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Column 82regions, which it is important to sustain. The Bill does not adequately sustain either by insisting on local production for the regions and for the network. We have to have both. Production has to be local--in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester--because it is more expensive to do it there than in London. It costs about £100,000 more to produce Yorkshire Television's "A Bit of a Do" in Leeds--to which it brings jobs, and where it adds to the local centre of excellence and uses local skills--than it would in London.
The Bill will undermine such regional production. I am worried about the effect of such changes on current affairs coverage. When current affairs programmes lose about a third of the audience with which they start, why should companies go to the trouble of supporting staff to inquire with the trenchant journalism of "Death on the Rock", which the Government clearly hate, when they can put on a mindless chat show or an import at far lower cost? Why should they produce culture or an arts programme? I am worried by the falling standards which I saw this year in entries to the British Petroleum arts journalism competition of which I am a judge. Why should companies bother to produce such programmes when they cost so much? The Bill makes no provision for networking, but that is crucial when it comes to costs. How will programmes be networked? Will there be open war between different companies, as there was at the start of independent television, which would be enormously expensive? I am worried about what is happening to television now. The latest schedules are most disappointing. They are unimaginative. There are no big projects, no interesting ideas and no innovation. Companies are instead taking on a fight with their staff to drive down wages and conditions or to sack a large number of them, thus impairing their capacity to produce programmes. If that is a sign of what is to come, it is a sign of a desire to get more money out so that they can make a bigger bid to keep the contract. It is also a sign that standards are bound to decline because resources devoted to production at regional centres of quality and excellence, where skills feed on each other, will be weakened and undermined. Independent production is no substitute.
I am worried about the basic principles of a Bill which provides for more channels, but not for more revenue, more effective maintenance of standards or close regulation to provide better quality television in Britain. It is a doctrinaire Bill which bears no relevance to the problems of production in Britain. It aims a body blow at the industry in which Britain leads the world and it offers the television viewer nothing but a debasement of standards. 7.40 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : Many Christians believe that, if the Bill is not amended, the Christian voice on television and radio will be increasingly gagged in the coming years. I should like to make four points in support of that. First, the Bill denies any religious body the right to own or operate a television station. Secondly, the Bill ensures the sole right of secular ownership of all television stations. Thirdly, the Bill does not ensure that commercial radio or television will continue to include religious programmes. Fourthly, the Bill does not ensure that Christian bodies will have the freedom to sponsor programmes on television.
Column 83The Bill should ensure that commercial radio and television stations are required to broadcast religious programmes. It should ensure that Christian and other religious bodies are permitted to participate in broadcasting in exactly the same way as every other group in society. If political and commercial interests can present their cases on television, that right should be granted to Christian and other religious bodies. Christian bodies are permitted to publish books or newspapers. They have the right to participate in running hospices, playgroups, sheltered dwellings, rehabilitation centres, schools, unemployment projects, AIDS hospitals and community centres, so why not television stations under proper regulation? As many religious bodies aim to strengthen family relationships and encourage honesty, self-sacrifice and discipline, instead of putting up a barrier to them, the Government should encourage them.
If commercial interests alone are to control the spiritual output of commercial broadcasting, how can it be responsible and balanced? If the future of broadcasting is really to offer choice, why are viewers and listeners to be denied the choice of what Christians and other religious bodies can offer?
Northern Ireland, has been well served by the independent broadcasters. Downtown Radio has maintained a very high standard, as has Ulster Television. I agree with my colleague from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), that there is room and opportunity for other local radio and television broadcasters in the Province.
We are informed that the Government have set their face against a new radio station in the north-west of the Province. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what the Government have in mind for community and commercial radio in Northern Ireland. What is happening? Business interests are now busily engaged in buying up the opportunities that are afforded to them in the south of Ireland. A powerful radio station operates half a mile from the Londonderry border. Commercial interests have to go to the South of Ireland to broadcast. That opportunity should be localised, and business interests in Northern Ireland should have the right to their own broadcasting stations and the ability to present acceptable programmes to the people. I trust that the Government will give that careful consideration, because it is important that commercial and community broadcasting is developed right across the Province and not limited as it is now.
