Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.58 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): I wish to make some quick points about the Scottish situation. I found the Secretary of State's response on regional television extremely unconvincing. If she intends that one BBC channel should have a regional element and the other not, that is how the clause should be written.

I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) and for Western Isles(Mr. Macdonald) about Radio Nan Gaidheal. I also agree with what has been said about the Scottish Broadcasting Council and the need to revise and make the council's powers much clearer. I am not happy about the governors appointing the council. Although it has been said that they will consult various organisations, the charter does not actually state that--and I believe that it should.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy will agree that once we have a Scottish Parliament, after the next general election, we shall expect the Scottish Parliament to have a say in the appointment of the council. I also expect it to have a major say in the appointment of the national governor for Scotland. It is totally wrong to have a national governor for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland, but not for England. There should be a governor appointed as the national governor for England in addition to the other governors. Otherwise, the implication is that all the governors are English governors and the national governors are tagged on at the end. That is not right.

On the question of sport, there is an argument which says that sporting bodies have an absolute right to market their sport for the maximum price that they can get from television. That is a perfectly valid argument. However, if that happens, the sporting bodies cannot turn round and say to Parliament and the Government that they want money from the taxpayers to fund their sports. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot take enormous sums from BSkyB and show their sports to only a tiny section of the community and then expect the rest of the community to fund their sports through the lottery or the tax system. If the taxpayers fund sport, they are entitled to a say in how that sport is shown on television. The solution is as simple as that, and we must endorse it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made an important point. It is extremely sad that Members on both sides of the House have talked about the next 10 years being the last 10 years of the BBC and, however good we think it is, we are looking at its end. The BBC is the best broadcasting company in the world. I have 60 channels on my cable at

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1219

home and I spend 95 per cent. of my watching time, which may be limited, watching BBC. I very rarely watch cable; if I do, I watch old films, sport or, of course, old BBC programmes which are regurgitated by the cable companies.

The BBC is best. If one wants to watch good television in the United States, one tunes to the public service channels, which broadcast BBC programmes. They show ITV as well, but those programmes are good because of the quality of the BBC. Our job is not to destroy a national asset over the next 10 years, but to preserve it. That is the job of any responsible person who believes in the future of broadcasting.

Everyone accepts that there will be major technological change. My wife, children and friends would say that I am a techno-nut. I am the person in our house who knows how to work the computer and video--it is not the kids. I go for every gimmick and gizmo that comes out: I love them--I think that they are wonderful. However, people confuse the development of technology with its accessibility and use, which are on a much longer time scale. There are people in this country who, because they cannot afford anything else, still watch the black and white television that they bought 30 years ago. Some parts of the country cannot receive NICAM transmissions. Other rapid technological developments will take time to be taken up. The consumer will say, "I can see that the picture is a bit better, and I accept that I could receive 200 channels--but that will cost me £300 or £400 a year; I may also have to pay monthly for the channels that I want, and I am not prepared to pay that much." The time scale will be longer even than 10 years before terrestrial television as we know it disappears completely. Many people, particularly poorer members of society, will continue to require it.

I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton about the licence fee, when he questions why poor people should pay it. It will be poorer people who will continue to watch BBC terrestrial channels. I disagree also with my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy because I do not think that it is right to impose a five-year limit on the fee: it should last 10 years--for the full period of the charter--and be renewable thereafter. One thinks of the quality of the BBC in terms of its public service commitment and of the entertainment and drama that it produces--not just series such as "Pride and Prejudice", but "A Mug's Game", "All Creatures Great and Small" and "Last of the Summer Wine".

Mr. Fabricant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maxton: I would rather not. I have only two minutes left.

One cannot separate the BBC's high quality programming from the licence fee. The two are inseparable. Independent funding that has nothing to do with the marketplace allows the BBC to concentrate on quality programming, rather than on selling itself in the marketplace--as it would have to do, if it relied on the market for funding. Get rid of the licence fee and you get rid of the BBC and the high quality entertainment to which not only this country has become accustomed but which increasingly perceptive audiences in the

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1220

United States, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries want. The BBC must retain a funding system, such as a licence fee, in one form or another, although there may be different methods, as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) suggested.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton that it was a mistake not to allow BT to be a broadcaster, and that we ought to combine the BBC and BT into a broadcasting company. The difference between us is that my right hon. Friend sees such a venture as being in the private sector, whereas I see it in the public sector.

Mr. Fabricant: Old Labour.

Mr. Maxton: Absolutely.

9.4 pm

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): I will impose a ten-minute rule on my speech.

Mr. Maxton: Less now.

Mr. Thompson: Then I shall have to impose an eight-minute rule. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly.

