|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Maxton: I agree. The licence is not merely the way in which we pay for the BBC; it is integral to BBC programming. It is part and parcel of it and not just something that we put up with. Without the licence, the nature of the BBC would have been very different during the past 75 years and its future would be different.
The BBC creates a range of high-quality programmes. All of us criticise it at some time or another because we think that it is being unfair to us politically. Perhaps I can
Column 516add to the complaints that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton listed about BBC radio. Sometimes, BBC Radio Scotland is over-nationalistic.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) indicated dissent .
Mr. Maxton: That proves my point. The BBC achieves balance because the hon. Gentleman, who represents the Scottish National party, believes that BBC Radio Scotland is over-weighted towards the Labour party--no one believes that it is over-weighted to the Tory party, but that is another matter.
The BBC achieves balance and an in-depth analysis of current affairs that very few other organisations in the broadcasting world achieve. It is innovative--much of what has happened in television and radio broadcasting throughout the world has stemmed from the BBC. That is evident not merely from dramas, such as "The Singing Detective" but from comedy programmes such as "Steptoe and Son" and "Some Mothers do 'ave 'em"--a range of comedy programmes demonstrates that the BBC has been very innovative--to current affairs programmes such as "Newsnight" and "Panorama" and the sports coverage. It is a matter of quality and not merely of being innovative. Even the fairly standard drama series, such as "Lovejoy" and "All Creatures Great and Small" are better produced, acted and directed than their equivalents on other terrestrial channels and those equivalents are better than the series that one sees on satellite or abroad.
Those comments show that I have a strong commitment to the BBC and I believe that the licence fee is integral to its quality. The BBC has been financed, both independently of Government--it has not been financed through taxation--and independently of commercial pressures, which has allowed it to develop its expertise and skills. Conservative Members claim that the market can solve all problems, but the BBC is an organisation that proves that, in certain circumstances, the market is best left well out of it. If the BBC had been forced to live in the marketplace, it would be a very different organisation and would not have created such high-quality and innovative programming.
Everyone has accepted that the licence fee is the way in which the BBC should be, and will be, funded during its next period. I am a little worried that no one has pointed out that we ought to consider how those of us who can afford to pay more for the licence fee can do so, so that the BBC has a bigger income. Also, those who cannot afford to pay a full licence fee should be able to pay less. I do not know how we can do it, but we should think about it.
We also ought to consider how to extend the licence--we tend to forget that it is a broadcasting and not a television licence. We have not got the balance right for hotels and should reconsider the amount that hotel chains pay for their televisions, if every room has a set and people are using them all the time.
I listen to radio only when I am in my car and yet I do not have to pay for a licence to have a radio in my car or in my wife's or my son's car--I have three radios, people are listening to them and I pay nothing for that, which is wrong. We must study licensing, but it should remain the basic way in which the service is funded.
Column 517in the Select Committee on National Heritage report, that there should be a higher licence fee for homes with two or more television sets?
Mr. Maxton: Yes, they should. I admitted in that Committee that we have four televisions in our house and pay for only one licence--the same as any pensioner. The Government and the licensing authority have said that it is not technologically possible to tell how many televisions are in one house, but it ought to be possible in the near future, and we should consider whether we should pay more for a licence if we have more than one television set. That would help to fund the BBC.
The BBC is not perfect. I am one of its strongest supporters, but I have one major criticism, which has already been voiced. By the way, I congratulate the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign on the way in which it managed to get its brief to every hon. Member that it thought might speak tonight and on the fact that it has been so widely used. For my constituents in Scotland, however, the BBC often seems very London-based. To put it in the most simple terms, if it were raining and blowing a gale in London, one would think from watching the weather forecast after the main news that the whole of the United Kingdom was suffering bad weather, although we might be having a heat-wave in Glasgow--I admit that it is often the other way round. The weather forecast leaves the impression that all Britain is having an awful day, so people everywhere should wear their raincoats.
