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Column 1049We know what is in store for us. We are in store for deregulated television on the American model. The Home Secretary is becoming sensitive about that. I have not heard anyone from the United States say, "My word, I wish our television was like your television." Our television is incomparably better than American television and I will explain why.
We have regulation in our system and we should not fall for the idea that regulation means restriction. Anyone who has worked in commercial television will confirm that the regulatory powers of the Independent Broadcasting Authority extend programme choice. The IBA constantly tells programme makers to do this or that. There is no dead hand of bureaucracy present. Lord Ferrers may refer in the other place to the bureaucratic control of the IBA, but that is not the experience of people working in the system. A degree of regulation extends programme quality.
The same is true of news coverage. Can we really say that the IBA's programme guidelines restrict the quality of news coverage in broadcasting? My goodness, I wish that there were some programme guidelines for newspapers in their news rooms which would put sense into the way in which they cover the news. Regulations of various kinds can extend quality and choice.
Our system is programme-maker-led. It is not led by advertisers. The depressing philosophy of the White Paper is that somehow the advertisers must lead the way. By and large, people work in television because they like making programmes. The Government should ask themselves why people working in the industry object to the White Paper. We would think that everyone would be in favour of it because it extends job opportunities, provides more channels and there will be no shortage of work, but people in the industry oppose it because they know that it will mean a lower standard of programme. An extremely important factor about our television system is its universality. At a very simple level for people who, like me, are interested in sport the great national sporting events such as test matches, cup finals, snooker finals and the Grand National are available to all nation wide. They are not on subscription or available only to the few. We should be taking a terrible step in the wrong direction if we made those sporting events available only on subscription channels so that they were not available universally. I strongly welcome more channels, but they should be subject to regulation to guarantee more choice than we risk having under this proposal. It is ironic that the title of the White Paper is : "Broadcasting in the '90s : Competition, Choice and Quality.' If the Government are honest with themsleves, they will accept that the competition is phoney, the choice will increasingly be choice for a few--it will be restricted--and quality will deteriorate. The Home Secretary believes that the new system will be like browsing through a good book shop. We shall refer to that phrase again and again as the new system evolves, but I fear that it will be far less like browsing through a good book shop and more like browsing through a tatty newsagent's.
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Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South) : Anyone reading this debate in five years' time is likely to be struck by the small amount of attention that has been devoted to cable. I am glad that the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) did something to put that right, and I am sorry to see that he is not in the Chamber at the moment.
I declare an interest as I am the chairman of a cable television company which has a franchise. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister of State replies he will refer to cable ; in particular I hope that he will say that those parts of the White Paper which deal with cable are particularly green.
I believe that there should be two changes in the White Paper. First, it is odd that there should be a proposal for a levy for cable and microwave, or MVDS as it is called. Cable does not use a scarce resource and it is not making a profit. It is not a monopoly. The more sensible approach for the Government would be to wait and see whether it makes the super profits which might justify a levy. I surmise that the reason for the proposal is that the Government are suffering from a misconception about what the operators of those technology-neutral franchises will do. Cable operators want to construct cable. They regard microwave as an adjunct which can be useful in less populated areas. The same misconception may account for the reference in the White Paper to the separation of the functions of delivery and retailing.
If separation is put into force, it will damage the success of the cable television industry. I favour cable because it can do anything that any other system can do, do more and do it as well, if not better. It can provide a virtually unlimited number of entertainment channels and the interactive services to which the hon. Member for St. Helens, South referred, and competitive telecommunications, which are very important for Britain's technological and industrial future. It can also provide local programming to which the Government used, a few years ago at any rate, to attach a great deal of importance. Cable can do all those things at an economic cost that is competitive with other systems. It also does away with aerials, "squarials", dishes and any other impedimenta that we may otherwise see on our roofs in great abundance. The White Paper states that delivery and retailing must be separated and that the same company may not conduct both functions. What is more, the White Paper appears to contemplate that there will be several retailers.
That proposal appears to have been put forward for fear of a monopoly. I believe that the cable television industry is not a monopoly. It is competing with BBC and ITV. It will be competing with the fifth channel and the video recorder. Anyone can hire a tape for a night for £1 or less, and that is certainly competition for cable. There is also competition from satellite television.
So it is entirely unrealistic to refer to cable as a monopoly. I wonder whether hon. Members have any idea of the cost of constructing a cable system. We know the estimated cost of constructing the cable system in Birmingham for which a franchise was awarded recently. For 450,000 homes, the cost is estimated to be £160 million. Companies will not apply for cable franchises or the new technology-neutral franchises unless they are
Column 1051fairly confident of getting a fair return on their investment. They will not be confident unless they have a sufficient degree of control over the marketing and retailing process.
