11 March 2002
Whether the chairman and governors of the BBC are fulfilling their duty to produce political programmes which are impartial, wide-ranging and fair.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who put their names down to speak tonight, especially at this late hour. I suppose that I am a little disappointed that no past or present governor of the BBC is joining us, of whom there are a few in your Lordships' House. I cannot help wondering whether their absence says anything about the Question before us.
I suppose that bias, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. If broadcasting bias exists, it is peculiarly difficult to prove. That is because the programmes in question flash across our television screens or we listen to them on the radio perhaps with half an ear, and then they are gone. To prove broadcasters' bias or narrowness of coverage, their output has to be recorded, transposed into writing and analysed by an objective mind. Even then, there are difficulties because the written word does not record the tone of voice in which a question was put or a comment made, and that may be significant in relation to the way in which an interviewee is treated. So, laborious cross-referencing between the broadcast programme and its text is sometimes necessary. Also, in order to establish consistent editorial bias, it is not enough to record and transpose the odd programme here and there. One has to analyse a number of programmes which can reasonably be said to amount to a series. The whole process is laborious but it has to be done if the analyses are to carry credibility and thus form the basis of useful dialogue with those responsible for the programmes.
For many years, the Euro-realist movement in this country has been convinced that the BBC is biased in favour of the United Kingdom becoming part of European economic and monetary union and even more so in favour of our continued membership of the European Union. That partiality is alleged to go back to the 1975 referendum at least, and indeed the BBC has been good enough to admit that it was disgracefully biased in favour of the "yes" campaign then. But what about now?
To answer that question, some three years ago, the noble Lords, Lord Harris of High Cross and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and Ithrough the medium of our research unit, Global Britaindecided to commission serious analysis of the BBC's coverage of our relationship with the European Union.
I am aware that there are other areas in which the BBC's coverage is alleged to be unbalanced. There are, for instance, many who feel that the BBC has been less than even-handed in its treatment of the Irish question, that it is biased in favour of the Palestinians and the tragic conflict that is unfolding before us in the Middle East, and that generally it panders to anti-Americanism, perhaps in part as a result of its blind enthusiasm for the European dream. I simply do not know enough about those other very important areas to comment; nor am I aware of any relevant research of sufficient depth to put before noble Lords tonight. However, I understand that the research commissioned by my noble friends and I may well be unique in the history of the BBC. That is why I feel it is worth giving your Lordships some of its headline findings.
Before I do so, I should say that we were lucky to find analysts of impeccable background who have worked in broadcasting for most of their livesinsiders who brought an open mind to the subject. The firm we therefore commissioned was Minotaur Media Tracking, which is directed by Mr David Keighley and Mrs Kathy Gingel.
Mr Keighley's career went from reporter to producer at the BBC, after which he became publicity officer for BBC TV news and current affairs. He was then director of corporate affairs at TV-am, where his duties included compliance on editorial matters under the former IBA. He founded, and still is a non-executive director of, Newsworld, the leading international forum for news broadcasters. Mrs Gingel was a producer for London Weekend Television and rose to be features editor of TV-am. Therefore, no one can say that Minotaur's conclusions have been reached by a bunch of disgruntled Euro-sceptics who do not know how broadcasting works.
We have so far commissioned six surveys of the BBC's political coverage of the "European" issue. The main reports run to some 400 pages, supported by around 600 pages of background analysis, and some 780 transcripts which run to a further 1,800-odd pages.
Minotaur's first report covered the elections to the European Parliament, from 9th May to 6th June 1999. The headline findings were disturbing and were as follows. Less than 2 per cent of TV news coverage was devoted to the elections. There was no discussion about the wider issue of the UK's relationship with the European Union, and thus about the reasons for Euro-scepticism in Britain. The BBC concentrated massively on Conservative Party splits about the single currency, which were not otherwise evident at the time. It gave the meaningless Pro-Euro Conservative Party, which went on to win 1.2 per cent of the votes and no seats, similar prominence to the Conservative Party itself. Minority parties were virtually ignored, with the UK Independence Party being allowed only one
Since then, we have commissioned five further reports into the BBC's political coverage, two of which concentrated on the "Today" programme, given its political influence. In one of these, for the period from 21st May to 21st July 2000, the report found that "Today" put on air two-and-a-half times more people in favour of the single currency than those against it. I leave your Lordships to decide upon the BBC's defence against this finding from the Assistant Director of BBC News:
"Clearly if the Government is having difficulty in deciding its European strategy and tactics, there is bound to be regular questioning of Labour MPs and supporters about those difficulties".Indeed, but without putting a single Labour Euro-sceptic on air?
Another survey of "Today" from 9th January to 3rd February 2000 covered a series of three programmes lasting 30 minutes, which were billed as a discussion of the case for the UK to leave the European Union. But, in the event, only one person was allowed to put that case for some 35 seconds, perhaps because he was live and the BBC could not cut him out.
In fact, all those reports tell the same story, but I do not have time to give more detail tonight. We are putting all the reports on our research unit's websiteglobalbritain.orgin case any of your Lordships is a glutton for further punishment of this kind. We are also putting on the web most of our correspondence with the last and present chairman of the BBC, with some of the BBC senior staff, including the Director-General, and with the last and present Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
All this leads me to lay two complaints about the BBC before your Lordships tonight. The first, as your Lordships may have guessed, concerns the fact that its coverage entirely excludes any debate as to whether or not we should be in the EU. I know that many of your Lordships do not want to venture into that debate either, but millions of British people do, and the BBC has a clear duty to help them have it. It has a duty to do so because its charter and guidelines demand that:
"No significant strand of British public thought should go unreflected or under-represented on the BBC".The BBC's defence, when accused of this omission, is understandable but not very good. It says that none of the main political parties wants to talk about leaving the European Union. But surely that makes its duty even more clear and urgent. And there can be no doubt that we are looking at a significant strand of public thought. I know that opinion polls are unreliable, but in this area they remain remarkably firm.