I want to place on record the fact that the two independent services-- Downtown Radio and Ulster Television--have provided an excellent service and deserve the praise of the community. I am sorry that I cannot say the same for the BBC in Northern Ireland, which seems to be more interested in spending the money raised from television licences on programmes that cause an outcry across the political and religious divide because of their obscenity and blasphemy. I want to stress that in the House tonight.
It is important that community radio in Northern Ireland is ordered to present to the localities that it serves programmes that will be helpful, good for the children and good for the community. Northern Ireland has a great well of talent, and that talent should be used. How better than
Column 84in the new broadcasting scheme? Therefore, I trust that the Government will keep those matters in mind when they make their decision.
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) : My hon. Friends have already made much of the fundamental case against the Bill, so, in the short time available, I shall concentrate on its impact on Welsh television and broadcasting.
In one sense, I felt a measure of relief in looking at the Bill, at least in regard to the provisions relating to S4C. In general, those clauses have accepted the continuing role of S4C. The road has not been easy as a difficult and delicate balance has to be struck in Welsh television. In my view, S4C has been successful in the remit that Parliament gave it when it was established--to provide a comprehensive service for the Welsh language.
I wish to draw the Minister's attention to two aspects of the Bill which might endager that success. I shall deal with one now and one later in my remarks. First, during the 1990s, S4C will be greatly dependent on the buoyancy and impact of advertising. If that advertising declines, as many forecasts suggest, there may be a financial crisis for S4C somewhere in the mid-term of its next period of service. Therefore, I hope that the Government will consider the concept of a safety net to deal with such a problem, should it arise. I shall make my second point about S4C later in my speech, as it relates to the role and relationship of Channel 5 to Welsh broadcasting and Welsh television.
Having made those few placatory remarks, on the central issue of the auctioning of franchises and the licensing of the one commercial television station in Wales--it will therefore be not only our regional but national commercial station--I share every one of the fears, worries and concerns that have been expressed, not only for the reasons given by my hon. Friends but for the further reason mentioned briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). At least, under the current system, a television company that seeks the powerful monopolistic commercial television franchise in Wales must justify its presence in Wales. Its studios, board of directors and supervisory management must all belong to and identify with the society that they serve.
The Bill provides for programmes of a regional character, but there is not one provision that will compel the highest bidder for a regional or national franchise to have a regional or national presence in Wales or oblige its board of directors or supervisory management to identify and have roots with the region or nation that they plan to serve. I am glad to say that, under the present arrangements, because the franchise is for HTV West and HTV Wales, the IBA has insisted on dual representation at board and supervisory level and at programme and production level.
I shall no doubt continue to have many quarrels with HTV ; there is bound to be creative tension in the relationship between a local politican and the local media. I have no brief to speak for HTV Wales, but I cannot deny that it is rooted in Wales, that it identifies with Wales, that its management are Welsh and that it has a major regional and national presence. I frequently quarrel with it, but I cannot deny its Welshness, its sense of identity, its sense of belonging and its roots in the society from which its money
Column 85comes. There is not one provision in the Bill that will ensure that the highest bidder for a franchise will have such a presence, such roots or such an identity.
The lack of identity is reflected in the watchdog arrangements. Except for one measly paragraph at the bottom of the lengthy schedule 1, there is no provision for the ITC in Wales to establish a regional or national presence. I hope that the Minister will assure us that it will have a Welsh identity. Will there be an advisory committee, or a sensitive and able directorate such as that represented by Mr. Eirion Lewis and his staff at the Welsh IBA? The Bill offers no assurance of that, merely a paragraph saying that it may be possible to establish some advisory committee structure.
The public are shut out of such operations. At least under the existing arrangements, however flawed they might be, when franchises came up for renewal there was some attempt at public consultation. The viewers served by the franchise holder were able to express their views. The system may have been flawed and may not have operated as effectively as it should have, but at least a process of public consultation was required.
