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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: I congratulate the Select Committee, in particular its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on the breadth, quality and insight of its reports. As a former broadcaster, I was tempted to opine on almost every issue covered, but today I shall touch only on the broadcasting of religion. I declare an interest as chairman of the Humanist All-Party Group, so perhaps I can expand on a few of the matters about which my noble friends Lord Peston and Lord Maxton, in the interests of unanimity, said a little less than perhaps they might have.
I started my broadcasting career over 40 years ago on a religious programme, "Sunday Break". Subsequently, in my work for almost 20 years with Granada in Manchester and for 13 years with Scottish Television in Glasgow, at times I had the benefit of having my own committee of religious advisers, as I was responsible for religious broadcasting. We had extremely good relations, despite the fact that my secular beliefs were clearly declared. We worked very well together and made a number of excellent series. One reason was that we had a shared interest in many areas of ethics, social matters and spirituality and so on. Then, and more so now, in television the squeeze on the time available for slots that cover issues of that kind was increasingly intense, and of course we were always the poor relations when it came to budgeting. So, in some ways, I want to make a common cause here.
I welcome very much what the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said in her excellent contribution and I hope to build on some of her remarks. The Communications Act 2003 gives the BBC a duty to make programmes on "religion and other beliefs". In the debates on the Communications Bill, it was made clear that that included non-religious beliefs, such as humanist ones. It was also made clear by the Minister of the day, my noble friend Lord McIntosh.
However, that duty does not seem to be taken seriously by the BBC as it relates to programmes about non-religious beliefs, such as humanism. The British Humanist Association has entered into
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correspondence with the BBC since the Communications Act received Royal Assent. The repeated response to the request that non-religious and religious beliefs be given equal time in broadcasting is that most of the BBC's programming is secular. That seems to me to miss the point entirely. It suggests that non-religious licence-fee payers who want programmes on their beliefs of an equivalent depth to programmes on religious beliefs should somehow be satisfied with secular game shows, dramas and soap operas.
is welcome in that it urges the BBC to meet its obligations in relation to those "other beliefs". But the concern must be that the BBC will not be responsive. Dealing with it in the past gives good reason for pessimism.
On the question of the broadcasting of non-religious beliefs as part of a public service, people with humanist beliefs are not seeking any privileges. Correspondingly, we are concerned that those privileges are accorded to the adherents of religion simply by virtue of their beliefs. There are two major institutional examples of that kind of privilege being granted to religion. One is the education system and the other is the BBC.
Broadcasting offers by far the most important means for members of a modern, open society to communicate with each other and jointly address the challenges that face them. A large number of people in the United Kingdom are non-religious. A rather loaded question in the 2001 census put our number at over 15 per cent of the populationaround 10 million. But other polls and surveys consistently put the number higherat around 25 per cent of the population, especially among the young. These people are leading their lives according to non-religious principles, but I believe they are just as entitled to have programmes that speak to them as are the religious people. Does the BBC assume that none of those millions has any interest in exploring what it means to live a life without religion, to find non-religious answers to the so-called "ultimate questions" and to articulate a non-religious basis for morality? It would seem so from its failure to provide any platform for such exercises, even while it continues to give a great deal of time to religion in many matters.
The programmes that we seek would not be attacks on religion but reflections on the basis of a secular morality, on particular moral issues, on a secular spirituality and on living a non-religious life, drawing on the tradition of non-religious life-stances from ancient times down to the present day. I believe that such programmes would help the large number of people who do not hold religious beliefs to explore what they do believe and how those beliefs affect the way they lead their lives. They could be expected in a small way to yield a social dividendto help social
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cohesion and commitment and to combat the moral anomie, cynicism and selfishness that some commentators perceive in modern society.
There are now many non-Christian religions and a far greater disparity within Christianity than Lord Reith could ever have dreamed of, let alone a popular renunciation of religion as a guiding force that would have alarmed him severely. There are also increasing numbers of people who are not renouncing religion but are simply growing up with a totally non-religious world view. I speak as someone who was brought up as an atheist, although my free-thinking parents insisted that I spent a great deal of my childhood at Bible class, the Boys' Brigade and Church of Scotland lectures, none of which I regret, but I came back to an atheistic view of the world and have maintained that. The BBC needs to regain its balance and neutrality by extending its programming to those citizens' beliefs and to include secular life-stances such as humanism in its coverage.
I shall finish on the question of the Central Religious Advisory Committee, or CRAC. As I said earlier, I had at my disposal committees of religious advisers. In Manchester, as I recall, we had Anglican, non-conformist and Catholic advisers. When I went to Scotland, we had Church of Scotland, non-conformist and Catholic advisers and, indeed, people from the "Wee Free" Church in Scotland. But even the Wee Free man was very consensual in his approach. Noble Lords will find that the religion that comes out of CRAC and elsewhere is very much middle of the road. Perhaps noble Lords would argue that there are no problems with that, but they would find very few "holy rollers" and very little fire and brimstone emanating from the religious committees in which I was involved, and I imagine that the same will be true of CRAC.
In the light of the Human Rights Act, which makes discrimination between people on the grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs illegal, and in the light of the Communications Act, which does not give the BBC an obligation relating to "religion" but to "religion and other beliefs", it is surely clear that the Central Religious Advisory Committee should have humanist representation on it. Speaking from my own experience, I would say that our presence might actually help to make the slots more attractive by broadening their appeal. Sadly, the BBC has not offered such representation, so it is a disappointment to me that the Select Committee's recommendations on CRAC do not engage with this issue.