Another consistent answer, supported by some 80 per cent of respondents, is that the British people do not think that they have been given enough truthful information about our relationship with the European Union to be sure what their opinion is, and they would like more. Surely the BBC should meet this need.
My second major complaint against the BBC concerns its internal procedures. It appears that all our reports have been given by the chairman to the BBC's management, and not to the governors, for consideration. I have to say I simply cannot understand this. How can it be right for the management to sit in judgment upon programmes which it has produced? Surely, it is for the governors to judge whether the BBC's management's output is impartial, wide-ranging and fair, and not for the management themselves.
I suppose I have only two areas of questions for the Minister. First, are the governors equipped to deal with the kind of deep and complexand lengthyreports that we have been giving to the chairman? If not, will the Government, encourage them to so equip themselves? There may be a chink of light in the new committee of 10 people which the chairman has recently proposed to assist the governors, but who will appoint those 10 people, who will pay them, to whom will they owe allegianceto the BBC's management or to its licence fee payers? Failing a satisfactory new system here, is not the obvious answer to put the BBC wholly under Ofcom, which I know is not the Government's present intention?
Secondly and finally, if the Government are genuine when they say that they want to encourage public debate about the next and possibly last EU inter-governmental conference in 2004, will they start that debate? Will they ensure that the BBC covers that debate? Or are the Government not genuine about wanting to encourage that debate? Is the real situation that the BBC will not hold the national debate which is so clearly needed, at least in part because the Government do not in fact want it and the BBC does not want to offend the Government lest it ends up under Ofcom? Could the Minister tell us the truth of the matter?
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I greatly welcome the chance given to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, to debate this matter, although not in the terms in which I had originally hoped to congratulate him. I thought that we were to have the opportunity for a far-ranging debate on the BBC's political coverage at a time when it is under consideration in the light of the Kevill review and when there are many interesting points to be made about it. However, I misunderstood the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. What we turn out to be debating is
I am glad that such points are now in the open. We have heard them muttered about wherever the old fogies gather in their tweedy uniforms to complain about the decline of our country. To have them in the open is much better.
The noble Lord wisely started by saying that bias is in the eye of the beholder. I shall state my own bias on this matter which is similar in direction, although not in degree, to that of the noble Lord. I am by no means a Euro-fanatic. I say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that I voted no in the referendum in 1976 and I may well vote no in the forthcoming referendum on the euro, if it ever happens. So I start with the same bias, but I see different results.
I remember the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Donoughue, who is not in his place, in No. 10 Downing Street. Often over a late night whisky we would gossip away about the complete inability of the BBC to reflect the brilliance of the Government that we served. I also remember a chap called Davies who worked in the policy unit at the time who occasionally joined in those discussions. When we left No. 10 at the behest of the electorate, I remember reading in the newspapers that in Mrs Thatcher's No. 10 our counterparts used to complain that the BBC was a haven of Trots determined to undermine her regime. And so it goes on. Bias is in the eye of the beholder. When beheld by government it is always a bias against government. That is the fundamental reason which underlies the issue.
We have had evidence laid before us. I have not had the pleasure of reading the website and the research to which the noble Lord referred. I have a tremendous scepticism about research into media bias. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will rememberI do notwhether the Glasgow media group was biased in favour of the far Left or far Right. Having suffered for tedious years its own supposedly academic reports on the bias in the media, I am disinclined to discount it heavily.
I have a general point on reports from consultants. We were dealing with one such report last week in the debate on the National Lottery. Consultants do this work quite well and they always arrive at the conclusion of the people who commission them. Having secured the commission for the first report, any consultant who dared to report to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, the noble Lord, Lord HarrisI greatly revere himand the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that the BBC was unbiased in that matter would be sure not to get the commission for the second report, let alone reports three, four, five and six and all that assembled on the website. Bias is in the eye of the beholder and in the eye of the commissioner of the beholder.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, if consultants are always biased, does that apply to Mr Wanless' report for the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the health service?
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, having read it from cover to cover, I did not detect any bias in it. But some matters were absent from Mr Wanless' report which my own commission for the Social Market Foundation intends to fill in. For example, absences about the role of private insurance need to be filled. To that extent, it could be supplemented.
My third point is this. Sometimes reporting may appear to be biased. Let us take the launch of the euro. I am fairly sceptical about the euro. It is undoubtedly true: rejoicing was reported in Europe. Other European countries are often delighted to get rid of currencies which have served them badly in the past. But the operation went well. It is silly for even those of us who are sceptical about the euro to deny that the operation went well. What was the poor BBC supposed to do? Was it supposed to go around with tubes of superglue sticking together the cash machines so that the euros did not come out? Would that then be unbiased reporting? Alternatively, was it supposed to sniff out little groups which could find some possibility of a forged note somewhere to show biased reporting? It was not biased reporting: it was accurate reporting which showed that it was a successful launch. If we join the euro in Britain, and if the launch is not so well managedI hope that neither eventuality comes aboutI would expect the BBC to report that in exactly the same straight way.
The fourth curiosity is that it seems strange to focus on the BBC. Is there no other bias on Europe? Does the noble Lord read the Sun, the Daily Mail- The Times or the Daily Telegraph? If one wants to see undeniable, admitted, frank bias to a political cause, the noble Lord should read those newspapers and complain about them. It is not bias that the noble Lord worries about. It is not bias about which he is concerned. It is the fact that the BBC refuses to share his viewmy viewon this issue. Whatever accusations may be levied against the BBC's coverage, the notion that it is biased on Europe is in my experience in no way reflected by the programmes I see.
