and about offensive material relating to sex and violence. However, there is a third aspect which needs to be considered in relation to the quality of programmes which seems to have received hardly any attention this evening. I refer to the cultural or aesthetic excellence of the product. The noble Baroness, Lady James, adverted to it and other noble Lords have spoken absolutely correctly about the wonderful work that the BBC has done over the years in sustaining orchestras and in bringing work that would otherwise have been confined to a relatively small circle of admirers to the notice of large numbers of people. However, as I have said, nobody has been much concerned about this other aspect of the BBC's work: its duty, as I see it, to purvey culturally excellent material.
The BBC has become a somewhat paradoxical institution. As we know, in order for it to discharge its role as a public service broadcasting institution it has to charge a licence fee; and in order to cover the extraction of the licence fee with some analgesic cream it has to put on "EastEnders" or material of mass entertainment of an undemanding and, I am inclined to suspect, coarsening variety. That tends to undermine the original purpose. And that is a paradox. The question is, in terms of the American formula for practical wisdom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", is the thing broken enough to fix?
I was most touched by the testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady James, as to how much the BBC meant to her. Like the noble Baroness and others, I have a mass of recollections of all that the BBC brought to me and acquainted me with over the considerable span of my existence. However, I have assessed that it has somewhat deteriorated. Is that a normal feeling, a by-product of age? I will return to that point in a moment.
The affection that we feel towards the BBC—that is, those of us who have lived a long time and remember all that it has done—is somehow incarnated in the well known description used of the BBC, "Auntie". You do not start to recompose your aunt. Your aunt is a natural object who has come before you as a result of natural processes and is not a probable, possible or tolerable object for tinkering. But the BBC, despite the emotional warmth that it evokes, is nevertheless a human contrivance and is therefore open to tinkering. I shall for a moment suggest a large piece of tinkering and then cover it with a cloth and move on to a matter which may be regarded as more practicable. After all, there is a future and what I am about to say may come into existence eventually.
How is the phrase "public service broadcasting" to be defined? There is a minimal definition of public service broadcasting: it is broadcasting from which any person gets any kind of pleasure. After all, the person in question is a small portion of the general public and one cannot please all of the people all of the time. Indeed, it 66 is wonderful enough to please one person a little. If you are pleasing the public you are giving them a service. What more can there be to public service broadcasting?
I hope that I shall not be thought to be stuck in some ghastly Reithian block of ice, or even a Matthew Arnoldian block of ice, in saying that I do not think much of that definition of public service broadcasting. The instrument is too powerful and too influential as regards the cultural life of the community to he just a kind of automatic penny-in-the-slot ice-cream machine. The material in which it deals constitutes the spiritual fabric of the community. I am sorry to be rather pious about the matter.
An important aspect of that—to me it is as important as impartiality and decency—is excellence. I say that because I believe that there are all kinds of built-in feedback mechanisms in relation to impartiality and decency. If one finds something indecent, if one is disgusted or if one is hideously fascinated, the person to blame is oneself for being too weak or corrupt to turn it off. If it errs from impartiality—if it is grossly partial—it is highly likely, in the way that school masters usually are, to excite exactly the opposite attitude to the British Empire, or whatever it is, that someone is trying to inculcate into one. On the other hand, the second rate does not evoke feedback, a mechanism that corrects it.
One way of defining public service broadcasting is as providing information and education in a broad sense but not as a handy, ingenious, pleasing substitute for school teaching. It is actual enlargement of the mind; it is enlightenment. Of course, broadcasting has always done that. It should also be entertainment, but not mere entertainment. There is such a thing as serious, mentally enlarging entertainment. That is the Reithian formula and it is what I regard as public service broadcasting.
A particular reason for confidence in that rather exclusive, snobbish, élitist definition of public service broadcasting is the existence in the United States of the Public Broadcasting Service, which is a small and not significant manoeuvre with the words. The Public Broadcasting Service—it is Channel 13 in New York and there are other channels in other cities all over the United States, so it is a great network of organisations—restricts itself to an elevated Matthew Arnold-type diet. That does not mean that there is nothing funny on it, but the programmes that are funny have to be like "Dad's Army". They are not of some whingeing, thin-nosed youth in a bedsitting room wondering whether he is HIV positive and making his friends laugh. It is a defined and institutionalised form of public service broadcasting which seems to me to incorporate in itself a tradition of interpreting the phrase "public service broadcasting" to which I would wish to attach myself. That could he done by the BBC on its own and gradually the other mass entertainment aspects could be gently floated away.
People object to that suggestion and say that the result will be a cultural ghetto to which, with the full strength of the race relations authority behind me, I answer, "What is wrong with a ghetto as long as you are let out of it and other people are let into it?". If it is a cluster where mutually stimulated people work together, well and good. Of course, as anyone who has looked at the 67 intellectual and artistic history of the 20th century will know, an enormous animating force of the heady achievements which there have been in this domain has come from the ghetto. However, perhaps that is not a wholly satisfactory argument so I shall try another, very briefly.
Do we believe that the great research universities of the country ought to offer classes in knitting oven cloths and items of that kind in order to provide total educational coverage? That is nonsense. One specialises and gives various forms of broadcasting coverage. They are needed and perfectly decent in their own way. There is no absolute final reason for having a single system. Still, it is not at all in ruins, although there are things wrong of which noble Lords have spoken.
I wish to put a little flesh on the bones of a belief that I am not alone in holding. It is that the effect on the BBC of the concentration on ratings, in order to gain them, and on mass entertainment is not good. I took the little schedule supplied freely in my Sunday paper giving television and radio programmes for the week 30th December to 6th January. Broadly, I found out the following. Applying my Arnoldian-Reithian criterion, I found that on BBC1 there was no public service broadcasting, apart from news programmes, at prime time on Saturday and Sunday. On Monday I thought that Rumer Godden was perhaps just in over the boundary and the programme about her was repeated on Tuesday. There was a programme about which I did not find out much but which looked to me to be a bit of a weepy. It may have had a serious documentary aspect and it was about Great Ormond Street Hospital. On Wednesday there was a story about some identical twins who ended up in Broadmoor, which might have had some educational quality. On Thursday and Friday there was nothing.
The picture was utterly different on BBC2, which is now a cultural ghetto, in effect, and a very good one too. Thank God we have got it! On Saturday, for example, there was an hour-long programme on Robert Graves. There was an excellent programme on film history, and so it went on through the week. On Sunday there was a film about Louis Malle's journey in India. Not wholly successful, but a good try which showed fine aspirations, was a version of Hardy's The Return of the Native.
Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that the record of the commercial channels is worse. At least there were one or two fragments of public service broadcasting on BBC1 but ITV was absolutely free of it. There was not a touch, not a trace, not a tincture of public service broadcasting on ITV, but there was quite a bit on Channel 4. It was quite distinguished. Every night apart from Sunday and Friday Channel 4 had something serious to offer.
How does one relate what your Lordships may consider to be an absurd emotional prejudice to the reality of the documents which we are supposed to be considering? In the pledges that the BBC offers it states that it will have a large proportion of factual programmes in prime time on BBC1. I define "prime time" as from the evening news until midnight. That 68 seems to me not unreasonable, although I am not quite sure what is the professionals' definition. That is roughly from the time at which most people come home from work to the time at which, if they are sensible, they go to bed. That was the area I was covering with those programmes.
Paragraph 3.2 of the Agreement contains a number of lists of types of programme. There is absolutely nothing about our general cultural heritage being displayed, preserved or made familiar to people through the medium of broadcasting. There is a rather sinister reference to the diversity of cultural activity which, if it does not mean morris dancing in Bodmin, probably means sheep in formaldehyde; all sorts of worthy or unworthy experimental activities. But it does not mean, as it should, a diversity of our inheritance. We are more than we are because of what we inherit. I should like to see that worked into the list of responsibilities of broadcasting institutions.
There is also a matter which has been mentioned so I shall not labour the point. It is vitally important that the BBC should report on the extent to which and manner in which it meets its standards and objectives. That should be done not just for its own self-regarding purposes or to be looked at by a small group of distinguished people but so that it is publicly visible. For example, it should be possible to see what proportion of programmes of this, that or the other kind has been produced in the year, and the categories should not be too broad. Associated with that would be publication of proved offences by broadcasters and publication of what reaction those offences produced. That is coming down to rather small beer from Matthew Arnold. But in thinking about all this I keep asking myself: what would Lord Reith have made of "EastEnders"?
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Lord Elis-Thomas
My Lords, I shall not attempt to follow the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, into Matthew Arnold because obviously I am a disciple of Raymond Williams. Therefore, my understanding of the word "culture" would be rather different from his.
However, I think we agree that public service broadcasting as a cultural organisation must reflect the diversity of cultures. It is increasingly difficult to do that within a context in which a major public service broadcaster is a major programme producer operating both within public funding but also operating within a market which is increasingly world-wide and dominated by all kinds of technological changes as we rapidly drift into a multi-media century.
In a sense, that is what the dilemma facing the BBC is about. I speak as someone who took part in most of the debates on broadcasting in another place. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, that our form of debating the future of the BBC by Royal Charter is certainly out-dated and ineffective in terms of parliamentary scrutiny.
This evening which should look for some assurances from the Minister that he is treating the debate, as I think he indicated at the beginning, as though it were a debate on an amendable text; that he is not just listening to 69 comments on a text which is set in stone or concrete; and that he is prepared to respond to arguments that are put forward.
I must declare my own financial interest as part-time paid chair of Screen Wales, a media development agency and film commission in which the BBC is a partner, and also as a director of Marches Sound independent local radio, and an occasional professional contractor for the BBC. I was also a member of a now disappeared body—the General Advisory Council.
Before I move on to specific national and regional issues, I wish to make one international point. In the programme contents section of the draft Agreement, there is reference to the importance of the home services containing:authoritative comprehensive, and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world".I wish to emphasise that international aspect of the BBC's role. I am not just talking about the World Service which we all value and in particular because we can listen to it all night domestically if we are that way inclined. But having that World Service is of crucial importance both domestically and internationally.
But it is equally important that there should be documentary output on international topics on all our channels. It is a matter of concern that a recent study indicated that there has been a 40 per cent. decline across the terrestrial channels in the UK in the category which I have described under documentary output on international topics. That includes a decline on the BBC in its peak-time viewing category, and similarly on ITV and on Channel 4. That is a matter which broadcasters and the Government should address and strengthen in the draft Agreement.
I turn now to the national and regional aspects. Again, paragraph 3.2, to which I have just referred, contains a requirement to:stimulate, support and reflect … the diversity of cultural activity in the United Kingdom".We must be concerned about the structure through which the BBC can deliver that.
The same paragraph goes on to emphasise the importance of containing programmes which reflect the lives and concerns of both local and national audiences. There is also a new commitment clearly stated in the Agreement to contain:a reasonable proportion and range of programmes for national audiences made in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and in the English regions outside London and the South East".It is the extent to which both the Charter and the Agreement can fulfil those objectives of cultural diversity which concern me. I am sure that that concerns other Members of this House. It is important to stress that the BBC is not merely a British institution or a national institution in the English sense. It is also an extremely important cultural institution in its own right in the national regions. BBC Wales has a long history of development in dialogue and debate and occasional regular conflict with the centralising tendencies of the BBC. It was thus at the beginning of the organisation. There is a famous reference in the papers of the BBC to Lord Reith receiving a request to receive a deputation 70 from Wales. He replied, "I thought I dealt with Wales last week". Such an attitude of centralisation as opposed to the attempt to decentralise is evidenced throughout the history of the organisation and has been so well documented recently by John Davies in his history of BBC Wales which is available also—it may interest some multi-media buffs in this House to know—from BBC Wales on CD-ROM.
The issue of the BBC as a valued cultural player in both the nations and regions of the Kingdom is one which I wish to address. It occurs to me that the present structure of national councils and their appointments does not allow the BBC to be sufficiently accountable to the cultural diversity of its nations and regions. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I do not think that the present way of appointing members of the National Broadcasting Council is at all democratic or accountable.
I did that as a member of the selection panel of the General Advisory Council. I was partly responsible for selecting members of the Broadcasting Council. We attempted to recruit from a wide base and we even advertised. That is preferable to what is set out in the present Charter where it is not clear how the nomination process as regards the proposals of possible candidates is to be put in place. I am not saying that the old system of the GAC panel was the only way to do it but it at least provided a mechanism for nominations which had some objective base to it. It should be possible to look for an independent element in the appointment procedures. Such an independent process should he written into the Charter.
As we have heard before, that does not just apply to the NBCs in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is still a strong argument, which we have heard this evening, for a national broadcasting council for England to strengthen the present English regional forum and the roles of the regional advisory councils in England. It is important to recognise the autonomy of England as a cultural nation. I believe that that has been long neglected by the structures of the United Kingdom. The sooner that we get away from conflating England with London or with the United Kingdom, the easier it will be for all forms of diversity in this kingdom to be recognised. As always, I like to speak up for England.
The functions of the broadcasting councils are the next matters with which I wish to deal. I have looked briefly at the way in which they are nominated. Here again, I have some severe problems with the present draft Charter as compared with the previous structure. I understand that the Government have made an effort to look for ways of setting out more clearly the role of the NBCs; but my view is that that role falls far short of what was set out in the original White Paper. I say that because, at paragraphs 6.16 to 6.22 of that document (which all deal with the roles of national governors and national councils), it seemed to me that the Government were moving towards a structure of accountability for BBC policy and strategy—especially strategy—within the national regions which is no longer set out in the present structure.
71 Perhaps the Minister could explain—either in writing if he has time to do so after tonight's debate or, if not, in his concluding speech—what process has occurred to lead to the Government watering down the powers of the NBCs which appear to be set out in those paragraphs of the White Paper. I do not believe that "making arrangements", "advising", "assisting" and "ensuring" represent real powers. Indeed, those are the definitions in Article 12 of the draft Charter of the powers of the national broadcasting councils.
The previous Charter referred to the councils' power,to control programme policy and content".Although that was perhaps a more vague bottom line, it was a stronger bottom line than what is now set out. It is important for us to hear the Government's thinking on the issue of the powers of the broadcasting councils.
I am also concerned about the way in which the description of the television services which are to be provided is set out in the draft Charter. To specify two television services for the BBC and refer to one service as a service which, "may include regional variations", hardly does justice to the quality of the English language national service provided by BBC Wales, and by the BBC in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I believe that the regional variations of the channels of the BBC should be written into both the Charter and the Agreement.
It seems to me that we are in danger of moving back to a period of further centralisation within the BBC which may be imposed upon it by greater financial stringency. We have already had reference to the importance of maintaining a balance between the BBC management structure and the accountability of the governors. The same balance has also to be delivered at the national regional level. It is no good having a balance set up at the UK-BBC level and not having that balance maintained also at the national regional level. I know that we have this rather cumbersome mechanism in Article 7(d) of the Charter whereby the corporation has to take note of advice proffered by national broadcasting councils. However, that does not seem to me to amount to genuine, decentralised accountability and certainly not to genuinely decentralised management.
