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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I must begin by thanking the Minister for the opportunity to have this important debate and for his characteristically positive and accommodating style in opening it and especially in accepting the first amendment on impartiality. My amendment from this Bench includes that aspect and therefore we are happy, although my amendment does go much wider.
We welcome the White Paper which is commendable in a number of respects. It has been received with great relief both inside and outside Parliament. There is relief that the fanatics of privatisation have been kept at bay and that the licence fee is preserved as a source of finance, at least until 2001. It should have been for longer but we shall come to that. There is relief that the White Paper does not introduce advertising, sponsorship of programmes or a wide dependence on subscription, although a big door is opened for that with the onset of digital development. There is relief too at the continued support for the BBC World Service, surely almost the brightest jewel in the BBC's crown.
Some of the changes proposed in the White Paper such as merging the Broadcasting Standards Council with the complaints commission presumably will require primary legislation at some time--although I stand to be corrected on that--before the new Charter comes into effect. Perhaps the Minister will tell us if there are any plans for that and the Government's timetable for publishing the draft Charter and Agreement. We welcome the promise to give us an opportunity to debate that.
It is well known that the Opposition preferred an Act of Parliament to replace the Royal Charter to give greater public accountability. That was rejected by both the Select Committee report in another place and by the White Paper on the grounds of alleged greater flexibility and political independence. Personally--I speak personally here--I am content to accept the Charter approach on the grounds that it has worked reasonably well for 70 years and also based on the assumption that the needs of accountability, which we were looking for in a statute, can be met specifically in the new Agreement.
Having expressed relief that the White Paper is not as bad as had been feared in the heyday of what historians might term "late loony Thatcherism" I must, however, raise several questions about its detailed content and what it does not contain. First and most important is the White Paper's central assertion that the BBC should evolve into an international, multi-media commercial enterprise, as described by the Minister. Presumably that is based on the assumption that if that is very successful it could lead to the abolition of the licence fee. Of course, we all accept that the BBC must change and must adjust to the new
We accept also that the BBC could do much more to exploit its great broadcasting assets, both the historic treasures in its archives and its unequalled programme making skills. But I do not accept, as the White Paper may imply, that such commercial enterprise could at some point become the BBC's main priority. What the Minister said on that was, I thought, reassuring, but it still can be interpreted as a strategic view.
I question whether the BBC can ever hope to be a major world media producer. Its best programmes seem to me to have a particularly British flavour and currently sell only to specialist markets abroad. If it tried to produce what one might call mid-Atlantic pap it could fall between two stools and compromise its domestic appeal.
I hope that I shall not be misunderstood. I am in favour of maximum commercial expansion compatible with the BBC's public service broadcasting priorities. However, we must be realistic. The present commercial revenues are still, I believe, less than £100 million. They might be doubled, trebled or quadrupled, but that would still be only a fraction of the £1.5 billion produced by the licence fee.
There is a more fundamental underlying issue about which the White Paper, like the Minister today, is encouraging. The BBC is above all a public service broadcaster. It invented public service broadcasting 70 years ago. It is still the best exponent of public service broadcasting in the world, as the Select Committee report on the BBC asserts. Maintaining that role and supremacy must be its first priority, over and above any drive to achieve commercial advantage. It must avoid the terrible traps offered by the global media market.
Therefore, striving to remain Britain's, and the world's, best public service broadcaster is a large, worthy and perfectly satisfactory corporate objective. That glittering niche offers a sound basis for the BBC's future; it is certainly better than following the siren calls of total commercialisation. The BBC has been, and can only be, built as a public service broadcaster on the foundation stone of financial stability, derived from the licence fee secured for many years ahead.
In return the BBC must deliver the public service broadcasting goods. It must be informative and educational as well as entertaining, to use the old phrase, and must satisfy the highest quality standards and standards of decency and good taste as well as impersonal performance indicators. It must produce a wide range of diverse programmes meeting the needs of minority as well as of majority groups. It must be editorially independent of all financial pressures, and should have a high percentage of programmes made in
Only the financial stability of the licence fee enables the BBC to perform that role in full. That is why I question in my amendment why the licence fee is only for five years. The Charter and the Agreement are extended for 10 years. In my view, so should the licence fee be. Hence the first part of my amendment and my suggestion that the commitment to public service broadcasting should be--and I sense that it may well be--explicit in the Agreement.
