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18 Nov 2008 : Column 26WH—continued

I contrast that with the strong public support that has been shown for regional broadcasting. The recent Ofcom consultation showed the high value that audiences put on the provision of public service content outside the BBC, even if they may have to pay for it. Audiences believe that competition for the BBC is critically important,
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as has been shown by their rejection of Ofcom’s BBC-only model. According to the Ofcom report, nine out of 10 people do not want the BBC to be the only provider of public service content in the future.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He alluded to a survey. He will be interested to know that 40 per cent. of viewers in Wales watch the Welsh news in preference to the BBC news, and that in the consultation that he mentioned, not one respondent supported the BBC-only model. Does he think that that is a reflection that Wales, in its quest for pluralism, has a separate political institution and a separate political culture that necessitate both channels?

Paul Rowen: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. His evidence comes from the reaction on the ground.

We know that the majority of people want ITV to continue to provide regional and national news. Fifty per cent. of consumers say that they are personally interested in events in their region or nation, or events where they live. That confirms that audience support for the accessible and effective delivery of the public services that underpin public service broadcasting remains strong. At the Broadcasting Press Guild lunch in June, the Secretary of State said:

That is an important point.

There has been strong political support in the House for the retention of regional news and production. That is evidenced by early-day motion 2283, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who is here this morning. It has been signed by 74 MPs, all from the north-west. Early-day motion 2164 has 25 signatures, and several other such early-day motions have been signed.

I question whether the proposals that have been made are sustainable, a short-term fix or the beginning of the long, slow death of regional broadcasting. In talking about ITV’s coverage, I want to compare that with what happens on the BBC. The BBC provides 15 regional news programmes, which are broadcast at 6.30 on BBC 1 every night. The audience of 16 million people is the largest television audience for news. If the BBC can get that number of people watching regional news, why is ITV not able to generate an audience that is similar, if not the same, at its time? What is the advertising revenue minutage for regional news, and why can regional news not be made profitable?

I do not see the situation as one in which we have to accept the proposals that have been made. The BBC plays a central role in public service broadcasting and in regional output but it cannot operate in isolation—it needs competition. If we can get profitability for the BBC, why not for ITV?

Andrew George: Having said that, does my hon. Friend not share the concern of many Members about the use of the licence fee to subsidise local video systems, which are now putting the BBC in competition with regional and local press providers? There is enormous
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disquiet about the way in which the BBC is straying into areas that may undermine the viability of independent providers.

Paul Rowen: I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, that was the third point at the beginning of my speech. This week, the BBC Trust is to make a decision on the future of BBC Local. ITV already provides a similar service, and I believe that it would be wrong for licence fee money to be used to destabilise commercial services—whether local and sub-regional ones such as we have in Manchester or the wider ones provided by ITV Local. If other hon. Members agree, I hope that they will say so.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. Does he agree that public service broadcasting has long been a cornerstone not just of the BBC but also of ITV, and that some regional companies have a good track record? I instance Granada, which I believe covers his area. Is it not a pity that, as we move from analogue to digital broadcasting and all the broader technical improvements that will be possible, ITV’s public service broadcasting is going in the opposite direction? This is an opportunity for it, not a problem.

Paul Rowen: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. It is for this House to set out clearly what we want, as the Secretary of State said, and to signpost some ways forward. We do not want a short-term sticking plaster until 2012, which is what Ofcom’s proposals appear to be. I doubt that when we get to 2012, we will ever be able to get back to what we have now, or to some of the excellent programmes of the past. I think of Anglia programmes such as “Survival”, for example. That small company produced world-class programmes. We have to find a way to protect that level of public service provision.

In the consultation, which ends on 4 December, Ofcom has put forward various models. The first was the BBC-only model for public service broadcasting, which was resoundingly rejected by everyone. There was an evolutionary model, with all terrestrial channels continuing to have public service obligations and additional funding for regional news and news obligations falling on ITV. It is favoured by the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union, which is opposed to all the other models. It said clearly that commercial public service broadcasters should retain their public service role.

Another model was the BBC-Channel 4 model, with both channels receiving public funding and regulatory assets. Other terrestrial channels would lose benefits, and regional broadcasting could be opened to a number of potential providers.

Another option was a competitive funding model, in which content complementary to the BBC would be opened up to competition, content and distribution methods would not be not specified, and the BBC would retain its central role. It could lead to a reduced role for the BBC. Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, commented in October that it would take only £300 million to secure the future of Channel 4 and support regional broadcasting. We should say clearly that that is the route we wish to retain.


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On possible sources of funding, there could be direct public funding, taxation or spectrum auctions. BECTU opposes that model. The excess licence fee funding ring-fenced for the digital switchover could be used to help with scheme costs and Digital UK’s costs. Regulatory assets include spectrum pricing, advertising and public service broadcasting status for more channels. Finally, there could be industry funding through levies. Those are some of the possible options.

We should be saying clearly that we wish to retain local news, local news broadcasting and regional production. Lots of other countries—for example, France, Germany, Italy and Spain—have developed a range of regional TV stations, the autonomy and independence status of which are fiercely protected. Why can we not do the same here?

