|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I join the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in thanking the Minister for his explanation of the Charter and Agreement as an introduction to the debate, and particularly for his useful experiment of a preliminary briefing session which, like the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, I hope might be repeated in other circumstances.
In democratic politics it is always a wise thing to count your blessings. So my starting point with the draft Charter must be a sense of relief that the Government have abandoned the ideas which attracted the previous Prime Minister of a commercialised and advertising-funded BBC. Instead the essential public service broadcasting role of the BBC was strongly endorsed by the Minister in his opening remarks, and the BBC is to continue to be publicly funded by the licence fee for at least the next five years.
The BBC is fortunate that its Charter did not fall at the time of the Broadcasting Act 1990 or it might have faced the kind of destructive change that was forced on commercial broadcasting, with its crazy system of auctioning franchises. We shall have the successor to that deeply flawed Act before us next week. It is sufficient at this stage to say that I regret in principle that the future of the BBC is not being dealt with as part of that Bill. There could then have been a consideration of the future of the BBC against the changing landscape of broadcasting as a whole.
I recognise that the Select Committee of another place came down in favour of preserving the existing ritual of the Royal Charter and Agreement. I certainly recognise the importance of preserving and protecting the distinctive character and independence of the BBC. Nevertheless, I hope that it is not too irreverent to say that I believe that the ritual of the Royal Charter for the BBC may have been appropriate in the years when the BBC was the single, dominating organisation in the broadcasting field, but now that the world of broadcasting has changed tremendously, I believe that that world should be seen as a whole. I find it a curious
I believe that this situation puts a heavy responsibility on the Government to treat the draft Charter as truly a draft Charter and to be ready to make changes in it in the light of the brief parliamentary debates here and in another place--and in that respect I agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, said. Otherwise the institutions of the BBC for the next decade will have been largely determined behind closed doors in Broadcasting House and in the Department of National Heritage. There are some serious questions to be answered about the present proposals, some of which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I do not wish to repeat unnecessarily, given the time constraints, what he has already said.
I remind the Minister as a starting point that in December 1994 the Government signed a ministerial resolution of the Council of Europe committing themselves in some detail to maintaining the principles of public service broadcasting. I believe that Parliament is entitled to be satisfied that this policy commitment is fully and adequately spelt out in the new Charter and that there will be adequate safeguards to prevent the BBC sliding increasingly into a purely commercialised organisation. One of the factors is this. While the Government are giving the BBC the obligations of a 10-year Charter of public service broadcasting, they are guaranteeing the licence income for only five years. I do not believe that that can be right. I do not know whether it is too late for that matter to be reconsidered, but for an organisation to engage in the kind of long-term planning that is required for broadcasting these days I would have thought that the licensing arrangements and Charter should have marched in hand with each other.
I entirely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said about the new statement of pledges to audiences that were promised by the BBC, which the Minister mentioned at some length. Having read the document that we have at the moment, I can only say that it is so bland, imprecise and lacking in detail that it is worthless in practice. By the time that this matter is discussed for a second time in another place, I seriously say to the Minister that the Government really owe it to Parliament to get the BBC to put some substance into the statement of pledges.
There is the attempt to deal with the concerns about the role of the governors, which is the centrepiece of the arguments of the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. Here at least I thoroughly agree with him in that the present situation is unsatisfactory. I rather regret that the Government were not ambitious and imaginative enough to produce some new independent regulatory organisation covering the whole field of broadcasting, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. Certainly in the present circumstances I am not sure that there is any totally satisfactory solution to the role of the BBC governors. They are public trustees to the nation and simultaneously broadcasters, publishers and
The independence of the governors from inevitable and perfectly legitimate pressures from government and opposition and a wide range of other interest groups is their most precious quality. The responsibility for ensuring that independence starts with the government of the day to appoint men and women of stature, integrity and independence of judgment and to resist absolutely the temptation to apply the pernicious doctrine of recent years of: "Is he or she one of us?".
We listened with interest to the announcement of the appointment of the new chairman of the BBC. I have reason to know well the work of Sir Christopher Bland in broadcasting and have a healthy admiration and respect for him. He will take on the post of chairman of the governors of the BBC, especially because of his own personal political background, where his showing of independence of character will be absolutely crucial, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, has already said.
The governors in their turn in the present system have a duty to defend the independence of the programme makers but equally a duty to enforce the standards laid down in the various codes of conduct and guidelines. I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, referred to Article (1)(f) of the Charter and the duty of the governors to monitor and supervise the corporation's fulfilment of its obligations. I believe that he should have perhaps read on further because it goes on to say in particular to,
I agree that there are special difficulties about what are effective sanctions for the governors of the BBC in the very different circumstances that they face from that of the regulators of commercial broadcasting. Personally, I believe that there is no higher duty on professional broadcasters than to strive to achieve, as far as possible over a reasonable period of time, of course, due impartiality on matters of controversy. Broadcasting more than any other media has a special responsibility because it has a special influence over the whole climate of opinion and culture in our society. My experience over a long life in public affairs is that controversial issues are rarely as black and white as crusading journalists would like to think--and I started life as a crusading journalist. Long before John Birt became Director-General of the BBC he championed the concept of "a mission to explain", which seems to me to be a sound doctrine.
There are other major matters of concern about the arrangements for the governors. I fully agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said about the strange change of language which dilutes the responsibilities of the national governors of the BBC. I would like to add a point to that. The regions of England have no national governor or formal link with the board of governors. Perhaps as a Scot I may put in a word for the English in that respect.
I am told that the Government gave serious consideration to a proposal submitted by the Broadcasting for Scotland organisation which suggested that there should be four national broadcasting councils, one for each of the home nations, including England. That would put Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on a equal footing with England and would end what has basically been a rather second-class constitutional relationship. More importantly, however, it would signal a serious new commitment to regionalism.
The English broadcasting council and its governor would be non-metropolitan in character and would prove a powerful force in countering what is undoubtedly the increasing centralism that arises from some of the changes to the present Charter. It is true that some effort has been made by the BBC to disperse programme-making out into the provinces, but not very much. Scotland is certainly a long way from enjoying anything like the Goschen formula in terms of its share of programme-making. There is a very long way to go indeed. I strongly press the Government to reconsider that point.
I also feel that it is important to strengthen the Charter and Agreement specifically in relation to educational programmes. The Minister commended the BBC's scale of programming, but I think that a production target needs to be written into the Agreement similar to that which Channel 4 has to face in terms of the Broadcasting Act.
Another new issue for the BBC is the expanding scale of its commercial activities. I regard them as welcome in themselves as an additional source of income. Indeed, they are essential if the BBC is to compete effectively in the new age of digital broadcasting. However, keeping the proportions right and ensuring that the public service, publicly funded side of the BBC remains dominant is of great importance. There are legitimate concerns that the BBC should not compete unfairly. As the Consumers' Association stated in its representation, there must be strict external controls in place to deal with those dangers. I should have thought that there is
It is against that background that I should like to say a final word about the privatisation of the transmission services. I see that in the face of the Government's obsession with privatisation the BBC has decided to surrender, as the IBA was compelled to do at the tail end of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. Privatising terrestrial transmission raises the same issues as privatising the Royal Mail. Both have to provide the same universal service to remote listeners and viewers, whatever the cost. Two transmitters can reach the whole of Greater London, with its population of 12 million, but it takes 90 transmitters to cover the 1 million people who live in the Grampian region of Scotland.
I think that the existing terrestrial transmitter system is a silly one. It was silly when it was publicly owned both ways and it is still silly. The BBC and commercial broadcasting share the same transmitter sites and towers, each side acting as the other's landlord over half of the sites. A single public corporation serving both sides would always have been much more sensible, but I recognise that that is not going to happen. The logic is that if there has to be privatisation, National Transcommunications Ltd (NTL) should be able to bid for the contract for the BBC side of broadcasting and therefore be able to provide a single integrated service under effective and firm regulation by Oftel. I am happy that the BBC should receive funds from the privatisation, but I hope that when the matter is dealt with the Department for National Heritage will consider whether the public interest might be served by an outcome which provides a single integrated service.
The fact remains that, despite those various strictures on the new proposals, for all the BBC's flaws which at times irritate its admirers (of whom I am one) and for all its internal neuroses which must at times have driven its governors and senior management to distraction, it remains one of the Britain's greatest national treasures and one of our biggest national and international assets. Despite Royal Charters, it is ultimately Parliament's responsibility to enable the BBC to continue that role into the new digital age of multi-channel television and information technology.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I am delighted to have an opportunity of contributing to this debate and thank the noble Lord for tabling the Motion that stands in his name. I am delighted also to be able to agree with the Secretary of State for National Heritage when she says that the BBC "is a national jewel".
I particularly want to contribute to the debate because one of the responsibilities I have is to chair the Central Religious Advisory Council--CRAC for short--and it is CRAC's responsibility to offer advice to the BBC and ITC in connection with religious programmes.
There have been many changes in society since the days when Lord Reith saw the religious responsibilities of the BBC in such a particular way. Religious affiliation has declined as far as the Christian denominations are concerned and we now live in a multi-faith environment. Religion is an ever-broadening and ever-changing concept within society. Yet the broadcasters continue to have a responsibility to provide programmes that both celebrate religious faith and explore it in an intelligent and meaningful way.
When we compare the present output of the BBC and the ITV channels we find another significant change. The 1990 Broadcasting Act required the independent companies to provide sufficient time for religious programmes. The ITC has defined this as being two hours each week and this has been scheduled for Sunday mornings. There seems, on the face of it, some logic in that. Sunday mornings are perhaps the remaining time in the whole week when people are likely to feel slightly religious. The housebound and the sick who would have been in church are also able to join in the acts of worship. Yet for the vast bulk of the potential audience for religious programmes Sunday mornings are the least suitable time. After all, they are out of their homes and away from TV screens worshipping God with their fellow Christians. The fact is that the ITV companies now provide no programming of a religious nature on a regular basis at peak times that can meet the needs of this part of the audience. Sadly, ITV's average audience for its religious programmes has fallen to 0.6 million viewers. This is despite the programmes being of excellent quality and in many ways just the sort of thing that the Churches would want to see being broadcast.
This leaves the BBC as the only broadcaster providing programming of a religious nature at peak viewing times--and not just on Sunday morning. The continuing popularity of "Songs of Praise"--it had an audience of 6 million viewers the other week when presented by Sir Harry Secombe, who ironically used to front ITV's Sunday evening religious slot--and the passionate and committed nature of the correspondence regularly received by the religious broadcasting department, show that there continues to be a large demand and a real interest in something that is often dismissed as being very much of minority appeal.