I turn to the subject that in my naivety I had thought we were debating: the BBC's political coverage. I make one fairly brief point. On the whole, political coverage is very good. I am a great fan of, for example, "On the Record". No one watches it, but it is a great programme. On two subjects very dear to my heartelectoral reform and long-term care of the elderlyit produced some magnificent unbiased and impartial reports of the arguments on both sides.
I am concernedthis is a danger rather than a realitythat that kind of programming will be cast aside in a desperate attempt to get hold of young people. There is a logical mistake that underlies that. What happens is that the BBC has gone off to ask young people what they want as political coverage. It has come back with the poll data which says that young people are deeply interested in politics, except that they do not like the BBC's programme on it. But the real truth is that nowadays with opinion polls one in two, one in three or one in four perhaps of the people that one approaches to ask questions agrees to take part in the surveys. The people who agree to take part
are the young people who are interested in politics. Naturally, being interested in politics, they say that they are interested in politics and naturally, being young, they say that they do not like what they are given on the subject.
In order to cater for a normal audience of young people who are supposedly extremely interested in politics, it would be a great pity if we threw out the established and excellent serious programmes that we get. They may not be watched by many people, but the people who watch them do so with very great appreciation. Politics, alas, is never going to be "Big Brother", "Pop Idol", "Who wants to be a Millionaire?", or a mass audience activity. But that does not mean that the BBC should not continue with its well-established tradition of serious political coverage. I do not look to a past age as a golden age when I believe the radio announcers appeared in evening dress, although no one could see them. I do not think that that was a virtuous age. But I hope that we will not go all the way to trendiness and lose the many great qualities of the broadcast coverage that we have.
As your Lordships know, broadcasting is a reserved matter in terms of the Scotland Act. Therefore, I hope that it is a legitimate subject for me. It is of particular interest to me as a former spokesperson on Scottish affairs in another place.
My reason for wanting to take part in the debate is once again to draw to the attention of the BBC and your Lordships' House the fact that Scotland is still being denied its right to have an evening news and current affairs television bulletin, commonly known as the "Scottish Six", which, if it came about, should be in the words of the Motion,
"impartial, wide-ranging and politically fair".
It was hoped at the time of the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament that we could have our own flagship six o'clock news covering Scottish, UK and international matters from a Scottish point of viewone which would more fairly reflect the policies and activities of all the political parties within the Parliament in Edinburgh.
I believe that the BBC has to review how it is covering a partnership government, which is something it is new to. To be fair and impartial it has to remember that there are two parties making up this partnership and it should report accordingly. The "Scottish Six" was supported at the time by the unanimous view of the Scottish Broadcasting Council. The BBC Scotland management and staff and the opinion polls showed a majority of Scots in favour. It was rejected by the Board of Governors, deemed by
some, including those politicians who hated the idea of Scotland having its own parliament and government, that it would be too parochial, that our reports and presenters were not up to scratch and inferior to those in London. That, despite the fact that the much-acclaimed "Good Morning Scotland" radio programme is a model of a successful blend of Scottish national and international news.
"I can assure you that the Board of Governors is not influenced by political pressure on this or any other issue".
If that is the case, one might ask why we are having this debate tonight. Who am I to question the veracity of the then chairman of the board of governors? The political voices, those who believe that London control is best, were, and still are, raised against the notion of a "Scottish Six"and do not tell me that they do not have influence. As a sop, we were given an opt-out on "Newsnight", much to the disgust of the redoubtable Mr Jeremy Paxman, as reported at the time.
The concept of an integrated Scottish news television programme with proper editorial control is technically and logistically achievable. Surely it is not such an outrageous idea. We, north of the Border, pride ourselves on our internationalist outlook. We seek a much wider perspective. We have, for example, close historical and cultural links with North America and Europe, particularly Scandinavia and many of the eastern bloc countries that have applied to join the European Union. We want to develop those links. I was unsure of whether the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, was saying that too much, or not enough, time was given to European matters. It is important that people further their knowledge about Europe, which gets little airtime on news and current affairs programmes.
Perhaps it will surprise noble Lords to learn that there is a Gaelic programme called "Eorpa", which, although it has subtitles, is probably the best unbiased European programme on any television network. I recommend that noble Lords watch it when they can. Perhaps if more airtime were devoted to what goes on in the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Commission, people in this country would take a greater interest when it comes to turning out for the European elections. BBC Scotland has an important part to play. There is no question of Scotland being deprived of UK news from Londonfor goodness sake, it comes through 24 hours a day.
With recent reports in Scotland that the radio "Newsdrive" programme is to be reduced by half an hour and the radio six o'clock news cut to five minutes, it is even more imperative that we now have a six o'clock Scottish news to reflect fairly and report on the political scene and current affairs, given that we are almost three years into devolution. Surely the BBC, as a so-called British institution, is big enough to accede to the view of the Scottish Broadcasting Council. Not to do so seems timorous, so lacking in aspiration, ambition and fresh ideas. Is the BBC really saying, "You can do what you like within certain parameters,
but London must keep control, have the final veto"? Sadly for Scotland it was ever thus. I firmly believe that it is time for the BBC to reconsider the matter.
Lord Laird: My Lords, in rising to take part in this Unstarred Question this evening, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, for initiating this debate and for his most interesting contribution. The hour is late and I do not propose to detain your Lordships longer than necessary. However, I wish to take the opportunity to make a few remarks about the special situation which pertains in Northern Ireland in regard to BBC Northern Ireland.
