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Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : I doubt if there is a more powerful medium available to man at the end of the 20th century than television. Its power to exercise control and to effect change in society is absolutely immense. Advertisers are prepared to pay vast sums of money for just 30-second slots of television time because they know that with that time they can help to shape, influence and ultimately control consumer demand in capitalist countries like this one.
Only yesterday I read an article in the quality press claiming that the revolutions in eastern Europe were, to a remarkable degree, television revolutions and that television images--whether of western affluence or of mass demonstrations in support of political change--were critical in loosening the grip on power of regimes which, until only a short time ago, seemed impregnable to any kind of reform or change.
We know from our own experience of powerful television documentaries such as John Pilger's on Cambodia, that they make such impact on people that it is possible not only to change attitudes within Government, but even to change Government policy in our own country. When we think about the Bill, it is absolutely essential to remember that we are dealing with a subject of awesome political, social and economic importance. That is particularly true of Scotland. Within
Column 96the context of the United Kingdom, Scotland has had to learn to co-exist with its much larger and more powerful and dominating neighbour, England. That has already affected the choice available to viewers and listeners in Scotland.
Some of these effects are more important than others. Of less importance is the fact that we are subjected to the blatant bias of English commentators who, when commentating on football games involving the English national team, assume that everyone watching wants England to win. That assumption cannot be made about television audiences in Scotland.
Of much greater importance is the consequence of metropolitan bias in the national news bulletins. In Scotland we are essentially offered what the metropolis believes to be of national or international importance. When the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act 1987 passed through the House, it did so without surfacing in any national news bulletins. However, when legislation implementing the poll tax in England and Wales passed through the House, there were almost nightly reports of the poll tax debates in this Chamber. That shows the sort of bias that we in Scotland have to suffer because of the metropolitan nature of so-called national television in our country.
In Scotland we have learnt over the years that the best way forward is to try to ensure that television in Scotland comes increasingly under the control of Scottish-based companies which produce programmes in Scotland and transmit them from Scotland for Scotland. The key question about the Bill is whether it makes more likely progress towards that desirable goal. However, I believe that it makes it less likely, not more. There are a number of reasons for that.
A number of safeguards exists within the present proposals. For example, clause 14 places a statutory obligation on the ITC to construct the new Channel 3 on a regional basis. That is fine. The Minister of State who has responsibility for broadcasting policy in the Scottish Office recently made a statement during the Scottish Grand Committee debate on broadcasting in which he made it clear that he welcomed the prospect that, under the new proposals, Scotland would continue to enjoy the benefits which the present regional structure of three ITV companies provides. That is good.
Yesterday, in The Observer, Mr. George Russell, the chairman-designate of the new ITC, confirmed that it was the commission's intention to retain the broad pattern of the ITV map. That is all welcome, but is it sufficient? Does it guarantee a continued existence for the Grampian area television service, the Border area television service or the Scottish area television service? It does not in any way guarantee it.
There is an extraordinary contradiction in the Bill. In clause 14(6), the Government have found it necessary to include a safeguard that prevents the ITC from determining that the whole of England shall be one regional area, but it has not found it necessary to include a similar safeguard for Scotland. Given the relative sizes of England and Scotland and the number of regional companies in Scotland, I should have thought it far more necessary to include a safeguard for Scotland than for England. Yet clause 14(6) makes it posssible for the whole of Scotland to be one region. The only conclusion to be drawn from that is that, somewhere down the line, the
Column 97Government do not rule out the merger of the existing three regional companies in Scotland into a single regional company--
Mr. Martlew : My hon. Friend talked about the Border Television region, which covers areas on both sides of the border. Will my hon. Friend consider the position of a television area dominated by Strathclyde and the fact that people on the Scottish border would object to that? I am glad that my hon. Friend supports the existence of a television station spanning the English and Scottish sides of the border.
