HL Deb 04 November 2003 vol 654 cc766-88

7.36 p.m.

Lord Pattenrose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the range and quality of the coverage of political events by the media, in particular by the BBC, are satisfactory.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely glad of the opportunity to ask this Question tonight, and extremely grateful to those noble Lords who have decided to take part in this short debate, although it is lengthening slightly, thanks to the progress of business.

The Question for the Minister is whether the Government feel satisfied with the standards of reporting of what they and other politicians of all parties do in the United Kingdom. I am sure that the Minister shares with me the feeling that a high standard of political reporting and analysis is vital to the health of our democracy and essential to the channels that inform governed and government, helping to bind us all together in mutual understanding, even if not in actual agreement much of the time.

Yet I also feel, among many people of all parties and none, a growing sense that the aggressive, sometimes antagonistic and scoop-driven style of political journalism that we now have does not add very much to human understanding. There is the feeling that this hardly encourages a dash to the polls, although I certainly do not blame all voter apathy on the media.

Only in September, in this respect, there was a handsome mea culpa by the right honourable Tessa Jowell when she wrote in the New Statesman: We made repeat announcements of the same initiatives. We favoured some journalists; we briefed anonymously;"—

There is a serious sin. She continued, we were insufficiently respectful to Parliament".

That is an even more serious sin.

That was very honest of her, but that same right honourable Lady has the very challenging task of the oversight of the one media body where your Lordships have some legitimate direct interest—the BBC.

The strictures that I have made about the BBC are not only related to that body. They are certainly shared by many in the journalistic world, yet we have put the BBC into a peculiar position. In a free society, if we do not like the coverage offered us by the myriad of modern media outlets, we can listen, view or read something else. The unique exception in the western world is the BBC, which holds us in a form of broadcast serfdom. Of course, it can be turned off—no one has to listen or view—but it still has to be paid for through the BBC poll tax.

If I want to educate or irritate myself by reading a left-wing view, I can buy the Mirror or the Guardian. If I want to wallow in comforting right-wingery, I can go out and buy the Mail or the Telegraph. But, by comparison, if I turn on any news channel in this country, such as ITN, or any news channel in the United States, for that matter, it never enters my head for one moment to consider the likely politics of the broadcaster. There is one exception to that—the case of the BBC.

There are two reasons for that. The first is the fiscal compulsion that underpins the organisation, which is now becoming abhorrent in a free society. The licence fee also has regressive effects in a free society. Why should someone in a tower block be forced to pay for something that they do not want? That seems to me fundamentally wrong.

I am not being malicious in saying that the second reason is that the BBC has, little by little over the years, developed its own view of the world. That view happens to mean that the BBC has become more and more institutionally left-wing. Not for one second do I mean that it is far left or loony left—it is a kind of inside liberal left. That is where I would place the BBC's cast of mind. That is not because of entryism or some political plot or the goings-on of any government. It is perfectly natural for any media outlet over the years to develop its own identity, persona and cast of mind. It is a natural law of journalism, broadcast or print. The BBC might just as easily have taken a different turn and ended up a right-wing kind of organisation, or a Liberal Democrat kind of organisation. I do not blame anyone for that—it has just happened.

In saying that, I do not criticise any individual. That is for two reasons: first, because I am naturally charitable and do not want to upset anyone. However, it is widely recognised that journalists—whether left, right or centre—despite very often using the fiercest criticism as a tool of trade, are an exceptionally thin-skinned bunch when the weapon is turned on them. They are likely to reach for the smelling salts at the mildest remark, let alone criticism, of anything that they do as journalists. I hasten to add that my noble friend Lord Marlesford is an exception to the rule; he was a complete paragon in everything that he did when writing in the Economist and elsewhere.

Secondly, I believe—and it is from this belief that I speak—that there are a lot of excellent journalists in the BBC. I had better declare an interest: I know and like a number of them. I do not want to shock my own noble friends on these Benches, but I have been to their homes and they have been to mine. I hasten to say that there will be no outing of anyone tonight and no collateral damage done to their BBC careers because of me. However, that said, I can think of no senior BBC figure who is known privately as being right of centre. If by saying that I have misjudged anyone in the BBC's political firmament, perhaps they will out themselves in due course. I shall leave that to them.

Deliberately, the BBC has developed a real view on the world—aka an editorial slant, just like any tabloid. I happen rather to like tabloids. Its news and analysis is now driven by the scoop and largely motivated by the exclusive. Sadly, some of those exclusives are sometimes based on surveys that the BBC has itself commissioned. One might talk in the literal sense about making up the news rather than reporting it. I do not believe that the relentless pursuit of exclusives by the BBC is at all consistent with the role of public service broadcasting. That vital sense of fairness is lost, and I believe that is probably already gone.

An editorial stance, let alone partisanship, should not be paid for from the public purse. Can the governors do anything about that? The answer is no, although we should certainly be grateful for what they have tried to do. They have an impossible task, as they do not have the powers of non-executive directors but are expected to defend their men and women through thick and thin while, at the same time, acting as a form of self-regulator. In its turn, that is a form of muddled corporate governance hybridity, flying full in the face of any modern approach to corporate governance itself. One simply cannot superintend an organisation such as the BBC, with its sprawling news empire of 3,500 people, and with no editor-in-chief to be answerable for what is carried on the BBC news. There is no such man or woman. One simply cannot superintend such an organisation with a form of corporate governance that is so anarchic, out of date and unfit for purpose.

In conclusion, my view is that the BBC is no longer a national institution. As a matter of editorial policy, it has deliberately ditched its role of wanting to be part of our national glue while continuing to depend on national funds. It is now just like any other broadcaster, and it is none the worse for that—it is not in any sense meant to be a critical remark. It is just like any other broadcaster, save for it being a pensioner on the public purse.