All surveys of the BBC show that the further away from London one gets, the lower the regard for its services, and the more its popularity declines. In Scotland, the BBC is nothing like as popular as it is in the south-east. The Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign has made it clear that it is not some form of Scottish independence movement--far from it. We are arguing for a strong British Broadcasting Corporation, but for the devolution of some of its functions to other parts of the United Kingdom. That case matches the case that I would argue for devolution for Westminster. Devolving some of the BBC's functions and powers from its headquarters in London to the regions would strengthen the BBC, just as it would strengthen the United Kingdom if this place gave some of its powers to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
More importantly from our point of view, too much of the talent in Scotland, Wales and the regions of England is sucked to London because the BBC over-centralises its production here. We have a great deal of talent in Scotland and the fact that the BBC's income in Scotland has been cut has meant that we are losing that talent in a flow to London. Some people will go anyway because they want to work in London as they think that it is the centre. Others do not. They want to stay and work in Scotland, but find that they cannot do so. The idea that the BBC provides a cultural subsidy in the regions--I cannot remember the exact term--has proved very true in Scotland. It allows musicians to work in an orchestra in Glasgow, provides work for other musicians and for actors, which keeps the theatre alive in Scotland, and provides work for technicians, who sometimes work for STV, for private companies and for the BBC. None of them would be there but for the BBC's presence in Scotland.
Column 518If the money available to BBC Scotland is reduced below a certain critical amount, it will become no more than a local news station, but BBC Scotland is much more than that; it already has a proud record of producing high-quality programmes. It may interest hon. Members to know that the most popular BBC2 comedy over Christmas was "Rab C. Nesbitt", with its Glaswegian language and humour. I confess that I do not like it much--it represents a type of Glaswegian to whom I do not readily relate. Still, in the south of England it was the most popular comedy.
It is most important that the BBC continues to expand its output of such high-quality projects, which sustain the cultural life of Scotland. More importantly, they allow people in the south of England to see that there are other parts of the United Kingdom beyond their own little areas. When they go on holiday, they go to France or Spain--not to Scotland, or certainly not in sufficient numbers. As for the BBC's future after the next 10 years of the charter, I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton tried to look too far down the road, given the speed of technological change. I disagreed with the right hon. Member for Conwy about the BBC's international role. What the BBC can best sell abroad, to the United States and countries such as India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, are programmes that it has already made for the domestic market. It is not a matter of making new programmes to sell. What makes the BBC so different from the public service broadcasters in the United States is its library of material--newsreels, old programmes and so on--which is ready to be sold to feed the voracious appetite which the cable channels will have for programmes, thereby making enormous sums of money--
Sir Peter Lloyd: There seems to a small contradiction in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is not happy that programmes should be made for Scotland in the south of England, but he thinks that the same programmes will be received with enormous enthusiasm even further away in India. I do not entirely disagree--although there will be pressure, if the BBC succeeds, to make at least some of the programmes broadcast to Asia in Asia. However, there is a definite conflict between what he said about Scotland and the need for local production and his ensuing remarks.
Mr. Maxton: That may be so, but I believe that the largest English- speaking country in the world is India, so there is an enormous audience there. Throughout the world there will be a huge viewing audience for BBC programmes. That perceptive audience is going to want high-quality programmes. English is spoken in a great many countries, and the BBC, more than any other company, provides those countries with programmes. There is a huge market to be tapped.
Column 519economic circumstances, living in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and they will look forward to seeing the programme on cable television.
Mr. Welsh: The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) has misinterpreted the hon. Gentleman. What the hon. Gentleman really means is that we in Scotland want to go beyond Rab C. Nesbitt", good though it is. Scotland has much more potential and talent to offer the wider world. That is the positive note to strike.
Mr. Maxton: It is certainly right that Scottish talent should be used to make programmes--even films of Shakespeare's plays, for instance. When the Scottish national orchestra puts on a concert in Glasgow it does not necessarily play Scottish music, so why should BBC Scotland be limited to making programmes about Scotland? I also differ from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton in that I have no objection to a publicly owned company making money which can then be used for the benefit of those who truly own public companies: the British public. Just because the BBC can make money abroad selling programmes does not mean that it has to be privatised. Let us keep it in the public sector and use the money that it makes abroad to make better programmes and to keep making high-quality programmes--without undue commercial pressure arising from the fact that it can make and sell good programmes abroad. With a bit of luck, making money in that way might enable the BBC to reduce the licence fee. Surely that is the right way forward.
I hope that the Government will pay heed to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said about BT. It is enormously inconvenient for our constituents when their pavements are dug up unnecessarily; certainly, they want cable, but they do not want the streets dug up to lay down more cable when BT already has cables in place. They resent that--they would rather not have it done. More particularly, it should be noted that BT is the biggest British technological company. Almost every other cable company is either directly American-owned or a wholly owned subsidiary of an American company. Do we really want to hand over our telephone, television and computer interactive systems to American companies when we have a British company that could do the job?