I would ask, on behalf of the Christian community but also, if I might be so bold, on behalf of all faith communities in this country, that the religious programming as foreseen in the Charter and Agreement is viewed as being vital to the work of the BBC; that it is not sidelined as competition with terrestrial and satellite
Some might challenge me by asking why religion should be catered for in such a way in this day and age. As I have already indicated, there is still a substantial audience for popular religious programming. As Grace Davey found in researching for her recent book Religion in Britain since 1945 over 70 per cent. of the people of this country still profess some faith in God, even though that faith may not be practised in an organised way. It is the real and deeply held spiritual needs of our people that must be catered for.
Religious broadcasting also has an educational role, particularly in teaching us about our neighbour. In my diocese of Southwark we have representatives of all faith communities and there is a pressing need for each of us to understand what our neighbour holds dear, to appreciate the deep beliefs that give them identity. Thoughtful broadcasting can help us to understand one another in such a way that the sense of community is enhanced. This is true within the Christian community as much as within the wider nation. Many Roman Catholics will have had their only taste of Protestant worship from the TV or radio; many Protestants will have shared in a Catholic Mass through the same media. It can only be for the good.
The BBC has had a long tradition of drawing the nation together. We saw that demonstrated powerfully last year in the excellent coverage provided for the VE and VJ commemorations. In a remarkable way, the programmes caught the national mood and helped us all to share in events that were important for so many. Although this kind of coverage is not always solely or even mainly of a religious nature, there is often an element of worship there, and always present is the mission of building up community, something to which members of all faiths are committed.
I want to mention briefly two other factors that need to be considered as we look at the draft Charter and Agreement. The first is something that the membership of CRAC deems to be important but it is not solely the concern of those who would call themselves religious. I refer to standards of taste and decency.
I believe very strongly that the BBC, along with all broadcasters and media companies, has a responsibility to maintain standards of decency. The question is always: what is considered tasteful and decent? Watching television I sometimes ask myself what kind of dinosaur I have become. The standards we have always held as a family--and I speak personally--are not always reflected in what is happening on the screen in my sitting room. Yes, I use the on/off switch frequently but there are many young, vulnerable and impressionable people who do not and who, I believe, are deeply affected by what they see.
The debate on what is and is not acceptable on the broadcast media has to be ongoing and so I welcome the fact that this Charter clarifies and emphasises the responsibility of the BBC to uphold standards of taste and decency.
This leads me to my third and final point. I support and agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. This Charter enhances and stresses the importance of accountability. The national jewel is the people's jewel. The BBC is there to serve the public, to respond to opinion, to need, to opportunity. This can be achieved only by real accountability at all levels. I welcome the fact that the needs and the opinions of the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to be represented directly to the Board of Governors through national broadcasting councils. This is an excellent proposal. I would simply ask: what about the people of England?
As a native of Northern Ireland I feel that I can justifiably ask this question. It would seem to me, from my time as a bishop in Yorkshire, that there are sufficient regional variations within England for there to be the need for proper regional and national representation.
I am aware that the regional advisory councils, many members of which come from particular faith communities, have already written to the Secretary of State registering their deep concern about the gaps and the shortfalls in the provisions for accountability within this draft Charter. They have a deep concern and feel no little alarm that although regional advisory councils are to be retained no mention is made of local radio advisory councils or of the English National Forum.
In each of the three national regions (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) there is a governor whose specific task is to represent the interests of the national region concerned. Would it not have been wise to make the same provision for England? This has to be put right if the BBC is to be responsive to the needs of the people of these islands into the next millennium. Therefore, I would ask that the Secretary of State look again at the whole structure of accountability as it has been proposed.
The BBC is very much a jewel in our national heritage. Its standards of programming, of production and of responsibility are exemplary. I would ask that the Charter and Agreement that are finally agreed should enhance and reinforce a commitment to religious broadcasting, to standards of taste and decency and to a realistic accountability to all our people.
Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, it would be right to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his admirable speech. We cannot hear too much from our Bishops. I know that they have many other things to do but we need to keep the flame alight in this House all the time. His presence and his participation in the debate helps us in that direction.
Some years ago when we debated the Education Bill we had a tremendous tussle about religious education. The Government's viewpoint was that one merely mentioned religious education but not Christianity. Many Members of your Lordships' House believed that the word "Christianity" should appear somewhere in the Charter. There is an obligation on the BBC but it just
I was greatly interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. I call him a good friend because for much of our lives we have been closely associated with television. I believe that the word "charter" is being slightly over used. I am not sure that it does not add to the unnecessary arrogance of some members of the BBC.
This morning I went to the Library and asked how many Royal Charters there are. Someone rang the Privy Council Office and then told me that there are now 449 Royal Charters. That is five more than when I asked the question six months ago. Therefore, a Royal Charter is not unusual and I wonder whether the BBC, as it becomes more intertwined with the commercial aspects and development of television, is right to continue to use that term. In particular, this House is very well equipped to debate such matters. I have checked and have discovered that there are 10 governors or ex-governors in this House, most of whom are taking part in this debate. Therefore, their approach to the BBC, even if it is sometimes rusty, is enthusiastic and very solid. We should encourage them to speak in our debates. We are better equipped to debate such matters than is the other place and we do not have to look over our shoulders to see whether we are offending a few voters in the criticisms that we make. In this House, that consideration does not exist. In the other place I had a majority of 600 in a constituency of 10,000 Jewish people. I had to watch my step as regards what I said when I was dependent on that majority.
I am surprised that no regulatory authority has been established. I was extremely pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, mentioned a regulatory authority. The group of which I am a member discussed that matter over and over again and asked what sort of formula there should be for a regulatory authority. I hope that this House will ensure that the proposed regulatory authority has the powers that it needs when we begin our discussions on the Broadcasting Bill next week.
The monopoly was broken up some 40 years ago, when I was a Member of the other place. We had hoped that there would be no need for a regulatory authority in relation to public service broadcasting. However, there is now such a great deal of sex, pornography and bad taste that it is clear that there is a need for some improvement in the present organisation. We sought to solve that problem by strengthening the governors' responsibilities. I was going to say that that makes them bisexual but what I mean is that they are wearing two hats: one as a regulatory authority in charge of organisation; and the other, as regulator of programmes. That will be extremely difficult. We wish them well. When my noble friend replies to the debate, I ask him to say whether he will agree to the amendment tabled by my noble friend which seeks to give the governors extra strength and responsibilities so that they can carry out their duties and accomplish what we hope they will achieve.
During the past five years, tremendous regulatory powers have been granted to oversee public utilities. That started with Oftel. I believe that that was established in 1984 and it has been extremely successful. The first head of Oftel was Sir Bryan Carsberg who set the right standards. But in this one field of radio and television, we have never dared to create a regulatory authority. Because of the multiplicity of interests, the time is coming when a decision about that will be forced on both Houses of Parliament.
In 1988, in anticipation of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, I founded a group open to all parties. We had some extremely talented Cross-Benchers and some Tories from these Benches and one or two others. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, was able to attend once or twice, which was particularly appropriate. I only wish that we had been able to attract more people because this is a cross-party matter. There is no point in trying to make this issue highly political because it cannot be, if we are to be realistic.
I do not know who were the fierce people quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, who threatened the Government with the abolition of the licence, but that threat did not come from any members of our group. All 20 members of the group agreed that public service broadcasting should exist and that it should be preserved and purified in the process.
The Commons Select Committee made a very strong point that the new Charter and Agreement was of such importance that it should no longer be included as an annexe. It advocated that it should be part of the new Charter. That was not accepted by the Government who took the view that it should be part of the Agreement. Their view was that that would provide more flexibility and allow adjustments to be made in line with changing technology and competitive requirements. We submitted our recommendations to the Government. We had difficulty in ensuring that where producers and editors disregarded codes of conduct, sanctions were exercised. There is no purpose in levelling fines because they would be merely paid from the £1·8 billion which the BBC collects.
Some of us pointed out that sportsmen who disregard the rules may be suspended. For example, a footballer is shown first a yellow card as a warning and then a red card which means that he is suspended from playing football for some period of time--and sometimes quite a long period. We pointed out also that car drivers have a licence and if a driving offence is committed, that is marked upon the licence and ultimately, the driver may be disqualified. I cannot see why it is wrong to suspend editors and others in the BBC who make sound bites and nasty snide remarks which are not necessary and which do not add to the entertainment in any way.
There should be standards of morality in relation to sex, violence, pornography and personal abuse. In those areas, standards seem to be falling progressively and are not upheld although we still see some wonderful programmes, an example of which is "Pride and Prejudice". I understand that each programme in that series cost £1 million. Therefore, it is certainly necessary to watch the budget. All those demands will
Some friends of mine who do not sleep easily listened to night-time radio on Radio 5--"Radio 5 Alive". They tell me that they were horrified on the night of 9th/10th January of last year to hear a regular broadcast asking people to telephone in if they thought that the Royal Family and their children were misbehaving. I hope that a fairly small audience heard that sound bite. But my friends tell me that on Radio 4 early that morning it was said that the BBC had conducted a poll during the night about the Royal Family and that 1,000 people had telephoned with their criticisms of the Royal Family. When I wrote to complain, I was told that no records were kept or something like that. But that is a totally uncalled-for smear on the Royal Family.
After that, I looked carefully at the Producers' Guidelines and they are meticulous on that subject. They say that one must be very careful in relation to polls. Polls should be conducted over a wide spectrum of people who represent all types in all parts of the country and they should not be used lightly. That poll on the Royal Family was used unnecessarily lightly. I asked what penalties had been exercised against Radio 4 and Radio 5 on that occasion and I was told that none was exercised.
That is both insulting to the Queen and to the Prime Minister of the day. Moreover, it was an unnecessary, nasty little sound bite. I hope that one can exorcise that situation. It does not come from the top division; it does not come from the second division: it comes from chaps and ladies in the third division. I am sure that they could be brought into line.
and so on. It epitomises bad taste when such comments are put into an entertainment programme. For example, we all know that almost every institution from the Royal Family to the Church, to Parliament, to our police, to our judiciary--indeed, almost every institution upon which the solid foundation of our nation has been built--comes in for derision and insults from time to time. But we so seldom hear a programme which is dedicated to the praising of those institutions upon which we are so dependent. I hope that the governors can influence the situation in the long run.
Incidentally--and I must remind the House about this horrifying thing--Mary Whitehouse was suspended in the days of Sir Hugh Greene for 11 years because she criticised a programme as being not as she or her members would have wished it. She was suspended. A notice was put out, of which she received a copy, saying that any member of the BBC staff who invited her to take part in a programme or who attended one of her functions or organisations would find that his job with the BBC was at risk. That was written by the Director General at the time, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene. I find it surprising that that situation existed for 11 years and that not one of the 20,000 or so people employed there spoke up for her independence, whereas, if any politician makes any sort of reference to such a situation he is slain alive before he gets home. The Consumers' Association has sent me a brief containing very good material. I believe that the association should also be used as consultants.
