HC Deb 25 February 1959 vol 600 cc1253-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

9.57 p.m.

Mr. C. R.Hobson (Keighley)

I wish to raise this evening the question of the future of television. It is time that there was a statement made about the Government's intention and I propose to ask numerous questions, all of which I have given advance notice to the Postmaster-General.

I think that many people want to know what the Government intend doing, not only Parliament, the public, B.B.C. and I.T.A., but the industry as well. Many conflicting statements have been made by the Postmaster-General. The only true one was that he was called to the Cabinet last week, so presumably one is left with the idea that television was one of the problems that were discussed.

The first question which I want to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General, who is to reply, is whether a decision has been taken about the line definition of television. At present, we are operating on 405 and there have been repeated statements made that there is a likelihood in the near future that we shall go on to 625 lines; and that brings in its train quite a number of problems.

First, the industry will want to know because it has to plan ahead; and, secondly, if there is to be this changing of line definition, it will put all the people owning television sets to great expense. It is very difficult to change the definition of an existing set. It will mean that new sets will be made with the new definition, which may be very good for the industry but not necessarily good for the millions of people who now have television sets. I am not at all convinced—and here again I speak from Press comment, which is my only source of information until the Assistant Postmaster-General has replied — that the definition on which we operate at present is not the best. It gives the clearest picture.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

Mr. Hobson

I cannot see why there is any intention to change. I have heard the suggestion that it will benefit the export trade, but in my view that is pure humbug. We are already exporting sets. When there are changes in other products, such as motor cars, where the industry has to produce cats with a left-hand drive, it does not put the industry to insuperable difficulties. There is, in fact, a highly prosperous export trade in the television industry, and this seems to me to be an argument which, on examination, holds little water.

Since the war the whole history of the radio industry has been one of persuading people continually to change their sets. We now have the idea that one must have a new set every other year, and there is a great salesmanship drive behind it. The impression has been created that what is good for the radio industry is good for the viewers, whereas it is the viewers who should receive some consideration. When it is suggested that there should be such a change as this, from the present definition, which I think is the best, to 625 lines, it is incumbent on the Department to let us know what the decision will be.

That brings me to the Television Advisory Committee, a subject which my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) has raised. Has the Postmaster-General received its report? Rumour has it that it has been on his desk since January, and we should like to know what it recommends. I have no faith in the Television Advisory Committee, for reasons which I am not prepared to state this evening in the short time at my disposal, but if anyone cares to do me the honour of looking at the speeches which I made in 1954, when sponsored television was being discussed, he will find that I gave many reasons why I had very little confidence in it. In any case, we want to know what it recommends.

Secondly, what about colour television? We know that it is a possibility. Most hon. Members saw an admirable display given by the B.B.C. in one of the Upper Committee Rooms. Has colour television advanced to such an extend that a set could be marketed at a price which people could afford to pay? That is the test. Undoubtedly, a tremendous amount of progress must have taken place about which only the Department has the knowledge, and it is about time that the House was informed.

If it is contemplated that there will be this change in line definition, for reasons which I fail to understand, at least let it coincide with the advent of colour television. Let us not be placed in the position of having adapted our sets, or bought new sets, on the 625 definition and then having to buy another set for colour television the next year. I think that we have advanced sufficiently for a statement to be made about colour television, and I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will give us some information about it.

I come to the very debatable issue of the third programme. Is there to be a third programme? If so, when? Consideration must have been given to this. On which band would it be, and what are the implications involved when it is put on that band? We are entitled to know. We do not want this carrot to be dangled continually in front of us. Certainly, the industry wants to know, as well as the public.

I am speaking purely in an individual capacity when I say that we do not need a third programme. It is a sheer waste of money to contemplate having one. Nobody would say that the country is not adequately covered by television. It is almost 100 per cent. covered. No party can claim any benefit, for that has been the agreed policy throughout.

Why do we want a third programme? Many industries far more important than the entertainment industry need capital. In these times it is the economics of Bedlam to provide capital for a third programme for the purpose of further entertainment. It is not necessary, and, as I say, the country cannot afford it.

Sir Beverley Baxter (Southgate)

Is it not a fact that the Third Programme on the ordinary radio service was a valuable and civilising service? In other words, it was able to supply programmes for a minority. It is minorities that sometimes matter, so why should there not be a third programme?

