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Column 1021He designated Central Television as a local television company, saying that Mr. Maxwell would only be prevented from owning it if he also owned a local newspaper in the midlands. The absurdity of that judgment is self-evident. If Central Television, with guaranteed network access, is not a national channel then what, according to the White Paper, is a national channel? If Mr. Maxwell--who owns two national daily newspapers and one national Sunday newspaper--can buy Central Television, who cannot buy it? According to the Minister, the owner of the "Solihull Weekly Gazette". I hope that the hon. Gentleman was simply talking gibberish, because if what he said is true there can be no limit at all on "cross-media ownership". I ask the Home Secretary in terms whether page 90 of the transcript of the Channel 4 broadcast of 13 November represents Government policy. Perhaps he will instruct his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office how to reply at the end of the debate.
I want to ask the Home Secretary three further questions. First, what rules govern the extent of television ownership--that is, the number of companies under the control of one individual or organisation? Secondly, what rules govern the ownership by foreign companies, to which paragraph 6.50 so loosely refers? Thirdly, what rules cover overlapping ownership of television companies and newspapers? I make our position clear. No Channel 3 company should be registered by a company outside the European Community. No one individual or organisation should own or control more than one Channel 3 company. The powers of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to prevent the concentration of newspaper ownership should be extended to embrace television. If it is against the national interest for one individual to own six newspapers, it must be against the national interest for an individual to own five newspapers and one television company.
I noted the hon. Secretary's comments concerning the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) and the right hon. Gentleman's usual defence that it is for the Director General of Fair Trading to refer specific cases and complaints to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. While that is true, the Home Secretary surely knows that the Government have the power to make general references to the commission, to consider whole sectors of particular concern. The time has come for the Government to make such a general reference, asking the commission to examine the implications of overlapping ownership of newspapers and television broadcasting companies.
Mr. Buchan : My right hon. Friend will note in paragraph 10.5 that certain questions of possible restrictive labour practices had already been referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Such justice is hardly even-handed.
Mr. Hattersley : That confirms my judgment that the Government can, if they wish, make a general reference. Clearly, if there was ever a case of industrial patterns changing in a way that made a general monopoly reference necessary, the circumstances brought about by new technology in television and the problems of overlapping ownership are such a case.
The fourth general criterion by which the White Paper should be judged is the extent to which its proposals make a choice of high-quality television available to the whole country. That leads inevitably to the question of future financing for the BBC. The Home Secretary told the House on 7 November :
"The Government look forward to the gradual introduction of subscription on the BBC's television services and to the eventual replacement of the licence fee".--[ Official Report, 7 November 1988 ; Vol. 140, c. 30.]
We consider that prospect incompatible with what the White Paper describes as the BBC's central role--the provision of
"high quality programming across the full range of public tastes and interests, including both programmes of popular appeal and programmes of minority interest"
"education, information and cultural material as well as entertainment".
Producing those "demanding programmes" is what the Peacock report says that the BBC should do, and what the Peacock report says is not available even in a perfectly constructed broadcasting market. The BBC has already announced the introduction of a subscription service, which it predicts will,
"in the long run, make a significant contribution to the funding of the BBC".
The BBC, however, has made it clear--I hope that the Government will be equally positive--that a subscription service cannot be an alternative to a comprehensive BBC 1 and BBC 2, and that subscription cannot fund the BBC in the absence of a licence fee.
The licence fee is a second proposal on which members of the Peacock committee have recanted. The Home Secretary, describing the committee's report as "admirable", told the House when he introduced the White Paper two months ago how much the Government had been influenced by its thinking. Now that the members of that committee favour retaining the value of the licence fee after 1991 I hope that the Government will continue to respect their logic and judgment. The Government's present intention is to index the licence fee until--but only until--1991. The Peacock committee members now judge that a reduction in the real value of the licence fee would have "damaging effects both on BBC Television and BBC Radio". The Home Secretary is in part responsible for the confusion over the licence fee and its proper role in financing broadcasting. There was a great deal of speculation about its future before the White Paper was published, and the Home Secretary encouraged the nation with the delphic, indeed mystical, comment that the licence fee was "not immortal". As things now stand, the fee is not to have its throat cut suddenly but is to be slowly strangled. We have no doubt that the end of the fee would mark the end of public broadcasting.
Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West) : I share much of the right hon. Gentleman's concern about the future of the BBC without a licence fee and about how it would maintain its public service commitment, but there is one point with which I have a good deal of difficulty. In five or
Column 1023six years' time we may be able to watch 14 television stations. We might get 10 of them free and be able to choose whether to pay for two of them, but what can we say to people when they are told by the Government that they must pay for the remaining two whether they want them or not?
Mr. Hattersley : We say what Peacock said--that even in a perfect broadcasting market, which none of us thinks can be achieved, although there will be more of a broadcasting market in the future than there is now, there will be some exacting programmes that only the BBC will be able to provide. I believe that it is in the interests of the country as a whole that those programmes should be provided. I may be watching cricket on the cricket channel all day, or Hollywood musicals 1925-40 on some other channel all evening, but I believe that it would be in the interests of the community, including me, if I made a small contribution towards something better for other people to watch.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : My right hon. Friend said that the Home Secretary was not the only person to blame for the undermining of the concept of the licence fee. It is a two-way process and I share part of the guilt, for one of the things that have led to the undermining of that concept is the sometimes hysterical outburst from both sides of the House every time the fee changes. At the margin there will always be problems, but that undermining of the concept of the licence fee has in turn undermined the concept of the BBC and of public service broadcasting.
Mr. Hattersley : I entirely agree, and I go a step further. I do not believe that the BBC will ever have the licence fee that it needs and deserves until we devise some method of absolving those least able to pay from paying the full fee. I have always argued that the case for helping the pensioner is based not simply on compassion but on ensuring that the fee is high enough to meet the BBC's needs, which it never would be while particular deserving groups excited the feelings to which my hon. Friend has properly drawn attention. As I understand it, the White Paper proposed to put in place of the licence fee what the Home Secretary describes as
"a direct relationship between the viewer and the provider". That is a euphemism for the market mechanism operating in television. The viewer gets what the viewer pays for, and the viewer pays for what the viewer can afford. If that happens there will be a two-tier television system, with a superior service supplied to those who can take constant advantage of the subscripton channels and an inferior service for the rest. That is a negation of public service broadcasting.
Mr. Hattersley : I think that I must follow the Home Secretary's example and get on with my speech because many other hon. Members wish to speak. Like the Home Secretary, I gave way a good deal at the beginning.
All that being said, we believe that opportunities still exist for the Government to adjust their proposals in such a way as to ensure that the inevitable revolution in television ownership and organisation produces the high-quality programmes and greater choice that the
Column 1024British viewer is entitled to expect. There are already some elements in the White Paper that can be built on. The proposed powers for the new Independent Television Commission are--for all the Home Secretary's derision of regulation--in some ways far more extensive than those enjoyed by the IBA. Certainly the ability to give a formal warning to defaulting companies and the right to revoke a franchise are powers much to be welcomed, but for those powers to have any real effect the ITC must measure the performance of companies against real criteria of quality.
Similarly, I very much welcome the obligation of Channel 3 companies to provide regional programmes--including programmes produced in the regions-- but on the basis of the present tendering arrangements those programmes might well be of the minimum stipulated number and the minimum specified quality. If the Home Secretary doubts that, he may care to know of a letter received recently by midlands Members of Parliament from Central Television's current affairs programme "Central Lobby". It told us that the company had discovered that it was making more local programmes than were required by its franchise, and that the number of current affairs programmes was consequently to be reduced. That phenomenon will be multiplied and duplicated when the threshold is lower than it is today.
The obsession with regulation and the determination to deregulate even undermines the White Paper's otherwise generally sensible proposals on radio broadcasting. The growing popularity of radio presented the Government with an excellent opportunity to broaden the scope of the entertainment and information that radio can provide. As with television, however, the nature of the expansion will be adversely affected by the accompanying deregulation. The introduction of the three new commercial channels is to be welcomed, but in paragraph 8.4 of the White Paper the Home Secretary insists that those stations must all provide a general service. Indeed, they are specifically and specially absolved from the requirement to make public service provision. That single-minded pursuit of deregulation can only have an adverse effect on the overall quality of radio broadcasting.
