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8.37 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). He was right to say that many such issues are not party political. That is clear in the National Heritage Select Committee, where divisions of opinion are never on party lines.

We have the opportunity today to discuss the BBC agreement. Let us take a brief opportunity to look at the BBC as it exists at present. Some 95 per cent. of United Kingdom households watch or listen to the BBC for at least two hours a week. The average United Kingdom household watches or listens to BBC programmes for48 hours a week. The BBC is the biggest producer of programmes in Europe, with half a million hours per year of home grown programmes on television and radio. BBC television broadcasts more than 13,000 hours of programmes in the United Kingdom every year.

However, nothing stands still. I agree with myhon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) who said that technological advances ought to lead to the establishment of some form of communications commission--rather like the Federal Communications Commission in the United States--to examine all forms of electronic communication. In future there will be a

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greater overlap than exists at present between text, picture and other information which travels downline to computers, and what we know today as broadcast television. The two will become indistinguishable.

For that reason, I disagreed with my hon. Friend when he said that modern technology would lead to a licensing system for each television set and video recorder in the home. I argue that, by the time televisions and video recorders are fitted with such a device, it will become irrelevant. I am drawn more to the argument put by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton(Mr. Kaufman).

Mr. Maxton: The other right-winger.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman may refer to him in that way. The right hon. Gentleman said that the licensing position will become unsustainable--and it will. The BBC maintains that it will be able to hold on to about 30 per cent. of its audience in 10 years' time. I do not agree--not because of any fault on the part of the BBC, but because technology is changing and there will be a plethora of other broadcast as well as narrowcast media. In those circumstances, the BBC--or any other organisation--will be unable to retain a large chunk of the audience. For that reason, the right hon. Member for Gorton is correct: the licence fee will be unsustainable.

That fact was reflected in the report of the National Heritage Select Committee, which said that, although some hon. Members view privatising the BBC as a very attractive proposition, it would be impossible at present. The Committee heard evidence from representatives of Independent Television, Channel 4 and independent local radio stations. They said that, if the BBC were to try to raise even part of its £1.8 billion income from advertising, it would destroy existing commercial radio and television stations. That is absolutely correct.

With regard to transmission facilities, I am pleased to see that site sharing will continue--whether the BBC operates its transmitters or whether it is done through another privatised authority. That is tremendously important. One of the great advantages of terrestrial broadcasting in this country is that our transmission is broadcast on 625 lines and in PAL. That is far superior to the American system, which is broadcast on 525 lines in accordance with the National Television Standards Committee. The joke in the broadcasting industry is that NTSC stands for "never twice the same colour".

The French system is called SECAM and, apart from the French, it has been adopted only by the Algerians and the Russians. I am not sure what SECAM stands for in French, but in the broadcasting industry it is said to stand for "something essentially contrary to the American method". In this country we have the PAL system, which means not only "phase alternate line" but "peace at last". The point is that PAL and 625-line television is the best form of non-high-definition terrestrial transmission. It is made even better by the fact that, because of site sharing, one needs only one small UHF aerial directed at a single point to pick up all transmissions. I am pleased that site sharing will be maintained.

I flag the point that I made by way of intervention to the Secretary of State earlier today. I should be very disturbed if BBC television transmitters were sold lock,

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stock and barrel to National Transcommunications Ltd. There is nothing wrong with NTL--as I said earlier, it is a world leader in research and development in digital terrestrial and digital satellite transmission. I like to think that I was possibly the person who transformed the Independent Broadcasting Authority's engineering division--before it was privatised and became NTL--into a commercial operation.

At that time, I was running a company called MBI Broadcast Systems, which was based in Brighton. We had a factory in Cornwall and an assembly plant at a lovely village called Small Dole in Sussex. We tendered to build and design radio studios in Uganda, Indonesia and other countries. For the information of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), BBC radio stations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Stornoway were equipped by my company before I sold it. That reminds me that I should declare an interest in the debate, as I have an ad hoc relationship with the BBC through a technical and marketing consultancy.

Although we supplied that equipment, we did not have expertise in studio-to-transmitter links. I approached the engineering division of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which decided to enter into an arrangement with my company. It was decided that, if the company won the contract, the IBA would get a fee. We won the contract and the IBA received a fee--which I think was its first commercial venture before it was later privatised and became the NTL.

