§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont rose to call attention to the responsibilities of the BBC under the Royal Charter and the licence and agreement granted by the Secretary of State for the Home Department on 2nd April 1981; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to propose the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. Perhaps I may at once apologise to the noble Earl who will be replying to the debate because I know that the timing of the debate has disrupted some of his other arrangements. I am sorry that that is the case.246
§ I should also like to say how gratifying it is to see past and present members of the governors of the BBC in their places this evening. I must especially say how gratified I am that, given his eminent role in the guidance of the BBC's affairs at the moment, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, is in his place this evening.
On 15th March in your Lordships' House I tabled a Starred Question on a BBC television programme called "Airbase" which was a so-called drama documentary programme set on a United States air base in the United Kingdom. In the course of replying to a supplementary question put by the noble Lord, Lord Home of the Hirsel, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, delivered a lapidary judgment. I quote from col. 1031 of the Official Report:
Programme content is a matter for the BBC. It is not a matter for the Government to interfere in".
§ That of course is nothing new. It is a doctrine to which successive governments have resorted whenever they are confronted with a criticism of the BBC. It is my purpose, in introducing this Motion this evening, to suggest that that is a false doctrine without any constitutional foundation. I shall in fact go further and suggest that the Government not only have a right to "interfere", if that is the chosen word, in the content of the BBC's programmes, but that in certain circumstances they have a statutory obligation to do so. I hope that I shall not detain your Lordships long.
The BBC operates under the provisions of a number of constitutional documents. The central and most familiar of these is the Royal Charter granted by the Sovereign. The current charter came into operation on 1st August 1981 and, if all goes well, remains in force until 31st December 1996. For the purpose of my Motion today I wish to draw the attention of the House to Article 20 of the charter which contains the following important provision:
The grant of this Our Charter is made upon the express condition that the Corporation shall strictly and faithfully observe and perform and cause to be observed and performed the provisions prescribed therein or thereunder, and also the provisions prescribed in or under any licence which Our Secretary of State may from time to time grant to the Corporation".
§ To put that in simple lay language, the charter is granted strictly on condition that its provisions and those of the accompanying licence are observed. Furthermore, the charter goes on to state unambiguously that if it appears to the Secretary of State for the Home Department that the provisions of the charter or the licence and agreement have not been observed, and if within a specified time the corporation has not rectified the matter, the Sovereign may on the Home Secretary's advice revoke the charter.
§ As sound and television broadcast programmes are, under the charter, the principal objects of the corporation, I for one am at a loss to understand how the Secretary of State can discharge that obligation without reference to the content of those programmes. That is all that the BBC does. If a programme which is broadcast by the BBC offends against the charter or against the licence and agreement, the Home Secretary is empowered to require the BBC to remedy the matter. How can he possibly do that without (to use the chosen phrase) "interfering in the content of the programme"? It is the content of the programme that is at issue.247
§ Let us look at the licence and agreement which is issued in conjunction with the charter. The current licence and agreement is promulgated under a Treasury minute dated 2nd April 1981 granting a new licence to run coterminously with the Royal Charter—that is to say, from 1st August 1981 to 31st December 1996. Like the Royal Charter, it is subject to revocation in the event of non-observance by the BBC of either the charter or the licence.
One of the conditions upon which the licence and agreement is granted is set out in the preamble. It states:
and whereas by a resolution dated the 8th January 1981 and annexed hereto the Corporation has renewed the assurances previously given in respect of the general standards of programmes broadcast by the Corporation".
That is a part of the preamble and it means that the BBC's resolution to which it refers is an integral and essential part of the licence. It is a part of the conditions upon which the licence is issued and the charter continues in force. The relevant passage from that BBC resolution for the purpose of my Motion this evening is as follows:
The Board recall that it has always been their object to treat controversial subjects with due impartiality and they intend to continue this policy both in the Corporations news services and in the more general field of programmes dealing with matters of public policy".
Perhaps I may point out at this juncture that the words contained in that resolution:
the more general field of programmes dealing with matters of public policy",
bring such programmes as drama-documentaries within the scope of the resolution and therefore, by extension, within the scope of the licence and agreement.
§ If I have misunderstood the position I hope that the Minister will put me right when he comes to reply, but as I understand it, one of the conditions of the continuation of the charter and the licence and agreement is that the corporation shall treat all controversial subjects with due impartiality. If it does not, it appears to me that it is clearly within the power of the Secretary of State for the Home Department under the Royal Charter to take the necessary action. I repeat that I entirely fail to understand how the Secretary of State can do that if he rejects any responsibility for the content of the BBC's programmes. It is only a programme or some part of a programme which can offend in that respect.
§ It is my contention that the corporation has, for some time, systematically contravened the requirement for impartiality. I could recite a long list of plays, documentaries, news and current affairs programmes on both radio and television which could not, without making a mockery of the English language, be described as impartial; and here let me say that the concept of the balancing programme is in my view a confidence trick. If the corporation transmits one biased and partial programme and then balances it with another biased the other way, what you have is two biased and partial programmes.
§ That gives rise to the kind of mental confusion which leads spokesmen of the corporation to remark from time to time that if they are attacked for bias from both sides of the political spectrum they must be 248 doing something right. The real implication is that they are doing everything wrong. The duty laid upon them in the constitutional documents is clear. It is to treat controversial subjects with impartiality; not to be partial in one direction on one occasion and in a different direction on another.
§ I should like to use as a brief case study one programme—the so-called play entitled "Airbase", broadcast on 1st March 1988 and the subject of my original starred Question. This is, as I have said, not an isolated case but merely one of a long succession of controversial programmes in drama, drama-documentary and current affairs. I shall not waste time with the artistic merits of "Airbase", since it had none which I could discern. One can only marvel at the intellectual impoverishment of those who write and produce such stuff and at the motives of those who allow it to be broadcast. My concern today is with its relevance to the requirements of the BBC's charter and licence.
§ In order to determine the relevance, it is necessary to answer two simple questions. First, did the programme deal with a controversial subject? The answer must surely be "yes". There are few more controversial subjects than the presence of American nuclear bombers on British soil. Secondly, did it treat the subject with due impartiality? Its main proposition was that the pilots and officers of the American bombers on this base were foul-mouthed, irresponsible morons who flew their operational missions under the influence of drugs. There was not one single character in the play who was not psychologically, morally or intellectually defective.
§ There was, furthermore, a clear inference, which the author and producer must have known to be utterly false, that biological weapons were stockpiled at the base. In fact, the entire production was an intemperate, sustained and malevolent attack upon a group of servicemen whose bearing, behaviour and motivation, as anyone who knows them will readily confirm, are of a very high standard, and who make a vital contribution to the security of the free world.
One of the lines of defence advanced by apologists for the corporation in this case is that it was "only a work of fiction". In this context, it may be worth calling the attention of your Lordships to an article which appeared in Radio Times, an organ of the BBC, in the issue which advertised the programme. In that article a journalist was commissioned and allowed to add his own measure of poisonous drivel to the mixture under a headline including the words "Just like the real McCoy" and to say of the play, among other things, that:
it may seem paradoxically exaggerated, but that is all part of its accuracy.
§ It is difficult then, to resist the conclusion that the BBC allowed to be broadcast in its programme and its official organ a treatment of a controversial matter which was in clear contravention of the terms of its licence and of the Royal Charter. I am sure that other noble Lords speaking in the debate will have no difficulty in recalling other programmes which have offended in similar ways. I shall leave that to them.
§ Before I conclude, I should like to ask the Minister, when he comes to reply, to answer a number of quite specific questions, of which I have given him notice, 249 since this Motion is intended to be contructive and not in any way abrasive or mischievous. Does the Minister accept that under the charter the Home Secretary has a responsibility to ensure that the BBC observes its requirements and those of the licence? Does he accept that impartiality in the treatment of controversial subjects is one of those requirements? Does he agree that it is impossible to ensure impartiality without becoming involved in or at least interested in the content of the programme? Can he assure the House that the Government will in future desist from claiming that they have no right to interfere in the programmes of the BBC when it is clear under the terms of the charter and licence that in certain circumstances they have a clear obligation to do so?
§ Finally, I have a more specific message for the Minister, of which I have also given notice. In order to deliver it I must return to Article 20 of the Royal Charter and draw his attention to the following words. I paraphrase the words this time because to quote them in full would be time-consuming and perhaps even confusing. The charter says that "If it is made to appear to our Secretary of State on the representation of any person that there is reasonable cause to suppose that any of the provisions of the charter have not been observed, he may take the actions prescribed in the charter".
§ I am now making that representation under the provisions of the charter and am formally representing to the Secretary of State through the Minister that such reasonable cause exists. If as a result of that representation the Home Secretary decides to take no action, it will be clear that it is because he decides not to and not because he has no power to do so. The power is there under the terms of the charter and the licence.
§ Will the Minister therefore now ask the Secretary of State whether he will take the action clearly prescribed in the charter to ensure that the corporation shall in future comply with its responsibilities and refrain from permitting the broadcast of such programmes as "Airbase"? Will he further remind anyone in the BBC or elsewhere who still believes that the corporation has no responsibility to anyone but itself that the extreme penalty for failure to comply may in certain circumstances be the revocation of the licence by the Government and of the charter by the Queen in council. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.43 p.m.