I turn now to one more relevant function. It relates to a bad occasion when the Japanese VJ day was celebrated. It concerns a Mr. Gar Alperowitz who is a very Left-wing--that is to put it mildly--citizen of the United States. He is deeply anti-American and deeply anti-Europe or British. He was used as a main adviser. It all started in 1989 when the BBC's historical series "Time Watch" handed over its programme on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan to this radical Left-wing American historian. Since 1965 he has been publishing books arguing that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were known to be militarily unnecessary because the Japanese would have surrendered anyway without the need of an atomic bombing by the allies. Instead, Mr. Gar Alperowitz claimed that the bombs were dropped to intimidate Stalin and for no other reason. The 1989 programme ended with the claim:
I am glad to say that five historians came forward and said that that claim was outrageous and that history and every other reason and piece of evidence show that that action saved a great many British and American lives. Six leading British professionals swore to that effect and so, eventually, the BBC withdrew and said that it was probably correct. The awful fact is that when VE day was celebrated in 1995 six years later, the same gentleman was asked over here and given carte blanche
I have mentioned the issue of arrogance which I am sure is not customary, but I should like to mention one other point which I believe to be important. I refer to the fact that the BBC still pick on certain people and will not use them. One of those people is Ian Curteis. His "Falklands Play", which many of us remember, was rejected by the BBC and replaced by "Tumbledown" which was a highly hostile play both to the British attitude and to the British troops who were serving in the area. Moreover, not only was it shown once; indeed, it was repeated three times. Incidentally, two other plays were then shown both of which were violently anti-Thatcher. So impartiality is nowhere there in that connection. We need to watch the situation much more carefully. I should add that Ian Curteis, who is a remarkably good playwright, had two further plays rejected because, presumably, they were too pro Margaret Thatcher. One was on "Yalta" which I would have said was a desperate disappointment and a fiddle. It was so arranged that we and America suffered as a result. Therefore, when a person of that type is taken on, care must be taken to ensure that the history is accurate.
I shall conclude with a summary of the matters which I believe need to be attended to. I have mentioned the financial aspect and the matter of supervision with which, perhaps, my noble friend the Minister will deal. There is also the need to keep in touch with organisations like the Consumers' Association, NVALA and the National Consumer Council. They are all objective in the area. I wish the best to the governors of the BBC. They give us good service, but they must give us some firm action. They need to ensure that action follows the condemnation and upholds the complaints which are bound to arise. I give the BBC full marks for all that it is doing which is right, but I believe that some correction is needed in that area.
Lord Annan: My Lords, we are of course wrestling with the familiar problem of the position of the governors both as the public watch dog and as the chief executive of the BBC. There is no doubt that the governors are the chief executive in the sense that they appoint the director general and a number of other senior officials. Article 7 of the present Charter also imposes upon them numerous other managerial duties. Therefore, people ask, "How can they be the public watch dog at the same time?"
As a result of various things that have happened in the past, I believe that people have formed a new perception of the BBC; namely, that of a great public institution which is partially out of control. If a complaint is held up by the Broadcasting Standards Council, the governors appear to do nothing. No one is reprimanded. Even on the rare occasions when the governors apologise, no head, not even an assistant head, is ever seen to roll. The programme makers simply carry on as they have before.
Let me say at once that this new perception of the BBC is at best a half truth and perhaps not even that. There have been a number of hands-on chairmen of the BBC; Charles Hill was one; and Mr. Hussey was certainly another. Indeed, Mr. Hussey and his fellow governors went further than their predecessors ever dared to do. They sacked the director general when they thought he had gone off the rails. But of course that is not a sanction one can use week in, week out. One cannot go on sacking one's director generals; so where does responsibility lie? Of course it lies in the hands of the director general and his senior staff. How, then, are the governors to ensure that the programme makers do not flout the rules which they themselves have laid down about violence, decency and impartiality? There is no doubt that the Government have taken this matter to heart and the drafts before us show major changes from the past, but are they quite major enough? Instead of requiring the governors merely to monitor and supervise the corporation's work, the Charter should require the governors to enforce the fulfilment of the corporation's obligations. Again, as I think the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, said, the governors should ensure that the controllers, senior executives and programme directors should sign a copy of the codes and declare they will abide by them. When complaints have been upheld, the Agreement should state that they shall indicate what action has been taken to prevent a recurrence.
Anyone who has been at the head of any large institution knows that written directives have limited value. The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, said only the other day that there is only one way to ensure that the will of a governing body or a board of directors is accepted and acted upon, and that is by means of the managing director and his staff. First, the chairman and the managing director must work as one and conceal nothing between them. Secondly, the managing director must communicate with and obtain the consent and co-operation of his chief executives in carrying out the board's wishes. I have to say that that is not the case today. It was outrageous and it was an insult to Mr. Hussey that the director general did not inform him that Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales was to give an interview on television. I have yet to meet a producer or a programme maker who does not say that morale in the BBC is low today because of the director general's inability to communicate with and carry the staff with him.
Let me say at once that the director general was entirely right to insist on sweeping retrenchment in the BBC. If he had not done so, the BBC would now be bankrupt. He deserves praise for pushing through policies that were bound to be unpopular. Of course, the jury is still out as to whether those were the right policies. The policy of producer choice was designed to encourage producers to shop around to find the cheapest way to get their programmes made. As a result--if I may give one example--a large number of skilled cameramen were made redundant at considerable cost and whole departments were closed. What has happened is that the same cameramen are re-hired as independent operators, often at a higher cost. Whereas once the cry
The clause on impartiality in the Broadcasting Act 1990 is now incorporated in paragraphs 3.2(c) and 5.1(c) of the Agreement and it is referred to in Article 7(f) of the Charter. There is no more controversial topic in broadcasting than impartiality. Anyone who wants to enforce programme standards comes up against the same old problem. The words, actions and pictures that give offence to some do not give offence to others. Eighteen years ago the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting came down against establishing a tribunal of taste on the grounds that it would loom over the broadcasters if it were executive, or, if it were not, it would be ineffective. The Broadcasting Standards Council, which of course is not executive, so far from looming usually gives the benefit of the doubt to the broadcasters, in some cases so egregiously that it seems to be excessively wimpish. It certainly is ineffective. Its decisions are often ignored and I must ask where in the Charter or Agreement is it laid down that when a complaint is upheld the governors will insist that the BBC broadcasts an apology and states what action it has taken to prevent a recurrence?
I do not believe that the BBC is biased towards or against any political party but it is the nature of journalism--and perhaps of drama--to criticise government (with a small "g") and authority (with a small "a"). Impartiality cannot be achieved in every programme. However, while it is right--I will defend that to my dying day--that orthodoxy and those in power should be challenged and examined, it is essential that the established view and the problems that face those who take decisions should be put, as they certainly were not in the case of Professor Gar Alperowitz's programme to which the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing referred.
Dons are often accused of living in ivory towers. I sometimes wonder whether the broadcasters do not live in hothouses where the windows have misted up so that they are out of touch with what their fellow countrymen are thinking and therefore do not foresee the offence that their programmes cause. That is particularly true of drama. I remember Sir Charles Curran saying to me that the reason so many polemical dramas hostile to authority were shown was that there were no writers of a different viewpoint available. I suggested that it was up to the drama department to find them. The BBC used to excuse its choice of programmes by arguing that such plays which were anti-authority were balanced by the Trooping of the Colour broadcast. Today it cites "Pride and Prejudice". Both those explanations are puerile. In the report of our committee we stated,
There is another side to this matter, and I must put it with all the force in my power. Broadcasters are always under pressure not to offend powerful interests. If pressure groups grow too strong they will kill the geese that lay the golden eggs, and they will mislead the public. The price of belonging to a society in which there is freedom of speech is that someone will always be offended.
I wonder whether the Minister remembers Alf Garnett. He may be too young. Alf was a genuine work of creative imagination. His language was true to his nature, and it was terrible. His appalling views were only too true to life and therefore, perhaps, induced some viewers to be ashamed, for instance, of their own suppressed racism.
Most of us know very little or nothing of what it is like to create programmes. The success of many excellent programmes is that their creators go right up to the frontier that divides a challenging programme from an offensive programme. However, good directors accept that there is a frontier and are willing--no doubt often with a sigh--to leave on the cutting floor sequences which go beyond that frontier. That was the secret of those like Sir Tony Jay and his collaborators who devised "Tonight" in the 1950s and 1960s and "Yes, Minister" in the 1980s.
Self censorship is by far the best and indeed the only way for broadcasters to avoid the governors imposing more rules and more codes, and still more to avoid an outside body doing so. I was deeply distressed to hear that both the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, rather hankered after a supra body with executive powers which would loom over the whole of broadcasting. If one creates such a body and it has executive powers it will be at best a fidget and at worst will inhibit the creativity that we have to nurture. It will consist of those who do not understand how artists work and would dislike them if they did.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to follow the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, with virtually the whole of which I agree. I also congratulate the Minister on his opening speech and on presenting the draft Charter and Agreement to us. Like my noble friend Lord Donoughue, I should like to thank him for the innovative idea of inviting us to a private session to discuss the Charter and Agreement in advance. That was a great help and I was delighted to be able to take part. The Minister was right to emphasise the vital nature of public service broadcasting and why it is essential that the BBC should be a central part of that.
I declare my past interest as vice-chairman of the BBC for seven years. I like to think that, together with the current chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, and two former governors who are present--the noble Baronesses, Lady Park and Lady James--who were also a great help, I played a small part in ensuring the renewal of the Charter. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for saying as much.
I see the new Charter as a vote of confidence in the future of the BBC. That is not quite what the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, said. I am in agreement with my noble friend Lord Donoughue in regretting that it is for five years only. I would have preferred a 10-year Charter.
As the current chairman will not serve his full term but will leave on 1st April this year, I should like to pay a personal tribute to him. It was a joy to work with him. He has been an excellent independent chairman of the BBC and has done a very good job, as all who know him will agree. I do not know his successor, but I wish him well in the job that he is taking on.
There are a few taking part in this debate who will always be unhappy about the BBC and any charter and any agreement. Those few are represented by those who have tabled the amendment--the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and one or two others. I have always considered the group as a kind of mafia, if they will forgive me for putting it that way. I mean it in the nicest possible way. I was invited to join them, but I have no intention of so doing. I have a feeling that I would not agree with them. They clearly want the guidelines to be strengthened. They refer to that as clarification. They would like sanctions to be available to the board of governors against the board of management. We do not usually use strong language in your Lordships' House, but, with the greatest possible respect, the amendment is not only unnecessary, as the Minister pointed out, but it is also absurd, for two reasons. First, the board of governors has the power
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred to an occasion which I remember well. Marmaduke Hussey and I had just joined the BBC as chairman and vice-chairman. We were in the room with the then director general. We gave him two pieces of paper, one sacking him and one tendering his resignation. I do not know how much tougher noble Lords want sanctions to be. That is what we did under the existing Charter, let alone under a new one.
