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Column 529viewers and listeners and believes that that buttresses its independence and neutrality, but I do not believe that the system can survive the next 10 or 15 years.
It is not just that after that time people will have got used to paying as they go for other programmes and wonder why that does not apply to BBC programmes, nor is it just that, on present trends, some 80 per cent. of the listening public will be listening to other channels. There is also a serious problem with licence evasion. The Select Committee was told that the evasion rate was about 7.5 per cent. in 1993, despite the strenuous use of detector vans to catch television licence evaders. The proportion has oscillated since then, but has not changed substantially. In 1993, about 1 per cent. of those 7.5 per cent. were caught and brought to justice. The detector vans went round by day, which is cheaper than by night because the people in the vans do not have to be paid overtime. Of the 1 per cent. who were caught watching their television sets without a licence, almost three quarters were women, including a large proportion of young mothers--largely single-parent families--or women pensioners. It is a demographic fact that women live for six years longer than men, so far more female pensioners than male pensioners will be home in the daytime.
Many of those women live alone. Some are at home all day and are not well off financially, whether they are pensioners or young mothers. Some, but not all, are in poverty. People in that position are likely to pay first for those services which might be cut off, whether it is their electricity bill, their gas bill, their telephone bill or their water bill. Those bills are civil debt. They are likely to leave payment of their television licences until last, perhaps intending to pay later and hoping that they will not get caught in the meantime.
Anyone who gets caught not paying the licence fee--which is not a civil debt--has committed a criminal offence and can then be surprised to find that he or she has a criminal record. The only parallel is the annual car tax, which it is also a criminal offence not to pay. If we decriminalised the licence system, the evasion rate could leap from 7 or 8 per cent. to anything between 10 or 20 per cent. That would make the licence system completely unworkable from the BBC's point of view as it would be impossible to convince the public to accept such a high evasion rate. The Select Committee recommended that it should not be decriminalised. However, it is not an ideal system and we were not happy about it.
I am rather surprised that so many right hon. and hon. Members have sounded positive about the licence system. The Committee recommended--it is endorsed in the White Paper--that the licence system should continue until it becomes technically possible to disconnect licence evaders in the same way as it is now technically possible to disconnect services when people do not pay their telephone, gas, electricity or water bills. However, it will be quite a few years before that is technically feasible. It is a race against time as to whether the licence system can survive until then.
I do not believe that the licence system makes the BBC quite as impartial as it thinks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is a former party chairman, said that the BBC was balanced and fair. I am quite satisfied that the BBC tries to be fair
Column 530in presenting the views of the political parties, especially during general election campaigns. That is a BBC tradition and it is scrupulous in adopting a non-biased approach to the political parties.
However, I do not think that the BBC is completely impartial on contentious issues in other respects. For example, BBC programmers tend to invite on to quiz programmes--especially radio quiz programmes--a disproportionate number of extremists from both of the main parties because it makes for a more exciting broadcast. Those with more moderate views in either main political party tend to be left out. I will not mention any names; we can all think of the types of people I mean. In doing that, the BBC is effectively creating a bias towards the Liberal party because it is depicting both of the main parties in a way that is unlikely to appeal to floating voters. I think that we must watch that trend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) intervened earlier in the debate and, although he did not actually mention Europe, I could tell that that was what he meant as I sympathise with his views. There is a politically correct point of view on the subject of Europe, and the hierarchies within all three political parties and the nationalist parties tend to have a positive attitude about the European Union. However, that politically correct standpoint is not shared by half the people of the country and that proportion is tending to increase. On this question the BBC must be careful to be more impartial.
