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9.13 pm

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross): A number of hon. Members have mentioned Scotland in passing. I shall address the extent to which the BBC is currently meeting--or not meeting--the needs of Scottish listeners and viewers. A number of obvious fundamental truths emerge when we look at it from this perspective.I shall start with centralism in the BBC, which has been mentioned. The BBC is essentially a deeply centralist organisation. For example, before the White Paper was published, the BBC centralised control of its technical resources in a London-based resources department. That took no account of the different circumstances facing Scotland and Northern Ireland, where access to resources outside those of the BBC is somewhat different from that of London. The result of that exercise was the closure of BBC Scotland's design, wardrobe and make-up departments, with a loss of more than 80 jobs--and, equally importantly, the loss of a significant resource base.

Most of my criticisms tonight will be directed more at the central body of the BBC than at its outlying organisations. At present, the BBC makes only 3 per cent. of its programmes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland--areas inhabited by 17 per cent. of the United Kingdom population. I know that the Government have recognised that as a problem, but thus far nothing concrete has been done to redress the balance. The BBC has promised that broadly one third of its programmes will be made outside London. That is a shallow promise, since various categories of programming--news, parliamentary reports and sport--are excluded.

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The net result is that only an extra six hours a week of television programmes will be made outside London, taking the network contribution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from 3 to 4.2 per cent.--not a remarkable improvement.

When attempts at decentralisation are made, they often fall foul of the deeply ingrained southern-centred management. The Derek Jameson show on Radio 2 relocated to Glasgow, but only in so far as the principals of production and presentation commute by shuttle. That is not what most people would regard as real decentralisation.

At this point I should remind the House, in case anyone is unaware of it, that the BBC raises more in licence fees in Scotland than it spends there--dare I say it, a form of tartan tax. I note that clause 2.2(a), already mentioned several times this evening, of the BBC agreement says that the two television services may include regional variations. I would certainly echo the view of others that the word "may" should be altered to "must" or "shall".

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State's assurances given in the House, she must know that what will be held in law to be binding will be what is in the agreement, not what has been said here. Ultimately, what is said here is regarded as fairly irrelevant in any court. If that is not true of the English courts, it is certainly true in the Scottish courts.

The centralisation of the BBC gives serious cause for concern in the important sphere of news and current affairs. At present, 97 per cent. of news and current affairs seen on the BBC in Scotland comes from London, where there is clearly a great struggle to come to terms with the four-party system that has operated in Scotland for almost 30 years. That is not to mention the apparent ignorance of--or possibly deliberate indifference to--the fact that in Scotland local elections frequently take place at different times from English ones--hence the debacle of the "Panorama" row last year, which resulted in the BBC being interdicted by a Scottish court. In London, it has probably been forgotten that Scotland has a different legal system too.

While I am on the subject of ignorance, I might also point out that clause 2.2(c) says that the BBC will provide one sound service in Scotland. Which service will that be--Radio Scotland or Radio nan Gaidheal? Or did someone forget that there are two services in Scotland? Perhaps, on the other hand, this is laying the ground for a future change of policy at the BBC. The difficulty for the Secretary of State is that what is actually said in the agreement is what will be relied on in future.

Under the current charter, the national broadcasting councils have a policy control function, but under the new charter their powers are redefined as "to advise and assist". This is yet another centralising move that effectively takes power out of the hands of broadcasting councils and gives it to the governors. As the governors also have the power to appoint the broadcasting councils, I am afraid that the suspicion arises that this move is intended to remove the possibility of any radical voice being raised. It also confirms the governors' power over those councils.

I support the recommendation of the Broadcasting for Scotland campaign that three things should be included in the charter. First, a completely independent selection

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panel for appointments should be established in Scotland, and, indeed, there should be panels for Wales and for Northern Ireland. Secondly, broadcasting councils should be given the right to initiate a strategy and determine policy and objectives within each of their countries. Thirdly, broadcasting councils should have a duty to inform audiences in their country of BBC policy and it effects. England should have its own broadcasting council as well.

