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Lord McNally: My Lords, I was introduced in this House on 9th January. Therefore, this Bill was my maiden Bill. It has been a great experience to follow it through all its stages, not least because I have had the opportunity to act as spear carrier during that time to my noble friend Lord Thomson. I have intervened slightly improperly ahead of him to say that although it is right to congratulate the Minister on his stamina and skill, my admiration for him is matched by my admiration for my noble friend, who has carried out a tour de force in his assiduousness during our considerations of the Bill. I can understand why many in broadcasting still look to him for advice and help.
It has been an interesting Bill. I have been worried occasionally by the way in which the BSC, in its new form, is seen as a solution to almost every problem and seems to have more and more suggestions of powers and responsibilities thrust upon it.
Indeed, to part from what has been in the main close collaboration with the official Opposition Front Bench, I sometimes worry that if places were changed at any time in the future, the new government of New Labour may be just as enthusiastic for a little "nannying" of the broadcasters as are their predecessors. That is where, on a number of occasions at the witching hour, I have come into conflict with, in truth, some old friends, the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont and Lord Orr-Ewing, because I accept, and on these Benches we have always accepted, the icy logic of what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and his colleagues have been proposing. We have been rather happier that the Government have not followed that icy logic to the conclusion. We believe that the BBC, with its responsibilities under the Charter, is worthy of confidence.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, I received the letter from Marmaduke Hussey. I remember--and it is somewhere in the archives of the Guardian--that when he was appointed, liberal consciences were aroused because they thought that he was a Thatcherite placeman there to do dirty deeds in the BBC. I actually wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that we should give him a chance and that quite often when people are given such responsibilities they accept them with gusto as a kind of Becket figure. I do not know whether Marmaduke Hussey has become such a figure, although he has certainly become so to Members in certain parts of the House. But I believe that he can leave at the end of his term of office feeling content that he has left the BBC intact and duly protected to enable it to carry out its role as the first bastion of quality television in the country. I believe that he should take great credit for that.
The problem that I have had with my old friends could probably best be summed up in the debate on Report where the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said that he found 85 per cent. of the BBC's output to be all right
The point is that any public body such as the BBC will have a whole range of people who find fault with it. It is the 15 per cent. overlaps that cause the hostility. The truth is that the BBC and, from what I have seen, the Governors have carried out their duties with great assiduousness. Everyone has praised the work of Marmaduke Hussey and expressed confidence in his successor. The House has debated the BBC's Charter at great length. In contrast to the appeal just made by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, I advise the Minister to resist, stick by his guns and carry on. I say that because, in contrast to the 1990 legislation, a very practical Broadcasting Bill has been brought forward which is free from the ideological prejudices that warped and distorted its predecessor.
I have one final point to make to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. We are not talking about monopoly so far as concerns ITN or, indeed, saying that it should have a lifelong right to provide news to the third channel. However, many of us are deeply concerned that if news providing to the third channel were fragmented it would not be competition in the way that the noble Lord expressed; it would be a deterioration of service to the viewers in the individual regions. Not only would that be a dis-service to viewers; it would also rob our system of the balance of a good quality news service on that third channel. If for cost cutting reasons--and the noble Lord mentioned costs--the third channel were to lose its high quality news service, the commercial channel would come to regret it. Those are the thoughts of a new boy going through his first Bill. I conclude by saying that the admiration that I have had for the Minister's stamina, patience and good humour leaves me with a great impression of the ministerial quality in this place.
Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I fully agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said but with practically nothing said by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. However, I should like to make a few brief comments, especially on Part V of the Bill. Although I shall be critical of the Government's policy, I echo what other noble Lords have said. I should like to make it clear that I intend no criticism of my noble friend Lord Inglewood, who has piloted the Bill through the House with great skill and courtesy. It is a good principle not to shoot the messenger who brings bad tidings, as my noble friend has had to do on a number of occasions in relation to government policy.
The trouble started with the presentation of the BBC's Charter and Agreement to the House in a form that could not be amended. In my view, that was a denial of the rights and duties of Parliament and, indeed, of democracy. I hope that no important issue of national importance will ever again be dealt with in such a way.
The shortcomings of the BBC's Charter and Agreement, especially those relating to the handling of complaints on impartiality, could have been rectified by amending Part V of the Bill so that the BSC could deal with such complaints. However, despite the many amendments proposed and apart from a few minor concessions, all the amendments have been turned down by the Government mainly on the ground that the BBC must be allowed to operate under the new charter and agreement on the principle of, "Let's see how it goes".
In my view that is wholly unsatisfactory. The logic of the Government's case for treating the BBC and commercial broadcasting differently is unsound, and the record of the BBC in self-regulation is not all that good. The most recent example indicating a failure by the BBC Governors to instil in their staff high principles and enforce them occurred on the very day after the Dunblane killings when the final line of the comedy "Waiting for God" was,
That the BBC issued an apology through the press does nothing to allay the fears of many of us that all is not well with the direction of the BBC under the largely self-regulatory regime. I believe, sadly, that although we have done what we can to improve the Bill, it leaves this House in an unsatisfactory state. We must hope that its shortcomings will be corrected during its passage through another place.
Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I do not know whether to be relieved or angry that I am not on the hit list of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, although I must say that I agree with some of the things that he says. I wish briefly to associate myself with the words of my noble friend Lord Chalfont, who all through this Bill has presented his case on regulation with both skill and tenacity. To other noble colleagues I offer the same congratulations.
This is an important Bill and many important issues have been satisfactorily resolved thanks to the good will and expertise of noble Lords on all sides of this House, and thanks, too, to the understanding--save for one blind spot--and invariable courtesy of the Minister, to whom we are all grateful; though I for one could have wished that just on one occasion we might have been a little higher in the batting order. However, one major issue remains and it will not go away--that of the mechanics of regulation.
The Government have said that all will be well and that the additional safeguards built into the Bill and into the new BBC Charter and Agreement will stiffen the new BSC and the BBC Governors' sinews in this respect. I have, sadly, to say that there are those of us who do not agree with that view and who believe that fundamental weaknesses remain which it is all too likely will emerge during the next few years.
At this late stage it would be counter-productive and entirely inappropriate to regurgitate old arguments. I believe we sang the best songs, but the Government, though perhaps half wanting to hum the tunes themselves, chose in the final event not to listen to them but to their various advisers instead. I hope they will not come to regret that decision. I can promise them that we who have certain views in this matter will continue to take an active and, dare I say, inquisitorial interest in this facet of the Bill. I wish the Bill success as it proceeds in a northerly direction.
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