Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

5.35 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, it is my happy lot to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich on his maiden speech. It is a particular and personal pleasure for me to do so because I happen to be one of the lambs in his diocese. I should also declare an interest, although it is a funny thing to do when congratulating somebody: I am high steward of the cathedral that overlooks the right reverend Prelate's house—Norwich Cathedral. The right reverend Prelate follows a line of distinguished bishops of Norwich. I like to think that that was because of the influence that the high steward breathed over them, but I fancy that any such idea would be running down the path of disproportionate and inaccurate fantasy.

The right reverend Prelate delivered an excellent speech. It followed all the conventions of your Lordships' House: it was short, uncontroversial, engaging, jolly and we all enjoyed it. He has a glorious disposition and a great sense of humour. All those qualities will be greatly to the benefit of your Lordships' House. I congratulate him on his maiden speech and hope that we will have the pleasure of hearing him on many other occasions in the House.

The list of speakers in today's debate consists mostly of television tycoons, of which I am not one. But the BBC affects everyone, which is why I venture to participate in the debate. If an organisation benefits from—and depends on—public funds, it will always be open not only to criticism but to castigation. That is so with the BBC. There is a cry from various quarters to dispense with the licence fee, with the inference that that will bring the BBC to heel and make it less dependent on ready cash and more dependent on the demands of the marketplace. I am not of that view. The licence fee is astonishingly inexpensive. For some 30p a day, viewers can have access to virtually continuous entertainment, news, culture and sport. That does not make the fee any easier to pay, but, once paid, it provides astonishingly good value.

To make the BBC compete on almost similar terms to commercial television would be a disaster. The BBC has a national and international reputation. The World Service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, referred, is one such pinnacle of the BBC's reputation. That reputation must be preserved, jealously guarded and built on. By the licence fee, the BBC has become the bedrock of television. It should be the epitome of high standards and should provide good-quality programmes. It often does all those things, but, inevitably, not always.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 330

I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich that ratings are not everything. They may be one measurement of the value of a programme. However, they are not the only, or necessarily the best, measurement. I suppose that it was the ratings that shoved the nine o'clock news back to ten o'clock. I thought that was a major error, because if one wishes to listen to the news, one must go to bed an hour later. Some of us feel that that is a bore.

I fancy that when the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, was vice-chairman of the BBC, and my noble kinsman Lord Hussey of North Bradley was chairman, it must have been a fun combination and those were possibly some of the halcyon days of the BBC. Things might then have seemed better than they now are, and they probably were. There is no doubt that standards have dropped. It is always easy to criticise an organisation like the BBC, which bubbles with intellect, creativity, and excitement, but it must be difficult to produce programmes 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without producing some rubbish. Those people who participate in the BBC, despite or because of their talents, make the BBC what it is. Those talents must be channelled aright.

I have an example of undesirable standards. Between January and June last year, in 60 films shown across five terrestrial channels, not just the BBC, the "F" word appeared 1,429 times. The words "Jesus" or "Christ" were used as expletives on 221 occasions. That was just in 60 films in six months, though not only screened by the BBC. I am sure that while many of us must have used, and indeed do use, these disagreeable expletives on more occasions than we would wish to admit—I dare say that the right reverend Prelates might even have been heard venturing out some expletive if they hit their fingernail with the head of a hammer—they are offensive expletives. However, to project that language into sitting rooms throughout the length and breadth of the country is a bad thing.

The same goes for those scenes of appalling violence that are shown and that are supposed to be entertainment. The argument goes that if you are shocked by that, you are shocked by life, because the producers are merely depicting what happens in everyday life. That misses the point entirely. People imbibe what they see on television programmes. They think that is the way to behave. When young people see a person's head being kicked in, it is too easy for some of them to think that that is what is done and is the way to do it; indeed, that can become a motivator on some occasions for their actions.

Do these programmes have no influence on people? Of course they do. Ask any company that spends millions of pounds advertising on commercial television why it does so. The answer is because people are attracted to what they see and hear, and thereafter they go out and buy the products. If they did not do that, companies would stop advertising and would save their money. The fact is that people absorb and act on what they see. What they see while watching television in their sitting rooms is decided by the BBC, the television companies, or the producers.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 331

Good books edify the mind; and bad books sully the mind. In the same way, good television edifies the mind; and bad television sullies the mind. Television has a huge responsibility for the way in which society develops, far greater than people often realise. The BBC does not just react to what happens. It creates thoughts; it produces ideas. Surreptitiously, possibly even without realising it, it influences. That is a huge responsibility. I just hope that when the BBC has its charter renewed, some way will be found of giving the governors of the BBC, or some other part of it, adequate control of producers to stop them putting out bad programmes, programmes promoting violence and programmes littered with what is called "strong language", which really means the copious use of the "F" word and the other obscenities that contribute precisely nothing to the programme, or to the story.

The governors must not be deterred from preventing the showing of a programme for fear of being accused of interfering with the artistic licence of the producers. After all, someone must be responsible for what is shown, and ultimately, via its various channels, it must be the responsibility of the chairman and the governors. The BBC produces such a variety of choice and such excellent programmes that surely it would not be too much to cut out the bad programmes and the really offensive language.

Lord Reith, that pioneer of BBC standards, whom I remember listening to in your Lordships' House when he was just nearby on the Cross Benches, would have been horrified at some of the material that is being put out today—only some of it; the majority is so good. I just hope that when the charter gets renewed, some way will be found of making it good and cutting out the bad.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Currie of Marylebone: My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, on introducing this debate, and congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich on his eloquent and witty maiden speech. I declare an interest of a sort as the chairman of Ofcom, although I speak in an individual capacity.

As noble Lords will recall, Parliament has tasked Ofcom with conducting a major review of public service broadcasting. It is the first time that public service broadcasters have been looked at in the round, both the BBC and the commercially funded public service broadcasters, ITV, Channel 4 and five. I hope that our review will be a significant and useful input into the debate on the BBC Charter.

As a number of noble Lords have already remarked, by happy coincidence our report on phase 1 of the review was published this morning. I hope that all noble Lords participating in the debate have received copies. If not, there are some available in the Printed Paper Office. You have the concise version; the full report is a good deal fatter and heavier, unless you get it on CD.

When my noble friend Lady O'Neill recently raised a question about Ofcom's primary duties, several noble Lords expressed concern that Ofcom's use of the phrase

21 Apr 2004 : Column 332

"citizen-consumer" might reflect a downgrading of citizenship interests at the expense of consumer interests. They went on to express the firm wish that Ofcom should give due prominence to the citizen's interests. I trust that our first report on public service broadcasting will reassure noble Lords that we do indeed give due weight to citizenship issues, as the carefully considered Communications Act requires us to do. In particular, I hope that it will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, that we do take the interests of viewers very seriously indeed. Our report argues that public service broadcasting remains vitally important in 21st century Britain because of its central role in serving the interests of citizens. To inform the review, we have gathered a mass of hard data from broadcasters, we have supplemented that with consultations with groups of citizens, expert groups, and one of the largest detailed audience surveys ever undertaken, covering some 6,000 homes.