Viscount De L'Isle
My Lords, I think most of us agree that this is a timely debate; we are grateful to the noble Lord who has just sat down. There have been many developments in broadcasting and the BBC has enjoyed its privileged position for no less than 60 years. I well remember the debate in this House in the early 1950s when it was proposed that Parliament should license commercial television. I shall never forget how Lord Reith, with the zeal of an Old Testament prophet, resisted that proposition.
In discussing the BBC's responsibilities, it is useful to look at an interesting document published by the corporation as Appendix 6 to its annual report for 250 1986–87. That document offers a number of explanations and comments on the corporation's constitution and organisation. It describes, as the noble Lord has just described, the Home Secretary's power to veto under the licence. However, it proceeds to point out that never yet have those powers been invoked, even when there have been very severe criticisms of editorial decisions taken by the BBC. The document cites Suez and the Falklands war.
As we read on, we find that under the licence,The corporation shall at all times refrain from sending out broadcast matters expressing the opinions of the corporation on current affairs or on matters of policy".The appendix comments:Newspapers may editorialise on any subject, broadcasting authorities are specifically prevented from doing so".By "editorialise" I suppose is meant ex parte and attributable statements of views and opinions. The appendix proceeds:Not only the BBC may not express views of its own, it would not do so under its long established rule of impartiality".It is explained that,An essential ingredient is fairness. The opportunities for all parties to controversy or debate to put their case. … Balance and fairness arise naturally out of the BBC's obligation to avoid expressing editorial opinions".Yet as we read on we discover that precept and practice are at odds. We are told that there are some important qualifications to the concept of balance. We discover that,Balance may not always be the appropriate means of achieving impartiality".We reach this significant statement:It used to be thought that every programme on a controversial subject must be balanced within itself. Experience shows, however, that too much emphasis on balance within a single programme could confuse the audience".In support of that thesis is quoted the dictum from a former director general of the BBC, Sir Hugh Carleton-Greene:We have to balance different points of view in our programmes but not necessarily within each individual programme. Nothing is more stultifying than a current affairs programme in which all the opposing opinions cancel each other out. Sometimes one has to use that method, but in general it makes for greater liveliness and impact if the balance can be achieved over a period, perhaps within a series of related programmes".One can see how readily justifications can be found for by-passing that fundamental condition of the licence. What is more, in this document impartiality is expressly discarded in what are called "access programmes". These, we are told, set out to offer personal views. And the document cites a series some time ago by the late James Cameron called "One Pair of Eyes". It is a persuasive example. One cannot help wondering whether it was the late Mr. Cameron's virulent anti-Americanism which attracted the talks section.
It may be that it is not necessary for the BBC to editorialise. The corporation's collective mind set can be better conveyed to listeners by the choice of programme makers and editors, by news items, correspondents and speakers like Mr. Cameron. Few can doubt that a large, powerful and influential corporation as is the BBC, with its great resources, has developed its own collective attitudes to public policies and current events which it is anxious to 251 promulgate. As the document illustrates, by professing a duty as well as a willingness not to editorialise, the corporation avoids accepting onus for the timing and content of broadcast matter which the members of its staff put out on its behalf, no matter how irresponsible and damaging in the national interest. Controversial opinion and statements can only be effectively countered immediately and in the same programme. Counter-arguments, if offered later, are heard by different audiences knowing little or nothing of the points to be answered, and no meaningful debate is possible. Authors of controversial current affairs programmes mounted on the principles of Sir Hugh Carleton Greene are allowed possession of the field long enough for their purposes.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has eloquently pointed out the responsibilities of the Home Secretary. It is my view—perhaps he does not share it—that in practice not only has the Home Secretary not exercised his authority but that he will not exercise it because it will never be accepted in the general political world that his veto of BBC programmes is quasi-judicial. We saw lately the hubbub that emerged about Mr. Brittan's persuasion over a programme on Northern Ireland.
Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has pointed out, the Home Secretary has but one shot in his locker—suspension. It is inconceivable that in time of peace any government would move thus far, despite their obligations. The BBC's position is one of entrenched privilege, unrestrained. And it is judge of its own performance. It is, indeed, subject to the general body of criminal law, but on its own powers in practice it is sovereign and unassailable.
The appendix I have quoted reveals clearly the BBC's ambivalent attitude to the licence and charter. I agree with those who propose that at an early date the charter and licence should be replaced by a statute which would make the BBC answerable to the courts of law in respect of its own obligations and performance.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, I shall not discuss the programme "Airbase", which seems to me too small a wart to be worthy of the expensive time of this House. I should like to look at some more general principles at stake.
We are naturally concerned with broadcasting in general, and the BBC in particular, because it represents a very special power in national life—the power to communicate with the whole population. Indeed, it is the main single channel of communication available, used between and within the whole nation. It has a potential unequalled for influence over the nation's mind for good or ill. If good, the influence will enrich society; if bad, it may degrade our society. Only a privileged few have that power in Britain—a few channels of television, relatively a few wavelengths of radio—and the BBC is primus among those privileged. It is therefore right for us to be concerned about the BBC and how it meets its obligations, though it is not right to be obsessed with its minor warts.
252 The obligations of the BBC are not just to meet or to massage some political preferences but primarily, and much more importantly, to provide quality in programmes. Impartiality is part of it, but only part. Quality of course is difficult to judge. It is subjective. But most of us know quality when it is there—and especially when it is not there. I was recently in the United States and, watching their television, I knew that quality was not there. I have just returned from Australia, and I knew it was not sufficiently there. I am sometimes in Italy, and I know that it is not there at all. Why? What do they have in common? They have in common the greatest degree of private ownership and the least degree of public service broadcasting in the advanced world. The correlation between public service broadcasting and programme quality is very high.
I believe that the BBC is still the supreme example of a public broadcasting service by its range of programmes, its national coverage and its truth, integrity and independence—some of which is polluted by political or commercial pressures—which are vitally linked to the independence and adequacy of its revenues.
In Britain ITV exhibits those characteristics too. I believe that that is partly the regulatory hand of the IBA, but it is especially because the BBC long before set a benchmark of quality for it. Having said that, of course the BBC is not perfect. It is very imperfect. It is surely impossible for such a large corporation to be perfect. Some of us are imperfect; I enjoy being very imperfect. The companies we work for make mistakes. We should not set impossible standards for a corporation of that size.
It is right that it should be criticised and that it should definitely be held accountable. We know how it has erred in an opposite direction in the past. It is right that the BBC should be required to change and adapt. It must become more commercial especially and more efficient. What worries some of us—and I felt that the tone of some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, might reinforce those worries, though he was not the source of them—are certain rumours and vibes that Her Majesty's Government want not adaptation but destruction, driven by a rather crude ideology of market economics and alleged consumer preference and also by what I believe are exaggerated allegations of Left-wing bias. I share the noble Lord's anger whenever I hear them, but I believe that they are exaggerated.
The Government aim to destroy the alleged duopoly power of the BBC and ITV. I believe that that would be wanton hooliganism. The BBC is by practical standards a precious national asset, however flawed and however irritating. Overseas, as the chairman of the Peacock Committee discovered—I imagine not to his surprise—foreigners envy it. They think that we are mad to contemplate damaging it. Sadly, there are now very few areas of human life in which Britain exhibits excellence and leads the world. We still lead the world in the theatre. We once led the world in the universities, but I think we no longer do so. I am told that we lead the world at snooker. Broadcasting remains pre-eminent, and we should not vandalise it.
253 We should be wary of hypercritics and pseudo-reformers in this field—those from the far Left, those who want state party propaganda and those from the far Right who want broadcasting as propaganda for the established order and who become paranoid about any radical criticism. The BBC is nowhere near being a vehicle of Comintern; nor do we want it to become a subsidiary of the CIA. It dissatisfies and irritates us all, and it will continue to do so. That is its job. It will err towards bias, because perfect balance is very difficult to achieve, but we should remember that one man's bias is another man's fair criticism, as we often appreciate in this House.
We should not be obsessed by these minor imperfections but should put them in perspective. Let us remember what Thomas Jefferson said about a healthy democracy needing a free, healthy and critical journalism. We need that. The BBC is still the best broadcasting service in the world, however flawed, and in practice is better than anything else on offer.
Would we prefer the proprietor of the The Times to be running our television? While it meets its true obligations, which are to produce a large number of high quality programmes—although not all high quality programmes; that is not humanly possible—we should count ourselves lucky. It has been very imperfect in the more recent past but it now has a new management team. It is beginning to take a more commercial approach. It has to do so much more, and we should support it. We should stop harassing it. We should resist the philistines who wish to destroy public broadcasting in Britain or those who exhibit very narrow obsessions with very minor parts of its activities.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I follow the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. I listened to the indictment of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, with great care. Of course he is right. As anyone who has read the charter of the BBC knows, it provides the Government with all the powers that even the Greek dictators would have wanted to hold over a broadcasting organisation. It can veto programmes; it can insist on programmes; it appoints the board of governors; it has all the power to control the BBC which it cares to use.
In the same way in our parliamentary system Parliament is sovereign. There are no restraints on what Parliament could do if it cared to do it. But liberties in this country must depend, and always have depended, on self-restraint on the part of the Government and of the population. The noble Lord urges the Home Secretary to exercise his powers in the BBC. If he were to do so he would be replacing the board of governors which on his behalf exercises those powers as a buffer between political influence and impartiality.
