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Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I commend the hon. Gentleman on his excellent judgment in choosing the debate, and also on his opening remarks, one of which I believe was a quotation from Enoch Powell.

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May I reinforce what was said by my predecessor as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)? Of course, Select Committees' deliberations occasionally make the front page of the newspapers, but the only leverage that a Select Committee has--this is much truer of the other Select Committees than of the PAC--is exposure to the light of the aspects of government that it scrutinises.

The "In Committee" programme provides the only real exposure that the scrutiny carried out by many Select Committees receives, and it is vital not only for the task of the BBC but for our task. If the BBC removes "In Committee", as appears to be the plan, it will cut the effective powers of scrutiny of the House of Commons.

Mr. MacShane: I hope that the chairman of the BBC will listen to those two powerful interventions from the previous and present Chairmen of the most important, senior and influential Committee of the House.

As I said, "Yesterday in Parliament", "The Week in Westminster" and "In Committee" are to go. BBC2's morning report of Parliament will disappear and I understand that the BBC is threatening to do away with the regional television parliamentary programmes. Any one of those changes would have been cause for concern, but in their ensemble, they represent a concerted attempt to downgrade coverage of Parliament in a fashion unprecedented in the BBC's history.

In its defence, the BBC has been disingenuous, if not deceitful. Its army of spin doctors has been fanning out, pretending that what is proposed is only a minor change. Yet at stake is nothing less than a dismantling of mainstream, accessible broadcast coverage of Parliament. The transfer of programmes to graveyard slots or on to the ghettos of long wave, or the absorption of parliamentary coverage into generalised current affairs programmes, will massively reduce the opportunity or choice of listeners to hear what is said in Parliament.

I am particularly concerned about the BBC's cleansing of "Yesterday in Parliament" from the "Today" programme. It has been more than disingenuous in its justification of expelling parliamentary coverage from "Today". The BBC says that, as soon as Members of Parliament come on to the air, audiences plummet, but the BBC's figures do not remotely justify that claim.

The chairman, in his letter to Madam Speaker dated21 November 1997, said that Radio 4 loses 1.3 per cent. of its audience between 8.30 am and 8.45 am and, when "Yesterday in Parliament" comes on, it loses 0.9 per cent. Frankly, 0.9 per cent. is not a massive loss. Most people have finished their breakfast and are on their way to work after 8 o'clock, and that is when the "Today" audience plummets.

According to the chairman's own statistics, in the period between 8.30 am and 9 am, it is the sweet and caressing tones of Jim Naughtie and Sue MacGregor that lose more audiences at a faster rate than the voice of parliamentarians.

Mr. David Davis: The hon. Gentleman will not be invited on to the "Today" programme again.

Mr. MacShane: Alas, the only time I was on the "Today" programme was when I attacked the BBC, so I have some hopes. Those who stay on message never get on it.

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What else do we know about the audience for "Yesterday in Parliament"? Between June 1996 and June 1997, the audience for "Yesterday in Parliament" went up, not down. We also know that, when other material is broadcast in the Monday morning slot, the audience is no greater. We also know from evidence given by the BBC to the Select Committee a fortnight ago that only 80 per cent. of Britain can receive long wave, to which the BBC proposes to transfer "Yesterday in Parliament". If one goes into Dixons to buy a modern radio, one often finds that long wave is not available on the radio.

We know, too, that up to 1.3 million people--about the combined sales of The Times, The Guardian and The Independent--are connected to Parliament on week-day mornings. That is a goodly part of the population. "Yesterday in Parliament" represents less than 1 per cent. of all that Radio 4 broadcasts, so sacrificing it seems wholly unnecessary. Its slot in the "Today" programme is vital because, like it or loathe it, "Today" cannot be ignored; it is our national newspaper of the day. It is not just for Members of Parliament or, as The Guardian so charmingly put it the other day, for pointy heads and policy wonks--whoever they are. It is listened to by civil servants, business leaders, journalists and teachers throughout the country, wanting to hear, wanting to know, getting a chance to learn what Members of Parliament have to say in the Commons and in Select Committees and what is said in the other place.