There is one area in which the Government propose to extend regulation. I refer, of course, to the Broadcasting Standards Council. In this morning's press Professor Alan Peacock--who I hope remains the figure of veneration sanctified in the White Paper--is explicit on the subject. He says :
"The Broadcasting Standards Council has no function in a free society".
All we know about the Broadcasting Standards Council is the people or the person who will run it. Its full role has yet to be vouchsafed to us. We know that Lord Rees-Mogg wants to acquire the power to vet and veto individual programmes, but we do not know how his censorship will operate. The Home Secretary told us in November that he was working out an agreement on standards with the new chairman and that the new chairman would soon tell the Home Secretary how he would operate. Lord Rees-Mogg becomes one of the few public servants ever to be offered a job and then told that he can decide what it is after he has been appointed. I am fundamentally opposed to Lord Rees-Mogg telling me or anyone else what we can or cannot see. Such matters should be decided not by the subjective judgment of an individual but by general standards enshrined in legislation.
Column 1025While I am worried about Lord Rees-Mogg's potential role, I am horrified by the thought of what Lord Chalfont will do --given the chance--to the IBA. I accept, with due deference to the other place, that Lord Chalfont is a bit of a joke. He is the only man in history to become a peer, a Privy Councillor, one of Her Majesty's Ministers and a member of the Labour party all on the same afternoon. Although he is a joke, he is a dangerous joke. [Interruption.] Throughout the whole debate on broadcasting there have been Conservative Back Benchers--we have heard from them today and they are shouting out now--who have argued that a body should be established with a power to make judgments about the national interest and the impartiality of programme makers. By "national interest" they mean the Government's interest and by "impartiality" they mean bias in favour of their own ideological prejudices. I have no doubt that Lord Chalfont shares their view. It might be worth asking whether, had he been at the IBA last year, he would have banned "Death on the Rock" and whether he would have sympathised with the previous Home Secretary's authoritarian insistence that the BBC should abandon the broadcasting of "Real Lives". The best that can be said about Lord Chalfont's appointment is that the Prime Minister was issuing an official warning to independent- minded broadcasters. The worst that can be said about his appointment is that he will behave in the repressive way that the Prime Minister hopes he will behave.
We shall vote for a number of principles that we have set out in the amendment. We believe that they must be the basis of broadcasting reform. The White Paper proclaims its own principles. They are different from the principles with which the Home Secretary entertained us today, and the Government are specific about a principle that the Home Secretary passed over lightly. The White Paper says :
"Wherever possible the Government's approach to broadcasting should be consistent with its overall deregulation policy."
I suspect that secretly the Home Secretary has very little sympathy with the notion that broadcasting should be governed by the rules that Lord Young thinks are appropriate to rural bus services and private employment agencies. The dogma, we suspect, is not the Home Secretary's. The dogma is Lord Young's. He regards broadcasting as a commodity, to be bought and sold like any other commodity or, more appropriately perhaps, like property from which there might be a quick profit by means of quick, cheap development.
To use a cliche , we believe that British broadcasting is among the best in the world. The White Paper was a chance to provide a framework that would ensure that it maintained that status. The Government have missed the opportunity. I hope that they will improve between now and the introduction of the legislation.
Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North) : I am pleased to be called and to give a general welcome on behalf of the Select Committee on Home Affairs to the Government's White Paper on broadcasting. The House will have seen on the Order Paper the reference to the reports of the Committee. Our major report was published some four months before the White Paper, and the Committee must
Column 1026be gratified by the extent to which its recommendations and conclusions have been adopted by the Government, even if the emphasis of the White Paper is not always the same as our own. Our second special report includes a table setting out the detailed response of the Government to our proposals.
Some of the criticisms of the White Paper reflect a wish to retain a broadcasting system which has been admired throughout the world, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has just said. For good or ill, the status quo is not an option in the 1990s. Under existing legislation, three British Satellite Broadcasting channels are to start broadcasting later this year. No one can have missed the publicity concerning the launch of Sky television on the Astra satellite, even if they have no means of seeing the programmes. The changes in broadcasting are borne out of technological advance. In this situation, the Government's priority must be to maintain standards in the face of the new competition. The White Paper quotes our report in agreeing that the BBC is still and will remain for the foreseeable future
"the cornerstone of public service broadcasting."