If one involves a Secretary of State in the daily affairs of the BBC by previewing, or in other ways, in the way that Mr. Brittan unfortunately involved himself in "Real Lives"—which, as people who saw it subsequently will remember was a curiously inoffensive and balanced programme, although not a 254 very interesting one—one runs into real difficulties and dangers. We should not abandon the self-restraint which is the only foundation on which the liberty of this country depends.
I do not expect that any argument that I can deploy will convince the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that the BBC is not a nest of subversives planning to undermine the institutions and the liberties of this country and to hand them over to some extraordinary body of people.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, the noble Lord need not convince anyone of that point. It has never been an article of my faith that the BBC is a nest of subversives. This is a very specific point on the provisions of the charter. I hope that he will not misrepresent my views.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, the provisions of the charter are absolutely clear. No one denies that. The question is whether those provisions should be deployed on account of one programme.
The noble Lord has said elsewhere that he can produce a mass of evidence that this is a systematic process. If that evidence comes from the Media Monitoring Unit he will not find that it convinces many uinbiased persons. If we want the opinion of unbiased persons on the Media Monitoring Unit and the evidence that it produces, perhaps I may refer to the Sunday Telegraph, which is hardly a Left-wing paper, and Brenda Maddox, who is hardly a Left-wing columnist, who writes that the researcher was not a professional. The MMU endeavour was unintellectual and naive in its methods. Not only was just one pair of eyes used. There was no allowance made for the entirely different intent of programmes. One will not find anyone who is professional in sampling or monitoring programmes who will accept the evidence of the MMU. It was openly and self-confessedly a body set up by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. I think I am right that he was chairman of it. It is said that he raised the money for it in the City. Is he denying all connection with the MMU?
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord again. I would not have done so had he not invited me to. Nothing that I have said tonight has any relevance to the Media Monitoring Unit. None of my evidence comes from it. I have not referred to it. It is totally irrelevant to my argument.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I only assumed that the noble Lord was referring to it when he said that he had systematic evidence to back up his statement. If it was not that, it would be interesting to know what the evidence is. Perhaps he will let me have it. I apologise if the Media Monitoring Unit was not the source of the information on which he was basing his argument. However, I do not expect to convince him by any argument that I can deploy that his fears are exaggerated.
There is, however, in the debate, a useful function that can be performed. The noble Earl who will answer the debate may be able to give us some information about the Government's plans for broadcasting and in particular the Broadcasting 255 Standards Council. This was announced six months ago since when we have had no terms of reference. We have had no chairman appointed. There is a multiplicity of rumours as to what its powers are to be. It is said that it may pronounce on individual programmes. It is said that those pronouncements will have to be broadcast. It is also said that it will preview programmes and if necessary have the power to ban them. These are rumours, but they are rumours because there is no hard information. It would be very useful if the noble Earl in answering the debate can tell us where matters stand.
Another rumour in connection with the Broadcasting Standards Council is that Sir William Rees-Mogg is to become its chairman. Sir William Rees-Mogg has many merits but understanding broadcasting is not one of them. In addition he has an unconcealed dislike and contempt for the BBC. If Sir William Rees-Mogg, who was intimately involved in the "Real Lives" fiasco, is appointed it will confirm the fears of those of us who feel that the Government are not interested in supporting the BBC as an institution on which we lay great value, which is of great importance to this country and whose independence should be maintained.
Secondly, if the Broadcasting Standards Council is set up with those powers, one cannot understand what the function of a board of governors is. The board of governors is responsible for defending the public interest, for seeing that the BBC carries out its duties under the charter and for appointing its leading personnel. If over and above the board of governors one places a broadcasting standards council to oversee it, it seems to me that one is dispersing responsibility and running a very great danger of undermining the independence of the BBC.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ely
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity provided me by this short debate which we owe to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. I put my name down to speak in order to say one thing in respect of a single area of the BBC's responsibilities under the Royal Charter: religious broadcasting. I hope that my brief intervention will not seem irrelevant to the very specific question that the noble Lord is raising.
My most recent experience of the BBC in the field of religious broadcasting was in Holy Week and Easter of this year. I was part of the BBC's output, if I may so put it, at that time. Some noble Lords may even have seen the BBC television presentation of "Songs of Praise" from Ely Cathedral on Easter Day. I was in my place in the cathedral for the two long evenings during which the programme was made. I was moved afterwards to write to the Head of Religious Programmes, BBC Television, to ask him to convey to all concerned my appreciation of the seriousness, sensitivity and tone of all that was done in the cathedral and in the personal interviews which were filmed in the making of that programme. I think that a true religious dimension came through the programme as presented, and many people have told me that they were grateful for it. We in Ely felt that great respect had been paid to our cathedral and what it stood for.
256 I cannot speak of other parts of the BBC's programmes in Holy Week and Easter with the same first hand knowledge. I am not able to follow them as I would, but I looked carefully at the whole schedule of programmes as set out and there can be no question that they were designed to offer a serious and Christian presentation; scriptural, devotional, meditative, musical and reflective in ways pertinent for today. There was not one that I should not have wished to hear or see. I am told, on the religious front to which I confine myself in these brief remarks, that the one complaint received by the BBC about the ordering of programmes in that particular week was from a humanist who felt that there had been too great an emphasis on a Christian presentation. I am moved to hope that the day will never come when on a plea for impartiality pressed hard the BBC would feel inhibited from casting up such a programme. Perhaps I am wrong even to think of such a thing.
I rose to speak on a limited point. I am grateful for the opportunity to have paid a tribute where I believe a tribute to be due.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, will know that I have some sympathy with the views he has been expressing because I believe that there is a tiny clique of producers and writers who produce programmes that consistently denigrate not just the policy of the Government but the authority of the state and our country's foreign policy. Its objective is to cover these with slime. It is not an accident that the producer of "Tumbledown" is the same man who produced "The Monocled Mutineer", which was a programme compounded of malevolent falsehood.
However, the whole output of the BBC is not infected. Did the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, by any chance see "The Trial of Sir Roger Hollis" a few weeks ago? A fairer or more serious presentation of the evidence could not have been devised. Did he see a year ago in March 1987 the "Panorama" programme on the Brent council? "Panorama" is often attacked as being Left-wing, but every shot of those local councillors arguing for their so-called anti-racist and anti-sexist policies must have lost the Labour Party hundreds of votes.
I do not agree with the noble Lord about due impartiality. This was discussed at length in the report of the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting. Due impartiality is different from neutrality and balance. One can achieve a balanced output during a general election, but it would be impossible to do that week in and week out. It means reflecting different views even if those views are biased to one side. But it also means providing a wide range of views and taking into account the weight of opinion holding those views. In our report we said:While it is right that the accepted orthodoxy should be challenged, equally it is essential that the established view should be clearly and fully put".It is that which Lord Chalfont, and I too at times, have felt that the BBC have been failing to do.
I did not see "Airbase" but I am fully prepared to accept that it was every bit as offensive as the noble 257 Lord, Lord Chalfont, and others have said. But I do not know whether he was too busy when he was a Minister of the Crown in the 1960s to attend the debates in your Lordships' House on the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship of the theatre. In those debates it was revealed that the Lord Chamberlain's office censored as a matter of course any play which was anti-American. I cannot really believe that the noble Lord wants to go back to those clays. There is evidence of course that some matters in that offensive programme had a basis of fact. For instance, the American armed forces in the Vietnam war did go in for drug taking.
I said that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was right in saying that the BBC had sailed off course. To bring the ship back, what did the Government do? They appointed Mr. Hussey as admiral and the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, as vice-admiral. The first thing the two admirals did was to dismiss the captain of the ship and to appoint Mr. Checkland to command the ship. He in turn appointed the first officer of the watch, Mr. John Birt. That has led to the retirement of a number of recalcitrant officers. Finally, the Director-General has made the brilliant appointment of Mr. Paul Fox. He has persuaded him to come back to be Director of Television.
There cannot be a change of course overnight. I think the new team was right to tackle news and current affairs first, but when they come to drama I hope that the critics here tonight will not censure the BBC for dramatising Dickens. Dickens was denounced by the upper classes in his time for being vulgar and biased because he attacked the new Poor Law in Oliver Twist, and the Civil Service in Little Dorris. Your Lordships will remember the Circumlocution Office. Of course Dickens was unfair. Of course he was inconsistent. One moment he was attacking the government for doing nothing and the next he was attacking them for interfering. People who crusade against misery are always unfair in the eyes of politicians and civil servants, because they are the people who have to cope with that misery.
The Motion before the House suggests that the Government should now intervene to revoke the Charter or, at the very least, to wave a mailed fist in the BBC's face. I cannot conceive of anything more disastrous. I was greatly relieved at Question Time last month to hear the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers—who was as indignant as anyone against the "Airbase" programme—say with great firmness that the Government had no intention of intervening.
It is no good picking on individual programmes. What is needed is a six-month survey of all current affairs, features and drama programmes that the BBC puts out. The survey must be both dispassionate and sophisticated. Anyone who wants to indict the BBC has to do that. It does not require much wit to set up such an inquiry. It requires a little money, but I have no doubt that if the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, called for funds they would pour in.