The Bill makes no provision for proper public consultation on decisions about who shall hold the licence in a region or, in our case, in Wales. Therefore, a large proportion of the Welsh public will be shut out of taking part or being involved in any shape or form in the process of deciding who shall control the national commercial monopoly in Wales and what programmes and schedules it offers.
I want to bring to the attention of the House a matter that has not been discussed so far--the function and role of Channel 5. I have a map showing its predicted coverage and the fact that significant and important parts of the Principality will not receive it. I am sure that the constituency of hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas) will not be covered, but neither will most of the valley communities. Most of our television is received through relay stations, and if the proposed system for Channel 5 goes ahead, significant areas of the Principality--and, indeed, of the rest of Britain--will not be covered by it.
The figure of 70 per cent. coverage for Channel 5 covers many problems, but I want to explain to the House the impact that that may have on the delicate balance and consensus that has been achieved on broadcasting and television in Wales. At present, S4C is an alternative to Channel 4. There are many frustrations among people who want to see Channel 4 programmes in Wales, but fortunately we can say that sooner or later, Channel 4 programmes will appear on S4C. However, some of its scheduling is capricious, to say the least. If, on top of that, many people in Wales find that the fifth channel will not be available, the careful and delicate consensus that we have achieved may be destabilised. I can hear the telephone calls coming in now saying, "What is this talk about choice? I couldn't get Channel 4 and now I can't get Channel 5."
Many people along the south Wales coast are turning their eyes and aerials to the Mendips to avoid S4C and to obtain Channel 4. Many communities have not done so and many will not want to do so, but if they have to turn their eyes and aerials to the Mendips to get Channel 5, their anger and frustration will rise and the careful balance that we have achieved in the Principality may be broken.
Column 86I should like to refer briefly to the interesting article written by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), in which he described the Bill as being "towards a thicker Britain". There are many variations on that, because I think that it may lead towards a duller Britain. I was reminded of one of the great 18th-century satirists, Alexander Pope. In his poem, "The Dunciad", he described the Empress of Dulness in the following terms :
"See now, what Dulness and her sons admire ;
See! what the charms, that smite the simple heart
Not touch'd by Nature and not reach'd by Art."
That could be an epitaph to the Bill, unless we are able to change the hearts and minds not only of the Empress of Dulness but of her sons, too.
Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey) : I must disclose my interest as the independent chairman of the Broadcasters Audience Research Board, which was set up by the BBC and ITV companies as part of the Annan report's recommendations.
I say to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister that the Government are to be congratulated on providing, in this massive Bill, a wide review of all broadcasting services--terrestrial, satellite and radio. They have brought before the House contentious legislation, which is fair enough, and comprehensive legislation, which gives us the opportunity to consider the spectrum and use of the air waves which, for so long, we have been denied. The release of additional space on spectra and other airwaves was negotiated for ages in Geneva and enables us now to start planning broadcasting's future--for television and radio.
I wholly applaud much of the Bill, including the fact that at long last radio is coming out from under and making its own case. It will now have its own authority and can develop vastly, whether it be nationally, regionally, or on a multi-community basis. We welcome that. It must be of huge interest to all hon. Members and is a matter for congratulation.
It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). I welcome the Welshness of HTV, about which he waxed so eloquently. He put absolutely into context the fact that regional television in this country has grown up, flourished and will continue. I am especially grateful that the Bill's discussion of television embodies the commitment to the regional system. I am also grateful to Mr. George Russell, the current chairman of the IBA and shortly to be chairman of ITC, who has confirmed that in his view the map should remain largely unchanged.
Regionalisation is the real key to this issue. We should not be discussing anxieties about the auctioning of franchises and bids were it not for the recommendations of the Peacock committee. If my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State does not already know this, I must confess that there was nothing as surprising as the report of the Peacock committee. After all, the committee was inquiring into the financing of the BBC, but it came up with no recommendations for advertising on the BBC. That was the greatest possible surprise. Even the hon. Member for Great Gatsby--Grimms' fairy tale country as I now know it to be--accepts that it is a matter of total ignorance to many people. As one of those who was involved at the time, I must stress that it was confidently expected that the report would inevitably provide the answer to the ITV-BBC problem. It was said that there
Column 87would be national television advertising from another totally accepted national channel which would bring the ITV and BBC systems into clear competition. However, it was not to be.