TV audiences may not instinctively understand the term "public service broadcasting", but our evidence is that they strongly support the set of values that Parliament set out in the Communications Act. Whether in traditional or multi-channel homes, there is a firm belief that television should serve wider social and cultural purposes. Generally in Britain we do television well. UK-made programming remains strong. Television news is valued, and audiences think that the broadcasters do news and current affairs reporting well. We lead the world in digital television, and audiences value the choice that it provides.

There is therefore much in our results that is heartening, but there are some issues that give cause for concern. Audiences feel that all the main terrestrial channels, including the BBC, lack sufficient innovation and original ideas, rely too much on copycat and celebrity programming, and on occasion talk down to viewers. There is also concern about the lack of a safe environment for child viewers away from unsuitable content. That is a major concern for many people.

Audiences, however, do not always live up to their image of themselves in what they watch. The main terrestrial channels' share is down to 57 per cent in multi-channel homes, which represent more than half of all households. It is for the more challenging and uplifting fare, such as "Horizon", "Newsnight" and "The South Bank Show", that audience share diminishes most in multi-channel homes. Identifying that fact allows us to be honest about the role of public service broadcasting and make practical proposals that reflect audiences as they are, not as we—or even they—might wish them to be. Public service broadcasting needs to have impact, as well as value and quality, if it is to deliver on its mission. That requires more innovation in formats and programming, to ensure that public service broadcasting is interesting and exciting. That point was eloquently made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich.

So the public service ecology is coming under some strain. The shareholder-owned channels—ITV and five—have an important role as investors in UK programming. In a full multi-channel environment, they must be able to respond competitively, if they are

21 Apr 2004 : Column 333

not to diminish as investment engines for British content. We must focus regulatory intervention on the public service characteristics that give highest social value and maximum viewer impact and not give privilege to that which the market will anyway fund. That puts an even greater premium on the BBC and those who govern it to live up to the spirit as well as the letter of its remit. A publicly funded BBC needs to retain scale and viewer impact. It should be the standard setter for the highest quality of public service broadcasting.

The licence fee remains an important funding mechanism in the PSB ecology and the right one to enable the BBC to remain independent and true to its purposes. I hope that in the charter debates the issue is not "Whether the licence fee" but rather "How much, what is it spent on, and does the output have the distinctiveness, quality and range to justify the investment?".

As both a competition regulator and a public policy regulator over the BBC as well as commercial public service broadcasters, Ofcom believes that the viewer is best served by competition for quality. The BBC needs public service competition that is sufficiently effective to keep it up to the mark. That competition for quality is most likely to come from not-for-profit broadcasting, free from shareholder pressures and with an ethos which, like the BBC's, can be focused more purely on public sector output. That is one of Channel 4's core strengths. To be an effective competitor for quality, it needs to grow to a scale where it can condition the BBC's output. Its first recourse is to self-help, lean efficient running and effective and profitable commercial additions, but it may also form an important part of a greater, not-for-profit sector whole that may need strengthening in other ways. Those could include a share of contestable funding or a new source of direct funding. The available options need to be considered.

That leads me to my final point: the distinction between governance and regulation. It is important not to confuse the two, as sometimes happens with those who argue for the BBC to be brought fully under Ofcom. Regulation should apply across the sector to uphold standards, enforce quotas and secure fair competition in the interests of citizens and consumers. I believe that Ofcom will quickly demonstrate its capacity and capability to deliver effective, high-quality regulation of that kind. I firmly believe that effective regulation by Ofcom provides no threat to the independence and strength of the BBC.

Governance is different. Each broadcaster needs its own effective and independent governance mechanisms. The model is clear for the commercial broadcasters, with a conventional corporate board safeguarding shareholders' interests within the rules laid down by regulation. For the not-for-profit broadcasters, especially the publicly funded BBC, the objective of good governance must be to pursue positively and with passion the public interest at the heart of public service broadcasting independently but within the overall framework provided by regulation.

The issue of the effectiveness of the governance of the publicly owned and publicly funded broadcasters is therefore separate from the nature and scope of

21 Apr 2004 : Column 334

regulation. There are several possible models of governance that could be made to work, and I hope that, in the debates relating to the PSB review and the BBC Charter review, those will get a good airing. However, we must keep governance issues separate from Ofcom's role in providing the appropriate framework of effective regulation.

It is crucial to our democracy and to our society that we get the analysis of public service broadcasting and the consequent prescriptions right and that we succeed in maintaining and strengthening public service broadcasting for the 21st century. We must foster an effective and inclusive debate that redefines and regenerates public service broadcasting for the coming world of pervasive digital connectivity, maintaining the spirit and strengths of the past but shaping it for a new digital, multi-channel world. I hope that this debate and our PSB report published today will help to stimulate this wider national debate.

5.56 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Barnett for making the debate possible. It is a convention of the House that we pay such a tribute, but in this case I think that we all mean it strongly.

After the Hutton report, the BBC will never be the same again. It will present an enormous challenge to the new chairman, Michael Grade, whom I congratulate warmly on his appointment, to steer the BBC through these difficult times. I pay tribute to Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke. I thought that they both made an excellent contribution to the BBC. I am sorry that circumstances have prevented them being there at the moment. I suppose that, given the Hutton report, it was inevitable that there would be one senior resignation. I think that two resignations at the top were not necessary. I would have preferred Greg to have stayed. I know the difficulties, but Gavyn's resignation would have been sufficient. They both played an important part in strengthening the BBC, and Michael Grade will have a hard act to follow.

I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission. As such, I will refer to some of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. We had a responsibility for dealing with complaints about taste and decency, bad language and violence. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, was my predecessor as chairman of that organisation. If the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, looked at the detail, he would see that we were fairly robust about that sort of bad language or excessive violence before the watershed. I suspect that most of his comments would apply to programming later in the evening. He may not agree that we should have been, as it were, more liberal later in the evening, but we were pretty firm before the watershed because of the young people watching.

Despite Hutton, the BBC is and will continue to be seen as a great institution. It is one of the contributions that this country has made to television and broadcasting throughout the world. The World Service is well known universally for providing the best international broadcasting that there is. I welcome the

21 Apr 2004 : Column 335

DCMS review of the BBC's Royal Charter, which was published last December. It is a helpful guide in enabling us to see the different issues. I pay particular tribute to the document that Ofcom published today. It is an excellent document on public service broadcasting. I have only had the chance to read part of it, but it is professional and comprehensive and is a good indicator of the standards that Ofcom will apply to its wider remit. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, on being chairman of the organisation that has produced such a first-class document, although I confess that I have read only part of it today, in haste.

It is important for us to help the BBC to maintain its independence from government. Post-Hutton, that is of even greater importance. If the BBC is seen as subservient to government, it will have lost the ability to make one of its most important contributions to life in this country.

Perhaps I may say a little about the licence fee in that context. Of course the licence fee should be maintained. The suggestion that it should be phased out, even if not immediately but over the next few years, would be a move away from the best available system to fund a body such as the BBC and help it maintain its independence.