The Minister will recollect that in the White Paper the Government noted that the Broadcasting Council for Wales considered that the BBC's management in Wales should be accountable to the national council rather than to the BBC's senior management. I shall not go so far as that in the proposals that I put forward this evening, but I do say that the whole issue needs to be reviewed and that the Government should take the matter away between our debate here and that in another place on the Charter and consider whether or not there are mechanisms to strengthen the national regional management and accountability both within the Charter and the Agreement. It is only thus that we can ensure that public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom genuinely represents the cultural diversity of this kingdom.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Howell
My Lords, we have had a most fascinating debate thus far, but we are not even halfway through as yet. Therefore, I shall do my best not to impose upon the generosity of the House. I should like to thank the Minister for the way that he approached his task and especially to welcome some of the new proposals being laid upon the governors, in particular as regards determining strategies.
I shall talk mainly about sport this evening. It has not had much of a look-in so far, although it has been mentioned here and there. I shall also talk about how we finance sport on the BBC, which in fact has had no look-in whatever in tonight's debate. I suppose that most of the sporting public—for example, the 16 million who watched the Cup Final—will regard our debate as having had an extraordinary absence of reality. I say that because, apart from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who, if I may say so, dealt with his subject extremely well in a splendid speech, we have not got down to talking about what people actually see on their television screens. I wonder what all those millions of sporting viewers would actually think of the debate if they happened to read a report of it. They might think that it was academic, intellectual and almost esoteric in parts.
How can we have a debate on the future of BBC sport without mentioning the name of Mr. Rupert Murdoch? Indeed, his name has not been mentioned in today's debate. Nevertheless, he will determine what the future of BBC sport will be. As I said, I welcome the fact that the governors will now have to develop a strategy. I wish them well. Indeed, some of us would be happy to try to assist them, because it is essential for them to develop a strategy in respect of sport.
In his opening speech the Minister said that the Government were determined that the BBC should maintain its position in public service broadcasting and that it should do so mainly on the licensing revenue. The noble Lord looks puzzled; if he did not say those words, I am well pleased. If we are to rely on the licensing revenue to enable the BBC to broadcast sport, I have to that that is an impossible proposition. I do not direct those remarks just to the Minister; indeed, I do so also, with great care, to my noble friend Lord Donoughue who also talked about some of the difficulties of financing public service broadcasting without becoming too commercial. I am sure that that is an aim which we should all like to achieve.
In my view, BBC sport faces a catastrophic situation unless we can face up to the financing crisis which is afflicting it. Indeed, not a week goes by without us finding that the BBC has lost yet another vitally important sporting contract. The FA Cup has now gone to independent television, but that is a terrestrial channel so we cannot complain too much about it. However, it raises the question as to whether the BBC has the finances to compete even against independent television. Moreover, in many other sports that I shall mention shortly we find that the same story applies.
73 We shall be discussing the Broadcasting Bill next week. In that respect, it will be absolutely vital in the interests of the BBC, and, indeed, of the other terrestrial channels, to discuss such questions as the listed events which we have to protect or expand if we are to be fair to the large number of viewers. It is our duty to protect those viewers through this Charter and through this debate.
I am particularly saddened that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is not in the Chamber at the moment because I wanted to take issue with him as he wished to sell 40 million viewers down the river as regards their television licences. He said they could all afford to pay for the licence and that he could afford to do so. Obviously some of us can afford to pay for it. I declare an interest as a director of a Birmingham cable company. I have two subscriptions to cable television, one in Birmingham and one in Westminster. My bill for the Westminster subscription arrived this morning. The bill for the sport and news channels, which is all I have, is £18.71 a month. That kind of figure is not within the reach of the 40 million people who do not have access to Sky Television or to cable television. It is our duty to defend their rights today.
We cannot allow the coverage of certain events to fall, one after another, to Mr. Murdoch. The situation will get worse with the arrival of digital television and pay television. That will aggravate the problem. One will only be able to watch first-class sporting events if one can afford to pay more than the normal licence fee. The BBC is starved of cash and therefore it cannot carry out its responsibilities. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, and my noble friend Lord Donoughue referred to the matter of revenue. I think all of us would agree that the present BBC licence fee must be the best value for money in the land when we consider what we get for it in terms of radio, the World Service and television. Now the BBC must confront the high costs of technology and the threat of Mr. Murdoch and Sky Television.
We have to face the fact that new income is desperately needed. Therefore I do not rule out some form of pay television on the BBC that is available to the broad mass of people. However, I am much more interested in the development of sponsored programmes. I am not sure that all of my colleagues would go along with this line, but I cannot for the life of me understand why the BBC is not allowed to sponsor specific sports programmes, because the truth is that that is what it is doing now. Hardly a sports programme appears on our television which is not sponsored by someone. The people who receive the money are the leagues or associations, the governing bodies of the sport, the clubs and the players. All that is being broadcast by BBC Television as sponsored sport. The only people who do not get a penny out of it are the BBC, who are broadcasting the programmes into our homes. That seems to me to be rather a ludicrous situation.
We must ask from where the BBC can obtain more money, particularly for sports coverage. There should be a modest increase in the licence fee. That is important to protect public service broadcasting. However, it would seem to me that we should examine the matter of sponsored programmes producing an income for the 74 BBC rather than for everyone else who is receiving the income now. As I have said, we have sponsored programmes now. We must consider how to finance the BBC in the new technological era of Sky Television and Mr. Murdoch.
We only have to consider what the BBC has lost. It has lost football coverage. Rugby League and Rugby Union have both been lost. Mr. Murdoch is on the prowl. I am told that he is after the Olympics and he is willing to negotiate for them. I would certainly want to protect the Olympic Games if we extend the list of protected events. The BBC has coverage of Wimbledon pretty well to the end of the century but let us make no mistake about it, Mr. Murdoch and Sky Television have set their sights on that too. Athletics coverage moved from the BBC to independent television a year or two ago and has now found that it has been left in the lurch by independent television, which will no longer televise those events. I hope that coverage of those events will return to the BBC if the BBC has the resources to pay for that. The same story applies to golf.
I would cite as an example of the competition that the BBC is up against the fact that Mr. Murdoch is trying to bid for the Five Nations rugby competition for a fee of £25 million a year. That is five times what the BBC can pay for the same event. That gives us an illustration of the size of the problem that is facing us. As I say, Sky Television and Mr. Murdoch ate determined to devour BBC sports coverage first and independent television sports coverage next.
I wish to say a few words about the duties of the governing bodies of sport. That matter has quite rightly already been mentioned. The governing bodies of sport have responsibilities to the public, as have the BBC and the Government. However, in my judgment, many of those governing bodies of sport are not carrying out those duties in the way they should. They are selling their sports short for the highest amount of money they can get. They do not have enough sense to see that when Mr. Murdoch has gained coverage of all the sports he will drop his fees. They are making themselves hostages to fortune. Financially it is shortsighted nonsense for sporting bodies to have regard solely to the financial attractions offered by Sky Television.
Quite apart from the financial side, if anyone has responsibility for the broad mass of supporters of a sport it is the governing bodies just as much as the Government. I am told that often members of the governing bodies of sport find that their rights have been signed away, in many cases without any debate. I urge them to ask themselves what their duty to the nation is. An elementary consideration that does not seem to have occurred to many of those bodies is that, if coverage of all sport is on Sky Television, masses of young people may well be deprived of the opportunity of viewing a sport, getting excited about it and becoming future adherents of that sport. It is self-defeating nonsense to go down that road.
A balance needs to be struck. Of course the governing bodies want to earn as much as they can from television coverage of sport and of course the BBC does not pay them as much as it should. I urge the Government and 75 everyone else to address that problem and to consider how the BBC can address that problem. However, at the end of the day, the governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure that their sport is broadcast to the nation and is available in the homes of those 40 million people, many of whom cannot afford Sky Television but have supported sport throughout their lives by attending sporting events in person. When they are elderly and perhaps infirm they are entitled to expect the governing bodies to think of their interests as viewers as well as their own financial interests.
I have tried to speak as briefly as I can. However, I should add that the precious quality of BBC broadcasting is being eroded before our eyes. We in Parliament in discussing this Charter, and the Government when we debate the Broadcasting Bill, have a duty to protect that quality for the broad mass of people in this country.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ The Earl of Northesk
My Lords, like so many of your Lordships I have been drawn to those particular sections of the draft Charter and Agreement that seek to deal with the issue of impartiality, and particularly in so far as they relate to current affairs and documentary coverage. By way of introduction it seems to me that there is a sense of unease that the traditional values of balance, integrity and objectivity, for which both the BBC and the UK media generally are justly renowned, are becoming a little frayed at the edges. Indeed, to varying degrees many of your Lordships articulated that concern today. However, in rationalising that I do not believe that there is any profit to be derived from seeking to apportion blame. As my noble friend Lord Moyne intimated in our debate on cheque-book journalism:It is a cliché to say that we are all guilty, but we are".—[Official Report, 20/12/95; col. 1658.]I stress that I do not seek to indulge in any gratuitous bashing of the BBC. Furthermore, the weight of my arguments will, as a generality, apply to the media as a whole, although they will be especially pertinent to the corporation on the basis of its unique and arguably pre-eminent position in the field of broadcasting both on a national and global basis.
I should perhaps also stress that I am broadly satisfied with the current drafting of the impartiality clauses in the Agreement, albeit that I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, in saying that to my mind they fail to address the fundaments of the dilemma we are facing. It is my belief that codification of the concept of impartiality, as in the draft Agreement, is an inappropriate means of achieving and sustaining principles of balance and objectivity in our information age.
One of the central pillars upon which the edifice of our democracy is based is an essential and interdependent trinity of the people (as the nation's body and substance), of Parliament (as its mind and intellect) and of the press (as its voice and conscience or, as expressed by my noble friend Lord Burnham, its 76 watchdog). The creed of this trinity is embodied in the three essential freedoms of speech, of the sovereignty of Parliament and of the press. The status of our democracy, its robustness and its health can only be sustained by the relationships within that trinity being ones of mutual respect and trust each unto the other. Indeed, it is upon that precept that the imperatives of integrity, balance and impartiality of the press are built, for without them that mutual trust and respect cannot exist.
As I have already implied, there is a palpable sense in which our modem age would seem to be eroding and undermining those fundamental principles. How is that so?
It could justifiably be argued that in times past the primary manifestation of the media was its role as a mechanism for the dissemination of information. However, I question whether that remains the case now that the media have had the opportunity to embrace the technology of the information revolution—ENG, satellite, video, cable, the Internet, multimedia and so on. Of course that has produced benefits, not the least of which is the immediacy with which information and news coverage can be communicated to a mass audience. However, it is all too easy to let those benefits disguise some of the latent and very much more harmful effects of not only IT but also our responses to it.
My first perception in that regard is that the modern media now tend to attach greater significance to their role as a mechanism for the expression of opinion than to that of the dissemination of information. Nowhere is that phenomenon more apparent than in the ever more important role of the commentator or pundit, of whom it has to be said there are a goodly number in both the corridors of the BBC and Parliament. Their stock in trade is their own opinion, fuelled to a greater or lesser extent by the gossip, the innuendo, the inside or second-hand information, the rumour, and the leaks emanating from whatever field in which they claim expertise. Factual news and current affairs broadcasts are now liberally sprinkled with their influence and interpretation. They bring with them their own peculiar brand of gravitas from which exudes a spurious authority and credibility and upon which both their own reputation and the commercial edge of their employers depend.
Lest I be misunderstood, and while admitting that I am not enamoured of them as a breed, I maintain that commentators nonetheless perform a useful and important function. What I find disquieting is the subtle way in which their opinions are increasingly masqueraded to a wider and wider audience as fact. That is undoubtedly a cause for both regret and concern, especially in so far as it relates to principles of impartiality. However, it would be both naive and wrong to blame the media alone for that development. Rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the commercial climate in which the media operate and of our—the people's—voracious appetite for more than pure reportage can deliver.
77 That leads me to my second perception. Many of your Lordships who spoke in the debate of my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith alluded to the priorities that drive the media industry. My noble friend Lord Moyne expressed it thus:The primary desire of press readers at every level is far more for entertainment than for information".—[Official Report, 20/12/95; col. 1658.]I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, contributed a similar observation. It is pure folly to imagine that the media are not cognisant of that fact. Indeed, I contend that as a direct response to the public's requirements in this there is a discernible trend away from pure reportage towards an increasingly entertainment-based style and content of current affairs delivery and presentation. That is clearly evident in the tabloid press—all fluff and no substance—but it is also showing signs of permeating the broadsheets as well as television and radio.
The way in which the device of the interview has developed over the years serves to illustrate the point. With hindsight we can recognise that television and radio, in their infancy, may have accorded their interviewees too much respect, perhaps even verging on obsequiousness. As the broadcast industry matured, it shrugged off that lack of sophistication. Quite rightly, in view of its role as the public's watchdog, it developed a more antagonistic approach as the means of holding public figures more readily and properly to account while retaining the dual priorities of affording respect—however grudging—to, and eliciting information from, the interviewee.
Today's interviews have refined and evolved the antagonistic approach yet further to an extent whereby, to my mind, they have become almost totalitarian in character. The primary aim of the interviewer is that of embarrassing, discomfiting and undermining the credibility of the interviewee because it is perceived that that is what the audience wants. The means whereby that is achieved—hostility, confrontation, bullying, intimidation and perhaps even flattery—are an irrelevance provided only that the interests of "entertainment" and of "good" television are adequately served. More than that, the reputations, the very careers of interviewers are measured against their abilities in that regard. Of course there is validity in the argument that "if you cannot stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen"—it has long been the case that public service, especially high office, is not a province for the faint-hearted—but we should not let that blind us to the fact that, to all intents and purposes, any message that the interviewee may wish to convey is becoming more and more subordinate to the demands of the medium. Moreover, I cannot help feeling that an inevitable consequence of that trend has been a breeding of discord and distrust in the relationships between the people, the political process and the press.
A further aspect of this is the role now played by investigative journalism and the documentary. Again, I have no complaint here. Both have very worthy traditions of performing useful and valuable functions. They demystify and debunk, and in so doing, have an innate capacity to reveal ills and wrongs that we would 78 all like to see righted. However, that is a process which can be, and has been, taken too far. Any documentary, whatever its subject, starts from the premise that there is something worthy of investigation therein, that there is a fault to find, regardless of whether that is indeed the case. Our media, imbued with the commercial imperative of satisfying and entertaining their audience, are not in a position to accede to bland guided tours of whatever is the documentary focus of their attention. That would not engender saleable product and would not produce "good" television.
