Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

After Clause 3, insert the following new clause--

Broadcasting impartiality

(" .--(1) It shall be the duty of every broadcasting authority to satisfy themselves that, so far as possible, the programmes broadcast by the authority comply with the requirement that due impartiality is preserved on the part of the persons providing the programmes as respects matters relating to the propositions set out in Schedules 1 and 2.
(2) Organisations campaigning for and against the propositions set out in Schedules 1 and 2 shall be allowed broadcasting time at the same hour of the day and of the same duration only, such that strict impartiality is observed by the broadcasting authorities.
(3) No party political broadcast referring to the referendums or to the affairs of Scotland or Wales shall be transmitted between the enactment of this legislation and the date of the referendums.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this new clause comes in three parts. I have drawn the first subsection from the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act 1973. Essentially, it tries to lay down a duty of impartiality on broadcasting authorities. The second subsection discusses whether or not the campaigning organisations should have party political broadcasts. The third subsection relates to what I might call ordinary party political broadcasts on behalf of the political parties in the time between the enactment of this legislation and the date of the referendums. I hope that the Government will say that I have no need to be concerned about this. I shall be very grateful if I can get that on the record.

Dealing with the first subsection, the broadcasting authorities themselves must make sure that they give due impartiality to the,

    "matters relating to the propositions set out in Schedules 1 and 2."

In Scotland and Wales what normally happens in political broadcasting of every kind, including discussion programmes and radio and television news programmes, is that the broadcasters attempt, often on the same programme, to give balance and to have the four political parties in both countries represented. That is not done quite so often in news programmes, for obvious reasons, but they try over time to give balance. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, and I have taken part in a number of programmes in which balance has been attempted, although on at least one occasion a member of one of the minority parties did not turn up so that the balance that the BBC was trying to achieve failed. It could hardly be blamed because the balancing party decided not to come along or had forgotten the engagement or whatever.

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1355

What I am concerned about--and I am sure that the broadcasters are equally concerned--is what they will be doing during the time between the end of next week when this Bill becomes law and 11th September. What will they be doing when it comes to balance? If they continue the kind of political programmes that we are used to in Scotland and Wales, we shall have the nationalists, the Liberals and the Labour Party all advocating a "Yes" vote in a programme. I still find it hard to believe that the Government can be comfortable with the nationalists being on the same side and saying that voting "Yes" would be a good idea when we all know that they want to go the next step to independence, and beside them there is a claimed unionist saying that it is a good idea because he does not want to go the next step. There seems to be a contradiction there which we could expose. Nonetheless, there would be three people advocating a "Yes" vote in Scotland and in Wales, and one person, a Conservative, advocating a "No" vote. I do not think that that would be a proper balance when discussing the propositions set out in Schedules 1 and 2.

I hope that that is not the way in which the Government envisage that the broadcasters will act and I hope that the broadcasters will not act in that way. They might be grateful for some guidance. I also hope that the broadcasters will seek to achieve some balance between the "Yes" and the "No" so that in a programme on which four people are interviewed, there will be two people with views on the "Yes" side and two people whose views are on the "No" side. That will be the broad balance that the broadcasters should attempt to achieve.

I do not know whether I drew this matter to your Lordships' attention previously, but, in the commission document to which I have referred on a number of occasions, Guideline 17 states:

    "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".

If Wales is anything like Scotland I suspect that the broadcasters will provide what the public will rapidly regard as far too much airtime for discussion of this issue because the one thing that we know is that the chattering classes in Scotland and in Wales are a great deal more thorough on this than almost any other group in either Scotland or in Wales. That is my first proposition, which is covered by the first subsection. I hope that the Government will be able to reassure me on that point and give the broadcasters some guidance.

The second subsection relates to party political broadcasts on behalf of the "Yes" and "No" campaigns in both Scotland and in Wales. I think that that speaks for itself. Will the broadcasters be obliged under the legislation to give to the "Yes" and "No" campaigns equal time and equal positioning in the broadcasting environment with which to put forward their cases in the nature of a party political broadcast? That is a clear question.

The third proposition relates to party political broadcasts as we know them. It is possible to imagine that there may be party political broadcasts in August

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1356

and September although I suspect that the parties know that people are on holiday and that they are not very interested in party political broadcasts at such times. In previous debates we have been told that the population of Scotland will be hard at work throughout the whole of August and September. Although I do not imagine that the parties will be desperately keen to put out such broadcasts during August or at the beginning of September, I should like to know what the Government envisage in that regard. The referendum will be a fairly important topic in August and September, so there may not be any other issues on which party political broadcasts will be made. That is why I think that this point is relevant.

Perhaps I may remind whichever Minister is to answer--I believe that it may be the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate, which will be most appropriate--of a case in the Outer House before Lord Ross on 19th February 1979. The case was Wilson v. Independent Broadcasting Authority. Party political broadcasts were under discussion in that case and your Lordships might be interested to know that the Wilson referred to was then a vigorous campaigner on the "No" side. He is now Minister of State at the Scottish Office and is keeping a very quiet profile on these matters. Indeed, he described himself the other day as a "caretaker Minister". He seems to have had a conversion on the road from Stornoway--perhaps it was the road from Ardrossan in his constituency or even on the road to Ardrossan before that area became his constituency. I am referring to Brian Wilson, whom I know well. We were both educated at the same school although not at the same time. He is therefore a man of high intellect and good education. I would not dispute that.

Brian Wilson and others, the executives of the then Labour "Vote No" campaign committee, brought that action against the Independent Broadcasting Authority because the parties in Scotland were going to put out party political broadcasts advocating a "Yes" vote and Brian Wilson and his friends thought that that was in breach of the IBA's responsibilities. Your Lordships will be happy to hear that I shall not bore you with the learned judgment of Lord Ross--your Lordships may not have been bored--but the conclusion was that party political broadcasts would be in breach and they did not then take place. In my third subsection I am simply seeking to establish that we shall start from that proposition and that there will be no need for Brian Wilson or anybody else--such as Mr. Smith in Wales--to go to court to try to ensure that party political broadcasts do not take place during the referendum campaign.

As we come towards the end of our procedures on this Bill, I am very much looking forward to receiving from the Lord Advocate the kind of assurances which will leave me deeply satisfied. I beg to move.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I rise briefly but with a particular interest in the answer to this question as I am a director of one of the television companies which will be broadcasting during the referendum campaign and which is subject to the decisions of the Independent Television Commission. It is important that

22 Jul 1997 : Column 1357

I should know the answer, particularly, as I believe that I pointed this out on an earlier amendment, given the report in the Welsh press that there will be a government party political broadcast in the run-up to the holding of the referendum. It would be most unfortunate if we got into a situation, almost by chance, where a government party political broadcast went out (perhaps because it had been scheduled for some time) but there was no opportunity for an alternative party political broadcast to be given which would allow the "No" campaign to have its say. Much the best solution seems to be that there should be no party political broadcasts at all during that period.

I turn now to the other question raised by my noble friend. It is desirable that there should be a balance. However, as I discovered when I took part last week (for the first time) in a broadcast at midnight--it is not a practice that I hope to repeat frequently--on exactly the topic of Welsh devolution that we are now discussing, "balance" to the broadcasters currently means having three who are in favour of an assembly and one who is supposed to do battle on the other side. I do not mind being in that position and I am sure that I made the case extremely powerfully and won the argument, but it is a pretty odd sort of balance and I do not want to have to spend the whole of August and September carrying out the job of being the odd one out on such a broadcast.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page