I turn to the arts. I praised BBC Radio 3 fulsomely at the outset of my speech. However, under the regime of Sir William Glock, Hans Keller and others in the 1960s and 1970s, the BBC music department was allowed to let rip virtually uncontrolled. Sir William and Mr. Keller surrounded themselves with staff in the BBC music department who shared their bias towards the inter-war Vienna 12-tone school of music and composers such as Berg, Schoenberg and Webern. As a result, there were appalling ping-pong noises on Radio 3 for years on end and an entire generation of young British listeners were put off contemporary music. We are still suffering the consequences of that. That was a terrible thing for the governors to do. I shall send a copy of this extract of my speech to the chairman of governors and I shall seek his assurance that he will establish a mechanism within the BBC to ensure that no such disaster ever occurs again. I end where I began by praising the BBC. We believe in the set-up and we have endorsed and encouraged it. However, I do not believe that the charter will be renewed in 2006 and it will certainly not be renewed in 2016. We must be conscious of the decisions which were made last year and this year which will be applied next year. However, we must also look to the BBC's long- term future. That is what the White Paper and the Secretary of State have begun to do.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): All hon. Members, at least on Opposition Benches listened with rapt attention to that very interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel). I was struck by what he said about music. It is interesting to read the BBC report of 1922--which I am sure that all hon. Members refer to regularly--in which Lord Reith said that if the country was exposed to chamber music everyone would enjoy it and it would become a popular musical form.
Column 531Outrageous as that claim seemed at the time, it came close to being realised during the war. There was a limited range of broadcasts on the radio and people from all sections of society developed a deep appreciation, understanding and knowledge of music. It is sad that our children now hear a much more limited range of music and that that rich experience is denied to them.
You will be delighted to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker--as will the House--that I have abandoned my carefully prepared speech because the points that I wanted to make about BBC regional broadcasting have been made far more eloquently by the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) and other hon. Members. I agree with all of the points that they have made on that subject. It may have something to do with the fact that certain briefings came into our hands at the same time.
However, I claim the right to make a few more points. I have the rare distinction, which I prize immensely, of having once chaired the Broadcasting Council for Wales for a record period--it was a record then and I am sure that it will remain for all time. I chaired the Broadcasting Council for Wales for 15 minutes, having served on it for five years.
I resigned after 15 minutes because my appointment coincided with the Conservative Government's announcement that they would not go ahead with the establishment of a separate Welsh language channel. That announcement was contrary to all that I had worked for in broadcasting in Wales for the previous decade within my party. Happily, the Government reversed that decision--not because I resigned, but due to events involving other parties.
I am happy to look back at that period and to record that the S4C Welsh language channel has been a sumptuous success and has exceeded all of our expectations. It has been successful not just in broadcasting terms or in its important contribution to the Welsh language, but it has contributed enormously to the Welsh economy and the creativity of our young people. Young people have had the opportunity to learn skills both in front of and behind the camera and the microphone. Their talents, skills and creativity have been allowed to blossom. The channel has proved an enormous asset to Wales and long may it continue to serve Wales in its current form. There have always been difficulties with Welsh broadcasting. They date back to the 1920s when Wales had to compete with the west of England for broadcasting time and allocation of money. I am sad to say that that is still happening today. There is no clear distinction between the moneys for English language and Welsh language broadcasting. There should be some ring fencing to get rid of some of the tension and the futile waste of energy between those two groups. I make a plea, too, for English language broadcasting, because the constituency that I represent, like many other areas in Wales, has a robust, distinctive and unique community--a very tough one. Although I live in the heart of my constituency, within two miles of my home, the accent and the culture changes. Risca is a valley community. If one moves throughout Wales, one finds an infinite variety of groups of people who find it difficult to express their personality through broadcasting.
On the BBC world service, sadly there was not the mea culpa that I had asked for from Ministers. It is a sad story. Twelve years ago, in the House and outside, many voices
Column 532were clamouring that we must build on the world reputation of BBC world radio. At that time, if a BBC world television service had been launched, the cost, I am informed, would have been half the price that we paid to clean Victoria Tower. It was a minute amount. We could have gained. It was a vacuum out there. We could have gained the world reputation that has been stolen from us by lesser terrestrial stations.
We must fight every inch of the way to restore that now. We might never reach the pre-eminent position that really was ours for the taking and which was denied to this country by ideology, by the belief that it had to be a commercial channel, and that it had to be on the one basis only. It would have been a magnificent investment for our countries and for the languages of our nations. The prized people on whom I look back--from the days when I had something to do with the BBC--are people like Charles Curran, a gifted-director general who, I believe, spoke Irish, and Alasdair Milne, a man in a lesser position but who also spoke a Celtic language-- Gaelic. We can look with some pride at the achievements of broadcasters in the nations of Britain in promoting and giving us an opportunity to use all the beautiful languages of this island--English and others as well.
