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Tessa Jowell: Those are precisely the sort of issues that stress the importance of the pre-legislative scrutiny to which I have referred. There will be scrutiny by both Houses, together with further consultation with the industry, to ensure that a very large and complex Bill will work and deliver our stated aims in practice.
Nick Harvey (North Devon): May I welcome the final publication of the Bill and also the general direction in which it travels? On the issue of ITV companies merging into one, there is clearly a strong commercial case,
I welcome the general thrust of the cross-media ownership rules that the Secretary of State is introducing. If each sector is competitive, we do not need to be so pre-occupied with cross-media ownership issues. However, if she is to allow The News Corporation potentially to own the Channel 5 licence, will she consider as a quid pro quo allowing Ofcom to regulate the platforms as Ofgem does in the energy sector? The sort of battle that has occurred between Sky Television and ITV about access to satellite services could then be resolved by the regulator and not by a two-year process going through the competition authorities.
Finally, will the Secretary of State ensure that the new technologies, especially in broadband, are available throughout the country? When telephone, television and radio became available, it was a matter of public policy that everybody everywhere, however remote the place where they lived, obtained those technologies. A market would never have delivered any of them. Will she ensure that everybody in the country gets access to the new technologies on equal terms?
Tessa Jowell: First, in relation to the potential for consolidation of ITV, it is important to be clear that we are proposing to remove the media ownership obstacle. Clearly, the competition rules will still apply. In the event of the ITV companies seeking to merge, the proposed merger would no doubt be considered by the Competition Commission. Secondly, yes, the Bill contains provision for the proper continued networking of ITV. Thirdly, when the hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to study the detail of the Bill, he will also see that we have included provision for ITV news to be properly funded. There is, rightly, considerable concern about the drop in value of the contract and the consequence for the quality of news coverage.
On platform regulation, Oftel and the Office of Fair Trading will have concurrent powers. Access for broadcasters to the satellite platform will be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory, and that will be overseen by Ofcom. Who knows who might want to buy Channel 5 if it ever came up for sale? Many American, Australian, Canadian and European media companies could be interested. The important point is that we will ensure, through tough content regulation, that we preserve the distinctiveness of British broadcasting while opening up the possibility of investment from all over the world.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does not the health of our democracy, to use my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's words, depend on there being no weakening of media ownership rules? It would be entirely undesirable for a situation to develop whereby one or two
Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which in a sense makes the case for the proposals that I have set out. We hope that we are striking a proper balance between competition and the benefits that it will bring to UK media: competition that is, where necessary, tempered by regulation in the interests of preserving many voicesdiversitythrough a plurality of owners.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Three times the right hon. Lady talked about a regulatory light touch. Does not she accept that by tinkering with the ownership rules, she will create a situation whereby the Silvio Berlusconis of this world, who run porno channels in Italy, could take over ITV, but Rupert Murdoch, who owns The Times and The Sun, could not?
Tessa Jowell: Currently, ownership is open to people who are resident in the European economic area. That is precisely why we decided to make changes in relation to Channel 5 and to loosening cross-media ownership rules. ITV is a major national broadcaster, commanding an audience share of at least 25 per cent., and a major source of news for many people. It is right that we maintain a limit on the degree of cross-ownership as regards major newspaper proprietors and the ownership of ITV.
If I asked hon. Members who produced "Friends", "The Forsyte Saga", "Big Brother" or "Bertie and Elizabeth", they probably would not be able to say. What is important is not how one watches, but what one watches. What needs careful regulation is not who owns the overarching companies, but who owns the production companies.
Will my right hon. Friend allow a free vote in the House on whether the BBC should be regulated by Ofcom? It seems to me that only the Executive are against the BBC being regulated by Ofcom; certainly, it is not the wish of the House.
On digital satellite, will she ensure that the underlying software is not owned by the company that runs the platform, so that many software designers can put their games and other information on to the platform in an open, not a closed, format?
Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. His last point, which raised competition issues, will be a matter for Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading. Secondly, on the governance of the BBC and its relationship with Ofcom, I hope that I have made the extent of overlap and counter-accountability clear. The chairman of the BBC governors has made changes largely in response to the debate that took place in Parliament on the Office of Communications Act 2002 to tackle transparency and accountability, and separate the governors' role as a regulatory body from that as an executive body. I welcome that.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Will the Secretary of State answer the question that her hon. Friendand minethe Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) asked about whether hon. Members will be given a free vote on the BBC? Will she also clarify the rules that she intends to set out for ITN? As she pointed out, it has experienced a diminution in investment in recent years. Does she intend to change ITN's ownership structure?
Tessa Jowell: First, whether hon. Members vote on the relationship between the BBC and Ofcom is a matter for the House. Pre-legislative scrutiny will take place; the Bill will be introduced when time allows, and I am sure that the relationship between Ofcom and the BBC will form one of the key debates that shape our proceedings on the Bill.
Secondly, the hon. Lady asked about the ownership structure of the nominated news providers. When she has a chance to study our proposals, it will be clear to her that they intend to alter the current ownership structure, which deters the necessary investment that I mentioned. We propose to alter the balance of the ownership structure and thus allow for three owners rather than the current five, with a maximum share of 40 per cent. We proposed that because we believe that it will provide much needed investment for the nominated news provider.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I want to take my right hon. Friend back to the consolidation of ITV. If we get a single company, will we have only one broadcaster or will we keep the regional broadcasters, such as Border television in my area? Does the Bill include plans to change the boundaries? To echo a point that has already been made, will the Bill contain an assurance that news programmes will not only be made in but broadcast from the regions?
Tessa Jowell: When my hon. Friend has a chance to study the Bill and the policy narrative, I think that he will be pleased to read assurances about both points. Clear quotas for regional and independent productions will be set for the ITV companies at tier two, which will make judgments about qualitative performance. As I said in answer to an earlier question, ITV's network system with its regional character will be able to continue.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The Secretary of State is introducing a Bill on behalf of two Departments that tries to promote broadband in Britain. Does she agree that that requires action across Government? Will she examine proposals on which her colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions are working to charge lane rental access fees to telecommunications companies that want to put in new broadband infrastructure, and ensure that they do not work directly against the Bill's objectives?