Thus, until Channel 4 either has greater audience penetration or until Channel 5 comes along and achieves a national public--albeit of only 70 per cent. of the population--to bring about national competition, we are left with the problem of how to tackle the monopoly of the ITV companies. That is the issue that has given rise to all the fraughtness and fret. It is a duopoly in terms of audiences, but in terms of paid-for advertising space-- although I admit Channel 4--we have a major monopoly.
The restraints on awarding franchises to monopolies have put my right hon. and learned Friend into such a twist. That is why we have all these little subtleties of hand, such as the ownership issue and the bearing down on co- ownership. We are saying, "You can have two, but they must not be contiguous," and, "You can have 20 per cent. if you are a newspaper magnate, but you must not touch if you are an advertising agent."
All those funny things are not at all logical. It is absurd to talk about newspapers as though they should be a protected part of the media scene. Good heavens, that was the position way back in 1955 when we first had ITV. There were some anxieties then that television would put newspapers out of business and that they must therefore be given special priority treatment. That was the genesis of this, but now we are discussing "You may or you may not". It is a far-flung thing. I can hear Lord Reith rattling in his urn as he thinks that there is a real threat that the editor of The Times --no less than its owner--might become the owner of a television channel. I can imagine what he would say about that. He would probably rely on his old dictum, "The best form of government is despotism, tempered, of course, by assassination."
We now have a great opportunity. When it comes to determining the regional concepts of the Bill, I urge my right hon. Friend to pay particular attention to rooting the new franchises in the regions. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was quite right--production resources must be based in the regions. Therefore, I welcome clause 16(2)(c) which seeks to specify that
"regional programmes so included are made within that area". I like the sound of that, but I warn my right hon. Friend that accommodation addresses will not do. There must be no brass plates on temporary warehouses. We want regional production facilities. The other side of clause 16 deals with the question of 25 per cent. independent production. Will it require a regional commitment to that percentage or to a proportion of that percentage? If it does not, like the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, I fear that there will be an enormous influx of trainloads of people coming up from London to provide such services, but going back and producing the material down here. In giving an accolade to the regional system, one side of the coin must be the location of the roots, in programming content and in production, in the regions concerned.
The absolute method of selection is also causing a fuss. Obviously, there is great difficulty when awarding monopoly franchises, albeit under careful restraint. Those who are to prepare bids must not only attach a tender price
Column 88with an annual rental over the 10 years ; they will also have to face a substantial levy on the amount of profit that can be earned. Those people will have to be keen to achieve what they want to achieve, bearing in mind that the next five to 10 years of their franchise will see a steady increase in other media that are capable of carrying advertising. They will face steadily increasing competition at a time of heavily increasing costs and, I trust, a great regional commitment to quality programming.
We must trust the ITC. There can be no question from hon. Members of any party that, whatever the difficulties of the IBA to start with, it is now well accepted. The Government want lighter regulation, a heavy involvement in franchises and the auctioning of franchises--and there is, they must accept, a slight inconsistency in that. The Government should trust the commission to determine the qualitative rating of bids placed before it. Indeed, under the existing arrangement, the Government should encourage the commission to intervene in exceptional circumstances. I was glad to receive a letter from my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary stating that, because
"the ITC will have the power in exceptional circumstances to select a lower bid",
"will make the award of licences an altogether more open matter" We want to know just what those exceptional circumstances might be. I hope that they will not be too exceptional. I hope that the exceptional circumstance is that we shall have qualitative ratings much higher than the level of the cash put down. I hope that those ratings will allow the ITC to say, "In our best judgment, it would be wrong to proceed with the highest bid on the table because the second highest bid is worth substantially more in terms of the quality that is offered." I hope that the qualitative commitment will be sufficient to be declared an interest compatible with the provisions.