I only wish that, 20 or 30 years ago, someone had issued a stern warning to the BBC along the lines of that recently given at the end of October by the head of the Civil Service, Sir Andrew Turnbull. In a speech that he made, with the characteristic discretion of the upper mandarinate, to the Portuguese Civil Service, offshore in Lisbon on 22nd October, Sir Andrew was blunt. He said that there was a risk that our bureaucrats could lose their reputation for political impartiality and integrity, which, once lost would be very difficult to revive".

The BBC demonstrates just how easily that can happen. I hope that the BBC is disestablished as soon as possible, at least with regard to news and political reporting, in the interests of fairness to the people of this country.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Parekh

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for proposing today's timely and topical debate and for his interesting and somewhat polemical speech.

Our media are a mixed bag. Our quality press and the BBC are world class and inferior to none, but our tabloid press leaves much to be desired. It has little interest in major political events of the world and, when it condescends to take notice of them, the coverage tends to be sensational, personalised, shallow and designed to serve a narrow ideological and political agenda. Since the tabloid press reaches nearly 80 per cent of our population, its poor quality is a matter of legitimate public concern. However, having said that, I should like to concentrate on the high standards of the quality press and of the BBC.

With all the limitations to which I shall return, there is much to be proud of in our media. By and large, they provide reasonably accurate information, and in-depth analysis of political events. Some of their columnists are knowledgeable, well read and capable of taking detached and long-term perspectives on day-to-day events. Our newspapers cover a fairly wide range of ideological positions, and the biases of one are countered by those of the others.

Even the most ideologically biased newspapers generally take care not to cross certain limits, and they have columnists representing different points of view. Let us take for example the coverage of the recent war on Iraq and its aftermath and compare it to what happened in the United States. Anyone who has closely followed the American print and visual media, as I have, both as a distant observer and as someone who was privileged to lecture at Harvard and Yale, is struck by the one-sidedness of the coverage of those events in the United States. In the name of patriotism almost all dissenting views were marginalised and suppressed. Demonstrations against the war were ignored altogether or covered in an extremely partisan manner. Columnists and commentators who dared take a critical view were calumniated and even dismissed. Many sensible Americans, legitimately proud of their democratic culture, began to ask why it had become so vulnerable and fragile. Some even talk of intellectual and moral suffocation. Not surprisingly, quite a few of them turned to the British liberal press for information and ideas and envy the robustness of our public culture.

They were particularly impressed—if I may say so, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Patten—with the quality of the coverage on the BBC. The BBC never lost its balance and objectivity. Even when the country was involved in a war, the BBC insisted on checking its facts independently rather than rely on the reports of the embedded journalists working with the coalition forces. It also continued to ensure that the institutionalised public space that it represents is available to critical and dissenting views. The Hutton inquiry was another excellent example of the independence of the BBC. Despite its initial misjudgment, the BBC ensured that it was able to stand up to the Government, rightly or wrongly. More importantly and more impressively, it was just as critical of its own management and the heads of the sections involved.

While, therefore, there is much to be proud of in our media, there are obviously certain limitations. I want briefly to refer to five of them by way of illustration. First, the range of the coverage of political events even in the best of our media is considerably limited. Many parts of the world including the great developing countries such as India and China barely receive sustained attention. They are noticed only when there are natural disasters or incidents of extensive civil violence. We know very little of the big debates taking place in these countries; nor do we know much about the background to the events of civil violence that are reported.

Secondly, the quality of analysis in much of our media also needs to improve. Our columnists are almost all journalists who have to write against pressing deadlines, who are not always expert in their respective areas and are often unable to bring well-thought-out historical and philosophical analysis on daily events. Here we may have something to learn from the French and the German newspapers and television. There it is quite common for academics, experts and senior statesmen to be regular columnists in national newspapers or to comment from time to time on important national events. I am therefore particularly disappointed and rather surprised that a debate on as momentous an issue as the European Union and the new constitution has received very little contribution from historians, philosophers or political scientists.

Thirdly, there is little significant contribution from the ethnic minority columnists and writers. As a result, large sections of our society remain voiceless and feel alienated from the democratic culture of our society. Ethnic minority writers and others have unique experiences and perspectives and our political life is the poorer for their marginalisation. If nothing else, they will at least ensure that the media do not talk about ethnic minorities, wittingly or unwittingly, in a degrading and patronising manner.

Fourthly, even in the quality press there is a tendency to push the views of the proprietors and to allow them to impose their ideological and political agenda on the country. Sometimes this tendency by the proprietors to use newspapers to promote their ideological position is subtle. On other occasions it is too blatant to go unnoticed. This undermines public trust in the media and corrupts the wellsprings of our democratic culture. The one way to counter this tendency would be to regulate the ownership of the media and to ensure that the ownership remains diversified. Another way is to hold the media accountable to a public body.

We certainly have the Press Complaints Commission, for which there is much to be said, but, sadly, it is too weak and too dominated by the editors to perform its task properly. It would therefore help, I think, to establish an independent institute whose job it would be to monitor the media, correct errors of fact and judgment, expose their biases and challenge their views. Even if the institute, independent of government, has no legal teeth, the very fact that a respectable body passes strictures on the media or the television should be able to exert a determined influence.

I turn, finally, to the BBC. The BBC, I think, and I say so in great humility, is a wonderful institution. It is rightly cherished and it commands far more public confidence than any newspaper, or even all the newspapers in our country put together. It should obviously therefore not allow itself to get into the Gilligan-type situation when its judgment was suspect and when it acted too hastily to defend its reporter. It should therefore take a careful critical look at itself and its procedures, and I gather that it is doing so already. It might in this context think of an ombudsman or a neutral complaints authority, like the Police Complaints Authority, to which disputes involving the BBC can be referred.

