Previous Section Home Page

Column 600

I shall now look into my pork barrel of words to see what I can say about my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). He too is a most distinguished member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and his sparkle and independence of thought enlivens us all, especially in our private debates when we formulate the recommendations for our reports, He is a broadcaster of great distinction and for that reason his contribution to the debate and to the work of the Committee is of special significance. It is interesting to note that there are in the Chamber hon.

Members--certainly some of my hon. Friends--who have also had professional experience of broadcasting and their contributions will be of special value.

I shall venture for a moment into the work of the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House on which my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North had the arduous responsibility to serve. Despite the importance of the debate there is just one Back-Bench Opposition Member in the Chamber. I do not criticise Opposition Members for that because it is not central to the point that I wish to make. There are seven Conservative Members in the Chamber, and if the debate were to be televised to the full extent it would convey to the public a misrepresentation about the way that we think and feel about broadcasting. However, the work that is done in the secret places of the Palace, in the Committee Rooms, over many months and in which so many of us in the Chamber this morning play a part, is often far more significant than the great general debates that we suffer and sometimes enjoy in the Chamber.

That is important because in its report on broadcasting the Select Committee on Home Affairs struck a number of chords. All of us on the Committee were pleased that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Department were able to accept so many of our recommendations and incorporate them in the White Paper. It is to be hoped that they will appear in the legislation to be placed before the House after the Queen's Speech in the autumn.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North has made a special contribution to policy. That is because he also serves the interests of the United Kingdom and the House in the Council of Europe where he has been able to convey his knowledge of this subject with considerable effect. That has helped the Council to arrive at a united approach about standards throughout the Community. I congratulate my hon. Friend on having the wisdom to initiate this debate and on the work that he has done on behalf of the country in this important field.

Before concentrating on some important matters of detail, I shall turn to the work of my hon. Friend the Minister. I can think of no one who has done more to ensure that the United Kingdom interests in the Council of Europe and in the Community are kept to the fore in broadcasting policy. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North pay such a handsome tribute to the Minister in recognition of what he has achieved for all of us under the most trying and difficult circumstances. We owe the Minister a great debt of gratitude and I am sure that all hon. Members will echo that sentiment.

I shall not take up some of the themes that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North so ably touched upon. However, I should like to look in particular at two issues in the current debate about the future of broadcasting--the issues of cross-ownership in media outlets and the future of Channel 4. Cross-ownership, by

Column 601

which I mean cross-control rather than cross -investment, is addressed in a rather sketchy way in the White Paper. Since last November events have thrown the issue into sharper relief. Many broadcasting organisations and groups such as the CBI and the Consumers' Association have expressed the view that the proposals do not go far enough. I share that view and it is a clear theme of the debate.

It is a long established principle of policy that the ownership of media should not be concentrated in a few hands. This is reflected in the special provisions relating to the powers of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in relation to newspaper ownership and in the number of ITV franchises that one company can hold. The undesirability of cross-control of outlets is recognised in local markets, in the prohibition of companies owning both local newspapers and independent local radio stations and in the limit on the size of shareholding that a newspaper company may have in an ITV contractor. Limited cross-media investment has always been accepted at around 20 per cent. maximum holding, but has been carefully policed. The Government's White Paper pledged continuing support for the principle--my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in January stressed the Government's determination on this--not to allow British television to fall under the sway of international media conglomerates. Given that such groups have been in part associated with the decline in press ethics and standards, which have exercised the House in recent weeks, my right hon. Friend's remarks were particularly welcome.

So why are continuing controls over cross-ownership necessary? Why do other countries such as the United States, Australia and now Italy, which the Home Affairs Committee visited, see the need for them? First, because they underpin the principle of pluralism in guaranteeing diversity of control over information sources and, secondly, because they reflect the importance of fair competition and of such separation since newspapers, television and radio are, in large part, the very gatekeepers to the market place.

Cross-control of the media is wrong in principle and creates a situation in which mischief can take a hold. It can lead to a distortion of fair competition and to a lack of objective reporting, both of which are contrary to the public interest. Distortion of competition can arise since there are a number of ways in which cross-subsidy or cross-promotion can take place within such integrated groups. Free advertising is only the most obvious example of this, and it amounts to several million pounds worth annually. This distortion of coverage can arise because pressure might be directly applied to journalists to write favourably about their proprietor's television interests, or to avoid covering embarrassing stories. Perhaps more insidiously, the journalists may come to practice self-censorship. These developments may, in turn, lead to newspaper readers being fed a partial view of events or to the mixing of editorial coverage with promotional material. The problem is compounded--it also runs wholly contrary to the Government's desire, professed in the White Paper, to avoid the uniformity of editorial line--if newspaper editors are simultaneously senior television executives, or vice versa.