Suppose that, when our railways were being built 150 years ago, the Government had said, "Gentlemen, you may lay the tracks and build railway stations, but you cannot run any trains or sell any tickets." Would that have been an attractive or sensible proposition to put before people who wanted to build railways and thus carry Britain forward into the new industrial age? There is an analogy to be drawn between that and the White Paper's proposals. The Government are asking potential applicants for technology-neutral franchises to buy a pig in a poke, and they thus risk losing the technological and industrial advantages that they sought a few years ago.
Separation between the service providers and retailers of the kind contemplated was tried by the cable industry in recent years in respect of three franchises obtained by British Telecom. In the two cases in which British Telecom was able to move away from separation and merge the delivery and retailing functions, it did so very quickly, because it was found that separation did not work. In France, those systems that have separation achieve a penetration of 6 per cent. of homes passed, whereas those that merge the two functions have a penetration of about 15 per cent. --more than double. That confirms the argument I make. The White Paper has gone astray because it assumes that operators will go heavily for microwave transmission and not cable. Microwave is much less expensive to build, so the disincentive effect of compulsory separation is less onerous. We must also consider matters from the customer's point of view, as well as from that of the potential operator. The viewer will be offered about 32 channels, with several retailers going to knock on potential customers' doors. As I read the proposal, it is possible that a customer will have a retailer knocking on his door on Monday, offering a sports channel ; on Tuesday, offering an arts channel ; on Wednesday, offering a pop music channel--and so on. That cannot be good for customers, and certainly not for the marketing and retailing of the product.
I hope that my hon. Friend will say something about the management of the marketing and retailing function. How will it be seen from the customer's point of view? How many bills will the viewer receive every month-- particularly if he subscribes to a series of channels or channel packages? How will the customer make complaints about the service he receives? Will he address the retailer, who provides the programming, when the person who must put right any faults is the deliverer--yet there is no contractual link between the deliverer and the customer that I can see. Who will provide local channels? Where they are provided by cable, it is done by cross-subsidy, because the operator realises that local channels do not make a profit. I hope that the Government will re-examine the problems I have explained, and especially the question of separation. It is essential that the system gives confidence to those who will be expected to invest large sums of money. The consumer, for whose benefit the White Paper was presumably prepared, requires a coherent, convenient and simple system of retailing. I hope that the Government will make the changes necessary to give cable an opportunity to achieve success.
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Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) : Television in Britain has developed much more slowly than in many other countries. We know from experience that the result is acknowledged superiority in transmission quality and production standards. Can that record be maintained and improved in the coming era of television? It is acknowledged by the Government, albeit reluctantly, that, left entirely to the mercy of the free market, quality and standards will suffer.
Television's basic public service obligation should remain a prominent and integral part of the new television environment. That was the view of the Select Committee on Home Affairs of which I was a member, together with my hon. and ornamental Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). The White Paper seeks to remove or dilute public service obligations in respect of all but the BBC, drastically reducing quality and standards in order to open the door to profiteers and mind-manipulators. That is the wrong way, and the White Paper is flawed on that ground alone.
As to the introduction of new services and technology, if the public want satellite television, I have no objection. I might even avail myself of it eventually, when its quality and standards are better. However, that option should not be at the expense of viewers who prefer a broader choice of programmes than will be available if the White Paper is translated as an Act of Parliament. It makes much of the increased choice envisaged in the new environment, but we know from experience of other countries, where the choice of the number of buttons to press often greatly exceeds our own, that the variation of programmes across 20 channels is seldom as wide ranging as that available from our four channels. Choice is not about the number of channels but about the variety of programmes available. Without sensible regulation, the free market will be compelled to go for viewing numbers to accommodate advertisers. It is a sad fact of life that the viewing figures for "Panorama" of about 3.7 million will never compete with the 10.5 million for "The Price is Right". If there are to be new services- -to which I have no objection--while preserving the best of what we already have, we must find a way of ensuring that the new does not damage the old. That can be achieved, but the White Paper does not offer the solution. It is neither necessary nor desirable that all services should carry full public service obligations. There is scope for some specialist channels covering interests such as movies, sport and perhaps even full coverage of the House in session--which might remove the objections that some right hon. and hon. Members have to the current proposals. Such specialist channels could be financed by subscription, advertising, or by other means.