In any case the Government should keep their hands off the BBC in its daily management. The fate of our democracy is too important to be left to the forces of the market. We know that from the sad experience of the United States. We need a public medium, publicly accountable and set up by the public. The BBC, with all its limitations that I pointed out earlier, is as good an institution as I can imagine.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for instituting this debate.

When considering the media, I think first about an issue of which I have some little personal knowledge, and then I look at what the media say about it. On 16th October 2003 there were three local government by-elections in the North of England: in Mixenden in Halifax, in Lanehead in Burnley, and in Great Horton in Bradford. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Patten, I am concerned about the far right. Several of us were aware that the BNP would show some interest in those three local authority by-elections. It had won Mixenden in January 2003 and the seat in Burnley in May 2003. The Mixenden by-election—a council seat in Calderdale, where I was a member until May—was caused by the death of Stephen Pearson, who had been a colleague of mine, and was fought by his widow, Jennifer Pearson. I was involved in that. Understandably, Jennifer was given a great deal of help.

I was surprised, therefore, when the day before the election, one of my noble friends said to me, "I see that you're going to lose that seat in Halifax". I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "The article in today's Daily Telegraph. You're not going to win". The headline said, School Governor on course to win seat for BNP". It took two reporters to give us that story. I said, "Don't worry; all will be well".

I was there at the count and had the pleasure of seeing the ballot papers. As I was at the count, I did not hear the 10 o'clock news on BBC Radio. However, my noble friend Lord Greaves, who was in his hospital bed at the time, was firmly fixed to Radio 4 and listened to the 10 o'clock news. After the 10 minutes of news, there was a studio discussion on why the BNP were going to win two seats, in Halifax and in Burnley, that evening. Happily, during the course of the programme, they were able to interrupt to go over to Halifax to get the result. Jennifer Pearson polled 1,210 votes; the BNP 801; and others rather less. The BNP did not gain the seat.

What was the reaction in the studio? The presenter said, "What's gone wrong? The BNP were very confident. What's gone wrong?" He did not know how to handle it. Happily for the presenter, the Burnley result came a little later, long after that paper had gone to bed. The Liberal Democrat candidate in Burnley polled 1,070 votes, Labour 463, the BNP 357 and other candidates rather less. Therefore the BNP lost the seat. Teletext covered both results, although I think that it was set up for other reasons.

I said that there was a third by-election in Bradford. There was no BNP candidate because something went wrong with the nomination papers. Even the Yorkshire Post did not record the result, which was a Labour gain from the Conservatives that meant that Labour became the biggest party in Bradford, rather than the Conservatives. One would have thought that there was a little news value in that. Of course the result was never covered by the London Daily Telegraph. Although it had spent a lot of time telling us what was going to happen the day before, the real result was never given to the readers.

We need more serious reporting. The Daily Telegraph story did not even state that there were any other candidates, let alone their names. We need less guessing. The media ought somehow to get rid of preconceived notions and report and consider facts. The problem is that there is no follow-through. What is the point of starting a story and giving people certain information and then not going through with it?

8.2 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Patten for introducing this debate with such accurate eloquence. He may be aware that I introduced a similar debate on 11th March last year, which repays study now in the wake of the events being examined by the Hutton inquiry. As I said in that debate, broadcasting bias is often in the eye of the beholder and it is especially difficult to prove when it exists. Several series of programmes have to be recorded, transcribed and analysed by an objective mind. Even then, the written text will not reflect the tone in which a question may have been put, so painstaking cross-referencing between the recording and its text is sometimes necessary.

As far as I know, only one area of the BBC's political output has been thoroughly analysed over several years: its coverage of our relationship with the European Union. I referred to that in my debate on 11th March last year and again at Second Reading of the Communications Bill on 25th March this year. I shall not repeat all that now: no doubt the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will be pleased to hear that.

Lord McNally

My Lords, he is not alone.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I feel sure that he is not alone.

Suffice it to say that through our research unit, Global Britain, the noble Lords, Lord Harris of High Cross and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and I have now commissioned 12 independent reports into series of the BBC's EU coverage. The main reports run to some 750 pages, supported by several thousand pages of background analyses and transcripts. The reports and summaries can be found on the www.globalbritain.org website; their conclusion is simple and clear. The BBC is heavily biased in favour of our continued membership of the European Union and permits virtually no debate about whether we should leave it, despite the significant strand of public opinion that believes that we should.

That is particularly reprehensible and treacherous when we are under the shadow of the Giscard proposals for a new EU constitution, which would make this country entirely subservient to the corrupt octopus in Brussels. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, listed leaders of thought who have not given the subject the attention that it deserves; I venture to add the BBC to that list.

However, the BBC website is running a question and answer section on the proposed constitution. I have time to give your Lordships only one of its more beautiful answers. It states: Giving EU law supremacy over national law sounds more radical than it is. This clause writes down what has always been the case. And its application is limited to an area of policy where the Union has 'competences conferred on it'. If member states could at the same time pass their own contradictory laws, there would not be a Union at all". So that is all right then, according to the BBC.

The BBC's news and news-related coverage stands accused of bias in several other areas. It is held to be biased against Israel and in favour of the Palestinians; in favour of immigration and asylum on almost any scale and against those who fear the results of too many unskilled foreigners coming to live here; and against our glorious history and culture and in favour of any other view that discredits the good that we have done over the centuries. Also, of course, it is deeply antagonistic towards the United States of America, ignoring all the sacrifices that that great country has made for the world—in particular, for Europe. In fact, the BBC fell out with Mr Blair only when he did a wicked right-wing thing by joining Mr Bush in his liberation of Iraq.

In other words, the BBC is hopelessly and uniformly politically correct. It simply cannot understand a view, let alone encourage an open and honest debate, on a subject that clashes with its leftish, liberal, bien pensant culture. It thus abuses its charter, its guidelines, its public service remit and its licence fee. To many of us, that is a great pity, because much of what it does outside the realm of politics is excellent and we would not want to lose it.