Mr, Hobson

That depends on who owns the third channel. That is one of the points on which we are seeking information. Does the hon. Member for Southgate (Sir B. Baxter) suggest that culture is safe in the hands of the people who now sponsor commercial television? One gets very little culture. Again, is the B.B.C. to be saddled with it?

Sir B. Baxter


Mr. Hobson

I know that the hon. Member for Southgate and I agree on this.

The country cannot afford to do it. There may be actors and actresses available to give us a third programme, but there are not sufficient script writers and scenario people to put on an effective third programme. Assuming that we had a third programme, and that it went to the I.T.A., we should have an increase in half hour American "quickies" and "phoney" quiz games. That is the way in which a third channel would be utilised.

The question of cost comes into this. We are told that it costs about £3,700 an hour to put on an entertainment. The B.B.C. certainly could not afford to run a second programme at that tremendous cost. There would have to be some other source of revenue. Because of the rules of order, I am not in a position tonight to suggest how it could be done, because it would involve legislation. At present, the B.B.C. would be unable to finance a third programme. Therefore, we fall back to the position that, if we are to have a third programme, it will be the I.T.A. who will operate it. We want some information on this.

The hon. Gentleman and his Department will be under great pressure from the advertising interests. They will be under great pressure from the I.T.A. The I.T.A. has already "put on the heat" through Sir Robert Fraser. I sometimes think that Sir Robert Fraser would be well-advised, as a quasi-civil servant, to be a little quieter and a little less controversial. The I.T.A. will have to put on the third channel, because it is making too much money, too quickly, for too few people. To spread this butter, it will have to spend it on a third channel. Hence the propaganda from the I.T.A. for a third channel so that it can get it.

We are wasting our time. If we contemplate squandering thousands and thousands of pounds on a useless industry we are failing in our duty as people who should be concerned about the industry of our country.

Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)

Millions of pounds.

Mr. Hobson

Millions, as my right hon. Friend says.

It would be far better to give the capital required for the third programme to the industries that need it. That programme, therefore, should be ruled out. The Postmaster-General cannot go on as he has done without making a clear and categorical statement. It is very difficult to do it, one way or the other, on the eve of a General Election, or in an election year. That may be the reason—I do not know—but the industry and the public are entitled to know the Government's intentions.

I think that I have given the hon. Gentleman notice of my intention to raise my next point but, if I have not, I apologise most sincerely to him. Under the Television Act, no less than £750.000 could be provided by the Postmaster-General to finance I.T.A., with a maximum, I believe, of £2 million over five years. Is the Authority still receiving £750,000 a year? If it is, some of us have the right to squeal. I can suggest other sources from which that money could readily be made available. There are, for instance, the thousands and thousands of percentage profits being paid—and I am not one of those who say that profit is a bad thing, because there is a corollary to it.

Harking back for a moment, is there a delay in the decision on the third programme? My right hon. Friend has just whispered that in April there is to be an international conference on the allocation of wave bands and that may be another reason for delay.

Unquestionably abuses are taking place in the I.T.A. and by the programme contractors. I do not want to repeat anything that was said yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich East (Mr. Mayhew), when he introduced his Bill under the Ten Minutes Rule, but I submit that these programme companies are virtual monopolies. In the first place, the programmes are planned jointly. There is complete interlocking of operation. The financial control may not be identical—I do not know.

I spent much time trying to find the financial tie-ups of some of the programme companies, and they are difficult to discover. The Granada T.V. network is a private company, which means that it is impossible to get any real information. I do not think that any hon. Member desired—and, certainly, it was not the intention of those in favour of sponsored television—that there should be within the Act the possibility of virtual monopoly. That is causing many of us very great concern.

Nobody has done more to expose abuses than has my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly. Of course, it is now fashionable to expose them, but it was left to him to do so at the outset. As for the technique, I blame neither the Postmaster-General nor the hon. Gentleman. In many cases, they received a brief from the Independent Television Authority. But I do blame the Authority. What is its technique? Its technique is to laugh, and then to apologise, to laugh again and then to repeat the apology. That goes on time and time again.

There is not one hon. Member who, if he is honest, and if he watches its programmes, does not know full well that the definition of a natural break has been abused all down the line. The Authority itself has admitted it, and then we get a foolhardy apology. The Postmaster-General ought to give instructions that this abuse must stop, and if the programme companies do not obey his instruction he should remove them. Let it be done, and done quickly.