I agree that the BBC's principal source of finance should be, at least in the medium term, the licence fee. I agree with Professor Peacock that the White Paper envisages too early a move away from that fee, but I part company with him, and with the White Paper, over the suggested alternative. If the BBC had to rely entirely or mostly on subscriptions, that would be disastrous, and would inevitably lead to reduced standards in competing for audiences. And if the BBC had to continue carrying full public service obligations, as I believe it should, it would be placed in an impossible situation.
Column 1053Despite the fact that the licence fee is low, it is unpopular. Certainly it is a burden on many pensioners and on the low paid. Nevertheless, subscription would be worse, as it could certainly amount to much more than the present annual licence fee of £62. A better method must be found in the long term. Meanwhile, perhaps a levy can be imposed on all the new television companies established under the new system, and instead of that money being paid to the Exchequer, it could be given to companies carrying statutory public service obligations. That would provide some additional finance for BBC1 and BBC2 and some subsidy for ITV. If the 20 or more commercial channels are as successful as they expect to be, such an arrangement could facilitate a reduction in the licence fee or even its eventual abolition. That would also offset the cost of the new systems to the consumer, so everyone could benefit. That might mean, ironically perhaps, that the new 20-plus channel environment would help to protect our public service broadcasting and the high standards associated with it.
While the White Paper acknowledges the importance of continuing the regional basis of ITV 1 or Channel 3, there is no stipulation that the contractors should be regionally based. That leaves the door open for carpetbaggers whose only interest is profit--with no obligation to regional programming and no real connection with or commitment to the regions concerned--and I hope that the Minister will address that glaring anomaly when he replies. There is also no definition in the White Paper of what a region actually is.
I am concerned about the content and quality of programming on ITV. The White Paper lays much emphasis on market forces and on the consumer influencing diversity and quality, but how will that be measured? If it is to be measured purely by viewer numbers or by product sales as a result of advertising, what will be the effect on religious, drama and children's programming under a lighter-touch regime?
I am also anxious about the control of television and the way in which standards and impartiality can be protected. The Home Secretary said that the Government would legislate to prevent the concentration of ownership-- although it was difficult to determine from what he said whether Mr. Rupert Murdoch is in conflict with the principles set out in paragraph 6.48 of the White Paper. I believe that the Broadcasting Standards Council should be abolished and Lord Rees-Mogg sent off to do missionary work in the offices of News International, where his particular talents would no doubt be appreciated. It should be the duty and responsibility of the BBC board and the Independent Television Commission to monitor and regulate standards, and to ensure quality and political impartiality on television. Given the present constitution of the BBC and IBA, however, it is, to say the least, unlikely that they could match up to the task.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) suggested a system of election for the boards. While I applaud the principle of his suggestion, I remain unconvinced of the practicalities. I am also unconvinced that a satisfactory outcome would be guaranteed, given the power of the press to influence voting and to blacken character.
Column 1054What we must do, however, is take the power of patronage currently with, and abused by, the Government off the scene altogether. I am not of the school that says that when we have the power we should do as the Tories now do and, having sacked all their appointments, replace them with ours. To do that would be to show ourselves as corrupt as they are. If the broadcasting media are to be as impartial as possible, the first thing to do is to remove from the Government the power to pick and choose board members.
I propose, perhaps as a stepping stone to what my right hon. Friend wants in the long term, that the board should be made up of people nominated by identifiable groups within society--business, trade unions, consumers, political parties and so forth. If the resulting BBC and ITC boards were then to elect their own chairpersons, it would be a great improvement on the current system, providing boards representative--to some degree at least--of society as a whole, as well as ensuring at least a degree more impartiality than the existing system can guarantee or, indeed, deliver.
"British TV ain't broke--so why fix it?"
In saying that, he managed, as many have, to miss the entire point of the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) said earlier, to do nothing is not an option. The Astra satellite is flying, Sky Television is with us, British Satellite Broadcasting is coming and transfrontier broadcasting is with us now. The four-channel cartel is over, and we need a new framework for new circumstances.
It saddens me that so many see those new circumstances as a threat. I see them as a tremendous opportunity for programme makers--as a programme maker myself--and for specialist channels showing education, religion, children's programmes, sport and films. The faint-hearted say that there is not the revenue to support all that--that we have an audience of only 50 million people--but we are looking at a potential audience for tomorrow's television companies of more than 500 million people throughout Europe. That is the audience that we should pitch at.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has done a great deal of work in seeking to secure a European transfrontier broadcasting convention. He will, I hope, have noticed that at last week's parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe--of which I happen to be a member--a unanimous desire was expressed and a unanimous decision made, across parties and nationalities, that such a convention should be put in place. We need that convention now : we must not let the Italians, the French or the Luxembourgeois delay it any longer by reopening old arguments. The Minister should tell his deputies to get on with it.