I end with two observations, the first of which I have made before, which is that the governors of the BBC should have more independent help to insist that the BBC's management starts to take a balanced approach to the kinds of issues I have mentioned, and there are others. At the moment the governors are advised by employees of the corporation who owe their careers to the management whom they are unlikely to criticise, and so, indeed, they do not. The governors are controlled by the management when it should be the other way round.

Secondly, a practice has grown up over the past 10 years whereby news correspondents and other commentators give their views on the subject in question along with their reporting of facts. Those views, of course, resonate the views of the BBC itself. I understand that that is partly because of the pressures of 24-hour news reporting and partly because the BBC wanted to make its news coverage more readily accessible. Be that as it may, it has now become very difficult for listeners and viewers to separate fact from the BBC's opinion on any matter. I feel sure your Lordships will agree that this confusion is not what the BBC was set up to perpetrate. Here again the BBC's management should be controlled by the governors.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and I put forward some suggestions as to how that might be achieved during the Committee stage of the Communications Bill. We suggested that those who advised the governors might be employed by separate trustees, or perhaps that the governors should set up a sub-committee from among their number to oversee their public service remit. After all, they have an audit committee, why not a public service committee? The Government dismissed those ideas at the time but I still believe that it is essential for the governors to be advised independently of management. I have to say that there are a large number of people in the BBC who agree with me very much. I hope that the Government in the wake of the events leading to the Hutton inquiry may now give that proposal some serious thought.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I should like to join in thanking my noble friend Lord Patten for giving us a chance to discuss these matters. I have one or two interests to declare. I am an independent national director of Times Newspapers, which means The Times and The Sunday Times. In that role I have absolutely no responsibility whatever for editorial content. Indeed, it would be wholly inappropriate for me at any stage to seek to influence it. The real purpose of having independent national directors of those particular papers—which dates back to the days when the Thomson empire had those papers long before Mr Murdoch took over—had always been to protect the editors against the proprietor, should that be necessary. In the time that I have been an independent national director that has not proved necessary, so my duties have been fairly light although very interesting.

I was a journalist for the Economist for some 16 years and the lobby correspondent for the greater part of that. I also did quite a lot of broadcasting at one time for the BBC, both at home and on the World Service. In the few minutes of your Lordships' time that I shall take, I want primarily to talk about the BBC. I want to make the very important distinction, which has been made many times before, between a public service obligation and a purely commercial obligation. It is that which separates the BBC from the rest of the media. The BBC is financed by a licence fee which, as someone said, is paid whether people want to pay it or not. That brings certain obligations. The first obligation is accuracy, the second is balance and the third is objectivity. I do not believe that the BBC always fulfils those obligations.

The BBC often has its own agenda—it is easy for any organisation to start to have this—which becomes very apparent. Sometimes the views of individual people on the BBC become apparent. As your Lordships will know, the point about the Economist newspaper is that, with the exception of surveys, none of us ever got a byline. That does not mean that the Economist is sound on everything—many things that appeared in it when I was there I regarded as unsound and there have been many since—but it does mean that it is less likely to produce zany one-off personal views because there is a certain collective ethos which means that things are thought through and talked through very carefully. That is much more difficult in the case of the BBC because by definition anyone broadcasting has a byline; they are the person speaking at the time.

I suggest that one of the BBC's problems at present— it ought to be able to deal with it fairly easily—is to see the difference between a presenter of a programme and a commentator. Of all people the presenter of a programme should be wholly anonymous in terms of his or her views.

I was fortunate enough—privileged—for three and a half years to be a civil servant in the 1970s. I was subject to all Civil Service rules, but I was a political appointee of the Heath government at the time. I can honestly say that in that time I really did not know the political views of any civil servants with whom I dealt. I was obviously dealing with the then head of the Civil Service, Sir William Armstrong, and the secretary of the Cabinet, Sir Burke Trend. My particular job was mainly involved with the Central Policy Review Staff under Lord Rothschild.

There is a very big tribute to be paid to the Civil Service for its genuine impartiality. That is something that the BBC should seek. It can perfectly well differentiate itself from the commercial media, which are there to make a profit and sell papers, channels or whatever. It is perfectly justified for them to take any line that they wish. That simply is not true of the BBC. We somehow need to get more objectivity.

I do not think that there is a tremendous party-political bias in the BBC. One reason for that is that we have a largely conservative Government and a largely conservative Opposition, which means that the party-political clash is far less nowadays, certainly in doctrinal terms, than it used to be. However, an agenda emerges, and the BBC wants to watch very closely against that.

I shall not follow completely the rule of my noble friend Lord Patten in not naming anyone, as I would like to name one journalist—a former colleague of mine—who is an example of real objectivity. I have known him a very long time, and I happen to know a lot of his views. I refer to Andrew Marr, the political editor of the BBC. I am absolutely astonished at how enormously informative he is. If anyone fills the three criteria of accuracy, balance and objectivity, it is he. A number of others whom I will not mention could seek to emulate that.

There are moments when the BBC has a role in the national interest, and I shall tell one story that dates back to the Falklands War. I did some broadcasting on the domestic political implications of the war, and I remember arriving at Bush House to do some on the World Service late at night after there had been a big row in the House of Commons about certain aspects of the war. I was going to be a commentator after the news broadcast, and there was quite some excitement in the newsroom outside the actual studio. I gathered that a report had just come in that the QE2, which was steaming towards the Argentine with many thousands of British troops on board, had been sunk

. I remember very well the little dialogue that went on between the producer of the evening and other people in that part of the room. "Where did this news item come from?", he said, and was told that it came from Madrid via New York. "Right", he said, "we are not going to broadcast the enemy's black propaganda", and of course the item was not referred to. That was absolutely right in every sense.

