Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760-764)



Lord Hussey of North Bradley

  760. What mystifies me about this is the very scarce amount of religious broadcasting that there is. For twelve years I went every single year to the annual review of television and radio broadcasts and it seemed to me that it was a thriving but small bit of this industry, yet very little now reaches the viewer or listener—more on radio than on television, I accept, and we all know the statistic that allegedly more people go to church on Sunday than watch football—and I do not apply that to the last week! But the market in terms of people is there. I analysed the programmes yesterday in the Radio Times and, as far as I can make out, there was a programme on BBC 1, "Songs of Praise" at 6.20 pm; nothing on BBC 2; a programme on ITV at 10.00 am, "My Favourite Hymns", both of which are extremely good programmes, but I think those were the only two programmes on network television. Is your basic problem that you are over-regulated, which causes a great difficulty and you have made that point several times, or is it, au fond, that the people controlling broadcasting, whether on television or radio, are worried about your ratings and therefore not encouraged to put you on?
  (Mr Littler) My Lord, you should be our marketing manager! We have applied and applied and applied and even back in the 1980s one of the issues is that we did broadcast from the Isle of Man and we did win audience in Scotland and north west England and north Wales and Northern Ireland and we were a problem—we were winning audience. But, as far as I understand it, there was a unique situation where the IBA were responsible for programme content in religious broadcasting so, uniquely, we were competitors and, after the 1990 Act, our competitors effectively became our regulators. It is a unique situation and I have not seen this anywhere else in broadcast legislation. Our experience has been that we have applied and applied in groups up and down the country, some hundreds of thousands of people, and either we have been turned down or we have been told we are not eligible to fill in the application forms and refused the application forms. So you are right—there ain't much religious programming—and it comes back to being disqualified actually. That is a tremendous disadvantage to us. I do not know whether I am allowed to ask you a question but there a couple of burning questions we have: what is the definition of a disqualified person in law?

  Lord Hussey of North Bradley: Do not look at me!


  761. I do not think we are competent to answer but possibly the Bill team would make it possible for us to write to you. Could I ask one last question? A participant on our on-line forum, which is continuing, has suggested that additional licence conditions could apply to licences awarded to religious bodies making explicit the requirements for impartiality and balance. Would you support such a development?
  (Reverend Jonathan Alderton-Ford) Yes.
  (Mr Littler) As far as we are concerned, if you remove the tag of disqualified persons, then we will be very happy.

  762. So you would accept the fact that there was a category that had one or two additional licence conditions? This is a suggestion that has been put to us.
  (Mr Littler) Ten years ago I was pulled into meetings in the House of Lords to thrash out all the rules on content for religious radio and television because we were the only example of a religious Christian station in the country. We were very happy to fit into those rules and we then found we faced an additional ban. Now, ten or twelve years later, we are very happy to say we would be delighted to receive a set of rules on content that we could work with, but please can you lift the disqualification because no other professional broadcasters in this country are faced with being banned from applications.

  763. Can I offer you a real life scenario which I think may at least go some way towards explaining why we are wrestling with this and why you may be dealing with what does not appear to be entirely reasonable. When Rupert Murdoch applied to buy The Times, he put in place what appeared to be a fairly concrete group of trusteeships to ensure its impartiality and editorial independence. Thereafter he went on to buy The Sun. I do not think the government of the day in its wildest dreams believed that, twenty years later, the same man who did an interview in the Financial Times would make it very clear that over his dead body would he allow Britain to go into the European Union—a foreigner, supported by his journals, the newspapers. That was the same person, 20 years later. You must accept that any government might rethink several times before placing itself in a position where it would effectively have to withdraw the licence to broadcast from a religious station that had proved popular but was clearly pushing at the edges of what was permissible under its licences. As you said, you are able to get apologies from both the Tories and the Labour Party. It is an extremely difficult noose for a government to put its head into because you say you would abide by the terms and conditions surrounding an election, but you could become an enormous political force in the country, and under foreign ownership regulations you could also be purchased by a foreign evangelical organisation. This is a very big, bold step for any government to contemplate, particularly given the experience of the Murdoch domination of the press in the last twenty years.
  (Mr Littler) If I could respond, first of all, we do not deal with any other broadcasting organisations like that and, secondly, if you look at the experience elsewhere in continental Europe, we are unique in this country with this prohibition. If you look at the rest of the English speaking world, particularly our counterparts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, never mind the United States or Latin America, where there are very large numbers of Christian radio stations, there are no equivalent problems that we know of there and I would like to point out that Holland has three Christian radio stations, but EO which has been there for 25 years is paid for by the Government out of the taxpayers' coffers.

  764. You are not answering my point. The Bill team have presumably been instructed, very sensibly, by the joint Secretaries of State to make absolutely sure that the scenario could not pan out in this country as it has in newspaper ownership. In that sense we are unique. The countries you cited do not have their media dominated by foreign ownership.
  (Mr Littler) Please understand our problem is we are concerned, in the midst of this foreign ownership affecting us, about our competitors in the USA but there is one question raised interestingly enough when you mentioned Rupert Murdoch as an unfairness over disqualification that really concerns us. We face disqualification for being officers of a religious organisation, and Rupert Murdoch—
  (Reverend Jonathan Alderton-Ford)—is a Roman Catholic Knight, knighted by the Pope.
  (Mr Littler) So he is a disqualified person. In a sense this must surely be the place to bring this out—that we have other people in ownership of existing secular media organisations in this country who are disqualified persons. Now we are disqualified persons and we are not allowed to have application forms, but there is an inequality and a further problem when you mention foreign ownership.
  (Reverend Jonathan Alderton-Ford) There is another point: you have talked about the uniqueness of the British situation in terms of ownership; there is uniqueness in the British situation over the nature of church life in that there is a strong church state connection by having an established church, and there are methods there for making sure that religious ownership of media and radio stations are regulated through another room. In fact, Government already has virtually all the levers and mechanisms it has to make sure your Doomsday scenario need not arise and, if you feel that the Christians are eroding democratic process, that is going to be pretty contrary to what the Christians have achieved in this country over the last 200 years in that we laid down many of the foundations of our democratic process. Parliament begins with prayer, we laid the foundations of the welfare state, we did the first major piece of legislation in terms of getting rid of slavery—what you are saying is that Christians would forget all that and suddenly start going for themselves. Now you have legislatory control already: you have links through Parliament into the state church, which is the majority player: there are lots of ways you can make sure that does not happen, and I do not think it would because it is contrary to what Christians are about in the first place.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

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