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Column 70my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) said, who would be able to permit film crews to make wildlife programmes over long periods with reduced budgets? Many types of programme would be at risk if budgets were cut substantially.
There is a fundamental difference between the two sides of the House because Conservative Members seem to think that the Bill is essential because of new technology. Technology is marvellous, but it is our servant and not our master. The technology of satellite and cable television enables us to make better programmes and any programme-maker who allows technology to get ahead of the story--to spin screens round, and all the other incredible things that can be done, which I can barely understand despite having made programmes in the past--will not improve the quality of the programme. The basic story line and concept must be good. If the Government have the will to regulate satellite and cable television properly to ensure that they are the servants of programme standards and that technology is not the master, they will be successful.
I fear that the real motive behind the Bill is not the stated one. I absolve a fair few Conservative Members who are in their places because I am sure that, by definition, they are those who have doubts about the Bill. I fear that the real motive is that the Government prefer to receive their news and current affairs via The Sun rather than "World in Action". They are happier in a world where the Daily Star provides the information about what is going on in the world and not "First Tuesday". They are not so interested in that outstanding documentary programme, which was the first to spell out the innocence of the Guildford Four. I wonder how many people wish that events which take place in the United Kingdom were not examined in detail by means of investigative journalism.
In 1987, the broadcasting research unit of the Home Office reported on the public's view of their sources of news and information. It stated that 67 per cent. cited television as the medium they most trust, 11 per cent. cited radio, and 8 per cent. cited newspapers. I am stunned that the percentage citing newspapers was so high, but it is clear that under the present regulatory framework the public see television as their most reliable source of news and current affairs. I am not surprised that some Conservative Members look forward to the day when newspapers and not television will be the main source of public information on news and current affairs. The House would be spending its time far more effectively if it were seeking ways whereby the press, as an important medium of current affairs, was brought up to the standards of broadcasting. Instead, however, the philosophy behind the Bill seems to be to drag broadcasting down to the standards of the press.
Behind the Bill lies a distessing philosophy. I regard television as a miraculous medium. It is one that I barely understand despite having worked in it, and one with a phenomenal capacity to communicate to peoples of all nations. How do the Government respond to the miracle of this means of communication and its miraculous extension through cable and satellite technology? They ask themselves how much money they can make out of it, how much they can get from the auctioning of franchises and whether it will satisfy the advertisers--a depressing, mean-spirited, narrow-minded response to a marvellous means of communication.
My right hon. Friends and I rejoice at what telvision can do. We do not want it reduced to musak in the lift, as
Column 71in the United States and most other countries where there has been deregulation. We want to see television used for what it is within a proper regulatory framework. That is the only way of guaranteeing real choice and real standards. There is a fundamental philosophical difference between the two sides of the House, and if we accept the Bill we shall be going down the road towards pap.
Mr. Critchley : She has a lavatory at the bottom of the garden. Last year I was invited by a friend in the Conservative party--[ Hon. Members :-- "Name him."] No, but he invited me to speak at a supper club in his constituency. I shall not say where, merely that if we divided the map of the United Kingdom into four quarters, it would fall in the south-western quarter. Conservative Members know what such occasions are like. If I recount the menu--half a grapefruit with one red, Cyclopian eye in the middle ; rubber chicken with half a tinned apricot or peach looking rather like a fried egg--it is only to explain to the House what my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has endured for the past four years. The subject of my speech at the supper club in the south-western quarter was broadcasting. I chose it for a purpose, because broadcasting is one subject about which most Conservatives know absolutely nothing, but about which we hold very strong views. In the demonology of our great party --and by God, our demonology is full of candidates of one kind or another-- the BBC holds a very special place. Sooty and sulphurous, the corporation has, or so it is believed, a long history of letting down the side. It is unBritish--its reporting during the Falklands war ; it is snide--it makes jokes about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ; it is limply impartial--when events call for a robust partiality.
