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8.16 pm

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham): The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) kept his word. His speech was briefer than that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who took half an hour. The hon. Gentleman took only 23 or 24 minutes. He and I were in the same college 40 years ago. He was serious then; he is still serious 40 years later. I could not cheer him up then and I do not think that I can do so now. Why on earth cannot he be a little more full of zest and enthusiasm?

There are some wonderful things going on. The Secretary of State mentioned the brilliant BBC series, "Pride and Prejudice". With it I would bracket the brilliant "Middlemarch" production two years ago, which related

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to a similar period. The producer, who is my near neighbour--he lives about 300 yds away--Dr. Louis Marks, is chairman of the Hampton Court Green residents association. The BBC produces a plethora of superb travel programmes, features of all sorts, music, plays and more. By and large, it continues to uphold its very high standards.

I do not share the pessimism of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the condition of Radio 3. He talked as though it had come out of some golden age and was getting worse. I agree with him in that I, too, do not like to hear an announcer with a transatlantic accent, an oily voice and a mental age of 12 introducing Beethoven. I prefer a more dignified announcer on Radio 3, but that just happens to be my taste. I greatly resent the removal of "Composer of the Week" from 9 am, when I was able to listen to it in my bath, to 12 o'clock, when I can hardly ever hear it, which I deplore. The BBC promenade concerts constitute a marvellous festival of first-class music which is second to none in the world. They are broadcast live on Radio 3 every night in the summer season.

I wish that we could have more live broadcasts of orchestral concerts at other times of the year, as we used to. They have gone out of fashion. They have been largely replaced by discs. No doubt cost has something to do with that, but live concerts, with the audience clapping and coughing, have an electric feel about them that one cannot quite get from a recording.

We should be enormously proud of the BBC's achievements. However, I share the view expressed in the Select Committee on National Heritage's report of November 1995, in which I took an active part, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton)--I hope that he might catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that this will be the last 10-year charter.

The right hon. Member for Gorton mentioned that there are now 38 channels, that there will be 49 by the end of the year, and that the share of the four--to become five--terrestrial channels is diminishing with the arrival of the large number of cable and satellite channels, but he did not mention that, in five or 10 years, or perhaps even sooner, people will be able to dial their telephone, receive any video on cable and have the cost put on their telephone bill. The notion of a daily menu of four or five fixed channels provided by the authority and from which the viewer chooses one, will wither away. People will choose what to have, much as they do now with videos through the possession or borrowing of a cassette, but in future the video will be able to come along a wire.

I do not see how the BBC will be able to retain its present audience share, however good it is. Its share is bound to diminish and, when it does, the public will not wear paying a licence fee of the order of £100 when most of them are not watching it. That change is bound to occur, and so I believe that this will be the last 10-year licence.

I welcome the reference in the document to the BBC's impartiality, which is important. I know that the BBC is enormously proud of it and that it tries hard at election time to treat the political parties fairly. The "Today" programme falls short of that aim, which is due to the BBC's tendency--to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet referred--to try to keep up its audience ratings. One way to do that is to create artificial

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personalities for the interviewers, question masters or programme introducers. They are almost encouraged to try to build up their own public. The interviewer then begins to think that he is nearly as important, or even as important, as the person being interviewed. The "Today" programme employs the appalling practice of fading out whoever is being interviewed whenever the interviewer wants to ask another question. That is extremely annoying, it is bad behaviour, and it shows bad taste on the part of the BBC. It should be stopped forthwith.

While I am on the subject of impartiality, Opposition Members have mentioned the appointment ofSir Christopher Bland as chairman. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred to it. Opposition Members have gone a little over the top on the subject. We should not forget that the deputy chairman of the BBC is Lord Cocks who, for many years, was a distinguished Labour Chief Whip and much respected in all parts of the House. That was his life--he is far more of a political animal than is Sir Christopher Bland.

