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7.28 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, like so many of your Lordships I have been drawn to those particular sections of the draft Charter and Agreement that seek to deal with the issue of impartiality, and particularly in so far as they relate to current affairs and documentary coverage. By way of introduction it seems to me that there is a sense of unease that the traditional values of balance, integrity and objectivity, for which both the BBC and the UK media generally are justly renowned, are becoming a little frayed at the edges. Indeed, to varying degrees many of your Lordships articulated that concern today. However, in rationalising that I do not believe that there is any profit to be derived from seeking to apportion blame. As my noble friend Lord Moyne intimated in our debate on cheque-book journalism:


I stress that I do not seek to indulge in any gratuitous bashing of the BBC. Furthermore, the weight of my arguments will, as a generality, apply to the media as a whole, although they will be especially pertinent to the corporation on the basis of its unique and arguably pre-eminent position in the field of broadcasting both on a national and global basis.

I should perhaps also stress that I am broadly satisfied with the current drafting of the impartiality clauses in the Agreement, albeit that I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, in saying that to my mind they fail to address the fundaments of the dilemma we are facing. It is my belief that codification of the concept of impartiality, as in the draft Agreement, is an inappropriate means of achieving and sustaining principles of balance and objectivity in our information age.

One of the central pillars upon which the edifice of our democracy is based is an essential and interdependent trinity of the people (as the nation's body and substance), of Parliament (as its mind and intellect) and of the press (as its voice and conscience or, as expressed by my noble friend Lord Burnham, its

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watchdog). The creed of this trinity is embodied in the three essential freedoms of speech, of the sovereignty of Parliament and of the press. The status of our democracy, its robustness and its health can only be sustained by the relationships within that trinity being ones of mutual respect and trust each unto the other. Indeed, it is upon that precept that the imperatives of integrity, balance and impartiality of the press are built, for without them that mutual trust and respect cannot exist.

As I have already implied, there is a palpable sense in which our modern age would seem to be eroding and undermining those fundamental principles. How is that so?

It could justifiably be argued that in times past the primary manifestation of the media was its role as a mechanism for the dissemination of information. However, I question whether that remains the case now that the media have had the opportunity to embrace the technology of the information revolution--ENG, satellite, video, cable, the Internet, multimedia and so on. Of course that has produced benefits, not the least of which is the immediacy with which information and news coverage can be communicated to a mass audience. However, it is all too easy to let those benefits disguise some of the latent and very much more harmful effects of not only IT but also our responses to it.

My first perception in that regard is that the modern media now tend to attach greater significance to their role as a mechanism for the expression of opinion than to that of the dissemination of information. Nowhere is that phenomenon more apparent than in the ever more important role of the commentator or pundit, of whom it has to be said there are a goodly number in both the corridors of the BBC and Parliament. Their stock in trade is their own opinion, fuelled to a greater or lesser extent by the gossip, the innuendo, the inside or second-hand information, the rumour, and the leaks emanating from whatever field in which they claim expertise. Factual news and current affairs broadcasts are now liberally sprinkled with their influence and interpretation. They bring with them their own peculiar brand of gravitas from which exudes a spurious authority and credibility and upon which both their own reputation and the commercial edge of their employers depend.

Lest I be misunderstood, and while admitting that I am not enamoured of them as a breed, I maintain that commentators nonetheless perform a useful and important function. What I find disquieting is the subtle way in which their opinions are increasingly masqueraded to a wider and wider audience as fact. That is undoubtedly a cause for both regret and concern, especially in so far as it relates to principles of impartiality. However, it would be both naive and wrong to blame the media alone for that development. Rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the commercial climate in which the media operate and of our--the people's--voracious appetite for more than pure reportage can deliver.

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That leads me to my second perception. Many of your Lordships who spoke in the debate of my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith alluded to the priorities that drive the media industry. My noble friend Lord Moyne expressed it thus:


    "The primary desire of press readers at every level is far more for entertainment than for information".--[Official Report, 20/12/95; col. 1658.]

