Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Donoughue: Hear, hear!

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I understand the point of view of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue.

9 Jan 1996 : Column 114

Reference has been made to the public service broadcasting characteristics of the BBC. I should like to emphasise at the outset that it is no part of this Government's agenda that the public service broadcasting character of the BBC should be transmuted into something else. This character will remain at the core of the BBC's activities. Concern has been expressed about the period of the licence fee and about the possibility that commercial services may in some way mean a change in the BBC's core nature. That concern is misplaced. As has already been mentioned, the new digital world, about which we shall hear a good deal more in the foreseeable future, will provide opportunities for BBC commercial services. The fact that they are referred to in the objects of the corporation--in Article 3 of the Charter--no more means that the BBC will become a purely commercial broadcaster than that Article 3(t) means that it will become a property developer.

Against the kind of challenge that the future holds it is clear that the tasks facing the BBC governors and their leader, the chairman of the BBC, will be very great. We believe that the qualities required of a chairman are manifold and that the experience and qualifications which Sir Christopher Bland brings make him an excellently qualified successor to Marmaduke Hussey, to whom quite rightly such generous tributes have been paid today.

I should like to emphasise that Sir Christopher's appointment has been conducted precisely according to all the previous precedents in this regard. The kind of qualities that Sir Christopher brings, which are ideally suited to the BBC chairmanship, indicate the nature of the challenges. He has an understanding of the broadcasting industry and major business, financial and technological subjects. He was the deputy chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority between 1972 and 1979 and has experience of carrying out the role of safeguarding the public interest. He has already guided public sector organisations--health authorities--through periods of change. Indeed, I understand that he has known some Members of your Lordships' House. His independence in this regard is well recognised. He has been involved in the management of large international and commercial organisations. He is in a good position to advise on the generation of new sources of funding and he has experience of working with Westminster and Whitehall, the media and public interest groups. I very much welcome the respect that was displayed for Sir Christopher by both the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. Reference was also made to the independence of the chairman of the governors. It seems to me that he must, as chairman--and indeed I am sure he will be--the very epitome of the impartiality that the BBC itself must display.

In my opening remarks I mentioned the question of the clarification of the governors' role within the BBC, which has been one of the themes that has been woven throughout the debate this afternoon and this evening. We must be clear: it is certainly the case that the BBC itself has been at the forefront in wishing to clarify the

9 Jan 1996 : Column 115

governors' position, because this process of clarification, which has led to the new arrangements that we are discussing this evening, probably goes back to the BBC's document An Accountable BBC of 1993.

It may be helpful if I briefly spell out the express responsibilities which are placed on the governors' shoulders in Article 7 of the Charter, excluding the fact that they are the persona of the BBC itself. They are to approve the objectives for the BBC services; to monitor the performance of those services; to ensure compliance with statutory and other obligations; to ensure probity, propriety and value for money; to ensure that the BBC's services reflect the needs and interests of the public; to ensure proper consultation with the BBC's National Broadcasting Councils; to ensure the proper handling of comments, proposals and complaints from the public; to determine the strategy for the commercial services; to establish an audit committee and to appoint the Director-General and other senior staff. There it is spelt out in terms what are the specific functions of the governors. We believe that it is helpful both to the BBC, the governors themselves and to the wider public.

There was a considerable amount of debate about the whole question of codes and guidance. One of the functions of the corporation is to do all that it can to bring about the achievement of the content and programme standards which are specified in Paragraphs 3 and 5 of the draft Agreement. In addition to that, as I have already just mentioned, the governors are under a duty, as part of this wider process, to ensure that its employees and programme makers adhere to certain codes whose content is intended to enable the corporation to achieve the content and programme standards contained in Paragraphs 3 and 5 of the Agreement.

These codes in themselves provide guidance for the employees and the programme makers to assist them to meet the requirements of the rules relating to content and standards. But they are also in themselves binding by virtue of Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter, to which a considerable amount of reference has already been made this evening. I very much hope that this explains the wording of Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter and Paragraph 5(3) of the Agreement, which has caused such an amount of comment not only during the debate this evening but on previous occasions when this matter has been discussed.

There has also been a considerable amount of discussion about enforceability and accountability. We must be clear in this context that the BBC is subject to directions in respect of those matters made by the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC) as regards apologies. It is also the case that the governors are under an express duty under Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter to ensure compliance with the directions which are given. The provisions of the Broadcasting Act do not in themselves require any additional reinforcement from the documents that we are discussing this evening.

9 Jan 1996 : Column 116

Reference has also been made to the words "monitor and supervise" in Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter. A number of noble Lords have expressed the view that the wording here is insufficiently strong. Looking at the words in the text, it seems to me that that is a very strong form of words, because the function of the governors in this respect is to monitor and to supervise the corporation's fulfilment of its legal and contractual obligations. We are talking about the achievement of something--in other words, the governors will see that it happens. We believe that the form of words used provides the degree of certainty for which many noble Lords are looking.

An associated point is the issue of what steps should be taken once it has been found that something has gone wrong at the BBC. As has already been mentioned, we plan changes in the Broadcasting Bill to ensure that where a finding against a broadcaster has been established, the steps taken by that broadcaster in response to the finding will be made public. As I have already said, it is the duty of the governors to ensure that the corporation discharges its duties in accordance with the Charter. It must follow that if there is a finding against the corporation, a breach has occurred and, if a breach has occurred, that means that the BBC has not been performing in accordance with the terms of its Charter. Therefore, there is an overriding obligation on the governors to put that breach right. It is important that we are clear about that.

Another important point which has been mentioned is the governors' role in dealing with problems. After all, the governors are the persona of the BBC as well as its regulator. Concern has been expressed, particularly about a number of incidents sometime in the past, that the governors have perhaps not exercised properly their responsibilities as regulator. In that context, we should again look at the Charter. I refer particularly to Article 20, which provides a kind of long stop position, where it is stated that the Charter is made upon the basis,

    "that the Corporation shall strictly and faithfully observe and perform ... the provisions prescribed therein".

That is then elaborated upon. Those provisions are backed up by possible action by the Secretary of State, who, after all, is answerable to Parliament. There are some steps which the Secretary of State may take to make inquiries about what is happening at the corporation. Finally, it is possible as a very long stop--as the nuclear option or the equivalent of withdrawing the ITC licence--for the Queen in Council to withdraw the BBC's Charter.

Nobody embarks on a project on the basis that it will fail. We do not believe that the proposals that we are discussing will fail. However, I think that it is wrong to approach this matter on the basis that the governors are completely insulated from any consequences were they to act--I believe that they will not--persistently in dereliction of their duty.

There still remain an enormous number of points which I should like to address, but I have now been on my feet for a considerable number of minutes and feel that in the circumstances it would be appropriate to

9 Jan 1996 : Column 117

respond by letter to the individual points raised. I hope--and sense--that that meets with your Lordships' approval--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page