HL Deb 22 June 1971 vol 320 cc850-60

6.1 p.m.

LORD FERRIER rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether they will request the British Broadcasting Corporation, in terms of Section 13(2) of the Licence and Agreement, to include in their B.B.C.1 television channel, while Parliament is sitting, an objective report on the proceedings daily on the same lines as Radio 4's "Today in Parliament". The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I hasten to assure your Lordships that this has nothing to do with televising the proceedings. Any development in that direction must await the next step, which is to debate in both Houses the Second Report of the Joint Committee on the Publication of Proceedings in Parliament which was tabled in this House in May last year. The same applies to the broadcasting of taped recordings.

I will not take up the time of the House by reading my Unstarred Question. It is nothing more than an effort to increase the availability to the public of reports of actual proceedings in Parliament—and by Parliament I mean Parliament as a whole, and not just your Lordships' House. The fact is that the public have too little information on the subject of Parliamentary affairs, and ignorance breeds distrust. I do not know how many of your Lordships will agree with me, but I sense in many quarters a growing demand for more such information, and recently I have gone out of my way to question a fairly wide cross-section of folk on the subject.

I am impressed by two factors: first, a sense of impatience that so many ordinary people are able to get so few facts impartially and dispassionately presented; secondly, an absolutely unanimous approval by those, who can listen to it. of the B.B.C. radio programme, "Today in Parliament". I join in the general praise for this, and for "Yesterday in Parliament". The editing, presentation, the actual broadcasting, display, as I see it, quite exceptional skills. But at the risk of being ungrateful I would add that I should like to see a greater measure of regional coverage—by which I mean more Welsh material in Welsh broadcasting, more Scottish material and more news of actual proceedings in Parliament concerning the regions and the countries—in the B.B.C. "Today in Parliament" reports. This programme, perhaps of sheer financial or physical necessity, has metropolitan overtones. Incidentally, I think that this House gets its fair share.

As for my first impression, I thought of Lord Shepherd's speech in the mass media debate, initiated by my noble friend Lady Emmet of Amberley, when a neighbour said to me last week, "Why don't they tell us more?". On Saturday morning, in the course of the well-known radio programme on farming, another farmer talked of the Common Market and asked, "Please spell out to us exactly what we stand to gain?". Indeed, it is the Common Market and the Industrial Relations Bill which are behind what I believe to be a growing demand for more information. It seems that we must dismiss the Press as a source of Parliamentary news. The Press Association coverage is lamentably inadequate—and I refer particularly to the "tapes". I can assure the House that my investigations go to show that this is not the fault of the Press Gallery. Indeed, it is the P.A. Gallery material from which "Today in Parliament "and" Yesterday in Parliament '' are compiled. But the so-called popular Press reports only sensational matters. It carries no regular Parliamentary feature. The major papers who do are disposed to give to Parliament only a fraction of the space they once gave. It is interesting to compare the Parliamentary pages to-day with what they were twenty years ago—and if you go back half a century there is no comparison at all. So the interested public can turn only to the radio.

" To-day in Parliament "and" Yesterday in Parliament come on at 10.45 p.m. and at 8.45 a.m.—too late at night for working folk who are abed, and too late in the morning for all except the fairly leisured folk or the car commuters with car radios, many of whom. I understand, constitute a large proportion of the regular listeners to "Yesterday in Parliament". The programme, "The Week in Westminster" at 9.45 a.m. on Saturday I find difficult to fit into my day—not that the programme compares with the daily one. I regard "The Week in Westminster" as what I would call processed stuff.

I am one of those who, like my noble friend Lady Emmet, is more addicted to radio than to television "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3/2/71; col. 1194.]

But I think that we are in a minority. That is why I ask: can there be a regular Parliamentary programme on television'? I am advised that the B.B.C.'s Licence and Agreement—and I refer in my Question to Section 13(2)—requires no amendment to achieve the end I suggest. The section reads: The Corporation shall broadcast an impartial account day by day prepared by professional reporters of the proceedings of both Houses of the United Kingdom Parliament".

May I emphasise that my Question refers to the television channel B.B.C.1, since B.B.C.2 is not universally accessible, either because of the cost of the more expensive set when the old one is working all right or because this channel is not available over a very wide area in the country. A noble Lord to whom I was speaking only this afternoon confirmed an impression that I recently acquired in a visit to the Hebrides: that it is very often people who live furthest from London who are more definitely interested to know what is going on in Parliament. Incidentally, I think that the Parliamentary news, such as it is, that is presented on B.B.C.2 is most competently presented.

