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Viscount Astor: I wish to speak to my three amendments, which are grouped with those of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane. I agree with everything that the noble Lord said about his amendments and the general thrust of his comments. I am not sure whether my amendments are an improvement on his, but I think that we are all on the same side. I am grateful for my noble friend's support.
The purpose of Amendment No. 153 is to give Parliament and the public confidence that there is a proper and effective external scrutiny of the BBC's delivery of its public service remit. Under tier 3 the licensed public service broadcastersITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5are required to produce statements of programme policy each year. Those statements are to form their contract with the viewer and they set out exactly how they intend to meet their responsibilities as public service broadcasters.
As the Bill is presently drafted, the BBC is required to mirror this obligation via amendments to its agreement. However, there is one major, and to my mind fundamental, difference. The obligations of the licensed broadcasters are to be kept under review by Ofcom. Any significant or material change to their public service remits will involve discussion with
My other two amendments also concern the BBC. I believe that it is much more credible for the BBC to come fully under Ofcom rather than the department. A simple example of that is that the BBC's application for BBC3 was initially rejected by the Secretary of State after, what one might call, a protracted public consultation. The Secretary of State then ordered a review into the BBC on-line. I am neither criticising that decision nor commending it, but I think that decisions like that should be made by Ofcom and not by the Secretary of State. The BBC should be independent and I think that it would be better off if it was independent.
Amendment No. 153A gives Ofcom a formal role in the approval and scrutiny of new BBC services. It also enables Ofcom to comment on significant changes to long-standing BBC services, such as BBC1 and BBC2. Prior to the new BBC services being granted Ministerial approval, Ofcom would be obliged to report on whether the proposed new service or changes to the existing service would be compatible with the BBC's primary public service role, as set out in the charter and Agreement; whether it would provide a level of service to the public that is proportionate; whether it would be universally accessible and free at the point of use; and whether it would represent value for money for the licence fee payers.
Finally, Ofcom would have a duty to review, from time to time, the performance of the new or altered BBC services to ensure that they comply with the terms of approval granted by the Secretary of State and also satisfy the objectives of compatibility with public service objectives, a proportionate market impact, value for money and accessibility.
I do not think that any of the proposals in this group of amendments affect either the role or the independence of the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors has a similar role. We must remember that the board is composed of a distinguished bunch of people. They are fundamentally part-time. They have a role which is certainly enhanced and we are told by the BBC that they are to be given more resources. But they are what one might call a rather high up board of directors looking down on the BBC, if one can use that analogy.
I do not think it should be their role to deal with some of the technical issues which Ofcom is much better qualified to deal with, particularly when these issues affect other public service broadcasters. We must remember that public service broadcasting is not just the BBC. It is about all those public service broadcasters that have public service broadcasting licences; such as, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
The BBC has everything to gain and nothing to lose. I have always been disappointed that it does not want to accept that argument. Equally, I have always been rather disappointed that those of us who promoted the independence of the BBC from government and wanted to make it more answerable to Parliament, have been accused of in some way attacking the BBC.
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: In view of the time, I shall speak briefly and in a moderate and pragmatic way. I start from what is basically a rather Conservative point of view. The United Kingdom has offered the world many things but, in many ways, it is best regarded for its achievement in creating a public service broadcasting system. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, said, it was an even more remarkable British achievement that we were able to build onto a directly-funded public systemthe BBCa commercially funded system that matched the BBC in terms of its public service traditions.
If I may say so to the Opposition Front Bench, in terms of the government of the day these were always Conservative achievements. The BBC began its life under a Conservative government; the IBA, the independent commercial broadcasting system, was, amidst great controversy, entirely the creation of Conservative governments; when Channel 4 came along, it was established under the distinguished Conservative Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw. These are great British achievements.
This major Bill will change the broadcasting and telecommunications landscape of this country. I do not need to tell the Committee that it is a vast Bill with many complications. It seeks to merge five existing regulatory bodies and to deal with all kinds of other matters in relation to the new telecommunications technologies we referred to earlier.
