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4.52 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in thanking the Minister for the way in which he introduced the White Paper. I ought to begin with a declaration of interest, as a former chairman of the former Independent Broadcasting Authority. One of the advantages of a decade at the IBA is that it inoculated me against over-excitement at the prospect of white-hot technological revolutions. When I was invited to join the IBA in 1979 I was confronted by Ted Turner of CNN. He prophesied that a tidal wave of satellite and cable broadcasting across frontiers would wash away European terrestrial public service broadcasting and put it in the dustbin of history. We are now in 1994 and it has not happened that way, despite the growth of cable and satellite channels--a few of them good, adding to our total choice and enjoyment, but many of them full of the cheap end of American imports.

Of course, the new channels will continue to grow, but I venture a prophecy: if Parliament and governments in this country keep their nerve, if the broadcasters keep their nerve, then I believe that they will remain the heartland of British broadcasting, with the loyalty of perhaps two-thirds of the audience, well into the next century.

It is in that spirit that I give a welcome to the Government's White Paper on the BBC, albeit not an uncritical welcome. It is an infinitely wiser White Paper than the one which produced the Broadcasting Act 1990. That Act has destabilised the commercially funded half of British broadcasting and damaged the quality and character of the service it provides for its viewers. I notice that Mr. Andy Allen, the chief executive of Carlton Television, recently attacked daytime viewing for its banality. He said:


He should know.

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Nor should the BBC be smug and complacent in this situation. It is not immune to the present pressures to lower standards. When I watched the launching of the National Lottery, such was the vulgarity of the programme that I wondered whether the editorial control had been handed by the BBC to Camelot, the lottery company. Gresham's law that the bad drives out the good applies to broadcasting as well as to economics. I was therefore glad to see the Government agreeing in paragraph 2.5 of the White Paper that,


    "the BBC should continue to be the main public service broadcaster in the United Kingdom, and that this should remain its primary role".

I was also glad to see that the White Paper recorded the first objective in the Government's view as,


    "giving priority to the interests of audiences. The BBC's services should be provided for the benefit of viewers and listeners".

That may seem almost a platitude, but it is a very important platitude.

While the commitment to keep the licence fee is welcome--at least until 2001--I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, that it is a great pity that, in extending the Charter for 10 years, the Government did not decide to extend the commitment of the licence fee for the same period. For all its defects, and after all the argument and investigation of the licence fee, it remains the least bad method of funding the BBC. Currently at around 23p a day, it is a lot better value than all the competing offers from the new breed of cable and satellite broadcasters.

The licence fee also deals with the problem of maintaining BBC radio in a television age. If the licence fee were to go for television, it is hard to see how it might be maintained for radio. Since, sadly, commercial radio appears to have abandoned much of its public service role, the maintenance of BBC radio remains very important.

However, with the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, I regret that the Government have failed in that field to respond immediately to the many proposals that were made for a single body to deal with complaints from viewers and listeners and to influence standards. Those proposals came in different forms from the Select Committee itself, from the Voice of the Listener and Viewer--of which I am a patron--from the Consumers' Association and a number of other organisations. Contrary to what the White Paper argues, I believe that such a body would strengthen rather than undermine the broadcasters and the regulators. The merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission is a small step in the right direction, but I hope that the Government may have some second thoughts about the larger vision of a broadcasting consumers' council.

The two amendments on the Order Paper deal with the question of impartiality. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, goes a good deal wider than that and I find myself in great agreement with its general spirit. I am glad that the Government have responded, as they have done, to the way in which impartiality should be dealt with under the new Charter and Agreement. It is right in principle that there should not be a dual standard in the legal sense between the

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impartiality requirements for the independent television companies and for the BBC. As I understand it, the government proposal deals with that aspect.

I entirely agree on the general issue raised by the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Annan. Given the special degree of influence that broadcasters have on the climate of opinion in this country, if we are to have a well-informed electorate it is vital that controversial issues should be presented fairly. I recognise that for some journalists--I had plenty of experience of this in the past--"due impartiality" is regarded as dull impartiality; crusading is much more exciting. On the other side, however, one should not let the whole issue get out of perspective. The presentation of politics in broadcasting is generally fairer than the presentation of politics in print. It is now only on television and radio--and indeed mainly on the BBC--that there is any real reporting of the proceedings in either of the two Houses of Parliament. The so-called quality press has virtually abandoned its former practice of reporting parliamentary debates.

