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5.35 p.m.

Lord Greenhill of Harrow: My Lords, personally I find the White Paper a somewhat disturbing document. However, I know a great deal less about this subject than I used to and mine, I think, will be regarded rather as a voice crying in the wilderness.

My attitude may well be due to my inability to anticipate and understand the full extent of the technical progress that is likely to take place sooner than we think in the broadcasting industry, nationally and internationally. Many of us have heard qualified people speak of the air being full of satellites of the Murdoch type which will be able to penetrate this country without our ability to impede them in any way. That may all be an exaggeration, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, was very encouraging about the situation. But there is a real possibility that some of these horrors are nearer than we really think. Others may be able to see and understand more clearly what is happening in the technical world and are content therefore to await events and just "take note" of the White Paper. The Government clearly believe that the BBC will be able to evolve into an international multi-media enterprise. I wonder whether that is true. I do not believe that the phrase "multi-media enterprise" is a very encouraging description.

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It is perfectly true that the BBC has an unrivalled reputation, but it will be competing with a host of powerful competitors with great resources and very wide international experience. There is every evidence that standards of programmes, generally speaking, are declining worldwide and the BBC may well find that its virtues will be insufficient to sustain its position. I very much hope that this expectation is not ultimately found to be true.

As a governor of the BBC in the early 1970s I found the corporation a pleasantly confident organisation; financially well off, with a staff of skilled and experienced broadcasters still relying, rightly, on their wartime reputation. They faced little competition and enjoyed public support. The governors were politely treated, quietly deceived from time to time and starved of information about future programmes. I shall refrain from giving examples. Since those days the Corporation has, of course, in many ways changed for the better. The noble Lord who follows me will be able to explain what has happened. But it is still possible for laymen to pick holes in its behaviour. Impartiality is one of the key issues. I agree very much with what the noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Donoughue, said. The BBC has to be more honest than it has been in the past.

But if we are going to protect the BBC's position in the future, the most important thing to my mind is to change and enhance the role of the governors. They must decide the overall policies of the Corporation and ensure that the management carries them out. The chairman must exercise ultimate executive responsibility and although the governors should be non-executive their position should be virtually the same as that of the non-executive director of a public company. The present quaint arrangements must be eliminated. This, I know, has long been rejected but when the Corporation finds itself facing several powerful international rivals the Government may like to think again.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I suppose I should declare a past interest in that I was deputy chairman until last year. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, did not like the White Paper. I find myself therefore in the somewhat unusual position of defending the Government because I do like the White Paper. I formally welcome it, although I am bound to tell the Minister that in due course I shall mention one or two reservations.

I welcome the fact that in the White Paper the Government, as has been said, propose that the BBC should be the main public service broadcaster. I am sure that that is absolutely right and a sensible thing to have suggested. I am bound to say to my noble friend Lord Donoughue that I agree with him--and I believe I understood what he was saying--that he and I both disagreed with the Labour Party in the idea that there should have been an Act of Parliament to deal with the BBC. I believe that the Royal Charter and the Agreement which have been proposed are a much better proposition if we are to be really concerned about the independence of the BBC. That is a matter to which I wish to refer in a moment.

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There has been reference to the commercial nature of the BBC; I want to say a word about that. I know that there is some anxiety about the commercial activities of the BBC, as expressed by a number of bodies outside and in this debate. Bob Phillis, the deputy director general, in a very good speech yesterday, made it clear that there would be a level playing field and that there really is no need to worry about the way the BBC proposes to carry out its commercial activities.

I believe it right to continue the establishment of the BBC with a Royal Charter. I agree with my noble friend Lord Donoughue about the period of 10 years and I wish to return to that. It is right that it should be 10 years from January 1997 and not 15 years. A great deal is going to happen in the 10 years to the year 2007. I wish I could foresee the possibilities; clearly, however, there are going to be many technological changes. It would be silly to take the matter beyond that, given that we do not know what the position will be.

