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Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, the Minister should feel very happy about this debate. He has been given a clean bill of health as regards the White Paper and he can report back that there is almost unanimous approval of the general message which comes from the White Paper. The only exception to that for a fleeting moment, was from the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill of Harrow. He gave very wise advice with regard to future technical developments. He advised us not to take things for granted because matters which we now accept as being almost certain may proceed rather differently when these issues come to fruition.
At one stage at the very beginning of the debate I thought that we were not to have a debate at all. If one remembers the opening words of the Minister's speech, he used almost the identical words of the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Annan. Since the agreement was so complete, I thought that he was going to say, "We accept the amendment and therefore there is no need to proceed further". That was not quite what happened but it was reasonably near to it. Therefore, I believe that my noble friend should feel satisfied because what he has commended today to the House has received almost unanimous approval.
At this stage, I do not believe that we want any more inside knowledge about the BBC, the governors, the deputy chairmen and those who have been part of the actual machine itself. They have played their part and their evidence is most valuable. Of course, it ought to be taken into account, as I have no doubt it will be. I am concerned that we, as part of Parliament, should examine the effect that the BBC, under the machinery as it is set up, is likely to have on the nation. We should be the watchdogs in that respect.
I have much admiration for the right reverend Prelate. He made no bones about it. He said that, whatever minutes he had in this debate, he would use them to sell his Church. He said that he would make clear the rights that his Church has to have its beliefs and its teachings focused properly through that important media; and he did so. In my small contribution, I should like to do the same. However, I should like to do so on the basis of a parliamentary party politician.
I believe that we ought to look at what happened pre-war as compared with post-war. It really has been quite tremendous in terms of its impact on the country. Many of us were parliamentary candidates before the war and operated as such because Parliament is a parliamentary democracy based upon the party system. That is what it is and that is what it is our duty to try to operate. Before the war, Members of Parliament were the real source of influence in arriving at what was a national view on things. They were the ones who, by and large, gave the lead and that was generally accepted. However, that is not accepted today. The power of influencing thought, especially in the world of politics, no longer lies with Members of Parliament; it now lies
Many of us were fascinated by party politics and government generally when we were very young. I recall the time when my noble friend was Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. I remember him as a colleague back in 1932 when we were organising political schools, and so on. When I think back to those days and compare where the power and influence have moved to, it seems to me to be quite tremendous. I do not believe that it is to the good; indeed, I believe that it is very much to the bad that the influence for creating public opinion should have moved to the areas that have it today. There is nothing we can do about it. It will not go back. It is a matter of harnessing it in a way where, if it is wrong--and I believe it is in terms of the trend--it will be less wrong than it might be if we did nothing about it.
One example I can give of the contrast is that before the war I was the candidate for Nelson and Colne--little Moscow they called it--against little Sydney Silverman, who was a most adept politician. I was a parliamentary candidate at that time, not a Member of Parliament. However, people turned up when one had a meeting. Indeed, 100, 200 and sometimes thousands on the odd occasions. One was able to use one's influence as a candidate and appeal directly to the people. The influence that one had at times was not that much; but at any rate the direct contact was there. Moreover, when one made a speech it was reported by the newspapers. They did not just pick out one or two words which happened to fit in with the message that they were going to put in their editorial column that day. That applied with the local press in particular, and often with the national press.
It is not good if what I am saying is true; but I believe it to be true. In terms of standing in society, especially in the area where one is operating, my status as a parliamentary candidate then was 10-times higher than that of a Member of Parliament today in terms of public esteem. MPs have been downgraded in a way which is very dangerous indeed. At the end of the day, they are the ones who have to prepare the statutes which eventually become the law of our country. That is what happened then. Now, all the influence is exercised by the columnists and the television announcers. If one wants to influence society, one should not think in terms of becoming Prime Minister or a Member of Parliament; one should think in terms of becoming a BBC or an ITV commentator.