The most important quality of such a survey must be due impartiality. There are madmen on the Right who see reds under every bed and there are madmen on the Left who see American conspiracies and the 258 evil hand of the Prime Minister in every public action. Call for and set up an audit. If after six months the audit shows that the BBC is in the red then force the governors to explain why that is so. But keep the Government out of such an inquiry for their own sake. Let us not follow the French example: there whenever there is a change of Government all the major executives in broadcasting are promptly sacked.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, it is always nice to follow the noble Lord, Lord Annan, because he speaks with such éclat. I am sorry that time does not allow one—in cutting down a speech which was meant to be 15 minutes, but now has to be seven and a half minutes—to undertake the niceties and the politenesses and, incidentally, to praise the very good things which come out of the BBC as well as certain transgressions.
I want to concentrate on the lack of impartiality in BBC drama. The noble Lord mentioned Dickens. I remind him that Dickens was not controlled by a charter and a licence, so he had rather more freedom than the BBC has on impartiality. I want to concentrate on the controversy surrounding the forthcoming screening by the BBC of the play "Tumbledown". This was written by an experienced Left-Wing playwright, George Wood, and is produced for the BBC by Richard Broke. Curiously enough, Mr. Richard Broke was also the producer of the "Monocled Mutineer" in which the pernicious practice of inextricably interweaving fact and fiction was similarly employed. There was a time—and we all remember it well—when responsible dramatists were keen to emphasise, when presenting works of fiction, that any resemblance between the characters portrayed and real people, either live or dead, was purely coincidental. We remember those words. It appears that radical playwrights, producers and some members working for the BBC drama department are at pains to intertwine truth with falsehood as inseparably as possible.
Let us consider "The Monocled Mutineer". The series was first broadcast in 1986 and I see that it has been scheduled for repeat. Mr. Putkowski was the series' consultant and he felt it necessary to disclaim responsibility. He declared that this story of a First World War mutiny in France was fictitious and that scenes of' British soldiers raping uniformed women were totally out of place and unjust. He said that is was "riddled with errors". He made that point before the programme was broadcast and divorced himself from it.
In its promotional material for this caricature of events the BBC at first prominently claimed that it was an accurate account. I am glad to say that it later climbed down from that claim. With respect, it was nothing of the kind. As Paul Johnson rightly noted:it was another piece of agitprop to inflame class hatred and denigrate Britain".Now Mr. Richard Broke is back using his preferred formula of real people and fictional events in "Tumbledown", a programme which we are to see shortly. Once again the central character is a real 259 person. In this case it is Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, formerly of the Scots Guards, who received the Military Cross and a desperately serious wound.
Charles Wood's published screenplay gives many instructions to the director stating that he should dwell on the horrendous wounds sustained during the Falklands War. I quote from page 38:His hair and head are still matted with blood and dirt. The stitching of his scalp has left great black, rough stitches over the front and a gobbet of brain protruding behind. Pink fluid oozes all the time from his head. The pillow is soaked with it …".That is not the kind of thing that one wishes to have shown in the homesteads of our country. With respect, it should be possible to horrify people with initimate filming and it could be with horrific details of wounds inflicted on soldiers in any battle, in any war, no matter how just the cause for which the war was being fought.
Yet this play will be a statement about the Falklands War. It will be a statement about specific events and individuals in which and with whom Lieutenant Lawrence was involved. However, all the while the BBC will seek to claim, as they have already, that, despite the naming of the central character, the rest of the film is fictional. The right honourable George Younger, Minister of Defence, has said that he is, deeply unhappy about the mixing of fact with fiction. Understandably the Scots Guards have serious misgivings.
The Curteis play is quite a different kettle of fish. It was personally commissioned by the then Director General of the BBC, Alistair Milne. Mr. Curteis, the author of more than 80 plays and series on television over 20 years, spent a year writing and researching it. He took the trouble of interviewing senior politicians, civil servants and military men. He was gratified to receive a letter from the BBC Director General in June 1986, stating:I have now read 'The Falklands Play' and it makes a terrific story, as one would expect".He added:your work has enriched the BBC".However, according to Mr. Curteis's account in the Guardian on 20th September 1986, the then BBC head of plays, Peter Goodchild, visited him for five hours after seeing the script. To quote from the Guardian, he said that Curteis should:consider rewriting some of the War Cabinet scenes to show the decisions being taken by politicians on military matters and tailoring them in order to win the next General Election or to influence the next General Election".That is a quotation directly attributed by Mr. Curteis as having been spoken to him by the head of BBC television plays. Mr. Curteis also reported how Mr. Goodchild had sounded him out, and again I quote:about cutting those aspects of Mrs. Thatcher's character that showed her as womanly and caring … while leaving in those aspects that projected her as hard and domineering".It is now nearly a year since the general election. The historically-based "Falklands Play" by Ian Curteis has been cancelled by the BBC. The fictionalised "Tumbledown" is to be shown shortly. Its author, Charles Wood, once declared:I am not interested in writers who are not subversive".260 When it commissioned him to undertake the play the BBC must have known that he was dedicated to that attitude of life.
Although the BBC has made efforts to tighten editorial control and honour its obligations, too many current affairs and drama programmes are slipping through the net. Although the spirit at the top is willing, I cannot help feeling that some staff at the workface seem delighted to disregard their professional standards and the obligations of the corporation. It cannot be an accident that current affairs series, such as the six programmes undertaken by Duncan Campbell or the six programmes undertaken by Helena Kennedy, both of whom have strong Left-wing connections, are commissioned by the BBC. "Airbase" is a pathetic and bad example. When one comes to drama, "The Monocled Mutineer" and "Tumbledown" have very different approaches and very different treatments from that accorded to the "Falklands Play" which has been cancelled.
Those are examples. I know that there is a lot which is good but we must ensure that the BBC Royal charter and licence for impartiality is honoured. No noble Lords have dared put forward any solutions but I put these forward succinctly. Either the Government must revise the charter and licence or issue something in its place, or we must set up a regulatory authority so that in future the BBC is no longer judge and jury on its own account.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ Lord Swann
My Lords, it is nearly eight years since I was chairman of the BBC. Much in this debate carried me back to the kind of issues I had to wrestle with all too frequently. Before I say a little about them I should first like to thank my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter, who battled with me in the BBC. I echo most strongly what he said about the proposed Broadcasting Standards Council. It is either very silly or very dangerous. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, who I thought showed an unusually extensive understanding of how the BBC actually works. Finally, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Annan, who has saved me from saying a number of things that I wanted to say by saying them much better than I could have done.
I shall not take on the role of defending the BBC. There is no need for me to do that because, to some extent, the BBC has already stated where it believes it has gone wrong. The director general and the chairman have already said that they believed "Airbase" was second-rate. They were very annoyed with the Radio Times for publishing an article purporting to claim that it was factual. As noble Lords may know, the editorial control of the Radio Times has been notably stiffened up. If it is any comfort to the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont and Lord Orr-Ewing, the programme had an abysmally low viewing audience and one of the lowest audience appreciation indices that there has ever been.
Curiously enough, the same cannot be said of "The Monocled Mutineer", about which an article was also published claiming that it was factual. I saw one 261 programme of the series, although this was almost two years ago and I rather forget, but its audience figures were quite impressive. They started at almost 8 million and by the fourth programme they were at almost 10 million. The audience appreciation rose steadily to a very high figure.
One can make of that what one will. The programme was about a very nasty subject—war—and inevitably it was rather nasty. Are we perhaps never to show the realities of war? Having been in one, I should not like to see a shrinking from it. I shall riot go into the complicated ins and outs of the director general commissioning the Ian Curteis play on the Falkland Islands and what has subsequently happened. All I can say is that my erstwhile friends present it a little differently from the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing.
However, I should like to say that I detect a couple of familiar factors. One is that a mixture of fact and fiction is invariably dangerous. On these occasions it was clearly not treated with the care it should have been. In the BBC circles it has a name: "faction". It has always been a source of trouble and I shall refer to how these things are looked at in a moment.
I also recognise—and I think it has something to do with the fact that we have had a Conservative Government for a long time—that people forget what happens when we have a Labour Government. Indeed, having been through two or three changes of party in my time at the BBC, I recall precisely how the volume of complaint switched overnight from one direction to the other. Of course, a lot of bias is in the eye of the beholder.
With that in mind and because it raises one or two other points which I wish to follow up, I want to read what a previous Labour Prime Minister said when opening a new BBC building in Manchester at a time when I was chairman. It was Mr. Callaghan, who is now the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. He said:In this country it is the broadcasting organisations which are responsible for programme content. Sometimes your decisions and actions give me pain, and I find myself having to explain to overseas countries, when they are hurt by what you say about them, that the Government does not control you. Even when I have convinced them of this, they still think the Government could do something to stop you if it had the will. I then go on to say that, domestically, you and we sometimes have differences, but that none of these differences has ever disturbed the fundamental principle that the influential medium of broadcasting is free from political control and will so remain".Of course, I accept that the Home Secretary and the Government have an absolute power of veto over what the BBC puts out. However, I believe it is to the eternal credit of successive governments that this power has never been invoked. For if it ever were to be invoked it would make it that much easier for the same or subsequent governments to do so again and again. That is the classic slippery slope that leads slowly but surely down to the precipice of totalitarian control.
I also deplore the noble Lord's wish to see governmental interference in programmes for another quite different reason, which has to do with the BBC's External Services. All over the world those are regarded as perhaps the foremost jewel in the BBC's crown. They have an enormous international audience; in a great many countries they are regarded as the only source of reliable news and comment; and 262 in many countries they are listened to in spite of heavy penalties for anyone caught doing so.
