British Nationality (Honorary Citizenship) Bill
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 90(2),
That the British Nationality (Honorary Citizenship) Bill be referred to a Second Reading Committee.-- [Mr. Amess.]
Domestic and Satellite Broadcasting
That this House welcomes the communications opportunities offered by technological developments in terrestrial and satellite broadcasting and cable distribution systems ; urges Her Majesty's Government, when creating a legislative framework for the future of radio and television broadcasting and interactive services, to pay particular attention to the need to continue to stimulate quality programming and maintain diversity of ownership and choice ; and further calls on Her Majesty's Government to establish a coherent policy for the promotion of United Kingdom and pan- European satellite services.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office has been able to join us this morning. It is either the third or fourth Friday on the trot that he has made himself available in the Chamber. People outside the House do not realise how valuable it is for hon. Members to spend Fridays in their constituencies, and that is particularly so for Ministers. I hope that the Minister's constituents will understand the need for his presence here today. I am also particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which contributed a great deal to the White Paper, is also present today.
My fortune in the ballot has come at an extremely opportune moment. The White Paper entitled "Broadcasting in the '90s : Competition, Choice and Quality" has been published and digested. I understand that, in its wake, the Home Office has received about 3,000 expressions of interest, comment and mostly constructive criticism. The legislation that we expect to be announced in the Queen's Speech in November is being drafted, so the time is right for this debate. I hope to inject a note of optimism into the discussion. Much of the argument has centred on a perceived threat, and far too little has been made of the tremendous opportunities that new technologies such as broadband, satellite and better use of terrestrial facilities can offer. The equation has been drawn to read "more equals bad", instead of "more equals more choice, more scope for creativity and a richer broadcasting culture".
I began my broadcasting career in local radio. Too often in communications debates, radio is ignored altogether or is often regarded as the poorest relation in
Column 586the communications family. In my county, Kent, we have two excellent radio stations. BBC Radio Kent has breakfast time audiences that rival those of Radio 4. The station has twice won Sony awards, and it will win more.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) never ceases to remind me that his home station, BRMB, won the "best station of the year" award this year. Through hurricane, snow and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, BBC Radio Kent has provided a real public service, of which it is rightly proud. I hope that, when considering a reduction in local radio funds to introduce yet another high quality, intellectually stimulating, public-service audience participation game show, the management of the BBC will recognise the high esteem in which our local radio stations are held. Who will fund those stations after 1996, when the BBC charter comes to an end? The White Paper does not tell us.
We in Kent are fortunate, too, in having a complementary local radio station, Invicta Radio, which uses the latest computer and digital technology to create a different kind of music programme. However, Radio Kent and Invicta Radio are county stations. It has long been a source of sadness to me that Cabin Radio in Herne Bay, which sends programmes by landline to three hospitals, is prevented by law from broadcasting to a wider audience. I hope that the broadcasting Bill will give that excellent amateur station with professional standards the chance to turn into the real local radio station for which we have been waiting.
I hope that, within the context of diversity of ownership, my hon. Friend will look kindly on the relationship between community radio stations and genuinely independent local papers, because, to be cost-effective, they will need each other.
I wish to move as swiftly as possible to developments in telecommunications and satellite, but I must first turn back to the television aspects of the White Paper. I reread this week the observations of the BBC, the independent contractors, the IBA, the Cable Television Association, the Independent Producers Association, TVS, the Campaign for Quality Television, Channel 4, the Media Society and, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians, Oxfam and the further work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, to name but a few. The game has moved on since the White Paper was debated and we must reflect on some of the points that have been made.
I offer my hon. Friend the Minister of State a highly personal view, but it is one that is shared by several other commentators. Any suggestion to hive off one channel of the BBC's night hours would be absolute folly. That is the one area in which the BBC might reasonably be expected to expand with a subscription service and many of us still feel that such a service may and perhaps should become part of the long-term solution to the BBC's funding requirements. On 9 March 1989 my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stated in The Listener :
"Subscription is attractive as a principle but untried in practice in this country. We think it should be tested and tried." There is surely a case for establishing a "BBC 3" subscription service between, say, midnight and 6 am. Remove even one channel of the night hours and the opportunity for such a development would be lost or, at the very least, the incentive for it would be removed. If the
Column 587BBC is to be--as I believe that it should be --not only a public-service cornerstone but a hothouse of talent, it must have room to experiment but it must not be asked to experiment at the licence payers' expense. A subscription night-hours service offering at least some first-run programmes that might later transfer to a wider audience on BBC1 could provide such a canvas.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State will not be surprised to hear me say, in the context of subscription, that I still believe that we are wrong not to require the mandatory fitting of peritelevision sockets in all new television sets. That is an opportunity that the Government will be seen to have missed.