What can we do about the situation, if anything? I believe that the most we can hope to do is to ensure that the new communicators--the ones who in this modern age are in the position to influence public opinion, which results in the sort of government that we have--are treated in the same way. I am not arguing only from the Conservative point of view, which happens to be my belief: the same problem applies to all sides. They are as insignificant as we are in terms of exercising that great influence. But what can we do about it? The most that we can do is to try to get the new communicators--the broadcasters and the columnists --on the same level
When I first came into Parliament--and I have colleagues from those days here in the Chamber--we had no register of interests. We called each other the "honourable Member" on the basis that we were satisfied that we were honourable people. If people declared their interests before they made their speech or before they voted, which is quite correct, that was sufficient. However, that is not now the case. We have to have a register of declared interests, right down to the most minute detail. Then the new communicators pick a little bit out of that declaration, distort it and twist it in a way which makes the honourable Member concerned look as though he is a member of the corrupt brigade. That is how it works now.
I believe that that trend has had the effect of making people who make their contributions as Members of Parliament that much more careful to ensure that they do not allow their personal greed or their personal preferences to take over. Therefore, to that extent it has had a function. However, I should like to put a thought in someone's mind. It could be the mind of the BBC's complaints authority. In order to keep on the rails, why can we not have a register of interests for the new communicators, many of whom slip in as an aside some of the comments which cause the most danger? Why can we not know what is their true background? If those communicators have such power--and, make no bones about it, they have--which I argue they have taken from Members of Parliament, why can we not have something equivalent to, if not the same as, the register of declared interests for them?
It is the little aside which does most damage. "Any Questions" is one of our most prestigious programmes and some of our most estimable people act as the chairman. Great trouble is taken to ensure that the forum is properly balanced, with Government supporters, Opposition supporters, middle of the road supporters and people from industry. The chairman is supposed to be impartial and an outstanding character who can be trusted against all sorts of odds. If one or other of the people appearing on the programme seems to be making a good point which is swaying the programme, the chairman will pop in and make a few remarks as though he is one of the protagonists, but because of his position his remarks carry 10 times more weight than those of the person who made the first point.
I congratulate my noble friend on being able, after this debate, to take back to his department such unanimous approval. However, I hope he will not leave the matter there and that he will find some way of being able to control to some extent this new group of people I have mentioned who are, for the most part, represented by those who operate in the BBC. I am not talking about the governors, the deputy chairmen or the people who operate the machinery, but the people they employ, who appear on programmes and make their points from the powerful positions they hold which the BBC has given them. I support those who have suggested that there should be some way of dealing with people who find a
It is right that one should speak from one's own experience. I remember vividly that I fought a by-election in Nelson and Colne. It was impossible for a Tory to win that by-election. Six months later I was brought out of the Army again to fight a by-election in Preston against Lord Shackleton, who was the most delightful opponent to have to deal with. When it was announced that I was to be the candidate, Lord Beaverbrook, who was then the great power in the land, rang me up. He asked me whether I would fight the election, with his backing, on the basis of being the anti-American loan candidate. I had to say no. I said that I did not think I could do that because I felt that, after the cost of the war and all that that meant, the loan to prime the pump such as was envisaged in the American offer was not only desirable but vital. Lord Beaverbrook was not very pleased about that. He sent a secretary to my first public meeting to say in public what he had said in private about the desirability of my being the anti-American loan candidate. I gave the same answer in public as I had given Lord Beaverbrook over the telephone. I was an insignificant candidate who did not have a wax cat in hell's chance of winning the by-election. The majority against me in those days was 15,000 or 16,000. However, when I gave a similar answer in public to the one I had given Lord Beaverbrook in private, the whole of the opinion column in his paper said that I was a weak-kneed, vacillating Tory candidate who lacked guts.
The next day Sir Anthony Eden was due to speak for me. He said to me, "Well, your view is ours". He made a speech which more or less supported what had been done and the column in the newspaper stated, "The master is as bad as the pupil". But the column space devoted to Sir Anthony was only half that devoted to me.
I make that point to show the influence that people have who are in control of these organs--in the case I referred to, it was a leading newspaper--such as the BBC and the television companies. If we do nothing about the influence these people have and the way in which they use it, where they allow their bias and their personal views to interfere with what should be impartial leadership, we shall be in trouble.
I wish my noble friend the best of luck. He has had a good evening and he has the debate as he would like it. I think it is right that that should be the case, but I would ask him, please, to make certain that his department and, as far as he can, any who follow him are aware of the fact that everything is not rosy, easy and quite as wonderful as some people would suggest it is.
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