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6.10 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, it is a daunting task to follow three former governors of the BBC. I well remember an incident some 70 years ago. After fiddling with a cat's whisker, I suddenly heard through the earphones, "This is 2LO. Hello children". Since then, I have had a great admiration for the BBC and therefore I am in support of the White Paper in general--in particular the decision to continue the BBC as public service broadcasting funded by a licence fee.

However, there are present drawbacks which need to be rectified when the new Charter comes into operation. Many of them stem from the lack of clarity about the responsibilities of the governors. As other noble Lords have said, clearly it is not the job of governors to manage the BBC. However, it is their job to agree the policies of the BBC and to monitor the management in carrying them out. At present, those tasks are far too remote from each other. The question is whether the governors accept full and ultimate responsibility for all the activities of the BBC, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, suggested they should, or whether they see themselves principally as guardians of the public interest, acting as a regulator remote from what management does.

If it is the latter it is too much of a "judge and jury" arrangement for the BBC when criticisms are made. In limited specific cases complaints can be dealt with by the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Now they are to be merged but apparently will have no more power than they have at present. In my view, the Board of Governors should act in the same way as the board of any plc. However, I entirely accept that the analogy must not be taken too far, as was said by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. The board should have similar obligations to obey the law and it should be answerable to a regulator, in the same way as directors of plcs are responsible to the DTI, the independent television companies to the ITC and the trustees of charities to the Charity Commissioners.

It would be perfectly possible to make a combined BSC and BCC perform the regulatory function of ensuring that governors abide by the Charter and the Agreement. That would be preferable to setting up a second regulatory body. However, in the absence of a regulating authority, the BBC has set up its own internal complaints department. As far as it goes, that is good. It is set up to deal with criticisms not covered by the BCC or BSC but it simply emphasises that the "judge and jury" factor still exists.

I believe that there should be a regulatory body for the BBC similar to that for the ITC. It would deal with all the accusations relating to breach of the Charter and the Agreement. How else can the Agreement and the Charter be enforced, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Astor? As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, there are no problems with the ITC because it has full powers to revoke licences or impose financial

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penalties. But, clearly, that is not practicable for the BBC because such penalties would simply be passed on to the public.

That is a most difficult problem to solve. Perhaps, as has been suggested, individual producers could be penalised for consistently breaking the rules. It is possible that governors could be held to account and personally penalised, as are directors of plcs for unlawful trading. Some solution to the problem must be found, otherwise we shall continue with the flabby disregard of the present Charter and codes of practice that lead to the kind of broadcasting so forcefully described by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. We must find a solution or we shall have a continuation of the present situation whether on impartiality, violence, sex, crime or children's programmes.

I have one final question. Will my noble friend Lord Astor give a categorical assurance that this House will have the opportunity to debate the Charter and the Agreement in draft form? Time can then be given for amendments to be made before publication of the final Charter and Agreement. Surely, that is the best way of enabling this House, which has so much experience in this field, fully to contribute to the continuing high quality and success of the BBC.

6.17 p.m.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, the "ex-governors of the BBC" section has now come to a close. I thought that perhaps I should make that clear. It is right that we should have a debate on this most important, complex and sensitive subject, even though some of the "light blue" noble Lords might have wished for a happier date on which it might be held. I thank the noble Viscount the Minister for his assurances in respect of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Annan.

Just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, I am inclined to the view that partiality principally lies in the ear of the hearer. Impartiality is of importance and is greatly to be desired. But control of taste and decency and of the right of people not to have their cherished beliefs mocked or ridiculed, or of ethnic minorities not to be spoken of disparagingly, seem to me to be equally important objectives. We have heard all about impartiality; but those issues must be thought about, too.

The fact is, however, that politicians--and I hope that they will forgive me for saying this--tend to be obsessed with the subject of impartiality. As the distinguished biographer, Philip Ziegler, recently wrote:

    "It can be taken for granted that every British politician believes the BBC to be prejudiced ... in favour of the other party".

How true, my Lords! I seem to recall a downward twist in the earlier relationship between the government of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, and the BBC--so nothing much changes over the years.

I further believe--and I have no statistical evidence to support the belief--that politicians tend to exaggerate the influence which radio, TV and the press have on the electorate. Incidentally, by doing so, they unconsciously diminish and patronise that very body of the people.

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Having made that observation, let me say straight away that it is vital to have in place machinery to ensure that the common-sense rules of impartiality are not breached and that standards of taste and decency are not grossly offended.