The newspapers have indicated concern that BBC1 has recently had lower ratings. I hope that the pressure for high ratings will not be the only way in which the effectiveness of the BBC is judged. Surely we must look more broadly at the way in which the BBC deals with its many obligations and look at the quality of some of the less highly viewed programmes, as well as look at whether the BBC can achieve good ratings in popular times. The balance between quality of programmes and ratings is important.

I shall make one suggestion. I am concerned that the struggle, at intervals, between the BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about the level of the licence fee is not healthy. I suggest that we take a leaf from the book of the Bank of England, where the setting of the interest rate has been taken from the Government and given to the independent monetary committee. It would be healthier if the BBC licence fee were determined at intervals by an independent committee—perhaps Ofcom should not have that additional burden yet—which would take on board the BBC's bid for the licence fee level for the forthcoming period. That bid should be subdivided into the various elements of BBC work. The independent committee would make a judgment on how well the BBC met its various aims and objectives and would award the licence fee accordingly. That judgment would be made independently and apart from political decision making.

Noble Lords have referred to digital switchover. There is one main constraint which may lie partly with the BBC, but which probably lies also with the Government. Large parts of the country cannot receive digital broadcasts. Until they can, digital switchover will not be possible in those regions. I have a home in the Lake District. I cannot receive Channel

21 Apr 2004 : Column 336

5, never mind some of the other digital channels. Satellite is the only option open to me. Freeserve would not work in my area.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Currie, about separating governance from regulation. The two functions are currently merged. I welcome the comments about looking again at governance attributed to Michael Grade on his appointment as chairman-designate of the BBC. I do not believe that the governors can do both jobs. It would be better if the BBC had a model such as a management committee on which there would be a number of non-executive directors. The board of governors should have a separate responsibility to regulate the BBC until such time as Ofcom, perhaps, wanted to take over that function. I am concerned also about parliamentary accountability, a subject which we will need to debate more fully on another day.

I am concerned also that we do not yet give independent producers enough opportunities. Perhaps 1,000 independent producers are members of Pact. They should be given full scope to contribute creatively to the diversity of British television. The BBC should be under an obligation to increase the proportion of its total programming that goes to independent producers. Currently, 12 per cent of the BBC's programming budget is paid to independent producers. That is a rather low figure; it should be about doubled. I agree with Pact on that. I also agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Currie, said in his foreword to the Ofcom report. It states:


    "The independent producers will play a key role in 'competition for quality', and a strong independent production sector is an important part of the mix to deliver effective PSB".

No one can say it better than that. I welcome the clear stance taken by Ofcom in supporting independent production.

We must be careful about how the BBC's commercial activities develop. One cannot really object to activities that follow on from original work done by the BBC. The problem arises when the BBC launches a new service that is in direct competition with an existing commercially funded service. That difficulty needs to be explored in a little more detail. Commercial initiatives funded by money raised by commercial producers themselves could be jeopardised by a body that is funded by the licensee.

I pay tribute to the BBC's radio work. Although the commercial radio sector offers very good programming, I very much enjoy and welcome the range of radio production that the BBC offers on national channels and also its local coverage of news and local events. It offers some of the highest quality radio broadcasting that I have heard in any country.

I appreciate that the BBC will go through further difficult times until the Hutton report is out of its system, the governance issues have been resolved and a new director-general is in place. However, I think that the House can rest assured that we will support the BBC in these endeavours. We wish it a successful future.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 337

6.6 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Barnett for the opportunity to talk about a very important issue, which I suspect will become hotly contested during the next 18 months. I am proud to speak as one of the band of past vice-chairmen of the BBC. The BBC is a precious asset to this country. As many previous speakers have said, it not only sets the benchmark for public service broadcasting, but also shapes the wider broadcasting ecology. Globally, it is vital for the reputation and standing of the UK. It is not an overstatement to say that the BBC is the envy of the world, which we must not forget during the charter review.

The periodic review that the charter review represents is important for taking stock and resetting the mandate for the BBC during the next 10 years. It should give the BBC the confidence to move ahead in an innovative and confident way in playing those roles. We should not be naive about the context in which the charter review is taking place. It is not an overstatement to say that the sharks are out. There are competitors with rather longer knives than during the previous charter review. Not only global broadcasting companies, but also the UK-based commercial sector, have a very different view of the BBC than was the case at the previous charter review. There are some people, including Members of both Houses, who feel that there are some old scores to settle.

In the review, we must not be stampeded by the Hutton report. With digital and multi-channel households, we must not be fazed that the review is taking place in a very different broadcasting environment. During what could be a very turbulent process, I urge the Minister and the Government to reflect on how much the BBC is valued and the contribution that it makes not only to the nation's cultural, social and political life, but also how much it enhances our global reputation. The Government need to have courage and maturity in the face of clamour to support the BBC into the future and they must not inadvertently damage it in an effort to appease its critics and competitors.

What kind of BBC do we want to see emerge from the charter review? Above all, it must be culturally and creatively vibrant, and needs a degree of security to allow it to exercise those qualities. The BBC needs to be independent and robust, particularly in the face of political pressure. I am sure that the new chairman will be so. The BBC needs to be a strong player in the competitive environment. Because of the current competitive nature of broadcasting commercially, the public service broadcaster—if it is to fulfil the role of promoting high standards of quality and impartiality—needs to be big and strong enough to play a real role in an increasingly competitive market place. The BBC needs to be a counterweight to the big global media companies that otherwise would dominate. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about media concentration. Indeed, the Government will experience the impact of media concentration in the run-up to the election in a distinctly unfortunate fashion.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 338

The BBC, post-charter, needs to be an institution that is responsive and transparently accountable. It needs to be able to fulfil the remit of serving the public with a wide and distinctive range of media and channels. The charter review must ensure that all these qualities are protected, developed and promoted.

While the review will have to deal with a whole range of issues, I shall focus on only a few. First, I turn to the issue of scale and the BBC. I think that "BBC" ought to stand for "big but close" because although the BBC is an immense organisation, its scale and range is important to the public as individuals and communities at the local level as well as at the national and international levels. The BBC must be able to speak to the public and fulfil its public sector remit through a wide variety of media and channels, reaching a range of people with programmes that meet their needs, including popular entertainment. We need to see outreach to communities and the wider public through the new digital channels on TV and radio, and online. Even though some of the developments of these new channels has been controversial—some are still finding their way—I believe that they form an important part of the public service remit. They must be distinctive in order to meet the needs of particular sectors of the community for whom this channel or that delivery medium is the way that they want to receive public service television, radio or information.

I look forward to considering in detail the Ofcom public service broadcasting review, although I hope that the definition of "public service broadcasting" remains sufficiently wide and diverse. The BBC's competitors would love to see public service broadcasting, and therefore the BBC, put into a small box labelled, "Please produce only uncontroversial and unpopular programmes that no one wants to watch".

