HC Deb 16 March 1998 vol 308 cc949-52 3.31 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement about the responsibilities of the BBC under its charter in relation to its decision to promote the sale of Camelot scratchcards on BBC 1 next week.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith)

Under the terms of the royal charter and agreement, the BBC may not without the prior approval of the Secretary of State receive payment for broadcasting sponsored programmes and advertising or promotional material. The BBC has set out in detail its approach in that area in its producers' guidelines, which all BBC programme makers are required to observe. The guidelines contain specific provisions on the coverage of national lottery games and draws. The BBC has stated that the new national lottery programme will comply fully with the terms of the producers' guidelines. In particular, the new programme will avoid any direct promotion or product placement. I will personally expect the chairman and the governors of the BBC to examine carefully the provisions of their charter and agreement, which they are there to uphold, to ensure that the plans for that programme do not in any way breach those provisions.

Mr. Kaufman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the BBC guidelines state: A competition must not risk being interpreted as gambling or a lottery. The Lotteries and Amusements Act 1967 may be contravened if a viewer competition is based on a game of chance and some sort of donation, purchase or contribution is made to enter"? People will be required to pay £2 for the tickets, which are advertised as "TV DREAMS" and "TV HOME PLAY". Therefore, does my right hon. Friend agree that the rule will be violated? Does he further agree that another rule, that BBC programmes should normally pay for the prizes they offer and that prizes should be original rather than expensive, will also be violated? Is he aware that the prizes are being paid for not by the BBC, but by Camelot and that one rises as high as £100,000, with others of £10,000?

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the rules say that the BBC must never convey the impression that it is promoting any service, product or publication"? Yet the BBC is promoting the sale of scratchcards, because without their sale by Camelot, the game could not be played on television. Is it not deplorable that if a commercial television company were doing that, it would be violating the Independent Television Commission's rules and could be fined by the ITC, while an organisation created, financed and given a charter by the House is violating in the clearest possible way the guidelines that it accepted and is in serious danger of violating section 10 of the charter and the licence that goes with it? Will he make it clear to the BBC that its contravention of the terms of its charter—of its very basis for existence—is not tolerable to the House or the Government?

Mr. Smith

I can certainly tell my right hon. Friend that any contravention of the terms of the BBC's charter and the terms laid down by the House is to be thoroughly deplored. However, the BBC asserts that the programme to which he refers does not contravene the terms of its charter. It is that precise question which I expect the governors of the BBC to address. Under its governing instruments, the royal charter and agreement, the BBC is, rightly, independent in all matters relating to the editorial content and scheduling of programmes. I cannot directly intervene in such matters; that is the job of the chairman and governors.

My right hon. Friend made three points. First, on the game of chance rule, the BBC states that the programme to which he referred will not involve any violation of that rule. Secondly, paying for the prizes offered is a matter connected with the national lottery. At the moment, the BBC does not pay for the prize offered on the Saturday night draw. Thirdly, on the promotion of the sale of scratchcards, there is a specific provision that the new programme will avoid any direct promotion or product placement. The producers' guidelines state: BBC programmes should not actively promote the purchase of Lottery tickets or Lottery scratchcards…there should be no on-air credits for 'Camelot'". They also say that the BBC must retain editorial control. The BBC states that all those provisions are being upheld.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

The Secretary of State will recall that I alerted him by questions to our concerns on the issue some weeks ago. Perhaps he can answer some more specific questions. When was this game approved by the Office of the National Lottery? Was it clear at that time that the BBC would be so integrally involved in its promotion and administration? Following the question of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), does not the BBC's eleventh-hour decision to remove its name from the promotional material show how far beyond the limits of the charter the programme is? The Secretary of State's reply to the right hon. Gentleman sounded as if he was exonerating the BBC from any allegation of breach of the charter, yet the right hon. Gentleman advanced a powerful case that the charter's terms have been breached. What is the process for investigating that? Who is the arbiter of whether the charter is being adhered to?