I disagree, however, with my right hon. Friend's argument that the BBC should work with BT as joint private companies. There is an alternative, although it is not always popular to state it in the Labour party these days. Instead of privatising the BBC and joining it to the privatised BT, perhaps, because it is so important to the future of the nation, the Labour party should seriously consider taking BT back into some form of public ownership. That would give us a publicly owned BBC working with a publicly owned BT with a monopoly of broadcasting cable. The resulting company should be allowed to operate in the world markets as a private company.
Mr. David Shaw (Dover) rose --
Mr. Maxton: After the attacks that the hon. Gentleman made on my late friend John Smith, I shall never give way to him in this House, because his conduct in that regard was disgraceful. Anyway, I had finished my speech.
Column 5207.38 pm
Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Until the end of the speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), I found quite a lot with which I could agree. Then the mask slipped and the real Labour party revealed itself. Conservative central office, with which I used to have some connection, will doubtless be taking down the hon. Gentleman's words at this moment.
Sir Norman Fowler: I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will stay exactly where he is, probably in all circumstances. On a more serious note, I agreed with much of what he said about the quality of the BBC.
I shall be brief because many hon. Friends still wish to speak and one or two speeches have been delivered at a leisurely pace. Matters are not made easier when those who make such speeches, particularly the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, then disappear.
First, I declare an interest. I have been a member of the National Union of Journalists for more than 30 years. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House who act as freelance writers are also members of that union. I am also the non-executive chairman of Midland Independent Newspapers, but I am one of the few ex-members of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet who do not have their own BBC programme. I make no complaint about that and it is certainly not a job application.
Almost 30 years ago, as a journalist I covered the middle east war on the Arab side of the conflict. I remember the beginning of that war in Beirut. Authoritative news was hard to come by. Censors and phone taps prevented news from getting in or out, and propaganda was all-pervasive. The scene that sticks in my memory is that of two American journalists outside our hotel trying to tune in their radio so that they could hear what was happening outside the country. Of course, the service that they were trying to pick up was the BBC world service.
The position has changed since then. We saw the great advances that a channel like CNN made during the Gulf war. For all that, one thing has remained constant: the BBC still maintains an international and national reputation for the quality and objectivity of its news. I emphasise that I am talking about news, not the so-called prestige programmes like "Today" and "Panorama", or the prestige interviewers like the brothers Dimbleby or even Mr. Paxman, who, I see today, has been voted the most offensive interviewer in the country; personally, I think that that is just a public relations attempt on his part. I am certainly not talking about high-class chat shows where small groups of like-minded souls sit around a microphone filling in that awkward hour between 9 and 10 o'clock on a Monday morning. What I am really talking about is the serious business of gathering, evaluating and broadcasting news so that it is put to the public, who can then be properly informed. The work is done by reporters and correspondents on the ground, not interviewers safely anchored in their studios.
We are constantly told, and have been constantly told in this debate, about the media revolution through which we are living, the vast new horizons that stretch before us, and all those other analogies and metaphors that are
Column 521used. Hon. Members on the Front Benches have used those terms this afternoon and the Select Committee said succinctly that the media revolution was nigh. The Government put the point more prosaically, although it was the same point, in their White Paper.
The irony is that, although the opportunity to deliver more programmes obviously exists, it by no means follows that we shall see more news organisations or, for that matter, better news. We may have television, cable and programmes transmitted down the phone line, but that could simply lead to the prospect of more soaps, old films, game shows and talk shows. The media revolution alone does not guarantee good news programmes. It does not guarantee well-reported news that is objectively presented either on television or by any other medium.
The man in the street or on the train--some of us on the Conservative side still like travelling by train--may not see the benefits of those policies. The reasons for that are clear. First and foremost, news gathering is an expensive undertaking and the media revolution does not alter that. It is cheaper to slap someone in front of a microphone and take questions than to keep a staff of reporters ready to dig into issues of concern. Views are free, whereas gathering news costs money. The danger is that, if television is viewed purely as a balance sheet operation, news is relegated so that it does not interrupt the films or series.
The position might be easier to bear if trends in the national press were more encouraging. I shall leave others to speak about the regional press, where, as one would expect, I would argue that standards are different and better; but in the national press there has been an unmistakeable trend towards the ideological. I refer here to the so-called "quality papers", the broadsheets, rather than the so-called "tabloid press". As those papers pursue their causes, the divisions between the editorial leader columns of views and the columns of news become increasingly blurred. Some papers take strident views on issues such as Europe, which spill over into their news columns. Their leaders, articles, columnists and news reports all point the same way. The reporter gets to know the story that is required and the story that is not. He knows what will lead the paper and what will appear on page 7.