Part of being a public service medium means that there are certain national obligations. I do not say that criticism should not be expressed, but it is very important not only that the BBC avoid having an agenda, but that it should be constantly aware of the need to give a fuller account than anyone could expect tabloids to do. It worries me if I hear the BBC hype up the news, as it often does. It treats it as drama, perhaps trivialising really serious subjects. That is not its job. Its job is not to seek ratings, but to perform a public service.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for giving us the opportunity to speak in this debate. Many before me have spoken eloquently about the BBC. On the whole I shall not speak about it, other than to say that the focus on the BBC and its credibility and impartiality is incredibly important for one other reason. The BBC World Service, to which reference has just been made, is a major influence in the lives of many who support the ideals found in this House and the other place. The local, internal and domestic credibility of the BBC could affect that for the worse, which is all the more reason to debate the topic.

Perhaps I should confess what is not quite an interest but is a link, in view of the remarks that I will make in my few minutes. When the noble Lord, Lord Patten, was Secretary of State for Education and I was Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools and in the process of creating Ofsted, he never communicated with me through the media—through leaks, hints or spin. Rather we spoke or he wrote. That was done in openness and honesty and I would commend it. It was the relationship that perhaps led to creating an institution that still plays an important role in this country. The reasons for making that point plain will become apparent in a moment.

One premise in the discussion has been, as a starting point, that perhaps the Government and the media— or the BBC as one very important element of the media—are too far apart and that they communicate by megaphone and loud hailer; and that they are too much inclined, therefore, to misunderstand, attack and have separate agendas that do not fit together.

An alternative premise I put to your Lordships is the opposite: that perhaps they have been too close to one another; that the apparent rows have the intensity of family quarrels rather than of opposite parties pitching from different and distant standpoints. I should add in passing that it is said most murderers are known to their victims. The greatest violence and the greatest rowing tends to come where relationships are very close.

There is early evidence that others have worried about that. Your Lordships may recall that when the Independent newspaper was created, its first editor, Andreas Whittam Smith, decided to play no part in the Lobby system. Perhaps that was too early, but it expressed a concern and a worry—the one I am expressing today. At the time, to adapt a phrase, "C'elait magnifique, mais ce n 'etait pas la guerre". But he did make the point that the dangers of collusion and over-familiarity between journalists and politicians are real and perhaps lead to internecine strife in due course. Perhaps, of course, the Lobby system and the subsequent industry of unattributed briefings was simply the government trying to be helpful—perhaps. I am inclined to say, "Pull the other one".

I point to two complementary problems; because this is a two-sided issue. It is not merely a matter of asking whether there is something wrong with the media; it is the relationship with politics that concerns me. On the one hand, it seems to me that there has been a wish on the part of government and governments, not least the current Government, to manage the news; to set the agenda in news terms and perhaps to manipulate. It appears in a number of ways; for instance, the timing of stories. There has to be a string of good -news stories coming out in due order—which will be next week's and which for the week after. There is a release of stories to journalists—favoured journalists—but on what kind of basis? The implicit discipline or threat in that was the one to which Andreas Whittam Smith was pointing us those 20 years ago. There are the briefings, the counter-briefings, the announcements made perhaps by the "Today" programme rather than in the Houses of Parliament. It really will not do.

I make the point because it is a two-way issue. It is politics and the media; it is not simply what is wrong with them. There is the attempt—and it is understandable but none the less not to be encouraged—to control the news. And we see the extremes that goes to in dictatorships in proletarian states. We are not in a totalitarian regime; we are in a very different regime and so there are counter-balances to that. However, it is a tendency for which one must always watch.

On the other hand—and this has been well encountered today—there is the preoccupation of the media with the story rather than with the report. Always there has to be a story, whether it is about by-elections in the North of England or whatever. How many of us have been asked to give comment perhaps to a television crew? One is asked five questions but one knows which one is the predetermined question to which they want a particular answer. The story has been written and one's comment will slot into that part of the production that is already in process.

There are two sides to that and the dangers of over-familiarity between politics and the media ought to be sounded once again as an issue. There have grown up partnerships or unholy alliances that perhaps do not help because each one seeks to manipulate the other.

Reference has been made to the head of the Civil Service, who spoke—I was going to say "off-stage" but perhaps in the Portuguese proscenium—about the importance of an independent Civil Service. Nowhere is that more important than in the government information services. I believe that an issue arises here in relation to the wholesale changes in personnel that took place in the summer of 1997. That cannot be allowed to be a running pattern that dictates the way in which the media are dealt with by the Civil Service. The dangers of losing professionalism are very great. I wholly applaud what Sir Andrew Turnbull said about the importance of an independent Civil Service, not least in this area of life.

I speak here not as a mainline politician, nor as a card-carrying member of the National Union of Journalists; on the other hand, I want to represent a view held by many outside these Houses and many who are not directly involved in the media. If we were to come to distrust wholesale what is said either by politicians or by senior figures in the media, democracy would be the loser.

8.26 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for initiating this debate. The contributions have indicated how wide-ranging it could become. I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, in his remarks other than to echo his hope that when the Government appoint the new head of the information service, which is promised to be separate from the political role occupied by Mr Campbell, we shall demonstrate a new attitude towards it. As for Sir Andrew Turnbull, I hope that he shows as much enthusiasm for a Civil Service Act at home as he appears to have done in Portugal.

In this debate, we could cover the commercial press, the behaviour of the print media and a variety of other topics. Whenever the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is in the fray, I am always tempted to mount a spirited defence of the European Union, although I am also a critic of many of its aspects. That is the nature of debates, which tend to put us in opposite corners. The same applies to the BBC.