In the slightly longer term, no successful broadcasting company can operate without the control of its own schedule and finances. Until that happens, BBC Scotland will struggle to represent honestly the Scottish viewer and listener--not only in Scotland but in the wider world. Speaking as one listener of Radio Scotland who rates it very highly, I feel that some of the doom and gloom of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton(Mr. Kaufman) about the radio services in the United Kingdom might be moderated if he were lucky enough to live within transmission range of Radio Scotland, which clearly he is not.

I understand that the BBC's motto is that nation should speak unto nation. The UK is not one nation but several. I want the voice of Scotland to be truly heard.

Mr. Maxton: The hon. Lady represents the Scottish National party, which believes in Scotland becoming an independent nation. Does she therefore believe that Scotland should have a separate broadcasting corporation from the BBC?

Ms Cunningham: Frankly, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should doubt that that is what we want. Of course we do. I see that some hon. Members are smiling. I wonder whether they would smile at or mock so much other small countries with their own broadcasting capabilities such as Ireland and Denmark.

BBC Scotland has excellent staff and it retains the vestiges of audience loyalty, which may, for all I know, be disappearing in other parts of the United Kingdom.I insist that it needs management, financial and scheduling autonomy. Those demands for autonomy are shared by a wide range of groups in Scotland, which is by no means confined to those of my political persuasion.

Three immediate changes would assist that desired autonomy. First, the BBC news and current affairs could agree to BBC Scotland having its own 6 o'clock news, taking only what it wants, and indeed only what is relevant or of interest, from the London-based service, and ignoring what is irrelevant. It is not parochial to say that much of what we see on the 6 o'clock news is news for south of England viewers.

Secondly, BBC Scotland could empower the controller of Scotland to schedule and finance his own operation from licence fees. Thirdly, the Scottish national governor could be given power to have an effective governing body, nominated from Scotland and with effective control of BBC Scotland's policy. BBC Scotland should be allowed to serve those whom it understands best in the way that best suits them.

Obviously, from my point of view, only independence can provide the ultimate and best solution. In the interim, profound change is needed, but there is no sign of it in the flawed charter and agreement, which seem only to be attempting to reassert London's control.

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9.23 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon): I have listened carefully to the debate and I thank those who spoke immediately before me for shortening their remarks in order to give me an opportunity to participate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), I found something in almost every speech with which I could agree, but I did not expect that the speech with which I would most agree would be that of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).

I suspect that there is almost universal agreement among hon. Members that we are fortunate because our television companies produce some of the finest programmes in the world. The standard by which they are judged was set by the BBC and it remains the case that the quality of television around the world is judged against the benchmark set by the BBC. That is not to say that the BBC is beyond criticism--and I intend to say one or two critical words. Nor is it automatically true, as the BBC sometimes appears to think, that the licence fee is a bargain no matter what level it is set at, but it would not be right if I did not make it clear that I am an admirer, and regular viewer and listener, of the BBC.

Some have argued in the past that the BBC should be forced to earn its living in the private sector in the same way as many other state-owned companies have been forced to do. My support for the principle of privatisation is second to none. I strongly believe that it is not the business of government to own and attempt to run commercial enterprises engaged in the supply of products for consumers, be they television programmes, motor cars or telecommunications, but the BBC is primarily not a commercial body. Its remit is not to make a profit come what may, but to broadcast public service programmes. The yardstick by which it should be judged should not be popularity, but quality. Its objective should be to expand the choice available to the viewer and listener beyond that which has mass popular appeal. That can be the only justification for a state-owned and publicly subsidised broadcasting company.

The company should concentrate on providing programmes that would not be available on commercial channels; it must genuinely be a public service broadcaster. Some might think that that is not an especially controversial view--indeed, some might regard it as a statement of the obvious. It is not. Many in the BBC regard it as absolutely heresy. They have been brought up in the belief that the BBC has to offer something for everybody and that it can justify the licence fee only by ensuring that all those who own a television set find something in the BBC schedules that they want to watch or listen to.

