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Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland): Let me repeat the apology that I made to the Under-Secretary for State earlier for my inability to be present for his reply to the debate. I am grateful to him for his understanding of the reasons.
In the BBC we have a national institution of the greatest cultural and economic significance, to which every speech that we have heard so far has paid due tribute. The debate has featured a consensus that is remarkable in view of broadcasting debates that took place as recently as four years ago. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I touch on matters that were controversial then but appear rather less so today; I suspect that not only the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) but one or two less vociferous hon. Members still have those arguments at the back of their minds.
For some three quarters of a century, broadcasting on radio and subsequently on television, the BBC has entertained, provoked, educated and inspired the nation. It has been rarely silent, occasionally isolated, but never insignificant. Even in wartime--when the BBC was both weapon, through its broadcasts overseas, and defence, through the uniting power of the home service--it never wavered from its aim of providing, in Lord Reith's words,
"the best of everything, to everyone".
A mass observation diary kept in 1941, in the depths of the war, records:
"Favourite topic on Mondays seems to be the previous day's Brains Trust session. Hardly anyone ever confesses that he didn't hear it, or if they do, take care to give adequate reasons for so doing." More recently, letters to the Home Secretary calling for an amnesty for a character in "The Archers" showed how deeply entwined in the national consciousness the BBC and its service still are.
Column 504Our general-felt fondness for "Aunty" should not alone guide Government policy towards the BBC in the 1990s and beyond, for "Aunty" is also a business with an annual income approaching £2 billion a year, over 90 per cent. of which comes from the licence fee imposed on every television owner in the United Kingdom. It employs some 20,000 people full time, and draws on the services of thousands more in producing and distributing more than 17,000 hours of programming on radio and television each year. It broadcasts daily to more than 100 countries worldwide, and gathers news and information by the hour from many more. Its 1994 accounts reveal its assets to be worth some £1.5 billion.
The House has many times presided over the fates of corporations with comparable balance sheets and great social significance. In the past decade and a half, it has approved every proposal that the Government have introduced for the sale of our major public utilities. Today, however, the Government are not proposing the sale of the BBC, or even some half-measure towards privatisation. We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), whose White Paper this is, that that is so.
Against the trend, we are debating a White Paper that proposes to preserve the BBC as a public institution, funded by the licence fee, constituted under a royal charter, and with its assets held in trust for the nation. Such an approach is all the more remarkable when, for most of the 1980s, Conservative Ministers were regularly to be heard fulminating about the left-wing bias, depravity and unpatriotic tone of the BBC. In her memoirs, the former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, commented that those broadcasters disguised their own interests as "high minded commitment to some greater good".
During that decade, it was not beyond imagination that the BBC would be broken up, its constituent parts privatised and the licence fee abandoned. The White Paper is all the more welcome for that reason. Almost the first phrase in the White Paper is "public service"; it is not "efficiency", or even "commercial freedom". In the general thrust of its proposals, the White Paper seeks to preserve the strengths of the BBC. As the director- general, John Birt, has said, that can be achieved not by placing the institution in aspic but by enabling the corporation to adapt to the new and fast-developing demands and expectations of a changing world. The Government have recognised--late, but not too late--that the public service broadcaster need be, not the enemy of competition in television and radio, but a friend and rival. For 40 years, that has been the nature of competition in British broadcasting. For more than half its lifetime, the BBC has had to compete with commercial television. Although heavily regulated, the independent companies have been able not only to compete in quality and choice but to make substantial profits from advertising. Throughout the last decade, however, competition has increased dramatically. It is natural to question the necessity for a public broadcaster in that new expanding marketplace.
In 1983, there were but three channels, but today there are more than 50. The growth has been largely in local and regional cable services, and in the proliferation of satellite broadcasting under the effective monopoly of Rupert Murdoch. The Select Committee on National Heritage nearly fell over itself with enthusiasm for that
Column 505technological change. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) gave a flavour of that in his remarks earlier in the debate. The Committee declared:
"The Media Revolution is Nigh!"
as its first statement in the report on the BBC's future. From almost nothing a decade ago, cable television lines now pass 2.7 million homes. Fourteen per cent. of households not passed by cable have satellite dishes. Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, once said that the effect of the BBC on the commercial channels was that it kept them all honest, but if the BBC does its job properly, it can do more than that: it can keep them all on their toes, and it can challenge other broadcasters to compete in the quality, range and inventiveness of their programmes. It does that already.