At the very least it will be a major task for the new Ofcom to establish itself and to do the job laid down for it in the Bill. Effectively, it will need a few years to settle down and to establish itself. Without being derogatory, I believe it will be quite a long time before Ofcom will have the same reputation that, over the years, the BBC has earned for Britain around the world.
But nothing is static. The BBC has been going through a great deal of change and faces a charter renewal in a few years' time. From a practical and pragmatic point of view, it will be very much in the public interest if Ofcom is given time to settle down to its new duties as set out in the Bill. We should review the role of the BBC in the broadcasting landscape when its charter comes up for renewal in a few years' time. Some of the arguments that have been made today may well enjoy a fresh perspective at that time.
But at the moment it would do immense damage to the public interest and to Britain's reputation for broadcasting around the world if we were to do what is urged by my very old noble friendif I may call him thatthe noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, and by those who have spoken from the Opposition
I have first hand knowledge of one of the fundamental differences between the two halves of the public broadcasting system in this countrythe old "duopoly" as it was called at that timethe IBA and the BBC. The IBA, as a regulatory body, had a real degree of separation from the companies that held the various broadcasting franchises in both television and radio, whereas the BBC has always had the problem of the borderline between its board of governors and its management.
I should have made my usual declaration of interest at the outset: I have a daughter who is part of the management of the BBC. I am also a pensioner of the IBA so I hope that in the very old-fashioned broadcasting sense I can claim a certain degree of due impartiality on these matters.
But it is perfectly true that this matter has been a problem for the BBC. Under its current chairman and its present board of governors it is making a very serious attempt to clarify that situation, to give the board of governors breathing space between itself and the management, and to provide the board of governors with a degree of independent service of its own in terms of research material and so on to allow it to undertake its task of dealing with the professional management and the various broadcasters under it.
I say no more at this time of night, as others will want to speak, other than simply to repeat that there are not so many things in the world that Britain can be absolutely proud of. Our broadcasting system is one of those things. The very foundation stone of it is undoubtedly the BBC, warts and allgoodness knows, it has had plenty of warts over the yearsand here we have a major and necessary revolution taking place in the merging of broadcasting and telecommunications in the Bill. Let Ofcom have a reasonable chance of a year or two to get settled down. Let us leave the BBC as it is at the moment until we deal with the various issues that will undoubtedly arise with the renewal of the charter, including what will then be the question of the longer term relationship between the BBC and the rest of the broadcasting and telecommunications landscape in this country.
Amendment No. 153C would require the BBC to establish a committee of the governors to monitor and report annually to Parliament on the BBC's discharge of its public service remit, including particularly the delivery of a news service which is impartial, wide-ranging and fair. Amendment No. 153D would require the BBC to offer each of its governors a full-time personal assistant to be chosen from outside the BBC by the governors personally.
These two amendments follow on from what I said at Second Reading on 25th March (at cols. 757 to 760 of Hansard) which in turn referred to my debate in your Lordships' House on 11th March 2002. I shall not repeat all that now except to remind the Committee that the noble Lords, Lord Harris of High Cross, Lord Stoddart of Swindon and I, have been sponsoring independent analysis of the BBC's news and news-related coverage of the UK's relationship with the European Union since the elections to the European Parliament in 1999.
Even making allowance for the facts that bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, and that surveys often produce results which satisfy the prejudice of those who commission them, I submit that it is difficult to avoid the two main conclusions we have drawn from the 10 detailed and lengthy reports we have so far commissioned. Those two conclusions are, first, that the BBC's coverage of our relationship with the European Union suffers from a heavy Europhile bias and does not allow any debate as to whether we should be in or out of the European Union and, secondly, that the governors have done nothing to prevent this clear breach of the BBC's Charter, agreement and guidelines.