Listeners can hear the awkward squad--those parliamentary roundheads and cavaliers who dare to be Daniels, who dare to stand alone, who dare to have a purpose firm and dare to make it known. Cleansing them from the "Today" programme may suit some spin doctors on both sides of the House and the Executive, but their voices should be heard.

Still, the BBC, like all great bureaucracies, is made of rubber; it comes bouncing back with unconvincing arguments. "We are giving you more time," it says--yes, but fewer listeners. As the Critical Quarterly, in its remarkable black paper on education, put it 30 years ago, "More means worse." We already have a parliamentary channel on cable broadcasting Parliament around the clock. Hansard is available on the Internet. Wall-to-wall coverage of Parliament will not help anyone.

As a former journalist, I am particularly saddened because "Yesterday in Parliament" is a superb piece of broadcast journalism. It distils, into a little under 15 minutes, 12 or more hours of parliamentary proceedings. Extending it to 30 or 45 minutes, or even two or three hours, will weaken the force of that journalism. I do not want more Members of Parliament on the air, but I want the nation and its listeners to have the possibility of hearing what is said and done in the House in their name at a time and on an airwave when they are tuned in.

I have said that the BBC's arguments are disingenuous. Its statistics simply do not add up. But the BBC has been more than disingenuous; it has been deceitful in promising that real consultation would take place. In essence, what was floated, proposed and lobbied for last summer is what will take place.

I do not like to use the word "contempt". That is an overused word in Parliament. But the BBC chairman has not been straight with the Speaker. As so often happens

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to the great and the good when they accede to that post, they immediately go native and become mouthpieces for whatever the BBC bureaucratic moloch wants to do.

We must be realists. The BBC is not King Charles I in a fight with the Commons. The world will not stop if 15 minutes of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover(Mr. Skinner), the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) or the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) are replaced by Mr. Humphrys making sure that no Minister or shadow spokesman can form a sentence with a beginning, middle and end without being interrupted.

Yet I fear for the future if the BBC refuses to listen and act on this debate. If the BBC thinks that Parliament is no longer important, the time may come when Parliament attaches no importance to the BBC. As someone who believes in the BBC, I ask myself whether that is the end game--a furtive, shabby, dishonest decoupling of the BBC from its unique character in the world as apublicly funded, editorially independent but parliamentary accountable broadcaster.

Are those who dream of privatising the BBC--we know some of their names--pushing forward that agenda? The broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings in a mainstream outlet of the BBC is nearly as old as the BBC itself. In ending that service, the BBC is telling the nation not only what its chairman and his officials think of Parliament, but he is announcing urbi et orbi, that the marriage between the BBC and the British public may be drawing to a close. Is that what the BBC wants? Is it what Britain wants? I urge the chairman, even at this late stage, to think again.

11.17 am

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and I congratulate him on securing the debate. He supported me when I raised the issue at business questions some 10 days ago, and I am delighted to endorse every word that he has given us this morning. I am sure that other hon. Members on both sides of the House will share that view.

My text is C. P. Scott:

which we might update by adding that commentary is fun but reportage is serious and sacred. That is what we are discussing today. We are addressing not simply the numerical figures of audiences or the new ghetto which will be created for those who take an interest in our proceedings, but the character of some of the programmes that the BBC now proposes to give its listeners and viewers.

It is not only Members of Parliament who have considered those programmes to be important in the past. The BBC itself has always viewed those programmes as extremely important and as part of its duty to its public and the nation. I have quotations from several episodes in the BBC's history to prove that point. The BBC's annual report and accounts for 1945 state:

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    In 1946, the then assistant Postmaster General,Mr. Wilfred Burke, said:

    "Another new condition is one to which the House will attach considerable importance. That is the new obligation laid upon the Corporation to broadcast a daily report of the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament."

No less a person than Mr. Herbert Morrison, the then Lord President of the Council, said in 1946:

    "It is one of the duties of the BBC to keep the country informed about Parliament."

In 1982, a report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting stated that the BBC

    "shared the wishes of members of both Houses that the proceedings of Parliament should reach as wide an audience as possible; in their judgment"--

the BBC's judgment, not that of the House of Lords--

    "the new format of 'Yesterday in Parliament' was more likely to achieve this than the old."

