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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: It is disappointing that the Minister is not prepared to accept the need to strengthen the position of education programmes and of programmes with an educational content. However, I shall read carefully in Hansard what he said and at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 71 [General functions of BSC in relation to complaints]:

Lord Chalfont moved Amendment No. 203:


Page 61, line 15, after ("treatment") insert ("of individuals, of bodies of individuals or of matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy").

The noble Lord said: I should like to speak also to Clauses 72 and 73 which the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, and I are seeking to remove from the Bill.

The collective effect of those three changes-- I recognise at once that this runs counter to some of the things that the Minister has been saying this evening--would be to constitute the new BSC as an independent regulatory authority with powers to adjudicate on genuine complaints about taste, decency, fairness, and objectivity, including any such complaint from any listener or viewer made about problems within the independent sector or in BBC programmes. I believed--at least I did until this evening--that that was in line with the declared intention of the Secretary of State for National Heritage who recently said that it is the Government's intention to strengthen the BSC's role.

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I had assumed that strengthening it meant also giving it some teeth with which to enforce its adjudications. In all parts of the Chamber, with the possible exception of the powerful voice from the Liberal Democrat Benches, there seems to be a feeling that the BSC needs strengthening.

In one of the many excellent briefing papers which have been produced for the debate, one from the BBC put its finger precisely on one of the crucial issues. I quote from it:


    "As we enter the digital age, it will be essential to develop the right regulatory regime".

The truth of that is obvious to most of us, especially to anyone who understands some of the implications of digital technology. The cliche, "The camera cannot lie", has always been a somewhat dubious proposition, but it has no validity at all now when the editing of digitally generated pictures places enormous power in the hands of unscrupulous producers, presenters and editors who might wish to manipulate the views and reactions of their viewers.

The need for independent, responsible broadcasting legislation, especially of television, takes on a new dimension. The amendments which I propose, taken together, are designed to strengthen the regulatory system and to make it apply more widely.

I shall, by implication, be speaking also to a great number of other amendments in the Marshalled List as they are consequential to the three to which I am now speaking. For the sake of the record, they are Amendments Nos. 204, 205, 206, 207, 208, 209, 210, 211, 215, 216, 217, 221 and 223. I shall not of course speak individually to any of those amendments, but what I say will apply to them as consequential amendments to my substantial ones.

The main purpose of the amendment to Clause 71 is to clarify the significance of the concept of fairness in the context of complaints made to the BSC which is being established under the Bill's provisions. The amendment is directed specifically to the reference in the Bill to "unjust or unfair treatment". That wording does not adequately define the nature of the unfair or unjust treatment upon which the BSC is required to adjudicate. Unjust or unfair to whom or to what? It is possible of course to be unfair to a person. It is possible to be unfair to a group of people, to an organisation. But it is possible also--this seems to be a ground of some misunderstanding--to be unjust and unfair in the treatment of an issue or controversy; for example, by presenting only one side of an argument, mixing factual reporting with opinion and commenting in a misleading way. There are many ways in which an issue, a controversy, can be treated unjustly or unfairly.

That aspect is at present referred to in shorthand usually as "due impartiality", although "impartiality" seems to be an unpopular word nowadays. It is dealt with in the independent sector of broadcasting in the codes published by the ITC and the Radio Authority. I suspect that the Government will say that the new BBC Charter and Agreement establish a similar duty on the board of governors to ensure compliance with the producers' guidelines. But I remain unconvinced that those safeguards are adequate.

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To use a much worn cliche--perhaps not as much worn as "the level playing field"--that approach perpetuates a situation in which the BBC is judge and jury in its own case.

Experience suggests that that has not been an effective regulatory mechanism in the past, when programme makers often persistently and openly disregarded the producers' guidelines. Furthermore, it may be worth mentioning that the governors of the BBC have no machinery for investigating complaints made against the BBC outside their own ranks. They have to ask officials of the very organisation being complained about to advise them on how they should respond to the complaint.

Perhaps I may give the Committee an example. It has been strongly argued by Mr. Norris McWhirter and others that the BBC's treatment of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in two programmes which were broadcast in 1989 and 1995 was grossly unfair and unjust. As I shall be suggesting when I come to oppose the Motion that Clauses 72 and 73 stand part of the Bill, it is eminently reasonable that listeners and viewers should be able to complain to an independent regulatory body about this kind of unfairness, unjustness and lack of objectivity as well as about such things as matters of taste and decency.

As I have said, and as other Members have said on many occasions, there is a widespread belief that the governors of the BBC face an impossible task in trying to reconcile the role of corporate governance, the running of an organisation, with that of effective and independent regulation. Various suggestions about how we might resolve the dilemma were advanced in our debate on the Charter and Agreement. In the customary and accommodating way of the Minister, the Government undertook to consider them. But the Government subsequently decided that,


    "Any concerns expressed are already effectively addressed by the draft Charter or they do not enjoy such a level of support as to warrant a change in the proposals".
That is a dusty answer if ever I heard one.

