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Viscount Tenby: My Lords, many of us appreciate the trouble that the Minister took shortly before Christmas in arranging a very well attended and thoughtful meeting on these matters which I hope was of value to all who took part. It certainly was to me.
It is also proper to pay tribute to the Minister's right honourable friend in another place, the Secretary of State, for listening to the concerns of many of us from all sides of the House, in particular relating to the implementation and enforcement of standards of taste and of impartiality and on the future role of the governors. But with regard to the last matter, I have to say that I believe that more still could be done, and I accordingly support the terms in which the Motion of the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, is expressed. I hope, however, that by the end of the debate sufficiently cast-iron assurances will have been made by the Minister to overcome those reservations.
As a wholehearted and unreserved supporter of public service broadcasting, I applaud warmly the Government's commitment to it and what I hope will be the end of some of the sillier free market theories--or viruses, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, charmingly described them--being peddled in the 1980s. The corporation stands for a very great deal both here and overseas; and it is for that reason vital that we seize this opportunity to get things right, for a similar chance will not recur for some years to come.
The chief concerns voiced in the months preceding the appearance of these drafts, certainly in the informal broadcasting group to which I belong, have related to three issues: matters of taste and decency, including of course violence; impartiality; and the role of the governors.
So far as concerns the first point, the right balance has to be struck between the preservation of artistic freedom and the need to adhere to certain basic standards of propriety. As one who in the vernacular of today can now safely be described as a "wrinkly", I appreciate only too well that my standards may be very different from those of, say, a young man in his 20s. But I can, just about, remember what it was like then and I dislike prudery as much as the next person. But we know very well in our hearts, do we not, what is acceptable and what is not. All too often what is not is included by programme makers who have neither the talent nor the imagination to convey, for example, eroticism more subtly. It is of course an admission of artistic inadequacy, but one which unfortunately may offend some people as a side effect.
I am, frankly, not as worried about present standards of impartiality as some, although adherence to the principle is of prime importance. In my experience the BBC has always tended to be agin the government of the day. The late Lord Wilson was as concerned about its perceived bias as some Ministers are today. However, what is clear is that in both those areas the playing field should be a level one and the corporation should be subject to the same criteria as independent broadcasters. To date that has not been the case and the corporation has been able to act as its own judge and jury in policing what in any event has hitherto been an imprecise code of conduct.
The new arrangements bring me to the third area of concern: namely, the future role of the governors, who will now be obliged, as has already been quoted today, to monitor and supervise the corporation's legal and contractual obligations. In this context, reference is made to guidelines and codes. Many would prefer the word "rules" to take their place. Rules are invariably harder to circumvent, even by the most ingenious expert in semantics. But like my noble friend Lord Chalfont, I would settle for "codes", thereby bringing the BBC into line with the independent broadcasters. To complete the circle, can we add a third requirement after monitoring and supervising, namely, action taken?
At present, the regulatory bodies, the BCC and the BSC, are happily shortly to be merged in a single agency. I agree with noble Lords who have been asking for a single regulatory body to cover the whole area of broadcasting. The current two regulatory authorities report on complaints, their nature and whether they have been upheld or not. After that, however, all is silence--unless, that is, the transmitting company concerned roundly and publicly rejects the findings with angry contempt. What an extraordinary state of affairs and what a false promise of regulation.
I suggest that there should always be a third and final stage in the process, whoever is conducting the regulation. It is really quite a simple one: detailing action taken and seeking assurances that the offence will not recur. I accept that BBC governors are already, and will be even more so in the future, in an unenviable position. They will have to have split personalities. They will, at second hand as it were, have to run the corporation as well as regulate it. But what sanctions will be available to them in the event of departure from
Perhaps I may turn briefly to three other points. I am pleased at the unreserved commitment to regional programming and to the production of local language programmes, but in the Secretary of State's briefing paper it seems odd to refer specifically to gaelic programmes in Scotland and Irish programmes in Ulster without any mention of the most popular non-English programmes of all--those, of course, in Welsh in the form of the all-Welsh national programme enjoyed by so many in the Principality. I am sure that on this occasion Homer or the draft writer nodded. In any event, my noble friend Lord Elis-Thomas has spoken out nobly in favour of BBC Cymru.
Secondly, in view of the reduction in this year's capital budget of £5·4 million for the World Service and the plan in the following year for further cuts amounting to £8·6 million, it is unfortunate that the proceeds of the sale of World Service transmission assets are to be returned to the Exchequer--from whence it is true they originally came. It is, however, a mean, penny-pinching sort of logic which will inevitably diminish a service which is held in high esteem throughout the world. It is one which the present Governor of Hong Kong, no less, has rightly called,
Lastly, it is very pleasing to read of the Government's resolve to protect and maintain the BBC Archive. I would welcome the Minister's assurance that funds for that purpose will be made available, even during times of financial stringency. It is an important asset.