The BBC has a unique role for all of us. It has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House that we must keep it out of the hands of the idealogues. There have been threats from all sides. Everyone will want to move in and control and run it. I believe that the BBC is unique to all our lives. It has made a great contribution to all of us. In the war, the radio was our channel for information. It was our friend, our companion, our teacher, until television arrived as well. Other channels are coming in and producing programmes of great quality, but the BBC has a special place within the heart of the nation.
A Hungarian writer talked about language and said that the nation lives within her language. It is a striking image of a nation living in a place, and the place was the language. We can all say--the people who live in these islands--that, to us, the nation resides not in the great institutions of state, not in the Church or royalty, but within the BBC. All the languages of these islands of ours owe a great debt of gratitude to the BBC. The nations of Britain live within the BBC. We hold that in trust. They must never betray that trust.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North): I shall do my best to be brief. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the debate takes place against a background of a fast-changing marketplace. He is correct. I took the opportunity a few moments ago to talk to him, knowing that, unfortunately, he had to leave the Chamber. I wanted to make the point to him that I now wish to make to the House. Those who sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill which became the Broadcasting Act 1990 made a fundamental mistake in permitting one
Column 533broadcaster, one publisher, to have an undue influence in the marketplace. I was one of those--I fully concede this--who was instrumental in stating that I believed that the Murdoch organisation should be allowed to have the control it had over satellite television and newspapers. I believe that I was profoundly wrong. I have said so publicly in the past, and I take no particular pleasure in placing that fact on the record tonight.
The fact is that we cannot put that jack back in the box. That being so, I want to say, through my hon. Friend the Minister, to my right hon. Friend that I believe that he can and should move swiftly to free other participants from the shackles of restricting cross-media ownership regulations, so that UK-owned television, newspaper, telephony and data companies can create alliances to compete in the development of world markets. We heard from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) of the impressive array of holdings of Viacom. Hon. Members know only too well of the impressive array of holdings of the Murdoch corporation. Others are equally large.
If UK Ltd. is to have a major stake not only in the domestic but in the European and world marketplace, the time has come to take the brakes off and let competitors to Mr. Murdoch form alliances and move into the field. I say that with this proviso: the obligations of franchise agreements entered into by existing commercial television companies should and must for the foreseeable future be for ever and beyond. It is in that context, that kind of commercial, international broadcasting, that the debate takes place. My right hon. Friend was right to draw attention to that at the start of his remarks. I shall touch briefly on a number of matters raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
There is no doubt in my mind that we need a public service broadcasting organisation in the United Kingdom. Every western democracy that has started from the position of having only commercial radio and/or television has had to invent a public service system, and none that has been created has been anything like a match for the services offered by the BBC. In my view, the BBC has provided the benchmark for domestic radio and television services throughout the world--certainly throughout the former Commonwealth. The BBC's services have been and are respected worldwide. We should, perhaps, contrast that with what I know as "Murdochvision" throughout the world.
Rupert Murdoch is a man who exchanges nationality for a few United States newspapers. He has now revealed himself in his true colours--in my view, as a born again collaborator. Mr. Murdoch and his organisation have done what no journalist who calls himself a journalist could possibly do: surrendered editorial control of a section of his broadcasting to the Chinese, in exchange for a censored market share.
Can one imagine the BBC doing that? The BBC's world service is pre-eminent among international broadcasters because of its integrity. If anything demonstrates the need for BBC world service television, for the European service and the European entertainment services, it is the standards--or lack of them--of the BBC's competitors. It has been said that it is a shame that the BBC did not enter the marketplace sooner. I agree. On the other hand, the BBC has had the opportunity to
Column 534learn, perhaps, from other people's mistakes, and it is entering the marketplace with a clear vision of where it needs to go. We do not normally feel privileged to serve on Standing Committees dealing with statutory instruments, but I felt very privileged indeed the other day to serve on the Committee on a statutory instrument that gave the legal go-ahead to the BBC's co-operative venture into European television. I wish it well: I think that it will be a tremendous success. It is the need for a respected and reliable news service first and foremost, internationally and of course nationally, that the BBC satisfies.
