Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

8.2 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, Reith was my friend. We were members of the same club. On occasion we could be seen enjoying post-prandial cups of coffee. My noble friend Lady James suggested that Reith would not have been the man for today. But if he had been born 70 years later, and if he could be rejuvenated now as the BBC is being rejuvenated with this Charter, the conclusion might be rather different. His integrity and determination would have shone through, as would the other qualities that helped him make the BBC what it was.

9 Jan 1996 : Column 85

I do not skip 70 years; but to skip 33 years, I was a governor of the BBC. Ten years earlier I had been a participant in various popular programmes on the BBC: the post-war "Brains Trust", for example. In the ambience in which I moved, I became aware of what might be called the sub-gubernatorial sub-culture in the BBC of people who deluded themselves into thinking that, because they belonged to a chartered body, they were absolutely independent of everything and could do as they pleased. How wrong they were! I consider it a good thing to point this out to them by inviting the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, to incorporate in the Agreement a clause to the following effect, headed "Interpretation": "Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed as prejudicial to the sovereignty of Parliament". That would add absolutely nothing to the terms of the Agreement, since Parliament is already sovereign; its powers are unlimited. But it would rather spike the guns of that particular sub-culture, which does the BBC no good.

We have heard many speeches, some short and some long. I have managed to put my point over in a couple of minutes. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will take it to heart.

8.4 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Earl. We have been friends in this House for many years. I have no idea today where the noble Earl stands politically; and he may not know where I stand. However, on matters deeper than politics we have much in common.

I shall raise one question, of which I gave notice to the Minister. As the number of speakers seems infinite, he may not have time to reply to my particular point. I would refer to the Minister as "my noble kinsman", except that it might do him infinite damage. It might destroy a very promising political career. I was once invited by a very promising young Conservative to address a gathering of young Conservatives. After I did so, that gentleman was sacked! He was no longer allowed to belong to the party. Therefore I hesitate to mention a family connection.

I am sure that the question I want to put to the Minister will appeal to the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, as a strong Christian. Will the Minister agree that Christianity should be specifically included in the BBC Charter? I gave him some short notice, and he had time to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister. I read in the newspaper recently that the Prime Minister was in close consultation with evangelical leaders, including, I am glad to think, the PPS in this Chamber, the noble Lord, Lord McColl. Perhaps the Prime Minister will take an interest in this question.

Some noble Lords will remember the strong initiative some years ago taken up by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and supported by members of all parties, and notably by the then Bishop of London, for the inclusion of Christianity in the most important education Bill of recent times. If it was included in the Education Bill, why should it not be included in the Charter? Perhaps

9 Jan 1996 : Column 86

the noble Lord will have time to reply. Even if he has to write to me, I hope he will give me an answer of some kind.

Let us ask what are the disadvantages of the present situation. Here I must be very careful since I was warned that my brief experience of BBC religious programmes is not representative. I am told that 90 per cent. of programmes have a strong Christian flavour. Certainly I listen on Sundays with great enjoyment and profit to "Songs of Praise", so I am ready to believe it.

I speak from personal experience. Although I cannot remember any other occasion on which I was asked to take part in a religious programme, I was invited to take part in "The Moral Maze". The title is bad in itself, with its idea that morals are in a state of confusion. It is supposed to be a religious programme; it is not some ethical nonsense. Who were the panel? They were a couple of humanists, an eminent rabbi and a lady who was said to be progressing from Judaism to Christianity--which I suppose is considered a movement forward. Is that what we want to see in a religious programme sponsored by this country, where, as we well know, the vast majority of people are Christians? The number who belong to some other religion is negligible.

What went on in this programme? I do not want to be discouraging to the members, but I happened to sit outside and I listened to the other guests being interrogated. We formed the idea that they were a ghastly crew. Perhaps we were a little biased. So when we went in we were prepared. Frankly, to say that the atmosphere was non-Christian would be rather to understate the position. I quoted Jesus Christ--and I felt like a member of the Oxford and Cambridge Club who said he once mentioned politics in the presence of Clem Attlee, who then curtly revoked him with the words, "Don't talk shop in mess." That was the way Christianity was treated on that programme. And it comes under the auspices of the Religious Affairs Authority. To the best of my belief the Religious Affairs Authority would welcome my suggestion. To say the suggestion is put forward in humility is to be slightly bogus. It is not put forward with humility at all; it is put forward in a rather dogmatic spirit, as I do not believe there is any answer to the question. In an overwhelmingly Christian country, if Christianity is included in the main education Bill, why should it not be included in the BBC Charter?