The selection process is on the periphery of this issue. The real issue is the extent to which public service broadcasting and the ITV regime, which is a proud part of public service broadcasting, may or may not conflict with the public interest. At that stage, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary must consider whether things have gone too far. I hope that public service broadcasting, as identified in the Bill, will largely follow the public interest. The public interest has supported this system of broadcasting. It has certainly supported the regional concept of broadcasting. It has supported governance by the IBA, albeit now with a slightly looser rein.
It would be tragic if the opportunity now presented for the future of broadcasting were to be lost because of an awful disagreement between the regulating body and the industry, between the industry and the advertisers who pay the industry and between the Government and all sides who will believe that they are not adequately dealing with the nitty-gritty of selection or with raising the last penny from the Treasury. That does not matter one rap compared with the glorious opportunity for seeing another chapter of properly supported, well regionalised television. I wholly commend the Bill.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) made an extremely agreeable speech, but he has been too optimistic
Column 89about the meaning of certain words. For example, "exceptional" does not mean what he would have it mean--it is exceptional. The hon. Gentleman was also too optimistic about the impact of the Bill on regional broadcasting. A system which could cause the contraction of the regions from 15 to eight through acquisition is a threat to the regional basis that we have come to accept and which we regard, as the hon. Gentleman does, as central to the attractiveness of television in this country.
The average person in this country watches television for 25 hours per week, which is about 60 per cent. of the leisure time available to those in work. It cannot be argued that that figure reveals great dissatisfaction with the quality of television today. None the less, new technologies such as satellite, cable and MVDS delivery systems offer new opportunities to cater for specialist and local interests and to provide a wide variety of dedicated channels. As that capability opens out, the requirements of regulations will alter. Competition for advertising revenue is bound to intensify and pressure on the media to boost audience ratings will be increasingly strong. The ability of broadcasters to provide the mix of entertainment, education and information that has hitherto made up the best of British broadcasting is at risk. Most people will not thank a Government who simply multiply the number of buttons that viewers and listeners can press but subtract from the variety and quality. That is the essential threat posed by the Bill.
More than 3,000 submissions have been made since the publication of the White Paper. Most contain comments on the proposal to award licences for television and radio to the highest bidder. The Home Secretary did not show any support for the proposal in response to those submissions, and his absence for a large part of the debate suggests that he is not interested in the views of the House. The junior Minister also absented himself from the debate and is similarly uninterested in it.
Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull) : He will be back soon.
Mr. Maclennan : The Government treat the views of those who are involved in the industry with complete contempt. The Government's views are under scrutiny. None of those who submitted an opinion in response to the White Paper have supported the proposed blind auction for franchises. Most of those directly involved in broadcasting accept that competition for franchises should be more transparent than in the past, but they have urged --so far, to no avail--that the licensing authority should be empowered to consider not only the bid price but what is offered for that price. To propose a system for auctioning services which does not allow comparisons to be made between price and quality in the name of consumer choice is simply fraudulent. The system advocated in the Bill will maximise Treasury receipts from broadcasting and minimise the funds available for programme making.
Only in respect of Channel 4 does the Bill seek to require the diverse programme content which characterises current broadcasting in Britain. Indeed, the provisions for Channel 4 highlight the weaknesses of the provisions in respect of other channels. The Bill seems to reflect the Government's hatred of the present independent broadcasters, particularly their handling of news and current affairs. The Government's reaction to "Death on the Rock" and to Lord Windlesham's report shows their
Column 90prejudices. How else is one to explain the decision--not yet referred to in the debate--to bar the independent television companies from the ownership and editorial control that they now have over the national news service?
The proposal to give the news service to a company or companies nominated by the friends of the Government in the shape of the licensing authorities, brings the Government altogether too close to controlling the news. Incidentally, the provision that the Radio Authority shall seek to require that
"undue prominence is not given to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on religious matters or matters of current political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy"
smacks of institutionalised censorship. What is becoming unacceptable in eastern Europe should not become the norm in Britain. How, other than in terms of a vendetta against the media, is one to explain a bidding system which favours large conglomerates over existing specialist television companies? Not only the British conglomerates but European giants such as Hachette and Berlusconi, will be favoured by the proposed system.