The Committee is concerned--as, I note from the press, are the members of the Peacock committee--that the income and structure of the BBC should be preserved in the medium term while the world of broadcasting is changing. The Committee's report stressed that in the new broadcasting environment there should be competition for quality as well as quantity in television programming. There will be real choice for viewers only if there is a sufficient amount of quality programming from which to choose. The White Paper looks to the BBC to provide such quality across the whole range of television programmes.
It is in the context of diverse and quality programmes that we welcome the affirmation of the remit of Channel 4, which we unanimously supported in our report. The ability of Channel 4 to fulfil its remit may be vitally affected by the eventual decision on its organisation and funding. This part of the White Paper is "green edged" and my Committee is undertaking a short inquiry to establish which, if any, of the options given in the White Paper would best secure the twin aims of preserving the remit of Channel 4 and enhancing competition between channels.
At present, the bulk of our memoranda support the second option : that Channel 4 should be a subsidiary of the new Independent Television Commission, selling its own advertising, but with a guaranteed level of income. The main problem with that approach is how to maintain some necessary linkage with Channel 3 while the two services compete for advertising revenue. As our inquiry began only on Monday of this week, I am not yet able to offer any guidance to the House.
It is right, as we recommended, that one authority should oversee all commercial television, however transmitted, but with a lighter touch than the IBA. It will be important that the ITC should have sufficient powers to enforce separation of ownership of television services from ownership of other media enterprises. I welcome the recent Home Office statements on that aspect, but they must be given force in the Bill. It will be essential, too, that the qualifying standards to enter the competitive tender for Channel 3 franchises should be a proper test of quality and commitment, and if its promised standards are not kept the ITC should have the power and the resolve, after appropriate warning, to end the contract.
Column 1027My Committee welcomes the research role of the Broadcasting Standards Council. Too many of the criticisms of broadcasting and broadcasters are based on reporting of television rather than on actual viewing. Pressure groups can play on exaggerated fears of declining standards. The council will be able to set such fears in the context of actual trends and genuine public reaction. In this context I am concerned that the Broadcasting Complaints Commission should retain its role so that arbitration of particular complaints does not become complicated or confused in the mind of the public with the important role that the Broadcasting Standards Council will play.
There are some matters to which the Government should perhaps give further thought before finalising their plans. In our report we supported the Eureka project for high definition television as the way to secure the benefits of HDTV as soon as possible for the viewing public and to support the future of the European electronics industry. The BBC, BSB and the IBA are keen to develop this system which is compatible with, but markedly improves upon, the present technology. I hope that the Government will press ahead with the draft European directive on HDTV and that the Department of Trade and Industry will make clear what action it will take to support the development of HDTV.
A particular matter in the White Paper which the Committee did not envisage was the proposed allocation to a commercial contractor of night time hours on one of the BBC channels. In our report we went as far as to say that this was "totally unrealistic". When we took concluding evidence in May from the Minister of State, no hint of this possibility was given to us. I am afraid that in this proposal the White Paper faces both ways at once. It exhorts the BBC to raise money through subscription and then proposes that one possible outlet for such services--the night hours on one channel--is to be removed. If we are serious about wishing the BBC to use subscription finance in support of its income and to become financially more efficient, we should allow the BBC to retain its night hours to develop subscription services such as British medical television and a "BBC Nature Club". Three other terrestrial and countless satellite channels will be available to advertisers.
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : Will the hon. Gentleman go further and ask the Minister to say categorically that the evidence that he gave to the Committee in May that the BBC will be allowed to keep its night-hour channels and to develop them as it sees fit still stands?
Mr. Wheeler : The hon. Gentleman is a fine ornament in the Committee. I am confident that when the Minister replies to the debate he will note the force of the argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman and by the Committee as a whole and will, perhaps, respond accordingly.