Research conducted by the Independent Television Commission last year revealed that, in homes that have chosen to invest in cable and satellite services, 70 per cent. of viewing time is still spent with the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. That is the context in which the remarks of the right hon. Member for Gorton should be borne in mind. We have not yet arrived at that revolutionary state to which he drew our attention. Overall, the two BBC television channels account for 1.7 hours of daily television viewing--44 per cent. of the total. Therefore, the role of the BBC in the new marketplace is more, not less, important in raising standards and in forcing other broadcasters to compete in quality and choice. It is our wish to ensure that the BBC will still be able to keep them on their toes in 2005, when as many as 200 broadcasters may be jostling for viewers' attention.
No one, except the BBC, can guarantee the success of the BBC; nor can we know the ultimate shape and scale of the media revolution that is in its early stages. To second-guess those changes and to restructure the BBC according to one favoured projection or another of markets a decade, or more, into the future all but guarantees disaster. Our only prudent course is to provide the BBC and British broadcasting in general with a solid platform on which to evolve in the multi-media age. That is achievable under certain provisions, not all of which the White Paper appears to be prepared to secure. The first of those provisions is the continuation in public ownership and the retention of the licence fee as the major portion of BBC income. That is assured by the White Paper. The licence fee is a crude form of taxation. It is regressive, expensive to collect and administer, difficult and disproportionately expensive to enforce, and it distances the BBC from the demands of audiences. Because it is set by the Government, it provides Ministers with a means of putting pressure on the BBC by threatening its future income. Furthermore, some people have argued that, as the BBC accounts for an ever smaller proportion of viewing time, the licence fee will increasingly be seen as an onerous requirement on viewers, who may not desire to watch or listen to any of the services for which they pay.
Ian Hargreaves, in his DEMOS pamphlet "Sharper Vision", considers such arguments almost sufficient to justify privatisation of the corporation. He believes that continued state ownership will prevent the BBC from adapting to and exploiting new markets. I do not believe that. The licence fee has certain advantages for the BBC
Column 506and for broadcasting in general, which could not be sustained under any other funding regime. It expands choice overall by providing a source of income for production which does not come directly from the pockets of other broadcasters or media.
The licence fee is predictable, allowing for investment by the BBC in new programmes and in expensive genres such as drama, against which others must compete in kind. It is secure, providing the safety needed for risk taking, which others have to match.
Of all the problems associated with the licence fee, most are due to its structure rather than to its principle. One, however, consumer sovereignty, is likely to be of increasing importance, and it arises from the mandatory nature of the licence. The 1986 report of the Peacock committee into the funding of the BBC notes that viewers have sovereignty over cable and satellite channels, for they can vote for those services with their wallets; that they have indirect influence over the content of ITV and Channel 4 schedules, for unpopular programmes cannot attract premium advertising revenues; but that the BBC could, if it so wished, ignore that, at least in the short term, and its revenue would remain the same.
The most commonly proposed solution is to introduce an element of advertising into the BBC. Experience abroad has shown, however, that even the injection of a small amount of commercial revenue into the mainstream activities of a public service broadcaster can have a disproportionate effect on the range and quality of programmes. The only bankable equation for a commercial broadcaster is the ratio of viewers to pounds spent on programming. The more viewers who can be attracted for each pound spent on programming, the greater the broadcaster's profits are likely to be. If an hour of "LA Law" costs only £30,000, but an hour of home-produced drama costs up to £400,000 and attracts half the audience, "LA Law" will win every time. The programmes that will come naturally to dominate schedules will be popular, but predictable, repeated and imported.
The French learnt that lesson to their cost in the 1980s. Within two years of introducing advertising to their public service channels, not only had the range of programming on those stations suffered but the balance had tipped towards a greater concentration on populist programming, such as music, games, and sport, more repeats and more imports. I therefore support the consensus approaching unanimity in our debate this afternoon--although perhaps not in the country as a whole--that we should put the issue of the licence fee well and truly on ice. Alternative mechanisms need to be found to inject sufficient consumer power into BBC programming.
