Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Viscount Cranborne: He has been "Mandelsoned".

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: No, I said Wilson not Mandelson! Mr. Wilson has changed his mind and I shall not have the pleasure of sharing a platform with him unless I find myself on opposing sides of it. I still live in hope that I may be able to share a platform with Mr. Tam Dalyell.

Those of my noble and honourable friends campaigning in Wales will certainly be able to share platforms with Labour MPs if they wish to do so. On

7 Jul 1997 : Column 430

the other hand, they may have to campaign in their own campaign, "untainted" so to speak by any Conservatives in it. But that is another issue.

Lord Elis-Thomas: Did the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, refer to Welsh Labour MPs in the plural?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My understanding is that there is a plural of Welsh MPs. However, I learnt that from the newspapers in which I believe it was said that up to four Labour MPs in Wales--and perhaps more--have been noted as being opposed to the measure, but perhaps I am doing three of them a disservice. One MP is certainly opposed to the measure and he is reported to have had a dispute with his Chief Whip and the Secretary of State for Wales on the issue.

However, I return to the point that I wish to make. It seems to me that as campaigning will not be conducted in the same way as it was in 1979, and meetings throughout Scotland and Wales will not be the chosen vehicle for campaigning, the importance of the media will be far greater this time than last time. Indeed, in general elections we have seen that the importance of the media has increased hugely. Therefore, it seems to me important that we should ask seriously what will be the rules in relation to broadcasting.

On my feet, I cannot find my way through the draft orders. But my recollection is that the draft order on broadcasting in the Representation of the People Act is not to be included in the draft orders. I am not surprised by that because it would be very difficult to change the wording in the statute--in the Representation of the People Act on broadcasting--to accommodate a referendum.

But that means that we must still ask questions about the impartiality of the broadcasters. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate said that they should be impartial. But we must ask quite clearly what we are looking for. In the 1979 election the ITC programme code provided that justice should be done to the full range of significant views and perspectives during which the issue is active. In Wales, that may be a very simple proposition because there is either a "Yes" vote or a "No" vote. I believe that that is correct, although the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, seems to doubt that. Therefore, I presume--and this is where I seek guidance--that the broadcasters will have a 50/50 balance on that.

In Scotland, of course the position is rather different because there are four potential sides. It is rather more of a quadrilateral campaign in Scotland. There is the "Yes, yes", the "Yes, no", the "No, yes" and "No, no". Therefore, there are four propositions. I suspect that the "No, yes" and the "No, no" campaigns will not be very easy to tell apart. It seems to me that if you are against the proposition of having an assembly, you campaign to vote against that and you do not sub-divide into those who say that they are against it but think that it should have tax-raising powers and those who think it should not have tax-raising powers. It is possible to interpret the two questions differently. Even if you are against it and have voted "No", when it comes to the second

7 Jul 1997 : Column 431

question, there may still be two different votes. I am not sure how many campaigns that gives me but it may give me even more than four.

There is a difficulty in defining balance in broadcasting when it comes to this particular referendum in Scotland. The Government may suggest that there will be a broad interpretation and, essentially, it is the first question which will tell. The first question will be the really important question: either "Yes", you are in favour of an assembly, or "No", you are not in favour. The broad balance will be between those two propositions. As we know from the debate last week, those who are in favour are divided between those who think it should be tax raising and those who think it should not be. That merely complicates the issue. Do the Government think that in Scottish terms the balance in broadcasting will be between those in favour and those against on the first question? When the second question comes into play, will that be set aside by the broadcasters? That is a difficult question for the Government to answer. However, it deserves an answer because many people who run the current affairs and news programmes and, indeed, the discussion programmes in Scotland are a little concerned as to exactly how their responsibilities will play when the campaign gets under way.

Before I move on to the second part of my amendment, perhaps I should conclude the first part by saying that I hope that, in both Scotland and Wales, the intention is now to allow the political parties to make up the balance. In that case, in any discussion in Scotland for example--that is, the usual four-way discussions that we have in Scotland--there would only be one representative of the Conservative Party who would be advocating a "No" vote, while the other three would be advocating a "Yes" vote in one form or another. That would make the situation very complicated, although perhaps all three would not be advocating an unqualified yes as I suppose the third one would be advocating a "Yes" vote but only as the first step to independence. However, that takes us back to the previous debate.

I want to know whether the impartiality is to be based on the referendum question and not on the parties in Scotland or in Wales which also has a four-way system. I should imagine that exactly the same thing happens on Welsh television programmes. The second part of the amendment is related to that; namely, the question of party political broadcasts. I understand that such broadcasts were cancelled during the period running up to the 1979 referendum. I would appreciate advice from the Government if, in this case--I would guess from perhaps the passage of this Act or whatever date the Minister will tell me--the party political broadcasts are to be cancelled. I do not expect that there are many party political broadcasts scheduled in August, but just in case there are some then, or indeed early in September, we ought to be clear about the situation. In other words, there should be no party political broadcasts during that time.