In those circumstances I do not know how much stronger the mafia--or to put it in nicer terms, the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing--and even the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, whom I certainly would not include in any mafia, would want sanctions to be. It is certainly not clarification that they are seeking. That is quite clear. Clarification is written into the draft Charter and Agreement. The board of governors has already asked for and sought strengthening of the Charter and Agreement. However, I suspect that what the mover of the amendment and its supporters seek is not clarification. In that sense, if I may put it bluntly, the movers, are, frankly, dishonest. That is not too strong a word. They seek to demand a BBC which no longer exists. It is true that the BBC was (I emphasise the word "was") complacent, arrogant, inefficient and bureaucratic. I accept that. But that is not the case today. It is leaner and fitter and, despite that, still produces quality programmes.
The second reason that the amendment is absurd stems from the first. If the board of governors, whoever its members may be--they will be neither saints, angels or whatever--constantly interferes, one will never gain or keep a decent board of management. That is a plain fact. Of course a board of management will make mistakes. That has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. It did so over the famous "Panorama" programme about Princess Diana. That was a major error. I think that it was right to make the programme; it was a great coup. But the board was wrong in the following respect. Normally it does not tell the chairman of the BBC in advance about programmes. However, this was not a normal occasion; nor was it a normal programme. The board certainly had every right to consult the BBC chairman in advance. That it did not do so, was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, as an insult to the chairman. That is certainly true. It was also plainly stupid. The idea that the chairman would have gone rushing round to the palace when told that the Princess wished the programme kept secret until it was broadcast, means that those members do not know the man. Of course he would not have done that. It was therefore crazy of the director general and others who knew to keep the matter from the chairman.
The director general has been much criticised, not only on this but on many other occasions. Usually it has been over-done. On the whole he has been a great director general who has made changes on both financial matters and programme production which have been of great benefit to the BBC.
Perhaps I may add my views to those of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and my noble friend Lord Donoughue, about having a regulatory authority over the board of governors and board of management. If one is not careful, one will not have an independent BBC. One will have one regulatory authority over another. I hope that my noble friend Lord Donoughue, and any other friends to whom he talks, will drop that idea. It is a nonsense. We do not need any more regulatory authorities. I should have no objection to a House of Commons Select Committee, a Select Committee of the House of Lords or a joint committee.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, referred to terrible things that have been done. Members of the board of management, and its "underlings" inevitably will make mistakes over the years. When you are putting out thousands of hours of television and radio, both national and local, it would be unbelievable if no mistakes were ever made. However, the examples given by the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, were one sided. I have not heard the response from the BBC; I should like to hear it. But the idea that the board will never make a mistake is a nonsense. Of course it will. However, the use of sanctions is not what is required. That would destroy the BBC as we know it and as we want it.
I refer briefly to the question of impartiality. The BBC has always sought to be impartial. From time to time it will have appeared to all of us that it has been lacking in impartiality. But on the whole that is usually in the eye of the beholder, or in the eyes of different beholders. In other words, one cannot please everyone all the time. That certainly applies, by the spadeful one might say, to the BBC.
We now have further safeguards written formally into the Agreement at paragraph 3.3. There is a requirement for impartiality in the daily account of the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. If I have a complaint, it is that there is not enough broadcasting of the House of Lords. It is usually a much better broadcasting Chamber than the House of Commons. In normal circumstances we have a better quality of debate than in another place. With 20 years' experience, I can say that we have very good expertise here. But the requirement of an impartial daily account is vital and I am delighted that it is now written into the Agreement. Perhaps I may make a plea as regards Question Time: that there is a better selection of speakers, perhaps from the House of Lords. In the House of Lords we have a better selection than in another place. But that is another matter. I am obviously prejudiced.
I return briefly to the question of violence. Again one cannot please everyone. But the amount of violence on British television has been grossly exaggerated over the years, usually by those who do not watch it. Most recent evidence is from an independent survey in August 1995 carried out by Sheffield University. It indicates that violence on BBC, ITV and Channel 4 accounted for just 0.61 per cent. of programme output time compared with 1.1 per cent. in 1986. Therefore it is not a serious problem although any violence may offend many viewers.
That is an impossible requirement. How on earth can the BBC do that if major sport activities such as the World Cup, national cup finals, major soccer and rugby, golf, cricket and, eventually I fear, Wimbledon, all go to the highest bidder; namely, Sky? I mentioned this issue to the Minister. I now understand from the Prime Minister that the matter is being considered. I do not normally agree with the Prime Minister, but if he does something about the matter he has my complete assurance that I shall agree with him.
Finally, perhaps I may revert to the need for a truly independent BBC. That does not mean that it can or should be able to do what it likes. The strengthening of the Charter and Agreement rightly puts clear obligations on the board of governors. It is for the board to ensure that public service broadcasting by the BBC sets standards for others to follow. Thus, for example, the BBC is already widely regarded as the most trustworthy of broadcasters. In an RI survey published in April 1994, 67 per cent. agreed that the BBC was excellent or very good at providing,
There is little doubt that the Charter and Agreement are the best way to regulate the BBC rather than an Act of Parliament or an amended Charter along the lines moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. In the current way suggested by the Government, the BBC is given invaluable flexibility and independence while ensuring that it has to be responsible for setting high standards. Those are not just my views. The all-party House of Commons Select Committee said that it had,
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, if everyone in the BBC always spoke with the lucidity, honesty and practical common sense of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, probably we would not be expressing some of the concerns that I intend to express today. I wish to apologise in advance, as a former governor of the BBC, for being seen, after that very positive speech, to make some continually negative comments. I make them because I care.
I want to pay my tribute to the 99 per cent. of BBC output which is excellent and unique. I especially admire, as everyone does, the BBC World Service. I had the pleasure of seeing the World Television Service last
I could talk, as we all could talk about brilliant TV documentaries like "The Death of Yugoslavia", the 1994 series on Russia, on Solzhenitsyn's return, and many of the "Horizon" and "Heart of the Matter" programmes and splendid programmes like "The Company"; wonderful entertainment like "Middlemarch", "The Last of the Summer Wine" and a hundred others. Of course, Radio 3 and Radio 4 are for me--except perhaps sometimes between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. in the morning--beyond praise.
It is precisely because of my pride in the BBC that I want to be sure that the Charter and the Agreement protect it and us from the damage that can sometimes be inflicted, out of all proportion, on the reputation of a great institution. It should be possible to value and protect artistic integrity and creativity and yet, as the Government do, to see that strict rules, not guidelines, are laid down where we are dealing not with an artist's creation but with documentaries about real people, with fact, not fiction.
The problem is faction. It is shoddy and unprofessional presentation, including such dubious practices as wallpapering and misrepresentation on many occasions. This has been coupled with a degree of arrogance on the part of those who produce such programmes which is difficult to accept. Rare as they are, those programmes shake public trust in an institution whose great glory has been and must be that it tries to tell the truth and to present the facts.
Of course the BBC, like all great institutions, changes all the time. The examples I intend to quote are history now, and in the past, except, I am afraid, that a recent "Panorama" programme suggests that it is not necessarily true that the leopard has changed its spots. I should therefore be surprised if some of the problems do not recur. I quote them only to illustrate our concerns.
The BBC management's treatment of the "Panorama" programme "Maggie's Militant Tendency" put out in 1984 is one example. In that case the management allowed flimsy so-called "evidence", "researched" by journalists (outside the BBC) who should have been recognised as tendentious and unreliable, to be presented to support some very serious allegations. They used what is known as "wallpapering"--unrelated library film which is cut into the text--to appear to offer visual evidence of those allegations. The management went on, when the MPs so libelled took legal action, to ignore the view of the BBC's own lawyers that the case was too weak to have any chance of success in court and to reject all proposals for a settlement with apologies. The director-general assured the governors that the evidence was "rock-solid". The case went to court in 1986 and the BBC was the poorer by nearly half a million pounds in damages and costs--money which could have been better spent on programmes. The case collapsed because it had rested from the first on flimsy evidence, unreliable witnesses and poor, if not disingenuous, research.
It is relevant to our concerns today that the NUJ then threatened to ballot for industrial action should any disciplinary action be considered against the BBC journalists involved. The managing director of television hastened to give a public assurance that there would be no internal inquiry.
In this and in other such cases there is always a dilemma for the governors. It is right for the BBC to do fearless investigative journalism, but it is wrong for it to permit itself to be thoroughly unprofessional in its procedures and then to be unwilling or unable to admit fault.
I do not intend to speak at length about the "Real Lives" affair in 1985--in which I was cast as a demon--except to cite three aspects which are relevant today. First, the governors would never have had to view that programme (unusually, but it was and is their right) if the guidelines had been observed. The Standing Instructions and Guidance for Coverage of Matters Affecting Northern Ireland said clearly that:
That was not done. Consequently, the governors were not told by the director-general--who did not know--that such a programme was about to be put out. However, the Radio Times knew well enough in advance to put out a long article beforehand and the press had a preview.
Secondly, confronted with a situation where the procedures of referral had been flouted and the director-general had not seen the programme, the governors decided that in his absence abroad they would have to see it for themselves. Indeed, they felt that it would strengthen their hand and that of the chairman in the political confrontation which they could then expect to follow if they had seen it and could say that, despite the breakdown in the rules, they were satisfied that it was a fair and proper programme. That is what we all expected to be the case. The governors expected to be able to defend it and they could not credibly do so without seeing it. It proved to be unacceptable in a number of ways, and even the board of management admitted that significant additions and amendments needed to be made.
Yet--and this is my third point--when the chairman, speaking for the board, recorded a vital interview with BBC Television to explain the governors' position--that we had taken a decision not to speak ourselves at all to the press--the BBC's own journalists did not transmit that interview. They did not tell the chairman that they had censored him. Only some eight to 10 lines of several other such statements recorded by the chairman for radio and television were transmitted. Ironically, the voice of the governors of the BBC was heard only on ITN's "News at Ten". Meanwhile, the board of management failed to admit that they too had thought the film needed amendment, suppressed as far as they could any admission that the BBC's own rules had been broken
Noble Lords will say that those are old wars. They are, but the issues are perennial. I shall be very glad to be told that nothing of this sort happens now or could happen again. The corporation must in this new Charter and Agreement--in general, they are both admirable documents--be seen to be prepared to work by rules, not by guidelines, on certain sensitive issues and to have both provision for specific sanctions for those who break the rules and the readiness to accept that when the governors, the director-general or the board of management decide to use those sanctions they will be implemented. No one should be above the law in this as in other matters.