I recall the words of my noble friend Lady Young in this context:Every British institution is now subject to denigration of one kind or another".—[Official Report, 7/6/95; cols. 1360.]She went on to say at col. 1363:One of the most dangerous aspects of politics nowadays is that … allegations are made unsubstantiated by any evidence whatever and they are then assumed to be true".Nothing and no one in this world is perfect. It seems to me that, to an ever-increasing extent, the documentary and investigative journalism, even news coverage, in the absence of more substantial hooks on which to hang their story, seek to portray imperfections as transgressions. As it were, controversy is born of consensus. The fate of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor's Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill in the last Session serves to illustrate the point. Again, as with the way in which the broadcast interview has developed, what is undermined above all else in this process is mutual respect and trust.
My third perception is that we are living in an ever more propagandist age. It could be argued that society's perspectives are becoming more and more individualistic, more specialist and more focused. To a degree, the concept of the "greater good" has fallen by the wayside and is playing second fiddle to society's growing enthusiasm for sectional interests. That has given rise to the growth in importance of the cerebral equivalent of the "pick-n-mix", the single issue. Of course single issues have merit. However, in our era of mass communication there are considerable dangers in their narrow focus, in their exclusivity. It seems to me that, as perhaps in Greenpeace's campaign against deep sea disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform, there is an overriding aspiration to achieve the desired end in blissful ignorance of how that may interact with and have repercussions on the wider context—as it were, an unbidden sense of the end justifying the means. Clearly any reliance upon part or half truth, however inadvertent, has about it the character of misinformation.
However, to my mind the apogee of this particular phenomenon is the use of "spin" and the "sound bite" as the means whereby the political process communicates with the electorate. At best these practices are a deception. At worst, they arc quite literally the seedlings of propaganda which, elaborating upon a recent thought of my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is the pit-bull of totalitarianism. It is both ludicrous and dangerous for a weighty message to be wrapped in the tinsel of "pretty" phraseology, for a punchy headline to be considered a legitimate substitute for content. And yet it would seem that "spin" and 79 "sound bite" are entering the psyche of the medium as entirely acceptable and legitimate means of manipulating factual substance to the advantage of vested interest. Thus there is a very real sense in which distortion, bias and prejudice may already have taken root in the media.
As I say, I do not attach opprobrium to the BBC or the media alone for those developments. It is as much a case of the message being shaped to fit the medium as it is of the medium shaping the message. It is also the case that individual members of society have their own prerogative in this, their expectation, à la Andy Warhol, that they will have the opportunity to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. But we should be ever mindful that in our information age the media have the power to reach a constituency of millions in the blink of an eye. In this context, it is sobering to reflect that mass communication is but a step away from mass hysteria. The 1940s radio production of Orson Welles's The War of the Worlds comes to mind.
All of this bespeaks considerable feelings of mistrust which exist between the people, Parliament and the press. Notwithstanding the sterling work of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Nolan and Lord Griffiths, to redress the balance, disaffection with the political process, which we must all appreciate is entirely distinct from any apparent unpopularity of a government, is rife. Even in my short time in your Lordships' House I have felt a tendency of many of us in Parliament towards greater insularity—a putting up of the barricades against a disrespectful press. By the same token, the media are increasingly driven to entertain, divert, shock or titillate by both the commercial constraint of retaining audience share and by what my noble friend Lord Moyne described as "our unpleasant curiosity", our insatiable appetite for more than that which pure reportage can deliver.
In musing about this over the Christmas break, a somewhat seasonal analogy came to mind. We can characterise the current status of our democratic trinity as being akin to Peter Pan having lost his shadow. The innocence of trust and respect has been supplanted by an adolescent and world-weary cynicism. I suspect, and fear, that this process is irreversible: that there is no Wendy who can sew the shadow back on. I would further suggest that this is a primary cause of the attitudinal malaise, the degeneration of traditional value systems with which society seems currently to be infected.
But what is the relevance of all this to the issue of impartiality? It is simply this. If there is no faith in the median against which impartiality is measured, any attempt at its codification is utterly meaningless. Indeed, I suspect that to do so would at best serve to sustain the abrasive friction which has developed between the public, the press and Parliament each unto the other, and at worst would ultimately lead to a complete breakdown of that tripartite relationship. In this context, I do not think that we should be misled into believing that the media or the BBC in particular exhibit any less probity in this than in times past. However, in our information age we can recognise the immense power that the media 80 now have at their disposal but cannot see objectively where responsibility and accountability are to be achieved.
That combined with the devaluation of the principle of impartiality is symptomatic of the way in which I believe our democratic process is being mercilessly, perhaps even fatally, wounded. In my view our challenge is not to redefine or reinvigorate the concepts enshrined in paragraph 5 of the draft Agreement. Rather, we need to find the means to rediscover mutual trust and respect in a format that is in keeping with our modern idiom. We all have our part to play in this. Should we fail to meet this challenge, we shall continue to stumble blindly on with our judgments of impartiality riddled with increasing dissatisfaction and scepticism.
But the Charter and Agreement are not appropriate mechanisms to resolve this dilemma, although I find it salutary to reflect that the majority of noble Lords who have spoken today have indicated, if not outright suspicion, certainly reticence about the way in which the principle of impartiality is currently exercised. Perhaps naïvely, I simply hope that we all, but especially the BBC and the media, have the courage, the wisdom and the capacity to find the means to rediscover mutual trust and respect as the means to see a renaissance of true impartiality.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Viscount Tenby
My Lords, many of us appreciate the trouble that the Minister took shortly before Christmas in arranging a very well attended and thoughtful meeting on these matters which I hope was of value to all who took part. It certainly was to me.
It is also proper to pay tribute to the Minister's right honourable friend in another place, the Secretary of State, for listening to the concerns of many of us from all sides of the House, in particular relating to the implementation and enforcement of standards of taste and of impartiality and on the future role of the governors. But with regard to the last matter, I have to say that I believe that more still could be done, and I accordingly support the terms in which the Motion of the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, is expressed. I hope, however, that by the end of the debate sufficiently cast-iron assurances will have been made by the Minister to overcome those reservations.
As a wholehearted and unreserved supporter of public service broadcasting, I applaud warmly the Government's commitment to it and what I hope will he the end of some of the sillier free market theories—or viruses, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, charmingly described them—being peddled in the 1980s. The corporation stands for a very great deal both here and overseas; and it is for that reason vital that we seize this opportunity to get things right, for a similar chance will not recur for some years to come.
The chief concerns voiced in the months preceding the appearance of these drafts, certainly in the informal broadcasting group to which I belong, have related to three issues: matters of taste and decency, including of course violence; impartiality; and the role of the governors.
81 So far as concerns the first point, the right balance has to be struck between the preservation of artistic freedom and the need to adhere to certain basic standards of propriety. As one who in the vernacular of today can now safely be described as a "wrinkly", I appreciate only too well that my standards may be very different from those of, say, a young man in his 20s. But I can, just about, remember what it was like then arid I dislike prudery as much as the next person. But we know very well in our hearts, do we not, what is acceptable and what is not. All too often what is not is included by programme makers who have neither the talent nor the imagination to convey, for example, eroticism more subtly. It is of course an admission of artistic inadequacy, but one which unfortunately may offend some people as a side effect.
I am, frankly, not as worried about present standards of impartiality as some, although adherence to the principle is of prime importance. In my experience the BBC has always tended to be agin the government of the day. The late Lord Wilson was as concerned about its perceived bias as some Ministers are today. However, what is clear is that in both those areas the playing field should be a level one and the corporation should be subject to the same criteria as independent broadcasters. To date that has not been the case and the corporation has been able to act as its own judge and jury in policing what in any event has hitherto been an imprecise code of conduct.
The new arrangements bring me to the third area of concern namely, the future role of the governors, who will now be obliged, as has already been quoted today, to monitor and supervise the corporation's legal and contractual obligations. In this context, reference is made to guidelines and codes. Many would prefer the word "rules" to take their place. Rules are invariably harder to circumvent, even by the most ingenious expert in semantics. But like my noble friend Lord Chalfont, I would settle for "codes", thereby bringing the BBC into line with the independent broadcasters. To complete the circle, can we add a third requirement after monitoring and supervising, namely, action taken?
At present, the regulatory bodies, the BCC and the BSC, are happily shortly to be merged in a single agency. I agree with noble Lords who have been asking for a single regulatory body to cover the whole area of broadcasting. The current two regulatory authorities report on complaints, their nature and whether they have been upheld or not. After that, however, all is silence—unless, that is, the transmitting company concerned roundly and publicly rejects the findings with angry contempt. What an extraordinary state of affairs and what a false promise of regulation.
I suggest that there should always be a third and final stage in the process, whoever is conducting the regulation. It is really quite a simple one: detailing action taken and seeking assurances that the offence will not recur. I accept that BBC governors are already, and will be even more so in the future, in an unenviable position. They will have to have split personalities. They will, at second hand as it were, have to run the corporation as well as regulate it. But what sanctions will be available to them in the event of departure from 82 the code or rules—call it what you will? This lies at the very heart of the matter. Clearly, as the Government have already made plain, financial penalties will not be appropriate as they are for independent broadcasters. No one has yet come up with any viable alternative—let us be clear about that. Perhaps a warning system involving penalty points for transgressors would concentrate minds wonderfully. But whatever sanction is adopted, it is essential that it should have teeth and that it is also one which governors themselves should devise.
Perhaps I may turn briefly to three other points. I am pleased at the unreserved commitment to regional programming and to the production of local language programmes, but in the Secretary of State's briefing paper it seems odd to refer specifically to gaelic programmes in Scotland and Irish programmes in Ulster without any mention of the most popular non-English programmes of all—those, of course, in Welsh in the form of the all-Welsh national programme enjoyed by so many in the Principality. I am sure that on this occasion Homer or the draft writer nodded. In any event, my noble friend Lord Elis-Thomas has spoken out nobly in favour of BBC Cymru.
Secondly, in view of the reduction in this year's capital budget of £5.4 million for the World Service and the plan in the following year for further cuts amounting to £8.6 million, it is unfortunate that the proceeds of the sale of World Service transmission assets are to be returned to the Exchequer—from whence it is true they originally came. It is, however, a mean, penny-pinching sort of logic which will inevitably diminish a service which is held in high esteem throughout the world. It is one which the present Governor of Hong Kong, no less, has rightly called,a unique ambassador for Britain".Lastly, it is very pleasing to read of the Government's resolve to protect and maintain the. BBC Archive. I would welcome the Minister's assurance that funds for that purpose will be made available, even during times of financial stringency. It is an important asset.
With the advent of digital television and the world-wide explosion in global communication, it is difficult to see more than a few years ahead. Increased competition and the sheer size of the sums involved have already provoked fears that the BBC will become the poor man at the feast. It will be unable to compete for listed events, for example, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, and be pulled down to lower levels in order to compete for market share. It seems inevitable that the public will have to pay more for their licences in future, but probably at the very time when fewer viewers are watching the corporation's programmes. Never mind; I agree with my noble friend Lady James of Holland Park that those who could afford to pay more for the service get it at a ridiculously cheap price at the present time and that more money could safely be gathered in—that is provided, of course, that it is clear that I am in the lower bracket!
I am sure that many would agree that there must be a limit to the free interplay of market forces, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, said. Some things are worth preserving, even if the cost is high. In the cultural life 83 of this country, the BBC is one of them. It is a priceless asset which those who follow us would not thank us for neglecting or destroying.
§ 7.56 p.m.
My Lords, I wish to focus on the interface between the BBC's activities as a public broadcaster and its ability to undertake commercial activities. We know from the Charter, Article 7, that the Governors,shall determine the strategy for … Commercial Services in such a way … that they are funded, operated and accounted for separately from the Public Services".We also know from the Agreement, paragraph 10.10 that no sponsored or subscription programme may be broadcast without the prior approval of the Secretary of State. Separately, the Broadcasting Bill currently states that the BBC will be licensed for commercial broadcasting by the ITC but that the Secretary of State requires to be consulted before any licence is granted.
It is clear that commercial broadcasting by the BBC is conditional on the Secretary of State's agreement to BBC proposals. What is not clear, and what I cannot find anywhere, is any indication of the boundaries for the BBC between acceptable and unacceptable commercial broadcasts. The criteria to be used by the Secretary of State and the regulator, the ITC, ought in my view to be stated. The BBC governors are required to make clear objectives. We do not know what objectives they will set for commercial broadcasts. Indeed, we may wonder how they can set objectives at all without government guidance on what, if anything, will he commercially unacceptable.
One aspect is laid down. Commercial funding must he kept separate from public funding. The BBC makes income from commercial resale abroad of public programmes. I wonder which set of accounts will benefit. Clearly the BBC, when it broadcasts commercially, has intangible assets at its disposal which are of value. It has expertise in programme making; it has available trained human resources which can be switched from public payroll to commercial and back to public at a moment's notice. It has much else in administration besides.
I see nothing necessarily wrong with this. I think that the BBC is to be commended for wanting to make use of its expertise to achieve profits, and thus, I hope, to reduce the size of the licence fee needed for its public service. But just where and when would BBC activities become competition which is deemed unfair to those holding private sector licences? What criteria will lead to a BBC commercial licence?
I suggest that it is in the interests of both the BBC and the private sector that high level guidelines should be laid down now, should there be certain commercial activities which when practised by the BBC are considered undesirable. I hope that the Minister will respond to this suggestion and also that he will not tell me that the answer must come from the ITC, since clearly the Secretary of State has retained the power to make policy decisions.
84 Next I should like to draw attention to paragraphs 3 to 6 of the BBC's Agreement which refer to the high general standards which the BBC will maintain for its "Home Services". That title is undefined, but by inference it seems to me to distinguish UK public broadcasts from those of the World Service. If "Home Services" are intended to include UK commercial broadcasts, it would be sensible so to specify.
My final point concerns responsibilities which only a public broadcaster may be expected to bear. Indeed, I wish to put the case for one such responsibility. Noble Lords will be aware that some EU nation states desire programme quotas in order to protect programmes in their national languages from cheaper American-speaking products. This is currently supported by the Culture Committee of the European Parliament. Such proposals have not found favour here in the UK.
Recently, the parliamentary association, EURIM, with which I am connected, considered the EU call for quotas and came to the conclusion that this is not a matter for the Commission to decide; rather it is something which each nation state ought to resolve for itself. It added that, in its view, the best way to protect cultural diversity is to make such protection an obligation on national public broadcasting services. I believe that the Minister may agree with this, but it has implications.
The concept that the licence fee gives the public the right to view a minimum of nationally made programmes and certain national type events which ought to be available for all to see is certainly one that is popular with the UK public and one in which there is a good deal of logic. I find it hard to know from reading the BBC Charter and its associated Agreement whether this concept is actively supported by government. If it is, then it adds to the responsibilities which apply only to the public broadcaster.
To conclude, I hope I have demonstrated two aspects of the BBC's responsibilities which ought to be further clarified. First, the advantages it has gained over many years as a monopoly public broadcaster suggest the possible need for some limitation on the extent of commercial competition by it. If so, this ought to be expressed now rather than be determined as competition ensues. Secondly, any special obligations on the BBC in its role as a public broadcaster should also be identified now, at the start of the new Charter.
