|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Renton: Before my noble friend sits down, he said several times that the governors are regulators as well as being responsible for the BBC. But surely there is a conflict of interest if they are in that dual position. Is it correct to say that they are regulators, because they cannot be totally impartial?
Lord Inglewood: My noble friend touches the nub of the problem. This is one of the aspects inherent in the debate about the appropriate form which the BBC should take. On the one hand there are advantages in having a system with the BBC established under Royal Charter and governors who have a regulatory role, who are the trustees of the public interest in respect of the BBC and who are also the embodiment of the corporation itself. On the other hand, there are also disadvantages.
In deciding which way one should go with the BBC it was necessary to weigh those matters in the balance. It was the Government's view--a view that I believe was shared by Parliament as a whole--that the former course of action was the appropriate one. A great deal of what we have been talking about this evening flows from that decision. What I am anxious to emphasise in respect of this amendment is that what I understand to be being proposed is the establishment of the BSC as a kind of alternative regulator to the regulatory system that is currently in place. I do not believe that that is desirable, for the reasons I have endeavoured to explain to your Lordships.
Members of the Committee suggested in opposing Clause 72 that the Broadcasting Standards Commission should no longer consider privacy and unfairness complaints only from individuals and their representatives, but that anybody should be able to make a privacy or unfairness complaint, whether or not they are affected by the matter that is the subject of the complaint, and whether or not they have any agreement from those who are affected.
As I explained earlier, that runs contrary to the original purpose of the establishment of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which was to consider issues of unfairness and invasion of privacy in television programmes as they affected individuals, and to provide a relatively simple and user-friendly consideration of their concerns so that they could assess whether or not they had been wrongly treated.
The continuing need for the protection of individuals in this area is evident in the increasing number of complaints received and dealt with by the present Broadcasting Complaints Commission. To remove the restriction on complainants, thus enabling any single person or group of people who felt moved to complain but who were not personally affected by the subject of the complaint, would, in our view--I recall the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, in this regard--be likely to expose the Broadcasting Standards Commission to a considerable increase in the number of complaints by interest groups about issues contained in programmes. That might well lead to gross infringements of an individual's privacy where an issue was taken up without either the consent or the knowledge of the person concerned.
People who are concerned about these matters have a direction in which they can go if they wish to take steps about it; that is, they may go to the relevant regulator in respect of the specific programme in question--the BBC in the shape of its governors, the ITC or, if appropriate, the Welsh Authority. It is not the case that we are arguing about this in vacuo. There exists a perfectly good line of action which people who are concerned about these points can go down if that is what they wish to do. What is being argued for is not the intended role of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Just as it was not the intended role of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, it is not the intention of the Government that the Broadcasting Standards Commission should go in that direction.
Finally, I turn to the proposal in respect of Clause 73, where my noble friend Lord Caldecote and the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, wish to remove the BSC's obligation to set up a separate committee to consider fairness complaints and the concomitant requirement that members of that committee be prevented from involvement with standards complaints.
It is proper that fairness complaints, which are of a different character from standards complaints--the consideration of which require different processes--be handled separately and in a manner appropriate to this kind of issue. The intention of this clause is to ensure that the work of the fairness committee is not vulnerable to possible accusations of impropriety in case of judicial review. It was originally felt that members of the fairness committee should dedicate themselves to working on such complaints so that they developed an expertise on that topic. However, after further reflection, the Government are now considering whether such ring-fencing may be unnecessary or even unduly restrictive. In the light of the meeting of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State earlier this week with the chairmen of the existing BSC and BCC, we are currently considering an amendment of our own to be introduced at Report stage which would effectively remove all but the first subsection. This would be amended to allow the commission as a whole to determine the method of publication of the findings of the fairness committee.
That concludes the remarks I wish to make about the three principal amendments. My understanding of the other amendments to which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, is speaking is that they are all consequential and therefore I do not see any need to say more about them.
Viscount Caldecote: Before the noble Lord sits down, can he explain why it is all right for matters of taste and decency in BBC programmes to come within the remit of the BSC but not matters of impartiality?
Lord Inglewood: My noble friend makes a good and fair point. The reason is that the impact of matters of taste and decency affect individuals' sensibilities as individuals in a way that matters relating to impartiality do not.
Lord Chalfont: I shall not delay the Committee overlong but I feel that a few comments are in order. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was speaking for his party. I must confess that that has given me a new view of the Liberal Democrats' attitude towards regulation. He may be aware that the language of my amendment is taken directly from the Broadcasting Act 1990. There is nothing new in it at all. It had been my understanding that the Broadcasting Act 1990 had in this respect cross-party agreement. I am somewhat surprised to find that there is a new radical and polemical approach in the Liberal Democrat Party towards the whole concept of regulation. But that is what we have heard tonight.