The most appropriate candidates for accountability who are available are the board of governors and the national councils. The board of governors has the duty of ensuring that the public interest is protected in the BBC, that the money from the licence fee is efficiently spent and that BBC programming reflects the needs of audiences.
Those 12 men and women are, like police officers, appointed by the Crown. In theory, their duty is not to the Government of the day but to the public. However, like quango members everywhere, they owe their selection for appointment directly to ministerial patronage. There is a fundamental conflict between those two elements. The
Column 507whiff of patronage cannot be entirely eradicated from a board that owes its appointment to favour. That is not good for the BBC or for the public.
I note the Select Committee's view that
"the Board is at present seriously unrepresentative of the various sectors of society".
The Select Committee recommended that it--the Select
Committee--should approve the appointments. The White Paper, which in so many areas has adopted the Select Committee's views and arguments, disposed of that recommendation by simply confirming that the Government intend to carry on as before.
From paragraph 6.15 of the White Paper, it appears that the Government believe that if members of one party appoint the governors, that will avoid accusations of partisanship in the selection. Perhaps some other hon. Member better schooled than I am in formal logic may be able to explain the reasoning behind that patent piece of nonsense. The only way to secure an independent, unbiased and representative board of governors is to adopt a selection procedure, which, in itself, is independent, unbiased and representative. I am disappointed that the Government rejected all alternatives to the present system without giving their grounds for doing so. I suggest that approval of proposed appointments by, say, two thirds of the House, could present a workable alternative. The proposals for appointments could still be drawn up by Ministers, but they would do that knowing that cross-party consensus would eventually be required. That mechanism would create an incentive for more open consideration and the extension of the pool of possible candidates to create a more representative board.
Mr. Maxton: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the appointment of the national governor from Scotland should be made from Scotland and not by the Department of National Heritage? Certainly, once we have a Scottish Parliament up and running, that Scottish Parliament would make such an appointment.
In the circumstances, the governors must be protected more than they are at the moment from the unacceptable pressures from the Government. The White Paper proposes that the governors' duties be laid out in the new charter, but there is no suggestion of what those duties may be. I suggest that they include a specific reference to securing the BBC's editorial independence from the Government. Independence is the cornerstone of press and broadcasting freedom. Even the slightest sign of meddling by Ministers, for their private or political interests, in editorial decisions can undermine public faith in the media. As a public service, the BBC must be above that suspicion.
No guarantee of independence exists at present, but it is a general principle of law that that which is not specifically forbidden is permissable. There have been too many incidents in the history of the BBC, and in broadcasting in general, where the lack of a specific prohibition of that nature has created sufficient uncertainty for the corporation or other broadcasters to submit to the political demands of Ministers.
When the BBC was founded, it was so constrained by the Government that if one had tuned into the Derby in 1926, one would have heard only the shuffle of hooves
Column 508on wet earth as the horses ran past the microphone. All commentary was banned by the Postmaster-General, as was the announcement of the result, on the ground that it would damage the newspapers--a rich source of revenue for the Post Office. Even the King's Speech at the state opening of Parliament in 1923 was considered unfit for the wireless because it contained controversial material--an area which the Postmaster-General felt should be left again to the press barons.
Perhaps more relevant to this debate, in more recent times there have been several actual and alleged instances of intervention which are hardly less subtle. The famous Zircon episode in Glasgow, which Scottish Members will remember, and "Slide into Slump", the "Panorama" programme on the economy which was pulled from its scheduled appearance just before the last general election, were arrested in the full glare of public scrutiny. Even an apparent intervention, if it gains currency, can be as damaging to all concerned as an intervention itself.
If the Government are truly committed, in the words of the White Paper, to the "chain of accountability", they will consider seriously the proposal of a specific duty on the governors to protect the BBC from political interference in editorial decisions. Conservative Members may trust their own Ministers not to interfere with the BBC, but I do not know whether they would trust a future Government of a different political view who may be formed during the lifetime of the next charter.
I wonder whether Conservative Members have considered the likely consequences of the White Paper proposal affecting the BBC's regional policy. I heard what the Secretary of State said about that earlier, but I am not entirely convinced that the required degree of commitment exists.
