BBC Parliamentary Coverage

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th April 1999.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham 9:33 am, 14th April 1999

Thank you very much, Madam Speaker, for giving us the opportunity to conduct this first Adjournment debate of the summer on the important issue of the BBC and its parliamentary coverage. The House has debated the subject several times in the past year; the debates have been good-humoured and reasonable. The House has left behind some hon. Members' old habits of Beeb-bashing, which was a good blood sport in the old days, but I believe that we all want to work together to ensure that the BBC fulfils its mandate and fully discharges its obligation, set out in its charter, to provide an adequate report of parliamentary proceedings.

We are conscious that it is not just the House that is in play; soon we shall have a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament, and there is a proposal for a Main Committee. The BBC will have to have regard to all the debates that take place in our different national forums, but I still maintain, as a strong supporter of the Government's constitutional programme, that what happens in this principal House, representing all the United Kingdom, remains paramount.

This morning, the BBC is holding a seminar on how to pay for itself—the usual chinwag between distinguished journalists. I received a nice note from the chairman of the governors, apologising for his absence from today's debate. The two Front-Bench spokespersons, my hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting and the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), are present. I look forward to hearing what they have to say, but I hope that they will speak as Members of the House rather than as representatives of Government and Opposition.

What is the main concern that brings us to this morning's debate? It is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, that to lose one, or perhaps 1,000, listeners may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose 3 million is unacceptable carelessness. That is what the BBC has done: it has lost 3 million listeners for parliamentary coverage.

I quote the BBC's figures, distributed in a document to some MPs before the Easter recess. Last year, "Yesterday in Parliament" had 3.13 million listeners; now it has 830,000. When "The Week in Westminster" was broadcast on Saturdays, it had 658,000 listeners. Now, in its graveyard slot of Thursday evening, it has 227,000 listeners. Taken together, that is a loss of 3 million listeners for parliamentary coverage on Radio 4.

Last year, when the subject was debated, we were solemnly told—in letters from the chairman and statements made by Mr. James Boyle on the radio and elsewhere—that people were bored with "Yesterday in Parliament", that they were not interested in parliamentary proceedings and that "Today" would gain plenty of new listeners between 8.30 and 9 o'clock as a result of taking Members of Parliament off the air. We now find that there has not been a single new listener to "Today". That is what we predicted. We now have proof. Today I ask the BBC to reverse last year's disastrous decision.

To be fair to the BBC, it has admitted that it got things wrong. In a letter that I received from the chairman, dated 9 April, he says: the BBC should be, and I believe is, big enough to put things right when mistakes have been made.Two things are clear. The loss of listeners to 'Yesterday in Parliament' and 'The Week in Westminster' is much greater than we had expected—and that, whatever the causes of that loss, there is an unacceptable 'democratic deficit' which the BBC, with its special public service responsibilities, needs to address. The BBC must give appropriate prominence to coverage of parliamentary proceedings. I welcome, as all of us do in our Lord's mansion, a sinner who is prepared to convert, and I hope that the chairman will put his words into practice. He also says: The Today programme figures, while steady, have not improved as a result of moving Yesterday in Parliament. We also have an interesting statement from Mr. Tony Hall, head of BBC news, made at a Fabian seminar held in the House, now published by the Fabian Society—which, as a member of its executive committee, I advise all hon. Members to join. He says: we are all told—almost daily it seems—we live in a rapidly changing world. Some say audiences are no longer interested in politics. Our research for our Programme Strategy Review showed something very different. People still expect, and want, the BBC to provide full coverage of difficult subjects. 65% said it was important that the BBC reported what was happening in Parliament. I invite Mr. Tony Hall, as it were, to put his editorial decisions as chief executive of BBC news where his mouth was and restore "Yesterday in Parliament" to the "Today" programme as it is listened to by the majority of listeners in this country, and put "The Week in Westminster" back on Saturday morning.

The BBC will argue, as it has argued in the document that it circulated to some Members of Parliament, that it has extended parliamentary coverage, via the Parliamentary channel, the internet, the Sunday night programme "The Westminster Hour", and "Westminster Live" in the afternoons, but none of those programmes, good as they are, can replace a linked journalistic narrative of what is said in this place, broadcast on FM.

Tony Hall refers to a time and place where people can…listen". It is no use shunting us into a slot late on Sunday night, or into an obscure corner of the digital network; what people need is a report of Parliament on their daily morning newspaper of the air, the "Today" programme. Radio 5 does an excellent job, but it does not report parliamentary proceedings. It will rush off to the Ministry of Defence for a press conference, but to my knowledge it has never presented a proper report of what happens here.

The "time and place where people can listen" is not on long wave. In a document sent to us before the recess, the BBC admits that one British person in five has no access to it. Last year, in correspondence, Sir Christopher Bland said that he was willing to come to my house to retune my radio at 8.30 am. Although that was an extraordinarily generous offer—my children asked whether this would take place before or after their Weetopops!—I did not want to burden Sir Christopher with such raw contact with a Member of Parliament and his family.

Driving up to Rotherham and wanting to hear a report of the important debate on Kosovo that we had just before the recess, I tried to retune my radio from FM to long wave, but it was impossible. There I was on the Ml, being hounded by Eddie Stobart's and other lorries—lorries to left of me, lorries to right of me. Hon. Members know what the M1 is like in the mornings: lorry drivers rush to burn up their diesel fuel as fast as they can. Jabbing at my radio set trying to find long wave, I nearly caused a pile-up. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Whip, who is sitting on the Front Bench, thinks that a by-election in Rotherham would be a good or a bad thing; perhaps we can talk about that afterwards.

The situation is preposterous. As Mr. Hall says, our parliamentary proceedings should be broadcast at a time and place where people can listen. The purpose of this debate, however, is not just to make that fundamental demand, or simply to moan about the BBC; it is to defend the central role of parliamentary democracy.

It is currently fashionable to deride Parliament. I heard a woman journalist on Radio 4's "Any Questions" last Friday. I cannot remember her name, but in terms of flatulent, self-important pomposity she could knock any of us into a cocked hat. According to her, Parliament was not important, MPs were not important and nothing that happened in Parliament counted. Parliament has been written out of the national agenda. That, of course, is true for the fashionable intelligentsia—and some hon. Members play a political game by trying to present Parliament as the weak poodle of the Executive, although those of us who try desperately to stay on message but are always six months late know just how wrong they are. That is true even when we write, whatever language we happen to write in.