The related question is: will there be party political broadcasts given to both sides in the referendum campaign? For example, in Wales will one or two broadcasts be given to those advocating yes and one or two to the noes? The same question applies to Scotland on

7 Jul 1997 : Column 432

the assumption that we are just going to look at the first question when it comes to working out the different sides. It is important for us to know where we are when it comes to party political broadcasts.

I have raised a number of important questions regarding the broadcasting media. I am sure that none of us has any doubt about the importance of radio and television in our modern political scene. Therefore, just as we think that there ought to be balance when it comes to the play of the parties, so, too, there ought to be balance when it comes to the play of the campaign. At the risk of being shot down in flames again, I should like to conclude my remarks by reading out Guideline 17 from the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums which says:


    "A balance should be maintained between the 'Yes' and 'No' viewpoints rather than between the different political parties. Broadcasters should be encouraged to provide a limited amount of airtime for setting out the arguments for each option in the referendum. The content of such broadcasts would be the responsibility of any formally recognised campaign organisations. In the absence of such organisations the Independent Commission should appoint production companies to produce such broadcasts. Party political broadcasts should not normally be transmitted during the referendum campaign".

I beg to move.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas: When speaking on broadcasting issues, I should declare an interest as chair of Sgrin, the media agency for Wales and also as a director of Marcher Sound. Although the first does not have any direct relevance to current affairs broadcasts, the second does. I should like, first, to express my opposition to both parts of the amendment. I wish to take up the reference to the potential "No" campaign in Wales. I have known Llewellyn Smith MP over many years; I am sure that he would agree to being described as an international socialist. I could call him a few other things, but I shall not do so in this Chamber. I cannot imagine him sharing a platform in a "No" campaign with any Conservative in Wales. That should therefore put an end to that argument. Indeed, I cannot imagine him sharing a platform with any of his Welsh colleagues and the noble Lord should not rely on the Western Mail as regards political reporting. No doubt the Western Mail is absolutely correct when it quotes opinion polls. I am certain that it is not correct when it gets into the realms of political reportage. Let us leave the Welsh Labour Party to sort out its own arguments in the pleasant way that it has always done.

I turn now to the content of the amendment. In a sense, the noble Lord has already received a response from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate when he replied to a previous amendment. It is very dangerous ground when the Opposition lead on trying to include broadcasting clauses in either referendum or election legislation which is not specifically related to Acts regarding representation of the people. Those Acts exist on the statute book in order to ensure that the due impartiality exercised by the broadcasting authorities is continued throughout election periods.

On the phrasing of impartiality, it occurs to me that there may be a printing error in the amendment, although I am sure that there are never any such errors in this Chamber. I believe that there may be an error on the part

7 Jul 1997 : Column 433

of the mover of the amendment. I say that because the amendment refers to "full impartiality". But what is full impartiality? If there is full impartiality, then clearly there must be something called "partial impartiality". I am merely a simple bilingual, but it seems to me that there are problems here with interpretation. I believe that the noble Lord probably means to refer to due impartiality which means quite something else.

The existing broadcasting authorities are there to ensure on behalf of Parliament that the broadcasters operate in a way which ensures such due impartiality. Reference has already been made to the ITC codes, the BBC producer guidelines and those of the Radio Authority. Equally, S4C has a very detailed compliance policy which includes monitoring and a careful study of the responsible activity of the broadcasters. Therefore, there already exists a whole series of safeguards to ensure that the debate in the referendum will be an impartial one, reflecting all viewpoints.

It is also important to emphasise that the broadcasters have no problem about exercising their statutory function. Indeed, it would be very strange if the governors of the BBC, the members of the national broadcasting councils in the various countries, members of the ITC with their experienced staff--and, indeed, S4C and its monitoring panel--had not already begun to sort out how they will approach the referendum. My private understanding is that they have already done so.

The broadcasters are familiar with the conduct of previous referendums and of course they are aware of the simple differences between an election, which is about electing candidates and therefore requires a balance between parties, and a referendum, which requires a balance between points of view. Indeed, as we approach the referendum, it seems to me that the traditional mission to inform of broadcasters is more appropriate than the notion of due impartiality. When we are dealing with proposals for constitutional change, which the electorate will be asked to take a view on, the mission to inform seems to me a more appropriate way of presenting responsibility than the traditional impartiality of elections.

Therefore, whatever traditional formulation of the objectivity of broadcasting we want to construe in this Chamber, we should understand that there are already ways of doing so. The amendment is completely unnecessary. It seeks to ban party political broadcasts. As someone who once represented Plaid Cymru on the secret broadcasting committee which took decisions on party political broadcasts, I would be very pleased to see them all removed from the television screen. I do not regard them as being very informative or entertaining, which seems to me to be an essential part of broadcasting. However, to suggest that there should be no party political broadcasts at all during the referendum and yet to be able to refer to all those other issues of public policy apart from the conduct of the referendums which will be of interest to the electorate or the parties seems to me a completely unnecessary requirement. Therefore on both those counts I am pleased to oppose the amendment and to try to assure the Opposition that they do no service to their own cause and the cause of democracy in Wales or Scotland--where

7 Jul 1997 : Column 434

they currently have no representation--in putting forward the amendment. It seems to me that they still have not caught up with the reality of the general election.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page