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Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I have followed the hon. Gentleman's speech carefully and he is doing a great service to the House. Does he agree that, to all intents and purposes, the executives of the BBC are trivialising and making peripheral what goes on in Parliament? We do not want that, and I do not believe that that is what the people of this country want.

Mr. Tyler: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We do not agree often, but he has put the point succinctly and it leads precisely into my concluding point. Those who want to see and hear their parliamentary representatives working in this place, representing them, will be treated by the BBC as a tiny, insignificant and unimportant minority. They will be consigned to a scheduling ghetto. That is not just an insult to Parliament but an insult to our constituents and to the BBC's listeners and viewers. I hope that the BBC will think again.

11.28 am

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): The other day, I received a note from the public affairs unit of the BBC--I presume that one has gone to other hon. Members--that began "Dear David" and asked whether I would signal my support for the proposals. It is surprising that I received such a note, whether it began "Dear David" or otherwise, bearing in mind my earlier interventions onthe matter, including my Adjournment debate on 11 December 1997, during which I was, to say the least, extremely critical of the proposals. My hon. Friend the Minister replied to that debate, as he will to today's.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and the hon. the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, we must emphasise that what appears to be a technical matter--broadcasting on long wave or on FM--has great relevance to the proposals. I said in my Adjournment debate that "Today in Parliament" had lost more than half its audience since it went over to long wave in 1994. Parliamentarians as well as listeners would agree that it is an excellent programme. It is perhaps too long for the morning, but in the evening it provides good coverage of what has gone on in both Houses of Parliament. The BBC must have known that putting "Today in Parliament" on long wave would substantially reduce its audience. The BBC cannot be naive about the matter, and I can think only that it deliberately made the change because it believes few people want to listen to Parliament's proceedings and few are obsessed by politics and current affairs, and that it could find other listeners.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, the BBC is making a great deal of the fact that the Friday programme, which is briefer than the Monday to Thursday programmes, will be extended. However, that late evening programme, which is the only one broadcast on FM, will move to long wave only, so there will be no real gain for it, as the BBC is perfectly aware.

The BBC has taken a propaganda line since last July when the proposals were leaked. Points of order were made in the House, and hon. Members will remember that

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Madam Speaker said that she was displeased by BBC proposals, but, all along, the BBC propaganda line--as has been shown during the debate--has been that people switch off because they are bored by the 15-minute or 16-minute recording of what occurred the previous day in Parliament. The reasons for fewer people listening from 8 am have been stated, although the BBC was originally reluctant to give the figures. Even now, the audience of "Yesterday in Parliament" is well over 1 million, which is larger than that of "Newsnight"--who knows what proposals the BBC has for that excellent programme?

Most people have no desire to switch off at all. I rang the BBC during the summer recess to ask how many people were listening to the substitute slot. The answer was that there was little difference between the number of people who listen to "Yesterday in Parliament" and those who listen to the substitute slot when Parliament is not sitting. Where is the evidence that listeners are bored and fed up with listening to parliamentarians for 15 or 16 minutes a day, and switch off such programmes when they come on air? There is no reason to believe that there is any truth in the BBC propaganda line.

The controller of Radio 4 said last summer that 350,000 listeners switched off when "Yesterday in Parliament" came on in the morning, but the BBC is now reluctant to repeat that comment. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Cornwall explained that people switch off between 8 am and 9 am for obvious reasons: they are taking their children to school, going to work, and so on. The BBC was willing to use its propaganda line, when it seemed that it might be effective, to discredit the reporting of Parliament.

One cannot have a great deal of respect for people who use such tactics, but I have the greatest respect for the journalists who are involved in "Yesterday in Parliament" and the evening programme. One can criticise from day to day, and ask why one item has been excluded and another has been given so much time, but the people involved are skilled, and there is no doubt that they do an excellent job, and have done so on radio and television since the broadcasting of the proceedings of the House. Their position is being undermined by their bosses, who give the impression that what they do is not of great value, which is unfortunate.

I shall not mention the other changes, because my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Cornwall discussed them in detail. The essence of the matter is whether the BBC recognises that it has a public service duty adequately to report the proceedings of Parliament. I have concluded that the BBC has a different view. I have said that I have the greatest respect for the BBC, its coverage and the way in which it broadcasts overseas events. I referred to the attempted coup in the Soviet Union, and said that it took place in 1990, but I was a year out: it took place in 1991. One remembers that Mr. Gorbachev learned the details of what was going on from the BBC.

One wants to defend that fine reputation; indeed, whether the BBC has been underfunded or had difficulties with the Foreign Office over funding for its overseas broadcasts, parliamentarians have come to the rescue and intervened constructively. Unfortunately, the view on domestic matters, and certainly on the reporting of Parliament, is that listeners are not interested in politics, and any old excuse is made to cut such reporting. Hon. Members are right to think that Ministers and spin doctors

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will benefit at the expense of parliamentarians. I do not believe that should happen without a great deal of criticism.