There is another kind of abuse which was touched on hardly at all yesterday, namely, the way in which quack medicines and cures are advertised. This is certainly contrary to the Act. There is the farce of "Lucozade" which, I am pleased to see, even The Times has spoken about today. These things are entirely contrary to whatever was intended under the Act, but, of course, they are highly profitable. I shall not deal with the "give-away" or quiz programmes in detail, but there is one called "Dotto", very appropriately named—we in Yorkshire often say "dotty" when we mean "crackers"—in which £60 is given away in most peculiar circumstances. I will not go on to explain how, because I have not the time, but I am convinced that, if the hon. Gentleman looks into it, he will find that the programme makes a travesty of the provisions of the Act.

The high profits made by the programme companies are the result of their being able to carry on these abuses. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to stop them, he will have the full backing of the House because there are Members on both sides who are just as disgusted as I am about the whole thing. Something must be done. We cannot have a travesty and farce made of Acts of Parliament. Yet that is what is happening. There seems to be a complete lack of any decent consideration in these matters. The Government have only to read the Act. Neither the hon. Gentleman nor his right hon. Friend can say that they do not know very well what is going on and that it is wrong. I plead with them to stop these things quickly.

In view of the criticism now being levelled at I.T.A. and the actions of the programme companies, the Government would be well advised to consider—I say at once that it was a Member of the party opposite who first put the idea into my mind—having a Select Committee of the House with power to send for persons and papers, able to move from place to place and sit not necessarily in this building, to ascertain the facts and find out precisely what is happening. It would be most illuminating. If the right hon. Gentleman does not stop these abuses, the House will shortly have to take some action of that kind. I ask that it should be considered now, so that something should be done quickly.

There are many other points which I should like to raise, but I want to give the Assistant Postmaster-General adequate time to reply. At least on the three main matters I raised, the question of lineage, of colour, and of a third programme, a statement should be made by the Government about what their intentions are.

10.18 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. C. R. Hobson) asked a number of questions, all of them of considerable importance, and he larded them with a good deal of extravagantly phrased and not very well informed abuse of the Independent Television Authority. In the limited time at my disposal, I shall try to deal with his speech as it falls into those two parts.

The House will agree, I think, that the hon. Gentleman said enough to show that the questions to which he wants answers are very difficult and complicated, each in itself being a difficult matter, and all of them made much more difficult by the fact that they are associated and interlocked one with another. If it were a question of giving a simple decision about the use of the various channels, about the disposition of the channels in this band or that, about whether there should or should not be a third programme, or whether we should press on with colour or change the line definition, if each question had to be settled separately, that would in itself be difficult enough; but to settle the coagulation, as it has now become, in a nice, simple few minutes speech at the end of a day's debate is too much to ask of any Minister speaking from this side of the House.

The hon. Gentleman showed enough knowledge of this subject to reveal that he has personal experience of dealing with these problems in this Department. The continued fidelity of the British public to the Conservative Government makes his experience continuously more and more out of date. That is a process which we must endeavour to support.

The latter part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which dealt with the Independent Television Authority and its performance under the Television Act, harks back to the speeches made from the benches opposite during the passage of that Bill through the House. Many things were said then which I imagine the party opposite would claw back with a good deal of pleasure if it could. However, recent criticisms from the benches opposite and published statements of hon. Members opposite make it clear that they are now trying to settle, either with their consciences or constituencies what their attitude is to be towards independent television.

They have gone away now from the point at which they were determined to destroy it if they got the chance. They are now making an attack on the profits which the independent television companies are making, although the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), who led for the party opposite at the time, was full of woe for these people who were going to make fantastic losses as a result of the speculative enterprise in which they were engaged. I rather imagine that he saw himself as a hero come to their rescue in their hour of need by threatening to bring it to an end when the Labour Party, if ever, returned to power.

What the Labour Party appears to be seeking now is a way of getting a service of television without advertisements, or a public service without profits, a feat which they managed to accomplish with British Railways and with most of the enterprises to which they set their hand some time ago.

Mr. Hobson

Post Office, electricity, gas.

Mr. Thompson

I am happy to bring right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite up to date about the profitability or otherwise of the operations of the Post Office. The matter is now in very good hands.