While talking of BBC funding, it is high time that we made provision for the introduction not only of subscription only-services, such as British Medical Television but of closed user groups so that the BBC and the independent companies can maximise their sale of confidential programming. There is absolutely no reason to featherbed the British Telecom-Mercury monopoly over that potential for one day longer than the statutory undertaking that was given of November 1990. As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I wholeheartedly endorse the report's recommendation on that. Again, the downloading of data and confidential programming is best done at night, which is another good reason for leaving the night hours alone.
The White Paper proposal that has caused the most outrage and anguish was that to auction off the independent franchises. The fury has been partly that of the vested interests which have made even the British Medical Association seem temperate, and partly, like the BMA in its area, it has been a genuine concern about quality programming.
I am not one of those who unquestionably accept the folklore that British television is the best in the world, any more than I accept that American television is the worst in the world. Some American programming is certainly atrocious and banal, but so is some of ours. The Americans also make some excellent programmes and offer a huge diversity of choice to their audiences. Those who want to maintain high-quality children's programmes should look at the opportunity presented by the prospect not of a couple of hours programming a day, but of a dedicated channel. Those who want programmes on religion, sport, gardening, films, news, weather or on any other common interest should consider the same. That is the prospect that confronts us with many more channels.
Nevertheless, some of our television is among the best in the world, especially in children's programming. Through the independent network, we also provide a rare kind of local service and we should not throw that baby out with the bath water of deregulation. I find no shame in joining that growing army of admirers that have welcomed the appointment of Mr. George Russell as chairman of the IBA and chairman-designate of the new Independent Television Commission. I do not find it difficult wholeheartedly to endorse the proposals that he makes on Channel 3 through the IBA's submission on the White Paper. A strict quality and public service threshold and a sound business plan should be a
Column 588prerequisite of consideration for a franchise. Competitive tendering based upon those programme and business plans makes sense. As a producer and television director, I know that maintenance of the network is desirable, with the proviso that greater access for a broad range of programme offers is made available to the smaller regional companies. In its submission TVS rightly stated : "The major companies' present access (to the network) blocks the regionals' access to all but a fairly narrow band of programme types."
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that that is one restrictive practice that we can well do without.
I share the widely held view that the prospect of a levy is iniquitious. When franchise holders receive their franchises they will already have paid an economic price for the franchise through, I hope, competitive tendering. If a levy is then to be made on large earnings, it should be upon profits not on revenue. I always thought that that was called tax. Any other system would simply be a disincentive to investment in exactly the kind of programme quality that we keep saying we want to see on the screen. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that point on board when he speaks.
I hope also that my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will respond to the real fears that have been expressed about the possibility that franchises may quickly become commodities or "millionaires' train sets" like some newpapers. I hope that my right hon. Friend will impose a two-year moratorium on sales or hostile takeover bids after the tender has been accepted. If concern for the network has been very real, a much greater fear lies in the potential for the concentration of ownership. The prospect of national newspaper owners also controlling large chunks of the television industry is not appealing. It is a far cry from the co-operation between local papers and community radio, which I welcome and to which I referred earlier, to the prospect of major newspaper titles and terrestrial and satellite television stations all resting in the same News International plc, Maxwell Communications, United Newspapers plc, Pearson plc or Thomson International hands. We recently had a taste of cross-media ownership in promotion by The Times and The Sun of one particular satellite channel and their criticism of other existing stations. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us his thinking on that vital issue. Up to now, I have confined my remarks to terrestrial broadcasting. Before leaving that subject I must recall that none of the programmes that we love or loathe would reach us at all were it not for the network of BBC and IBA transmitters. I have always been a staunch admirer of our engineering ability and an advocate of the privatisation of transmitter services. There is tremendous scope for the provision of transmitter systems, not only for television pictures, but also for data and voice telephony. However, I urge my hon. Friend to accept the well thought through submission that those two enterprises should be sold as entities in their own right and not broken up and disposed of piecemeal.
I have mentioned the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North in relation to the proposals for the future of Channel 4. I am certain that my hon. Friend's excellent report reached the only conclusion that was possible or available to him, given the brief to which he
Column 589was working. The brief was to assess the proposals in the White Paper, but, significantly, the White Paper did not regard the status quo and the relationship between the Channel 3 companies and Channel 4 as an option.