Parliament is central to democracy in this country. How we all wish that there had been one parliamentary debate for one hour in Belgrade to discuss the tragedy in that area. Parliament does hold the Executive to account. Of course it is not as exciting as it was earlier in the decade when there was no majority and Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the Exchequer were losing their jobs, but that is not the fault of Parliament or the Government. We must blame the British people, who in their wisdom decided to send a massive majority to the House of Commons two years ago.

In fact, since January there have been 35 ministerial statements in the House, and eight private notice questions. The Prime Minister has made four statements, and the Foreign Secretary seven. On nearly every day of the parliamentary week so far this year, a Minister—often the Prime Minister—has come to the House to justify, explain and account for his or her actions. Yesterday we engaged in an excellent exchange on Kosovo, and I understand that we shall have a full debate on it next week. However, none of those debates, statements, questions and probes has been heard in the mornings on our "national newspaper of the air".

Parliament is also the testing ground for the Executive of the future. Let us not rubbish it too much. In 20 or 30 years, when Opposition Members have their chance of regaining power, today's young men and women, some of whom are sitting on the Opposition Benches now—they will, of course, be a little greyer then—will be called on to become the nation's Executive, partly on the basis of the way in which they have performed here. We are not the United States: we do not take academics, bankers or journalists and put them in the Cabinet. It is from this place, for good or ill, that those who make the big decisions—such as how 40 per cent. of our gross domestic product is used—are chosen.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Should not newspaper editors and owners—as well as the BBC—bear in mind another factor, in addition to the issues that my hon. Friend has rightly raised? Without this place, whatever blemishes and faults it has displayed over the centuries, the civil liberties of all our people—including those whom I have mentioned—would not last five minutes.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

I think that my hon. Friend speaks for all of us.

Parliament has another important aspect: it reflects the kaleidoscope of what we are as a people. Many Back Benchers, some of whom are present on both sides of the Chamber—I shall not lessen their reputations by naming them—make a significant contribution. They are the ones who

  • "Dare to be a Daniel,
  • Dare to stand alone,
  • Dare to have a purpose firm,
  • And dare to make it known."
As is well known, I am a team player—[HON. MEMBERS: "Which team?"]—but we need strong, independent Back-Bench voices. [Laughter.]

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's passionate job application, but I want to pick up a serious point that he has made. I have been listening carefully, and I agree with much of what he is saying.

In trying to persuade the BBC to return "Yesterday in Parliament" to its rightful place, should we not bear it in mind that the BBC's charter requires it to cover Parliament properly? That is what makes the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, entirely different from other broadcasting organisations. It is not allowed simply to chase ratings—and in any event, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it has failed in its desperate attempt to do so.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

Parliament means more than just the Chamber, however. As a junior parliamentary private secretary at the Foreign Office, I can reveal a secret: the Select Committee system causes no little interest among Ministers. The Foreign Secretary has appeared more often before the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to answer questions than any of his predecessors. There is also the other place, where an interesting debate took place last night—reactionary and wrong, but interesting none the less. That too has been wiped off the airwaves.

Radio is important. There is a parliamentary television channel. I am going out live somewhere; it is possible to, as it were, chop me up, and it is difficult to make such an event come to life on television. This is a place for speaking. We are not really visual objects: we are losing our hair and gaining in girth. We are not pretty enough to appear on television, even those of us who have been treated with hormones or genetically modified. However, on radio we manage to tell a story, because radio is the medium of speech.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that originally "The Week in Westminster" was dedicated to the role of Back-Bench Members of Parliament, but that it has unfortunately changed, and now often carries what Front Benchers say?

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

As a Back Bencher I find that deplorable, but I would be happy to take an intervention on the subject from the Front Bench.

We boast about having the best broadcasting system in the world. That may have been true once, but I wonder whether it is any longer. I watch political programmes in a number of other countries, and I often see a more mature, richer debate. The shop-worn Punch and Judy style of Messrs Paxman and Humphrys may be a barrier to understanding the new complexities of the modern world.

Unbelievably, we run a significant balance of trade deficit in broadcast programmes. This great nation of broadcasters imports far more than it exports. We do not have enough radio stations in the United Kingdom. We have 251. France has 858, Spain has 1,405, even the tiny Netherlands has 481, and Italy, where people obviously love talking, has more than 2,000. Three times as many people are employed in the radio business in Germany as in the UK, and twice as many in Italy. I want more broadcasting, more discussion of politics and more jobs to be created.

The row about parliamentary broadcasting, which has been rumbling for more than a year, masks a deeper malaise in the direction and management of the BBC. It is losing audiences, and many are asking whether it has lost its way. The licence fee is harder and harder to justify, certainly to many poor pensioners and the poorer members of my constituency.

The BBC was the first great nationalised industry in the long 20th-century British history of the belief that Government and Whitehall knew best what people wanted and what they should be given. As the BBC looks to the 21st century, I wonder whether it needs to reconsider its financing and institutional organisation.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

My hon. Friend is being slightly unkind to the BBC. The major reason for the BBC's loss of audiences is the rapidly changing technological world, which is changing the nature of broadcasting. That makes possible a Parliamentary channel, and means that we will get digital terrestrial television, satellite and cable. In the near future we will get digital radio, which will allow for debates in this place to be broadcast live on a continuous basis.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

I accept what my hon. Friend says, but he is arguing for quantity, whereas I am arguing for quality. My point was that the linked narration of "Yesterday in Parliament" makes the programme come to life, instead of its being a Hansard of television or radio that anyone can tune or plug into at any time of the day.

In conclusion, I appeal to the governors. They are responsible for the present position. It is clear that the BBC executives have shifted responsibility for this area to the governors. They do not usually intervene directly in programme making or editorial decisions, which is right. The executive of the BBC has let down the governors. It told the governors, and Sir Christopher came and told us, that removing Parliament from the airwaves on the FM "Today" programme would promote Radio 4, and that no one would notice the difference. They were wrong. Even Polly Toynbee, for example, who supported that decision before it was made, has written that she misses "Yesterday in Parliament." The executives were wrong 3 million times—the 3 million British citizens whom James Boyle, the Radio 4 controller, deprived of access to their own Parliament.

