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Lord Ackner: My Lords, I add my expression of gratitude to the expressions of those who preceded me, to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for being kind enough to provide the informal meeting on 14th December to enable us to have a dummy run of airing our criticisms, if any, of the White Paper followed by the Charter and the Agreement. He kindly circulated a record of what took place at that meeting. The following statement was accurately attributed to him:
It is in relation to integrity and accountability that I wish to address my short observations. Integrity is a matter which is much more easily decided upon than standards of decency, courtesy and the like, which have already been the subject matter of debate.
Before I make my observations, I remind your Lordships of the debate on the White Paper which took place on 6th December 1994. I refresh your Lordships' memories of two observations. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, the then Minister, said,
That brings me to my substantive point. A few months ago, with almost a cry of triumph, the BBC announced a scoop; namely, the obtaining by it of a leaked copy of part of the draft of Sir Richard Scott's
The BBC proceeded to publish those preliminary critical views, to the considerable embarrassment of those affected. By no stretch of the imagination could there have been any weighing up of the public interest against the serious damage which would inevitably occur, because there was no public interest in divulging to the public that draft report.
At an informal meeting with the Secretary of State, Mrs. Bottomley, and the informal group of which I am a member, I asked in terms, "What action have you taken to call to account those responsible for this utterly indefensible conduct?" In due course, on 28th November last, the Secretary of State wrote to me giving me the following information:
We have been concerned with accountability. As far as I can understand from correspondence, no one at the BBC was called to account for this behaviour. I ask the Minister this question: would anything be different now under the new Charter and the new Agreement? Unless the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, can say, "Ah, it would be quite different today. This is the procedure which would be adopted. This is what would happen", I would submit that we need an independent regulatory body. We certainly need the very mild amendment suggested by the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, which I support.
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, as I sat waiting to speak, my mind went back to just gone three o'clock this afternoon and the words of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House when he asked us to keep our remarks brief. He will probably think twice before he gives us that encouragement again. The only consolation the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, has is that it is good training for the Broadcasting Bill which lies ahead of us and on which I think there will be quite a number of late nights.
I generally welcome the Charter and Agreement for the BBC. The ones that finish this year were concluded 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago the BBC was a very different organisation, and certainly Britain as a society was a very different place in which to live, work and view. Therefore it is important that what we have now takes us forward for the next 10 years, and within that there needs to be some flexibility. The requirement on the BBC to provide public service broadcasting is essential and is central to its role and place within our society.
Earlier in the debate the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said that we seemed to be splitting into two camps--those who thought the BBC was wonderful and those who thought it was terrible--and that perhaps somewhere down the middle was where we really were. I should like to declare where I am. I am a friend of the BBC. I hope that I am a true friend because I have always been brought up to believe that friends are people who can criticise you constructively, tell you where you are wrong and tell you where there are shortcomings. Certainly there are a number of those within the BBC and, indeed, within this Charter and Agreement.
I must declare a retrospective interest. For a time I was a member of the General Advisory Council of the BBC. I hope that continues but I hope that it continues in a different way because its present role should be reformed. Until the end of last year I was also a member of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
There is no doubt that the BBC plays a central role within our society. It is different from the other broadcasting companies. Over the past 70 years there has not been a national event of any importance to the British people when the BBC has not been there with us. Within that central role one has to look at accountability. To survive and thrive today, any organisation must be accountable. Therefore one must welcome the reference for the first time in the Charter to the BBC board of management. I would suggest--I should like the Minister to address this point when he replies--that there is a confusion within the Charter and Agreement in the sense that the remit of the national broadcasting councils has been diluted to one of advising and assisting. We are seeing a centralisation of the roles but no complete clarification of the split between the board of management and the board of governors. That is a great weakness in the Charter.
The educational aspects of the BBC are important. They are one of the three roles of the BBC: education, information and entertainment. Indeed, £47 million is ring-fenced to provide education programmes. My concern is that we now have a remit for programmes of "an educational nature". My noble friend Lord Donoughue referred earlier to the Esther Rantzen programme. Perhaps I may mention "The Antiques Road Show", "Going for a Song" and Ruby Wax's "Health Quest". Are those programmes educational? The making of them does not come out of the education budget but the packs that go with them for which the public ring in do come out of the education budget. That is very questionable indeed. If we have an education budget which is ring fenced it should be for education.