Mr. McAllion : My hon. Friend makes a fair point. We are not raising this as a fanciful idea or as a spectre. Mr. George Russell, the new chairman of the ITC, has made it clear that the ITC is not committed to the existing map of the ITV areas--it is committed to it merely in broad terms. Mr. Russell has not ruled out the possibility of fine tuning around the fringes--we can only hope that he does not mean the Celtic fringes--of the ITV regional map.
Mr. Russell went on in yesterday's article to say that the Government have allowed for the ITV companies to bid for any--or, if they wish, for all--of the other areas. Today the Home Secretary gave an assurance that no licensee would be allowed to bid for two contiguous areas, but his predecessor made it clear in an answer last May that the restrictions on ownership of Channel 3 areas were only an initial limit. So the Government do not rule out in the long term the possibility that Scotland might be left in the same position as Wales and Northern Ireland--areas which will have single regional channels to provide their services.
There are important lessons to be drawn from commercial radio in Scotland. In the beginning, there were four independent commercial radio stations in each of the four major Scottish cities--Radio Clyde in Glasgow, Radio Forth in Edinburgh, Radio Tay in Dundee, and Radio North Sound in Aberdeen. I understand that Radio Clyde has now taken over North Sound and I know that Radio Forth has already taken over Radio Tay. I read only recently in the Financial Times that Radio Clyde is now set to take over Radio Forth, too. So, of an original four independent stations, two now dominate the Scottish scene and ultimately there may be just one. If that can happen to radio in Scotland, I see nothing to suggest that it could not happen to television.
Nothing in the Bill rules out the possibility of the concentration of ownership and control of commercial television in Scotland--and not necessarily in the hands of someone from Scotland. An outsider might come in ; nothing in the Bill prevents outsiders from bidding for franchises in the regions of this country. Nothing in the Bill will prevent one of those bidders from subsequently concentrating all the franchises in Scotland under one ownership and control. Nothing in the Bill will prevent the new licensees from dismantling existing production facilities in Scotland ; nor will anything in the Bill require them to establish equivalent production facilities of their own.
The Government may argue that these are the consequences of opening up the market in television and that ultimately the viewer will benefit from them, but few Opposition Members share their complacency. We believe that the consequences of the changes outlined in the Bill will be that money will be everything--enough money to
Column 98outbid rivals for a franchise, then enough money earned from the franchise to pay back the initial outlay for winning it. All this will mean choosing programmes with high viewing figures-- programmes that are capable of producing high revenues. That means going for the cheaper option of buying in programmes from the network and not investing in locally and regionally produced television of high quality. In the end, this will mean undermining the financial basis of smaller regional companies such as Grampian and Border. The Home Secretary said that the Bill will not mark the demise of public service broadcasting in this country, and that may or may not be true. However, it certainly marks the demise of independent, locally produced commercial television in areas such as Scotland. For that and many other reasons, I shall vote against the Bill tonight and hope to amend it later.
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : I hope that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) will forgive me if I do not follow his path, although it is clearly a matter of great concern to him and his constituents.
I speak as chairman of the all-party cable and satellite TV committee, which I joined four years ago because we have in my constituency the oldest, and one of the best, of the cable companies operating in this country. Swindon Cable was established in 1984, and it provides an excellent service for a growing number of my constituents. I want to speak mostly about part II of the Bill, which refers to cable broadcasting.
Before doing so, I should comment on quality and diversity, themes which have concerned a large number of hon. Members on both sides. One of the effects of the increased diversity of available television is dear to my heart--the fact that later this winter we shall be able to watch live, ball -by-ball coverage of the English cricket games against the West Indies on Sky Television. That may not appeal to all hon. Members but it commends itself to those of us who regard cricket as one of the finest flowerings of the English character--and, to a lesser extent, of the Welsh and Scottish characters. I hope that many in this House and elsewhere are pleased at this development. Let us be prepared to accept that we have already derived great benefit from what has happened.
Cable television is predicted to reach half the population by 1995, but clause 70 constitutes a snag in its steady progress. Clause 70 proposes a percentage levy on qualifying revenue of cable companies set up and licensed by the ITC. If this levy is pitched too high, it may discourage investment in the spread of cable ; indeed, it may put off future investors altogether. Do the Government want to encourage such investment? We have already heard about the inevitable growth in the provision of television in this country, but that growth could be stultified, and so I seek an assurance that that is not the Government's intention.