I turn to the funding of the BBC. It has been a delight to hear support expressed in the debate for the licence fee. The arguments from the last round of debates on the licence fee are still incredibly valid. Quite frankly, it is a miracle that BBC television still reaches 89 per cent of the population. Most households in the land benefit from their pifflingly small annual investment when compared with their Sky subscription. Moreover, the licence fee remains the best way to fund an independent, robust and innovative public service broadcaster. The advertising market is insufficient, while subscription is regressive and would bear down unfairly on poorer households. A top slice which could be allocated to all public service broadcasters would, I believe, lead to wastefully competitive bidding processes and risk micro-management by government. The licence fee provides sufficient security and scope to enable the public service broadcaster to exercise the flexibility, innovation and distinctiveness called for by many noble Lords who have spoken in the debate.

I shall touch on the commercial activities of the BBC. I am a mean Scot. Having paid my licence fee for many years, I want to benefit from it. There is an immense amount of material, both archival and current, which the BBC must exploit commercially if

21 Apr 2004 : Column 339

we are to achieve value for money for our past investment. The commercial activities of the BBC are fully subject to the economic regulator and to competition law. The BBC is simply exploiting assets that we have already paid for and, in doing so, it must be meticulous about adhering to fair competition policy and be transparent in meeting competition law and regulatory requirements. But let us see more of that hidden wealth we have paid for being exploited in ways that present it to other audiences while bringing funding back in to enhance the licence fee and thus the public service offering.

I want to talk about a subject also touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam; that is, the BBC and independent production. One of the risks of a "big but close" BBC is that it can act a little like a farrowing sow. I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is not in his place. As a pig farmer, he would understand what I am talking about. Pigs have an unhappy knack of rolling over and squashing their piglets without realising that they are doing so. Sometimes the BBC can behave like that towards the independent sector. If the BBC is truly to condition the broadcasting ecology, it must become and clearly be seen to be the friend of the independent production sector. The 25 per cent independent production quota should be a floor rather than a ceiling and the BBC should take a positive approach to independent commissioning in order to help promote a vibrant broadcasting market.

Many noble Lords have touched on the issue of governance and accountability. I, too, add my congratulations to Michael Grade. I think it is the right appointment and an excellent choice. He will be robust in his championship of the BBC and of public service broadcasting. But it is clear that the governors and the new chairman must get the governance right in the run-up to the charter review. It is important that that is gripped early, long before it becomes a charter issue. There needs to be a robust review of governance and a redefinition of the role of the governors in order to rebuild respect in the governance of the BBC.

However, I do not believe that it is sensible to split the role of the regulator and the role of the non-executive director in the BBC. The organisation has only one purpose, and that is public service according to its public service remit. Both as regulators and as governors, they should be seeking to ensure that that single purpose is delivered. I do not think that there are two roles here.

For all other issues—commercial competition, taste, decency and so forth—the BBC is already subject to Ofcom and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Currie will hold the BBC's feet to the fire on those matters, as indeed he should. But I do not believe that there is a true distinction to be made between the role of the governors in regulating the BBC and their role in ensuring that the executives deliver the public service purpose. It is also slightly risky to have all of our broadcasters subject to a single regulator on issues of impartiality in a hotly contested and politically fraught area.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 340

Those are the issues that will have to be tackled by the charter review. A last one that was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, is this: let us not entertain any ideas that the charter should last for only five years. If we want a BBC that is timid, uninnovative and constantly looking over its shoulder because it is subject to permanent review, a five-year charter is the sure and certain way of achieving that. Let us look forward to a robust review, but let us not lose sight of the fact that in swimming with sharks, the very qualities of breadth, impartiality and vibrancy that make the BBC the envy of the world must not be lost.

6.17 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I, too, thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, on securing a slot to debate this subject. I speak as another former regulator, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has already pointed out.

I have listened to and very much applauded the considerable warmth expressed by previous speakers in their views of the BBC, but of course there has been criticism as well, and I have sympathy with some of it. We have heard today, as we hear in other forums, a discussion, for example, of the role and effectiveness of the governors, their lack of financial accountability, and whether the BBC should be fully regulated by Ofcom. These are not new points, of course, but they deserve and get, I am sure, rigorous scrutiny. However, they are only one side of the case.

I have found it interesting to note that there is rather less criticism of what the BBC actually does, delivers and produces. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, mentioned some valid and very real areas of criticism and concern, but the quality, integrity, availability, diversity and popularity of its radio and TV products remain almost universally commended. They are not just commended, but are appreciated much more fundamentally than that. Indeed, the most striking feature of this continuing debate wherever it is held is the growing realisation by concerned citizens of precisely how important to them is the whole concept of British public service broadcasting. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, dwelt on this point.

People know in their bones that the BBC sets a world standard in the quality of broadcast material, both in the UK and beyond. It is in that context that, unarguably, the BBC is the gold standard bearer; the Reithian standard against which all other broadcasters are judged, and which some of them—Channel 4 and S4C, for example—can certainly sometimes match or exceed. Above all, perhaps, what people see and appreciate is the public value of its output for the UK citizen's quality of life—a matter very convincingly set out in Mark Byford's recent speech to the Foreign Press Association—supporting democracy through independent, high quality, accurate and impartial news and current affairs; creating or partnering original ambitious British cultural programmes such as "The Canterbury Tales" and the "Big Read"; and its contributions as the biggest commissioner of music in the world. I refer also to educational support, through its co-operation with the OU; its revision services for GCSE students; pioneering

21 Apr 2004 : Column 341

expensive yet invaluable programmes such as the "Blue Planet" and, of course, the continuingly brilliant wildlife programmes of David Attenborough; and only last week we had the fascinating life and achievements of Josiah Wedgwood.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, the BBC has a universally respected global role, not only as the world's most trusted news provider but also in its role linking countries and communities and showcasing British creativity. There has never been a time when the need for the BBC World Service was greater. As your Lordships will see from page 21 of this week's The House Magazine, it is responding very well to that need. But we—the world indeed—cannot expect to have the BBC World Service without the core values of the BBC itself.

How many other publicly funded bodies and institutions in our society—or, for that matter, in any other society—can credibly make the same kind of claim to our respect? Local authorities? Hospitals? Railways? Universities? Some can, thank heavens, and still do so—but less and less, I fear. And why? Because they have become less and less independent and more and more dependent, from year to year, on Exchequer finance and the Treasury's hold on the purse strings. The greater the dependence on government-controlled money, the greater the damage to quality and independence. The recent debate on the university Bill illustrated that.

The BBC's success and independence depend, above all, on guaranteed access for a period of years ahead—and here I could not agree more—to something like the licence fee. I hope it remains for a full 10 years. I know that that is what Her Majesty's Treasury dislikes—a hypothecated tax—but it is the key reason, in my view and that of others, for the real independence of the BBC; independence not only from government, of course, but of purely commercial pressures such as audience figures and advertising revenue. The BBC knows that its owners, shareholders, citizens and viewers have a wider perspective than that: public value and diversity, as well as popularity.