The BBC is currently required to provide daily reports of proceedings in Parliament. There is no mention of this in the White Paper. I should be grateful for an assurance from the Minister at the end of this debate that that requirement will be included in the new agreement.

I turn now to the importance that the Government attach to what they describe as the BBC evolving into a multi-media enterprise. I share almost exactly the views of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, on the importance of the BBC operating as successfully as possible abroad and selling as many of its programmes abroad as it can, and also in the cautionary words that the noble Lord felt obliged to offer.

Clearly, the BBC's world radio service is one of the great achievements of Britain and is widely recognised as such round the world. For my part, I do not see why the development of a world television service from the BBC should not enjoy the same degree of public funding support from the Government as the radio service enjoys. It is important and adds value to Britain's reputation abroad.

Turning to the programme selling aspect, one has to watch this side of things rather carefully. The prime role of the BBC is to inform, educate and entertain the British public. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, that if the BBC becomes over-obsessed with providing material for world markets rather than attending to its domestic duties there is a risk of ending up with too much rather bland cosmopolitan programming. In any case, I believe that the market-place for British programming is sometimes greatly exaggerated. I sometimes think that the President of the Board of Trade in another place lets the excitement of that go to his head a little. Any broadcaster will tell you about the difficulties of getting a British programme, however good, from the BBC or from ITV, into prime time in the United States.

In regard to the proportions, one has to bear in mind that at present BBC sales yield under £100 million as against the licence fee running at more than £1½ billion.

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Against those proportions, programme sales abroad will not make a dramatic change to the British balance of payments.

There is the very real practical problem of insulating those operations in terms of sales abroad from the BBC licence revenue. Anybody with any experience of these matters in purely commercial undertakings knows how difficult cross-pricing can become. In the BBC's case, I do not believe that it has yet fully faced up to an adequate solution to the problem. It is not sufficient to rely on an internal audit in the BBC, even inviting distinguished people of the right experience to sit on the Board of Governors to chair the audit committee. That is a matter with which only the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee can deal effectively.

In the old IBA--and, I understand, in the present ITC--the chief executive is the accounting officer and is responsible to the National Audit Office and the PAC. I would be interested in the Minister's comments. I can see no reason why the Director-General of the BBC should not face the same discipline and be exposed to the same openness and transparency in terms of dealing with this problem.

Finally, the future of the BBC must be seen as only part of the future of British broadcasting--important part though it is. I beg the Government, when they bring the new BBC Charter before Parliament, to bring along with it a new broadcasting Bill. I understand from the White Paper that a Bill will in any case be necessary to implement some of the proposals that are in the White Paper. It would be wise for the Government to use that opportunity and to see the future of broadcasting in this country as a comprehensive whole.

There is, for example, a need for new provisions for cross-media ownership. The Government have been grappling with this issue for some time. The rules relating to media monopoly within Britain need modernising. I do not believe that there are simple solutions, but modernisation is necessary. It is also clearly unfair that continental media within the European Union can bid to take over British television companies whereas it is impossible for a British company to take over a European one.

It is now time to insist that BSkyB conforms to the rules which the terrestrial broadcasters have to follow. BSkyB has enjoyed several years of a privileged situation to enable it to get itself established. As the present flotation on the Stock Exchange shows, that has been successful. In terms, therefore, both of ownership and responsibility for making its share of original programming, BSkyB should now be ready to compete on the same playing field as the traditional British broadcasters.

There is also a need to change the provisions in the Broadcasting Act that relate to Channel 4. These provisions were designed in 1990 to provide an ITV safety net to ensure that Channel 4 was able to continue its remit for special programming even though it was now competing in the advertising market. It was never really intended that Channel 4 should begin to produce

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a substantial annual subsidy to the shareholders--I believe to the shareholders rather than the programme makers--of ITV.

The year of the new BBC Charter, 1996, is an opportunity to put the whole of British broadcasting on a new footing and to face the challenges of the 21st century. Despite digital technology and fibre optics, and the potentiality for hundreds of channels, I suspect that most people will finally settle for eight or 10 buttons to press in the evening; but perhaps I am getting old! As I said at the start, there is no reason why the public services of the BBC should not continue to be at the very heart of British broadcasting and still be regarded in the 21st century as the best broadcasting in the world, as they have been up to now.


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