I welcome the White Paper as a formidable piece of work. I believe, and am delighted, that it reflects much of the unanimous report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and much of the sterling work done by Professor Sir Alan Peacock. I particularly welcome the commitment to public service broadcasting which I believe the White Paper contains.
In the short time available, I should like to raise a few relatively minor matters that have not yet been touched
Column 1055on. First, there is the subject of programme listings. The Government have said that they must pay attention to domestic copyright law and to international copyright obligations, and behind that smokescreen hides the BBC-ITV duopoly of programme listing. We have imposed on cable a "must carry" clause. Cable must carry ITV 1, ITV 2, BBC 1 and BBC 2, but it is not allowed in its own programme magazine to tell its potential viewers what they can watch. In December, the European Commission described that as an abuse of article 88 of the treaty of Rome. It is time that we opened the doors and let some fresh air into the dusty world of Radio Times and TV Times.
I hope that the BBC will be allowed to collect its own licence fee, and that the Government will address very seriously the possibility of failure to pay the fee becoming a civil debt and not a criminal offence. I do not believe that a magistrates court in the country will not heave a sigh of relief if that happens.
I believe that the franchise auction has been widely misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented. It is clear that, before any company is allowed into the auction rooms, it will have to make a commitment to regional programmes, high-quality news and current affairs programmes, and news coverage in the main viewing periods. There is an omission : local news is not mentioned specifically in the White Paper, and I hope that that will be rectified.
The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said that in Yorkshire, as in all the regions, very few independent companies were making programmes. The reason is the historic agreements between the union to which I belong, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, and management. Those in-house agreements have kept the independent companies out, but happily the position is now changing, and I believe that those companies can thrive.
I should like a strong franchise charter and a free market in shares, but if we are wedded to the franchise auction I hope that we shall give the authority the right to refuse the highest bidder if--as Sir Alan Peacock suggested today--it is prepared to show public cause why it is doing so. I hope that my right hon. Friend will write that into the Bill. If he does so, he may save us much late-at-night grief next year.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) referred to the separation between carrier and retailer in cable television. It looks as though we are about to impose on cable television the cumbersome machinery of licence per service. It is like saying that Sainsbury's can build shops but that it cannot sell own-brand groceries in them. That does not make sense, and I gravely fear that it will deter investment.
The Government say that they will consider the ownership of local delivery operators and they are considering allowing non-EEC companies to invest. That finance is needed now. United States investors are queuing up. Please let them in. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider what appears in the White Paper to be a decision not to allow MVDS to be used by cable companies to pull through cable.
The most important aspect of the White Paper--in a sense, it is an aspect by omission--concerns what the Select Committee saw as possibilities for cable systems to carry voice telephony, and for British Telecom and
Column 1056Mercury to carry programmes. It also called for the introduction of closed user groups to allow for data services in broadcast television. The White Paper said :
"The Government will examine telecommunications matters, including the use of optical fibre as a means of transmission of entertainment as well as telephony and data ... at the time of the review of the telecommunications duopoly policy."
That, as we all know, is in November 1990. The White Paper continued :
"The Government proposes to put in place a contingent provision which would permit services to be offered without prejudice to decisions of the review."
That reflects the difficulty of having two cooks--the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry--in the same kitchen. The Select Committee said :
"It is vital that industry in the United Kingdom is well placed to take advantage of the development of digital television as it occurs."
The development of digital television transmission will be the most important factor in the development of communications in the 21st century. To prevent British Telecom from carrying entertainment, to prevent cable from carrying voice or to prevent the BBC from carrying closed user data is absolutely ridiculous. We are moving into a no-turnstile world. From the moment that we have digital television transmission, television entertainment and telephony and data will speak the same language. When that happens, the potential for home education, home medicine, home shopping, home entertainment and other inter-active services will be tremendous.