In 2001, BBC Northern Ireland broadcast many hours of Irish language programming yet there was no Ulster-Scots language programming in the same year. In fairness, I must add that I am glad to note that BBC Radio Ulster is broadcasting four 30-minute programmes on Ulster-Scots language and culture during this month, March 2002. However, just consider that the Irish language died out in Northern Ireland in the 1930s and is sustained today by revivalist speakers whose first language is English. Ulster-Scots is still the first language of a large minority in the community, which is estimated at around 100,000.
The Government ratified the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in March 2001. That gives minority language communities the right of media access. BBC Northern Ireland, our public service broadcaster funded by public money, has not fully delivered on that obligation in relation to the language of Ulster-Scots yet it has, quite correctly, met its obligations to the Irish language community.
The Government also ratified the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. That also assures media access for national minority communities for the sustainability of their language and distinctive cultures. BBC Northern Ireland has not delivered on that either.
The BBC in Northern Ireland has built up extensive in-house expertise on the Irish language and culture. I have no problem with that, but that is not balanced with similar in-house expertise on the Ulster-Scots language and culture, although the Ulster-Scots tradition is as important in the community as the Irish tradition.
Local political current affairs programmes seem more likely to address issues of concern to the nationalist community and are less likely to address issues which are of special concern to the unionist community. It is the view of many that BBC Northern Ireland adopts an editorial stance which reflects a nationalist perspective. Issues of concern to the unionist community are not often addressed by current affairs programmes. Those issues include, for example,
population displacement, the marginalisation of the unionist community in major areas of activity including education, higher education, broadcasting media, the arts, the voluntary sector, the community sector, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, museums and galleries, and the use of lottery funding to deliver public services. Those issues are not dealt with by BBC Northern Ireland on its public affairs programmes.
I urge BBC governors to acknowledge their obligations to equality and human rights in respect of regional operations in Northern Ireland by, first, voluntarily embracing the equality obligations of Section 75 and Schedule 9 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That is obligatory for all public bodies in Northern Ireland. Since the BBC is in receipt of public funds, it is only right and consistent that it should also formally sign up to the equality obligations and build them into its business plan as objectives underwritten by appropriate key performance indicators. It should then acknowledge its human rights obligations under both the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and integrate those obligations into its programme planning.
I should like to see the BBC taking an open and transparent approach to the delivery of those obligations. They should be written into the annual business plans for BBC Northern Ireland as a collective objective with appropriate key performance indicators that will allow measurement against achievement. I see these, or similar methods of redress, as being the only way forward to the re-establishment of faith in the BBC among the greater number of people in Northern Ireland.
Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, for instigating this debate, because it enables me to say that I am a great supporter of the BBC. My comments are not drawn from commissioned research, I speak only from an EnglishI stress the latter after following the last two speakerslayperson's viewpoint.
Political reporting has become more complex over the years, and organisations have had to adapt accordingly. I believe that the BBC has done this well. The BBC is known and respected for its wide variety of broadcasting. It's World Service is second to none. Its "BBC News 24" channel is increasingly becoming a well recognised vehicle for fair, knowledgeable and serious reporting from all corners of the globefor me, the first programme to which I turn when I return home. I need to know what is happening both here and abroad.
Having lived for some periods of time in different European countries, I know how valued is the BBC. We are the envy of friends who are interested in politics in France, Holland, and especially Portugal, because we have the BBC. They believe in its impartiality and its political wisdom. So do I.
As the UK's largest broadcaster, its role in our political life is vital. It is also vital that it is fair and forward thinking, as well as being wide ranging. It should provide a forum for debate, and include people of all ages and of all political views in that debate. I believe that it does so.
I have time only to pick up and highlight a few of the glories of the BBC. I believe that all of the following are bias free and vastly informative. First, "Yesterday in Parliament". It is really amazing how often this programme is mentioned to me. It is ideal for those who drive to work, or those who want a briefer snippet of political information and a flavour of what happened yesterday in Parliament. The second programme is the "BBC News" at 6 o'clock in Englandhaving listened to the noble Baroness, I stress "in England"which is the most-watched bulletin on television. It needs no further explanation or expansion from me.
Thirdly, there is "Newsnight", the cut and thrust of which is notorious. I know from experience that tough general secretaries of trade unions, both large and small, tremble when they know that they are to be grilled by the "Newsnight" team. But they believe them to be fair, and worthy. Finally, I mention "Panorama", an old-friend of a programme, expert in both its presentation and its content over many years.
However, it is not all perfection. Before I close my remarks, I shall take this opportunity to air one grievance. I expect that we all think at times that news programmes have a bias to them. That is usually when the reporter puts a contrary view to our own. We have to agree to differ on those occasions. But there are other occasions when steps can be taken to improve reporting; namely, when interviewers seem to think that they are the most important person in the interview rather than the person being interviewed. This happens particularly on Radio 4 on the "Today" programme, where the interviewers often talk across the intervieweethe result is that neither person can be heard. I find myself shouting at the radio in sheer frustration, much to the consternation of those who witness my outbursts. Surely, common sense should tell the presenters that that is neither acceptable nor sensible. I am sure that I am not alone in that thinking.
As regards the future, I believe that the BBC has it right. Radio 1's "Newsbeat", with a target audience of 15 to 24 year-olds, is lively and appears relevant to those listeners. A new landmark programme for BBC1, uniting different parts of the BBC, aims at a broad appeal and crosses traditional boundaries. There are new ideas for a new regular political programme designed to appeal to the under-45s. I do not know why it should be that age group, but I am told that that is the age group to whom it is designed to appeal. Finally, there is Interactive, a project to explore how the BBC's popular online services can be better used to attract audiences to political debate.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, for raising the matter and for his persistence in challenging the BBC in its treatment of several items, especially matters relating to the European Union. I am pleased to be associated with him as a co-critic of the BBC and as a co-founder of Global Britain, together with the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, who is in his place this evening. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is not to contribute to the debate; that is unfortunate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, made the valid point that all too often the interviewers on programmeson the BBC and ITVseem to want to project themselves rather than get to the interviewee's point of view and inform listeners about it. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, bravely took on Mr James Naughtie of the "Today" programme and is something of a national hero because he did so. Mr Naughtie has perhaps had a few thoughts about his interview with the noble Lord.
