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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I believe that noble Lords taking part in the Unstarred Question have been given revised timings for speaking, should they wish to avail themselves of the extra time.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely glad of the opportunity to ask this Question tonight, and extremely grateful to those noble Lords who have decided to take part in this short debate, although it is lengthening slightly, thanks to the progress of business.
The Question for the Minister is whether the Government feel satisfied with the standards of reporting of what they and other politicians of all parties do in the United Kingdom. I am sure that the Minister shares with me the feeling that a high standard of political reporting and analysis is vital to the health of our democracy and essential to the channels that inform governed and government, helping to bind us all together in mutual understanding, even if not in actual agreement much of the time.
Yet I also feel, among many people of all parties and none, a growing sense that the aggressive, sometimes antagonistic and scoop-driven style of political journalism that we now have does not add very much to human understanding. There is the feeling that this hardly encourages a dash to the polls, although I certainly do not blame all voter apathy on the media.
That was very honest of her, but that same right honourable Lady has the very challenging task of the oversight of the one media body where your Lordships have some legitimate direct interestthe BBC.
The strictures that I have made about the BBC are not only related to that body. They are certainly shared by many in the journalistic world, yet we have put the BBC into a peculiar position. In a free society, if we do not like the coverage offered us by the myriad of modern media outlets, we can listen, view or read something else. The unique exception in the western world is the BBC, which holds us in a form of broadcast serfdom. Of course, it can be turned offno one has to listen or viewbut it still has to be paid for through the BBC poll tax.
If I want to educate or irritate myself by reading a left-wing view, I can buy the Mirror or the Guardian. If I want to wallow in comforting right-wingery, I can go out and buy the Mail or the Telegraph. But, by comparison, if I turn on any news channel in this country, such as ITN, or any news channel in the United States, for that matter, it never enters my head for one moment to consider the likely politics of the broadcaster. There is one exception to thatthe case of the BBC.
There are two reasons for that. The first is the fiscal compulsion that underpins the organisation, which is now becoming abhorrent in a free society. The licence fee also has regressive effects in a free society. Why should someone in a tower block be forced to pay for something that they do not want? That seems to me fundamentally wrong.
I am not being malicious in saying that the second reason is that the BBC has, little by little over the years, developed its own view of the world. That view happens to mean that the BBC has become more and more institutionally left-wing. Not for one second do I mean that it is far left or loony leftit is a kind of inside liberal left. That is where I would place the BBC's cast of mind. That is not because of entryism or some political plot or the goings-on of any government. It is perfectly natural for any media outlet over the years to develop its own identity, persona and cast of mind. It is a natural law of journalism, broadcast or print. The BBC might just as easily have taken a different turn and ended up a right-wing kind of organisation, or a Liberal Democrat kind of organisation. I do not blame anyone for thatit has just happened.
In saying that, I do not criticise any individual. That is for two reasons: first, because I am naturally charitable and do not want to upset anyone. However, it is widely recognised that journalistswhether left, right or centredespite very often using the fiercest criticism as a tool of trade, are an exceptionally thin-skinned bunch when the weapon is turned on them. They are likely to reach for the smelling salts at the mildest remark, let alone criticism, of anything that they do as journalists. I hasten to add that my noble friend Lord Marlesford is an exception to the rule; he was a complete paragon in everything that he did when writing in the Economist and elsewhere.
Secondly, I believeand it is from this belief that I speakthat there are a lot of excellent journalists in the BBC. I had better declare an interest: I know and like a number of them. I do not want to shock my own noble friends on these Benches, but I have been to their homes and they have been to mine. I hasten to say that there will be no outing of anyone tonight and no collateral damage done to their BBC careers because of me. However, that said, I can think of no senior BBC figure who is known privately as being right of centre. If by saying that I have misjudged anyone in the BBC's political firmament, perhaps they will out themselves in due course. I shall leave that to them.
Deliberately, the BBC has developed a real view on the worldaka an editorial slant, just like any tabloid. I happen rather to like tabloids. Its news and analysis is now driven by the scoop and largely motivated by the exclusive. Sadly, some of those exclusives are sometimes based on surveys that the BBC has itself commissioned. One might talk in the literal sense about making up the news rather than reporting it. I do not believe that the relentless pursuit of exclusives by the BBC is at all consistent with the role of public service broadcasting. That vital sense of fairness is lost, and I believe that is probably already gone.
An editorial stance, let alone partisanship, should not be paid for from the public purse. Can the governors do anything about that? The answer is no, although we should certainly be grateful for what they have tried to do. They have an impossible task, as they do not have the powers of non-executive directors but are expected to defend their men and women through thick and thin while, at the same time, acting as a form of self-regulator. In its turn, that is a form of muddled corporate governance hybridity, flying full in the face of any modern approach to corporate governance itself. One simply cannot superintend an organisation such as the BBC, with its sprawling news empire of 3,500 people, and with no editor-in-chief to be answerable for what is carried on the BBC news. There is no such man or woman. One simply cannot superintend such an organisation with a form of corporate governance that is so anarchic, out of date and unfit for purpose.