It is immensely hard for the British establishment to admit that it has got things wrong. It is harder still to put back in place what was successful. The BBC should be big enough to admit that it got something wrong, and to restore what worked and what serves the people of this country.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 9:54 am, 14th April 1999

I begin by declaring an interest, as the author of the "BBC Guide to Parliament." I should tell the House that any change in its circulation in recent years has nothing to do with what I shall argue today.

As is conventional, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on his good fortune in getting the debate. He knows that my congratulations are more heartfelt than usual. I shall try to be as non-partisan in my comments as he was; I agree with 95 per cent. of what he said. I shall pick up the issue of the licence fee, with which he ended.

We all accept the ramifications of the licence fee. It may surprise some of my colleagues that as a relatively right-wing, free-market Tory Member of Parliament, I am entirely in favour of the licence fee, precisely because of its public service implications. It requires the BBC to inform, educate and entertain, in that order of priority—a point rarely made by the BBC.

That requirement has increased, not decreased, in importance with the proliferation of channels. We must remember that when there is greater pressure on the BBC to defend its market share. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) alluded to that in his intervention. Audience share reduction is inevitable, whatever the BBC does. It must recognise that fact and understand that that is not an excuse to abandon its core values.

I ask the Minister to pass on my congratulations to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who recently, in response to a question from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), my predecessor as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, stated his support for Alan Yentob's comment that quality comes before the mindless pursuit of audience. That matters in the present context, as elsewhere.

It is no bad thing that there is a dynamic tension between the wish to hang on to audience share and those core values. It prevents a subsidised monopoly organisation such as the BBC from making the Arts Council error of funding with taxpayers' money or, in this case, public service money, the very obscure—piles of bricks or preserved sheep—and invoking the public interest argument. Sensibly applied, dynamic tension prevents such a loss of common sense.

That dynamic tension also drives the BBC to try to square the circle by making good the popular and making the popular good. Over the years, the BBC has been extremely good at that. I come to my view of the BBC partly because, like the hon. Member for Rotherham, I have lived in another country. I have experienced the American television system and its lack of quality. I have seen the effect of the BBC not being present to drive standards up, as it has done in much of its coverage.

The idea of making the good popular and making the popular good demands from the BBC a creative response, rather than a managerial one, to its circulation problems. The error that we have witnessed over the past year results from a managerial response, rather than a creative response, to the problem of improving audience figures for the BBC.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As my right hon. Friend is speaking about managerial responses and excuses, will he comment on the fact that some of us who take an interest in BBC general and parliamentary broadcasting have been told that if "Yesterday in Parliament" is moved back to long wave, the programme will be shorter and fewer Back Benchers will be covered? Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a specious excuse and managerial response is nonsense, because if no one is hearing the programme anyway on long wave, it hardly matters how many Back Benchers are mentioned?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

My hon. Friend is right. I shall return to the point at the end of my remarks. Many of the options proposed by the BBC in its so-called repentance—hardly a Damascene repentance—are facile and need imagination to improve them. The best way to meet the public service requirement and maintain audience levels is through a creative approach, not just a managerial one.

All public service requirements are important, but support for our democracy is pre-eminent, as the hon. Member for Cathcart said earlier.

Photo of Mr John Maxton Mr John Maxton Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

The right hon. Gentleman is attempting to say that the BBC is interested only in its ratings. If the BBC was not interested in broadcasting this place, it would not have taken over the bankrupt Parliamentary channel and made it into a BBC channel. That has cost the BBC a lot of licence payers' money without any return, because it is not putting advertising on the channel. The BBC has also created one of the best websites on the internet—again free of charge and without advertising—with a lot of parliamentary coverage, which again it would not have done if it was interested only in ratings.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The hon. Gentleman has not been listening to what I have said. The BBC has maintained its core values in many respects, but it has not done so in this case. I shall come back to the Parliamentary channel later. It provides the BBC with an easy excuse. The ghettoisation of parliamentary coverage on the Parliamentary channel is not the answer. The channel has a role, which I shall elaborate shortly.

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

I should like to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to my correspondence with Sir Christopher Bland about the reporting on "Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament" when my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The programme on the Wednesday evening was informative, but "Yesterday in Parliament" on the Thursday morning was almost a parody of "Week Ending", focusing on my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's mispronouncing of words. When I drew Sir Christopher's attention to the fact that his responsibility as a public service broadcaster was not to entertain but to inform, he did not take my point. The issue is not just the time given to reporting of Parliament, but maintaining quality, which is where the BBC has lost its way.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I accept what the hon. Lady says, which leads me to the issue of the dumbing down of the treatment of politics, which the BBC is sensitive about. I wrote the book that I mentioned at the start of my speech because of the televising of Parliament. I was concerned that one of its effects might be to dumb down the treatment of Parliament. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Rotherham that the Chamber is not a particularly televisual place, although I do not associate myself with his comments about the looks and telegenicity of his colleagues.

Television is inevitably a more superficial medium than radio. The attention span of somebody watching television is often much shorter than that of somebody listening to a radio programme. It would be unreasonable to expect producers not to reflect that in the design of their programmes. They are designing for their customers. That is what created the soundbite society. It was not the fault of venal producers or people whose aim was to corrupt our political process; it was a response to the pressures of a broadcast system.

That has affected the behaviour of Members of Parliament. One reason for some of the corruption of quality of contributions in this place is the fact that time spent crafting a soundbite will have more effect on public opinion than the same amount of time spent crafting the sort of logical argument that the House has historically been famous for.

That problem is reinforced by competition. In the age of the zapper, people can switch in a moment between many channels. That drives producers and makes them more prone to go for soundbites that will keep the attention of the audience. That tendency is further reinforced by all the other media available to audiences, including video tapes, computer games and the internet. With volatile audiences, programmers are tempted, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said, to focus on entertainment at the expense of information. That is a serious problem that has also infected radio.

