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Broadcast Media: General Election Coverage

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 16th March 2005.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs 2:30 pm, 16th March 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to protect the independence and impartiality of the broadcasting media in the run up to a future general election.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, the Government strongly support independence and impartiality in the broadcast media. That is why we carried forward the statutory impartiality obligations into the Communications Act and have similar requirements on the BBC, through its charter and agreement.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, are the broadcasting authorities, with their vested interests in charter and franchise renewal, strong enough on their own to resist the blandishments, pressure and even bullying that they may be subjected to in the course of an election campaign? Is it not time that we considered having an ad hoc independent body to ensure fair play for all political parties?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, I assume that when the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, talks about charter review it means that his supplementary question is about the BBC rather than the commercial broadcasters.

The answer is that the obligation on the governors is very clear. They have to ensure that the home services—that means other than the "World Service"; it does not mean the old "Home Service" that we used to know—

"contain comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world to support fair and informed debate at local, regional and national levels".

That applies to election periods as much as to any other time.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, I am aware that the House of Lords Select Committee has, as reported in the Times today, been critical of some media interviewers. To that extent, I understand the issue. Does my noble friend agree that if the Government start to take steps to reinforce and protect independence and impartiality, they could very well be in danger of being perceived as controlling a part of the media in a free society? Secondly, is there a precedent of previous governments getting involved in the way this Question suggests?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, I did not accuse the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, of asking the Government to intervene. I do not think he was. I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Davies that it would be utterly inappropriate for the Government to intervene. We have the controls in the BBC agreement, which I read out, and there are comparable controls on commercial broadcasters which are the responsibility of Ofcom and are in Sections 319 and 320 of the Communications Act. I think we should leave the matter at that and leave it to Ofcom and the BBC governors to exercise control.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in his supplementary question talked about bullying. Any noble Lord who has been interviewed by Mr Paxman or Mr Humphrys does not quite think that bullying is always on one side.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader In the House of Lords, Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, does the Minister share my disappointment when he switches on a current affairs programme and finds that the issue of the day is being discussed by only a Labour and a Conservative spokesman, particularly when—as so often—the originality and radicalism of the issue has come from the Liberal Democrats? Is it not time that our media stopped playing the politics of Tweedledum and Tweedledee and realised that they are in three-party politics?

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Media and Heritage)

My Lords, I imagine that there are more than three parties. The supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, was about an election period. In that election period there is, with universal agreement, a sharing of the airwaves between not just three parties but all parties.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, have the Government considered that the best way of ensuring independence and impartiality of the broadcasting media is to send Mr Alastair Campbell on a very long holiday until 6 May?