There is a good case for not trying to mend something which is not broken. I understand that there is a need for competition for advertising and that our advertising rates are perhaps some 50 per cent. higher than those in America and Japan, and damaging to industry. However, competition will come from other sources--through Channel 5, cable and satellite channels.
We apparently opted for or are on the verge of opting for a half-way compromise where Channel 4 is recreated as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Independent Television Commission with a safety net income guaranteed in a roundabout way by its competitors on Channel 3, who will also be required to publicise its programmes. That makes no sense.
We have regarded the remit of Channel 4 rather like the Holy Grail. We should either leave the relationship as it is, which is one option, or hive off the non-commercial minority programming to our public service cornerstone, BBC 2, and have the courage to release Channel 4 on a fully competitive basis into the marketplace. Either solution would be more acceptable. With great respect to my hon. Friend and the new chairman of the IBA, who both suggested the same option 2 solution, the beast that they have chosen is not fish and may well prove foul.
Those of us who served a few years ago on the Cable and Broadcasting Bill did so with some pleasure. We believed that we were ushering in the dawn of an interactive cable service that would bring not only television, but home shopping, home medicine, home education, data services and voice telephony into every household. We have been sadly disappointed. With 20 : 20 hindsight, the country should have been cabled with broad band before British Telecom was sold. Now the all-important ducts--those expensive holes in the ground that are the greatest capital cost in the installation of the cable system--are in the hands of a private company, and progress is slow. The removal of capital allowances at a vital moment crippled the launch of cable, and restrictions on foreign inward investment have hampered developments further. Nevertheless, Aberdeen Cable, which was the first, now passes every house in Aberdeen, and Windsor and Croydon Cable will follow soon.
We are still in grave danger of infanticide. The White Paper proposals to prevent local delivery operators from selling programme services, now thankfully withdrawn, have damaged confidence in the industry still further. I continue to believe that interactive cable is the delivery system of tomorrow and must be given every encouragement. Unless we want to see at least one and possibly two or three satellite dishes on the roof of every block of flats or in every semi-detached garden, we must look to cable delivery for multi-channel choice.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : I am listening to my hon. Friend with great care. He said that the proposals in the White Paper to separate the delivery of programmes on the cable network from retailing has damaged the industry even further. However, he made passing reference to the fact--perhaps he would like to expand on this--that recently we said that we would not insist on the separation of delivery from retailing. Does he agree that that has given somewhat greater
Column 590encouragement to investors in the cable industry because it has shown that we are prepared to listen to consultation on the White Paper? Does he agree that, when the industry, which is, as he said, in relative infancy, has sensible and detailed opposition to our proposals, we have been prepared to think again?
Mr. Gale : I know from my friends in the industry that they are particularly grateful both for the way in which the Home Office has listened to their representations and for the fact that those proposals have now been withdrawn. The fact remains that there have been setbacks at almost every watershed in the history of cable. Just before the launch, the Government, for broader reasons--I accept that--withdrew capital allowances, which was undoubtedly a setback and a bar to investment. Restrictions were imposed on overseas investment and changes occurred and are occurring within the cable authority. Latterly, various other factors include British Telecom's reluctance in some cases to make its ducts available to other cable services, for wholly commercial reasons that we must accept. At a time when several foreign investors were showing considerable interest in our cable potential, as I hope they are again, that suggestion was just another factor that made them falter. As my hon. Friend said, the Government have withdrawn it, and I hope that the planned investment may now return.
Sadly, the industry is still reeling from the thought of what it regards as competition from satellite master antennae systems, which in common parlance are SMATV. They are systems where one satellite dish is placed on the roof of a block and is cabled downwards. The cable companies see satellite operators arriving to place dishes on the roofs of blocks of flats and to cable them, providing satellite services to the same blocks of flats that they had hoped to serve. I do not understand how long satellite companies can be expected to wait while cable systems are being built. The answer, surely, is to allow SMATV systems to be installed, but only through broad-band cable and that can later be connected to a full cable service from the bottom upwards. I cannot but feel that, with a little harmony, the satellite and cable operators will have to co-operate and work together, now and most certainly in future. I believe passionately that satellite and cable systems should be complementary, not competitive.
The Home Affairs Select Committee argued in its report that to stimulate investment in broad-band cable we should allow overseas companies that have shown interest, particularly American ones, to take a major stake in some of our franchises and to blaze a trail. They have the money and the expertise.
