Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I apologise to the Committee that I shall have to leave before the proceedings end this evening. That may be a relief to noble Lords. Therefore, I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I say what I wish to say on the issue now and follow what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said and agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, said.

I am sympathetic to those amendments which seek to make the membership of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission more representative. However, I have strong reservations about extending the remit of the Broadcasting Standards Commission for the reasons explained by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas. The Minister will be happy to know that in what will probably be my last contribution in the Committee stage I can agree with him. He said at Second Reading that the Government see no reason to extend the remit of the Broadcasting Standards Commission which should run parallel with the regulator and not be a substitute for it. I am content with that situation.

The regulation of standards in broadcasting is untidy. The Minister keeps saying that he is a deregulatory Minister. In the past I teased his predecessors that when I started as chairman of the Independent Broadcasting

15 Feb 1996 : Column 781

Authority there were only two regulators in broadcasting--the governors of the BBC and the board of the IBA. By the time the IBA was abolished by the present Government there were five or six regulators. That is a fair record for a deregulatory government. I used to complain greatly that the BSC was simply an unnecessary fifth wheel to the coach.

Life has moved on. Perhaps I am getting older, but I am rather in favour of untidiness and I do not wish to be too logical in these matters. As I said at Second Reading, under the experienced direction of Mr. Colin Shaw, who is about to retire, and the chairmanship of Lady Howe, the BSC has done a good job. In the field of research into broadcasting standards in particular there is a role to be played.

When it comes to some of the issues which will be raised later today and the proposals under which the BSC is to be given all kinds of duties in relation to due impartiality, taste and decency in particular programmes and dealing with objections to programmes even though the people concerned may not be directly involved, I am very much opposed to such a development in the role of the Broadcasting Standards Commission. If one wanted to be really tidy and logical--and I see that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, has left so he will not feel too hurt by my remarks--there might be a case for giving the Broadcasting Standards Commission a regulatory role over the BBC, but not over the ITV companies, because there is a real difference between the ITC and the BBC. The governors of the BBC face the dilemma, which we discussed when we debated its charter, of looking both ways. On the one hand they are public trustees, which is their more important duty, but on the other they are fairly directly involved with those they employ as brilliant and creative programme makers. There is always a conflict when something goes wrong.

Under the present Broadcasting Act the ITC is at arm's length from those it regulates. It holds licences. As the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, said, the ITC has powerful sanctions. It has yellow cards and red cards, leading to being ordered off the scene entirely and not coming back.

I do not press that point. I press strongly the point that the membership of the Broadcasting Standards Commission should be as representative as possible. However, on these Benches we would be wholly opposed to seeking to increase its powers.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I disagree with the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Thomson. However, I do not want to disagree too strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, because I am hoping for his support for the amendments that I shall move shortly in relation to disabled people. After the Second Reading debate I know how sympathetic he is.

It is wrong to speak of the overregulation of cultural policy. My noble friend is not seeking to overregulate cultural policy. She seeks to strengthen the hand of the consumer. There is no doubt that the consumer's hand needs to be strengthened. I have noticed that whenever any attempt is made to try to improve the interests of consumers, the automatic reaction is to speak of

15 Feb 1996 : Column 782

overregulation, as the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Thomson, did. I am not satisfied with the existing system, but my noble friend referred specifically to the system in the future. We shall see great monoliths developing, and that presents a very strong case in support of my noble friend's argument.

All I can say in response to the point relating to adding this proposal to existing quangos is that, if my noble friend had suggested a different organisation rather than adding this role to that of the BSC, she would have been accused of proposing yet another quango. She cannot win, although I believe that she has won the argument.

Lord McNally: I hesitate to speak now because I fear that I shall be at odds with the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, and the Official Opposition Front Bench. For much of this debate we have marched shoulder to shoulder. However, in introducing the amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, used much of the language of bureaucracy. That justified the warning by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, about freedom of cultural broadcasting. Later today we shall have again to draw a line in the sand about that.

In some ways I believe that the Opposition has ceded too much ground. The bodies of the great and good who are guardians of public morality are a waste of time. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said, we spent a decade inventing body after body which will protect us from this, that and the other. Members of the Committee will later suggest further protections. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot say that we have the best broadcasting system in the world with brilliant new services and wonderful documentary programmes when they are made by producers and programme makers who have to be shackled, bound, watched, guided and advised. It is time to say, "Enough of this nonsense" and to give the regulatory bodies the responsibility for regulating, leaving the producers and makers of programmes to accept proper responsibility for their product.

Lord Chalfont: I hesitate to intervene at this late stage, especially as we seem in part to be debating an amendment which has not yet been moved. I understand the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, did that, but he has opened what is sometimes known as a can of worms--and some of them were wriggling furiously a moment ago.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not suggesting the removal from broadcasting of regulatory bodies. That would indeed be a retrograde step of the worst kind. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, spoke, as did many others, about cultural freedom and creativity. I hope that I shall not be accused of being too obscurantist when I say that we have a little too much cultural creativity, especially in the presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes. For that reason, the consumer needs more protection than the listener and viewer have at present.