Most of us represent constituencies that are outside London. Our constituents, who form the majority of the population and therefore provide the BBC with its keep, have every right to hear and see something of their own lives and regional interests reported and reflected on television and radio locally and nationally. The White Paper nods that way. It states that the national councils could "make an input" into the BBC's strategic decisions and policies. For BBC controllers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the White Paper recommends
"a budget for the programmes produced specifically for audiences in each country."
That is not enough. The BBC's motto is
"Let nation speak unto nation".
Something else must have been thought of when that motto was dreamt up. Ours is a country of several nations. In that context, the motto should not mean, as the White Paper portends, a little more of Scotland speaking to Scotland, and of Wales conversing with itself. It should mean, "Let Scotland speak to Wales and Wales to Scotland, and both to England." Today the conversation is all one way. English voices, outlook and opinion drown out all others in almost every circumstance. Eighty-five per cent. of BBC output originates in London; 97 per cent. in England and the remaining 3 per cent. in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I do not believe that the public are impressed by that distribution. The BBC conducted a corporate image survey in 1991 and 1992 which investigated perceptions of that metropolitan bias. In
Column 509every region of the United Kingdom outside London, the east and south-east of England, between 35 per cent. and 70 per cent. of viewers thought that the BBC looked to London too much. In every one of those areas, less than half those people felt the same way about their local ITV company. The White Paper says only that the BBC should
"heed these criticisms and respond to them".
The BBC's response to date has been inadequate. The Hatch report, published in April 1994, promised a £75 million boost for BBC regional services. The money, however, will be spent largely on what are called "centres of excellence"--a Manchester bi-media production base, a music production centre in Cardiff and more schools programmes in Bristol. Merely moving money about in that way will not meet the demands of the public to see and hear less of London and more of the rest of Britain.
A genuine regional policy would ensure that a greater proportion of networked production originated outside London, especially in news and current affairs. That would require an effective decentralisation of decision making and management from London to the nations and regions of Britain. We need more of a regional BBC, not a BBC with a regional policy.
The national councils will not provide the impetus. The budgets of the national directors will, by implication, be determined by the centre and they will have only an advisory role--not an executive role--in national BBC policy making. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to reconsider his specific recommendations. He may wish to consider, for example, the proposal of the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign, to establish specific requirements for monitoring management progress in regional coverage.
A great many opportunities lie ahead for British broadcasters, especially for the BBC. Globalisation and digital technology, new means of delivering large volumes of high-quality signals, interactive and on-demand services, the convergence of diverse media into common formats and increasing sophistication among viewers and listeners are combining to invert or make redundant almost every understanding and assumption about mass media that we have developed over 70 years.
Despite those opportunities, in 1991--the point may already have been made- -Britain ran a deficit of £100 million with the rest of world in broadcasting services and material. On current trends, that deficit is projected to rise to £640 million by the turn of the century. We are falling behind and we would be foolish to let ourselves miss the opportunity to shape and profit from developments. The BBC, our largest publisher and broadcaster, with a base of skills across every media form, is a natural vehicle for the fulfilment of ambitions.
As the BBC knows, its name is--perhaps--second only to Coca-Cola in being recognised in almost every country. I see no reason whatever to deny the BBC the benefit of fully exploiting overseas markets. I also welcome the possibility of the BBC's entering into secondary domestic markets, through, for example, subscription cable services which provide repeats of programmes.
The future expansion of terrestrial services will almost inevitably occur through the commercialisation of digital compression technology. The BBC has as much a role to
Column 510play in those services as it did in, for example, the change from 405 to 653-line television screens, which took many years to accomplish. However, it is unlikely that digital television will replace traditional analogue broadcasting for many years. A smooth and managed transition to digital, which balances the need of the market to expand with the interests of audiences in ensuring wider choice, continuity and programming, is essential.
Essential to the debate is the regulation, or otherwise, of the systems in which consumers must invest if they are to receive digital services. That involves set-top converters--proprietary technology for converting digital signals into images and sounds. If one company were to control access of broadcasters to consumers through control of conversion technology, there would be a considerable danger that, without regulation, a monopoly would develop in digital services, similar to that in satellite services at present.
