Orders of the Day — B.B.C. Television (Medical Programmes)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th February 1958.

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Photo of Mr Kenneth Thompson Mr Kenneth Thompson , Liverpool, Walton 12:00 am, 27th February 1958

Having said that, I acknowledge tonight, as I have acknowledged before, that this honourable House is the forum for debates of opinion and of fact. The right hon. Lady is right to bring here her misgivings and her prejudices.

I want to say a word about the programmes themselves. These are controversial programmes. That description, I think, is not in doubt, although I part very widely from the description of the programmes which the right hon. Lady used, as I part a very long way from her in the disdain, amounting to contempt. which she expressed in her opinion of the viewers and the general public in their capacity either to discriminate in this or, having made a discriminatory choice, to behave like adult citizens when they have done so. That is not my assessment of the capacity of my fellow men and women to judge for themselves and arrange their conduct in the light of that judgment.

These are controversial programmes. Indeed, the British Medical Journal. which has already been quoted tonight, acknowledges that there are two schools of medical opinion about them, leaving aside the opinion of the general public. I hope that it will not come as a revelation to the right hon. Lady to learn that, as far as I can judge, after close examination of the situation, her side of the medical argument is not unanimously supported by the rest of the medical opinion available either to the B.B.C. or to my right hon. Friend.

As my right hon. Friend said yesterday in answer to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Sir I. Clark Hutchison), the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Physicians and the College of General Practitioners have all expressed themselves as being in favour of the presentation of programmes of this kind. Since the appearance of the programmes, those colleges have expressed themselves as being in approval of the continuation of this very series which is now in dispute between the right hon. Lady and the B.B.C. Since seeing the programmes, the Royal College of Nursing has expressed its approval of them.

The right hon. Lady was able to quote a number of letters. I hope that she will not think it objectionable of me to tell her that the B.B.C. has also been the recipient of some letters since these programmes began to appear. Out of the 422 letters which the B.B.C. had received up to this afternoon, 400 were in favour of the programmes and 22 against. All the Corporation's viewer sampling—so far as we can accept that as having the appropriate amount of precision—shows that the viewers are nine out of ten in favour of the continuation of this kind of programme rather than an interruption of it at the behest of those who think it wrong.

The right hon. Lady was able to quote a newspaper correspondent who expressed himself as having been troubled by the programme. I ought to tell her that I have with me a very large number of clippings from newspapers all over the country almost entirely in support of the B.B.C.'s policy in presenting this kind of programme.

The medical opinion which the B.B.C. was able to sound, both before the presentation of the programme and afterwards, is largely in favour of the B.B.C.'s policy and contrary to the view expressed by the right hon. Lady.

It is true that for its own reasons the B.B.C.—the Corporation must be the judge—did not consult the British Medical Association. I do not think that my right hon. Friend is called upon to express an opinion on the rights and wrongs of that. In these things the B.B.C. must have its complete freedom until it acts in some outrageous way, and so far there has never been any need for my right hon. Friend or any of his predecessors to feel that there was a danger of that.

The Corporation did not consult the B.M.A. Supposing it had consulted the B.M.A. and supposing that the B.M.A. had expressed the opinion which now appears in the journal of the Association, was the B.B.C. then to allow the British Medical Association to have the power of veto—because that is what it would mean—over its proposals? Is the British Medical Association to be able to decide what is good for the public and what is not? Is it the B.M.A.'s judgment on which we are to rely rather than the judgment of these other distinguished medical authorities? The right hon. Lady will see, when she considers this matter, that she would be placing both the British Medical Association and the British Broadcasting Corporation in an impossible position.

My own opinion, and I am happy to say that my right hon. Friend subscribes to it, is that the programmes are courageous and have been presented with great professional skill by the medical and surgical people involved—and all are to be congratulated—and with great professional skill by the programme producers themselves. I have seen some of the programmes and have greatly admired what I have seen. I believe that they will do good rather than harm, although there may be some neurotic or hypochondriac who will react badly to what is done—that applies to some other films and presentations on the B.B.C.

On the whole, if one person is advised by these programmes to seek early opinion on a suspected or feared condition and if one life is saved or one illness shortened, then the B.B.C. will have cause to congratulate itself not only on its courage, but on the success of the whole series of programmes. If that happens, the B.B.C. will be able to claim that it has been instrumental in putting understanding in place of fear, information in place of mystery and guidance where there was only doubt.