We need to find a way forward. It is not acceptable for us to accept Ofcom’s short-term fix. We should be saying now that it seems that the regulatory framework is being rewritten because ITV does not like it. We need to set a regulatory framework that delivers what the public want and what we regard as important. There is a cost to that, and we need to find a way to fund that cost. It is possible, within some of the suggestions that have been made for Ofcom, for that to be done.

If ITV does not want to provide that service using public subsidy, we should suggest that ITN become the arm with which such services are provided, so that there is, and remains, a strong regional news output in the regions, provided by ITN if not by ITV. We ought to be setting higher standards for what is being produced than those in the model advanced by Ofcom. We ought to be looking to the future, not in terms of a diminution in provision, but as an opportunity, using the benefits of the digital dividend, to expand the range of provision. If that means that a subsidy of some sort is put on the use of the digital media, that should be used to fund that public service broadcasting element.

This is an important debate because our constituents want and value regional news and programming. There is a short-term problem with ITV funding, but that should not lead to our losing sight of the fundamental founding principles on which independent television was set up. The value that ITV has given to the regions and the nations of the United Kingdom must not be lost. We need a debate, as the Secretary of State says, and I hope that this is a contribution to that debate. I hope that we can go forward and that, when Ofcom reports in the new year on the results of its consultation, we see something a lot better than what we are being presented with, which seems very much like a fait accompli.

11.23 am

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I intend to be brief, which means that we may have an opportunity to give the Minister very adequate time in which to respond to this debate and, perhaps, to take a number of interventions.

I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I remind them that we in Parliament tend to be rightly obsessed about the requirements of a functioning democracy. One cannot take this debate about regional broadcasting in isolation; it is about broadcasting and broadcasting standards generally and the importance of ensuring that our broadcasters are able to provide information and to delve below the surface of what is going on in
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this country and worldwide. That is essential in ensuring that we have a functioning democracy. We can either accept the model whereby one state corporation—the BBC—fulfills that public service broadcasting function, with perhaps a few add-ons from Channel 4 and elsewhere, or we can accept that if we are to have an effective organ to provide the background, investigative programmes, information and debate that is vital to a functioning democracy, we need independent broadcasters as well.

I am probably one of the most IT-challenged people on earth—I do not understand digital systems—but if this is the brave new world that we must accept with open arms and if this is the inevitable future of broadcasting in this country, we should consider something before we step beyond the precipice and accept the final Americanisation of British broadcasting and fully engage in the multi-channel culture. I fear that such a culture will be an acceleration of the race to the bottom and a continuation of the celebrity game show/makeover programmes that involve the ritual humiliation of the working classes by their apparent betters, or reality TV and “Big Brother” programmes. Broadcasters tend to revert to such a diet of programmes when they can think of nothing else to do. I fear that that will largely be the kind of thing that the multiple channels will provide. If that is what commercial TV is going to provide, before we go down that route I hope that we hon. Members—in the debating chamber of the nation—will engage in the debate and encourage the Government to stop and think and allow us the space in which we might recognise that broadcasters provide a vital service to the nation and to the regions.

When talking about regions it is important that we do not simply accept the Government’s ideas of regions, which are, in fact, Government zones; they are not places that people identify with. There is no internal integrity or community of interest within the Government zones. I speak for myself in respect of the Government zone of the south-west. Those zones are not the basis on which to provide the local news and information input into the kind of debate that we require.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is perverse that, at a time when it would appear that regional TV is retrenching and shrinking, sub-regional digital TV at city level, such as City TV Birmingham, which may be online next year, will be providing a much narrower service to the areas around their studios? Is it not likely that the quality, quantity, reach and range of regional programming will be diminished as a result of what we are seeing?

Andrew George: I am certain that it will be diminished by the results of the decisions that are currently being taken by ITV. It is clear, both in conversation and in debate, and from the pronouncements of Michael Grade on behalf of ITV, that he wants ITV to be a stand-alone commercial company and does not want to accept public subsidy for the service that ITV provides, in whatever form. I am not sure what his and the company’s attitude is to tax credits or tax breaks that might be made available as an inducement to provide public service broadcasting, but by and large ITV’s position is as I have said. As a result of that, as night follows day, bearing in mind the costs of the news gathering and reporting—the investigative work—that are required to broadcast the kind of programmes that we have seen in
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the past and at regional level, ITV cannot achieve programming at the sub-regional level as it has managed to do in the past. That means that people are less likely to follow the programmes, because they are statistically less likely to get news from the areas about which they are most concerned.

It could be argued that, as a result of the campaigning that I and others have done on behalf of the excellent service provided by a number of companies since the early ’60s, beginning with Westward Television’s coverage of Cornwall and Devon, ITV has agreed to extend the local cutaway within the evening broadcast. That is welcome. However, as I said in an intervention, it will be a threadbare service with hardly any staff and without the studios and resources enjoyed in the past.

It is important that our regional broadcasters should be able to put in the resources and, if they provide a valuable service, to dig below the surface and ask questions, not simply report on press releases and turn up, if they can get there, at tragic events to stand outside and give us reports. We want the service to provide us with more in-depth analysis and with the same quality of information as in the past. Given the resources planned at the moment, I fear that that simply will not happen.