The governors, as I well know, care as fiercely as any member of the corporation for artistic integrity and independence, creativity and the fearless presentation of facts. But it must be facts and not faction. There must be the means to correct the damage done by unprofessional, dishonest or shoddy, ill-researched work by a handful of people who can often be as arrogant as they are incompetent--though I do not doubt their sincere conviction that they are always right.
The BBC needs to be seen now to face the fact that it is laughable to say that the governors are in charge of and responsible for the BBC and that they have the ultimate power of editorial control, as they do, if the policies and strategy for which they are responsible cannot be enforced because of a culture that rejects the idea of enforcement.
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, said that we cannot sack the director-general every day. That is indeed true. Much of the uneasy relationship that at times exists between governors and management arises from that special ideology and a lack of trust and definition of respective rights and duties. Flexibility is all very well but not when it degenerates into fluidity and uncertainty. Some plain statements on where particular bucks stop--for this is very difficult anyway with the director-general as (to change the metaphor) the joker in the pack--would be more helpful than not. But the main thing is that the reputation of a great institution is too precious to be put at risk by fudge and compromise. I simply want to see the professionals drive out the unprofessional.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, the BBC World Service is certainly a unique and valuable institution whose standards and integrity we all have a vested interest in defending. On the other hand, it might be generally agreed, even by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, that there is substantial room for improvement in some of the BBC's domestic services, both in radio and in television. I put it for the moment no more strongly than that.
As the noble Baroness just said, it would be deplorable if a small number of ideologically motivated producers and a few self-regarding interviewers and presenters were allowed freedom to damage the BBC's reputation for fairness, accuracy and objectivity. With this in mind, I express my strong support for the amendment tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote.
There is a great deal to be said for the two documents that we are debating today, much of it positive. However, their principal defining weakness is that they do very little to impose adequate disciplines on some of the more dubious activities of the BBC's programme makers. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that the corporation as a whole has welcomed this draft charter so warmly. The basic problem, as already advanced by several noble Lords in this and previous debates, lies in the dual role of the governors of the BBC. They are required to act in effect as the non-executive directors of the board of a large commercial organisation and at the same time to regulate the activities of its executives and employees. This would be a difficult enough responsibility if the product of the company were submarines or cuckoo clocks; but the product of the BBC is a stream of news, information and entertainment which has immense--I go as far as to say unparalleled--power and influence over the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of millions of people of all ages.
It is pointless to debate this issue today since the Government have already decided, in my view regrettably, that the BBC is not, like the commercial broadcasting sector, to be bound by statutory legislation (the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, made reference to this) but is to be subject to the provisions of the Charter and Agreement of which we are invited to take note today; that is, in effect, to be self-regulating.
It would in theory be possible for a board of governors to resolve what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, called a conflict of interests and to impose its will on the programme makers in matters concerning taste, standards of decency, objectivity and impartiality. After all, in commerce and industry there is no reason why the non-executive directors of a company should not play a part in running that company as a profitable
Yet many would argue, as did the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that in the BBC that has just not happened. The governors have not achieved that resolution of the conflict of interest. No one who watches television or listens to radio needs to be reminded of the numerous occasions on which acceptable standards of taste, decency and objectivity have been deliberately flouted by producers, presenters and interviewers.
There is a strong impression--which I certainly share as I have personal experience of it--that when the corporation is subjected to criticism from outside the governors are more likely to close ranks with their executives than to ask whether it might be necessary to put their house in order. That may, of course, have something to do with the fact that under the present system the staff who formulate the recommendations to the governors are the staff of the BBC itself. Any suggestion that the governors of the BBC should exercise some form of firm discipline in these matters is met with protests--we heard them again several times in this House today--about the need to maintain the independence of the BBC.
I am bound to say that I fail entirely to understand how the independence of the BBC would be in any way diminished by requiring the corporation to accept the same obligations regarding its standards as commercial radio and television are required to accept under the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the codes of the two authorities that flow from that. Under the provisions of the programme codes of the ITC and the Radio Authority, broadcasters who contravene the codes are subject to punitive sanctions, ranging from substantial fines to, in extreme cases, the withdrawal of a franchise or licence to broadcast.
Therefore, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, I suggest that it is not enough for the Charter and Agreement to ensure that the governors have the necessary powers to require programme makers to abide by certain rules; they must also ensure that the governors use those powers and are made to use them, and that they apply sanctions (penalties or punishments, whatever they might be called) against those who break or ignore the rules.
The familiar argument against this approach is that the BBC cannot be expected to fine one of its own stations or networks, as the only money it has is licence payers' money, and that it is perverse to expect the corporation to close down one of its own programmes or stations. That may be so; but there is absolutely no reason, and none has been given during this debate, why programme makers and broadcasters should not be subject personally to public reprimand and, if necessary, to financial penalties or even dismissal.
The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, made a considerable amount of the fact that the board of governors had sacked one director-general. That was indeed a great cause celebre. But I think it is generally agreed that a great number of other producers, directors, presenters,
Perhaps at this point I may express support for the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue--in spite of the powerful arguments of the noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Barnett--for a single regulatory authority. There should be one single regulatory authority of some kind in this country governing the whole of broadcasting, both radio and television. I do not believe that there is any danger that this would become a board of censors any more than the ITC or the Radio Authority are a board of censors. They are perfectly capable of regulating the whole of the commercial sector, and I see no reason why a central regulatory authority should not regulate properly, in a balanced and perfectly democratic and liberal way, the activities of the BBC.
So in considering the Charter and the Agreement, it is important to ask, as does the noble Viscount with his amendment, whether the documents adequately clarify--I repeat "clarify"--the responsibilities and authority of the governors of the BBC. I suggest that they do not. I go further and say that, unless the Government undertake to put that right and undertake on the Floor of the House tonight that they will do so, I hope that the noble Viscount will press his amendment to a Division. I believe that sufficient concern has already been expressed in your Lordships' House.
It is my understanding from the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who opened this debate with such skill and clarity and will reply at the end, that if there is a demonstration that this House and Parliament as a whole are not happy with the draft documents, the Government will reconsider them and possibly incorporate some amendments. I hope that he will repeat that undertaking formally in the House when he comes to reply tonight.
Because of the obvious shortage of time, I intend to limit my remarks to one aspect of the Charter and the Agreement. Perhaps I may take first the draft Charter and refer to page 8, Article 7(1)(f), which states that the governors are required to:
etc. I repeat a feeling that has been expressed in other parts of the House that that is not enough. They must not only monitor and supervise these affairs but they must enforce them and make sure that anything laid down in any code is observed. The Charter goes on to say that they must:
Surely all that we need say, and I hope that in any revision of the Charter the Government will ensure that it is said, is "draw up a code to be observed"--that is all that one needs to say--and if then that code is not observed, that simple consequences will ensue.
There are many other things that could be said about the two documents, but there is not the time to say them. I should, however, like to deal with one aspect of this matter, in which it has been argued that some of the weaknesses might be rectified when the new Broadcasting Bill comes before Parliament and by the requirement on the governors to comply with,
or any body which succeeds them. But we should bear in mind that the Broadcasting Bill, which sets out the powers of the new body that is to take the place of both the BCC and the BSC, does not have its Second Reading in your Lordships' House until the 16th of this month. No one knows how it might be changed during what I feel might be a fairly long passage for this legislation. I simply do not believe that we should base our approach to the Charter and Agreement on any assumptions made about what the Broadcasting Act 1996 will look like after it has been through both Houses of Parliament. Certainly I expect that there will be numerous amendments to the Bill in its present form. Certainly, having read the Bill, on first impression I believe that there are serious defects in the section which deals with the new Broadcasting Standards Commission, especially as regards complaints about fairness and impartiality.
The documents that we are discussing today should be considered in isolation. They are documents of the first importance. They will govern the activities of the BBC, which is often described by the Government as the cornerstone of British broadcasting, into the next millennium. The BBC itself and today the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, welcomed the Charter as a vote of confidence in the future of the BBC. If, and only if, the Government will recognise the concern implicit in the noble Viscount's amendment and make the necessary changes to the documents, will it be a vote of confidence that we shall all, I am sure, be happy to endorse.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, I should like to give a very warm welcome to the Government's draft BBC Charter and Agreement. They will take the corporation through the next millennium to the year 2006, when no doubt we shall again have a similar debate.
The BBC was founded by Royal Charter 70 years ago in 1926. It must be right that the principle of a Royal Charter continues. Although perhaps not perfect, it has fundamentally worked extremely well. But the BBC is not just a broadcaster. It has specific duties in its role as a public service broadcaster, funded by the television-owning public who, we must remember, pay whether or not they watch.
Every parliamentary draftsman who produces a Bill always thinks that his or her words are the best ever, absolutely perfect and do not need changing. But, as your Lordships know, every Bill that comes before this House is studied carefully at Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading. Amendments are inevitably made. Bills usually leave this House improved. That is the role of this House. We are a revising Chamber. I very much hope that the Government will not only listen carefully, but, where and if they are persuaded that improvements can be made to the Charter and the Agreement, will be prepared to make those improvements.
Ensuring that the BBC is accountable to Parliament means giving the governors sufficient power to ensure that the corporation not only sticks to the Agreement but also sticks to the spirit of the Agreement. Like other noble Lords, I also am concerned about the role of the governors. Are they to be responsible for the running of the corporation or are they to represent the public interest? As we heard, it is both. The vitally important question that must be asked is: Do the Charter and the Agreement give them the power and authority to do that? I believe that they do.
But there is a conflict of interest here. The commercial broadcasters are governed by the ITC, which is responsible for ensuring regulation. The governors are asked to do that for the BBC as well as be responsible for its management. Therefore they must wear two hats. I hope that the governors will look carefully at the ITC's codes on programmes and practices. They are strict about product placement, commercial relationships and standards; and are enforced by the ITC with warnings, fines and the ultimate sanction of withdrawal of the licence.
Certainly, in my mind, there is some confusion in the Agreement about the code giving guidance to the rules and about the rules themselves, referring in particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, to Article 5.3 and 5.4. Article 5 states:
What does "do all that it can" mean? Whose code is it? Of course, it is the BBC's code. I believe that the governors should have an absolute duty to secure the provisions of the code, not a qualified one.
What happens when the code is broken, and perhaps broken regularly? As we know, the BBC cannot fine itself, so how can producers be reprimanded? The governors have an ultimate power to sack the producers, but that is an ultimate deterrent and so it can hardly ever be used. What can be done to prevent day-to-day minor infringements of the code? I hope that my noble friend the Minister can shed some light on that and explain. I am sure that when he winds up he will be able to deal with some of the anxieties of my noble friend Lord
Perhaps I can turn to another area which would benefit from a clear statement from my noble friend the Minister. For some years, quite rightly, the BBC has built up its commercial ventures. They are now a successful and huge source of income for the corporation. The BBC has come to arrangements with satellite and terrestrial broadcasters; BBC books are always at the top of the publishers' list; videos and magazines based on BBC programmes fill the shelves of high street newsagents.
