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3 Dec 2002 : Column 798—continued

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend recall the considerable furore in the House when Central Television was acquired by Carlton? There was much concern that Central Television would not provide good local regional programmes and news coverage. Was he reassured by the fact that the licensing conditions ensured that good programming continued? Does that not demonstrate that, in fact, no matter who owns ITV or other commercial broadcasters in this country, licensing agreements will ensure that programme standards are maintained?

Mr. Whittingdale: I am becoming slightly concerned about the number of times that I agree with the Secretary of State, but I think she said that there is a difference between the regulation of content and that of ownership. I think that that is the point that my hon. Friend is making, and I have to say that I agree with it.

We also welcome the lifting of the restrictions that have prevented the creation of a consolidated ITV company. The merger of Granada and Carlton has to be considered by the Competition Commission, but in principle it may create a stronger company that is more capable of competing internationally in a multi-channel world. However, the Government still lack the courage of their convictions in other respects and are intending to maintain restrictions beyond those required under competition law.

In particular, we believe that the continuation of ownership limits on ITN are unnecessary and may hold back its development. Even though the limit on individual ownership will be raised to 40 per cent., the effect of a Granada-Carlton merger will leave the new company still unable to increase its stake and, unlike most television companies in other countries, unable to own its news provider.

That is a retrograde step, because, under the old regime, it was at least theoretically possible for ITN to be wholly owned by the ITV companies. The Government claim that they are concerned to protect ITN's editorial independence. What ITN needs, however, is investment to be able to compete with Sky News and the BBC. Retaining a cap on ownership effectively prevents ITN from growing as a business and providing a strong third force in news provision.

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The Government have also made welcome moves to relax the existing restrictions on the involvement of religious bodies or individuals in broadcasting. The lifting of the ban on religious bodies holding national digital sound programme service licences is long overdue. However, it is still intended that there should be a complete ban on religious organisations holding national analogue radio and television licences and multiplex licences. In addition, although the rules preventing a religious person from applying for a licence allow Ofcom to make a determination, it remains the case that those holding religious office in a local church or religious charity are discriminated against. Of course, there may be cases in which it is inappropriate for a religious body to be granted a licence or for an individual involved in a religious organisation to hold one. It is discriminatory and offensive to many involved in religious organisations, however, that they should still be singled out under the legislation and subjected to a more restrictive and arbitrary regime.

In the case of cross-media ownership, the Government have decided to lift the restriction on a newspaper proprietor controlling more than 20 per cent. of the national newspaper market owning Channel Five. At the same time, however, they argue that to allow ownership of channel 3 would represent an unacceptable concentration of influence. When the last Broadcasting Bill was introduced in 1996, I argued that the 20 per cent. limit was arbitrary and unfair and that its effect was to punish a newspaper group for its success—[Interruption.] I am glad that Labour Members remember that; I remember it well, too. I am therefore slightly astonished by the Labour party's attitude today. In 1996, the Labour party's then spokesman, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who is now a Minister, said that

The Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms)—I look forward to hearing him wind up this debate—was also a member of the Committee. He made an impassioned speech in favour of the amendment that I, along with other hon. Members, had tabled:

I was delighted at the time that the amendment was supported by both hon. Gentlemen and their colleagues on the Labour Benches. The House will therefore understand my puzzlement that the Government now propose to retain the very limit that they voted against six years ago.

Let me turn to the provisions affecting newspaper ownership. The Government have frequently trumpeted their belief in press freedom, which we would all echo. In the UK, statutory regulation of the publishing industry has always been viewed as unnecessary and dangerous, with any benefits being far outweighed by the loss of freedom that it might entail. The Government have on many occasions made clear their support for the current system of press self-regulation as administered by the Press Complaints Commission. Publishers are subject to no special legal regime above and beyond the

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stringent general laws of defamation, obscenity, breach of confidence, copyright, court reporting and so on. That reflects the belief, as guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1998, that freedom of expression and opinion are rights that must be strictly protected in a free and democratic society.

A real concern exists, however, that the Bill, far from protecting press freedom, will do precisely the opposite. It may be the law of unintended consequences, or it may be something far more cynical. At the moment, the press is—for very good reason, of which we are all aware—not responsible to any of the statutory bodies that will make up Ofcom. Ofcom will be an amalgamation of state regulators that deal with electronic communications, and they have no knowledge or experience of the newspaper industry. Under the Bill, however, it is intended that Ofcom be given a say in Xpublic interest matters" affecting newspapers as well as considerations of Xplurality" in newspaper transfer issues.

The Secretary of State already possesses exceptional powers in this area. Giving an additional responsibility to Ofcom is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. These are issues on which Ofcom lacks expertise, in which its role is already performed by the Office of Fair Trading and which may have the consequence of introducing statutory regulation of newspapers through the back door. Unforeseen consequence or not, that must not be allowed to occur. If the Government really value press freedom, the Bill must make that crystal clear. There can be no room for doubt, obfuscation or clarification by the courts. It is too important a matter to leave to chance.

The Bill contains welcome measures to strengthen the requirements on broadcasters to ensure that their programmes are accessible to the deaf and the visually impaired. In some cases, we believe that more can be done, particularly in terms of publicising the availability of subtitling and promoting design that is easily used by disabled people and those with sight problems. We also look forward to amendments being tabled by the Government to strengthen the rights of independent producers. The ITC has produced a report on the programme supply market that has been widely welcomed by the industry. It is now for the Government to act on it.

Finally, I come to the glaring omission in the Bill. The creation of a single independent regulator for our broadcast media is fatally flawed as long as the biggest and most powerful broadcaster is not fully within its remit. In recent months, the BBC has become steadily more commercial and has strayed further and further from its public service remit. Its commercial activities, undertaken by BBC Worldwide, now compete directly with private companies through television channels such as UK History, through its publications, and even through its provision of educational software. At the same time, through the licence fee, it competes with the commercial sector for film rights, and finances channels such as News 24 and BBC 3, which appear to be carbon copies of existing commercial stations. All complaints about the BBC's activities, however, must be made to and adjudicated by the BBC. It is indefensible that when

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every other broadcaster is subject to independent scrutiny and regulation, the BBC should be exempt from it.

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

Mr. Whittingdale: No, I must finish.

Bringing the BBC fully within the scope of Ofcom is supported by the whole commercial sector. It is supported by the BBC's former chairman, Lord Hussey, and by Lord Bragg. It is extraordinary that, on this point, the Government appear to be deaf to all reason, and, instead, have listened only to the seductive voice of the BBC.

This is generally a good Bill, and we do not intend to oppose it. Even though it has already been subjected to much scrutiny, its size, scope and importance mean that it is essential that it should receive proper detailed consideration in Committee, which we intend to ensure.

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