The White Paper has created a framework that is all right for terrestrial broadcasting. It meets some of the needs for transfrontier satellite entertainment and news. However, the White Paper falls short of creating a framework for total communications systems in the 21st century. I urge the Government to reconsider their decision to introduce a television authority and instead to introduce a total telecommunications authority that would embrace every sector. If we had that, I believe that we could beat the world.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : I reassure the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) that those who have expressed reservations about the contents of the White Paper have not done so because they are afraid of the changes in broadcasting but because they are concerned about the framework within which those changes will take place. Many views have been expressed in this House and in the other place and by many organisations who are about to submit a response to the White Paper, or who have already done so, about that framework. Centralisation, control and the recognition of the needs of minority groups are key aspects that we must address if we are to ensure that broadcasting takes account of the needs of society. A number of hon. Members have already referred to centralisation. There is genuine concern about the definition of a region. Many Scottish Members are offended when Scotland is referred to as a region. Scotland is a nation. However, it contains regional variations, stretching from the Shetlands in the far north to the Borders in the south. It would be wrong to assume that the interests of all communities in Scotland are exactly the same.
Column 1057Scotland is served by three ITV companies-- Grampian, Scottish and Border. They reflect regional interests. There is deep concern that we may lose the opportunity to have a genuinely home- based industry in Scotland that would not just serve specialist needs and industries but would ensure that Scotland is outward looking. We want to be able to produce our own material that can be sold abroad and that can therefore become a dollar earner. It is interesting to note that Scottish Television's briefing refers to the fact that it has moved from almost total dependence on advertising revenue to obtaining income from the sale of programmes--£15 million in 1989 compared with £2 million in 1986. The money earned by our television companies can help to generate the income that is necessary to ensure that we meet regional needs. Scotland wants to speak to the rest of Britain, Europe and the world and not to be inward looking. We want to maintain our home-based industry.
I was disappointed when the Home Secretary referred only vaguely to the requirement to produce programmes within the regions. Channel 4 has 10 per cent. of Scottish viewers, but it gives us only 2 per cent. of the production. We are worried that that trend may continue because of the White Paper's proposals. There are many television production jobs in Scotland, but they are under threat. That applies, too, to production centres in Birmingham, Norwich, Manchester and elsewhere. If production centres are abolished, job opportunities will be lost. The talented men and women who work in production may find other opportunities in London or elsewhere. However, many of the people who are involved in network production at regional centres are committed to living and working there. They wish to stay in the regions. We do not want local skills to be lost. The ability to produce programmes locally means that Scottish actors are employed. That is important for repertory theatres. Local productions also employ musicians, which is important. It would be very sad if, at best, Scotland retained only one independent company and if, at worst, all control were to be removed from Scotland. I hope that the Home Office will respond positively to what I have said.
That leads me to one of the defined minority interests--the Gaelic language. I do not speak Gaelic but I regard it as part of my Scottish heritage. I do not want the language to die. The White Paper makes scant reference to the Gaelic language. In paragraph 6.37 the Government claim to recognise the importance of broadcasts in the Gaelic language and the importance of the Gaelic culture and its future development. However, all that the White Paper does is to offer the prospect of a new local franchise through cable or MVDS. It admits in paragraph 5.9 that within each area covered a substantial majority of households will be unable to receive the signal. In those areas where the Gaelic language is thriving--the Highlands and Islands--we need desperately to ensure that people do not have to rely on cable or MVDS. The equipment required to receive the services would cost much more than the terrestrial channels that are referred to in paragraph 5.13. There is a great deal of contradiction in the Government's commitment to the Gaelic population. The Scottish National party looks with envy on S4C in Wales and at what that has achieved for the
Column 1058Welsh language. If we had even a fraction of the money that is allocated to that channel, we could lay a sound foundation for our language and culture in Scotland.
Perhaps I could point the Minister to an article in Scotland on Sunday on 22 January. It deals with the problems of satellite television which has been suggested as a possible franchise area for the Gaelic language. The Sky television dishes of 60 cm in diameter are offered for sale at about £199 and will be suitable in Scotland as far north as Glasgow. Beyond that range a 75 cm dish would be needed and would cost £260. In Orkney and Shetland the dish required would probably cost about £350. I hope that we will have some discussion about how the Government see the Gaelic language being served in areas where it is live and vibrant.
At a recent meeting, the Scottish Association for the Deaf passed a unanimous resolution calling on the Government to introduce a clause to a broadcasting Bill
"to make it mandatory and enforceable to provide services for Scottish viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing, providing them with equal opportunity of access to television on all Channels, whether cable, satellite or terrestrial."
The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) dealt with the issue of the deaf. I hope that we will get a commitment from the Government, because if the highest bidder and the profit motive are to define our broadcasting services, minority interests, such as those of the deaf, may well be left out because it is costly to provide subtitles and sign language. Like many people, I should be upset if cost denied the deaf access to broadcasts.
