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Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, my noble friend has made it perfectly clear that the power resides in the Agreement and the Charter together. If it is felt that the Agreement has been ignored, or not dealt with correctly, but that it is in keeping with the general purpose of the Charter, which of them would have pre-eminence in any decisions that arise from that difference of view?
Lord Annan rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert ("but regrets that it does not meet the recommendation in paragraph 59 of the 2nd Report of the National Heritage Committee of the House of Commons, Session 1993--94 (HC 77) that 'the principle of impartiality is too important to be confined to an Annex'; and requests Her Majesty's Government to give an assurance that this principle will be included in the Licence and Agreement of the BBC").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I tabled the amendment because the National Heritage Select Committee in another place made the cogent criticism that impartiality was really too important a matter to be left in an annex to the Charter. I should like to say immediately that I am very satisfied by what the noble Viscount said. I cordially accept that, of course, the Agreement is the place in which impartiality should be imposed upon the BBC.
However, the amendment was designed to go a little further. It was designed to probe the ministerial mind. Ministers are very busy men and women and they cannot spend their leisure hours watching television or listening to radio. In a sense they are rather worse placed than many members of the public to judge what the broadcasters are saying. But I am sure that the noble Viscount accepts, as I hope we all do in this House, that impartiality does not mean that every programme has to be balanced and express an anodyne view. We must accept that some programmes will express a bias or at least an individual outlook.
In defending that principle the BBC says that its staff are instructed to keep a balance between conflicting views. Unfortunately, some producers interpret that principle in a somewhat cynical manner. A sizzling programme designed to cast doubts on conventional values in the most provocative way is broadcast in January. They then argue that that is balanced by transmitting the Trooping of the Colour in June.
Timing in the balance of programmes is all important. The chieftains of television and radio really must accept that if they transmit a controversial programme they must in the interests of impartiality transmit a programme, not necessarily on exactly the same topic but something as pungent, that represents the views of
The BBC should recognise that where opinions are concerned viewers and listeners are rather like Jekyll and Hyde. The noble Viscount knows me as a mild, ineffectual old fellow. But put me in front of a television screen and I am transformed into a fighting cock. If that brilliant master of words, Mr. Christopher Hichens, addresses me--he is, perhaps I should explain, the Derek Hatton among Left-wing journalists--my hackles rise. But they rise even higher when I listen to Mr. Paul Johnson, who was once an angry young man of the Left and is now an angry old man of the Right. Long may those two live to enrage me and make the adrenalin flow through my veins. But I do ask that their views should be counterbalanced within a few weeks.
There is only one exception to impartiality. When the state --I do not mean the Government--is under threat in a battle against armed terrorists or against the armed forces of another state, the BBC has a duty to remember that it is the British Broadcasting Corporation and cannot be impartial between the two sides.
Lord Annan: It must of course be truthful. The BBC won an international reputation during the Second World War for trying to be so. But when our soldiers, sailors and airmen are risking their lives, broadcasters should never treat the military authorities as potential liars and on an equality with our enemies. We do not want broadcasts of the kind, "I counted them all out and I counted them all back", which suggest that our commanding officers will lie if given a chance.
Understandably enough people ask: what happens if the BBC disobeys the terms of the Agreement? Indeed, the noble Viscount tried to address himself to that. What happens if the BBC is not impartial, and disobeys them not once but continually? In commercial broadcasting the ITA and the Radio Authority have sanctions to hand. They can fine companies or, indeed, withdraw their licence. But there is no corresponding sanction within the BBC. The governors represent the public interest but, if they fined the corporation, they would simply be penalising the public who pay the licence fee. It is absurd to imagine that any government would even dare to sack the governors en masse because the governors, not the Government, are responsible for seeing that the BBC obeys the law.
The governors are often attacked by the public for not insisting on impartiality or for sanctioning extravagance and so on. And they are attacked just as ferociously by the broadcasters for interfering with their freedom.
I want to defend the governors this evening. In the 1980s the BBC got into deep political trouble over Ireland, over the Falklands and over a considerable number of other matters. The governors showed they had a sanction; they sacked the director-general. They also cleared out the top echelon of BBC policy-makers. Since then they have left Mr. Birt to improve the standard of news and current affairs output. No doubt some will say that there is still room for improvement.
Some will urge that the governors ought to be strengthened and should regard themselves as the equivalent of the board of directors of a plc. I do not myself agree with that because I think that the BBC must remain a public corporation, and the governors have to represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Probably also someone from the Foreign Office is needed among their number. They cannot be like the board of a private limited company. But I do think that the board of management of the BBC might well invite some men and women of experience in business to join them as non-executive directors. It is there, I think, that outside advice would be particularly useful.
On impartiality, the governors and the director-general can do only so much. Impartiality depends on the heads of television and radio and the producers beneath them. Anyone who puts on controversial programmes is like a man driving along an unmarked frontier that he knows he must not cross. At some point or other he is bound to make a mistake and cross that frontier. Those who control programmes ought to work on the studio floor in rehearsal and in run through to see that that frontier is crossed as rarely as possible. Similarly, the creators of programmes must not be grindingly hostile to the controllers. They must consult right up the line to the director-general himself if necessary. And that goes for independent producers as well as for the BBC staffers.
In the 1950s when the BBC was in hot competition with ITV the creators were pushing back the frontier in the BBC. But in those days they did not regard themselves as avant-garde rebels cocking a snook at the top BBC brass. There was merry co-operation and a readiness to admit that some of the most audacious ideas went way beyond the frontier and had to be scrapped. Above all, it is important that there must never be an in-house interpretation of political events within the corporation.
I sometimes wonder whether broadcasters have read the admirable advice that the BBC gives in Producers Guide, chapter 3, section 5. Of course the director-general and the governors are right to back up their staff when they consider that a particular criticism is unjust. But it would impress the BBC's critics more if the BBC acknowledged that when a mistake had been made, it had been made; and if it is a gargantuan error, to state what action has been taken in regard to the offender.
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