For those reasons, I applaud the news coverage of the BBC. The extent of its news service is unsurpassed and the standards at which its reporters aim are right. Its reporting is good and lively but fair. The BBC stars--I choose people with whom I rarely have professional dealings--are reporters like Martin Bell, Kate Adie and John Simpson. They are the standard bearers of the BBC. I am a strong admirer of BBC news reporting standards.
The House may recall that I was a Cabinet Minister for 11 years and at Conservative central office for another two. I am quick on the uptake and recognise that my view is not necessarily held by all my colleagues. As a close observer of two Prime Ministers, I cannot remember the cry, "God bless the BBC" coming too often to their lips; indeed, I cannot remember it ever coming to their lips. My recollections of the Wilson years are exactly the same: I do not remember Harold Wilson having a better view of the BBC in action when he was Prime Minister. I am afraid that the trouble with Ministers--shadow Ministers are just as guilty--is that they want their views to be
Column 522publicly related, not reported. No self- respecting media organisation will do that; nor should it. Such organisations should make a judgment on the true position. What politicians can rightly expect is that reports should be balanced and fair, and the BBC comes closer to achieving that aim than any other media organisation that I know.
Of course, mistakes are made. The hour-by-hour demand for news makes a reporter's job more difficult than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Organisations like the BBC should have the maturity to correct stories when they are wrong. In my experience, it most often does that and is much better at doing so than my old newspaper, The Times , which used to have a reputation for pursuing that kind of correctness. I remember the famous--or perhaps infamous--story in 1992 about the Prime Minister entitled,
"Can Major take the strain?"
in which The Times tried to examine the state of his mind and said:
"Sarah Hogg, the . . . head of the . . . policy unit . . . has two young children and likes to get home to see them."
The children were aged 19 and 22, so I imagine that they would have been surprised if their mother went back to see them. The report also said:
"Mr. Major leads a surprisingly solitary life at Downing Street. His temporary flat in Admiralty Arch was small and poky."
Having visited that small and poky flat in Admiralty house, I must say that I know that income standards under Mr. Murdoch have undoubtedly improved on The Times since my day, but I did not realise that it regarded that rather palatial accommodation as a small and poky flat.
In spite of the complete absurdity of that story, The Times refused to correct it, although it was self-evidently wrong. What has been good about the BBC is that, when it has got it wrong, it has tried to put those things right. I wish that other parts of the media would follow its example.
That brings me to my second and last argument about the BBC and the media. There is an enticing theory about the media--that the great technological revolution means that national boundaries no longer exist, that we are an international marketplace. Michael Green of Carlton Television says it most directly:
"The present system of regulating media ownership in Britain serves only one useful purpose: to encourage an international vision of our independent broadcasting industry as a cottage
concern--charming little English thatched villages in a worldwide industry that is today dominated by skyscrapers. I want some of those skyscrapers to be ours".
It is all moving stuff.
I am in favour of British media organisations seeking international markets --I support the BBC in the efforts that it will obviously make--but I am in favour of it, provided we recognise where the first duty of a media company in this country lies.
In a democracy, broadcasting organisations and newspapers have a specific importance and a specific influence. They are not like simple consumer products; the media have a power for good or for evil. Therefore I assert that a media company's first duty is to its own audience, be that audience national or local. The person who comes first is the domestic customer--the listener, the viewer. Different countries have different traditions and different strengths. That, after all, is what much of the European debate is about. We do not want British
Column 523television to be turned into ever more mid- Atlantic flaff. That is not in the interests of this country. We do not want BBC programme making to be dominated by the type of market that those programmes may obtain overseas.
Michael Grade of Channel 4 will probably be alarmed to hear that I agree with him, but I agree with a great deal that he said in his article in the Evening Standard last night. What matters is what is being done for the consumer here. So, in pressing their case, people such as Michael Green must answer questions for themselves. They must answer the question, has Carlton improved television in London? They must answer the question, has Carlton, by taking over Central Television, a commitment to a city such as Birmingham? To phrase it as gently as I can, I would say that the jury is still out on both those questions.