Will my hon. and learned Friend also consider the effects of his proposals on cross-ownership, and the prospect of foreign ownership of United Kingdom television companies? There is a real chance that the 20 per cent. maximum share ownership will mean that Yorkshire Television, for example, could become an Italian company, or that Grampian could become a West German company. I am not being xenophobic when I say that this
Column 99will not be in the interests of television watchers in parts of the country that are affected. Is my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State prepared to look again at his proposals, to ensure that such a situation will not arise?
Mr. Coombs : I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will address himself to that during this debate or in Committee. Can he also say whether he has ruled out retrospection in terms of the way in which he proposes to treat non-DBS companies? What role does he see as suitable for the Monopolies and Mergers Commisson in dealing with questions that arise in the course of the development of the legislative framework proposed by the Bill?
In the course of his excellent speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) mentioned religious broadcasting. He also mentioned my constituency, because one of the religious channels in this country is available for my constituents who are viewers of Swindon Cable. Schedule 2 needs to be rethought. There is a danger that, if we allow the Bill to go forward as drafted, religious broadcasting will be severely curtailed. I do not think that the House wishes that to happen ; nor do I think that it is the wish of many people in Britain. I urge my hon. and learned Friend to look carefully at what is proposed in the Bill.
Will my hon. and learned Friend tell the House when the transitional arrangements for cable companies will be announced and whether existing cable systems will continue to be required to carry the four existing terrestrial television channels? That matter is causing a great deal of concern to cable companies.
Will my hon. and learned Friend justify to the House the apparent disparity in the level of fines that can be imposed on television companies under the Bill? A maximum fine of £50,000 is proposed for the non-DBS companies, such as Sky Television, whereas Channels 3 and 5 and DBS companies would be required to pay in the first instance 3 per cent. of revenue and in the case of subsequent offences 5 per cent. That could amount to many millions of pounds, and there is a case in justice for it being looked at again. I am extremely happy to support the general framework of the Bill. There is no doubt that the changes in technology that have been developing over the past few decades make it inevitable that we should have a fresh look at the whole question of broadcasting. That makes this Bill inevitable, and I wish it well.
Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan) : The factor that has come through to me in this fascinating debate is the elitist nature of the forum. We are all political activists and that tends to make us a small minority in society. I was a bit disturbed to find proof of that elitism in the amount of exaggeration by hon. Members. They have exaggerated the role of television in human communications, especially at a higher intellectual level. No one has said that, as well as having virtues, television in terms of communication has important defects. For example, it is far too visual. The pictures presented, even in current affairs programmes of
Column 100so-called high quality, are far too often more important than the content. We have had good examples of that in the coverage of United States presidential elections, where television has been open to considerable manipulation by the participants.
We have had the problem of perhaps one of the most vacuous presidents of the United States coming across on television to the American electorate as pretty reasonable. Television is like other methods of communication in that it has virtues and defects. It seeks to serve us in terms of entertainment, information, education and stimulation of the intellectual process. When we talk about quality we are really talking about getting the right balance between television's propensity to entertain and our perceived need for it to inform, educate and stimulate intellectually.
I should like to make two points in the time available to me and I shall be brief to allow other hon. Members to take part in the debate. The points relate to part II and especially to the proposed Channel 3. I and my hon. Friends oppose in principle the concept of blind auction licences, even though the Bill modifies them by calling for some requirement of a quality test.
Perhaps one of the most effective attacks upon Rupert Murdoch's McTaggart lecture appeared, paradoxically, in The Times of 30 August in an article by Brian Appleyard. He gave the real answer to Rupert Murdoch when he said :
"The BBC and ITA were established on the basis that the market was morally and socially inadequate".
That is why we require tests for quality, and we cannot simply open up television or any other system of broadcasting to the marketplace.
