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6.46 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I welcome this debate and like most previous speakers I thank the noble

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Viscount for making it possible because it gives us an opportunity not only to pay tribute to the BBC but also to air some concerns and, indeed, to make some suggestions.

The BBC is one of the few categories in which the United Kingdom is a world leader. It is a world leader in broadcasting and, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said, the BBC World Service on radio and TV is indeed excellent. One only has to travel to experience that. The worldwide competition for the BBC tends to be banal at best and tasteless at its worst, and we really should take pride in the BBC and not knock it. I mentioned the word competition. The BBC competes both nationally and internationally for audiences and export sales, and indeed nationally for scarce financial resources.

As a country we have not yet accepted that there has to be greater public accountability in every case where public funding features. The creativity of the BBC is not an excuse for lax accountability. I hasten to say that I am not accusing the BBC of lax accountability but there is a perception, a suspicion abroad, based on evidence of, for example, TV crews "hunting in packs", that overmanning still persists. The new regime at the BBC under John Birt is to be congratulated in achieving greater management standards --producer choice being just one manifestation of this. There appear to have been strides made in achieving greater efficiency. We must be patient in demanding even more strides in these directions. Speaking from somewhat bitter experience I know that to achieve change in a creative environment is exceedingly slow.

Impartiality has featured very much tonight. I have nothing to add to that, but there are other concerns, two of which are of personal concern to me but I believe they are fairly widespread concerns and both can be tenuously linked. I refer to what I call the lowest common denominator factor and the subject of religious broadcasting.

In preparation for this debate I managed to obtain and read a copy of Producers' Guidelines, which refers to the objective of enabling,


    "programme makers and the public alike to see the editorial and ethical principles that drive the BBC".

It is an excellent publication. It is a document of great clarity and it is easy to read.

The BBC has all sorts of responsibilities thrust upon it, some arduous and others that are almost impossible to achieve. But I believe that as a public service broadcasting organisation it has the responsibility to,


    "do nothing to undermine standards of behaviour"

or, as the annex to the licence states, not to,


    "offend against good taste or decency".

Both of those statements are couched in negative terms. I would prefer to be positive, and I personally should like to go further and state that the BBC should ensure that standards of behaviour are maintained or, better still, improved.

Of course I realise that I have now ventured into the quicksand of definitions of taste and decency, and that is a pretty hopeless situation. I shall try to explain my reasons by anecdote--a factual description of what occurred last Sunday evening.

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Four people were in my sitting room at home. Three were watching television. The fourth, me, was struggling under a mountain of Christmas cards. I positioned myself at the far end of the room. I had no view of the television screen; there was a cabinet in front of me. However, I could hear the television. That point is relevant. The programme on the television was "Seaforth". Shortly into the programme one word appeared to be used frequently. That word was "bloody". It is a swear word. Having counted about 15 repetitions of that word I spoke to the viewers at the far end of the room. I said, "That's a bit much, isn't it?". "What is a bit much?" they replied. "The constant use of that word". They had not noticed. I was flabbergasted. I realised that while watching television one can downgrade one's attention on the words and concentrate on the visual action. It is subliminal, I fear.

If the words spoken--the dialogue--had featured, say, on Radio 4, there would have been an outcry. We are subjected to lower standards on TV than on radio. Why? And why was that word so essential to the plot that it had to be repeated ad nauseam? I asked the viewers in my sitting room if it would have detracted from the story if the word had not been used. The answer was no.

I know the counter-argument: it is real life. It is said that people speak like that. Sadly, that may be true to a large extent. However, it is not real life. This is real life here in Parliament, and we do not use that word. It is not true of the boardrooms of our commercial companies. It is not true of the Church. It is not true of the professions--the law and medicine (at least, not universally true). Therefore, why stoop to the lowest common denominator? Speech programmes on BBC Radio 3 and 4 maintain standards and set standards in terms of little use of swear words. Why is that not true of TV?

As part of its role of public service broadcasting I suggest that the BBC should have the responsibility to try to encourage the population to desist from using swear words. Swear words cause distress and show a complete lack of respect for fellow human beings.

It is universally acknowledged that there has been a relentless and insidious deterioration in standards of behaviour and respect for others. That downward slide has led, I believe, to an unhappy and even degrading sense of malaise in so many walks of life. It is seen to be smart, chic and radical to push constantly at the existing bounds of decency. Surely the BBC can help to stop that rot rather than encourage it.

I am not so sure that programmes which offend are particularly popular. This week I have heard nobody talk about "Seaforth" but I have heard many people talk about "Martin Chuzzlewit".