What is meant by night hours? The White Paper seems to suggest the separation of night hours and a separate franchise. That means that we would lose the control or availability of minority programmes that can be recorded and used for education purposes, especially in our schools. Scottish Television is forward-looking and has included programmes on Scottish books, poetry, paintings, traditional music, Gaelic, minority sports and other subjects. Those programmes are used effectively by our schools. I hope that we will see keen recognition by the Government before the production of a Bill of the issue of universality of access and assurances that production will not be centralised and that full account will be taken of all minority interests in the United Kingdom. Those are vital matters.
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham) : Listening to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), I had a nasty turn because I found myself nodding at some of the things that he said. I am a little unhappy to see him in his place now as he may give me another nasty turn by nodding at some of the things that I say. I am a relatively new Member, having been here just six years. During that time I have voted for most if not all of the Government's major legislation--for some with enthusiasm and for some with a twinge of doubt. But I feel neither doubt nor enthusiasm in relation to the White Paper. I cannot support it. It is usually thought that anyone who is critical of the Government's views on the BBC must be some sort of stooge of the comfortable duopoly. I do not suffer from that problem. If one judges the BBC by the volume of its own self-congratulation there is obviously something wrong with the organisation.
Column 1059Clearly, much mediocrity masquerading as quality is put out by the BBC, so I do not start from the premise that everything is fine as it is.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary talked about the amount of viewing in Britain and I shall put that in perspective. We are talking about average viewing of 22 hours per week. In the case of children, the average may be higher--perhaps five hours per day. That means that children spend about as much time watching television as they spend in the classroom. We are not dealing with purely mechanistic factors, such as the raising or lowering of the tax rate or the management of water resources, but with something far more important--the minds of the population. What we do in this debate will have a significant impact in one way or another on the way in which people think, and especially on education.
I begin from the premise that there will be a decline in the standards of broadcasting almost--and this is important--irrespective of what the Government do. That is an important assumption on my part and it will not be shared by many hon. Members. Nevertheless, it is realistic and stems from a combination of "technological progress" and commercial imperatives. If we put those two together with all the bland and rather tinny assumptions in the White Paper we shall get an accelerated decline of television.
Important implications flow from that. The White Paper shows a total lack of social imagination, of what it means to be faced in one of our inner cities with a combination of low education provision and expectations and bad to mediocre teachers. On top of that, we propose to give people low expectations in broadcasting. Children who spend five hours a day in school with low expectations from teachers will go home to another five hours of low expectations from television. I hope that those expectations will not be lowered, but evidence from the Government suggests otherwise.
What sort of incentive is that for people trapped in cultural poverty to climb out of it? I see some Opposition Members nodding. People used to climb out of cultural poverty by way of local libraries but, sadly, those facilities no longer exist or are unused. The White Paper runs the risk of hastening the inevitable. Because of a whole series of circumstances too complicated to discuss in 10 minutes, decline is inevitable. I say that for technological and commercial reasons. That is sad. It will be a domino effect. Satellite broadcasting will put pressure on ITV and, through the rating system, that will put pressure on the BBC. The decline may be slow but it will come. There will be a downward spiral in standards. The pace may be sedate or almost imperceptible, but standards will go down.
If we start from that realistic premise, certain conclusions follow. If we have such a decline in standards--I am willing to bet that we shall--we must think radically. The White Paper pretends to be radical, but in fact it is conventional. It thinks conventionally about market forces, it is simple-minded and goes with the air of the time. It is not really thinking at all. One cannot compare market forces in the car industry and in shipbuilding, which we all favour--God knows we make so many speeches about it that I bore myself silly with them--with market forces in broadcasting. We cannot make a simple-minded transfer from industrial considerations to broadcasting. We cannot have an indiscriminate application of the idea.
Column 1060There is a great danger in this country that when we get an idea we go on and on with it. We did that with egalitarianism and caused the damage that we now all know about. Now we have a new idea called market forces, and like children with a pot of paint we daub it all over the damned place. If we do that in broadcasting or in education, we shall cause infinite damage to the people least well placed to support it.
If anyone feels tempted, as I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary may be, to think that this is an elitist or patronising approach, he should bear in mind that real elitism is a good thing. The worst sort of elitism and the most patronising attitude is taken by those who are well educated and well placed in society, but who feel that they can swill cultural bilgewater through the homes of those less educated than they are, which will prevent those people from making their way up the social ladder. I have no time for that form of elitism, which seems to dominate the thinking, or non-thinking, behind this White Paper.
