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Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham) : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does he accept that some of the comments made about his proposals, notably in television discussions by the media intelligentsia, reject the very reasonable point that he is making, which is that there is not much to be defended, particularly on the BBC, at the moment? Programmes such as "That's Life" and "Panorama" would not recognise "unbiasedness" if it smacked them on the head. There is not a great deal to brag about in the present system, and there is much scope for improvement.
Mr. Hurd : There is quite a lot to boast about. Personally, I do not share my hon. Friend's distaste for the two programmes that he mentioned, which I sometimes see. Sometimes we are all irritated or even angered by what we see on the television, but I hope that what I have said strikes a reasonable balance. Some interested parties speak in hyperbole about the glories of British broadcasting, but it is true that both the BBC and the commercial sector have many jewels in their crown.
The main argument advanced against the White Paper--I think that I shall carry my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) with me here--is that we are proposing to hand over broadcasting to market forces that will inevitably wreck the tradition of quality. Certainly, we believe that the viewer should take an increasing hand. As choice multiplies, less regulation and detailed prescription are needed. A little fresh air does no harm in broadcasting--indeed, I welcome the good,
Column 1008refreshing wind that has been blowing through broadcasting in recent years, through the restrictive practices and occasional complacencies in both the BBC and the independent sector. The White Paper clearly sets out six main safeguards for the quality of British broadcasting and--acknowledging your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker--I shall describe each of them briefly. When those six safeguards are added together, they provide a convincing refutation of the criticism that we propose to be rashly destructive of quality.
First, the BBC will--as the White Paper states--remain the cornerstone of public sector broadcasting. I do not doubt that that will still be true when in about five years' time we start the next big clearly foreseeable debate on our broadcasting system and consider the renewal of the BBC charter.
The licence fee is not immortal and we want the BBC to experiment with subscription, which provides a more direct and legitimate link between viewer and broadcaster. We have deliberately not fixed a date for the replacement of the licence fee. We believe that it will be sensible, after 1991, to take into account, when setting the licence fee, the BBC's ability to raise income from subscription and other sources. By the time that the debate about renewing the charter is under way, we shall all have more experience of the working of subscription programmes. We shall also have had time to consider other problems, such as how BBC radio might be funded if the licence fee were replaced. None of those questions has been prejudged. I am glad of the way in which the BBC, in contrast to some of its friends, has reacted to the White Paper. It knows that it is nonsense to suggest that we are subjecting the corporation to death by a thousand cuts. In practice, the BBC now enjoys greater certainty about its income for the next few years than it has traditionally enjoyed at many times in the past.
The second safeguard lies with Channel 4 and the Welsh S4C. The White Paper makes it clear that the remit which is the essence of Channel 4--to innovate and complement the broadcasting of others--must remain. S4C will continue with its present purpose. Under its remit, Channel 4 will provide guaranteed outlets for minority interests and high-quality programmes. For example, it will be required to devote a suitable proportion of its air time to educational programmes. The question is not whether the Channel 4 remit should continue as it is--everyone to whom I have listened believes that it should, and that is certainly the Government's view. The question is whether the remit needs buttressing by some special financial arrangement in a world in which Channel 4 sells its own air time. We set out the options and arguments in the White Paper and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will give the Government some guidance on this important point, which we have deliberately left open.
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : Has the Home Secretary seen the anxieties expressed about the White Paper by the Royal National Institute for the Blind and by other organisations of and for disabled people? The RNIB fears that many important specialist programmes that are now available, not least those of the BBC, may be at risk and that the development of new services will be
Column 1009impossible. They would benefit disabled people, but they will cost money. How does the Home Secretary respond to their anxieties?