I am aware that some of the developments in television in the past years that I would at least question have taken place under the current Government. I draw attention to the fact that we all have skeletons in our media cupboard. The Labour party has the skeleton of being opposed to the introduction of commercial television and leaving the BBC as a monopoly. If the truth is known, all Governments have a great deal to be modest about in their handling of the media, and it would be wise for us all to accept that.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State now has an opportunity. We have, I believe, reached a satisfactory conclusion on the BBC. We have come off the idea of pay-as-you-watch television as the way of financing the corporation, and not a moment too soon. We are committed to the licence fee. I have to say to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that that licence fee provides more than £1.5 billion a year for the corporation. That is not a bad financial base, by most commercial standards, for any organisation to be based on. Doubtless, improvements can be made, but I hope that, above all, the structure will now be allowed to settle.
I must remind my hon. Friend the Minister--I should like him to discuss the subject when he replies to the debate--that in other areas of the media the position is anything other than settled. The review of the rules governing cross-media ownership appears likely to rival "The Mousetrap" for its length of run, yet no one can be remotely happy with the present position. I do not pretend that the decisions for the Government are easy, but I would be very cautious about some of the opinions that have been expressed, which are aimed simply at making the bigger media organisations even bigger and more powerful. I would be especially cautious about that, given the lack of performance so far, with some of those organisations wishing to grow.
It is beyond dispute that some conclusion from the Government on the cross- media ownership debate needs to be reached. It was described as an urgent matter for discussion and decision in the House about 12 months ago. I believe that nothing has happened since then. I wait to hear my hon. Friend the Minister's reply; I know that he will guide us on what the Government have in mind.
Column 524I welcome the fact that, if nothing else, we appear to be settling the process of the BBC debate. I believe that the BBC has high standards, and that those standards are recognised throughout the world. I expect nothing more from it than that it seek to maintain those high standards, and I look forward to resuming the normal political hostilities with the BBC at the earliest opportunity. 7.56 pm
Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton): I was interested when the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), quoted from Milton. It nudged a memory bank. One of my earliest memories is of listening, as a little boy, to a radio programme about the life and work of Milton. I became an immediate fan of Milton, and also of the BBC. I therefore declare an interest--I am a fan.
I congratulate the present Secretary of State for National Heritage on his report. It is superb. I welcome it, as I am sure Labour Front-Bench Members do, with minor reservations here and there. I did not expect it, and I congratulate the Minister. I was surprised by the parallels between the Government report and the report of the Select Committee on National Heritage. Both are entitled, "The Future of the BBC". As a member of that Select Committee, I declare an interest.
If I may crave the indulgence of the House, I wish to show the parallels between the two reports. As the BBC's present royal charter, granted in 1981, expires at the end of 1996, the Government and the Select Committee on National Heritage regarded that event as a rare opportunity to consider the role, objects, organisation and funding of the BBC in the years ahead, and both the Government and the Select Committee published consultation documents and reports entitled "The Future of the BBC".
The National Heritage Select Committee's inquiry noted that the Broadcasting Act 1990 created a new statutory framework for commercial television and radio, for local cable and satellite services, with the aim of increasing the number of services and choices for audiences. In its report it said that, against that background, the role, functions and organisation of the BBC were bound to change too in the near future.
In its inquiry, the Committee invited interested organisations to submit their opinions, and received 170 such submissions. It also held 14 sessions, taking oral evidence from 40 separate groups of witnesses. It noted that in the BBC 1981 royal charter there were three terrestrial channels, with a fourth due to transmit in November 1982.
Our Committee also noted that the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984 was passed in anticipation of developments in cable and satellite broadcasting. The speed of change in that medium necessitated further legislation in 1990. There is no doubt that those rapid changes transformed the broadcasting scene from that which had existed in 1981.
The nature of broadcasting has been significantly changed by the development of cable and satellite. By the end of 1993, the Independent Television Commission had issued licences for more than 120 cable and satellite programme channels. Our Committee was told by the director general of Cable TV Associations that the system was currently capable of carrying 50 television channels
Column 525and 30 radio channels. It is a rapidly changing scene. The industry had licence obligations to feed 14 million homes--70 per cent. of the population--by 1998.
Four years ago, the satellite channel, BSkyB, doubled the number of television channels for the United Kingdom audience. According to BSkyB, in July 1993 nearly one in five homes had a dish or was connected to cable, which meant that nearly 10 million people were able to watch cable- satellite programmes. The BBC forecasts that by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of the population will have access to satellite and cable services.
