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12.1 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for the fact that I was unable to be here for the first part of the debate. The hon. Gentleman knows, because he was in the same Committee earlier this morning, that I have been chairing the Committee on the Public Interest Disclosure Bill and was therefore unable to be here earlier. I hope that the House will accept my apology.

Despite having heard only part of the debate, I should like to make a couple of comments on the remarks made. It has been suggested that the BBC is in danger of sidelining Parliament into ghettos and, by that means, demonstrating that no one is listening, thereby putting itself in a position of being able to kill off the programme. Some of that is going on: I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), heard Mr. Bannister last night indicate that "The Week in Westminster" was to be moved from its current Saturday morning slot to an hour on Thursday evening when, quite clearly, fewer people will listen. I regard that with sadness, because the breadth of Saturday morning programming means that people who ordinarily would not listen to "The Week in Westminster" might catch some of it and learn something that they might otherwise not have learnt.

Mr. MacShane: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the audience for "The Week in Westminster" on Saturday is greater at its end than at its beginning? Believe it or not, it is actually an audience grabber.

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Mr. Gale: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although there are those who are unkind enough to say that that is because people are tuning in for the programme that follows "The Week in Westminster", rather than for "The Week in Westminster" itself.

Be that as it may, that argument fits uneasily with that advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who suggested that the BBC should not have to search for an audience. That is an elitist argument, which we have heard long and often. My right hon. Friend said that what is happening would not have happened in Lord Reith's day, but I hope that he will forgive me for pointing out that Lord Reith and his corporation did not face the competition in terms of outlets that faces the BBC today.

There are a dozen and more radio and television channels nationally, plus very good local radio channels and information available on the internet. Mr. Bannister told us last night that he was having great difficulty in persuading children to listen to the sort of programmes that the BBC puts on in the evenings, because young people have access to so many alternative information outlets. It is not surprising that the BBC has to consider whether anyone at all is listening to what it broadcasts. I suspect that, if not my right hon. Friend, then others would say in fairly short order, "Hang on--why are we paying our licence fee? Nobody is listening." I am not suggesting for one moment that the BBC should be populist, but I do believe that it has a duty incumbent on it to be popular and to present a breadth of programmes that attract an audience. Otherwise, as a broadcaster, I would have to say that there is no point in broadcasting.

Mr. Alan Clark: My hon. Friend's remarks are making me extremely concerned. His argument is essentially populist. There is strong competition to supply what it is thought people want and to titivate them and attract their attention by various means. However, the business of the BBC has always been to present the truth, the facts and objective commentary--to inform and to educate. It is a fact of life that that does not attract big audiences, but the BBC has to lump it.

Mr. Gale: On the contrary, the BBC over the years and currently does, on occasion, attract very large audiences, and all power to it for doing so.

I do not want to take much more time, but I want to comment on what Mr. Bannister said, because his views have been, not misrepresented, but partly represented this morning and I should like to present an alternative view. Matthew Bannister told Members of Parliament last night that the BBC was in fact extending the hours of coverage of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield recognised that fact in his speech, but what he did not say was that Mr. Bannister has also given a clear undertaking that, as and when--it would be sooner rather than later--digital sound broadcasting becomes widely available, instead of being available to an elite few who are able to afford expensive receivers, the BBC expects to be able to dedicate an entire channel to the broadcasting of Parliament. That seems highly desirable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said that Radio 4 on long wave was hard to receive, but I have to say that I listen to Radio 4 on long wave, not on FM, and I have no difficulty with it at all.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has pointed out that the proposals represent a

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huge expansion of parliamentary coverage, which builds on the large expansion in recent years. That contrasts with the attitude of newspapers and other media, which tend to ignore Parliament. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is up to schedulers, not politicians, to schedule programmes on the BBC? Does he accept the pointmade by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow(Mr. Dalyell), that part of the problem is us: we are boring and announcements are made on the "Today" programme and "The World at One", not in this place?

Mr. Gale: I was coming to that point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making it for me.

Radio 5 Live is an excellent service: it comes to the House and covers live Prime Minister's Question Time; in addition, when Ministers are good enough to come to the House to make the occasional statement, it covers those as well. Radio 5 Live covers in a very good form a great deal of current affairs, news and politics throughout the evening. Radio 4 currently provides excellent coverage, and it is clear that that will be extended.

The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) is absolutely right, as is the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), to lay the blame fairly and squarely in this Chamber. For this debate, there are more people in the Public Gallery than there are in the Chamber--there are about 13 Members of Parliament present. We are all aware of the pressures on Members' time resulting from constituency work or Committee work--I myself was guilty of that earlier this morning. It is not necessarily a fault that the fulcrum of debate has shifted from the Chamber of the House of Commons to other places, including the media, but we cannot blame the BBC for that.

Although critical of some aspects of Mr. Bannister's proposals, I broadly support them and I wish him well. I want to hear the extended coverage, because I believe that the BBC does a very good job.