Mr. Hurd : I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern, but it is misplaced. I have already mentioned that the BBC will be continuing and I outlined the remit of Channel 4 to do things that other channels do not do, so the right hon. Gentleman's concerns will not be affected as all that remains unchanged. In addition, there will be far more space and opportunity and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will deal with that general subject in his winding-up speech. Far from being reduced, the opportunity for the programmes that the right hon. Gentleman and the Royal National Institute for the Blind have in mind should be enchanced. The third safeguard is the quality tests that the White Paper proposes for Channel 3 and Channel 5 franchises. Both will be required to provide a diverse programme, so they are calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes. Tired and limited formats are not only boring for viewers and advertisers, but will not be acceptable to the Independent Television Commission--the successor body to the Independent Broadcasting Authority--because of the requirement for diversity. The Channel 3 regions, in addition, will have an express statutory requirement to show programmes produced within their regions. Prominence must be given to high-quality news and current affairs on Channels 3, 4 and 5 taken separately and there must be at least one body effectively equipped and financed to provide news for Channel 3. Schools programmes will have a guaranteed place on commercial television.
Those are the component parts of the quality hurdle and the height and importance of the hurdle thus constructed have been somewhat neglected in the arguments about competitive tender. Competitive tendering only comes after those concerned have got over the quality hurdle. That proposal arises from the present arrangements for awarding ITV contracts. I have always believed, since long before the debate in the country started, that they are deeply unsatisfactory. I have never blamed the IBA for the system, because it did not invent it. It seemed the best system at the time when Parliament was last reviewing those matters. But life moves on and the present system has turned out to be opaque, subjective and secretive. I have not been able to check the quotation, but I think that it was Gibbon who said that the Merovingian dynasty in France was a system of despotism, tempered by assassination. That is not an unfair description of the present system for letting ITV franchises. One moment all the franchise holders are there, the next moment one of them has disappeared down an oubliette with no particular reason given and no redress available. The White Paper proposes a straightforward approach, which could be a substantial improvement on that.
Mr. Hurd : I shall give way when I have finished this point. Competitive tender, as the Peacock committee said, is an inherently fairer and more objective procedure, which would also secure a proper return for the taxpayer in the
Column 1010use of a scarce resource. It is wrong to describe it simply as an auctioning of licences because that ignores the quality hurdle, which I have described. I know that the new chairman of the IBA, Mr. George Russell, is looking carefully at the interaction of the two concepts of the quality hurdle and the competitive tender. We believe that both are essential--this is an important point--but the exact way in which we ask the ITC to operate them is a matter on which we shall listen carefully to the advice that he and many others may give.
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : The Home Secretary began his remarks by being critical of the quality of some of the programmes on ITV. He is now making great play of the fact that there will be a quality hurdle. But the quality hurdle will be lower than any that exists at present and its touch will be lighter, so how can he square his view that programmes are not as good as they might be now with recommending a system with a lower quality hurdle?
Mr. Hurd : The accusation made against us is that we are throwing away all concern for quality, but that is not so and the quality hurdle that we prescribe, which will be an enforceable condition for the letting of franchises, is substantial compared with the way in which it is often described. I have taken the House through the different elements that make up the hurdle and if the hon. Gentleman studies what I have said, he will agree, as he is fair-minded, that it is considerably more substantial than has been supposed by the more shallow critics of the White Paper.
Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey) : In dealing with that point, will my right hon. Friend recognise that the issue of tendering came through the original Peacock report? As I understand it, the Peacock committee, although not in session, has broadly altered its view and in its recent submission to my right hon. Friend it has made it clear that it considers that the ITC should have an override in relation to the concept of the highest bidder. Bearing in mind that, despite the Gibbonesque system that he has described, ITV has produced some substantially effective programming over the past 15 years, will my right hon. Friend look at the new representations from the Peacock committee?
Mr. Hurd : I had my hon. Friend's point in mind when I said that we believe, for the reasons that the Peacock committee gave and continues to give--which the Select Committee also gave when it reported on the matter-- that both the elements of the quality hurdle and the competitive tender are good and necessary, but that the interaction between them and how the House asks the ITC to operate the new system are matters on which it is reasonable that we should listen carefully to any suggestions that George Russell or hon. Members may want to give.
I shall now turn to the fourth safeguard.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) : Before my right hon. Friend passes on to another point, I want to make a point about quality. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House about the Government's commitment to regional programming and production? Can he say how that is to be achieved in the regions where there is little independent regional production, unless the regional ITV companies are to have a commitment to produce some of the programmes that they show.?