It is fair to say, "This is all very well, but what do you suggest should be done?" I know enough about broadcasting to know that this is a very complicated problem. How would it be presented? At what time of day? Of what duration? What will be the cost?—and so on. One noble Lord (he is unable to be here to-day), while agreeing with me in principle, feels that the important thing may be to try to suggest how television could handle a programme like "Today in Parliament". I pass the buck. My Question really concerns the principle, and it is the principle to which I refer. The noble Lord who is to reply may say that this is hardly a matter for the Government. Lest he has it in mind to say that, I quote from paragraph 14 of the Licence which says: The Postmaster General"—

that means the Minister— may from time to time by notice in writing give directions to the Corporation as to the maximum time, the minimum time, or both the maximum and the minimum time, which is to be taken in any day, week or other period to broadcasts in the Home Services, and as to the hours of the day in which such broadcasts are or are not to be given.

I would emphasise that the plural is used with reference to services; in other words, I think Government have a say in the matter.

Before I sit down, my Lords, may I remind the House that I have been informed that "Today in Parliament" was introduced by the B.B.C. before it was ever in the original Charter, and perhaps, whatever may be contained in the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, the B.B.C. might be persuaded to accept the suggestion and of their own volition to introduce a similar programme on television. It might he well that their T.V. programme should include something of the sort to take the place of some of the other political programmes which I regard as processed stuff. If I sound a little scornful, I do not include in my distaste the news readers and people like Hardiman Scott, David Holmes and Peter Hill. and Julian Haviland of the T.T.N., and the editors and producers who stand behind them in producing their admirable material.

One is tempted to mention the row now raging about last Thursday's programme, "24 Hours" (which I did not see), but this does not directly concern my Question; although I believe, with respect, that it has some bearing on it. I would only quote from The Times leader of Saturday last: What was disturbing about it was that its attitude towards politics was utterly trivial. the attitude of the gossip column or the political novelette.

Later it stated: The R.B.C. coverage of political affairs has been lacking in depth of recent years.

Finally, my Lords, it is only proper to mention the I.T.A. They have no obliga- tion to report Parliament. To do so would require additional time. They might welcome some such facility; but that is another question. Arising out of that matter, lest the noble Lord is in doubt about my Question and the B.B.C. Charter I have also been advised that, apart from the Minister's power under Section 14 of the Licence to give direction, the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, Section 1(4), provides that a wireless telegraphy licence may be varied by notice in writing of the Postmaster General—now the Minister of Posts and Communications—served on the holder of the licence. It seems that this power would enable the Minister to vary the B.B.C.'s licence so as to achieve the desired object; and it might also be used in connection with the I.T.A.


My Lords, would the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, repeat that reference?


My Lords, I referred to the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, Section 1(4).

In brief, my feeling is that the Press, on the whole, give little regular space to proceedings in Parliament. B.B.C. radio provides virtually the only matter-of-fact report in its programme, "To-day in Parliament". Programmes such as "The World at One "and" The Week in Westminster" fall far short of the standards of this programme. Television is now the dominant vehicle for news and affairs for the people. My Question, my Lords, is: should something be done to give an objective, regular report of Parliament on "the box"?

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I propose to take only a moment or two of your Lordships' time, but I did want to say that I am sure that noble Lords on both sides of the House will feel great sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, in the Question which he has asked; perhaps the more so because, in spite of his very valiant interpretation of the Act, I think that he may get a rather dusty answer from his noble friend. I think that there is absolutely no doubt that "Today in Parliament" is one of the very best Parliamentary programmes, not only in this country but in any other. The précis is quite splendid, and the condensation of difficult speeches brilliantly done. There is absolutely no question that it is done in a totally impartial way and, as the noble Lord said, it even gives news about debates in your Lordships' House, which is a thing the Press hardly ever does though it could well afford to. We are particularly glad that we may praise the B.B.C. that this programme at least is completely impartial when dealing with political and Parliamentary matters.

