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3 Dec 2002 : Column 817—continued

Mr. Page: If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I shall not, because I have given way already, and the time limit is such that I shall be cut off in my prime if I do.

Some rural areas will not have cover because current legislation and the Bill prevent cross-subsidy. Sooner or later, one of two situations will arise: either the Government will have to put their hand in the taxpayer's pocket to fund non-commercial areas, or such areas as Cornwall will have to remain a communications desert. I disagree strongly with the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. Why should companies that have paid a fortune for licences be forced to pay more to cover areas that it is

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commercially impossible to cover? We disagree fundamentally there. The Government have made enough money out of all this without getting further help.

The Government made a serious mistake in the bidding process, as they were interested only in the numbers that bidders were prepared to gamble. The Chancellor and his chief economic adviser were willing to take the money, but they failed to consider how the various broadband services were to be rolled out and funded. Conservative Members vehemently opposed the bidding war that the Government created, and we pointed out that implementation of those services would be slow. We are seeing the consequences at this very moment, and the Government are to blame, as they were very greedy up-front. Now they are unable and unprepared to put their hand in their pocket to ensure that everybody in this country gets broadband services.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Page: I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like hearing this, but the Government are not prepared to ensure that everybody gets the broadband services that they deserve and that other EU countries are to provide.

Conservative Members can thoroughly endorse the promotion of competition. The Bill will give a new regulatory body a duty to promote that aim, and I hope that it will be successful—but, both inside and outside the House, we shall still need to assure ourselves that that aim and the means suggested for accomplishing it are fully compatible.

7.29 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): Having listened to the excellent speeches made so far, I want to raise two points. They may not be hugely original, and others may raise them later, but I shall raise them none the less.

My first point relates chiefly to newspapers. Clause 359 repeals sections 57 to 62 of the Fair Trading Act 1973, and places the newspaper industry under the merger control regime set out in the Enterprise Act 2002. Clauses 361 to 375 specify the rules under which the Government can intervene when there is concern about a monopoly or an abundance of ownership in a particular part of the market, not just in the United Kingdom as a whole but, according to my reading, in parts of it. I am not sure whether that would apply to, say, Scotland or Wales—perhaps others will be able to interpret it better—but there has certainly been a lot of debate in Scotland over the last few weeks because of the potential sale of The Herald to the proprietor of another Scottish newspaper.

I suspect that most Members with an interest in Scottish affairs want as diverse a market as possible in Scotland. In fact, the subject was discussed in Westminster Hall earlier today. I do not know what will happen about The Herald. It will be a commercial judgment for the directors of the Scottish Media Group, who have a legal obligation to ensure that they secure the best possible return for the shareholder. They can take account of various factors, such as the wellbeing

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and welfare of staff, but those are pretty marginal issues. By and large, they are constrained by the size of the bids that come in.

Having said that most people want as diverse a market as possible, I should add that what are often described as London newspapers during Scottish debates are, in fact, United Kingdom newspapers. All are sold in Scotland, many in Xeditorialised" form. I would like to see more people in Scotland reading The Guardian, and I would like The Guardian to make more effort to sell itself in Scotland, but there it is. Whatever rationale underpins the decision of the Scottish Media Group directors, it seems entirely possible that ownership of The Herald and The Scotsman will remain in separate hands; but I think it worth saying, for future reference, that that should best happen through the market rather than through political intervention.

Pete Wishart: Does the hon. Gentleman share my fear that, if the Bill is passed in its current form, the takeover will be more permissible and most likely?

Mr. Joyce: I am not sure that that follows. What I am saying is that, wherever possible, the market should dictate such developments. Moreover—this has been discussed at length, at least in Scotland—there should be scope for consolidation of media ownership. The Scottish Media Group is a strong regionally based group which is divesting itself of The Herald, and I think it should be able to consolidate. I think that the Bill allows about the right amount of regulation.

I suspect that the market will take care of things on this occasion, but it is possible that in due course—in five years, perhaps; who knows how long—the problem will rear its head again in Scotland. At present it is widely recognised that, despite considerable investment by the owners of The Scotsman, the paper has not performed as well in the markets as The Herald. Views vary; I think The Scotsman is a perfectly good newspaper. The Herald has certainly performed well, although its journalists would say that it had received less investment because it was part of a larger media group that some feel has erred in the direction of television interests.

Those points are open to debate, but in Scotland there seems to be a substantial market for one newspaper and only half a market for the other, and I am not certain that market conditions will change over the years. The markets will probably sort this out to the reasonable satisfaction of most MPs and members of the public, but we may well need to return to it, and I hope that in that event it will be dealt with not through political intervention but through the market's delivery of the right solution.

