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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: Despite the noble Lord's inability to recognise my presence just now, I should like to repay him in a most generous way by saying that I entirely agree with everything he saidthat I supported my noble friend's amendmentwhich I heard.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I, too, support the amendment. For the life of me I cannot understand where is the public interest in removing control of ITN from the ITV companies. After all, ITV founded ITNfor the first 35 years it wholly owned itand it was one of the least satisfactory aspects of the 1990 Act that removed the control of ITN from ITV. If you trust people to run a franchise, surely you will also trust them to produce what is obviously their flagship programmethat is, their news programme.
In any event, they will already be producing their local news programmes. Do you trust them to do that? Or should we get in a nominated news providerwith no one holding more than 20 per cent or 40 per cent of thatfor local news? The whole thing is daft.
As it is a relic of the 1990 Act, I honestly cannot understand why the Government do not go the whole hog and, instead of saying, "We look to Ofcom to consider the matter in the near future", get rid of it now. Let us get back to the good old days when ITV ran ITN, and ran it very well.
Two red herrings have been brought in. One of them, introduced by the ITC, is that somehow there is a danger of foreign ownership. Let us be quite clear, the only people in favour of foreign ownership are on the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench. No one else in the House will vote for it. When it comes to a voteas it will at Report stageI am confident that the Government will be defeated. I shall be very proud to be one of those who defeat them on the issue of foreign ownership. It is the Government who are raising the horror of foreign ownership, not the rest of the Committee.
In any event, the ITC that is now raising that as a spectre, as the noble Baroness pointed out, is the self-same ITC that approved a bid from a consortium which was predominantly foreign owned. How hypocritical can you get?
The only issue that genuinely worries me concerns Channel 4. It is true that Channel 4 is an extremely important news outlet for ITN. It is ITN's flagship programme. It is probably the best broadcast news programmepossibly because of its duration of close to a full hour. It is in ITN's own interest to ensure that "Channel 4 News" remains in that pre-eminent position.
Perhaps I may quote a vested interest in reverse. Like all other radio companies, most of my companies subscribe to IRN. In my day, we handed over our Independent Radio News international news gathering to ITN because we had so much confidence in it. I do not believe that there is any danger of it deliberately withholding any news in order to advantage a television company against a radio company or Channel 3 against Channel 4. That is beyond comprehension. I invite the Government to accept the amendment.
As the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, reminded the Committee, the 1990 Act introduced the concept of a nominated news provider for Channel 3 and imposed the restriction on its ownership that no company could own more than 20 per cent. Interestingly, these rules were not designed to prevent the ITV companiesall 15 of them at the timefrom owning ITN in its entirety but to ensure plurality of ownership at a time when spectrum scarcity created a high barrier to entry into the television market. As we know, consolidation within ITV has meant that the ITV companies themselves are no longer able to own, under the current rules, the majority of ITN.
The concept of a nominated news provider, with strict rules governing its ownership, is outdated. It deters investment in ITN and should be scrapped. It undermines the prospects for the maintenance of a strong independent third force in the supply of news in this country alongside the BBC and Sky. Unless it is changed, we run the risk that ITN may lose the Channel 3 news contract. This would be the death knell for the company. As my noble friend said, in the last round Sky and Bloomberg bid for that contract. Allowing ITV to own its own news provider would be far more likely to secure the future of a third force in this country's news supply.
There are clear obligations on Channel 3 to provide national and international news of high quality in peak time, and on Ofcom to guarantee its quality and to ensure that that news supply will occur in this country. ITV would have an incentive to maximise the efficiency of its news operation by continuing existing news contracts with other broadcasters such as Channel 4.
We should also note that under the Government's proposals the Bill would grant Ofcom a new power to approve the terms of any new ITV news contract to ensure that the ITV news supplier is adequately resourced to meet all the legislative requirements and any guidelines. This is a power that the regulators have never had in the past. In almost every other country the main commercial broadcastersfor example, CBS, NBC and ABC in America, Channel 9 in Australia and TF1 in Franceare allowed to own their own news provider. Single ownership would provide certainty for ITN and help to guarantee investment going forward.
I have read very carefully the debates on the Bill in another place. In all those debates, the Minister singularly failed to offer an adequate reason why the ITV companies should not be able to own their nominated news provider.
Lord Bragg: I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. Some of the arguments made in regard to the ownership of ITN bear repeating. As has been said by many noble Lordsit should be repeated in Hansard as often as possibleITV is the only broadcaster prevented from owning its own news provider. BBC News is at the heart of the BBC and Sky News is at the heart of Sky. I have no idea what ITV has done to be so unjustly and unfairly penalised. It has not been brought to my attention in any argument offered by the Government why it is being so uniquely penalised.
Its record in news is a good one. It showed its true coloursit needs stabilisation in the evening, which is coming to fulfilmentin its coverage of the Iraq war, as has been said and deserves re-saying. At the time of the biggest advertising recession in history, another £6 million was put into its news. It was broadcast at nine o'clock and sometimes attracted 10 million viewers. As has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and others, when the 24-hours news coverage looked as though it was going down the tubes, ITV bought it. Granada and Carlton put more money into it and increased its audiences by 180 per cent. That is evidence of good intent, good management and good news gathering.
If ITN ownership should revert to ITVwe have heard the mea culpa of how it slipped out of the grasp of ITV, which should also be a part of the argumentthere will be a huge opportunity to allow ITV's regional news teams to work more closely with the ITN team in a £100 million news machine. The current ownership rules make this very difficult. The semi-detached status of ITN makes it more difficult for good regional news reporters and producers to migrate from the regions to national news and for there to be cross-play between regional and national news.
We need an ITN which is a big public service news gatherer and broadcaster, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. That is in sight if we accept these amendments and slim the Bill. Very rightly, the Bill is careful of many of the BBC's public service interests and Sky's interests. ITV's public service interests sometimes seem far less well protected and yet it is a big public service provider which gives massive private investment to public service projects and is watched by a great number of people in this country. I have no doubt that if the amendments were accepted it would strengthen ITV, it would strengthen ITN and it would strengthen public service news. I urge the Government to take them on.
Lord Crickhowell: I am in the happy position of agreeing with almost everything that has been said. Certainly I agree with the speech that has just been made. My noble friend Lady Buscombe will be delighted to hear that I agree also with everything said in her admirable speech. She will be less happy to hear that I agree with everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, but that takes us to matters that we shall be debating later.
As I listened to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who spoke in such dogmatic terms, I wondered why we in the Joint Committee took such a cautious view. Whatever the reasons, the world has moved on. ITN's performance during the war in Iraq, of which it provided admirable coverage, showed the quality of its production. That and the state of the marketthe importance of not handicapping companies with ridiculous rules about sources of capitaltogether provide compelling reasons for the change that my noble friend proposes.
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