I was a member of the Greater London council from 1967--the year that Sir Christopher Bland was elected to it. In 1967, there was a political landslide. A Labour Government had been elected with an increased majority in the spring of 1966, but by the spring of 1967, when the Greater London council election took place, one of the periodical and sudden sea changes that take place in British public opinion had occurred and there was an enormous swing to the Conservatives. The GLC was elected to consist of about 80 Tory and 20 Labour members. The swing was so unexpected that, about two months before, in February or March 1967, Ladbroke had offered odds of 500 to one against a Tory majority on the GLC of more than 20. Two months later, the actual Tory majority was 60.

Christopher Bland was a young man aged about 28 or 29 who stood in Lewisham and Deptford, which was a multi-member constituency. He could not have expected to be elected, but there was a totally surprising massive landslide and he was elected for three years. He took his position seriously and became chairman of an education sub-committee of the Inner London education authority.I believe that, since ceasing to be a member of the GLC in 1970, he has taken no active part in the politics of any political party. One would hardly expect intelligent people in their 20s not to have some sort of political opinion. The combination of Sir Christopher Bland and Lord Cocks will be politically impartial.

Dr. Moonie: We are not questioning the impartiality or otherwise of Sir Christopher Bland. We are questioning the wisdom of the Government making such an appointment without consulting the Opposition parties. Were we to do the same thing in a few years' time and, hypothetically, appoint Lord Banks of Newham, a former Labour councillor, to the head of the BBC, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman might rant and rave about it.

Mr. Jessel: I do not think that that will happen.I respect the hon. Member for Newham, North-West(Mr. Banks) for his intelligence and wit. He was a colourful chairman of the GLC about 15 years ago, but I do not think that he would expect to become the chairman of the BBC. He is a totally different sort of personality from either Lord Cocks or Sir Christopher Bland.

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I welcome the Secretary of State's reference to the "taste and decency" provision in the document. I do not mind a bit of vulgarity on television or radio programmes as long as it is funny, but the vicious violence that has become so common in the news and other programmes is bad for children. I am glad that the charter and the associated document are likely to curtail that.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your patience and I shall now sit down to give others the chance to speak.

8.27 pm

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe): I much enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), but it would have been even more enjoyable to hear him perform, with all his customary brilliance, as a musician. As he knows, I hold his skills and achievements as a musician in high admiration.

As a member for many years of the BBC's General Advisory Council, it may be thought by some that I have an interest to declare in this debate. But there is no payment for membership of the GAC. Indeed it could be argued that to give that form of public service is to incur costs, not to inflict them. Nevertheless, the experience is seen as eminently worthwhile by those, from all walks of life, who have had the honour of serving on a council set up to advise the best public broadcaster in the world. So the only interest I need declare today is the public interest.

In intervening in the debate, my purpose is to assert the public interest in common access to sport. Majorities have rights as well as minorities and love of money must not be allowed to take precedence over the love of sport. Over 30 million people cannot see Sky, but they ought not for that reason to be excluded from access to sporting events that are an undoubted and unquestionably important part of our national heritage.

In particular today, I want to move the debate on access to sport forward from the victory achieved in another place on 6 February by my noble Friend, Lord Howell, in protecting access for mainstream broadcasters to such major sporting events as the FA Cup final, the Wimbledon finals, the Grand National, the Derby and the rest of the "Crown jewels" of British sport, as they have become known.

While none of us wants to understate the importance of that victory in the Lords, which I am sure this House will soon confirm, all of us must accept that the future of the "Crown jewels" is not the only issue of importance in protecting common access to sport. There is also the critical issue of "unbundling" and the question of what is loosely called, 'Must Carry'/'Must Offer'/'EasyFind'. The new charter establishes the BBC as a licence fee funded universal service. In future, however, cable or other delivery systems could start excluding BBC services if they wished to give more weight to commercial cable broadcasting. This would damage the BBC's position as a universal broadcaster and undermine its new charter.

To avoid that happening, we must now ensure that, where a subscription channel such as Sky Sports holds all rights to a sporting event that is not among those listed in the Lords' "Crown jewels" amendment of 6 February, the right to TV or radio highlights are not hoarded by that channel. All of us know that sports bodies want to maximise their revenue, but that need not mean excluding sporting events that substantial numbers of people want

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to see from being shown live on mainstream channels or in highlight programmes like "Match of the Day", or perhaps from being heard on live radio.