In his statement to the House, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said :
"We hope to announce our views on this whole area before too long."--[ Official Report, 27 April 1989 ; Vol. 151, c. 642. ] In the light of his earlier intervention, can my hon. Friend the Minister tell us the news that we should like to hear--that foreign investors will be allowed to participate in cable in a major way? Perhaps he could also take a clear message to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that broad-band cable services must be allowed to compete with Telecom and Mercury for voice telephony services, not only locally but nationwide. In return, British Telecom and Mercury must be allowed to carry entertainment, if they wish.
Column 591I argued as a lone voice in the Select Committee that the Independent Television Commission should be not a television but a telecommunications authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North, as Chairman, put me firmly in my place by reminding me that that suggestion was out of order because the Home Affairs Select Committee has no power to consider Department of Trade and Industry matters. He will now see why I argued in that way. With the advent of the digital transmission of television pictures, television and voice telephony and data, much sooner than is perhaps generally recognised, will all be speaking the same digital interactive language. The effect of that on two- way communications through broad-band cable can be dramatic. Nicholas Mearing Smith, the chairman of the Cable Television Association was right when he said that we do not want a lot of "cheap and nasty" systems. We do not. We want the high-technology, interactive very best and it is still within our grasp. We cannot allow the protectionism of the Telecom-Mercury duopoly to stand in the way of that development within the cable industry.
My hon. Friends will be relieved to hear that I turn now to the final element of the motion, which is the need for a coherent policy for the promotion of United Kingdom and pan-European satellite services. I began with radio. Most of us in the Chamber can remember listening to Mr. James Savile, OBE broadcasting on crackly air waves the then latest pop music from Luxembourg. It is a nice irony that tiny Luxembourg, having captured our ears all that many years ago, it is now, through the Astra satellite, capturing Europe's eyes. RTL, the parent company of the old Radio Luxembourg, is casting its eyes towards British TV franchises to beam up to satellites after the sale of the independent companies.
If cable is the landline of the future, satellite , surely, is the broadcast transmission system. Why are BBC and ITV not carried by satellite? I am told that there are 904 existing transmitter sites in the United Kingdom, but there are still 1,441 areas in the United Kingdom with between 10 and 200 people living in them that cannot receive television at all. Satellite broadcasting could reach every one of those homes.
As the number of channels and choices grows, we have heard complaints that there will not be enough money to make good programmes to fill them all and that there will not be enough advertising or subscriptions to pay for them, because, as the critics say, there is still only an audience of 50 million people. However, there is an audience of 500 million people waiting for pan -European broadcasting by satellite which is a gargantuan audience for advertisers and for programme makers. If we in the United Kingdom do not satisfy that audience, the French, the Germans and the Italians--Signor Berlusconi--will.
I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will not rule me out of order, but I noticed with some amusement that, when the press received its copies of the report of the Select Committee on the Televising of Proceedings of the House, which we shall be debating shortly, the great intellect of the Gallery seized upon the diminutive fact that the Select Committee appeared to be restricting broadcasters, so that they might not show cut-away shots of nose-picking or sleeping hon. Members.
"The viewing public should be able to see what those in the Public Gallery see,"
Column 592thundered the Evening Standard editorial. What the entire press corps blissfully overlooked was the much greater censorship that will be exercised by the editorial judgment of broadcasters, allowing the public to see only "scrap of the day" on the 9 o'clock news or "News at 10".
Before you do rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall come back very firmly to the debate. A dedicated satellite channel would allow anyone with the inclination to watch the entire proceedings of the House and would also serve as a distribution system for regional television and radio stations, as well as for continental stations. It can be done, and I shall hope to move that amendment in due course.
One person who has most certainly grasped the awesome potential of satellite broadcasting is my hon. Friend the Minister. It is not widely recognised, but it is very largely due to his personal powers of diplomacy that, in the week before last in Strasbourg, the Council of Europe transfrontier broadcasting convention was finally opened for signature. Without that convention, which he negotiated and which lays down international standards for taste, decency and advertising, we would have faced a free-for-all throughout Europe. Many countries in the Council of Europe--including the United Kingdom--have already signed. Significantly, perhaps, France, Germany and Italy have not yet done so, but I am sure that they will. There is at last in place a convention that will be applicable from Ankara to Lisbon and from Nicosia to Greenland, and will embrace everything in between. It will be up to each of the 23 countries of the Council of Europe to ensure that it is honoured, but we owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Minister for recognising the scale of the problem, getting to grips with it, and finding a solution.
