HC Deb 02 July 1953 vol 517 cc593-600
Mr. Crookshank

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about television. I am afraid it is rather long and I hope I shall have the indulgence of hon. Members.

In early 1951 the late Government placed a ban on further major capital development on television by the B.B.C. The present Government decided when they took office in October, 1951, that the financial and economic condition of the country made it necessary to continue the ban. I am glad to inform the House that the Government are now in a position to agree that the B.B.C. should proceed at once with certain projects that will make television available to another six or seven million people. They can also now make a start with very high frequency sound services to help improve reception in areas where it is not now satisfactory.

New television stations will be set up at Aberdeen, Belfast, the Isle of Wight, Plymouth and Pontop Pike; the London station will be removed to the Crystal Palace; and stations will be erected to serve the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. With this programme of development B.B.C. television will be available to some 90 per cent. of the population within a period of about 18 months.

In their White Paper on Broadcasting issued in May, 1952, (Cmd. 8550) the Government stated, in paragraph 7, that they had come to the conclusion that in the expanding field of television provision should be made to permit some element of competition …. Anxieties have been expressed since that date about the implications of a new system of competitive television. There is, however, a real danger that public opinion is being formed without any balanced or detailed knowledge of what sort of system might be set up.

The Government therefore propose to publish in the autumn a further White Paper defining the terms upon which competitive television might be permitted to operate. The Government are pledged to submit for the approval of Parliament the terms and conditions of any licences which might be issued. The White Paper will enable the House and the country to exercise a proper judgment in this essential matter before any final decision is taken.

In considering this whole question it is necessary to emphasise what seems often to be forgotten, that the B.B.C. will, in any case, remain intact, and its scope will in fact be extended. Its national and international standing will be unaffected, and its revenue and present basis of work will remain secure.

The House will be interested to know, without going into details which would be more appropriate to the White Paper, of some of the broad principles under which commercial television might operate:

  1. (1) The number of stations under any one ownership or control would be limited.
  2. (2) It is not likely that a large number of stations would be licensed in the first instance and they would be of low power and limited range.
  3. (3) A Controlling Body would be set up to advise the Postmaster-General on the issue of licences and would see that programmes conform to the standards to be laid down. It would, for example, have power to call for a script in advance of presentation, to warn a station which offended against the letter or spirit of these standards, and to make recommendations to the Postmaster-General that the licence of any particular station should be suspended or withdrawn.
  4. (4) The owner and operator of a station, whose licence would be at stake, and not the provider of programmes or the sponsor, would be the person responsible for what was broadcast.
  5. 595
  6. (5) Among other things which might be specified in the licence or by the Controlling Body would be the maximum number of hours the station should operate, any restrictions on the advertising of certain products, and the percentage of time and the place to be allotted to advertising matter in any programme.

Mr. H. Morrison

I should like to raise a number of points with the right hon. Gentleman. The first is whether the statement that has just been made is made in the light of the Television Advisory Committee's technical report. Has that been received and taken into account? Is the right hon. Gentleman sure that the period of 18 months for the B.B.C. to carry through the programme is right? We have understood from publications of the B.B.C. that the period is nearer to three years.

What does the phrase "element of competition" mean? Does it mean that this competition is to be provided by private commercial interests or is it to be through another and competitive public corporation? What is the kind of competition that is visualised? The statement says that the national and international standing of the B.B.C. would be unaffected and its revenue and present basis of working would remain secure. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman elaborate upon that? If somebody else is in the field, even another public corporation, is that not bound to affect the finances in some way, for instance, by competition in payments made to various people for various services to be rendered?

May I put this general consideration to the right hon. Gentleman? It is true that in the statement he has made are signs of certain modifications of the former declarations of the Government. Nevertheless, it is the case that there is widespread apprehension among very responsible people, leaders of thought of various kinds, including leaders of the Churches, and so on, people whose opinions are worth taking note of, and who are very apprehensive about any form of commercial television in our country. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman: is it wise, in view of the modifications the Government have made on this matter, which is not a party political question—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is not. I notice certain cheers coming from the other side, and, I admit, from my side, but it is not a party political question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] No. It is essentially a national moral question with which we are dealing.

