|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Walden : The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that I should like to reinforce. Surely the point is that the more people are encouraged to bid for the channels, the less they will be able to put into programmes. As a result, the much-vaunted Becher's brook will decline.
Column 57Mr. Hattersley : I agree with that and I hope to give some examples of exactly the position that the hon. Gentleman describes. No one has any idea what the exceptional circumstances might be in which the commission could refuse the highest bid. Clearly, the commission would be crazy to risk discovering them in court, so it will give the contract to the highest bidder. The chairman of the IBA, who will be the new chairman of the commission, does not believe that the powers granted to him by the Bill will give him the chance to choose high quality in preference to high cash offers. He has said that to me in terms. As the Minister of State hangs on his every word and repeats them with such assiduity, why does he believe that the chairman-elect of the commission is wrong to fear that the complications in choosing between a high bid and lower quality will result in a deterioration in quality? Everyone else believes that that will be the case.
I suggest that a compromise is possible when choosing between bids, and I urge it on the Government. It was originally suggested by the Peacock committee, which was set up by the Government in preparation for the Bill, and the chairman-elect of the commission also urges the Government to accept the compromise. It should be possible for the commission to accept a lower bid if, in its judgment, that bid gives the viewer better value for money in terms of the programme service provided. That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), and endorsed, as I understand them, by some Conservative Members. I hope that, in the spirit of ecumenism, the Minister of State will consider that genuine attempt to compromise between now and 9.30 pm or in Committee.
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) : We are all in favour of better value for money. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me, on behalf of my constituents, where in the great Labour plan for quality we shall find the soap operas, game shows and murder mysteries which I and many British people thoroughly enjoy?
Mr. Hattersley : As my hon. Friends say, we shall find them on television. I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that I would not be party to any Bill that put "Coronation Street" in jeopardy-- [Interruption.] About "EastEnders" I make no such assurance, but "Coronation Street" is absolutely sacrosanct.
I accept that the compromise that I suggest requires the Government to move away from one of their principles. It is the right of the franchising authority to negotiate with companies bidding for the right to broadcast. The IBA enjoys that power at present. If the Government denied it to the commission, they would wilfully abandon one of the principal methods of improving both quality and diversity.
It is possible to appreciate the importance of the negotiations only if we fully understand the method by which the Bill proposes to award contracts, a feat--
Mr. Hattersley : Not in the middle of a sentence, but I shall do so in a moment. That is a feat apparently beyond the leader writer of The Times, whose sycophantic editorial on the subject of contract procedures simply got the facts wrong.
Column 58The Bill does not propose an auction of television franchises--would that it did. Auctioning contracts is by no means our choice of method for awarding the right to broadcast, but it is a good deal better than the requirement to make a single blind bid in a sealed evelope. I remind the Minister that an auction of a sort was the second compromise urged on the Government by the industry. I commend it to him as an alternative way in which to assure value and quality. If the Government allowed a second bid it would be possible for a company to begin with a modest offer, committing most of their resources to programme- making, and if its bid was lower than that of another company it could make a second, larger offer, if necessary budgeting for lower-quality programmes.
From our point of view that is a far from perfect method, but it is much superior to a system that requires a bidding company to risk everything on a single tender. In consequence, that encourages the bidding company to risk everything to concentrate its resources on inflated offers rather than better programmes.
The only possible justification for the single blind bid is the calculated decision to use the allocation of television franchises as a means of raising revenue--the maximum amount of revenue. Maximising revenue and protecting quality are two mutually incompatiable objectives. Money spent on buying the franchise will not be available for the production of expensive, high-quality programmes.
