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The Government’s position on racism is unequivocal: we find it totally unacceptable. We have legislated to that effect, and Government policy reflects our view. We introduced a specific offence of racially aggravated
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harassment. In addition, under the Public Order Act 1986, there is an offence of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent or likelihood of stirring up racial hatred. That offence covers inflammatory comments made in public or in the media, as well as the distribution of printed material. “Celebrity Big Brother” was unquestionably highly offensive, but the question is not whether it was offensive, but whether an offence was committed. I understand that Hertfordshire police have announced that no criminal charges will be brought in connection with “Celebrity Big Brother”, and the Crown Prosecution Service has stated that what occurred was clearly offensive, but not criminal.

On editorial content, and on “Celebrity Big Brother” specifically, responsibility for what is broadcast on television and radio rests with the broadcasters and the organisations that regulate broadcasting, which in Channel 4’s case is Ofcom. Ofcom is, of course, independent of Government. We believe that that is right, and that it should remain independent. It is a fundamental principle that the Government do not and should not intervene in matters of editorial or programme content, particularly when an investigation is in progress. We believe that it is right to let the regulator continue to conduct the inquiry.

Ofcom has been charged with the task of setting and assessing standards for the content of television and radio broadcasting. Its standards code, drawn up under the Communications Act 2003, aims to ensure that generally accepted standards are applied to the content of television and radio services. Its function is to provide the public with adequate protection from the inclusion in such services of harmful and/or offensive material. Of course, the legitimate question in this case is whether the public have been adequately protected. That is why Ofcom’s inquiry is so important. Parliament has charged Ofcom directly with establishing procedures to handle and resolve complaints, so it seems premature to prejudge the inquiry’s outcome, and the procedures by which it will achieve that outcome, while the inquiry is being conducted. After all, its procedures are not a reality TV show, and while we await the outcome, we should be careful about carrying out our own voting on those procedures.

My right hon. Friend raises the question of whether the regulator should have hit the “off” button. It has been suggested that a fundamental design fault must exist, as the big button was not hit when “Celebrity Big Brother” was on air. I suggest that we pause to make sure that what we are asking for is really what we want. We should ask whether the request truly falls in with the responsibility that Members have chosen to give Ofcom, and indeed whether it runs against the principle of providing a fair hearing, which should extend to Channel 4. Ofcom can, if appropriate, take action against a licensee while a series is on air. However, in line with the right to a fair trial and the provisions of the 2003 Act, it must give licensees an opportunity to make representations before any decision is reached on whether material is in breach of the standards code.

There were undoubtedly tens of thousands of complaints, and clearly many people were offended, but the number of complaints about a programme is
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not, and should not, be a factor to be weighed in a set of scales. The fact that there has been a large number of complaints should not, prima facie, prove that a programme was guilty. We need an inquiry to be conducted.

The question was raised of whether each complaint should have been investigated. The chief executive of Ofcom wrote to my right hon. Friend on 26 February, and a copy of the letter has been placed in the Library. It explained that Ofcom decided not to reply to individual complaints, not because of the high volume of complaints, but because the regulator wanted to pursue a full investigation into them. Having said that, I do not think that Channel 4 or its chief executive, Andy Duncan, are complacent or remotely insensitive to what happened. At no point did Channel 4 condone what was happening, and I know that Andy Duncan has extremely strong views—as strong as those of my right hon. Friend and myself—about racism and the need to root it out from our society.

Keith Vaz: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Woodward: Yes, but my right hon. Friend should remember that I have only five minutes left to answer all his questions.

Keith Vaz: Briefly, has the regulator asked the Department for any additional resources to deal with the issue?

Mr. Woodward: As far as I am aware, the regulator has not asked us for additional resources, but I do not believe that that will be a problem. If it is, I invite the regulator to tell us. We cannot allow a lack of resources to prevent us from dealing with the issue, but I genuinely do not believe that that is the case. If it is, however, we would want to help.