Mr. Hurd : That will be part of the hurdle. We are also encouraging --and, as my hon. Friend knows, this is already happening--a cluster of smaller independent producers, not only in London, but in the regions. That has been one of the hopeful developments in television in recent years.
The fourth matter, which I know is on the hon. Gentleman's mind, is the necessary measures against the concentration of ownership. The White Paper makes it clear that rigorous enforcement is necessary. We should regard it as quite unacceptable if British broadcasting were allowed to be dominated by a handful of tycoons of international conglomerates. Effective rules that will safeguard diverse broadcasting ownership, editorial diversity, opportunities for new broadcasters and fair competition are key parts of our aim. We have set out a range of principles and invite suggestions on the scope and formulation of the rules that will flow from those principles. We are interested in views on the best mechanisms for enforcing the rules. Anybody who believes that he has found loopholes has failed to take into account that the White Paper deliberately did not attempt to set out at that early stage a complete set of detailed rules.
Mr. Hurd : No, because I want to continue this part of the argument. People should not be too quick to assume that there will be no limit on newspaper interests in the regional Channel 3 licences. The regional Channel 3 licences will, taken together, provide a major television channel which will be expected to maintain universal national coverage and which may operate national networking arrangements.
If a major national newspaper controlled a regional Channel 3 licensee, it could result in an excessive influence over communications and the flow of information. UHF television services will still be influential users of a scarce resource. Their ownership must remain diverse. We shall consider suggestions to tighten the present proposal in the White Paper that one person could control two, but not more than two, regional Channel 3 franchises. For example, there may be a case for a rule that would prevent anyone from controlling two large such franchises.
Satellite television is much in the news this week--at least in some newspapers. The White Paper is clear that the ownership of satellite television, including the use of satellite channels outside the jurisdiction of this country, will need to be taken into account, and that rules will have to be included on this in our proposals. The House may know that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) has written to my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the media interests of Mr. Murdoch's organisation. My noble Friend has replied to him today, explaining that it is the Director General of Fair Trading who has the responsibility of keeping commercial activities under review and can refer them to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission if he thinks fit. My noble Friend adds that the director general is aware of public comment about the widespread media interests of some groups and is already keeping an eye on that.
Column 1012The fifth point concerns the safeguarding of standards. We propose no relaxation of the present requirements to protect the consumer on such matters as taste, decency and offensiveness. The White Paper proposes that that part of the legislation should be reinforced. Consumer protection requirements will be extended to all United Kingdom broadcasting services and the exemption that broadcasters have from the existing obscenity legislation will be removed. Sanctions will be provided against those who sustain unacceptable foreign satellite services.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : Does the Home Secretary recall that only last week, during our debate on the Official Secrets Bill, he stated that the Obscene Publications Act 1964 was widely disproved of? Why, therefore, is he today seeking to extend it in this fashion?
Mr. Hurd : Because one of the difficulties is precisely that broadcasters are exempted from it. By plugging that loophole we are not dealing with all the defects of the legislation, but with one. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) or he will explode.
Mr. Buchan : Virtually the only regulation that is taken care of in the White Paper is the category of decency and taste, which the Home Secretary is mentioning. Does he agree that there is nothing either in what he has said or in the White Paper that satisfies Professor Peacock who says :
"This aspect of programme standards"--
that is to say quality, decency and taste--
"distracts attention from the much more important one of ensuring that programmes of high quality which challenge the viewer and foster our national cultures continue to be produced."
Regulation in the Home Secretary's eyes means the suppression of dirt. Regulation in our eyes means ensuring good quality programmes.
Mr. Hurd : The hon. Gentleman's criticism would be just if the White Paper were proposing the abolition of the BBC and the Channel 4 remit, and the auctioning of franchises with no assurance of quality. As everything I have said so far is designed to show that that is not so, his criticism is wholly mistaken.