My concern about the issue of the lowest common denominator and how it could be tackled is linked with my second concern --religious broadcasting. That subject was ably addressed by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Southwark. Again, I know that I am on dangerous ground and will be told that we are a secular society, and so what if you have to switch on the radio at 6.25 a.m. for "Prayer for the Day", and so what if, because you have been indoctrinated by the BBC to rely

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on FM you are unable to find the "Daily Service" on medium wave. I know that "Songs of Praise" is popular, as we have been told. An audience of 7 million viewers is terrific. But it is difficult to find religious broadcasts on radio. In this decade of evangelism, subscribed to by all Christian Churches, very little encouragement is given by the BBC to those who wish to learn, to be informed and to draw strength from The Bible.

The timing of religious programmes--or is it a fact that they do not seem to be "trailed" as much as other programmes?--leads me to feel that they are accorded very low priority. Better advertised and better timed religious programmes, plus special programmes to take account of the decade of evangelism, could help to restore standards of behaviour and respect. Coupled with a reduction in bad language, that could make a big difference and enhance the public service broadcasting responsibility of the BBC.

I ask, is that Utopia? Is it achievable? Who would be responsible for effecting this? Would it be the board of governors? From what we have heard on this aspect today, I fear not.

I said at the outset that I would make some suggestions about how the BBC could be improved. I have dealt with my concerns and have given suggestions. I should like to endorse the suggestion that the organisation of the top echelons of the BBC should ensure that there is true responsibility for the product of the BBC at the highest level, as there is for any product from any commercial organisation at board level. If that is not possible at board level, I subscribe totally to the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Annan, that the board of management at the BBC be strengthened by non-executive directors. Until then, I fear that there will always be a charge of "all power and no responsibility", or, as per my noble friend Lord Annan, not enough people who drop clangers carry the can.

6.55 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to debate the White Paper. Indeed, I welcome the White Paper itself. I hope that the BBC will continue to be our major public service broadcaster, despite all the new technologies, for at least another 10 years. That is an important responsibility.

Several knowledgeable comments have been made by experienced Peers. I agree with many, especially the point concerning the role of the BBC in relation to education and the arts mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I should like to make just one point.

The BBC has great influence in Britain. It has even greater influence worldwide, due entirely to the high respect in which it is held. The World Service has a worldwide audience of 130 million people a week, not only for its wireless broadcasts, but now also its highly successful television broadcasts. I wonder how many people in Britain listen regularly to foreign radio or television stations. Perhaps they do, as we did as children to "Top 20" on Radio Luxembourg.

When I visited Bulgaria at the time of its first free election after the fall of Mr. Zhivkov, so many people came to thank me--not, I hasten to add because it was me, but because I was British. Their main ray of hope

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for years was the possibility, often illegally, of listening to our BBC World Service. It played a vital role in their lives.

Yet back here the television that speaks to us in our own homes has an unrecognised, even disproportionate, influence on our lives and on the way we form our ideas and arguments. As my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls stated so clearly--and I repeat the point because it is so important--during any national election campaign in this country today any large political meeting can no longer compete with the television screen. The BBC accordingly has an enormous responsibility.

Edmund Burke referred to the fourth estate as:


    "more important than them all".

As the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, explained recently, he meant that through what the media wrote and said they had more influence on people's thinking than the other three estates--the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons.

A natural tension always exists between journalists working in a free and open society and the government of the nation in which they operate. It was said recently by a foreign journalist that,


    "governments have the natural tendency not to reveal all the facts about their departments and operations. That tendency often clashes with the duty of the free press; to uncover and tell the people what they need to know about their government's operations".

He went on to say that,


    "there should be no restrictions placed on the press when it investigates government, acting in its role as 'watchdog' or guardian of the public good".

However, investigative journalists--whether they be from the television, wireless or the written press--should always conduct themselves in accordance with professional journalistic standards when pursuing their investigations. Even in a country like Britain which is very open, where we have a great tradition of free press and free expression, any government nevertheless wants to protect itself. Our free written press and the audio visual media are vital elements in the reporting of everyday life, of the good things in our society as well as the exposure of corruption and wrongdoing.

But, in turn, my point today is that they have a duty to report responsibly and fairly. I want to thank the Minister for introducing the debate today. I welcome the Government having produced the White Paper setting out a blueprint to carry the BBC into the 21st century. I hope that they will continue the exciting new steps they have taken recently in forming a global strategic alliance with Pearson Plc. That will keep the BBC--as is the aim of the White Paper--serving the nation and competing worldwide.


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