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Viscount Tenby: I support the amendments. Perhaps I may throw myself on the mercy of the Minister. If, as I suspect, this debate will run and run, I hope that he will excuse me if I depart before it ends because I have to catch a last train. I apologise.
As my noble friend Lord Chalfont said, we are today teetering on the brink of a digital revolution. As anyone who recently attended the very useful course on digital broadcasting run by the BBC will confirm, the future ability to amaze and, it has to be said, to deceive through new technology is awe inspiring. Those of us who have been at the receiving end of programmes compiled under the old technology will ruefully acknowledge how a bit of judicious splicing and transposing can give a quite different emphasis and interpretation. But all that will seem like the Ark once digital techniques come on stream.
It is therefore absolutely essential to have a workable and enforceable regulatory regime in place both in respect of matters of taste and of fairness. I say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that the point is to make it possible for people to complain, not just about sexual matters and matters of taste and decency, but also about matters of fairness. The two areas should surely be indivisible in the rights accorded to the viewer or listener.
I have always personally felt--I wish to make the point quite strongly and I know that my noble friend has made it too--that there should be one regulatory body covering all forms of broadcasting. Offair is how some wags would describe it. After all, the second report of the National Heritage Committee made just such a recommendation as long ago as December 1993. But the Government have resolutely refused to take that eminently suitable step and an opportunity has been sadly lost.
It is true that bringing the BBC within the new BSC's audit would not be particularly attractive to the ITC whose own procedures in that respect are undoubtedly effective as anyone who has studied its annual report, as I have, will confirm. But such a course of action might encourage the Government to place the governors of the BBC on the same footing as the ITC, leaving the running of the BBC to its own management team. What has not worked in the past, however, and is unlikely to work in the future is the BBC governors wearing two hats as regulators and as the ultimate management team in the corporation.
Individuals who feel that a programme is biased should have the right to complain to the BSC just as they will be able to do in matters of taste. To those who argue that such a step would be an open invitation to every crank in the country, the fact is that the number of such complaints received by the ITC in 1995 was 65, or 1 per cent. of the total, and of those only 16 were upheld--hardly an opening of the floodgates.
Experience has shown that the Broadcasting Act 1990 was seriously flawed in certain areas. Six years later we have a chance to put in place a regulatory regime which will be effective, stand the test of time and benefit not only the public but also the broadcasters because they will know where they stand.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: I wish briefly to add my voice. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, believes that when we talk about fairness in programmes we are talking about the presentation of the Government. I absolutely agree that the BBC has always proudly said that it is absolutely even-handedly anti-Establishment and that whichever government are in power they are liable to receive stick from the BBC. That is as it should be. I have no quarrel with that. The quarrel is with those programmes where improper methods are used to present situations as truth which are not.
I can give one example; I know that there are plenty more. A famous programme on Solidarity in Poland was totally destroyed in its value because the Polish Government were able to prove that the programmers had purported to interview Lech Walesa in some secret area and it had not occurred. They had used a technique that we, as governors, were told at the time was "wallpapering"--matching two pictures together. They had taken a photograph of the place and a photograph of Walesa and married them. That has happened on several occasions and it is the dishonesty in presentation that I am worried about, as we have a right to be. It will affect relatively few people, but the important tiny minority can discredit the BBC and its otherwise splendid reputation for good documentaries and history. I mind about history being tampered with and so do many others. It is proper for there to be provision for that kind of programme and unfairness to be identified and acknowledged. It is not unreasonable to expect that of an organisation with high standards.
I entirely accept the noble Lord's point that it is difficult for the governors, and always has been, to combine being managers of a large business with being regulators. Generally we have properly delegated that to the director-general. Nevertheless, that situation must continue and be made to work. It will work much better if we all ensure that there is a proper mechanism for catching the rogues--because we must face the fact that there are some rogues.
Lord Inglewood: My noble friend Lord Caldecote and the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, have been fair in proposing the amendment and explaining the thinking that lies behind it. They propose that the Broadcasting Standards Commission should consider whether the treatment of issues in programmes--whether ITC-licensed or not--is fair. That means that it would have to consider complaints of general impartiality by individuals and representative bodies.