I am moving on to the hon. Gentleman's favourite subject which is the Broadcasting Standards Council. I am glad that he recognises its importance. It will be made statutory under the legislation. It is already fulfilling a needed role as a focus for public concern and as a watchdog across the range of services for which the individual regulatory bodies are responsible.
The BSC was established last year under the chairmanship of Lord Rees-Mogg to consider the portayal of violence and sex, and matters of taste and decency in broadcasting, cable and video works. I understand that he thinks that the council has made good progress on what he set as its priority task of drawing up with broadcasters a code of practice on these matters. It is about to undertake an extensive process of consultation on a draft code with the broadcasting organisations, the public and representatives of other interests.
The council believes that research in this area, which has certainly been fragmentary and conflicting in the past, is particularly important. It is taking steps to help that forward. In that, it is following the advice of the Home
Column 1013Affairs Select Committee. The council has also begun, wisely, to establish useful links with broadcasting, regulatory and other organisations in Europe.
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham) : Most hon. Members will welcome the functions of the BSC as described, but sex and violence are not the main problems. They can be quantified to some degree and a line can be drawn, although, thank God, I shall not have to draw it. But one cannot draw a line through vacuity. The proposals in the White Paper will lead to vacuity in our television service.
Mr. Hurd : The proposals will lead to diversity because clearly that will be a requirement. My hon. Friend is over-pessimistic in assuming that, provided that the standards I have mentioned remain in place, which is our clear intention, the result will be vacuity. There will certainly be a much larger range of choice, but it will have to be genuine choice. It will not be possible simply to provide a range of choice between vacuities. That is incompatible with our proposals. Much of our work was designed precisely to avoid that result. When my hon. Friend studies what I have said, I hope that he will see that that result not only can but will be avoided if Parliament eventually establishes this new framework.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) rose --
Mr. Hurd : I should like to proceed because many wish to speak. The sixth safeguard is the search for European agreement on standards. I have already touched on that with the BSC. We have been arguing for international agreement which, without smothering enterprise, can help transfrontier transmission to provide checks against unacceptable programme standards, particularly regarding taste and decency. My hon. Friend the Minister of State can say a bit more later about the draft Council of Europe convention which he has helped to negotiate. We are not yet home and dry, but after many hiccups I hope that we are in sight of concluding a convention which promotes these objectives without handicapping our broadcasters on something about which they are all concerned--advertising breaks.
I am aware that in a speech which I hope has been decently concise I cannot cover all the ground of the White Paper. I apologise to hon. Members whose main interests lie in DBS, cable, MVDS or transmission. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will pick up any points made on those subjects. I shall simply mention one principle that we tried to include in the White Paper and which runs through several of these proposals. We believe that it should be possible to separate activities that are lumped together. Channel 4 has already shown how a broadcasting organisation can be a publishing house rather than a producer of programmes. In the process it gave the first important boost to independent producers, which our policies have reinforced. The same principle applies in the development of television and radio transmission
Column 1014networks, cable and MVDS. Where enterprising individuals or companies believe that they can perform a service better than the present provider, they should not be excluded simply because they cannot, at the same time, provide another service which happens to be harnessed to the first.
Mr. John Browne : With regard to the European convention, my right hon. Friend mentioned that he wished to keep enterprise alive, yet, as drafted, article 16 of the convention will allow a receiving country to shut out the signals from a direct broadcast satellite if they do not conform to the rules in that particular receiving country. If that country does not have commercial television, it can cut out all incoming advertising in its own language. Is that really something that the British Government are prepared to sign and still say that it is going to fortify enterprise?
Mr. Hurd : I do not think that my hon. Friend is right in saying that that will be the effect, but as my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been directly and personally involved in that perhaps he will be able to pick up the point when he replies.
I promised to say a word about radio ; it would be wrong not to do so. Radio is achieving a strong revival. The days when it was treated as a poor, and perhaps even moribund, relation of television have long since gone. Under our proposal, the BBC will continue broadcasting Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, and it is planning two other national networks. It is also completing its chain of local stations.