The challenges and the opportunities of multi-channel broadcasting are considerable. However, we are in danger, without co-operation and clear strategy, of seeing British Satellite Broadcasting invest some £600 million in order to fight a different system run by Mr. Rupert Murdoch's Sky Channel on the Astra satellite. That can only be a financial and cosmic battle to the death ; it is absolute madness. The viewer is not remotely concerned whether his television comes by satellite, terrestrial broadcasting or cable or down a piece of string with a tin can on the end. What matters to him is that the picture quality is high and that the programme standards are good. At the end of the day, that--along with a reasonable choice--is all that matters.
My hon. Friend the Minister managed to sort out the transfrontier convention, which took some doing. I challenge him, therefore, to work his magic on a satellite policy that will lead to, perhaps, one 80-channel super-Astra, which would bring with it not a demand for two or three different dishes to receive two or three different standards of transmission, but a superb choice of programmes, voice telephony and data. If he can take that on, I wish him well. Some critics have said--and will no doubt continue to say--"Why can't you leave our TV alone?" Internationally, communications systems are developing. The game has moved on, and to do nothing is not an option. We can either lead--as we have done in the past--or we can follow. I hope that we shall continue, through our new legislative framework, to show a courageous lead.
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Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie) : I am sure that we are all indebted to the hon. Member for Thanet, North, (Mr. Gale) for calling this debate, because this is an issue that cannot be debated enough. The decisions that the Government and the House will make in the next year or two will be of colossal importance.
Earlier this week we were debating the future of the Rose theatre where Shakespeare's plays were performed. There was an atmosphere of reverence and concern about the future of that ruin, because people realised that that site was important to our culture. I wish that we could have that same sense of reverence and concern about television broadcasting. Television is not a commodity to be bought and sold like any other commodity--it is an important reflector and stimulator of our culture. We must recognise that, sometimes by design and sometimes by accident, we have set up in this country something of cultural brilliance, which is admired throughout the world. Our system of broadcasting has managed to reflect and stimulate our culture extremely well. We should tamper with that system with great apprehension, though tamper with it we must, because satellite and cable, which are to be welcomed, will bring with them much more choice. However, we must ensure that we tamper with the system in a way that does not destroy what we have created.
Above all, we must ensure that people have a high quotient of enthusiastic programming. Programmes must not be passive, enabling people just to pass the time or get ready for sleep. They must be programmes that the citizen positively wants to see. It is possible to find such television programmes at present. We must start from the idea of producing top quality programmes. By that I do not mean esoteric art programmes, but the full range of programmes--drama, comedy and sport. We must recognise that for the great mass of people broadcasting is the major means by which our culture is reflected and stimulated. The importance of television is equivalent to the importance of books in times gone by.
It is therefore essential that television companies are left with sufficient resources to make and commission many quality programmes. Simply selling to the highest bidder and then exacting a levy on revenue will inevitably lead to less being spent on programmes, especially when the advertising revenue is unlikely to expand sufficiently quickly to meet all channels' needs. We must ensure that there is sufficient money left within the system to produce quality programmes.
One reference in the White Paper at which we should rejoice is : "BBC Enterprises Ltd.--the world's largest exporter of television programmes".
That has happened not by accident, but by design. In 10 years' time, however, shall we be able to say that that company is still the world's largest exporter of programmes? When one visits other countries people tend to talk about BBC programmes when they mean programmes produced by the British broadcasting system. That is a tremendous tribute to the independent television companies, and I am sure that the overseas sales of those companies rival those of the BBC.
We must ensure that broadcasting's enormous job-creating potential--it is not quite a sunrise industry--is maximised. It is easy to produce formula programmes, but it is dangerous and difficult to produce
Column 594programmes which may fail. We must give the companies sufficient resources so that they may occasionally fail in order to reap the rewards from their industry, which will be of great importance to us in the future.
The Opposition will oppose the idea of selling franchises to the highest bidder. We all accept that the Government should receive income from the sale of spectrum space, which is a precious resource. We believe, however, that, having received a fair price, which is relatively easy to sort out, the Independent Television Commission should award the franchises to those companies making the strongest commitment to their localities and to those companies which have the most credibility in terms of the range and quality of programmes. For someone representing a Scottish constituency, one of the depressing things about the White Paper is that in all 45 pages Scotland is not mentioned once. I am sure that that complaint could also be made about other regions. A kind of lip service is paid to regionalism, but we must go beyond that. The United Kingdom is made up of separate entities and it is essential for people to believe that their part of the United Kingdom is reflected in and stimulated by the system established. The thought, for example, that Scotland should simply be represented by one independent television company is not attractive. That would not reflect the diversity in Scotland. Grampian television in its submission to the Government on the White Paper made an interesting and telling point--that it is the desert island choice of its viewers. If viewers were to choose one television company to take with them to a desert island--an island off the Highlands, one assumes--it would be Grampian. They would do so because that channel is the one that most frequently reflects and stimulates their local culture. That company is important to the Gaels because of the opportunities to hear their language and to see programmes of concern to them. It is also important because of its coverage of local politics and its coverage of what might be termed "minority" sports, but which are majority sports to the people of the region. That company is also important because of the community service that it offers.
