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As we say in the report, the chairman of the BBC is not subject to any formal contract because the chairman—and, rather surprisingly, members of the new BBC trust—are considered officeholders, not employees. Therefore, there was, for example, no “non-compete” clause to prevent Mr Grade accepting the offer to chair ITV, the BBC's main competitor. Mr Grade certainly made it clear in his evidence to the committee that, once in the saddle at ITV, he would not have acted on any confidential BBC information in his possession. However, not unnaturally, many

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licence fee payers would have been less than fully convinced by that. The mere fact of his leaving the BBC without a chairman before the final licence fee funding had been agreed would, if nothing else, have weakened the BBC's negotiating position and, for some, Mr Grade’s credibility.

This has been mentioned by other noble Lords and will no doubt be commented on by noble Lords, but I draw particular attention to our recommendation to include a six-month non-compete clause in the contract of any future appointment to the chairmanship of the BBC. I think that we should still stick to the six months as being a reasonable period, although I hear what my chairman said, and always listen very attentively to that.

That, and other details that we recommend for increased transparency about who chairs and serves on the Secretary of State's appointment panel and about the process to be followed will, I hope, also be accepted. There is very little doubt that many of the procedures adopted in the latest appointment process were worrying. For example, if it had turned out that the Secretary of State’s own added candidate had been chosen, as referred to in chapter 3, paragraph 22, that might have caused quite an eyebrow lifting. The appointment of Sir Michael Lyons was certainly appropriate. I was personally very impressed by his performance but, as we say in chapter 3, paragraph 18:

I also hope that the recommendation to involve both Houses in pre-appointment parliamentary scrutiny for the chairmanship of the BBC will, on reflection, be accepted. I say that with some reluctance myself, for my view has always been that the last thing needed by or for the BBC was further parliamentary involvement or oversight. The BBC has always managed to stand up to ministerial pressure from all political parties. However, post-Hutton and the subsequent BBC resignations, events have sadly changed all that. Now I feel that there must be a role for both Houses of Parliament for, in today's world, those procedures are more relevant. They also take account of the newly shared responsibilities between the BBC executive board and the BBC trust—about which we overheard in considerable detail, when important points have been made—and, perhaps especially, the trust’s enhanced accountability to the licence fee payer, as well as its additional regulatory responsibilities.

I have one more concern, which is that there may still be other appointments like those of the BBC which still do not fall completely within the scrutiny of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and/or follow Nolan principles. I asked the Library about that and it kindly sent me details of current practices, which I feel should reassure me. Is the BBC really the only remaining body that appears to have felt it safe to assume and to rely on honourable behaviour by a “great and good” incumbent, rather than spelling out what would not be acceptable behaviour?

I hope that we will get some more detailed answers to that but, be that as it may, personally I remain confident that the long-standing central sense of purpose and integrity of the BBC remains intact.

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There have been some recent problems. We may feel obliged to take some steps to buttress the BBC in the way that we have been discussing today, but we can still assume with some confidence that those qualities that have helped build the BBC as the great institution that it was and is still is today.

8.20 pm

Lord Maxton: My Lords, I welcome the debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, both for his speech introducing the debate and for his excellent chairmanship of the committee. He was absent abroad on one recent occasion and I had that onerous task. I have to say that, as a result, I am more appreciative of the work that he does. It is not easy. I am also grateful to him for dealing very fully with the report, allowing the rest of us to range a little wider than the report itself. I note that, with the exception of the noble Lord, I happen to be the only male Back-Bencher speaking in the debate. I do not believe that it has anything to do with football. My team went out last Saturday, so as a Scot I am of course less concerned about the result than the rest of you might be.

In a sense, we now have to move on. The charter has been agreed and set up. The chairman is there and, although we may have the process of selecting the next chairman within four years, it is likely that Sir Michael Lyons might be reappointed, so his chairmanship may extend to cover almost the whole of the charter period. It is therefore now our role to look at what exactly the chairman and the trust will do with the slightly limited powers that they now have. They obviously see themselves as regulators and as representatives of the licence fee payer. Like other members of the committee, I had reservations about the structure but, as I said, that is now in the past and it is time that we considered how this will work. In passing, I have reservations about the claim of the chairman and the trust to represent the licence fee payers. After all, licence fee payers are electors and constituents, so their real representatives in this matter are Members of Parliament, not an unelected trust.