Mr. Dykes : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the form of words relating to such changes should be agreed by all parts of the House? It is important that there is a consensus about such an important measure which transcends the different sides of the House. The form of words could be elaborated on later through a straightforward amendment tabled in Committee. That Committee stage must be an intelligent one, not the ritual to which we have become accustomed in recent years. The ITC will also construct the relevant clauses relating to its operations and it could encapsulate some suggestions about those changes. If such changes are not considered by the Government, the ITC will inevitably be a weak regulatory organisation.
say--contentious Committee, do not include in their first speech on the subject two proposals for compromise. They are not ideal to the Opposition, and the two suggestions that I have made would not naturally be introduced by us were we to have a free hand. I have suggested some areas in which quality and choice might be protected, which maintains the Government's view about how the Bill should be structured in general. My certain wish is that the Committee should improve the Bill rather than be a Committee of ritual battles over clauses, which often does not get us very far.
In not quite such an emollient tone, it is important to stress that one complicating factor of the single bid is the sort of people who will be encouraged by the nature of the system to write down a figure, put it in an envelope and send it to the franchise authority. Recently the Minister of State refused to accept that the Australian experience might be reproduced here. All the evidence suggests, however, that we might face exactly the same problems, not least because of the risk of rogue bids coming from outside the industry.
Column 59Discussing the prospectus with the IBA, as programme companies now do, maximises the participation of the professional broadcaster in the franchise negotiations--the man or woman who is interested in programme-making. The blind bid encourages cowboys. There is a type of individual who will bid for television companies for reasons that are only obliquely concerned with television--political influence, glamour, prestige and political connections. Newspapers and football clubs have the same attraction. The people who buy them often do so for the wrong reasons and with disastrous consequences. The Australian experience could be repeated here and we should remind ourselves what it was.
In that country three national commercial networks were bought by the highest bidders with no previous television connections. Mr. Alan Bond bought Channel 9 for 1.3 billion Australian dollars--shortly after it was valued at 0.15 billion Australian dollars. Mr. Christopher Skane bought Channel 7, but that company is now in liquidation. Mr. Frank Lowry bought Channel 10 and his company has made such immediate losses that half of them have been formally written off.
Faced with such a situation--bidding too much and making promises just to get the company--the new owner has only one option. Profit in television is a simple equation--profit equals advertising revenue minus production costs. With so much extra advertising time on offer because of the Bill it will not be possible to increase advertising revenue pounds per minute, and the only option will be to cut programme costs. Let us consider those programme costs. BBC and ITV drama costs between £350,000 and £400,000 an hour. Old films are available for between £2,500 and £5,000 an hour. If firms overbid and find themselves overstretched, their inevitable and unavoidable action will be to reduce high-quality production and high-quality broadcasts and turn towards lower, cheaper quality programmes. In one way that shift is being encouraged by the Government, as the Bill undermines the concept of public service broadcasting.
The obligation of cable or MVDS companies to carry BBC channels among their programmes will be abandoned if the Bill becomes law. The Secretary of State said that no such obligation existed in present law, but it exists in the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984. That Act is to be repealed, however, and the obligation to carry BBC programmes on cable transmissions is not included in the Bill. As recently as September the then Home Secretary said that what is known as the "must carry" rule would be maintained. If, as I am sure the Government hope, cable prospers, an increasing proportion of people will obtain their entire viewing from such outlets. They will, as the Bill now stands, risk being denied access to public service channels-- BBC 2, BBC 1 and Channel 4. The previous Home Secretary wished to protect their right to enjoy access to those channels and he promised that it would be maintained. Why was that promise broken?
In Cambridge, at the same time as promising that that access would be maintained, the right hon. Gentleman also promised the BBC would remain "the cornerstone of broadcasting", complemented by commercial channels. How can the BBC remain the cornerstone of broadcasting if it is not available to every television viewer, especially those who do not receive their signals from cable?
Column 60Universal availability is an essential feature of public service broadcasting. When the Minister replies I hope that he will tell us why it is to be abandoned. I hope that we will be told in turn--as the newspapers were told 10 days ago--that the Government are genuinely prepared to examine changes and amendments. They could demonstrate the good faith of that promise by agreeing that the Bill should go to a Special Standing Committee. It would therefore be subject to the expert scrutiny that a Bill of this importance deserves. I promise here and now that a Special Standing Committee will not take any longer than the normal procedures, but it will ensure that we examine the Bill more thoroughly and sensibly than going through the ritual confrontation.