I am sorry to say that, for a certain sort of Conservative, the BBC is certainly not one of us. In consequence, it has been given until 1996 and has been restricted to a licence fee that can raise no additional money--it is simply indexed--to enable it to meet the challenge of Channels 3, 4 and 5. Was not the BBC described by someone who lives not a million miles from Downing street as a nest of Marxists? If so, given the events in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, it deserves to be made a protected species.
The Bill has its origins in the White Paper, which in turn sprang from the loins of a Cabinet Sub-Committee. That Sub-Committee was presided over by the Prime Minister herself. There is nothing new in that ; most of them are. However, it included the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it was his idea that the franchises should be auctioned to the highest bidder to raise the maximum amount of revenue for the Treasury. I understand that he is doing something like that with his memoirs.
To return to my speech at the supper club--
My audience appeared to regard the BBC as the enemy--"that Robin Day"-- while ITV was judged in part by the irreverence of "Spitting Image" and by what many saw as the Left-wing bias of its news and current affairs. I found that extremely disturbing. They had no wish to see their distinguished Members of Parliament on the telly. Bringing the cameras into the House would, I was told, encourage politics--by which, of course, they meant the politics of our opponents. Conservative Members, as we all know, have nothing to do with politics of any sort.
It is well known that the Home Office is in something of a fix. On the one hand it believes--or its masters believe--in deregulation. Some of them believe in the magic of the market. To a Manchester liberal, and we have far too many of them in the Tory party, more does not mean worse ; it means giving the man in the street what he craves--32 buttons on his television set, each one giving him access to one form of "Neighbours" or another. Such Manchester liberals are the worst sort of elitists. As my hon. Friend "the other Walden" has written : "They shelter their children in expensive preparatory schools while handing over other people's children to the forces of the markets." On the other hand--this is the fix in which the Home Office finds itself--the Home Office, or some of its masters, is worried about sex. Lord Rees-Mogg has been recalled to the colours with the sole purpose of defending the nation against the heated imagination of Mr. Dennis Potter. We live in a country in which nanny insists that we wash our hands before lunch, while she washes her hands of what we do between breakfast and lunchtime.
We should not permit the franchises to fall into the hands of the highest bidder. A channel on television is a scarce resource and must be allocated to the applicant who submits the most impressive prospectus. The Minister has already said--I think on the BBC--that nothing in the BBC is set in stone. In that case, will he consider my suggestion that his proposal on auctioneering should be stood on its head? There should be a simple rent, set by and payable to the Government. The other bid, over and above that, should be the amount of money that the rivals are prepared to spend on programmes--not on soaps, game shows or cheap Australian imports, because we already suffer from a form of Australian cultural imperialism--but on drama, news and current affairs. Unless that concession is clearly made, I do not think that I shall vote for the Bill.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South) : The Bill gives us an opportunity to review the whole question of radio and television. The review must be used not to weaken existing standards, but to reaffirm the true role of broadcasting, which is to inform, educate and entertain. It is sad that the Government appear to be using the opportunity to sell stations to the highest bidders. The quality threshold must be regarded as a plateau, not as an obstacle to be jumped and disregarded later. The "highest bidder" concept is wrong as it cannot be in the best interests of viewers or the country to place such a powerful medium into the hands of those whose only qualification might be that they are richer than anyone else. I welcome the establishment of the Broadcasting Standards Council and will be watching closely to see how it uses the powers given to it under part V. However, I am
Column 73concerned that under clause 129 certain cable and microwave transmission services seem to be excluded from the scope of the council's monitoring. If we are to have such a council, it should be responsible for examining all broadcasting services without exception. Perhaps the Minister will explain why, under part II, some licensed services are excluded from the council's responsibility? Like the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), I am surprised and disappointed that the Bill gives so little support to the deaf and hard of hearing. I had hoped that, with about 4 million viewers falling into that category, much more consideration would have been given to their needs. I hope that amendments will be passed in Committee to provide more facilities for the deaf, and I was pleased to hear what the Minister said earlier on that matter. The restriction on Christian broadcasting is resented by many people, especially in Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland agree fully with the concerns expressed in Great Britain about religious bodies being restricted from being involved in broadcasting. Under the provisions of schedule 2, such bodies can have no involvement in holding television service licences. Clause 83 places restrictions on editorial control of radio programmes. As was said earlier, that will disadvantage an existing Christian output on a cable channel. The Cable Authority has said that it regrets that the new legislation is "unnecessarily restrictive". I know that the Minister has received many representations on that issue and I urge him to think again and to allow Christian or religious bodies to compete in the marketplace in the same way as other groups. I draw the House's attention to how the Bill will affect Northern Ireland. Provision is made in clauses 139 and 140 to bring television and radio under the obscenity law in England, Scotland and Wales. I was surprised to see that no similar provision has been made for Northern Ireland. Citizens in Northern Ireland should enjoy the same protection from obscene material as citizens in the rest of the kingdom. Perhaps the Minister can explain how that has happened and, if necessary, ensure that an amendment to the Bill is tabled in Committee.