Given that supreme commitment to public service broadcasting and given the financial stability to support it, the BBC does not need--unlike the rest of the commercial media facing, as they do, intense competitive pressures--to descend into the sewers of contemporary tabloid journalism. The BBC has no need to experiment with so-called tabloid television, which is a cover phrase for descent into trash. It can and must avoid the trend to downmarket scheduling so apparent--and sadly increasing--elsewhere, especially in satellite but also in terrestrial television.
While the preservation of the fundamental principle of public service broadcasting is my main argument today, there are several other issues of importance which I wish to raise briefly with the Minister. While commendably attempting to confront the dramatic technological changes facing the BBC, the White Paper fails to exploit some of the opportunities which the new technological revolution offers. The first is in the area of education, and the BBC's great potential as a provider of educational services. Broadcasting is a unique educational instrument, an extra teacher in every classroom. The new interactive technology now emerging makes it much more potent, providing scope for active participation by the pupils. The opportunity must not be missed. That applies internationally. I believe that World Service Television should be encouraged to link up with the Open University and the British Council to provide British educational services to the outside world, especially to the developing third world. I believe that the commitment to expand the BBC's educational services should be explicit in the Agreement.
The related questions of the BBC's accountability, regulation and user representation also greatly concern this side of the House. The appointment and the role of the governors require further examination. Section 5 of the Charter provides that opportunity. Clearly, self-regulation has not been wholly successful. In the regulatory field we support the White Paper proposal to merge the Broadcasting Standards Council with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. However, we wonder whether that should not go further to include the integration of the Independent Television Commission, with the remit clearly specified to provide a powerful unitary body regulating the BBC, ITV, satellite and cable television. That would be a body strong and
There is also urgent need to clarify the mushrooming structure of some 60 advisory bodies and to specify their representative, consultative and monitoring functions. Again, we probably need a single, strong institution to look after the consumer's interest.
In the arts, the BBC is the greatest single patron in Britain, spending more on the arts than the arts councils. It provides vital training for practitioners in the arts. It is unique in its scale of commissioning, especially of new drama and of new and live music. None of those would survive in a primarily commercial enterprise. We welcome the fact that that vital cultural role is highlighted in the White Paper and deduce--perhaps the Minister will confirm this--that it will be written explicitly into the Agreement as a continuing cultural obligation.
On the privatisation of the transmission service, which is contemplated although thankfully not promised in the White Paper, the Government should be aware that the Labour Party in government will oppose any privatisation of the BBC, whether as a whole, which, in my view, would be ideological vandalism, or in part, such as the transmission service or BBC Enterprises. I believe that the BBC's conclusion is that it needs its own transmission service. That was announced by the deputy director, Bob Phillis, last night.
Turning to the question of impartiality, what I have to say derives from all my previous arguments. Impartiality is intrinsic to public service broadcasting. It must be highlighted in the Charter and the Agreement. I am pleased by what the Minister said so positively and constructively on the question. However, I should like to go further and propose the inclusion of other explicit requirements, some of which I have mentioned.
Hitherto, a narrow range of obligations on quality, taste and impartiality has appeared in the annex to the Agreement as a resolution by the governors. I wish to suggest--and this may well be in line with the thinking of the Minister and the Government--that henceforward the new Agreement should contain both the comprehensive range of services which the BBC is required to provide and an extended list of the explicit conditions which the Government require from the BBC in return for granting the Licence. The Agreement should also contain the governors' resolutions to meet those conditions and obligations. So it is quite simple and logical: the Government set out requirements in the Agreement; the governors resolve that they will meet them. It is not clear to me whether the Minister, when describing the new organisation, was proposing to include in the Agreement the substance of the old annex with its valuable commitment by the governors to obey certain conditions and requirements.
I conclude by summarising our extended list of explicit conditions for inclusion in the Agreement: first, due impartiality; secondly, commitment to public service broadcasting as the BBC's supreme priority; thirdly, a commitment to universal access to BBC services, free at the point of delivery; fourthly, commitments to the highest standards of quality, taste
The challenge facing the BBC in this technological future is very daunting. It must compete with so many changing technologies. If it seriously loses market share in that competition, then it will obviously grow more difficult to justify a universal licence fee imposed on everyone. However, if it maintains its share through going downmarket it compromises its unique public service broadcasting status so making the licence fee again hard to justify.
We on this side of the House will give the BBC every support in the difficult task of reconciling those pressures, on the assumption, of course, that it will meet the standards and requirements I have set out. But we accept that it can only do so if the Government provide it with the financial stability that it deserves.
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