It was, I believe, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Carthcart (Mr. Maxton) who said that the BBC was the best broadcaster in the world. I wonder whether some of us would have said that even three years ago. One of my hon. Friends said earlier that he had changed his view, and I have changed mine. I have changed my view of what I used to regard as a monolithic organisation, over-bureaucratic and militating against the programme makers, largely as a result of the work of one man. Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), I pay tribute to the director-general of the BBC, John Birt.
As far as I am aware, the director-general does not speak Irish like Charles Curran--although he may, come to think of it--and I am fairly certain that, unlike Alasdair Milne, he does not speak Gaelic. What he does speak is common sense. It is because of his efforts--largely and for a long time unpopular, and prompting vitriolic criticism that was a source of personal grief to him--that the BBC is now able to invest money at the sharp end to make good programmes. More money is now going into programmes and less into administration than at probably any time in the past, and certainly at the time when I worked for the BBC.
I also pay tribute to the speech that the director-general made in Dublin on 3 February. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) marred an otherwise excellent speech by criticising what the director-general said. I wonder whether he read the speech in context; certainly most of the journalists who reported it had not.
Among other things, John Birt said:
"But if we journalists are to play our part in building a better world, it can only be built on a firm foundation of truth . . . on a sense of the sacred and solemn nature of fact; on a political foundation which is calmer, less frenzied--more restrained, composed and considered; on an acceptance that people and institutions have strengths and virtues as well as shortcomings; on a recognition that scepticism and rigour, insight and detachment, fairness and integrity, must be the prime journalistic virtues."
I doubt that any journalist in the House or outside it could disagree with that.
What caused offence was the observation:
"Reporters who pretend that answers and remedies are obvious; that everyone in the world but them is an incompetent fool; overbearing interviewers who sneer disdainfully at their interviewees; the sub who composes a crass and unfair headline; the columnist at his or her desk pontificating arrogantly- -all exhibit attitudes which are unattractive in a journalist, and rarely appropriate . . . For journalism is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end."
I agree with that. I think that John Birt was right and courageous to say it, and I think that it needed to be said. I think that he was trying to make the point that the media are powerful, that television is extremely powerful and
Column 535that that power must be exercised with responsibility. Surely he was trying to say that that was the rock of self- control on which the BBC and its reputation for integrity had been founded. If we lose that, we shall lose a great deal, and it behoves us to pay attention to what the director-general said.
On regional quotas, I am a dissenting voice--not because I believe that the regions do not deserve their fair share of production or that they do not have perhaps more than their fair share of talent to contribute, but because--as I have told the general advisory council of the BBC--I do not want production to be moved out of London, where the basic production facilities, the majority of actors and actresses and a great number of writers can be found, simply for reasons of tokenism. That would only waste money that could otherwise be invested in an area of broadcasting that has been mentioned far too little today: truly local broadcasting.
I entirely approve of funding the BBC with the licence fee, but if we are to continue to do so, we must examine the corporation's functions carefully. I do not want to cut those functions, but we must ensure that they are directed properly. Given all the broadcasting services that are becoming available, we must ask whether we can sustain two national public service television channels and four national public service radio stations. Might it not be better to ask the BBC to consolidate some of its broadcasting services, and to make room for the creation and release of resources, not for the regional tokenism that I fear might result if production were simply transferred out of London, but for genuine bi-media radio-television stations throughout the country? They would be truly local, serving truly local needs.
I believe that the BBC is neglecting and underfunding a public service requirement. It is removing resources from local broadcasting when it should be strengthened: more money should be provided to beef up not only local radio but local television. That money does not grow on trees. I do not believe that the BBC can fulfil all those functions and expand into world broadcasting, as we all appear to agree it should, without making cuts somewhere; I do not want an elitist channel to be created, but I question whether some of the programmes on BBC1 and BBC2 are worth the making, given the BBC's reputation.
The BBC's transmission service has been mentioned. It is an important subject that bears further consideration. National Transcommunications Ltd. is a good company, set up on wholly commercial lines, but is it right to subsidise a competitor that is allowed to sell its spare capacity in the marketplace in the knowledge that, with the advent of digital transmission, that spare capacity will increase and the BBC will therefore have a larger market?