As of now, where there is a strong media player in the field, with bottomless pockets and a virtual monopoly, they are in a strong position to say to the sports bodies what they will and will not offer and to insist on all rights for that amount. That is why we need regulatory adjustments to open up sport to all viewers and listeners. The BBC suggests--and I agree--that where a subscription channel has live rights, the rights for highlights or for radio transmission will have to be sold on to other channels with a universal audience.

The ITC should have responsibility for regulating this and it could be done in the conditions it imposes by the terms of its licences on subscription broadcasters. Moreover, the ITC could be made responsible under the Broadcasting Bill also for regulating the BBC, should it come to have a minority subscription channel in the future, as much as BSkyB. So it will not be a case of preferring one channel to another. Similarly, the Radio Authority could regulate the radio channels while the Director General of Fair Trading would have the ultimate sanctions. I am not suggesting that these changes should be retrospective. Thus there will be no question of existing contracts being hit.

What I propose would help sports bodies by creating a new set of secondary sporting rights. There would be live rights on TV; there would be recorded rights and rights to highlights; and there would be live radio rights. No large media owner would any longer be able to tell the sports rights holders that he would negotiate only if all rights were sold to him. Sports bodies would be able to negotiate in different markets and achieve the best price in each.

As well as working in the interests of sports bodies, the revised system would be more viewer/listener friendly and take away from all broadcasters rights to claim exclusivity in transmitting events of national interest. That is the best long-term bet to stop monopolies emerging. While it would be nice to believe the market would protect sports bodies and viewers and listeners alike, sadly we already have cases where satellite channels refuse to sell rights on to more mainstream broadcasting like, for example, the Ryder cup.

Lord Howell in the Lords debate on 6 February exhibited the exclusive contract agreed between Sky Sports and the golfing authorities for last year's Ryder cup in which are written the words:

thus excluding tens of millions of people. That is the writing on the wall in terms that could hardly be more stark or more serious. It says it all.

The arrival of sports channels on satellite and cable television widens opportunities for viewers of sports events. Increasingly, however, major sporting events are no longer available to be shown on terrestrial television, which the viewers who are excluded see as abuse of power by a fortunate minority. Excluding the majority has clear implications for the future of British sport. If sporting events are available only to a small minority of viewers, fewer people will be motivated to become actively involved in sporting activities and, as every Member of this House knows, there will always be a

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significant minority of people who will not be able to afford subscription services. That minority includes young people who will be increasingly denied access to the role that sport can play in the encouragement and development of skills.

I turn now to the issue of 'Must Carry'/'Must Offer'/'Easy Find'. The new charter establishes the BBC as a licence fee funded universal service. In future, however, cable or other delivery systems could start excluding BBC services if they wished to give more weight to commercial cable broadcasters. This would damage the BBC's standing as an universal broadcasters.

Over the next 10 years, as new distribution stems fragment the audience, the BBC's future as an universally available public service broadcaster will become increasingly dependent on its ability to reach audiences through all available distribution systems. This issue is not dealt with in the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will address it in winding up today's debate.

If all audiences are to be guaranteed access to core, licence-funded BBC services over the life of the corporation's new charter, the digital world will need to guarantee 'Must Carry' status to those channels on wire-based systems and 'Must Offer' status through satellite conditional access boxes. 'Must Carry' and 'Must Offer' regulations would ensure that, in the multi-channel environment, publicly funded channels were available as a matter of course via all delivery systems, and without the need for viewers to buy additional equipment. It is important for the Government also to recognise, just as the United States Government have now done, that public service networks must be given a prominent placing on any future electronic "programme navigation" system.

Much more will have to be said about these issues when the Broadcasting Bill comes to the House, but today's debate must not conclude without a clear response from the Government to the concerns they arouse, not only on both sides of the House, for happily this is not a party issue, but all across this country.

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