This evening I want to be a candid friend of the BBC. However, I cannot begin on that without commenting on what I considered to be a brilliant analysis of the present political situation by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. The relations between the Conservatives and the Government remind me of the Dorothy Parker assessment: they go through all the political emotions from A to B.

With regard to the role of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, as an independent director of The Times, I am sure that he was slightly amazed this morning that The Times missed the boardroom coup that took place in our largest subscription television company. I should have thought that appointing the 30 year-old son of the chairman would have deserved the coverage given to it by the Guardian and theFT, which both made the story their front-page lead, whereas The Times put it on page 21 under the announcement of a new non-executive director. But perhaps that is not so surprising because, as we know, The Times supported the Iraq war, as did the other 274 independent editors over whom Mr Rupert Murdoch has some influence.

As to the experience of my noble friend Lord Shutt, I can only echo one of my own. Last May, I appeared, along with Michael Howard, on the BBC programme covering the election results. The usual BBC pundits were there and they started to discuss an opinion poll taken the previous day which showed an impending disaster for the Tories. It would undoubtedly have meant that Mr Iain Duncan Smith would be out of a job the following morning. Unfortunately, the local election results started to come in showing modest gains for the Liberal Democrats and, indeed, gains of a considerable nature for the Conservatives. That did not stop the assembled pundits continuing to discuss the poll. Determined attempts by both Mr Howard and myself to try to discuss the results were rebuffed by the Dimbleby in charge—there is always a Dimbleby in charge on such occasions. Perhaps they thought they had a scoop in predicting the departure of Mr Iain Duncan Smith. That evening they left one sore future leader of the Conservative Party.

I want to concentrate on the context in which BBC charter review will take place. A recent study by the University of Cardiff showed that about 70 per cent of the population now rely on radio and television as their main source of news. A similar percentage trust broadcasters to tell them the truth. In contrast only 10 per cent expect certain national tabloids to tell them the truth. That background caused the Puttnam committee to recommend that there be a public interest power in legislation with the aim of the, promotion and maintenance in all media, including newspapers, of a balanced and accurate presentation of the news, the free expression of opinion and a clear differentiation between the two". The Government, in their wisdom, have chosen to leave press regulation in the hands of the industry's own watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission. The jury is still out on whether its chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, can instil in his flock any sense of urgency in mending their ways or a realisation of the dangers for a newspaper industry that is either ignored or mistrusted by the public at large. In any other sector that would be seen as a recipe for terminal decline.

That is why the future of the BBC is so important, not only to broadcasting, but also to our cultural identity and to the effective workings of our democracy. In 1997 Patricia Hodgson, who will shortly retire as head of the Independent Television Commission, said: The communications system we as a society choose and the quality of the content it carries will be an important influence on the social values and concerns of the communities of the 21st century". The important part of Patricia Hodgson's statement is that the shape of our broadcasting system is what we as a society choose. There is a concerted attempt to imply that we are now in the grip of global market forces and unstoppable technological change which removes all power from Parliament and people to decide. That is not so. If we as a people wish to retain the BBC as the iron pole around which we construct a large, independent, high-quality public service broadcaster, we have the power to do so.

We have only to look at the United States, where market forces rule, to see the "Foxification" of news, or at Putin's Russia, or at Berlusconi's Italy, where undue political influence is put on broadcasters, to see the dangers that lie ahead. In the face of those threats there are many who are willing to fight for the BBC. No one should worry about an occasional public spat between the BBC and the Government of the day. A sweetheart relationship between No. 10 and Broadcasting House would be far more damaging to the public interest.

My main criticism of the BBC's political coverage is its paucity of ambition. For fear of losing the ratings war, political coverage is shuffled to the margins of the schedules or ghettoised in specialised channels. A public service broadcaster spending public money cannot live by ratings alone. There must be a commitment to educate and to inform in the mainstream and at peak time. A BBC that leads the process of political involvement would be far more valuable than one that tries to match the ratings of "Pop Idol".

A BBC that restored "Panorama" to prime time with a budget to match; which repeated "Newsnight" the following morning to catch the day time audience; which introduced a television version of "Yesterday in Parliament"; which gave serious coverage of the European and Scottish Parliaments and the regional assemblies and made a serious attempt to show how the political process works; and which stopped dumbing down "Question Time" and perhaps took a youth version of it to sixth forms would at least show that it was willing to take politics to the people—in other words, to educate and to inform. If half the effort had gone into presenting politics as has gone into teaching us to garden, cook or make-over our homes perhaps we would not have such an ill-informed electorate as we are in danger of having.

The battle can still be won. At every national or international crisis not only Britain, but the world turns to the BBC. It is one of the strongest and most trusted brand names in the world. Today it carries its message not only on television and radio, but online in 43 languages on the world's most trusted website. In particular, in the middle of the last century the words, "This is London calling the world" meant something. It meant, "This is the BBC telling the truth". That is the heritage we are defending. Let us not learn the hard way the warning about high standards that comes from one of America's most distinguished broadcasters, Ted Koppel. He said that if they are once abandoned, it will not then be possible to reconstitute what is so easily destroyed".

8.35 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I too am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Patten for introducing this debate. The debate is timely and one of great importance.

The media face more challenges than ever before. During the past 10 years the media have changed enormously—the way we speak to each other and obtain and access information have changed beyond all recognition. A question however remains: are the media responding effectively to these changes in relation to range and quality of coverage of politics and grasping the many opportunities that the multi-media world offers?

We are fortunate to enjoy a free press in this country. It is of central importance to our political and social culture. As there is no requirement of impartiality placed upon the press with regard to political reporting, other than that of general law, we expect the newspapers to express political opinion and to offer a wide and varied range of political views.