I support the properly controlled but urgent evolution of radio in Ulster. I ask the Minister to say what criteria will be used by the new authority to decide how many stations are desirable and where those stations will be located. How and where will those criteria be obtained?
Radio enthusiasts in Ulster think that there is room for between six and 20 new stations in Northern Ireland. At present there is general agreement that Radio Ulster, Radio Foyle and Downtown Radio provide a good service for their own section of the market. However, there is clear evidence of a large audience looking for a different format.
That evidence is the undoubted success of stations based in the Irish Republic which beam programmes into Fermanagh and Armagh, Newry and Craigavon, as far up as Belfast and in the north-west of the Province. It becomes more imperative every day that new local Northern Ireland companies are given the opportunity to cater for that obvious market and thus provide an exciting and creative radio industry in Ulster, so that in the words of the Bill they can offer "a wide range of programmes"
"variety of tastes and interests"
Column 74Northern Ireland has been well served for 30 years by our existing television station--Ulster Television--which, as a result of hard work, dedication and expertise, has become a success in terms of viewing figures, profitability and local esteem. It is a great compliment that Northern Ireland people know it as "our station". Ulster Television employs about 270 staff and produces 400 hours of wide-ranging and diverse programmes a year. It is committed to grant-aiding the arts and sciences and provides sponsorship for sport, education and job creation to the tune of 5 per cent. of its annual television profit. Its board and management are involved in the life of the community and most of its reporters and presenters are from the Province.
Despite 21 years of terrorism, the station has managed to overcome the problems presented by a divided society and separate cultures, to become fully accepted by the whole community. That praiseworthy position is due to the company being locally owned and controlled. It is a remarkable achievement and is made even more so when one considers the subtleties of circumstances in Northern Ireland. We must not lose sight of the many extra disadvantages that will be faced even by a local company. Sales revenue from Channel 4 will be lost. There will be increased competition from Channel 4, Channel 5 and five satellite channels. The privatisation of transmitters will impose extra costs and, on top of that, there will be the unquantifiable burden of tendering. Sadly, the IBA's most recent financial projection is more negative than before.
Right hon. and hon. Members do not need to be reminded of the special circumstances in Northern Ireland. The presentation of sensitive material requires careful handling and the careless use of information could, in extreme circumstances, result in tragedy. The emphasis on the wrong word or the careless use of a phrase can cause anger in some sections of the community. Because of those real difficulties, it is essential that broadcasting in Northern Ireland should be controlled and manned by local people who are sensitive to local problems. It could be a disaster if control of television were to fall into the hands of people lacking the inside knowledge that it so essential to anyone involved in the media in Northern Ireland. I make the House aware of those many problems hoping that the Minister in his reply will concede the necessity for dealing with Northern Ireland in a different but sympathetic way so that in Ulster we will have not only a truly local operation but a viable one, too. 7.8 pm
Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury) : The White Paper that heralded the Bill is entitled "Broadcasting in the '90s : Competition, Choice and Quality." I favour competition and choice, but the greatest of the three is quality. In a sense, that is the theme and essence of today's debate. It is the particular job of Government to ensure that the best of our culture is handed on from one generation to the next, and we are right to examine the Bill to see what it contributes to what I regard as the battle to preserve and enhance our civilisation.