In conclusion, my view is that the BBC is no longer a national institution. As a matter of editorial policy, it has deliberately ditched its role of wanting to be part of our national glue while continuing to depend on national funds. It is now just like any other broadcaster, and it is none the worse for thatit is not in any sense meant to be a critical remark. It is just like any other broadcaster, save for it being a pensioner on the public purse.
I only wish that, 20 or 30 years ago, someone had issued a stern warning to the BBC along the lines of that recently given at the end of October by the head of the Civil Service, Sir Andrew Turnbull. In a speech that he made, with the characteristic discretion of the upper mandarinate, to the Portuguese Civil Service, offshore in Lisbon on 22nd October, Sir Andrew was blunt. He said that there was a risk that our bureaucrats could lose their reputation for political impartiality and integrity, which,
The BBC demonstrates just how easily that can happen. I hope that the BBC is disestablished as soon as possible, at least with regard to news and political reporting, in the interests of fairness to the people of this country.
Our media are a mixed bag. Our quality press and the BBC are world class and inferior to none, but our tabloid press leaves much to be desired. It has little interest in major political events of the world and, when it condescends to take notice of them, the coverage tends to be sensational, personalised, shallow and designed to serve a narrow ideological and political agenda. Since the tabloid press reaches nearly 80 per cent of our population, its poor quality is a matter of legitimate public concern. However, having said that, I should like to concentrate on the high standards of the quality press and of the BBC.
With all the limitations to which I shall return, there is much to be proud of in our media. By and large, they provide reasonably accurate information and in-depth analysis of political events. Some of their columnists are knowledgeable, well read and capable of taking detached and long-term perspectives on day-to-day events. Our newspapers cover a fairly wide range of ideological positions, and the biases of one are countered by those of the others.
Even the most ideologically biased newspapers generally take care not to cross certain limits, and they have columnists representing different points of view. Let us take for example the coverage of the recent war on Iraq and its aftermath and compare it to what happened in the United States. Anyone who has closely followed the American print and visual media, as I have, both as a distant observer and as someone who was privileged to lecture at Harvard and Yale, is struck by the one-sidedness of the coverage of those events in the United States. In the name of patriotism almost all dissenting views were marginalised and suppressed. Demonstrations against the war were ignored altogether or covered in an extremely partisan manner. Columnists and commentators who dared take a critical view were calumniated and even dismissed. Many sensible Americans, legitimately proud of their democratic culture, began to ask why it had become so vulnerable and fragile. Some even talk of intellectual and moral suffocation. Not surprisingly, quite a few of them turned to the British liberal press for information and ideas and envy the robustness of our public culture.
They were particularly impressedif I may say so, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Pattenwith the quality of the coverage on the BBC. The BBC never lost its balance and objectivity. Even when the country was involved in a war, the BBC insisted on checking its facts independently rather than rely on the reports of the embedded journalists working with the coalition
While, therefore, there is much to be proud of in our media, there are obviously certain limitations. I want briefly to refer to five of them by way of illustration. First, the range of the coverage of political events even in the best of our media is considerably limited. Many parts of the world including the great developing countries such as India and China barely receive sustained attention. They are noticed only when there are natural disasters or incidents of extensive civil violence. We know very little of the big debates taking place in these countries; nor do we know much about the background to the events of civil violence that are reported.
Secondly, the quality of analysis in much of our media also needs to improve. Our columnists are almost all journalists who have to write against pressing deadlines, who are not always expert in their respective areas and are often unable to bring well-thought-out historical and philosophical analysis on daily events. Here we may have something to learn from the French and the German newspapers and television. There it is quite common for academics, experts and senior statesmen to be regular columnists in national newspapers or to comment from time to time on important national events. I am therefore particularly disappointed and rather surprised that a debate on as momentous an issue as the European Union and the new constitution has received very little contribution from historians, philosophers or political scientists.
Thirdly, there is little significant contribution from the ethnic minority columnists and writers. As a result, large sections of our society remain voiceless and feel alienated from the democratic culture of our society. Ethnic minority writers and others have unique experiences and perspectives and our political life is the poorer for their marginalisation. If nothing else, they will at least ensure that the media do not talk about ethnic minorities, wittingly or unwittingly, in a degrading and patronising manner.
Fourthly, even in the quality press there is a tendency to push the views of the proprietors and to allow them to impose their ideological and political agenda on the country. Sometimes this tendency by the proprietors to use newspapers to promote their ideological position is subtle. On other occasions it is too blatant to go unnoticed. This undermines public trust in the media and corrupts the wellsprings of our democratic culture. The one way to counter this tendency would be to regulate the ownership of the media and to ensure that the ownership remains diversified. Another way is to hold the media accountable to a public body.