8.10 p.m.

Lord Gibson: My Lords, with the wording of the amendment moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, I find it impossible to quarrel. I cannot see how anyone could quarrel with it. If clarity be a good, then greater clarity must be an even greater good. Nevertheless, I have listened to the speeches this afternoon, and I shall find it impossible to vote for the amendment. I believe in the crucial distinction, which I was so pleased to hear the Minister enunciate at the outset of the debate, between telling the governors the objectives that we want them to attain--I do not mind

9 Jan 1996 : Column 87

into how much detail these documents go in telling them that--and telling them how to do it. I was very pleased to hear the Minister setting out his stall, as it were, on that basis.

I should not be opposed to any further refinement in describing the governors' responsibilities. I suspect that that could be done and I should probably want to support it, if I saw the wording. I feel that it is crucial to the success of the BBC in future that we maintain that approach. We have to trust the governors to decide how to enforce the code on the rules that they establish and that we tell them to establish.

When I heard the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, ask what kind of a management we would get if we hemmed the governors around with rules and penalties, my mind went back to the many years I served on the board of the Financial Times, for a time as chairman. I asked myself what kind of an editor we should have secured if we had hemmed him about in that way and what kind of paper we would have produced. I remember very well the late Lord Drogheda, who told the editor almost daily what to do. But the editor, Sir Gordon Newton, was himself a strong character and there was a creative tension between them which produced a very fine newspaper. I do not for a moment want to suggest that a newspaper like the Financial Times, or indeed any other newspaper, is remotely comparable with the BBC. The complexity and size of the BBC make it an entirely different matter in many ways. But in my judgment the operating principle is the same. I feel that very strongly.

I have much sympathy with these problems and the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, and the noble Lords, Lord Orr-Ewing and Lord Chalfont, and appreciate the stories that they told. My reaction to what they told us is almost exactly the same as theirs. However, I do not believe that by hemming the governors around and telling them how to run the operation we shall achieve the objective. I believe that we have to trust them. That is the only point that I want to make.

I do not believe that legislation is the answer to this difficulty. The only way we can achieve our aim is by choosing the right governors and the governors choosing the right director-general; and, particularly, by the chairman building up a working relationship of trust and comprehension with the director-general. I hope and believe that the new chairman will set out with that intention. It was certainly the intention of Mr. Hussey, who has been a very good chairman. It sometimes breaks down, of course, as it did the other day over the broadcast of the Princess of Wales, which, in my judgment, was a disgraceful act on the part of the director-general. These things will sometimes happen and misjudgments of that kind will occur, but certainly the trust is greater than it used to be, and I hope that it will get even greater in future and that the results will be much better.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, this is a very important debate. As so many noble Lords have said,

9 Jan 1996 : Column 88

the British Broadcasting Corporation is highly respected in many ways and by many countries worldwide for the quality of both its radio and television programmes. There are many programmes on both radio and television that are outstanding in their coverage of national events, such as the recent VE and VJ days, which contribute positively to the morale and unity of our nation. On many occasions we admire the courage and persistence of outside broadcasting radio and television teams in transmitting direct to our homes the drama of international, dangerous events, such as those of the Gulf War. The World Service radio is a tremendously important link with home for British residents abroad and very much appreciated by citizens of other countries for the quality of its news reports. I hope that it will continue to retain that quality.

I personally very much enjoy the classical music broadcast on Radio 3 and feel that it is a great privilege to hear concerts given by internationally renowned orchestras and soloists without having to leave my fireside. I could do with less talk and more music and less "concrete" music, but I accept that a national service has difficulty catering for all tastes and that I must give and take.

I pay great tribute in particular to two television programmes over Christmas. "The Voyage of Charles Darwin" and the Royal Institution lectures illuminated fields of development of our Earth, its geology and its human, animal and plant inhabitants in a most clear and exciting way. The photography and visual aids enabled us to visit the volcanic rock of the Galapagos and see the tortoises and lizards, as if we could stretch out our arms and touch them, although they are half a world away. The rapt attention of the school children to the complex facts presented with such clarity in the Royal Institution lectures was a clear expression of their admiration of the lectures.