With the advent of digital television and the world-wide explosion in global communication, it is difficult to see more than a few years ahead. Increased competition and the sheer size of the sums involved have already provoked fears that the BBC will become the poor man at the feast. It will be unable to compete for listed events, for example, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, and be pulled down to lower levels in order to compete for market share. It seems inevitable that the public will have to pay more for their licences in future, but probably at the very time when fewer viewers are watching the corporation's programmes. Never mind; I agree with my noble friend Lady James of Holland Park that those who could afford to pay more for the service get it at a ridiculously cheap price at the present time and that more money could safely be gathered in--that is provided, of course, that it is clear that I am in the lower bracket!
I am sure that many would agree that there must be a limit to the free interplay of market forces, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, said. Some things are worth preserving, even if the cost is high. In the cultural life
Viscount Chelmsford: My Lords, I wish to focus on the interface between the BBC's activities as a public broadcaster and its ability to undertake commercial activities. We know from the Charter, Article 7, that the Governors,
We also know from the Agreement, paragraph 10.10 that no sponsored or subscription programme may be broadcast without the prior approval of the Secretary of State. Separately, the Broadcasting Bill currently states that the BBC will be licensed for commercial broadcasting by the ITC but that the Secretary of State requires to be consulted before any licence is granted.
It is clear that commercial broadcasting by the BBC is conditional on the Secretary of State's agreement to BBC proposals. What is not clear, and what I cannot find anywhere, is any indication of the boundaries for the BBC between acceptable and unacceptable commercial broadcasts. The criteria to be used by the Secretary of State and the regulator, the ITC, ought in my view to be stated. The BBC governors are required to make clear objectives. We do not know what objectives they will set for commercial broadcasts. Indeed, we may wonder how they can set objectives at all without government guidance on what, if anything, will be commercially unacceptable.
One aspect is laid down. Commercial funding must be kept separate from public funding. The BBC makes income from commercial resale abroad of public programmes. I wonder which set of accounts will benefit. Clearly the BBC, when it broadcasts commercially, has intangible assets at its disposal which are of value. It has expertise in programme making; it has available trained human resources which can be switched from public payroll to commercial and back to public at a moment's notice. It has much else in administration besides.
I see nothing necessarily wrong with this. I think that the BBC is to be commended for wanting to make use of its expertise to achieve profits, and thus, I hope, to reduce the size of the licence fee needed for its public service. But just where and when would BBC activities become competition which is deemed unfair to those holding private sector licences? What criteria will lead to a BBC commercial licence?
I suggest that it is in the interests of both the BBC and the private sector that high level guidelines should be laid down now, should there be certain commercial activities which when practised by the BBC are considered undesirable. I hope that the Minister will respond to this suggestion and also that he will not tell me that the answer must come from the ITC, since clearly the Secretary of State has retained the power to make policy decisions.
Next I should like to draw attention to paragraphs 3 to 6 of the BBC's Agreement which refer to the high general standards which the BBC will maintain for its "Home Services". That title is undefined, but by inference it seems to me to distinguish UK public broadcasts from those of the World Service. If "Home Services" are intended to include UK commercial broadcasts, it would be sensible so to specify.
My final point concerns responsibilities which only a public broadcaster may be expected to bear. Indeed, I wish to put the case for one such responsibility. Noble Lords will be aware that some EU nation states desire programme quotas in order to protect programmes in their national languages from cheaper American-speaking products. This is currently supported by the Culture Committee of the European Parliament. Such proposals have not found favour here in the UK.
Recently, the parliamentary association, EURIM, with which I am connected, considered the EU call for quotas and came to the conclusion that this is not a matter for the Commission to decide; rather it is something which each nation state ought to resolve for itself. It added that, in its view, the best way to protect cultural diversity is to make such protection an obligation on national public broadcasting services. I believe that the Minister may agree with this, but it has implications.
The concept that the licence fee gives the public the right to view a minimum of nationally made programmes and certain national type events which ought to be available for all to see is certainly one that is popular with the UK public and one in which there is a good deal of logic. I find it hard to know from reading the BBC Charter and its associated Agreement whether this concept is actively supported by government. If it is, then it adds to the responsibilities which apply only to the public broadcaster.
To conclude, I hope I have demonstrated two aspects of the BBC's responsibilities which ought to be further clarified. First, the advantages it has gained over many years as a monopoly public broadcaster suggest the possible need for some limitation on the extent of commercial competition by it. If so, this ought to be expressed now rather than be determined as competition ensues. Secondly, any special obligations on the BBC in its role as a public broadcaster should also be identified now, at the start of the new Charter.
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