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Column 615and telling me why it had refused to put Iain Curteis's play on, when it had asked for that play to be written and had spent much money producing it.
Satellite television will be a revolutionary development in many ways, and I do not know whether the Government will be able to cope with it. I am not sure whether they have the facility to cope with it. I do not know how they will deal with the situation when we have horse racing beamed in 24 hours a day through the Satellite Information Service to television sets in this country, which at present is received in the betting shops. Anyone with a credit facility will want that system.
People's television sets will be quickly adapted to carry 24 knobs, one of which will bring in different sports from all over the world. At the moment, horse racing is almost a monopoly organised by those who run it, bet on it and broadcast it. With the advent of satellite television, things may go out of control.
How will the Government react to inter-country beaming in of satellite television of all varieties? Will it be censored? Will we be banned from seeing things that the Government do not want broadcast, or will we have a system of deregulation and freedom in accordance with the basic philosophy of the Government?
At the heart of this we must remember my constituents, the elderly ladies, the disabled and the disadvantaged--unemployment levels are still high in the north-east of England--will still pay the full television licence to have the privilege of receiving the BBC, should they want to view its channels. In future, why should society continue to pay for the BBC in that way? Surely we should recognise that, today, television is as important as a damp course or a roof on a house. Once someone buys a television set, they should be able to see programmes without any further direct cost to them. The television licence fee is £66, but it will increase.
We must accept that that licence will die the moment everyone says they will not pay, but will its death be regulated? If the BBC received no direct income from licences, the Government would soon find the money from taxation. Yesterday, the Government found £6 billion to improve the roads. I cannot imagine why they cannot find £174 million so that some people do not have to buy a television licence. I believe that it would be useful if the Cabinet reflected on that.
We all know that television is powerful. Once programmes come in from all sorts of countries, do the Government know whether they will have make some payment for additional services? For instance, I do not know how money will be collected for the Performing Rights Society for beamed-in operations. The BBC is able to monitor everything that goes out and it pays the correct proportions of money owed.
I asked the BBC to follow the practice of Tyne Tees Television, which issues a regular schedule of the programmes in which politicians appear to show that there is a balance in its programmes. The BBC, however, told me that such a schedule was beyond its capabilities.
I am struggling to see the time. This week, I have sought six times to catch Mr. Speaker's eye--I was successful once and I was told that I could speak for five minutes, but then
Column 616I had to sit down. This morning, however, I was told that I would be on my feet for at least three quarters of an hour and that I could keep going.
Mr. Holt : Well, in that case, I shall conclude by saying that the power of television is its ability to change things dramatically. When I was a youngster and played tennis, the rules of the game said that play should be continuous and that one should change ends continually. Fred Perry and all the other great players did just that. Then, however, television came along and players were forced to rub themselves down for two minutes between changing ends so that the cameras could beam in. Television cameras beam in--I may seem to be advertising here--on the name Robinson's, for example, so let us not kid ourselves that the BBC does not have advertising.
Every time my sport of horse racing is on BBC television, I can guarantee that the cameras show the William Hill horseshoe when it is a William Hill race, and the Ladbroke horseshoe when it is a Ladbroke race. None of that was allowed, and the law has not been changed to allow it, but simply because the law could not be enforced, it has happened. I hope that, ultimately, the same will be true of television licences. Advertisers now have the freedom to put hoardings all round football grounds and race tracks. I hope that that same freedom will come into being for television and that television licences will become a thing of the past.
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) for our long call that the BBC should be funded out of general taxation. I accept what he says about the present licensing system being nonsense, if for no other reason than that it is expensive to collect and for no good purpose.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) on raising this issue. It will come as no surprise to him that the words of his motion, especially when it calls on the Government "to pay particular attention to the need to continue to stimulate quality programming and maintain diversity of ownership and choice", are warmly welcomed by the Opposition, so to that extent nothing lies between us. He has provided an opportunity not only for the House, but for the Minister and the Government, to think again more clearly and deeply about what they plan to do to our broadcasting. The one issue that separates us--I acknowledge that the Minister himself is having some further thought on this--is that the White Paper is founded on the principle that the deepest purse should be able to buy its way into television and that considerations of quality should come a poor second.
The voices of experienced broadcasters, viewers and listeners have been missing from earlier debates on this topic. That is no longer the case because, as the Minister will know better than I, his Department is knee- deep in responses to the White Paper. I hope that the Minister will consider the range of opinions most carefully and be prepared, even at this stage while, no doubt, the Bill is being drafted, to change his mind.