However, as some of your Lordships will know—and as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was once a foreign affairs consultant to the BBC I feel sure that he also will know—there is a continuing stream of denigration of the BBC's External Services from the governments of ideologically hostile countries attempting to make the case that the BBC is simply putting out clever government-controlled propaganda. If the Government were ever to start interfering with programmes, any programmes, they would indeed be making the hostile governments' case for them. Moreover, as I know all too well from my time at the BBC, that interference would not pass unnoticed. Hostile governments keep a very sharp eye on these things. In short, government interference with the BBC's independence would damage the BBC's international standing rapidly and irreparably and would do much harm to the national interest.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, is clearly convinced that the BBC is in the grip of a Left-wing conspiracy. I have to repudiate that notion totally. Nor can I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that there is a clique of people doing this sort of thing. The BBC has a powerful ethos, even though, all too frequently, it does not live up to it. Of course, in the BBC there are extensive methods for trying to catch up with that. There is the procedure of upward reference. To deal with trouble there was set up in my time what we called the early warning system, and from time to time no doubt these things need to be stiffened up. I used to have to do that and I have no doubt that Lord Reith had to do it too, because there were terrible rumpuses even in his day, contrary to general belief.
One has to keep some perspective on this. There are 15,000 hours of television put out by the BBC a year, as well as 200,000 hours of domestic radio, and the staff would have to be archangels if they were never to make silly mistakes or errors of judgment. Given that some 50 million people of highly diverse views watch or listen fairly regularly, it is inevitable that many people will be annoyed for a few hours per annum and a few people annoyed for a lot of hours per annum. Among them, it would seem to me, are the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont and Lord Orr-Ewing. I regard that as a small price to pay for maintaining the integrity of the BBC's uniquely influential External Services and preserving the essential element of a free society: namely, the freedom of the media.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Swann, has told us quite rightly that a mixture of fact and fiction is always dangerous. The problem is that fiction presented as fact and viewed as such in millions of homes is bound to distort the opinions of people—nearly all open-minded people—in those homes. The noble Lord also said that he thought, quite rightly, that the Government's power under the charter has not so far been invoked and he said that he hoped it never would be. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has invited my noble friend to say—in 263 addition to the other questions he wants answering—that the Government will ask the BBC to comply with the charter in future.
If your Lordships will bear with me, I wish to examine this matter by giving evidence about "Airbase". I have lived in the diocese of Ely—although not in the old county of the Isle of Ely—within a mile of the perimeter of one of the largest operational air bases in Europe, Alconbury, since it started in 1955 and I was there for 10 years before that. I remained MP for Huntingdonshire for the first 24 years that that base was operational. During that time I visited it several times a year for one reason or another and I got to know many members of the United States Air Force from the rank of colonel downwards. I say without hesitation that in my experience every man whom I came across was a splendid man. I did not come across any others. They were highly skilled technically, as they had to be, and were rather serious. They were good family men and nearly all had their families living with them on the base, where several hundred American children were receiving an all-American education, and doing so without making any demands on our own system.
On one occasion I flew with the United States Air Force to and from Germany in one of their aircraft to visit their headquarters in Frankfurt and West Berlin. From my knowledge of American airmen, which is spread over nearly a quarter of a century, I can assure your Lordships that I never saw any sign of indiscipline, although naturally there was some minor indiscipline from time to time. I did not see any drunkenness and I was never conscious of any depravity. The film "Airbase" gave an utterly false impression of men who had left their own country to help to defend ours and to help to keep the peace of the world.
An apology is owed to the United States Air Force by the BBC. I do not know whether any such apology has even been hinted at, but I certainly think that one is due. Of course, the question arises as to whether an apology is owed on behalf of the people of this country. If that is so, only the Government could give it. That brings us to the problem already mentioned, that the Government would then be in the position for the first time of criticising the BBC and, it could be said, of interfering with its activities, although ex post facto.
I hope that this debate may have served the purpose of bringing home to the television authorities that they sometimes run a risk in the kinds of programmes that they present. When the risk is confined to opinions affecting what we do in this country among ourselves perhaps it matters less, but when they run the risk of offending those of our allies who were in this country helping us defend it, then I regard it as an extremely dangerous matter and full justification for what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and other noble Lords have said.
I am sure that the noble Lords, Lord Swann and Lord Annan, with all their experience and authority, would agree that, however interpreted, impartiality and balance can be achieved only on the basis of true 264 facts. Accuracy is essential before sound judgments can be reached. But if those responsible in the BBC and in the IBA merely assume that the principle of freedom of speech allows facts to be distorted or extreme prejudice to become acceptable, in my opinion they are failing in the trust which is given to them.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Lord Kagan
My Lords, I agree absolutely with what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has just said. I saw the film "Airbase" as an ordinary viewer. I did not believe what I saw, and I chose to see it a second time. I did not believe that the BBC could commission or screen such a so-called drama; but it did. Not since the days of Hitler's media controller, Goebbels, have I seen such a vicious, tendentious misrepresentation of a group of people, in this case American airmen. Perhaps I may be forgiven for feeling rather strongly because I survived the last war not least because of the intervention of the Americans, without whom Europe would not have kept its freedom.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, to allow such distortion in the name of free speech is wrong. It is also very wrong to think that because of the low quality of the presentation it is not dangerous or damaging. Hitler got to the top and within an inch of subjugating Europe with precisely that. I have never doubted the integrity of the BBC. Nor have I doubted that it is probably the best broadcasting organisation in the world. But the responsibility of the media is colossal. Whether they live up to that is questionable.
The motivation and the purpose of Goebbels was clear. The motivation and the purpose of the producer of "Airbase", or of its patron, the BBC, are not clear. Perhaps the noble Minister can enlighten us on that.
"Airbase" has been referred to as a wart. The noble Lord who did so told me that he had not seen it. Had he seen it I am sure that he would not have considered it a wart; but it is certainly a million-pound wart of BBC income or taxpayers' money.
Perhaps I may be allowed to make a constructive suggestion. If this so-called drama "Airbase" were offered to Colonel Gaddafi, who has a lot of money and lacks the skill to produce such a persuasive distortion, he may be quite happy to pay for the cost of the film and might even leave us with a profit at the end of it.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Greenhill of Harrow
My Lords, I am a rather unwilling participant in this debate for several reasons, but I am encouraged to take part partly by the welcome presence of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, whose appointment was one of the best public appointments that the Government have made in recent times.
I have a considerable affection and admiration for the BBC, having been a governor for five years and having been associated for a much longer period with the External Services. I enjoyed serving under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Swann, and in company with the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter.
265 We all rely on the BBC more than on the quality press for news and comment on domestic and foreign affairs. The BBC and the ITV together have immense political power and have indeed reshaped our democracy. It therefore gives me no pleasure whatsoever to see the BBC being an object of criticism, however justified it may be. As many noble Lords have asserted, there can be no question that under the charter licence and associated documents the BBC assumes certain programme obligations to the Secretary of State. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, set them out, and he was perfectly correct. If those obligations are not met the Secretary of State has a right and a duty not only to comment but in the last resort to intervene. The BBC does not contest that.
For example, it says on page 169 of the 1985 annual report with reference to Clause 13.4 of the licence—and I apologise if this repeats something that the noble Viscount, Lord De L'Isle, has said but it is worth hearing what the BBC said in detailThis clause enables the Government or Parliament to have the last word on issues on which their views and those of the Corporation might he in conflict. It confers on the Government a formally absolute power of veto over BBC programmes. However this power has always been treated as a reserve power and has never been invoked. In its programme activities the Corporation has enjoyed and enjoys complete freedom".In other words, the independence of the BBC is a highly desirable convention which both parties have respected. Whether this so-called play "Airbase" or any other programme justifies breaching this convention is a matter of opinion.
However, noble Lords will recall the universal disgust about the programme when the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, first raised the matter in the House. It is clear that the Government, if challenged, cannot seek refuge, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, initially did behind the alleged unfettered independence of the BBC. The programme, and indeed all programmes, can be looked at by the Secretary of State in the light of the obligations accepted by the corporation in the charter licence and so on.
Whether it is the Government's intention that the proposed broadcasting watchdog should play a role in these matters I know not, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. I do not see why those functions could not be perfectly well performed by the governors or by a combination of the governors and the main advisory committee. There are strong and obvious reasons why conflict between the Government—any government—and the BBC should be avoided and should be the exception rather than the rule. Conflict can only be avoided if governments exercise sensible restraint and the BBC exercises proper discipline over its gifted and intelligent staff.
The appearance of the programme "Airbase" and its accompanying Radio Times article shakes one's confidence. From time to time the programme makers seem able to sneak on to the screen, or on to the air, a programme or play which causes deep offence and comes near to being a breach of the charter. Mr. Birt, who recently joined the BBC, said that impartiality in the corporation is a withering plant. I think that the handling of the Falklands play 266 suggests that there is some substance in that remark. It recalls to me an article written by a BBC broadcaster in a Sunday newspaper some time ago. He said that when he wished to break the rules and flout conventions he always arranged for the programme to be shown on a Friday night because he knew that the director general was on his way back to his country house in East Anglia and all that happened on a Monday morning when the director general returned was that he received a silly smile.