On the proposals relating to transmission, I remind the House of the excellent and reliable service that the BBC and IBA have provided for many years to a higher technical standard than that in many countries. In framing the new arrangements it will be important for the Government to establish a workable structure for competition in that area. The BBC and ITC should be able to compete for the contracts to run transmission systems. The White Paper does not envisage immediate steps in
Column 1028transmission, as the BBC's responsibilities are rooted in its charter which lasts until the end of 1996. I hope that the Government will allow the ITC and the new commercial services to develop before final decisions are taken.
Finally, I wish to refer to the future of the new Independent Television Commission. In the remaining period of the IBA's life many decisions affecting the role and work of the ITC will have to be taken. These decisions must not be taken in a vacuum. The Home Secretary has already appointed Mr. George Russell as chairman of the IBA and chairman-designate of the ITC. I applaud that appointment, because Mr. Russell combines business experience and acumen with a working knowledge of the world of television, having been involved in Channel 4 and ITN.
It is important that the change from the IBA to the ITC should be a watershed marking the change from detailed regulation to a looser licensing arrangement. The change is now clear. For the interim I note what the Home Secretary has said about the transition from the IBA to the ITC after the enactment of the Broadcasting Bill. A successful transition is vital if those involved are to plan properly for the future control of the independent sector. I hope that in his reply the Minister of State will take on board the issues that I have raised. They are essential to the future of broadcasting in this country.
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South) : Although the ten-minute rule does not come into force until 7 o'clock, I shall try to abide by it now. I shall speak about two matters--public service broadcasting and the development of the IBA companies and the new commission.
I was glad to hear the Select Committee speaking out in favour of the principles of public service broadcasting and recommending that such principles should be an integral part of the new broadcasting environment. I am worried about the future of the BBC. Although that has been said before, it is worth impressing on the Government, because they said that they would listen--breaking the habit of a lifetime--so perhaps they will listen to all hon. Members who are worried about the BBC.
The BBC often makes me angry because it never reports well on Ireland. The other night it was caught out about the Duisberg conference on developments in Ireland, and since then people in Ireland have not stopped laughing. When newspapers do such things they do not cause much worry, but the BBC screen is in many homes. Its management is not very good. Its television and radio drama, its orchestral concerts and the way that it subsidises orchestras in the interests of the public service are excellent. Whatever my views about the BBC, I have always seen it as a lantern to the world and the world's best broadcasting service. That view stems from my feelings during the war, but that was a long time ago. The BBC has maintained its standards, but it will not be able to continue to do so unless it has sufficient money.
I hope that the Government will not allow the Treasury to decide the future or size of the licence fee. I used to think that the University Grants Committee approach would be the best way to deal with the licence fee. One could compute the total amount of money likely to come in by way of licence fees, a UGC approach could be used to give a view to the Government and the money could be raised
Column 1029by taxation. However, I have gone off that idea because I know from being on the court of London university how the University Grants Committee works. I still feel that there is a better way to raise money, but in the meantime the licence fee must be maintained. By itself subscription television can mean only that the BBC will have to cut its wider services. A weaker BBC will have an effect on the IBA and ITC sectors of broadcasting. Inevitably, if the BBC does not have enough money and if the Government of the day--I am looking to the foreseeable future and 1991--do not give the BBC sufficient money, we shall end up talking about having advertising on the BBC, which would change the nature of the BBC.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the instruction given to those producing programme links on the BBC is to make them look as much like advertising as possible? What would be the difference if the BBC had advertisements?
Mr. Rees : My hon. Friend is right. I do not wish to rehearse the arguments of 25 years ago, but the nature of the BBC, which has an assured income and a charter that guides it, would be irrevocably altered if it had to depend on money from advertising.
I do not wish to develop my worry about the nature of appointments to the IBA and the BBC. I understand the balance that has been maintained, but what is important is that the men and women appointed to the IBA should be people of substance with an influential place in society resulting from their experience. It is not the job of a Government to appoint people because of their political sympathies or because their general views accord with those of the Government. I had to consider the appointment of a chairman of the BBC in 1979 and in the end I decided not to make a change because an election was imminent, so we asked Lord Swann to stay on. However, I did ask Edward Boyle, of Leeds university in my city, to take the job--not because of his political views but because I thought that he would be an admirable man to have in the BBC. He declined my invitation because of his health and because he valued being in university life.