Column 617We should be clear that no one is opposed to changes in our broadcasting system, but the Government do not seem to understand that changes need to be based on the success of the present system. It has been a success because it has been built in an evolutionary way, in which one development has complemented another. That was certainly the case with the development of BBC 2 and with the start of Channel 4. The aim of those developments, under more sensitive hands, was to enhance the range and quality of programmes, to widen horizons and to feed and stretch the imagination. Game shows and quiz shows--the Home Secretary's favourite Saturday evening viewing--have a place on the menu of television, on whatever channel, and are a proper part of what is on offer, but they are only a part. I suspect that the gap between the Government and the Opposition is over whether listeners and viewers should be treated as increasingly discerning and sophisticated, as other areas of their lives expand, or whether they are to be regarded simply as customers and consumers, bid for and bought by those rich and strong enough to buy a franchise. It is false for the Government to claim that they merely want to widen choice. That is not possible without a policy which actively and openly protects, upholds and enhances standards of quality. What the Government propose is more likely to lessen real choice by the gradual reduction of high quality in the chase for ratings and by maximising audiences for advertisers. The blind belief in customers will replace concern for people as intelligent listeners and viewers.
We certainly embrace and welcome the changes that the new technology is making possible, but we insist that they be harnessed to combine greater choice with higher quality. In many senses the debate is about whose finger is on the button. We know that the finger belongs to the viewer and listener, but there is also the question of what he or she has the choice of switching on or off. The Government seem to be saying that the finger on the button should belong to the person with the thickest wallet. We are more worried about quality than cash.
There is no real extra choice in being asked to choose between a selection of equally trivial programmes ; it is more choice in one sense, but only a choice of more of the same. There should be a choice between different, not similar programmes.
By quality I do not mean only expensive highbrow drama productions or documentaries, important though they are. The protection and promotion of regional television has just as much to do with quality. A number of hon. Members have made the point that less of our television should be London- based and oriented. The Government seem unaware that their proposals are likely to make that problem worse. The largest audiences with the most money are in London and the south-east.
In earlier debates the Minister has as good as admitted that under his plans fewer regional television stations are likely to serve larger areas. That can only dilute regional flavour in news and current affairs as well as in drama and documentaries. It is difficult enough to find that flavour now, but the position can only worsen under the Government's proposals.
Mr. Renton : I do not know the context in which the hon. Gentleman is quoting me, if that is what he is doing. I have said all along that I believe that under our proposals there will be an increase in the number of regional and
Column 618locally-based services, not only because of the additional number of satellite channels but because of local cable and multipoint video distribution system television. So I am surprised at what the hon. Gentleman has said--I have always said the opposite.
Mr. Corbett : I did not mean to imply that the Minister had said that, and I acknowledge his point. He has caught me out--I should be able to reach into my handbag now and produce a bit of paper, but I cannot. The point that I was, perhaps clumsily, trying to make was about the number of regional television franchises. I understand the Minister's argument and I hope that was what he says is true, but my principal concern is about the number of regionally-based television stations.
I have deliberately dealt with regional stations first because they are extremely important in ensuring a better balance between national and regional programmes. Like everything else, this will turn on cash as the bidders line up to buy the franchises. The higher the price--at the moment the proposition is that the highest bidder must win--the greater the threat to quality, because the pressure will be on owners to recoup what they have laid out. That is what their shareholders will demand, which is why it is so essential that guarantees of quality be built into the bids. Bidders should be required to submit detailed budgets, specifying what they plan to spend on how many hours in each sector--on news and current affairs, documentaries, drama, game shows, children's programmes, religious programmes, sport, and so on. Unless a price tag is demanded in that way, there can be no effective guarantee of proper quality standards in the range of programmes.
Mr. George Russell, chairman of the IBA, spoke the other day about the "quality of money", meaning that the IBA's successor body should have powers to decline to give the franchise to the highest bidder if there were doubts about quality standards. The Minister knows that that is practically a universal view in the industry. The policy of "Never mind the quality, feel the width of my wallet" runs the real risk of a speedy slide into low- budget, low-quality programmes and programming.
Mr. Holt : I should like to extrapolate a little from that point. In America there has just been the most expensive flop of all time, a sequel to a programme that was very successful. The sequel cost a fortune but it has been dropped because people will not pay to advertise on a programme that audiences will not watch. If it had been a BBC programme, people would have had to watch it through to the end of the series--like it or not.