I will now ask an entirely na├»ve question. If what we are trying to achieve—I believe that we should be trying to achieve it—is a good-quality, well-resourced public service broadcaster in the independent sector, and if ITV is not prepared to provide that, should we not offer channel 3 to someone else? If that is the easiest, most accessible number for people to find on their gizmo—

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): EPG.

Andrew George: Their EPG—whatever that stands for. If that is the case, channel 3 should be offered to someone who is prepared to accept the tax breaks, public subsidy or whatever is required to give us the quality of public service broadcasting, independent of the BBC, that this nation and its regions and local parts require to achieve the functioning democracy that we need. My fear, which also underlies the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), is that if there is no independent provider of such a service, the quality of the local BBC service, with the best will in the world, will decline. Without some competitor holding it to its mettle and challenging it, I fear that the BBC will both withdraw services and fail to maintain its present high standard.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman recall the comment made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), in his excellent opening remarks, that it was never the objective for London to talk to the regions? There is a risk that that will happen, with the shrinkage of regional broadcasting. The English midlands have a bigger population than London, cover a bigger geographical area and contribute a bigger slice of GDP. London is a fine city—we spend half our time here—but it would be utterly unacceptable for the only non-London news in the midlands or indeed the south-west to be restricted to a minute and a half or so every evening. It is true that we need a critical mass—ITV would say that it needs a critical mass—but that would be utterly unacceptable.


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Andrew George: I agree entirely. A lot of us who feel rather cynical about what ITV proposes anticipate that it will not be many years before the currently proposed regional broadcasting provision will be reduced further, until regional broadcasts are effectively provided from studios in London. That fear may be unrealised, but if ITV is going to find it difficult to maintain the rather bland regional programming planned at present, when that proves unsuccessful—I think that it will, because it will not provide the local news and views required—I fear that a further diminution will occur, and that ITV will justify it by citing falling audience numbers.

My final comment and plea to the Minister—and, through her, to Ofcom and ITV—is that I do not stand here as someone who looks back to the dewy-eyed days when my birthday was read out by Gus Honeybun on Westward Television and I got five bunny hops. It is not about attempting to rekindle the old days; it is about maintaining a vital information broadcasting source in people’s homes that ensures and underpins a functioning democracy. I also fear that ITV will lose out, because its unique selling point is that, unlike all the other channels with which it wants to compete, that produce the same bland stuff—game shows, celebrity programmes and so on—it includes a brand that is local to each area in which it broadcasts.

11.37 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on securing this debate and giving an excellent introduction to the complex issues with which many people are struggling. I think that he and all Members would agree that public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom is the envy of the world, but for a variety of reasons, we are in danger of losing that reputation.

My hon. Friend made a powerful case for regional programming—both news and programmes produced in individual regions that reflect those regions to the rest of the country—and gave a clear analysis of the concerns expressed by many people about the ITV proposals to cut regional broadcasting. He described it as the long slow death of regional broadcasting, and I share his concern. I have only to look at what is happening in my own region, with the proposed amalgamation of ITV West and ITV Westcountry. As I will describe, there is already a problem with the arrangements for ITV West. There are people in my constituency who are not that interested in regional news coverage for the areas outside Bath, but I am absolutely certain that people in Bath are not very interested in what happens in Truro and other such places in the far south-west.

The amalgamation will diminish a service that many people think is important, and that view is backed up by research. Ofcom’s most recent research shows that 78 per cent. of consumers attach high value to the news from the nations and regions. The BBC Trust’s most recent report showed that 83 per cent. of people surveyed by the trust thought it important that the nations and regions were accurately represented to the rest of the United Kingdom. ITV’s proposals will clearly damage what people in those surveys have demonstrated is important to them.

I urge people not to wear rose-tinted spectacles when addressing the issue. If we look in depth at that research, we can see that only 20 per cent. of the people surveyed
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are very satisfied with the current regional news programming from both ITV and BBC. The satisfaction level drops even further when people are asked what they think about regional news programming as a way of finding out about specific local issues that affect them. We should not just address the question posed by my hon. Friend about how to maintain current regional programming, but consider more carefully what people really want, and try to find solutions to provide what they want.

There is no doubt that the criticisms of current regional broadcasting are real, and that is before any changes are introduced. The BBC Trust, for example, is critical of the BBC for producing news through a “London-centric prism”. If we are to have proper regional broadcasting, we must address the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised about properly resourcing it and ensuring that we have the news gatherers, equipment and so on to provide it. There is then a problem with how to fund that, and I shall return to that shortly.

Another area of concern about regional broadcasting is that the regions that we seek to protect are perhaps not necessarily the best ones. After all, they were developed around existing transmitters, and not to try to reflect particular communities of interest. There are a number of issues to be considered. Is what we are getting providing good-quality material? Answer: there are some concerns. Are the areas the right ones? Answer: probably not. Does provision really meet what people want, which on the whole is more locally focused news that reflects what is happening in their immediate local community?

That last concern was forcibly picked up in November last year when the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport produced a report in which it said that


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