That is a large extension in the new body of powers for the two component bodies. In that context, the existing functions are twofold: first, to act as a standard-setter; to set a benchmark for the standards for the regulators to administer and for those involved in broadcasting to adhere to. Secondly, the functions are to
Decisions about programme content and scheduling must be a matter for the broadcasters themselves. It is for them to decide how to meet their obligations to observe due impartiality in the treatment of controversial issues. I might have been forgiven at some point in the debate this evening for supposing that there were no regulators. There are those who are entrusted with the job of regulating matters: the ITC and the governors of the BBC. I shall come to the governors of the BBC in a moment. Inherent in the arguments promoting the amendment is that broadcasters should be subject not to one regulator but to two. It cannot be right that broadcasters should be subject to double jeopardy. A regulator is fine, but to have two bodies which might punish people for the same offence is not appropriate.
I wish to turn to the BBC. In the way in which the BBC is arranged it is for the governors to secure its compliance with its obligations on programme standards and on treating controversial subjects with due impartiality. We have heard considerable debate this evening and I know that the way in which the task has been carried out in the past has been controversial. The Committee may recall our debate last month on the new Charter and Agreement. I explained in detail the specific responsibilities being placed on the governors to ensure compliance with the BBC's impartiality code in order to ensure that their activities as regulators would not be subject to the kind of criticism to which they have been subject in the past, because the arrangements of the BBC would work more effectively.
I understand those who argue that the way in which the BBC is set up is inherently unsatisfactory. That was a matter which this Chamber considered on several occasions when debating the White Paper and the Charter. That is a matter which has been debated and, if I may be allowed to say so with respect, that chapter is now closed. Surely the right thing to do now is to give the new arrangements that are coming forward a chance to work. They are different.
Lord Inglewood: In politics there is a debate about an issue, policy decisions are taken and then, in order for the system that one is endeavouring to change to work and for the rest of society to work, one cannot come back in every Bill and tinker with it. In this case, after long debate, the Government have concluded-- I believe they are supported by Parliament-- that the current arrangements for the BBC, whereby the governors are both the regulator and the trustees for the public and the corporation itself, provide the way in which this matter should proceed. We ought to give them a chance.
The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, made one point referring to the role of the BBC in the digital future. It is important to be clear that the BBC's commercial services--and much of the BBC's activities in the new digital future almost certainly will be concerned with commercial services--will in fact be regulated by the ITC.
I should like to move on and come back later to the question of the BSC itself and its scope. Under the Broadcasting Act 1990, the ITC and the Radio Authority each have a statutory duty to draw up and enforce a code of practice on impartiality and other programme matters. The programme codes produced by the ITC and Radio Authority lay down detailed requirements for programme makers on maintaining balance in programmes and have worked well in practice. As the Committee knows, the regulators, in the case of things not going as they should, have various sanctions at their disposal including, ultimately, removal of the licence. The real concern, which has been expressed this evening--it lies behind these amendments and I touched on it earlier in my remarks--is that those responsible for regulating in the public interest are not exercising their statutory obligations as they ought. The proper response to that, I believe, is either to go to the courts if the law has been broken or to exert political pressure generally, and in Parliament in particular, if it is felt that those who lawfully exercise their judgment have been doing so in an inappropriate manner.
It may be of some help to the Committee to know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has recently spoken to the new chairman of the BBC, expressing the sentiments which were contained in her August speech and told him that her hope is that he will keep that tougher vigilance in mind. She will meet him regularly and keep that wish on her agenda.
As I hoped to explain this evening, I do not believe that introducing the BSC as a kind of intermediary between, on the one hand, the regulators--i.e., the ITC, the BBC governors and the Radio Authority--and, on the other, the courts and Parliament in respect of these general impartiality issues is either desirable in policy terms or helpful in practical terms. For those reasons, we cannot support the amendment.
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