It is crucial that any future system has within it companies whose ownership is held by a majority in Scotland. In that way, regional identity is reflected in a company's programmes because the people who control the company come from that region and feel for it. It is depressing that under the terms of the White Paper one can imagine having two television companies for Scotland owned by one multinational company with no loyalty or concern for the region. That does not represent competition or quality.
Mr. Renton : It is nice to hear the hon. Gentleman's voice again on a Friday, albeit on a different subject. The hon. Gentleman has said that the thought that there could be one independent television franchise covering the whole of Scotland is unacceptable, but no one has made such a suggestion. On the contrary, the IBA said in its submission on the White Paper that currently it thought that it would be sensible for the independent television regional franchise map to remain as at present. Although it accepted that the final decision rested with the ITC, it doubtless believed that the ITC would seriously consider the IBA's suggestion. Last week, at the Conservative party
Column 595conference in Perth, I spoke about broadcasting and I repeated that comment by the IBA. I said that I was certain that the ITC would give serious consideration to the IBA's suggestion when it came to decide the shape of regional franchises in 1991.
Mr. Worthington : The Minister's presence in Scotland last week was extremely welcome, as was the content of his speech. However, just because the Government do not put something in a White Paper does not mean that they will not go ahead and do it. To be narrowly party-political for a moment, during the previous election campaign the Government explicitly assured Scotland that there would be no opting-out of schools in Scotland, but a Bill to do just that is now going through the House. The Opposition must consider not only the White Paper, but what other thoughts might be going through the Government's mind.
Just before Christmas, the Minister said that there would be no cross- subsidisation within the system for transmission costs. Currently, Grampian television receives about £2 million a year in subsidisation costs from the rest of the network, which enables that company to flourish. When the Minister said that there would be no cross-subsidisation of transmission costs, he was actually saying that a company with similar boundaries to Grampian would be unable to survive in the future. If Grampian failed, the logical conclusion is that there would only be one Scottish television company. Perhaps the Minister will intervene to say that he will withdraw his previous statement.
Mr. Renton : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I take up his suggestion. The idea that he has just advanced is an over- simplification of the situation. He will know that we have commissioned Price Waterhouse to do a detailed study of the economics and mechanics of privatisation. We hope that that report will be available shortly and we hope to publish it.
The Independent Broadcasting Authority pointed out in its submission that the way to deal with the obviously greater cost of transmission in areas such as Grampian, where there are many transmission masts to cover a wide area, would be to relate the cost of transmission either to the number of households in the area or the percentage of net advertising revenue that the area or region had. It thus arrived at the concept that transmission costs should be related to the earning power of each transmission mast. That is not subsidisation ; that is one possible way of dealing with the problem of a remote area such as Grampian, Borders or Television South West. I repeated in Perth last week that that is one of the suggestions that the Price Waterhouse report will consider.
Mr. Worthington : I am grateful for that intervention. It suggests that the depression caused by the Minister's remarks before Christmas about no cross-subsidisation of the system can be alleviated by the suggestion of flexibility. I regard it as essential for the system of the future that the principle of equality should be honoured. We should have a television system that costs the same for consumers anywhere in the United Kingdom, on the same principle that is applied to posting a letter within the United Kingdom. A first-class stamp costs 19p wherever it goes in the United Kingdom. It would not be acceptable for people who are part of the United Kingdom to pay
Column 596different amounts for television services. It is an important element of our kingdom that some costs should be in common, rather than there should be a cheaper television system for the Greater London area, which is served by one transmitter at Crystal Palace and more expensive costs in Grampian, where there are eight main transmitters and 68 subsidiary transmitters. I hope that the Minister will ensure that we all belong to the United Kingdom in that sense. The White Paper seems to encourage formidable forces of centralisation of control and production. In Scotland, we are extremely concerned that fewer programmes will be made there and that they will be of a lower quality. It was interesting and gratifying that the Minister suggested, when speaking in Perth--not being there, I have read only extracts of his speech--
Mr. Worthington : It was good to hear the Minister saying in Perth that his mind was open to the possibility of Channel 5 headquarters being located in Scotland. At present, BBC1, BBC2, Channel 3 and Channel 4 are heavily focused on London. The Minister has said that his mind is open to there being a Scottish base, so I hope that he has not closed his mind to that base being in Glasgow, rather than Edinburgh, as he suggested last week. Scotland has about 10 or 11 per cent. of the United Kingdom population, but only 3 to 4 per cent. of the investment in programme making is in Scotland. It is important that we set up a system that brings about more equality in programme making.