The Bill contains no safeguards against takeovers of British companies comparable with the safeguards operated in European countries. It provides no reciprocity. As the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) acknowledged earlier, the Government have been accused of attacking the universities and the Churches as the repositories of independent advice, and that is so, but now it is the turn of independent television to suffer for having offered a platform for independent opinion.
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : Further to the hon. Gentleman's previous point, does he agree that the danger of using price as the only basis for tendering for new franchises will mean that any European incursion will, by definition, by irresistible because any other method would be ruled out of order by European laws and directives?
Mr. Maclennan : That is absolutely correct. I believe that the solution would be to limit the stake of any one company in a channel. The system of franchise allocation can be explained only in terms of a vendetta. One need go no further, but further evidence is the unbelievably favourable position of the franchisee following the award of a franchise. The franchise is virtually awarded in perpetuity. It can be re-awarded after only six years, without further submission to competition. That gives the lie to any suggestion that the Government favour competition. The arrangements whereunder a franchisee may apply at any time after six years to have the licence renewed are a mockery. All the fears expressed about the prospects of over-bidding for the initial licence are fully justified when one considers how much is at stake when acquiring the initial licence.
The Government cannot claim that the dangers are unreal. The experience in Australia is highly germane, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) explained, but it is not unique. In France the firm Bouygs recently purchased more than 50 per cent. of the major channel TF 1 for 3 billion francs, which has since been recouped by a ratings war to gain advertising revenue. Other French companies are feeling the draught. The Government are having to consider reintroducing regulations. Further evidence of the Government's political purpose in seeking to oust those whom they distrust is to be found
Column 91in the provision that the Secretary of State should have the final say in the appointment of the Channel 4 directors. As Sir Richard Attenborough has said, what is at stake is not the stewardship of public money but the maintenance of independent, innovative broadcasting.
The Bill's proposals on cross-ownership and ownership by newspapers are disturbingly inadequate. They will allow a further erosion of competition, the entry of Rupert Murdoch into independent television and radio and a reduction in the number of television regions from the present 15 to eight. In the United States, under the 1955 Federal Communications Commission rules, ownership of radio plus newspapers and television in the same market is prevented. Under those rules, Mr. Murdoch has been forced to divest himself of two newspapers and a television station. We should follow that route.
The Government claim to be committed to the preservation of regional television. If that claim is to be made good, three major changes are required. First, licensees must maintain full regional production and transmission of facilities within the region. On that, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) was right. Secondly, ownership must be confined to one ITV licence. The Government's proposition that small companies are legitimate targets for large ones is simply not acceptable.
Thirdly, the Bill must make suitable provision for a network. As the chairman-elect of the commission, Mr. George Russell has said that no independent company produces more than 30 per cent. of the programmes that it shows that its ability to transmit high quality programmes depends upon the network. Furthermore, it is desirable to secure fair access to the network for the smaller companies and to prevent the larger franchise holders from reducing competition by exercising complete control over the internal tariffs.
The arrangements allowing for multiple bidding must be changed. They may favour--no doubt the Government hope that they will--the first-time entrant to broadcasting. They would make the maintenance of a network between now and the auction wholly untenable. Regional broadcasting offers the opportunity to bring the cultural diversions of our regions into everyone's home. The Government, however, have shown their weak commitment to such diversity by their treatment of Scotland. There is no provision for a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish member of the ITC board--and there should be. There are provisions in the Bill to prevent the takeover of all the English regions, but there is no comparable provision for Scotland [Interruption.] The Whip on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) may have no interest in Scottish television. That does not surprise me in the least and that may account for the poor support for his party in Scotland. There are many people
Mr. Mellor : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the Whip cannot speak for himself I feel compelled to defend him. The point that was being made is one to which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) should address himself. He has fallen outside the 10-minute rule. It would be a courtesy to other hon. Members waiting to speak, especially as the Front-Bench
Column 92spokesmen are prepared to shorten their replies, if the hon. Gentleman would keep within the reasonable confines of 10 minutes.
