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24 Jun 2010 : Column 156WH—continued

24 Jun 2010 : Column 157WH

Philip Davies: If that is the case, and top-slicing undermines the BBC's independence, is the hon. Gentleman saying that the BBC's independence suddenly disappears in the months and years before the charter and the licence fee agreement come up for renegotiation, because the BBC is looking over its shoulder and thinking about what the Government might do?

Mr Foster: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but two wrongs do not make a right for a start. He should look carefully at the BBC's current role, because there are ways of involving the BBC-I will come to this in more detail in a minute-in developing things that we need to support local and regional media. The BBC's sixth purpose, for example, includes responsibility for helping to develop platforms on which BBC programmes will appear. The most obvious example currently is the roll-out of high-speed broadband, the definition of which we will receive shortly when we get our letters from the Minister. That is an important example. Under its existing charter obligations, the BBC could be expected to provide even more support through such activities.

The hon. Gentleman is also well aware that the BBC has recently developed an even more vigorous approach to the concept of partnership. It is working with others in all parts of the media to provide forms of mutual support. That work benefits the BBC, but it also supports others. That is another area that we need to do more about in future.

Recently the biggest area of support, collaboration and partnership has been in developing a key part of the solution to our current problems: Project Canvas. I am sure that all hon. Members present are aware that while we debate the BBC Trust is making a final decision about whether to allow the BBC to go ahead with it. I hope the trust will allow it, because it will be a key driver in solving many of the problems that we have described.

Mr Bradshaw: Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from the question of the BBC and top-slicing, have not the Government announced that they intend to do exactly what he so decries, in that they have said they will fund super-fast broadband, whatever that means-one assumes it must be more than 2 megabits post-2014-from the licence fee? That can only mean a continuation of top-slicing post-2014.

Mr Foster: The right hon. Gentleman should know better than to ask me of all people that question, because he knows only too well that the previous Government identified the underspend from the digital switchover money, which was provided for the targeted help scheme. That was ring-fenced and was not going to be used for any other BBC activities. I was highly critical of it; it should never have been there. That is a very different proposition from taking money from the BBC's operating funding. It was a separate fund. The previous Government were going to use it for one set of purposes, and the coalition Government are going to use it for other purposes. On a judgment call as to who is right, I believe the coalition decision to use it for the roll-out of high-speed broadband is right. The right hon. Gentleman was going to use it in part for independently funded news consortia.

Mr Bradshaw: If we are only talking about the underspend from the digital switchover before 2014, how will the coalition fund super-fast broadband after 2014?

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Mr Foster: That is obviously a matter for subsequent announcements that the Minister will no doubt make. I do not want to second-guess him. I have already hinted that the Government would be wise to give careful consideration to the sixth purpose of the BBC. That could happen in combination with several other measures that would help to drive up demand, which I shall come to, and that would incentivise the commercial companies-Virgin, BT and others-to act, for their own benefit. There are ways forward.

The other television organisation that has been mentioned is ITV, which has been a catalyst for debate because of its decision to reduce regional television. Many people have been deeply concerned about that. There is a new management team, and ITV seems at least willing to consider maintaining present regional TV levels, rather than making further cuts. The decisions have not yet been made. However, certain things should be done to provide support to ITV. Ofcom is already looking at the airtime sales rules, and we shall have to wait for the outcome. It is considering-I would hope it would do it rather more urgently-the issue of minutage, particularly in peak time. However, there is a key area in which it is important for the coalition Government to find a solution: the problems currently caused by the contract rights renewal situation. That is a fetter on ITV's opportunity to develop a rational approach to the sale of advertising. I fully appreciate the difficulties, although it is not appropriate to go into them here. I hope that the Minister will make some reference to the issue and give a commitment that the Government will do all they can to find a solution, perhaps working with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The Minister has mentioned something else that will be helpful for local and regional media-the reduction of regulation of cross-media ownership. The Secretary of State referred in his speech at the Hospital club to Ofcom's recommendations, and an agreement to proceed with those, but he said he wanted to go further, and if possible to remove the rules altogether. Of course he rightly entered a caveat, saying that we must bear in mind monopoly situations, which would be a matter of concern to us all. I hope that the Minister will be willing to consider, in addition to monopolies, the other side of the coin: all our deliberations-on all mergers-should include a public interest test. On some occasions a public interest test would suggest going ahead with something even if it would lead to a monopoly. We should introduce such a test not just for cross-media ownership but for monopolies. That is a possible approach.

There is a problem for the coalition Government and we should make no bones about it. The two parties in the coalition started their approach to independently funded news consortia from different positions. The Conservative party was opposed to them and the Liberal Democrats wanted to go ahead with the three trials. The coalition agreement states that we shall not go ahead, and I support that because of the Minister's clear acknowledgment that although they were not necessarily the right way forward, valuable lessons had been learned from the work that was done in setting up the potential trial areas. The question for the coalition Government is whether to grasp the opportunities of those lessons and find ways to take them forward.