What should the role of the chairman and the trust be? I believe that they should be the long-term strategic thinkers on the future of the BBC and the guardians of BBC standards. They should be regulators, not in the nit-picking way of regulating particular things but in considering whether the BBC is fulfilling the aims laid down for it in the charter.

As members of the committee might expect, I could spend a considerable time dealing with convergent technology and the role of the BBC in relation to it. I hope that the trust has already employed experts in convergent technology to give it advice on how broadcasting, or what I increasingly call “narrowcasting”, will look in 10 years and on how or even if the BBC can survive in this new world. It is very difficult to forecast the future when technology is changing so rapidly, but it must be the responsibility of the trust to try to make judgments and to ensure that the BBC has the capacity to adapt to change as it comes. So far, the BBC has been very

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good at this, but we must ensure that it continues to be so. We will move rapidly to a world where we will watch what we want to watch when and where we want to watch it. In this world, what will the role of a schedule-based broadcaster be? The BBC will have to become a programme producer rather than a schedule producer, but that is a role for the trust.

I shall address the rest of my remarks to the trust’s role as the protector of BBC standards. I hope that the BBC will for once accept criticism from someone who has been a very loyal supporter in my years on various media committees in both Houses of Parliament and who remains committed to the whole concept of a public service broadcaster such as the BBC.

At the heart of the BBC public service is a commitment to news. There is a growing concern both about how the news is presented and about its attitude to politics and politicians. That concern might be more widely felt on the government side than it is on other sides, but it should be appreciated by all. Everyone here believes that the BBC should never be threatened by political interference from any quarter. In return, however, politicians have a right to expect the BBC to fulfil its charter obligations to be educative, impartial and accurate in all that it does.

Let me give a small example of accuracy that has nothing to do with politics. It was given to me by my office companion, the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, of Fisherfield, who is a climber. The BBC has received awards for its “Mountain” series, in which Griff Rhys Jones was filmed climbing Ben Nevis and supposedly on the summit. Climbers, such as the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, and others, say that that is not the truth; he was not on the summit but two kilometres away and 129 metres lower down. It might not matter—the BBC has rather dismissed it—but if the BBC is careless with the truth in matters such as this, that gives rise to the question of trust in other things that it does.

I have three worries about news programmes on the BBC. First, they too often appear to lead with sensational news about individual cases rather than what I would consider to be the major news story of the day. It recently led the “Six O’Clock News” with about five minutes on the arrest of a suspected paedophile in, I think, Thailand. The third or fourth news item was the signing in Madrid of the new European treaty. Which is the most important? In my view, it is obviously the signing of the treaty.

Secondly, the BBC’s news coverage is too often negative. Very rarely is there any positive coverage about anything that politicians in particular and the Government do. This causes concern because, thirdly, whether we like it or not, the BBC is a vital part of the democratic structure of this country. It is the most trusted provider of news and views and is for many people the link between the electors and the elected. Elected representatives cannot meet all their constituents and discuss the issues of the day with them. That is simply a physical impossibility, as I know as a former MP. Their constituents therefore rely on the media, in particular the BBC, for the views

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and analysis of the issues of the day. It is therefore vital that the BBC is seen to be open, accountable and impartial in its reporting of politics and politicians. I therefore welcome the recent announcement by the trust that it has commissioned a review of the BBC news service, particularly in the nations and regions, with particular reference to impartiality. I must say in passing that the BBC is impartial; a large number of its correspondents sneer at all politicians, not simply at those of one particular party.

Let me make a few suggestions about what the trust should consider. First, it is important, as I have said, that the BBC and the rest of the media should be seen to be open and accountable. Members of the committee will know that I believe that the Freedom of Information Act should cover all aspects of the BBC, including the salaries, expenses and financial interests of those who report and give us the news. The BBC is, as I said, a vital part of the democratic structure. I fully supported the freedom of information legislation and believe that, if we are entitled to know about all other public bodies that are publicly funded, we are entitled to know about the BBC as well. It is very difficult for the BBC chairman and the trust to claim that they represent the licence fee payers when they are not prepared to tell them exactly how they spend their money.