One can see where job creation in the new satellites is going. According to The Guardian a few months ago, Sky television has about 400 employees. British Satellite Broadcasting has about 500 employees.
Mr. Worthington : It is no longer the case that Sky has half as many viewers as employees because its employees have now been given a satellite dish and thus the number of viewers has been dramatically increased--or at least the number of potential viewers.
The essential point is that Sky employs several hundred people, BSB employs about 500 people and W. H. Smith employs about 100 people in its television concerns. Those jobs are centred heavily in the south-east of England. It is important that quality jobs should be spread out more equally throughout the United Kingdom in future. We do not want to have only satellite riggers jobs in future ; we want to have quality production jobs as well.
At present, there are 3,000 quality jobs in Scotland, but the major problem is that Scotland simply does not speak to Britain. There are too few outlets in the network. In wider political terms, it is simply not good for our television output to be so heavily metropolitan. That is not simply a Scottish point, but a regional point. There is an imbalance at present and our new system should be seeking to rectify that imbalance. In 1988, Scottish independent programme producers produced 2.25 per cent. of the total hours by independents to Channel 4. They sold 15 minutes to the ITV network and nothing to
Column 597the BBC. Scotland does not want simply to be a conduit for programmes made elsewhere. That is damaging to Scotland and damaging to the kingdom.
The hon. Member for Thanet, North has already made a point that I feel fairly confident that all hon. Members who speak in the debate today will make. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the alarm felt about the mixture of newspaper control and television control. I can see no reason why anyone should have more than one newspaper or more than one television channel. To go beyond that brings us into dangerous territory. Surely no hon. Member in the Chamber--I am not referring to the dozen or so here this morning, but to all 650--could be happy about the consequences of the development of our national newspaper industry. Surely we realise that there are grave dangers in 70 per cent. of our national newspaper output being in the hands of three people. We must take this opportunity to ensure that there is a positive ban on the people who already control too much of our press being in control of our television system as well.
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham) : To support the point that Conservative Members also share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman's view on the following. It seems that, as the discussions about satellite broadcasting continue, we have an unprecedented situation in which major newspapers--both the popular and the so-called "quality" end--are writing articles and editorials in support of satellite broadcasting companies which can be of no interest. Those newspapers cannot write anything that does not support those companies for self-evident financial reasons. Thus we already have a major distortion of the debate on the functioning of satellite broadcasting, by virtue of the unhealthily close links between certain newspaper owners and the satellite broadcasting companies.
Mr. Worthington : I am grateful for that point. A few weeks ago, I introduced the Right of Reply Bill. Newspaper proprietors said that, because of that Bill, financial editors would be unable in future to voice their concern about certain companies. On certain major newspapers in this country, financial editors already do not utter their worries about some companies ; they cannot, because they are controlled by those self-same companies. That is a sort of censorship.
In the White Paper on broadcasting there is much praise for the BBC, which is described as the cornerstone of the system. The White Paper departs from what the Home Affairs Select Committee, of which I am privileged to be a member, said about the BBC and ITV. As I remember it, our report stated that the foundation of the system should be BBC1 and BBC2, and Channel 3 and Channel 4. They should form the four-track central core of the new system, wedded to the principles of public service broadcasting. I fear that the consequence of the proposals in the White Paper will be that the BBC is marginalised and ghettoised, as has happened in other parts of the world in which only a limited part of the system has public service responsibilities. This will apply especially if the Government carry out their threat to remove the licence fee in a few years' time and replace it with subscription. Many people connected with ITV, and others concerned about future viewing, have written to me to say that Channels 3 and 4 must retain their public service broadcasting commitments.
Column 598Around them we can build Channel 5 and the satellites. It should not be the sole responsibility of the BBC to carry forward public service broadcasting.
