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7.15 pm

Mr. Kaufman : May I make it clear that, in the remarks that I offer to the House, I am expressing my personal view and not speaking on behalf of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport? The Committee is considering these matters at the present time. Later in this Parliament, it will no doubt consider what will happen with the BBC when its charter ends in June 2006.

I also make it clear that while I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), I cannot sympathise with the terms of his amendment, which would entrench the role of the BBC board of governors. I am on record as opposing the existence of the BBC board of governors, for reasons that I shall advance as I proceed.

The hon. Gentleman deserves great credit for having studied with care the document that the BBC has issued and which Mr. Davies has sent to a number of us. The hon. Gentleman spotted a reference to all of us who pay the licence fee as "shareholders". If we were shareholders, there would be a company meeting. If there were a company meeting, we would have the right to state our views and, what is more, the chairman and the governors would have to respond to them.

In my experience, both as an individual and as Chairman of the Select Committee, the BBC is not interested in the views of the public or of Members of Parliament. I intervened on the hon. Member for South Suffolk to refer to one episode, when the Committee was considering the BBC proposal—not yet then implemented—to remove "Yesterday in Parliament" from FM, which was a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the charter. The chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland, said that for him to yield to the request that the BBC delay removal would be political interference in the BBC. It did so happen that the BBC later—not much later—decided, because the audience had fallen so much, to transfer the programme back again. We were right all along, and if the chairman had listened to us, he would not have made that mistake.

I have previously raised, from the very spot where I stand now, the deplorable BBC programme "The Big Ticket". I have always argued that the BBC is behaving anomalously in paying Camelot for the rights to broadcast lottery results rather than being paid, as Radio Telefis Eireann is paid. When the BBC decided to stage that programme, I pointed out firmly that that clearly violated

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the charter in that the BBC was promoting commercial activity by a privately owned company. I was ignored. I received correspondence demonstrating that the BBC seriously regretted the line that I had taken. Then, the BBC board of governors accepted that it was wrong to broadcast that programme and abandoned it.

For that reason, among others, I agree with the argument of the hon. Member for South Suffolk but do not agree with his remedy. The BBC board of governors was sufficiently supine not to interfere in either of those matters. The reason for that is that the board is not a professional group of people who have knowledge of communications. The people on the board are picked at random. They were picked at random by the hon. Gentleman's party when it was in office, and I cannot say that my party has done a great deal better.

There is a great deal of tokenism in appointments to the board of governors. I am sure that all the people who sit on it are extraordinarily worthy individuals, but I cannot understand why, for example, the chief executive of Lambeth borough council was regarded as a person who should participate in the running of the biggest broadcaster in the United Kingdom and one of the most important broadcasting organisations in the world.

During the past two weeks, there have been two blatant violations of the watershed. First, there was the breakfast programme in which Ali G participated, regaling a 9 am audience with a stream of filth and obscenity. The BBC apologised, but so far as I know not a single member of the BBC board of governors has taken any view on that matter—certainly not publicly. Next, Stephen Fry compered the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards the other Sunday. The broadcast started before the watershed, and again we had a stream of inexcusable obscenity. It went over the watershed, but began before it. We have heard not a peep out of the BBC board of governors on either episode, or on a range of other matters.

I do not believe in censorship. Before and since coming to the House, I have campaigned against it. I am against theatrical censorship. I am against censorship of the cinema. I am against censorship of broadcasting, except in the sense that I believe that the protection of children is a duty of adults until those children are old enough and mature enough to think for themselves. The only activities in which I have ever participated in regard to censorship, including when the House dealt with film when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Home Secretary, have related to children.

If the BBC board of governors cannot even perform a role in protecting children, what on earth is it for? It does not—heaven help us—run the BBC, because that is run by a partnership of the chairman and the director general. It cannot even exercise that role to make the BBC accountable for what it is supposed to be doing.

Michael Fabricant: It is clear that some of the right hon. Gentleman's views must be shared by the chairman of the BBC, who, if I may put words in his mouth, recognises that the board of governors may, on occasion, have been supine. Nevertheless, Gavyn Davies has introduced the document "BBC Governance in the Ofcom

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Age", in which he seeks to persuade us that the board of governors will become proactive in governing the BBC and its board of management. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that that will be achieved?

Mr. Kaufman: I am sure that Mr. Davies means well and understands that there is a problem. I am sure that he is doing his best to address himself to that problem in an effort to save the way in which the BBC is governed at present. I am afraid that those efforts will not work. He was good enough to send me a copy of the document, but what we have is a series of regulatory rules for the BBC board of governors, laid down on its behalf by the chairman. The regulation is not external in any way. It is internal—so much as, and no more than, the BBC itself feels it needs.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): My right hon. Friend's argument is interesting, but there is a common misconception that the BBC falls totally outside the scope of Ofcom. He will correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the BBC would be subject to the rule of the Broadcasting Standards Commission on issues of obscenity. A complaint could be made to the BSC or to Ofcom. Ofcom would have no powers in relation to ITV or Channel 4 that it did not also have over the BBC.

Mr. Kaufman: My hon. Friend is highly knowledgeable about these matters, but I do not need to be reminded of what the White Paper said or of what the proposals are.

The situation is simple. If, under the Independent Television Commission—soon to be absorbed into Ofcom, which will subsume its powers—there is a violation of, say, the statute governing Channel 4 or of the watershed, the ITC can take action against the broadcaster. When "Brookside" dealt, well before the watershed, with incest, the ITC intervened. When, under Mr. Dyke, ITV wanted to shift "News at Ten" to allow it free evenings to broadcast more adult material, the ITC stopped it. When ITV tried again and succeeded, the ITC, having caved in, came back and forced the programme back into place.

Not only the terrestrial channels, but all commercial channels are under the ITC, and will come under Ofcom. In the case of a broadcast on MTV to which the ITC took exception, the ITC imposed a heavy fine on MTV for violating the watershed. There is no external sanction of any kind on the BBC, and under the Bill there will be no external sanction of any kind. Last week, representatives of the Broadcasting Standards Commission came before our Select Committee and told us that they were looking into the Stephen Fry episode, but all that they can do is to administer a slap on the wrist.

7.30 pm

I shall tell my hon. Friend one reason why the present regime is entirely unacceptable. I am not in favour of fines and castigations, but if there is a regime of regulation that is enforceable, it makes those who are responsible for the programmes—with whose freedom I do not wish to interfere—aware that there is a sanction, which causes them to be slightly more wary. Let us face it: people broadcasting on the BBC do not give a damn when they violate the watershed. Nothing happens to them. There is

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no external regulator to say that something should have happened to them, so they will go on violating the watershed with impunity and the BBC spokesperson will say that the BBC received, say, only six complaints.

If there is an external regulator, even if that regulator is not heavy-handed, there is an awareness within the organisation that external regulation exists. There is no such awareness at the BBC, because all my experience in all the time that I have been in the House is that the BBC board of governors lies flat and allows itself to be walked over by whichever director general is in power at the time.

I cannot support the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for South Suffolk, not because I do not believe that the BBC should come within the scope of Ofcom—which I do—but because all his amendments are about the BBC board of governors, and I regard it as anomalous and antiquated that in 2002, in a multi-channel environment, with convergence a factor, with huge competition, and when the BBC can spend £20 million on a channel watched by 11,000 people, the BBC's governance should be based on the duopoly of the chairman and the director general, with a supine, inexpert board of governors. It is utterly against the interests of the BBC.

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