However, that background makes radio even more important than it was before. It is our most accessible medium—our most democratic medium, if one likes. It is right that our most democratic medium should support our democracy. It is the most thoughtful medium. It is right that the most thoughtful medium should disseminate the argument, debate and logical exchanges that one hopes for from this House.

Radio 4 is the most vital component. It is the broadsheet broadcaster—the equivalent of The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent. It is the most important channel for opinion forming. To continue the comparison with broadsheets, the FM broadcasts at drive times—the "Today" programme, "The World at One" and "PM"—are the front page. The reporting of our democracy should be on the front page of the broadsheets. Moving "Yesterday in Parliament" from FM to long wave is equivalent to taking it off the front page and putting it in a pull-out supplement, making it an optional extra.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

A throwaway supplement, as my hon. Friend suggests. An informed democracy is not an optional extra; it is a vital part of British society. The BBC's public service commitment should recognise that.

We take an informed democracy for granted in this country. It is not taken for granted in every country. Even now, people are fighting about the absence of democracy, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said. It is no coincidence that "Today in Parliament" was first broadcast spontaneously by the BBC with no pressure from Parliament in 1945 at the end of a war to defend democracy. We must not allow the priority given to democracy to slip away. The changes that the BBC has made to "Yesterday in Parliament" and "The Week in Westminster" are symptoms of complacency about the importance of democracy.

The changes also show a weak grasp of statistics. The 73 per cent. reduction in coverage for "Yesterday in Parliament" and the 65 per cent. reduction for "The Week in Westminster" were predictable. Labour Members predicted such outcomes and pointed out that the amount of parliamentary coverage in the 8 am to 9 am slot was increasing. The reduction was being caused by lifestyle changes. The same pattern was evident in August and on Mondays, when there was no parliamentary coverage.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

We should be fair. Although, as the right hon. Gentleman says, the reduction was predictable, the scale of it is stunning. Nobody predicted a reduction on such a scale. In any other organisation heads would roll in similar circumstances. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that any heads will roll in this case, or does he think that those responsible will be promoted?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The hon. Gentleman is the Chairman of an eminent Select Committee and is much better at scalp-hunting than I am. I shall not comment on whether heads will roll, but he is right to point out that the reduction has been dramatic. It is a serious affront to our democratic tradition in this country. The BBC should be worried about that.

We must assume that the BBC managers are intelligent people. They misinterpreted the statistics because they perceived politics as boring. That is an ignorant view. Anyone who sits in the House knows that this place can be the best theatre in the world. We are privileged to have free, front-rank seats in it.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Unfortunately it is open all hours, and sometimes that shows.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

What about the quality of the comedy?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

We have already heard a comedy turn this morning. I hope that the Whip, the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), noted the quality of the comedy, if not of the team playing. On an extracted basis, "Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament" could be exciting programmes. In many ways, the BBC did not make the most of them. It did not build its programming around them as it could have done; programming could have been built around "Today". The BBC should perhaps think about that creative response, rather than the simple jigsaw playing with the schedules that we have seen so far.

Politics is not so much boring as unfashionable, but democracy is not a designer accessory. It cannot be thrown aside because coverage of Parliament is unfashionable one year and fashionable the next.

What do I suggest in response? I reflect the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins): the options that have been offered are limited. The comments that accompany the options are often in defiance of the facts; they are extraordinary. The minimum that should happen, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said, is a return to the status quo ante—before the switch to long wave: a simple recognition of the mistake that cost those enormous reductions in programme coverage.

The optimum is a recognition that, if the BBC can experiment in one direction to reduce coverage, it can experiment in the other to increase coverage. One of the arguments made to me by BBC management has been, "We have a much better programme on long wave." In that case, bring the whole programme back to FM: have a 20-minute programme and see whether that improves coverage, which might be the deduction from the statistics before the switch occurred.

Keep the extra 10 minutes and bring the programme back to FM. Perhaps the BBC should try to build up the programme that precedes it and put a little more around it to reflect what is reported there. Of course, I also agree with the hon. Member for Rotherham that the BBC should put "The Week in Westminster" back in its original slot.

I respond to the comments by the hon. Member for Cathcart about the Parliamentary channel. There is one area where the BBC, by its own criteria, although not necessarily by mine, could be said to have succeeded: the replacement of "In Committee" with "The Westminster Hour." That at least has given more volume, although it is an apples and oranges comparison.

There has been great temptation on the part of BBC management to say, "We have the Parliamentary channel. We spent £20 million of public money"—not the BBC's money—"on that." I applaud that, but the Parliamentary channel, the website and the internet site appeal to a small set of political junkies, to put it bluntly—those who are so enthusiastic about politics that they will get the Hansard if it comes down to it. Democracy is not about the few; it is about the many, if I may parody a new Labour slogan. That is not a demonstration of my movement to new Labour. I say to the Whip: I am not such a team player.

If one is not careful, one ghettoises politics, but perhaps it is appropriate that "In Committee", which is of specialist interest, should go through those media, rather than through the Radio 4 medium. Perhaps that was a sensible change. I did not think so at the time, but I at least recognise it now.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even though we all welcome the BBC's purchase of the Parliamentary channel, that is in no way a substitute for bringing back "Yesterday in Parliament" to Radio 4 on FM? Many people need, in drive time, to hear what is being said, or what was said the day before, in this place. It is something that they can listen to on their way to work, during the most influential programme, when they are not able to be at home to watch the Parliamentary channel. Radio is a different medium because people hear it in their cars on their way to work, when thinking about the nation's affairs.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I agree with my hon. Friend. I cited the example of "In Committee" as a possible route to specialised delivery, but generally speaking, channel proliferation creates more, rather than less, demand for proper Radio 4 coverage. Indeed, as was pointed out in the debate in the other place on public service broadcasting standards, although one might have expected the digital revolution to deliver many new facts and data for people to make democratic judgments, it has not. It has generated a torrent of opinion, whirlpools of spin, which obscure, rather than reveal, the information that the public should have. That serves both the public and Parliament badly.

I move on from the narrow question of the specific parliamentary channels to the reporting of Parliament in the other news media and news programmes. The same problem applies with general news coverage. My primary example is "The World at One", the duration of which was cut. The aim of the cut was simply to increase audience figures—nothing else. It was not even audience figures for "The World at One"; it was audience figures for the drama programmes later in the day.