Is not the reality that the BBC now wants to have it both ways? It wants the luxury of being funded non-commercially by what amounts to a poll tax on the viewers, it wants the privilege of self-regulation and it revels in promoting itself as a high-minded public service broadcaster; but at the same time it seeks the latitude to operate as a red-blooded commercial beast, fighting furious ratings wars with the comfort of a guaranteed income, against commercial broadcasters for which audience ratings are the very life-blood. One needs only to recall the name Lord Reith to illustrate how far the BBC has wandered in this sort of exercise from its original remit. Does not this latest episode highlight the fundamental ambiguity within the BBC? Is the Secretary of State now prepared to use the issue to bring it to a head?

Mr. Smith

The date on which this particular scratchcard game was approved by Oflot was 24 July last year. There are two issues, the first of which is the promotion of the scratchcard itself by Camelot. That is a matter properly regulated by the Director General of Oflot. The second issue is the BBC's association with the game in the development of the programme. I do not, as the right hon. Gentleman puts it, exonerate the BBC; I question the BBC closely about how it is fulfilling the terms of its charter. The points that have been made, both by him and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), will be ones to which I shall expect the BBC chairman and governors to provide convincing and compelling answers.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's question about who is the arbiter of the charter, the upholders of the charter are the chairman and governors of the BBC. As I said earlier, under the charter, the BBC is independent in all matters relating to the editorial content and scheduling of programmes. That is right and proper; it is as it should be. The Government should not be able to interfere in those matters. What the Government and Parliament can do is ensure that the chairman of the governors and the members of the board of governors are properly upholding the provisions of the charter and ask serious and detailed questions about whether they are doing so. Those questions are being asked this afternoon and have already been asked by me. We shall make sure that the answers are given in full and properly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a sad state affairs for Labour Members in particular, who have defended the rights of the BBC and who have sung about its splendours all over the world, to see that, in its search for the lowest common denominator, the BBC has got in bed with Camelot again? If my right hon. Friend can make inquiries, I should like to know what is the strange relationship between somebody at the BBC and Camelot. The BBC pays out large sums of money to read out the lottery numbers and now it is taking part in this sort of caper. It is time that proper inquiries were made.

Mr. Smith

The rights of the BBC as a public service broadcaster are still to be defended and the BBC is to be applauded around the world, because the overall content of its programming is of high quality and I wish it to continue to be so. As for the particular programme, the Saturday night lottery draw is watched by an average of 11 million every week. The BBC has entered into a proper and open commercial relationship with Camelot in order to broadcast that programme.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Secretary of State accept that when the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and both main Opposition parties all express concern, the matter is one of real concern to all hon. Members? Is it not true that what obviously started as Camelot's dream is now turning into the BBC's nightmare? Does the Secretary of State accept that asking questions this afternoon, as he has just told us he is doing, is clearly not enough? The BBC has already infringed the rules to which the right hon. Member for Gorton referred: the point of sale material carries the BBC's mark and it is in the shops. The BBC is already endorsing the product in contravention of the royal charter.

Can the Secretary of State tell us at what stage he was alerted to the problem, given that, as he just told us, Oflot approved the scheme as long ago as July 1997, and no doubt negotiations have taken place with the BBC ever since? At what stage did the Department for Culture, Media and Sport become aware that there was a problem with the integrity of the BBC?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point in drawing attention to the fact that many hon. Members from all parts of the House have expressed concern. This is a matter also on which, as a Department, we expect the BBC to account for itself. The BBC must not infringe its guidelines; that is clear. The BBC claims that it is not infringing its guidelines. We shall wish to see, as Parliament will wish to see, a proper account of whether it has.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

May I put it to the Secretary of State that, in an age when we are at risk of being engulfed by a tidal wave of junk culture, we look to the BBC to lead the resistance, not to lead the plunge downhill? Will he make it clear in words of one syllable to those in authority at the BBC where their responsibilities lie?

Mr. Smith

Yes. I have made it very clear throughout the past 10 months, at every meeting that I have had with the governors of the BBC, the chairman of the board of governors, or the managers of the BBC, that its prime duty is as the mainstream public service broadcaster in this country, and that their duty, as governors, as the chairman or as managers, is to uphold the provisions of the charter and agreement.

Mr. Kaufman

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I beg leave to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

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