Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


7.1 p.m.

Baroness Wharton: My Lords, like many other speakers, I also welcome the White Paper on the future of the BBC. As a corporation, the BBC has played a major part in our lives. The licence fee ensures that it remains publicly funded with a firm commitment to public service broadcasting. However, the commercial advantages offered by opportunities opening up in the

6 Dec 1994 : Column 890

media market should still remain secondary to the corporation's fair and balanced public service broadcasting commitments. I sometimes wonder, I must admit, whether those principles have gone a little astray. At this point I should like to thank the Minister for his clear assurances on the matter.

I accept that there is a long-established rule of impartiality now incorporated into the BBC Licence. This should mean freedom not only from government but commercial influence. It is very important to the corporation's national and international standing.

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council are to be merged. I hope that a stronger body will emerge from this union. Am I right in thinking that it will not have any statutory powers? By comparison, the ITC does have statutory powers. Its code on impartiality is clearly drawn up with no room for misunderstanding. The code applies to all licensees and compliance is a condition of the Licence. It is the responsibility of licensees to ensure that employees and programme makers--independent or on the staff--observe the provisions of the code. A section under the heading "Objectives" states:


    "Impartiality does not mean that broadcasters have to be absolutely neutral on every controversial issue, but it should lead them to deal even-handedly with opposing points of view in the area of democratic debate. Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact".

The BBC has undergone a substantial change to its structure in recent years and some of that change relates to training schemes. For instance, the reporter training scheme appears to have been abandoned, as have apprenticeships in engineering and technical operations. Sadly, the closure of the BBC radio and script units may mean that guidance which used to be offered to young writers has been reduced, though I now understand that a team might be transferred to the drama department.

Traditionally, the BBC has provided the seed corn for most of the entertainment industry. Practically every media person I know has either been trained by or worked at the BBC. Because of its role as a leader in industry training, it is worrying to see the BBC contracting in this department.

I am afraid I am going to take a slightly different view. I believe that the introduction of producers' choice has gone some way to undermining the stability and continuity of employment at the BBC. I gather that the input from independents has risen as high as 46 per cent. for drama and light entertainment. Just how the percentage is split between those two groups I do not know. It must be that, on average, independents could usually underbid the BBC because of differing base costs. John Birt himself has said that the BBC needs to ensure that its in-house departments are good enough to win orders but that could only come about if there was a level playing field between the two sectors.

At an all-party media group meeting, John Birt accepted that morale was at a low ebb, and that in the short term it was probably not likely to improve. However, he stressed that once the restructuring of the corporation was completed, morale would improve. He himself has also said that there are powerful arguments for the BBC to maintain its strong production base.

6 Dec 1994 : Column 891

However, could it be that the structure of employment contracts, with their potential lack of continuity, need to be reviewed in order to preserve the BBC's greatest asset--namely, a committed, qualified and experienced workforce? Within the current climate, surely it must be difficult to retain and motivate individuals of the calibre which in the past enabled it to establish an unassailable international reputation for diversity and for excellence.

We need to make sure that the BBC, with its enduring service to public sector broadcasting, continues to prosper and build on its already considerable achievements well into the next century. I do not want to see any part of this large corporation sold off to the private sector. Once it becomes fragmented, it will gradually cease to be great.

7.6 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne: My Lords, I wish to address two issues in my brief contribution this evening: the importance of maintaining standards of taste and decency within the BBC and the particular challenges arising from increased satellite broadcasting from abroad.

I have told the House before how I believe that there is no better guide for standards in broadcasting than the inscription which appears in the foyer of Broadcasting House in Portland Square. It bears repeating:


    "To Almighty God, this shrine of the arts, music and literature is dedicated by the first Governors in the year of our Lord 1931, John Reith being Director General. It is their prayer that good seed sown will produce a good harvest, that everything offensive to decency and hostile to peace will be expelled, and that the nation will incline its ear to those things which are lovely pure and of good report and thus pursue the path of wisdom and virtue".

We have sadly often had cause to feel that the BBC has departed from that path in recent years. I am glad, therefore, that this White Paper does stress in paragraph 3.13 that the BBC should pay more attention to audience concern about violence, sex and bad language.