A core value of the BBC was sacrificed—the delivery of high-quality news coverage at a key point in the political and news day, namely, lunchtime—in pursuit of audience figures for later on. Indeed, it was theoretical because, again, the policy was proved wrong; it did not work.

Ten minutes may not sound much, but once the news headlines and the other structural parts of the programme have been knocked out, 10 minutes are more than a third of the time for discussion. As a result, an important institution that the BBC has created has been seriously damaged.

I return to my key point. The highest priority in public service broadcasting and in the public service remit is to support an informed democracy; that is paramount. The arguments that we have heard from the BBC are arguments of choice and market. That is not what I want from public service broadcasting. The whole point about the core values is that they should provide what the market does not provide. If the BBC does not do that—I say it as a right-wing, free market Conservative; I am part of the continuity Conservative party—and if it goes down the market route, it will take great risks with its claim for a monopoly grant from the public at large.

The BBC has to make a big strategic choice. Does it want to live up to the standards of its charter? Does it want to do what it should to support our democracy, or does it want to chase audiences? If it wants to do the former, it will always have my backing for its licence fee and for the support that is given to it. If it wants to do the latter, it will lose that support and become just another large broadcasting corporation.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North 10:18 am, 14th April 1999

I say straight away that I am a fan of the BBC. It does a very good job. I do not want it to be privatised. As we know, when crises occur abroad, it is to the BBC World Service that many people rightly turn, so it is not a question of BBC baiting—if it were, I would not wish to be involved in such an exercise. However, I am critical, and have been from the beginning, of the reduced coverage of Parliament as a result of the changes.

I remember reading in the one of the Sunday newspapers, before there was any official notification of the change, that people did not want to listen to "Yesterday in Parliament" and were switching off in droves. I immediately recognised that the spin doctors were at work. I recognise the work of spin doctors, including the BBC's. Therefore, it did not come as a surprise when the official announcement was made about the intention to switch "Yesterday in Parliament" to long wave.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) referred to the vast reduction in the number of people listening to "Yesterday in Parliament". However, when the BBC spin doctors first told us that people were switching off in large numbers, I took the opportunity to find out the listening figures for the substitute items that went out when Parliament was in recess. If people were switching off in large numbers because they were bored by BBC reporting of Parliament, one would expect more people to listen to the substitute items. Surprise, surprise, almost exactly the same number of people listened to the substitute programmes—so much for BBC propaganda.

It has come as no surprise—certainly to me—that the "Today" programme has attracted no more listeners. As was revealed in previous discussions on the subject, the "Today" programme, like other radio programmes, inevitably loses listeners from eight o'clock onwards. There are a variety of reasons for that, the most obvious being that people go to work.

The document that has been circulated by the BBC states that the reduction in the audience of "Yesterday in Parliament" of 73 per cent. is broadly in line with the BBC's assessment in 1997. I remember a meeting between the chairman of the BBC, the controller of Radio 4 and hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham. We were told that as a result of "Yesterday in Parliament" moving to long wave, there would inevitably be a reduction in listeners. That was not challenged, but there was no indication that the BBC was working on the assumption that the reduction would be anything like as vast as 73 per cent. So I do not accept for a moment what is written in the document and I doubt whether any hon. Member who has taken an interest in the subject is likely to do so.

I have met a number of people who no longer listen to "Yesterday in Parliament". As many of them are driving at the time, they are unlikely to start switching channels, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. Of course they will not risk a pile-up by trying to switch to long wave. Indeed, one would have to be obsessed with parliamentary reporting to switch to long wave in order to listen to "Yesterday in Parliament"; but if it were broadcast on the wavelength that one was listening to, one would not switch off because "Yesterday in Parliament" was on. I am not surprised that there has been such reluctance to switch from FM to long wave.

The document also states that the BBC remains committed to parliamentary reporting. If you believe that, you will believe anything, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My impression is that although its charter commits the BBC to reporting Parliament, it is reluctant to do so as it believes that that is not the way to attract listeners. Therefore, for a long time prior to the change that we are now discussing, it has marginalised parliamentary reporting. The most obvious example of that was the decision to move "Today in Parliament" to long wave, resulting in the loss of a considerable number of listeners. In effect, those who are responsible for programmes are saying, "We have to report Parliament and there is no way that we can get out of it, but we shall marginalise it as much as we can." Hence "Yesterday in Parliament" has moved to long wave and "The Week in Westminster" has moved to Thursdays from Saturday mornings with a loss of some 65 per cent. of listeners. The only parliamentary programme which has not been marginalised is "Westminster Live" on BBC 2, which has quite healthy viewing figures for that time of day. It is screened three times a week around the time of Question Time.

I have been in correspondence with the chairman of the governors of the BBC and have pointed out that all our freedoms and civil liberties stem from this place. The reply that I received was along the lines that I was quite right—they did not challenge that in any way—but that it is also part of the freedom of the BBC as an organisation to decide how to carry out the reporting of Parliament. I do not question that. I would be the last person to tell the BBC that it had to report Parliament at certain times on certain channels. That would be wrong and inappropriate. It would be much along the same lines as telling the BBC how to report other matters such as the military intervention in Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia. I would not want the BBC to be dictated to by the Government or Parliament, but I believe that it nevertheless has a responsibility adequately to report Parliament.

I regret that the broadsheets no longer report Parliament. Incidentally, I notice that occasionally when there is an important debate, exchange at Question Time or statement, The Times produces a summary of views, although it stopped doing that regularly some years ago. I hope that The Times and the other broadsheets continue with that.

A public service broadcasting organisation such as the BBC has a duty and responsibility adequately to report this place. It is not a matter of our egos. I know the cynical feeling in the BBC—not necessarily among the journalists, but among those who control programmes—that it is a matter of our listening to our own voices, but it cannot be trivialised in that way. We want those who want to listen to what is happening here and who recognise the importance of the decisions that are taken in both Houses to have the opportunity to do so; such reporting should not be marginalised as it has been and continues to be.