The BBC argues--I am inclined to agree--that further progress towards digital transmission should not take place without firm guarantees that no such monopoly will be allowed to develop, which may include the BBC controlling its own transmission network, for which privatisation is an option.
Ambitions for a global, digital BBC will be for nothing if it cannot also succeed at home. Strength in Britain is the only basis on which the BBC will be able to build. The White Paper goes some way towards ensuring that. It suggests by no means the best of all possible worlds, but it certainly does not suggest the worst. 6.57 pm
Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy): I declare what I would call an old interest, as I was once employed by the BBC in the early 1950s as an all- purpose Welsh and English news man. Since then, I have always been indebted to the BBC for that very educative and valuable experience. Although I did most of my work in Wales, I had the privilege of contributing to national news programmes, such as "Eyewitness" on the home service and "Radio Newsreel" on the light programme.
I deserted the BBC to establish independent television in Wales in 1957, but I have always kept a close, professional eye on the corporation. I have sometimes been highly critical of the BBC when it has, in my view, overplayed its independence of government and of the state, especially in news and current affairs programmes. Occasionally, the BBC has tended to act rather like the Church in the middle ages and become, as the Church was then known, imperium in imperio.
Nevertheless, I am among the first to appreciate the excellence of the BBC, which is why I want to begin by commending the critique of current affairs broadcasting set out by the director-general John Birt in his Dublin speech and reported in The Times on Saturday. It highlighted the concerns of many of us about the relationship between the media and politics; the tendency of the media to disputation and to pressurise excessively; and the media's attempt to dictate policies by seeking instant reactions, leaving no time for reflection and measured judgment. That report in The Times should be compulsory reading for every interviewer and every politician. The thinking behind it is very sound.
At one time, I would have used this debate to consider the arguments for and against privatisation of the BBC or parts of it. Although such a discussion is not appropriate
Column 511on any scale in this debate, I am not convinced that we should rule out that possibility at some future date. We may have to consider the possibility again in the next decade, such is the pace of change in the media and such is the pressure for resources under which the BBC will come.
I agree with the scenario painted by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who, as Chairman of the Select Committee on National Heritage, certainly knows precisely what multi-media entails. The new multi -media world has changed one's perspective of the BBC and its future is not quite as assured as it used to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir. J. Gorst)--alas, he is not in the Chamber--put his finger on the issue when he asked whether the BBC was capable of carrying out a dual role.
There was a time, too, when I would have argued strongly for the break-up of the BBC, primarily on the ground that it was so large in organisational terms and so extensive in its programming that the contents of the programmes were virtually beyond control. There is still some truth in that. There are fresh arguments, which we have heard, for more regional control. One way to such regional control is virtually to break up the BBC. At the same time, the role of the governors has changed for the better, as the White Paper notes, and it is to be more clearly defined in future, on the lines that "The Governors' role is to look after the public's interest in the BBC, not to manage it."
That happened frequently in the past.
The proposed merger between the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council and the new council's brief "to carry out research into both the content and scheduling of programmes"
should also help in monitoring and control. At the end of the day, the BBC and its public are very dependent on the individual producers' sense of responsibility and their accountability to professional superiors. Therefore, the ethos of the BBC is important and it will become increasingly so as competition for viewers and listeners becomes ever more acute, with the advent of more choice--seemingly infinite choice--in our multi-media world. The conclusion of an early chapter in the White Paper on the future role of the BBC strikes the right balance. It states that the primary focus of the BBC's activities must be programming for United Kingdom audiences, but that
"it should develop its role as an international broadcaster, building on its present service for audiences overseas."
All hon. Members are aware of the high standing of the BBC abroad, and it is right that its achievements should be built upon--that is in British national interest. The problem, of course, with the dual role of "Serving the nation" and "Competing world-wide", as the White Paper has it, is, I suspect, that the international role will require much more resources. With finite resources from the licence fee, are we to see more resources devoted to programmes primarily for consumption abroad, and possibly at the expense of programmes which, by their very nature, are suitable only for the home market? That fear appears to be fairly widespread, as indeed is the fear that the regions will be the first casualties in the battle for resources.