With all that new technology, the BBC, too, must change and adapt. For all its good work, the BBC can never expect or hope to be in the same position in the future as it is now, as viewing share will force it to come under increasing pressure because of the huge potential expansion of choice. The BBC could become a minority service provider along the lines of public service television in the USA. I hope that it does not, but if it did, it would then be difficult to justify the retention of a licence fee, paid by the overwhelming majority of viewers who would not be watching a great deal of BBC television. As regards the licence fee, the Committee gave a great deal of thought as to the best way of funding the BBC. It did not consider that the licence fee was an attractive method of funding. It is a regressive tax that bears heavily on those least able to pay. Collection is expensive and, in addition, the amount of evasion is considerable. The BBC estimated that 1.7 million people evaded payment in 1991-92, with the resultant loss of £130 million of income. A further £35 million was lost from those in households with colour televisions who buy the cheaper black and white licence. That meant that, in 1991-92, the BBC had to forgo £257.5 million of potential income.
The Committee therefore considered alternative ways of funding the BBC. It considered allowing advertising on the BBC, but the ITC thought that that would imperil the future independence of Channel 4 and severely restrict the continuing development of the satellite and cable industry. Giving the BBC access to advertising revenue would take at least between £300 million and £400 million from the ITV channels. Channel 4 stated that the introduction of advertising on the BBC would mean the end of the channel. Granada said that it would have a disastrous effect on it.
In the light of the evidence, the Committee rejected the idea of making the BBC rely on direct advertising. The second option considered by the Committee was sponsorship, but it came to the conclusion that that could do no more than supplement the BBC's main source of revenue. The Committee was concerned, however, about the transmission of tobacco-sponsored events. It noted with satisfaction the BBC's decision not to broadcast future events that were sponsored by tobacco companies.
After considering all the options for funding the BBC, the Committee came to the conclusion, with great reluctance, that the present flat-rate licence system met with the least number of objections. The Committee also believed that the BBC should be permitted to maintain its radio services and that those services should not contain advertising. It also considered, however, that if the BBC
Column 526wished to advertise under its new charter, it should have a right to make an application to Parliament for the appropriate changes. The BBC has also experienced an unprecedented growth in and success of programmes provided by world service radio. The service has a regular audience of 124 million people, who listen at least once a week, and it provides truth to those living under dictatorships. The Committee published its findings on 2 December 1993 and came to the conclusion that the BBC's charter should be renewed for 10 years. No doubt after studying the Select Committee's recommendations, the Secretary of State published his White Paper on the future of the BBC in July 1994. I welcome the general thrust of that paper and I believe that the Secretary of State has taken note of a good proportion of the Select Committee's report.
I welcome most of the conclusions in the White Paper. I shall mention some of them to highlight the parallels between that paper and the Select Committee's report. The Government believe that the BBC should continue to be the United Kingdom's main public broadcaster. I completely agree. They believe that the BBC should be able to evolve into an international, multi- media enterprise, building on its present commercial services for audiences in this country and overseas. The Government believe that the BBC should continue to broadcast a wide range of radio and television programmes for people with different tastes and of all ages. They also believe that world service radio should continue and that the BBC should develop further world service television.
The Government believe that the BBC should extend its commercial activities at home and abroad and that it should exploit its assets and generate income from its programmes as well as publishing magazines, books, videos and audio cassettes. They believe that it should plan for joint ventures with commercial companies around the world. Finally, the Government believe that the BBC should keep its licence fee as the main source of income for public services for at least five years.
I welcome the aims and objectives of the Government's White Paper. In the next 10 to 15 years, the number of broadcasting services of all kinds will increase and evolve into multi-media services, using different means of distributing a wide range of materials. Through the choices that they make in selecting services, it will be the British public who ultimately determine the standards of audio-visual material available in the United Kingdom in the next century. I believe that the Secretary of State has listened to the arguments put forward by the Select Committee-- incidentally, it is an all-party Committee and the report was agreed unanimously by it. The Government have put forward proposals to assist the BBC to survive and compete as a public broadcasting authority in the next century. I welcome their report.
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan), who makes a most notable contribution to the work of the Select Committee on National Heritage.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we worked together on our report on the BBC, which was completed in December 1993. As he and others have said, a large part of what we
Column 527recommended was accepted and adopted by the Government in the White Paper published in May last year.