The BBC should, for example, study seriously the latest report from the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, showing that in 20 films screened on BBC 1 and BBC 2 between January and June this year there were 67 violent assaults. Such violence makes a profound impression on young people and surely must be one contributing factor to some of the horrific violent incidents we have seen involving young people in recent years. I should say, of course, that there was violence on other channels mentioned in the report, but this debate is mainly on the BBC.

I would favour that the proposed agreement between the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the BBC board of governors, mentioned in paragraph 6.3 of the White Paper, should spell out in simple terms what is meant by standards of "good taste and decency". Then no one would be in any doubt about what to expect from programmes.

Of course, the BBC does not operate in isolation from other broadcasters either in this country or abroad. I am not suggesting one set of rules for the BBC and one for other broadcasters. They should all operate to the same high standards on issues of taste and decency.

6 Dec 1994 : Column 892

We caught a glimpse of what the future might hold with the broadcasting of Red Hot Dutch earlier this year, first from Holland and then from Denmark, which, thankfully, the Government stepped in to ban. I understand that the European Commission will shortly announce its proposals for a new trans-frontier broadcasting directive controlling broadcasting in Europe. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will fight hard to protect standards to avoid a repeat of the Red Hot Dutch debacle.

In closing, I make one suggestion to the Minister. If a satellite broadcaster wishes to broadcast into a country it should have a licence in the receiving country and not just in the country from which the broadcast is made. If the new directive included such a provision, the UK could maintain standards and protect the BBC by preventing anyone from broadcasting unacceptable material into the UK. That was, of course, the point made by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing in his balanced and authoritative speech earlier in the debate. Is that not something which, surely, we would all support?

7.10 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Viscount for enabling us to have this debate. I also welcome him back to DNH, with its major broadcasting responsibilities not only for the BBC but also for the Welsh fourth channel. I declare an interest as chair of Screen Wales, which is a media partnership agency involving BBC Wales as one of the senior partners; and also my membership of the general advisory council, which makes me responsible, among other things, for the selection process for membership of the Broadcasting Council for Wales.

I shall not, however, talk about the specifics of the structure of the BBC this evening. I want to take as my text paragraph 1.7 of the White Paper and to welcome the statement there that:


    "The BBC's programmes should reflect the interests and cultural traditions of the United Kingdom as a whole. Programme-makers, presenters and performers in all parts of the United Kingdom should contribute fully to the BBC's national output, as well as to its regional and local services".

Having read my text, I want to congratulate the Government, and indeed the BBC governors and board of management, on taking the debate on broadcasting in the United Kingdom a little further than we took it in our debates in another place on previous broadcasting legislation. As a number of noble Lords emphasised, we are in the world of multi-media global culture. I make no apology for using those words. They are used generally within the industry and within culture. They present a challenge to traditional terrestrial broadcasters. They also present a challenge to traditional nation state regulators. This is where the Government are catching up with the real world. They are understanding that it is only as a public service broadcaster which is also an international media player that the BBC can survive and contribute not only to the internal cultural diversity of the UK but to broadcasting systems worldwide.

6 Dec 1994 : Column 893

In relation to that, I would emphasise that competition in the multi-media global scene does not just emerge from the BBC centrally. It is not just BBC Enterprises or the BBC's board of management in Broadcasting House and White City which is a multi-media player. The national regions--as the BBC has always fondly called them--are also players in their own right. It is important therefore that there should be opportunities for them to play their role, not just within the network structure but also on the broader basis of the multi-media scene.

It is for those reasons that I welcome the commitment in the White Paper to the role of the BBC in the multi-media market and to looking at the BBC as an engine of economic development in the cultural field. That is just as important as the contribution that it makes to reflecting the life of the United Kingdom internally. In that sense, I do not share the concern that was expressed by some noble Lords about the role of the Department of Trade and Industry in the promotion of broadcasting (or of broadcast product) or indeed the role of the Welsh Office in the context of Wales in the development of multi-media. I warmly welcome the speech that was made on this very issue this week at a conference in Cardiff by the Secretary of State for Wales. We have an opportunity now to develop our cultural product in all parts of the UK in a way that will benefit us economically and will also benefit our cultural image. I believe that there are people world-wide who look to us to do that.

I do not share the pessimism which, again, was expressed by some noble Lords about the difficulty of programme sales in other markets. The demand for content now in our multi-media industry is so enormous that we shall be at pains to fulfil it. Therefore, there is clearly a role for the quality product of the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK in that market.