These issues have been brought into focus in recent months with the launch of Sky Television controlled by News International, which already owns 35 per cent. of

Column 602

our national newspapers, with the tabling of early-day motion 434 and with reports from the European Institute for the Media and the Broadcasting Research Unit. It is not a coincidence that, among the quality newspapers, only The Times, a Murdoch newspaper, publishes the schedules of Sky Television.

A lacuna has developed in the law. The Government have made it clear that they regard cross-control of the media as undesirable. I applaud the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on this matter, which showed sensitivity to the genuine concern felt about the issue on both sides of the House. That speech applied only to what the White Paper termed Channel 3, Channel 5 and the non-direct broadcasting by satellite franchises. The controls do not apply, but should apply to those services using a medium-power satellite and directing programme services primarily at this country. If cross-control of the media is a bad thing, then such control should apply regardless of whether the service is transmitted terrestrially, by high-powered satellite or by medium-power satellite.

The argument could be advanced that new medium-power satellite services command only tiny audiences, and that they can safely be left alone, but this applies almost equally to the national DBS series and seems to say that such services should be allowed to grow, and once they have grown, after several years, they should then be made subject to controls. This seems somewhat unfair to investors in such services.

I hope that, in reply to the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for broadcasting, will say how the Government will address this problem. Without wishing to pre-empt him, I must say that this is not a matter that should be left solely to the discretion of the Independent Television Commission except in so far as it is responsible for enforcing principles clearly set out in the legislation. I also hope that the report of the Office of Fair Trading on media ownership will be available to inform on the drawing up of the broadcasting Bill.

It is wrong to argue that since such medium-power services do not use national frequencies, the Government are powerless, particularly if the services are based in, linked up to, or financed from this country, or would expect coverage on cable or multi-point video distribution system services here. Safeguards could bite on any of these points in the last resort. If all else failed, the newspaper interests of any group seeking to defy the rules laid down by Parliament could be brought into question, with divestment available if necessary.

In the longer term, it would be sensible to put in place an agreed European Community framework on the issue since broadcasting will become less controllable within the national borders. A holding of, say, 25 per cent., in a television station should be the maximum permitted to any large -scale national newspaper proprietor. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to announce how they intend to uphold the principles of preventing cross control across the range of broadcasting services directed into British homes. This is now a pressing problem, and a failure to resolve it satisfactorily risks casting a shadow over the excellent elements in the forthcoming broadcasting Bill.

My other concern, which the House has already debated this morning, concerns the future of Channel 4. My Committee reported recently unanimously, in the unavoidable absence of my hon. Friend the Member for

Column 603

Thanet, North--an absence that, upon reflection, the House might think was fortuitous from the point of view of the Committee reaching a unanimous decision. We support both principles annunciated by the Government in the White Paper--maintenance of the distinctive remit of Channel 4 and the separate selling of advertising. We recommended the one option in the White Paper that would achieve both those aims, namely, that Channel 4 should become a non-profit making subsidiary of the ITC with a financial guarantee in reserve. It is no good making Channel 4 fully independent, but denying it the financial base to sustain its remit because, ultimately that would mean a new national commercial channel without the variety and diversity presently brought to television by Channel 4. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to resist demands to maximise the revenue available from the fourth channel, because to do so would destroy all that Channel 4 has achieved.

The Select Committee found a wide range of agreement on its proposal for the future funding of Channel 4, including that of Mr. George Russell, the chairman of the IBA and designate chairman of the ITC. Indeed, there was much favourable comment upon our proposals. It is, perhaps, unusual in such issues to have such widespread support. It would ill serve the best interests of British broadcasting if that united opinion on future funding were to be lightly ignored. I wish to share in the congratulations expressed by the House on the appointment of Mr. Russell to those important posts at a time when we are shaping the future of broadcasting. He is the right man to lead the regulatory and supervisory authorities.

I conclude on a personal note. Hon. Members may note that I am wearing the tie of the police college. At noon today the Home Affairs Committee will introduce a major report on the police college and higher police training, including many significant and, inevitably, controversial recommendations. Even as we debate in this Chamber, the massed ranks of the constabulary, accompanied by the media, are foregathering in the Upper Committee Corridor to hear what the future holds for them. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if, through necessity, I withdraw to attend to those other duties on behalf of the Home Affairs Committee--quite naturally unsupported by many hon. Members who, perforce, are obliged to remain in the Chamber. 11.3 am

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me relatively early in the debate. I regret that I, too, cannot stay for the whole of it, for which I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister and to right hon. and hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and I have often worked together in broadcasting. More recently, we both served on the Select Committee considering the televising of the House. I congratulate him on serving the House well by introducing this important subject of the development of the broadcasting industry and the technology that goes with it.