§ 8.2 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, Reith was my friend. We were members of the same club. On occasion we could be seen enjoying post-prandial cups of coffee. My noble friend Lady James suggested that Reith would not have been the man for today. But if he had been born 70 years later, and if he could be rejuvenated now as the BBC is being rejuvenated with this Charter, the conclusion might he rather different. His integrity and determination would have shone through, as would the other qualities that helped him make the BBC what it was.
85 I do not skip 70 years; but to skip 33 years, I was a governor of the BBC. 'Ten years earlier I had been a participant in various popular programmes on the BBC: the post-war "Brains Trust", for example. In the ambience in which I moved, I became aware of what might be called the sub-gubernatorial sub-culture in the BBC of people who deluded themselves into thinking that, because they belonged to a chartered body, they were absolutely independent of everything and could do as they pleased. How wrong they were! I consider it a good thing to point this out to them by inviting the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, to incorporate in the Agreement a clause to the following effect, headed "Interpretation": "Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed as prejudicial to the sovereignty of Parliament". That would add absolutely nothing to the terms of the Agreement, since Parliament is already sovereign; its powers are unlimited. But it would rather spike the guns of that particular sub-culture, which does the BBC no good.
We have heard many speeches, some short and some long. I have managed to put my point over in a couple of minutes. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will take it to heart.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Earl. We have been friends in this House for many years.: I have no idea today where the noble Earl stands politically; and he may not know where I stand. However, on matters deeper than politics we have much in common.
I shall raise one question, of which I gave notice to the Minister. As the number of speakers seems infinite, he may not have time to reply to my particular point. I would refer to the Minister as "my noble kinsman", except that it might do him infinite damage. It might destroy a very promising political career. I was once invited by a very promising young Conservative to address a gathering of young Conservatives. After I did so, that gentleman was sacked! He was no longer allowed to belong to the party. Therefore I hesitate to mention a family connection.
I am sure that the question I want to put to the Minister will appeal to the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, as a strong Christian. Will the Minister agree that Christianity should be specifically included in the BBC Charter? I gave him some short notice, and he had time to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister. I read in the newspaper recently that the Prime Minister was in close consultation with evangelical leaders, including, I am glad to think, the PPS in this Chamber, the noble Lord, Lord McColl. Perhaps the Prime Minister will take an interest in this question.
Some noble Lords will remember the strong initiative some years ago taken up by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and supported by members of all parties, and notably by the. then Bishop of London, for the inclusion of Christianity in the most important education Bill of recent times. If it was included in the Education Bill, why should it not be included in the Charter? Perhaps 86 the noble Lord will have time to reply. Even if he has to write to me, I hope he will give me an answer of some kind.
Let us ask what are the disadvantages of the present situation. Here I must be very careful since I was warned that my brief experience of BBC religious programmes is not representative. I am told that 90 per cent. of programmes have a strong Christian flavour. Certainly I listen on Sundays with great enjoyment and profit to "Songs of Praise", so I am ready to believe it.
I speak from personal experience. Although I cannot remember any other occasion on which I was asked to take part in a religious programme, I was invited to take part in "The Moral Maze". The title is bad in itself, with its idea that morals are in a state of confusion. It is supposed to be a religious programme; it is not some ethical nonsense. Who were the panel? They were a couple of humanists, an eminent rabbi and a lady who was said to be progressing from Judaism to Christianity—which I suppose is considered a movement forward. Is that what we want to see in a religious programme sponsored by this country, where, as we well know, the vast majority of people are Christians? The number who belong to some other religion is negligible.
What went on in this programme? I do not want to be discouraging to the members, but I happened to sit outside and I listened to the other guests being interrogated. We formed the idea that they were a ghastly crew. Perhaps we were a little biased. So when we went in we were prepared. Frankly, to say that the atmosphere was non-Christian would be rather to understate the position. I quoted Jesus Christ—and I felt like a member of the Oxford and Cambridge Club who said he once mentioned politics in the presence of Clem Attlee, who then curtly revoked him with the words, "Don't talk shop in mess." That was the way Christianity was treated on that programme. And it comes under the auspices of the Religious Affairs Authority. To the best of my belief the Religious Affairs Authority would welcome my suggestion. To say the suggestion is put forward in humility is to be slightly bogus. It is not put forward with humility at all; it is put forward in a rather dogmatic spirit, as I do not believe there is any answer to the question. In an overwhelmingly Christian country, if Christianity is included in the main education Bill, why should it not be included in the BBC Charter?
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Lord Gibson
My Lords, with the wording of the amendment moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, I find it impossible to quarrel. I cannot see how anyone could quarrel with it. If clarity be a good, then greater clarity must be an even greater good. Nevertheless, I have listened to the speeches this afternoon, and I shall find it impossible to vote for the amendment. I believe in the crucial distinction, which I was so pleased to hear the Minister enunciate at the outset of the debate, between telling the governors the objectives that we want them to attain—I do not mind 87 into how much detail these documents go in telling them that—and telling them how to do it. I was very pleased to hear the Minister setting out his stall, as it were, on that basis.
I should not be opposed to any further refinement in describing the governors' responsibilities. I suspect that that could be done and I should probably want to support it, if I saw the wording. I feel that it is crucial to the success of the BBC in future that we maintain that approach. We have to trust the governors to decide how to enforce the code on the rules that they establish and that we tell them to establish.
When I heard the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, ask what kind of a management we would get if we hemmed the governors around with rules and penalties, my mind went back to the many years I served on the board of the Financial Times, for a time as chairman. I asked myself what kind of an editor we should have secured if we had hemmed him about in that way and what kind of paper we would have produced. I remember very well the late Lord Drogheda, who told the editor almost daily what to do. But the editor, Sir Gordon Newton, was himself a strong character and there was a creative tension between them which produced a very fine newspaper. I do not for a moment want to suggest that a newspaper like the Financial Times, or indeed any other newspaper, is remotely comparable with the BBC. The complexity and size of the BBC make it an entirely different matter in many ways. But in my judgment the operating principle is the same. I feel that very strongly.
I have much sympathy with these problems and the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, and the noble Lords, Lord Orr-Ewing and Lord Chalfont, and appreciate the stories that they told. My reaction to what they told us is almost exactly the same as theirs. However, I do not believe that by hemming the governors around and telling them how to run the operation we shall achieve the objective. I believe that we have to trust them. That is the only point that I want to make.
I do not believe that legislation is the answer to this difficulty. The only way we can achieve our aim is by choosing the right governors and the governors choosing the right director-general; and, particularly, by the chairman building up a working relationship of trust and comprehension with the director-general. I hope and believe that the new chairman will set out with that intention. It was certainly the intention of Mr. Hussey, who has been a very good chairman. It sometimes breaks down, of course, as it did the other day over the broadcast of the Princess of Wales, which, in my judgment, was a disgraceful act on the part of the director-general. These things will sometimes happen and misjudgments of that kind will occur, but certainly the trust is greater than it used to be, and I hope that it will get even greater in future and that the results will be much better.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, this is a very important debate. As so many noble Lords have said, 88 the British Broadcasting Corporation is highly respected in many ways and by many countries worldwide for the quality of both its radio and television programmes. There are many programmes on both radio and television that are outstanding in their coverage of national events, such as the recent VE and VJ days, which contribute positively to the morale and unity of our nation. On many occasions we admire the courage and persistence of outside broadcasting radio and television teams in transmitting direct to our homes the drama of international, dangerous events, such as those of the Gulf War. The World Service radio is a tremendously important link with home for British residents abroad and very much appreciated by citizens of other countries for the quality of its news reports. I hope that it will continue to retain that quality.
I personally very much enjoy the classical music broadcast on Radio 3 and feel that it is a great privilege to hear concerts given by internationally renowned orchestras and soloists without having to leave my fireside. I could do with less talk and more music and less "concrete" music, but I accept that a national service has difficulty catering for all tastes and that I must give and take.
I pay great tribute in particular to two television programmes over Christmas. "The Voyage of Charles Darwin" and the Royal Institution lectures illuminated fields of development of our Earth, its geology and its human, animal and plant inhabitants in a most clear and exciting way. The photography and visual aids enabled us to visit the volcanic rock of the Galapagos and see the tortoises and lizards, as if we could stretch out our arms and touch them, although they are half a world away. The rapt attention of the school children to the complex facts presented with such clarity in the Royal Institution lectures was a clear expression of their admiration of the lectures.
Those are the good things. In seeing them, one has often to see excerpts from other television programmes which are to be presented later that day. I can only feel thankful that I do not have to watch. There seems to be too much violence and much of the material appears to be of very low quality. I cannot claim to be an expert, as I watch so seldom, but I believe that too much violence on television desensitises the viewers to pain and suffering and its depiction should be strongly regulated. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood stated, this Charter gives the BBC's governors a somewhat stronger role in regulating broadcasting and television services. I believe that programmes play an important role in influencing our national life and have become too lax in their standards.
I like the idea put forward by my noble friend Lord Caldecote of senior staff having to sign a code of practice on appointment, indicating that they have read and understood the rules and will abide by them; and that they should be subject to sanctions if rules are transgressed. I support the wish of my noble friend Lord Caldecote for stronger authority for the governors in ensuring that those rules are obeyed throughout the corporation.
89 I want to speak about a particular but vital part of the BBC's radio transmission which nevertheless occupies a very small period of the broadcasting day. I must declare an interest as chairman of the Meteorological Office advisory committee, but I do not speak on its behalf today. My husband and I are members of the House of Lords' yacht club. I would not describe myself as a yachtswoman but, I am aware of such needs due to longstanding family involvement in sailing small boats. Suddenly, last summer, without previous consultation with shipping authorities, the late night shipping forecast was changed from 12.30 a.m. to 12.45 in the morning to allow for a novel to be read at bedtime. Noble Lords may feel that a quarter of an hour difference is not long. But, if a fisherman has tuned in to listen for a possible gale warning, it is most disconcerting not to find the forecast at its long accustomed time and it could endanger life at sea.
The man responsible for that change stated that the BBC, under the terms of its present Charter, had no duty to consult individual organisations on changes to the time of programmes. That clearly should be put right in the new Charter and Agreement. In October, suddenly, with less than a week's notice and again without consultation, the inshore waters forecast on Radio 3 at 0655 hours was stopped. The Royal Yachting Association, in its letter of horrified protest, pointed out that some 5 million people regularly take their recreation afloat, that stress of weather remains the second most frequent cause of distress at sea; and that the inshore waters up to 12 miles offshore account for approximately 90 per cent. of the search and rescue tasking.
As a result of influential protests by yachting associations, the BBC restored the broadcast, but at 05.55 on Radio 3 which, incredibly, clashed at exactly the same time with the shipping forecast on Radio 4. So no yachtsman or fisherman could either listen to or record both forecasts.
As the Royal Yachting Association said, again in its letter to the BBC, those forecasts, which are of high quality, can be a matter of life and death. I know from long experience that the prudent yachtsman listens to both forecasts early in the morning so as to assess the developing weather situation and decide whether to go to sea, and in what circumstances. As a result of further protests, from 1st January this year, the BBC is now broadcasting the inshore forecast at 05.50 on Radio 3 and the shipping forecast, as before, at 05.55 on Radio 4. It recognises that it is not ideal as it cannot be recorded because it is on two different programmes. But, with a quick flick of the wrist, if one is up early in the morning and by the radio set, one can listen to both programmes.
As a result of all that ham-fisted change, the BBC is now to review all weather services on Radios 3 and 4. All I hope is that in doing so it consults the sailors, yachtsmen, fishermen and lifeboatmen who really know what is necessary, and takes careful note of their views. It is their lives which will he at risk if they are not able to receive that vital weather information; and to a maritime nation like our own, safety of life at sea is vital.
90 In the Charter and Agreement the BBC is to have a duty to provide information, education and entertainment. Comedy and music ate mentioned. We have just been through a period of severe weather on land and know how important severe weather warnings or flood warnings are to local authorities and others to mitigate the worst effects. I submit that the BBC Charter and Agreement should also stipulate a duty to provide daily and regular weather forecasts for the safety of those both on land and at sea. I hope that when my noble friend replies he will be able to assure me that that will be the case.
The hopes of my noble friend Lord Cranborne presented earlier this afternoon have been dashed, and so have mine. I had every intention of staying until the end of the debate, but I am afraid that I shall now have to leave before the end in order to catch my train. I apologise to your Lordships and will read Hansard with great care.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Lord Ackner
My Lords, I add my expression of gratitude to the expressions of those who preceded me, to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for being kind enough to provide the informal meeting on 14th December to enable us to have a dummy run of airing our criticisms, if any, of the White Paper followed by the Charter and the Agreement. He kindly circulated a record of what took place at that meeting. The following statement was accurately attributed to him:The BBC, with its tradition of public service broadcasting, occupied a key role in our society. This status rested on the quality of the BBC's programmes, its editorial independence and its integrity".It is in relation to integrity and accountability that I wish to address my short observations. Integrity is a matter which is much more easily decided upon than standards of decency, courtesy and the like, which have already been the subject matter of debate.
Before I make my observations, I remind your Lordships of the debate on the White Paper which took place on 6th December 1994. I refresh your Lordships' memories of two observations. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, the then Minister, said,The BBC's position is significantly different from other broadcasters in this country. The BBC is a public body, established solely to serve the public. It has no other object. By contrast, the commercial broadcasters are primarily motivated by the requirement to make a return for their shareholders, subject of course to their licence conditions".—[Official Report, 6/12/94; co1.849.]The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in a slightly more robust manner as perhaps one would expect—I am delighted to see him, though not in his place, within earshot—said this:Given that supreme commitment to public service broadcasting and given the financial stability to support it, the BBC does not need—unlike the rest of the commercial media facing, as they do, intense competitive pressures—to descend into the sewers of contemporary tabloid journalism."—[Col. 857.]That brings me to my substantive point. A few months ago, with almost a cry of triumph, the BBC announced a scoop; namely, the obtaining by it of a leaked copy of part of the draft of Sir Richard Scott's 91 report. The purpose of a draft report is to provide to Ministers and others who may be subject to criticism, the provisional view at which he had arrived in order to give them the opportunity to answer that provisional view in the "arms for Iraq" inquiry.
The BBC proceeded to publish those preliminary critical views, to the considerable embarrassment of those affected. By no stretch of the imagination could there have been any weighing up of the public interest against the serious damage which would inevitably occur, because there was no public interest in divulging to the public that draft report.