I wish to touch briefly on two areas. Touching on them briefly does not mean that I do not regard them as being of crucial importance. In paragraph 3.2(d) of the Agreement regarding programme content there is a requirement on the BBC to,
Without the back-up requirements and protection for the BBC to be able to broadcast those programmes, how can it meet that remit? My noble friend Lord Howell touched on that point and I am sure that we will return to it when we come to the Broadcasting Bill. I do not accept the logic of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, when he said that one cannot see football for free--one has to pay. That is an illogical argument. One does not see plays for free; one does not hear music for free; but one does see them for free having paid the television licence fee. And so should the British public be able to see sport.
The World Service is of concern to many noble Lords. In moving his amendment, the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, spoke of the complaints being reported within the annual report of the BBC and the requirement to publish. It is insufficient to require the BBC simply to publish the number of complaints and the number of those upheld. There needs to be far more detail.
I close by saying that the impression created is that what we are facing could be a creeping privatisation and commercialisation of the BBC. At the end of the five years of the licence fee--I ask why it is just five years--will we end up with the BBC not being one thing or the other, not knowing whether it is a commercial organisation or a public service broadcasting organisation? The Minister may say that that is protected within the Charter and Agreement, but I have some concerns about that.
Where is the public interest in the sale of the transmitters? It has been said that the Government are determined to sell off the transmitters and that the money will go to the BBC. I cannot find reference to that anywhere--in either the Charter or the Agreement. I should like the Minister to take up that point when he replies. Are we correct in understanding--do we have an assurance--that the money from the sale of the transmitters will go into the BBC? As regards the licence fee being determined on the size of the audience, there is the old argument about driving down quality in order to drive up the viewing figures. It is an imponderable. It is a problem with which the BBC is increasingly confronted.
The BBC is central to our society. That does not mean to say that we have to protect it like a delicate plant. It has to be robust, efficient and open and it has to provide a good public service. That is what the Charter and Agreement should provide. I would suggest that in a number of the areas I have covered it does not.
Lord Birkett: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I am extremely conscious of the time. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, predicted that in the year 2006 there would be another debate like this. I confess that there have been moments today when I wondered whether it might still be this one! If I do not touch on any of the big issues of the day it is not because I do not share your Lordships' concern. I am as happy as everybody else that the BBC should be preserved as a public service, which is what it is and must remain. I yield to no one in my admiration for the World Service, as so many of your Lordships do, and that too must remain. I am not quite as alarmed about the commercial future as some of your Lordships although if the gloomy prediction of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, is fulfilled that this is only a stay of execution and that by early in the next century it will have become a commercial organisation, I shall be as appalled as he would be.
Sponsorship and private sources of all sorts can help to provide programmes that the budget ordinarily would not. I sometimes wish that the BBC would be a little less po-faced about giving credit to its sponsors. It is always thought as being slightly infra dig to admit that something has been sponsored. The situation is getting better, but I believe that it can get better yet in that direction.
I am delighted as regards the independence of some of the programme makers for the BBC. It is very valuable that the independent sector should contribute programmes to the BBC. I wish that occasionally the BBC were a little more efficient about dealing with applications from the private sector. Some of my friends in the film industry find it extremely frustrating to deal with the BBC. The intention at least is there.
There have been so many big issues debated today such as integrity, responsibility, accountability, decency, impartiality and Christianity. I am sure that your Lordships will be relieved when I say that I do not intend to add my pennyworth on those. There are two seemingly small but very important matters that have not been mentioned today. One of them is contained in the stimulation of the artistic variety of this country, which is one of the duties laid on the BBC. I was so thrilled when the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, reminded us with pride that the BBC runs five orchestras. It is essential that it continues to do that. I say that not just because they are good. I am not thinking only of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; I am thinking of the wonderful BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester and the orchestras in Wales and Scotland and indeed all the orchestras. It is not just that they are wonderful musicians who play well, and indeed the orchestras provide very welcome employment, but the fact that those orchestras can programme in a way that other more commercially-minded orchestras cannot. If one has to fill a hall with 3,000, 2,000 or 1,000 seats all the time, one cannot programme with the same freedom and imagination as the BBC. Those orchestras represent something which is vital to the musical culture of this country. I beg the BBC to make sure that they remain so.