A number of simple actions can be taken. One would be to make Radio 3 audible throughout the country. It is infuriating to drive to one's constituency, only to find that Radio 3 has disappeared from the airwaves. I would much
Column 75rather see Radio 1 converted to Radio 3 than the present situation continue to exist. Other matters are more difficult and complex to resolve. Notable among them is the way in which ITV contracts are to be allocated, and I shall deal with that aspect later.
The Government have taken a number of wise decisions. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was right to point out that Channel 4 has been safeguarded. As he said, it was a great Tory invention. He is right also to keep the BBC basically intact. Three of the four existing channels will remain as they are ; although, goodness knows, they are far from perfect, by and large they provide a reasonably good service. Those are all, in essence, decisions for achieving quality.
The most vexed question is how the ITV contracts should be allocated. When it comes to Channel 5, I hope that its boundaries will not be coterminous with those of Channel 3. In the present system, there is a strong bias in favour of the conurbations. I represent a part of the country that is commonly described as part of the home counties, and which is not a conurbation. As a result, it enjoys virtually no regional broadcasting. It is beginning to be served by local radio stations, but long after the conurbations. To be fair, Central Television has set up a Central (South) region, which goes some way to meeting the problem, and I congratulate it on that. Nevertheless, I hope that Channel 5 will not observe the same old boundaries.
Most important of all is the allocation of the contracts for Channel 3. The question of auctioning or tendering for that channel is the main problem. Of course there are vested interests, and special pleadings galore. We all know that the existing franchise holders badly want to win the contracts again, and are arguing as hard as they can that that should be so. However, the doubts go beyond that aspect, and I share some of them.
We do not know whether the Government's proposed system will drag down quality. Perhaps it would be worth reaching a compromise whereby only Channel 5 is allocated under the new tendering system. We can then see how that works out, while continuing to operate the present system of awarding franchises for Channel 3--perhaps for a shorter period than five or seven years. At the end of that period, we can make a judgment on whether the tendering system has the drawbacks that have been attributed to it, or whether it works perfectly satisfactorily. I like the idea of more competition, but we should wait to see how the tendering system works in one instance before committing ourselves to a major step, and one that could prove damaging.
Clause 33 seems to me to be unnecessary. It empowers the Independent Television Commission to require Channels 3, 4 and 5 to transmit party political broadcasts. Surely we are here presented with an opportunity to dispense with such broadcasts. We all know perfectly well that they range from the mediocre to the mendacious. Few people in our country, from whatever quarter they may come, would defend them. There is a serious reason for dispensing with party political broadcasts. The current experiment in televising this House is succeeeding and the decision to broadcast our proceedings is unlikely to be
Column 76reversed. It would be far better if, every day, five minutes more could be broadcast from this House, and there were no more party political broadcasts.
Perhaps the Bill should be a little more adventurous about impartiality in television programmes. Clause 6 focuses on that important aspect. I do not suggest for one moment that news programmes should be other than impartial, but perhaps we ought to accept the possibility that some programmes should be licensed to be partial rather than impartial. Mention has already been made of "World in Action", which everybody acknowledges is a radical programme with a strong political slant. Why not allow "World in Action" to come clean, but then ensure that a corresponding programme is broadcast with a bias in the opposition direction? Why should we pretend that everything is so dispassionate when that is evidently not the case?
The most important among the points I have made is that concerning the award of contracts, which I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will consider sympathetically.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : I must admit that my poor dear aunt is no longer with me, and I am unsure how long it will take her to home in on the speech that I want to make. Nevertheless, I draw the attention of the House to one aspect that I believe is tremendously important. Most right hon. and hon. Members, when speaking about television, have in common the fact that, although they talk about television, they never watch it. Most right hon. and hon. Members do not even watch television when they are on it themselves. That is the greatest sacrifice that any politician can make. However, every day a substantial percentage of the population use television as a means of obtaining not only information and education but plain enjoyment. That is not only wonderful but something we should encourage.