That issue runs through all the amendments to which I am speaking. The amendment to Clause 71 is designed simply to introduce a concept of objectivity or impartiality into the complaints procedure of the BSC so that there is, as in the commercial broadcasting sector, an independent regulatory body to which complaints can be addressed about alleged lack of objectivity, impartiality or fairness in any programmes, including those of the BBC, which, as I have suggested, does not have an independent regulatory body.

I concede at the outset that my amendment, if accepted, would have one incidental consequence of which much has already been made in what was a slightly premature debate on my amendment. It would perpetuate, perhaps even aggravate, a situation in which the two existing independent regulatory bodies--the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority--would be subject to a form of second guessing by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which might come to different decisions on a complaint from those arrived at by the ITC and the Radio Authority.

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Of course, that is likely to happen, but it happens already and it is bound to happen so long as there are a number of separate organisations charged with the regulation of broadcasting. Furthermore, it is not an entirely undesirable arrangement. I believe that the existence of a Broadcasting Standards Commission as a regulatory body with some real teeth would wonderfully concentrate the minds of the BBC governors and perhaps even on occasions members of the independent regulatory authorities.

As I have said on many other occasions, I should like to see a single regulatory authority comprehending the whole spectrum of broadcasting and concerned solely with regulation and with no responsibility for broadcasting. That lesson was learnt in the Broadcasting Act 1990, when the old Independent Broadcasting Authority, which tried to be a broadcaster as well as a regulator, was abolished. The ITC and the Radio Authority were set up not simply and solely but predominantly to remove that anomaly; in other words, to separate the regulator from the broadcaster. It is almost an axiom of broadcasting that you cannot be a broadcaster and a regulator of broadcasting at the same time.

In the absence of a single, over-arching regulator--and the Government do not seem disposed to contemplate that--there is an argument that the BBC governors should cease one or other of their activities. They should cease to be involved in managing the corporation. In other words, rather than being broadcasters they should become regulators in the public interest or vice versa, but they cannot do both. Indeed, when the Secretary of State made her splendid speech to the Television Society last autumn, I thought that that was what she had in mind. I paraphrase but she thought that the time had come for the BBC governors to stand back from managing the BBC and become regulators in the public interest. That is also called for by the National Consumer Council but it seems that the Government are now ruling it out.

Failing that separation of powers, it is important that the governors of the BBC, like broadcasters in the commercially-funded sector, have the safeguard and support of an independent regulator. Given the nature of the BBC Charter and Agreement, which is now, to some extent water over the down, the Broadcasting Standards Commission is the only body equipped to fill that role. That could require the BSC becoming larger and perhaps more costly than is envisaged at present but the whole transition to a digital environment will be an expensive business in any event. As the BBC has rightly said, regulation is one of the most important elements in the process. Unless the Minister has something new to say this evening, I have not heard any argument against that concept other than a financial and administrative one. I have heard no conceptual or logical argument against setting up BSC in the role of a really effective independent regulator. Although this amendment to Clause 71 is relevant to the others to which I am speaking, it is a useful amendment on its own irrespective of the success or otherwise of later amendments.

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I wish to have Clauses 72 and 73 removed from the Bill. They go right to the heart of my concern about the BSC. As the Bill is drafted, any viewer or listener is entitled to complain to the commission about standards. In other words, anyone may complain to the commission about matters concerning taste and decency. But complaints about fairness, however defined, may be made only by someone affected directly by the programme complained of or by someone authorised to make a complaint for him. That distinction seems to be based upon a curious system of values. It implies that if someone is offended by explicit sexual activity or obscene language in a programme it is quite right that he should complain to a regulator and that the regulator should adjudicate on the complaint. But if you, I or any other listener or viewer is offended by grossly unfair treatment of an important political or social issue which may have a direct impact on all our lives we may not complain unless we are personally targets of the alleged unfairness. That seems to me to represent a curious system of values.

The removal of Clause 72, taken together with the consequential amendments I mentioned, is designed to remove the distinction. Clause 73 is largely consequential. The ultimate purpose of the amendments--and I do not seek in any way to conceal it--is to make the BBC, like the commercial broadcasting sector, subject to the regulation of an independent authority. The present situation is clearly totally unsatisfactory and neither the draft charter, the agreement, nor the Bill in its present form, do anything to change it. I recognise that the amendments, if accepted, would have some administrative and financial side-effects. That is clear.

It is possible that the Government will be able to propose other means of achieving the same purpose as my amendments. Perhaps they will be able to propose some other machinery to bring the BBC under the aegis of an independent regulator and thereby remove the conflict of interest which is at present obvious in the dual role of the governors of the BBC. If so, I should be most happy to listen to such proposals. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to say in his reply that the Government will consider the amendments and that, even if they are not able to accept them in their present form, they will at least bring forward something which will have the same effect. I beg to move.


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