I think that the best proposal we have heard tonight is that the transmission service should be an arm's-length operation. The BBC should be able to hive it off, gain the benefit of an injection of finance, and release a commercial organisation to compete with NTL on equal terms in the open market in the provision of services, not only for the BBC but for other commercial organisations. Undoubtedly we shall return to that debate.
The licence fee has also been mentioned, not only in connection with the way which the BBC should be paid for, but, in particular, in connection with the way in which it is applied. I was very interested by what the hon.
Column 536Member for Cathcart said about wanting a fairer system: I share his feelings, and have been advocating such an improvement for some time.
I hope that Ministers will think again--despite the White Paper's rejection of the idea--about the possibility of a basic-rate fee of £1 a week for a single television set, an enhanced fee of around £120 for a domestic unit of two television sets and a video recorder--a video recorder is, of course, a receiver--and a third tranche of around £200 for anything more than that.
Such an arrangement would provide a bedrock public service system for pensioners, single-parent households and others who cannot afford, or do not want, more than one television set. It would provide a fair service at a fair price--slightly more than double--for households that use and can afford what are effectively free receivers, and a service at a further enhanced price for those who can afford, and therefore use, even more than that.
That would be an interim measure, to operate between now and the day when the technology is introduced to allow us to collect the licence fee by encryption. I am not talking about pay-per-view. At that point, the arguments about how many sets a household has and how the number can be checked will go out of the window. We should return to that matter and consider it seriously.
I am delighted that my hon. Friends have decided to merge the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council. I wish only that we could move further towards the recommendation in the Select Committee's excellent report, and consolidate all the complaints commissions and standards councils into one body for both independent and BBC television. If we did that, we would cut much bureaucracy and create a much better reference point for complaints.
I welcome the White Paper, and I hope that it will lead to the perpetuation of the BBC as one of the best broadcasting services in the world, as it has been already described.
On the speech of the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), I do not want tokenism in programme production replacement, but I do not support his preference for the self-fulfilling prophecy of concentration in London. If carried out in full, the BBC's commitment to moving the production of £75 million-worth of network programmes from London would mean that the total contribution from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would rise from 3 per cent. to only 4.2 per cent. That becomes even less impressive in view of the fact that, in recent years, control of £55 million-worth of network programming from elsewhere was centralised in London, and £40 million was taken out of the regional programming budget.
It cannot be healthy or acceptable that 97 per cent. of network output comes from one source, but guess who take the decisions, and guess where they are based? I ask Conservative Members to look on this not as a girn or a whine, but as a problem to be solved. Scotland in particular has a great deal to contribute, but the reality of tightly controlled centralisation in London prevents that from happening.
Column 537I wish in general to compliment the BBC on its massive range of output. We recognise how good the quality of its output is if we compare it with that in the United States of America. We then realise the quality, depth and range of the product offered. Quality is the key word, and should be the overall aim in broadcasting output. Quantity is no problem. Technology makes quantity easier and easier to achieve. Now that communication is easy, the content of that communication becomes all-important. As we have heard this evening, technology is making the problem very much a moving target, where old certainties no longer exist.
My criticisms are specific, and are basically a plea for opportunity. The debate on the future of the BBC has been pursued with much energy in Scotland. When the Government invited responses to the Green Paper, a large number of Scottish organisations commenced a programme of discussion and debate, which resulted in a number of important statements. What was most impressive was the general consensus that arose--an agreement that, although the staff and management of the BBC were of high calibre, the way in which BBC structures operated weakened the BBC north of the border. Many of the organisations that wanted change are closely allied to the television and radio world. The Celtic Film and Television Association, a professional body that has a membership of people who work in television and film in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany, and that holds a highly successful annual festival, attracting the cream of Scottish broadcasting talent, argued especially well for a new structure for the BBC, which would allow management control to be vested in Glasgow, rather than in London.
Those views, which are also held by a wider consortium of groups under the title Broadcasting for Scotland, were made known to the BBC, not just through the Green Paper exercise, but in many informal meetings both in London and in Scotland.
