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Viscount Caldecote: I should like to express my support for the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. The noble Lord put forward the arguments most clearly and cogently and there is little to add. However, I should like to emphasise one or two points in a few comments. As the noble Lord indicated, the problem arises from the dual responsibilities of the governors of the BBC as regulators and in their corporate role, which is akin to that of directors of a plc.
When complaints are received, the governors naturally--and maybe rightly as leaders of a big organisation--are inclined to support their staff. Therefore, no proper adjudication is possible. The new BSC is strengthened compared to the old BSC and BCC
The amendments aim to fill that gap and to bring impartiality into the remit of the new BSC as is the case with the ITC. Of course, that could have been done by amending the new BBC Charter and Agreement. However, when we made that case, it was not accepted by Her Majesty's Government. Therefore, some duplication will still remain in the complaints procedure as it has in the past. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, suggested, the problem could be tackled in a more logical way. The fact is that we must start from where we are and not from an ideal position where we would like to be. In fact, no serious problems have arisen as between the BSC and the BCC on the one hand and, on the other, the ITC, nor in respect of the BBC, except on some occasions where the governors have not accepted a complaint upheld by the BSC or BCC and have said so.
On a slightly different point, it has been represented to me that Amendment No. 203, which relates to Clause 71, would be further improved by including the word "religious" after the word "political" so as to make clear that the BSC would have a duty to ensure impartiality in programmes relating to religious issues, for example, as regards the customs of food preparation in some faiths. I believe that such controversies would be covered by the words "bodies of individuals" which are included in the amendment. However, no doubt the Minister will clarify that point when, as I hope, he accepts at least the principle of the amendments. This group of amendments would fill a serious gap in the present proposals of the Bill. They would further strengthen and make more valuable the work of the new BSC. I strongly support the amendments.
Lord McNally: Given the pattern of this evening's discussion, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, will be amazed to know that I hope that the Minister will resist these amendments, especially as they introduce the matter of political adjudication by the BSC. We are now--
Lord Chalfont: I said nothing at all about political adjudication. I have spoken of impartiality and objectivity in matters of political controversy. That is a very different thing from making political judgments and decisions. It is important to make that point.
Lord McNally: I am reading the noble Lord's amendment. I read many of his speeches. I am what one might call a news addict. I watch news programmes on BBC, ITV, Sky, CNN or any other channel. Quite honestly, I do not recognise the coverage of news and public affairs as recounted in some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and some of his noble friends. I believe that on the whole the coverage of news and current affairs on British television represents a strengthening of our democracy. When one hears some of the arguments that are put forward, one imagines that we have serried ranks of politically motivated broadcasters pushing out their propaganda to political innocents. Would it amaze the noble Lord to know that
What we have to understand, particularly in discussing political coverage by broadcasters, is that there will constantly be tension between broadcasters and politicians. I have worked for political parties in government and in opposition. Certainly when I have worked for parties in government I have rarely known a time when those in No. 10 thought they were getting an absolutely fair deal from broadcasters. That to me is remarkably reassuring in a free society. We are living in a different age. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said that Sir William Haley recognised only constants. I wonder what Sir William would think of The Times today. He would have noticed a few constants wobbling about there.
In a liberal democracy one has to allow one's broadcasters freedom to criticise and the freedom to be partial occasionally. As we said in an earlier debate, what we need are many sources of information and opinion. That is why I want a strong ITN. I do not want market forces to water down ITN into news bulletins. I want a strong ITN and a strong BBC news service. That is why I welcome the strength of Sky News. It is that which strengthens one's democracy, not layer upon layer of watchdogs with teeth and extended powers. That is not the voice of a liberal democracy. It amazes me that some of the characters who so often talk about deregulation in almost every other aspect of our life want to pile regulation upon regulation on our broadcasters. That is not good enough. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, talked about the strong voice from the Liberal Benches. If it was only one small voice, it would still be there because I believe that what he and his noble friends are proposing is basically illiberal and would endanger our democracy.
Viscount Caldecote: Before the noble Lord sits down, will he say whether he really believes that it would be quite in order for a broadcaster to portray, in a matter of controversy, only one side of the picture and not ensure that the other side was also given prominence so as to ensure impartiality of discussion and opinion forming?
Lord McNally: No, of course not, but there are many safeguards to prevent that already. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said that I wanted no regulation at all. That is not true. The noble Lord discussed how the Radio Authority had used regulation. I want the BBC governors and the ITC to take responsibility in that matter. I swear to the Committee that within a few years of a BSC with teeth wandering around biting at will, noble Lords will probably still be complaining that some programme or other has offended them. It is not what the programme-makers do that is the problem; it is that Members of the Committee have opinions and prejudices. Out of thousands and thousands of hours of broadcasting by the news services they pluck out one programme from 1988 and another in 1989. That is ridiculous.
We have to ensure that our broadcasters are given as much freedom as possible in which to operate. If you put too many regulations on them, as we have seen with the broadcasting system in France, you get cowed broadcasters anticipating the will of their political masters. That is not the way forward.
The Earl of Stockton: After 14 years as a journalist and broadcaster and 25 years in publishing, and having worked for four-and-a-half years in France, I can speak with some of the authority that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has addressed. I too would defend to the death the freedom of broadcasters and journalists to report and to comment, to create and to develop and to expand frontiers in broadcasting. I will not defend their freedom to use sloppy or partial thinking or corrupt intellectual practices, or to distort the truth, because that is a far greater corruption of freedom. Worse, it is the destruction of freedom itself.
I believe very strongly that the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, which put the BBC on to the same footing as the independent television companies should be supported. That is not out of any sense of wishing to get back at my old employer, the BBC (I was very happy in my days there), but in the sense that I think that it is only right that if we are going to have that dreaded level playing field we should have it for all broadcasters, whether domestic or foreign, terrestrial or satellite, digital or analogue. It is totally unreasonable and unfair that one of the competing channels--competing not in a commercial sense but for our minds, our opinions and values--should not be subjected to the same rigorous defence of that fundamental freedom as the other.
The Earl of Halsbury: The basic distinction is between liberal democracy on the one hand and liberal anarchy on the other. My noble friend Lord Chalfont has many more years practical experience of distinguishing the two than anybody else who has taken part in the debate or is likely to.
Lord Renton: With respect to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I think that if he reads carefully in Hansard tomorrow the speeches that he has made this evening he will find that he has contradicted himself more than once.
This is a very important group of amendments. I warmly support them. The most important point is that in our free society, where we believe in freedom of speech, normally people are answerable to the public, with or without a trial in the courts, and to the bodies which have statutory responsibility for overseeing them. However, we have to be very careful that when we give such immense power to those who broadcast, especially on television, we ensure that they are answerable in a responsible way and are not merely judges in their own courts. For them to be answerable to an independent body established by statute is absolutely right.
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