If a Special Standing Committee is not possible, I hope that we will be spared the ritual rudeness during the Minister's wind-up speech and that questions will be answered calmly and contradictions in policy explained. If that is not the rule and if there is no suggestion of a willingness to amend and compromise, all the talk about open minds and doors will be demonstrated to be so much public relations guff.
In the meantime we shall, of course, vote against the Second Reading. Our vote will be cast for real diversity and genuine quality, for neither of those essential objectives is protected by the Bill. Several hon. Members rose--
Sir Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton) : Many people in this debate will want to talk about the quality of programming, but there is another matter that hon. Members may well not discuss and to which I want to refer briefly : a mechanism for the provision of training. I referred to it when we discussed the White Paper earlier this year. It is extremely important to safeguard the industry's future by having some mechanism to ensure that training is properly provided. I hope that it will be unnecessary to extol the virtues and importance of training. Certain special industries in this country, such as special effects, have produced films such as the Bond films and "Star Wars". The special technicians, who have demonstrated their expertise in this country, have, over a period, gone to Hollywood. Due to the failure to provide proper training here, we have not generated a second generation or echelon of people, and we no longer have the expert capability.
In a franchise business, which is what we are talking about today, managements frequently have recourse to the old argument that they do not have a long enough security of tenure to provide training programmes. They use that as a sort of alibi. Some mechanism should be devised that is linked to the levy, and perhaps also to the percentage of the net advertising revenue formula, to enable contractors to contribute towards a training programme.
If we consider the importance of the new technology,
high-definition television, we see that if we do not spend enough time and effort on training people who are both in front of and behind the camera about the importance of high-definition television, we shall run the risk of
Column 61becoming a Third-world nation. This country's television and film production industry is maintained only by the expertise of the people working in it.
In talking about quality, I shall draw on my experience gained during five years in the Ministry of Defence, when I frequently adjudicated on procurement contests--if I may use that word. In those cases, we were looking for the lowest bid, not the highest, but the principle was exactly the same. We never said that we would always take the lowest bid, but that we would seek the lowest bid and then look at other criteria. I am worried that the ITC will be so completely boxed in that it will have no discretion to take account of the other essential criteria : the amount of money to be spent on programming. If that is not clearly stated and the ITC does not have the ability to take that into account, I fear that we shall be driven further towards lower programme standards.
I speak as someone who is not enamoured of present television programmes. Teachers in my constituency say that it is becoming impossible to persuade schoolchildren to participate in team games after class because they want to go home and watch a particular programme. I do not find that encouraging in relation to the wider use of television in society.
I am extremely anxious about the quality of television, as are many other hon. Members. I seek assurances from my hon. and learned Friend the Minister that he will be prepared to allay my concern and build into the Bill some discretionary powers of the ITC to use in the circumstances that I have described. If I am not given those assurances, I shall have to consider carefully whether I can support the Bill this evening.
Mr. Buchan : I recall that the last time that somebody seemed to be totally astonished was Rupert Murdoch, although a competent written speech had been written for him. In that speech, at the television conference in Edinburgh this year, he started by saying that in economic matters, competition was always to be preferred to monopoly. From then on he talked about the economics of television to an audience of people who were artists, singers and in the theatre, and journalists concerned with news and facts. For him, it was sufficient that he could prove a case of profit coming from competition, as opposed to monopoly.
The same criterion applies once we have bids for television stations. If we have an auction bid, we are saying that we are seeing what money we can bring for the Treasury. As I understand the Home Secretary's responses to some of the earlier interventions, that was exactly his position. He seemed to suggest that we should have regard to the Treasury and the revenue coming in. However, in public service broadcasting we are not dealing with enormous figures. Advertising on commercial television will not cost the Treasury huge amounts of money. The remaining duty of public service broadcasting--which is also laid on existing commercial television, but which the Bill removes--will not be costly.
