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Column 109while she deals with the problems of society and community, the existence of which she earlier denied. With a whiff of perestroika, Mr. Harris added :
"I believe it possible in general terms to state the kind of life people should lead"--
wait for it--
"and which the state should encourage and help them to lead." Not social engineering--perish the thought--but wise words in regard to the Bill and what it will allow us to watch on our screens. He continued, perhaps with children's programmes in mind :
"should not the state publicly and systematically discriminate positively in favour of families?"
To underscore the point, he added :
"Education is above all the way in which one generation introduces the next into their common culture."
He then singled out religion as most important, and described it as
"the single most important continuing influence on society." Mr. Harris has clearly not read the Bill in which his employer, the Prime Minister, had such a large hand. It rejects the idea of any settled purpose and relieves commercial television of any obligation, in or out of peak hours, to carry programmes about current affairs which help to shape our society, or to carry children's programmes or religious programmes. It abandons any notion that commercial television has a role in offering a guide to the kind of life which Mr. Harris says that
"the state should encourage and help".
Far be it from me to cause any dissension between a No. 10 policy adviser and the Prime Minister, especially as the two senior Home Office Ministers here owe their present jobs to such a dispute, but instead of the approach advocated by Mr. Harris, the Government propose that commercial television should be advertiser-pushed rather than viewer-led. That is what the preposterous system of blind auctioning will mean.
As one experienced television producer told me,
"There is more to making a programme than simply filling screen hours."
Those who make programmes decide when to show them and those who watch them are entitled to ask, "What did that add to my quality of life? Did it make me laugh or cry? Did it tell me something that I did not know? Did it excite or stimulate me? Did it entertain or astonish me, or was it a mixture of all or some of those?" If a programme--any programme--cannot meet such a quality test, we might as well as watch a moving roll of wallpaper.
Let us be clear that the argument is not about snobbery or elitism. Research shows that, despite the groups into which advertisers divide us according to how much we have to spend, there is very little difference between what we watch on any evening. Readers of The Guardian or The Independent are just as likely to watch a games show or a soap as readers of the Daily Mirror or the Daily Mail are to watch a factual programme.
Under the Bill, it is certain that Christmas television 1989 will be better than Christmas television 1993, which will be poorer, less varied and more of the money-making same than now. As advertisers demand the largest audiences for their particular products, quality will be pushed down and real choice and variety in peak hours will be restricted. That is not guesswork--it is the inevitable consequence of the idea that what we watch on our television screens will be decided by a blind auction among those with access to the largest amount of cash and, as has been said several times in the debate, extra cash spent off screen will mean less cash on screen. Television is to be
Column 110sold in the same way as second-hand cars or unwanted household items. Buyers of such articles make a quick quality check before they bid, often with the same disappointing results as the Bill will ensure.
We know from France, Italy and West Germany what deregulation has meant-- not what it might mean, but what has actually happened since deregulation. It has lessened real choice for viewers and served up more of the same with fewer factual programmes and more soaps--usually foreign--and game shows. In France there is a move to restore some regulation due to the poorer quality television.
The Government say, "It will not happen here because we are different--we have the so-called quality threshold." But the quality assurances in the Bill are worthless. For example, the Government say nothing about what the IBA calls "streams" of programmes to be shown in peak hours. They are totaly silent on the matter of networking, on which the federal ITV system is built. Networking--how much and when it will be available to smaller stations--is essential, as it will give them a bite at higher audiences and often more costly programmes.
Mr. Corbett : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming my point. The Bill contains nothing about networking. No one can make a sensible bid for a franchise without knowing what networking there will be. The proportion of factual and entertainment-based programmes on the new Channel 3 and Channel 5 is critical to make a reality of choice in peak and non-peak viewing hours.
Now on the ITV stations, about one third of the screen time is devoted to factual programmes, inviting viewers to see and better understand what is going on around us. An impressive 84 of every 100 people rely on television as their main source of information about the developing world and the environment. In part, those programmes are made because the present rules say that they must be. Without those obligations, there will be fewer of them because they are expensive to make and they will probably not get as much peak-time showing when they are pushed down or off the schedules.
An important point is illustrated by the fact that Third-world and environmental programmes shown at peak hours on ITV and BBC have an average audience of 4 million to 5 million. When they are shown off peak, they have an audience of between 1 million and 1.5 million. When they are shown at peak time on Channel 4, the audience is about 1 million to 1.5 million-- about the same as the off-peak audience for BBC1 and ITV. The new Independent Television Commission needs powers to influence programme range and diversity during peak-hour viewing if the Government are to fulfil their stated ambition to protect choice and variety. Otherwise, as we have seen in Europe, advertisers will try to grab those slots and design programmes to attract more viewers or the viewers whom they think they need to buy their products.
Audiences are more loyal to commercial radio than to television. It is essential that commercial radio is able to continue and to expand social action broadcasting and citizen broadcasting, which offer help to those who need it
Column 111and encourage others to give it, and to promote speech-based programmes. Radio has an important educational role to play which is of value to people from childhood to old age.
