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Mr. Peter Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman and I share a BBC local radio service. Will he confirm that, despite the straitened times in which the station lives, it found time to give him a starring role as a teddy bear in a Christmas pantomime special?

Mr. Baker: I can confirm that. It shows how far down market the BBC has gone.

Accountability of BBC finances is crucial. There is a case for giving the National Audit Office a formal role in ensuring that the BBC gives value for money. When I had

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a rather nice dinner with BBC bosses some time ago at our party conference, they did not welcome the idea, saying that it would infringe their independence. It should be possible for the National Audit Office to be seen to be independent of the Government, yet still ensure that the BBC gives good value for money. [Interruption.] You will be pleased to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that mobile phone was upstairs, not in the Chamber. The Secretary of State may want to wait until later in the year, but I should like him to respond to the argument for auditing the BBC through the National Audit Office, because £2 billion a year is a lot of public money to go unaccounted for.

The Secretary of State also mentioned "News at Ten". There was a deal--almost a Faustian pact--on how it might be replaced. It was a very good way of getting news across to people who might not want to see it. It became an institution. ITV has thrown that away and put nothing satisfactory in its place. In mid-February, "News at Ten" had 8 million viewers. The "Evening News", at the unfriendly time of 6.30, is down to 5.25 million--almost 3 million viewers down. The "Nightly News" is a joke--not in its journalistic standards, but in the commitment that ITV gives to it. It is broadcast at a variable time around 11 pm and has only once made it into the nation's top 70 programmes. I hope that the review to which the Secretary of State referred will conclude that ITV has not met its side of the bargain and that "News at Ten" must be reinstated. That is the only logical conclusion.

The Secretary of State also briefly mentioned the important issue of media ownership. If we are to have a free, fair and responsible press, it is important that we do not have one person or group controlling too much of the media. Hon. Members on both sides have argued that supermarkets should not have too great a market share, because that distorts the retail market. The same happens in the media. People rely on the printed media in particular for news and views and to help them assess their voting intentions. It is unhealthy that News International controls 35 per cent. of this country's circulation.

I also find the apparent close relations between Rupert Murdoch and the Government--particularly the Prime Minister--unhealthy. I wonder why Mr. Murdoch, who is on record as criticising and insulting the Dalai Lama, was present at the luncheon for President Jiang Zemin. While demonstrators outside were being hustled off the street for having free Tibet flags, the Prime Minister was with Mr. Murdoch and President Jiang in No. 10 Downing street. That is not healthy for the country or for media control. I did not mind the Prime Minister going to meet Mr. Murdoch on the other side of the world down in Australia before he was elected, but he should have offered lots of promises and then stripped him of his press control a week after coming to power, or at least reduced his market penetration.

In any case, the Prime Minister did not do that. [Interruption.] It is perfectly proper to suggest that a maximum level of media ownership should apply to one individual or group and that if that level is exceeded we will run into danger as private interests take over from public interests. Capping Mr. Murdoch would have been a sensible and democratic policy and I am sorry that it did not happen. We have to make sure that News International does not wield too much power in this country. I feel that perhaps it does, and I would be interested to hear the Secretary of State's comments.

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Finally, let me say a word about violence on television and censorship, a subject referred to briefly by the hon. Member for East Surrey. People are rightly worried about that, particularly because of the potential for children to be adversely affected by violence and sex on television.

I am astonished that violence in context in a programme often arouses antagonism and opposition from individuals and groups while very little is said about the constant violence in mainstream programmes, usually emanating from America. Personally, I find nothing more offensive than gun culture and a stream of programmes showing people shooting each other, which seems to be the main fare on American television, along with car chases. I find that much more offensive than a single act of violence used in the context of a programme to make a particular point artistically. I should like to hear the Secretary of State's response on that.

It has been useful to hear what hon. Members have had to say. There is a degree of unanimity across the Chamber and I very much hope that we will continue in that spirit, making sure that we embrace the new and get the most from it without throwing out what is best about what we already have.