In conclusion, whatever they decide on this matter, the governors of the BBC should show firm leadership and demonstrate that they recognise that there should be adequate reporting of Parliament. If there is disagreement from the director general and the controller of Radio 4, the governors should lay down the line. It is not for us to do so, but for the governors of the BBC. I hope that they will do what they have not done recently and will face up to their responsibilities as so many of us want them to do.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall 10:28 am, 14th April 1999

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on introducing the debate. He will not be surprised that I agree with everything he said this morning as we have often shared this platform with other hon. Members who have spoken this morning and those who no doubt would like to speak if there is time. We have become a well loved regular cast on the subject in the past year. Maybe the BBC will think up a new soap opera in which we can be incorporated.

I should like to endorse a few points that have already been made. The first is the comparison between television and radio. A few seconds after a television appearance, 85 per cent. of the retained memories of what has happened relate to how we look. The great advantage of radio is that one cannot do that, so people concentrate more on the content of what has been said. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) said, radio is by far the better medium for getting across a complicated, many-faceted argument. That is what this place is all about. It is no coincidence that radio treats our debates far more effectively—or can do—than television. For that reason, all hon. Members who have spoken this morning have rightly concentrated on the three major programmes: "Yesterday in Parliament", "Today in Parliament" and "The Week in Westminster". Radio is where one may develop an argument, or follow its twists and turns without being distracted by the visuals.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said that there should be a dynamic tension between the nation's assembly and the nation's primary broadcaster. That is right, and no hon. Member is suggesting that we should be dictating to the BBC. However, it has to be accepted that the BBC's action last year was taken against all the advice that was being offered, not only by politicians but by a great many other professionals, both within and outside the BBC. I very much welcome the fact that the chairman now says that the BBC is prepared to accept that it made a major mistake. The House has to help the BBC to restore its primacy in public service broadcasting.

The Government could help us in performing that role. I hope that, in her reply, the Minister will deal with the point that there is a vicious circle. If Ministers are prepared to go on the "Today" programme and state in detail what they will later in the day tell the House of Commons, then later in the day, no reporter, journalist or broadcaster will cover the matter in the same detail. It is a vicious circle.

If statements are made outside the House—the previous Government were just as guilty of press-release politics as the current one; it is a tendency of which all Ministers should be aware—that is the way it will go. However good John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman may be in questioning the statements of Minister or of Opposition spokesmen, they cannot perform the same function as Parliament. That is what we are paid to do. The main function of this place is to scrutinise, analyse and probe what is being said.

As the hon. Member for Rotherham said, since January, 35 statements have been made in the House. It is a remarkable number, and I welcome it—as this is where Government statements should be made—but I wonder how many of them were covered effectively by the BBC. I suspect that very few of them were.

Labour Back Benchers have a much better opportunity in this place of seeing, probing and questioning what the Government are doing than they ever will in the studios. All too often, studio set-ups comprise only a couple of people with distinctly different, usually partisan viewpoints, and do not necessarily deal with the substance of the issue.

Hon. Members have already mentioned in some detail the BBC's public service and charter obligations. I believe that Ministers also have an obligation to recognise that this is the place where major statements should be first made.

Hon. Members have also mentioned the mindset that lay behind the changes. I recall that, in both our previous debates—in March, in the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Rotherham, and in October, in my own debate—all hon. Members stressed that we were concerned not only about what the BBC was doing, but about why it was doing it. It was as if the BBC was treating the proceedings in this place as an esoteric, odd and peculiar hobby of a very few people. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned ghettoisation.

The changes seemed to reflect a belief that stamp collecting, underwater line-dancing or following the proceedings of Parliament could appropriately be pushed into a little corner, so those who were "obsessed with Parliament"—as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said—could go away and listen to their heart's content. That is not what Parliament is about. Parliament is—or it should be—where it all happens. This is where the Government are held to account, and where Ministers and Opposition parties' spokesmen are tested. If those at the BBC do not realise that, they have not read what was said when the new charter was considered by Parliament, or what Ministers said about the BBC at every stage from 1946 onwards, to which reference has already been made.

I shall be as brief as possible, as I know that two important speeches are yet to be made. I should, therefore, say what I think that the BBC could do to redress the situation. Of course it would be great to return to the previous position, with the enhancement that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned. However, I should like to offer option 12, which I believe really would deal with the "unacceptable democratic deficit" to which the BBC chairman referred.

"The Week in Westminster" must go to the end of the week; it is ludicrous in its current slot. If there is an extremely important debate on Friday, how will it be dealt with? Let us face the fact that, as we all know, private Members' business on Fridays can be extremely important to very many constituents. The programme must go back to Saturday. Moreover, I believe that it fits much better in the Saturday scheduling than in most other slots.

I should be reconciled to leaving "Today in Parliament" in the evening slot, on long wave. At that time in the evening, there is a rather specialist audience, and there are many other competing audiences. I would not therefore go to the stake to have it on both FM and long wave.

As hon. Members have already said, the critical programme is "Yesterday in Parliament". The point about loss of audience—which would have happened regardless of what was put in the slot—has been well covered. However, the audience that is retained is very much the informed audience that wants to be better informed, and the programme naturally follows on from the "Today" programme.

I suggest that, to ensure that there is still choice in that time slot, which the BBC says is so important, the BBC should let those who want to remain with John Humphrys and the "Today" programme go to long wave; that would really test it. If—as we are being told by the BBC—everyone wants to go with "Today" and does not want to stay with us, and if, as is suggested, the debate in the studio is far more interesting than the debate in this place, let "Today" go to long wave. That will retain choice.

If the BBC is determined that there must be choice at 8.30 am, let it make the choice offered by my suggestion, and we shall test which is the better solution. I think that the suggestion, as option 12, makes better sense than all the other 11 options offered in the paper. It would not only preserve choice, but demonstrate, once and for all, what that particular audience—from 8.30 am to 9 am, in the full period to just before the news—prefers.

Before very long, parliamentarians in both Houses will be asked to deal with the future role and responsibility of the BBC. Unless the BBC's chairman and governors respond positively to the concerns being expressed in this place, and by many other people outside it, and restore Parliament to its rightful place in the BBC's schedules, they will find us a not very sympathetic audience when they come cap in hand.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North 10:37 am, 14th April 1999

I should like, first, to state formally that, in his brief time left on the Back Benches, I am delighted to be associated with and to support my hon. and extremely ambitious Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on this matter—despite his slightly unkind remarks about those of us who prefer to appear on the nonvisual medium. As someone who has frequently been told that he has an excellent face for radio, I am somewhat sensitive about comments about avoirdupois and lack of hair. Nevertheless, I support my hon. Friend on the matter. I have also been amazed by the uniformity of opinion and agreement on the issue on both sides of the House.