Column 62When we consider what television is, we should be prepared to pay a great cost. I am worried that Ministers do not seem to understand television's potential greatness. Today, man can speak to man at the same moment throughout the world. That is amazing. We can see the horrifying events in Tiananmen square and see the daily events in Wenceslaus square and know that something great and good is happening, to which we can respond. That is an amazing development in human communications and experience. We have been given an instrument with which we can expand human experience and improve communications. The Bill is the most important piece of legislation we have had in this House for the past 10 years. Communication between man and man is what matters. All else flows from the understanding between humans. None of us questions--although the Government are trying to privatise it--the cost and devotion of time, energy and intellect to our universities and educational system. We know that our children must be educated, and we have an instrument that can enhance and develop that education. However, we are concerned only with how to maximise the money gained from this marvellous instrument. In future, if we survive and live to see a time when we cease to have Governments with such a drab monotony of thought, we shall look back with amazement at throwing away such an opportunity. It is not enough for hon. Members to intervene and ask whether plays and games would be allowed on television. Of course television should provide entertainment, relaxation and the luxury of seeing such programmes. However, more important--people accept this--are documentaries. As soon as we commercialise broadcasting, we face the problem that there will be no means of allowing exciting, dangerous or risky experimentation.
I shall give the case which I gave to Rupert Murdoch, whose channels must make maximum profits. I asked him whether, if a man who had never been heard of, but who happened to be called Attenborough, asked him to devote much time and money to putting on a series of programmes about wildlife, he would have bought the series. The answer is that he would not. It is only because we have public service broadcasting that Attenborough has built up a mass viewing for such programmes. If someone had asked me five or 10 years ago whether I would pay for subscription broadcasting of such programmes I would have thought it nonsense--there would be no interest in them. But we who have accidentally come across these programmes have suddenly realised how marvellous and fascinating they are. The criminality inherent in the Government's Bill is that this sort of development will not take place, because every time, the audience will have to be maximised, and that will involve two conditions. First, a programme must be easily understood : it must not turn people off ; it must not involve experimentation or anything new. Secondly, a programme must not disturb too many people : they must not switch it off ; it must be fairly tranquil pap. I am no expert, but I believe there is good and bad rock music ; likewise, there will be better and worse pap, but by and large it will not be experimental, it will not break new ground, it will not energise people or extend human experience. Above all, it will not offend. I think, with Hamlet, that unless there is offence not much happens.
Column 63I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who said that the Broadcasting Standards Council was nothing to be worried about. I foresee a double jeopardy. It might have been right to bring the Obscene Publications Act 1964 into broadcasting--in some ways it was anomalous that it should have been missing, although I greatly distrust the Government handling anything of that sort. Now, in addition, the Government are bringing in the Broadcasting Standards Council--under Rees-Mogg, of all people--and that presents the double jeopardy.
The council will not go for the sleazy, suggestive pap : it will go for the serious programmes. Writing in 1907, Bernard Shaw listed the plays that the Lord Chamberlain had banned in that year. They included "Oedipus Rex", his own "Mrs. Warren's Profession" and Ibsen's "Ghosts". As Bernard Shaw pointed out, any commercial manager in London could put on plays about brothels or adultery as long as they were fun, but as soon as they became serious--like "Ghosts"--they were banned. As long as they were light, such plays were an open sesame for profit, for sleaze-makers. Just to prove the point, hon. Members may recall that Lord Rees-Mogg's favourite programme is " 'Allo 'Allo"--sleazy titillation with undertones of Gestapo bondage. To conclude, I want to quote Nye Bevan--I have quoted Murdoch enough. Bevan said that there is no need to look at the crystal ball when you can read the book--and we can read the book. Hon. Members who read my book will discover more about the subject--
Mr. Buchan : The book deals with what has happened to broadcasting when it goes commercial--for instance, in Australia, where there was immediate reduction in the number of serious programmes. Channel 9 in Australia has no current affairs, arts, religious or educational programmes and no documentaries, and 20 per cent. of broadcasting time is given over to advetising. The foreign radio and television broadcasting that I know best is that of Italy, where--
"the Government's plans provide a most insecure and unpromising field for investment on the part of programme contractors."--[ Official Report, 25 March 1954 ; Vol. 525, c. 1473.]