At an informal meeting with the Secretary of State, Mrs. Bottomley, and the informal group of which I am a member, I asked in terms, "What action have you taken to call to account those responsible for this utterly indefensible conduct?" In due course, on 28th November last, the Secretary of State wrote to me giving me the following information:The Prime Minister made it quite clear in the House that he deplored the malicious leak of this material. I understand that the Secretary to the Scott Inquiry made strong representations to the BBC prior to the broadcast and that subsequently he wrote to make it clear to the Director-General that Lord Justice Scott regretted the course of action which the BBC had adopted and that he believed that the BBC's conduct had demeaned its status and reputation".She went on to add these observations:Whatever one's own view of a particular case, it must be right that the BBC, acting within the law and the proper processes of editorial responsibility and decision-taking which are established, should be free to report news without constraints which would not apply to other broadcasters or other media".I found that an astonishing observation to make and in due course, in replying to the Secretary of State's letter, I said:Surely we are entitled to expect from the BBC higher standards than one would expect from, say, The News of the World and other such publications".We have been concerned with accountability. As far as I can understand from correspondence, no one at the BBC was called to account for this behaviour. I ask the Minister this question: would anything be different now under the new Charter and the new Agreement? Unless the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, can say, "Ah, it would be quite different today. This is the procedure which would be adopted. This is what would happen", I would submit that we need an independent regulatory body. We certainly need the very mild amendment suggested by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, which I support.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
My Lords, as I sat waiting to speak, my mind went back to just gone three o'clock this afternoon and the words of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House when he asked us to keep our remarks brief. He will probably think twice before he gives us that encouragement again. The only consolation the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, has is that it is good training for the Broadcasting Bill which lies ahead of us and on which I think there will be quite a number of late nights.
92 I generally welcome the Charter and Agreement for the BBC. The ones that finish this year were concluded 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago the BBC was a very different organisation, and certainly Britain as a society was a very different place in which to live, work and view. Therefore it is important that what we have now takes us forward for the next 10 years, and within that there needs to be some flexibility. The requirement on the BBC to provide public service broadcasting is essential and is central to its role and place within our society.
Earlier in the debate the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said that we seemed to be splitting into two camps—those who thought the BBC was wonderful and those who thought it was terrible—and that perhaps somewhere down the middle was where we really were. I should like to declare where I am. I am a friend of the BBC. I hope that I am a true friend because I have always been brought up to believe that friends are people who can criticise you constructively, tell you where you are wrong and tell you where there are shortcomings. Certainly there are a number of those within the BBC and, indeed, within this Charter and Agreement.
I must declare a retrospective interest. For a time I was a member of the General Advisory Council of the BBC. I hope that continues but I hope that it continues in a different way because its present role should be reformed. Until the end of last year I was also a member of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
There is no doubt that the BBC plays a central role within our society. It is different from the other broadcasting companies. Over the past 70 years there has not been a national event of any importance to the British people when the BBC has not been there with us. Within that central role one has to look at accountability. To survive and thrive today, any organisation must be accountable. Therefore one must welcome the reference for the first time in the Charter to the BBC board of management. I would suggest—I should like the Minister to address this point when he replies—that there is a confusion within the Charter and Agreement in the sense that the remit of the national broadcasting councils has been diluted to one of advising and assisting. We are seeing a centralisation of the roles but no complete clarification of the split between the board of management and the board of governors. That is a great weakness in the Charter.
The educational aspects of the BBC are important. They are one of the three roles of the BBC: education, information and entertainment. Indeed, £47 million is ring-fenced to provide education programmes. My concern is that we now have a remit for programmes of "an educational nature". My noble friend Lord Donoughue referred earlier to the Esther Rantzen programme. Perhaps I may mention "The Antiques Road Show", "Going for a Song" and Ruby Wax's "Health Quest". Are those programmes educational? The making of them does not come out of the education budget but the packs that go with them for which the public ring in do come out of the education budget. That is very questionable indeed. If we have an education budget which is ring fenced it should be for education. 93 With multi-media and the interactivity of education the education role of the BBC should widen. It will become different—and not in the entertainment area. It will become different in the sense of providing entertaining education which is not necessarily an entertaining programme.
I wish to touch briefly on two areas. Touching on them briefly does not mean that I do not regard them as being of crucial importance. In paragraph 3.2(d) of the Agreement regarding programme content there is a requirement on the BBC to,provide wide-ranging coverage of sporting and other leisure interests".Without the back-up requirements and protection for the BBC to be able to broadcast those programmes, how can it meet that remit? My noble friend Lord Howell touched on that point and I am sure that we will return to it when we come to the Broadcasting Bill. I do not accept the logic of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, when he said that one cannot see football for free—one has to pay. That is an illogical argument. One does not see plays for free; one does not hear music for free; but one does see them for free having paid the television licence fee. And so should the British public be able to see sport.
The World Service is of concern to many noble Lords. In moving his amendment, the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, spoke of the complaints being reported within the annual report of the BBC and the requirement to publish. It is insufficient to require the BBC simply to publish the number of complaints and the number of those upheld. There needs to be far more detail.
I close by saying that the impression created is that what we are facing could be a creeping privatisation and commercialisation of the BBC. At the end of the five years of the licence fee—I ask why it is just five years—will we end up with the BBC not being one thing or the other, not knowing whether it is a commercial organisation or a public service broadcasting organisation? The Minister may say that that is protected within the Charter and Agreement, but I have some concerns about that.
Where is the public interest in the sale of the transmitters? It has been said that the Government are determined to sell off the transmitters and that the money will go to the BBC. I cannot find reference to that anywhere—in either the Charter or the Agreement. I should like the Minister to take up that point when he replies. Are we correct in understanding—do we have an assurance—that the money from the sale of the transmitters will go into the BBC? As regards the licence fee being determined on the size of the audience, there is the old argument about driving down quality in order to drive up the viewing figures. It is an imponderable. It is a problem with which the BBC is increasingly confronted.
The BBC is central to our society. That does not mean to say that we have to protect it like a delicate plant. It has to be robust, efficient and open and it has to provide a good public service. That is what the Charter and Agreement should provide. I would suggest that in a number of the areas I have covered it does not.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Lord Birkett
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I am extremely conscious of the time. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, predicted that in the year 2006 there would be another debate like this. I confess that there have been moments today when I wondered whether it might still be this one! If I do not touch on any of the big issues of the day it is not because I do not share your Lordships' concern. I am as happy as everybody else that the BBC should be preserved as a public service, which is what it is and must remain. I yield to no one in my admiration for the World Service, as so many of your Lordships do, and that too must remain. I am not quite as alarmed about the commercial future as some of your Lordships although if the gloomy prediction of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, is fulfilled that this is only a stay of execution and that by early in the next century it will have become a commercial organisation, I shall be as appalled as he would be.
Sponsorship and private sources of all sorts can help to provide programmes that the budget ordinarily would not. I sometimes wish that the BBC would be a little less po-faced about giving credit to its sponsors. It is always thought as being slightly infra dig to admit that something has been sponsored. The situation is getting better, but I believe that it can get better yet in that direction.
I am delighted as regards the independence of some of the programme makers for the BBC. It is very valuable that the independent sector should contribute programmes to the BBC. I wish that occasionally the BBC were a little more efficient about dealing with applications from the private sector. Some of my friends in the film industry find it extremely frustrating to deal with the BBC. The intention at least is there.
There have been so many big issues debated today such as integrity, responsibility, accountability, decency, impartiality and Christianity. I am sure that your Lordships will be relieved when I say that I do not intend to add my pennyworth on those. There are two seemingly small but very important matters that have not been mentioned today. One of them is contained in the stimulation of the artistic variety of this country, which is one of the duties laid on the BBC. I was so thrilled when the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, reminded us with pride that the BBC runs five orchestras. It is essential that it continues to do that. I say that not just because they are good. I am not thinking only of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; I am thinking of the wonderful BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester and the orchestras in Wales and Scotland and indeed all the orchestras. It is not just that they are wonderful musicians who play well, and indeed the orchestras provide very welcome employment, but the fact that those orchestras can programme in a way that other more commercially-minded orchestras cannot. If one has to fill a hall with 3,000, 2,000 or 1,000 seats all the time, one cannot programme with the same freedom and imagination as the BBC. Those orchestras represent something which is vital to the musical culture of this country. I beg the BBC to make sure that they remain so.
95 The other important matter is archives. The draft Agreement makes much of the archival services of the BBC. Perhaps I should declare an interest here. I am chairman of the National Sound Archives Advisory Committee. I do not mention that because we are in any way a rival of the BBC because we have had long and happy co-operation with them. But from time to time I have had the unworthy thought that the BBC's idea of what to preserve is dictated more by what it might use again in the future either to make income or to save itself from making a new programme, than genuinely archival things. It is wonderful to have far-sighted salesmen in an organisation, but their job is not the same as that of an archivist who is concerned with history. Unless the archival duties of the BBC are taken very seriously, we shall be doing a disservice to history and to ourselves because it is only history which will point out how wise we have been in preserving the BBC as a public service.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the BBC is the only public service broadcaster and is uniquely the trustee of the national culture and character. Our culture and character have a spiritual dimension referred to as yet only by, I believe, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I hope that my noble friend will add my name to those in support of that being recognised and maintained in the future functioning of the corporation.
This amendment arises from a genuine concern that this trusteeship shall remain a principal motivating duty of the corporation as it can never be to a purely commercial broadcaster. That concern is sharpened by the fact that in a list of no less than 26 objects in the Charter the third is to have a commercial function. The BBC now, as its third priority, is to be given a commercial function.
My noble friend the Minister has given assurances to your Lordships and to many others outside the House, that if there is sufficient agreement between your Lordships and another place, everything that is said in the debate in this House and in the other place will be taken into account. As he has been invited by my noble friend, the Mover of this amendment, to place that assurance on the record perhaps he can possibly go a little further. It would be nice if he could assure your Lordships that where specific points pressed on him in this House are supported unequivocally in another place, they will not just be taken into account but will be reflected in changes to the text of either or both of the documents now before us.
The points I have in mind arise principally from the lack of clarity in the interaction of those two documents, as my noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson of Monifieth, have all pointed out. For example, where a programme breaches a code of conduct, the governors shall publish not merely the fact of the breach, but the remedies that they have applied to prevent a repetition. That was something that seemed to fill the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, with 96 apprehension. It was part of that process of horror which led him to refer to the unofficial group as the Mafia and at one stage to verge on saying that it was dishonest in a phrase which I am sure, when he reads Hansard, he will wish that he had not uttered.
It cannot really be so alarming that the undertakings required to be given by the governors on standards which are to be known to the audiences which they address, are to be set out in a code of which the audience will be aware. It cannot be such a threat that the governors shall then be required to tell the audience what steps have been taken to see that those undertakings are fulfilled.
That implies a duty not merely to monitor and supervise the corporation's fulfilment of its legal and contractual obligations, but to enforce them. Speech after speech has endorsed my noble friend's plea for that. All that seems to me to be needed to clear it up for all of us, and not just for the lawyers, is to add the word "enforce" to the introduction of Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, my noble friend Lord Astor, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby and others, have supported that in particular.
That enforcement should not just consist of the nuclear deterrent of the dismissal of the director-general, which the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, rightly cited as an example of the determination and tenacity of Mr. Hussey, which I also endorse. My noble friend proposes, as a means of securing that, that the employees of the governors should be required to sign up to the rules or whatever it is they are to be called. I commend to my noble friend the Minister the example of the Press Council which, I understand, has persuaded newspaper proprietors to require their editors to have in their contracts of employment an undertaking to abide by the Press Council code. I understand that that has already led to the abortion of a number of proposed publications, which would have been improper under that code. Something similar should be applied in the corporation although it may not he necessary to place it on the face of the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, proposed that Paragraph 5.3 of the Agreement should be reduced to simple English. That view was widely echoed—and I echo it now. The noble Baroness, Lady James, and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, also referred to that. We have to have some clarity and not a sentence which embraces simultaneously the words "code", "rules" and "guidance".
Leaving those three points on which my noble friend has asked for assurances as the price of the withdrawal of his amendment, perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Minister to take note also of the threat to the BBC not only of the cost of going digital which, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, pointed out, will he tremendous, but also of the growing cost of covering national sporting events. That cost was pointed out by many noble Lords, most notably by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. Will my noble friend please assure his and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister of the strong arguments in favour of legislation to ensure that such events remain accessible to all television and radio audiences and not only to those with particular sorts of 97 equipment which they may not be able to afford? I see heads nodding all around the Chamber as I say that. That is in the public interest. It is also in the interest of the BBC which, in turn, is a public interest. That case seems to me to be unanswerable.
I cannot sit down without mentioning again in this forum the admirable standard of the work of the BBC World Service, to which I can attest from conversations in English with Chinese people from mainland China who have learned English solely from the BBC World Service.
I believe that the present chairman of the governors has had a horrendously difficult job to do. He has done it with distinction. He could not do it without criticism—some no doubt valid—but I think that we are now all tending to beat him with the difficulties that he has had. So I should like to conclude by saying that we should not forget the achievements that are to his credit.
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Lord Rix
My Lords, as the 28th speaker in this debate and almost coterminous with the nine o'clock news, I feel rather like somebody on Radio 5 news who is constantly regurgitating an item for hours on end simply to make up the programme. I trust that what I have to say will not be just a regurgitation of all that has been said so splendidly and clearly by your Lordships during this debate.
Those of your Lordships who were present at a meeting across the road on 14th December in the Millbank Parliamentary Offices may recall my intervention, which was, so to speak, the prologue to what I want to say today. I have criticisms to make, but I think it fair to remark that even in the troughs of British broadcasting we have cause to be thankful that we live in the United Kingdom, with the BBC as our standard bearer. The delicate balancing act between the responsibilities of the "Right Trusty and Well Beloved" Secretary of State for the time being (and there is a form of words we might all hope to see in our obituary columns) and the independent corporation must have some credit for the good things in this particular public service.
It is tempting to pursue the issues of semi-commercialisation or alleged politicisation, or the debate about new material versus re-runs—in which I have a particular interest as a life member of Equity—but I wish to target my remarks on Paragraphs 3 and 5 of the Draft Agreement and to refer to the publication by the Broadcasting Standards Council towards the end of last year of Perspectives of Disability in Broadcasting, which was issued on 28th November 1995 and is many pages long. I have only one page of it with me today.
The BBC carries a large responsibility for the messages it conveys to and about people with disabilities. MENCAP, of which I am the chairman—I am prompted to repeat that in deference to our new Standing Orders—has long had links with the BBC and its local and specialist manifestations in seeking to get people with learning disabilities featured positively, to get issues debated objectively and to get to people the information that they need. I have to say that it has 98 sometimes taken an unconscionably long time to get our ideas taken up, or even acknowledged, but the collaboration has over the years been creative and indeed pioneering. This year marks 70 years of the BBC and 50 years of MENCAP, and we hope for good things from that particular juxtaposition.
Perspectives of Disability provided an in-depth analysis of the substantial work that had been done, and the even more substantial task that remained undone, in creating positive images to match positive realities. I put images and realities side by side because I see little advantage in images unrelated to reality. It is possible to be so positive about disability that the audience concludes there is no such thing as disability. That helps nobody. I would boldly claim that disabled people are a good thing. I would not claim that being disabled is of itself a good thing.