In view of the responsible declarations of opinion by honoured citizens and people who take a high outlook on these matters, is it really worth while going on with this, giving rise to national division and a lot of controversy about a matter of this kind? Will not the Government be so good as to consider the matter, and particularly to consider whether it is worth while going on with this? If it does come to the House, as it is not a party political question, may we take it that on that occasion the Whips will not be on?

Mr. Crookshank

I hope I can remember all those questions. I shall do my best to answer the right hon. Gentleman. I made a note, but it was not very easy to get them all down. The Report of the Advisory Committee was taken into account, and I understand it will be available in a few days' time for the public to read. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether 18 months was the right time, saying that he had seen some figures to show it might be about three years. I am advised that 18 months is the present estimate which the B.B.C. themselves give, and I assume that they are the best people to judge on that question.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what form of competition was envisaged. I repeat what I quoted from the previous White Paper, that we had come to the conclusion that in this expanding field provision should be made to permit some element of competition, but as to exactly what form that may take I think we had better wait until the White Paper I have foreshadowed in the autumn. The right hon. Gentleman said that any competitive form, even if it were non-commercial, would affect the B.B.C. Whether it would or not, what I have said about the B.B.C. in this statement stands.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether, in view of the widespread apprehension, there had been any modifications in our previous views. I have repeated what our previous views were. I stand by that today. The whole point of what my colleagues and I had in mind in making this statement was to put before the country and before some of those who have been criticising before being in the position to know what kind of form the alternative television might take—[Interruption.] They could not have known, any more than anybody in this House, until I made this statement. I had in mind to make this statement while the matter is being discussed, as it is so much in public today.

That is why I have made this statement in this form, to assure everybody that the B.B.C. is going on just the same. That is why I have stated these general principles, though not the details, and not all of them by any manner of means; I have, however, stated the sort of lines along which the Government's mind is working in this sphere. We promise a White Paper in the autumn, and that will be the time to discuss the matter in this House.

Mr. Mayhew

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these odds and ends of safeguards to which he has referred will be totally inadequate to prevent debasement of programmes? Is he further aware that under the scheme outlined the British public still pays for programmes, and that British homes will be flooded by unwanted and unwelcome television advertisements. May I ask him, therefore, if his attention has been drawn to the latest Gallup Poll, which shows that, provided the B.B.C. is allowed to provide alternative programmes, less than a fifth of the British people want commercial television, and—

Sir H. Williams

On a point of order. Is it not desirable that the hon. Gentleman should declare his interest—his connection with the B.B.C.?

Mr. Speaker

I would point out to the House that there is no Question before it, and so we cannot have a debate. This matter must really be deferred till the autumn. I am prepared to admit a question or two for the purpose of elucidation, but not for arguing the merits of this or that proposal.

Mr. Driberg

Further to that point of order. The hon. Member for Croydon. East (Sir H. Williams) cast a rather damaging aspersion on my hon. Friend. He asked if he should not declare his interest. I have always understood that it is necessary to declare an interest in a debate when there is a direct commercial or financial interest. My hon. Friend certainly has no such interest. He is an accomplished broadcaster for the B.B.C. and as such receives, of course, fees, which would no doubt be very much larger on commercial television. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, with great respect, that that is quite different from the sort of direct commercial or financial interest which a number of Members on the other side of the House have in this matter. I submit that the hon. Member opposite should not have made that suggestion.

Mr. Speaker

I deprecate all talk about commercial interests unless it is necessary, and I must say that I did not myself take seriously the remark of the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams).

Lady Tweedsmuir

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the position with regard to Aberdeen will cause very great pleasure in North-East Scotland, particularly as it reflects the sound economic position of the Government? With regard to competitive television, may I ask the Leader of the House whether, as Parliament has taken a decision regarding the principle of competitive television, the debate in the autumn will merely be on the technicalities involved?

Hon. Members


Mr. Crookshank

I was wondering whether it was better to answer two questions at a time or to wait for more. May I answer the hon. Gentleman first? I do not know why he should call the kind of conditions under which licences should be issued "odds and ends of safeguards." I would ask him to study them very carefully. I may say that I have read his pamphlet, and therefore may I ask him to wait and read our White Paper?

As to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir), I am much obliged to her for her reference to the establishment of the Aberdeen station and her confidence in the improved economic situation as a result of the present Government. As to the second part of her question, I have already reminded the House of the conclusion which the Government reached last year, and I and my colleagues think that it would be a good idea now to give everybody an oppor- tunity of seeing the kind of layout that may result from the adoption of the White Paper. My hon. Friend will no doubt have observed that on a previous occasion, and in my statement now, the Government are pledged to submit to the approval of Parliament the terms and conditions of any licences which might be issued.

Mr. Ness Edwards

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Television Advisory Committee's Report will be out on Tuesday, and whether he can indicate, when talking about the limitation of stations, whether or not only one frequency will be available in the London area? Do I understand that nothing in this statement infringes upon the pledge given by the Government in the last debate on broadcasting that no element of competition will be allowed until the B.B.C. has completed its national coverage?

Mr. Crookshank

I do not think that was in the form of a pledge. At any rate, it is a technical point which the right hon. Gentleman has asked me, and I think that he had better await the publication of the White Paper. I understand that the Report to which he refers is to be issued next week, but I cannot promise that it will be on Tuesday. I do not know whether there is any particular merit about Tuesday, but we hope to have it next week.

Sir R. Boothby

Without declaring any personal interest, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether, in considering the White Paper, Her Majesty's Government will give serious consideration to the point that, if all political discussion on sponsored television is banned, then the argument about breaking the monopoly of the B.B.C. falls to the ground. I think it is very important, if we are going on with this business, that we should have free discussion on sponsored television.

Mr. Crookshank

May I first congratulate my hon. Friend on the honour which has been conferred upon him, and ask him to await the publication of the White Paper?

Mr. Bowles

May I ask the Leader of the House whether this proposal for competitive television was in the Conservative Party's manifesto at the last General Election? Will he say "Yes" or "No"?

Mr. Crookshank

I do not think that has any relevance to what we are discussing now, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows probably just as well as I do, the answer to his question is "No."

Brigadier Medlicott

Is the Minister aware that there will be a great deal of disappointment in East Anglia that that historic and important part of the country has been passed over in the next phase of development in favour of more remote parts of these islands, and that, in particular, East Anglia has never had satisfactory sound reception? We did hope that, as some compensation, we should have some priority in regard to television.

Mr. Crookshank

I am sure we share my hon. Friend's grief—no one more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Hobson

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Cabinet have discussed all the implications of sound frequency allocation for the proposed sponsored television, particularly with regard to the difficulties for fire brigades, police, tug, shore and radar defence frequencies.

Mr. Crookshank

I must not be drawn into saying anything about what is discussed in the Cabinet.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no Question before the House.

Mr. Shackleton

On a point of order. We have had a most important statement from the Leader of the House and there will be no opportunity apparently to discuss it further, yet the Leader of the House is hoping that public opinion will be formed on the basis of his brief statement and the answers to a few supplementary questions. May I respectfully ask whether a few more questions may be allowed to elucidate additional facts?

Mr. Hector Hughes

Further to that point of order. This is a matter in which I have taken a particular interest. May I ask one question on a matter of fact which has not been dealt with by the Minister?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot have a debate without a Question and there is no Question before the House. If the House desires to debate this matter further, it must so arrange, but I cannot postpone the Orders of the Day further.