Regional televison companies matter. I can see the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who is my neighbour in Leeds, agreeing to that. Yorkshire Television, Granada and the Welsh television companies matter in the regions. I want to be sure that we do nothing that will weaken such companies. I am a bit worried when I read the White Paper. Although there is talk about regional programmes, I should like to see more mention of regional companies because they ought to make the programmes in the regions in which they are based.
A number of companies have told me of their anxieties about cross-subsidy. Now the IBA has sent most Members of Parliament a paper on the subject. A particular point is summed up by the IBA document. It says :
"The twin principles of regional service and universality have hitherto been preserved by the significant cross-subsidies which underpin the ITV system. Currently at least £20 million is transferred annually from the major companies to the small regional companies in order to support and enhance the service to the viewers. These cross-subsidies operate via the transmission system"--
Column 1030there has also been great concern about the problems of the transmission system and the worry that the small companies would not be able to afford the cost of it--
"subscription to Channel 4 and the networking-arrangements, and all will disappear under Government's plans."
What is the point of the Government talking about regional television if the cross-subsidisation is not available?
I sit on the Select Committee that is considering the televising of Parliament, and we have not yet come to any conclusions. I speak for myself to make a point. What will happen with televising the Chamber and the Committees is that we shall provide not a programme but a feed. Once the feed--an electronic Hansard --is out, the companies outside will decide how to make a programme out of it. What goes on in the House will be transmitted in regionally based programmes, as well as nationally based programmes afterwards, so the Select Committee has to take into account the new mode that the Government have recommended in the White Paper. There is a desire and a need for regional political programmes, and the IBA document that I have quoted points out that it will be more difficult to deal with such programmes. That is a serious problem.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and other hon. Members have raised a number of issues. The Government will have to apply their mind to the purpose of competitive tendering. What did the Peacock committee believe that competitive tendering would achieve? I know that, in the Marks and Spencer analogy, competition means that one can get clothes and shoes that are better than they would be if they were publicly provided. But what would competitive tendering in broadcasting achieve? I have studied the White Paper carefully. It sets out two procedures for the licensing body, the ITC. What is "quality threshold"? Paragraph 6.17 guides the reader back a page or two to where it says :
"news should be impartial and accurate".
That is probably taken from the legislation setting up the IBA and from the BBC charter. I say to hon. Members representing Northern Ireland that that reminds me of that wonderful newspaper in Tyrone, the Impartial Reporter. That made me realise that "impartial" has different definitions in different dictionaries.
What will the words "impartial and accurate" mean in practice? The White Paper links them to the "quality threshold", which is the first stage of the licence application. Will the companies write on a bit of paper what they will do, or put a price alongside each of the qualities that they have picked up from the earlier part of the White Paper? I do not understand, but I am given hope by the White Paper's reference to public scrutiny. We live in an age of open government. Once the sealed bids, from both existing and new companies are in, why should they not be published? Why should they not be of general knowledge to the community as a whole? They can be analysed in the newspapers with that objectivity for which the British press is famous. They can be analysed, too, in the television programmes which do that so well late at night, especially for Members of Parliament who get home at half-past 10.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : I am listening with care to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. In para 6.17 of the White Paper he will read that it is intended that "Both stages of the procedure will be open to public scrutiny."
Mr. Rees : That is excellent. That has not been apparent in the discussions that I have had. Will it be clear that when Mr. X, with his associates, puts in his quality programme he will refer to the number of programmes that he will make in his studio and how much he will import films with stars such as the Three Stooges from the 1920s? Such films are not of great intellectual value, but I watch them avidly because they take me back to my youth. They are a great antidote to some debates in the House.
If it is all to be spelt out, that is an aspect of open government which cheers me. We will know what the companies propose and whether they are falling down on the job in the months and years ahead. When the proposals are published, the Select Committee on broadcasting can question Mr. X and Mr. Y. It is right that the Select Committee should be able to question them quickly before they are given contracts. That opens a vista that I had not thought of before. I promised not to speak for too long. I wanted to mention the BBC and its licence fee, which I regard as important, and competitive tendering, which must be set out much more clearly than it is in the White Paper. The Government have said that they will listen. I hope that they listen sympathetically to the concern of both sides of the House on those two issues.
Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside) : I think all of us realise the importance of the need for change in broadcasting. We realise also that the real thrust for that change comes because of the technological advances that we have seen in recent years. I did not agree with a great deal of the speech of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) but one thing which struck me most was that at least he said that change is not a response to failure. It is important to start from that position. It is not that what we have is bad ; indeed, there is a great deal of good in it. My anxiety relates to the need to be careful so that we do not lose many of the good things in the present system. I want specifically to follow what the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said. I should like to go into it much more widely, but time does not allow. I intend to stick to the importance of the regional character of our television and particularly of Channel 3. This importance is emphasised by Peacock, by the Select Committee report and by the White Paper. When everyone pays lip service to something, I am worried that it may be overlooked in the outcome. We all pay lip service to the importance of the regional character of television. If I make no other point, I want to emphasise that we do not just pay lip service to it but that we carry it through into whatever legislation and new arrangements we make. Let us remember also that in the legislation which follows the White Paper we will set the pattern of broadcasting for many years. That is why it is so important that we get it right.
On regional broadcasting, I make no apology for speaking particularly from the Scottish viewpoint. I urge
Column 1032my hon. Friend the Minister of State to consider Scotland not as a whole but as a number of different parts which are not homogeneous, and which have different characteristics, different backgrounds and different histories. In Scotland we have Grampian television in the north, Border television in the south and Scottish television in the central belt. I would be bitterly disappointed to see that regional structure within Scotland destroyed or hurt in any way.
This point has been very much emphasised in Scotland. In my part of Scotland, a survey was commissioned by Grampian television, following other surveys in recent years. The survey showed that the independent channel, with its regional content, has the broadest support. Investigations showed that that was because of the regional content of its programmes, particularly the news programmes. That we must maintain. The result of the investigation is borne out by my own experience and that of others in the area. Therefore, my first point is that we must retain the regional franchise map not only in the United Kingdom as a whole but within Scotland.
My second point also follows what the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South said. If we are to have regional Channel 3 companies, and particularly if we are to maintain, as I believe we should, the small companies in the big geographic areas, transmission costs will be critical if they are to survive. One transmitter at Crystal palace serves many millions of people in London. The Grampian area in the north of Scotland has 1.13 million inhabitants and is as large as Switzerland. Eight main transmitters and 68 relay transmitters are required to reach the population.
In his opening remarks my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary paid respect to the need for the universality of our television and broadcasting. Indeed, the White Paper acknowledges the need for continuing universal coverage. Because of cross-subsidy in our national transmission, coverage is available to everyone at the same cost. That must not be undermined. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State to elaborate in his reply to the debate on the proposals for a privatised, regionally based transmission system. What precisely is meant by that? What will the effect be? Can he please give the House and me in particular the assurance that there will be the same cost for transmission to every person throughout the country?
My third point relates to the granting of the franchise, which is part of the amendment before us. I understand the Government's desire to use a price mechanism. I understand why they wish to avoid statutory authorities making final decisions on awards. I appreciate also the quality test proposal of which my right hon. Friend made so much in his speech. However, a pricing test is recommended by Peacock ; but let us also remind ourselves that it was only by a majority of four to three. As has already been said in the debate, there has been subsequent qualification of exactly what it should be. It was questioned in the House of Lords debate. It has been strongly questioned by Lord Thomson of Monifieth, for whose experience I have great respect.
I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that we have to watch the danger of putting profit before quality, particularly in regard to some of the smaller franchises. For example, when the cable service in Aberdeen faced financial difficulties, the first thing it axed was the local channel. That worries many of us who have had good
Column 1033services from small local television companies. Care has to be given to that point. If we make price the main priority, we may create financial pressures which endanger programme quality, attract outside predators and reduce the service to regional viewers and advertisers.
The White Paper acknowledges the success of the present system. Therefore, we have to be careful in case we throw out many of the good things that we have in it. If the present proposals are proceeded with and they prove to be wrong--if my fears are justified--given the fixed term of 10 years and a review in another 10 years, we could land ourselves in considerable difficulties. I was encouraged by what my right hon. Friend said about the dual franchise, and I hope that he will take a fresh look at it. Considering the proposal from a regional viewpoint, many of us are anxious about it. It could concentrate the control of Channel 3 among seven or eight operators. When one considers the small franchise operators, one can see that that could lead to the closing down of regional stations and the loss of local identity.