The BBC knows, too, that it is more accountable in the broadest sense—its reputation matters—but more is expected of it. Noble Lords may be surprised to hear me say that in the light of Hutton, where it clearly made a mistake. Of course, who does not sometimes? But it was exposed to detailed public examination of a fairly ruthless kind, and probably rightly so. I acknowledge certainly that quality sometimes falters—one word, "Gilligan", sums that up—but, by the same token, even the Law Lords, noble and learned though they certainly are, sometimes nod. I doubt whether any of your Lordships would wish to condemn them on the strength of one word—"Pinochet", for example.

Would any other broadcaster have been similarly savaged? I do not think so. It would not have been seen as so important; our expectations would have been lower. Not so for the BBC. It knows, as we know, that it could properly be called to account, to appear in the dock in person. How many other media channels or

21 Apr 2004 : Column 342

newspapers could or would have been challenged so directly? Would any others have been so expected and so ready to expose themselves in that way?

Can any of your Lordships recall any occasion when any newspaper or TV station proprietor and his chief executive or editor resigned their office because of a factual error in their output, and then followed it up with an apology as handsome as that made in the House by the noble Lord, Lord Ryder? Of course not. But coming from the BBC, we were not quite surprised, just because it is, and remains, different.

Given that case, I, like many noble Lords, am clear about one thing. It is not that there is no case for change in anything about the BBC—of course there is—and the rapidly changing competitive digital world in which it operates makes that inevitable. We must be ready to examine with candour and with courage all these areas, but it is for those who want to make such changes to prove their case for making them—all the more so if the changes they seek to make are fundamental.

As we await the result, like many of your Lordships, I wish to congratulate the new chairman, Michael Grade. In my role as a regulator in the past I had one or two brushes with him, but the quality and the spirit of the new chairman is very appropriate for the current moment.

6.26 p.m.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I am pleased to congratulate my noble friend Lord Barnett on introducing the debate. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, is in his place. It was, of course, the noble Lords, Lord Hussey and Lord Barnett, who were chairman and deputy chairman at a particularly important time in the BBC. The great praise that I can offer them both is that it is they who could have saved the BBC as we have known it.

During their period as chairman and deputy chairman, Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, opposed the BBC licence fee, which she condemned outright as a compulsory levy with criminal sanctions. How far she might have wished to reduce the position of the BBC we can only speculate.

I have always felt that their efforts, not the arguments, and the emollient way in which they opposed the wishes of the Prime Minister of the day was the equivalent of that of Sheherezade. Again and again, following a number of meetings, they were successful in delaying any action. And so the noble Lords, Lord Hussey and Lord Barnett, helped to preserve the BBC as we have known it. It is a great tribute to them both.

My contribution to the debate is based on the profound admiration that I have had for many years of the BBC. Of course it makes mistakes, but there are many people for whom I have high praise—some in this House—and they make mistakes too; we all do. But they should not be judged only on those errors; we have to look at the whole person—or, in the case of the BBC, the whole institution.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 343

I believe that the BBC is one of our two greatest institutions. The two greatest institutions in our country are the BBC and our Civil Service. It is a terribly sad reflection of our times that these are the two institutions which are under the greatest threat at the present time. Those who admire them both must speak out strongly in their support.

A major strength of the BBC is that we turn to it at times of crisis or of national importance. The BBC sets standards from which others cannot depart too far. It has shown its integrity and its independence and, faced with a quite unwarranted attack, sought to defend itself. It is a British institution in which one places much confidence and, as we have seen, those who attempt to denigrate the BBC find that it readily rebounds upon them. The assertion is that the BBC ought to have verified the 45 minutes with an ardour that the Government themselves did not verify in their own claim that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed in that time.

The question is: which media group is perfect? The obvious answer is "none". What we who admire the BBC can claim is that, overall, in its news programmes, it is reliable and trustworthy. The BBC does not answer to advertisers; it is not beholden to them, yet it is measured by one yardstick and much of the rest of the media is judged by another, more flexible one.

What is deeply deplorable, and even menacing, is the way in which one report, which included an inaccuracy, was used to attack the BBC and to bring about the departure of its chairman and chief executive. We all know that, from looking at some countries, the BBC must not be the Government's lapdog. It must not be bullied, a point that my noble friend Lord Dubs made very well. That is why Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke had to demonstrate their independence, particularly because of their political background. What was wrong was the wholly intemperate way in which the Government attacked the BBC—not just Andrew Gilligan. In the face of the constant and unremitting pressure from Alastair Campbell, they had to demonstrate a sturdy defiance. The torrent produced a feeling that their independence was under attack. Their behaviour was honourable. If the representations had been less vehement, an accommodation could, I believe, have easily been reached.

When one looks at the inaccuracies of Fleet Street journalism, one is impressed by the standards of the BBC. The Government do not often attack Fleet Street with its sometimes deplorable standards, but have chosen the BBC, which has the highest standards of all the media. By contrast, the way in which the BBC has reported fairly the attacks upon its own integrity, including even unflattering stories about itself, is impressive.

Comments have been made about the independence and standards of Channel 4 and ITV 1 and 2. I acknowledge this valuable aspect. The question we have to ask is how much of this is due to the standards set by the BBC. The noble Lord, Lord Currie, accepted

21 Apr 2004 : Column 344

this important role. This is an important yardstick, and we all benefit from it. If the yardstick were removed, where would the commercial temptations lead us?

The governors cannot just be independent monitors—the noble Baroness, Lady Young, was right. They are seen, quite correctly, as supportive of the BBC's role. What is required is an overall view of the work of the corporation and the capacity to advise—sometimes robustly—but it should not be unsympathetic external advice. As my noble friend Lord Barnett pointed out, there is no evidence of failure by the governors. Of course they can make mistakes, but any mistakes must be seen in the context of 80 glorious years of British broadcasting. We may come up with some improvements in the way in which the governors are selected and run their affairs, but the greater danger is the consequence of charter renewal, which may do too much. We have to beware of that.

I was chairman of the National Audit Office for 14 years. The main reason for that, of course, is that we were not very successful in winning elections during that period. The National Audit Office is a magnificent body. It expanded, and I had the privilege of proposing the present leader of the NAO—the Comptroller and Auditor-General. It does a splendid job, but when it comes to risk-taking, there are real problems. Of course it can see to financial rectitude and it can understand risk-taking in the Ministry of Defence field. But when it comes to risk-taking in particular areas where the BBC and the arts are concerned, it does not have that kind of expertise and it is not easy to see how it could obtain it. That is why I think we should retain the present position, and that the governor's powers should not be reduced.

On the renewal of the charter, I hope that we will reach a political consensus. It would be very sad if this becomes a political football, as some people have thought. However, I hope that we shall come to appreciate that this was a period when things went slightly wrong and that we can see the wider picture and make sure that the BBC stays with us as the important embodiment of our culture and our society as we have known it.

6.35 p.m.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, noble Lords on these Benches congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, on getting this slot today, not least for mentioning, in such favourable terms, his impression of the Liberal Democrat views about public service broadcasting. We are grateful for his reference to my honourable friend's remarks in The House Magazine and elsewhere. They were reinforced by my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth.