The Bill fails to deal with the most important sector of the television audience, which is children. Our country has a long history of making high- quality and varied children's television programmes. Specific attempts were made, originally by the BBC and then by ITV, to programme for different age groups and to produce not only traditional stories but original material. I am deeply concerned that the Bill provides no specific safeguards for that sector. I have for some time endeavoured to obtain from the hon. and learned Minister of State a guarantee that he is prepared to write standards for children's broadcasting into the Bill. With surprising modesty, he has not been prepared to give me a specific answer. He seems to believe that, if there is lots and lots of television, that must automatically be good for children, but that is neither my experience nor that of many parents.
In fact, there are considerable reservations about the present trend among ITV companies. Some of their original children's programmes have been cancelled, while new material has not been developed. There are clear signs that, as financial horns have been drawn in, children's programmes are suffering disproportionately. The increase in the number of television channels has not brought an automatic improvement in quality but has frequently meant observance of the lowest common denominator. That is noticeable in the BBC as well as among the ITV companies.
Column 77Mr. Gale : Surely the hon. Lady acknowledges that there has never been any statutory provision of any kind in respect of children's entertainment in the charter of the BBC or the IBA. The only company about which I know a great deal, Thames Television, increased its children's programme staff and produced more children's programmes last year than ever before.
Mrs. Dunwoody : Many considerations are not written into charters. Like many institutions, television operates not to written rules but largely to unwritten rules--for example, in respect of the transmission of foreign material.
When Doreen Stephens was head of family programmes at the BBC, she said that one of her points of principle was
"the duty and responsibility to use the medium of television to enrich and enlarge the child's experience."
She felt that children should be stimulated by the programmes they watched, so that television did not serve purely as an automatic nursemaid. Her other principles were :
"That children should be entertained and enjoy the programmes they watch.
That children should be treated with respect as people, without condescension or concession.
That children should not be over-protected in the choice and presentation of the content of their programmes."
We should take care to ensure that all those principles are incorporated in any future planning for the expansion of television. We must accept that, if we simply allow television to become a matter of open competition, we shall increasingly see an influx of the type of children's material which has the specific aim of selling toys, and developing particular commercial involvements.
Small children and children up to their early teens do not have sufficient experience to be automatically choosy about the quality of the material they watch. That does not mean that we should assume a certain level of censorship, but we must be careful to ensure that they are not subject to sleazy, low quality, narrowly aimed material.
I have considerable doubts about some of the programmes shown now. I do not look at children's television any more ; I look at ordinary television. But I have a secret army--mostly called Dunwoody, most of whom have small children--who give me acute accounts of what is shown. They are already concerned about children's programmes that include torture chambers or that use poor English and about a number of game shows in which small children are subjected to indignities that are not in their interest and can upset them. That is already happening. As the Bill develops, I hope that we shall have a calm understanding that children's material is not cheap to make, but is often as expensive as adult programmes, and that it takes a long time to get a return on the original material.
Children's programmes do not automatically mean cartoon films imported from America. Nor should they be a demonstration of a particular form of game show or, dare I say it, low-quality imported material from parts of the world where they manage to make a series of programmes and need to make a profit by circulating them as widely as possible, irrespective of what that does to the audience. I want good children's programmes, and I want my children and grandchildren to be proud of an industry that
Column 78for a long time has put specialised programmes for children of different ages high on its list, and has been appreciated worldwide for the quality of its programmes.
I can see nothing in the Bill that will safeguard the material shown on television. I have heard nothing in what the Minister has said today that makes it clear that the Government intend to build safeguards into the Bill in Committee, and it is for precisely those reasons that I shall vote against the Bill tonight.
A country that sells its children short in culture, literature or in the material that they enjoy daily in their homes, is a pretty miserable, tatty country. We have to ensure that that is not the United Kingdom.
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) : I declare an interest as a member of British Equity, a member of the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians and a member of the television branch of the National Union of Journalists.
There are 167 clauses in the Bill. Those right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Home Affairs Select Committee will be gratified to see that many of our findings are reflected in many of those clauses.