The Government have sought to maintain the split between the licence fee income and the commercial income in order to ensure fair competition by including Article 4 in the Charter and Paragraphs 4 and 10 in the Agreement. Those are admirable provisions and clearly set out the split between the two. But they do not demonstrate how that is to be monitored and checked. I understand that that is to be the role of the auditors. Will the Secretary of State give the auditors clear instructions, and a brief to check that the licence fee income is kept separate from commercial income? That is an important issue because we want the BBC to grow and increase its commercial activities. But the independent broadcasting industry--television, radio, publishing and others--must not find itself placed at a competitive disadvantage, particularly as sponsorship now plays such an important part in BBC programming.
I warmly welcome the planned sale of the transmission services and the fact that it will be an open bidding process to raise the most money possible. The funds arising from the sale will enable the BBC to invest in new digital production technology which will become so important in the future.
The BBC has an exciting future as a public service broadcaster. But I am sure that it will need continually to develop and be prepared to change where necessary. More competition out there will mean fewer viewers for each channel. More specialist services and programming will be needed. Does the BBC need to compete in every area? It is in effect using public money to compete with the commercial broadcasters who already make their service available free to the public. Let me give one small example. In London we have not only Radio 1, but also the local BBC radio pop station, GLR, as well as the commercial stations--all after the same audience.
I am not sure that the BBC needs to compete on every level. Of course it needs a mass audience to justify the licence fee; that is what the BBC is all about. But taken as a whole, looking at television and radio, the BBC needs to pick carefully where it should be in the market. The same must go for sports. Not every match or game needs to be on the box. It must be primarily for the sports bodies themselves to come to an arrangement with the broadcasters.
Sport in this country has benefited enormously from the huge rises in sponsorship and broadcasting income. It has made a big difference to sports clubs of all kinds--better stands and facilities which attract more spectators and more young people into playing and
We have the list that was established to protect major events. There is an argument that it should be extended. But we should take great care before rushing down that road. It would cut down moneys going to sport and be a restriction of trade. Satellite has meant that there is now more sport on the television which is of better quality and on for longer. I accept that for some it means buying a dish and the expense that that necessarily incurs. But one cannot have something for nothing. I watched the exciting Ryder Cup on BSkyB--the whole match. I should never have been able to do that if it had been on the BBC; it would have been taken off halfway through as "Neighbours" and the rest of the scheduled programmes took over.
Whether we like it or not, pay-to-view sport, whether on satellite or Cable, is here to stay, and it is the future. I believe that we have the situation about right with the list intended to protect some of the major sporting events. Though the 1990 Broadcasting Act prevents the listed events going to pay-per-view television, it does not stop them going on subscription television. It is important that there is free competition for all those who wish to bid and any uncompetitive practices should be immediately taken up by the competition authorities.
As I said earlier, I welcome the new Charter and Agreement. I welcome also the announcement of the appointment of Sir Christopher Bland as chairman. I am sure that he will make a worthy successor to Marmaduke Hussey, who has been such an admirable chairman of the BBC.
I end with a confession. I shall not be able to stay to hear my noble friend wind up. Today is my 20th wedding anniversary and, though I risk incurring the wrath of my noble friend the Chief Whip, that would be nothing compared to the wrath I face if I am late for her Ladyship's dinner. I hope therefore that your Lordships will forgive me on this occasion.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I do not want to spoil the wedding anniversary of the noble Viscount, but I disagree profoundly with many of the points he made in his speech and hope to deal with them in the course of my remarks.
A number of noble Lords mentioned their interests in and connections with the BBC. Perhaps I should state that I have a considerable number. First, I was a BBC radio and television producer for some 15 years; I was a member of its general advisory council for six years; one of my daughters works for the BBC and, periodically, I work as a reporter in its programme "See Hear". That is the sum of my interests, which are considerable.
I was fascinated to watch the clash of views and opinions on this important subject of the BBC Charter and Agreement. One of my great pleasures as a producer in BBC television was working with the noble Lord, Lord Annan. I believe the programme in those days was the "Brains Trust". He certainly justified his intellectual kudos in today's debate with his magnificent speech, though I shall be disagreeing with both him and my noble friend Lord Barnett when I come to discuss regulation.
I welcome both the Charter and the Agreement. The main thrust of those documents is a justified endorsement of the BBC. The detail of the Agreement reminds us of the qualities and strengths of the BBC; of its provision of a wide range of services, all for general reception; of the high quality of programme standards and of course of its vital independence.
Naturally, we all tend to watch our favourite programmes. But on occasions like this we are reminded of the wide range of the BBC; of its important other roles of encouraging people such as writers and musicians; of supporting charities; and of broadcasting beyond these shores. To many foreign people the BBC is Britain.
I welcome the careful and cautious way in which the BBC is moving into the commercial sphere. Avoiding cross-subsidy is a tedious and complicated process but is essential. It is equally important to ensure that all BBC domestic programmes are available free to licence holders. I have no doubt that the BBC will do that. The new media world will be exciting but many people will not be able to afford to participate. That is regrettable.
The extension of the Charter is eminently sensible because we cannot see to the end of the decade, let alone beyond it. Any shorter period would make long-term planning impossible. It is deplorable that the licence fee system is guaranteed only for five years of the new Charter. I see the licence fee as a concomitant of the BBC's public service broadcasting. If the Government are edging--I suspect they are--towards forcing the BBC to adopt another main source of funding in five years' time, they will be reversing the Government's own commitment to public service broadcasting. That will meet with very strong opposition in this House and in the House of Commons.
On the licence fee, I strongly support the recommendation of the Select Committee of another place that payment should be made much less of a burden on those on low incomes, including many pensioners. Even if the licence fee is guaranteed for the length of the Charter, the BBC will be facing unprecedented challenges and difficulties in the complex media world which is changing at a fantastic speed. The erosion of the BBC's coverage of major sporting events is disturbing and must be stopped. It is certainly not in the interests of the viewers; and, in the long-term, if they could only see it, it will not be in the interests of the players, either.
To watch any television programme the viewer has to pay the BBC television licence fee, so the BBC has a very heavy responsibility. Is its accountability, its regulation and its reaction to viewers and listeners
In an increasingly open society this closed and in some ways closeted group of distinguished people must withstand the closest scrutiny. How were they selected? On what criteria were they invited? What kind of issues do they discuss? According to the Charter they approve clear objectives and monitor how far the corporation meets them and its pledges to its audiences. But how effectively will they be able to do that in the future? Why cannot we have more transparency? Those questions go to the very heart of the governance of the BBC. Even with the obligations laid down in the Charter it is questionable whether the present structure will be sufficiently powerful and transparent to satisfy viewers and listeners on the issues of accountability and regulation.
The proposed merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission will be a step forward. I believe that we should go further. A broadcasting consumer council with power to investigate complaints, publish reports and carry out research would be a most effective advance on accountability. Such a body has long been advocated by the Consumers' Association but the Government have rejected the proposal on the ground that interposing such a body between the BBC and its audience, as the Government put it, would undermine the BBC's close direct links with its audience. That is a feeble excuse. The policy ought to be that a complaint is made first to the broadcasting authority, and if the complainant is still dissatisfied it should go to the council. It is as simple, as honest, as plain, as straightforward and as comprehensive as that.
Finally, on the issue of regulation, I want to make these points. I have heard a number of criticisms of producers today implying that those few instances are general. That is nonsensical because the high standards of BBC producers are the strength and the power of the BBC. The producers are the BBC. It is absurd to try to tar them all with this brush with regard to the few instances of which we have heard. I am all for encouraging the independence and creativity of producers. But that does not mean that the structure of the governors of the BBC should remain untouched. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, put forward the hackneyed idea that the present structure has worked for 70 years and asked, "Why tamper with it?" He should recognise that we are not now dealing with the past 70 years and that we are not now living in the past 70 years. We are living in the present and we are dealing with the future.
Are there good reasons for change? In the Broadcasting Bill which we shall debate next week it is made clear that the technological revolution has already started. We shall soon be immersed in controversies of cross-media ownership, multi-media services, digital terrestrial television, digital satellite broadcasting and the problems of multiplexes. In the debate on the White Paper my noble friend Lord Donoughue put forward a suggestion for a unitary authority. I believe that we now need a new unitary authority in addition to the Broadcasting Standards Commission which could integrate the ITC and regulate the BBC, ITV and satellite and cable television.
When my noble friend put forward that idea--he mentioned it again today--he was trying to cope with all the complex problems which are about to hit the BBC and the whole world of broadcasting. He was quite right. I hope that Members of this House will support the proposal for a new unitary structure for regulation. It is now the time to plan new structures which are flexible and strong and which are capable of coping with the new challenging problems of the future.
Baroness James of Holland Park: My Lords, we are today debating the future of the greatest and most respected broadcasting organisation in the world and I make no apology for that description. We are considering the way in which, through the new Charter and revised Agreement, the reputation of the BBC for integrity, independence and excellence can be safeguarded to serve this nation and the world to the millennium and beyond. It is an important debate and I have listened with pleasure and edification to some distinguished speakers.
I was aged three when the corporation came legally into being and for over 70 years, like many of your Lordships, I suspect, I have looked to the BBC for information, education, entertainment, excitement and, indeed, solace in times of peace and through the turbulent years of war. The arrival of television greatly enriched my life, particularly my knowledge and appreciation of the natural world, and although much that it broadcast was trivial and ephemeral, I can recall with gratitude programmes of outstanding quality, particularly in current affairs, drama and the arts, which have left a lasting impression.
Television at its best enables us to know and better understand our world; to know and better understand each other; and to know and better understand ourselves. I have been privileged to serve the BBC, first, as a member of the General Advisory Council and then, from 1988 to 1993 as a governor under the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, and the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, as his deputy. It was a formidable combination. It is largely due to their wisdom, their vision of what the BBC had to do to ensure its future, and their resolution
It is easy for some of us, particularly the old, to enjoy a nostalgic regret for the past and make frequent references to so-called Reithian values while overlooking the vast social and political changes which have occurred since the last war. We owe much to our founding father, but I very much doubt whether he would have made a successful director-general today. His job, in size, was roughly equivalent to that of the controller of Radio 4. He operated a monopoly without fear of competition and with an assured income. The BBC served a largely cohesive United Kingdom, which, although there were grave inequalities of wealth and opportunity, had a common heritage derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition of Western Europe, and common allegiances; a nation more accepting than today of authority, both spiritual and temporal, and affirming moral principles which, although they might not always be followed, were seldom publicly questioned.