The result is that award-winning dramas and documentaries are interspersed with soaps and game shows. "Panorama" and "Middlemarch" share a channel with "Neighbours" and "Pets Win Prizes". I believe that the view of many in the BBC is deeply flawed. Public subsidy is legitimate if it is used to broaden choice through the purchase and production of programmes that are not obviously popular. Public subsidy should not be used to finance a ratings war with ITV.

I am not, of course, saying that the BBC should set out deliberately to broadcast programmes that the majority will not wish to watch, but its focus should be on its

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public service obligation and not on beating the competition. Sadly, all too often, the reverse has been the case. Every year, we have seen the BBC and ITV trying to outbid each other for the Hollywood blockbuster that will enable one of them to win the battle for Christmas day. Perhaps the best example was the competition for the right to screen the result of the national lottery. Using licence fee payers' money, the BBC was determined to secure the rights, no matter what the cost. It is difficult to see how that fits the description of public service broadcasting, especially as there can be no doubt of ITV's willingness to screen the result if it had not been outbid.

The schizophrenia is not confined to BBC television; it is just as great in BBC radio. When Radio 3 was the only national classical musical station, it was right to concentrate on the more popular classical pieces, but Classic FM has proved that a station offering Beethoven and Elgar rather than Tippett and Schoenberg can operate commercially without public subsidy. As a result, Radio 3 should not try to compete with Classic FM, but concentrate on lesser-known works and more difficult composers who would otherwise never be heard.

The same point applies equally strongly to Radio 1. In London and the south-east, commercial channels offering popular music now include Capital, Capital Gold, Heart, Virgin, Country, Kiss FM, Jazz FM and many more. Outside London, there are numerous local stations. As each one came on air, it was inevitable that Radio 1's audience would decline, but, despite the editorials inThe Sun, that should not be a cause of criticism or concern. Instead, it allows Radio 1 to offer a platform for new bands and other forms of popular music, such as acid house, rap and heavy metal. [Laughter.] I am not declaring an interest.

In both radio and television, spectrum scarcity and the consequent limitation on the number of channels have meant that the BBC has had to take account of mass popular taste and audience demands but, with the advent of satellite and cable, with a fifth terrestrial channel in sight and with the prospect of an explosion of choice, the BBC must concentrate more and more on its prime responsibility--public service broadcasting. If it does not, but wants to compete for ratings like everyone else, it should do so on an equal basis with the private sector.

The second issue that I should like to mention is that of political bias. I welcome the fact that the new agreement incorporates the section on impartiality in the Broadcasting Act 1990. It is clearly sensible that the BBC should be bound by the same provisions as Channel 4 and the ITV companies, but I am still concerned about how that provision can be enforced.

It is easy for politicians to complain when they feel that a story on the "Today" programme has been unfair or unbalanced. News and current affairs must remain balanced and impartial because broadcasters know that Central Office and Walworth road will be timing politicians, to the very second, to ensure that coverage is fair. I am concerned that bias is present in other spheres of programming that is more insidious and, therefore, more damaging.

I had intended to give examples but, unfortunately, time does not permit me to do so. I shall just say that I welcome the provision in the new agreement to extend the requirement of impartiality, but I have some cause for concern because the agreement states:

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    (a) draw up, and from time to time review, a code giving guidance as to the rules".

I had hoped that the rules would be clear, but we have instead an agreement that talks about a code giving guidance as to the rules. That sounds far too imprecise to me. My first hope is that, as soon as a code is drawn up, it will be placed in the Library so that we can scrutinise it, preferably in good time before the House debates the Broadcasting Bill.

I have had one or two words of criticism of the BBC, but I shall end by repeating that I believe that it is one of the finest broadcasting organisations in the world and that its strengths are many. My aim is to ensure that its present high standards are maintained.

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