It is not good enough to stand here and say that things will get worse and that there is nothing that we can do about it. We need radical thinking, so in the few minutes that I have left I will set out what I would so. The Government should think about this. Unfortunately, they will not, but I wish that they would. We should think about the future role of the BBC. The answer to this difficult problem is to say to the BBC, "Times are changing, the whole thing is going to wind down and you will have to wind down with it almost irrespective of what we do, so we must do everything possible not just to preserve but to improve your public service broadcasting." In the real world, that means stopping competition for audiences. The BBC should give up its pop function. There is no reason why old ladies and gentlemen should pay through the licence fee for pop on television. That pop will be provided adequately by the commercial sector--Sky and the rest--where there will be oodles of it. The BBC should not retreat, but retrench and concentrate on public service broadcasting, raising its standards and going for the biggest market that it can get, but not through the ratings game. Such a policy would give people real choice because they would be able to choose between old-fashioned British quality at its best--although much improved by these means--or the satellite stuff, which we cannot stop unless we import some of the old disused Soviet jammers, which I do not recommend. We cannot stop it coming down from the sky. The heavens will open, and the drivel will pour forth. Mr. Murdoch has told us that his news programmes will be pitched at the level of a 10-year-old Martian. That is where we shall start. If people want to watch that, they will be able to do so. There will also be choice through the commercial terrestrial sector. I am suggesting that quality be included in this choice, quality for ordinary people--the sort of people who, 30 or 50 years ago, had the chance to go a to grammar school, but who now do not have that chance.
Mr. Walden : There are only 130 or so grammar schools left. Fifty years ago, people had the chance to climb out of the Welsh valleys because there were libraries there, many of which have now been sold off. Children in such areas now spend five hours a day watching television.
Column 1061I could say a great deal more, but I will finish on one important point. After all the struggles to improve our economic and material welfare, in 10 years' time people may look back and say that while the standard of living has improved the cultural level is lower. I do not care if that sounds pompous. I see hon. Members nodding. They know what I mean. There may be a sort of "Clockwork Orange" society, which will have been brought about unnecessarily by the Government. It would be a dismal comment on a liberal Home Secretary to be seen in 10 years' time as the man who introduced this tawdry debasement of our broadcasting system, with all the impact that it may have on social values of every kind.
Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South) : I have waited all day, and perhaps for the past three years, to hear a speech like that given by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden). It should be both applauded and burned in gold letters on the Government Front Bench. We are faced with a tawdry White Paper reflecting a seriously dangerous situation, and the hon. Member has said what many of us have been feeling for a long time but have often had to couch in a partisan fashion. He has managed to broaden it out by removing himself from a politically partisan attitude.
I prepared the Labour party evidence given to the Peacock committee, so I have lived with the Peacock report, and all the controversy and discussions after its publication, for the past three years. Sometimes, as we ventured on to these arguments, we were seen as attacking the policy, merely because it was "capitalist", but the truth is that the problem is a great deal more universal. Major human problems are involved and this tawdry White Paper shows that we have failed to understand, to take on board and to learn from one of the most important advances in the expanding of the human experience. It is rather as if somebody had invented writing and then said, "How can we sell off the letter A?", or somebody had invented the alphabet and said, "How can we make money out of it?" The purpose of the White Paper concerns the messenger rather than the message. What techniques shall we use? Is it to be cable or satellite? What is the profit direction? It is almost as if we sat down and asked ourselves how we can produce a form of television in which Murdoch and Murdochism can succeed. Partly, it is because the Tory party detests and even fears public service broadcasting as it detests, distrusts and fears the public sector generally. That is the basis of its attitude.
These issues are too important for narrow market concepts. The Government had a glorious chance with the White Paper, and they have blown it. They have failed to understand what we are dealing with. They have ushered in the crippling exigencies of the market economy as if this is the solution to the techniques that we have been handed for expanding human experiences, for communicating with one another and for teaching. We never thought when we started schools that they would be narrowed and crippled or that facilities would always have to be paid for.
The problem with subscription is not merely the payment aspect. The Government have got the payment aspect wrong. Ironically, subscription arose because Government supporters wanted free television and so
Column 1062suggested getting rid of the licence. I agree that we should get rid of the licence. Television, like the alphabet and writing, should be free. It should be paid for out of national resources. Every time I say this I am accused of seeking to put television under the control of Government by allowing the money for it to come out of taxation, but that is not so. Education is free in that sense, but it is paid for from national resources.
Ironically, those who have said that we should have free television, by which they have meant advertising revenue supporting television, are now pushing subscription. I was looking at some of the figures for subscription. We are told that specialist services such as children's programmes, sports, film coverage and minority languages, could be privatised for no more than between £10 and £20 a month. But that is between double and four times the present licence fee. So the irony is that subscription will mean that television will be even dearer. The hon. Member for Buckingham understands better than most hon. Members that that is not the problem. Thank heavens he spoke, because he salved the soul of the Conservative party.