Column 512The BBC is a highly centralised concern-- some people think that it is too centralised--in spite of its regional and local services. It tends to be dominated by the metropolis, as we have heard, as indeed are the national newspapers, and it has to be reminded constantly that it is not the London broadcasting corporation but the British Broadcasting Corporation. It has excellent facilities in the regions, and it should make full use of them. After all, the regions are the training ground for much of its talent, both technical and cultural, and they are capable of producing programmes of high quality and originality, too.
The BBC has much to gain from the strong regional presence if it is properly used. I am talking about not only Wales and Scotland but the English regions. If only the BBC could overcome its centripetal tendency, and the belief that little of quality or interest can come from beyond the perimeter of the M25. Of course, some programmes from the cultural peripheries of the metropolis are quite interesting, but much of that programming is filler material. One wonders why the regions do not fill in obvious gaps and give the all-Britain dimension to BBC programming that I find missing from time to time. The hon. Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) gave us some figures. I am told that only 3 per cent. of network programmes are made in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which have 17 per cent. of the audience. The BBC, in the Hatch report, recognised the need for change, but, as I understand from the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign and the Broadcasting Campaign for Wales, it has not fulfilled the promises that have been made.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Wales specifically. I welcome the White Paper's section on the role of the national governors and national councils and the statement that they "should make an input into setting the annual objectives for the BBC management as a whole".
Mr. Jessel: That matter is important, and it was raised earlier. Will my right hon. Friend enlarge a little on what he said? Does he say that guidance was given to the BBC that it should have a much larger proportion from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than the 3 per cent. that was mentioned?
"The White Paper does accept the force of the argument for a less centralist BBC and reaffirms the importance of fairer representation of the nations and regions of the UK across all its services. In response to these criticisms, the BBC pledged to implement a new funding commitment to the regions"--
that is the £75 million that we have heard about--
"however, this plan is clearly limited as it still confirms central control of programming and resources and could lead to undermining the regional programming service itself."
I have a similar statement from the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign.
Column 513I was talking about the appointment of national governors and the role that is to be given to them. There is no doubt that that role will enable them to assess whether the BBC is ensuring that a reasonable proportion of the United Kingdom output is made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some people, including those in the Broadcasting Campaign for Wales, would like the governors' responsibility for regional policy to be stated in the charter. I see no great difficulty with that, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage will deal with the point. Such people then go on to talk about what is basically a quota system of production and resources.
I have enough experience of broadcasting to know that there are dangers in being too specific about programme hours. I do not wish to see quality sacrificed for quantity or anything else. Nevertheless, I hope that everything that can reasonably be done will be done to reassure the regions that they can play their full role. They are very concerned, as anyone who has read the representations of the campaigns for broadcasting in Wales and Scotland will know. There is deep distrust of the BBC's centralising tendency.
The BBC has made a substantial contribution to the success of the Welsh language fourth channel, S4C, in Wales, and long may it continue to do so. A specific commitment to that effect would be most welcome, although I believe that one is already incorporated in the legislation, so it is probably too much to expect it to be doubled up in the charter. But the idea could be considered.
The quality of the BBC's Welsh language output serves to highlight the need for more English programmes produced in Wales--although not, I hasten to add, at the expense of Welsh language programmes. No light entertainment in English, for instance, is made in Wales, and there are no soap operas or children's programmes for non-Welsh speakers. But there is a new policy in the making as a result of the White Paper, and it is to be hoped that that will remedy some of the defects in the regions.
Mr. Wigley: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although there is a paucity or even a total lack of some programmes in the English language in Wales, other programmes are doubled up--sometimes sport, for example, local coverage or even politics? We need a more coherent approach, as has been achieved in the Welsh language through S4C. Can he foresee an organisation growing in the future that would enable programmes from Wales to be brought together to ensure a proper balance, at least, so that the English speakers in Wales could have the sort of balanced service that the Welsh speakers have now?