"if this Bill becomes law, future historians will deem it to be one of the most irresponsible measures of modern times."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 1954 ; Vol. 188, c. 284.] "I trust we shall reject this Bill, not only because commercial television is undesirable but also because it will not be of value."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 1954 ; Vol. 188, c. 303.]
I reassure my right hon. Friend the Minister that those are not my words-- they were spoken by Labour spokesmen on broadcasting back in 1954. I apologise for resorting to a somewhat banal and childish deception, but
Column 64my point is a serious one. My motive was not party political. I could equally well have quoted the late Earl of Halifax, a Conservative Peer, who said that, because the principle of public service seemed more important than the principle of commercial competition, he felt unable to support the Second Reading of the Television Bill back in 1954.
At every stage of our broadcasting history we have been nervous about taking the next step. My theme is simply that, as in the past, we tend to say that we have heard it all before--the faint hearts have always shouted louder than those who were bold, although the more enterprising may eventually have won the day. That is not to say that caution is out of place. Nor does it imply that broadcasting is unimportant. Everyone agrees that it is important. We can go further in agreement and say that innovations carry risks, so sensible precautions must be taken to avoid making mistakes. Today's debate is essentially about taking sensible precautions. Although it involves examining the facts leading to the best results, it also means ignoring the spurious cries of woe from various vested interests. There is no shortage of special pleading. It comes from narrow-minded and enlightened people just as much as from self-interested or altruistic people. Let us examine first the cries of woe. Certain themes have constantly recurred in debates over the past 30 years. Will the change be viable? What about the quality of programmes? What about hostility to advertising? Dislike of private profit and accusations of triviality have been voiced. It has been said that ethics and morality will be debased and that changes will constitute a waste of our resources. The enemies of change are not always the upholders of the public conscience. Sometimes they are merely defenders of vested interests.
Back in the 1950s, the keynote was the defence of the BBC monopoly. The Opposition spokesman at the time said :
"There are principles of our public life, one of them being that changes in great established national institutions should not be made without broad agreement."--[ Official Report, 15 December 1953 ; Vol. 522, c. 328.]
I believe that I have already heard that argument today. There is an innate dislike of commerce, too. Speaking for the Opposition, Lord Macdonald went so far as to ask :
"Is it wise for this country to follow up this craze that we find growing rapidly in some countries to commercialise everything ? . . . Surely there are some things which are too sacred to be commercialised."-- [Official Report, House of Lords, 26 May 1952 ; Vol. 176, c. 1371.]
In the 1960s, the rationalisation was that private profit could never serve the public interest. The excuse articulated by the Labour spokesman was that the language of priorities dictated that due to lack of resources we should make no progress. In the 1970s the emphasis switched again. It was then a cocktail of technical difficulties and trivialisation.
Finally, having reached the 1980s, we are virtually back at square one. We have returned to where we started, back to the dying days of Lord Reith's era, and once again one has a growing sense of having been down this road before. Lord Reith said :
"nothing could be more certain than that Gresham's Law will apply and dominate".
With those words, the great patriach of broadcasting thundered against the breaking of the BBC monopoly and foreshadowed today's discussion about the auctioning franchises driving out the good. In ever more scathing
Column 65tones Lord Reith denounced even more wicked possibilities. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary spoke of Lord Reith's references to smallpox, bubonic plague and the black death, and Lord Reith ended the speech in question by saying :
"Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting into this country."
"A principle absolutely fundamental and cherished is about to be scuttled." --[ Official Report, House of Lords, 22 May 1952 ; Vol. 176, c. 1295- 7.]