My second point relates to impartiality. An important principle of broadcasting in the United Kingdom has always been the fair, accurate and impartial delivery of news, and I expect that most Members support that principle. So far, the only argument against impartiality—well, there may be others, but it is the only one of which I am aware—has been advanced by Rupert Murdoch and one or two others who believe that the markets should be allowed to deliver television news in the same way as they deliver it in newspapers. In other words, they believe that the expression of editorial

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opinion should be permitted, and that it should be slanted in relation to choice. People would watch this or that news programme according to its slant, just as they might buy newspapers according to their slant.

That argument has been more or less defeated until now, and has constituted the main challenge to impartiality. However, a report by Professor Ian Hargreaves, on behalf of the ITC—which is about to make way for Ofcom—raises an important point. News providers, if they can be called that, such as al-Jazeera broadcast from outside the UK through satellite channels. They represent a minority interest in the UK at present, but cynics might argue that they do not attempt to be impartial; they attempt to target a specific market, which is what proponents of the anti-impartiality argument have argued should happen in the UK.

I suspect that the fact that it does happen, and that such channels are available in the UK, may put pressure on the Government. It may not be necessary to take account of the possibility in Committee, but if a market develops for impartial services broadcast from abroad it may have a substantial bearing on the whole issue of impartiality.

The issue arises in particular in regard to the attitudes of members of black and ethnic-minority communities. While the UK public as a whole support impartiality as a principle, that does not apply to the same extent to those who are not white. A market could arise for foreign services that could not be delivered from the UK—foreign services conveying far more extreme messages. This may seem far fetched, but although some people say that channels such as al-Jazeera are rubbish, high-quality journalists work for them and capable people run them. They target their markets in a very slanted and cynical way.

I want to put down a marker for the future. The impartiality issue raised by Professor Hargreaves will need to be revisited. I feel, however, that the Bill has the right touch in terms of its regulation and the way in which it allows the markets to do their own thing, but to step in when it may be necessary. That, I think, is just about the right balance.

7.39 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I should begin by pointing out my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I am a consultant to Carlton Communications, for which I worked for seven and a half years before coming to this place. What I say is coloured by my experiences in working for Carlton, and I make no apologies for that. It is a heavily regulated industry, and I hope that it will be useful to talk about my experience in it.

I welcome the Bill. The television and media industries need to be treated much more like other industries. Regulation has held those industries back, and that fact flows from a fundamental point that we cannot get away from. We have five terrestrial channels, three of which are state-owned. One of the other two, ITV, still has huge regulatory burdens, and the commercial sector in this country is, if anything, still too small.

I am concerned about the size of the Bill. Everyone talks about deregulation, but it is something of a monster. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield

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(Michael Fabricant) said, it will be a source of disappointment to the industry that the legislation actually adds to, rather than supersedes, the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996. I remember how difficult it was when working at Carlton to take decisions such as whether to invest in a cable company or in radio, or to change the schedule, when all the time one had to refer to two—now, it is three—enormous documents. That can be quite debilitating. We ought to encourage television and media companies to invest where there is value.

It is also a truism to say—but it needs to be said—that if people do not like something on television, they will not watch it. The Minister should have that message burned into her desk, along with the answer to this question: why do television companies make great programmes? They do so not because of who sits on the Content Board, the contents of a Bill, or what a Minister says, but because people in the industry go to work every day wanting to make great programmes, because schedulers want the strongest schedule, and because airtime sales wants to sell advertising. That is why we can watch programmes such as XDr. Zhivago" on ITV, and XWalking With Dinosaurs" and XDaniel Deronda" on the BBC.

I want to deal with the question of what was wrong with previous legislation, given that, once the Bill is enacted, we will have had three such Acts in the past 12 years. The 1990 Act was deregulatory, but it prevented terrestrial television companies from expanding. They should have been allowed into cable and satellite, but they were not. The 1996 Act was better, but digital terrestrial television, which I was involved with at Carlton, was hopelessly over-regulated. There were very complex rules about how many digital channels one could own. In the end, that was used by Sky as an excuse—and legitimately so—to say, XWe can't sell you our channels to put on your platform because of these very complicated rules." The lesson that we must learn is not that there has been too much deregulation, but that there has not been enough.

I want to mention four elements of the Bill, the first of which concerns the changes relating to ownership, which are overdue and welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said that consolidation should not harm regionalism, and I believe that he is right. Individual ITV licences, the board and programme policy statements still exist. However, we should note that television companies make regional programmes not just because they are told to by regulators, but because they work. That is one of the great strengths of television in this country. Such programmes are not always purely regional; they include programmes made in a region that are included in the national schedule. One thinks of XPeak Practice", which is made in the midlands, of XHeartbeat", which is made in Yorkshire, and of XTaggart", which is made in Scotland. The star of XTaggart" died five years ago, yet it continues on peak time ITV because it is such a terrific programme.


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