12.8 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): It is right that we should be having this debate about the future of the BBC's parliamentary broadcasting, not just because it is a subject of close interest to Members of Parliament but because the broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament to the public plays an essential part in our democratic process.I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham(Mr. MacShane) on securing the debate and making his case so cogently. I also congratulate the other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed.

The BBC is so well established; also it is not just a British institution. I share the high esteem and affection in which it is held. It has brought the most important events of the century into the homes and lives of millions of people. Highly professional BBC commentators and interviewers have become household names. The BBC also performs an invaluable function through its regional broadcast services, strengthening the identity of communities and highlighting issues of local interest.

More recently, the BBC began to broadcast the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament, providing a direct link between the people and their representatives. There is no filter, no comment and no spin. Politicians are shown not as they might wish to present themselves to television and radio presenters and the public, but as they

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make their arguments and are held to account by their political opponents. Parliament is the heart of our democracy. Coverage of it is an unparalleled insight into how our democracy works.

The BBC is subject to pressure for change in the same way as other institutions. It has to adapt to changes in contemporary society. Not all such pressures are necessarily for the good or are likely to endure. In succumbing to them, the BBC may risk its unique relationship with Parliament and do a disservice to the democratic process.

The emergence of rich, vocal and powerful single-issue pressure groups as a major influence is one of the most significant changes in our national life in recent years. Campaigners have discovered that they can be more influential in impacting political decisions from outside the party political process than from within it. In Parliament, competing claims are balanced by Government and Opposition in the knowledge that both will eventually be held to account for their actions by the electorate. Outside Parliament, there is no counterweight to the shrill claims of single-issue groups. One example of how a decision on a serious issue can be derailed by a pressure group was the Brent Spar episode. Ironically, the ultimate effect was the reverse of minimising the environmental impact. The biggest challenge for the BBC and the other media is how to deal with the influence of pressure groups in their political coverage.

The growing importance of the media in political debate in recent years has led to the professional packaging of political arguments for the media as almost an art form. The soundbite culture has emerged. The tendency for Government policy announcements to be made outside the House of Commons, whether in exclusive press briefings or amid the razzmatazz of press launches, has undoubtedly reduced the accountability of the Government and the scrutiny that their policies receive. That practice has grown over the years, but it has mushroomed recently.

More seriously, Madam Speaker has repeatedly criticised Ministers for making announcements about Government policies outside the House. Regrettably, the desire to control the news has resulted in an incessant drip feed of headline-grabbing stories that often damage the credibility of the Minister, the Department or the project involved.

The BBC is caught between the need to preserve and enhance its audience figures and its overriding duty as a public service organisation. In the age of the soundbite and instant response, there is not the time for broadcasters to give the detailed consideration to political issues that Parliament can. Broadcasters are not in a position to demand information of the Government as Parliament does.

We live in an era of unprecedented news management. Perhaps it was ever thus, but the practice has latterly scaled new heights. The Prime Minister's press secretary recently complained that the BBC has become a

Indeed. Governments can be tempted to avoid public accountability, but Oppositions have a duty to hold them to account. The BBC has a public service duty to assist that scrutiny fairly and openly.

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Alastair Campbell's comments were greeted with dismay. However, commentators missed the point. As a professional news manager, he wants nothing more than dumbed-down, downmarket coverage. The raison d'etre of his ilk is to replace substance with spin.

All Governments have sought to manage the way in which their policies are reported in the news media, but, by any objective standards, this Government have gone to extraordinary lengths to present themselves in a favourable light. That is why it is vital that Parliament should continue to be able to hold the Government to account and that the public should know about it.

The specific changes proposed by the BBC are not acceptable or appropriate. The number of long wave listeners is in decline. The BBC's audience figures for the two key programmes--"Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament"--do not bear close scrutiny. We have all taken on board the comments of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) about the removal of "In Committee".

We are told that the public find our proceedings boring. That does not absolve the BBC from its duty to present our proceedings to the public as they are. It is not their duty to make Parliament more entertaining by jazzing up their coverage or concentrating on the more trivial exchanges.

Increasing coverage by an average of eight minutes a day is no compensation for switching Parliament to the wavelength with a declining audience. I do not accept that the format of "Yesterday in Parliament" is what makes people tune out or switch off when it begins. Let me be clear: the Opposition oppose the proposed changes. I should be grateful for an unequivocal statement of the Government's position from the Minister.

Over the years, Parliament has sought to protect the finances, integrity and independence of the BBC. I was among the many Members of Parliament on both sides of the House who sought to prevent cuts to the World Service budget. The importance of the BBC is its unique status as a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee. That funding arrangement frees it from the financial pressures that beset purely commercial broadcasters. With that comes a special obligation to pursue the highest standards of broadcasting and reporting.

Just as Parliament has a duty to the BBC, the BBC has a duty to inform the public about the role of Parliament, including those aspects of Parliament that, while not dramatic, are an essential part of the democratic process. We believe that the proposed changes undermine that public responsibility. I hope that the BBC will accept its duty and urgently think again about the changes that it is proposing.

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