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Lord Sheldon: My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that there are many occasions where one does not publicise ones disagreement because it might cause more difficulty than if one did so behind the scenes.
Lord Bragg: My Lords, I am very aware of that. I am sure it has happened, but not that often. I am not here to blame the governors. For instance, it was the Governor-General of the BBC, Gavyn Davies, who suggestedperhaps in stronger termsthat the BBC return to arts programme. I am very glad that he did, and I am very glad that they are there. BBC governors can be very effective. But, in the new dispensation of television, I do not think that they will be able to play the role that noble Lords describe so finely and that traditionally governors have played. We are in a different universe.
The great thing about the Communications Bill is that it is trying to chart the future sensibly. In many ways it is getting it rightcross fingers and touch wood. The idea of Ofcom looking across the board and being independent of all the existing transmission possibilities, which will increase, is very fine. Eventually, the BBC will subscribe to Ofcom willingly and make it far better than it would be without the BBC. In return, the BBC will be strengthened by the association.
Lord Alli: My Lords, I am afraid that I disagree with my noble friend Lord Gordon and commend the Government for their line on the issuea novelty in this day and age. I do so precisely for the reason that the noble Lord mentioned. As an independent producer, I actually like the concept that if Ofcom does not like my programme editorially I can go somewhere else. It is fundamental to free speech and a good democratic society. No one person makes the final decision about what is published in the arena of television. It is a novel aspect of the debate, but it is one to which I wish to return when the debate opens again in a few years time or when there is charter renewal. We risk great error by allowing
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on two points. First, I share his determination to do everything possible to protect public service broadcasting. That has been a consistent theme of everything that I have said in these debates. I, too, was tempted by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, when he talked about some kind of regulation of these commercial activities. I suspect that my noble friend Lord Astor may tempt me in a similar way, but I failed to prevail on him to make his speech first. I admit to temptation, and perhaps I might be persuaded on that narrow field.
More generally, there were two possible ways for the Government to have approached the issue. From the outset they could have said that they would include the BBC under Ofcom, and we could have approached this complicated Bill on that basis. The Government decided otherwiseto wait until charter renewal, and consider the matter then. Once that decision had been taken, we were, certainly on the Joint Committee, forced into the position that there was little point in our going into great detail about the future. When I look at the amendments this evening, I am reinforced in that view. Whatever the merits of the argument, to think that at the Report stage of this large and complicated Bill we can decide in a short debate what regulation of the BBC shall be included and what shall be left out is an impossible proposition.
I indicated in Committee to the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, why I could not support his amendment. He has now put down exactly the same amendment, so I do not propose to repeat the points that I made then. The central point that I made on that occasion was that we need to future-proof the Bill, so that when charter renewal approaches, when we have the revised agreement, it is consistent with the Bill. That was the case that I put. I was grateful to the Minister who replied on that occasion. She said that the Government would consider the point carefully and that they might come forward with amendments that adopted the principle that was included in my amendment at the time. I now thank the Minister who is now in charge that he has fulfilled that obligation. He has come forward with amendments to make sure that there is future-proofing, that the charter and the agreement are covered in the way that I proposed. Having done that, it would be churlish of me to turn on the Minister to say that I support these amendments.
Once the decision has been taken, as long as we can future-proof the Bill, this is a sensible way to proceed. However, my noble friend on the Front Bench might say that we must have an adequate opportunity, when the time comes to consider charter renewal and the agreement, for proper consideration and debate by ParliamentI would share that view. My noble friend
Now that I have achieved from the Government that which I asked for in Committee, again it would be churlish if I did not at least answer a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon. Once again, the Government, in introducing the clauses that he criticised, were responding to the Joint Committee, of which I was a member.
The Joint Committee received a great deal of evidence on the question of fines. Arguments were put on both sides, including the kind of arguments that noble Lords have advanced this evening. Incidentally, as we pointed out, the ITC, BSC and the Radio Authority all considered that financial sanctions ought to apply to the BBC, not least in fairness to other broadcasters. We recommended that the Government should act as they have. Paragraph 375 of our report stated:
I am grateful to the Government for having accepted the suggestions that we made on that occasion about future-proofing. As they have done that, I for one am content to wait until the licence renewal debate to continue the argument, subject to some kind of undertakinga pretty firm undertakingthat they really will allow Parliament when the time comes adequate opportunities to review the terms and conditions that are proposed.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, while I am persuaded by the arguments of my noble friend Lord Gordon, I hope that he deploys them with equal effectiveness when we come to charter renewal. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is absolutely right. The issue of bringing the BBC under Ofcom and the consequent changes that will be required in the role of the governors and other aspects of the BBC make this matter too big to deal with as one amendment on this occasion. I am persuaded but, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, charter renewal is the appropriate time at which to engage in the whole range of issues relating to the BBCfor which all of us have the most enormous respect and affection, without saying that nothing should ever change.
The only regulator that has any say over the BBC at the moment is the Broadcasting Standards Commission, of which I am the chair, and of which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, was an illustrious predecessor in the chair some years ago. Certainly there has been no difficulty in our day-to-day work in dealing with the BBC, as with all the other bodies. It works perfectly well, and I see no problems. We have no sanctions such as fining the BBC; our only sanctions are to uphold complaints and to publish when we uphold complaints, when they apply to the BBC or any other broadcaster. On certain occasions, in relation to fairness and privacy, we have the power to have on-air or newspaper publication of complaints.
In my experience, the BBC and the other broadcasters are very unwilling to have complaints held against them, and that serves as an adequate sanction. Therefore, although I see that the prospect of fining the BBC is in the Bill, I hope that the sanction will never be used. I am confident that it is unlikely to be used.
My noble friend Lord Sheldon, in defending the BBC, made a point on which I must take issue, in so far as I understood it. He said that when the governors as regulators of the BBC have an issue, it is sometimes inappropriate that the issue should come out in the open, as it is better dealt with within the walls of the BBC. I hope that I have got him right; that is my wording but, I believe, his sentiments.
Lord Sheldon: My Lords, my noble friend is fairly close, but not exactly right. The point I sought to make is that that is how it has happened; how it should happen is closer to what my noble friend suggests.
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