I mentioned Project Canvas. With that, people will be able to sit in front of their televisions and see programmes that come from satellite, free-to-air or, effectively, their
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computer, via broadband. It would then be perfectly possible to develop a model of local television, which the Secretary of State and the Minister are interested in developing-I support them in that-through an internet protocol television route. That would be one potential model. We could then bring into partnership local and regional newspapers, local radio stations and other interested groups, and many others in the creative industries, in developing programmes. A model could be developed that could provide truly local television, which would support the other parts of the local and regional media industries. That would bring something of real interest to communities, and would be a sustainable model.

Mr Watson: The hon. Gentleman will not be able to answer this, because none of us has an answer, but although I follow the logic of his argument, is not the advertising revenue model from which organisations now work finite? What he suggests might load greater obligation and cost on to local news organisations without an increase in revenues to cover it.

Mr Foster: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but all I am suggesting is that I hope the review will consider the model I describe. That model could also receive support from the BBC and ITV, to provide some programming through partnership arrangements with the BBC and Canvas and ITV and its regional news outlets. That could provide a new route forward. Interestingly, the Select Committee hinted at it as a possibility in its report, and it ties in with the precise wording of the coalition agreement, which mentions partnerships between all those bodies.

Of course, as the Secretary of State said, there would also be the possibility of having straightforward, free-to-air local TV stations, but in those circumstances it is almost certain that they would have to use the interleaved spectrum. As we know, there is pressure on that spectrum for other uses such as programme making and special events-PMSE-and so on, so there are problems to be overcome, but it would be interesting to look at both models.

My final point on this subject to the Minister, and through him to the Secretary of State, is that reference is often made to the situation in America. We are aware, of course, that many of the American stations that he referred to are actually cable television stations-that is, the equivalent of broadband today. The one advantage of developing that model as part of the package is that it would be a key driver for broadband take-up. Broadband roll-out is crucial, but it is equally important that there is high take-up of broadband as it is rolled out. If that occurs, there will be a greater incentive for commercial operators to do a greater proportion of the work than they might otherwise do, thereby reducing the requirement on the state to fill in the gaps for rural and hard-to-reach areas. The model that I am describing would have the advantage of driving up broadband take-up.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for coming late to the debate, Mr Benton, because of an earlier ministerial meeting. Otherwise, I would have intervened earlier.

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May I point out to the hon. Gentleman our regret over the dropping of the IFNC plans? There is a sense of urgency within the industry, and as secretary of the National Union of Journalists group I have stood up time and again in virtually every debate we have had over the past 18 months on the matter to demonstrate that sense of urgency. I suppose that what I am trying to get across to him is that if he is offering an alternative model, it would behove him to put as much pressure as he possibly can on the coalition to bring his proposals forward rapidly, before we lose even more jobs in the industry.

Mr Foster: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. In the most appropriate way that I can, given the rather strange circumstances that we all find ourselves in, I shall offer several suggestions in a friendly and supportive way to the Minister who has responsibility in this area. I hope that I have done exactly what the hon. Gentleman has asked of me.

I have two more quick points before I conclude. The first, which is about local radio, is a plea to the Minister. It will not fall on deaf ears, because I know that he shares my view on this: we must have a clear route map for digital radio switchover, as quickly as possible. It is vital so that the industry can understand where it is going. In doing that, can we please continue to make it clear to the public at large that digital switchover does not mean that FM will disappear? The continuation of FM provides a set of opportunities for exciting new things to happen, not least the development of true community radio, which is often run by volunteers and local groups. It would provide yet another form of local media which I believe would be very popular indeed. So please let us get on with digital radio switchover. We have passed the legislation to enable it, so let us now get on and implement it as quickly as possible. And, please, can we make it clear that there is no intention to switch off FM?

Finally, following on from where the hon. Member for West Bromwich East left off, of course we are all deeply concerned about the relatively small number of local councils that produce free sheets far too regularly, taking away advertising from their local newspapers, and action needs to be taken. I am sure that he, like me, has looked carefully at the statistics provided by the Local Government Association, which did some helpful work recently in looking at the number of councils that do that. It is staggering how few local councils, relatively speaking, are doing what he suggested-going way over the mark-but the fact is that several are, and it is critically important that action be taken by laying down clear guidelines on what will be allowed. In those areas where the council is going over the top-going overboard-we must provide protection to the local media.

I hope that the Minister will think that my remarks have been helpful in suggesting a way forward. I look forward to other colleagues joining the debate and to hearing what the Minister has to say.

3.34 pm

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): Thank you, Mr Benton, for giving me an opportunity to speak today. This is not my maiden speech; it is actually my second speech, so I shall not be constrained by the 10 minutes one gets for a
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maiden speech. I have one hour and 20 minutes to complete my speech, so thank you for that.

I thank you, Minister, for helping me to win the seat of Hove, which I hope will soon be called "Hove and Portslade", as I am campaigning for use of the full constituency name. We had an enjoyable ice-cream on the beach, I recall, and you had a lot of green paint on your jacket that day after sitting on a painting. We sat on theatre seats on the beach, which was appropriate, given the Department for Culture, Media and Sport role that you hold.