The debate has ranged rather more widely than perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, expected. It has been interesting to hear the points of view, particularly those from Scotland and Northern Ireland. The BBC must examine its attitude towards those parts of the United Kingdom.
I am concerned with the BBC's attitude to matters European. It is unacceptable that it should treat with disdain a large body of people who question the validity and benefit of our membership of the European Union. The BBC gives the impression that those who wish Britain to remain a self-governing nation and retain its own currency are in some way a way-out sect that should be ignored. My correspondents and the people with whom I deal are concerned that their point of view should be put on the BBC as well as others. It is time that the BBC grappled with that problem and took all points of view fairly into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, asked about bias in newspapers. He knows that he will not get away with that. He knows well that there is a big difference between a publicly financed BBC, which has a statutory duty of fairness and balance, and privately owned newspapers, which, of course, get their money from the voluntary contributions of their readers. There is no comparison. The BBC has a duty to be unbiased and unfair, but unfortunately it is not. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and the Minotaur monitoring exercise clearly showed that the BBC is biased but that it refuses to accept that it is.
I have been and still am a supporter of public service broadcasting. I believe that it is legitimate for a publicly funded broadcaster to set standards of honesty, integrity and fairness, as well as to set an example in matters of programmes, taste and education. I am not opposed to the BBC; I just want to see it doing its job properly. I do not believe that it is.
I believe that the BBC no longer meets that criteria. It has become an arrogant organisation and it believes only in itself. It wants to arrogate to itself the duty which belongs to elected parliamentariansto hold government to account. It is about time that instead of trying to undermine Parliament, which it often does in its programmes, it should be its supporter. In the last analysis, Parliament is the protector of the people, and let us not forget that.
I believe that under present arrangements the BBC will not worknot even with the beefed-up support system promised by Mr Gavyn Davis to assist the governors in doing their job. The fact is that self-regulation will not work and it is not working. The public need an independent regulator to whom they can complain and in whom they can have confidence. I can assure noble Lords that the general public do not have the same confidence in the BBC as they used to have in my young days.
Indeed, the manner in which it dealt with the Minotaur monitoring survey and reports is completely unsatisfactory. They were carried out by independent experts over a long period of time and at some considerable cost. Their treatment by the BBC was cavalier, to say the least. If such high-level surveys and reports are treated in such a manner, what hope is there for the ordinary man in the street who has a legitimate complaint? He has no hope at all. That is why the BBC is losing the confidence of ordinary people.
I have taken up several matters with the BBC, not to much effect. For example, the Democracy Movement organised a march and rally in November 2000. Twelve thousand people marched and rallied in pouring rain to Trafalgar Square to hear national and international speakers, including the late Lord Shore of Stepney. There was no mention of that. The BBC did not mention ityet it gave good coverage to some protest in Whitehall about Gay Pride. That was featured prominently on its evening programme.
My final example is a lobby of Parliament on 17th November 2001 against the Nice treaty. Two thousand people attended, and yet the BBC gave it no coverage. It wanted to know nothing about people who were prepared to come to Parliament in the middle of the week to protest about a Bill that was going through Parliament. The BBC completely ignored that lobby. It was an item of news, but it was ignored. Frankly, the BBC needs to examine its attitude to the European Union and to understand that there is a large body of opinion which is concerned about our continued membership and, indeed, might very well wish to withdraw from it.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I had not intended to intervene in the debate but I was stimulated by what has been said. I am grateful for the indulgence of noble Lords. I shall be extremely brief.
taken over the research that he has had commissioned. I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend, but I am not sure that I would go all the way with his view. I am not sure that I believe that the BBC is deliberately biased over the question of Europe. However, I believe that it is de facto biased, it is instinctively biased, it may be accidentally biased, it may be what one might call institutionally biased because it mindlessly follows a certain conventional and hackneyed view of the world.
Why do I say that? One sees it again and again. I recall John Simpson's report on the introduction of the euro in Ireland. He said that the Irish economy was booming because of the introduction of the euro, but not a word was said about the dangers of inflation caused by the need by halve Irish interest rates at precisely the wrong moment. That was said by the Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland.
I think of the endless appearances of Jonathan Charles on the news. He cannot utter the words, "the EDX committee", without using the adjectives "powerful" and "influential". He seems to think it a miracle that Britain is excluded from a committee concerned with interest rates in a currency of which it is not a member, but never mentions that Britain retains its veto on taxation and public finances, a point frequently made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I turn to the coverage of the European elections. Even the experienced and supposedly wise Anthony King, when looking at the first election results and exit polls which made it perfectly obvious that the UK Independence Party was going to win a few seats, might have thought that worthy of some comment. But three hours had to pass before such an obvious fact struck the mind of that great academic, Anthony King, or anyone else in the studio. The presenters were simply encapsulated and imprisoned in their own conventional view.
We are given mindless programmes about the high level of the pound and how much better it would be if we were to devalue in order to join the euro. Never a word is said about the dangers of devaluation or the problems of how to achieve a lower level of sterling, and not a word about the dangers of an inappropriate interest rate.
It seems to me that what is at fault is not perhaps deliberate bias but rather a plain lack of imagination, an inability to comprehend that there is another view apart from the one shared by a great many people producing current affairs programmes.