Secondly, the chairman and the trust should carefully examine the way in which news and views are presented. Too many BBC newsreaders and presenters believe that hectoring politicians and giving them a hard time is their job. I do not believe that it is. Their task is to allow politicians and others of differing views to express themselves to the public in such a way as to give the public the opportunity to make up their own minds on different points of view. It may make good television or radio to have a self-opinionated, self-appointed guardian of what they see as the truth badgering a Minister or an opposition spokesman on the latest political story, but it does not educate the public.

Thirdly, and perhaps most important to the health of democracy, a culture of cynical contempt about politics and politicians pervades the BBC from the newsroom to almost all programmes. One of my favourite programmes is Michael Parkinson on a Sunday afternoon on the radio, mainly because he plays my sort of music. He has throwaway lines in which he shows his contempt for politicians. In that, he follows the example of people like John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. There are those in the media who understand this and deplore it. I believe that Jeremy Paxman has said that people such as him should always remember that the politicians whom they interview have been elected by the people of the country and that he has not. It is a pity that he does not often take his own advice. In his book, My Trade, Andrew Marr states that journalists and the media,

the politicians—



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The problem often seems to be that too many journalists in the BBC and elsewhere do not appreciate that democracy and politics are inseparable. They may be the reverse sides of a coin, but they are part of the same coin. You cannot damage politics without to some extent damaging democracy as well. There has been much criticism of politicians in the media about declining turnouts in all elections. Of course, politicians bear some responsibility, but those journalists and media commentators who are so free with their attacks should perhaps look in the mirror every morning and every night and ask themselves how much they are to blame in creating an unjustified cynicism among the public about politics that means that they see little point in voting.

The BBC in particular has an important role to play in creating an educated electorate in the most mature democracy in the world. That may make its political coverage less interesting, but there are times when the BBC’s role as educator and its responsibilities within a civic society are more important than its role as an entertainer. I hope that the new chairman and the trust will look carefully at the part that the BBC must play in a modern democracy, not just to ensure that licence fee payers are satisfied, but also to ensure that the elected politicians on whom the BBC ultimately depends for its existence are not increasingly alienated from them, as many of them are at present.

8.33 pm

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and to lend my support to the chair and fellow members of the Communications Committee. It is daunting to follow my noble friend and say anything that is even remotely original. I probably should not say this, but I enormously enjoy being a member of the committee. From the outset, it is important to say that this inquiry, its conclusions and our comments on the issues which broadly can be described as “what is the chairman of the BBC for?”— which I agree with my noble friend Lady McIntosh we did not quite work out—and “how he was appointed and whether that process served the public interest” are not a reflection on the capability or appropriateness of Sir Michael Lyons, the person appointed. I came to this inquiry as a novice on the committee. Many members had been investigating this and other BBC matters for some time.

During the inquiry, some matters were of broader concern than simply whether the mechanism by which the chairman of the BBC was appointed was right or not. As my noble friend Lord Maxton said, the BBC is an institution of enormous national significance. Its independence, the quality and trustworthiness of its news and the balance of its comment are part of the weft and weave of British democracy. Any change or development in the way that the BBC does its work has to be tested against its position of national importance. That is why the change to its governance was a hotly debated matter and the appointment of its chair is worthy of at least comment by Parliament. All of us on the Communications Committee will be keeping a watching brief on how it works out.

In preparing this contribution, I read through the evidence and was struck by one or two things which

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merit comment, some of which has already been said. But in the honourable and noble tradition of this House, I intend to say them anyway. Like many other members of the committee, by the end of the inquiry I was still unclear as to who is now the champion of the BBC. Who is the person who will stand up and say, “Over my dead body”? For instance, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, spoke about the top-slicing of the BBC’s funding. While the current chair was keen to assure us that he is the chairman of the BBC, the fact that the new charter refers to him as having an honorary title is borne out by the fact that he did not say, “Over my dead body” when the top-slicing was suggested, which I suspect other chairmen would have done.

It was also unclear to me who would win in a confrontation with the director-general should it ever happen, which is why I am keen on recommendation 12 and the need for clarity on the role of the chairman. It should be clear whose job it is to represent the BBC itself as distinct from the licence fee payer. I agree with earlier remarks that the trust seems to act as a regulator and that the director-general acted as the voice of the BBC in its recent troubles concerning “Blue Peter” and others programmes. That begs the question of how, under the new arrangements, the BBC would handle a Gilligan-type scandal. Would the whole management team resign should such a thing happen now or would no one resign because it is not clear where the responsibility rests?