I said in business questions and repeat today that we know what sort of institution the BBC would be without this place and without parliamentary democracy. Its freedoms, like the freedoms and civil liberties of all the people of this country, come from one place only--the Houses of Parliament, where the rule of law is established. It is unfortunate that the BBC does not recognise that and act accordingly.

The proposals, which I understand the chairman of the BBC will discuss when he comes to the House on Thursday, should be thrown in the dustbin. Despite all our protests, including that of Madam Speaker, the chairman, the director-general and the controller of Radio 4 may push them ahead. That is their right, and we cannot tell them what to do, but if they treat Parliament in such a contemptuous way, and refuse to listen to our justified criticism, we shall inevitably show contempt for those who control the BBC.

11.37 am

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): This is a unique debate. I am not entirely sure, because my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has just entered the Chamber, but I suspect that there will be virtual unanimity on the anxieties expressed by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) about the BBC proposals for the reporting of Parliament.

Yesterday, I chaired a meeting of the all-party media group, at which Matthew Bannister put the case for the BBC. He put a good case, but a number of people disagreed with it. I repeat what I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler): the BBC is seeking to peripheralise and trivialise the coverage of Parliament. That concerns me very much. I have been here for more than a quarter of a century, and over that time the BBC's serious coverage of Parliament has been reduced. I believe that the current proposals will reduce it further.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to Peter Hill, a BBC journalist with considerable experience, who is totally committed to Parliament and who covers it remarkably well. As has been said, last autumn he wrote an article severely criticising what the BBC intended to do. Nor do I think that the House should take lightly the concern expressed by Madam Speaker. It is not often that the Speaker of the House of Commons publicly states her concern about what is going on, but Madam Speaker believes fervently in the role of Parliament, and thinks that it should be covered properly by the BBC.

Uniquely, I must agree with every word said by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He and I are generally very much on opposite sides. It is good to note the virtually unanimous condemnation--I use that word advisedly--of what the BBC intends to do.

I shall not repeat the arguments about the change from FM to long wave, for the simple reason that they have already been fully and accurately deployed; but I sometimes wonder why the BBC keeps referring to audience figures. I believe that the figures are wrong. Moreover, the BBC is funded in a unique way, and, in accordance with its charter, has a serious commitment to providing a public service. That commitment will be greatly damaged if it implements its proposals.

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I mentioned Matthew Bannister. He is very articulate. I knew him for many years before he rose to the higher echelons of the BBC, and I have a high regard for him and his ability. When he came to the all-party media group last night, however, it seemed to me that he was very much carrying out the instructions of his media bosses. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet will confirm if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he tried to justify the proposal by saying that, far from cutting coverage of the House, the BBC was giving it extra time.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall pointed out, the BBC says with great sincerity that it will broadcast "The Week in Westminster" when the House is not sitting. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that "The Week in Westminster" will become a programme about Whitehall and government. It will consist merely of reporting and comment, rather than being a serious programme giving people what I think they want to hear. As an evergreen Back Bencher, I think that it is important to Members of Parliament that their constituents can hear what their representatives have said on the Floor of the House from time to time--with, of course, appropriate editorial treatment. After all, we believe--mostly--in the impartiality of the BBC's editorial staff.

It is amazing how many letters I receive from constituents saying, "Oh, Mr. Winterton, I heard you say so-and-so in the House of Commons last week." I find that very rewarding, and I think that rather more people follow what goes on here than the BBC would have us believe. You may say that this is not the right place for me to say this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but Mr. Tony Hall, the head of BBC news, is coming to the all-party media group on 25 March, and I hope that as many people as possible will come and tell the BBC's senior executive exactly what they think of its proposals. As an Opposition Back Bencher, I cannot stress enough how concerned I am, and how important I consider the BBC's public service duties.

Let me say to the hon. Members for Rotherham and for Walsall, North that I am not one of those Conservative and Unionist Members who believe that we should privatise the BBC or, force it to raise funds from advertising. I have never believed that, although I want it to become commercial in the sense of exploiting some of its services--for example, the tapes and compact discs that it produces. I think that it could market those more aggressively, and thus increase its revenue. It does a pretty good job--which could, however, be improved--in selling its fantastic programmes overseas; but it has a prime duty to give Parliament adequate coverage. I do not want to go into this in depth, but the BBC is right in saying that long wave is unreliable in many parts of the country. Is it therefore surprising that the BBC can state that audiences have been reduced, when not many people can receive long wave broadcasts of the standard that they expect?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham on securing the debate, and on the reasoned and robust way in which he put his case. His view is shared by Conservative Members and by the minority parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats. I hope that the unanimity in the House continues, and that, when Sir Christopher Bland and John Birt come to the House to try to explain what they are doing, they will receive a positive response. They, too, are coming to the all-party

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media group later in the year, on the day when they publish the BBC's annual report. We have a responsibility to give them a platform.

I agree with the hon. Members for Rotherham, for Walsall, North and for North Cornwall. We must not allow the BBC to implement changes to the disadvantage of this place, or allow such changes to be accepted by default.


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