The BBC has arrived at a perhaps uniquely British compromise in which it, in exchange for a unique funding mechanism, provides a unique facility and service. It is an odd arrangement, which is not immediately replicable in other countries, but it has worked extremely well. However, as is transparently obvious to all of us, it is not working now. If we are to assume that entertainment is all and that education is nothing, and to follow the Gadarene swine down market—dumbing down, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) said—the future is indeed horrible.

I have seen the future. On St. Patrick's day, I found myself in Ottawa, with the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale)—who is temporarily out of the Chamber—and we were treated to the sight of the Canadian Parliament in session. Canada has decided to have the full warts-and-all coverage. The Canadian Parliament delights in leaping to its feet and applauding certain speeches. The element of partisan activity on both sides of the Chamber is such that what little debate could possibly be discerned amidst the clamour and clapping is completely lost by ludicrous and antagonistic behaviour.

There is a lesson for us there. Whereas it is right and proper for us to criticise the BBC, we also have to accept some share of responsibility. Although incidents such as punching Ministers and waving the Mace around are, fortunately, few and far between, there have been occasions—far be it from me to enumerate them, although I am sure that they are known to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—when the behaviour of right. and hon. Members, and even of hon. and learned Members, has been such as to participate in a dumbing-down process. We have a certain responsibility there.

The important point is the unique status of the British Broadcasting Committee—

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

A lovely 1950s word that I had forgotten for a moment. The present ethos is demonstrably wrong, as has been explained today. I was greatly impressed by the speech of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden—almost as much as I was impressed by my hon. and ambitious Friend the Member for Rotherham. However, the right hon. Gentleman made precisely the right point. If we are to support the BBC, the BBC must live up to its public service obligations.

It is not possible to live on a glorious past and an element of residual national affection, as that leads to no future. In any case, that job description has been taken by the Liberal Democratic party. All who have spoken today have spoken as candid friends. It might be said, "May the Lord spare me from my candid friends", but in this case, we are speaking not in anger. but more in sorrow.

It is not a question of political junkies. I appreciate that the Leader of the Opposition, as a schoolboy in the north of England—

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I was trying to avoid saying that. Whereas the rest of us subscribed to The Beano or to Fulham football club's magazine, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) subscribed to Hansard. While the rest of us employed our evenings in far more useful purposes, he would thumb his way through the Official Report. There are few people like that. However, this is not about those few people who are obsessed with the minutiae.

It is a question of democratic accountability. This is about the forum of the nation; the place where decisions are taken that affect the lives of every single man, woman and child in these islands. This is the place where we act and speak on behalf of the people of this nation. We have a duty to be as open and transparent as possible in our activities in this House. The BBC has a concomitant duty to reflect that to the nation. That is part of democracy, and part of the process that makes this place work and makes the nation work.

Moving from what I still think of as medium wave to long wave may seem an arcane point, but it is symbolic, and it is symptomatic of a major problem. It is our duty, as has been expressed today, to draw the attention of the BBC to this matter, and to implore it and ask it respectfully—maybe with a hint of anger—to think again. It makes no sense, even in the terms by which the BBC defines its objectives: an increase in audience.

I am delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham. I hope that the uniformity of opinion expressed today will be matched and responded to generously by the BBC.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk 10:43 am, 14th April 1999

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) on securing the debate, and on bringing the issue of the BBC's parliamentary coverage once again into the spotlight. There have been a number of excellent contributions, not least from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) in a most thoughtful speech. I was particularly struck by his point about the potential ghettoisation of parliamentary coverage.

The audience measurements undertaken by Radio Joint Audience Research tell us that there has been a catastrophic drop in audiences for the parliamentary flagship programmes "The Week in Westminster", down by 65 per cent., and "Yesterday in Parliament", down by 73 per cent. Yet the BBC has failed to capture new listeners for the lengthened "Today" programme from 8.30 to 9 am.

In March 1998, the current changes were imminent. A number of journalists, many hon. Members and Madam Speaker forcefully tried to tell the BBC that the proposed changes would backfire. Indeed, Madam Speaker placed the correspondence on this subject with the chairman of the BBC in the House of Commons Library. On the issue, the BBC supplied answers to what it described as "frequently asked questions". One such question was: Does this package of proposals represent an effort to sideline parliamentary coverage, which the BBC regards as unpopular? The answer was: Not at all. Our parliamentary coverage on Radio 4 will increase by an hour-and-a-quarter a week when Parliament is in session in the new schedule. Far from telling us that the Radio 4 audience doesn't appreciate politics, our review told us that parliamentary programmes were highly valued by the audience, and that Radio 4 listeners are particularly receptive to this sort of programming. What we have attempted to do with the new schedule is to enhance our coverage and place it where its audience will appreciate it most. Indeed. Such was the level of appreciation that three out of four listeners to "Yesterday in Parliament" simply switched off. Now we are invited, after 12 months, to respond to further consultations by the BBC.

What happened last time? On the core programmes for parliamentary coverage, the BBC was clearly warned what would happen, but went ahead. It amuses me to think of the sort of interview that John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman might conduct on such points. Nowhere in the covering letter from the BBC, dated 24 March, or in the consultation document itself do we see the word "regret", or even "disappointment". I am therefore glad that the hon. Member for Rotherham read out that letter from the BBC chairman.