Like other hon. Members, in recent weeks I have heard the rumours and read press speculation about the Government conceding on the question of quality tests. I had hoped that we were heading for a two-stage test and that applicants for a licence would submit programming propositions for a test of quality. Only after they passed that programming test would they proceed to the blind auction.
Leaving aside the argument about whether the money should go to the Treasury or into television for better programming, if there were a two- stage test, more hon. Members would be much happier. However, that is not the case. The cash bid and the so-called quality test are combined in clause 15 and the legislative language in clauses 16 and 17 gives additional weight to the cash bid factor over the quality factor. Clause 17(2) is the giveaway, because if says that, if two bids are equal in terms of cash, the licence is put back out for another cash bid. If quality really mattered, the bids would be tested on the quality of the programming. It is almost inconceivable that two organisations putting forward exactly the same cash bids would be absolutely equal in every respect in terms of programming. I have heard the Government say that the quality test will be the Becher's brook. Will it be the first-time round Becher's brook or the second-time round one? As everyone who has watched the Grand National knows, on the second-time round, there are big holes in the fence because horses have fallen through it the first time. It is possible to have a test, but one full of loopholes.
Column 101My second point concerns the Bill's failure to give statutory recognition to the regional make-up in Scotland. Here I am at one with the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion), although I am not at one with him about what happens to the England football team. I may be in a minority in Scotland, but I supported England in the World cup in 1966 and I was pleased when it won. I cannot guarantee that I will watch every ball rolled in the cricket in the West Indies because I find cricket boring, but I am a great admirer of the skills and structures of English football.
As I said, the Bill fails to give statutory recognition to regional make-up in Scotland, and fails to ensure that a regional structure exists, not simply through publishers' contract methods but through companies with a full regional facility base, anchored in their community. As the hon. Member for Dundee, East said, clause 14 recognises that England is not a region. The point that we are making about Scotland, and this goes well outwith the ranks of the Scottish National party, is that a nation has regions in its make-up and it is important that those regions are recognised, and manifested, in a broadcasting system.
The history of independent television in Scotland shows that there is a great deal of worth in having more than one company operating within the nation. We are seeking Government recognition of the regional variations and of the need to have that reflected in statute.
I urge on the Government the need to guarantee in the Bill regional and national access to the network because there are considerable jobs implications in that. Scottish Television is a good example of the benefits of greater access to the network. STV has increased the amount devoted to programmes for network from £3 million to £15 million in the past three years. This has allowed 300 well-paid, highly skilled jobs to be retained in Scotland that might otherwise have been lost. Access is extremely important.
Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the most positive aspects of S4C in Wales is not only that it supports the Welsh language as the minority language of half a million of our people, but that jobs in television provide an extended base from which we can take advantage of opportunities to develop the cultural industry?
Mr. Sillars : Yes, and we must understand that we are moving away from the old industrial revolution and metal-bashing and into a different era of human activity, in which the intellectual processes are extremely important, as is one's ability, within a region, nation or larger grouping, to add value to the intellectual processes and bring enormous economic benefits to the people so engaged. I hope that the Minister will take those points on board.
My hon. Friends and I will vote against the Bill because there is a fundamental difference in philosophy as to where the market should operate. We wish to put on far more restraints than the Government do.
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) : I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this most important Bill. Sadly, I have no financial interests to declare. I am not a consultant to anybody and I have never been an employee of any broadcasting company, but I was a member of the
Column 102BBC general advisory council, I gave evidence to the Peacock committee and I must have appeared on virtually every television or radio programme with any claim to serious content, and more than a few without. I support the Bill, and I should very much like to be a member of the Committee examining it.
The framework provided by the existing legislation is out of date, and reform is absolutely unavoidable. This reform seeks to widen choice, not restrict it. It will regulate with a light hand and not with endless bureaucracy, although in one or two places the heavy hand of excess bureaucracy is there.
I put it to Ministers that, as a Conservative, deregulating Government, we should start from the proposition that we should interfere as little as possible. I say that with some passion, having listened to speeches from the Opposition Benches, particularly from members and erstwhile members of the Labour party, say that Government should control the media. I think that we should always be wary of Governments who want to regulate the media, whether from the highest motives or not. It is always dangerous for politicians to start telling the press what they can or cannot do.