It is a measure of the arrogance and the insensitivity of the BBC in London that it has substantially ignored those views, but the most public response to date has been the appointment as the national governor for Scotland of someone whose everyday qualifications are the headship of one of the few Scottish private schools, and who is married to the daughter of a peer. He is hardly a "lad o'pairts". He is the voice of the very British BBC in Scotland; he is not the voice of the Scottish viewer of the BBC.
Similarly, the dispersal of management power and programme-making autonomy has been treated with disdain by John Birt and his centralist colleagues, including the BBC chairman. Lip service is paid in the White Paper to decentralisation, but actions, as ever, speak louder than words.
In the past six months, the largest independent radio commission ever granted in Scotland was decided on in London and given to a London company, which, on a grace and favour basis, may or may not spend some of its revenue gains in Scotland. The contract for the United Kingdom-wide helpline that will be established by the
Column 538BBC, and that will be based in Glasgow was also decided on in London and given to a London-based charity which had never operated north of the border.
On the board that made that decision sits an individual who had only recently ceased to be a director of that charity. The Scottish bidder for that contract described the selection interview as "taking part in a charade".
I hope that the Minister will deal with those problems, because they are strongly felt in Scotland and in other parts of the UK. In the past month, BBC drama in London has cancelled a major Scottish project by a respected Scottish writer in a casual and cavalier fashion. There will be an expansion in children's programmes to be made in Scotland, but that single success does not make up for the rest of the dismal draining of power from BBC Scotland. I am not talking just about an ordinary work. It was a winner of the Whitbread award, and it has been described by some people as the best Scottish novel of the 20th century, yet it has been dismissed in that way. I am convinced that, in the BBC, fury exists at many of those decisions, but BBC staff are unable to speak, so I shall try to speak for them tonight. The BBC is weakening the loyalty and effectiveness of its Scottish staff and the impact of its Scottish output by holding tightly to the reins of London control. An independent and autonomous Scottish broadcasting company is required, free of outside control.
Scotland deserves the best in broadcasting, and it can have it, if it spends the licence fee it collects on Scottish output. The people of Scotland export their money to pay for a service that is poorer than it would be if they kept that money at home. Until that independent corporation is established, I want the BBC in Scotland to manage its own affairs, taking the best from London as it wishes, but making the best programmes for Scotland--not just in Scotland, but wherever such programmes need to be made. I commend the initiative of "Europa", a Gaelic language current affairs programme series which reports on Europe from Europe. Such an initiative could be followed by a range of other programmes. The talent, ability and technology are there, but they must be unleashed and allowed to flourish. When BBC Scotland is allowed to be its own master, it performs well. Indeed, it out-performs many other broadcasting companies. However, the trend in the BBC is to crush initiative and independence with an iron fist of management control and accountants' double-speak. The people of Scotland are watching John Birt. However, if he goes on as he is now, very few people will be watching his programmes in Scotland. That situation is wasteful and completely unacceptable.
Some Conservative Members may dismiss my plea. My plea is not artificial. The plea is heartfelt, from Scotland and from Wales. The problem cannot be dismissed; it must be dealt with. The output and talent are ready to be unleashed, and they can be shared with a wider world. However, that decision must be taken at management level, and so far the BBC has failed to take it. I regret that, and I make an earnest plea to the Minister to turn that around for everyone's benefit.
Column 5398.58 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire): It is a great privilege to take part in this debate. However, as tail-end Charlie on the Conservative Benches, I feel that my colleagues and Opposition Members have already said much of what I intended to say. I shall not repeat those points. It is also my privilege to be a member of the National Heritage Select Committee. Many of the issues in the White Paper have been taken directly from the Select Committee's report, which is most gratifying.
Hon. Members have rightly stated that the BBC occupies a unique place in world broadcasting. Michael Grade's phrase, "a national treasure", has been quoted many times. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said that the BBC is the best broadcasting company in the world. Whether it is or not, it is interesting to note that BBC television won 256 awards in 1994, more than in any other previous year, and what a range of awards for such a range of programmes.