The problem with subscription television is that we cannot through that expand people's understanding and experience. If a television company had proposed 10 years ago subscription broadcasting for a programme showing beetles on the water, insects in British grasses or bats in caves, no one would have subscribed to see such a programme. But now David Attenborough and David Bellamy have created mass audiences for nature programmes. The point is that as soon as we remove the possibility of people viewing something accidentally or merely on a whim, we compress people ; we shove kids into a narrow cell and say, "You will stay there." It is only when there is straightforward universality of access that viewing such programmes can be triggered.
For none of us knows how young people's ideas are triggered. It is the same as charging an entrance fee to museums and art galleries. I remember Lord Eccles--Lord Shekels as Lord Crawford used to call him--complaining that I would be happy for people simply to go into art galleries to get out of the rain. "Too bloody true," I said, "I cannot think of any better place for people to shelter." As soon as there are charges, only those who are already educated towards it and who understand art go into galleries, and the people who have not been introduced to art are not touched by it accidentally. Therefore, we are compressing human experience with the very tool that could enlarge and expand that experience.
Peacock understood that. I love Alan Peacock dearly, but I have to say that although he recognised that his proposals would have that effect he still went ahead with his report. He thought that because we could not control satellites we had to lie back, close our eyes and think of England. He made clear what he expected to be missing from the generality of television programmes under his committee's proposals. He expected that certain things would not happen unless there were special precautions. The committee suggested that the omissions would be covered by four key words--knowledge, culture, criticism and experiment. Therefore, the committee had to create a public patronage sector. One reason why Peacock objects to the Government White Paper is that this minority ghetto patronage is missing. The Peacock committee said :
(There should be news, current affairs, documentaries, programmes about science, nature and other parts of the world, as well as avowedly educational
Column 1063programmes, all of which require active and not passive attention and which may also contribute to responsible citizenship. ()
There should be high quality programmes on the Arts (music, drama, literature etc.) covering not only performance but also presentation of and comment on the process of artistic creation.
There should be critical and controversial programmes, covering everything from the appraisal of commercial products to politics ideology, philosophy and religion."
But all those are now missing from this White Paper. Hon. Members may wonder what is left of good broadcasting when all that goes. It is only the generality of television that the White Paper will produce.
Who produced the White Paper? It has been produced by civil servants and Ministers, all of whom have had the opportunity of the highest education. The hon. Member for Buckingham was right when he said that this was another kind of patronising. They have got their little niche. They will create a minority ghetto for themselves but the universality of the rest of mankind will not be touched by it. By definition, subscription broadcasting will compress the possibility of expanding human consciousness and experience. That is why the White Paper is nasty, reactionary and tawdry ; that is why it should be withdrawn.
The hon. Member for Buckingham used the word "culture". It is a hell of a long time since I have heard that word from the Conservative Benches. Every time Goering heard the word "culture" he reached for his revolver. The same is true of the Government Front Bench. We know what the hon. Gentleman meant by culture ; it is not only high culture but general civilisation. That is what we should be trying to achieve, but we are not. We are discussing profit, competition, money making and methods of delivery. There is not a word about what is actually to be shown on television.
It is not true that it is only a small group who want so-called culture. All the figures show the opposite. If we examine the viewing figures for light entertainment, light drama, films, sport, dramatic art, information, news, children's and miscellaneous programmes, we find that all classes, high and low alike, look at serious programmes and at light programmes. Viewing is not based on class concepts, but it will be if we introduce subscription television. We do not need to read a crystal ball therefore ; we can read the book.
Let us consider what has happened in other countries. I shall cite as an example what has happened to Italian television--which I know well--since deregulation. If one compares the RAI, the public service station, with the new fifth channel, Canale 5, one sees that 84 per cent. of the fifth channel's programming is light entertainment, serials and advertisements. Indeed, advertising accounts for 27 per cent. of its broadcasts. The fifth channel is missing in art, religion, education, news, current affairs and documentary programmes, which presents a terrible picture.
We already know what happened in America. Sixty six per cent. of the programmes on ABC consist of advertisements and serials. Again, art, religion, education, plays, films, current affairs and documentaries are missing.
We know what will happen. We have a tawdry document in front of us. I hope that it will get its come-uppance from some other bored souls in the Opposition. It is a prescription not for progress, but for narrow vicious reaction.