For "sponsored broadcasting" we need only substitute the word "deregulation" and not much seems to have changed over the years. Today we are witnessing a replay of two well-worn tunes from earlier decades. The first is that we must preserve the status quo as far as possible and at all costs, keep the BBC as it is, not upset the existing pattern of ITV contractors and freeze the formula for Channel 4. The second is an admonition that quality, standards and viability could be victims of innovation. Having listened to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) one would think that a third had been added--a threat to democracy itself.
Opposing these novel changes is an unholy alliance. Once upon a time it was the bishops in harness with the vice-chancellors and the BBC. Nowadays it is a less plausible alliance--the television entrepreneurs, safely entrenched in their citadels of power but hand in hand with the industry's creative people. Together they seem united against any invasion of their private, privileged territory. Nothing that I have said should be taken as suggesting that I do not believe in pressing for the highest possible standards in broadcasting. The broadest spectrum of economically viable choice, not to mention economical use of technical and financial resources, is also highly desirable. Everyone admits, however, that we are moving into a new era of broadcasting and that the old methods of awarding franchises are not necessarily the best. The Government's plans must be thoroughly examined and probed in Committee, as they will be, and the Minister has already said outside the House that there will be reasonableness. That is commendable and highly desirable, but it has to be set against an equally important factor--the fact that we must put behind us for ever Lord Reith's thundering pronouncement that intellectual and ethical objectives "are here and now at stake."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 22 May 1952 ; Vol. 176, c. 1297.]
They are not, they have not been, and they will not be.
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : I followed the Home Secretary's speech with great interest. He will understand why I am opposed to the swashbuckling philosophy behind the Bill. It will make money for the Treasury at the expense of programme quality. Competition is one thing, but it is bad to have moneybags at the expense of viewing standards. I am strongly opposed to the Bill. I should like to speak on just one aspect of the Bill, and I shall be brief. It is about the group that the Home Secretary mentioned in his speech--deaf people. He said that there is provision in the Bill for helping deaf people, and he and the Minister of State, Home Office have said that they want to help. I appreciate that. Deaf people have political significance for every hon. Member because they
Column 66are to be found in every constituency. They are deprived of television if they are totally deaf or very hard of hearing. They simply cannot follow it without subtitling ; in some cases, they need sign language. It is sad that so many deaf people should be excluded from television in that way.
For decades, they have been excluded because there was no subtitling. After subtitling was introduced, it was slowly extended, and today there is some provison. I should like the House to look at the amount of subtitling that exists. There is subtitling on several programmes, including documentaries and wildlife programmes. There is Oracle and Ceefax subtitling for various programmes on BBC and ITV. They do a good job. Independent Television News has live subtitles on its news programmes and is to be warmly commended for that. The little misspelling and few seconds delay on the Oracle subtitling on ITN is irrelevant. What is important is that it makes ITN news meaningful to the deaf viewer, whereas BBC news programmes are meaningless pictures. I hope that the BBC will think again and provide proper subtitling for its news programmes.
The Bill says that there will be a mandatory increase of 10 per cent. in the subtitled hours of commercial television programmes. I welcome that recognition of need by the Home Secretary and the Minister of State. However, a 10 per cent. increase is lamentable. There are about two hours of subtitling per channel per day, although there are over 500 hours of television per week. A 10 per cent. increase in those two hours means an increase of 12 minutes per channel per day, and that is not good enough. The Government cannot be serious. The figures cannot be challenged. I know that the Home Secretary and the Minister of State want to help, but such an increase is not acceptable.
Mr. Mellor : I am anxious that the right hon. Gentleman should understand exactly what the Bill says, because we want to meet him and those who feel strongly about this issue. The 10 per cent. increase is only for the first year of the new Channel 3 franchises. Thereafter, we expect the Independent Television Commission to suggest a new target each year which will increase year on year. The precise extent by which it should increase is a matter upon which I feel sure the ITC will want to hear the views of the House as the Bill proceeds through Parliament. The 10 per cent. increase is just a start, and we see it as an increasing commitment every year.