I am grateful for the 12 years of worthwhile experience that I gained working as a reporter and presenter for the BBC. However, for a long time I have been conscious of a duopoly at work between the BBC and ITV, which

Column 604

perhaps has continued for too long. There is a real need for much greater opportunities to break out in broadcasting. Some of us well remember the resistance to change when ITV first appeared. Although I was not in the House at that time, many hon. Members and many people in the media and in broadcasting, especially in the BBC, were concerned about its emergence. Now, it is very much a part of our lives.

Technology is moving very quickly--hence the appropriate nature of the motion and also the timing of the White Paper introduced some months ago. Even during the Select Committee's 15 months of deliberations on televising the House, the technology of cameras and lighting moved ahead quickly. When we began our deliberations, we were told that certain requests relating to the size of cameras in the Chamber and the style of lighting that would confront hon. Members could not be met. However, because of the probing, the pressure and some cajoling by the Select Committee, it appears that we are now on the brink of extremely advanced technology that will be available when the House begins the experiment.

Several points emerged from the White Paper, and they have been raised this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North and other hon. Members. We all agree that the BBC is the cornerstone of British broadcasting. It was the true beginning of British broadcasting and, for many years, the institution that developed broadcasting in this country. The White Paper expressed the view that, at times, the BBC tried to take on too much and that it should accept and embrace changes. I welcome the White Paper's view, so far as it goes, that the BBC should be subject to subscription and sponsorship, although the Government are moving too slowly towards a point where the BBC might have some form of advertising revenue support.

I accept that, at the beginning of British broadcasting, a licence fee to support the BBC was an obvious method of finance, and that system worked well for a long time. However, we have now reached the point when we should be taking a much closer look at the need to continue this kind of revenue support. Old-age pensioners in my constituency regularly tell me that they believe that the licence fee is too high. That applies even to pensioners who have only a black and white receiver, but they certainly believe that the fee for colour televisions is too much.

My pensioners consider what is available on the BBC to see what they are paying for. Why should an old-age pensioner's licence fee contribute to a programme like "Neighbours" on the public broadcasting network? That must be the kind of programme which could be paid for from advertising, sponsorship or a subscription service. Pensioners also consider chat and variety shows. They are aware of the reports of the extremely inflated fees paid to presenters, especially those who chair BBC chat shows. They wonder why their licence fees should pay for the salaries of Mr. Wogan and his colleagues. I have nothing against Mr. Wogan--he is an extremely entertaining and skilful broadcaster--but it is odd that we should still have to fund his salary and programmes such as his from the licence fee.

Various negotiations are carried out for the television rights to cover sports events. I have a fairly intimate knowledge of that, having been a Minister responsible for sport. I never cease to be amazed at the fact that the BBC can use the licence fee to enter competitions involving many thousands of pounds for the rights to televise a

Column 605

football match or an athletics event. It uses that money against the massed financial ranks of the independent companies, which have advertising revenue behind them. It is obvious that providing such sports coverage should logically be funded from subscription, sponsorship or advertising. As my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Department think about moving towards legislation later this year, I hope that they will give further thought to how the BBC should be funded.

Mr. Gale : Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, it is worth placing on the record the fact that, while the BBC thought it necessary to impose a 10 per cent. cut in the funding of some local radio stations, it could find £50 million at the drop of the hat to bid for some football matches.

Mr. Tracey : My hon. Friend is absolutely right ; he has highlighted my point. He represents a more rural constituency than mine and he will appreciate the harm which has been caused by the cut in local radio station funding. I feel strongly that some of the economies imposed on broadcasting services even within Greater London should equally be criticised by the House.

I join many hon. Members in expressing concern and criticism about the White Paper's comments on independent franchises. I agree that there should be competition for independent franchises ; there is nothing to replace that. However, the quality of the programming of independent companies may be damaged if we pursue tender from the highest bidder. After some years of working in broadcasting, I do not believe that television and broadcasting in general lends itself to that form of competition.

There should certainly be a range of competing companies offering themselves on the basis of the structure of their programming and their ability. However, I do not believe that the Government would be serving the viewing public if they agreed that the tender should go to the highest bidder.