Mr. Corbett : I do not think that that necessarily follows. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) said that companies have to have enough cash to take risks and to accept that some programmes will fail. If they do not do that, we shall get only safe programmes. In the chase for audiences nobody will take risks by saying that certain programmes should be made and shown. If a programme is properly made it should be able to earn itself an audience.
Mr. Corbett : I entirely accept that and I shall deal with it in a moment. It depends critically upon the quality and standards of people in the industry. That includes people who develop the scripts right at the start of a programme
Column 619--my wife has a small hand in such affairs-- right through to the people who make the programme. Money is of some importance in the context of staff.
I think it is accepted by all hon. Members that Channel 4 has been an undoubted success. That is because it has commissioned programmes of intelligence and daring. Under the umbrella of the ITV companies--this is an important distinction--there has been what I would describe as friendly rivalry rather than bare knuckle competition. That has served both partners well and it is probably that which led the Select Committee on Home Affairs and others to come up with the option that has been suggested.
The Minister will be as aware as I am that hawks in the Cabinet seem to be siding with that rough lot in the Department of Trade and Industry rather than the Home Office and that they seem hell bent on making Channel 4 totally independent and insisting that it compete head-on with Channel 3. That is not what wiser heads want and it is not in the best interests of Channel 4. Channel 4, which ought to know a thing or two about the business, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs say that it would be best if Channel 4 became a subsidiary of the proposed Independent Television Commission. While selling its own advertising it would have the safety net of money held by the ITC in case revenue did not match needs or expectation. That is not some form of latter-day feather bedding. It is an attempt to recognise the special nature of Channel 4 and how the unrestricted harsh winds of fierce competition between Channel 3 companies and between them and satellite would imperil the programming and purpose of Channel 4. I hope that the Home Office wins this argument. The fact that it needs to take place illustrates that the Government do not understand what they are dealing with, and that because of the special nature of our broadcasting special steps need to be taken and special arrangements need to be made. The narrowness of the Government's view is demonstrated by their blinkered proposals for a BBC world television service to extend and complement its radio equivalent. I thought that it was common ground between us that the BBC World Service is a vital part of our cultural and diplomatic effort around the world. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh spoke about that. It has rightly earned widespread respect, trust and authority. The Government have refused to assist the BBC in its development into world television, at a time when other nations--I suspect, through back and side doors--are assisting their national companies in that respect.
Mr. Gale : I do not wish to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but he should be aware that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has said to the BBC World Service and Mr. John Tusa that if the BBC World Service can come up with a commercial package that would allow a world television service to be commercially funded, he will give that serious consideration. Discussions are taking place and we hope that that will happen.
Mr. Corbett : I know that, but such a proposition would be made easier if the Government were prepared, even if only to a limited extent, to assist with start-up expenses, because such expenses are heavy.
I have a great suspicion that the development of world services involves Government money in at least one case. Cable News Network is now available around the globe. I am not knocking the quality of that service, but the important point is that it gives the American point of view. There is an American flavour and an American bias about the way in which it handles its programmes.
The ambition of the BBC is to have a world television service apart, and I strongly support that, but even the BBC world radio service is under threat from the Government. It broadcasts in 37 languages around the world and is at risk at a time when we should be thinking of expansion--and all because there is a cash crisis. Mr. John Tusa, its distinguished managing director, has warned that grave problems will have to be faced in 1990-91. He mentioned high inflation, rent rises at Bush House, extra rates and staff pay awards. He said : "I don't think these continuous unplanned-for pressures on spending are things we can take without damaging the product we deliver." The three-year funding package announced in November 1987 was based on an inflation rate of 5 per cent., with no allowance in it for the inflation figure announced today of 8 per cent. In any event, the annual rate agreed is cut by 1.5 per cent. for so-called efficiency services.
Any fool can go into business and make savings, but that has to have an impact on the quality of service and its ability to expand to meet known needs--to say nothing of the morale of its staff--as elsewhere in the BBC. I greatly welcome the support of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) for those in the BBC who are trying to get a decent pay rise, but the current discontent at pay levels runs the risk of forcing experienced and dedicated broadcasters out of the door and making recruitment, against pay levels in sectors from which the BBC would normally expect to attract staff, even more difficult.
