HL Deb 06 March 2002 vol 632 cc253-5

2.52 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider changes to the BBC charter when it next falls due for renewal so as to require a high standard of programming, particularly in television.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, under the terms of its current charter and agreement, the BBC is required to maintain high general standards in all respects, and in particular in respect of the content, quality and editorial integrity of its programmes. It is for BBC governors to satisfy themselves that the requirements are fulfilled.

The charter expires in 2006 and the process of review will begin during 2004. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will announce the terms of the review in due course.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am reasonably grateful for that Answer. Does the noble Baroness share the idea that the BBC, in its recent television programmes, has tended to prefer the easy popularity that is to be found downmarket to quality and has tended to put its market share in front of excellence? That makes me wonder whether the time is coming when the BBC's privileged access to funding should be terminated.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord agrees that it would be wrong for Ministers to interfere in deciding what is and what is not high quality. As I said in my initial Answer, that is for the governors of the BBC. If the noble Lord is asking me personally, I think that there is currently a good mix of programmes on the BBC. There are popular programmes that the noble Lord may not like but that many other people do; there are also many very high-quality programmes. I am thinking, for example, of "The Blue Planet", which has won several prizes and attracted a huge number of viewers. I am not sure that there is great cause for concern, but, as I said, that would be a matter for the BBC governors.

Lord McNally

My Lords, while the BBC could be improved—it certainly could—does the Minister agree that it is still a massive national asset to have a public service broadcaster of such quality? Is she at all afraid that during a three-year period in which we shall be examining the regulatory system and structure of the commercial sector as well as that of the BBC, the BBC will be open to sniping by commercial vested interests on the basis of short-term interests of shareholders rather than the broader national interest, which is why we have the BBC as a public service broadcaster?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that the BBC is something for which Britain is well known. People around the world respect the United Kingdom because of the quality of what the BBC broadcasts, not just to the United Kingdom but around the world. I have no doubt that during a period of change for broadcasting there will be plenty of sniping from all sides, but I am sure that the BBC will be well able to defend itself by citing many examples of high-quality programmes.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, are the Government aware that people at large are not themselves unaware that the Government always consider themselves able and in recent times willing to pass their opinion on practically anything? Is there any reason why the Government cannot form a view and communicate it to the governors of the BBC? I should not wish to put myself forward as an arbiter of taste, but I fancy that I am not alone in sensing a sharp deterioration in quality at the BBC during the past six months or so.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not really agree with my noble friend that either I or the Government in general should be an arbiter of taste for the BBC. People have been saying for the past 30 years that there has been a deterioration in the quality of what the BBC produces; that is the kind of thing people always say. The BBC is well equipped to rebut such claims. If my noble friend watches some of the excellent programmes broadcast by the BBC, he may just possibly revise his opinion.

Lord Renton

My Lords, when negotiations for the renewal of the BBC charter take place, could it be borne in mind that of the 60 million people in the United Kingdom, 9 million are estimated to be deaf in one way or another, and that the most common form of deafness is high-tone deafness, which makes it difficult for listeners accurately to hear broadcasters with high-pitched voices shrieking away?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I shall try to bring my voice down and answer in a low pitch. I entirely accept that there are almost 8 million deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the United Kingdom. I am not sure that the solution is to avoid high-pitched voices; the right solution is to provide more subtitling on terrestrial and digital channels. All the broadcasters are considering that and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People is campaigning to achieve a higher proportion of subtitling.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, will my noble friend ensure that a message is passed to the governors of the BBC that they should not in any circumstances try to produce programmes that would satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, because if they did, they would in no way achieve balanced programmes?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I think that I shall leave it to the former deputy chairman of the BBC to pass on that message.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, do the Government agree that the governors of the BBC should be reassured that as a non-profit-making organisation the public are more concerned with the quality of its programmes than with its market share?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the governors of the BBC, a public service broadcaster, must constantly consider high quality. At the same time, they will want to achieve a reasonable market share to justify the licence fee and the investment that the public make through their payment of it. There must be a sensible balance in that respect. I apologise if that is a boring answer.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we must get on. My noble friend Lord Rooker is keen to answer the next Question.