So to specifics. I would like to suggest that 6 million disabled people are justification enough for writing disability as a particular issue into Paragraph 3 of the draft Agreement—that dealing with programme content—a view backed by the Broadcasting Standards Council in its key findings. First, the content analysis revealed a low representation of disabled people in television and radio programmes, accounting for only 1 per cent. of all speaking roles in the sample period. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly from MENCAP's point of view, that representation gave most emphasis to people with physical disabilities, yet the greatest cause of disability in the United Kingdom, excluding old age, is mental handicap or what is now known as "learning disability".
Now to Paragraph 5 of the draft Agreement, which deals with programme standards. I should like to see a requirement to respond to substantiated criticisms of accuracy and balance within a given time limit and, where appropriate, by means of a response slot at a peak viewing or listening time. The principles might go in the Agreement and the detail in the code.
Perhaps I may illustrate what I mean with this true story. Earlier last year there was a tragic incident when a stabbing took place in a community hostel in Oxford. The next day a totally unrelated story concerning the MENCAP Homes Foundation in Birmingham came out. The BBC chose to join the two stories together in its news bulletins and the terrible incident in Oxford was linked by some extraordinary journalistic osmosis to some perfectly peaceable people with a learning disability living many miles away in Birmingham. In spite of complaints from us on the day of the broadcast, the two stories, slightly filleted, continued to be linked on both radio and television from the one o'clock news until the news at midnight. Letters to the chairman of the governors—I wrote personally—and to the BBC news editor in Manchester—that letter was from our chief executive, Fred Heddell—elicited no clarification of that unfortunate journalistic juxtaposition and the miasma of misapprehension and muddle was allowed to continue.
Such stories are then linked to the community care debate, and ill-informed and hostile reactions are, perhaps not unnaturally, the result. The damage can be 99 disastrous. I believe that if a valid complaint about journalistic opportunism is made by a responsible body or individual, that complaint should be acknowledged within a week and fully responded to within, say, a fortnight. Furthermore, the damage needs to be corrected without having to go through all the hoops of the broadcasting complaints procedures. The easiest way is to have perhaps a programme on both radio and television—I will call it a balancing act—during prime time which sets the record straight. It should be a serious programme which focuses on genuine points at issue rather than light heartedly dismissing them as eccentric. After all, every responsible newspaper has its correspondence columns to which one can write without jocular editorial comments. Paragraph 5 of the draft agreement should take note of that.
I call to mind the words of the famous Manchester Guardian journalist, C. P. Scott, which apply equally to all the media, including the BBC. No, especially the BBC because of its central place in our national life and at the forefront of our broadcasting media. C. P. Scott wrote:Its prime office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free but facts are sacred".
§ 9 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I am anxious about the future of educational broadcasting, as were my noble friend Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. They were not happy with the part of the Agreement relating to programme content, Paragraph 3.2(e); that the Home Service should contain programmes of an educational nature. They thought that that was weaker than what we have had before and I would agree with that.
We should never forget what a magnificent contribution the BBC has made to educational broadcasting. This is of long standing, going back as far as when many of us, certainly our children, were at school. The BBC was a pioneer setting the standard and breaking new ground in the devising of suitable formats which were interesting to young people but also serving an educational function. It reached a large audience of young people and continues to do so; but audience size is not the only thing that matters. There is the question of quality to be taken into account and I believe that many of us are afraid that that might be slipping. My concern, whatever the new regime turns out to be, is that, first, the BBC should stay in educational broadcasting on an least the same scale as it is today, if not more. Secondly, it should have the funds to continue with innovative approaches and, thirdly, it should concentrate at all times on quality.
I have referred to young people but it is a mistake to ignore those who are older, whether we are discussing the housewife at home or the retired. Here, too, the BBC has had and should continue to have an important role. Think of the Open University. I am aware that with 100 computers, and something called multi-media, there are other points of entry to education at home but they do not replace the BBC.
The importance of broadcasting to education and training is the fact that it delivers free, at the point of use, without additional financial cost to those whose educational and social needs are greatest. The country is committed to life-long learning and the need for a learning society and has set ambitious national training and education targets to achieve this. It will not be achieved through conventional means. Neither will many of those in need be able to afford subscription services or be aware of night time services, which are out of sight and out of mind, even if they are glamorously wrapped around as the "learning zone". Such services are okay for those who already know what they want and have the resources to obtain it. They are not adequate for those with basic skill needs.
As regards schools' broadcasting, I do not object so much that the broadcasts are at night because the schools can video them and can play them at times which suit them. However, we must remember that a lot of old people do not have videos and probably cannot manage to use them either. It is very important that these services should go out at a time when old people are able to listen to them and to pay attention. I think that that is extremely important and I hope that it will not be forgotten.
The multi-media services and so forth do not replace the BBC. After all, the existence of libraries did not make the broadcasting of educational programmes irrelevant. I, of course, strongly support the renewal of the BBC's charter. My point today is to emphasise the traditional role of public service broadcasting in this country, especially in the field of education. I hope that that will be remembered very strongly and I hope that the draft agreement can be strengthened in the words that it uses in Paragraph 3, which is about the programme content. I think that that is of great importance.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Viscount Cross
My Lords, I am very glad that it has been possible to take note of the drafts of the BBC's new Charter and Agreement. The BBC is an organisation which has immense power and influence for good, and equally the same power and influence in the opposite direction. There is a television in the living room of almost every home and also a radio in most homes and cars. On the credit side, the BBC produces some extremely good programmes, in particular those concerned with nature and animals in the wild.
However, I have serious reservations in regard to the ethos of the BBC, particularly in respect of news and current affairs. Why cannot the BBC give us straight news in the manner of the broadcasting station, CNN? I suggest that the manner in which the news is presented by the BBC is open to question. I do not mean the manner in which the newsreader reads the news. I mean the script as presented to be read by the script writers. The news becomes convoluted, distorted, twisted and slanted in such a way as to reflect the current thinking of the corporation on any particular subject. Surely that cannot be right?
101 Over a period of many years, I have never heard the BBC utter one single word of praise or encouragement in respect of anyone or anything. If it is ever a question of right and wrong, it never comes down on the side of what is right; rather the reverse. Why does it find it necessary to knock the Monarchy, the Church, Parliament and the judiciary? Having knocked everything down, what would it put in its place? My Lords, nothing. That seems to me to be a form of nihilism.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, with enormous respect, I venture to suggest to the noble Viscount that he is talking total nonsense about the BBC. Now that I have become partially sighted, I depend upon the "Nine O'Clock News" to keep up with the world. It is quite wonderful and I depend upon it totally.
§ Viscount Cross
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for his intervention.
As your Lordships will know, the dictionary says that nihilism is, among other things, finding nothing to approve of in the established order. How did that come about?
Some years ago there was a director-general, now no longer with us, who announced his intention, soon after taking up his office, of disparaging, denigrating, deriding and undermining all the so-called pillars of the establishment. That is exactly what he proceeded to do. In time of war, such a person would have been likened to the Fifth Column. Later on, we had another director-general who said, "I tried this; I tried that; and then I joined the BBC".
As with any other organisation, if the right lead is given at the top, all is likely to be well throughout the whole organisation. I have no doubt that the present governors are all very worthy, highly respected people. But as has been mentioned by other speakers how much governing in respect of the BBC do they really do? Their role is extremely important for, as the Charter tells us, they appoint the director-general and the board of management.
The director-general, in his turn, has great responsibilities. He can be a power for great good; he can be a power pulling in the opposite direction; or he can do nothing. In that case, all those below him will do exactly as they like.
With great respect, I come back to the governors. I can only hope that they will take note of the views which have been expressed in your Lordships' House today and, for the good of the country, do their best to improve the current situation.
In conclusion, perhaps I may say that if my noble friend Lord Caldecote decides to divide the House on his amendment, I shall certainly support him.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Wharton
My Lords, I believe that this is a good Charter and a good Agreement which are basically acceptable to all parties, although we all know that more could be done. to strengthen them.
As a member of the informal group of Peers interested in broadcasting, I support the views expressed by noble Lords who have been considering the draft 102 Agreement and Charter for some time now. On more than one occasion we have met the Minister and he has assured us that full account will he taken of the views expressed. He has already repeated those assurances today.
There has always been an argument that quality and popularity are fundamentally opposed. That is simply not true. The BBC has always produced good quality programmes. The most recent example of that is "Pride and Prejudice", which has already been mentioned. That will soon be sold all over the world. Another programme "Persuasion" is already in profit in the USA. The BBC frequently tops the ratings at home. But, unfortunately, every now and then quality takes a dive in a particular battle with another channel, often unsuccessfully.
I hope that the BBC as a public sector broadcaster will not allow its desire for competitiveness to deflect it from its responsibilities to all of us. Looking into the future, I hope also that it will not move popular programmes from free-to-air to subscriber channels. I should be unhappy to see the BBC following that route. To me that is not what public broadcasting means, and I suspect that it is not what it means to most of its licence fee payers. The BBC should continue to set standards rather than follow them. Even if quality on all channels has declined generally, the BBC's drama and documentary series programmes, often co-produced with international networks, are the envy of many, as are its current affairs programmes. After all, it is important for Britain that the BBC not only maintains but strengthens its position globally.
Picking up a point made earlier about the cuts in the education budget, I should like to add that I thought that there had actually been an increase of £1.5 million. I should like clarification in that respect. Clearly it is an outstanding service from which we all benefit.
Living in South Africa, my introduction to the BBC was through the World Service. I can still hear, "This is London calling", followed by the chimes of Big Ben. My favourite programme then was "Much Binding in the Marsh" and no Sunday was complete without it. For English speakers abroad, the World Service is a life-line as it keeps them in touch with what is going on both at home and internationally. It is our flagship. It has always been impartial and accurate in its reporting.
The World Service made its first Empire broadcast on 19th December 1932 using its new Daventry transmitter. Through government funding the service has come a long way in 63 years, now reaching over 133 million people and broadcasting in 40 languages to 111 countries. World Service television came on stream in 1991 funded by advertising rather than public funds, but those public funds for World Service Radio are now being cut at a time when the service is expanding and new transmitters are badly needed to improve audibility. The government agreed sale of transmitters here and abroad will benefit only the domestic service but not the World Service as its original transmitters were paid for by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its receipts will now return to the Treasury.
One solution put forward is private finance. What would happen if the World Service were then pushed in a commercial direction? Would services to some of its 103 more vulnerable areas suffer? After all, much of its broadcasting to the third world is educational and specifically tailored to each region. I presume that private finance would rightfully expect a return on its investment. The World Service, already faced with a £6 million shortfall, will then have to lease those privately-owned transmitters overseas. Will that cost be controlled, and can the quality still be maintained, particularly in sensitive areas? Could some of the profits be channelled back to the World Service, thereby easing the cuts which have come at a crucial stage in its history?
The Government appear to have withdrawn their support for the final year of the triennium agreement and set the figures for the next one without consultation. The shift from analogue to digital broadcasting will take up to 20 years and will be very expensive for both BBC and viewing public alike. Clearly the BBC cannot afford to upgrade and build new transmitters itself and continue to put money into developing the new digital technology required. In a debate last year I ended my speech by saying that the privatisation of any of the BBC's assets was wrong, but I now accept that it makes sense for it to rent or lease as opposed to owning and maintaining the transmitters.
I had intended to ask the Minister for clarification on paragraph 5.3 of the Agreement, but he has already gone into the matter in some detail so I look forward to reading the Official Report of the debate tomorrow. However, I should like to refer to the last few lines of paragraph 5.3 which suggest that the corporation may be allowed to make changes to the code for different cases or circumstances. Does that mean that any stated rule need not necessarily be binding? Can the Minister reassure me that that is not just an escape clause?
My final query concerns paragraph 5.4(b) which appears to me to be a question regarding what constitutes a series of programmes for the purpose of paragraph 5.2, which in turn applies to paragraph 5.1(c) being parliamentary business. What does that mean? Can the Minister also give me clarification on that point?
§ 9.17 p.m.
The Earl of Stockton
My Lords, towards the end of an interesting but, I believe, lengthy debate, I shall not detain your Lordships over long. It seems to me that the crux of the debate stems around the definition of the corporate governance of the BBC. I fear that words ranging from "pledge" and "guidance" to "reflect" and "follow" call to mind—to me at any rate—the words of Sam Goldwyn: "such verbal assurances are not worth the paper that they are written on".
I can see no reason why the same rules—and I mean rules—should not apply to the BBC as they apply to all independent broadcasters. Rules are enforceable as are contracts. Breaches of the rules should be regarded as a breach of employment contract by the BBC's employees and of a commercial contract by independent producers.
Tonight's debate must have made clear to my noble friend the Minister that, unless he can give the House those specific assurances asked for by my noble friend 104 Lord Caldecote and incorporate the textual amendments submitted to him by—dare I say it—the Mafia, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, I among others reserve the right to introduce new clauses into the Broadcasting Bill to ensure that the BBC is no more and no less accountable to Parliament and the public as other broadcasters.
I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, that accountability should not stop with the governors but should apply to all involved in the production of radio and television programmes. The BBC has been in the forefront of research and engineering, I refer to the move to 625 lines, colour television and digital broadcasting. Therefore it was with some disquiet that I learnt recently that for the first time in its history engineering and research are not represented on the top line of the management team. I trust that Sir Christopher Bland, whose appointment I welcome, will rectify this.
As a book publisher it would be invidious of me to do more than endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Astor—who I trust is by now at least at the main course stage of his celebrations—on the issue of cross-media promotion of BBC products. Like many other noble Lords, I believe passionately in the rights of editorial independence and the role of broadcasters, and indeed all art, to push at the frontiers of creativity, as championed so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady James. However, I urge my noble friend to accept the amendment in the spirit in which it is put forward; a spirit, as my noble friend Lady Park has so succinctly shown, of constructive criticism.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
My Lords, having the honour to be the vice-chairman of the BBC I did not put my name down to speak in this debate because of our Addison Rules. However, in view of the announcement this afternoon that the BBC chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, is soon to stand down, I hope that your Lordships will grant me a moment's indulgence.
Any BBC chairman has a difficult task. He must win the respect and the allegiance of governors, management and staff, and yet command the confidence of the public, the politicians and every group and organisation in the United Kingdom. The task for Marmaduke Hussey has been particularly difficult for he has had to achieve these things at a time of necessary and sometimes painful change. The BBC today is a better organisation, demonstrably equipped to challenge the coming century. Although the credit is due to many people, much of it is due above all to Duke Hussey, and to the response which he has drawn from staff and colleagues. He not only set the direction; he never lost sight of it. He has led the BBC with bravery and determination to Charter renewal. If the BBC is today more efficient, it is because he insisted that the standards of efficiency in the private sector could and should be achieved by a public corporation whilst retaining the integrity of a public corporation.
If the BBC is now more accountable, it is because he saw that the licence payer should be at the heart of its affairs. Above all he has stood for broadcasting 105 excellence in radio and television for every section of the audience. He is farsighted. He plays a long game—not always the same thing—and for sheer will power and guts he can scarcely be matched. These are qualities we value very highly. It is because Marmaduke Hussey possesses them in such measure that we are today debating how the BBC can flourish into the next century. He has been a great public servant in this post and I am sure that the whole House will wish him well for the future and will thank him for his efforts in the past.