I shall name just a few of the award winners from what is a very long list. They ranged from "Absolutely Fabulous", which won an Emmy for the best popular entertainment, to "File on Four", which won a One World Broadcasting Trust premier award. "One Foot in the Grave" received an award from the Royal Television Society for its brilliant construction. "Red Dwarf", a personal favourite of mine, won an Emmy. "The Bullion Boys" also won an Emmy and "The Snapper" won a BAFTA production award and the Prix Italia.
"Sport on 5" and "Radio 5 Live" have become a tremendous success under Jennifer Abramsky. She has raised "Radio 5 Live" like a phoenix from the grave of Radio 5 which was dying a death. "Radio 5 Live" is a very successful radio network in its own particular niche. "The Wrong Trousers", a marvellous cartoon, won a BAFTA and an Oscar for best animation. It is worth noting that BBC television won an unprecedented five international Emmy awards. That was the largest number won by a broadcaster since the awards began.
It is not simply a case of quality within the BBC; it is also a matter of efficiency. Before I became a Member of this House, I was involved in the construction, financing and management of radio and television stations. My company set up radio and television stations in 52 countries. I saw for myself how the BBC operated, as it was a client of mine. I also saw how broadcasters very close to the United Kingdom, such as the Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, the Dutch state broadcasting service, and Rikisut Varpid in Iceland, operated. I also saw how broadcasters operated further afield in Jakarta, Zimbabwe, south America and the United States.
It is interesting to note how efficient the BBC is in the use of its studios. When I entered radio stations and television studios in Hilversun, I saw empty studios. The BBC has come top in the European Broadcasting Union in utilising its resources. Its television studios have a 68 per cent. resource rate. That applies to the number of days in production and preparation excluding refurbishment and statutory maintenance. That is a tremendously high percentage when compared with that of other broadcasters. No one can accuse the BBC of wasting licence payers' money.
As time is short, I want briefly to raise several specific points, some of which may not have been raised so far. With regard to the White Paper's main recommendations,
Column 540I support the licence fee. It is not my natural inclination to have organisations funded in that way. My natural inclination would be to say, "Come on, let's privatise the BBC." However, that is simplistic, for the reasons that hon. Members have set out today with regard to programming thresholds and financing. It would also be a little simplistic to say that the BBC is exclusively the public service broadcaster. I heard one Labour Member say that "The Jewel in the Crown" was produced marvellously by the BBC. As I recall--
Mr. Fabricant: I am told by the hon. Gentleman that the mistake was made by a Conservative Member. Of course, "The Jewel in the Crown" and "Brideshead Revisited", both often credited to the BBC, were excellent, quality programmes made by Granada Television. However, that does not decry the point that the BBC is the major public service broadcaster not only in the United Kingdom but in the world.
As I said in an earlier intervention, I am slightly disappointed that--the hon. Member for Cathcart, whom I am tempted to call my hon. Friend, also raised this point--the Government will not raise the licence fee for those people who have two or more television sets. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been advised by his officials that, technically, one cannot measure whether a house has one or two television sets operating at any one time, but they are wrong. I speak as--possibly-- the only fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers who happens to be a member of the House. Without modification, a detector van may detect the operation of two television sets in a house. The Government should think about whether it may be worth charging homes with more than two television sets a slightly higher licence fee.
The Government are right to accept the White Paper's recommendation that the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission should be merged. That makes clear sense. I also had the privilege of sitting on the Statutory Instruments Committee--as did the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)--which enabled the BBC to branch out into international television broadcasting.
Mr. Fabricant: I do not condone that view. The subject produced an interesting debate in the Standing Committee, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out at the time. In all my two and a half years' experience in the House, it was unique to witness a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments having a decent debate and a thorough discussion. I am delighted that that SI has enabled the BBC to produce BBC World and BBC Prime.
Column 541There is no question but that the BBC has a unique reputation not only in the United Kingdom but overseas. In 1940, the BBC had the courage to broadcast the bad news. So, in 1943 and 1944 when the war began to turn in our favour and the BBC reported it, people believed that that was so. The voice of the United Kingdom was the BBC. The BBC's reputation is still strong. I was working in Moscow, as Radio Moscow was my client a few years ago, when there was a movement of troops in the streets of Moscow. We did not know what was going on. It was just prior to the coup that occurred a month later. Everybody on Radio Moscow, the national state broadcaster, was concerned about what would happen. People feared that they might have to return to the bad old days of Stalin and lose their ability to operate without a great deal of censorship.
