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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:19 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative 9:19 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, I was fortunate enough to have an Unstarred Question in your Lordships' House on 11th March last year, to ask the Government whether the BBC was fulfilling its duty to produce political programmes which were impartial, wide-ranging and fair. I have a feeling that at this late hour your Lordships might appreciate it if I do not repeat again now what I said then, so I shall refrain from so doing, but I should like what I said in that debate at cols. 654 to 656 to be taken into account by the Government in their consideration of the Bill.

That debate took place because the Euro-sceptic movement in this country believes that the BBC is guilty of consistent Euro-phile bias. Because bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, the noble Lords, Lord Harris of High Cross and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and I decided to commission genuinely independent research to find out if those fears were justified. So, through our research unit, Global Britain, we commissioned Minotaur Media Tracking, which is run by Mr David Keighley, a former publicity officer for BBC TV news and current affairs and a former director of corporate affairs at TV-am, to analyse the BBC's political output.

By 11th March last year, we had received six surveys of the BBC's political coverage of the European issue. Those reports showed alarming Euro-phile bias, some of which is detailed in our debate that day.

Since then we have commissioned four further reports, which, alas, continue to show the same picture. The nature of broadcast monitoring is obviously laborious, and the 10 surveys we have so far commissioned run to some 507 pages for the main reports, supported by 674 pages of background analysis and 1,412 transcripts, which run to a further 2,750 pages. The first six reports can be judged for themselves because they are on the website, together with our contemporary correspondence with the chairman and management of the BBC and with the Secretary of State, going back to Minotaur's first survey of the BBC's coverage of the European Parliament elections in 1999.

We have not put on the website any of the later reports or correspondence since March 11th last year because we have been trying to get the BBC to honour its public service remit by changing its editorial stance, but I fear we may have failed.

I am aware that a number of your Lordships may share the BBC's view that the European Union is an obviously benign institution and that our membership of it is so clearly in the national interest that anyone who disagrees must be mad. Now is not the time to debate that question and I hope it will not cloud our consideration of the Bill. What is beyond dispute, and what is relevant to this debate, is that a substantial proportion of the British people do want to leave the European Union, and even if the BBC thinks they are all mad, it has a duty to air that significant strand of public opinion.

For instance, according to opinion polls, some 30 to 40 per cent may want to leave the EU, sometimes more, depending on the question asked. But so far the BBC has refused to represent their view. The BBC does not deny that. In his latest letter to me of 25th February this year, the chairman writes as follows,

"it is accepted that the euro-sceptic point of view that Britain should withdraw from Europe deserves inclusion in the BBC's coverage, but the fact that none of the main political parties has adopted this position will inevitably influence the prominence with which it is covered".

Fair enough, except that it is not a question of the prominence which the BBC accords to this subject; the fact is that the BBC has never permitted or encouraged serious debate about whether we should stay in or leave the European Union. It is also disingenuous, to put it politely, of the BBC to imply that it gives only minimal coverage to positions which are not shared by the main political parties.

For instance, the BBC gives plenty of airtime to those who oppose GM crops and food and to those who favour the legalisation of cannabis and other drugs. It also gave ample airtime to the anti-monarchist view in the run-up to last year's Jubilee. None of these positions has been adopted by the main political parties as far as I am aware. Of course, there are other examples with which I do not have time to trouble your Lordships now.

I gather that the BBC's defence for giving so much time to republicans before and during last year's Jubilee may be that the Jubilee was a major national event and that it was therefore required by its public service remit to reflect all shades of public opinion. Fair enough, one accepts that. But the BBC has, by comparison, almost completely ignored the new EU constitution emerging from Mr Giscard D'Estaing's Convention on the Future of Europe. That has fundamental implications for the future of our democracy and may therefore turn out to be much more important than the Jubilee. So that excuse does not wash either.

Our second complaint, which I made on 11th March last year but which I repeat because the BBC refuses to do anything about it, is that the Minotaur reports are passed by the chairman to the BBC's management, and not to the governors. Yet it is the governors who are responsible for the BBC's duty to be impartial, wide-ranging and fair; to educate and inform. Not surprisingly, on every occasion, the management tells the chairman that the report's conclusions are unfounded and he duly reports the message to us.

In an attempt to be helpful, we have therefore twice suggested that the reports should go to an independent arbiter for adjudication. The chairman has twice turned down that suggestion flat, presumably because the BBC fears the result of such independent validation. That is a pity from our point of view, because independent adjudication would also reveal whether the reports find that the BBC is indeed guilty of Euro-phile bias just because they have been commissioned by such well-known Euro-sceptics as the noble Lords, Lord Harris, Lord Stoddart and myself.

That suggestion was even advanced, I regret to say, by some of your Lordships in our debate on 11th March last year—understandably, perhaps, because he who pays the piper often calls the tune. But it is a bit more worrying when the BBC's only defence to the press against the Minotaur reports is that they were commissioned by arch-Eurosceptics and must therefore be unreliable. That appears to be the case. Anyway, we have offered to put them to the test but have been turned down.

It is also not frightfully helpful when the chairman suggests, as he has on more than one occasion, that we should address our complaints to the BBC's Programme Complaints Unit, or even to the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee, because both those committees deal with complaints about specific programmes or items and are not geared to hearing complaints about consistent editorial bias.

Perhaps partly in answer to that impasse, the chairman last year set up a new Governance and Accountability Department, to support the governors' public service role. A week ago he made a speech about the Bill and BBC independence, which I expect has been circulated to most of your Lordships. It reached me this morning, and contains one error of such fundamental importance that I feel that I should put it before the House. The chairman says:

"The need for the Board of Governors to act as a buffer between the services of the BBC and outside forces in the worlds of politics and business remains as great as ever".

Quite so. He continues:

"We have completely revamped the way in which the Governors set objectives for the organisation, and then hold the executive to account. We have established a new department to give the Governors entirely independent advice and support in these areas, and in ensuring BBC compliance with the law . . . For the first time, the Governors are now supported by a substantial body of professionals, who work outside the control of the executive".

The fundamental misconception about those statements is that the people who work in the new Governance and Accountability Department are not independent of the BBC. They may show up in a separate box on the BBC's organisation chart, but they have merely been shuffled across from other departments and are still employed by the BBC. They therefore still owe their prospects and careers to Mr Dyke, Mr Damazer and the other top brass, whom they would be most unlikely to offend by, for instance, advising the governors that the Minotaur reports should be taken seriously. It is not surprising that we have seen no sign of that new department bearing fruit in the year since it was introduced.

So we made another helpful suggestion: the new department should be employed by separate trustees to guarantee the independence of their advice to the governors. The chairman also turned down that idea, but it may be worth airing it in Committee.

There are other areas on which the BBC stands accused of editorial bias. But those claims are not supported by such a substantial body of research as that which underpins the accusation of institutional Euro-phile bias for a long time. If the BBC cannot cure the problem, it might as well go under Ofcom.