We propose to provide, for the first time, for national commercial radio. At the local level there could be scope in due course for several hundred new independent stations. Independent radio is booming. Its revenue rose 24 per cent. last year, making it the fastest-growing single medium. The IBA, while waiting for the new legislation, is giving community radio a very welcome early start--a fairly early start--with its scheme for some 20 incremental radio contracts under existing legislation.
Community radio--that is to say, radio stations catering for communities of interest or for small neighbourhoods--can do much, I believe, to help social cohesion and active citizenship. I believe that that section of the White Paper, which is less controversial than the others, is going to be a very important part of the whole picture.
I hope that what I have said shows that the White Paper proposals offer a reasonable and sensible means of arriving at the next staging post of broadcasting, of which I spoke. No one who actually studies the White Paper can really believe that we are proposing to allow British broadcasting to shrivel into empty trivialities. The fact is that in a free society quality is not best preserved by restricting choice. Our proposals enlarge choice, where enlarged choice is possible, but at the same time ensure that it is a real choice and not just a choice between different brands of pap.
Although it is not a matter, thank God, for the Government, I am not personally enthusiastic about the idea of the British public actually watching more television, in terms of quantity, than it does at the moment. I think that we have just about reached the healthy limit in that regard. But, even with the relative success of broadcasting in this country, we all know that television viewing is too often a passive activity : the television set is
Column 1015on, and its products wash through the room without anybody necessarily deriving a great deal of interest or a great deal of sustenance from what is going on.
With greater choice, if we get it right, could come greater focus, greater sustenance, as people actually choose, and concentrate on, the programmes that fit their particular interests. It is an arid and a pessimistic doctrine that says simply that more must mean worse. It could mean worse, but if we get it right, as I believe we are proposing to do, more need not mean worse but could mean better. As every hon. Member knows, we live in a society which is richly varied in its sports and hobbies and in its cultural and intellectual interests, and we must aim for a television system--this is our aim, and I believe that the White Paper is the right way of achieving it--that will more fully reflect that richness and that variety. 5.35 pm
"declines to support a Broadcasting White Paper which, if implemented, would encourage the concentration of cross-ownership by auctioning franchises to the highest bidder, diminish the ro le of public service broadcasting, threaten the future funding of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and thereby discourage a wide variety of programme choice and generally reduce the high standards and consistent quality of broadcasting in this country.".
I am not sure that the Home Secretary, for all his talents, is at his best when he philosophises to the House. He began today with an analogy comparing broadcasting with a bookshop. Analogy is always a difficult way to proceed, and I was going to remind the right hon. Gentleman that he was comparing broadcasting with an industry that produces millions of books a year to choose from--let him look at the back pages of any edition of The Bookseller --has thousands of retail outlets, and has both a private and public system of borrowing. I would have mentioned all those things to the Home Secretary had he not finished his analogy by saying that, of course, it was not appropriate in the case of broadcasting.
He then went on in more typical fashion. First of all, in his mandarin way, he told us to listen to what he said and to take note of his assurances. We keep making the mistake of reading the White Paper, which is often at variance with the assurances that the Home Secretary gives us. The right hon. Gentleman then pursued his other debating technique--choosing a very limited item to criticise and then building on that limited item as though it were the whole picture. He always tells us that he is not particularly proud of what appears on television on a Saturday evening. Television on a Saturday evening is often pretty tawdry--it is usually made up of people who appear at the Prime Minister's pre-election rallies. But I suspect that if the Home Secretary could pursue broadcasting activities to Sunday evening he would share with me the view that what often starts with a classic serial and goes on to "Bread", "Wish Me Luck" and "The South Bank Show" is something to make most viewers proud of what British television produces. It is against that sort of background that we should be debating the White Paper.
I accept, of course, that changes in our broadcasting system are absolutely necessary. But those changes are not a response to failure. They are essential and inevitable not because broadcasting is bad but because, thanks to technological advance, what we broadcast in the future
Column 1016can be better. Listeners and viewers can be offered a wider range of channels and programmes than ever before. An increasingly discerning and sophisticated public demand that broadcasting should provide all the choices that are technologically possible. A White Paper outlining changes in broadcasting organisation is therefore very much to be welcomed, and we welcome the existence of the document, but we have to ask whether it proposes the right changes--changes which guarantee that British broadcasting will in the future, as in the past, provide the best possible programmes that the most up-to-date technology allows.