Now let us consider for a moment the specific problem to which the House must properly turn its attention. First, as the hon. Gentleman reminded the House, British television is broadcast on 405 lines. Other countries have different systems. In France, it is 819 lines, in the United States, 525 lines, and elsewhere 625 lines. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is technically correct in saying that the 405 line picture is better. On the facts, he ought to be wrong. Taking the other qualities of broadcasting into account and comparing like with like, I am advised that the 625 picture, properly broadcast and properly received on a properly tuned set, will always give a better picture. But if we change from 405 to 625 because it is a better picture, or for some other reason to which I will refer, clearly problems to which the hon. Gentleman made reference arise.

For instance, what is to happen to the millions of people who have bought 405 line sets? Are they one day to discover that television broadcasts are going out on 625 lines and they must get another set, or if there is a third programme that is on 625 and the others on 405 lines, or are they to find that they will be compelled either to have two sets or to invest, if it is possible, in a complicated and expensive addition to their existing set in order to be able to change from one to the other? No Government will ever render obsolete by the stroke of the pen or an Order in Council 8 or 9 million television sets. I can set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest on that point in those simple words. It would not happen like that. If it became technically and overwhelmingly advisable to make the change, then clearly the change would be made over a prolonged period in a way which would allow people, as their sets became naturally obsolete, to accommodate themselves to the change.

However, it does not end there. We are advised that there may be very good arguments that supposing we should go over to 625—these matters are being discussed at the moment—and if a third television programme is to be made available it might well have to take into account a change of that kind. To do that would require the engineering, as it is called, of the remaining accommodation in Band III. I am advised that it would be possible, if thought necessary, to accommodate in Band III another programme which would give a coverage of about 95 per cent. of the country.

There are, however, other claimants to the channels available in Band III, and the Government must consider the claims of these other claimants before making a final and irrevocable decision. A good deal of experimental broadcasting is being done. There are claims for a special programme for Wales, which would have to find accommodation somewhere in the channels on that band if it were found possible to do it. One has only to mention the interest of any one part of the United Kingdom to find the rest of the country fighting for its rights, and not without reason.

The hon. Member went on to underline the seriousness and complication of the matter. It is true that there have been many experimental broadcasts in colour. It may be found—I can put it no higher at this stage—that colour would be best broadcast on 625 lines, so that the decision—

Mr. Ness Edwards

In which band?

Mr. Thompson

It would not matter for this argument, but preferably in Bands IV or V. Therefore, the decision on the lineage may to some extent, although not absolutely, hinge upon the decision about what is to be done concerning colour.

I am not in a position tonight to give to the House any cheering or encouraging news about the early arrival of colour television broadcasts in this country. A great deal of work has been done, both here and in the United States, and work is continuing. The great problem is to find the right way to do it and the right system to use, and to find a way of producing a set which is economical, practical and reasonable to operate. The sets that we had the privilege of inspecting upstairs were by no means simple or an economic marketable proposition in that condition. A good deal of work has still to be done. Colour in itself is in all probablity some years away. The House would be wrong to imagine that it will happen overnight.

The hon. Member mentioned another aspect of this complicated situation: that is, the conference which is to meet in April in Los Angeles. That conference will be discussing, among other things, band width. In this country, we operate on a band width of five megacycles per second. The ideal system for a colour broadcast on a 625 line definition is either seven or eight megacycles per second. Therefore, the decisions to be taken in the disposal of the band space that is available, either that remaining in Band III or in Bands IV or V, may depend, first, upon the line definition, which has a bearing on the decisions about colour. All of this might commit us to expend our bands as now available in a more lavish way by making the channels wider.

I have said enough, I hope, to satisfy the hon. Member and the House on most of these points. I was sorry to notice two notes of disharmony in the hon. Member's speech. It is not true and it is not complimentary—that hon. Member, I think, intended it as a term of abuse—to suggest that a brief is slotted on to a Minister's table by an outside body and he then, parrot-like and obediently, repeats it to the House.

Mr. Hobson

I did not say that.

Mr. Thompson

I am happy to assure the hon. Member that the present system works differently, and with a good deal more satisfaction, at least to the Ministers concerned, from what might have happened in the days when the hon. Member was in office. Secondly, he suggested that a report had been lying on my right hon. Friend's table since January. Again, I am happy to assure him that our system does not allow of that kind of dilatory treatment of important matters.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.

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