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House of Commons

Monday 13 May 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Digital Television

1. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What steps she will take to enhance consumer choice for premium channels on digital television. [53962]

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells): The draft Communications Bill and associated documents set out a proposed framework for the regulation of communications, which is intended to broaden choice of and access to modern communication technologies, and to make markets work better. Where there is consumer demand—for example, for premium channels—that should improve choice.

Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that, given the demise of ITV Digital, it is important to ensure that the Government are committed to retaining premium subscription programming on digital terrestrial television? In addition, did he note that the demise of ITV Digital had at least one minor benefit in that it allowed viewers to watch for free the first division play-offs yesterday at Cardiff's magnificent millennium stadium, proving once again that a new Wembley stadium is not needed?

Dr. Howells: It was a great game in a magnificent stadium—even though I am from Pontypridd and cannot stand the place.

It is not for the Government to give those assurances. Indeed, I understand that the administrator will soon be informing customers of their rights. Currently, there are rules to protect the payments made by subscribers since the beginning of administration and the subscriptions have been placed in a specific account. If the customers lose their pay services, relevant pro rata payments, per day, will be given back to them. For the time being, consumers will keep at least all the public services, which constitute 14 channels.

Nick Harvey (North Devon): What is the Government's attitude to the suggestion that there should be a free-to-air digital terrestrial platform? If that comes about, will they ensure that those who have been able to take subscription

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channels through ITV Digital in the past are still able to do so as an add-on to that free-to-air service? If another company takes up ITV Digital's multiplex, what confidence can it have that the Government will protect it from the sort of abuse that the Competition Commissioner appeared to consider that Sky had shown towards ITV Digital?

Dr. Howells: The Independent Television Commission is responsible for the award of the licences under the Broadcasting Act 1996. In this case, the commission has adopted an accelerated procedure. I understand that potential applicants have to submit to the ITC a confidential expression of interest by 16 May 2002 and full applications by 30 May. It is up to the ITC to give guarantees and assurances or, indeed, to decide under what terms the process will be conducted. The ITC will publish the programme proposals of the applications and will invite representations, which should be received by 6 June. The commission expects to announce the award of licences on 13 June 2002. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts it is not useful to speculate at this stage. Speculation will be largely groundless until the ITC has made its decisions.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): Does the Minister agree that in analogue we have a public sector broadcaster called the BBC, but in digital there is no public sector broadcaster—especially not the BBC? Given the demise of the digital terrestrial platform, does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC should take the senior role in delivering a public service television network on digital terrestrial?

Dr. Howells: I know that the BBC is concerned that its new digital services should have a proper platform and good coverage throughout the country, so I am sure it will be interested in determining the outcome. However, I do not intend to speculate from this Dispatch Box on what part the BBC will play.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Following the collapse of ITV Digital, does the Minister understand that there is not the remotest chance of achieving digital switchover by the Government's target date of 2010 unless Ministers start to give a stronger lead? Will he therefore publish a timetable setting out how and when the digital terrestrial television signal will be increased, and mount a public information campaign so that consumers are no longer misled into buying equipment that the Government's own plans will make obsolete in a short space of time?

Dr. Howells: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that it was his Government who privatised the transmission services. He will also understand that the decision was taken before the Labour Government came into power that the signal for digital services would be interleaved among the existing analogue services. To believe that we can turn up the power shows his ignorance of the technology. He should do as I have done and go to Croydon—[Hon. Members: "Labour Croydon!"]—and talk to the transmitters—[Hon. Members: "Transmitters?"] The hon. Gentleman should go to Labour Croydon and talk to the transmission companies; he would then realise that it is not easy to increase the signal in that way. The signal has already been turned up by 3 decibels, which is a

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considerable amount. To turn it up further would interfere with analogue signals. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell his constituents how wonderful it would be if the great majority of them could not watch analogue on their television sets at home.

Terrestrial Television

2. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): What her policy is on ownership of terrestrial television channels by media conglomerates. [53963]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): As my hon. Friend knows, proposals for the reform of media ownership rules were published last week, alongside the draft Communications Bill. Our proposals mean that there will be at least three public service television broadcasters in separate ownership. We are clear that competition rules will be our main policy lever for influencing the ownership of media, but with specific additional rules for the ownership of terrestrial television. Those rules follow from the basic principle that the media, more than any other industry, underpin our democracy and the culture of debates in this country. They will mean that the owners of the largest newspaper groups—those with more than a 20 per cent. share of the national circulation—cannot buy an ITV licence or acquire a large stake in any ITV company. That will prevent a single owner from owning too large a share of the nation's democratic debate. ITV currently has more than a quarter of the share of television viewing, is universally available, and has substantial public service broadcasting obligations.

Mr. Cousins: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, but she will, of course, appreciate that British terrestrial television has been financially weakened by recent events, that Rupert Murdoch is now the gatekeeper to the digital age, and that her proposals weaken ownership controls and open up British television to those whose tax is paid—if it is paid at all—and whose policy is set from outside the United Kingdom. Under those circumstances, will the power to vary licences be robust enough to protect Britain's cultural identity and the cultural identity of its nations and regions, and will that power be used robustly?

Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It does not matter where a company is based: if it buys into British television, it will be subject to UK regulation, both in relation to the terms of licences and the regulation of content. It is important to be clear about the extent to which content regulation will accompany the great liberalisation and deregulation of the proposals that we published last week: the content board of Ofcom; the general public service remit, which will be held by Ofcom; the definition of public service broadcasting; the definition of the regional character of local services; the nominated news provider; the insistence on adequate funding of Channel 3 news; Ofcom's role in relation to overseeing the local content of local radio services; and Ofcom's role in relation to ensuring the accuracy and impartiality of news. The combination of deregulation will bring new inward

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investment to the British media industry, but the quintessential nature of British broadcasting will be protected by tough content regulation.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Would the Government be content to see the pornographer and part-time political party financier, Mr. Richard Desmond, own a television station?

Tessa Jowell: As I made perfectly clear a moment or two ago, our rules are proprietor-neutral.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Given the wide range of free-to-air and pay television channels now available on terrestrial television, why do we need a special regime to control ownership? Why cannot we simply leave ownership to existing competition law? Is not the maintenance of a special regime merely both confusing and a device for the Government to extract either political favours or financial donations?

Tessa Jowell: Frankly, the hon. Gentleman's final remarks demean him. I hope he will think very carefully about withdrawing them. The proposals are, under any scrutiny, proprietor-neutral. They have the single purpose of opening the British media market to much-needed investment from anywhere in the world, subject to the clear regulation that I set out to the House a few moments ago and last week.

The hon. Gentleman asks why we do not deregulate even further. We do not intend to deregulate further because—for the reasons that I set out a moment ago—the media are different from other industries. It is critical that we maintain the robustness of our democratic debate. Although competition law alone can certainly promote dispersed ownership and has lowered barriers to entry, there is no guarantee that competition law alone will deliver the degree of plurality on which our democracy depends.

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