We believe that the White Paper must be measured against a number of criteria, most of them distinct but all of them related. I begin by describing what I believe to be the four major criteria. First, will the new form of organisation that the White Paper proposes provide the largest possible real choice to listeners and viewers? By "real choice" I mean more than television sets with more buttons to press than at present. Real choice requires that when different buttons are pressed programmes of quite different character appear on the screen and not, as could so easily be the case, programmes which are indistinguishable from one another.
Secondly, will the new form of organisation that the White Paper proposes ensure that the British viewer and listener are offered a variety of high- quality programmes from which to choose? Will the British industry continue to enhance our national reputation and reduce our balance of payments deficit by exporting television programmes that are bought throughout the world? As "high quality" is a subjective description, I make it clear that I include in it "Bread" as well as "Brideshead Revisited," and "Coronation Street" no less than "Jewel in the Crown".
Thirdly, will the new form of organisation that the White Paper proposes prevent concentration of television ownership and thus ensure the competition of which the White Paper speaks in general terms? The argument against concentration has important democratic implications. In a free society, no individual or organisation should have massive or major control over a medium that is so influential in the formation of opinion. The problem of concentration is often described in language which suggest that the threat is from some multinational organisation. The concentration of ownership of British television in the hands of foreign conglomerates would, in our view, be intolerable. I should make it clear, however, that in our view the concentration of ownership in the hands of two or three British companies, particularly if they also had newspaper interests, would be almost as unacceptable.
My fourth question concerns one of the real criteria of public service broadcasting. Will the new form of organisation that the White Paper proposes ensure that the high quality broadcasts and diversity of choice that are its stated aim are generally available throughout the United Kingdom? One essential feature of public service broadcasting is that it is universally available to all men and women who want to take advantage of it.
Ensuring a wider choice and maintaining the highest possible standards of broadcasting are issues which cannot be separated. The method by which independent companies obtain their franchises will crucially influence the choice and quality of programmes which they offer. Independent television companies exist as profit-making
Column 1017organisations. Therefore, it is right and reasonable for those who run the programme companies to try to make a profit.
At present substantial profits are made without generally imperilling the production of high quality programmes. The programme makers are explicit as to why that is so. The present system of regulation requires them at the time of franchise negotiations to demonstrate the standards that they will maintain during the period of their franchise. We all know of programmes that are made to demonstrate a company's good intentions and commitment to quality. We all know jokes about programmes which have such a small viewing audience that they would not get on the air were they not regarded as underwriting the programme company's good intentions and prepared explicitly to show the company's concern for high standards. The best companies want a continuous regime which has, since independent television began, obliged all their rivals to produce a proportion of high quality programmes. Granada has no doubt about that. I was told explicitly that without a system of franchise negotiation which requires detailed accounts to be given of the rival companies' programme proposals there would be a general reduction in standards. I have no doubt that Granada is right. The White Paper, however, proposes to abandon the present system in which companies must prove their intentions to maintain high standards. In its place there will be what the Home Secretary describes as a greater reliance on the viewer rather than on the regulator. That new system will not, as the Home Secretary suggests, inevitably, necessarily and unavoidably widen choice. The viewer, like any consumer of any other product, can only choose the goods on offer. If a wide varietyof high quality programmes is not available, the consumer--the viewer--will have no real choice.
The White Paper gives absolutely no assurance that real choice--a choice between genuinely different types of programme--will be more available under the new scheme than at present. Standards fall without choice, in any real sense, being increased. Companies bidding for franchises will be required to meet the minimum standards laid down by paragraphs 6.10 and 6.11 of the White Paper. Those standards used to be described by the Home Secretary as the threshold. Today I see that they have increased in height and become a hurdle. No doubt by the time we see the legislation they will be a fence, but whatever word the Home Secretary proposes or uses, no one would argue that they are a very substantial barrier. There is no obligation to broadcast drama, documentaries or religious programmes. Those are all examples of what took place during specific franchise negotiations between the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the programme companies under the present regime. If the system is introduced in the proposed form, I have no doubt that some companies will abandon high-cost drama and high- cost documentaries.