We on these Benches believe very firmly that the BBC should remain the dominant institution in public service broadcasting and in the country's broadcasting landscape. That is not to say that we do not recognise that as we come up to the charter renewal—the Government recognise this because, otherwise, they would not be consulting so widely on it. We are at a difficult point. I do not quite follow the point of the

21 Apr 2004 : Column 345

noble Lord, Lord Dubs, as to why Hutton should have changed public service broadcasting so radically. I can see that it has been changed in the short term, but I cannot see that it has been altered for all time. Perhaps we can have a chat about that outside the Chamber.

I am probably just over the average age of Members of your Lordships' House. I always used to think that I was younger but as I looked around the Chamber tonight while listening to the debate I saw so many young and distinguished faces from the broadcasting industry and I realised that I have been glued to a radio or television set for most of what will be my 69 years.

I had a peripatetic youth. I was born before the war, as my age indicates, and was moved around during the war. I have jotted down on my piece of paper what were the most extraordinary moments in broadcasting that I experienced. I think my most extraordinary memory is of a summer's day in 1943, I think, listening to "ITMA" on the radio in the middle of the day when the sky was black with American bombers going on daylight bombing raids. There was a curious incongruity to this extraordinary happening in the sky and this wonderful programme with catch-phrases that held everybody so enthralled.

I never saw television until the coronation of Her Majesty the Queen in 1953. I saw it in France, where I was spending a short time with a family before going into the Army. I was asked to a very large gathering in the smart 16th arrondissement to see the BBC's relayed programme of that extraordinary event. It was a very wet day, as your Lordships who were alive at the time will recall. The French audience, who were affluent and elderly, were spellbound during the broadcast. Much to my embarrassment—I had only just turned 18—when it was time to leave, everybody shook my hand as they went out of the door. I always thought the reason for that was their admiration for our monarchy, but I now realise that it probably was not. It was the recognition that they were seeing first-class television broadcasting.

I have to say that since that day, broadcasting has been rather a disappointment to me. I remain firmly a radio listener. I have jotted down what I listen to and what I watch, and for a parliamentarian, I watch and listen to quite a lot. On the radio, I listen to "Today"; on Mondays, I listen to "Start the Week", and on Thursday mornings I listen, when I can, to the programme of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg—"The Moral Maze"—though that may give an inflated view of my intellectual capacity.

When it comes to television, it is not quite so encouraging. Almost every night I watch "Newsnight". I also watch "Have I Got News For You", snooker—whenever it is broadcast—and I switch to Sky for the boxing on Saturdays. I watch the History Channel and repeats of "Seinfeld" and "Dad's Army". As noble Lords may gather, I have some interest in France having spent my formative years there, so I sometimes watch the French satellite channel TV5.

On a serious note, we must decide what public broadcasting is all about. I do not think that that debate has been fully entered into. The Government

21 Apr 2004 : Column 346

are clearly trying to influence this debate and they are going about it in a sensible way. We all know about quality. I was interested to hear two very experienced noble Lords mention "beyond quality innovation". That is a great thing for the public service broadcaster—something it can do with the kind of funding that it has. It can be dangerous from time to time; it should be able to afford to fail. That is where there could be a conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, mentioned the National Audit Office. If the National Audit Office is going to overlook what has already been done by the in-house auditor, inevitably, if it sees what is perceived to be a waste of money or something that does not offer value-for-money, it will start to find things that can be disposed of. Innovation will surely be one of those. That is a serious matter that must be addressed.

I am surprised that nobody has mentioned the Elstein report clarifying the purpose of public service broadcasting, which our excellent Library gave to me. It seems almost taboo to mention the report, but I found it absolutely riveting. It dug away at things and pushed to the boundary discussion about what was perceived to be wrong with the present public service broadcaster. People have been put off by the solutions that were given, and I agree about that. However, to have dug away at some of the problems of the public service broadcaster and the difficulties that it faced was very brave. It is an extremely interesting report to read. I recall that it said that it was necessary to clarify the purpose. As a result of DCMS consultation, I hope that the purpose will be clarified. In 80 years, the purposes must surely have changed quite radically.

The need for pluralism nowadays is clear. Although I described it with a sense of humour, my eclectic watching is not unusual. Most people nowadays have broad interests. We do not all gather round the next day and discuss the same programme. We all have our own interests. Pluralism is very important in public service broadcasting. The whole landscape of advertising revenue means that the responsibility for public service broadcasting output is almost entirely with the BBC. Channel 4 and ITV cannot, without great difficulty, fulfil their public service remit, which is damaging.

The reputation of the BBC will outlive hiccups such as the Hutton report and, should a satisfactory settlement be reached for the review, the BBC will go on for some time to come. There is an interesting question in the DCMS's report, which asks:


    "Should the BBC provide something for everyone?"

That strikes me as an important question. Can the BBC today possibly maintain its quality if it has to provide something for everyone? After all, we are a very widely constituted society. We are a multicultural, multi-racial and multi-religious society. We must have some objective standards or aims about what public service broadcasting will deliver, otherwise I fear that we will see too much effort to please everybody.

The way that the educative, entertainment and information roles are carried out will decide the future of the BBC. It will only carry on through the support of the licence fee payer—the public at large. It must do that with

21 Apr 2004 : Column 347

quality and without derivative programmes—I absolutely agree with the noble Lords, Lord Currie and Lord Puttnam, about derivative and celebrity-led programmes, which represent the state of affairs in much of our theatre now.

Was Gavyn Davies right? I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, asked whether changing the dominant position and advantage of the BBC within the broadcasting environment would open the door to political interference and commercial pressure. That is a very important question. The Elstein report did not agree, which is interesting. Surely, the continuing threat to the independence of the BBC is the Government's control of the licence fee, which they always hold over the BBC. It needs a leader with enormous strength of personality. I echo what other noble Lords have said about the appointment of Michael Grade. He is remarkable. Incidentally, if noble Lords ever go to dinner with Mr Grade, they should get him to do his impersonation of Tommy Cooper because it is by far the best I have ever heard.

Time is short. There is no more that I can say to a distinguished House full of noble Lords who have great experience in this subject. I am being watched very closely by my noble friend Lord McNally here beside me, who has flown in from Bulgaria—although not to hear my speech. He would have been making this speech, and with his robust good humour, he would probably have touched nerves that I cannot reach. There is no time to go into some of the interesting things that have been said. My recommendation to noble Lords who have not been present this evening is for them to read the Hansard report of the debate, because it has been fascinating.

On a final note, I am absolutely addicted to radio. Please leave it in the public sector. Whatever happens, please let it be publicly financed to maintain its quality in the future. If we think back to pre-television days, the reputation of the BBC was founded on the importance of radio to people in this country.