Current affairs programmes have been dumbed down. "Question Time" has been dumbed down and comedians have been incorporated into it. The programme continues until after midnight. "Panorama" is now scheduled on a Sunday night. I do not believe that the BBC is fulfilling its public service
obligations with regard to politics or, indeed, with regard to many other aspects. Furthermore, I certainly do not believe that the BBC continues to remain the envy of the world. It will be interesting to see how this debate is reported by the BBC.
Lord McNally: My Lords, it is perhaps appropriate that we are holding this debate at a time when the BBC usually covers politics in its own schedules. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and, I suspect, the Minister, I was somewhat aghast when we discovered that the rather broad-based Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, on the responsibilities of the Governors of the BBC with regard to news and current affairs turned out to be almost solely concerned with the BBC's coverage of Europe. Knowing the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, as I do, that comes as a shock to me. However, it was interesting to listen to him go over some familiar territory.
I was also interested to hear about the organisation that he and the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Harris, have set up. It reminds me of Dorothy Parker's comment on an actress, that she went through every emotion from A to B. There seems to be a tightly-knit group of prejudices there.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to hear the views expressed on Europe. Although the Minister may not be able to cover them tonight, I hope that she will take back to her colleagues in the Government the fact that we on these Benches at least cannot wait to get into full debate in a referendum on British membership of the euro. I look forward to the regular appearances on BBC radio and television of the noble Lords, Lord Pearson, Lord Stoddart, Lord Harris of High Cross, and even the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and perhaps Bill Cash from the other place. That would be welcome.
I should also like to see more coverage of Europe on the BBC. Perhaps it could send a camera crew around with the Tory shadow Ministers who have been sent to Europe by Iain Duncan Smith to look at good governance. That would be an excellent choice for a European programme.
As to the question of news and current affairs coverage by the BBC, the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, put her finger on the issuetimes are a changing. We are a long way from the deference of 50 years ago. One of my favourite television clips is of an obsequious interviewer who was interviewing Clem Attlee a few days before the 1955 general election. He said, "Well, Mr Attlee, in three days' time the country will be coming to a decision. Is there anything more you wish to say to the nation"? "Nope", said Attlee, leaving the interviewer somewhat aghast at what would happen next.
We now have two trends. As we have seen since those days, there is now much more aggressive questioning by television interviewers. On the other side, there is much more aggressive spin doctoring, even from the halcyon days when the noble Lord, Lord
Lipsey, and I were in No. 10. It needs courage to resist the sheer aggressiveness of the political parties and other interest groups in pushing their agenda with editors and programme makers, particularly when the aggressiveness comes from representatives of the Government of the day. It needs a particular courage to retain independence from the bullying and hectoring spin doctors.
Nevertheless, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said, it is true that the BBC has some answering to do. Perhaps that is why it has set up its own internal review of its coverage of current affairs, which I greatly welcome. There was more than a suspicion of the dumbing down of news, of the marginalising of major programmes such as "Panorama", of putting the political programmes on the outer limits of the schedule and of trivialising parliamentary coverage. Goodness knows how the broadcasters campaigned to get cameras into Parliament in the first place, and now they tell us that, other than the odd clip, they are not interested in showing it. The same seems to be happening with the party conferences.
This is a serious misjudgment by the BBC. It will not win friends in the battles that lie ahead by competing with "Big Brother" or putting "East Enders" on seven days a week. It will win friends in the battles that lie ahead by fulfilling its responsibility to educate and inform.
Actions can be taken to make politics more stimulating and interesting. The BBC has an important responsibility, not just to provide programmes on ghetto channels for the political anoraks. It should also stimulate interest in our political system among the passive and the disinterested. We are all worried about low turn-out and low participation. We must all share a responsibility. But in sharing that responsibility, the broadcasters have to think hard about how they cover politics.
There are some new initiatives. BBC Online had 25 million hits during the general election. That is a most impressive use of the new technology. Other things could be done. I should like to see a quality mid-evening news programme by the BBC to equal "Channel 4 News". It should be possible for the BBC to produce both radio and television programmes covering the work of Parliament and not bury them at obscure times or on obscure channels. It could, for example, experiment with repeats of political programmes such as "Question Time" and "Panorama" on other channels or at other times. "Panorama" could be repeated in the morning, as could "Question Time". If that slot is good enough for "Match of the Day" and "Have I Got News for You", surely it is good enough for some of the political programmes, to seek out different audiences in terms of political views. It could experiment with a youth edition of "Question Time", with young people in the audience and young people on the panel. I refer simply to an attempt to carry the message to other audiences.
when we have 200-channel television, that Parliament cannot have one or two of those channels to carry its work.
The BBC could produce omnibus editions of "Newsnight" and other political coverage to be shown at weekends. What is lacking is an enthusiasm by the BBC for such political and news coverage. It realises that it has to do it, but it does not seem to have the same commitment to provide adequate resources that it has in other parts of its activities. The messages that have come from the regions tonight are ones that bear listening to.
I conclude, alas, on a point of disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. I still believe that one of the things that creates the greatest sense of confidence, indeed pride, in Britain is the statement: "Here is the news from the BBC". Those words send out a message of probity which enhances our position abroad and strengthens our democracy at home. What we must do is encourage what is best in the BBC. We must encourage it to find the resources and the new ideas to bring politics and current affairs to a wider audience in the years ahead.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Pearson for giving us the opportunity for this debate. He has done it at a crucial time in the history of the BBC. Last month, the BBC announced its own review of its political programming. The Office of Communications Bill completed its final stages last week in another place. Last month the BBC published its document, BBC Governance in the Ofcom age. Furthermore, we await the publication very soon, we hope, of the draft communications Bill. So at the moment it is "all systems go" for broadcasting.