I wish to say a few words on the subject of impartiality. A great deal has been said about that. I believe that my noble friend--if I may call him that--Lord Annan knows very well the enormous respect and regard I have for him even if I had not agreed with what he said, which I did. I am glad that the Minister also agreed that the word "impartiality" should appear right at the heart of the Agreement. It is made clear under Recommendation viii in an annex to the document.

As regards the period of five years or 10 years, I shall return to that in a moment. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, about programmes such as "Spitting Image". I am bound to tell him that I do not normally watch it. When I did watch it in the past it was so awful that I decided not to watch it again. The noble Lord suggested that if a broadcaster had been lacking in impartiality in a programme he had produced he should perhaps be given a yellow card or two yellow cards which is the equivalent in football, as he knows, of a red card and then dismissal. I am not sure whether we should get to that level although as a strong Manchester United supporter I always regret it when one of our players gets a red card or two yellow cards or whatever. Certainly, I share the noble Lord's concern about impartiality.

My noble friend Lord Annan said that in the past the board of governors sacked a director-general. I am sure that he is aware that the current chairman and I did sack a director-general fairly shortly after we became chairman and deputy chairman. We did that with the support of the board of governors because we did not think that the director-general was doing the job as we expected. That has and can be done. We have to be very careful how we handle that particular sanction. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Annan will agree that as governors we must not be seen to be constantly breathing down the necks of programme producers; otherwise independence will go straight out of the window and I do not know what kinds of programmes we would get. In the first instance the sanction must be in the hands of the director-general and then ultimately in the hands of the board of governors, particularly those of the chairman and deputy chairman. I believe that is what the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, was saying.

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Inevitably, there is concern as regards the question of impartiality. When I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury I woke up every morning and used to think--I nearly said "My God"; I hope that the right reverend Prelate will forgive me--how on earth did that come to be the first item on the news? Why did they put it that way? I thought that they were biased. The important factor to recognise is that we are not impartial, especially those of us who were in another place. None of us is impartial; we are all biased politicians. What we see as biased, others will see as unbiased. So one man's bias is another man's wholly and absolutely perfect programme. It is important that we recognise that. The programme producers are never going to get it absolutely right.

I believe that the Minister said that the balance should be in one programme. I hope that he did not mean it because the noble Lord, Lord Annan, recognised, quite rightly, that one has to balance over a series of programmes although, as he rightly said, one must not produce something which is lacking in impartiality in January and then say that it will be put right in July or maybe August when there is a quiet session. The matter should be put right within a few weeks. It is absolutely right that that should be done.

I know for a fact that programme producers, controllers and the managing directors of programmes care very much and look very closely at this whole question. They have produced the guidelines. If producers are not abiding by them they had better watch out. Whether they get the yellow card or not is another matter, but it would certainly be frowned on if they were not carrying out their remit of producing impartial programmes. Surely it is better to do it that way. There is a very good guideline which is sent out to producers and there is a systematic review and continuing discussions about it.

That is the situation at the moment. As regards impartiality, I know that there are programmes which can never be impartial because they give the particular view of one person. By the very nature of things that cannot be unbiased. But that is part of the editorial mix. The following week another person will be giving the opposite view. That is perfectly reasonable. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, nodding in agreement. It is dangerous to lay down rules that are so tight that they destroy the very independence of the BBC about which we all care.

I turn now to the question of producer choice, which has also been much criticised in many quarters. As the paragraphs in the White Paper make clear, producer choice has been abused. The new arrangements make an excellent change whereby responsibility for commissioning programmes is separated from making them. That ensures better value for money. Indeed, in its first year, there was a saving of £100 million which went straight into programmes. That has to be a good way of getting value for money.

I turn next to the question of listed events. I care a fair bit about sport and listed events bother me. I am bothered, for example, that Sky and other such channels can buy premium league football--and have done so--thus excluding public service broadcasting, apart from the BBC which has been able to get such programmes

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late on a Saturday night. If we are not careful and the Government do not ensure that the question of listed events is watched closely, the only way in which the public will eventually be able to see a listed event will be by subscribing to Sky or some other satellite television channel. I am sure that none of us would want to see that.