The Government's statement from another place said:

    "Like other broadcasters, it"--

that is, the BBC--

    "will continue to have obligations to observe due impartiality on controversial issues and to ensure programmes do not encourage crime or offend against good taste, decency or public feeling".--[Official Report, 6/7/94; col. 1292.]

Well, Amen to that!

The objectives are certainly admirable. But with regard to "like other broadcasters", the whole point surely is that the BBC is not like other broadcasters. It handles its own affairs in isolation from the statutory framework which embraces all other broadcasters. It only has to satisfy its governors who admittedly represent the listeners and viewers but who scarcely mirror the role of non-executive directors, as we have been hearing this afternoon, in terms of a hands-on commitment. Of course, it also metes out its own justice.

Indeed, in the White Paper the Government go further and at paragraph 6.10 they envisage that the governors' main responsibility will be,

    "to ensure that the BBC's programmes, services and other activities reflect the needs and interests of the public".

That may be satisfactory to ensure that the BBC does not bury Radio 4 in future or switch all listeners to FM bands; but it does not exactly send out a message to producers who are seeking to try it on that their card is numbered. After all, it is hardly the same ball game for independent broadcasters where, in extreme cases, the licence may even be removed and where financial penalties for infringement of obligations are imposed.

In a service financed by the public purse, such an outcome is clearly not possible. Very well; alternatives should be considered, and it really is important that we should not just tiptoe round this issue. We really must get down to start thinking about it properly.

Although I am doubtful whether the suggestion about the football referee's yellow and red cards or indeed a points system not unlike that in use for motoring offences, where you gradually come up until you become a "totter", would necessarily work in respect of erring directors and producers. They might be adaptable or they might not. But if they are not, then let other ways be found for I cannot seriously believe that human ingenuity cannot devise a procedure acceptable to most people which protects the freedom of artistic endeavour but which punishes those who usually abuse it--and I have to say this--for sensational or commercial reasons. That is why they do it.

I do not wish to appear unhelpful. No one could be more relieved than I at the Government's acknowledgement of and commitment to the concept of excellent public service broadcasting as exemplified by the BBC. Gone (one would hope for ever) are the flushes and fancies of the 1980s with regard to ideas such as the BBC paying for itself through advertising or appealing to the lowest common denominator in

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programming to achieve success in the ratings war. Conversion is always to be welcomed, and I harbour a sneaking hope that like all converts, this Government, should they be in a position to be so, will in future become a stronger advocate of the merits of public service broadcasting than even the most vociferous disciple of the late Lord Reith.

As I have said, I do not wish to appear unhelpful; but I cannot for the life of me understand this preoccupation with Royal Charters. Perhaps it was a good wheeze in 1926 because it enshrined the new corporation's freedom from political control. I can understand that. But that was nearly 70 years ago and if the penny has not dropped by now that the BBC is an independent body, it never will. Why cannot the BBC be established by statute, just like all other forms of broadcasting in this country, and be not controlled by Parliament but directly answerable to it? I have the distinct feeling that that preference for Royal Charters, which, as we have heard, inevitably obscures the direct lines of responsibility, is a more cosy arrangement for the principle players involved. I believe that it serves only to obfuscate the chain of command, thereby making largely unenforceable control of the corporation's obligations.

I conclude by welcoming two proposals arising from the White Paper; first, the development of the BBC's commercial expertise in partnership with other organisations, which must be widely welcomed as must secondly be the proposed merger of the BCC and the BSC, about which we have heard so much about today. That will undoubtedly result in less confusion which arises inevitably when there is a multiplicity of bodies with disturbingly similar names and whose very existence may perversely have had the effect of deterring potential complainants who, when it came to the crunch, could not be bothered to find out which body did what.

The trouble with a debate like this is that one agrees a little bit with nearly everybody so I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not refer to them by name; but I also agree with the idea of a single body in future. I would hope that the Government will look again at that.

It is right that these matters should be fully debated in this House, for what we have here are a number of noble Lords with unparalleled experience and knowledge of these matters--former governors of the BBC; chairmen of broadcasting authorities; directors of radio and TV companies; broadcasters themselves; and even the principal player in an important and admired report on the future of broadcasting. Accordingly, I would ask the Minister to ensure, via his right honourable friend in another place, that the voice of this House is heard loud and clear as the moves unfold and not--as was the case in the composition of the Select Committee, I have to say--shamefully ignored.

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Put quite simply, those matters and their implications are too important to become flawed by prejudice, ignorance or hearsay.

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