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Lord Fowler: I confess to some unease about the clauses and amendments that have been proposed. I have a great deal of sympathy with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, and with those of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. This is after all meant to be a deregulatory Bill; indeed, some would take the process of deregulation even further. I believe that that would be foolish, but there are some who believe that should happen. In the case of the BBC, however, we are all in danger of becoming enthusiastic regulators all over again.
One amendment brings the BBC back, lock stock and barrel, under Ofcom; another brings a whole range of things into Ofcom. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, pointed out, there comes a time when one wonders whether the regulation will get in the way of running the organisation altogether. That is a familiar argument outside the broadcasting areathat regulation is strangling small business, for example. Before accepting the case, we must be very clear that it has been made, and I am afraid that I am not convinced.
We know that the BBC will come under Ofcom for general requirements of programme standards, and standards of taste, decency and fairness. We know that Ofcom will be able to review the commercial activities of the BBC, tiers 1 and 2. The main regulatory areas that will remain in the sole hands of the governors are political impartiality and the so-called tier 3 powers connected to the public service remit of the BBC. Personally, I believe that that is exactly where they should remain.
The other day, the chairman of the BBC argued that the two foundation stones of the BBC, inherited from the 1920s, were the independent funding via the licence fee and the system of independent control founded on the board of governors. It is my belief that this system has served the country rather well. It has self-evidently established itself at home and has won an international reputation.
My point is that we are not dealing here with an unsuccessful organisation. We are dealing with a notably successful one, which has established itself and proved itself. Any political party with any sense should recognise that that is the case. In spite of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, I think that it is rather unlike the National Health Service. I am glad to say that no party claims sole credit for the creation and development of the BBCand long may that remain the case. I hope that it remains the product of an all-party, bipartisan policy.
Of course, we know that politicians tend to unite in complaining about the BBC's "bias" and "unfairness". It could be Alastair Campbell. It could be my noble friend Lord Tebbit. It could beindeed it just has beenmy noble friend Lord Pearson on the Bench behind me. Complaints about BBC coverage presently range from the Iraq war to the local elections. As a former chairman of the Conservative Party, I am sure that I sent a few complaints to the BBC myself at the time. They were few, because I took the rather eccentric view for a party chairman that complaints cut very few daisies with the public, who are quite capable of judging for themselves whether John Humphrys had started his first interruption before the Minister had uttered two or three words in reply, or whether a particular programme was unfair or not. "Trust the people" is not altogether a bad principle.
Having started work at The Times under the editorship of William Haleyhimself a distinguished director-general of the BBC, who also sought balanceI know how difficult it is to achieve that to everyone's satisfaction. It is next to impossible to achieve balance all the time, and mistakes occur.
I make three points about the BBC. First, we keep being told about what the public feel, but all public opinion surveys indicate that the BBC is the most trusted and authoritative broadcaster. As an old journalist, I regret to tell the Committee that it is trusted substantially more than newspapers.
Secondly, there is no question that the BBC aims for balance. Achieving balance is its editorial purpose. That makes it unlike a number of media organisations such as newspapers, which campaign on this or that issueon Europe, for example. My noble friend talks about the BBC, but it is not exactly unknown for newspapers to campaign on the subject of Europe, and no one says that they are aiming for balance. But the BBC does that.
My third point is an organisational one. If balance and absence of bias are what one wants to achieve, it is better to place that responsibility with a board of governors who are nearer to the organisation itself and who will have most influence. The governors are part directors and part regulators. That not only makes them different, it makes them effective. They have that dual role, and it serves us well.
Baroness Buscombe: Before the noble Lord sits down, what is his opinion with regard to Amendment No. 145, which simply future-proofs the Bill to facilitate the future incorporation of Ofcom's functions into the Royal Charter?
Lord Fowler: That sounds a perfectly sensible proposal. However, I would have the debate on the future of the BBC at the same time as that on the renewal of its licence. I do not see much point in having the debate before that.
Lord Puttnam: Perhaps I may make a suggestion. We are in something of a jam. I would like to make a suggestion to the Government Front Bench which could solve a significant problem. I do not for one moment disagree with a word that my noble friend Lord Sheldon has said, but the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, was quite right in saying that we did predict this. I will not say, "I told you so", but one is tempted. We said,
That was good advice then; it is good advice now. I suggest to the Minister that she accedes to that advice; that the present group of amendments are withdrawn; and that we return on Report. Having got that from the Government, having understood what the map ahead is and having looked at what foxes we are actually shooting, we might have a shorter and more structured debate on Report. Frankly, we could be here for a long time tonight and could eat up the whole of Thursday's session as well.
Lord Williamson of Horton: I am somewhat baffled by these amendments. As Amendment No. 144A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, is the first, I will deal primarily with that and with its text in my brief remarks. It seems to me that there are three points. The first is, should Ofcom have regulatory responsibility for the BBC in some areas in order to create a level playing field between the BBC and other broadcasters?
There has been an underlying current that that is not in the Bill. I understand that that is the underlying purpose of Clause 195, as drafted, and in my view it could succeed in that purpose. That is the first point.
Secondly, should this be handled by way of an agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State, as set out in Clause 195(1)? That seems a very reasonable approach since the BBC already has its own dedicated regulatorthe board of governors.
Should we go along that line? My answer to it is quite clearly, "No, we should not go along that line". I know that these amendments have been presented as benevolenta love-in with the BBC. I recall those spiders which make love and shortly afterwards bite off the head of their partner. So I do not think that we need these amendments since the governors are fully capable and, indeed, the right and responsible body for ensuring that the BBC meets the public interest.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: I had not intended to speak this evening. I hope that Members of the Committee will agree with me when I say that it would be good to hear the Minister respond to the wise points put earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: That puts those few of us who are left who want to speak in a difficult position. I rather think that one must say one's piece and then hear the Minister. I shall give a short speech, so fear not.
The issues in this debate are finely balanced. Like all of the Committee, I am sure, I have thought extremely hard about on which side to come down. The reason that I have come down in favour of rejecting the amendments is that the BBC is more different than some of those who are in favour of them have been willing to admit.
There are four characteristics, four constitutional features of the BBC that set it completely apart from any other broadcasting institution. First, it is the only one subject to a chartera charter with detailed conditions the breach of which entitles the Secretary of State of the day to intervene in the BBC's affairs. Secondly, the BBC has governors appointed by the Government. That is a unique characteristic.
Thirdly, the BBC has made itself answerable to the Select Committee. That is a major, serious and annual investigation of its affairs and the conduct of its policy. Again, that is not true of any other broadcaster. Finallyseveral Members of the Committee have referred to thisit has only one stakeholder: the public. It has no shareholders. It is answerable to the public interest, in the Reithian sense of the word.
Taking all that together, I concur wholeheartedly with what my noble friend Lord Thomson, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said, which is: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. By and large, the BBC is not broke. I accept the criticisms that some
So, I, too, am with those who say: let the matter be dealt with in the next round of the charter. If the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, accepts the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, all well and good, but, short of that, I oppose this set of amendments.
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