The other important matter is archives. The draft Agreement makes much of the archival services of the BBC. Perhaps I should declare an interest here. I am chairman of the National Sound Archives Advisory Committee. I do not mention that because we are in any way a rival of the BBC because we have had long and happy co-operation with them. But from time to time I have had the unworthy thought that the BBC's idea of what to preserve is dictated more by what it might use again in the future either to make income or to save itself from making a new programme, than genuinely archival things. It is wonderful to have far-sighted salesmen in an organisation, but their job is not the same as that of an archivist who is concerned with history. Unless the archival duties of the BBC are taken very seriously, we shall be doing a disservice to history and to ourselves because it is only history which will point out how wise we have been in preserving the BBC as a public service.
Lord Elton: My Lords, the BBC is the only public service broadcaster and is uniquely the trustee of the national culture and character. Our culture and character have a spiritual dimension referred to as yet only by, I believe, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I hope that my noble friend will add my name to those in support of that being recognised and maintained in the future functioning of the corporation.
This amendment arises from a genuine concern that this trusteeship shall remain a principal motivating duty of the corporation as it can never be to a purely commercial broadcaster. That concern is sharpened by the fact that in a list of no less than 26 objects in the Charter the third is to have a commercial function. The BBC now, as its third priority, is to be given a commercial function.
My noble friend the Minister has given assurances to your Lordships and to many others outside the House, that if there is sufficient agreement between your Lordships and another place, everything that is said in the debate in this House and in the other place will be taken into account. As he has been invited by my noble friend, the Mover of this amendment, to place that assurance on the record perhaps he can possibly go a little further. It would be nice if he could assure your Lordships that where specific points pressed on him in this House are supported unequivocally in another place, they will not just be taken into account but will be reflected in changes to the text of either or both of the documents now before us.
The points I have in mind arise principally from the lack of clarity in the interaction of those two documents, as my noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson of Monifieth, have all pointed out. For example, where a programme breaches a code of conduct, the governors shall publish not merely the fact of the breach, but the remedies that they have applied to prevent a repetition. That was something that seemed to fill the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, with
It cannot really be so alarming that the undertakings required to be given by the governors on standards which are to be known to the audiences which they address, are to be set out in a code of which the audience will be aware. It cannot be such a threat that the governors shall then be required to tell the audience what steps have been taken to see that those undertakings are fulfilled.
That implies a duty not merely to monitor and supervise the corporation's fulfilment of its legal and contractual obligations, but to enforce them. Speech after speech has endorsed my noble friend's plea for that. All that seems to me to be needed to clear it up for all of us, and not just for the lawyers, is to add the word "enforce" to the introduction of Article 7(1)(f) of the Charter. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, my noble friend Lord Astor, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby and others, have supported that in particular.
That enforcement should not just consist of the nuclear deterrent of the dismissal of the director-general, which the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, rightly cited as an example of the determination and tenacity of Mr. Hussey, which I also endorse. My noble friend proposes, as a means of securing that, that the employees of the governors should be required to sign up to the rules or whatever it is they are to be called. I commend to my noble friend the Minister the example of the Press Council which, I understand, has persuaded newspaper proprietors to require their editors to have in their contracts of employment an undertaking to abide by the Press Council code. I understand that that has already led to the abortion of a number of proposed publications, which would have been improper under that code. Something similar should be applied in the corporation although it may not be necessary to place it on the face of the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, proposed that Paragraph 5.3 of the Agreement should be reduced to simple English. That view was widely echoed--and I echo it now. The noble Baroness, Lady James, and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, also referred to that. We have to have some clarity and not a sentence which embraces simultaneously the words "code", "rules" and "guidance".