In the main newsroom, nobody knew what was going on. The TASS feed told us nothing. Then, a friend of mine called Valentin Khlebnikov, the director of engineering at Radio Moscow at that time, took me into his office. He locked his door, pulled out the drawer of his desk, took out a shortwave radio and stuck it on his window sill. I remember that, behind the radio on the window sill, I could see the golden domes of the Kremlin. Yet, where was he getting his news? It was from the BBC world service, broadcasting in Russian, despite the fact that the news was being made within 200 or 300 m of the very building on Pyatnikaya Ulitsa in which I was standing. That is a sign of how important the BBC still is as a world broadcaster. In fact, I believe that the BBC has more listeners world wide than Radio Moscow, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and Radio Beijing combined. I wish to cover some further brief points. I have already dealt with BBC engineering in an intervention, so I shall not speak now at length. The BBC transmission department cannot operate as a commercial entity while it is still part of the BBC. Despite the fact that the BBC has produced an excellent document about fair trading, in practice, it is not possible for such an organisation to trade fairly. Although revenue costs may be isolated from BBC mainstream operations, it would be impossible to separate out the infrastructure and the BBC's capital assets. This is unfair on National Transcommunications Ltd. and other companies that might want to come into the market.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seriously to consider breaking the NTL monopoly and producing a real alternative by privatising Transmission Engineering. In any event, it is based in a separate building in Warwick, it is encapsulated, and that could easily be done.
I pay tribute to John Birt. He has had to make some very difficult decisions. I pay tribute also to Marmaduke Hussey, whom I met for the first time, some 15 years ago in Brighton, before he worked for the BBC. He and I were trying to set up a radio station in Cornwall. He could not carry on because he was then made chairman of the BBC. We should never underestimate the difficulties that Marmaduke Hussey has endured as chairman of the board of governors in getting it to support some of the initiatives and changes that John Birt has instituted.
I briefly acknowledge John Birt's statement in Ireland and his excellent article in Saturday's edition of The Times . I shall not quote huge chunks of his article,
Column 542because I shall run out of time--indeed, it has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). All that I can say to John Birt is, "Fine. Many of us agree with your sentiments, but you are the director-general, so now do something about it."
On the whole--99 per cent.--I support the White Paper, and I commend it to the House.
By and large, the reaction to the White Paper has been relief--relief that the Government have not surrendered to the Conservative Back-Bench free market ultra-enthusiasts and have abandoned the doctrinaire solutions to the corporation's future that some have proposed. I wish to sound a more critical note about the White Paper than has been expressed so far. Although there is relief at what the Government have not done in the White Paper, it could hardly be said that there has been great enthusiasm for what they propose to do in the White Paper. The reason is that the Government propose to do remarkably little in the White Paper.
The Government have rightly rejected the way forward which was advocated by some in terms of privatisation, but they have not been able to propose a convincing mission of their own for public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. There is a sense that there is a holding operation that is designed to place the BBC on an uncontroversial back-burner and avoid damaging public rows about its future while the Government fight for their survival on other fronts. That is made clear at several points in the White Paper. I was particularly interested in the paragraphs about the future of the BBC's transmission services, to which several hon. Members have referred, including the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant).
One paragraph of the White Paper tells us about the current position with the transmission services. The next paragraph tells us that, in 1989, the Government wanted to privatise the transmission network. A later paragraph tells us that, after five years of careful deliberation, the Government now do not know what they want to do. There is no conclusion on that subject in the White Paper. Although I am pleased that the Government are moving back from privatisation, contrary to Conservative Members' views, I believe that there has been a flagrant loss of nerve on their part. That is a telling pointer to the vacuum that exists at the heart of what ought to be the Government's policy.
The BBC's transmission network could, and should, be an important element in the development of the United Kingdom information super-highway. The fact that, after years of deliberation, the Government clearly do not know what to do about it is symptomatic of the wider inertia gripping them in that context, to the deep detriment of the national interest.
That vacuum is most damagingly apparent in section 2 of the White Paper, which contains the discussion of the
"BBC's role in the United Kingdom".