Mr. Maclennan : If the Minister had done me the courtesy of coming in to listen to my speech, his remarks might carry some weight. As he absented himself for the greater part of my speech, I shall continue in my own time. I am wholly in order and I intend to take my time. The House will not allow minority parties to be put at a disadvantage in the debate in the way that the Minister would like. The Home Secretary took three quarters of an
Mr. Dykes : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am tempted not to interrupt this hysterical attack, but it would be right to remind the House that the Minister was outside the Chamber for an extremely brief moment. He has been in the Chamber for the rest of the debate.
Mr. Maclennan : Such interruptions merely take up the time of the House.
The most serious omission from the Bill for Scotland and those other parts of the country where the population is scattered over a wide area is the absence of provision to equalise transmission costs. That absence particularly threatens the future of the radio companies operating in Wales and Scotland which serve the more remote areas. The Bill is also silent about the transmission costs of television. The transmitter at Crystal Palace serves millions in London, but it takes eight transmitters and 68 relay lines to serve the northern half of Scotland. The Government have not promised that their plans to privatise the lines owned by British Telecom will not place intolerable burdens on companies in sparsely populated areas. The Bill makes no provision for Gaelic, but I welcome the step announced by the Secretary of State this afternoon. We shall look closely at the funding offered in support of it.
The Government have sought to remove the sting of the criticism that they are unconcerned about the quality of broadcasting by emphasising the importance of the so-called quality threshold in the bidding process. The only specific consumer protection provided by the Bill is defined in terms of taste and decency. The licensing authority, operating in the shadow of Lord Rees-Mogg's Broadcasting Standards Council--a wholly unnecessary quango--has a duty to codify the rules and to supervise their application.
There is no comparable obligation on the authority specifically to secure the at-risk services--children's programmes, social action programmes, programmes for the disabled and the ethnic minorities and, most notably, religious programmes. Perhaps the Government believe that all that should be left to the BBC. Perhaps those obligations are intended to compensate the BBC for the almost inevitable loss to cable and satellite broadcasters- -should the Bill go through in its present form--of major sports events such as the cup final, Wimbledon and the grand national.
Those who have complained about the time taken to set out the points that the Social and Liberal Democrats wish to place before the House would do well to remember that this is the only intervention in the debate from a party which speaks for about a quarter of the electorate.
If there is intensive competition for ratings by Channel 3 and Channel 5, which are not to have any quality or
Column 93regional remit, the BBC will be faced with the nasty choice of either going down market or losing its audiences. Either way, the case for the retention of its licence fee will be undermined, which is no doubt what the Government intend.
When the Home Secretary concluded this afternoon, he said that fears about quality were voiced in this House when independent television was established in 1955, and his acolytes have echoed that thought. It is certainly true that fears were expressed, but it is also true that those criticisms were entirely justified. Their justification was made plain by the Pilkington report in 1962, the recommendations of which were acted upon in 1963 when the regulatory system--broadly, that under which our broadcasters operate today--was introduced. It was the Finance Act 1963, not the 1955 Act, which gave the television authorities specific powers over schedules and programme standards.
If the Bill is not amended in the light of our experience and that of other countries which have gone down the deregulatory road, it will deprive the British people of the enjoyment, entertainment, information and education that is at their fingertips today. Otherwise, as in 1963 so in 1993, a further Bill will be required to clean up the Government's mess.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith (Wealden) : I must declare that I am a non-executive director of London Weekend Television, and I do not have any shares in it.
I do not share the views of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). I do not know anyone who works at the sharp end of television who subscribes to the gloomy view that he has expressed. In such circles, among those who are looking forward to the change, there is no question of the Government's action being motivated by political malice and all that rubbish. That may go down well with the hon. Gentleman's constituents, but it does not count for one iota with those who are involved in television. On the contrary, they believe that the Government are right to recognise the technological changes that are taking place.
The technology associated with cable and direct broadcasting by satellite was bound to have an impact on the present structure. If the hon. Gentleman is content with the present structure, good luck to him. The British people think that it is pretty good, and they are right. I do not claim for one moment that everything in the Bill is perfect. I shall mention one or two problems briefly, as I know that a number of my hon. Friends want to participate. They have waited all afternoon to do so and they sat here with considerable patience listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister has also displayed such patience while sitting here all afternoon. He disappeared for a few moments while the hon. Gentleman was galloping through a few more paragraphs.
