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British Broadcasting Corporation

Volume 981: debated on Thursday 27 March 1980

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3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he expects next to meet the chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he expects next to meet the chairman of the board of governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has any plans to meet the chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he intends next to meet the chairman of the board of governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

I have no immediate plans to meet the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC.

When the right hon. Gentleman gets round to meeting the chairman, will he explain that there is widespread concern in Scotland about the possible scrapping of the BBC Scottish symphony orchestra and, also, the schools broadcasting service in Scotland? Will the Secretary of State ensure that the BBC gets enough money from the Government to continue these services, which are so important for the educational and cultural life of Scotland?

I do not believe that words are needed from me to explain to the chairman of the governors of the BBC the strong feelings that have properly been expressed in different parts of the country about the BBC's proposals to cut its expenditure.

The exact decisons—which have not yet been made—are, of course, a matter for the governors and not a matter in which I could, or should, in any way intervene.

The hon. Gentleman, and others, should remember that when I raised the colour television licence fee from £25 to £34 there was an increase of some 36 per cent. for the two years. Interestingly enough, I did not hear many voices raised in the House at that time suggesting that I should put the licence fee any higher.

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the BBC governors will he express the growing disquiet about the lack of factual balance in a good number of BBC current affairs programmes where the object appears to be to put some organisation in the dock such as our security forces in Northern Ireland, the Thames Water Authority, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston and more recently the Army in the programme "Gone for a Soldier"?

Will my right hon. Friend say to the chairman that the dictum that the BBC now appears to be following whereby controversy is considered more important than responsibility is not good enough?

These are matters for the governors of the BBC. Rightly, with the independent broadcasting arrangements such as we have—arrangements which I feel are right—they must make their decisions on balance and on taste. It is right for the House to express its views as forcefully as hon. Members wish to the BBC governors and it is absolutely open to the different parties to express their views—as they do—about balance to the BBC. That is the right way to proceed.

The constitutional position, that the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the broadcasting authorities, should not express a personal view or a view on behalf of the Government, is right. Equally, I am entitled to say to the House that I have noticed very plainly the views that have been expressed. I know that those views are appreciated by the governors of the BBC and they arc the people who must act in these matters.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that there is another programme to be added to the alarming list mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson)? That was the recent Nationwide programme on arsonists in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a heavy burden of responsibility lies upon those whose ultimate charge it is to transmit such programmes to show a degree of investigative journalism and check the veracity of the facts put across? Otherwise such programmes can only be alarmist and do damage to the general public.

I appreciate the feelings of my hon. Friend and many of those who are concerned about this particular matter. Strong views have rightly been expressed to the chairman of the BBC governors and I noticed in the newspapers that he sought to reply. Further discussions have continued. I believe that it is essential that we in this House, while expressing our views strongly to the governors of the BBC, must respect their independent position and leave them to make the final decisions.

Does the Home Secretary realise that many of us feel that it is his duty and responsibility to back up the chairman of the BBC governors in defending a public service that is independent of private sources of income? Does he further appreciate that any deterioration in the quality of BBC services to the Northern region will be regarded with great resentment? We have been the Cinderella for far too long. If there is any interference with the Mike Neville programme, there will be a rebellion in the Northern region.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I did not think that I was doing too badly in the course that he set me. I thought that I was making it clear that I would certainly not pass any judgment on what the chairman of the governors of the BBC did or on what the BBC did. That is a matter for them. In taking that course I am taking the course followed by every Home Secretary in the past. It is the right course.

I certainly support the BBC, though I cannot, as an individual, be expected to support everything that the BBC does. Nor would the BBC expect me to do so. The Government strongly support the BBC, and I, as the Minister in charge of broadcasting, strongly support having an independent broadcasting authority in this country. We have one. We are entitled to criticise it as hard as we can, but we must respect its independence.

In view of the requests that have been made to him today, will my right hon. Friend see the director-general of the BBC urgently and call his attention to the disquiet felt by many hon. Members about the way in which late evening programmes put out by the BBC have deteriorated in recent months? There has been a big increase in the screening of low quality, pornographic and second-rate material.

I note what my hon. Friend says. I see the chairman of the governors from time to time. I have no plans to see him at the moment, but he will be well informed about feelings on these matters when I next see him. Of course I am prepared—I am expected —to discuss these issues with him.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the BBC financial presentation to the Home Office in preparation for the licence fee increase included a general indication that cuts were to be made in orchestras, education and local broadcasting? Arising out of that, is there not a way—since the BBC provides these excellent orchestras as a public service—in which the IBA could contribute some money to BBC resources so that the orchestras could be maintained?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. When the BBC made its presentation to us it properly made that presentation on the financial facts as a whole. Naturally, what it decides to do with the money it receives through the licence fee must be a matter for the BBC. As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is not for the Home Office to question how the BBC distributes its resources. Therefore, the BBC did not make that point. The provision of funds by the IBA and others to support the BBC orchestras is another matter, but it is fair to consider it.

Does the Home Secretary agree—as the chairman of the BBC govenors seemed to agree when I last put it to him—that part of the BBC's public service obligation is to provide at least some form of local news and weather information on radio? Is the Home Secretary aware that in north Northumberland the BBC proposes to remove all the regional VHF radio bulletins although we have no local radio alternative?

I was not aware of that. Coming from the same region—though from the other side of the Pennines—no doubt I ought to have been aware that that was happening in Northumbria. It was probably happening in Cumbria, too. But nobody has yet told me that it is happening.

Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those of us who live far from London should have reasonable local services. I know that that is also the strongly held view of the BBC. Obviously, when the hon. Gentleman tells me of something about which the chairman of the BBC governors is inclined to agree it would be dangerous for me to assume that that was actually what the chairman of the governors was doing. That must remain a matter between the chairman of the governors and the hon. Gentleman.