If a large central and a small regional franchise were held in the same hands, I believe that there would be the greatest risk of that small regional franchise being subordinated. That would affect the quality and the regional nature of the programmes initiated from that region, and would affect, too, the staff employed, and the quality of the staff which a small regional company can attract to its area. I certainly hope that that proposal will be dropped.
I would like finally to make three important points. I am anxious about the separation of Channel 4 from Channel 3. I am again speaking about regional considerations. I believe that that would create the danger of a loss of advertising revenue and the loss of some of the access which local advertisers currently have. At the same time, it would create dangers by inhibiting the commissioning of programmes from the small regional companies. Those are points that my right hon. Friend must take into account.
I believe that there are also broader issues. Channels 3 and 4 being linked and working together provide a balance, because of a similar link between Chanels 1 and 2 of the BBC. I believe that to have Channels 3 and 4 in the commercial sector and Channels 1 and 2 of the BBC linked not only provides a better balance but, if they are not linked, we shall lose the advantages of the complementary programming in the commercial sector which I believe helps viewers' choice.
Secondly, I should like to pay tribute to the success of S4C in Wales in relation to the Welsh language. I do not want to belittle what has been done elsewhere, but a company such as Grampian must provide Gaelic programmes and also contribute financially and directly to S4C in Wales. Why can we not have the same funding for Gaelic programmes as does S4C, which the White paper has acknowledged has been a proven success? The suggestion of cable or MVDS for Gaelic programmes is highly dubious, given the scattered nature of the Gaelic communities and the topography of the west coast and the islands of Scotland.
Thirdly, I am anxious that, in the White Paper, Channel 3 is not given specifically public service responsibility, as it has at present. Public service responsibility means that
Column 1034there must be a proper place for, for example, religious and children's programmes, programmes for minority groups and for the disabled. Therefore, my last plea--once more I make no apology for casting all these matters in a regional context--is that the importance of public service responsibility is written into, and not just implied in, the final proposal for Channel 3.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan- Smith), especially because I agreed with every word he said and not having to repeat and re-emphasise those points will make my task easier. All hon. Members who, like the right hon. Gentleman, represent constituents who live in some of the more peripheral parts of our country and in the less-densely populated areas will agree with what he said about the importance of regional broadcasting. The Home Secretary brought his proposals for the future of broadcasting before Parliament under pressure from two external quarters. The first impulse--which is very welcome--is the global revolution in communications technology, which will offer further possibilities of greater consumer diversity of programme choice. The second question, which has unfortunately dominated the Home Secretary's responses to the first, is ideological and entirely unwelcome. It is the simple belief that the commercialism of the market place should determine broadcasting output--terrestrial as well as by satellite. It should not be necessary to emphasise that broadcasting is for the benefit of the viewer. However, the White Paper rarely refers to the viewer and appears transfixed by two financial objectives of marginal benefit to the viewer. The first is to raise the maximum revenue for the Treasury by the sale of franchises and a levy based on income. The second is how to reduce costs to advertisers through extended competition.
In the past, there have been indefensible industrial practices in television. Substantial profits cushioned the companies from the need to change. But change was coming, and some of it was in response to the Government's pressure and nudging. For example, there was the proposal that independent producers should produce 25 per cent. of original programming. The new pressures of scarcely regulated competition and increased Government financial exaction appear unrelated to the viewers' interests. They are calculated to reduce funds for programme making and are designed to produce the result, "You simply get what you pay for".
At the heart of this debate is the question of how far both the BBC and independent television could continue under the Government's proposals to promote, through the 1990s, quality broadcasting as we have known it. Undoubtedly, most viewers have their gripe about some aspect of television. However, in comparison with other countries, a high proportion of the population watches television for many hours each week. The figures suggest a fair amount of audience satisfaction. It is hard to envisage much scope for further viewing--which I believe the Home Secretary admitted--and it is more likely that the increase in the number of channels will in time reduce the numbers watching the existing channels.