I agree with a point raised most tellingly by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) and also referred to briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) about the concentration of interests in the media. It is a source of great concern to me that the editor of The Sunday Times is also the chairman of Sky Television. Admittedly, the journalist in question is an old friend of many of us in this place. However, it is extraordinary that the same man should be the editor of a very well-respected and influential national Sunday newspaper and also the chairman of an emerging satellite channel. There may be great dangers there.

It is possible that a media company may own major national newspapers and a satellite channel and that it might advertise and report on the emergence of that channel. People must question whether the comments of a newspaper which owns a satellite channel can be entirely impartial. I do not believe that they can. The Government must consider the concentration of ownership across the media. I am sure that that will be the case, judging from what my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office have said outside the House. I welcome the work being done by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office in seeking guarantees of quality and decency across continental boundaries with the emergence of satellite technology. Last year, I was

Column 606

present at an international conference which expressed considerable concern about the possibility of beaming programmes, some of which were indecent or loaded with propaganda, from one country to another country which did not want to receive them. I hope that the Government will continue to press with all their energy for guarantees of quality through the Council of Europe, the European Commission, and even United Nations if that becomes necessary. My final point concerns maintaining technical standards among the developing industry's employees. I have corresponded with my hon. Friend the Minister on the subject of an extremely useful paper by John Grist, a very experienced broadcaster and a former member of the BBC, who last year was the visiting fellow at Wolfson college, Cambridge. Realising the way the technology is developing and that the boundaries are being pushed out, Mr. Grist gave his views on the need for the Government to consider seriously the training of people entering the industry. He suggested that the Government should consider seriously a television training commission, which would be widely funded by all those involved in broadcasting.

In the past, training has been undertaken by the BBC and by the independent companies, but with the widening of boundaries across the industry, Mr. Grist is right to state that we should seriously consider establishing a training commission so that the existing standards of excellence are maintained in the future.

I welcome both today's debate and the continuing debate about the future of broadcasting in this country. I repeat that we owe a great debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North for raising the subject this morning.

11.21 am

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) on initiating the debate. He has a distinguished record in television and radio broadcasting, and the way in which he advanced his views and made several important points this morning only adds to that distinction.

Today's debate has been most interesting, in stark contrast to the sterile debate on the broadcasting White Paper. I am entitled to make that remark because I took part in that earlier sterile debate myself. Many more ideas have been presented today, and I say that hoping that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is to speak for the Labour party, will himself make a less sterile speech today than he did before. I shall try to do so as well.

I share the congratulations expressed to my hon. Friend the Minister on his significant contribution to the convention on transfrontier broadcasting. Demands for such a document were made in many publications last year, including that of my political friends in the Tory Reform Group. I am delighted that the convention includes many of the provisions that they sought. That is a significant step and forms the basis on which deregulation can take place. I take a simple view of deregulation. It is not a matter of whether one wants or strives for deregulation, because it will come anyway as a consequence of new technology and because people wish to invest money in new forms of broadcasting and in new television channels. That

Column 607

development requires a framework to ensure that we get the very best from that situation, and the agreement reached by my hon. Friend the Minister will be looked back on as an important part of that framework.

As to the future of broadcasting, it is clear that protectionism will not work. I hope that before any broadcasting Bill comes before the House, we shall hear less and less about protectionism and about defending the existing system from any innovations. That attitude will not ensure that we get the best out of broadcasting in the future.

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey) in respect of sports coverage and sponsorship. Although the BBC has limited resources, it is compelled to put up large sums of money to guarantee the coverage of certain sporting events on its channels. At the same time, because a duopoly exists, there is an artificial restriction on the amount of money that flows from television into sport. As a cricket fan, I would be devastated if cricket coverage were cut, because that would dent my viewing enjoyment. Why should so little money flow into what I regard as being our national game? Now that other programme makers will be bidding for cricket coverage more money should flow into it, which must be a good thing.

Another area that the White Paper does not address but which I hope we can debate when a Bill comes before the House is regional coverage. The regional structure of the BBC and of the ITV companies makes no sense other than in the minds of the people who created it. Rather than see regional television, which often involves pouring out programmes of little local interest enshrined in legislation, I would like to see it address the development of truly local broadcasting. The output of both BBC and ITV in the southern region, for example, can be described only as schizophrenic. The companies cannot decide from minute to minute whether they are serving Brighton or Southampton, and goodness knows what is thought of the service by people living in other towns in that region.