I do not believe that the present high echelons of the BBC belong to the "silly smile" brigade. How they prevent unsuitable programmes from slipping through is their business and we should not attempt to instruct them. Referring up is clearly not satisfactory and the balancing of programmes over an extended period is ineffective.
I seldom complain to the BBC, but I shall cite two rather trivial examples because they give an interesting reflection of its attitudes. I complained about an obscene reference to the Virgin Mary in a so-called satirical programme. The answer I received was that it had been approved by the religious affairs department for "factual accuracy". I also complained about a programme which was shown on a Christmas morning and which denigrated the monarchy, Parliament and the Churches. The answer was that the timing was a little unfortunate but that it was necessary to broadcast such a programme to convince foreigners that the BBC was not a creature of the British Government.
Those are minor blemishes. We all want to see the continuation of the desirable convention which enables the BBC to enjoy a responsible independence, which has been the basis of its reputation. We do not want the Government breathing down its neck and we do not want the charter forgotten or flouted. I recommend refresher courses on the charter and possibly that the charter should be signed by members of staff, in the same way as some people have to sign the Official Secrets Act. The main point is that the BBC is a great asset, but it must play to charter rules.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree with me that we in Britain have what is probably the best broadcasting system in the world. The BBC, which is supported by the licence fees of the watching public to the extent of, I believe, £1,000 million, is the top and cream of it all. It provides us with news, entertainment and comment and also provides news and information to other parts of the world that might not otherwise be so well informed. Anyone who has had experience of television in other nations will certainly agree with me on that point.
Indeed, we are so fond of the BBC that we call her, affectionately, "Auntie", and like a well-loved aunt she lives with us all. She is allowed the freedom of our living rooms and I have found her chatting away in some people's kitchens. I believe there are families who even take her to bed with them. In short, she is totally part of our lives and lives with us all.
267 However, Auntie has changed. Not only has she taken to using bad language—which one would not condone from any other member of one's family—but she has also become very biased; not swinging from Right to Left, with ideas here and there, but almost entirely to the Left. In fact, she is becoming distinctly sinister.
What are we to do with Auntie? Can it be her age? She was born on December 20th, 1926 by Letters Patent under the Great Seal. Ladies, maiden and otherwise, go through difficult periods at certain times in their lives. Or is it perhaps that Auntie is associating with undesirable friends who are influencing her unduly? That is not of course Mr. Hussey or the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. I emphasise that we love Auntie very much; she is part of our family life and lives with us all. We especially admire her sound views, her impartiality and her balance. However, we are worried that she is losing her balance.
We have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Chalfont, Lord Renton and Lord Kagan, about the detestable programme "Airbase" which portrays our American allies, with whom we have a special relationship, as something sub-human. It is not surprising that that has caused some upset with them. Noble Lords have already made, and more succinctly, all the points which I should like to have made about the programme.
My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing also spoke with much force on the projected screening of the Falklands play "Tumbledown" by Charles Wood. Charles Wood is on record as saying:Every play I write is subversive".The playwright lain Curteis was commissioned by Alistair Milne to write a play about the Falklands war. It attempted to show the reasons why the war was fought, the doctrine of self-determination and that the rule of aggression should not pay. It was said that his play was too biased in favour of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and, therefore, was not shown by the BBC before the election so as not to influence voters. However, the election is now over; the play has been shelved and instead we are threatend with "Tumbledown", which is not only biased but, I believe, unnecessarily violent.
The series "Secret Society" is by Duncan Campbell, who wrote for the New Statesman. Many people who were introduced in his series, such as "a former immigration officer at Dover" (Jolyon Jenkins), and "a former US Army Captain" (Bill Arkin) were in fact close journalistic friends of his on the New Statesman—a fact which was not mentioned.
Another friend of Auntie's is the Left-wing barrister, Helena Kennedy, who presented a series of "Heart of the Matter" religious broadcasts. She is closely connected with the Haldane Society of Socialist lawyers. She also defended Thomas Quigley, the Irish terrorist who bombed the home of my noble and learned friend Lord Havers among other atrocities.
We all love Auntie, but we do not like her Left-wing friends; nor would we like it if she had thrown in her lot with the National Front. Auntie is part of 268 our family and our home life. We beseech her to abandon her hard Left views and become once more the auntie that we all know and love.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, the BBC is such a vast organisation that the ordinary listener and viewer who is busy with other things can form no more than a snapshot impression of its outlook. Unquestionably, there is a great deal in that output that is excellent. The World Service in my experience is mostly very good. Indeed, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, whether he would consider making it available at reasonable hours for listeners in this country.
Then, the BBC does an enormous amount for music; its drama serials are admired all over the world; and its nature programmes are superb. Nearly everything from the BBC at Bristol in fact seems first class. Some radio programmes like "File on Four", "From our Own Correspondent" and "The Food Programme" are very well done. I am particularly struck by what seems to be the fair and dispassionate selection of letters from the public on "P.M.", which appears to reflect genuinely what ordinary people think even when they are highly critical of the BBC. I do not think there is generally any party political bias in programmes, certainly not ones that I have heard and seen.
However, there are occasional extraordinary lapses. There was the choice of Duncan Campbell to do a whole series on security matters—an example perhaps of a remaining pocket of the antiestablishment, iconoclastic tradition associated with the regime of the late Sir Hugh Greene whose influence on the BBC was, I believe, largely unfortunate.
Then there was a programme on Radio 4 on 28th January on the Birmingham six, produced by Kathleen Gallagher, on the day of the judgment by the Court of Appeal. By then the BBC knew that the Lord Chief Justice and two other judges had, after 27 days of exhaustive examination, found, as had the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in the earlier appeal, that the convictions by the original jury, reached after hearing what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge, had described asthe clearest and most overwhelming evidence I have ever heard in a case of murderwere "safe and satisfactory".
Despite this, the programme did its utmost to suggest that the six were innocent and wrongly condemned. What seemed to me indefensible was long interviews with the three principal defence witnesses without any mention of the judges' remarks, in their judgment, dismissing the evidence of these witnesses as worthless and unconvincing. I took this up with the chairman of the BBC. I am glad to say that he accepted that in this instance the producers of the programme had made a serious error.
There are, I suggest, two specific issues on which the corporation has not always followed the 1981 resolution of its board of directors, quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont,to treat controversial subjects with due impartiality".269 These are South Africa and Ireland.
On South Africa, there has been lack of a sense of proportion, a tendency to go on and on about the wickedness of the South African Government while the dreadful things that go on, as anyone in my old profession knows, in many other countries receive less attention.
At the time of the Commonwealth conference in 1986 the BBC, regardless of the licence requirement that,the corporation shall at all times refrain from sending any broadcast matter expressing the opinion of the Corporation on current affairs or on 'natters of public policymade little secret of its support for a policy of mandatory sanctions.
When the House debated South Africa on 4th July 1986, the BBC gave a misleading and one-sided report of the debate, suggesting that support for sanctions in this House was much more general than in fact it was. It made no mention of criticisms of the BBC by for example, the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, and myself.
The BBC seemed then to have developed something of an obsession with South Africa. We live in Wales. I remember listening anxiously for news of the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl. I heard nothing about that; only a long piece on South Africa and then an item about the number of blacks in the Brigade of Guards. Happily, in recent months, there has been much less about this question. The reporting has been more balanced.
On Ireland, for some years until very recently there was, I believe, a noticeable slant towards the republican view. This was evident in the choice of people interviewed and in the editing and presentation of news on Northern Ireland. However, it has been much less marked in recent weeks. I hope that means that the bias is being corrrected.
Nevertheless, air time is still sometimes given—and not only by the BBC—to terrorist spokesmen. I think that that is wrong. I commend to your Lordships the excellent article by Conor Cruise O'Brien in The Times of 6th April. I believe that we should, like Dublin, ban broadcast interviews with all terrorist spokesmen, as he suggests. I urge the Government to add this to the Bill at present under consideration to control terrorist funds.
On the whole, however, I am hopeful. I believe that the BBC's new chairman and his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, will bring about much needed changes. Already there are signs that welcome improvements are being effected. Obviously things cannot be changed overnight. The BBC, like Shell, has always believed in decentralisation. Where one gets a good producer, one gets regularly good programmes; where one gets a bad one, one gets carelessness and bias.
I believe that the corporation is now in good hands. I welcome today's announcement that £62 million is to be put into news and current affairs programmes, increasing foreign coverage and business news. Provided that tight control is kept on standards of fairness and impartiality and bad producers moved out, the prospects are, I believe, now more encouraging than some noble Lords may think.
§ 7.7 p.m.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Chalfont for the opportunity to express my concern over the showing of the programme "Airbase" by the BBC on 1st March, and to question the accountability of the BBC under the Royal Charter and the licence and agreement, granted by the Home Secretary in 1981. As I do not have time to dwell on the positive aspects of the BBC, I ask noble Lords to forgive me if my speech is rather negative.
Every now and again a programme swims on to the screen that is so grossly offensive, so horribly biased, displays such contempt for the intelligence of the public and is clearly so unsuitable for prime time viewing that it leaves one astounded that it could have got through the network planning procedure".That was the view of the television critic Peter Paterson, of the Daily Mail.
The issue for this debate is not that the BBC in its wisdom allocated prime time to a third rate play. The issue is whether it was a play or a documentary, whether it was mere fantasy or an account of life as it is lived on our airbases in the United Kingdom and, whatever it was, whether it offended against the charter of 1981.