Let there be no mistake--the broadcast media are moving away from the narrow, tight, licensed arrangements of 30 or 40 years ago to something much closer to the print media in which there is a much wider variety and a bigger range of choice. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), when he was Home Secretary, likened it to a book shop in which there is a much wider range of choice. The simile probably goes too far, but there is no doubt that the kind of controls that were appropriate in the 1950s and 1960s are no longer appropriate.
It is my view, indeed, that we are bending over backwards a little too far to prevent monopoly ownership. The Bill requires all broadcasters to keep quiet about their own opinions. It provides that licence holders must not express their views on matters which are in current political or industrial dispute. I recognise that that provision has been placed in the Bill in the interest of balance, but why should licence holders not express their views? Is that not a recipe for greater blandness and not greater choice?
In the print medium, there is no such requirement. As a result, we have The Sun, which the Opposition hate, and the Daily Mirror, which Conservative Members hate. We have The Daily Telegraph, which turned me into a Tory many years ago, and The Guardian, which had exactly the same effect. Because we do not make such rules in the print medium, we have far greater diversity, and the result is a much livelier pattern of publishing. We are in danger of saying that we shall have many more television channels, but they will all produce the same bland material, the same opinionless stuff, and that is not real choice at all.
Then there is the argument about quality. I listened to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) with great care. He really talked a load of poppycock. We in this place should be careful about setting ourselves up as standard setters for the rest of the nation. We watch hardly any television at all, and when we do, the odds are that we are watching only ourselves. There are only three rooms in the House for watching--BBC 1, BBC2 and ITV. There are no facilities for watching Channel 4 and none for cable television, satellite television or regional stations- -radio or television. For most of the time we do not have the foggiest idea what our
Column 103constituents are watching anyhow. We should be extremely wary, therefore, as we sit on these green Benches, of setting ourselves up as people who watch a lot of television when we do not, and telling those people who watch a lot of television what they should be watching. It is a very dangerous business.
Quality is like sovereignty--it means a lot, but it means different things to different people. There are those--the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook is one--who talk of the need to maintain quality. I sometimes think that what such people mean is the right to maintain the quality of the programmes that they like, preferably with public money.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) talked about Radio 3, and I appreciate that he was honest in his approach. When the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook said that maximising quality and maximising revenue were mutually exclusive, he was talking rubbish. I put it to him--he did not really answer the question--that soap operas, murder mysteries and quiz shows which we all like to see, do attract huge audiences and huge export income and win many prizes. About 11 million people watched the Ruth Rendell mystery last night, and about the same number watch ITN on a Saturday night, as I know to my cost. We should be aware of that. There is no conflict between what is good and what is popular.
We should also reject the point that has been made about "major events". There is some question-begging about what constitutes a major event. Those of us who are interested in racing might regard the Cheltenham gold cup and the Arc de Triomphe as choicer events than the grand national. The question of whose choice is a major event, the circumstances of, and arguments about opening all events to the highest bidder demonstrates to me that the Opposition do not understand how anybody ever makes money or anything, particularly in the mass media. That is not done by restricting the audience and making it as small as possible. It is done by making the audience as big as possible, especially if the finance is coming from advertising. The logic of the Opposition's argument for the wider availability for major events is that such events should all be shown on all channels simultaneously. That is such a preposterous notion that it demonstrates the paucity of their argument.
The Opposition's view that there is a conflict between quality and finance also suggests that we should look only to public service broadcasting for quality. That is nonsense. The most commercial organisation operating in the broadcasting medium is the BBC. If we are looking for who pays huge salaries to personalities on television, we should not look to Sky Television : we should look to the Wogan show and one or two others we could think of. If we are looking at who is bidding up the price and the costs of sports programmes, we should look to the BBC. It does a cracking good job, but it is doing it with our money. We should be wary of simply assuming that that is necessarily the way to do it in future.