The BBC is a powerful organisation with a distinguished history. It is important that it has a successful future in the multi-channel world, and one in which it fulfils its duty to produce political programmes which are impartial, wide-ranging and fair.
The BBC review of political programming has stirred up passions on the issue, as we have heard tonight. There is a real fear that the BBC is embarking on changes to its political programming that could confine politics to small audience outlets on digital channelsto which only half the population has access at the moment anywayand perhaps to late-night or early-evening slots on BBC1 and BBC2. The more that happens, the argument goes, the less chance there will be of television playing the role that it should do in reconnecting the wider public to the political process.
After last year's general election, the BBC commissioned its own research into public disillusion with politics. Its broad conclusion is that young people are disenchanted with traditional institutionsso what is new?and that Westminster seems increasingly irrelevant to themso what is new?
The critical question is: will the BBC use the conclusions that it has drawn from that research to skew the way in which political programming is delivered so that it breaches its public service broadcasting remit? Instead of providing information that people need in an impartial, wide-ranging way, will it chase ratings with issue-based reportage that could trivialise political reporting?
Sian Kevill, the head of the BBC's new politics initiative, is reported as saying that the findings of the BBC's review of its political coverage had highlighted the need for a more creative approach to politics, including injecting more humour into its coverage. Let us try to inject humour at 11.15 at night. That is a bit tough for any of us. One of her programme ideas is to find ways of explaining politics through different genres, such as drama. I understand that a UK version of "The West Wing" is on the boards. I love "The West Wing"I am an addictbut as entertainment. I certainly would not see it as a substitute for political programming, which should inform.
As has already been mentioned tonight, "Panorama" has been shunted into the graveyard slot on Sunday evenings. BBC2's late-night parliamentary programme "Despatch Box" is reported to be for the chop, and so may be "On the Record", we are told.
It was against that background that last month the chairmen of the two major parties, Labour and Conservative, wrote a joint open letter to Gavyn Davies, expressing their concern at the reports that a number of political programmes might be dropped. They made it clear that such a fundamental downgrading of political coverage would not be consistent with the BBC's position as a publicly funded public service broadcaster and that the BBC's response is not appropriate to the debate that it set up last November in its seminar "Beyond the Soundbite".
David Davis and Charles Clarke rightly said that they are concerned to see high quality coverage of political news and debate in the UK and that it is important for the BBC to provide the range of programmes necessary in order that important issues can be aired thoroughly in a way that allows the arguments of both the Government and the Opposition to be conveyed. However, as my noble friend Lord Pearson pointed out, at the moment the BBC is judge in its own court as to whether its programming is impartial and fair. The Government have decided that the BBC governors will continue to be judge in their own court. They made that clear in debate on the Office of Communications Bill in both Houses.
"The time for the BBC governors to be judge and jury in their own affairs has ended. Those governors will still have an important function in the future, but it will be a different one. It is clear to me that most of the media world believes that the BBC should be fully within Ofcom's remit".[Official Report, Commons, 6/3/02; col. 352.]
That includes backstop powers in tier 3. That was also the view of many Members of both Houses, including some on the Labour Benches.
As has been mentioned tonight, the latest development in this saga is the publication by the BBC governors of BBC Governance in the Ofcom age. I look forward to hearing the Minister's views about the significance of that document.
I have met Gavyn Davies on only a couple of occasions, but he seems an impressive, shrewd manager of people. I am sure that his recommendations are as welcome as they go, within the current rules under which the BBC operates, but that is the point: at the moment, the BBC will not be brought wholly within Ofcom.
Whatever the timetable for change to the governance of the BBC, change there will be. It is inevitable. In the fast-moving world of technology, it is important that it does not come too late. That would fatally wound the BBC itself, and it is too valuable to our whole broadcasting world for that to be allowed to happen.
When Tessa Jowell spoke at the Radio Festival last July, she gave her definition of public service broadcasting. She said that PSB exists to make the good popular and the popular good and that PSB is necessary to support democracy, so that citizens have access to impartial news and current affairs at times of the day or at lengths that purely commercial pressures would not permit. I agree with her on that. I also agree with the view of Patricia Hodgson, chief executive of the ITC, who wrote in The House Magazine in January:
"The commitment to news and public policy debate is essential to an informed society. And yet it is under real threat because it does not drive revenues or audience share. Guaranteeing that commitment is a key test for the [communications] Bill and for broadcasters and regulators in the run-up to legislation".
If I am persuaded by any argument in favour of public service broadcasting, it is quite simply the following: that without it we could lose the opportunity of being surprised by programmes that we did not know we wanted. If, therefore, people say that they are not interested in politics, that is not in itself a sufficient reason for the BBC to drop political programming or to skew the way in which it presents its coverage of politics.
The job of the BBC is clear: it is to find new ways of engaging the public in the democratic debate without downgrading the quality of that debate. It is the job of all politicians to ensure that they engage positively and constructively in the pursuit of that aim. I enjoy doing that.
I have to admit that I cannot claim to have read the website of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. However, my department was already very much aware of the noble Lord's interest in this issue in relation to Europe. Therefore, unlike the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I was neither shocked nor surprised to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, which did indeed focus on that issue. He and his colleagues from the Global Britain organisation have commissioned a number of surveys on the coverage of European issues on TV, and particularly on the BBC, and have kept my department in touch with their correspondence with broadcasters about alleged bias. Therefore, we were familiar with his arguments and I am consequently not surprised by what he said this evening.