Reference has been made to World Service Radio and increasingly to World Service Television. I shall not say too much about that except to note that it has been said that World Service Radio has a good reputation all over the world and is of great benefit to the UK. It certainly is. The Select Committee said that World Service Radio provides a superb service and greatly enhances the UK's international reputation. That comment related to audibility. In fact, the World Service is not only helpful in terms of radio and television; it is helpful to our traders around the world. It is a wonderful service that people tell you about all over the world. World Service Television only began in 1991 --it is hard to believe that--and is already building a similar reputation. I believe that the competitiveness of the BBC in World Service Radio and Television does us all a great service.

I turn now to the licence fee, a point on which I have some disagreement with the Government, as does my noble friend Lord Donoughue. I am pleased that the licence fee is being proposed as the main source of funding. Paragraph 1.17 says that that will be the case for at least five years and that the position is to be reviewed before the end of 2001. Frankly, that contradicts what is said later in paragraphs 5.4 to 5.9. The Government recognise, as I did when I served in government, that although it sounds fine, democratic and fair to say that they will take from income tax, value added tax or general taxation the amount that is now provided by the licence fee, in practice it would put the BBC into the public expenditure round every single year. As one who for five years had to deal with public expenditure, I know what that would mean. I would not want to see that happen. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter is nodding in agreement. We must ask why, if the Government believe that, they are saying that they will review the position in five years rather than 10. I simply do not understand it.

Of course, there is no disputing that the licence fee is a form of poll tax. It may be that because the Government had such misery over the poll tax they do not like the idea of continuing the licence fee beyond five years. I should be glad if the Minister could tell us that the review is only about the amount and that, in practice, they propose to continue with the licence fee for at least 10 years, and not five.

I recognise the problem that is posed by the licence fee, as would any of your Lordships who used to canvass at election time. That is especially so in sheltered accommodation where some people pay only 10p for the licence fee while others pay a lot more. I note that the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, agrees. One was not well received in such circumstances, especially if one was a Minister. One had to try to find an easy explanation--and it was not easy to find one. On the other hand, I am bound to say that, much as I

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would have liked to find some other way of dealing with the matter, to adopt a means of funding the BBC other than by the licence fee would be to do great harm to the very independence of the BBC about which we all care.

I turn briefly to the question of the appointment of members of the board of governors. Again, I agree with the Government that to have such appointments approved by a Select Committee would once more be to bring the BBC right into the party political arena. I would be very sorry if that were to be proposed. Of course, party politics enters into the appointment of governors--although the fact that the present Government appointed me answers that argument, I suppose. I do not know, but it certainly shows a little impartiality on the part of the Government. In my seven years as deputy chairman, there was never one occasion that I can recall when party politics entered into our discussions on BBC matters. I do not know the party political views of other members of the board of governors. All that I know is that we did not have a problem with party politics.

I hope that any government would seek to be fair and balanced in making appointments to the board of governors but, after that, the board of management must be a matter for the board of governors. The board of governors should appoint the director-general, who will then advise the board of governors on the appointment of the rest of the board of management. We were very fortunate and, I believe, absolutely right as a board to appoint John Birt who has been heavily criticised and wrongly abused. I believe that he is doing an excellent job running the BBC in a way that should please all your Lordships.

Finally, perhaps I may return to the question of accountability to Parliament. Constant examination by Parliament of the details of the way in which the BBC is handling its affairs and programmes may sound like good parliamentary accountability but, as paragraph 6.41 says, it would subject the BBC to party political controversy and damage once again that crucial independence about which I have spoken.

Overall, I believe that the White Paper has got it about right. I do not have too many opportunities to congratulate the Government, so I am happy to do so today. I welcome the White Paper. The Government deserve our congratulations on introducing it.

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