12.7 pm

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): It is fitting that we should be debating the future of broadcasting at the end of the century which saw its introduction and at the end of the consultation period on the future funding of the service which still leads and defines broadcasting in this country--the BBC. Whether the BBC will continue to lead and define broadcasting in the next century and the next millennium depends to some extent on the decisions that will be taken over the next two months.

Those decisions have to be informed by the three criteria set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate: affordability, accessibility and quality. I should like to deal with them in reverse order because I believe that the quality of the BBC's programmes sets it apart from other national and international providers. My constituents and I wish to see that quality protected and enhanced in the coming years.

Quality used to be synonymous with the BBC. In most cases, it still is. The service is impartial, intelligent and informed and has reported and relayed the defining moments of the past seven decades to the people of this country and many others across the world.

My mother remembers her parents tuning in on crystal and cat's whisker sets in Newcastle-under-Lyme at the beginning of the century and the wonder of the instant news that it brought them. Almost everyone over 65 in Britain today remembers hearing Chamberlain announce on the BBC:

I remember my father standing in front of a radio one cold February morning in 1952 to hear that the King was dead, and a year later and 6,000 miles away I remember kneeling and pressing my ear up against the bakelite and cloth of a very old radio in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to hear the crackling commentary on the coronation of his daughter.

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It was the BBC that I turned to while living in South Africa during the dark days of the apartheid regime. It gave, as no other service did, an impartial and informed view of the situation in that troubled area. No wonder the then regime did its best to jam it for years.

The BBC brought me other things: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, both banned in South Africa in the 1960s, and faithful adaptations of the books and plays that I studied at school and university, such as "The Forsyte Saga" and "I, Claudius". All were brought to life on the screen, and all were funded by the taxpayer. The BBC was the NHS for the mind.

When I returned to Britain in 1978, the BBC was a wonderful way back into a world in which genuine debate was encouraged, rather than squashed. In the past few years, the service has carried the culture of excellence into the development of BBC News 24, BBC Knowledge and BBC Online.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some of the BBC's other services. The original three "I"s--impartial, informed and intelligent--are in danger of being replaced with a new trio; impatient, interruptive and imitative. This is particularly true in the provision of news, and particularly at a regional level. I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) that one often gets a threadbare service there.

The imitative, impatient and interruptive quality is not absent from national programmes. Regional radio--with its gaggle of only-just-restrained shock jocks, misinforming and insulting listeners on endless call-ins--is the worst offender. Here the impatient and interruptive tendencies are at their most obvious and irritating.

Anyone who has tuned into "Today" recently will have heard numerous examples of the impatient and interruptive tendency, and of impatience and interruption getting in the way of information. I do not understand why the BBC wastes money on getting two scientists to debate the pros and cons of GM foods, and then insists that Professor X answers a complex question in 15 seconds and keeps interrupting Professor Y while he or she tries to put forward their case. It is simply a waste of time, and means that the public are more baffled than informed by the exchange.

Imitation rather than intelligence seems to govern electronic news-gathering, and those involved seem to be in awe of the print media. That is the only reason I can think of why they follow an agenda set by the print media. Why, when they have sound and pictures, are they so happy to stick slavishly to what has been in the print media, and simply amplify it?

As a publicly funded service, the BBC has the leeway and the duty to investigate in depth matters of public concern, but it is not always doing this at present during peak viewing and listening hours. When I raised this matter with the BBC at a dinner during my party conference, I was told that there were programmes at 11 pm and 6 am. However, we want such programmes at 8 o'clock or 8.30 before we go out.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's commitment to quality, and I urge him to commend the three "I"s to the viewers panel that he is setting up, in the hope that it will monitor their delivery closely. If it wants to retain its unique reputation and authority, the BBC must remain impartial, informative and, above all, intelligent.

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I welcome all that my right hon. Friend had to say on accessibility and I wish him well in his attempts to get all platforms to carry the free-to-air channels, digital or not. At present, my constituency--like those of other hon. Members--does not receive some of the free-to-air channels equally. Some 9,000 of my constituents cannot get BBC News 24 or the Parliamentary Channel. I am the only one who regrets the lack of the Parliamentary Channel, but many regret the lack of BBC News 24.

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