6.47 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I will immediately follow the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, in saying that I am also completely addicted to Radio 4. It has been as much a part of my education as anything else, so I entirely agree with what he said. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, for raising this important debate to call attention to the forthcoming BBC charter renewal. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich on his excellent maiden speech. I am rather sorry about our tradition of not being controversial, because we should use these opportunities early on in this period of charter renewal to be a little controversial and radical and think about all the possibilities for the future of the BBC. I have had a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Ryder, to say how sorry he is that he could not attend this debate. The governors of the BBC are busy discussing their document today, so he cannot be with us, which is a great shame.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 348

We welcome the appointment of Michael Grade as the new chairman of the BBC. I have always thought that he has a great deal of chutzpah and I join the grandchildren of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in saying that I guess that also means "bling".

This is a crucial time for the future of public service broadcasting. The broadcasting landscape has changed dramatically since the last charter renewal process, with the advent of new technology such as digitalisation, the increasing numbers of channels and availability of new platforms for delivery allowing greater diversity in programming choice, both in radio and television. Most notably, the expansion of the Internet and services such as BBC Online have meant that we now have greater choice in how, where and when we access information.

This charter renewal period offers the opportunity to consider the position and role of the BBC as an institution. The numerous issues to be addressed in this review are challenging and wide-ranging. At this early stage, definitive solutions to change should not be offered until the responses to the first phase of the consultation process have been digested. Furthermore, the BBC's submission to the review will not be made until the incoming chairman and director-general have assessed their position.

In May 2003, the Conservative Party consulted an independent group, which calls itself the Broadcasting Policy Group. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred to the Elstein report. The group was asked to address the key issues that it believed required reform within the charter renewal process. The resulting report was designed to stimulate debate, both within the Conservative Party and the broadcasting arena as a whole. Although some of the report's proposals are very radical, I believe that if we are to have an open and honest debate about the key issues that affect the future of the BBC, wide-ranging options on differing sides of the broadcasting spectrum must be introduced. We must make full use of the opportunity, but those options must be considered with great care, and always with an eye to the future, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said, bearing in mind the keen competition that the BBC will face.

The Government's charter renewal consultation paper begins by asking,


    "what do you value about the BBC?".

The BBC's role as a public service broadcaster is a central part of the British broadcasting ecology, although public service obligations are additionally conferred on the three terrestrial commercial channels. It is therefore of fundamental importance that the role and remit of the BBC as the dominant public service broadcaster is clearly defined. The charter states that the function of the BBC is to inform, educate and entertain. In return, the citizens of the United Kingdom expect the BBC to provide, among other services, impartial and accurate news programmes that they can trust.

I refer to a recent report by the Centre for Policy Studies to provide an example of why the BBC must ensure that these obligations are met. The report is entitled, An Outbreak of Narcolepsy—why the BBC must

21 Apr 2004 : Column 349

improve its coverage of the EU. The report addresses the increasing role played by the European Union in our national political life and concludes that this position is not adequately reflected by the BBC's coverage in this area. The time allocated to this important topic is of increasing significance. Only yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that following the enlargement of the EU on 1 May, the electorate should be asked for their opinion on the adoption of the European constitution. The CPS report found that since the European parliamentary elections in 1999, the time devoted by the main BBC television news bulletins was just 2.6 per cent. The report states that an analysis of the BBC's coverage of the EU also reveals an underlying assumption that listeners would find European politics dreary.

The question of the ratification of the European constitution is of fundamental importance to this nation. The relevant issues need to be covered comprehensively, thus allowing the electorate to make an informed, educated decision about their country's future governance. Suggestions to remedy the problem include the adoption of an EU affairs slot on news services and the appointment of a European affairs editor to ensure that the BBC's public service obligation in this area is fulfilled. These proposals should be considered by the BBC in light of this report. While the press provides alternative views on whether the EU constitution should be adopted, the BBC will be required to provide a balanced and impartial approach to the issues pertinent to this referendum.

I turn now to the question of funding. How the BBC is financed has long been one of the most contentious and debated aspects of its organisation. The main funding alternatives have been outlined in many reports, including the Peacock committee report in 1986 and Davies report of the Independent Review Panel in July 1999. The Davies panel, asked to consider how the licence fee could be supplemented rather than replaced, concluded that,


    "from the BBC's point of view, the licence fee is the best way to finance public service broadcasting. The security of regular income allows the BBC to take a long term perspective . . . however, the downside, as with all forms of guaranteed, tax based revenue is that it frees the BBC from the need to respond to changing consumer preferences".

The primary funding alternatives available include advertising, voluntary and compulsory subscription and the licence fee. I do not believe that advertising would provide an acceptable means of funding the BBC. Advertising spend is finite, and the ability of commercial broadcasters to make high-quality programming should not be compromised in any way. We need to ensure that the broadcasters subject to public service obligations remain in a commercially sustainable position in future. Furthermore, as Professor Eric Barendt—Goodman professor of media law at University College, London—said recently,


    "introducing advertising on some or all of the BBC's public services would be likely to alter the range and quality of BBC programmes, leading inexorably to a more populist and less distinctive schedule. The programmes would have to attract high spending audiences . . . which could force the BBC to cut back on challenging and innovative programming . . . or to reschedule minority programmes out of peak times".

21 Apr 2004 : Column 350

Clear advantages exist in the development of subscription-based funding. Subscription could take a number of forms, such as voluntary, compulsory or individual programme subscription. The main advantage with this system of funding is that payment could be made on an individual or "per home" basis depending on programmes watched and number of television sets owned, as well as ability to pay. The BBC is central to the public service broadcasting ethos. At present, a voluntary subscription service would not be desirable as a method of funding the BBC, as it could dilute the fundamental principles of public service broadcasting, such as universality and social inclusion.

A gradual move towards compulsory subscription could be considered as an alternative to the licence fee. Compulsory subscription would provide a determinable income stream for the BBC but would also facilitate the forthcoming digital switchover. The compulsory subscription rate could include core BBC public service radio and television channels with the option to take further additional channels if desired. This method of funding would allow the citizen an element of choice as to which niche BBC channels they receive. However, reception of the core channels could be, as at present, a mandatory requirement. Compulsory subscription would allow the administrative costs in collecting the licence fee to be considerably reduced.

The increased availability of new technology, such as wireless Internet connection, which provides immediate access to high-speed streaming data services anywhere, including restaurants and coffee bars, warrants further consideration. WI-FI, as with a fixed internet connection, allows users to watch live, real-time BBC news broadcasts on their computer wherever they are in the world. As convergence continues and technology improves, the computer user will be able to access more data and programming via the Internet.

How the licence fee would provide a viable long-term funding mechanism for the BBC and the funding issues presented by this new technology must be fully considered. I believe, in light of the rapid advancement of technology, that the current renewal period of 10 years is long. Perhaps a shorter period of seven or even five years should be considered.

I find the proposal by Carol Tongue and David Ward to establish a council for public service broadcasting of particular interest. Their submission to the BBC charter review public consultation proposes that,


    "it is necessary in the first instance for the issue of funding to be removed from the primary political domain and from lobbying by the BBC and other interested parties".

An alternative body, albeit with distinct powers, was suggested by the Broadcasting Policy Group.