Hon. Members who hope to serve on the Standing Committee will wish to consider a number of issues. We shall want to re-examine the "must carry" provisions that will be lost with the abolition of the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984, and we may seek to reimpose a must-carry provision for BBC1 and 2. We should reconsider the provisions currently mooted for Channel 4, to determine whether it is realistic to ask the competitor companies that operate Channel 3 to underwrite and promote Channel 4's programmes. We may need to reconsider the Secretary of State's right or need to be able to veto the non-executive directors of Channel 4.
We may need to consider cross-ownership, with particular reference to community radio. My hon. and learned Friend may like to think about the many local newspapers that might be able to provide a better service to the reading and listening public, if they were able to own community radio stations.
We may have to reconsider the provisions for Channel 5 and the network arrangements that will exist in a new Channel 3. Undoubtedly, we shall need to consider further the difference between cross-media ownership and intra- television ownership. We shall certainly want to examine the provisions for deaf viewers. The privatisation of ITV transmission systems will need detailed consideration, and the provisions for broadcasting data and teletext will need to be examined.
None of those issues has been discussed in any depth in the House this afternoon. I am particularly sad that the debate has effectively been hijacked by the self-styled Campaign for Quality Television which largely represents the huge financial interests of some huge companies.
I am a television director and producer by trade and I have produced a large number--
Column 79and I wish to make it clear, after the rather offensive remark of my hon. Friend, that, unlike him, I have absolutely no economic or financial links with television.
Mr. Gale : I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) will endeavour to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and will make his speech in due course. The Campaign for Quality Television has the backing of some large vested interests.
Out of 167 clauses in an important Bill, very few have received more than scant attention from the media, which has sought, or has only been able, to focus on one issue. At the moment, I am reasonably satisfied that the arrangements made by BBC1 and 2, and the provision for the remit of Channel 4, will provide quality television, as I define it, as a producer and director. I am also satisfied that the quality threshold for Channel 3 will provide a satisfactory structure for the future of that channel.
In Committee, hon. Members will need to reconsider the other provisions of the Bill, and perhaps give the ITC the right to take into account the value of quality bids made by those who enter their auction room.
The Bill sets up a framework for broadcasting into the 20th century. By the year 2020, it is likely that every household in the country will have a cinema-style screen, 1.5 in deep, hanging on the wall, that will bring a choice of 20 to 30 channels via satellite transmission, cable head end and interactive cable. A person will be able to sit in an armchair at home watching the television, see an advertisement for a product, recall it at the end of the programme, view it through a mail order catalogue or review the commercial, decide on the merits of the product, order it and pay for it through interactive cable. That is technically possible now, as is the provision of home education--I thought that that would have appealed to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham--home shopping, home banking and home medicine.
If anyone has any doubt about whether that is possible, I quote briefly from a press release from British Telecom, dated 14 November 1989, which says :
"The Government has given the green light to British Telecom's trial of its pioneering communications vision for the 21st century. This will use optical fibre pipelines' carrying television, high fidelity stereo-radio, telephone calls, information technology and other interactive services to houses and businesses.
The company has been granted a special licence to convey into integrated voice telephony and entertainment television over a trial optical fibre network at Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. The licence runs from October 21, 1989 to December 31, 1992." That system will probably be up and running in homes by the end of next summer. The House is confronted with a colossal potential. An enormous opportunity will be presented to programme-makers, programme-providers and everyone in the entertainment industry, and it is depressing that many right hon. and hon. Members and people outside regard the Bill not as an opportunity but as a threat. It is vital that we seize the opportunity with both hands, that we try to prevent the waste of time and energy on warring satellite systems, that we pursue in the interests of
Column 80the United Kingdom the development of satellite delivery and above all, that we pursue and encourage the development of fibre-optic cable systems.
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) : I shall not follow the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) into the realms of science fiction because the Bill seems to me to be essentially about ideology and interference--the Prime Minister's Meddlesome Matty syndrome--in a system which "ain't broke, is doing quite well and don't need fixing".