There is no reason why Brighton and Southampton should not have their own broadcasting service, which could incorporate network programmes such as "Coronation Street" and "News at Ten". But they could also transmit their own local news bulletins. That would be possible to achieve using cable, the multipoint video distribution system, or the spare broadcasting frequencies that are now available. Such truly local transmissions would help viewers in Liverpool or Manchester, for example, enjoy a genuinely coherent service with programming that meets their local needs.

As to Channel 5, I sympathise of course with Scottish viewers who wish to receive the service in their country. However, what is more important is that far too large a proportion of television programming is London dominated. It is important that Channel 5 is based well away from London. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that certain northern cities also have a claim to be the home of Channel 5. Bradford has a claim and must be considered as a major bidder. It is geographically well-sited and already has the National Film and Television museum. It would be a good home for Channel 5 and I hope that it will be given the same consideration as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Column 608

Radio inevitably tends to be a minority part of our discussions. There are many programming strands to which I and my constituents would like to listen. Those strands may include programmes for ethnic minorities, jazz, different sorts of plays, more sporting commentary or different types of pop music. Many minorities need to be catered for. It is absurd and insulting to the intelligence of listeners that, particularly on commercial radio, several frequencies put out the same programmes on certain days of the week. That must not be allowed. We must make the best use of the frequencies available. There must be only one frequency broadcasting a particular programme, not three or four which is what occurs now, especially on a Sunday. We must meet as many of the programming needs as possible. Unlike many hon. Members, I do not believe that the licence fee for the BBC has come to the end of its life. We must look for a new lease of life for the licence fee. I say that in the context of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton. I agree with him that the BBC should take advertising. I do not agree that a public service broadcasting system should not show "Neighbours" or Terry Wogan and people like that. The BBC should broadcast a full range of programmes. However, why should that not be supported by advertising, particularly when, as I have said before--it has been confirmed to me--the standing instruction to the people doing the programme links at the BBC is to make them look as much like advertising as possible? Therefore, how can it be said that advertising would dent the quality of the BBC? It is irrational. Therefore, the BBC should, if necessary be forced to take advertising, and the licence fee should be used for something different.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate) : Surely the BBC already advertises. I was listening to Radio 2 in the car yesterday and I heard a link announcement asking for people to join the volunteer bureau of the BBC for which a payment was to be made. Is that not advertising? Why should it be concealed in that way?

Mr. Hughes : That is an important additional point and shows the nonsense of the campaign conducted by the BBC and others against the acceptance of advertising. It is already there. We should press our point and ensure that the BBC takes advertising properly and gains from the revenue that would come from it.

As I have said, the licence fee needs a new lease of life. We should ensure that we have the quality of public service broadcasting that we talk about in these debates. That is important. Also important are strands of broadcasting that may not attract a large number of viewers. Such programmes do not necessarily have to be shown only on the BBC. They could be spread across different broadcasting outlets such as the ITV channels, Channel 5, the cable networks or the satellite channels. We do not know how much the cable networks or satellite channels will grow. We know what has happened so far but we do not know what will happen in the future. Those outlets could provide programmes recommended by bodies such as the Arts Council or other organisations and could be financed from the proceeds of the licence fee. That would involve a large amount of money and could do a great deal of good. The licence fee is easy to collect and it is relatively cheap. We should not abandon it too easily.

Column 609

ITV is running an expensive advertising campaign on its own network to the tune of "Just the way you are". ITV probably made a mistake and intended to use, "Who wants to be a Millionaire". It is not seeking to protect the viewer or to say, "We are offering viewers what they want and they should ensure that we can continue as we are." If that were true, the audience would not be decreasing year after year. The audience figure is much lower now than five or 10 years ago. If ITV was providing what the viewer wanted, it would not be worried.

My point has been illustrated in a speech circulated to hon. Members by the ITV Association. The speech was made by Richard Dunn, the managing director of Thames Television and chairman of the ITV Association. He lets the cat out of the bag and we are grateful to the ITV Association for circulating it. Far from seeking to protect viewers, it wants to protect its income. It wants to ensure that it is providing what the advertisers want. In his speech Mr. Dunn quotes Ray Snoddy the distinguished critic. In an article in Media Week Mr. Snoddy said that as a result of the auctioning of franchises and the separation of Channel 4

"the advertisers will get the worst of all possible

worlds--fragmentation of audiences, increasing costs and possibly fewer of the right people watching commercial TV at all." Who are the right people? Are not all people equal when they watch television?