As BT has been mentioned several times, I declare a quasi interest as it has sponsored charity concerts in which I have performed on the piano in aid of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Although I was unpaid, what took place was sufficient to give me a favourable bias towards BT.
Tonight we are considering the BBC. The first thing that must be said about it is the absolutely outstanding quality of a large proportion of what it produces. It has high standards of excellence in its output of news, features and drama, among other things. I am particularly proud that "Middlemarch", which was mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), was produced by Dr. Louis Marks, my constituent and my near neighbour at Hampton Court Green. A great many other people too took part in that magnificent production, which continues to redound enormously to the credit of the BBC.
The BBC's achievements in the arts are generally superb. Last night, on Radio 3, I heard the live relay of "Cosi fan tutte" from Covent Garden. It was beautifully done and beautifully broadcast. Reference has been made already to the several BBC symphony orchestras. The Proms are a tremendous national asset; they are a great cultural festival and a great British festival and represent something that the BBC does for Britain of which we should all be enormously proud.
Britain is one of the most musical nations in the world and I believe that we should build on our strengths. It is not for nothing that it is called the British Broadcasting Corporation. It ought constantly to project what is British and what is best about Britain. I agree with an hon. Member who said earlier that the growth in the use of the English language worldwide is now unstoppable. Hardly anyone mentions Esperanto any more, and there is enormous export potential for film and other BBC products in future all over the world where the English language is increasingly used.
We should have more Gilbert and Sullivan, particularly the Lord High Executioner's song from the Mikado that is called,
"I've got a little list--I've got a little list"
with its verse which refers to
"the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
all centuries but this one, and all countries but his own." The White Paper says that the BBC should promote the British side. The Secretary of State, who has just come in, is sitting not on the Front Bench but below the Gangway. I remind him that paragraph 2.6 of the White Paper says that the objectives of the BBC should include "reflecting the national identity of the United Kingdom. The BBC should broadcast events of national importance. It should ensure that the rich cultural heritage of all parts of the United Kingdom is represented in its programmes and is available throughout the nation."
There have been many interventions about the proportion of Scottish broadcasts produced in Scotland and Welsh broadcasts produced in Wales, but it seems to me that there is something slightly synthetic about how those interventions and interruptions have been organised.
Column 528I received a paper from the BBC this week, that, in a passage headed,
"More Money for the Regions"
"The BBC has been increasing the programming output of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. Under its new regional policy, launched in spring 1994"--
that was between the Select Committee report and the publication of the White Paper--
"it plans to double the amount of drama made in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in 1997; double light entertainment output from the regions within four years; more than double music and arts production in the regions over the same period; triple the amount of Continuing Education and Schools programmes produced in the regions by 1996-1997; and quadruple the proportion of children's programming made outside London."
As the complaint was that only 3 per cent. of programmes were produced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to go on the national network, if one multiplied that by three or four, the percentage would be not far short of the proportion of the population of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland to that of the United Kingdom.
It cannot be done all at once. The BBC will have to make sure that it has staff who are living in the right place. Some of them will not want to move house. Their children will be at a particular local school or their wives will be used to having their hair done at a particular place. Not everyone moves quickly and easily, but the BBC is clearly taking a big step in that direction. Those who go on and on about it seem to be asking for something that is being done already.
I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) would do me the courtesy of ceasing to distract my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's attention from my speech, because my remarks are addressed to my right hon. Friend through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The White Paper provides for the charter being renewed for 10 years from 1996 to 2006. That has been welcomed enthusiastically by the whole House. I agree with those who have said that the 10 years from 1996 to 2006 might possibly produce the last charter for the BBC in its present form. Deep changes are taking place and it will be difficult to sustain the charter after 2006, despite the tremendously high standard of much of the output.
Those changes include a falling share of the market. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to a fall from 48 per cent. to 42 per cent. in the past three and a quarter years. There have been numerous technical changes. In about 10 to 15 years' time it will be possible for people to dial on their telephones to get just about any video programme that they want, and have the costs put on their telephone bill. People will get used to that and it will influence their attitude to the payment of a licence fee of £80, £100, or £120 a year. They will be used to paying as they go along and will not want to pay a set amount as they have been willing to do in the past.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said that the licence fee tends to fall most heavily on those least able to pay. The BBC has a bee in its bonnet about the concept of the licence fee. The concept of a licence fee is almost a traditional sacred cow within the BBC. One can understand the historic reasons for that. It is partly that the BBC wants a direct relationship with its