HL Deb 19 January 1999 vol 596 cc472-5

2.58 p.m.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have had with the governors of the BBC on whether there should be a Scottish-based 6 p.m. news programme on BBC1.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government have had no such discussions. Within the framework of the Royal Charter and the Government's Agreement with the BBC, the corporation is independent in all programming matters.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he give definite reassurance to the BBC that future programming as regards the Scottish Parliament will be left to the professionals, without undue political interference?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not believe there has ever been any question of political interference with the professionals in the BBC for the Scottish Parliament or any other parliament. The BBC intends to carry out a quarterly monitoring of its new six o'clock news programme with its increased emphasis on news in all four home nations and there will be a full review by May 2000, by which time we hope that the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly will have settled down.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many of us who live in Scotland enjoy the national and international coverage of the news at six o'clock and that it would be a great pity if the new regime in Scotland were to be introspective and narrowly nationalistic, which might affect the news coverage of a totally Scottish programme?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that was the view the BBC governors took after extensive consultation, including consultation with the Broadcasting Council for Scotland. But we do not yet know to what extent the media will show interest in the Scottish Parliament, and it may well be that in the future there will be changes. The point which my noble friend makes about the interest of Scottish people in news for the nation as a whole is very important.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that amid the general hysteria of the recent campaign for an exclusive six o'clock news programme for Scotland some of us recognised that having a UK news bulletin at six o'clock followed by an exclusively Scottish bulletin was an example of having our cake and eating it, which is part of the Scottish tradition, anyway? Does he welcome the fact that as a result of this campaign BBC Scotland has a larger budget which will enable it to carry out coverage of the Scottish Parliament this year?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question because it enables me to say that the review of news coverage in Scotland will result in an additional £10 million of funding and an additional 50 jobs, and that is clearly very important. I believe that the tenor of the questions generally is that most people want news that covers the whole of Britain and international news but that for all of us, including those in England, there will have to be better coverage of what is happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, is it not the case that the political pressure on the BBC—if there has been political pressure—to have a Scottish six o'clock news programme comes from the nationalist wing of politics in Scotland and that the view that people in Scotland are not interested in what happens in England, or indeed in the rest of the world, is an insidious slur on the Scottish people and that we want none of it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is not for me to comment on the origin of the campaign which has been carried on. I have to recognise that the Broadcasting Council for Scotland, which is chaired by a governor of the BBC, Norman Drummond, recommended a rather different format from that which the BBC governors finally adopted. I do not think that that has anything to do with a campaign of political origin.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the rather different format he mentioned meant that the Broadcasting Councils for Scotland and Wales argued strongly for a Scottish six o'clock news programme? Is it not amazing that BBC Radio in Scotland is perfectly capable of producing a UK national and Scottish radio programme in the morning to replace the "Today" programme and carrying out a similar operation in the late afternoon to replace the "PM" programme, yet BBC Television cannot do it? Is it not odd that the Broadcasting Councils for Scotland and Wales favoured a Scottish six o'clock news programme, as did the staff of the BBC in Scotland, and only the Government and the London-based governors of the BBC—and clearly a few Members of your Lordships' House—appear to think to the contrary? Is it not time that the Government and the BBC understood the consequences of their policy of devolution?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I begin slightly to regret my unwillingness to attribute political origins to the campaign for a particular form of broadcast coverage of news. Clearly, the Conservative Party is setting out its programme for the Scottish elections on the basis of what I believe some of us would agree to be poorer coverage of national and international news for the benefit of the Scots. I think that that would be a mistake, wherever it comes from.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that on the Welsh language news programmes broadcast on S4C, including the news at six o'clock in the evening, the share between international, national and Welsh news seems to be very much the same as in the English programmes?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I was not aware of that. I am interested to hear what the noble Lord says. I should say that my response to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, was a personal response. The Government do not take a view about these matters.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, can the noble Lord say where the extra £10 million for the Scottish BBC programmes will come from? Will it come from the money that was previously available to England?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it comes from the licence fee, which is paid by people in Scotland as well as by people in England.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us would be very interested to know whether the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, represent the new policy of the Conservative Party and how that is consistent with the views we read in the press today of the present leader of the Conservative Party about the British identity?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not want to intrude on private grief!

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, can the Minister say whether it is the case that the Government's wishes were interpreted to the BBC governors? Can he accept the principle that in future the BBC should not be pressurised on such matters?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords, the Government's views were not interpreted to the governors of the BBC. The only comment made by government—it was made by Mr. Donald Dewar—came after the decision was taken. He recognised that many people would be disappointed by the decision but he took the view—a very measured view, I believe—that it is vital that BBC Scotland raises its standards and offers proper in-depth coverage of the Scottish Parliament. It is important that we break away from the narrow concept of local news. That comment was not part of pressure on the BBC governors; it was made only after the governors had made their decision.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the BBC should internationalise the six o'clock news programme so that the people of Scotland get a wider view and are not subjected to moans about the disasters overtaking English cricket?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this is where I retreat behind the wall of government non-intervention in the internal affairs of the BBC, particularly when the question relates to a sport about which I know nothing.