Earlier, it was said that the subject of the debate does not appear to follow party lines. I found myself agreeing with part of almost every speech. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) will be astonished to know that I was able to agree with him and, at the same time, with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), although I am not sure how that was achieved. It makes the point, however, that this debate has not been conducted along party lines. As time has gone on, I have realised that the key word is the "agreement"--on which we are voting tonight, if I understand it correctly--between the Government and the BBC, but we are allowed also to comment on the draft charter.

One thing has disturbed me--I hope that myhon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure me on this.I will support the motion with a little reluctance because I have the feeling that there will be no change in the draft as a result of the debate. If we have open government--if that is not an issue today, what is--it is important that the Government listen to such debates.

Irrespective of the time that I have to make any points, hon. Members have made many good points, with many of which I, as a non-expert, agree. My first plea to my hon. Friend the Minister, and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that they assure the House that it will be possible to amend the charter as a result of those good points, even though, in statutory terms, that does not have to happen.

I want to refer to two issues. One was raised indirectly by the hon. Member for Cathcart when he referred to the Scottish Broadcasting Council. As I made clear in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am concerned about local consultation.

One of the reasons why I wanted to speak in the debate even though I am not a member of the Select Committee on National Heritage is that, in the longer term, the media and communications are the issues confronting the country. All hon. Members have strong views about the

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1221

media because we deal with or run away from them so much--we either confront them or not, but they are the issue. Therefore, although we are discussing only the BBC, the question of the media is vital to Parliament. That is my other excuse for wanting to participate in the debate.

In my early years, I was brought up in Writtle in Essex and I therefore have a link with the BBC. It may be in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale).

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon): Not quite, but it is close.

Mr. Thompson: Very close. I was born in Writtle, which has a link with Marconi, with the BBC and with Freddie Grisewood. I am old enough to remember him. I am not sure how many other hon. Members do. I get enthusiastic about such characters. I was brought up with the great BBC tradition and the fantastic reputation that it had over the years, and still has. If I make some critical comments, as some of my colleagues have done, that should not override the BBC's good reputation down the years. That shows the wisdom of the people involved in it from 1926, when it all began.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet(Mr. Gale) spoke about local radio and television. I support his remarks. More resources should go into that. We have our own local station, BBC Radio Norfolk, which does a good job with its talk shows and with interacting with the public. I pay tribute to local radio and television stations.

We are debating the draft charter and the agreement. Listen though I might, it has been difficult to tie the debate to those agreements. I have read them. I am not a lawyer and, after 12 years in Parliament, I am as baffled by the language of these things as I was 12 years ago.I agree with the comment on that subject. I have no idea whether all this is enforceable.

The charter and, I think, the agreement talk about the BBC being an independent public service. I supporthon. Members who have said that the BBC must maintain its independence. That is important.

I support those who say that the public service element is vital to any debate about the BBC--that is where I found myself sympathising with a great deal that was said by the right hon. Member for Gorton. It is all very well to write the public service into the charter, or into the agreement, but we are not debating that element of the BBC. Until the 1970s, we all knew what was meant by public service. We then had the Annan report, which was the beginning of liberal pluralism. I do not have time to develop that theme. However, for those hon. Members who are interested, I recommend a book written by James Curran and Jean Seaton entitled "Power without Responsibility". Liberal pluralism is still with us, and it means that broadcasting should cater for a full range of groups and interests in society, rather than offer moral leadership. That debate has not yet been resolved.

Because of the time constraints, I shall not embark on the section of my speech that deals with moral leadership. If I had, I might have been tempted to talk about the Church of England, the family, politicians and the Nolan report. We must continue the debate about public service. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet has

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1222

pointed out, these days high standards do not always prevail in journalism. I support everything that he said in that regard. It is a problem and we shall have to talk about it--I note that no one is sitting in the Press Gallery--until people sit up and take notice.

I refer briefly to the issue that I raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the beginning of my speech: the local consultation process. I support the concerns that have been expressed by various speakers, but we seem to have national councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and regional advisory committees for England. I do not think any work has been done on this: someone has forgotten to get it right. It is deliberate Government policy--I hope that my hon. Friend can give a good explanation for it. We currently have a perfectly good English Regional Forum, but it is not in the charter or in the agreement. The local radio advisory councils--perhaps they should include television, but that is a pedantic point--should be in the charter because they are doing magnificently good work. I know of people who serve on those bodies.

My hon. Friend will know the arguments because they have been debated in the other place and they have been referred to tonight. I have not been reassured by the debate. The Government are doing a good job in relation to the media generally--I am happy about the Broadcasting Bill and about a great deal else that they are doing. However, the charter and the agreement are not being done properly.

I hope my hon. Friend will reassure me on the question of local accountability and local consultation, because I am not satisfied on that point. I also hope that he will reassure us that the points that we have made will be considered and, if necessary, the charter will be redrafted.

Next Section

IndexHome Page