Mr. Ashley : The Minister has made an important statement, which I hope the ITC will bear in mind, because the Bill does not say that. The Bill says that the Commission needs to make the increase "greater"--not greater than 10 per cent.--in successive years. What does "greater" mean? If one is trying to minimise subtitles and make profits, "greater" could mean 1 per cent. or 0.1 per cent., and that is my anxiety.
I am delighted by what the Minister has said. The spirit of his intervention must be taken on board by the ITC. That is the end of my speech. Subtitling is crucial, because it is the key for deaf people. The Minister's statement is a big advance.
Column 67deficient and unsatisfactory in this respect. However, I am encouraged by, and appreciative of, the attitude taken by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State about religious broadcasting in the informal exchanges that I and other colleagues have had with him. It is clear that he has an open mind about this topic.
Let me highlight some of the defects of the Bill under this heading. It accentuates the negative on religious broadcasting. There is barely a word about it, except in terms of prohibition and restriction. In the very engine room of the Bill, clause 2, a positive duty is laid on the new independent television commission "to facilitate the provision of a wide range of programmes calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests." It is to provide those services by licence.
Yet clause 5 goes on to disbar and disallow any Christian body from becoming a licence holder. The so-called wide range of interests to be created for by licensees is open-ended in all sorts of directions, but in the direction of the Christian Churches and other religions, the door is conspicuously and deliberately closed. So, alongside governmental and bureaucratic bodies infinitely more limited in their appeal, Churches are disbarred from taking part as licensees. This is unreasonable and unacceptable.
I remind my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of what the Bishop of St. Albans said in his commentary on the Bill :
"churchgoing is still the most popular, voluntary communal activity of the British people".
It far exceeds, for example, attendance at football matches, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend and the Government have really seriously thought through the desirability of specifically disbarring the most popular national communal activity from being promoted, through banning its sponsors and promoters from taking their wares on to the air as licenceholders.
Some might argue that the United States television experience, involving scandals like that of Jimmy Bakker, provide evidence enough that we should not go down that road. However, the Bill already provides adequate safeguards to prevent such abuse--for example, the quality provisions in clause 6 and the fund-raising regulatory powers in clause 7. I urge the Government to consider open-mindedly, sympathetically and carefully the possibility of removing this fundamental limitation on the future of religious broadcasting. If the limitation is persisted with, it will have the effect of de-licensing, and thus forcing off the air, an existing excellent cable channel carrying mainstream Christian religious output to 65, 000 homes in Glasgow, Coventry, Swindon, Croydon and Ealing. The material in this output was recently described by the Cable Television Authority as "worthwhile and accessible". Could anything make the point more vividly about the Bill's accentuation of the negative than its proposal to wring the neck of such programme options? In this context, the views of the Central Religious Advisory Committee for the BBC and IBA on this issue are not the views of the Church of England as a whole, nor those of the wider Christian church.
The so-called radio option provided for in the Bill is not so restrictive, but it does not meet the case. I remind my
Column 68hon. Friend the Minister of the point made by Mr. Clive Calver, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance in a recent letter to The Times. He said :
"If churches were to apply for radio licences they would be denied management control of their own output. Clause 83 (2) requires that a licensee should exclude from its programmes all expressions of views and opinions of the person providing the service on religious matters'.
By this caveat a radio station run by a local church could not even broadcast its own live worship to the community it serves." The religious broadcasting on sound radio option is a good start in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. The very fact of the admissibility of sound radio broadcasting should be regarded as the first chink in the curtain which could be extended to visual broadcasting.
Part of the Government's defence of their position as set out in the Bill is their declared confidence that, notwithstanding the prohibition of television station ownership, plenty of prime time will continue to be given to religious programmes under the new regime, as there is at present. The Government believe that the BBC will continue to feature religion on both channels, as it does now. Although the Government frankly acknowledge that there is no statutory requirement for religious programmes to be shown on ITV, they believe that the generalised provisions of clause 2(2)(b) about catering for
"a variety of tastes and interests"
will be sufficient for the safeguarding of prime time religious programmes.
Who is kidding whom? Does my hon. and learned Friend really believe that the abandonment of an overt public service obligation for the new commercial services, coupled with the new franchises tendering regime, will do anything other than marginalise Christian or other religious programmes? Unfortunately, it is no answer to argue that good quality and popular religious programmes such as "Highway" and "Songs of Praise" will continue to command prime time. Admittedly, they can command up to one third of the entire population of viewers, but the harsh reality is set out in this quote from the Bishop of St. Albans in his paper from the Church of England committee for communications :
"Although the size of audience is important, the crucial factor is its composition. A large audience of impecunious people does not interest advertisers. Since advertising breaks are not allowed in the middle of religious programmes, they are not among the high revenue earners.
It is the buying power of an audience, and not simply its size, which appeals to advertisers. Unless there are conservation safeguards in the new system, genuine audience choice will be inhibited.
In 1988, some ITV programme controllers attempted to move Highway' from its popular slot early on Sunday evening. Highway' is always in the top 100 programmes, drawing up to 10m viewers each week. Its unattractiveness to programme controllers is that its audience is neither young nor wealthy, so it has little appeal for advertisers." That is the harsh reality. That is the reason that mainstream, prime-time religious programmes will go by the board and religion will be marginalised. That is not compatible with the sort of attitude that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, among others, takes towards the importance of religion in broadcasting. I share and thoroughly advocate the views expressed by the pressure group Christian Choice in Broadcasting, which insists that it is "essential that : channels committed to general programming should include religion ; the wide selection of special-interest channels should include at least one with a religious emphasis."
Column 696.40 pm
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : There will be plenty of time in Committee to examine the Bill clause by clause and line by line. I shall use my 10 minutes today to examine the principles behind the Bill and to explain why there is a fundamental difference in values and in approach to the Bill between Conservative Members and Opposition Members. I hope that Conservative Members will not try to excuse the Bill with the line, "There is a small part that I do not like, but I can vote against that in Committee." They should examine the values behind the Bill and decide on Second Reading whether they support or reject it.
I shall take the Government at face value and believe them, temporarily, when they say that their basic principle is to provide for greater choice. It has been demonstrated conclusively in the debates that have preceded this one that greater numbers of programmes will not provide greater choice. We have seen that demonstrated in the listed events for sport. If the free market is allowed to apply, whether for sport or anything else, there can be no argument from a Thatcherite Government point of view that if a channel can afford to pay for a national event, it should have it, and that it is up to individuals to decide whether to have a satellite dish, or whatever else is required, to receive it. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that there is a need for regulation to ensure that the nation as a whole can see national events. It is the result of skilled scheduling that areas which constitute minority interests now become majority interests. For example, who would have thought 10 or 15 years ago that snooker would be a major national event when world championships are being played? That is achieved by scheduling within a programme remit that has balance because the various events are shown during the course of an evening in a major national network programme.
Programme quality is already being affected. It is not pie in the sky to say that if franchises are auctioned programme quality will be affected in future. Any television company will say now that there is a need already to cut programme budgets because it is saving for the franchise auction. It is inevitable that companies will have to do that. My hon. Friends and I are not scaremongering when we say that the quality of programming will be affected. If cash is the first priority, quality will be affected and it is being affected now. If there is a proliferation of channels there will not be more money to create programmes. We know that viewers spend about five hours a day watching television and that most adults watch for 25 hours a week. No one seriously suggests that when we have a proliferation of channels people will be watching more television. They will be spreading their viewing through more channels and there will be lower programme budgets to deliver the quality of programmes required by those operating the channels. That means that less money will be available for each programme.
We all know that good programming requires money. Who would have the nerve to send John Pilger to Cambodia with a film crew for a long time to make outstanding television documentaries on a restricted budget? John Pilger's programmes have demonstrated the power of television to hon. Members on both sides of the House. The response has been reflected in the letters which have reached our mailbags. There must be considerable commitment if such programmes are to be produced. As