Richard Dunn went on to say :

"The lighter, more discriminating viewers could certainly be lost to the BBC or to those of the new subscription satellite channels that are successful. In my judgment, the result of all this turmoil could well be a reduction in the size and quality of the audience available to advertisers."

That does not display much care for viewers.

Mr. Corbett : In all fairness, we should say that Mr. Dunn gave that speech to an advertising audience.

Mr. Hughes : I accept that, but I have seen nothing from the ITV Association or the television companies that contradicts the points made in the speech. ITV is more interested in its balance sheet and advertisers than in its viewers.

Much has been said about the BBC with which I concur. It has been called the cornerstone of quality for television and radio and we would be foolish to abandon it. We need the BBC. We would not have our high quality independent television without the BBC. Sky Television would not be broadcasting what most people accept is a reasonable news service if it did not have to compete with BBC and ITN.

The BBC needs to examine the way in which it is organised. There have been a series of strikes by BBC staff. It is easy to blame the staff who go on strike. As a former BBC insider, I have to say that the frustration of the staff is great. They are frustrated at the way in which the BBC is organised, the decisions that are made and the money wasted by employing too many people in some areas and cutting back while demanding more in areas that are already working hard. When the people at the top of the BBC are receiving enormous pay rises but the pay rise suggested for the staff is below the rate of inflation, their frustration is understandable, especially when one considers that they are already substantially underpaid compared with people working in the independent sector, or facility companies. I hope that the BBC board of

Column 610

governors will look closely at what is happening at senior management level before it blames staff for going on strike. If one needs evidence of gaps in the quality of management at the BBC, one has only to look at the evidence that was given to the Select Committee which considered televising the proceedings of the House. That Select Committee, on which I had the honour to serve, would not have taken so long to come to its conclusions if the original evidence given by the BBC and ITN--but mainly the BBC--had not been inadequate, disingenuous, wrong, and scribbled on the back of an envelope before their witnesses went before the Committee. They led the Committee down a garden path down which it was not prepared to go. We had to take a long time to examine the best way of televising the proceedings of the House. Before editorial writers and broadcasters criticise what has been said by the Select Committee, they should look at the original evidence, as published by the BBC and the ITN.

An important point is not mentioned often enough. The deaf can neither listen to radio nor get much enjoyment out of television. The BBC and ITN have done well in increasing the amount of sub-titling, but what they have done is not enough. There needs to be substantially more sub-titling. The deaf have a right to access to news and current affairs programmes. Channel 4 already has sub-titling, and the BBC has promised that it will sub-title the 9 o'clock news. The deaf have an urgent right to such subtitling. Before the Bill comes forward, my hon. Friend the Minister should look at that important subject and decide the key to getting more sub-titling on television, of course, mainly through the Ceefax and Oracle systems. Do the Government have a responsibility to that vulnerable group of people and to allow funds to ensure that we can increase programme sub-titling? What pressure can we put on broadcasters?

Another matter is not for the Minister but for new broadcasters. If the BBC and ITV are moving slowly on the matter, can satellite broadcasters provide some of the sub-titling that is missing from other programmes and attract people to Sky Television or to British Satellite Broadcasting? We should have that important subject in mind when we consider the proposals in the Bill next year. If we say, "We hope that it will happen, but there is nothing that we can do about it," we will let down a vulnerable group of people who have no means of fighting back or of prosecuting their case. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point.

I apologise that I, too, will not be able to stay for the remainder of the debate, as I must go to my constituency. However, I welcome the debate and hope that many of the ideas that have been put forward will find their way into the legislation.

11.43 am

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : Unlike my colleagues, who have apologised because they must depart before the end of the debate, I apologise for not having been here at the beginning. As you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, there are medical reasons for my absence. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly welcome the debate as an opportunity to continue the little campaign to which some hon. Members have subscribed from time to time, which is taming the BBC and abolishing the licence.

Column 611

Some of my distinguished colleagues have spoken from great personal knowledge. I cannot claim to have their depth of knowledge, but, when I worked at the BBC in the 1950s, technology was not quite like it is today. We broadcast programmes live, and we were not subjected to competition from ITV because it did not exist. Nor did we have quite the same freedom. When I appeared in the very first soap opera, "The Grove Family", we made certain that there was no advertising in the sets that were being used. For example, the word "Kellogg" on the cornflakes box was cut out, and the label on the coffee bottle was scratched so that one could not read the word "Camp". Viewers used to sit at home and say, "I wonder what they are cutting out." Of course, common sense ultimately prevailed ; we did not have to cut out or mask such words, and the Kellogg cornflakes box stood on the table. I am sure that there was a dramatic effect on Kellogg's sales.