§ 9.23 p.m.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, I had intended to make a normal wind-up speech this evening but the length of the debate and the variety of the contributions have made it difficult for me to do that in the way that I should have liked. Therefore I crave the indulgence of your Lordships, and particularly of my colleagues, if I make a bad job of it.
Like a number of others who have spoken, I feel that the BBC is part of my life in the way that a relative or an old friend is. As a boy I was sent off to school during the war. On one of the rare occasions that I came home I listened to "ITMA" as hundreds of American daylight bombers flew overhead. The impression of those two phenomena has never left me. In the post-war years when I was anything but a perfect student and had an uneven scholastic record I spent many happy evenings illegally listening to "Saturday Night Theatre" and supplementing my rather poor education—which was entirely my fault—in that way. Therefore, like other noble Lords, I have a deep affection for the institution. Over the years I have been aware of the changes in the BBC's constitution and the changes that have been wrought by changes in society, which have not been mentioned much in the debate today.
The main theme is that introduced in the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. I found his speech interesting, and I agreed with almost everything that he said. Like my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth, I share his anxieties concerning the difficulties facing broadcasters in deciding the limits to which they can go in terms of decency and good taste, and particularly in relation to violence, which is especially worrying.
I have a problem with the amendment. Imperfect though the two papers are, and despite the difficulty of relating one to the other so cogently expressed by the noble Viscount, I do not believe that it is possible to say that they do not adequately clarify the responsibilities of the governors. The responsibilities and authority of the governors are clearly stated. The question is in what measure they can apply that authority. It is the absence of an objective guideline in terms of morality which governs not only the BBC but many other aspects of our life. It governs parenthood and all kinds of activities. It is a very difficult issue. Therefore, I would not, like my noble friend Lord Thomson, follow the noble Viscount through the Lobbies if he decided to divide the House on that subject at this late hour. However, I have enormous sympathy with his concerns.
106 There have been some very interesting speeches in the debate, some of which were delivered while there were very few people in the Chamber, Some noble Lords went out for refreshment at half time, as I did. It would be invidious to choose any speech, but the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, made a most interesting and serious speech in which he drew attention to an important development in broadcasting. It is one which particularly concerns the BBC in respect of its news and public affairs programmes. The noble Earl highlighted the tendency for interviewers, pundits and commentators to adopt an approach which puts the content into the shade and places all the attention on their style, which has become more aggressive and trivialising.
That is one area where the French do better than we do. French television is infinitely inferior to our own except in certain regards. They have one of the best political programmes in the world. In my view they have the best political interviewer, Madame St. Clair, who appears every week on TFI, which I watch on the satellite channel TV5. She conducts an interview of about three-quarters of an hour relating to events of the week. Interviewees are prominent persons, from the President of France downwards. The interviews are conducted with a seriousness, elegance and respect which arc totally lacking in our country. I would advise anybody who visits France to watch French television on satellite, on which the best Francophone programmes are put together and beamed out to the rest of the world. It is extremely good. I would say that the French television world service is better than ours.
To turn to other concerns which have been raised by noble Lords, in terms of sound broadcasting our World Service is second to none. I have fond memories of it from when I spent time in darkest Africa and various other corners of the globe. My feelings about the value of the World Service are reflected by friends. Over Christmas, I was told that listeners in Turkey were extremely impressed by the World Service of the BBC and anxious about possible cut-backs which they hoped would not affect them.
Several noble Lords expressed concern about various programmes. In what was one of the most delightfully incorrect political speeches that I have ever heard in 12 years in your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, brought out most elegantly some interesting points. I could not get away with being so politically incorrect. I shall not list what may be highlighted tomorrow as being very close to the wind; I wish that I could get away with it. However, he made one very important point which was reinforced by other contributions. We seem to have become somewhat over-concerned with impartiality and the problems of indecency. I do not refer to violence, about which I feel very sensitive. But what is most dangerous is a slip towards a second-rate and third-rate broadcasting output by the BBC. I do not believe that we have yet reached that point, but there is always that danger.
I do not know whether any noble Lords have spent time in Italy. I spent Christmas in Italy. It rained for seven days. Having read the John Betjeman letters twice, I felt that I could turn on the television set. I came across some of the most incredibly had television that I 107 have ever seen. I am sorry if I offend anyone in this House who has Italian ancestry. I shall put that right tomorrow when we discuss restaurants. I do not understand why the Italians have such bad television. "EastEnders" is the equivalent of "Panorama" in comparison with their most serious programme. On Christmas Day a show was broadcast which was so awful that it held a certain fascination. Actors paraded as the entire Royal Family. The imitations were grotesque but extremely good. After initial outrage, I thought that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, was right. If we were not setting the example of ridiculing our Royal Family, some of our neighbouring countries might be less inclined to do so. Perhaps that is just fanciful thinking.
The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, is absolutely right as regards the role which the BBC plays in terms of artistic output—orchestras and so forth. I am surprised that he did not mention film. If we still have a film industry—I hope that we shall again have a film industry—we must thank the BBC and Channel 4 for that. Through Mr. Mark Shivas of the BBC we have seen some extraordinary and dedicated work which has produced a product suitable for television and theatre. He has done that under extreme difficulties of budgetary constraints. We have to be grateful for the high quality that he has been able to maintain over a very difficult period.
Being British, we appreciate comedy. I mentioned "ITMA". Over a number of years I have seen the progress of comedy on sound broadcasting subsequently on television. It is a remarkable record. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, few noble Lords mentioned what goes out on screens or what we hear. One thinks of the extraordinary effect of programmes such as the "Goon Show", followed by "Monty Python's Flying Circus", which perhaps slightly strained the bounds of decency but was done with such skill and innovation that anyone who tried to imitate it probably went over the bounds of good taste; and that is a problem. We went on to more innocuous but nonetheless wonderful programmes such as "Dad's Army" and "Fawlty Towers".
I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Cross, was unnecessarily severe on the BBC. With the pressures of changes in society generally, and pressures to go down-market, the BBC has kept up a remarkable standard. It is true that it has gone down-market in many respects, but I have faith and am optimistic that the Government will support its continuation and its funding. I am encouraged by much of what the Minister said.
The BBC is still a serious institution. Publications have been mentioned in the two documents but no one has mentioned The Listener, so I wonder whether noble Lords remember it. Back numbers of that magazine are almost a record over scores of years of the intellectual and cultural life of our country. I do not know why The Listener folded or why no one was able to continue such a publication. It was a great loss as a serious element of the BBC's function and it was sad to see it disappear.
108 This has been an interesting and varied debate. We come here again next week to discuss the Broadcasting Bill when I dare say a number of today's points will be raised again. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, has sat through the debate with the utmost patience. I hope that she is not on duty next week—but I see her indicating that she is and I shall try to make my speech then shorter. It has been a fascinating debate and I shall read it in the Official Report with the utmost attention.
I cannot say that I have much hope for sport on the BBC in competition with Sky because that organisation covers it so well. However, perhaps I could ask the Minister to comment on that and say whether the BBC could be encouraged to develop the highlighting of sport rather than seeking to compete with the satellite channels and their enormous commercial power. It might be able to work with them to supplement the in-depth coverage which we receive so well from the satellite channels. This has been an excellent debate and I hope that we shall return to these matters in happier times.
§ 9.37 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, perhaps I may first declare an interest as I am the Deputy Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council. However, I shall leave specific comments about the work of that body to the debate on the Broadcasting Bill next week rather than becoming too involved in the details today. That applies particularly because by my calculations I am the 35th speaker in the debate and there is not much new left to say.
I believe that in the BBC we still have the world's best public service broadcasting. As a result, standards in our broadcasting, particularly in our television, have been maintained at a high level. But I am not so complacent as to suggest that that will necessarily continue. Having listened to many of the contributions to the debate, I wonder whether we expect a great deal—perhaps too much—of the BBC, after all the suggestions, points and criticisms that have come forward. Perhaps I may deal with some of the specific points that were made and try to pull the strands together. I shall not be able to refer to most of the speeches made by noble Lords simply because it would take too long. I am sure that will be understood.
The first point is that the BBC is facing a period of enormously rapid technological change. It is so rapid that within a few years, with the development of digital television, there may well be 40 or 50 channels instead of the small number now, the four main channels for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. That itself will change the face of television in this country. It may not develop in quite the way that some people have suggested and it may well be that the BBC will lose out to satellite. I hope that it will not do so in the development of digital television, but there is the fear that it and other terrestrial channels might lose out to satellite digital technology. If that is not the case, then it is likely that the BBC will have a large number of channels at its disposal. Therefore, it will have the luxury of a wider range of 109 programming, with all the difficulties that that involves, than is possible at present. That is the technological background.
However, there is one other point. I support the BBC's view that in the rapid development of digital technology—and I understand Britain is the world leader in the movement towards this technology—it is important that the measures for which it has argued must he carried and put in place. Such measures would ensure that channels funded by the licence fee are available via all distribution systems. Otherwise, we may well find some other operators in a virtual monopoly position in relation to digital television, to the serious detriment of the BBC and the other terrestrial channels. The BBC explained that threat to us at a series of presentations which I am sure other Members of this House attended in late November or early December.
I regret that the licence fee is now guaranteed only for the next five years although the Charter is guaranteed for 10 years. In terms of digital development, I understand that in the Bill that we shall discuss next week, multiplexes will be granted for 12 years, with the fairly easy possibility of renewal for a further 12. That seems to put the BBC at a disadvantage in terms of some assurance as to its future operations. I also understand that a previous Secretary of State said on more than one occasion that the future of the licence fee depends on the BBC's ability to maintain the size of its audiences. That is surely the nub of many of the concerns expressed today. If the BBC licence fee is to be jeopardised by a possible fall in audiences in such a competitive environment, the danger is that in attracting audiences the BBC will be obliged to drop its standards. If the BBC maintains its high standards, it will be penalised on the licence fee side. Anything the Minister can say by way of assurance on that matter, will be much appreciated.
In general terms, the Charter and the Agreement are welcome developments. It is the longer term threat to public service broadcasting in this country that gives rise to concern, not what will happen over the envisaged five-year period of the Charter.
The difficulty with the public service concept, which many Members of this House have applauded, is that there is not, or may nor, be, a level playing field in the longer term. That is a difficulty, and it is why the BBC is probably nervous about its future and may feel under pressure to move towards other sources of income such as advertising revenue, which in itself would have an effect on the public service broadcasting standards of the BBC. Certainly the justification of the right to a licence fee is being called into question by the possible emphasis on the use of advertising.
I turn very briefly to sport, something which my noble friend Lord Howell developed very clearly when he made his speech. The difficulty is this. I heard a person from the satellite channel say on terrestrial television that it is not much money to pay, and if people want sport it does not cost that much. The problem is that everybody is obliged to pay the licence fee. I support that. Everybody is obliged to pay the licence fee as a tax to watch any television at all. To have then to pay 110 more for some key national sporting events bothers many people in this country. It is surely wrong in principle that this should have happened. I understand why we have got into this difficulty arid I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is looking into the matter to see what can be done. There is a basic tradition that we watch our Test Matches, and the Cup Final, on BBC or ITV. If that is no longer possible without the payment of what is for some people quite a large sum of money, it will be a retrograde step.
I turn very briefly to the role of the BBC governors. They are in a difficulty. They have to represent both the management, in terms of the way the BBC operates, and the interests of the licence payer. That is an inevitable conflict. They have dealt with it in the past, and I am sure they will deal with it in the future; but it is a difficulty that we impose upon them of which we should be aware.
As the BBC develops its commercial activities, there is a difficulty that if the commercial and non-commercial activities are not kept Fairly separate, it will call into question the public service concept underlying the non-commercial side of the BBC's activities.
Perhaps I may say just a brief word about regulation, to which many noble Lords have referred, some wanting an overall regulator and others taking the view that there is perhaps too much regulation. The Broadcasting Standards Council is involved in issues of sex and violence, taste and decency, and so I have had some experience in that area over the years. I should like to take issue with my noble friend Lord Barnett, who referred to violence on television and said that it was not important or significant because only 0.61 per cent. of the time of television is devoted to scenes of violence.
I think that that statistic, which I am sure is accurate, misrepresents the real position. When there is an item on television, particularly a film which has in it a very violent scene, it is the threat of violence throughout the programme which gives a sense of violence for perhaps 60 minutes or whatever the duration of the programme is. Therefore, one cannot simply say that it is 0.61 per cent. of all television time. If one referred to the amount of television time that is devoted to programmes which have violent incidents in them, the percentage would indeed be very much larger. I believe that the way in which I have described the situation is how most viewers see it. I believe that we must be concerned about violence on our television screens and the possible effect that it may have on young people. I do not want to develop that argument any more because it is well understood by all Members of this House.
I turn to one issue which has barely been covered, except by one noble Lord, and it is dear to my heart; namely, the coverage of third world issues. I shall mention it very briefly. The majority of the British public—I believe it is 70 per cent.—cite television as the main source of their information on international issues. Our television channels have had a good record on that in the past. News coverage on the third world and international issues has remained good. But research carried out by the third world and environment 111 broadcasting project revealed that in recent years there has been a decline in international coverage, especially of developing countries, and that between 1989 and 1994 there was a 30 per cent. overall reduction by the BBC in its documentary coverage of third world issues; if one took peak time coverage, that decline was 40 per cent. That is important because our understanding of what happens in the third world is critical for our whole position in the world. An educated public opinion ought to understand what is going on in those countries. It would be a matter of regret if there were to be a further decline in the coverage of third world issues.
Before Christmas, I attended a meeting of the All-Party Group on Overseas Development. It was suggested that the BBC's board of governors should be asked to monitor the BBC's coverage of international topics, especially third world issues, in documentary programmes—not in the News of course; that the annual review of the BBC should report on it; and that it might be helpful if the Government were to make explicit in the draft Agreement that the specific programme items covered in paragraph 4.4(e) could include third world programming. I think that would be helpful.
I turn to the last main issue that I want to cover; namely, the World Service. One does not like to boast that things in this country are the best in the world. We used to do that, but, alas, it is not true in many instances. However, I believe that we can hold our heads high and say that the quality of our World Service is the best of all the international programmes in the world. I once spent a holiday in a part of the world where all I could get was the World Service, Radio Moscow (in Soviet days) or Voice of America. I am bound to say that, after listening to Voice of America and Radio Moscow, which were remarkably similar in the propaganda that they churned out, it was a relief to be able to get the World Service.
But of course the importance of the World Service does not lie in what we "Brits" listen to on holiday. That is not what it is for, although it is a nice bonus. What it is for is to inform people in other countries who do not have access to free, honest, objective news reporting. It is no wonder, given the quality, that there are 130 million listeners a week to the World Service all over the world, and that may well he an under-estimate. The World Service has been fully approved. The National Audit office has praised it for its flexibility and for the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation.