I turn now to some of the issues that arise in the way in which the White Paper is to be implemented. I share the view that was expressed by a number of noble Lords that perhaps the time has come for us to have conventional broadcasting legislation for the BBC rather than the arrangement of Charter and Agreement. I say that because, as someone who debated previous broadcasting legislation involving both the ITC (as it now is) and S4C, there seems to me to be no inherent difficulty about legislating in the normal way for broadcasting structures. I appreciate that, historically, at the time that the BBC was created there was a different relationship between the state and broadcasting. Now we are in a world of greater diversity in terms of numbers of broadcasters. It might have made more sense to go down the road of regulating for all public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom in one piece of legislation. I agree with the noble Lord on that matter. After all, it is not just the BBC that is a public service broadcaster. All our broadcasting is either publicly funded or publicly regulated in some form or other. Therefore there is a case for an organising principle in legislation which bears all those matters in common.

6 Dec 1994 : Column 894

That is where some of the difficulties that we have arise in relation to some of the specific matters that will be in the agreement.

I turn back now to the commitments set out in the White Paper on regional product and regional programming. I refer in particular to paragraph 3.24, which reads almost as well as if it had been written by Screen Wales itself in that it talks about the importance of the variety of programme production; it says that there should be significant programme bases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in the major English regional centres; and of course in that way incorporates part of the recommendations of the Select Committee, which emphasised that the possibility of a commitment to network production outside London might be included in the Charter.

I understand that the Minister's view is that such a statement might be included in the Agreement. I shall be very interested to have his response on that point at some later stage in our debates. I do not share the view that was expressed by some of our Scottish colleagues, and by some independent producer representatives, that there should be a quota for programme production. I believe that we are capable in the national regions of competing on a level playing field with the rest of the BBC or indeed with other independent production centres. However, we need to make sure that the playing field is level, in the sense that the resources are there and also in terms of staffing, and in financial terms to enable our media centres to develop a competitive base. For those reasons, I hope that there will be clear reference, if not in the Charter then certainly in the Agreement, to the whole question of programme bases outside regions. I understand that that may well be the Minister's view, and I look forward to hearing his response.

A related issue is the structure of the broadcasting councils, the role of governors and the role of the national councils. I welcome the statement in the White Paper about the specific role of the governors in relation to the board of management of the BBC centrally. I also welcome the fact that a similar role--to use the word in the White Paper--is envisaged for the broadcasting councils. This is significantly more than their present role. It means that they now have a role in the management, or at least in the accountability, of the BBC's operation in the national region. Controllers, will have a greater independence in relation to their budgets. (This is stated in paragraph 6.22 and in the whole range of surrounding paragraphs from paragraph 6.16 on, which I shall not quote in detail so as not to lengthen my speech inordinately). Paragraph 6.22 gives controllers a budget for programmes produced specifically for audiences in each country. We have therefore a clear devolution of the internal structure of the BBC.

My questions are: how much of this will appear in the Charter; how much will appear in the Agreement; and how is it to be policed, as it were? I appreciate that the BBC itself has taken some major steps in transferring its programming out of the metropolitan centre to other metropolitan centres or to regional centres. I appreciate also the fact that the BBC now has an English regional structure. I always believed that it

6 Dec 1994 : Column 895

was important for the English regions to be treated at least on some basis of equality with the national regions of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. On all those counts therefore I welcome the level of debate which is now seen in the White Paper.

But as I said, there are a number of concerns. To what extent are we to have a clear programming policy incorporated into the objectives of BBC management? How are resources to be allocated equitably between national regions and other regions? How will we ensure that there is a sufficient level of capital investment in talent and production skills throughout the UK? How are we to ensure that the responsibility towards a regional policy is clearly stated? Is it to be in the Charter or only the Agreement? How are we to ensure that the structure for appointing the various governors and councils makes them as democratically accountable as possible? With all due respect, I do not believe that the present structure of parallel selection and nomination amounts to democratic accountability.

Having asked those questions, I end by welcoming the White Paper and the fact that there is a clear statement of the way in which public service broadcasting can be revived and made multinational in the true sense of that word, in the context of our multi-media global village and its mass culture. I believe that it is important that the whole of the UK in its cultures, regions and nations participate in that process.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page