I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, contributed a similar observation. It is pure folly to imagine that the media are not cognisant of that fact. Indeed, I contend that as a direct response to the public's requirements in this there is a discernible trend away from pure reportage towards an increasingly entertainment-based style and content of current affairs delivery and presentation. That is clearly evident in the tabloid press--all fluff and no substance--but it is also showing signs of permeating the broadsheets as well as television and radio.

The way in which the device of the interview has developed over the years serves to illustrate the point. With hindsight we can recognise that television and radio, in their infancy, may have accorded their interviewees too much respect, perhaps even verging on obsequiousness. As the broadcast industry matured, it shrugged off that lack of sophistication. Quite rightly, in view of its role as the public's watchdog, it developed a more antagonistic approach as the means of holding public figures more readily and properly to account while retaining the dual priorities of affording respect--however grudging--to, and eliciting information from, the interviewee.

Today's interviews have refined and evolved the antagonistic approach yet further to an extent whereby, to my mind, they have become almost totalitarian in character. The primary aim of the interviewer is that of embarrassing, discomfiting and undermining the credibility of the interviewee because it is perceived that that is what the audience wants. The means whereby that is achieved--hostility, confrontation, bullying, intimidation and perhaps even flattery--are an irrelevance provided only that the interests of "entertainment" and of "good" television are adequately served. More than that, the reputations, the very careers of interviewers are measured against their abilities in that regard. Of course there is validity in the argument that "if you cannot stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen"--it has long been the case that public service, especially high office, is not a province for the faint-hearted--but we should not let that blind us to the fact that, to all intents and purposes, any message that the interviewee may wish to convey is becoming more and more subordinate to the demands of the medium. Moreover, I cannot help feeling that an inevitable consequence of that trend has been a breeding of discord and distrust in the relationships between the people, the political process and the press.

A further aspect of this is the role now played by investigative journalism and the documentary. Again, I have no complaint here. Both have very worthy traditions of performing useful and valuable functions. They demystify and debunk, and in so doing, have an innate capacity to reveal ills and wrongs that we would

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all like to see righted. However, that is a process which can be, and has been, taken too far. Any documentary, whatever its subject, starts from the premise that there is something worthy of investigation therein, that there is a fault to find, regardless of whether that is indeed the case. Our media, imbued with the commercial imperative of satisfying and entertaining their audience, are not in a position to accede to bland guided tours of whatever is the documentary focus of their attention. That would not engender saleable product and would not produce "good" television.

I recall the words of my noble friend Lady Young in this context:


    "Every British institution is now subject to denigration of one kind or another".--[Official Report, 7/6/95; cols. 1360.]

She went on to say at col. 1363:


    "One of the most dangerous aspects of politics nowadays is that ... allegations are made unsubstantiated by any evidence whatever and they are then assumed to be true".

Nothing and no one in this world is perfect. It seems to me that, to an ever-increasing extent, the documentary and investigative journalism, even news coverage, in the absence of more substantial hooks on which to hang their story, seek to portray imperfections as transgressions. As it were, controversy is born of consensus. The fate of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor's Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill in the last Session serves to illustrate the point. Again, as with the way in which the broadcast interview has developed, what is undermined above all else in this process is mutual respect and trust.

My third perception is that we are living in an ever more propagandist age. It could be argued that society's perspectives are becoming more and more individualistic, more specialist and more focused. To a degree, the concept of the "greater good" has fallen by the wayside and is playing second fiddle to society's growing enthusiasm for sectional interests. That has given rise to the growth in importance of the cerebral equivalent of the "pick-n-mix", the single issue. Of course single issues have merit. However, in our era of mass communication there are considerable dangers in their narrow focus, in their exclusivity. It seems to me that, as perhaps in Greenpeace's campaign against deep sea disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform, there is an overriding aspiration to achieve the desired end in blissful ignorance of how that may interact with and have repercussions on the wider context--as it were, an unbidden sense of the end justifying the means. Clearly any reliance upon part or half truth, however inadvertent, has about it the character of misinformation.

