The Times – 26 September 1990
By John Lewis
Rules to ensure the impartiality of the television channels coming into operation in 1992 are running into controversy, even before they have been published.
Conservative peers, who are among several interested groups that have seen the government's draft amendment on impartiality, welcome what they regard as tougher provisions, but they are still planning amendments to the broadcasting bill when it has reaches the report stage in the Lords next month.
The peers are worried that the government amendment, which sets a framework for the Independent Television Commission's impartiality guidelines to companies, does not specifically cover programmes that convey a 'personal view'. Ministers argue, however, that it is clear these programmes are included. The peers will also be asking for the BBC to be covered by the new rules and for the television companies to be encouraged to appoint their own ombudsmen to investigate complaints.
Lord Orr-Ewing, who with Lord Wyatt of Weeford and Julian Lewis, the deputy director of the Conservative Research Department, saw Home Office officials this week, said yesterday:
''We are pleased that the government has moved substantially in our direction, but we do still have anxieties on some points and will be putting down amendments to try to clarify these.''
David Mellor, the minister in charge of the broadcasting bill, is unlikely to be sympathetic; he was reluctant to bring forward an amendment on impartiality in the first place. Nor do ministers see a bill concerned with radical changes in commercial television being the place to make important changes to BBC practice. They think that the BBC will learn any lessons from the new commercial companies rules and that any more extensive change should wait until the BBC Charter is renewed in 1996. Ombudsmen are regarded as unnecessary.
The government amendment leaves broadcasters some discretion in trying to balance politically and industrially controversial programmes. The eight-point proposal lays down that programme-makers will not be expected to achieve an absolute, mechanistic balance and neutrality or a detachment from moral, constitutional or democratic values.
The proposal also says that companies should achieve a balance on a particular issue and not claim they are giving a balance over a series of issues, and that programme-makers will not face an absolute requirement to counterbalance every expression of opinion with an equal opposite view.
To influence the government, right-wingers are said to have approached the Prime Minister and Kenneth Baker, the Chairman of the Conservative Party. Television bias could be an issue at next month's Conservative Party conference as more than 20 constituency parties have put down motions, many of them alleging BBC bias and calling for the Corporation to lose its licence income.