The BBC today serves a society which is pluralist; ethnically, culturally, religiously and indeed morally. It is a society in which an ever-increasing choice is available in entertainment as in other personal satisfactions, and people expect to exercise that choice. Lord Reith's paternalistic philosophy of giving his audience not what they wanted but what, under his benign education, they might come to want, would not be acceptable today. The statement in the BBC handbook of 1928 that the BBC is doing its best to prevent any decay of Christianity in a nominally Christian country would find no place in a 1996 mission statement.
But we have abundant evidence, most recently in the public response to the Government's consultation document, that the British public still value the moral and ethical principles on which public service broadcasting was established and expect the BBC to demonstrate these values in its programming and its conduct.
It is on this foundation of trust and integrity that we look to the new Charter and Agreement to provide a firm framework within which the BBC can with confidence meet the challenges and opportunities of the next decade. I believe that, with some small reservations, it does provide that framework.
The system of placing responsibility for the BBC in the hands of 12 governors has served the corporation well and it is right that it should be continued; but it has always had its ambiguities and tensions. The governors, as noble Lords have pointed out, are responsible for the good management of the corporation--indeed, legally they are the BBC--but are required at the same time to safeguard the interests of licence payers by monitoring, assessing and occasionally criticising the product for which they themselves are ultimately responsible.
There has, too, been much discussion over the decades about the different responsibilities of the board of governors and the board of management and where the dividing line between these responsibilities should properly be set. Article 7(1) of the Charter addresses
A number of noble Lords have expressed concern that this last obligation is not underpinned by a requirement that the BBC should report what action has been taken when there has been an infringement of the code. I have some sympathy with their misgivings. It has, from time to time, been a matter of concern that only too often offenders seem able to escape with their reputations and careers intact. But if the BBC is to be encouraged, even indirectly, to establish formal disciplinary procedures and to punish alleged infringement of the code with appropriate sanctions, then it must presumably include a provision for a formal appeal against the disciplinary findings. This might be effective in a few clear cases, but many complaints are in that difficult area of taste and decency, which is the hardest to define and which is often a matter of individual perception and judgment. The Charter and the Agreement set out unambiguously the responsibilities of the governors. Let us trust them to fulfil what is so clearly committed to their charge. We have, of course, a right to expect that appropriate action will be taken, will be seen to be taken, and will be made public.
The BBC exists for one purpose only: to broadcast programmes by sound and vision of the highest excellence to the largest number of people. Yet paradoxically it is in this area of programme-making that the governors have least power. By tradition they do not preview programmes and I think that that is sensible and proper, although they should retain the right to do so in exceptional circumstances. But they have a responsibility to ensure that the provisions in the Charter and Agreement relating to programme content and standards are met, and this involves full co-operation and trust between the governors and the board of management in the common pursuit of excellence, distinctiveness and impartiality. At the very least, where programmes of national importance or of possible controversy are concerned, the governors have the right to be consulted, to advise and to warn. I share the concern expressed by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, and the noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Barnett, that the recent "Panorama" by the Princess of Wales was arranged, as it were, behind the governors' backs and behind also the backs of the Palace. It was a programme of huge national and international interest and of constitutional importance. So far from the governors being informed, considerable care was taken to keep them in ignorance. Surely here there was a failure both of responsibility and of trust.
The new Paragraph 3 of the Agreement incorporates the BBC's undertakings on programme content and here I would like to make two comments: one in support of the views expressed by the right reverend Prelate the
I should also like to see a reference in the paragraph to the BBC's responsibilities as a patron of the arts. The noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Donoughue, referred to that. By commissioning new works of music, the visual arts or the spoken word, the BBC provides a vital stimulus to the artistic, cultural and creative life of this country. We are in no danger of neglecting the classics. The recent highly acclaimed adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" gave immense pleasure, but we need to encourage the new as well as celebrating and reinterpreting the old. I should have liked to have seen included in Paragraph 3 a duty on the BBC to continue its admirable policy of commissioning a proportion of original work in its artistic output.
The new Paragraph 5 of the Agreement formalises the BBC's undertakings on programme standards and places the corporation's duty on a par with that placed on the independent sector by Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act of 1990. This, although not welcomed by the BBC, is surely right. However, I share the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, about the wording of Paragraph 5.3(a). The use of the three words "code", "guidance" and "rules" could smudge the clear responsibility set out in that paragraph. I agree that it is preferable simply to say, "a code to be observed".
The BBC is always in some difficulty in regard to ratings. The received wisdom is that if they fall below a certain percentage of the audience--and a figure is quoted from time to time--the public will question the justification for a compulsory levy in the form of a licence fee for services which so few listen to or watch. Nothing would be more fatal to the continuance of the BBC than a Gadarene swine plunging after high ratings. That would indeed be a slippery slope to disaster. Although BBC radio services are in general distinctive, I am afraid that there is a tendency for television to place mass-market appeal above those qualities of distinctiveness and excellence so clearly set out in the BBC's response to the White Paper. I have occasionally felt that if I covered up the channel headings in the day's schedule of programmes in the Radio Times, it would be difficult to know with certainty which programmes were from the BBC.
The issue of taste and decency has already been covered and I make only one point in regard to sexual explicitness. Television should come into our homes as a welcome guest, not a salacious intruder. Sexual indecency, as well as being publicly unacceptable, is artistically bad. "Pride and Prejudice" has shown that
I must just mention money. If we want the BBC, we must be prepared to pay for it. The biggest problem facing the corporation is, and will continue to be, finance. We have already seen how Sky television is acquiring rights to major sporting events which many licence payers feel they have the right to expect on terrestrial television. Could there not be a graded licence fee with four banks of income, with the richest people paying perhaps £250 for their licence fee? Many thousands could afford it and it would still be cheap at the price. I am sometimes a little distressed when I go into a post office and see with what care the poorer members of society are affixing their television licence stamps. For them, the licence--good value as it is--is indeed onerous. If we are to be trusted to complete our income tax returns, surely we can be trusted to pay a licence fee in accordance with our bank of income? The BBC would gain; it could not possibly lose.
I have one final point to make--indeed, it is an appeal. It echoes the concern expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Annan. I agree with every word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, in his distinguished speech, particularly his words on the dangers of a regulatory authority. Much of the best of the BBC's output in sound and vision is creative, particularly modern drama--and creativity can flourish only in an atmosphere of freedom. To attempt to circumscribe it by tightly drawn regulations or to monitor every step of the creative process and submit it to over-timid scrutiny will stifle the originality and creative vitality on which the BBC must depend if its programmes are to be distinctive. Of course, creativity cannot be exercised in a moral vacuum and artistic freedom does not imply artistic licence, but I would rather risk occasional offence if the writer's intention is honest than be subjected to a bland and unchallenging diet of conformity.
We are entering a decade in which communication technology will revolutionise broadcasting and open up almost limitless possibilities of additional services. The new Charter and Agreement will enable the BBC to exploit those opportunities and will ensure that the corporation remains in the forefront of exciting technical advances, including digital terrestrial television. But while we welcome this brave new world--and some of us wish that we could understand it--I should like to end by recalling the words of Lord Hill in a lecture given in March 1969:
Lord Quinton: My Lords, I am feeling a little peculiar. I have studied the Charter and Agreement and responded to them and, of course, I share many of the anxieties that have been expressed about departures from impartiality and accuracy and about offensive material relating to sex and violence. However, there is a third aspect which needs to be considered in relation to the quality of programmes which seems to have received hardly any attention this evening. I refer to the cultural or aesthetic excellence of the product. The noble Baroness, Lady James, adverted to it and other noble Lords have spoken absolutely correctly about the wonderful work that the BBC has done over the years in sustaining orchestras and in bringing work that would otherwise have been confined to a relatively small circle of admirers to the notice of large numbers of people. However, as I have said, nobody has been much concerned about this other aspect of the BBC's work: its duty, as I see it, to purvey culturally excellent material.
The BBC has become a somewhat paradoxical institution. As we know, in order for it to discharge its role as a public service broadcasting institution it has to charge a licence fee; and in order to cover the extraction of the licence fee with some analgesic cream it has to put on "EastEnders" or material of mass entertainment of an undemanding and, I am inclined to suspect, coarsening variety. That tends to undermine the original purpose. And that is a paradox. The question is, in terms of the American formula for practical wisdom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", is the thing broken enough to fix?
I was most touched by the testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady James, as to how much the BBC meant to her. Like the noble Baroness and others, I have a mass of recollections of all that the BBC brought to me and acquainted me with over the considerable span of my existence. However, I have assessed that it has somewhat deteriorated. Is that a normal feeling, a by-product of age? I will return to that point in a moment.
The affection that we feel towards the BBC--that is, those of us who have lived a long time and remember all that it has done--is somehow incarnated in the well known description used of the BBC, "Auntie". You do not start to recompose your aunt. Your aunt is a natural object who has come before you as a result of natural processes and is not a probable, possible or tolerable object for tinkering. But the BBC, despite the emotional warmth that it evokes, is nevertheless a human contrivance and is therefore open to tinkering. I shall for a moment suggest a large piece of tinkering and then cover it with a cloth and move on to a matter which may be regarded as more practicable. After all, there is a future and what I am about to say may come into existence eventually.
How is the phrase "public service broadcasting" to be defined? There is a minimal definition of public service broadcasting: it is broadcasting from which any person gets any kind of pleasure. After all, the person in question is a small portion of the general public and one cannot please all of the people all of the time. Indeed, it
I hope that I shall not be thought to be stuck in some ghastly Reithian block of ice, or even a Matthew Arnoldian block of ice, in saying that I do not think much of that definition of public service broadcasting. The instrument is too powerful and too influential as regards the cultural life of the community to be just a kind of automatic penny-in-the-slot ice-cream machine. The material in which it deals constitutes the spiritual fabric of the community. I am sorry to be rather pious about the matter.
An important aspect of that--to me it is as important as impartiality and decency--is excellence. I say that because I believe that there are all kinds of built-in feedback mechanisms in relation to impartiality and decency. If one finds something indecent, if one is disgusted or if one is hideously fascinated, the person to blame is oneself for being too weak or corrupt to turn it off. If it errs from impartiality--if it is grossly partial--it is highly likely, in the way that school masters usually are, to excite exactly the opposite attitude to the British Empire, or whatever it is, that someone is trying to inculcate into one. On the other hand, the second rate does not evoke feedback, a mechanism that corrects it.
One way of defining public service broadcasting is as providing information and education in a broad sense but not as a handy, ingenious, pleasing substitute for school teaching. It is actual enlargement of the mind; it is enlightenment. Of course, broadcasting has always done that. It should also be entertainment, but not mere entertainment. There is such a thing as serious, mentally enlarging entertainment. That is the Reithian formula and it is what I regard as public service broadcasting.