BBC Enterprises Limited is the world's largest exporter of television programmes, with a turnover of more than £150 million last year. Like others of my hon. Friends, I have sat in hotel rooms in San Francisco and turned on the public service broadcasting channel, paid for by subscription, and watched "To the Manor Born", "Yes,
Column 104Prime Minister" and the BBC wildlife programmes. They earn a mint overseas, and they were all made with our licence fee money in this country.
Mrs. Currie : On the contrary : the kind of programmes I am talking about are the product of mass marketing media. They are designed to attract millions of people-- [Interruption.] They, like the hon. Gentleman-- [Interruption.] I intend to pay the hon. Gentleman a compliment, if he will only shut up long enough to listen to me.
Mrs. Currie : Programmes like "Yes, Prime Minister" are designed in a commercial world by mass media for a mass audience of people with the taste and intelligence of the hon. Gentleman. There are millions like him. It does not need to be done with taxpayers' money. I have one suggestion to make. Much of the argument about the sale of franchises arises because the money is to go to the Treasury. I suggest that a proportion of that money, which goes to the Treasury from the highest bidder--and I think it should be from the highest bidder--should be allocated to what we currently call public service broadcasting. We already give money to schools broadcasting and Open university broadcasting--indeed, we have just allocated a chunk of money to Gaelic broadcasting--and it is all tremendously popular. If we did a little more of that, the Opposition would not be screaming at us for choosing the highest bidder--they would be urging us to choose the highest bidder and would then be arguing about where the money should go to. Then there could be some public service broadcasting on all the channels, the importance of the licence fee to the BBC would be reduced, and people would be more interested in and favourable to the system.
The proposed changes are in good Tory tradition. We introduced ITV in the 1950s, independent local radio in the 1970s and channel 4 in the 1980s. Armageddon was threatened each time, but it did not happen. I support the Bill.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : Broadcasting is the most influential medium of mass communication ; no more effective means of communication has been devised. Even before the Bill was published, members of the Home Affairs Select Committee and others recognised the great changes in the technology of broadcasting and its management.
It is a great pity that the Bill, which was the Government's great opportunity to introduce landmark legislation, does not put excellence and quality at the top of the agenda. There is no doubt that the auctioning of the franchises to the highest bidders will affect quality. At the heart of the Bill is not a commitment to excellence or quality, but a desire for money.
We do not need a crystal ball to see what the future holds for broadcasting ; we need only look at what has happened in America since deregulation. I and other members of the Select Committee were transported, on
Column 105taxpayers' money, to America to watch television. We saw the experience of programme makers. The 14 channels that I sampled on New York television all consisted of game shows and advertisements. We looked forward to returning to Britain to watch "The Sooty Show" and other programmes made here.
I oppose the suggestion that companies should be able to bid for more than one franchise at a time. I believe that that will be a recipe for chaos and will destroy the network of independent television companies at a time when there needs to be stability. I do not accept the proposals and the schedule concerning cross-ownership. It is sufficient for a legal person to own one franchise, but he should not be allowed to own any other franchises in the network or any newspapers.
I welcome the proposals for the establishment of Channel 5 but regret that it will be received by only 70 per cent. of the country. I do not accept the basis on which the channel is to be scheduled. It would be more appropriate to provide for mega-regions in the franchise or to allow the affiliation of local television stations on a citywide basis to a national channel. I disagree with the proposals that will allow the channel to be sold off to the highest bidder. If the Minister is looking for a home outside London for Channel 5, there is no better place than the quiet midlands city of Leicester, which lies modestly in the heart of England.
I regret that there has not been greater emphasis on regional broadcasting. The current franchise areas are too big. The east midlands--Leicester, Nottingham and Derby in particular--lose out to competition from the west midlands. Although I accept that people in Leicester and the east midlands identify with midland personalities and issues, when awarding the franchise it will be necessary to be more certain that the local nature of regional broadcasting is reviewed.
