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Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I did not take part in the firing of the opening salvos for the soul of Ofcom simply to avoid prolonging the debate unnecessarily. I trust that my amendments, Amendments Nos. 7 and 8, will indicate that I am broadly in support of the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and others. However, the noble Lord might be wise to reflect on the observation made by the Minister that "appropriate" is a better word than "possible" in terms of the promotion of competition.
In the old days there was an obligation reflected in the Lord Normanbrook letter to the then Home Secretary, or in the Act of Parliament setting up the old IBA, that there had to be a wide range and balance in programmingXbalance" was construed in the sense of a balanced diet, rather than balanced in the sense of political impartiality for which there was separate provision.
In an age of many services, all of which are serving niche markets, I fully recognise that it is unreasonable to impose the obligation to provide a programme catering for a wide range of tastes on an individual station, or television channel, and that that obligation is properly transferred to the regulator as set out under this clause. However, my amendments would transpose the phrase in bracketsnamely, "taken as a whole"so that it qualifies only the necessity to provide a wide range of programming. It is still perfectly possible, and, in my view, desirable, to demand that individual services achieve high quality. Therefore, my amendment is mainly syntactical but with a philosophical undertone.
Lord Crickhowell: The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has rendered us a service by drawing our attention to one of the strangest features of this Billthis vast two-volumed Billthat it is not until we reach Clauses 260 and 261 that we find mention of "public service" broadcasting in any detail. Those clauses are most important. For the first time in any Bill we now have a definition of "public service" broadcasting; indeed, a very detailed definition and one which we shall no doubt debate at greater length in due course. I am sure that Ministers will be glad to hear that I do not wish to pursue too many of those issues at this stage.
It is curious that we do not see public service broadcasting mentioned in the duties under the Bill because it is a key component of the whole legislative machine, so to speak, that is now under consideration. Another feature of those clauses identifies a subject widely misunderstood by the general public. The latter normally assume that public service broadcasting equals the BBC. But the Bill actual defines such broadcasting and imposes public service obligations not on the BBC but on Channels 3, 4 and 5 and on the "public teletext service". The obligations imposed on those providers are quite detailed.
The licence holders for Channel 3I no longer have to declare an interest in this respect, although I was for many years a director of HTVmust provide a sufficient amount of programming that reflects, supports and stimulates the diverse cultural makeup of the UK through music, drama, comedy and other visual and performing arts; that gives a comprehensive and authoritative coverage of news and of current
The BBC is required to follow those guidelines as part of its agreement. I have no doubt that that is also a subject to which we shall return later. However, although the public service obligations are very tightly defined for Channel 3 and the other channels, they are not defined anything like so tightly for the BBC. Indeed, if Members of the Committee refer to questions 528 to 530 of the evidence given to the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill, it will be seen that I pressed Mr Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC, very hard to tell me what the BBC understood "public service broadcasting" to be. He was very careful not to give me a clear answer. If he gave a clear answer, he knew perfectly well that he would find himself facing some of the obligations imposed on the other television companies. Indeed, he sought to argue that, as they are obliged to provide entertainment, all "entertainment" actually met the definition of "public service broadcasting"or, at least that we should not challenge entertainment as not coming within that remit. However, some entertainment clearly does.
It means that the obligations placed on the BBC are rather different from those placed on other broadcasters. These are also topics to which we shall want to return. Surely the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, is right to say that public service broadcasting is one of the jewels in the crown of British television that we ought to be addressing right at the start of our consideration of the duties of Ofcom. It is quite extraordinary that we have this Bill with no reference to the latter being a primary purpose until we come to those clauses to which I referred and the particular application of those concerns. I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment moved by the noble Lord. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister why Ofcom has not been given the task of upholding this important part of our broadcasting arrangements.
Lord Bragg: I have a few brief points to make following the magnificent rallying cry for public service broadcasting made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. I do not believe that my first point has been mentioned, so I shall be brief. In the run-up to the BBC's charter renewal in a few years' time, the media environment taken as a whole is likely to be very hostile. It is even more important for the BBC, which is the cornerstone, but not the sole guardian, of public service broadcasting, that we accept the suggestion put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that public services should, for the sake of clarity, be placed at the top of the hierarchy and put on the face of the Bill as soon as possible. That will be a great protection for the BBC. Indeed, the British public would not forgive us if we did not protect them in that regard at the start of what will be a most difficult renewal process.
Lord McNally: I had added my name to the first group of amendments, but like the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, I shall restrict myself. However, both sets of amendments cover the same kind of thoughts. I shall lead on to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. Many interest groups outside the industry, such as the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, the National Consumer Council and other such bodies, expressed the concern that the balance of the Bill between the interests of the citizen and the marketplace was wrong. It is wrong not to recognise that imbalance.
It would also be wrong not to recognise that the Government have tried to meet those concerns. I echoI do not think it was a warning; it was certainly not a threat from such a gentle creaturethe noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that the way the Bill goes through Committee will depend a great deal on whether ministerial responses comprise "No, no, no, no", with little regard to the fact that, as far as I can see, these amendments are tabled constructively to make a good Bill better rather than to snarl at the Government's timetable or anything like that.
If the idea of the Ministers or Whips is some exercise in macho whipping, they will run into trouble, which will be of their making and not of those of us who are trying to make a good Bill better. To echo the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, it is not the Bill's critics who have been saying that what is missing from British broadcasting is the wonderful, entrepreneurial, dynamic skill of American management; it is the Bill's promoters who have said that across the Atlantic there is a better world. Tessa Jowell said that by bringing in the Americans we would obtain the best of both worlds. The Minister has to listen to some of the wise words of those who have gone through the American experience.
My noble friend Lord Thomson referred to the two cooks. The Minister was tempted to try the curry pun. I warn her that the origin of curry, so I am told, is to mash certain tainted meat. One of the worries about the Bill is that although, as my noble friend Lord Phillips said, the Minister has impeccable credentials in defending public service and public enterprise, many of the arguments for the Bill, certainly in the other place by Kim Howellsthat new convert to the perfection of the markethave been about rigorous competition. It is no good the Government at the other end of the building having Kim Howells and John Whittingdale marching arm in arm towards the Adam Smith Institute while the Minister at this end says all the right conciliatory things because she knows that there is not the same reception at this end of the building for that kind of tosh.
The real concern is that when Tony Ball of Sky gave evidence to our committee and was asked what his ideal of public service broadcasting was, he referred to Australia. That is normal, he being Australian, but it gave the game away. We fear that without the protection provided by the amendment there are forces at work that wish to drive the public service commitment into the ineffectual ghetto it occupies in the United States, Canada and Australia, where that battle has already been lost. We can still win the battle by putting such amendments into the Bill. I hope that the Minister, about whose interests and priorities I have no doubt, will see the logic of what we are trying to do.
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