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Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I appreciate what my noble friend has said. I meant page 333 (Clause 384). I return to Amendment No 9. One of the great things which we set out to do in the Broadcasting Bill 1990 was to try to provide for the continuance of plurality of different radio and television services. I remember it very well. Our aim was to try to keep going, particularly in ITV, the 13 or 14 different regional television companies. We failed. One looks at the history of the 10 to 12 years since then and realises that the market forces were too great. Obviously, with the proposed merger now between Granada and United News, the amount of plurality in ITV and Channel 3 is likely to be greatly reduced. But that appears to be a very strong reason for putting an objective to Ofcom to do its best to secure plurality.
One is not asking for the maintenance of two or three identical television and radio services. Although it might have been desirable, I believe that the days of that being possible have gone. One is saying that when, later in the Bill, we reach the clauses regarding ownership and changes there as regards Channel 5 or of ITN, it is extremely important that that should be
Therefore, I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others have said. I hope that it will remain as a general duty of Ofcom as well as the specific requirement which appears in the later clauses of the Bill.
Lord Bragg: I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said but I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, on certain particular instances. I believe that those should be mentioned on the face of the Bill.
I used to be chairman of Border Television and I should like to use that as an example. It is a very small station. It is very difficult indeed to see how another station of commensurate clout and resources in that extremely thinly populated area could be set up. If another station were forced into existence in such circumstances, my experience leads me to believeI could be wrongthat it would probably be an embarrassing and expensive failure that would end up having to be bailed out.
I have nothing to do with Border Television now but I believe that it would have to challenge a rival company in order to retain its own audience. As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, said, television companies meet rivals head on, as we see happening most nights with ITV and BBC1 broadcasting popular soaps such as "EastEnders" and "Coronation Street" at the same time. The same thing would happen if Border Television were challenged by a rival company and would lead to a diminution in the quality of broadcasting it offered.
I believe that there is a positive side to the position in which Border Television finds itself. Having worked at Border Television for many years I believe that for such a company to have a monopoly in the tiny area it covers imposes, curiously, an obligation on it to reach as many of the people in that area and as diverse a section of those people as possible. If the company does not reach those people, it has no audience whatsoever. For example, the company cannot target 16 to 24 year-olds when there are only 16 or 24 of them.
The viewing figures of Border Televisionwhich could be described as a monopolistic local stationwere phenomenal. It achieved viewing figures of between 65 and 75 per cent for a particular evening slot and when it broadcast local documentaries. A problem might arise if we try to change that situation. I do not want such companies to be steamrollered out of existence. How does one impose plurality when the resources cannot sustain thatI am talking about equality of resources not about running a tube from the town halland when citizens are showing through the viewing figures that they like what they have? There are often very good solutions to the problems posed by very local broadcasting. I fear that by forcing
We have to keep remembering that broadcasting, particularly television broadcasting, despite all the gadgets, widgets and whatnots, is still a very expensive undertaking. People will not be willing to set up broadcasting companies that cover tiny areas. We could rush ahead and steamroller out much good work that has been done in a quiet way in local districts a long way from London.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, for drawing our attention to the fact that the words which we seek to amend were put into the Bill in the Commons. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, also alluded to that process.
I have done my best to identify where they were put in in the Commons. I cannot see any evidence that they were put in in Committee. I have to assume that they were put in on Report, where under Commons procedures new clauses are taken first. When they are under a programme Motion in another place, the only reference to a government amendment that is passed at the end when the guillotine comes down will simply state, "Government amendment so-and-so agreed to". Consequently, unless I am mistakenI accept that my scrutiny has been rapidwe have no idea why these words were put into the Bill. That puts us at a disadvantage, particularly when our attention is not drawn to the fact that they entered the Bill in that particular manner.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: I am tempted to rise by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, about Border Television and by what he said about the dangers of seeking to impose plurality. There was an example of that in Wales in the early 1960s when the old ITA, as we then knew itthe Independent Television Authorityproposed and, indeed, promoted the setting up of a company called Wales West and North which overlapped the company in which I served, Television Wales and the West. Wales West and North was a financial failure. Television Wales and the West had to take it over and run the services on its behalf and on behalf of the Independent Television Authority which had set them up. Therefore, there is a danger in seeking to impose plurality. As in that case, when the imposition was largely sponsored by the ITA, so here we would appear to be laying a duty on Ofcom to promote plurality which might end up in the same kind of disaster.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am helped by the fact that I agree with so much of what the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Borrie, in particular have said. But I am afraid that for the sake of the record there are things that I have to say. Having scored two points with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I am sure he will deduct them from two other "Noes".
The point here is that we are considering plurality not on its own but in conjunction with competition and diversity. Indeed, it is difficult to see how one can have competition in the provision of broadcast services unless one has a degree of plurality. But that apart, diversity is about a range of content and could in principle be supplied by the same provider. To ensure that that is not the only way of achieving diversity and that we get the best degree of diversity, the Bill includes certain limits on ownership. My opposition to the amendments should be supported by everyone who wants to maintain ownership rules and, a fortiori, by those who want to extend them. On that point I look deliberately at the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and his friends.
The Bill enables Ofcom, when it is periodically reviewing the media ownership rules, to take plurality into account. That seems obvious but Ofcom would have to conduct a review to take into account factors such as diversity and competition but not the one thing which the rules are designed to protect. That is why we have given Ofcom this general duty. Previous legislation needed no such duty because the ownership rules were not subject to review by the regulators.
Let me make it clear that this duty does not bite where Ofcom is considering matters unconnected with the media ownership rules. It does not, in other words, give Ofcom a second bite of the cherry where actions or acquisitions are consistent with the media ownership rules. For example, it would not enable Ofcom to include plurality considerations when considering changes in control of broadcasting licences where the factors which Ofcom is to consider are set out in the relevant clauses of the Bill. Nor would it mean that Ofcom could block a merger which was acceptable to the OFT on the basis that it reduces plurality of providers of television and radio services. If a merger is compliant with the media ownership rules a decision to block it could be taken only on competition grounds, and Ofcom is not a competition authority with respect to mergers.
I have listened to the points made about including the plurality duty in Clause 384. That would involve downgrading the duty and making it more limited. That is acknowledged. We considered whether the duty would be more appropriate in Clause 3 or in Clause 384. At present we think that this duty will be relevant only to the ownership review. However, this need not always be the case. Schedule 14 allows the Secretary of State to modify the rules and, in principle, it is possible that the rules could be amended in a way that gave Ofcom a degree of discretion. If that were the case, it is important that in exercising that discretion, Ofcom should have regard to plurality along with its other duties. We have no plans to make such changes but the possibility is there. So we believe that Clause 3 is the right place for the plurality duty because plurality potentially has an application wider than just the media ownership review.
In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, the clause is about maintaining plurality. We are not talking about artificially seeking to create plurality where it does not exist. I hope that the
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