Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Maxton: Is it not an even greater disgrace that, in some areas, American cable companies are refusing to supply television channels unless the subscriber takes a telephone as well?

Mr. Kaufman: At the same time as imposing such a restrictive agreement, those cable companies are whining and wailing at the conditions that BSkyB imposes on them, because they want to broadcast the channels that BSkyB--risking huge losses--pioneered. Cable companies want the best of all worlds, whether in comparison with BSkyB or with our own British telephone company BT. I am delighted that my righthon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has therefore pledged that a Labour Government would remove the restrictions on BT.

The BBC as we have known it for more than 70 years is bound inexorably to change--probably beyond recognition. To maintain and to rescue the public service broadcasting standards for which the broadcasting world is indebted to the BBC, it must change and grow, but, at the same time, it must preserve the public service ethos created for it by its great founders.

The agreement is weak. As I said to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), unlike ITV, which is tightly regulated by broadcasting legislation and will be further regulated by the Broadcasting Bill when it is enacted, the BBC is subject to no real regulation at all. The agreement commits the BBC to

but it contains no mechanism whatever to prevent those standards from being debased, as I regret in some respects they are. The Secretary of State talked about the pledges being a contract between the BBC and its listeners. I would be much more confident about a contract if it were between the BBC and the Government, who provide its funding with great largesse.

Once the agreement is passed by the House, those in charge of the BBC can do whatever they like with the organisation. They can treat it as their toy and plaything, as Mr. Kenyon of Radio 3 certainly does. We are approaching the end of a period that has generously assumed the BBC to possess a sense of responsibility,

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1197

which it does not always show now as much as it should. Soon, the BBC will become subject to the much tighter control of the marketplace. I very much hope that the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, will be the right man to steer it safely into that marketplace.

Meanwhile, we need to examine the agreement and decide on it, taking into account the fact that it may be the last BBC charter that the House will be asked to approve.

7.23 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I declare an interest as a member of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, the National Union of Journalists and the British Actors Equity Association.

I am saddened that the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is not present. I happen to know that there has recently been illness in his family. I hope that that is not why he is not here, but if it is, I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) would give him our good wishes.

Between now and 31 December 2006, when the charter will end, there will be enormous changes in the communications industry. There will be the change from analogue to digital picture transmission, changes in the installation of cable, changes from the delivery--I suspect--of programmes by satellite as programme services to delivery systems, the introduction of electronic newspapers into our homes that will give us fully interactive services, wider screens, and much more.

That process of change will be quite difficult to manage. I suspect that, between now and 2006, we will have to introduce a communications commission to take over the regulation of what is rapidly becoming an integrated industry. It is vital that, between now and 2006, British broadcasting has a firm cornerstone. That is why I am so pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell), together with--I acknowledge its contribution--the National Heritage Select Committee, have put together a package that goes a long way towards meeting the likely needs of the next 10 years of change.

The BBC is regarded as a benchmark for excellence worldwide, and notwithstanding some of the criticisms that have been levelled and some that I shall level myself, that reputation has justly been not only earned but maintained. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC provides universal coverage, which no other company in this country provides, and it provides it free-to-air. It provides two excellent television services and five radio services.

I rose to challenge the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), because I was sorry to hear him refer to the "tundra" of Radio 5 Live. I always understood him to be young at heart if not in body. His hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and I are engaged in a monitoring process as part of a monitoring panel for Radio 5 Live. I happen to be a regular listener, anyway.I criticised the introduction of Radio 5 Live, because I did not believe that it could work. I am not sure when the right hon. Gentleman last listened to it, but it offers a multitude of varied programming that is worthy of anything that the BBC has ever done. It is a very good service, and I commend it to him.

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1198

One should not, of course, omit BBC local radio services and BBC Worldwide Television. The former BBC World Service established the BBC's worldwide reputation for honesty, integrity and editorial soundness. BBC Worldwide embraces BBC Radio--the former World Service--BBC publishing, BBC learning, BBC World television, which, as the right hon. Member for Gorton said, is the BBC's 24-hour international news service, and BBC Prime, carrying entertainment throughout Europe. That is a very impressive tranche of programming.

BBC World also transmits an Arabic television channel. Some of us were privileged a couple of weeks ago to go to the BBC and watch a simultaneous translation of BBC world news international television into Japanese--a quite extraordinary feat, which I am absolutely convinced will be of immense value not only to the reputation of the BBC in the far east but toUK Ltd. for the service it provides to many potential Japanese investors in this country. That whole world service generates about £72 million a year, of which£53 million goes back into programming and £19 million is invested in the further development of BBC Worldwide.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that the far eastern BBC service is no longer being broadcast by a satellite transponder to the People's Republic of China?

Mr. Gale: My hon. Friend knows me extremely well, and anticipates my next move in this chess game.

One of the reasons why the BBC has such a reputation is that it has never, like Mr. Murdoch, sold out editorial control. I happen to be a journalist, and I believe that all reputable journalists would, if necessary, probably die for editorial control. I find it despicable that Murdoch, to get Star Television into the far east, has effectively said to the Chinese, "You take my programmes and you edit them how you like. I don't care, as long as I make the money."

The BBC has never acted in that way, and, as myhon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire(Mr. Fabricant) has rightly said, it has paid a price. For the moment, it is excluded from an area of the world. It is, however, our hope and the hope of the BBC that, before long, the company will be able to renew that service and to broadcast into China as it can broadcast to the rest of the world.

I have expressed a couple of times the importance of the BBC's editorial integrity. That is underscored in the agreement, and, to some extent, in the charter. The charter says that one of the duties of the BBC is

I have some slight reservations about that. Given modern journalists' practices of electronic eavesdropping, telephoto lenses and the like, I seriously question whether we should say to any journalist--I am a journalist--that journalists should be able to use any manner that they think fit. That opens up a potential Pandora's box.

Far more significant is the reference to editorial control. Under the heading "Programme Content", the document says that the BBC shall

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1199

I say with some sadness that I believe that Auntie's slip is showing. I fear that we are witnessing a gradual decline into fundamental editorial dishonesty within the BBC.

I say that with great sadness, because I believe that most journalists working within the BBC are people of considerable personal integrity. However, the pressures of modern journalism and the voracious appetite of the media to get the story on air--

Mr. Patrick Thompson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gale: Not at this point: I will in a moment.

The need to fill the programme, to get the story and to yank out the soundbite, is leading to the practice of taking what people say completely out of context. Not a single hon. Member present this evening has not experienced that personally. All qualifications are removed from what people say, and the material is broadcast in a manner that fits the pre-ordained nature of the story that the editor has determined. That is not honest journalism.

Next Section

IndexHome Page