Leaving those three points on which my noble friend has asked for assurances as the price of the withdrawal of his amendment, perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Minister to take note also of the threat to the BBC not only of the cost of going digital which, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, pointed out, will be tremendous, but also of the growing cost of covering national sporting events. That cost was pointed out by many noble Lords, most notably by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. Will my noble friend please assure his and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister of the strong arguments in favour of legislation to ensure that such events remain accessible to all television and radio audiences and not only to those with particular sorts of
I cannot sit down without mentioning again in this forum the admirable standard of the work of the BBC World Service, to which I can attest from conversations in English with Chinese people from mainland China who have learned English solely from the BBC World Service.
I believe that the present chairman of the governors has had a horrendously difficult job to do. He has done it with distinction. He could not do it without criticism--some no doubt valid--but I think that we are now all tending to beat him with the difficulties that he has had. So I should like to conclude by saying that we should not forget the achievements that are to his credit.
Lord Rix: My Lords, as the 28th speaker in this debate and almost coterminous with the nine o'clock news, I feel rather like somebody on Radio 5 news who is constantly regurgitating an item for hours on end simply to make up the programme. I trust that what I have to say will not be just a regurgitation of all that has been said so splendidly and clearly by your Lordships during this debate.
Those of your Lordships who were present at a meeting across the road on 14th December in the Millbank Parliamentary Offices may recall my intervention, which was, so to speak, the prologue to what I want to say today. I have criticisms to make, but I think it fair to remark that even in the troughs of British broadcasting we have cause to be thankful that we live in the United Kingdom, with the BBC as our standard bearer. The delicate balancing act between the responsibilities of the "Right Trusty and Well Beloved" Secretary of State for the time being (and there is a form of words we might all hope to see in our obituary columns) and the independent corporation must have some credit for the good things in this particular public service.
It is tempting to pursue the issues of semi-commercialisation or alleged politicisation, or the debate about new material versus re-runs--in which I have a particular interest as a life member of Equity--but I wish to target my remarks on Paragraphs 3 and 5 of the Draft Agreement and to refer to the publication by the Broadcasting Standards Council towards the end of last year of Perspectives of Disability in Broadcasting, which was issued on 28th November 1995 and is many pages long. I have only one page of it with me today.
The BBC carries a large responsibility for the messages it conveys to and about people with disabilities. MENCAP, of which I am the chairman-- I am prompted to repeat that in deference to our new Standing Orders--has long had links with the BBC and its local and specialist manifestations in seeking to get people with learning disabilities featured positively, to get issues debated objectively and to get to people the information that they need. I have to say that it has
Perspectives of Disability provided an in-depth analysis of the substantial work that had been done, and the even more substantial task that remained undone, in creating positive images to match positive realities. I put images and realities side by side because I see little advantage in images unrelated to reality. It is possible to be so positive about disability that the audience concludes there is no such thing as disability. That helps nobody. I would boldly claim that disabled people are a good thing. I would not claim that being disabled is of itself a good thing.
So to specifics. I would like to suggest that 6 million disabled people are justification enough for writing disability as a particular issue into Paragraph 3 of the draft Agreement--that dealing with programme content--a view backed by the Broadcasting Standards Council in its key findings. First, the content analysis revealed a low representation of disabled people in television and radio programmes, accounting for only 1 per cent. of all speaking roles in the sample period. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly from MENCAP's point of view, that representation gave most emphasis to people with physical disabilities, yet the greatest cause of disability in the United Kingdom, excluding old age, is mental handicap or what is now known as "learning disability".
Now to Paragraph 5 of the draft Agreement, which deals with programme standards. I should like to see a requirement to respond to substantiated criticisms of accuracy and balance within a given time limit and, where appropriate, by means of a response slot at a peak viewing or listening time. The principles might go in the Agreement and the detail in the code.
Perhaps I may illustrate what I mean with this true story. Earlier last year there was a tragic incident when a stabbing took place in a community hostel in Oxford. The next day a totally unrelated story concerning the MENCAP Homes Foundation in Birmingham came out. The BBC chose to join the two stories together in its news bulletins and the terrible incident in Oxford was linked by some extraordinary journalistic osmosis to some perfectly peaceable people with a learning disability living many miles away in Birmingham. In spite of complaints from us on the day of the broadcast, the two stories, slightly filleted, continued to be linked on both radio and television from the one o'clock news until the news at midnight. Letters to the chairman of the governors--I wrote personally--and to the BBC news editor in Manchester--that letter was from our chief executive, Fred Heddell--elicited no clarification of that unfortunate journalistic juxtaposition and the miasma of misapprehension and muddle was allowed to continue.