However, the subject matter covered by the press has changed in recent years, resulting in less comprehensive and more sensational coverage of political activities. The problem appears to be that the media have been gradually trivialising cultural and social values. Celebrity news is given an unprecedented prominence throughout our press. In one of the Sunday tabloids last week, the change in leadership of Her Majesty's Opposition was given the same level of coverage as the possibility that Victoria Beckham may not want to live in Madrid with her husband, David Beckham. The message portrayed to the electorate is that political events are inconsequential in comparison with celebrity news.

The position in relation to broadcasting, however, is different from that of the press. The Communications Act imposes statutory obligations on commercial broadcasters to ensure that they provide high-quality coverage of national and international events. The BBC has similar requirements imposed by the charter and agreement. The importance of these obligations has become particularly evident in recent months during the Hutton inquiry, following suggestions of BBC bias.

This is not the first time that these issues have been debated in this House. This issue of impartiality and fair and well informed debate on news and current affairs was discussed at length during the passage of the Communications Bill. I would like to reiterate the position that was expressed on all sides of the House during the passage of the Bill, which of course is now an Act. It was that, public service broadcasting… provide[s] a primary means by which the electorate educate themselves in the process of government and the legislature".—[Official Report, 1/7/03; col. 797.] Public service broadcasting is the most important tool through which the public can access impartial and balanced information on current newsworthy events. So it is particularly important that public service channels remain politically independent and unbiased.

The importance of political independence in news reporting has been discussed at length over the past few months. The media must ensure that they fulfil their role as guardians of the public interest rather than acting as political players in their own right. Political bias is a difficult issue to address as bias itself is a subjective concept. One party will always believe that a story may not have portrayed them as favourably as it could have done.

Recently, however, concern about political bias in news reporting appears to have deepened. A number of noble Lords have expressed considerable concern, including of course my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who is as tenacious as ever on the subject of bias and political correctness.

Perhaps I may quote from a recent article written by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in a recent edition of the British Journalism Review, where he discusses the consequence of "unembarrassed bias" in news reporting, particularly evident in America during the Iraq war: The refusal to interrogate and contextualise events, thoughtfully, as they happen, combined with the erosion of impartiality in the name of politicised agendas can only be very unhealthy". The implication of political bias has been raised recently with reference to BBC news reporting. The BBC, more than any other broadcaster, must be perceived as independent from political intervention. Its commitment to impartiality and objectivity should be clear and unequivocal.

The question of political bias will be inevitable to an extent at the BBC because the mechanism of accountability—that is, the appointment of the board of governors—is covertly political. I note noble Lords' remarks that the governors are controlled by the management when it should be the other way around. True political independence would be facilitated by ensuring independence from the Government by implementing a transparent mechanism of accountability, which would dismiss any accusations of institutional bias. The BBC must be brought fully within the remit of Ofcom to ensure that it is made independently and externally accountable. A recent report, Guardians of the Airways, published by Conservatives for Change, reiterates that position: The BBC's response to a summer which has seen it placed under unprecedented pressure will be crucial in ensuring that it regains the trust of viewers and that it meets the requirements set out in its own Charter and Guidelines…It is to be hoped that the BBC has a capacity for self-renewal sufficient to allow it to recover from its current crisis and play the crucial role in British and international broadcasting for which its history and its resources equip it". We welcome the commitment made by the Minister in September that the charter review process, will be wide ranging and encompass extensive public consultation". As my noble friend Lord Marlesford stressed, the BBC's public service obligations differ from those of purely commercial broadcasters; however, it is inevitable that the BBC will be subject to commercial pressures within the broadcasting industry. The increased diversity of choice encourages competition between individual broadcasters, and the temptation to chase ratings with populist programme schedules must be discouraged. My noble friend Lord Patten referred to the relentless pursuit of exclusives by the BBC. I agree entirely with the observation by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, of the BBC's paucity of ambition with regard to political coverage.

That said, the BBC has recently undertaken a comprehensive review of its political programmes in an attempt to, attract new viewers to political programming and the democratic process". The findings of that report reflect the growing apathy towards politics displayed by younger members of the electorate. Although the traditional programmes remain largely unchanged, new programmes such as the "Politics Show", which has an average audience of approximately 1.5 million viewers, aim to engage and to educate a younger audience. The BBC's attempt to widen the scope of its political programming must be welcomed. That change, in addition to the alternative channels now available, such as BBC Parliament, Sky News and the ITV News Channel, can only contribute to raising political awareness.

We must take advantage of the increased opportunities that the new media environment offers. New techniques for disseminating political information must be encouraged. I particularly like the "MiP files" on the Children's BBC website, which encourages children to participate in political debate and to identify their Member of Parliament.

The problem appears to be that the electorate do not believe that political events have a direct impact on them. That must be addressed and remedied to facilitate political understanding and inclusion by all members of society. In addition, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, that the relationship between politics and the media begs many questions. Indeed, many are turned off politics by that relationship—one that creates so much distrust.

We must do our utmost to ensure that political events are covered by a diverse range of media and to the highest standard that we have come to expect in this country. We must continue to protect and encourage political independence and impartiality in our broadcast media— a worthy challenge. Debates such as this are crucially important to continue to nudge the media and the politicians to play the game and to play it fairly. I thank my noble friend for this timely nudge.

8.46 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I join all noble Lords who have spoken in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for introducing this debate. It has brought forth a series of extremely interesting speeches from widely diverse points of view. In so far as the speeches are relevant to the forthcoming consideration of the BBC's charter, in the charter review, about which I will say a little more in a moment, I will see to it that the speeches are fed into the consultation process. Clearly, we have had a range of well informed and penetrating comment this evening.

My only regret is that, after having heard so many interesting speeches, I will have to make a very boring speech. The very fact that the charter review process is about to start, added to the arm's length relationship that we have with the BBC, the limit of government comment on the BBC and other broadcasters and the fact that the Government have taken a principled stand against regulation of the print media, mean that there is little that I can say in response to the particular comments. I would love to give other examples—which I could easily do—to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, of inadequate media coverage of political events in my part of London. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that there are many occasions when prejudgment by editorial staff of what they think will happen blinds them to what is actually happening. I am afraid that that happens far too often. My remit in this debate, however, is to be as boring as I can be and I shall proceed to do so.