I accept that there was a need to create a separate radio authority. However, I do not believe that it is right for the franchises to go to the highest bidder. I commend the proposals of the Independent Broadcasting Authority in its recent granting of 23 commercial stations. I visited one of those commercial
stations--Sunrise Radio which covers the whole of west London,--and I consider that the targeting of the audience had been extremely important.
I welcome what the Minister said about access to television for deaf people. There are 4 million deaf viewers and I accept the need to increase subtitling and sign language. The Minister should make it clear what he means by "greater access" to broadcasting. A specific percentage should be mentioned above the 10 per cent.
I regret that nothing in the Bill will help those who will not be able to afford the benefits of the technological changes that have occurred. I am thinking particularly of the pensioners in my constituency. I had hoped that there would have been a clause in the Bill--I accept that it is not necessarily to do with the BBC--to exempt pensioners from the payment of television licences. With the arrival of cable, pensioners in Leicester will have to pay roughly £10 a month to obtain the benefit of cable television. In addition to the television licence, they will have to pay an additional £120 a year. For many pensioners, television and radio are their only forms of entertainment. If we are serious about extending the choice available to all sections of our community, we should ensure that pensioners have greater access.
Column 106No one denies the Government's desire to open up the airways to improve broadcasting. We support that, but we do not support the proposals before the House, which will put the interests of the Treasury, advertisers and the television companies above those of the listeners and the viewers who know exactly what they want from good television and radio. The Bill is guaranteed a stormy passage. With the threats of a rebellion by Conservative Members, there is a danger of it becoming a soap opera in its own right, with the Minister of State cast as Jason Donovan and the Prime Minister as the Finchley version of Mrs. Mangle.
The Government say, "Never mind the quality, feel the bank balance." I say that the values of a nation can be judged by the quality of its broadcasting. Let us give our people the best, and create the climate and conditions that will allow broadcasting talents in our country to flourish.
Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : I begin by declaring an interest as a director of a local independent radio station. I welcome the Bill because it will provide more choice in radio and television, and more choice will always be good news.
This country's commercial radio industry was slow to develop because of restrictions and unrealistic demands by an IBA backed by a Government system which did not encourage the development of commercial radio. I do not blame the IBA for the difficulties and restrictions under which it was compelled to work, in the form of the legislation that founded commercial radio. The IBA also achieved many good things, and it should be congratulated on the quality that it introduced into commercial television and radio.
Commercial radio had a difficult time establishing itself in this country because the services that the public wanted proved to be very different from the proposals contained in the original franchise applications. As a consequence, many applications promised a lot but had to be amended when the radio stations began broadcasting and needed to meet the needs of the market. Today, people enjoy listening to commercial radio, and the number of hours that it broadcasts has increased steadily. That change has come about through the passage of time and by people in the marketplace correcting the faults of the original concepts.
The new light touch Radio Authority will be good news for radio and should enable the expansion that the Bill foretells. Over the past few years, listening hours have climbed steadily, and that will continue as new stations go on the air. In the years from 1974 to 1979, under a Labour Government, commercial radio had a difficult time. It was not encouraged to expand, and the system established by a Conservative Government in 1973 was capable of being stifled. However, commercial radio has expanded considerably in recent years and now provides a much better service.
I turn to the problems that television may face as it expands under the Bill's proposals. The danger is that the number of violent and sexually explicit programmes could increase unless there is proper control. A proper Broadcasting Standards Council will be necessary to achieve that, and to ensure that the right sort of people end up in control of our television stations. It would be a major
Column 107mistake if the standards that we see in newspaper journalism today are mirrored by the television companies of the future.
More and more newspaper journalists are contemplating joining the new TV stations. Already, we have seen the fabrication of news programmes on existing TV stations. Will the Bill be able to handle that type of situation? Does the journalist who organised the Jeffrey Archer frame-up, for example, and who is currently a director of a television station, represent the type of journalism that the Government will allow on television in future? Should someone found to be a liar in open court or to have committed perjury be a director of a TV station broadcasting to children and others? Should someone who has twice been guilty of contempt of court or who has been involved in tax evasion through Netherlands Antilles and Cayman Islands companies be permitted to become involved in providing television services in this country?