I have no quarrel with the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness. I believe that there are other ways of accomplishing it. Indeed other ways will be implicit in the amendments that I hope I shall have time to move

15 Feb 1996 : Column 783

later this evening. However, we should return to the question of regulating and be clear in our minds about what the regulators do. They do not stifle creativity. No one has suggested to me that the ITC or Radio Authority are stiflers of cultural creativity. The quality of programmes in many cases is quite high, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. But the consumer has to be protected. In that sense, I believe, as does the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that the strength of the BSC should be increased. The Secretary of State for National Heritage said that in a debate on this subject in another place.

I hope that we shall not be drawn too far along the libertarian path into believing that the ideal situation would be a totally deregulated and unregulated broadcasting system in this country.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: I hope that I may begin on a slightly prosaic note. I believe that I am speaking to Amendments Nos. 195ZC, 195H, 196A and 195J, and no others.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: If the Minister will forgive me, we are not debating Amendment No. 195H. Despite the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth--we understand that it is his swansong at the Committee stage--I have not yet moved that amendment. It refers to membership of the committee.

Lord Inglewood: I am grateful. I had not much to say about it anyway. In proposing a change in title, the noble Baroness is by implication extending the remit of the new BSC into areas which are properly the concern of the regulators and broadcasters. The Government do not consider it necessary to extend the BSC's remit in the manner that this amendment suggests. The regulators already place considerable emphasis on the interests of consumers through the attention they pay, under the 1990 legislation, to setting licence conditions and promulgating codes. The Independent Television Commission, for example, has significant powers to penalise its licensees if they overstep the mark in maintaining standards of taste and decency, due impartiality, accuracy in programmes and advertising. Monitoring by ITC's own specialist staff and the resources it devotes to responding to complaints about programme matters demonstrate a considerable commitment to protecting the viewers' interests. More widely the ITC puts considerable effort into monitoring the range and quality of programme services of commercial terrestrial channels and undertakes annual reviews of performance in respect of programme output.

The ITC sponsors eleven viewer consultative councils, comprising members with a keen interest in television programmes and broadly representative of the UK population. The work of these councils is integral to ITC's monitoring role. At the same time the ITC undertakes a considerable programme of research. Equally, the BBC, under the provision of paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the draft Charter which is being debated in another place as we speak, is equally engaged in similar

15 Feb 1996 : Column 784

activities. Bearing in mind this commitment to and work on behalf of the interests of television consumers, the Government see no reason to extend the remit--even if only by implication in a proposed change of title--of the new Broadcasting Standards Commission which, as I have previously said in this Committee, should complement the regulator, not substitute for it.

I turn now to Amendment No. 196A. The amendment extends the remit of the BSC widely. It would give it more or less complete discretion to look into any matter concerned with domestic broadcasting services. The Government believe that this is an undesirable and unhelpful extension of the role of the new body. The intended role of the BSC is to be the sum of the roles performed by the two previously separate bodies--to act as an independent focus of public concern about matters of taste, decency, violence, privacy and unfairness in broadcasting and to provide individuals with a user-friendly easy mechanism to see whether their personal interests, including affronts to their sensibilities, may have been affected deleteriously. The two predecessor bodies built up considerable experience and expertise in these important fields and that is where their focus should continue to lie.

To extend the remit of the BSC after merger to investigate almost anything at all connected with broadcasting which the BSC might choose to investigate is more or less completely open ended, with all that that entails for its energy and resources. It must be almost certain that it will so dissipate its activities that it fails to perform effectively in those areas that we consider to be important, unless it is permitted vast amounts of staff and resources which are quite simply not justified by the noble Baroness in the context of the current calls on public expenditure. The amendment also places a duty on the BSC to ascertain the opinions and experiences of viewers and listeners and to offer advice to regulators, broadcasters, the Government and anyone else in very broad terms.

There is a further difficulty with all this. Much of the expertise of the two predecessor bodies has been built on their statutory functions of considering complaints. That process, which is inevitably reactive and deliberative, has been the basis of their more proactive work, which is extended by the powers contained in the Bill. I am, of course, referring to drawing up guidance, monitoring programmes and undertaking research. The Government believe that the priority attached to responding to complaints should not be diluted and that the amendment would in fact mean that the BSC would become a research body, with significant advisory functions. This would demote dealing with individual complaints to second place.

The Government believe that the extension of the BSC's powers proposed in the amendment is unnecessary because the broadcasting regulatory bodies--the BBC Governors, ITC, the Radio Authority and the Welsh Authority (a point made by a number of contributors to the debate)--all have powers, or will be given powers under the Bill, to deal with the full range of broadcasting matters. The amendment duplicates what can be done already and does not add value to the

15 Feb 1996 : Column 785

existing regulatory process. Indeed, it would be an extra financial burden on broadcasters, without achieving any materially wider benefit.

Finally, I wish briefly to speak to Amendment No. 195J. In it the BSC is to be entitled to consult broadcasting and regulatory bodies in the process of drawing up or reviewing its guidance on privacy and fair treatment and to take into account any views arising out of that consultation. I am aware that the BSC is already required to consult broadcasting and regulatory bodies for the purpose of drawing up or reviewing its guidance on standards. It was our intention, in omitting a similar requirement for its fairness guidance, that such guidance be built upon the commission's jurisprudence, and it should therefore be structured according to the experience of the commission rather than that of broadcasters, regulators or other relevant bodies. However, I should like to take this opportunity, with your Lordships' indulgence, to think about the amendment further.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page