The conclusion to the latest consultation says: The BBC approaches this review with an open mind and will give careful consideration to the outcome of the consultation exercise. At present, following assessment of the available audience research, the BBC considers that it may be necessary to re-balance, to some extent, the need for Radio 4 to offer an attractive choice of listening in a crowded radio market with the BBC's obligations to give appropriate prominence to coverage of parliamentary proceedings as a public service. The BBC is open to change and wishes to identify the best way of reconciling the competing interests of different audiences. I urge hon. Members to react constructively to the challenge and to let the BBC know their views. This is an opportunity that must be grasped, and we have heard some interesting viewpoints today, not least from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

The BBC occupies a central place in the history and affections of the British people. It enjoys a considerable reputation abroad. Undoubtedly, there are many in the Balkans who today are being given a different and accurate viewpoint through the incomparable World Service. British actors and actresses are enjoying extraordinary acclaim. In the past decade, we have seen an upsurge of creative success in Britain. Dramas put on by the BBC have been quite brilliant; "Great Expectations" has got off to an excellent start. There is much to be proud of.

The BBC must face up to the digital challenge. As part of that, I recently saw for myself its "Where's Q?" digital archive facility, which is unique and fascinating. Digitalisation is here to stay, and I applaud the BBC for its response. The BBC's revamped annual report and accounts is a first-rate and informative document.

As far as political coverage is concerned, for many the day begins with "Today" and ends with "Newsnight"; required listening for a considerable number of people interested in public affairs. Additionally, "Any Questions" presents a lively range of political views on the radio each Friday evening. Equally, "Question Time" provides similar high-quality debate and argument on television.

The BBC is charged with a special public service responsibility. We have a Government with a large majority: an Executive that is all-powerful. Madam Speaker has frequently had to complain about announcements being made outside the House. In that atmosphere, the BBC must be very cautious. Several BBC employees have found jobs with the Government. Complaints have been made by senior journalists, notably Michael Brunson of ITN, about bullying by the Government.

Parliament provides a scrutiny of an all-powerful Executive, through oral or written questions, debates in the Chamber or Select Committee proceedings. The reporting of Parliament, especially in current circumstances, is extremely important. It is true that we are involved in a war although, mercifully, it has not affected us directly in this country.

At times of crisis, Parliament becomes the focal point of the nation. Today we do not have such terrible problems as mass unemployment or a realistic threat of global nuclear war, so on the whole the British people can wear their politics lightly, but that will inevitably change one day, in circumstances that we cannot foresee.

Parliament may be seen by many as boring, but a lot of important elements in life may not be headline-grabbing. Parliamentary coverage cannot be evaluated on its entertainment appeal. The BBC has made a mistake in its parliamentary coverage. In a rapidly changing marketplace, any response will not be easy to implement. Listeners and viewers are being given a multitude of choices, but it is none the less up to us to ensure that the BBC's public responsibility to Parliament and to the people of Britain whom we seek to protect is properly upheld.

I hope that, this time, the BBC will understand that. It is up to us to respond constructively and ensure that the central importance of our parliamentary proceedings is restored. I hope that today's debate will help the BBC in that process.

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 10:52 am, 14th April 1999

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for securing this important debate. It is his second debate of this kind, and we are all extremely grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to air our views. I hope that the BBC will cover this debate. I am only sorry that it is not able to be present this morning. I understand that it is holding a seminar to discuss its funding. Perhaps that is appropriate in the circumstances.

My hon. Friend said that he did not want us to engage in Beeb-bashing. I endorse that view. It is important that we work together with the BBC, and I welcome its acknowledgement that it may have taken the wrong decision. We all welcome the new spirit of consultation. I hope that all hon. Members will respond to that consultation.

My hon. Friend said that he hoped that I would not only give the Government's position but speak personally. There is a longstanding convention that broadcasting Ministers avoid comment on programming issues, and I do not want to ignore that convention, but the BBC's governing instruments, the royal charter and agreement, which set the overall framework for its activities say specifically that the BBC shall undertake an appropriate process of public consultation prior to making any material change to the nature of the Home Service. That means that the BBC has a duty to listen to the consumer.

The agreement also contains a specific programming requirement, first introduced in 1947, that the corporation shall transmit an impartial account day by day prepared by professional reporters of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament. Many hon. Members have mentioned the reduction in listeners following the changes, but the figures bear repeating. The BBC says that, although the total number of hours of parliamentary coverage on Radio 4 has increased, the overall reach is down by 26 per cent., with sharp falls in audience figures for "Yesterday in Parliament", which is down 73 per cent., from 3.13 million in 1997 to 830,000 in 1998, and "The Week in Westminster", down 65 per cent. from 658,000 to 227,000.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) raised the change in the arrangements for regional political editors in a previous Adjournment debate. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties still have some concern about that change. As a constituency Member, I am not entirely clear who my regional political editor is.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made the point that the BBC is not there merely to chase ratings and that it has a requirement under its charter to ensure that our proceedings are properly covered. He reminded us that the charter is up for renewal in 2006, and I am glad that we have had the opportunity to start the debate on that this morning.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) mentioned the fact that "The Week in Westminster" now seems to be a vehicle for Front Benchers. Like this debate, which is very much for Back Benchers—that is why I have not sought to speak for too long—"The Week in Westminster" should be an opportunity for Back Benchers to ensure that the country can hear what they are doing on behalf of their constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) spoke of the broadcasting revolution that is taking place and suggested that perhaps we had not taken it into account. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who is very knowledgable on the subject, rightly spoke of the importance of the BBC's duty to inform, educate and entertain—in that order—and suggested that, with the proliferation of channels, that duty was more important than ever.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Other countries have dedicated parliamentary channels, such as C-Span in America and C-Pac in Canada, and the BBC has introduced its Parliamentary channel. Is not it a little hypocritical of us to criticise the BBC, when we can get Sky Sports on the Palace of Westminster circuit, but not the Parliamentary channel? Should we not do something about that?

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I take note of that contribution.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden made the point that it is almost inevitable that the BBC's audience share will reduce, and that must be taken on board. I thank him for his compliments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has supported the remarks of Mr. Alan Yentob, who said that quality must come before audience-chasing. Next month, my right hon. Friend and I will have meetings with the BBC's joint boards. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said that a reduction in listeners may have been predictable but the size of the reduction was stunning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is a great supporter of the BBC. When I first took on this job, one of the first things that I learned is that, on important state occasions, people always turn to the BBC for coverage. That is, quite rightly, how the BBC is regarded.

I welcome the BBC's commitment to consult on the changes. 1 hope that it will hear the message that the House has sent this morning. It is a loud and clear message and I hope that the BBC will take to heart the gist—