You spoke to local businesses at the Brighton and Hove business show, which included many media companies. As you said, advertising revenues are in decline, but there are many opportunities out there for specific, targeted advertising, which is more effective. Advertising revenues may be down, but opportunities are up through the many outlets that you are creating in local media.

Of course, local democracy is important, so I shall take up your advice to include some of the names of my local media outlets. Our wonderful daily newspaper, The Argus, is not always helpful but is always informative, like your own local paper, I believe. It is a wonderful example of a regional newspaper.

We also have a free weekly magazine called Latest Homes. It is an example of a magazine whose readership is in ascendancy rather than decline. As you said earlier, many comments have been made about changing the media. I believe you mentioned that the London Evening Standard is now in profit. I am sure that that will be one of the ways forward for many papers.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. May I in the nicest way possible put it to the hon. Gentleman that he should not use personal pronouns when addressing other Members? I point out that it should be "honourable Member".

Mike Weatherley: Thank you, Mr Benton, for pointing that out. I appreciate it.

We also have several good, strong local radio stations. One is Juice FM, and there is a community radio station called Radio Reverb, on which I was fortunate to host a programme called "House of Rock". I mention Radio Reverb because it is a good, local community radio station which does not have any advertising revenues. That has its own problems, but the station is an example of how the community can get involved. The ongoing point is that it goes out on the internet as well, and a programme that I presented with the Iron Maiden manager had a spike of listenership because it was taken up around the globe.

That brings me to local television. Like other hon. Members who mentioned this, I am a little concerned about propaganda masquerading as entertainment programming. We need to be careful of that.

I know that various consortiums in my constituency are looking closely at local TV, and one of my hopes, as someone who wants to expand the creativity of the city, especially Hove and Portslade, is that we take up all the opportunities for media. And, while considering local TV, we must consider whether super-fast broadband, whatever that may be, has implications-whether there is actually a local aspect, and whether we have enough
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listenership and enough people in the locality viewing the programmes rather than taking information from elsewhere.

Mr Watson: It is a great honour to make the first intervention on a new Member. I did not realise that we had the Jack Black of the Conservative Back Benches with us, but I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is taking part in the debate. When he is looking at his local media and how internet radio and internet TV can be developed, does he accept that the capacity in which super-fast broadband is delivered will be vital to that? If we are to scale up the extent of people downloading content through the net, we will perhaps need a definition of or at least a floor level for what super-fast broadband means in practical terms.

Mike Weatherley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I, too, am looking forward to the definition of super-fast broadband and how that is implicated in the debate. Certainly in my professional career, I have been very involved with intellectual property rights and the problems that that issue creates. I believe in creative ownership and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, digital downloads will potentially cause a problem going into the future. I look forward to supporting the Government in providing a full definition, including the aspect of super-fast broadband.

3.40 pm

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I welcome the debate. At the beginning of it, the Minister made much of how the new Government want to take Parliament more seriously, but six weeks after taking office, the Secretary of State has made a speech at the Roundhouse about the arts and one in Weymouth about tourism and he has announced at least some media policy at the Hospital club-but he has yet to come to the House of Commons to make a statement. I therefore welcome the opportunity to have a proper debate about media policy this afternoon.

As hon. Members on both sides rightly said, strong, independent local and regional media are essential to the health of our democracy as well as to a sense of identity and place in communities and regions throughout the United Kingdom. However, these have, as hon. Members noted, come under severe pressure in recent years for the reasons already highlighted: the move from traditional to digital media, the reduction in advertising revenue and, for some local newspapers, unacceptable competition from local authority freesheets.

The threat to quality television news on ITV in the English regions and in Scotland, Wales and, to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland, has been particularly serious. ITV has already made drastic cuts to its regional news provision, affecting quality and local content and hampering those programmes' ability to compete effectively with the BBC. However, in all surveys of opinion in this country, the public have said that high-quality local and regional news is the public service content that they value more than any other. Viewing figures substantiate that, with evening regional news programmes often being the most watched news programmes on the schedule in those regions.

That was the context of Labour's policy for independently funded news consortia-a policy supported by both Commons and Lords Select Committees, both with
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Conservative Chairs. It was also supported by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who used to speak on Department for Culture, Media and Sport matters for the Liberal Democrats, but who has been unceremoniously excluded, so far, from the governing coalition.

In fact, my first question for the Minister is, who does speak for his Liberal Democrat partners on DCMS matters in the present Government? Whoever it is, he or she cannot be too effective, because I have so far failed to identify a single Liberal Democrat DCMS policy that has survived the coalition negotiations. If that person is the hon. Member for Bath, or if it may well be in the future, I wish him better luck going forward.

Mr Foster: As the right hon. Gentleman has asked a straight question, may I read to him from the coalition agreement? It states:

a Liberal Democrat policy-

That was also a Liberal Democrat proposal. The agreement refers to the policy that we have already mentioned about partnerships between newspapers and radio. It refers to

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