The BBC's annual report in 1985 stated:

    "Recorded actuality from both chambers and from committees regularly finds a place in news and current affairs programmes in the networks, the regions and local radio where there has been growing demand."

There was no sign then of the BBC claiming that parliamentary coverage was, literally, a turn-off for its listeners and viewers. The 1985 annual report also commented:

    "The BBC's commitment"--

a strong word--

    "to full and serious reporting of parliamentary affairs is reflected in such programmes as 'Today in Parliament', 'Inside Parliament' and 'The Week in Westminster' where recordings are used to good effect. The new format of 'Yesterday in Parliament' within the 'Today' programme has improved audiences."

As the hon. Member for Rotherham said, that comment does not suggest a falling audience--far from it.

Perhaps the most important statement of all was made last December by the Minister for Arts, whom I am delighted to see in his place on the Government Front Bench. He said that the BBC agreement

Given that background of commitment to regular reporting and its importance to our House, the other place and the world at large--the programmes are popular and people want them--why are we now given several extraordinary excuses as to why those programmes no longer have a place in the schedules? The hon. Member for Rotherham effectively dealt with the ludicrous argument about the fall in audience between 8 am and9 am. It is absurd, and I do not know how anyone could come before the Speaker or any other House authority and pretend that that was a good reason.

The figures show that, outside the "Today" programme itself, there are more listeners for "Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament"--the listenership is growing--than for any other programme on Radio 4 except "The Archers". I am devoted to "The Archers", but if we have to start having murders, suicides or tractor accidents to persuade the BBC that we are important

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enough to be broadcast at a reasonable hour, that implies that the BBC is tearing up the commitment given under Lord Reith and in every era since.

I come from a scattered and sparsely populated rural area in Cornwall and I am, therefore, especially concerned about the notion that long wave is somehow an adequate substitute for FM. That is patent nonsense. Ever since this debate was announced, I have tried to persuade the BBC to provide me with a map to show the coverage of the United Kingdom achieved by long wave. I am told by the BBC that it is an "imprecise science"; in other words, it does not know. It can provide a map of the FM coverage of the United Kingdom, but it cannot provide a map that shows the areas in which long wave is easily received. Even some parts of London find it difficult to achieve good reception of long wave. The sudden suggestion that the quality of the receivers and the transmitters will be dramatically improved in weeks so that everyone can listen to long wave is patent nonsense.

All those arguments were "exposed"--I use the word advisedly--by Mr. Peter Hill in The House Magazine in October last year. He wrote a skilled, careful, scientifically based article, as we would expect from a former senior and distinguished reporter of the BBC. I find it extraordinary that the chairman and senior officials of the BBC are still repeating the arguments that have been so effectively disposed of. At a cross-party meeting that several hon. Members had with the controller of Radio 4, he was still repeating some of those arguments even when they no longer held water.

As I implied at the beginning of my speech, I believe that there is a hidden agenda behind the BBC's moves. It is not simply a numbers game, because the very character of the programmes is at risk. I shall take one example of that. "The Week in Westminster" is to move to Thursday evening, which will more than halve its audience, and that is bad enough. However, as a sop to the House, the BBC proposes to broadcast the programme in weeks in which the House does not sit. How can a programme called "The Week in Westminster", which purports factually to report parliamentary matters, be broadcast when the House is not sitting? The answer must be one of two options. Either the programme will become a report of the week in Whitehall and be all about the Government, not the House--but that is not what the BBC is pretending--or it will not be reportage at all, but commentary. We have a huge amount of commentary already on all channels, radio and television. We ask only that a small portion of the schedule is consistently addressed--every week and to a real audience composed of the whole United Kingdom--to reportage of the Houses of Parliament, including, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said, what happens in the Chambers and in Committees.

By definition, "The Week in Westminster" on a Thursday evening will not look at the whole week. It will contain nothing about Fridays. Is Friday now unimportant in the House? If so, someone should tell the Speaker, the Whips and the House officials. It appears that Friday will no longer exist, simply because the BBC, at the stroke of a pen, is to dispose of the programme to Thursday nights.

More important, "The Week in Westminster" would dramatically change in character. It would no longer report what the nation's representatives are saying and

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doing in this place--it would be about the Government or would be a commentary on the parties and political affairs outside this place.

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