I start by talking about the charter review process. The Secretary of State has already announced that the charter review process is about to be under way. The review will be wide ranging with full industry and public consultation, and we both hope that it will be characterised by a vigorous and open debate. A consultation document will be issued before the end of the year outlining the main issues. The evidence for the charter review will include Ofcom's review of public service broadcasting, Philip Graf's review of online services, the forthcoming review of the BBC's digital TV and radio services and other strands of work. As is known, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has been appointed to give independent advice throughout the process. A Green Paper will be published around the end of 2004 drawing on that sequence of reviews, consultation and analysis followed by a White Paper with considered recommendations to be set before the public. The whole process will be complete well before the charter expires in 2006.

The Government are committed to ensuring that we retain a strong BBC, independent of government. Having said that, if I say anything that indicates the attitude that the Government will take on the issues that will undoubtedly be raised in the course of the charter review, that would be a mistake. It is self-evident that we must remain open-minded and, in the jargon phrase, in listening mode.

The existing situation with the BBC and its existing governing instruments should be set out from the Dispatch Box. The Royal Charter and the agreement place broad obligations on the corporation in respect of the number of television and radio services, objectives, programme content and standards. Within that framework, detailed decisions on programme content are a matter for the BBC; they are not matters on which this Government or previous governments have ever expressed views.

The agreement contains specific requirements on the BBC to provide comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world. I am grateful in particular to the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, and my noble friend Lord Parekh, for their tribute to the World Service and to the BBC's online services throughout the world.

The BBC must treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality in its news services and in the more general field of programmes dealing with matters of public policy or industrial controversy. It must publish a code of guidance saying how it will meet those obligations—the BBC's producer guidelines. The regulators—now, the ITC and the Radio Authority, but, from 29th December, Ofcom—place a similar requirement on other public service broadcasters for due accuracy and impartiality.

It has been said that there has been a reduction in the coverage of politics by the BBC. I challenge that. The BBC's political programmes unit, based at Westminster, provides eight hours a week of regular live television programmes on BBC1 and BBC2 and similar amounts on radio. That is in addition to programmes such as "Question Time" and the "Politics Show" and the digital channels, BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament.

When we talk about the coverage of public policy issues, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, rather than with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who referred to the pressures of 24-hour news coverage. It is good that we live in a multi-channel age. It is good that people can receive news 24 hours a day on BBC News 24, Sky and ITN. It is good that over 50 per cent of the population live in multi-channel homes, as the channels are now more accessible and available. That means that there has been significantly increased viewing of news programmes. The variety of points of view available within the general principles of impartiality that I explained strikes me as significant progress in the way in which politics is viewed in this country.

I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, should repeat his attack on what he calls an ill informed electorate. I think that we have a rather well informed electorate in many ways, and it is sophisticated enough to reject attempts to manipulate it.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I do not want to take the Minister's time. Did he not read the Whitaker's Almanack survey yesterday? It showed that only half the electorate knew what the Deputy Prime Minister did. Does that not surprise the Minister?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that John Prescott would be rather pleased at that figure. I can think of many deputy Prime Ministers in previous administrations whom nobody could name, let alone starting to describe what they did.

I do not have time to cover the new provisions in the Communications Act 2003. Only the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe—I thank her for it—took the trouble to talk about the Communications Act and the effect that it will have. Clearly, the conditions on the licences of public service channels to secure that programmes on those channels include news and current affairs, and that the time allocated to the broadcasting of news is in appropriate proportion, are important safeguards, which I think were universally accepted as the Bill went through Parliament.

It is a requirement that programmes must be of a high standard covering both national and international matters. News programmes should be broadcast at intervals throughout the day. The times at which news and current affairs programmes are to be broadcast should include an appropriate amount of peak viewing times.

Ofcom must consult with the channel provider before determining the proportion of broadcasting time to be allocated to news and current affairs programmes and what constitutes a peak viewing time. Somewhat to my surprise, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, expressed the view—in advance of the consultation process—that the BBC should be brought entirely under the remit of Ofcom. She is fully entitled to that view; I shall be interested to see whether the Conservative Party's official evidence to the charter review expresses that. Many Conservative speakers have spoken in favour of the governance role of the BBC. I hope that there will not be a split on that matter.

In my final couple of minutes, I turn to the issue of press regulation. Here, again, I have nothing interesting to say. The Government strongly believe that a press free from any interference from the state is fundamental to democracy. For that reason, we would not seek to intervene in any way in what a newspaper chooses to publish—or not to publish.

As an individual, I am very tempted by some of the views expressed today. But from the Dispatch Box I must say that newspapers are written for their readers. Readers, including Members of this House, should, as Members have tonight, let newspapers know their views on the coverage and editorial slant on a whole range of issues. The letters pages of our newspapers, and the rather welcome innovation of readers' editors in many of our better newspapers, show that there is no shortage of people wanting to give their opinions.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and my noble friend Lord Parekh, self-regulation of the press, through the Press Complaints Commission, is preferable to any statutory control. That does not mean that we are uncritical of the Press Complaints Commission, where there is scope for improving its system of self-regulation. But that should be achieved by changes to the code of practice, which we continually urge upon it. We recently made suggestions about improvements that it might consider, but how they are taken forward is for the Press Complaints Commission to determine. Any departure from that would be interference from the state, which would be an abuse of democracy in this country.

I am sorry that I am unable to give the 20 to 30 minutes speech that I would have liked in response to the many interesting points made. I repeat my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for introducing the debate.

House adjourned at one minute before nine o'clock.