I recently achieved in a pyrrhic victory in the form of a television licensing concession as it related to aged persons. It sounded marvellous. Judging by the way is was written up by The People, one would have thought that I had rediscovered the wheel. I want the result to be clarified in Hansard so that my colleagues who have not written to me need not bother to do so.

We opened a new old people's complex, and the housing association did not classify it under the category 2 regulations. It admitted some elderly people who, under the law, did not qualify as aged as such. They ranged from 55 to 58 years of age. As a consequence, everyone was disqualified from holding a concessionary licence. After listening to my pleas or reading the small print--perhaps it found that it had a heart--the Home Office changed its view. Those pensioners who had moved from another old people's home were able to take their privilege with them.

All that means is that there is an unhappy old people's home. Those who are receiving the concession are unhappy--they do not see why they had to fight for it in the first place--and those who are not receiving it are even more unhappy. I have been surprised at the great amount of post that I have received on the subject. Hon. Members have known for a long time that it is a touchy matter. Ultimately, the Government must grasp the nettle and abolish the method of payment for the BBC through the licensing system. A few days ago, I saw what is called a "veteran disc jockey" on television. Only 25 years ago, that same veteran disc jockey was described as a pirate- -someone who was outside the law.

Mr. Gale : It was me.

Mr. Holt : I was not mentioning names.

That disc jockey was regarded as someone who would never be a member of the establishment.

Mr. Gale : Simply on a point of information, it is fair to say that those of us who were involved in offshore broadcasting in the early 1960s were not engaged in an illegal operation, because we took part in that before the Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 was passed.

Mr. Holt : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because that makes my point even better. Having discovered a bolthole, the Government had to try to stop it because the people

Column 612

who were listening to the radio were not paying for it. They did not pay either the BBC or the Performing Rights Society although they enjoyed the broadcasts. The BBC got all huffy about that and the Government of the day brought in legislation. Why did it ultimately fail? The answer is that it failed because the traditional idea of one steam radio activated by an accumulator, which was about right at the time when the law was introduced, had been superseded by modern techniques. Youngsters had radios in their earrings--both boys and girls-- but they did not pay for them through a licence.

Ultimately, therefore, the BBC's funding of sound radio was changed by the Government ; one does not pay directly for sound radio now. If one has only sound radio, one does not have to have a licence for it. The funding comes from those people who have a television receiver. Therefore, if one is among the 3 per cent. of the population who do not have a television set-- 97 per cent. now have one--one is part of that parasitical outfit.

No one ever sat down and said, "My goodness, there's going to be a thing called radio and perhaps even a thing called television. How on earth should we pay for these two phenomena?" All that Baird was interested in was payment for the sets that were being sold. He could not have cared less whether anything came out of them. However, someone somewhere devised a thing called a licence. I suppose that in its day it was a reasonable thing, but today the licence is a tax. Indeed, it is a regressive tax because it impinges on rich and poor in exactly the same way. To somebody on a fixed or small income, £66 is a large sum of money, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) said, £66 is cheap to someone who can afford it. The argument is cheapened by those who say it is only

fourpence-farthing an hour because it is still £66 when you have to pay for it, and that is a large sum of money.

We are talking today about developments in satellite and about integrated choice. What about those people who do not want the BBC? They still have to pay for it even if they never watch it. Even if their television set has all the BBC channels blanked out, they still have to pay for it. The whole system is absurd.

I had a letter recently from a constituent who told me that he has a black and white television set and pays the black and white licence fee in the normal way. Then he bought himself a video. In case my hon. Friend the Minister of State is not aware of this, one cannot buy only a black and white video ; all videos are for colour receivers. As a consequence, my constituent received a letter from the licensing authority telling him that he could no longer have a licence merely for a black and white television, but that he had to have one for a colour television, even though his receiver can show only black and white. I do not know whether that is ironic or who had the last word, but my constituent is completely blind ; and cannot see programmes in either black and white or in colour. However, as other members of the household can see the programmes, they have to pay for a colour although they have only a black and white receiver. To all intents and purposes, television licensing is nonsense and it is harsh for many people. We should be totally out of tune with public opinion if we failed to take note of the fact that television today is not merely an odd ball means of entertainment. It is the sole companion of many people--and not merely of elderly people : many people who are confined to their homes because they are

Column 613

disabled or who are simply afraid to go out at night now have the companionship of the television set. Of course it informs and entertains, but--

Mr. Corbett : The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. Will he make it clear whether he is objecting to the principle of the licensing of a television set--that is what it is--or to the use to which that money is put--in other words, to fund the BBC?