Such problems can easily arise in the case of satellite television broadcasting, because in that instance the fiscal control and management of revenues is impossible to achieve. When people direct revenue through Netherlands Antilles and Cayman Islands companies, the Government, through the Home Office and the Treasury, must consider legislation to ensure that the Finance Bill covers that. I hope that the Government will realise that maintaining television standards also means maintaining the standards of the directors of television companies. High standards are required.
In America, Rupert Murdoch's station, Fox Television, had a consumer revolt. Violence in their programmes was so bad that people got together and boycotted the advertisers' products in the supermarkets. It was an extremely effective revolt because the advertisers contacted the television station and said, "We do not want our products boycotted. We will not advertise on your station unless you stop violent programmes." Ultimately, violent programmes were stopped.
Perhaps viewers in Britain who are not satisfield with the standards of new television broadcasters--for example, Sky--will have to envisage boycotts of the advertisers' products. It is effective. If we find that the Broadcasting Standards Council has become a toothless wonder like the Press Council, and that it is not effective, we must introduce powers for fines through the right legislation. Advertising revenue pays for programmes and supports the stations. Therefore, that revenue is the best thing to withdraw, as it will ensure that the providers of programmes stand up and say, "We must have better quality programmes". If they do not provide better quality programmes, legislation will ensure that their revenue is withdrawn. Withdrawal of advertising revenue is the only effective sanction on the provision of bad programmes.
We want high-quality television programmes produced by the right people-- people who do not fabricate news programmes. We do not want some of the present standards of newspaper journalism in television programmes. The best way to ensure that programme standards are maintained is to ensure that there are lavish penalties on providers of television programmes that do not reach the right quality and standards.
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Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : I thank the Home Secretary for what he was able to say at the beginning of the debate about the provision of extra subtitles for people whose hearing is impaired. That is a great tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who has led a campaign with support from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I was very pleased that the Minister was able to spell out that the Bill is a first year target, and that it is expected that it will be built on year by year. Naturally, we want the period of progress to be spelt out, properly to enfranchise those people whose hearing is impaired and to give them more access to television.
I also thank the Home Secretary for what he said about Gaelic broadcasting, which is not just of interest in Scotland. We want to ensure that the body will be generally representative of the Gaelic community, and that it will be properly independent when it makes decisions on commissioning and scheduling. I also welcome the extra-terrestrial and satellite channels that new technology has made possible, but, unlike the Government, the Opposition are not mesmerised by the prospect. We want to try to ensure that it will be used to widen real choice and diversity, to protect and promote quality and to stretch interest.
There has rightly been praise for much of our television system. Across and between four channels, it has achieved a programme mix, variety, range and quality which has two essential features. First, it enables us to talk to each other, to think aloud and to be heard, to be tempted and teased into new interests, whether about the environment and nature or about snooker and darts, and to be entertained and reminded of our distinctive culture and--yes--our Britishness. Secondly, it has, by and large, kept a balance between the broad and varied interests of viewers and the demands of advertisers. All this has been achieved on the basis of sensible regulation. It was not delivered by the naked market forces that the Bill would unleash and which have so damaged television elsewhere in Europe.
Regulation was recognition of television's special nature and powerful influence in the shaping of minds and opinions. We should also remember that the commercial network grew and developed beside standards set by the BBC. Most important of all, at peak viewing hours it was required to screen a mix of programmes in specified areas--news and current affairs to inform and educate, and drama, arts, children's religious programmes to entertain and reflect our cultural beliefs and values. True, too many voices and views remained unheard or not heard enough, especially among disadvantaged groups and our ethnic communities. True, the voices and cultures of our nations and regions are inadequately heard on the network. True, too, under the present Government there has been too much Government interference with the broadcasters.
Let us consider the following :
"Any community must have some settled purpose",
wrote Mr. Robin Harris, a new policy adviser to the Prime Minister in a remarkable post dated job application published in the Evening Standard on 11 December. It seems that his job is to cloak the iron lady in a velvet dress