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Lord Maclennan of Rogart: As the noble Lord used a strand of evidence in support of his case, will he indicate whether he believes that every report by the BBC of the activities of the Crown and members of the Royal Family should be in some way matched by the views of those who believe we should not be living under the monarchy but rather republican?
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: That is a helpful example from the noble Lord. The BBC has given my noble friends and me the example that it cannot discuss our membership of the European Union because none of the main political parties favours that. Yet, the BBC gave substantial coverage to the republican viewpoint in the run-up to the Golden Jubilee. It is true that none of the main political parties favours the republican stance. The BBC also gives a considerable amount of coverage to genetically modified foods and to the legalisation of cannabis. I could go on. None of those subjects is espoused by the main political parties.
Lord Sheldon: The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, began by saying that the BBC belongs to us all. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, called himself an admirer of the BBC. Much of what they said subsequently did not follow in the same vein. The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, said that public service and independent broadcasting had identical aims. I do not see that at all. I see what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, called the "conflict of aims" of the BBC.
The conflict of aims as I see it is the independent broadcasting system. Independent television deals with whatever aims of public service it claims to make. Its desire and function are to ensure that the independent television operators make money. That is the greatest conflict of interest one can have; ideals of making money on the one hand and ideals without that offsetting requirement on the other. Those are the two major problems I see today.
The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, said that the BBC would be stronger under Ofcom, but Ofcom is a new institution which does not have the history of 80 years. We see what the BBC has doneit has become the greatest television and broadcasting operator in the world. We are saying that Ofcom, which we have just created, can take its place and do far more things. That is a nonsense and I cannot accept it for one moment. One cannot set up a new body which can overtake the long tradition, enormous advantage and world-wide reputation of the BBC which we are honoured to have.
Baroness Buscombe: I will intervene extremely briefly because of the time. There is no question of our suggesting that Ofcom will take the place of the BBC. That is entirely opposite to what we have been saying. We want to protect the interests and future of the BBC for the benefit of us all.
Lord Sheldon: I understand the noble Baroness's viewpoint, but, according to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, Ofcom was better qualified to deal with so many of these issues. So better qualified? It has just been set up! What kind of qualification is there in that? The qualification comes from 80 years of being a dedicated contributor to our civilisation.
I have always regarded the BBC, together with our Civil Service, as one of the two most successful institutions in our country. We should be immensely proud of it. We have seen the Civil Service decline a little from its previous position because it is getting rather too close to government, but that is another matter. There are some disturbing signs of that.
The issue before the Committee is the operation of the BBC and the independence of the BBC. That lies at the heart of the BBC. With the governors we have people of distinction managing and running the BBC. The duty of the governors is of enormous importance. I was chairman for 14 years of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office examined the World Service, which is financed by the Foreign
The BBC is not a money-making organisation. The governors had the responsibility to undertake the principles and ideals of public service. They are people of great distinction. My noble friend Lord Barnett was a governor; the noble Baroness, Lady Hogg, was a governor; and the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, was a governor. Those are people of distinction. Are they to be pushed aside by the management of the BBC and dismissed so easily? Never! Never! They are people of some standing and they have operated for 80 years to the benefit of us all.
The efforts of my noble friends Lord Barnett and Lord Hussey saved the BBC. The Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, acting in similar ways to those we have heard about this evening, was anxious to end the licence fee system, which again and again she called a compulsory levy with criminal sanctions. But my noble friends Lord Barnett and Lord Hussey were able to deal with that by delay and clever operations and they saved the BBC for the advantage of us all.
Now we hear that the BBC's statements of policy are to be approved or amended by Ofcom. What are the governors for? The governors provide something far better than anything that you will get in Ofcom. Over the decades we have seen people of the greatest possible standing and I find it difficult to believe that Ofcom will be better qualified than the governors to comment on the operation.
I consider this poor recognition of the great work carried out by the governors and of the way that for more than 80 years they have provided us, and still provide us, with the finest broadcasting system in the world to the benefit of us all. The BBC has ideals; other television and radio stations may have idealsalthough not alwaysbut we understand that they put their financial considerations first. That is reasonable. That is the difference. The BBC does not have such limitations.
I believe that the BBC is the most important cultural institution in this country. We are honoured and proud to have it. It has operated as a benchmark and it has set standards throughout the broadcasting media. Why do other bodies undertake public service broadcasting? It is because of the existence of the BBC. The BBC sets the standards and others try to maintain some affinity with them. Understandably, some of the broadcasting media resent the existence of a competitor that is not in it for the money but exists to serve, to inform, to enlighten and to entertain those who pay the licence fee.
Why is it that we do not have in Britain the tawdry television stations that operate in some other countries? Why does there appear to be an attempt to debilitate the BBC? There is rivalry, which is naturalI understand thatbut there is less rivalry about standards and ethos. There is not the same kind of rivalry in relation to that. There are those who make their profits from radio and television who may feel constrained when their ethical standards come under the shadow of the BBC.
The BBC does not fit into the usual pattern of non-governmental organisations. When the Public Accounts Committee examined the World Service of the BBC in 1987, it concluded that the World Service should be examined by the National Audit Office. The World Service is financed largely by the Foreign Office. It was right for the National Audit Office to take responsibility, and it has, to no one's surprise, undertaken the task with efficiency and delicacy. It also concluded that the present arrangements for voluntary examination of the BBC should remain. The 1983 Act enables the National Audit Office to do value for money studies, with the agreement of the BBC and the Minister.
Baroness Buscombe: I must explain to the noble Lord that we will debate the question of whether the BBC should be scrutinised by the National Audit Office in connection with Amendments Nos. 150 and 151.
Lord Sheldon: I shall deal with it then. I am only making some introductory comments. They are important matters. We have discussed matters that are not, perhaps, as important as those that we are discussing now. Interventions are just making things take longer, but I will, of course, give way.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I am one of the Conservative broadcasting Ministers about whom the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, was so kind and generous a few moments ago, saying how much Conservative governments over the years had promoted and helped the BBC. It is incorrect for the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, to say that, as Prime Minister, my noble friend Lady Thatcher wished to do away with the licence fee. Certainly, my noble friend was, at times, doubtful about how the BBC used its money. She did not like how the BBC reported her actions and activities, any more than Lord Wilson did or Mr Blair does. She did not believe in doing away with the licence fee.
Lord Sheldon: There are two views on that. I have a contrary view. The noble Lord can put his view, and I can have mine. It is based on discussions that I have had with people who discussed the matter with the noble Baroness.
I wish to see the current position maintained. After all, we must examine what has gone wrong. Many other aspects of the press, radio and television have performed badly or could easily be improved. Attention should rightly be concentrated there. The BBC still stands as the one great success in the public service, and that success has been achieved over 80 years. The BBC has retained its eminence during the momentous changes that we have seen throughout that period of the 20th century. We should not risk damaging an organisation that has served us so outstandingly well.
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