The Bill is not about pluralism. Pluralism and competing channels are with us already. The Bill will add only one--fifth--television channel, which has unlikely prospects in any case. We welcome pluralism. It adds excitement, interest and diversity. The problem is to provide for standards, for quality and for production in the new pluralistic environment.
Pluralism--having more channels--must weaken basic provision through the duopoly. It drains away money and viewers. On the whole, the effect on the networks in the United States has been adverse. In such circumstances, we should strengthen the basic provision. That is what people will continue to rely on. It will continue to provide the basic continuity of production and the basic quality of television in Britain. We should strengthen it in the face of the threat of more competition and more pluralism. It can survive. I am not saying that it will disappear and disintegrate, but the Government are compounding the problems caused by more competition by aiming a body blow at existing channels, the existing duopoly and the existing basic production facilities.
The Government believe that the market will provide. That just does not work in the media. Indeed, the reverse is the case. The more open and unregulated the market is, and the more intense the competition in the media, the more organisations are driven down market, the more standards fall and the more they are driven to the lowest common denominator. Anyone who wants proof of that should consider the quality of the British popular press, which is totally unregulated and in intense competition, and compare it with the American popular press, which is effectively protected by local monopolies which give it some insulation from competition.
Mr. Mitchell : Contrast British television, which is regulated and not that intensely competitive, with American television and its standards. Those two examples prove that the market does not provide for quality. It drives down to the lowest common denominator
We are in danger of producing that in British television. We sustain standards--
Mrs. Currie : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As the hon. Gentleman is talking so fiercely about competition, would it not be in order for him to declare his personal interest in this matter?
Column 81Madam Deputy Speaker : If the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has a financial or other interest in this matter, he must declare it. I am sure he will declare it.
Mr. Mitchell : My interests are declared in the Register of Members' Interests. I present a programme for Sky Television. If that is the only point that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) wants to make, it is trivial and irrelevant.
The remorseless drive down market by intense competition will be compounded by the Bill. The Government are damaging the existing structures of television. They are doing that, first, by the slow strangulation of the BBC through a licence fee which has not kept up with inflation and thus reduces the pool of money available to television and weakens the BBC in the longer term. I am sorry that the BBC has stayed out of this argument, congratulating itself on coming through unscathed in the Bill, because it will suffer in the future.
Secondly, the Bill scoops out more revenue for the Treasury from the pool of money available for television production. That reduces the money available for quality. The Economist suggested that money that is siphoned out should be used for production of quality. That is an admirable solution, but it is not what will happen under these proposals. Thirdly, the Bill weakens the existing structure by the insane auction system to which the Government have stuck so obstinately that it must be the Prime Minister's baby. That is the only explanation for the obstinacy with which the Government are sticking to their ridiculous auction idea, which removes all discretion from the ITC and opens the door to the media barons and especially to the continentals, whom we cannot prevent from coming in.
While the Government may not view the prospect of Berlisconi in Barnsley with any great horror, when it comes to Bertlesman in Basildon or Hachette in Harpenden, their electors will begin to take a different view. The bidders will just not know how much to bid. They will be in competition with people who are buying contracts for status, or for other reasons. That will siphon more money out of the pool available for quality production. That clause must be altered. The Minister has suggested that we should take account of the overall interests of the viewer, and that that might be a way to alter the arrangement, because the continuity of "Coronation Street", "Emmerdale Farm" and "The Bill" will be far more important to the viewer. That might allow us a way to alter it, but the clause must be altered.
The fourth thing that the Government are doing to harm existing structures is to loosen regulations. We hear of the light touch, but they do not want the light touch when it comes to matters moral. They have Lord Rees-Mogg free to pursue his masturbatory fantasies across the screen, pursuing the nipple count or the coitus coefficient. There is no light touch there. They want a heavy hand--the sweaty, heavy hand--when it comes to regulation in that respect. The real problem is not that kind of standard, but standards of quality and of production. The Broadcasting Standards Council has no remit there--when it comes to quality, excellence and good television, the Government want a light touch.
The IBA has done a good job. The light touch has worked there. It has provided for the effective development of good production centres in the regions. It has provided for quality centres of excellence in the