It is imperative that the governance of the BBC is independent from both governmental influence and from the BBC's executive structure. The current system, whereby the governors are both the regulators and champions of the BBC, is not tenable and will become increasingly unsustainable. Here I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Indeed, I have strong sympathy with the view that the current board of governors does not in essence adequately reflect the

21 Apr 2004 : Column 351

diverse interests of society. A transparent, accountable and external constitution must be put in its place. I urge the Government to consider an alternative structure that allows the BBC to remain strong and independent. The word "independence", which the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, focused on in the first place, is the most important word in this debate. We also welcome the publication today of Ofcom's review of public service broadcasting, Is television special? I listened with care to what the noble Lord, Lord Currie, had to say this evening.

I see that my time is up, but I want quickly to touch on one important area relating to the BBC's commercial activities. The BBC continues to work hard to try to persuade us that its commercial activities remain at arm's length from its publicly funded activities. However, in truth there are areas where the BBC is blatantly abusing its powerful brand, for example, in areas of cross-promotion. The BBC will, I fear, undermine its reputation as a public service broadcaster, diminish its ability to defend its core purposes and weaken the UK broadcasting industry as a whole if it does not take up this issue with care.

On the positive side of its commercial activities, I join the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in urging the BBC to consider ways of using its incredibly valuable intellectual property worldwide to commercial advantage—more funding for greater investment in quality programming makes good sense.

I wish that I had more time to respond to my noble friend's passionate speech about programme content. The process of charter renewal has just begun. We need more time for debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said the other evening in the debate on higher education, there is never enough time to say what needs to be said. I wonder if it might be possible for those of your Lordships who are particularly interested in this matter to meet informally. Personally, I believe that together we could make a valuable contribution. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, who said that political consensus is what is required here. It is something that we in your Lordships' House could really look to. In that way I believe that we could make a really valuable, worthwhile and long-term contribution to the debate and therefore to the future of our most loved BBC.

7.1 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My Lords, the month of March 2004 was a horrible month for me. I spent a good deal of it travelling round the country—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions—on behalf of my department taking part in the public consultation on the charter review. At this point I look carefully at my officials in the Box who are lovely people.

I visited independent producers and watched children in Govan, Glasgow conduct a debate on the licence fee. I visited children in Southampton who had

21 Apr 2004 : Column 352

their own TV studio in their school. I talked to BBC and other public service broadcasters. I held industry seminars and rather unsuccessful public meetings. All of those people had the right to say what they thought about the BBC. The only person who did not have that right was me. I do not care for that. I am not known as a person without opinions. The same position applies today. The only opinion I can pronounce on behalf of the Government as we get into the public consultation process is that we believe that the outcome will be a BBC which is strong and independent of government.

The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, extended that to the BBC being independent of advertising as well. I was about to say that I had some sympathy with that but that would be going beyond my remit. However, I heard what he said. I am grateful to the noble Lord both for finding a slot for this debate and for the way in which he introduced it. All of the comments that have been made and the very many deeply felt views which have been expressed today are now part of the consultation process, or will be when Hansard is published tomorrow morning. It is difficult to beat the sound bite of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, about the role of the BBC in making popular TV good and good TV popular. I think that he would agree to extend that to radio, but that comment sums up what many of us think about the BBC. It was a good introduction to what has been a good debate.

It was a particular privilege to hear the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. If he will give me the relevant phone number, perhaps I can make my reservation for his future speeches because certainly today's speech was an excellent maiden speech. He referred to religious broadcasting. He may know that under the guidance, with the help of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, we have, as we undertook to do during the debates on the Communications Act, convened a very wide-ranging meeting on religious broadcasting which will take place on 30 June this year. At that meeting we shall hear a very wide range of views on the issues on which the right reverend Prelate touched in his speech.

As I am not in a position to express opinions, all that I can really do in the time that is available to me is to say something about the way in which we are approaching the charter review. It is fortunate that the debate is taking place on the day on which Ofcom presented its findings and conclusions on stage one of its review of public service broadcasting. That was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Thomson and Lord Puttnam, and, of course, by the noble Lord, Lord Currie. The great thing about the report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Currie, referred, is that the very wide-ranging research carried out by Ofcom showed continuing public support for the BBC and for a greater social purpose for the BBC. The report maintains the duality between the role of citizen and consumer. The Ofcom report states that even if, with wider choice, the role of the BBC in maintaining the interest of the consumer fades away, the role of the BBC in protecting the role of the citizen will continue and, indeed, be strengthened. That makes it all the

21 Apr 2004 : Column 353

more perverse that Ofcom still insists on using the portmanteau word "consumer". I acquit it of any charge of abandoning the citizen, but it is going about it in a very strange way.

However, having said that, our own consultation activity, which has been going since December, is proceeding very well. In early December we distributed more than 400,000 leaflets on request to public libraries, local government offices and anyone who would take them. We distributed 200,000 leaflets to Take a Break on 4 March. As I said, we have held public meetings and consultation visits throughout the United Kingdom to allow people to speak directly to Ministers about the issues. We have also given children and young people an opportunity to have their say. There have been around 5,500 responses to the initial consultation, including a large number from interested organisations and the broadcasting industry. We have had 26,000 visitors to the charter review website. All of this work is hugely complicated to analyse but we are now engaged in the analysis process although clearly it is too early for me to give any indication of the thrust of that.

Following that analysis we shall carry out our own research and, around the turn of the year, we shall publish a Green Paper in which we shall reach preliminary conclusions and in which we shall isolate some of the significant and viable options which might arise from the consultation process. At the same time we have ensured the independence of the process by putting in place a strong adviser to underscore our commitment to objectivity. As is well known, that adviser is the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who will chair a small independent panel to help to marshal the arguments and set out the options for consideration.

All of this was started early to ensure that we have adequate time to debate the issues and develop what will replace the current charter on 1 January 2007. Following our Green Paper to be produced at the turn of the year, a White Paper will follow in 2005. They will take into account the results of major consultation exercises, the first of which closed at the end of March, as I said. At that stage, we must clearly think about parliamentary scrutiny. I do not think that any agreement has been reached with the authorities or usual channels in either House about what the parliamentary scrutiny will be, but I give an undertaking that it will be no less thorough than the scrutiny that took place on the previous occasion.

I have done most of what I am able to do. There are a few factual points that noble Lords raised to which I can respond. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to digital coverage and the fact that about 25 per cent of the population is not able to receive digital terrestrial television. I hope that he realises that the significance of that is that we have said that we shall not undertake the switch-off of analogue television until the act of switch-off makes available, from analogue spectrum, the same coverage of digital television as there has been. We cannot achieve 100 per cent before switching over, but we can achieve the same proportion when we carry out the switchover itself.

21 Apr 2004 : Column 354

The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, had some very valuable things to say about the coverage of European issues in broadcasting and by the BBC. In particular, she spoke on the need for impartiality in considering those issues. Now that we shall have a referendum, that is even more important. The existing charter and agreement ensure that the governors exercise responsibility for impartiality, and that the BBC treats,


    "controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality, both in the Corporation's news services and in the more general field of programmes dealing with matters of public policy or of political or industrial controversy".

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, queried the timing of the charter review process and suggested that the charter should be reduced to five years.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page