We believe that the documentary, and particularly the investigative documentary, has been one of the features of British television which has enhanced its international reputation. Investigative documentary is also a form of broadcasting which displeases authority, particularly authority that is intolerant of criticism. Perhaps the documentary makers are being punished in the White
Column 1018Paper for their willingness to say things of which the Government disapprove. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) demonstrated in his intervention the bone headed resentment of all opinions except his own which of is too much a feature of modern Conservatism.
Mr. Conway : The right hon. Gentleman should cast his mind back to the fact that I quoted "Panorama", which is noted for its bias, to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. In the recent programme in which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) took part, about the official secrets legislation, the right hon. Gentleman was interviewed three times, but at no stage did those so-called probing documentary makers put to him the points that I put to him in the debate on the Floor of the House, namely, that under the prevention of terrorism legislation a Labour Government had imprisoned four times as many people without trial as the Tory Government. The right hon. Gentleman likes documentaries only when they are biased towards Left-wing Socialism.
Mr. Hattersley : The hon. Gentleman provides in terms, and quite literally, the confirmation of what I said. Unless the programmes are programmes that he would make and ask the questions that he would ask, they cannot be the right programmes.
I am sure that all my colleagues must have found things to complain about in television broadcasts. If the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham ever meets broadcasters from the BBC or from the independent channels, they will confirm that there are few people around with whom they have more private rows in green rooms or on the telephone than me. However, the fact that broadcasters do things of which we disapprove is no argument for limiting their freedom or suppressing their rights. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that--I fear that this may sound slightly pretentious--he does not understand democracy.
I have speculated about one reason why investigative documentaries may be less a feature of the White Paper proposals than some of us might like. Whatever the reasons, if the obligation to provide such programmes were altered in such a way as to result in their reduction, that would be a tragedy, not just because the standards in television would be reduced. For the sake of democracy, we need a high output of current affairs material which acts as an antidote to the often biased and even more trivial newspapers. No one doubts that if the proposals go forward in their present form the expensive, probing documentary will be less a feature of television in the future. We know that to be true because of the cost of high quality programmes compared with the cost of broadcasting quiz shows, cartoons and imported soap operas, which are being produced in America and Australia in ever-increasing numbers and to ever-decreasing standards and are so much cheaper to show than having original programmes made by a contract company.
London Weekend Television has told me that old movies are bought for prices ranging between £500 and £5,000. For the median price of £2,500 it is possible to fill 90 minutes of television time. "Coronation Street" costs £120,000 per hour, and "Bread" costs almost £225,000 per hour. Unless companies are obliged by some form of
Column 1019regulation to include a proportion of original high-cost material within their schedules, there will be more cheap imports. That will produce an overall reduction--not an increase--in real choice. The extra buttons will be there to press, but they will produce an unvarying diet of cheap rubbish.
The Government intend to award each franchise to the company which, having skipped over the minimum threshold, hurdle or fence--or whatever the Home Secretary cares to call it--makes the highest bid in each prescribed area. In short, thanks to the insistence of the Department of Trade and Industry, television is to be used as a method of raising Government revenue. Nobody should be surprised if quality and choice are reduced as a consequence. London Weekend Television tells me that its judgment of the best way to win a contract is to plan to broadcast as little original material as possible and, in anticipation of years of low-cost broadcasting, make a bid that companies committed to transmitting high-cost original material cannot match.
Much of the inspiration for the White Paper, as the Home Secretary keeps telling us, was the Peacock report--prepared by a committee hand-picked to provide a private enterprise answer to all broadcasting questions. The White Paper states that the Peacock committee first proposed competitive tendering, but Peacock has now recanted and publicly urges the Government to recognise the danger of the tender or auction and to accept that there may be times when the highest bidder should not win the franchise. Only doctrinaire philistinism could induce the Government to reject that advice. Thames Television, which knows something about the industry, has no doubts about the likely results of the Government's tendering proposals, which it describes as follows :
"If the franchises were auctioned to the bidder offering most money, the new owner would be bound to spend the franchise years recouping his investment with cheaper mass appeal programmes of the kind that are likely to be transmitted by the satellite broadcasters and Channel Five. There would be little room if any for expensive drama, or innovative, experimental programmes."