My preference for Channel 4 is the status quo. That seems to be logical ; it is a proven system. The Home Affairs Select Committee did not even consider the status quo because it was ruled out by the White Paper. We took the line--rightly or wrongly--that we should look at the best of the rest. We wondered how we could save this success story, given that the Government seem to have ruled out the very means by which it was created-- an illogical act. I cannot see how Channel 4 can maintain its success if it is thrown on the open market--it will lose its remit. Its remit is crucial, and it needs to be attached to the Channel 3 companies.
I believe that we face not a threat but an opportunity. We undoubtedly have a great chance to build on the huge success of British broadcasting and to stimulate programme making of high quality in this country. If we put programme making at the centre of the new structure we can achieve that. This will include giving a much greater role to the independent programme makers, whose influence is growing.
The White Paper does not seem to recognise how producing programmes in a particular area can stimulate its culture. In Scotland, there is a soap opera called "Take the High Road", which is certainly not as successful as the appalling "Neighbours". However, it is of great value to the area in that a £1 million pay roll is associated with the programme, money which goes into the greater Glasgow area and stimulates musical, dramatic and creative activity there. It is no accident that Glasgow is to be the European city of culture in 1990. Some good local authorities have put in a great deal of work, and so have the local theatres, but the bedrock of all this is the investment in programme making in Glasgow by the television companies, which has had spin-off effects in related activities in the west of Scotland.
Programme making, and reflecting and stimulating local culture--
Mr. Renton : May I take the hon. Gentleman up on his point about independent producers in Scotland? I have been following what he said with great interest, and he has a real point. I add, in passing, that "Take the High Road" is a good, interesting soap opera. I happened to meet one of its lady stars on her bicycle in the Hebrides last summer and we discussed the programme at some length--but that is incidental.
It surprises me that, outside London, Scotland has the greatest number of independent producers in the Kingdom--it has about 50 of them. Yet, as the hon. Gentleman said, they put on only 3 per cent. of the programmes on the network, although 10 per cent. of our population live in Scotland. As a Scottish Member, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, while there is a great deal of creativity and talent in Scotland, at times there is too much of a tendency to make Scottish programmes with too much tartan flavour, which are therefore unacceptable to the national network? Scottish independent producers might sell more programmes outside Scotland and throughout Europe if they produced programmes that were sometimes rather less Scottish.
Mr. Worthington : I was going to conclude, but the Minister has opened up many different avenues. It is enlightening to discover that Government policy is framed as a result of meetings on bicycles in the Hebrides--
Mr. Worthington : It is unsatisfactory that the concentration of programme makers in Scotland do not seem to get a fair share of the network ; the fault may lie with them as well as with the system. The difficulty about the Scottishness of programmes is that the best programmes always have real local integrity. Borders can be crossed if a programme has cultural integrity. Mid-Atlantic programmes with no roots in a particular locality never work, so some programmes made in Scotland which are distinctively Scottish would have multinational appeal because of their cultural identity, but if a programme maker made a programme about meeting a Minister while bicycling in the outer Hebrides, it would have limited appeal for a continental audience. I agree that sometimes programmes can be too esoteric.
We must recognise this great opportunity to spread programme making more fairly around the United Kingdom and to ensure that it reflects and stimulates local culture. That has already started under the present system, but it could go much further. I repeat my gratitude to the hon. Member for Thanet, North for giving us the chance to have this debate and I look forward to the speeches by other hon. Members.
Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North) : I am also a cyclist but I confess that there is a degree of difference between the nature of the accosting that may occur between the Minister of State and people in the Hebrides and that which occurs in Bayswater. The debate is not about such entertainments : it is on a more serious subject. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngravie (Mr. Worthington) because he contributes to the work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in a quite exceptional way. He brings to it his experience of Scotland, which is invaluable to the work of the Committee, and also his talent for common sense and wisdom for which we are all grateful.
I shall later comment in detail on the themes raised by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. They clearly illustrate the role of the Select Committee on Home Affairs because the work of that Committee is not only to monitor the expenditure and responsibilities of the Home Department. When it examines policy matters it inevitably ranges over the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. Broadcasting, although primarily the responsibility of the Home Department, is nevertheless a United Kingdom subject. It concerns the whole country and a range of Government Departments.
The hon. Gentleman made some important comments about ownership, and I share some of his anxieties. I recognise the importance to him and to Scotland of the contribution that broadcasting can make to Scotland and the contribution that Scotland can make to broadcasting. The Select Committee on Home Affairs report on broadcasting was especially concerned to deal with regional broadcasting. It is very important to us all and the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie made some important comments on it.