Sir Wyn Roberts: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We want a more balanced English output in Wales, corresponding to the scheduling style of S4C, the Welsh programme channel. If the new policy of increasing production in the regions envisaged in the White Paper is vigorously and successfully pursued, the deficiencies may be removed. I believe that if more were produced in the
Column 514regions, that would pay the BBC handsomely, because it would secure audience loyalty in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
Mr. Flynn: A remarkable unanimity seems to be emerging on that issue among all the parties in Wales. We all agree with every word that the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) is saying. We are all keen to ensure that the English language communities, with their distinctive characteristics, are represented as well as the Welsh language communities. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the unique problem in Wales--that of the language communities--could be best tackled if the sums for each language were not the subject of dispute but were separately ring-fenced?
Sir Wyn Roberts: I am always wary of ring-fencing. Clearly, a view has been taken that the commercial joint venture--the international dimension--should be ring-fenced and the public service element should be open to negotiation. There are dangers in ring-fencing within the public service broadcasting system that the BBC currently runs. I do not want to pursue the point, but it is clear that in Wales, for example, we should like to produce not only for our own consumption, but for the network.
There is a deeply felt need for good quality home-produced British programmes. As more channels become available, those programmes will stand out as different from the mass of international offerings, which I find boringly similar in style and content. Nevertheless I admit that those probably achieve the largest audiences now. But although the BBC's audiences may relish the foreign product today, I believe that in time the novelty will wear off and future audiences will want the home-grown product. Perhaps that belief is a matter of faith on my part; it is certainly the result of my great faith in the people who work in the broadcasting industry.
The Select Committee has produced a comprehensive report backed by a mass of useful evidence, and the White Paper is a well-considered document that provides a sound basis for the BBC's future. In my experience the BBC is a sensible organisation, and my plea is that it should be really sensitive to the critical voices, especially those in the regions, and should enlist the co-operation of the regions to fulfil its primary role--that of producing programmes for United Kingdom audiences.
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): I listened with great care, and much agreement, to the speech by the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts). I only wish that he, as a Welsh Tory, would use the same logic that he applies to the centralised BBC when he talks about the centralised British state, and would argue for the devolution of power from Westminster to the nations of Scotland and Wales and to the other regions of England. If he applied the same logic to that subject as he does to the BBC, he would be forced to that conclusion.
I shall return later to what the right hon. Gentleman said about privatisation and the role of the BBC in the international arena, because I believe that both he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) got it wrong about where the long-term future of the BBC lies.
Column 515Last September I had cable television installed in my house, and I shall start by asking a rather odd technical question. When I am at home I spend most of my viewing time watching BBC1 and BBC2, and my wife does the same when I am not at home, but we now receive those channels down the cable, not through the aerial. When my right hon. Friend cites figures about the penetration of cable, I wonder whether when I am watching BBC1 and BBC2 via the cable I am listed as a cable watcher or a BBC watcher. If I am not listed as a BBC watcher, all the figures for BBC viewing are being distorted--
Mr. Maxton: Perhaps; anyway the figures would certainly be distorted, and that may make a big difference to the way in which we think about the future of the BBC over the next few years. Being able to switch between 45 different channels has reinforced my view that the BBC is the best broadcasting company in the world. My trips to the United States, where I have also been able to watch innumerable channels in hotel rooms, and to other parts of the world where I have had the same experience, have done the same. Every time I come back with the reinforced view that the BBC is the best broadcaster in the world--not only the best public service broadcaster in the world but the best broadcaster across the whole range of entertainment.
Not only did the BBC pioneer the televising of sport but still, in terms of the commentary, the camera work and the programmes later in the evening showing highlights, the BBC coverage is better than anything else. I can now see golf from America every weekend on some channel or other, but the American programmes do not match up in any way to the BBC coverage of the British Open.
The BBC does the best comedy too. What better comedy programmes are there anywhere than those made by the BBC? The programme with the highest rating over Christmas was not a film or anything else but "One Foot in the Grave", a programme with which most people of my age, and yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, identify. Certainly, our children recognise many of the characteristics of the leading character. Over 75 years, the BBC has built up a big reputation.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): I may be anticipating the hon Gentleman's argument, but does he not also agree that many people do not have the choice of cable or satellite, because they cannot afford it, and that the BBC offers quality and range at an equivalent cost of less than £8 a month, which ensures that people can have access to such programmes throughout their lifetime, no matter what their wealth?