The key beneficiaries are people who are suffering under oppressive regimes. About two years ago I visited a very repressive regime. It was illuminating to find that the people there hung on to the one hour a week that they heard in their own language. It was the only news that they had of the outside world. It was the only way in which they kept going against a regime that was oppressing them and, if they were captured, torturing them.
We should remember that there are people in the world who are grateful to the World Service because it is the voice of freedom and democracy. It is an 112 enormous aid to those of us in this country who believe that democracy is a cause we want to spread around the world.
There are to be cuts in the World Service and I deeply regret that. By the time we look a couple of years ahead to 1997 and 1998, the total effects of the cuts may be as much as £10 million. That is an extremely serious blow; not to the BBC World Service; not to those of us who want to listen while we are on holiday; but to those people who are suffering under dictatorships.
It is a matter of regret that, having had an agreement on a three-year basis, last December's announcement undermined that agreement and put in doubt the basis of longer term funding for the World Service. The World Service has been approved and applauded by people as diverse as Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev when he saw the World Service as the one bit of news he had when he was taken prisoner in the Crimea.
I conclude by saying, first, in relation to the World Service, that dictatorships the world over hate the free flow of information. It is the World Service more than any other which provides that free flow of information which helps to undermine dictatorships. But, within this country, an educated democracy also requires an informed electorate. Our public service broadcasting, led by the BBC but copied effectively by ITV and Channel 4, has helped and is helping our electorate to be an informed one. Anything that weakens the public service concept of the BBC undermines us and our democracy.
§ 9.52 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, I am sure that all those who have listened to and participated in our debate today will agree that it has been a constructive and worthwhile one. I thank noble Lords for that. We shall think extremely carefully about everything that has been said. There has been a lot of it; it has been very diverse and it will take a little digesting. As I have already said, if the House finds either of the two documents we are discussing unacceptable, the Government will consider whether or not changes are necessary.
We have covered a lot of ground and heard a number of sometimes conflicting views about the BBC, which is an institution—albeit a relatively new one in our country's history—which is now deeply embedded in the fabric of contemporary life. In considering the BBC it is important that we are clear both about the radio and television broadcasting that it does. There is a tendency sometimes to overlook radio and I should not like anyone to do that.
It is one of the most widely recognised characteristics of the British way of arranging our national affairs—I am tempted to say our constitution, but I think it goes further than such a narrow definition—to explain that the key to understanding our way of doing things is to focus on the manner in which institutions work rather than to seek a clearly defined theoretical model of how institutions function in a purely abstract way.
113 Probably that is nowhere more true than in the case of the BBC. Historically, the links between broadcasters and Parliament have required a careful balance, between maintaining the broadcasters' own independence and placing that freedom within limits set by public acceptability.
In order to ensure its independence, the BBC has, since its inception, been deliberately kept at a distance from close regulation by government or Parliament. The constitution of the BBC by Charter rather than by statute establishes and reiterates that the BBC is not a creature of Parliament or an instrument of party or partisan political activity. As the present chairman put it, the Charter gives the BBC flexibility and supports its independence. It has served us well for almost 70 years. The Government agree that the BBC should continue to he regulated within a Charter framework, an opinion which is widely shared, though we heard a number of different opinions expressed this afternoon.
But with that independence the BBC has a responsibility to take account of and reflect public attitudes; to function in a manner which is consistent with due impartiality and with proper standards of taste and decency; and to carry on its work in an ethical fashion, using those words in their widest sense. And it must be answerable to the public for the results.
We believe that we have achieved a structure for the corporation which will enable the chairman with the governors, and beneath them the board of management, to achieve such a result, in line with what Parliament and the public want. Parliament cannot direct that an independent BBC behaves in a particular manner. It can merely arrange matters so that the chairman and the governors, with the assistance of the board of management, can, and we believe will, attain what is sought.
Your Lordships have made a large number of helpful contributions. Were I to respond to each and every one of them we would shatter irrevocably on the first day of the new session the new year resolution of my noble friend the Leader of the House, which would hardly be a good start for the House or for me. Indeed, were I even to list all the points I would probably spend all the time I should spend on this winding-up speech. Instead, what I shall do is confine my remarks to a few topics, which I hasten to add in no way demeans all the other points made. I shall be writing to your Lordships with responses to the points and questions that have been raised. If any noble Lord feels that I have missed a point, please feel free to write and chide me. In addition, a great deal of what has been said today goes beyond me to the BBC itself. Equally, much of what we have been talking about will be the subject matter of the debates we shall have over the next weeks and months on the Broadcasting Bill. Bearing in mind the constraints under which we are operating and the time of the evening, I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I leave some of the points aside and deal with them later.
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, I understand the point of view of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue.
114 Reference has been made to the public service broadcasting characteristics of the BBC. I should like to emphasise at the outset that it is no part of this Government's agenda that the public service broadcasting character of the BBC should he transmuted into something else. This character will remain at the core of the BBC's activities. Concern has been expressed about the period of the licence fee and about the possibility that commercial services may in some way mean a change in the BBC's core nature. That concern is misplaced. As has already been mentioned, the new digital world, about which we shall hear a good deal more in the foreseeable future, will provide opportunities for BBC commercial services. The fact that they are referred to in the objects of the corporation—in Article 3 of the Charter—no more means that the BBC will become a purely commercial broadcaster than that Article 3(t) means that it will become a property developer.
Against the kind of challenge that the future holds it is clear that the tasks facing the BBC governors and their leader, the chairman of the. BBC, will be very great. We believe that the qualities required of a chairman are manifold and that the experience and qualifications which Sir Christopher Bland brings make him an excellently qualified successor to Marmaduke Hussey, to whom quite rightly such generous tributes have been paid today.
I should like to emphasise that Sir Christopher's appointment has been conducted precisely according to all the previous precedents in this regard. The kind of qualities that Sir Christopher brings, which are ideally suited to the BBC chairmanship, indicate the nature of the challenges. He has an understanding of the broadcasting industry and major business, financial and technological subjects. He was the deputy chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority between 1972 and 1979 and has experience of carrying out the role of safeguarding the public interest. He has already guided public sector organisations—health authorities—through periods of change. Indeed, I understand that he has known some Members of your Lordships' House. His independence in this regard is well recognised. He has been involved in the management of large international and commercial organisations. He is in a good position to advise on the generation of new sources of funding and he has experience of working with Westminster and Whitehall, the media and public interest groups. I very much welcome the respect that was displayed for Sir Christopher by both the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. Reference was also made to the independence of the chairman of the governors. It seems to me that he must, as chairman—and indeed I am sure he will be—the very epitome of the impartiality that the BBC itself must display.
In my opening remarks I mentioned the question of the clarification of the governors' role within the BBC, which has been one of the themes that has been woven throughout the debate this afternoon and this evening. We must be clear: it is certainly the case that the BBC itself has been at the forefront in wishing to clarify the 115 governors' position, because this process of clarification, which has led to the new arrangements that we are discussing this evening, probably goes back to the BBC's document An Accountable BBC of 1993.
It may be helpful if I briefly spell out the express responsibilities which are placed on the governors' shoulders in Article 7 of the Charter, excluding the fact that they are the persona of the BBC itself. They are to approve the objectives for the BBC services; to monitor the performance of those services; to ensure compliance with statutory and other obligations; to ensure probity, propriety and value for money; to ensure that the BBC's services reflect the needs and interests of the public; to ensure proper consultation with the BBC's National Broadcasting Councils; to ensure the proper handling of comments, proposals and complaints from the public; to determine the strategy for the commercial services; to establish an audit committee and to appoint the Director-General and other senior staff. There it is spelt out in terms what are the specific functions of the governors. We believe that it is helpful both to the BBC, the governors themselves and to the wider public.
There was a considerable amount of debate about the whole question of codes and guidance. One of the functions of the corporation is to do all that it can to bring about the achievement of the content and programme standards which are specified in Paragraphs 3 and 5 of the draft Agreement. In addition to that, as I have already just mentioned, the governors are under a duty, as part of this wider process, to ensure that its employees and programme makers adhere to certain codes whose content is intended to enable the corporation to achieve the content and programme standards contained in Paragraphs 3 and 5 of the Agreement.
These codes in themselves provide guidance for the employees and the programme makers to assist them to meet the requirements of the rules relating to content and standards. But they are also in themselves binding by virtue of Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter, to which a considerable amount of reference has already been made this evening. I very much hope that this explains the wording of Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter and Paragraph 5(3) of the Agreement, which has caused such an amount of comment not only during the debate this evening but on previous occasions when this matter has been discussed.
There has also been a considerable amount of discussion about enforceability and accountability. We must be clear in this context that the BBC is subject to directions in respect of those matters made by the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC) as regards apologies. It is also the case that the governors are under an express duty under Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter to ensure compliance with the directions which are given. The provisions of the Broadcasting Act do not in themselves require any additional reinforcement from the documents that we are discussing this evening.
116 Reference has also been made to the words "monitor and supervise" in Article 7(1)(1) of the Charter. A number of noble Lords have expressed the view that the wording here is insufficiently strong. Looking at the words in the text, it seems to me that that is a very strong form of words, because the function of the governors in this respect is to monitor and to supervise the corporation's fulfilment of its legal and contractual obligations. We are talking about the achievement of something—in other words, the governors will see that it happens. We believe that the form of words used provides the degree of certainty for which many noble Lords are looking.
An associated point is the issue of what steps should be taken once it has been found that something has gone wrong at the BBC. As has already been mentioned, we plan changes in the Broadcasting Bill to ensure that where a finding against a broadcaster has been established, the steps taken by that broadcaster in response to the finding will be made public. As I have already said, it is the duty of the governors to ensure that the corporation discharges its duties in accordance with the Charter. It must follow that if there is a finding against the corporation, a breach has occurred and, if a breach has occurred, that means that the BBC has not been performing in accordance with the terms of its Charter. Therefore, there is an overriding obligation on the governors to put that breach right. It is important that we are clear about that.
Another important point which has been mentioned is the governors' role in dealing with problems. After all, the governors are the persona of the BBC as well as its regulator. Concern has been expressed, particularly about a number of incidents sometime in the past, that the governors have perhaps not exercised properly their responsibilities as regulator. In that context, we should again look at the Charter. I refer particularly to Article 20, which provides a kind of long stop position, where it is stated that the Charter is made upon the basis,that the Corporation shall strictly and faithfully observe and perform …the provisions prescribed therein".That is then elaborated upon. Those provisions are backed up by possible action by the Secretary of State, who, after all, is answerable to Parliament. There are some steps which the Secretary of State may take to make inquiries about what is happening at the corporation. Finally, it is possible as a very long stop—as the nuclear option or the equivalent of withdrawing the ITC licence—for the Queen in Council to withdraw the BBC's Charter.
Nobody embarks on a project on the basis that it will fail. We do not believe that the proposals that we are discussing will fail. However, I think that it is wrong to approach this matter on the basis that the governors are completely insulated from any consequences were they to act—I believe that they will not—persistently in dereliction of their duty.
There still remain an enormous number of points which I should like to address, but I have now been on my feet for a considerable number of minutes and feel that in the circumstances it would be appropriate to 117 respond by letter to the individual points raised. I hope—and sense—that that meets with your Lordships' approval—
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, I am delighted that my performance gains such approval from the Opposition Front Bench.
The composition of your Lordships' House may once more be on the political agenda, but what is not and never has been at issue is the breadth and range of view that it can bring to bear on a matter of significant public consequence. The debate this evening is an excellent example of how this House brings expertise to a national debate: not merely have we heard from ex-governors of the BBC, members of the ITC and Radio Authority and other experts in the field of broadcasting, we have also had most useful comments and contributions from those whose experience and high achievement have been in different areas, none of which can escape the influence of the BBC, and from others who bring a more private perspective which is normally lost for ever once one steps out upon the hustings.
There has been disagreement and differences of view and emphasis. That is the basis of democracy. But there is agreement that the BBC is important and that it matters to everyone that we get its future structure right.
The present Charter and Agreement were debated in Parliament some 15 years ago. Since then cable and satellite television have become much more widely available. Channel 4 has come on air and flourished. Channel 5 is due to start in 1997. We have a new national BBC station in Radio 5, three new independent national radio stations and over 150 new independent local radio services. These changes are dramatic and revolutionary enough; but the pace of change is set to increase still more over the next decade with the advent of digital technology. We shall debate the issues arising from this in the Broadcasting Bill in the next few days and weeks.
Through all these changes—indeed since its inception—the BBC has been a fixed point of reference at the heart of broadcasting both in this country and around the globe. The BBC is one of the most highly regarded broadcasters in the world. It is one of the glories of contemporary Britain. Its purpose and indeed its achievement have been to aspire to and to succeed in attaining the highest standards of excellence, and I very much hope that your Lordships, and in particular my noble friend Lord Caldecote, will all agree that the new arrangements in the Charter are the right ones for the chairman and the governors to take the corporation forward, carrying its high aspirations and achievements onwards into the rapidly changing world of the next millennium.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, will he take this opportunity to tell your Lordships what would be his reaction if the other place were to concur with your Lordships in their interpretation of the document and the suggested changes which might be made?
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, I believe that we are jumping the gun to the extent that the view of your Lordships' House is far from clear as regards the detail of some of the nuances that we are debating. If this House and the other place clearly indicated that what was being proposed was unacceptable, we would have to consider very seriously what steps to take next. I believe that I made that point clear in my winding-up speech and for that matter in my opening speech some hours ago.
§ 10.12 p.m.
§ Viscount Caldecote
My Lords, I too am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this long debate, in particular to the many who supported the amendment in various ways. By way of clarification, perhaps I may comment briefly on three speeches. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, that I had no intention of suggesting mistrust as regards all programme makers in the BBC. I meant only to criticise a few programme makers who bring disrepute on the BBC by lowering its standards.
Secondly, naturally the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, as a former vice-chairman of the BBC, believes that there is nothing much wrong with the BBC either in its standards or organisation. If there is, he clearly believes that the new Charter and Agreement will put all things right in the best of all possible worlds. Fortunately, my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth took a very different view and was a good antidote to the complacency of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett.
We all agree that the BBC is a jewel in the crown of our national life. But the jewel has lost some of its sparkle. Some believe that it needs only a little polishing through the new Charter and Agreement. Others, myself included, believe that more extensive repairs are needed lest we risk losing the sparkling jewel altogether.
In this wide-ranging and well-informed debate my noble friend Lord Inglewood dealt with many of the criticisms that were raised. I believe that he has gone as far as we can reasonably expect in the assurances that he has given, in particular as we in this House have had the first bite of the cherry. No doubt important issues will be raised in debate in another place and in our forthcoming debate on the Broadcasting Bill.
In all the circumstances, we should have confidence that my noble friend and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will do their utmost to implement all the changes to the draft Charter and Agreement which have been supported widely today and of which we hope at least some will be supported in another place.
119 Taking all that into account and in view of the lateness of the hour, I do not think that it would be reasonable to divide the House on this amendment. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw it.
120 Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at a quarter past ten o'clock.