Those are the good things. In seeing them, one has often to see excerpts from other television programmes which are to be presented later that day. I can only feel thankful that I do not have to watch. There seems to be too much violence and much of the material appears to be of very low quality. I cannot claim to be an expert, as I watch so seldom, but I believe that too much violence on television desensitises the viewers to pain and suffering and its depiction should be strongly regulated. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood stated, this Charter gives the BBC's governors a somewhat stronger role in regulating broadcasting and television services. I believe that programmes play an important role in influencing our national life and have become too lax in their standards.

I like the idea put forward by my noble friend Lord Caldecote of senior staff having to sign a code of practice on appointment, indicating that they have read and understood the rules and will abide by them; and that they should be subject to sanctions if rules are transgressed. I support the wish of my noble friend Lord Caldecote for stronger authority for the governors in ensuring that those rules are obeyed throughout the corporation.

9 Jan 1996 : Column 89

I want to speak about a particular but vital part of the BBC's radio transmission which nevertheless occupies a very small period of the broadcasting day. I must declare an interest as chairman of the Meteorological Office advisory committee, but I do not speak on its behalf today. My husband and I are members of the House of Lords' yacht club. I would not describe myself as a yachtswoman but I am aware of such needs due to longstanding family involvement in sailing small boats. Suddenly, last summer, without previous consultation with shipping authorities, the late night shipping forecast was changed from 12.30 a.m. to 12.45 in the morning to allow for a novel to be read at bedtime. Noble Lords may feel that a quarter of an hour difference is not long. But, if a fisherman has tuned in to listen for a possible gale warning, it is most disconcerting not to find the forecast at its long accustomed time and it could endanger life at sea.

The man responsible for that change stated that the BBC, under the terms of its present Charter, had no duty to consult individual organisations on changes to the time of programmes. That clearly should be put right in the new Charter and Agreement. In October, suddenly, with less than a week's notice and again without consultation, the inshore waters forecast on Radio 3 at 0655 hours was stopped. The Royal Yachting Association, in its letter of horrified protest, pointed out that some 5 million people regularly take their recreation afloat, that stress of weather remains the second most frequent cause of distress at sea; and that the inshore waters up to 12 miles offshore account for approximately 90 per cent. of the search and rescue tasking.

As a result of influential protests by yachting associations, the BBC restored the broadcast, but at 05.55 on Radio 3 which, incredibly, clashed at exactly the same time with the shipping forecast on Radio 4. So no yachtsman or fisherman could either listen to or record both forecasts.

As the Royal Yachting Association said, again in its letter to the BBC, those forecasts, which are of high quality, can be a matter of life and death. I know from long experience that the prudent yachtsman listens to both forecasts early in the morning so as to assess the developing weather situation and decide whether to go to sea, and in what circumstances. As a result of further protests, from 1st January this year, the BBC is now broadcasting the inshore forecast at 05.50 on Radio 3 and the shipping forecast, as before, at 05.55 on Radio 4. It recognises that it is not ideal as it cannot be recorded because it is on two different programmes. But, with a quick flick of the wrist, if one is up early in the morning and by the radio set, one can listen to both programmes.

As a result of all that ham-fisted change, the BBC is now to review all weather services on Radios 3 and 4. All I hope is that in doing so it consults the sailors, yachtsmen, fishermen and lifeboatmen who really know what is necessary, and takes careful note of their views. It is their lives which will be at risk if they are not able to receive that vital weather information; and to a maritime nation like our own, safety of life at sea is vital.

9 Jan 1996 : Column 90

In the Charter and Agreement the BBC is to have a duty to provide information, education and entertainment. Comedy and music are mentioned. We have just been through a period of severe weather on land and know how important severe weather warnings or flood warnings are to local authorities and others to mitigate the worst effects. I submit that the BBC Charter and Agreement should also stipulate a duty to provide daily and regular weather forecasts for the safety of those both on land and at sea. I hope that when my noble friend replies he will be able to assure me that that will be the case.

The hopes of my noble friend Lord Cranborne presented earlier this afternoon have been dashed, and so have mine. I had every intention of staying until the end of the debate, but I am afraid that I shall now have to leave before the end in order to catch my train. I apologise to your Lordships and will read Hansard with great care.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page