Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

7.21 p.m.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I view my position in the list of speakers as that of a long-stop and I shall not ask your Lordships to stop long, having regard to my contribution. I propose to confine my observations to the question of impartiality.

My first point is that the BBC accept, and so inform their producers in their written guidance, that,

It has been said that an Irishman--maybe an Irish BBC official--when asked how he managed to be fair and just, said that he always tried very hard to be halfway between partial and impartial.

In the annex to the Licence and Agreement, which prescribes the terms and conditions of the corporation's operations, the BBC accepts as a duty,

    "to ensure that programmes maintain a high general standard in all respects (and in particular in respect of content and quality), and to provide a properly balanced service which displays a wide range of subject matter [and] to treat controversial subjects with due impartiality ... both in the Corporation's news services and in the more general field of programmes dealing with matters of public policy".

That vitally important aspect of the BBC's constitutional position is clearly far too important to be confined to an annex. I am delighted to learn that that is also the view of the Government.

I should like to attempt to make a positive suggestion. I believe that the obligation to act with due impartiality needs to be spelt out, particularly having regard to the absence of any effective sanction when impartiality is not exhibited.

6 Dec 1994 : Column 896

Noble Lords' viewing and listening habits no doubt vary considerably, but I imagine that none of your Lordships will have any difficulty in producing some clear examples of the media's failure to act fairly and justly. Let me take a recent example known to all noble Lords: the programme on your Lordships' House. It was a mocking, insulting programme, designed to ridicule and to parody the activities of the House and its important contribution to the legislative function of Parliament. Some may say that such trivia has no impact and that its lack of quality and content ensures its own almost immediate destruction. But does it? Last Friday, at a dinner in Cambridge, I met a German professor who told me that the film had been shown on Bavarian television because Bavaria has an upper House in some respects comparable with ours. He was astonished at the way in which our House had clearly been caricatured.

What is involved in the obligation to act with impartiality? I suggest that there are five features at least. First, the programmes must be properly balanced. If the programme itself does not contain its own internal balance, then, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said, the balancing views must be produced within a reasonable time in order that all views should be reflected in due proportion.

Secondly, a complete and detailed picture should be presented, thus avoiding any suppression or censoring of valid points on one side or another. Thirdly, questions should not be hostile, hectoring, aggressive or rude. Interruptions in the middle of a sentence should be avoided. Fourthly, the approach to contentious issues should be dispassionate. For example, the easy ride should not be allowed to one side when the other side is examined vigorously. Fifthly, the personal views of the presenters and reporters should not feature in the programme. An interview is not an occasion for the interviewer to put across his opinions and views. Its purpose is to obtain the views and opinions of the interviewee, developed and tested by questioning.

There is not the slightest novelty in any of the observations I have just made. I culled them from the guidelines produced by the BBC for its producers. I add a further proposition of my own; namely, that there should not be put in the mouth of interviewees answers which they have not given but which the interviewer hoped they would give and put into their mouths as a preamble to a long question. The experienced person will say, "One moment, I didn't say that" and then go on to deal with the question. The inexperienced person, anxious to answer the question, will overlook the fact that there has been attributed to him something that he or she did not say at all. I submit that it is essential that the elements of due impartiality are adequately recorded either in the Agreement or in some suitable exchange of letters between the Government and the BBC.

The noble Viscount observed that the obligation of due impartiality should be stated clearly. How else can it be stated? Secondly, he said that the binding legal contract is the instrument of control and added that the obligation of due impartiality should be there stated to

6 Dec 1994 : Column 897

make it effective and enforceable. However, the obligation must be adequately particularised if it is to be taken seriously. That is the purpose of my suggestions.

7.29 p.m.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, we have had a particularly interesting and wide-ranging debate in relation to the Government's proposals for the future of the BBC. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said that he agreed a bit with everybody. So do I. I wish on that note I could sit down, but I should perhaps attempt to respond to some of the individual points raised by your Lordships, even though I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, when he said that Ministers are not often able to see much TV. Indeed, I shall not make my remarks too long so that I can go home this evening to watch some television.

We had wide agreement in your Lordships' House on the importance of the role of the BBC as a public service broadcaster. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, was particularly concerned with what happens if the BBC disobeys the terms of its Agreement. The Agreement is a contract between the BBC and the Secretary of State. If it contravenes the terms of the Agreement, a number of important sanctions are open to the Government. Under the Charter the Secretary of State can take steps to revoke the Charter if the terms of the Agreement are broken. I am sure the BBC would be loath to put itself in a position in which the Charter was placed in jeopardy.

The noble Lord suggested that if contraventions occurred, heads should roll. Members of the BBC staff who do not abide by the rules which stem from the Charter and the Agreement are subject to the normal disciplines of the organisation. If the governors were responsible for such contraventions, they could be removed.

It is always difficult to achieve a balance and impartiality between programmes. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, is right in saying that it is not sufficient for the BBC to say that a balance can be achieved by broadcasting an unconnected programme some months later. That does not achieve the obligation of "due impartiality over time". The BBC's Producers' Guidelines say,

    "It is not sufficient to claim that other unconnected programmes or media will ensure that balancing views will be heard".

Those are its own guidelines in Section 3.5 to which the noble Lord referred.

The noble Lord also put forward the suggestion that the BBC's board of management should invite members of the commercial sector to act as non-executive directors. The Government have said that we will ensure that appointments are made to the board of governors to ensure that there is the necessary commercial expertise on the board. The BBC appointed senior management staff with considerable private sector experience to direct its new commercial activities. In addition, by participating in joint ventures with the private sector, the BBC will also have the benefit of the expertise of its private sector partners. However, if it wishes to appoint non-executive directors to the board of management, there is nothing to prevent it from doing so.

6 Dec 1994 : Column 898

I welcome support from the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for the BBC, one of our more important institutions in this country. I am only sorry that his party feels unable to support one of the other great institutions in this country at the moment.

The noble Lord made two important points in relation to the BBC's commitment to the arts and its educational role. It is agreed that the arts are an important part of the BBC's role as a public service broadcaster. It is a major patron of the arts, spending more than £300 million a year on arts programming. The White Paper says that,

    "the BBC should remain a major cultural patron of music, drama and the visual arts. It should continue to commission and broadcast new works, and to nurture creative talent".

It has undertaken to maintain its support for the arts, and that undertaking is currently contained in the annex to the Licence and Agreement. We propose that an obligation on those lines should be included in the new Agreement.

The three aims of the BBC in its programmes and services are to inform, to entertain and to educate. We propose that those three traditional aims should be stated more clearly and explicitly in the new Agreement and Charter. The White Paper says that,

    "the BBC should continue to broadcast educational programmes of all kinds".

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said that the Agreement should contain both a list of services and an extended list of conditions and, importantly, the governors' resolution that they will meet those requirements. The new Agreement will contain all three elements. As I said, it will be a contract between the BBC and the Secretary of State. That is an important point and I hope that it resolves the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. We aim to bring forward the new Charter and Agreement to give both Houses of Parliament the opportunity to debate the documents during this parliamentary Session.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asked also whether parts of the White Paper needed legislation to be implemented. The merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission will require primary legislation amending the 1990 Broadcasting Act. We hope to bring forward legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The noble Lord referred also to the privatisation of transmission services and the BBC's view. The BBC is assessing the future of its transmission service. At present it has not come to any conclusion on the most effective way forward. As I said in response to a recent Question in your Lordships' House, we are considering that matter carefully ourselves.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page