While the Government wax lyrical about the so-called potential for subscription television, which would mean loss of access for all for the payment of a licence fee, they say little or nothing about the future financing of radio in this climate. That is left open, which raises a suspicion that the Government simply are not concerned with the maintenance of the BBC in its present form, which enables it to provide such an impressive range of quality programmes in both television and radio.
As to satellite, Sky Television has found that there is no pot of gold atop the clouds and has even fallen out with Mickey Mouse. BSB knows the problems that it faces in its autumn launch. The development of satellite will be a long, hard road--needlessly so, but certain because of the Government's stupidity. Here, I am happy to agree again with the hon. Member for Thanet, North, although for different reasons.
I say that because the Government passed up the chance to cable the country through British Telecom when it was in the public sector. That would not just have aided the development of satellite and been environmentally more acceptable, but would have made better national sense as it could have given better access to services other than television which could have been delivered to virtually every home in the country. However, a short-term, narrow view was taken, for which we shall pay
Column 621a very heavy price as the years roll on. It would have been well justified investment, which could have been done only by the public sector with the promise of proper returns through selling the various uses of the cables. Now, at best, cable will be developed in a haphazard, unplanned manner and only where those paying for it envisage the prospect of a fairly good return on their investment. It has nothing to do with choice, range and access, and everything to do with cash.
There are important matters of cross-media ownership--I was glad that the Minister is thinking again about that--the new charter for the BBC, the way in which its governors are appointed, the way in which advertising is controlled, and much much more. In that sense, the debate is a dress rehearsal for next Session's broadcasting Bill. We look forward to that and will approach it constructively through our twin aims of matching greater choice with guarantees of high and rising quality. I say again to the Minister that those changes are best based upon the success of the present system. Someone once said, "If it is not broken, why try to mend it?" I commend that approach both to the House and to the Government.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for arriving so late in the debate. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) asked me to put on my jacket
Mr. Holt : Mr. Speaker ruled recently that hon. Members would not catch the Chair's eye unless they were properly attired in a tie and jacket --with the obvious exception of lady Members--as we do not wish to deteriorate to the level of Italian standards.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) sought my permission to remove his jacket. He arrived post haste, in a distressed condition and asked if he could take off his jacket. I gave him authority so to do. However, I must point out that the air conditioning in the Chamber is in good enough working order for hon. Members including myself, to keep on our jackets.
Mr. Banks : I am gratified to know that such important matters still occupy the mind of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh. As he has chosen immediately to pick me up on a matter that is somewhat tangential to the subject that we are discussing, I must correct him. Mr. Speaker ruled that if an hon. Member was attired in a short-sleeved shirt with a tie, he could remove his jacket. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman checks that with Mr. Speaker's office. If that level of pettiness is symptomatic of the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate, I am jolly glad that I missed it. I apologise to the House for arriving late in the debate. I had already explained the reason for that to the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and to Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Holt : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West, not having been present throughout the debate, may well claim that I am nitpicking in suggesting that the way in which Members of Parliament attire themselves in this Chamber is of consequence. However, the general public do not share his view. Perhaps the lowering of standards in this
Column 622country goes a long way towards vandalism, hooliganism and the other deteriorations outside the House, where people expect a lead from Members of Parliament.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Order. I cannot add to the ruling given a few moments ago by Madam Deputy Speaker. It might be best if I, as a mere male, advised the House to continue with the debate.
Mr. Banks : I would say that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh is a fool, but I suspect that God got there first and made him one. I shall put on my jacket as the matter obviously causes him such great concern.
I was late arriving at the debate because I was launching a poop-scoop campaign in Newham. In the light of the contribution of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh, I was obviously involved in a most approporiate activity.
I thank the hon. Member for Thanet, North for introducing this subject for debate. I know from experience what his contribution would have been to this subject. I must also declare an interest. I act as a parliamentary adviser to the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance, the union for which I used to work before I became a Member of Parliament. BETA is the major union in the BBC. Unfortunately at the moment, together with the National Union of Journalists, it is engaged in an industrial dispute. I gather from what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), a former member of Association of Broadcasting Staffs referred to the dispute.
I draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 849 which stands in my name. It sets out the details of the BBC dispute which is about comparability within the BBC and commercial broadcasting. That is why an increase of 16 per cent. is being sought by BBC workers.
The comparability argument is strong. In a recent letter to the Daily Express the director-general of the BBC defended the 30 per cent. increases involving £20,000 pay rises which he and the deputy director-general Mr. John Birt had managed to gain from the governors. He defended the rises on the ground of comparability with the commercial sector. If it is good enough for those at the top, it is good enough throughout the BBC work force.