The noble Lord said that he thought that because it was evident that broadcasting authorities were attacking No. 10, whoever was in it, they must be doing something right. But there is a fairly good argument on the other side that they are probably doing everything wrong. I think the noble Lord is relying upon a somewhat old-fashioned interpretation of bias or impartiality. No one is talking about Left and Right impartiality; no one is talking about whether people are in favour of the Conservative Party or the Labour Party, in or out of power; what we are talking about is the fair and objective treatment of matters of controversy. That has always been my complaint about a number of broadcasters--that they do not seek after the truth; they seek merely after those selective facts which will serve to buttress their own arguments. That is why the impartiality clauses, with the very wording contained in my amendment, were built into the codes of the ITC and the Radio Authority. All I am seeking to do now, through this amendment, is to bring the BBC within the ambit of those requirements.
Freedom is a dangerous concept to start discussing at this time of night, but the noble Lord thought that the freedom of the broadcaster was a matter of predominant and primordial importance. I can only remind him that in the more classic analysis of liberal democracy freedom is defined as being the freedom to do what you wish provided that it does not limit or damage the freedom of others. It is manipulating the facts and corrupting the truth that limit the freedom of the people who listen to radio and watch television. If the noble Lord, Lord McNally, wishes to place our broadcasting system in relation to that of the French, I can only say that, like those who are constantly denigrating American television, there are things in French television and in American television from which the BBC and indeed our independent broadcasters could learn some lessons.
Perhaps I may now return to the very elegantly phrased, as always, and cogent reply of the Minister. He spoke about the existing concept of the functions of the BSC and the BCC as though they were engraved in tablets of stone. This Bill takes us into the next millennium and it is supposed to set out the regulation of digital broadcasting well into the next millennium. It is no good trying to take lessons from what the BSC and the BCC do now. The Government have already had the good sense to amalgamate those two bodies. Let them now have the good sense to make sure that the body they form is effective and has some teeth with which to do its job. I am sorry to keep returning to the canine image. We really want a body that is effective.
The noble Lord said that it was for the broadcasters to decide on scheduling and programming--and it is--but when it comes to a matter of scheduling and programming being the subject of complaint about decency, impartiality, standards and objectivity, then it is not for the broadcaster to decide. The Government conceded that in 1990 when they abolished the IBA, which was a broadcaster, and set up independent regulatory bodies. At that moment they accepted and agreed that it was not for the broadcaster to make these decisions but for an independent regulator. That is all I am asking for now.
The noble Lord spoke of double jeopardy or second guessing. As I said in my earlier comments, that is already the case. The BSC adjudicates on complaints made to it which are also made to the ITC and the Radio Authority, and very often they come to different conclusions. That will always be so for as long as one has this proliferation of regulating bodies. I do not believe that there is anything particularly evil about that. If someone complains to the BSC that, for example, they have made a complaint to the ITC or to the governors of the BBC and it has not been upheld, is it not then fair that there should be an independent body to go to and say, "I believe that I have been badly done by. My complaint has been turned down when it should not have been"? I do not believe that this matter of double jeopardy is quite the bogeyman that the noble Lord has set it out to be.
The noble Earl commented on the "chapter closed" and that struck me, too. The Minister said that the chapter was now closed and that we must give the new arrangements a chance to work. For how long? To the next review of the BBC's charter or the next Broadcasting Bill? It seems odd to me that we should now be saying that we have a system which is based on the old system, as the noble Lord suggested when he mentioned the remit of the BSC and the BCC, and that we are now prepared, in his exhortation, to give it a chance. Give it a chance for how long? It could be another eight or 10 years and we could still be suffering from the paralysis of regulations, especially in the BBC, caused by the fact that the broadcasters are also the regulators. This is the time to do something about it and not wait until we have further mini-disasters of the kind we have been accustomed to in the past.
There is a good deal more that I could say. I shall make one final comment. Again, it is a fallacy; that of the opening of the floodgates. The suggestion is that if one allows the Broadcasting Standards Commission to take complaints from people about programmes in which they are not directly involved it will open the floodgates to a great mass of nutcases who will be sending in frivolous complaints and subjecting the BSC to mounds and mounds of unnecessary work. There are two things I say to that. One is this: it has not happened in the ITC and the Radio Authority. They have the right to take complaints about impartiality to anybody. It does not have to be anybody directly affected by the programme. Any complaint about impartiality may be made by any listener or viewer in independent television or independent radio. It is only in this instance that we are trying to make a distinction between them. The other is that the BSC would always in any case have the right to decide that the complaint was frivolous and throw it out. On both counts, the great nightmare about opening the floodgates simply does not stand up.
The Minister said that everybody has a perfectly good line of complaint already. They can go to the ITC, the Radio Authority or the governors of the BBC. I would only ask the Minister rhetorically whether he has ever been to the governors of the BBC with a complaint. I have, and the result has always been the same. The BBC closes ranks, as you would fully expect it to do.
So I come to my concluding remarks. Clause 73, as the Minister said, is largely consequential. It does not begin to hold up unless some of the other amendments are accepted. The Minister said that the amendments cannot be accepted by the Government. Clearly it would be irresponsible, to say the very least, to divide the Committee at this stage, although with the single exception of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, every speech has been a ringing endorsement of my amendment. However, on the understanding that the Minister will undertake to look at the problem again and assure us that he will try to find some way of meeting the concerns of myself and my colleagues, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.