A particular reason for confidence in that rather exclusive, snobbish, elitist definition of public service broadcasting is the existence in the United States of the Public Broadcasting Service, which is a small and not significant manoeuvre with the words. The Public Broadcasting Service--it is Channel 13 in New York and there are other channels in other cities all over the United States, so it is a great network of organisations--restricts itself to an elevated Matthew Arnold-type diet. That does not mean that there is nothing funny on it, but the programmes that are funny have to be like "Dad's Army". They are not of some whingeing, thin-nosed youth in a bedsitting room wondering whether he is HIV positive and making his friends laugh. It is a defined and institutionalised form of public service broadcasting which seems to me to incorporate in itself a tradition of interpreting the phrase "public service broadcasting" to which I would wish to attach myself. That could be done by the BBC on its own and gradually the other mass entertainment aspects could be gently floated away.
People object to that suggestion and say that the result will be a cultural ghetto to which, with the full strength of the race relations authority behind me, I answer, "What is wrong with a ghetto as long as you are let out of it and other people are let into it?". If it is a cluster where mutually stimulated people work together, well and good. Of course, as anyone who has looked at the
Do we believe that the great research universities of the country ought to offer classes in knitting oven cloths and items of that kind in order to provide total educational coverage? That is nonsense. One specialises and gives various forms of broadcasting coverage. They are needed and perfectly decent in their own way. There is no absolute final reason for having a single system. Still, it is not at all in ruins, although there are things wrong of which noble Lords have spoken.
I wish to put a little flesh on the bones of a belief that I am not alone in holding. It is that the effect on the BBC of the concentration on ratings, in order to gain them, and on mass entertainment is not good. I took the little schedule supplied freely in my Sunday paper giving television and radio programmes for the week 30th December to 6th January. Broadly, I found out the following. Applying my Arnoldian-Reithian criterion, I found that on BBC1 there was no public service broadcasting, apart from news programmes, at prime time on Saturday and Sunday. On Monday I thought that Rumer Godden was perhaps just in over the boundary and the programme about her was repeated on Tuesday. There was a programme about which I did not find out much but which looked to me to be a bit of a weepy. It may have had a serious documentary aspect and it was about Great Ormond Street Hospital. On Wednesday there was a story about some identical twins who ended up in Broadmoor, which might have had some educational quality. On Thursday and Friday there was nothing.
The picture was utterly different on BBC2, which is now a cultural ghetto, in effect, and a very good one too. Thank God we have got it! On Saturday, for example, there was an hour-long programme on Robert Graves. There was an excellent programme on film history, and so it went on through the week. On Sunday there was a film about Louis Malle's journey in India. Not wholly successful, but a good try which showed fine aspirations, was a version of Hardy's The Return of the Native.
Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that the record of the commercial channels is worse. At least there were one or two fragments of public service broadcasting on BBC1 but ITV was absolutely free of it. There was not a touch, not a trace, not a tincture of public service broadcasting on ITV, but there was quite a bit on Channel 4. It was quite distinguished. Every night apart from Sunday and Friday Channel 4 had something serious to offer.
How does one relate what your Lordships may consider to be an absurd emotional prejudice to the reality of the documents which we are supposed to be considering? In the pledges that the BBC offers it states that it will have a large proportion of factual programmes in prime time on BBC1. I define "prime time" as from the evening news until midnight. That
Paragraph 3.2 of the Agreement contains a number of lists of types of programme. There is absolutely nothing about our general cultural heritage being displayed, preserved or made familiar to people through the medium of broadcasting. There is a rather sinister reference to the diversity of cultural activity which, if it does not mean morris dancing in Bodmin, probably means sheep in formaldehyde; all sorts of worthy or unworthy experimental activities. But it does not mean, as it should, a diversity of our inheritance. We are more than we are because of what we inherit. I should like to see that worked into the list of responsibilities of broadcasting institutions.
There is also a matter which has been mentioned so I shall not labour the point. It is vitally important that the BBC should report on the extent to which and manner in which it meets its standards and objectives. That should be done not just for its own self-regarding purposes or to be looked at by a small group of distinguished people but so that it is publicly visible. For example, it should be possible to see what proportion of programmes of this, that or the other kind has been produced in the year, and the categories should not be too broad. Associated with that would be publication of proved offences by broadcasters and publication of what reaction those offences produced. That is coming down to rather small beer from Matthew Arnold. But in thinking about all this I keep asking myself: what would Lord Reith have made of "EastEnders"?
Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, I shall not attempt to follow the noble Lord, Lord Quinton, into Matthew Arnold because obviously I am a disciple of Raymond Williams. Therefore, my understanding of the word "culture" would be rather different from his.
However, I think we agree that public service broadcasting as a cultural organisation must reflect the diversity of cultures. It is increasingly difficult to do that within a context in which a major public service broadcaster is a major programme producer operating both within public funding but also operating within a market which is increasingly world-wide and dominated by all kinds of technological changes as we rapidly drift into a multi-media century.
In a sense, that is what the dilemma facing the BBC is about. I speak as someone who took part in most of the debates on broadcasting in another place. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, that our form of debating the future of the BBC by Royal Charter is certainly out-dated and ineffective in terms of parliamentary scrutiny.
This evening which should look for some assurances from the Minister that he is treating the debate, as I think he indicated at the beginning, as though it were a debate on an amendable text; that he is not just listening to
I must declare my own financial interest as part-time paid chair of Screen Wales, a media development agency and film commission in which the BBC is a partner, and also as a director of Marches Sound independent local radio, and an occasional professional contractor for the BBC. I was also a member of a now disappeared body--the General Advisory Council.
Before I move on to specific national and regional issues, I wish to make one international point. In the programme contents section of the draft Agreement, there is reference to the importance of the home services containing:
I wish to emphasise that international aspect of the BBC's role. I am not just talking about the World Service which we all value and in particular because we can listen to it all night domestically if we are that way inclined. But having that World Service is of crucial importance both domestically and internationally.
But it is equally important that there should be documentary output on international topics on all our channels. It is a matter of concern that a recent study indicated that there has been a 40 per cent. decline across the terrestrial channels in the UK in the category which I have described under documentary output on international topics. That includes a decline on the BBC in its peak-time viewing category, and similarly on ITV and on Channel 4. That is a matter which broadcasters and the Government should address and strengthen in the draft Agreement.
The same paragraph goes on to emphasise the importance of containing programmes which reflect the lives and concerns of both local and national audiences. There is also a new commitment clearly stated in the Agreement to contain:
It is the extent to which both the Charter and the Agreement can fulfil those objectives of cultural diversity which concern me. I am sure that that concerns other Members of this House. It is important to stress that the BBC is not merely a British institution or a national institution in the English sense. It is also an extremely important cultural institution in its own right in the national regions. BBC Wales has a long history of development in dialogue and debate and occasional regular conflict with the centralising tendencies of the BBC. It was thus at the beginning of the organisation. There is a famous reference in the papers of the BBC to Lord Reith receiving a request to receive a deputation
The issue of the BBC as a valued cultural player in both the nations and regions of the Kingdom is one which I wish to address. It occurs to me that the present structure of national councils and their appointments does not allow the BBC to be sufficiently accountable to the cultural diversity of its nations and regions. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I do not think that the present way of appointing members of the National Broadcasting Council is at all democratic or accountable.
I did that as a member of the selection panel of the General Advisory Council. I was partly responsible for selecting members of the Broadcasting Council. We attempted to recruit from a wide base and we even advertised. That is preferable to what is set out in the present Charter where it is not clear how the nomination process as regards the proposals of possible candidates is to be put in place. I am not saying that the old system of the GAC panel was the only way to do it but it at least provided a mechanism for nominations which had some objective base to it. It should be possible to look for an independent element in the appointment procedures. Such an independent process should be written into the Charter.
As we have heard before, that does not just apply to the NBCs in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is still a strong argument, which we have heard this evening, for a national broadcasting council for England to strengthen the present English regional forum and the roles of the regional advisory councils in England. It is important to recognise the autonomy of England as a cultural nation. I believe that that has been long neglected by the structures of the United Kingdom. The sooner that we get away from conflating England with London or with the United Kingdom, the easier it will be for all forms of diversity in this kingdom to be recognised. As always, I like to speak up for England.
The functions of the broadcasting councils are the next matters with which I wish to deal. I have looked briefly at the way in which they are nominated. Here again, I have some severe problems with the present draft Charter as compared with the previous structure. I understand that the Government have made an effort to look for ways of setting out more clearly the role of the NBCs; but my view is that that role falls far short of what was set out in the original White Paper. I say that because, at paragraphs 6.16 to 6.22 of that document (which all deal with the roles of national governors and national councils), it seemed to me that the Government were moving towards a structure of accountability for BBC policy and strategy--especially strategy--within the national regions which is no longer set out in the present structure.
Perhaps the Minister could explain--either in writing if he has time to do so after tonight's debate or, if not, in his concluding speech--what process has occurred to lead to the Government watering down the powers of the NBCs which appear to be set out in those paragraphs of the White Paper. I do not believe that "making arrangements", "advising", "assisting" and "ensuring" represent real powers. Indeed, those are the definitions in Article 12 of the draft Charter of the powers of the national broadcasting councils.
Although that was perhaps a more vague bottom line, it was a stronger bottom line than what is now set out. It is important for us to hear the Government's thinking on the issue of the powers of the broadcasting councils.
I am also concerned about the way in which the description of the television services which are to be provided is set out in the draft Charter. To specify two television services for the BBC and refer to one service as a service which, "may include regional variations", hardly does justice to the quality of the English language national service provided by BBC Wales, and by the BBC in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I believe that the regional variations of the channels of the BBC should be written into both the Charter and the Agreement.
It seems to me that we are in danger of moving back to a period of further centralisation within the BBC which may be imposed upon it by greater financial stringency. We have already had reference to the importance of maintaining a balance between the BBC management structure and the accountability of the governors. The same balance has also to be delivered at the national regional level. It is no good having a balance set up at the UK-BBC level and not having that balance maintained also at the national regional level. I know that we have this rather cumbersome mechanism in Article 7(d) of the Charter whereby the corporation has to take note of advice proffered by national broadcasting councils. However, that does not seem to me to amount to genuine, decentralised accountability and certainly not to genuinely decentralised management.
The Minister will recollect that in the White Paper the Government noted that the Broadcasting Council for Wales considered that the BBC's management in Wales should be accountable to the national council rather than to the BBC's senior management. I shall not go so far as that in the proposals that I put forward this evening, but I do say that the whole issue needs to be reviewed and that the Government should take the matter away between our debate here and that in another place on the Charter and consider whether or not there are mechanisms to strengthen the national regional management and accountability both within the Charter and the Agreement. It is only thus that we can ensure that public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom genuinely represents the cultural diversity of this kingdom.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page