I think there is no doubt that if it were possible to do the same thing on television it would be a very good thing and we should welcome it. However, there might be some difficulties from the production point of view. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, said that he would pass the buck "on that. I think it is difficult to see how you could be so brief and factual visually as you can be on sound. One imagines the sort of short stills of peoples faces which would appear and we all know how stupendously unflattering those stills always seem to be. Like the noble Lord, I think that I shall have to "pass the buck". But I think there would be quite serious difficulties production-wise, especially—again I so agree with the noble Lord—as we all dislike what he called that "processed stuff." However, I leave that to the noble Lord, Lord Denham, who is to reply for the Government.

Quite apart from the production difficulty, there is one point which I am sure that noble Lords on both sides of the House will wish to remember. We have always not merely supported but have strongly upheld the principle that Government should have no part in determining the content of programmes. That is entirely for the B.B.C., and I think it might be thought that to instruct the Government to instruct the B.B.C. to have a programme of this kind would be a little dangerous. Nevertheless, I am quite sure that, as they always do, the B.B.C. will listen to and take serious note of what is said in this House and to that extent I wish the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, the best of luck.


My Lords, may I ask a question of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe? I should like to know whether they were thinking of having television cameras in your Lordships' House and having shots of Members or whether they were thinking of some expert and master of his job appearing on television to give a daily report. I did not think that either the noble Lord or the noble Baroness was envisaging television in this House or in the other place.


My Lords, this is Lord Ferrier's "baby" and not mine. But I am sure that he was not thinking in any sense at all of having direct shots of people in the Chamber. I was looking at the production difficulties: how one did a visual programme with speeches in the House, what you show and how you illustrate it. I am quite sure that the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, had no idea of suggesting direct television.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, may I wholeheartedly support both the speakers in this short debate. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the B.B.C. for their programme "Today in Parliament". While it is true that we must be fair to the Press and while it is true that proceedings in your Lordships' House are to be read on the Parliamentary pages of the Press, not everybody reads the Parliamentary pages. Therefore, we are much indebted to this programme, because, as the noble Baroness has just said, they give a fair showing to this House.

I would support my noble friend Lord Ferrier. In my view, television could bring Parliament to the people. Sound only brings Parliament to some people, though I must admit, having made an inquiry of my noble friend Lord Hill of Luton this afternoon, that it brings Parliament to far more people than I had imagined. He courteously inquired from the B.B.C. and just before this debate started I had a message from them to say that the figures are from 1¼ to 1½million people, including the repeat next morning, and I gather that the listenership of that programme is higher than it is at night.

Nevertheless, I remember once being on the 10 o'clock programme and asking the gentleman who was about to interview me how many people would be listening to us. The reply was, "About a quarter of a million but, of course, you must remember that the calibre is very high". Naturally that was very pleasant to hear, but I still think—and here I fully agree with my noble friend —that if in some way or another the programme "Today in Parliament" could be put on television, many more people would get to know something about Parliament.

It is a long time now since Commander Stephen King-Hall set up the Hansard Society. He was a pioneer in this field. The B.B.C. have carried it on, and I should like to think that this could be transferred to television. The noble Baroness was wondering how this could be done. Let us dwell for a moment on this matter. If we want people to take an interest in Parliament and in the people who are in public life, we must realise that if, for instance, it is reported in "Today in Parliament" that the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, had made some unfavourable remarks about the Common Market, everybody in the country knows what the noble Lord looks like. I should like the people of this country to see what the noble Baroness looks like, and I am sure that they would he extremely favourably impressed. I feel that in this way people who were viewing would have a better chance to know what their public representatives look like than they do from the sound programme.

If I may dwell for a second on numbers, this is something which is quite extraordinary. I remember my nephew, Bamber Gascoigne, who runs a programme called "University Quiz", telling me that when he was asked to do this by I.T.A. he was told that it would be a fringe programme. The viewership now amounts, I believe, to 12 million. I am not suggesting for a moment that 12 million people would watch "Today in Parliament" because the subject matter might be a little dry, but I would hope that instead of between 1¼ and 1½ million listening, possibly the number might go up to 4 or 5 million. Coupled with the very good presentation, which I know the B.B.C. would provide, it would make the whole subject more interesting than it is at the present time. I think I have said enough. I had not intended originally to take part in this debate, but I am in full support of my noble friend Lord Ferrier and of the noble Baroness, who supported him. I believe that it would be a useful public reations exercise and would bring Parliament to the people in a more effective way.