Lord Kalms: Like any actor or author who has just received a rejection slip, I want to share that experience with colleagues in the Committee. When I was appointed to this distinguished House, I had an illusion that it was somehow linked to my long experience on some limited subjectsone of them being corporate governanceso the chance to plough that furrow on the BBC Charter Review Committee
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was a welcome opportunity. But, as we have now discovered, our efforts were very much in vain and that is why my blunt rejection slip arrived.
My noble friend Lord King has pre-empted some of my comments but he has generously allowed me certain scope. However, as I am speaking on a single issue, I should like to put some meat on the bones of my contention and refer in particular to the DCMS review of the BBC Royal Charter and the draft charter and framework agreement, which sets out the constitution of the proposed trust board and executive board.
It is an interesting paper. It flies in the face of all known experience in this field. It flies in the face of the recommendations of our BBC Charter Review Committee, and it flies in the face of virtually everyone we interviewed, including the former chairman of the BBC. Their views ranged from trenchant criticism to damning by faint praise. I think it was fair to say that the noble Lord, Lord Birt, whom we interviewed only this week, was slightly more enigmatic, and I mention that in fairness.
As noble Lords are aware, the management of the BBC is to be changed from a single unitary board into a dual structure, with a top tier named the BBC Trust. It is accepted in the document that the word "trust" is not necessarily the correct one but it is being used in a colloquial sense, whatever that means in this context. It hints that a better name could be used and I shall try to oblige during the course of my remarks.
The purpose of the trust is to direct and monitor the activities of the BBC executive board. The list of the trust's functions include: to approve; to assess proposals; to assess performance; to define performance; to issue licences; to discharge; to hold to account; to set the framework; to conduct investigationsthat is mentioned twiceto commission value for money; and, to ensure. Those words seem to be given out of context, but they are unambivalent in authority. These are deep and intrusive responsibilities. The role allows little discretion for subsidiarity. So perhaps it would be better if we started now by redefining the name of the trust to something more appropriate to its role. The word "distrust" somehow comes to mind. In truth, the trust is a pure regulatory body, appointed by the Government, and it would be disingenuous to call it anything else. A regulator by any other name does not smell like a rose.
The trust sits over the BBC board. It appoints a chairman and, if one has doubts about the trust, they bear comparison to those about the complexity of the BBC board itself. The executive board will be appointed and will include, inter alia, four non-executive directors. That is a revolutiona first timea completely novel way in which to run a large institution. It is a ground-breaking, breath-taking phenomenon: non-executives being appointed to an executive board. My research through the panorama of UK companies showed that a non-executive on an executive board is about as rare as finding an unleaking Thames water main. It is a contradiction in terms. I am a strong believer in non-executive directors, as they bring a fresh view and skill to the top
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table, but that role is totally neutralised and absolutely redundant if they will inevitably have thrust upon them executive involvement and, by implication, responsibility. It is an impossible scenario and should be so recognised.
I turn to the role of the board. The chairman and the executives, plus their sad passengers, have to submit to the trust or regulatory board virtually every detail of their managementtheir strategy and their operation. So to allow the trust to be in a position of judgment, the trust itself is recruiting is own substantial bureaucracy; when I first inquired, several months ago, it had reached 40 senior personnel, and was still growing like Topsy. Their function will be to ensure that nothing escapes their eagle eye as to the budget, the performance criteria and the guidelines covered under the headline words that I mentioned previously. Virtually nothing is outside their remit.
We have this extraordinary scenario in which the BBC executive and a large panoply of planners and budgeteers are fighting tooth and nail with another group of bureaucrats above themthe one below to get as much as possible, the one above to keep as tight a rein as possible. A great new corporate game is being established within the same organisation. The cost, the time, the delay and the process are the original ingredients of nightmares. The dynamics of the creativity of the BBC are becoming stuck in the morass of procedure. It is an extraordinary, useless waste of effort.
It is worth reflecting why this Frankenstein was created. Apparently, it was felt that the BBC was not independent enough of its own organisationand the recent Kelly case seemed to indicate a prima facie case. The remedy would have been simplicity itself: an experienced chairman of any large company would have found a simplistic but robust procedure within the organisation to deal with what was clearly a defective process. A repair job was needed, not major surgery. But unfortunately the issue was a godsend to a bureaucratic mindset within the DCMS, and the BBC has had imposed upon it a suffocating regulatory straitjacket. I believe that the Secretary of State must be responsible, once again, for not seeing through the implications of her proposals.
The first question is: will it work? Of course it will work. Things work. Institutions work. It will be dramatically more expensive but that will be just another cost added. It will be monstrously inefficient, but that is also just another cost added. It will be a poisonous atmosphere, but that will affect only the players. Will it affect the quality of the BBC? I believe that that is inevitable.
Equally disturbing is that it sets an example of political incompetence, governmental interference and ministerial autocracy over a great British institution, which I hoped were no longer on the agendaat least, I did before I was privileged to join the Select Committee.
I conclude on a happier note. As a connoisseur of chairmen and chairmanship, I compliment my noble friend Lord Fowler on leading the committee in a
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skilful and incisive way. He is established in the upper quartile of chairmen and I am delighted, as an old dog, to have learnt new skills under his leadership.
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