However, to my mind the apogee of this particular phenomenon is the use of "spin" and the "sound bite" as the means whereby the political process communicates with the electorate. At best these practices are a deception. At worst, they are quite literally the seedlings of propaganda which, elaborating upon a recent thought of my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is the pit-bull of totalitarianism. It is both ludicrous and dangerous for a weighty message to be wrapped in the tinsel of "pretty" phraseology, for a punchy headline to be considered a legitimate substitute for content. And yet it would seem that "spin" and

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"sound bite" are entering the psyche of the medium as entirely acceptable and legitimate means of manipulating factual substance to the advantage of vested interest. Thus there is a very real sense in which distortion, bias and prejudice may already have taken root in the media.

As I say, I do not attach opprobrium to the BBC or the media alone for those developments. It is as much a case of the message being shaped to fit the medium as it is of the medium shaping the message. It is also the case that individual members of society have their own prerogative in this, their expectation, o la Andy Warhol, that they will have the opportunity to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. But we should be ever mindful that in our information age the media have the power to reach a constituency of millions in the blink of an eye. In this context, it is sobering to reflect that mass communication is but a step away from mass hysteria. The 1940s radio production of Orson Welles's The War of the Worlds comes to mind.

All of this bespeaks considerable feelings of mistrust which exist between the people, Parliament and the press. Notwithstanding the sterling work of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Nolan and Lord Griffiths, to redress the balance, disaffection with the political process, which we must all appreciate is entirely distinct from any apparent unpopularity of a government, is rife. Even in my short time in your Lordships' House I have felt a tendency of many of us in Parliament towards greater insularity--a putting up of the barricades against a disrespectful press. By the same token, the media are increasingly driven to entertain, divert, shock or titillate by both the commercial constraint of retaining audience share and by what my noble friend Lord Moyne described as "our unpleasant curiosity", our insatiable appetite for more than that which pure reportage can deliver.

In musing about this over the Christmas break, a somewhat seasonal analogy came to mind. We can characterise the current status of our democratic trinity as being akin to Peter Pan having lost his shadow. The innocence of trust and respect has been supplanted by an adolescent and world-weary cynicism. I suspect, and fear, that this process is irreversible: that there is no Wendy who can sew the shadow back on. I would further suggest that this is a primary cause of the attitudinal malaise, the degeneration of traditional value systems with which society seems currently to be infected.

But what is the relevance of all this to the issue of impartiality? It is simply this. If there is no faith in the median against which impartiality is measured, any attempt at its codification is utterly meaningless. Indeed, I suspect that to do so would at best serve to sustain the abrasive friction which has developed between the public, the press and Parliament each unto the other, and at worst would ultimately lead to a complete breakdown of that tripartite relationship. In this context, I do not think that we should be misled into believing that the media or the BBC in particular exhibit any less probity in this than in times past. However, in our information age we can recognise the immense power that the media

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now have at their disposal but cannot see objectively where responsibility and accountability are to be achieved.

That combined with the devaluation of the principle of impartiality is symptomatic of the way in which I believe our democratic process is being mercilessly, perhaps even fatally, wounded. In my view our challenge is not to redefine or reinvigorate the concepts enshrined in paragraph 5 of the draft Agreement. Rather, we need to find the means to rediscover mutual trust and respect in a format that is in keeping with our modern idiom. We all have our part to play in this. Should we fail to meet this challenge, we shall continue to stumble blindly on with our judgments of impartiality riddled with increasing dissatisfaction and scepticism.

But the Charter and Agreement are not appropriate mechanisms to resolve this dilemma, although I find it salutary to reflect that the majority of noble Lords who have spoken today have indicated, if not outright suspicion, certainly reticence about the way in which the principle of impartiality is currently exercised. Perhaps naively, I simply hope that we all, but especially the BBC and the media, have the courage, the wisdom and the capacity to find the means to rediscover mutual trust and respect as the means to see a renaissance of true impartiality.


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