In evidence heard by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in March 2007, Mr. Duncan acknowledged that there were lessons to be learned from the episode by Channel 4. Channel 4 has indicated that its own internal review of “Celebrity Big Brother” will include an examination of the channel’s complaint handling, response times and communications. I share my right hon. Friend’s interest in the review’s conclusions, but I truly believe—and I honestly believe that this is part of the principle of natural justice—that it is only right that we should allow the channel to conduct that inquiry before we condemn it.

I therefore urge caution before we turn our attack on Channel 4. I put on record my belief that Channel 4 is an exemplary public broadcasting channel. In its work on equality issues, for example, it tackled gay issues head-on at a time when other programmes and channels found them a difficult area to tackle. In religion, its high-quality programming has looked at different religions and cultures at a time in the past few years when some found that too difficult to handle. “What Muslims Want” was a major study in multiculturalism. “Undercover Mosque” aired during the “Celebrity Big Brother” run, and it looked at the impact of hate-style preaching in this country. My right hon. Friend will accept that to caricature Channel 4 as a channel that deliberately chose to offer only shock television is a little unfair. Channel 4 has done a great
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deal to further understanding and tolerance in this country, and I believe that its chief executive believes firmly in that.

That does not mean that the result of the review by Channel 4 and of Ofcom’s work will stop the House from wanting to debate the subject again. However, I urge my right hon. Friend to be cautious lest he hastily decide that Channel 4’s chief executive is not up to the job or, indeed, that he has led the channel into the kind of broadcasting that does not reflect its inception in any shape or form. The review is extremely important, as, indeed, is Ofcom’s investigation into “Celebrity Big Brother”. The Government believe that Channel 4 has a role to play alongside the BBC, both now and in future, in the provision of public service broadcasting. It has a distinctive public service remit, a great tradition of innovative, quality programme making, as well as a wide remit to appeal to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society.

Channel 4 has made an important contribution to broadcasting in the United Kingdom in the past 25 years, and I am confident that it will continue to do so under its existing leadership in future. It is worth reminding ourselves that only last year, a cultural diversity network survey confirmed “Channel 4 News” as the news service that Britain’s ethnic minorities thought covered their issues best. That news service, of course, is broadcast under the present Channel 4 leadership.

Although the debate has focused on allegations of racism and how they were handled, it also offers an insight into how bullying operates in our society. As a former deputy chairman of ChildLine, I saw the harm that bullying can do. It rears its revolting head by using the vehicles of racism, homophobia, religion and many others. In my own household we found that the “Celebrity Big Brother” to which my right hon. Friend referred indeed provoked a discussion about racism, and also about bullying.

The good thing is that so many people in this country complained about the programme. That demonstrates progress. I doubt that there would have been so many complaints a decade ago. We look to our broadcasters to ensure that such behaviour is not exploited as entertainment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, albeit in a private capacity, described the programme at the time as “racism masquerading as entertainment”, and I think that many in the House knew exactly what she meant.

The programme was a reality TV show, but because it allowed us to see through the window we, the public, were educated about some of the attitudes of some people in our country, and we were all ashamed of what we saw. So now we look to the broadcaster for its review to ensure that such television does not become an entertainment practice by prosecuting values which most of us hoped had long since gone. Ofcom undoubtedly has a role to play in that, and we look to its inquiry to see how we can improve the handling of complaints about such programmes.

We should all look carefully at the lessons to be drawn. We should be cautious about expressing our own anger and focusing it, perhaps, on the leadership of Channel 4. The programme may have reflected something deeply distasteful, although regrettably not
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everybody finds it distasteful. The problem with bullying is that it can find any vehicle. Sometimes it is racism, sometimes it is homophobia, sometimes it is focused on women, sometimes it is focused on someone’s size, but bullying is a part of our society and all of us have a duty to tackle it. I hope that that is a subject to which Channel 4 will direct its attention in the months to come.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the debate, which has raised some important issues. I promise him
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that I will meet him and discuss with him the outcome of the reviews, both by Channel 4 and by Ofcom. I commend him for having brought the debate to the House tonight. If in future he or other hon. Members want to raise the subject, I will be more than happy to discuss it.

The motion having been made after Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to Seven o'clock.

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