The reason for such confusion and for the offence and anger caused by the programme was the deliberate advance publicity in, of all places, the BBC's own publication Radio Times, which titillated the viewers' appetite by claiming that:US fighter pilots arc flying high on drugs, sex and death just like the real McCoy".However, it then went on to give a very clear impression that, however exaggerated or incredible the programme might appear, it was all the more significant because of its "accuracy". As a play it was awful; as a documentary it was dishonest and a complete distortion of life on USAF bases within the United Kingdom.
A former director general of the BBC, Sir Hugh Greene, said:We have to balance points of view in our programmes but not necessarily within each individual programme".However, that is no defence of this programme. A programme of the Left—this has already been said—which is dishonest, personally indulgent on the part of the author and inconsistent with the conditions of the charter cannot be balanced by an equally dishonest programme of the Right. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Alan Whicker, of television fame, recently wrote:I am increasingly worried by the way in which television documentaries try to nobble you and make up your mind for you. It seems to me that the trend is to write the script in the office then go and find the facts and the people who will support the contentions. I think that's totally wrong … most documentaries you see nowadays should have a caption underneath reading, 'we have temporarily lost our sense of objectivity'".Added to this is the practice of appointing extreme Left-wing protagonists in controversial political issues to key presentational positions—for example, Helena Kennedy to "Heart of the Matter" and journalist Duncan Campbell to "Secret Society". That they would produce biased documentaries was entirely predictable. One's suspicions are really aroused by the refusal to screen Ian Curteis's play about the Falklands because it was deemed to be 271 pro-Government, when it is planned to show "Tumbledown", the Falklands play with a Left-wing bias.
I am privileged to be the chairman of an Anglo/American community relations committee for the large USAF base, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, of Alconbury in Cambridgeshire. I know from first hand experience that the young airmen, and in particular the front line pilots, so savagely dealt with by the programme "Airbase", are highly disciplined and highly skilled, are committed to their role as our allies in NATO and are concerned to achieve the highest standards of professional and personal conduct. They live in our community and I am constantly humbled by the catalogue of activities in which they are engaged, involving them in giving generously of their time, energy and money for charitable and community causes. As for flying highly complex and expensive airplanes under the influence of drugs or alcohol—as suggested in "Airbase"—it is simply an absurd suggestion.
Mr. McKay, author of "Airbase", together with Francis Wheen and others of their ilk have a mission. It is to discredit the Americans, to undermine the professionalism and commitment of the armed forces, to undermine the confidence of our allies and to undermine this country's defence strategy and our commitment to NATO. To achieve these ends they are no seekers after truth. It would appear that they can do this with large sums of public money. They can be provided with a vehicle to peddle personal and political viewpoints masquerading as documentary with license to use the Radio Times to propagate, advance and supplement their work. How can that be consistent with the obligation of impartiality and fair treatment under the charter and the licence and agreement of 1981? Free, self-regulated media are by far the most desirable, but with that freedom goes responsibility. The production of "Airbase" flouted the system. My Lords, where is the accountability?
This debate begs a most serious question. Meanwhile, an apology, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is due to a fine body of American men and women whose commitment to peace in the West is considerable and who cannot on this issue defend their own position.
§ 7.14 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to say a few words in my capacity as honorary treasurer of the Christian Broadcasting Council of Great Britain about the moral standards, or, more appropriately, the lack of moral standards, set by the BBC. There can be no doubt that many members of the public, to judge by Mary Whitehouse's Listeners and Viewers Association, which had its annual general meeting on Saturday, are still gravely concerned at the continuing permissive trend, and particularly the emphasis on sex and violence, that characterises so many of today's programmes. And it is pointless to say that so many of these programmes are shown late at night, when, apart from children being allowed to stay up late, the programmes can be recorded and shown to the whole family.
272 The early years of the charter, right up to the end of World War II, were glorious years for British radio. The BBC was recognised worldwide for its depth and fairness in reporting, for the high quality of its entertainment and for its Christian and moral stance. However, as we all know, standards have declined since the war, particularly in television. Is it not true that the BBC is now more concerned with ratings than with the quality of the product? A significant change has been the universal concept that only pop music shall be played on BBC local radio, a curious concept.
What of the spiritual attitude of the BBC. This surely has also undergone a sea-change, from the early days of Lord Reith, who saw it as a valuable tool for the evangelisation of Britain, to today when its attitude might be described as scientific-humanist. Noble Lords will say that the BBC's religious affairs department has a notable output, particularly on radio. Many of us derive spiritual profit from such programmes as "Prayer for Today", "Thought for Today", "The Daily Service", "Songs of Praise"—the right reverend Prelate mentioned the "Songs of Praise" programme from Ely Cathedral which I think we all agree was magnificent—and other similar programmes.
However, these programmes, excellent though they be, and a welcome relief from the constant battering of pop music, the anaesthetic of sex and the stimulus of violence, tend to be about "churchianity", if one can use such a word. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will forgive me for using it. They tend to be about "churchianity" rather than about Christianity, and represent, to some of us at any rate, the icing on the cake. Could we not have programmes with a more solid theological content, such as talks by Magnus Magnusson, programmes which emphasise that religion should be the bedrock of our being? And why not programmes emphasising the bonds uniting families rather than, as happens all too frequently, the stresses and traumas dividing them?
There are now at least three bodies with which I am connected working to promote family unity. They all see the family—by this I mean the conventional definition of the family, not the one-parent family or the so-called homosexual family—as the stabilising, life-giving element which enables its members to withstand the manifold stresses and strains that come their way. Has the time not come for the BBC to help us to think in terms of right and wrong, of black and white, instead of those hazy half tones, those dingy browns and murky greys which becloud so much of our moral thinking today?
Finally, I should like to refer to the Broadcasting Standards Council about which we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. Like many noble Lords I look forward with much eagerness to the time when the wraps are removed from the council. Like the noble Lord I hope very much that the Minister will be able to do this for us. Perhaps I may express the hope that when the wraps are removed we shall find standards in line with some at least of my thinking.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I shall go back to how the BBC started with its charter and licence. The charter and the licence provide a remarkable degree of freedom to the BBC and its governors to do what they think best in the interests of broadcasting and to act, in a phrase first employed in 1972, "as trustees of the public interest". The charter contains almost nothing about the making of programmes. The licence and agreement say little more.
The commitment to taste and decency in programmes derives historically not from statute but from the codification of the BBC's own thinking and practices. Unlike many other noble Lords, I find that not only right and reasonable but reassuring. This freedom allowed to public service broadcasters has underpinned the BBC's practices. If we invoke the charter and licence, we shall be on a slippery and dangerous slope. I hope that we do not see that happen.
A number of noble Lords have referred to the three plays which they viewed with horror, contempt, dislike, fear or a mixture of all four—"Airbase", "The Monocled Mutineer" and "Tumbledown". I do not support what was in those plays, and did not particularly like them. The chairman of the BBC has made it clear in correspondence to those people who wrote in complaining about "Airbase" that he saw no merit in it, and nor did many other people in the BBC. "Tumbledown" and "The Monocled Mutineer" are two plays which are quoted all the time. I find it interesting to note that although we have constantly heard about those three plays during the debate, they are three plays out of an output of 800 plays over the past two years. Of course they were of varying lengths but they were all from the BBC's drama department. We may not be giving enough credit to the positive side of what is being done while repeating too vociferously what we think is wrong with the other plays.
There is another point which worries me. I do not like the feeling that we and other people are sitting in judgment on other adults. Why should people be treated in what I frankly find to be a rather patronising and protective way? They have the right to decide whether they wish to see a programme. They can always turn the "off" switch, which is something we have heard nothing about today. They can turn off the television and not watch the play. One noble Lord said that he had watched a play all over again because he could hardly believe what he had seen, and I found the reference to Nazi Germany made by the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, in the context of one of those plays offensive.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, should not worry overmuch about American reaction to "Airbase". They are too tough-skinned and sensible; they will not be put off or have a tantrum because one play refers to American airmen.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I shall not give way because we are having a timed debate. Perhaps the noble Baroness and I could have a word afterwards.
274 It is worrying if we set ourselves up as arbiters of everyone's taste. We have the right to be the arbiters only of our own taste.
Today the BBC faces unprecedented challenges. There is the challenge from the privatised, and fundamentally unaccountable, cable and satellite systems. That is one of the most obvious examples. There is the challenge—we are seeing it exerted tonight—of ever greater political pressure on broadcasters. I find myself in complete agreement with the noble Lords, Lord Bonham-Carter, Lord Swann and Lord Greenhill of Harrow, over the Broadcasting Standards Council. It is another example of not treating people as adults. It is entirely unnecessary when the BBC has a board of governors and various committees which have been set up.
It is of course the BBC's responsibility to respond when mistakes are made, and they inevitably will be made unless we expect the BBC to operate in a straitjacket of caution. Its response must be tempered by the belief that if there are no mistakes there will probably be no innovations. The BBC must temper such judgments in the further knowledge that what some people call mistakes are often no more than uncomfortable truths. If we do not find a place within our society for uncomfortable truths to be uttered, so much the worse for us.