Before I turn to the specific issue under discussion, it might be helpful if I first put it in context by reminding the House that it is a fundamental principle of our approach to broadcasting in this country that the Government do notI emphasise the words "do not"intervene in detailed issues of programming content or scheduling. I fear that I shall disappoint many speakers in saying that and not rising to many of the issues that have been raised by noble Lords. Such issues really are a matter for broadcasters' editorial judgment exercised within the regulatory framework which is approved by Parliament.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, and the noble Lord, Lord Laird, that I entirely accept that they raised a number of important points and made some detailed proposals. However, I am sure that both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord accept that that is a matter for broadcasters and not for the Government. Neither of them would want the Government to intervene to try to impose programming content on broadcasters, although I entirely accept that it is important that the BBC speaks to people in all parts of the United Kingdom, whatever their cultures, interests and views.
In relation to impartiality, all broadcasters in the UK's system are under an obligation to ensure that any news given, in whatever form, is presented with due accuracy and impartiality. Furthermore, all national broadcasters, including the BBC, are required in all their programming to preserve due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, that it would clearly be quite wrong for the Government, as an interested party, to rule on whether or not the output of an individual broadcaster does or does not meet that obligation. It is therefore the very firm view of this Government that impartiality is, and must remain, the responsibility of the relevant broadcasting regulatory body. That means the BBC governors in the case of the BBC and the Independent Television Commission in the case of commercial television broadcasting.
provide comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs. The charter specifies the governors' obligations at a level similar to that of a company's board of directors. They determine strategy, approve the corporation's objectives and monitor and supervise compliance. Their job is to ensure that the right systems are in place rather than to try to second-guess management in relation to the day-to-day running of the corporation. It is right to put all of that clearly on the record. Although the charter and agreement set out the responsibilities in some detail, I emphasise that that does not indicate any special concern that the BBC is at significant risk of illegitimately promoting particular policy positions. On the contrary, as I am sure many noble Lords are aware, it was the BBC itself that developed the policy of impartiality in broadcasting. That policy was adopted by Parliament as a principle for all the main UK broadcasters, whether public or commercial, and has led to the broadcast media maintaining a position in this country today as the most trusted sources of news and information. That should be compared with the situation involving the newspapers, which was discussed by my noble friend Lord Lipsey.
What was originally the BBC governors' policy is now their duty under the BBC charter and agreement. In order to fulfil that responsibility, I understand that the governors have commissioned six-monthly reports from the controller of editorial policy, which include an assessment of how well the corporation has met its obligations. Those form the basis of the governors' report, in the BBC annual report, on compliance.
Within the BBC management team, there is a continuous process of peer review and of assessing editorial output against producers' guidelines, which set out the policies and principles to which broadcasters must adhere. In the end, someoneand someone other than Governmenthas to decide whether or not broadcasters are meeting their impartiality obligations. We have probably all of us felt at times that an item was biased in one way or another. My view is that those biases are usually felt to be in the opposite direction to those propounded by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Certainly, governments and political parties rarely feel generously treated by the media. However, that does not mean that overall there is bias.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, submitted to the chairman of the BBC monitoring reports that Global Britain prepared. They purport to demonstrate a Europhile bias in the BBC. The chairman invited the news department to comment on the reports and the deputy director of "BBC News" has rebutted the allegations in some detail. The conclusion of the BBC governors is that the allegations of bias are unproven.
I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is dissatisfied with the way in which the BBC has handled his complaints. He said that he is unhappy at the fact that the BBC Chairman has referred the reports to management when it is the governors who have the ultimate responsibility for editorial standards.
However, Gavyn Davies has made clear that the proper role of the governors is to satisfy themselves that BBC management has appropriate procedures in place for editorial standards to be maintained. It is not the function of the governors to monitor every programme broadcast by the BBC. The Government see no reason to take issue with their approach. The systems which the governors have put in place seem to us to be both thorough and robust.
The noble Lord has made representations direct to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport linking his concerns, as he mentioned tonight, about BBC bias to the debate about the relationship between the BBC and OFCOM. My right honourable friend's response made clear that the Government see no reason to question the arrangements that the BBC board have in place. She has also confirmed that it is the Government's policy that, under the proposed new system of regulation, the BBC's impartiality requirements should remain with the Board of Governors.
The crucial place of impartiality in the BBC's reputation and the governors' responsibilities was, of course, recognised in the communications White Paper. I do not have time this evening to go through exactly what that said, and I am sure that most speakers in the debate are familiar with it. However, I want to reiterate that the Government remain committed to the policy set out in the White Paper in this respect. The aim is to create a system which promotes competition while recognising the distinctive role of the BBC. Overall, the BBC will be subject to greater external regulation while other public service broadcasters will be subject to greater self-regulation.
At the same time, the BBC governors have addressed the issue of the perception that they are too close to BBC management properly to regulate it. The governors' whole purpose is to ensure that the BBC delivers its public service responsibilities. The corporation is closely regulated compared with other broadcasters. But I believe that those outside the corporation are often unaware of the very detailed compliance systems which operate. The new proposals for BBC governance announced on 26th February seek to address some of the concerns expressed this evening by establishing a rather clearer division of responsibility between the governors and the management of the BBC. In response to the particular question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, I understand that the governors' proposal is that the new staff whom they wish to appoint to support them will be independent of BBC management.
We all recognise that impartiality is a difficult obligation for any regulator to monitor in detail because it requires a wide knowledge of the overall output of the organisation. However, I believe that the regulators are taking their responsibilities seriously in that respect.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the importance of news and current affairs. They stated that the coverage of the BBC and other public service broadcasters in this area should continue to be strong and that there should be no dumbing down. Of course, the Government accept that.
raise the issues with the relevant authorities. But there must surely come a time when it is better to direct our energies at seeking to persuade people by arguing our case on its merits.
House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before midnight.