It is somewhat irksome for members of staff at the BBC to discover that the corporation's 140 top managers were given generous wage increases, cars and private medical facilities while the corporation management was trying to impose a pay cut on those who make and produce the programmes that we all enjoy on radio and television. BBC workers are very angry about the proposals. The dispute also reflects their anger at the Government's attempt to impose political interference within the corporation. Despite my criticism of the management's approach in the BBC, the unions and I remain wholly committed to the integrity of the corporation as a cornerstone of public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. It is a tribute to BETA, the NUJ and the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians that those unions have launched a major campaign to defend public broadcasting in this country.
Our broadcasting is admired throughout the world. BBC radio and television, the World Service, the IBA and commercial television and radio sectors constitute one of
Column 623the finest broadcasting systems in the world in terms of quality, variety, efficiency, impartiality and consumer availability. There are very few areas of activity in which this nation excels these days. It certainly does not excel in respect of our consumer goods or in our standards of political and social behaviour. However, in our artistic creativity we have much that is prized around the world. Unfortunately, such creativity is little regarded in this country.
Public service broadcasting is a crucial element in terms of artistic creativity and it is also the life blood of our democracy. Democratic values in Britain are better served by public service broadcasting than by the present authoritarian and intolerant Government or by the cheap and vicious end of the popular press. The values of liberal democracy in Britain have been undermined to the point of destruction by the bigoted ideologues and mendacious second-raters who currently run the country. Nowhere can one see that proved more amply than within the terms of the White Paper on the future of broadcasting. That White Paper sums it all up.
The White Paper is not about efficiency, extending choice or reinforcing standards of excellence. Plainly and simply it is about ideology and the hatred of any institution located in the public sector.
The BBC is particularly despised by many Ministers and Conservative Back Benchers, but not necessarily those present in the Chamber now. One has heard many vile things said about the BBC since 1983. The Prime Minister gives the lead because she believes that the BBC is rather like the Church- -in the hands of dangerous subversives. The Prime Minister has reached such a state of arrogance that, in her eyes, anything short of slavish obedience is treachery. The BBC has endured a long-running campaign of abuse and vilification from many Conservative Members. The Prime Minister has done her best to stuff the higher echelons of the corporation with Tory party loyalists, but clearly she is not satisfied that the BBC is yet as impartial and as high minded as the Sun and News of the World. She is set on a course to disable the BBC with a combination of privatisation, break- up and cash starvation.
The Government are determined to exploit new technology, not to improve real choice and achieve greater quality, or to allow greater access by ordinary people to broadcasting, but as a weapon with which to destroy the whole concept of public service broadcasting. National deregulation of broadcasting together with the opportunities presented by satellite coverage will inevitably lead to the Americanisation of British broadcasting in terms of both programme content and of standards.
The concept of subscription financing for the BBC is wholly incompatible with the concept of universality on which British broadcasting has hitherto been based. On a recent visit to the United States, I saw what subscription television is all about. It is an appalling concept. Although good programmes are shown on Channel 23--WTV--they are constantly interrupted by people coming in front of the camera and making appeals for cash, saying "Send your $60 to us if you want to go on seeing programmes like this one"- -then reading a list of people who had made donations. That cannot be, and must not be, the future for the BBC. It should not have to use programme makers to
Column 624go before the cameras and make cash appeals- -holding out the begging bowl in front of a camera. That is what subscription television is all about. Conservative Members would do well to study closely the direction in which American television has gone. I cannot believe that anyone concerned with quality broadcasting wants British broadcasting to go the same way. Subscription funding of the BBC is a repellant notion and one that we steadily and firmly reject. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I defend public service broadcasting not because we believe that there is an anti-Thatcher bias within the BBC--that is only the Prime Minister's paranoia feeding its way through the Right wing of her party. We defend public sector broadcasting because we recognise its inherent value. We believe implicitly in maintaining high technical and programming standards.
It is nonsense for the Government to talk at one point of deregulation, which we know will lead to a lowering of standards, and at the same time to establish the Broadcasting Standards Council in an attempt to preserve the very qualities that their policies are certain to erode. What sort of matters will concern the Broadcasting Standards Council? No doubt it will be outraged by the flash of a bum suddenly appearing on television. No doubt also Mrs. Whitelaw and the Prime Minister will go purple in the face and get very upset when they hear the "f" word used. But in this case, the "f" word is freedom--the freedom to criticise, the freedom to create, and the freedom to castigate.