Rightly or wrongly, some ITV and independent local radio contractors argue that NTL's prices are a little high. They would be bound to say that. If there is to be competition, there must be at least a duopoly--the privatised BBC organisation competing against the NTL. As I said to the Secretary of State, whether or not there is a Monopolies and Mergers Commission, there should be an amendment to say that when the BBC transmission facilities are privatised they cannot be acquired by NTL.

Dr. Moonie: How does the hon. Gentleman propose to get a duopoly operating when the two organisations share 75 per cent. of the transmitters?

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. They do not share the transmitters: they share the transmitter sites. That is very different. They are two separate organisations and they rent from each other. I shall not bore the House with the mechanism by which the system operates at the moment. It is irrelevant whether the BBC transmission engineering department, which is based in Warwick, is owned by the BBC or whether it is a privatised organisation as it would continue to operate in the same way. However, it would be in competition when leasing out transmitter facilities at the transmitter sites.

The agreement is very brave in the way that it approaches the BBC digital multiplex. It would have been easy--and rather facile--to say that the digital multiplex could provide six, eight, 10 or 12 channels. There have been developments in the past few months and we know that as many as 16 or even 32 channels can be provided on one multiplex. It is good that the issue remains open.

It is also encouraging that the BBC is obliged to carry its existing terrestrial services on the digital satellite multiplex. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) referred to the difficulty of receiving Radio 4 on long

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wave. We should not forget that some parts of the country have difficulty receiving terrestrial BBC or ITV. That is a particular problem in Scotland and in Wales, where it is difficult to get universal coverage--although about98 per cent. of the population is covered by terrestrial television.

I am also pleased that there is a commitment in the agreement to continue the BBC research and development department. I visited its headquarters at Kingswood Warren in Surrey only recently. The BBC is a world leader in television and radio research. I especially wish to commend the team who are working on a system called dynamic chromakey. If you thought "Jurassic Park" was good, Mr. Deputy Speaker, watch this space. Incidentally, the television and computer equipment which generated the graphics for "Jurassic Park" was made in Reading. Although Spielberg is based in the United States, much of the hardware for film, radio and television is manufactured in the United Kingdom and shipped out to the United States.

Many hon. Members have spoken about sporting facilities and listed events. The Labour party was rather cynical when it brought forward its recommendations in the House of Lords. The Labour party brought the question of sport into the debate very early, when the debate was really about developing digital technologies and other opportunities. A vote was forced even while there was consultation under way.

Dr. Moonie: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fabricant: I shall not give way as I have been told to hurry up. I am sure that hon. Members will be heartened by the fact that I am dropping a lot of the pages of my speech on to the Bench.

The right hon. Member for Gorton was the only Member to mention another important point. The agreement is a fine document, but in my opinion much of it is unenforceable. It leaves many of the powers to the governors of the BBC. The governors are fine, decent, upstanding men and women, but I do not believe that that is enough. As with the Scott report, if I may mention that, justice must not only be done--it must be seen to be done.

I know, because I have friends in the corporation, that when people make complaints to the BBC they are treated very seriously, but the complainants do not always know that. We now have a golden opportunity. The National Heritage Select Committee has recommended that the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission be merged, and that will now be done. I am pleased that the Broadcasting Standards Commission will be formed, but it must also be made ultimately responsible for controlling the BBC. I know that no serious argument against that has been proposed in the Department of National Heritage, either by officials or by Ministers. One argument put forward concerns symmetry because the BBC already has a board of governors. That is nonsense because the Independent Television Commission supervises ITV and the Radio Authority supervises independent radio. Yet we still say that the Broadcasting Standards Commission should be a last resort for complaints. The same should apply to the BBC.

At the moment, the Broadcasting Standards Council considers matters of taste and any viewer can make a complaint. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission

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deals with unfairness, but a particular viewer must make a complaint. The situation should be widened so that the Broadcasting Standards Commission not only considers both areas but anybody can make a complaint. The tired old argument from the civil service that the new bodywill be flooded with complaints is fatuous and non-philosophical. The body that deals with newspapers was not flooded with complaints, although newspapers are far greater offenders than the BBC or ITV or independent local radio.

I shall sit down now--red in the face, but confident that my hon. Friend the Minister is not like the Labour party which, like the Trustees Savings Bank, likes to say yes, but like the Midland Bank, which likes to listen.

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