That leads to the other question for the inquiry: why it is important to have a robust and transparent process for appointing the chairman of the BBC. Although the issues of transparency and accountability have been more than adequately covered by the chairman of our committee and others, I suggest that the process for appointment would be enhanced by the proposals set out in the report. While we were working on it, in my innocence I was surprised at how difficult it was to achieve clarity on the appointments procedure, even from members of my own Government, and although I was probably less exercised by the fact that the Secretary of State has a role in the appointments procedure because I think he should have such a role, what is important is that it is clear and on the record so that everyone knows what is going to happen.

I return to the effect that parliamentary scrutiny would have on this appointment. Greater scrutiny, as outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, would recognise the importance of appointing a person who is fully aware of the responsibility that the chairman of the BBC bears for the democratic health and fabric of our society, and indeed the importance of the BBC in the world. It may be that a more robust and accountable appointments process would have produced the same result in terms of the present incumbent, but how much stronger a position would he have been in and how much greater status would he have enjoyed had the process been more robust, accountable and transparent? Indeed, how much better would he have been able to fulfil the important job of being both the champion of the licence fee payer and of the BBC? That is why I urge the Minister to take heed of our report.



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8.39 pm

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, this has been an excellent debate largely because it has been so clearly focused. I note that all the speakers apart from those winding up and the Minister are members of the committee. I congratulate them on the report, and in particular the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on his rather forensic introduction. Many noble Lords have pointed out that the BBC is a unique institution, and for this reason the position and the appointment of the chairman, or more accurately the chairman of the BBC Trust, deserves particular consideration. While the previous and the current chairmen have been of high calibre, it is clear that such an appointment cannot simply be left to government without debate.

The concise report of the committee sets out particular concerns about the process employed for the selection of the current chairman. Looking at it afresh, it is extraordinary to note the level of influence of Ministers as they have exercised it at each step of the appointment process. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, pointed out, it was disappointing to note that obtaining information about the process clearly took considerable time and effort on the part of the committee. The role of Ministers is pivotal under the current procedure. Officials responsible to Ministers appoint the selection panel. I say that advisedly while looking carefully at the Government’s response—perhaps not Ministers, but certainly officials responsible to them. Ministers have the power to add to and subtract names from the shortlist. Ministers choose from a list of four names, not necessarily having to choose the candidate most highly recommended by the panel. Members on these Benches wholeheartedly agree with the committee that transparency in the process is vital and that any perception of political interference should be countered. We therefore welcome the recommendation that there should be a duty on the Secretary of State to appoint a selection panel of at least five members made up of a majority of non-political appointees and chaired by a non-political appointee who is not a civil servant.

However, I am pleased that the committee is in agreement with my honourable friend Don Foster MP, when he said in his evidence that parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of the process is important. The committee’s recommendation that the composition of the panel should be announced to Parliament in a Written Ministerial Statement can hardly be objected to by the Government. Surely that is entirely in line with the Prime Minister’s plans for the Executive to become more responsive to Parliament, as he set out in his Statement of 3 July 2007 accompanying the Green Paper, The Governance of Britain. He stated specifically that the Government should surrender certain powers, including the power to make key public appointments without effective scrutiny. That is a clear statement, but I have read what the Government said in their very disappointing response to the committee’s report. They seem to be saying that the post of chairman of the BBC Trust is not a key public appointment. If that were put to an opinion poll, I think the general public would regard the chairman of the BBC Trust as being one of the central public appointments. So the Statement

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made by the Prime Minister is extremely important. Similarly, I agree with the committee’s recommendation that the adding to or subtracting of names from the shortlist by a Minister should be made public and, finally, that the panel should recommend only one name to the Minister, being the candidate who scored highest at interview, though of course Ministers will still retain the power to reject the name and ask the panel to reconsider.

I, like the committee, was surprised and concerned by the absence of the chairman of the BBC Trust in the list of key positions to be subject to a relevant parliamentary Select Committee which was set out in the Green Paper, The Governance of Britain published earlier this year, to which the Statement refers. Why is the key appointment of chairman of the public service broadcaster of our nation not included on that list? On what possible grounds can it be excluded? If the Prime Minister wishes to see greater parliamentary involvement, including pre-appointment hearings, then surely this is a clear omission from the list.


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