The BBC's responsibility is to sustain its independence from all political and commercial partialities. The BBC's responsibility — this is what Parliament has called for for six decades—is to the whole of our society and its people and not to the narrow-minded prejudices of a small but vociferous minority which would castrate the BBC journalistically and creatively. Such a minority prefers a dull and obscuring calm to the excitement, illuminating passion and sheer pleasure which we find in the BBC at its best. The fact that it does not always reach those standards is not a great criticism—because in which walks of life are standards of perfection reached?
It is not our responsibility to encourage, and nor do we want to see, the broadcaster meek, blinkered, evasive or partial. The world is full of organisations which, in the eyes of their governments, are all too responsible. I do not believe that noble Lords want that position, because we should then be moving to dictatorship in radio and television—which play a larger and larger part in our lives. Our responsibility is to remind the BBC and all its critics of what was said by a former chairman, Sir Arthur Fforde:(It) is of cardinal importance that everyone in a position of responsibility should be ready to set himself or herself the duty of ensuring to those creative members of the BBC staff, who must take the daily, hourly or even instantaneous decisions, that measure of freedom, independence and élan without which the arts do not flourish".During the debate the BBC has been asked to change its ways somewhat, and to be tolerant of our views and those of other people. At the same time we owe such an institution a tolerant hearing. We want to see it make better programmes. We should give it encouragement rather than a great deal of discouragement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, wanted to know whether the BBC had apologised to the American Government. With great respect, that is nonsense. In 275 any case, Mary Whitehouse took it upon herself to write to President Reagan and apologise on behalf of the whole country. I think that was quite enough on that score.
We should be supporting and safeguarding the freedoms of the BBC and also the IBA, although the debate is not about the IBA. We have seen the slippery slope in other countries when heavy fists are laid on an organisation which is struggling to do right. It does not always do it. It sometimes makes mistakes. As far as the programmes are concerned, the BBC will readily admit that some are failures. But even if that is so—as it is—that is no reason for us to try to contain the organisation in a straitjacket. That is the one thing which should not be done. I believe that in going along the line that it takes at the moment the BBC is behaving generally in the right way and that it does not deserve the calumny and acrimony which have been poured on it to some extent tonight.
§ 7.30 p.m.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has introduced an important debate today in a characteristically forthright and impressive manner. I am indebted to him for having given me notice of the points which he intended to make. I think that we have had a very reasoned debate and one of great interest. Many noble Lords have considerable knowledge and experience of the BBC and of the problems which it encounters. We have had the advantage today of hearing the noble Lord, Lord Swann, with all the experience and wisdom which he obtained when he was such a distinguished chairman of the BBC.
I propose to confine my remarks to the more limited subject matter of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. I shall resist the temptation to stray into the rather wider fields, such as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham Carter, suggested, of the Broadcasting Standards Council and other such excitements on which some of your Lordships touched.
The noble Lord, Lord Swann, referred to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and I should like to do so also. He said that if programmes are good they will enrich society; that if programmes are grey, they will debase society—I think that that is what he said—and that the BBC has great powers; that the BBC is the best public broadcasting company in the world and it is difficult for a large corporation to be perfect. I may not have got the noble Lord's words quite right but that was the basis of what he said. As a general canvas of the subject which we are discussing today, I thought that his remarks were pretty accurate.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has said that the contents of some of the BBC's programmes are so biased that they have offended against the charter and the licence and agreement and that he wishes the Home Secretary to take note, and preferably to take action. That is pretty stout stuff! The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, is entirely correct to draw to the attention of your Lordships and the public what he believes to be an intolerant and biased content of 276 programmes. He knows—and we all know—that the BBC has undertaken to produce programmes of a high general standard, and with due impartiality.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that equilibrium is not achieved by having one programme which is grossly biased in one way, only to be balanced by another one which is grossly biased in the opposite direction. That is not impartiality. However, programmes cannot be just anodyne presentations. Inevitably they will have substance; periodically they will enter, and rightly so, the realms of controversy. Sometimes to some that will be unacceptable.
Programme-makers inevitably require a degree of artistic licence. But the licence infers a gift of tolerance on the part of the viewer towards the programme-maker in return for programmes of quality. Obviously this should not be abused. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and other noble Lords have suggested that this tolerance has been abused. In his Question on 15th March and again today the noble Lord vigorously criticised the content of the programme "Airbase", and other noble Lords agreed with him both on that occasion and today.
It is quite clear that that programme caused offence, not only to your Lordships but also to many members of the public and to our many friends overseas in America. I have seen part of the programme myself and I can easily sympathise in a personal capacity with the views which your Lordships expressed about it. As a result of the exchanges at Question Time on 15th March, I undertook to let the chairman of the BBC know the opinions which noble Lords had expressed. He replied to me pointing out that, in his view there was little merit in the programme and that:It was one of those failures which are, I suppose, inevitable in such a wide and varied dramatic output".Those were the words of the chairman of the BBC. He also added that the article which appeared in the Radio Times was an error of judgment and that it was an inappropriate article for this publication. I understand that steps have been taken to ensure that the editorial procedures do not in future allow a recurrence of such a mistake.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has asked some specific questions and in particular he has referred to Article 20 of the BBC's Royal charter. It is important that we should be quite clear exactly what the position is. There are two documents. One is the Royal charter which defines the constitution of the BBC and its organisation. It gives the BBC the right to broadcast within some fairly general parameters. The licence and agreement set out the details of how the BBC should carry out this responsibility.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, is perfectly right that in Article 20 of the charter the Home Secretary has the right—indeed he has the obligation—to accept the expression of views which may be made to him, pointing out that the BBC has offended against its charter or its licence and agreement. The Home Secretary would have to consider those representations and, if necessary, he would ask the BBC to satisfy him that it had met its obligations. If it was not able to do so, the matter could then be referred to the Privy Council and to Her Majesty the 277 Queen who could, if they saw fit, revoke the charter. Those are very important powers and they are not to be used lightly.
However, I am bound to tell your Lordships that there is no obligation about programme standards in the Royal charter or the licence and agreement which would enable or oblige my right honourable friend to use these powers. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said that the annex to the licence and agreement provides just such an obligation. I am bound to tell him that the annex is a resolution by the board of governors. It is a statement of intent by the board of governors that they intend to "treat controversial subjects with due impartiality". As such it is important, but it does not contain nor does it confer obligations on the Home Secretary which can be enforced under Article 20, unlike the obligation to broadcast an impartial account day by day of the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. This is a specific requirement and it is spelt out in Section 13.2 of the licence and agreement.
That is a very important factor. If such a requirement for impartiality had been enforceable under the charter, it would place the Home Secretary of the day in an intolerable position. He would be obliged to be the arbiter in any or all of the representations which may be made to him about programme content. He or his officials on his behalf would have to consider the representations, see the programmes and make a judgment. Then the Secretary of State would be obliged, where appropriate, to take action. That would be censorship. It would be broadcasting by government consent. It could even develop into broadcasting by government diktat. I hope that I carry the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and others with me in saying that that would be an intolerable position for any government of this country to be in. It would be quite unacceptable as a method of televising and broadcasting.
The BBC has a responsibility for impartiality. And the way in which the Government see to this is by appointing the board of governors. The Government appoint to the board eminent and responsible people—of whom the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, is one—whose duty it is to ensure that the BBC conducts itself in a proper and responsible fashion. If it does not do so, it is to the board of governors and to its chairman that aggrieved people should address themselves.
At the risk of being told by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that I am making another lapidary judgment, I would say that it cannot be for the Government to dictate or to determine the quality of progammes. That is, and must be, essentially the responsibility of the chairman and the governors of the BBC.
If we were to accept the principle of government interference or the right to censure the BBC on the contents of any, some, or all of its programmes, then we would be embarking, as the noble Lord, Lord Swann, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, have said, on a very slippery slope of broadcasting and televising by government consent. That I think few people wish to see.
278 My answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, is, in short, that he is right to complain. He was entitled to be offended by that programme and entitled to claim—as I think the chairman of the BBC has conceded—that the programme did not live up to the standards expected of the BBC. But that is not a matter which falls within the Government's responsibility; nor does it offend against either the charter or the licence and agreement. It is not a matter, despite criticism of that programme or concern about the impartiality or otherwise of programmes in general, upon which my right honourable friend is justified or even entitled to take action.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, I am grateful to the House and to all those who have taken part in an extremely valuable and stimulating debate. The arguments on both sides were adduced for the most part constructively and thoughtfully. Before begging leave to withdraw the Motion, I shall make two brief points. The first is that there seemed in some speeches to be a misunderstanding of the aim and the object of the Motion. It was not my intention to suggest that the BBC is, as someone said, "a nest of subversives" or that it is, as someone else said, "a Left-wing conspiracy". That is not my view; therefore, it would have been surprising had I put it forward.
My aim was less ambitious. It was to do two things; first, to question a doctrine set forth by the noble Earl in answer to my original Starred Question. I must tell the noble Earl that I am far from satisfied with the reply he has given tonight. I do not believe it is right to say, as he has now said, that the BBC and its governors are the ultimate judge and jury in their own case on matters of programme content. I have to disagree with the Minister fundamentally in the interpretation of the charter, but this is not the time to go into that.
My second aim—it has, I think, been fully achieved—was to give an opportunity for those in your Lordships' House who wished to do so to express to our American friends their deep regret that such a disgraceful programme should have been allowed on the air by the BBC. A number of noble Lords have done that, and I am grateful to them. I am content with that result, but I am sorry that not everyone felt able to make that apology. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.