We certainly have the Press Complaints Commission, for which there is much to be said, but, sadly, it is too weak and too dominated by the editors to perform its task properly. It would therefore help, I think, to establish an independent institute whose job it would be to monitor the media, correct errors of fact and judgment, expose their biases and challenge their views. Even if the institute, independent of government, has no legal teeth, the very fact that a respectable body passes strictures on the media or the television should be able to exert a determined influence.
I turn, finally, to the BBC. The BBC, I think, and I say so in great humility, is a wonderful institution. It is rightly cherished and it commands far more public confidence than any newspaper, or even all the newspapers in our country put together. It should obviously therefore not allow itself to get into the Gilligan-type situation when its judgment was suspect and when it acted too hastily to defend its reporter. It should therefore take a careful critical look at itself and its procedures, and I gather that it is doing so already. It might in this context think of an ombudsman or a neutral complaints authority, like the Police Complaints Authority, to which disputes involving the BBC can be referred.
In any case the Government should keep their hands off the BBC in its daily management. The fate of our democracy is too important to be left to the forces of the market. We know that from the sad experience of the United States. We need a public medium, publicly accountable and set up by the public. The BBC, with all its limitations that I pointed out earlier, is as good an institution as I can imagine.
When considering the media, I think first about an issue of which I have some little personal knowledge, and then I look at what the media say about it. On 16th October 2003 there were three local government by-elections in the North of England: in Mixenden in Halifax, in Lanehead in Burnley, and in Great Horton in Bradford. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Patten, I am concerned about the far right. Several of us were aware that the BNP would show some interest in those three local authority by-elections. It had won Mixenden in January 2003 and the seat in Burnley in May 2003. The Mixenden by-electiona council seat in Calderdale, where I was a member until Maywas caused by the death of Stephen Pearson, who had been a colleague of mine, and was fought by his widow, Jennifer Pearson. I was involved in that. Understandably, Jennifer was given a great deal of help.
I was surprised, therefore, when the day before the election, one of my noble friends said to me, "I see that you're going to lose that seat in Halifax". I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "The article in today's Daily Telegraph. You're not going to win". The headline said,
I was there at the count and had the pleasure of seeing the ballot papers. As I was at the count, I did not hear the 10 o'clock news on BBC Radio. However, my noble friend Lord Greaves, who was in his hospital bed at the time, was firmly fixed to Radio 4 and listened to the 10 o'clock news. After the 10 minutes of news, there was a studio discussion on why the BNP were going to win two seats, in Halifax and in Burnley, that evening. Happily, during the course of the programme, they were able to interrupt to go over to Halifax to get the result. Jennifer Pearson polled 1,210 votes; the BNP 801; and others rather less. The BNP did not gain the seat.
What was the reaction in the studio? The presenter said, "What's gone wrong? The BNP were very confident. What's gone wrong?" He did not know how to handle it. Happily for the presenter, the Burnley result came a little later, long after that paper had gone to bed. The Liberal Democrat candidate in Burnley polled 1,070 votes, Labour 463, the BNP 357 and other candidates rather less. Therefore the BNP lost the seat. Teletext covered both results, although I think that it was set up for other reasons.
I said that there was a third by-election in Bradford. There was no BNP candidate because something went wrong with the nomination papers. Even the Yorkshire Post did not record the result, which was a Labour gain from the Conservatives that meant that Labour became the biggest party in Bradford, rather than the Conservatives. One would have thought that there was a little news value in that. Of course the result was never covered by the London Daily Telegraph. Although it had spent a lot of time telling us what was going to happen the day before, the real result was never given to the readers.
We need more serious reporting. The Daily Telegraph story did not even state that there were any other candidates, let alone their names. We need less guessing. The media ought somehow to get rid of preconceived notions and report and consider facts. The problem is that there is no follow-through. What is the point of starting a story and giving people certain information and then not going through with it?
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Patten for introducing this debate with such accurate eloquence. He may be aware that I introduced a similar debate on 11th March last year, which repays study now in the wake of the events being examined by the Hutton inquiry. As I said in that debate, broadcasting bias is often in the eye of the beholder and it is especially difficult to prove when it exists. Several series of programmes have to be recorded, transcribed and analysed by an objective mind. Even then, the written text will not reflect the tone in which a question may have been put, so painstaking cross-referencing between the recording and its text is sometimes necessary.
As far as I know, only one area of the BBC's political output has been thoroughly analysed over several years: its coverage of our relationship with the European Union. I referred to that in my debate on 11th March last year and again at Second Reading of the Communications Bill on 25th March this year. I shall not repeat all that now: no doubt the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will be pleased to hear that.
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