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6.50 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): I am obliged to the Secretary of State for National Heritage for her tribute to the work of the Select Committee on National Heritage. The two bases of the documents that we are discussing--the new 10-year charter starting this year and that the BBC be funded in that period by the licence--were first recommended by the Select Committee in its report, published on 9 December 1993. As the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) said, since then, the whole television landscape has changed. The Select Committee warned that it would in its report, and its recommendations were made in the context of that anticipated change. I have consistently repeated that warning.

There are now--and there were not when the Select Committee reported--not four, but 39 television channels available in this country. Terrestrial Channel 5 is due to start on 1 January next year and eight new Granada satellite channels are due to come into operation in October this year. So soon we shall have 48 channels, and there are many more to come--this is just the beginning. Digital compression, referred to by the righthon. Gentleman, on-demand services and interactive services have not begun yet, but they will become increasingly dominant in the television scene.

Already the BBC's share of the television audience has fallen to 43 per cent. Cable and satellite now account for 10 per cent. of viewers. The country's streets are being dug up by cable companies. Satellite is expanding the whole time. There is no doubt that the audience for terrestrial television will fall and that the audience for the newer technologies will rise. Even Mr. Birt, Director-General of the BBC, has claimed that the BBC will have no more than 30 per cent. of the television audience by the end of this century, which may be an optimistic claim.

The new television scene is demonstrated by the fact that all attention in television competition is now focused on the rivalry not of the BBC with ITV, as was the case until recently, but of all terrestrial television--Channels1 to 4--with satellite and cable. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) referred to last week's House of Lords vote on listed events. The controversy over such events and the discussion about the supply of news to Channels 3 and 4--whether it shall continue to be provided universally by ITN or whether BSkyB shall have an opportunity to make some, if not all, provision--demonstrate that the shadow of the newer technologies looms over the increasingly antiquated technology of terrestrial television.

After all, what recourse will terrestrial television have if, with reference to the argument about sporting events, satellite or cable television companies, with their large sums of money--cable companies are backed by immensely rich transatlantic conglomerates--decide to emulate Ted Turner in the United States of America, and

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buy a Premier League football club or a major rugger club and obtain exclusive rights to the televising of their games?

In that new environment, with choice proliferating and with the BBC audience share becoming ever smaller, as we discuss these documents, we must ask ourselves what claim the BBC has for the special consideration provided by this agreement, especially in relation to licence funding. The BBC is in no doubt. Its bosses claim that they are the custodians of public service broadcasting and that that is why the BBC is special.

There is no doubt that the BBC invented the concept of public service broadcasting. It was emulated by ITV and by reputable broadcasting organisations throughout the world. The concept of public service radio and television is a priceless legacy created by the BBC's founders and the people who were then in charge of the BBC over several decades. The question is whether the present-day BBC is worthy of the public service legacy that it created. I doubt it more day by day.

Although the BBC arrogates to itself the benefits of the public service broadcasting legacy, especially total access to licence funding, I fear that there is accumulating evidence that that legacy, which is precious in terms of standards, is being wantonly frittered away and that, more and more, the BBC is becoming just another broadcasting organisation, jeopardising quality standards in the quest of the fool's gold of audience ratings.

Let us consider some examples--for instance, the "Panorama" interview with the Princess of Wales. I am not among the people who criticise the BBC for obtaining and transmitting that interview--it was a legitimate broadcasting initiative. That interview, however, had nothing to do with public service broadcasting and had everything to do with seeking and obtaining an opportunistic scoop. It could just as appropriately have been broadcast on ITV or on the Sky One, Sky News or UK Living satellite channels.

That interview could just as appropriately have been printed in any of this country's tabloid newspapers, which would have loved to be able to print it exclusively. Tabloid journalism has never claimed to operate on public service criteria. It meets what it regards as popular demand. That is not what the BBC should be about.

Let us consider the transmission on Saturday evenings of the lottery results. That transmission could appropriately appear on any other television channel, terrestrial or otherwise. It would more appropriately appear on one of those channels because it is a huge commercial for Camelot--it provides millions of pounds' worth of free publicity for a commercial organisation.

Mr. Maxton: Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is true of the BBC--that it is not only a public service broadcaster, but a broadcaster of entertainment? "EastEnders" could equally be shown on ITV or on Sky. So what? What point is my right hon. Friend is trying to make?

Mr. Kaufman: I am trying to make the point that entertainment of a high standard is also public service broadcasting. My hon. Friend's implication that only the solemn and boring programmes are public service

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broadcasting is inaccurate--high-quality, popular entertainment reaching large audiences is equally public service broadcasting, and "EastEnders" is a good example. Providing popular entertainment, watched by millions, is different from departing from the concept of public service broadcasting.

The BBC is becoming a vehicle for massive exploitation by commercial organisations. For example, it is providing free publicity to companies that sponsor sport. The Select Committee on National Heritage examined those issues and it made recommendations, which the Government unwisely rejected and about which they will have to think again. The Committee was told by corporate sponsors that they would prefer the events that they sponsor to be transmitted by the BBC because the audience--and, therefore, the free publicity that they obtain--was, for the time being, much greater than that provided by the BBC's non-terrestrial rivals.

There is no doubt that the recent deal that will enable the BBC to televise future series of Olympic games has nothing to do with public service broadcasting, but everything to do with the wish of the International Olympic Committee--an increasingly tawdry commercial body--to obtain the largest possible audience for its many sponsors. The BBC may reply that, in television, it is simply responding to the compulsions of current conditions--if that is so, it proves my point. The BBC might add that its public service ethos is safeguarded on its radio wavelengths. Last month Mr. Duke Hussey, the BBC's chairman, said the following in relation to BBC Radio:

Mr. Patrick Thompson: I thank the righthon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly as I was not present for the earlier part of his speech. Does he include Radio 1 as part of the public service element of the BBC?

Mr. Kaufman: Yes, I do. Popular entertainment of a proper standard that is aimed, in particular, at young people--whether it is Radio 1 or Radio 2--can be a good example of public service broadcasting. However, that does not mean that it must necessarily be a good example.

I agree with Mr. Hussey that BBC radio must be distinctive in order to justify the licence fee. However, BBC radio is not as distinctive as it ought to be, and it is becoming less distinctive. Therefore, according to the criteria laid down by the chairman of the BBC, it is justifying the licence fee less and less.

Radio 4 still has many high standards--it has not yet been ruined--but constantly its standards are reduced or assailed. It has an exceptionally loyal audience. However, I know from correspondence that I receive that that audience is regularly affronted by what is being done to Radio 4.

Mr. Fabricant: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Maxton: Your right hon. Friend?

Mr. Kaufman: I look for friends in the House wherever I can find them. I wish to complete this section of my speech before I give way. Paragraph 3.3 of the agreement states:

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That is a sine qua non of the agreement, yet an account of debates in the House is now only partly available: at night it is broadcast only on long-wave; the morning account, far from being an impartial account of the proceedings, has become the equivalent of a journalist's parliamentary sketch rather than a report; and it is not available on FM. That being so, I believe that the BBC is not maintaining the standards that are required by the document.

Many other changes are being made to reduce the standards of Radio 4. For example, the team at "Gardeners' Question Time" has had to seek refuge on Classic FM. There has been a huge reduction in the audience of "The Financial World Tonight", and it has been sent on to the trunk tundra of Radio 5. Other changes are being made, and are deeply resented by the loyal audience of Radio 4.

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