Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.17 pm

The Minister for Arts (Mr. Mark Fisher): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on securing the debate and introducing it with such clarity and force. The subject has been of considerable concern to the House since the BBC announced its proposed changes last July: there have been many written and oral questions Madam Speaker has corresponded at considerable length with the chairman of

11 Mar 1998 : Column 507

the BBC; my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) secured an Adjournment debate on the subject last December; and the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport took evidence on 24 February. It is clear from all that that Parliament is exercised. As the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has noted, it is nearly unanimous in its view today.

We have had an excellent debate. There has been general agreement about the excellence of the BBC's political journalism. It is because of that excellence and the proper rigour of scrutiny that that coverage puts on the Government and the work of the House that hon. Members are concerned about possible damage to its quality or effective reach. Two basic questions have run through the debate: what precise effect will the changes have; and, will they be consistent with the obligation placed on the BBC in its 1948 royal charter and agreement to

Decisions about programme content and scheduling that express that obligation are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) said, wholly a matter for the BBC, which has and must have complete editorial independence, but the fulfilment of that obligation is important. Its purpose is not in doubt: to allow the public to hear the work of the House and to draw their own conclusions.

Mr. MacShane: Some people have commented on the lack of hon. Members present. Is my hon. Friend aware that no fewer than 12 Standing and Select Committees are at work this morning, with up to 20 hon. Members in each? Is he also aware that the parliamentary Labour party is meeting at the moment, attended by between 40 and 150 Members? The absence of hon. Members in the Chamber does not mean that this House and MPs are not at work. To deny that work to listeners of "Today" will be a serious diminution of the reporting of the House.

Mr. Fisher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the former PAC Chairman, made that point in their very important speeches. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has returned to the Chamber. His speech reflected exactly the importance of Committee work.

Let us be clear about what the changes consist of. "Yesterday in Parliament" is to be broadcast for 23 minutes instead of the current 14 minutes, but it will be broadcast only on long wave. "Today in Parliament" is to be extended on Fridays by 15 minutes to include coverage of Select Committees, but will also be broadcast only on long wave. A new Sunday evening programme, "The Westminster Hour" is to replace "In Committee", to which we will come in a moment. As hon. Members have pointed out, the new programme will, rather bizarrely, run throughout the year and therefore during weeks in which the House will not be sitting.

There will be a new nightly television programme covering Parliament, a new parliamentary web site as part of the BBC's News Online, and "The Week in

11 Mar 1998 : Column 508

Westminster" is to move from 11 am on Saturdays to 8.30 pm on Thursdays--a slot devoted to Parliament and politics all the year round. Again, the same point about the sittings of the House applies.

The BBC claims that the proposed changes represent a net gain in parliamentary coverage. Overall, there will be an additional 55 hours of parliamentary and Westminster- related programming a year on radio and an additional 24 hours a year on television. However, much of that radio coverage will be on long wave.

Arguments expressed in the debate have tested the effect of the new schedule. Will there be a net loss of listeners in the shift to long wave? The answer is clearly yes. On the BBC's own projections, the audience for "Yesterday in Parliament" is likely to fall from 1.3 million to 700,000, so a 50 per cent. increase in programme time will be offset by a near 50 per cent. fall in audience.

The move of "The Week in Westminster" from Saturdays, following Ned Sherrin's "Loose Ends", to8.30 pm on Thursday evening, is likely to produce a fall in audience from 732,000 to--probably--nearer 300,000. As hon. Members have made clear, that is a particularly strange change as the week ends on Thursday evening for very few of us, especially not in the House. As much as hon. Members like getting away quite early on Thursday evenings, the House has been sitting and working hard until late on Thursday evenings--and last week one of the most significant debates of the year, which reflected the concern of people who live in the countryside and touched many people, occurred on a Friday. It would have been missed by the new programme on Thursday evening. The answer to the question about loss of listeners is therefore clear.

Will the quality fall? The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne made important points about the loss of "In Committee". Although the multi-item, magazine format programme, "The Westminster Hour" will run for 50 minutes--instead of the 30-minute "In Committee"--will that compensate for hard, detailed reporting of Committees? It is not comment on that work that the public ought to have the opportunity to hear; the question is how the PAC and other Select Committees are scrutinising the work of government. That is why Select Committees were set up in the first place.

Mr. Tyler: The Minister has already referred to the curious fact that some of the programmes will be broadcast when Parliament is not sitting. Have the governors and the chairman of the BBC given Ministers any indication of exactly what reportage they intend to include in "The Westminster Hour"? Will not it simply be speculative comment?

Mr. Fisher: They have not done so yet; that remains to be seen. As hon. Members have said, it is likely that the programme will talk about politics generally--perhaps the work of Whitehall particularly. Although such general political comment is important all 52 weeks of the year, it is rather different from the BBC's charter obligation to cover the House day by day.

Mr. Gale: Unless broadcasters provide the dedicated channels for Committee work and proceedings on the Floor of the House that I and others have advocated for a

11 Mar 1998 : Column 509

long time, there will be some selection. The Minister is being slightly churlish. If the programme continues when the House is not sitting, one of the criticisms--which we have all made--that an enormous amount of Committee and other work is never covered, may be addressed. There is no reason why, in hindsight, a look at some of the very important work in Select Committees and other Committees should not be taken. I would hope to hear and see such material used when the House is not sitting.

Mr. Fisher: The hon. Gentleman makes a point. In fact, although Select Committees do some work when the House is not sitting, they are notable for their work load during such times.

Mr. David Davis: I should make clear that my concern is not for the PAC, which gets enormous coverage on a weekly basis, but for the sterling work done by other Select Committees, which is not often covered on any other medium but "In Committee" and will be lost in an hour-long, magazine format programme designed to cover something exciting rather than valuable.

Mr. Fisher: Behind all this there is a general concern about dumbing down. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made a good point about a dedicated programme, which would be possible now. Further opportunities will be possible once we have digital broadcasting. However, the problem of reach also applies to digital broadcasting. Is the charter obligation fulfilled by digital broadcasting to a very small audience, or are we talking about a more complicated matrix of reach and quality?

In some areas, reception on long wave, which is crucial to the changes is, according to the chairman of the BBC governors in a letter to Madam Speaker, "poor".

11 Mar 1998 : Column 510

Additional medium wave transmitters are used in Northern Ireland, northern England, east Scotland, Devon and Cornwall.

Mr. Bannister, who has been referred to, believes that the package taken in the round will enhance coverage of the proceedings of Parliament. It is clear that the strategy does not commend itself to the Public Accounts Committee--its Chairman has expressed his view forcefully--Madam Speaker or the House.

Mr. Spring: In the remaining few seconds of the debate, will the Minister indicate clearly his view and what he will say on behalf of the Government and his Department in discussions with the BBC about the future broadcasting of proceedings of the House?

Next Section

IndexHome Page