Mr. Conway : The right hon. Gentleman takes no account of advertising standards and how such a company would attract advertising. If the programmes were so appalling that nobody wanted to watch them, which is the black hole picture that the right hon. Gentleman paints, they would not attract advertising revenue.
Mr. Hattersley : I will try to explain the matter to the hon. Gentleman in simple terms. I urge him to concentrate his mind on the figures that I give and to see whether he can understand them. If a company broadcasts 90 minutes of programming for £2,500, it does not need to raise so much advertising revenue as it would if it broadcast programmes costing £500,000 per hour. Cost, as well as advertising income, is a crucial factor in the equation. I will allow the hon. Gentleman to cogitate on that point while I move on to another that he will not understand.
Thames Television made, albeit in passing, the following interesting observation about satellite television :
"If things go on like this, Channel 3 will be broadcasting the sort of material we see on satellite--cheaper material."
By referring to satellite television in those terms, Thames means cheaper in quality as well as cheaper in cost. The Government claim to give quality and diversity the highest
Column 1020priority, but their claim is undermined by the White Paper's proposals for Channel 4. The way in which it is proposed to finance Channel 4 can only have the effect of making it more like Channel 3. Paragraph 6.23 of the White Paper asserts the importance of Channel 4 catering
"for tastes and interests not served by other parts of the independent television sector."
But by forcing Channel 4 into direct competition for advertising with Channel 3, the Government will reduce the prospect of preserving Channel 4's distinctive character. When television is directly financed by advertising, its programmes and programme schedules, inevitably, are in part advertising-led. At present, because Channel 4 obtains its revenue from other independent companies, it does not need to concern itself with the type of programmes particularly favoured by dog food manufacturers and by junk food producers, but once Channel 4 is out on its own in the advertising market it will be forced to listen to their views--as Channel 3 openly admits that it is forced to do now. The result will be a Channel 4 which is more like Channel 3. Once again, there will be less choice, not more. On 18 January, the Home Secretary made a speech which dealt directly with my third criterion--the concentration of ownership. His press office entitled that address,
"Tight limits on TV and radio stations are crucial."
I suppose that they meant "essential", but we can all agree with the sentiment if not with the syntax. Few outside observers see much evidence that tight rules are to be imposed as a result of the White Paper. Paragraph 6.48 comments :
"But clear rules will also be needed which impose limits on concentration of ownership and on excessive cross-media ownership." Paragraph 6.53 adds that
"no licence holder for a particular area should control other broadcast media for that area."
I assume that "cross-media ownership" is White Paper patois for simultaneous ownership of television companies and newspapers. The sentiments expressed in both paragraphs are impeccable, but paragraph 6.48, while stressing the undesirability of concentration, concludes with a pathetic anti-climax :
"The Government would welcome comments on the scope and formulation of such rules."
The suspicion that the sub-text is the Government's unwillingness or inability to formulate effective safeguards is confirmed by events-- particularly the comments of the Minister of State, Home Office, in a Channel 4 broadcast on 13 November last year. I understand that this afternoon the Home Secretary expressly repudiated his hon. Friend's comments, but as it is important to make the situation clear I will take the Home Secretary through them. Fortunately, I have a transcript of the programme which the Home Secretary may care to examine as the evening wears on.
When the Minister of State appeared on Channel 4 on 13 November to discuss the White Paper, he was asked whether Mr. Robert Maxwell would be eligible under the proposals to buy Central Television--an aim that Mr. Maxwell had stated earlier that evening. At first, the Minister said that paragraph 6.48 would prevent that, but then he changed his mind and said :
"National newspaper ownership is incompatible with a national television channel but not with the ownership of a local television channel."