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Lord Habgood: My Lords, I shall be very brief because virtually all that I intended to say has been said very much better by other speakers. However, there is one point that I should like to make. I trust that the Government will not say, as has already been said in answers to both spoken and written Questions, that this is an operational matter and nothing to do with us. That would be an unforgivable "get-out".
At present, we are engaged in the most Byzantine piece of legislation that I have ever tried to wade my way through, which is all about the way in which the Government and public authorities should control broadcasting. If, when we come to a major crisis like this, which is also a matter of deep public concern, the Government then say, "It's nothing to do with us", what on earth is all this legislation about? Indeed, what can we expect from it in the future? That is the first and most important reason why we must have a proper response to the concerns which have been expressed.
The second reason is that, in my view, this is not simply an operational matter; it is about structures. The way in which a broadcasting service is structured expresses its aims and values. Therefore, inevitably, a change of structure will undo precisely what has made the World Service most distinctive. That must be a matter for our concern.
Thirdly, it must be a matter for our concern because, if I understand rightly, one of the things which precipitated the whole change was the reduction by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the grant to the World Service. Therefore, the Government are directly implicated. I hope that the plea for a pause--perhaps a six-month pause, a time for consultation and more
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I also welcome the opportunity to speak and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, giving us this opportunity. I have been chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission for the past three years. On the whole, I have been very impressed with my contacts with the BBC and with the way in which it has seen its duty as a public service broadcaster.
I want briefly to concentrate on the body that should take responsibility for what has happened at the BBC; namely, the Governors of the BBC. That body was appointed many years ago to represent the interests of the community as well as the will that is expressed in this House and the other place.
I am surprised--in fact utterly amazed--that a body of men and women appointed to guard the public interest should be prepared to acquiesce in a new policy for which there was no consultation, and which informed the Foreign Office, a major contributor, only days before the plan was implemented. The governors of the BBC have, in this instance, failed in their duty. They may expect support for public service broadcasting in the future, but I am afraid that much of that support has disappeared over the past few weeks.
Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, I shall be brief because much has been said, and well said, from different quarters of the House. It was ingenious to find a way to debate this. I thought it might be very difficult.
My reflection is that this matter is too secret. I am afraid the body we are discussing has grown a little arrogant. It feels that it is sovereign. It is true that it can actually make governments and defeat governments. Sometimes it is busy trying to do so. The BBC does have a conscience--very much so--as I know from the previous chairman, but it does not like being judge and jury in its own case. When we endeavoured to find an independent body which could monitor and take up transgressions when they occurred, it was frowned on by the BBC and by the officers who advised my noble friend at the heritage department. This seemed to be going one too far. Some £170 million is involved. Finance is meant to be behind this move. This proposal is supposed to save money, as your Lordships will remember. I always doubt those who claim that their proposals will be much cheaper and will save money. When those proposals come into effect, they cost much more. New buildings have to be adapted and adopted, and much money is spent. But this proposal was intended to save money.
Unique opportunities have emerged from Bush House under the present regime. Mr. Tusa and other people have done wonderfully well. Many of us look to the BBC, and to the World Service to be balanced, impartial, and independent. This is a unique opportunity to keep it so. Let us not throw that away, and tear it up.
The question of consultation is always a balance. It may well be that the balance was not entirely correct in this case. But I do think that the very strong reaction to any possibility that the World Service may be under any sort of threat shows the difficulty of consultation in this case. I believe the number of signatures in another place on the Motion is already up to 280. I wonder how many of my former colleagues have studied the detail of what is proposed? To talk in terms of major crises, without a proper analysis of what is being proposed, does not take us very much further forward.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, I heard the speech by Sam Younger at Chatham House. He said that he wanted to study the detail. The detail was spelt out by the chairman a day or two ago in a lecture to the Radio Society. He said that the BBC will still remain a separately managed directorate. It will go on managing the grant-in-aid. It will schedule its own programmes; and its editorial independence will be absolutely inviolate. It can specify what programmes it requires from the BBC News Unit and its authority will not be reduced. Its nature will remain entirely distinctive.
The governors are charged with looking after the public interest. I take this very seriously, as do my colleagues. When I spoke on the Broadcasting Bill--I think at Second Reading--I spoke about the experiences some of us had listening to the World Service during the war and have treasured all these years. Believe me, my Lords, I would be failing in my duty in the post I hold if I thought there was any threat at all to the World Service and its distinctive character and I did not create the most appalling row. But at the moment I think that if the detail is studied, it will be found that the threats are imaginary and that, in fact, it will be just as efficient as it has always been.
Lord Elton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he tell your Lordships, because he is in a good position to do so, whether it is intended to merge the news-gathering services of the World Service with the rest of the BBC. If that is the case, I think he will have to say rather more to convince us that the character of the broadcast will not change.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, perhaps I may just say three sentences. First, with great respect, I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, can defend a situation in which not even the director of the World Service of the BBC had 24 hours' notice of what was being proposed. That was indefensible by any standards.
Secondly, I believe in the BBC World Service. This country has created, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, so eloquently said, one of the great instruments of diplomacy and one that we should not lightly throw away. I have seen the United States Public Service Broadcasting adopt hours of BBC broadcasting, which it would not do for anything that was not outstandingly excellent. I have seen throughout Russia the BBC World Service producing educational services on the new democracy and on the market system sans pareil, which nobody else has been able to equal. We would be most foolish to throw away one of this country's greatest assets. I very much hope that in another place the Foreign Secretary will do his very best to persuade the BBC management to turn away from this disastrous course.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, everything has already been said brilliantly by everyone else. I wish simply to say yet once more that it is absolutely vital that we insist on delay and that we debate this issue. Like everyone else in this House, I think, I am afraid I am not convinced that this has been properly looked at as an issue of national concern. It has been looked at as a piece of accountancy. Surely we are not going to allow something as important as an extension of our overseas representation--and something which brings the truth to the whole world--to be tidied away by a management cabal which has such contempt for everyone else in the BBC that it does not think it necessary or worthwhile to explain to them what reasons there may be for this proposal. It has not explained whether this is a good case, a good proposal, or a harmless proposal. Why could it not have been explained? It has not been explained. Referring us to public speeches and to public bodies is not enough. We are talking about the management of the BBC. Frankly, I have never seen such appalling man management in my life. I hope that we shall insist, as far as we possibly can, that this matter shall be debated in the House.
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