Those who are worried should accept one simple fact--change must take place. There is no way to avoid such change, and if we tried to do so we would be invaded by those who have direct broadcasting by satellite who are not answerable to this House or to any of our regulations. If that happened, British television would be at a severe competitive and qualitative disadvantage. We have to
Column 94change the structure. There is much in the Bill for regional television and there is a great deal to play for in the House and in Committee.
My hon. and learned Friend the Minister has already said that the Bill is not cast in tablets of stone. There are things that can and should be changed. Following the publication of the White Paper, I welcome the Bill, which is far-reaching and which offers an interesting framework upon which we can improve the quality of British television. I do not know exactly how it will all work out. I do not know anyone in British television who knows what the future will hold.
Those who predict doom and gloom remind me far too easily of those who were anxious when the initial Bill on commercial television was presented.
I always remember Lew Grade saying to me, "Why don't you go tell your friends in the BBC"--he associated me with the BBC because I worked there-- "to lay off light entertainment, because they don't know the job? We fellows in commercial television know how to do it." We all know what happened. The BBC has often outstripped ITV in quality and popular appeal with some of its programmes in light entertainment, which appeal to what some describe as the lowest common denominator of the British people. The commercial companies, through Independent Television and some of their serious programmes and documentaries, have often outstripped the BBC in audience appeal, as well as appealing to the elite.
We are in open country. Should we embrace it? Those I know in television--
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) rose --
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith : I really must get on.
Those I know in television, knowing that something has to happen, have looked to the future because they know that it will be more competitive. They have got rid of the restrictive practices that bedevilled British television--and high time too. They also know the wide range of choice which can be achieved if more buttons are available on the set.
The range of choice in British radio and television is not good ; it is extraordinarily bad. If I want to listen to a greater variety of music, I shall go to the States--San Francisco, New York, Chicago. If I want television serving a high-density audience--this country could serve a tremendous concentration of people--I would rely not on British television but on American television. In New York there is a far wider range of choice, which is not relegated to the ghetto at 11 pm, 12 pm or after 9.30 pm, but is shown at prime time.
Let us not have this false belief that British television leads the world and will continue to do so. It will not. The choice we have is so limited that people boast of programmes that Granada used to make 10 or 15 years ago. What has it made since? The time has come for a shake-up, and I am glad that the Government are taking this role. The balance between obtaining quality and paying for the programmes is difficult to achieve. Some people would like to continue with the present arrangement. What is it? There is always some lord on the board who comes forward with a nice menu with no price tag. He would use his lobbying techniques on those on the IBA who decide to award the contracts. Hon. Members from both sides know
Column 95that, more than once, the proposal could not be afforded and the sums had not been properly calculated. Often, such people were not even asked to produce real figures. In the end, they did not do what they said, and nothing happened.
If we are to give people this great opportunity to make money--they do make money out of this, and if they work for the BBC they also have an interesting living--we are entitled to ask them to put a price tag on their proposals. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister must stick to the price tag proposal. But he has not got the balance right. I shall not give my reasons for thinking that, because many others have given the arguments, and no doubt many other hon. Friends of mine will do so later. I hope that he will stick to insisting that some money should be put down on deposit and some idea should be given of how much their proposals will cost. Otherwise, all sorts of fancy people will come forward with brilliant, beautiful ideas, knowing jolly well that they will not be able to deliver them. The Economist has come forward with the interesting idea that companies should pay rent to the Government and show that they wish to spend so much money on certain programmes and have them costed. London Weekend Television and other companies have suggested that a requirement of the bidding process now advocated is that a quality hurdle should be linked to what they call a business credibility hurdle. By that they mean that the applicant would have to show signed options for the programmes in his schedules, including provisional contracts with facility companies--the independent companies.
All kinds of ideas are being kicked around ; if my hon. and learned Friend the Minister would take some of them on board he could lay the ghost of the quality argument versus those trying to make a quick buck.