HL Deb 15 December 2003 vol 655 cc944-7

2.52 p.m.

Lord McNally

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to encourage the widest participation by the public in their consultation exercise relating to the review of the BBC charter.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord Mclntosh of Haringey)

My Lords, my right honourable friend Tessa Jowell launched the first phase of charter review on 11th December with the publication of the public consultation document, The Review of the BBC's Charter—that is, BBC apostrophe "s". This is supported by a leaflet that will be widely distributed, along with a comprehensive programme of survey research, public meetings and a dedicated website. Charter review will be characterised by our openness, our efforts to engage as broad a section of the population as we can, and our commitment to listen to what people have to say.

Lord McNally

My Lords, did the Minister catch the late-night Sky News programme the other evening, during which a journalist from a well known media group and a Sky journalist discussed the weaknesses and shortcomings of the BBC stewardship without ever acknowledging that both of their employers have massive vested interests in a weakened and emasculated BBC? Will he guarantee that Ministers will give full support to the BBC being free to defend its record and to promote the high standards of public service broadcasting for which it is the iron pole?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, no, I did not hear that late-night programme, but I can certainly confirm that the BBC will be free to express its views and to defend its record as a part of the consultation process. Indeed, Gavyn Davies immediately welcomed the review document and the process upon which we are engaging.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, I also welcome the review document, but is my noble friend aware that there are those who are disappointed that greater acknowledgement has not been made of the valued public sector broadcasting role of the BBC? A single assumed weakness of the BBC prompts bigger headlines than serious distortions and untruths coming from the commercial media. Does my noble friend agree that the BBC is one of our great achievements and that we need not only to defend it, but to assert its achievements, which have helped to set standards for both the television and radio industries throughout the country?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I certainly agree that, in terms of media coverage, errors made by the BBC are given greater prominence than its virtues. To that extent, I agree with my noble friend. However, I have to say that the short consultation document, of which 600,000 have been printed so far, and in which I had some editorial say, started by asking, "What qualities do you most value in the BBC" followed by a question mark and no alternative. As a survey researcher, I had to say—although I cannot remember the exact words—"Is there anything you have to criticise about the quality of BBC programmes?". It is important that the consultation exercise should cover both aspects.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, as a supporter of the BBC, can we be absolutely sure that it will take notice of the consultation procedure and what it brings forward? Further, can we be sure that, among the things that need to be considered, will be the recruitment base, which seems to be very narrow? A second matter is how intolerant and arrogant interviewers often treat visitors to their programmes. They seem to be more concerned with protecting themselves and their own viewpoint rather than the view of the person being interviewed.

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the last point is a matter for the governors of the BBC, although of course the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is welcome to express his opinion in his response to the consultation. I hear what he says about the BBC's recruitment policies. Indeed, when he took office some four years ago, Greg Dyke described the BBC as "hideously white". I do not know whether that is what the noble Lord meant, but steps have been taken to ensure that recruitment by the BBC is more representative of the range of ethnic composition and gender of the people of this country.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is welcome that the BBC now recruits beyond advertising in the Guardian? It has now decided to advertise in other newspapers, which is a step forward. Further, is not one of the great problems with the whole of this process the reality that there is a multiplicity of views on what public service broadcasting really means?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, yes, and that is one of the issues which I hope the review process will cover. People do mean different things by "public service broadcasting" and we are not attempting, within the review process, to thrust a particular view down the throats of the public; rather, we seek to listen to what people say.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is well aware that more and more broadcast material, including a great deal from the BBC, is now available on the Internet where no regulator has jurisdiction to secure the maintenance of standards of any kind. Will the Government consult the public—I hope that they will do so—on the need for Ofcom to be given some responsibility for material of this kind broadcast on the Internet, if only to draw up a code of practice?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I believe that we are straying beyond the subject matter of the Question. The ability of Ofcom to police the Internet is an issue that was debated at great length during our consideration of the Communications Bill. The general view taken both in this House and elsewhere is that policing the Internet is extraordinarily difficult to do.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, the Minister said that 600,000 copies of the brochure had been printed. While one is encouraged by that figure, by a rough-and-ready reckoning, there are probably close to 20 million households in the United Kingdom. Given that the BBC broadcasts to all of them, why should not some form of brochure be put through every letter-box?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, will recognise that the figure of 600,000 copies was a print order; it was not a limit to the number available. However, although we have considered the point, we have not taken the view that we should put a copy of the leaflet through every letter-box. There is a limit to the number of things which people will accept and respond to through their letter-boxes.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is it right that broadcasters should be paid huge sums of money for not moonlighting?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if I knew what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, was talking about I would refer the matter to the governors of the E!BC because it is not a government responsibility.

Lord Chan

My Lords, the BBC is to be congratulated on employing people from different backgrounds. Will the Minister ensure that ethnic minorities will be consulted in this exercise?

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords, that is our responsibility. Recruitment to the BBC is, of course, a matter for the governors, but we shall make sure that the consultation documents and opportunities to respond go to all ethnic groups in this country.