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for not putting my name down to speak but I thought that there might be a long list. I feel that this little debate is important. There is one point which has been missed and which I think the House should take into account. It is of vital importance for Parliament—and by that I mean first of all another place—to recapture the imagination of the people of this country. How right was the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, when he said that when we go into the Library and look at old copies of The Times, Parliament received a large portion of the type space. The headlines were not built as though for the Second Coming, but in keeping with the dignity of the subject. To-day there seems to be a trivialisation of politics, which is having a derogatory effect upon democracy—I object to trial by television, whether B.B.C. or I.T.V., but I must say that one of the finest programmes about Parliament is that on the old "steam" radio. I should like something like that on television. I am not thinking of the deeper argument of whether the House should be televised, but of a higher standard on television, by men and women trained to do this work. who have the ability to do it and who will not trivialise politics.

The growing internationalisation of events and the growing level of material needs sometimes make us forget the relationships of human beings, and this shrinking space-ship we call the world is growing so small that people of all nations, creeds and colour must learn to live together—or we die. I believe that this House and the other place have something to give to Europe and the world, and more should be known about it. We must try to recapture the dignity and historical place that politics should have in this country. Consequently, I welcome this debate, which has much more value than the number of speakers would indicate.


My Lords, I ought to apologise for not having put my name down, but the remark about "passing the buck" prompts me to say a word about how that might be done, though I think that there are dangers that the objectivity and impartiality of the programmes on sound might be lost on television. One way of doing it I suppose would be for the announcer who does "Today in Parliament" to read out the same report on television, just like that, though I doubt whether that would be very popular. Once we go beyond that and have photographs of the people who speak, then I think the whole thing brings the danger that the objectivity and impartiality of this excellent programme may be destroyed.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ferrier will not be surprised—indeed, he has hinted at this already—when I reply to him that this is a matter primarily for the B.B.C. Section 13(2) of the B.B.C.'s Licence and Agreement, which my noble friend has read out to your Lordships, imposes an obligation on them to give an impartial day-by-day account of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament but leaves it to the B.B.C. to decide how this obligation should be fulfilled, whether on radio or television or on both. I think that all the noble Lords who have spoken, quite rightly in my opinion, have given great praise to the programmes "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament". The B.B.C. are of the opinion that with these programmes, together with "The Week in Westminster" and the television programme on B.B.C. 2 once a week called "Westminster", they fulfil their obligations under the licence.

I do not think there is any evidence of public feeling that the B.B.C. should necessarily do more under the licence. My right honourable friend has no power to require the B.B.C. to broadcast material. The Licence and Agreement, Section 14(1), does not, in our opinion, give him any such power. There is the possibility of a negative power being given to my right honourable friend in Section 13(4), which says: The Postmaster General "— now, of course, the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications— may from time to time by notice in writing require the Corporation to refrain at any specified time or at all times from sending any matter or matter of any class specified in such notice:, and the Postmaster General may at any time or times vary or revoke any such notice. The Corporation may at its discretion announce or refrain from announcing that such a notice has been given or has been varied or revoked. In fact, my right honourable friend could instruct the B.B.C. at any time not to broadcast anything else other than a commentary on Parliament. But I think your Lordships would agree that if my right honourable friend used this particular section to give a positive instruction to the B.B.C. it would be stretching the Licence and Agreement beyond the point to which it ought to be stressed.

The noble Baroness, Lady LlewelynDavies of Hastoe, has already mentioned the great principle that has universally been held throughout the years of broad-casting that the Government should not interfere with programme content. It is for this reason that my right honourable friend feels that it would be wrong for him to make any request to the B.B.C. on these lines. I say that this has been universally held. Your Lordships may be interested to know that the Crawford Committee, which was the Independent Committee of Inquiry into Broadcasting set up in 1925, whose recommendations laid the foundation for the B.B.C., said that: Although Parliament must retain the right of ultimate control and the Postmaster General must be the Parliamentary spokesman on broad questions of policy the B.B.C. should be invested with the maximum of freedom which Parliament is prepared to concede. Coming to more recent times, the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting recommended in 1960 that: There should be unremitting observance of the fundamental principle of the independence of the broadcasting authorities from Government intervention in the day to day management of their affairs including programme content. Having said that, I have no doubt that the views of your Lordships will be carefully studied by the B.B.C., to whom, rather than Her Majesty's Government, I think this interesting debate today has been principally addressed.