I call to mind the words of the famous Manchester Guardian journalist, C. P. Scott, which apply equally to all the media, including the BBC. No, especially the BBC because of its central place in our national life and at the forefront of our broadcasting media. C. P. Scott wrote:
Baroness David: My Lords, I am anxious about the future of educational broadcasting, as were my noble friend Lord Donoughue, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. They were not happy with the part of the Agreement relating to programme content, Paragraph 3.2(e); that the Home Service should contain programmes of an educational nature. They thought that that was weaker than what we have had before and I would agree with that.
We should never forget what a magnificent contribution the BBC has made to educational broadcasting. This is of long standing, going back as far as when many of us, certainly our children, were at school. The BBC was a pioneer setting the standard and breaking new ground in the devising of suitable formats which were interesting to young people but also serving an educational function. It reached a large audience of young people and continues to do so; but audience size is not the only thing that matters. There is the question of quality to be taken into account and I believe that many of us are afraid that that might be slipping. My concern, whatever the new regime turns out to be, is that, first, the BBC should stay in educational broadcasting on an least the same scale as it is today, if not more. Secondly, it should have the funds to continue with innovative approaches and, thirdly, it should concentrate at all times on quality.
I have referred to young people but it is a mistake to ignore those who are older, whether we are discussing the housewife at home or the retired. Here, too, the BBC has had and should continue to have an important role. Think of the Open University. I am aware that with
The importance of broadcasting to education and training is the fact that it delivers free, at the point of use, without additional financial cost to those whose educational and social needs are greatest. The country is committed to life-long learning and the need for a learning society and has set ambitious national training and education targets to achieve this. It will not be achieved through conventional means. Neither will many of those in need be able to afford subscription services or be aware of night time services, which are out of sight and out of mind, even if they are glamorously wrapped around as the "learning zone". Such services are okay for those who already know what they want and have the resources to obtain it. They are not adequate for those with basic skill needs.
As regards schools' broadcasting, I do not object so much that the broadcasts are at night because the schools can video them and can play them at times which suit them. However, we must remember that a lot of old people do not have videos and probably cannot manage to use them either. It is very important that these services should go out at a time when old people are able to listen to them and to pay attention. I think that that is extremely important and I hope that it will not be forgotten.
The multi-media services and so forth do not replace the BBC. After all, the existence of libraries did not make the broadcasting of educational programmes irrelevant. I, of course, strongly support the renewal of the BBC's charter. My point today is to emphasise the traditional role of public service broadcasting in this country, especially in the field of education. I hope that that will be remembered very strongly and I hope that the draft agreement can be strengthened in the words that it uses in Paragraph 3, which is about the programme content. I think that that is of great importance.
Viscount Cross: My Lords, I am very glad that it has been possible to take note of the drafts of the BBC's new Charter and Agreement. The BBC is an organisation which has immense power and influence for good, and equally the same power and influence in the opposite direction. There is a television in the living room of almost every home and also a radio in most homes and cars. On the credit side, the BBC produces some extremely good programmes, in particular those concerned with nature and animals in the wild.
However, I have serious reservations in regard to the ethos of the BBC, particularly in respect of news and current affairs. Why cannot the BBC give us straight news in the manner of the broadcasting station, CNN? I suggest that the manner in which the news is presented by the BBC is open to question. I do not mean the manner in which the newsreader reads the news. I mean the script as presented to be read by the script writers. The news becomes convoluted, distorted, twisted and slanted in such a way as to reflect the current thinking of the corporation on any particular subject. Surely that cannot be right?
Over a period of many years, I have never heard the BBC utter one single word of praise or encouragement in respect of anyone or anything. If it is ever a question of right and wrong, it never comes down on the side of what is right; rather the reverse. Why does it find it necessary to knock the Monarchy, the Church, Parliament and the judiciary? Having knocked everything down, what would it put in its place? My Lords, nothing. That seems to me to be a form of nihilism.
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