I am aware that those conclusions may not be altogether unwelcome to those Members of the Committee who view our membership of the European Union as largely a very good thing, and that for them these amendments may therefore carry something of a health warning. But, as I said at Second Reading, I hope that will not cloud our objective consideration of this problem because a significant strand of British public opinion does favour withdrawal from the European Union even in its present form, let alone from what it may become in the wake of Mr Giscard D'Estaing's proposals for a new constitution. Those who hold that opinion may be right or they may turn out to be wrong. Perhaps that would become clearer if there was an informed public debate about it. But what is clear is that the BBC has a duty to encourage that debate and that it has not done so.
As I have said, I do not propose to repeat the abundant evidence for that conclusion, some of which I have put on the record at Second Reading and on 11th March last year, and all of which can be found on our think tank's website, www.globalbritain.org. That saves Members of the Committee quite a bit of time.
There is one new statistical nugget which may help to underline my point. That flagship of the BBC's political coverage, the "Today" programme, featured 403 contributions on EU-related news between 1st September last year and 15th May this year, which was last Thursday. Of those, only two reflected the view that the United Kingdom might be better off outside the European Union.
Another key feature of the exercise sponsored by my noble friends and I is that we have sent the independent Minotaur reports to the BBC's chairman, and sometimes to the governors as well. So far as we know, the governors have not read them. They certainly
I fear that there can be only two reasons for that. Either the governors do not care about their duty to uphold the BBC's public service remit, which would mean that they were not up to their job, or for some reason they are unable to do so. I have of course spoken to a number of people who have been governors of the BBC, and even to some of the present governors. Their story is always much the same. Some did not realise that they had the duty under the charter to insist that the management fulfil the corporation's public service remit. All said that they suffered from being given far too much paper before meetings, and that the BBC is simply too big and complex for them to focus on that aspect of their responsibilities, which, as other Members of the Committee have mentioned, also contain the very great difficulty of being judge and jury in their own court.
All of us who have served in a voluntary capacity in such organisations know the problem. We all do other things as well, and so can end up being too much guided by the full-time management. Either we give up the other things that we do, or we end up largely trusting the management, while of course keeping our eyes and ears open for anything going obviously wrong. That is why Amendment No. 153D suggests that each governor should be offered a personal assistant on whom they can relya sort of political adviserso that they can look more thoroughly into the vast empire that they oversee, and depend less on the management for the decisions that they reach.
I know that the chairman's answer to that may be that he has already set up a new governance and accountability department to report to him and, through him, to advise the governors. I also know about the programme complaints committee, and the governors' programme complaints committee. But the staff of all those departments owe their careers to the management, and so are unlikely to tell the governors that the management is failing in its editorial duty. Besides, the governance and accountability department has been in existence for some 15 months, to no visible effect.
It is against that background that the amendments have been tabled. I do not know what proportion of the governors the proposed committee of governors should contain; perhaps it should even contain half of them. It should devote its energies to the public service remit. That is, after all, what justifies the licence fee. It is also what should set the BBC apart from all the commercial broadcasters. A large and growing number of people feel that we do not need to pay a licence fee for the BBC to compete with all the sex and violence that we can see on all the other channels. We should pay the licence fee to be informed, educated and entertained, without having to put up with too much downmarket rubbish for that entertainment.
My noble friend Lady Buscombe worried that the amendment would place too large a duty on the BBC to report to Parliament. However, it is only the committee of the governors that would report to Parliament, for Parliament to judge whether the BBC had met its public service duty. I do not see that a debate in Parliament would give the government of the day any more influence over the BBC than they have today. It would merely give Parliament the right to learn how the BBC was performing its most important duty. It would also remove some of the difficulty that the BBC faces of the governors having to be both judge and jury in the discharge of their several and often contrasting functions.
I speak as a longstanding admirer of the BBC. Its World Service made a huge contribution to the fall of communism in Europe, and thus to the peace of the planet. The World Service is still a wonderful example of what public service broadcasting should be. But the BBC itself is in trouble. The commercial broadcasters are gathering against it and it is starting to lose the respect of the British people. I trust that these amendments may play a small part in helping to repair that damage before it is too late. I look forward to hearing the views of your Lordships.
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