In Committee, we shall try to give the Independent Television Commission those and other extra powers, and to enable the new Channel 5 to be set up in the north and to be based on a regional mix of networking and home-made regional programmes.
So much of the future of what will be on our screens is left open in the Bill, which is perhaps why the Minister of State has said that he will listen and respond. He can do so tonight by joining us in giving the Committee that will consider the Bill the power to hear evidence before decisions are taken which will last into the next century.
Instead of building and developing our broadcasting best--especially in the face of new competition from satellite, which will take years to become of more than marginal viewing and will not be available to all--the Government want to demolish the foundations of much of the broadcasting system. They put cash ahead of quality and they invite the promotion of the trivial as they treat viewers and listeners as no more than parcels of people to be sold to advertisers. That insults the range of their tastes and their intelligence. Under the Bill, viewers and television stations are for sale to the highest bidder--choice, diversity and variety can go hang. The viewers and listeners should be in the driving seat, but the Government want the advertisers to reign. That is why we shall oppose the Bill. 9.43 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor) : Notwithstanding the valiant efforts of many hon. Members, I am disappointed that a number of hon. Members had to sit through the debate without being able to participate in it. Despite the efforts of Front-Bench spokesmen to shorten wind-up speeches, I am sorry that that happened because it is a deeply frustrating experience. I single out one hon. Member who I suspect may have been mildly critical of the Bill, but I am particularly sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) did not catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. Apart from a few minutes, I sat through the debate and regret that I will be unable to deal with all the points made. I shall try to deal with as many as I can.
It is appropriate to recollect the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw). He began by saying-- [Interruption.] Ah, here he comes, making an entrance like a real trouper. He said that it was a matter for congratulation that the Government have introduced such a comprehensive Bill.
Before I deal with the detail--a lot of which, I acknowledge, is very important and which will give the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) and his team and myself a great deal to talk about in Committee--it is right that we should recognise that this is a truly comprehensive Bill. It represents a great leap forward for British broadcasting. It contains many issues on which we all agree. No one has thought to challenge the desirability of a major expansion of radio, with three new
Column 112national independent radio channels and a host of local radio channels to cater for the wide range of tastes that we know exists out there.
Already, the IBA has been able to grant 23 additional radio licences under its existing powers, for which it received over 500 expressions of interest. The announcement made just a day or two ago that another licence in London had been awarded showed the range of groups applying. For instance, no fewer than eight groups wanted to run a classical radio station in London. In fact, the winner was an "easy listening" franchise, whatever that may mean. The fact that the IBA had to discriminate between one lot of music and another is a sign of how invidious is the task of picking between one group and another.
These matters of quality do not speak for themselves. I have have heard some hon. Members refer to "quality" as though it were a "speak your weight" machine that would automatically register a precise quality rating so that one could make relative quality judgments between different bids. Beyond a certain point, it is difficult. I should not have chosen to have to make a distinction between any of those classical musical applications or to put all of them on one side and choose "easy listening" instead.
The other point on which we all agree is that the framework of public service broadcasting should remain around the BBC, as it does, and that the Bill should take the opportunity to make Channel 4 even more secure in its remit. To those who make unduly pessimistic assertions about the future of television, even if--it is a very big "if"--one accepts the pessimism about Channel 3, which of course I do not, it must be relevant to our consideration of the future of British broadcasting that three of the four main terrestrial channels remain exactly as they always did
Mr. Grocott rose
Mr. Mellor : I am afraid that I do not have time to give way. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been allowed only 15 minutes to reply. That being so, I think that I should be allowed to answer the debate.
It is interesting that only one point can be challenged about the way in which we have dealt with Channel 4, and with respect to those who hold those views, their point seems a little wide of the mark. At the moment Channel 4 is entirely the creature of the IBA. The authority broadcasts its programmes, approves its schedules and decides its income. Under the new arrangements, for the first time Channel 4 will broadcast its own programmes, decide its own schedules and, to the extent that its advertising sales are successful, fix the level of its income. With the greatest respect to those who hold contrary views, I believe that for the Government to have the right to approve nominations put forward by the ITC is not excessive, having regard to the prime desire and requirement of Channel 4 not to be privatised, but to remain as a public corporation, which it will. Another thing with which hon. Members agree is the enhancement that we have given to Gaelic broadcasting and to the maintenance of S4C, about which the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) spoke. I had a meeting with the managing director of S4C the other day and he is well satisfied with the remit that he has been given.
Column 113Interestingly, there has been no challenge to the fact that for the first time we shall regulate what appears on satellite television. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) suggested that the Bill was about deregulation. With the greatest respect, we could not have produced a Bill with 167 clauses and 12 schedules if it had been about deregulation. It may be about modifying the manner in which we regulate but, for example, it extends regulation for the first time, to non-DBS low-powered satellite channels which at present are outside any direct United Kingdom regulatory control.
The regulation in the Bill goes beyond matters of taste and decency. Channels will be required not to editorialise on political or controversial matters, to preserve due impartiality in dealing with such matters, to present news accurately and impartially and to control advertisements. That is far from a move towards deregulation. We assume that we have the right to stop innovations. We do not. They will happen anyway and it is sensible to set them within a framework of regulation. That is what the Bill does.