That is why Conservative Members and the Prime Minister in particular do not like public service broadcasting. They dislike it because it dares to criticise the Government's policies in certain areas, and simply because it is within the public sector. The two combined stir up every base feeling that the Prime Minister has within her body, and which her Ministers are then expected to reflect in legislative proposals. Hence the ridiculous and damaging White Paper and the Bill that will no doubt follow it in the new Session. One aspect of the White Paper that has received insufficient attention but which characterises the political ideology behind the proposals is the transmission systems in broadcasting. I should like to place on record my tribute to two former colleagues in the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance--Mr. Brian Marsh and Mr. Doug Smith--who have been doing sterling work writing letters to newspapers and producing press releases pointing out the problems associated with the Government's proposal to privatise the BBC and IBA transmitters.
It appears from the proposals that we saw last November that the Government want to detach the transmitters from their respective parent organisations and put them into the private sector. They said originally that there should be competing transmission companies in different regions of the United Kingdom. That is privatisation for the sake of it. It makes as little sense to privatise the transmitters as it does to privatise water. It is undiluted ideology and has nothing to do with broadcasting standards or even good economic sense within the broadcasting system.
One has only to look at the figures. At present, the engineering system of transmission and transmitters reaches 99.4 per cent. of the British public with a reliability of 99.8 per cent. If the Government could get their
Column 625campaign to lower inflation correct to the tune of 99.8 per cent. or even 99.4 per cent., it would be a miracle. When we talk about privatising the transmitters, are we talking about trying to reach 100 per cent. of the population? Does any Conservative Member believe that that will be possible?
Mr. Gale : The hon. Gentleman was extremely courteous in informing me that he would not be able to be present for the early part of the debate and I imply no criticism when I say that he did not hear me refer to that subject. My impression is that the IBA engineers would welcome the opportunity to enter the private sector as long as it was done as an entity, and not in a piecemeal way. They would welcome the opportunity to involve themselves in the transmission of not only television but data and voice telephony.
Mr. Banks : I accept that point, together with the gentle tap on the wrist. I am not directing my comments to the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) who is fairly progressive in this area. I am directing my comments to the Minister. The hon. Member for Thanet, North is correct, given the options facing engineers in the BBC and IBA. It is better to privatise as two lumps than to have the ludicrous idea of competing transmission companies in different parts of the country. That is what the Price Waterhouse report--I understand that the Minister has a copy--seems to suggest. Engineers within the BBC and IBA are choosing what they see as the least invidious of the proposals.
There would be no argument about using BBC and IBA transmitters for additional work with, for example, Cellnet and radio telephones or information technology generally. That can be done within the public sector now. It could be an extension of BBC enterprises. Therefore, Opposition Members have no ideological objection to the BBC or the IBA using their transmitters in combination with private interests. However, there is clear objection at the Dispatch Box to the concept of the transmitters staying within the public sector. That is why I take issue with the Minister, not the hon. Member for Thanet, North. One can look at the coverage presently gained through the transmitters and realise how extensive and efficient it is. There is no earthly justifiable case for privatisation other than the Government's ideology. We are not arguing about efficiency or coverage, just ideology. Lord Thomson was chairman of the IBA when the White Paper was released. In his Robert Frazer lecture, he said :
"Public broadcasting is a drab phrase, but in its essentials it has contributed crucially to the quality of life in Britain. What are these essentials? Two are particularly important. The first is universality of reception whether it takes one transmitter to cover ten million Londoners and six main transmitters and 150 relay stations to reach nearly three million Welsh. To achieve that universal reception you have to be ready for the London contractor to cross-subsidize the Welsh contractor, and in the White Paper's proposals for engineering it is not at all clear to what degree cross-subsidy will survive."
I should like the Minister to give more details, particularly of the Price Waterhouse report, which I know he has, and on the various points that I and Lord Thomson have made. It appears that, in the section of the White Paper dealing with transmitters, the Government declared first and thought subsequently. Price Waterhouse was commissioned to work out the best way to privatise.
Column 626From an authoritative leak by Raymond Snoddy in the Financial Times of 15 May, it appears that Price Waterhouse has advocated two options. The first is the creation of two national competing private sector transmitter companies based on a geographical split of the United Kingdom. At present, as the Minister knows, the BBC and IBA share the same hill sites, but maintain their own transmitters and have arrangements to co-operate in times of emergency. What could be better than that? I wait to hear what the Minister can propose. Price Waterhouse's first option would have high initial costs and involve considerable re- engineering of existing operations. What earthly justification can there be for implementing such a proposal? Price Waterhouse's second proposal merely indicates the privatisation of BBC and IBA transmission systems in their existing form. The hon. Member for Thanet, North referred to this point. I can see no obvious benefit to viewers and listeners after privatisation, but I can see numerous obvious dangers. In large parts of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and in some remote parts of England, it would be wholly uneconomic for any private company to maintain the hundreds of remote transmitters that the BBC and IBA currently maintain for the public. Among many other ludicrous proposals, that proposal in the White Paper amounts to the lunatic end of privatisation.
New technology, as specified in the motion moved by the hon. Member for Thanet, North, offers wonderful opportunities for enhanced choice and access in broadcasting, but not in the hands of this Government, who cheapen and pollute everything that they touch. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said, it will effectively be for the coming Labour Government to realise the full potential of broadcasting technology, not in the interests of those with the fattest wallets but in the interests of all people in this country.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : This is a good moment to take stock of where we stand in the changes that we propose in the broadcasting world. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) for using his good luck in the ballot--it does not come along very often--to give us the opportunity to take stock today. I was impressed by his perceptive remarks which mirrored his great experience in broadcasting. In addition, he has added a great deal to the deliberations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, as its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) said.
It has been an extremely interesting debate. I am sorry that it has not been better attended, but there have been useful contributions. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) mentioned newspaper ownership and his fear, which I well understand coming from a Scottish hon. Member, that London and the south-east might have an excessively dominant position in the new broadcasting world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North referred to cross- ownership and made the real point that television is a United Kingdom subject and should be treated as such. My hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton
Column 627(Mr. Tracey) referred to the BBC licence fee and to the need for training. My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) also mentioned the licence fee and spoke movingly about elderly people's need for television and about the particular problems of some elderly people in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) touched on the question of local as opposed to regional television and referred to the needs of the deaf. I hope to cover many of those points in the remarks that I am about to make. However, first I must advise the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that he greatly lowered the tone of the debate. He appears to have come into the Chamber determined to have an argument about something. He gave us a speech that was blind, bitter and bigoted. I thought that he had a reputation as a Member with some vision, but I did not see any vision whatsoever in the diatribe that he delivered to the House. If his speech was written for him by his union, the Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance, I can only suggest that he tells it to employ a better speech writer--
Mr. Renton : Well, the hon. Gentleman should not take any credit for it. As for the suggestion that the BBC is stuffed with Tory party supporters, that is not the view of the top management of the BBC. What about the vice-chairman of the BBC, Lord Barnett--a Labour peer and an ex- Labour Treasury Minister? The hon. Gentleman seems to have come into the House with no vision, but simply in a hot sweat. That is why he took his coat off. I can assume only that he had a bad time with the poop-scoop and that he needed to get some of the bile out of his system. It was a great pity.
Before moving on, I should like to echo the tributes already paid to all the work that has been done on the subject of broadcasting by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It has been extremely useful in the past months in that it has not only produced an extremely interesting paper on the broad subject of broadcasting and on how the broadcasting colleges should develop in the years ahead, but more recently has also produced a paper on the more particular subject of the ownership of Channel 4. Its contributions have added a great deal to the Government's thinking on those matters.
Since the White Paper was published in November, the technological revolution in broadcasting, advertised for such a long time, has finally arrived. The spring witnessed the launch of a number of new television services delivered from the medium-powered Astro satellite direct to receiving dishes in individual homes throughout Western Europe. By the end of this year, across the United Kingdom and France pictures will be received from the high-tech, high-powered DBS, launched and operated in the United Kingdom by British Satellite Broadcasting and in France by TDF 1.
It was the advent of the new satellite channels that persuaded Governments of other member states of the Council of Europe to follow the more liberal line that we had always wanted in the Council of Europe convention. At the Stockholm conference last autumn there was a strong appreciation of the need to get the convention agreed before the satellite channels multiplied over
Column 628Europe, but there was also a general understanding that if those countries that had wanted a much more protectionist, inward-looking convention maintained their attitudes, a text was never likely to be finalised.
The United Kingdom has been in the lead all along in pressing not for a protectionist convention, but for a minimalist set of rules that would establish programme standards for all television services capable of being received across national borders. These rules require, for example, that programes shall not be indecent, contain pornography or give undue prominence to violence. But we always insisted that there should be a reasonable means of enforcing these rules. That point obviously worried my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh. I understand his anxiety on that point and we now think that there should be a phased process for enforcement to ensure that those minimal standards are agreed to, maintained and enforced. Obviously, it is over the years ahead that we shall have to see how effective these methods of enforcement will be. I share my hon. Friend's anxiety. We had it in mind in the finalisation of the convention.
We were finally able to reach agreement on the proposals and the convention opened for signature earlier this month. It has already been signed by 10 countries, including the United Kingdom. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Thanet, North and for Westminster, North for their kind words about my part in reaching decisions on the convention. I add my thanks to the small but dedicated team of Home Office officials who weaved their way through a labyrinth of difficulties to reach an eventually successful conclusion. Throughout the negotiations our main objective was to secure agreement on a convention that would work and was enforceable, without damaging the interests of British broadcasting. Some degree of compromise was necessary on our part and that of other countries, otherwise agreement would never have been possible. The outcome is satisfactory for our own broadcasting arrangements. A case in point is the provision on the insertion of advertising, about which there was a great deal of discussion. Some countries, for example the Federal Republic of Germany, favoured grouping advertisements between programmes, rather than inserting them in natural breaks, and wanted the convention to reflect that preference. We have secured provisions in the convention which will not require us to alter our present well-tried and tested arrangements in any significant degree. We plan to implement the convention in United Kingdom law through the forthcoming broadcasting legislation. It will come into force internationally once seven states have ratified it, which we hope will be before the end of 1990.
Work on the convention has proceeded in parallel with consideration by the Community of a draft EC directive on broadcasting covering broadly the same ground. The European Council in Rhodes last December agreed that future work on the directive should be carried out on the basis of the principles of the convention. That was a great step forward. Since then, after extensive discussions, the Council of Ministers of the Community agreed a common position on the text of the directive on 13 April, very much in line with the text of the convention. Now that that common position has been adopted, the directive will be further considered by the European Parliament under the
Column 629co-operation procedure introduced by the Single European Act. I shall spend a little time on that, although the subject has not been raised in depth during our debate.
I am aware that the Select Committee on European Legislation recommended that a debate be held on the directive. I regret that, given the timing of the recommendation, it was not practicable to arrange a debate before the meeting of the Internal Market Council, at which the common position was adopted. I have written to the Chairman of the Select Committee to explain the Government's approach to this matter. We believe that the council's common position represents a satisfactory outcome. We have successfully resisted the arguments of some member states for protectionist measures which would have imposed greater restrictions on European broadcasters. We have instead achieved a substantially deregulatory text fully in line with that of the Council of Europe convention.
Before I leave the subject of trans-frontier broadcasting, I shall deal with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North on the 500 million people waiting for pan-European television. I agree with him on the potential importance of trans-frontier, trans-European television. It was a reason why I was so keen to reach agreement on the convention. If any means of spreading information is to be the most likely instrument for rolling back the iron curtain and bringing western and eastern European countries together, it will be the satellite television channel, whose footprint knows no frontier. It is by satellite that we are receiving such extraordinary pictures of the Chinese students in Tiananmen square. Increasingly satellite signals will be picked up in Eastern bloc countries just as radio signals now are.
Astra and the Eutelstat series of satellites, and others to be launched over the next few years, will spread a western view of news and current affairs over the whole of Europe. In some measure they will take on the characteristic of a world service. The family in eastern Europe will increasingly be made aware not just of a western view on multi-lateral disarmament, but of the great difference in standards of living between Prague and Bonn and between Bucharest and Birmingham.
Mr. Renton : Yes, and they may even occasionally hear speeches from the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, in which case they too, may, wonder about the bitterness and lack of vision about which I complained earlier.
Two years ago, when I was in Moscow, I was told that the Russians were becoming adept at turning dustbin lids into satellite receiving dishes. That may become the fastest growing cottage industry in the eastern bloc.
Sir Alan Peacock who chaired the committee on the financing of the BBC, which produced the Peacock report in 1986, said in an article in The Independent last November :
"The White Paper is a challenging and well reasoned document. It is significant that it has not so far been preceded by a sensible set of alternative proposals."
That statement holds good. I would add to it that six months later it has not been followed either by any sensible set of alternative proposals. The enabling framework and principles laid down by the White Paper have held good. We have been pleased to receive more than 3,000 responses