Mr. Holt : I am objecting to both in a different way. I have not yet reached the BBC. I am objecting to how the licence system works, and I am considering satellite development.

To take a business about which I know a little, one must have a licence to run a betting shop. If one owns a television set, one must have a licence. If one owns a bank of 12 television sets which receive satellite television, one still needs only one licence. The licence goes not with the set but with the premises. That brings me back to my earlier complaint, that elderly people who found themselves in a new old people's home lost their privilege. The Government provided the concession because at that time some elderly and disabled people lived in a complex where there was only one communal television in a main room to which they went during viewing hours. Moreover, the Government did not see how they could collect licences from everybody. Times have moved on since the highly expensive one -off television in the common room. Now, most people in a complex have their own television set in their own room. That is why the Government are making people pay, although they live in a complex or accommodation with a warden. That, in turn, is simply because housing associations have not designated such accommodation as category 2.

The average person in the street does not understand that, and does not want to understand it. He cares only that he has a television set and pays too much for the licence. Many people feel that they are not getting full value, whether from the BBC, ITV or a satellite company. They feel that £66 is in excess of what they should pay.

The licence fee is a tax ; let us make no bones about it. It must be paid by law and people are fined for not paying it. Many elderly people struggle to pay that £66. I am amazed by the volume of mail that I have received about it.

Mr. Renton : While I understand my hon. Friend's concern for his elderly constituents, may I correct him about the new definition of who gets a concessionary licence?

The concessionary licence which was only 5p a year became a substantial concession as the price of the licence increased. It was originally intended for elderly people who lived in purpose-built and discrete accommodation specifically designed as sheltered accommodation for the elderly with an effective full-time warden. Two or three years ago, a court eventually judged that, providing that any communal service was provided, the concessionary licence fee of 5p a year should apply.

Consequently, a great many councils said that they provided one communal service. It could be one person visiting for one hour a week, even if only to collect the rent and see that everyone was all right. Councils saw the court's decision as a means of liberalising and extending

Column 614

concessionary licences. For that reason only, we had to reconstruct the rules to return to the original intent of some 25 years ago when the concession was introduced.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it would make much more logical sense to get rid of the concessionary fee altogether, because there are anomalies. We did not do that, because we felt that it was too unfair to remove it from those who already had it. It is a compromise. The present system was given a great deal of thought. It was intended to restrict the scheme to the original proposal and to continue giving a concessionary licence to those who had one, so that their fee did not increase from 5p to £66 a year. If there is a particular problem in my hon. Friend's constituency, I hope that he will come and talk to me about it.

Mr. Holt : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that explanation, which will have been heard by many people outside of the Chamber. I will not go to see him at present with the immediate problem, because I did take it up with his Department. His official kindly dealt with it and made a decision, but was subsequently moved to another Department. I would not wish to inflict such an end on my hon. Friend.

The Minister's intervention highlights the problems and the complexity of the matter. The moment that a concession is given to one set of people, whoever they are, one is immediately confronted with other people who want concessions, too. I believe that, in the same way as the steam radio licence went out of time, so, ultimately, will the licence for the BBC.

Many of us who had our childhood during the war believed implacably that every word emanating from the BBC was the complete truth. We shot down the German air force 67 times in the first year of the war. We believed it because it was the BBC, and that mythology has gone on in perpetuity. However, the BBC has changed. I was delighted recently to receive not one but two letters from the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC apologising to me for the political bias that had been introduced into two programmes. I am not springing this on my hon. Friend the Minister, because he knows that I put down an early-day motion. The BBC is biased.

Many words in the English language have, over the years, changed their original meaning. At an Edinburgh festival television fringe meeting a few years ago, I made the point to a television audience of all the eminent people in the profession that, if one talks today about the BBC and bias, everyone knows that one is talking about Left-wing bias against the Conservative party and the Government. Bias never means bias the other way round.

I challenged all the worthies of the BBC for one of them to get up and tell me when there had been not a Left-wing but Right-wing bias in a play or a public opinion programme. There has not been one. All the eminent people, from the director-general down, sitting in the audience, failed to respond. I was told afterwards privately that the reason none of them responded was that the BBC has a strict rule on pecking order, and, in any audience, the only person who is allowed to respond on behalf of the BBC is the most senior person present. As the most senior person had only been with the BBC one week at that time, no one responded. That is a plausible explanation for no one from the BBC responding to my challenge of the day

Next Section

  Home Page