I understand that there is a good deal of anxiety about our proposals for Channel 3. Having established that, there is a great deal in the Bill on which hon. Members of whatever party affiliation agree. That is why I regret that there will be a Division on the Bill tonight. I acknowledge that serious issues will need to be addressed in dealing with Channel 3 franchises.
I was sad that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)--who is pointing towards me but not listening--said complacently, "If it ain't broke, don't mend it." I should have thought that we were all agreed on one matter in this debate, wherever else we may part company. There is precious little about which to be complacent when we consider the performance of Channel 3. That is no fault of the IBA. We have set the statutory framework.
Mr. Austin Mitchell rose --
Many of the people who apply for franchises will have to consider seriously the performance of Channel 3. If it is to be a worthwhile business to be in, they will have to improve the performance. In 1984, ITV 1--Channel 3, as it will now be called--had on average 48.7 per cent. of the audience. That has fallen in the space of five years to 41.7 per cent. in the first three-quarters of this year. Channel 3 is supposed to be a mass audience channel.
The figures become even more striking when we consider the percentage of families who own a television who watch a channel at peak times. In 1984, on average 15 per cent. of families with a television watched BBC 1 at peak times. That remains the case in 1989. For ITV Channel 3 the figure was 21 per cent. in 1984 and 16 per cent. in 1989. If we are worried about quality, the first thing that we should ask ourselves is whether--I believe that there is a strong case for it--the quality of Channel 3 should be improved. Viewers are voting with their feet in increasing numbers. Or do we believe that Channel 3 is a monument of our culture--touch not a hair of its head? I hope that we shall be able to explore the reasons behind that thinking.
Mr. Mellor : No. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is persisting when I have given up 15 minutes of the time for my reply. The hon. Gentleman spoke for almost as long as I have to reply. I am trying to reply to the debate.
In the Bill we have sought sincerely to set out the basis upon which we can more sensibly allocate Channel 3 franchises. We have sought to find the basis on which a quality threshold can be erected which George Russell, chairman of the IBA, described as a Becher's brook. Only those who are able not only to satisfy the ITC as to the credibility of their programming, but, as my hon. Friend for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) said, able as never before to produce business plans and show the financial wherewithal to undertake such programming, will be able to participate in the tendering procedure that will allow a bid to determine the issue.
It is not envisaged that the quality threshold will be anything other than a high fence to jump. It is not envisaged that those who jump it will display the wide range of quality bids suggested. The purpose of that threshold is that it should pose a genuine obstacle and a lot of people should not be able to get over it.
I understand and appreciate the anxieties that have been expressed by hon. Members and I appreciate that the question of quality goes to the heart of the Bill. The balance between quality and money is a matter of great significance. In clause 16 we believe that we have set forth a basis upon which the ITC can properly regulate the system. The fact that in "exceptional circumstances" the ITC will not be obliged to accept the highest bidder means that we have provided an important area of discretion.
I repeat that the wording of the Bill as it presently stands is not set in concrete. There will be plenty of opportunity in Committee to consider the wording as it relates to the quality threshold and to consider whether the discretion given to the ITC is adequate. I take up the offer made by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook of sensible debates in Committee on this issue.
Mr. Mellor : It is interesting that George Russell has also refused to deal with that-- [Interruption.] The reason is simple ; he does not want to bind his hands in advance of seeing the bids as they come in. The right hon. Gentleman asked me the question and, having answered for George Russell, I shall answer for me. If it were possible to define what we meant by "exceptional circumstances" we would not need an exceptional circumstance provision-- [Laughter.] One would have a list, but a list is restrictive and does not give one scope for the exercise of discretion. One would be tied down unnecessarily. Opposition Members laughed more loudly than I suspect many of the Channel 3 comedy shows would have allowed them to do. If they can come up with a sensible alternative I put them on notice to do so. It is not as easy as all that.
In the end we assume that it is up to us to save our British broadcasting, but in reality it is up to us to allow British broadcasting to develop. It is up to us to put the minimum number of problems in the way of viewers and listeners getting the choice that they want. In our enthusiasm to do good we should be careful of patronising
Column 115the public. I believe that the public are infinitely more sophisticated than we give them credit for. When given the opportunity the public will not settle for the lowest level of pap. I do not believe that most of us, if we are sensible, say when we meet our constituents in the high street, "Because you are only capable of settling for the lowest level of pap we have to spend hours in this place saving you from yourselves."
Some people have complacently said that all we need do is retain the status quo. The IBA carried out a survey, however, and asked the public about their viewing preferences--49 per cent. said that there was nothing on the television that they wanted to watch at the time they wanted to watch it.
The Bill stands in the great tradition of developments in broadcasting, all of which took place under a Conservative Government. I commend it to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time : The House divided : Ayes 310, Noes 238.
Division No. 23] [at 10.00 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Amery, Rt Hon Julian
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Buck, Sir Antony
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Emery, Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Fishburn, John Dudley
Fookes, Dame Janet
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Fox, Sir Marcus
Glyn, Dr Alan
Goodhart, Sir Philip
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles