HC Deb 18 April 1957 vol 568 cc2152-74

2.30 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, my request to Mr. Speaker for an allocation of time this afternoon arose directly from a Press statement put out by the B.B.C. on 8th April. First of all, I should like very briefly to review the events which led up to that statement.

On 31st January, the B.B.C. announced, rather out of the blue, that it was reviewing the whole system of sound broadcasting. As soon as that statement was made, a number of rumours began to circulate, and many of them appeared to emanate from Broadcasting House itself. The two most persistent rumours were that the Home Service and the Light Programme were to be amalgamated, to some extent at least; and that the Third Programme was to be eliminated altogether.

These rumours produced an immediate reaction, and, quite spontaneously, the Third Programme Defence Society sprang up. A single announcement in the personal column of The Times produced over 5,000 replies, which I think the House will agree was quite a remarkable result. Together with right hon. and hon. Friends, and indeed with hon. Members of all parties in the House, I put down on the Order Paper a Motion to the effect that this House would regret the passing of the B.B.C. Third Programme. That Motion has been signed by 177 hon. Members.

I asked a question of the Assistant Postmaster-General on the subject on 27th March, and received from him a somewhat non-committal reply, the burden of which was that we should wait and see what the results of the B.B.C. review produced. There were also many letters written to the Press, deploring the threat to the Third Programme in particular. I think, too, that hon. Members have probably been surprised at the number of letters they have received from their constituents about this.

So we come to the B.B.C. Press statement which the Daily Telegraph has described as vague and muddled. The timing of the announcement hardly suggests that the Corporation wanted the maximum publicity for its proposals, because it was released at 4.30 p.m. on a Monday—a Monday which was the eve of the Budget, and the day on which Her Majesty arrived in Paris on her State Visit. What was even more curious was that the statement was put out less than two days prior to the quarterly meeting of the B.B.C. Advisory Council. Thus the Advisory Council was presented with a fait accompli and had no opportunity whatever of tendering any advice on the matter. I cannot help wondering what the Council does advise on if it is not asked for advice on the wholesale reorganisation of sound broadcasting.

In brief, the proposals are these. The Home Service and the Light Programme will be "planned together"—that is the phrase that is used—and they will join to form a single programme at some periods of the day. The Light Programme, we are told, "will place even greater emphasis on programmes of wide popular appeal." While admitting that the Light Programme must have popular appeal, I must confess that I have never yet heard a complaint that it is not light enough as it stands. I think that this part of the statement, taken with the proposal that the two services should be joined together in some measure, strikes a somewhat melancholy note.

I want now to come to the proposals for the Third Programme, because I think that this is the nub of the matter. It is true that the Third is not to be abolished, and we may never know whether or not the original intention was to abandon it altogether, and whether the protests that sprang up spontaneously brought about some second thoughts. The Third Programme is, however, to be cut to some three hours per day. One might say that, having rejected murder, the B.B.C. is content to commit mayhem, because it has imposed a cut of almost a half on the Third Programme. I believe that the reduction in programme hours is of the order of 45 per cent.

No one has said precisely what is to be cut, but so far as one can gather from Press interviews and rumours it is mainly to be talks, although I doubt if one could get a reduction of that order by eliminating talks only. The Corporation's Press statement said that "the shortened Third Programme would provide room for all that was "truly worthy of inclusion." That observation, Sir, contrasts very markedly with another B.B.C. statement issued less than a year ago—a publication entitled "The Tenth Anniversary", to which I shall refer again later.

"The Tenth Anniversary" is a paean of praise of the Third Programme. It reviews the first ten years of its existence, and is on the whole even more enthusiastic about the Programme than I will be. Nevertheless, it also contains some extremely interesting factual information.

Finally, we have the introduction of Network Three, which is to use the Third Programme wavelength for the earlier part of the evening up to eight p.m. It is very difficult to get any clear or coherent picture of Network Three from the information that has been released, but it will obviously be something of a hotchpotch. It is announced that Network Three will accommodate talks displaced from the Home Service and the Light Programme and will do some further education. It will also include new projects for specialised audiences.

The specialised audiences will include those interested in week-end and leisure pursuits, and in specialist sporting activities, and also various fields of professional work. These proposals were rather summed up by The Times in two words, "More Light"—but the leader that followed hardly suggested that the editor was using the words in the same sense as Goethe's cry from his deathbed.

We might well ask what prompted this agonising re-appraisal of sound broadcasting, because the B.B.C. explanation is very far from convincing. It fails to convince because the Corporation is really reluctant to disclose the main reason behind its proposals. I do not think that, to any great extent, it was prompted by the desire for economy. It is said that £1 million will be saved somehow, but I doubt if it is suggested that there will be a net saving of £1 million, because there is Network Three to be taken into account.

I believe that the B.B.C. is disturbed by the steady transfer of audiences from sound to television, and from B.B.C. television to commercial television, and that it believes that, by placing more emphasis on light entertainment, somehow or other this process can be arrested or retarded. I consider that to be a policy which is wholly wrong in intention and mistaken in logic. I believe that in making this decision, which is in my view a retrograde one, the B.B.C. is falling short of that duty which is implicit in any monopoly of sound broadcasting.

I think the House as a whole would agree that as a force in popular education, acting on standards which were established in the first instance by Lord Reith, often in face of violent criticism, the B.B.C. has been unrivalled in our generation. It has managed to do this not only by maintaining generally high standards in its sound broadcasting, but by deliberately catering for minority as well as for mass audiences, a policy which came into full flower with the introduction of the Third Programme in 1946.

I should like to say a word or two about the Third Programme. There is no time this afternoon to embark upon a list of the achievements of this programme in ten years, but it has built up a reputation which is quite unique in the world. No other country has even attempted a broadcasting programme with so consistently a high level as this. Obviously no person can be interested in everything that the Third Programme puts out, and the same thing is true, indeed, of any radio or television programme. But one can say that music lovers have been enabled to hear performances of works which they could never hope to hear in the concert hall or the opera house. Drama enthusiasts have been able to hear plays of great interest and quality, which no theatre could be expected to mount.

In addition, the Third Programme has introduced the works of new authors and composers. Perhaps I need only mention the work of the Italian dramatist Ugo Betti, which, oddly enough, after being introduced to the public by the B.B.C., found its way through the Third Programme into the commercial theatre proper. I would remind the House, too, that it was the B.B.C. Third Programme which commissioned Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood ". Similarly with talks and features, the standard has been consistently high, although inevitably— and one freely admits it—some of the subjects have had a very limited appeal.

The Third Programme has never aimed at a large regular audience. Its listeners choose the items to which they listen with some care. But I think it is fair to ask the size of that audience. The B.B.C. itself estimates that 1,600,000 people over the age of twenty-one listen to the Third Programme at least once a week and that nearly three times as many more listen at least once a month. These are not negligible figures, especially when one considers the poor reception of the Third Programme over quite a large area of the country. Nor are they all "highbrows" to use a common term of abuse. According to B.B.C. research, a surprising proportion of the listeners to the Third Programme come from that section of the community whose education and background would not lead one to expect they would be Third Programme listeners.

I said earlier that these proposals, which I understand have produced a black depression in Broadcasting House, are not only wrong in intention but are mistaken in logic, and I want to deal with the latter part of my charge. I think they are mistaken because the television enthusiasts will not be seduced back to sound by being offered lighter and lighter sound broadcasting. If a person merely wants light entertainment, he already has the Television Service, provided he can afford to buy a television set. Having a television set, he will use it to the maximum and to the exclusion of sound radio, if indeed he still has a sound radio set. Equally, as more and more people who want television find that they can afford it, the same arguments apply. They are not going back to sound.

Admittedly there are a lot of people who treat their radio as their wallpaper, to quote a phrase in The Economist. Nevertheless, there is also a substantial audience for sound broadcasting who definitely prefer sound broadcasting because it offers something a little more serious, more stimulating, perhaps more enduring, more varied and, in some cases, more educational. These are the very people, so far as I can see, whom the B.B.C. are prepared to throw to the wolves.

What has happened is the inevitable consequence of the introduction of commercial television. When the Television Bill was going through the House, many hon. Members on these benches argued that commercial television, dependent as it has to be upon advertising, would be forced to aim at the lowest common denominator in popular entertainment. It has got to please the mass audience—the "Admass", as Mr. J. B. Priestley has called it. We prophesied that this contagion would spread to the B.B.C. and that the whole level of broadcasting would be debased thereby. Hon. Members opposite, at least those who supported the Bill in their hearts as well as in the Lobby, said that we were wrong. Unhappily, this chain reaction is now to be seen in process.

Here and there, admittedly, there are Independent Television programmes which have made a bold attempt to please something other than the mass audience and to provide more serious entertainment than the large popular audience can take. It may be a gallant fight, but it is certainly a losing fight the advertisers see to that. So far as commercial television is concerned, numbers are everything, and so the B.B.C. too has begun to think in numbers. The disease is spreading from television to sound radio, and inevitably we have this new policy.

The Assistant Postmaster-General told me the other day that we must wait and see what the B.B.C.'s review produces. That suggests—at least, I hope I am right in thinking it suggests—that no final decision has been taken. Perhaps one of the few good things about this pronouncement is that we are told that the new policy will be implemented gradually and will not be fully in force until next October. I hope that this interval gives time for reflection and for second thoughts.

I beg the Corporation, through the Assistant Postmaster-General, not to sacrifice its high standards and its very well deserved reputation for quality, especially on sound radio, to the Moloch of the mass audience. To do so would be to fail in its duty to minorities and to betray the trust which is implicit in its Charter and in its monopoly.

2.50 p.m.

Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) for raising this matter today. While I cannot share his views, and I am in some respects slightly critical of his attitude in this matter, that does not mean in the least that I do not entirely share his admiration for the work of the Third Programme of the B.B.C. and his desire that it should continue and increase and be of better quality.

Like other hon. Members, I received a number of letters on the subject. I read the correspondence and articles in the Press, and I was at first rather concerned. However, this has turned out to be an occasion when, as sometimes happens, a thing starts off "on the wrong leg ", if I may put it that way. The suggestion that the Third Programme was to be abolished was, no doubt, one of the reasons—probably the main reason—why there was the enthusiastic response to the advertisement which, I understand, a gentleman put in The Times. I had many letters which were almost entirely based on the assumption that the programme was to be abolished. That assumption was quite wrong.

When I found that the agitation was to be continued on that basis, I thought it my duty to try to find out the facts. In such circumstances, I believe in going to the source to find out about things, so I took the opportunity of getting in touch with the actual people in the B.B.C. who are responsible for running the Third Programme. I have had an opportunity of discussing the matter with several of them and getting their views. I am sorry to say that I found that the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North had not been in touch with any of the people I met.

I asked the people with whom I discussed the matter what their view was about this change. The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North, thought it right to say that there was black depression in Broadcasting House. That seems an unfortunate thing to say if one has not talked to the people who are actually doing the job. There is no black depression among those to whom I talked. Of course, anyone who is doing a job which takes part of the time and resources of any organisation wants to get as big a share as he can; my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General and his Department, for instance, like to get their hands on as much as they can.

Those concerned in Broadcasting House, however, are reasonable people, and they realise that they cannot have everything. It is not that they consider that this will have the result of lowering the quality of the Third Programme. On the other hand, they have assured me, in my discussions with them, that they believe that the standard of the Third Programme will be improved.

There was no question whatever, as, indeed, the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North himself was fair enough to admit, that any large economy was to be made. The hon. Gentleman appeared to suggest that there was some deliberate policy of change designed to destroy or, at any rate, maim the "intellectual innocence" of Broadcasting House. I can assure him, after having talked to the people concerned, that they are not under such misapprehensions at all.

I will give one or two examples of what is being attempted. At present, the hours of broadcasting on the Third Programme are these. The standard period of transmission is, I think, five hours, and there is an extra hour on Sunday afternoon. Under the new arrangement, there will be three hours, and I am assured that there is every hope that there it will also be on Sunday as well. Certainly, the more demand there is from outside that it should be on Sunday, the more certain it is that it will be. We are now to have three hours as against five.

The view of those responsible for these programmes is that there is now a great deal of material which is attractive only to a small proportion of people, even of those who listen to the Third Programme, which has the effect of discouraging others from listening to the Third Programme. Those in charge have their research arrangements; they have a very good idea of what is going on. They do not want to destroy this great production of theirs, but they believe that there is quite a number of programmes which do not encourage anyone to go on listening on other occasions.

I do not want to give any examples, but there are certain lectures, for instance, which are read out and which have an interest for a very small number of people only. Moreover, a number of those who give such lectures do not necessarily have a broadcasting technique. Quite frankly, there are not many people who can stand it for very long. One can, therefore, dispense with a great deal of material without any loss at all.

I was interested in a letter in The Times the other day from a gentleman in Chicago. He was very upset about this new proposal; in Chicago, he said, they have that kind of thing going on for 13 hours a day, and he thought that it would really be terrible if the B.B.C. were to cut the amount of time it devotes to similar material. For my part, I do not think that we could stand 13 hours a day of the Third Programme. I was interested enough to make inquiries, and I found that a very large part of the 13 hours in Chicago is occupied by material obtained from our Home Service, not from the Third Programme.

One must have a sense of proportion in these matters and give a chance to these people who are doing a very difficult job. It is a pity that the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North, adopted quite the tone he did. There will be a combination of the Third Programme and, as I think it is called, Network Three, which will have the great advantage of v.h.f. coverage which will fill some important gaps.

Network Three is to be a new venture. It will be an important development, for it will cover the period from six o'clock until eight o'clock which is now covered by the Third Programme, and will bring into play something of a slightly less severe character than usually put out by the Third. Indeed, since reference has been made to the suggestion that the only result of these changes would be "More light", one might say that some people would not mind if things were a little less "heavy". That is how things will be.

There is no time to go into the details; one can study them, with very great interest, as I have tried to do. I feel that we might look at it in this way. If the effect of combining the Third Programme with the new Network Three is that people will listen, perhaps, between six and eight, will think the programmes interesting, and will go on to find themselves listening to the Third Programme and be attracted to that, I do not share the pessimism of the hon. Gentleman that they will at once turn off because it is not "Rock 'n' Roll". After all, the hon. Gentleman would not want to denigrate those who have been listening to a discussion, for instance, about weekend rambling, because they would want only to listen to "Rock 'n' Roll". One must take a reasonable view. The combination of these two programmes may well be very interesting and important. It may produce the sort of result referred to in the old saying about people who come to scoff and remain to pray—in this case, not necessarily to pray, but, comparatively speaking, perhaps one might so describe it.

In conclusion, I must emphasise that there was no intention to slaughter the programme; any such suggestion is quite mistaken. From my inquiries, I can find no evidence that there was ever any intention to do anything of that kind, nor— I hope I can say this without impertinence—can I find any evidence that the activity of the body which the hon. Gentleman described had any effect in changing policy. The policy is now what it was before, to improve, to streamline, if one likes that word, and to carry on the Third Programme, which has been a great success. In my view, we should do a great service to the B.B.C. and to everyone today if we were to wish it the best of good fortune.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol. South-East)

I listened with very great interest to the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald). One of his phrases filled me with misgiving. The theory that things are improved by being cut is a doctrine which is applied to all sorts of economies of different kinds. Indeed, one hon. Member opposite has said that the loss of Lord Salisbury would greatly strengthen the Government.

Sir L. Heald

It applies to speeches.

Mr. Benn

It might apply to speeches, but I doubt very much whether it applies always to pruning.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) on raising the subject today. I am one of those who believes that the relations between the B.B.C. and the public are sometimes really very bad. I say this because the B.B.C. is in an entirely independent position, as it ought to be, from the viewpoint of its policy, but it is one of those bodies which, as it has no competition for customers in the sound field, and having no responsibility to Parliament or anybody else, is sometimes unresponsive to public opinion. I like to think that this House discusses the affairs of the B.B.C. from time to time.

This House is a very great gainer by the B.B.C. It has been said of another place—I forget who said it that "the temple of its fame rests upon the columns of The Times" because The Times is the only newspaper which reports its proceedings. Certainly, of this House it might be said that we greatly benefit by the broadcasting about Parliament—for example, "The Week in Westminster" and "Today in Parliament." Even Big Ben, our own clock, is the timepiece of almost every house in the land, and Parliament has become better known and understood, and its workings better understood, through the B.B.C. than by any newspaper or other method of communication. As so, if I may sum up, it is with affectionate criticism that we should approach the problems that confront the B.B.C.

I have, however, one sense of grievance, in that the B.B.C. never publishes audience figures properly so that we can study them. I get sent to me every year, as, I suppose, every hon. Member does, the Handbook of the B.B.C. I do not quite know why it is sent, except that as a public relations effort it is welcome. I searched through it today to be sure that I was right in my suspicion that no audience figures of any kind are published in the Handbook. Although it tells one the name, initials and age of the chief engineering officer in Northern Ireland and the names of the members of the Advisory Council on Sporting Activities on the West Region, it contains no mention of how many people listen to the nine o'clock news or other programmes. We are, therefore, at a slight disadvantage, which is particularly difficult when we are discussing programme policies, as we are today.

I would, however, say about the Third Programme—though I do not want only to speak of the Third Programme—that it is unquestionably the envy of those people who come to this country and see the way that we do our broadcasting. I will not exaggerate, but if the recent Budget is supposed to keep ordinary people from emigrating, I think that the Third Programme holds the intellectuals —if I may call them that—in this country. The long-haired boys who would otherwise be flooding to Australia House to inquire about cheap passage outwards are held here by the knowledge that on Tuesday week, for example, there is to be a play in Russian on the Third Programme. This is a perfect example of what a public service system is able to do.

I want to go even further and to say that I sympathise strongly with the B.B.C. in the problem it faces as the result of the increase in television. I am not one who believes that we should all listen to radio as God intended and not get muddled up with the silver screen. Obviously, the move to television is inevitable. I do not agree with my hon. Friend that this problem is produced by commercial television. It is produced by television, and the fact that people are buying television sets means simply—or, if it does not mean it now, will shortly do so—that the B.B.C. has less money available for its sound programmes.

The question is, what sort of pattern of sound broadcasting should there be in these new circumstances? In reading the B.B.C.'s hand-out on the new autumn services, I was much taken by its view, which I accept, that there will always be room for a basic sound service, and, indeed, that certain programmes are better provided in sound than on television. The news, music and good serious talks can be enjoyed without the benefit of watching the faces of those who are producing them. At the same time, however, the sound services ought to be providing a proper service for the minority.

When weighing up the claims of the minority, it is difficult to know exactly how it should be done. There are, of course, minorities by special interest, and I think that the Third Programme, although it would disclaim any pretence at being a highbrow institution, is a programme designed to meet people with a comparatively narrow interest. Then there are the geographical areas which have a claim because they have special cultural ties—for example, with the land of Wales and with Scotland; and the regions have claims to be considered, as they are considered by regional broadcasting. Now, we are told that Network Three is to provide for people with special interests, and for some reason the B.B.C. has given the example of pigeon fanciers.

It is difficult to know how to compare the intensity of enjoyment of some people who listen to these high-quality programmes with the value that comes from the mass audience. We remember what the old lady said—" Why spend £1 on an umbrella when you get an apple for 2d.?" It did not help, but it indicated the difficulty of weighing up the relative importance of the mass enjoyment of the people listening to the big entertainment shows on an evening—which I gratefully enjoy when I listen to them—and the special enjoyment that can only come to the pigeon fancier when he listens to an expert talking on his own subject.

In my view, the cut in the Third Programme will represent a real loss, because it is quite clear that those who listen to it listen deliberately. Nobody switches on to the Third Programme as background listening. People listen to it because they want to hear a programme. They probably hear the best man on the subject, and although it may be shockingly delivered—sometimes the B.B.C. is slack in not making these people learn more about broadcasting technique; there is no excuse for a man rustling his script just because he is a professor of archaeology—at any rate the enjoyment of the audience is very great indeed.

For all that, I still think there is room for improvement in the Third Programme. I would like—as I think most people would—to get my hands on it for a while and see whether I could not introduce a little more life into some of its more controversial broadcasting, which has been greatly lacking. I would like to see the Third Programme, not with a permanent X certificate for adults only in the ordinary sense, but I would like to see it putting out really controversial broadcasts which are at present excluded altogether from the air.

It is not only the Third Programme minority that we have to consider. I rose particularly this afternoon to make a plea for a much bigger minority which has been completely ignored by the B.B.C. since the very earliest days of broadcasting. That is the minority of people who work at night. It never seems to have occurred to anybody in Broadcasting House that a large number of people get up before 6.30 in the morning and go to bed after midnight. We are shortly moving into the various stages of the Finance Bill. When during the Committee stage we finally hear those magic words, "That the Chairman do report progress and ask leave to sit again" and we head for home, it will be after 12 o'clock on many occasions. As we take off our socks and brush our teeth, really light music will be denied to us unless we can pick up something from the American Forces Network.

We, however, are the luxury night people. I am thinking of the serious night people, those who do their job at night. There are 70,000 police in this country, and I suppose that all of them at some time or other do night work. There are over a million agricultural workers who get up before 6.30 in the morning and for whom nothing whatever is provided for their enjoyment when they are having their breakfast. Nothing is provided for the 250,000 railwaymen who work on shift—I checked the figure with the Transport Commission this morning—and who, at some time or other, work early turn, late turn or through the night.

When I tried to get from the Ministry of Labour the total figure of people who do shift work at some time or other, it was very difficult to find out the exact total. One would certainly not be far wrong in saying that the people who regularly do night work of some kind or other total well over one million and that probably, if we include others, there are two or three million people who could benefit in some way. It seems to me to be absolutely scandalous that the Home Service, Light Programme and Third Programme should be provided for day people while nothing is provided for the night people.

When I have said this in private conversations people have said to me, "If you allow broadcasting at night that will disturb those of us who are trying to sleep." That is adding such monstrous insult to such terrible injury that it hardly bears thinking about. First of all, we prevent the night people from sleeping in the daytime by the noise of broad- casting to the day people and then we prevent them listening in at night for fear that the noise will disturb the day people who are then in bed. I say no more than that if we provide entertainment for the day workers we ought also to provide entertainment for the night workers.

The size of the Third Programme audience cannot really be reduced to statistics, but it is said that the normal audience of the Third Programme is between 40,000 and 50,000. It frequently rises to 100,000, and the peak audience is about 250,000. The number is increased, of course, by the number of those who listen to the Third Programme occasionally. I should like to see the people who work from midnight to 6.30 in the morning getting a little better deal.

Although no one has mentioned it in the House, it is a fact that we are entering a new era in sound broadcasting. The great case for the B.B.C.'s monopoly up to now has been the technical case that only a limited number of medium and short wavelengths were available, but with V.H.F. we are able to have far more broadcasting if we can provide the matter to broadcast and if we can finance it.

I think the B.B.C. has got to be conscious of the fact that we gave it a monopoly and that we in Parliament are in a position to decide upon some other system if we consider that the services offered to the minority and to the majority are not truly satisfactory. That is a reason why I wish there were more debates here in this House on broadcasting policy, for through our debates the B.B.C. can be made aware of public feeling on these matters and, in response, show a greater awareness of its wonderful opportunities.

3.12 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rawlinson (Epsom)

I was one of those hon. Members who put their names to the Motion sponsored by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson), to which he alluded. I welcomed and I also support the Third Programme, and I congratulate those friends of the Third Programme throughout the country who have, I think, done a great deal to ensure its maintenance in some form or another.

It was not quite a case of repeating Adlai Stevenson's cry, "Eggheads of the world unite", but, anyhow, it was a case of the "eggheads" of the United Kingdom uniting, and I have no doubt that they have had some effect in stiffening the attitude of the B.B.C. towards the Third Programme. However, I think the B.B.C. has come to a correct decision, because I am sure that the timing for that programme should be after eight o'clock in the evening. Therefore, I believe that the decision which would seem to have been reached by the B.B.C. concerning that programme is a fair, just and sensible decision.

Everybody who has taken part in this debate, and who is interested in this programme, appreciates the importance of it, and, indeed, tributes have been paid to it already. It has played, and should play, an important part in any broadcasting policy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I am never so sure about the desire for an educational motif in some other of the arguments of the B.B.C. I have great fear that that precious element may enter into decisions concerning this programme. I have always thought that the Third Programme forms and creates a genuine desire, and genuine belief in the need, to provide a programme for an important, if small, minority, and a programme which does and should play an important part in the broadcasting policy of a national corporation.

The future of what is called "steam radio" is surely very limited. It will always have a certain appeal, and will be the only entertainment for persons unable to see—blind persons, for instance; but it is only in catering for those in special circumstances that there will be a future for sound broadcasting. The development of television, and the ability of everybody to purchase, is such that very shortly, when the technical means have been developed—and that will not be long—television will be the main source of entertainment in every household in the country.

Although it has been attempted, I do not think that it is possible to compare sound radio and television with the theatre and the cinema. Both sound radio and the television are domestic entertainments, and I have no doubt that television must completely eliminate sound radio from all households except the compara- tively few exceptions of those of persons unable to see. I think it is a pity because sound radio is and always has been a spur to the imagination, which television is not. Sound radio stimulates; television can, in a way, drug.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is much more robust in accepting criticisms than some of its more ardent supporters in the Press and elsewhere. I appreciate that in certain of those circles it is considered utter heresy in any way to criticise the attitude of the Corporation or its policy. However, I want to refer to one matter, and that is overseas broadcasting and the policy of the B.B.C. for that.

Our system in this country is an adult political system which allows for agitators in Hyde Park and Members of Parliament in this Chamber to advocate their different views and yet afterwards, behind the scenes, not to exhibit the same fierceness exhibited either on the soap boxes in Hyde Park or on the benches in this Chamber. We enjoy certain dialectical niceties which are not appreciated by very many persons overseas. There is sophistication and adultness about our ability to debate in a manner most fierce which may not be appreciated by people overseas when our differences of view are solemnly, sometimes pompously, broadcast to them.

In our broadcasting to countries overseas there is great need for some straightforward and simple expression of our basic policies, as delivered to countries overseas as the voice of Britain. There is, therefore, necessity for the B.B.C. to have a channel, band or wavelength for the voice of this country in matters of foreign affairs, by which, as I have said here before, there should be propagated abroad the policy which is basically believed in by the people of this country.

Mr. Benn

The hon. Member is dealing with a most important matter. He is now suggesting that the Opposition point of view on, for example, the Suez crisis, or on foreign affairs generally, should not be transmitted abroad. Has he thought that through to its logical conclusion? It is very dangerous.

Mr. Rawlinson

I do not see the danger that the hon. Member seems to see.

I am saying that there can always be debate in this country, and there always will be, and no one would wish to stop it, but countries overseas, to which there is broadcasting from this country, are not in the same condition of sensibility and sophistication as we to be able to understand that from the fierceness of argument here, despite the fierceness of argument, there eventually emerges a policy.

Therefore if, in broadcasting all over the world, and, in particular, to the Near and Middle East, we demonstrate the enormous amount and variety of the arguments that we have, and without clearly demonstrating what is our accepted policy, we may cause such confusion in those countries—as we have in the past—as to lead them to believe in perfidious Albion and to lead them to feel, as they have been led in the past to feel, uncertain of where we stand and how we stand. There is danger in that.

Mr. Benn rose

Mr. Rawlinson

I know that the Assistant Postmaster-General wants some time to sum up the debate, so I must not take many more minutes, for I have already kept him waiting for a long time, so the hon. Member must forgive me if I do not give way again.

There is a great need in our broadcasting for the expression of the voice of Britain, especially in foreign policy, to express the policy of the Government of the day to people overseas, so that those people overseas may know what the policy is of the Government of the day, the policy which has the support of the people of this country, so that people overseas may know where Her Majesty's Government stand.

3.20 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

The scope of the speeches to which we have listened give justification and sanction, if they were needed, to the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) in introducing this subject. There is no doubt at all that hon. Members, the Press and every home in the country are concerned and involved in what the B.B.C. does with the time and resources that are available to it.

The B.B.C. has come to be knit into the pattern of life of our people in many ways. Therefore, it is a good thing that the Press and the House, and critics of all kinds, should take some concern about the intentions of the B.B.C. Indeed, I do not think that it is going too far to say that the Governors of the B.B.C. and the staff who work within it must welcome criticism of all kinds, provided that it is intelligent, sophisticated, and constructive criticism designed to help the B.B.C. to achieve the kind of programme that will be satisfactory to itself and to those who listen to it.

I feel that there is very little danger of the B.B.C. building itself into an ivory tower of seclusion away from criticism. Quite the contrary. The House is full of those who can give very good advice, as we have heard today, on what the B.B.C. ought to be doing. So are the newspapers and all points at which men and women meet to exchange ideas. There is no danger of the B.B.C. suffering from lack of good advice.

I was a little alarmed at the thought of the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North making designs to get his hands on the Third Programme, as he put it. That leads me to the quite important consideration which we ought to bear in mind, that is, the relationship that exists between the House or the Government of the day and the B.B.C. Parliament has been very careful to separate the day-to-day running of the B.B.C. and the structure and content of its programmes from too detailed interference by us or anyone else. I am sure that the House will feel that that is a thoroughly good thing for us to maintain. I have a note of a Resolution which the House passed in 1933, which says: That this House…is of opinion that it would be contrary to the public interest to subject the Corporation to any control by Government or by Parliament other than the control already provided for in the charter and the licence of the Corporation. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1933; Vol. 274. c. 1869.] I think that that is still the will of us all.

Nevertheless, we have a representative capacity, and if a public corporation does something or looks like doing something that flies contrary to what we believe to be right, this is the forum for expressions of opinion to be exchanged. As the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North said, the B.B.C. announced in January that it was going to review the sound radio service in the light of the constantly changing audience pattern in the country, with the massive growth of television, both B.B.C. and Independent, the development of v.h.f. services and the increasing complexity of the use of medium waves both in this country and in neighbouring countries.

That announcement that the B.B.C. will carry out a revision of its sound radio services was made in January. Therefore, there has been plenty of time for those who thought that their interests might be affected to let their opinions be known. No doubt a good deal of good advice has flowed to the B.B.C. as to what should be done with the various programmes.

Now we have the statement issued by the B.B.C. at the close of its consideration of the system. I do not think that there is anything suspicious about the B.B.C.'s timing in handling this matter. This revision has been known to the public as having been going on from January until April. It may be a fortuitous benefit, a sort of unearned bonus, that the announcement happened to be made to the public on the day before the Budget. If that is a device to be adopted, we did rather well to have the Budget on the same day as Her Majesty the Queen went to Paris, but I assure the House that that was no more a manoeuvre by Her Majesty's Government than was the timing of the announcing of its intentions by the B.B.C. The Corporation wanted the widest publicity for its announcement.

Mr. K. Robinson

Would the hon. Gentleman say a word about the Advisory Council?

Mr. Thompson

I was hoping to deal with that in a moment.

What exactly is the B.B.C. proposing to do with its sound radio services? Will it in fact make any drastic alterations? The Light Programme will be lighter. It is intended for those who like distraction and relaxation in the least demanding form. It is meant to be a light programme, and I see no cause for alarm if the B.B.C. proposes to make it a little lighter. It will not be entirely a frivolous programme. It will contain news broadcasts and that kind of make-up, but, however much people may deplore the wide demand for light listening—and I certainly do not—the demand is there, and the B.B.C. is right and wise to try to meet it as fully as it can.

The Home Programme will remain. It is designed to satisfy those who want to listen more attentively to both entertainment and information. After the changes, the Home Programme will contain news broadcasts, a full information service, discussions of current affairs and a wide range of music, and it will carry a great deal of regional broadcasting, which is a distinctive feature of the B.B.C.'s contribution to our life. It is one which has benefited both the regions—and I speak as a provincial—and London and Home Counties too. Therefore, the Home Service, as a service, will not be destroyed.

The B.B.C. has announced that at certain times of the day the Home and Light Programmes will come together, but I am assured that, for the greater part of the time when the B.B.C. is broadcasting, there will be two separate programmes each providing for a different type of customer, each doing its best to satisfy that customer and each now planned not in competition with the other but in a way which it is hoped will enable us to get the best out of both.

Then we come to the Third Programme, and it is here where the controversy rages. If the B.B.C. were proposing to destroy it, I have no doubt that the battalions would have marched on to the headquarters of the B.B.C. and made their wishes widely known. But the B.B.C. is as keen to retain the Third Programme as is anyone in this House or outside.

The discussion that we are really engaged in is to decide what is the right length for the Third Programme. Is it three hours or five and a half hours? Has the B.B.C. been right up to now in including in the Third Programme items which it would probably have been better to print than to read over the air —as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) suggested, items which, by being read over the air, may have driven thousands away from the Third Programme? There is a point of view of considerable importance which lends support to the belief that the Third Programme can be improved by putting it into its proper perspective.

There is a letter in The Times this morning which supports the view that the B.B.C. may be doing the right thing and, in fact, giving an advantage to those who like to listen to the kind of things broadcast in the Third Programme, and, as we have been reminded, in Network Three, which will contain items that have been gathered together either from the present Third Programme or from the Home Service or wherever they may have been a little out of place. Network Three will be on the air as a rule for two hours each evening from six o'clock until eight o'clock. I assure the House that even the three-hour period of the Third Programme proper is not bound by any immutable law, and if a programme requires that it shall run longer, the B.B.C. will arrange for it to be so.

That is the pattern of programmes which the B.B.C. proposes to put out for the enlightenment and enjoyment of the people of this country, starting in the fall. There is no great change, no great loss. In fact, a point of view can be sustained that there will be a real gain both to those who like lighter Light and those who want better Third, and I think we should be wise to let the B.B.C. get on with its plans and see how far it can go to satisfy the requirements of the greatest possible number of its listeners.

I now wish to say a few words about the amount of consultation in which the B.B.C. engaged before reaching the conclusion that this was the right pattern for its future services. The B.B.C. is not sheltered in any way from the tides of public opinion. Indeed, I am sure that it knows as much about what the public think about its programmes as anyone in this House can know; certainly the members of its Board of Governors do, because they have the listener figures, the research techniques, the machinery, and the "gimmicks," which help to tell the B.B.C. what it is the public are listening to, and what the public want to listen to. I think that the B.B.C. is quite capable of translating those figures and of considering the inferences behind them in a way which will guide it to do the best it can for the greatest possible number of listeners.

The House has been fortunate to have this debate, even if it is a short one. The B.B.C. has been fortunate that the House has taken upon itself the respon- sibility of expressing an opinion on what the B.B.C. is doing. That is our duty, and it is a thoroughly good thing for any public corporation. However, we should not overstate the case or allow ourselves to be alarmed. There is a real danger for us all in this matter of getting our points of view more than a little out of context. It does not need me to remind the House that there are large numbers of listeners who picture "Auntie B.B.C."—as they call the B.B.C.—as trotting with abject servility behind a small and narrowing band of "eggheads" to the exclusion of everyone else That picture is as wrong a conception as that of Sir Ian Jacob, with his eyes open and his ears closed, leading droves of skiffling swine into a "honky tonk" hell. Thank goodness we are a more mixed society—salty as well as serene, erudite as well as easy-going, high, low and middle-brow, all mixed up together. I do not think that any of us do too badly out of what the B.B.C. provides, so I do not think that the cognoscenti should be too provoked if the non-U slip shows every now and then.