HC Deb 24 March 1961 vol 637 cc916-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. G. Campbell.]

4.3 p.m.

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

In raising in the House the question of the proposed licence for television in Malta and Gozo, I must first declare an interest. I have a personal association with the chairman of a programme company, an association which I have had for nearly twenty-five years. I have nothing to do with and have no desire to have any connection with commercial television as such. It is proper that I should declare that interest now.

Since 1935, radio broadcasting has been operated in Malta by a company called Rediffusion (Malta) Limited, which has been given the power and authority by the Government of Malta to operate sponsored radio programmes as well as ordinary commercial radio programmes. I make no criticism against the way in which that company has behaved. Its reputation for fairness has never been criticised, and I think that it has conducted itself in a perfectly exemplary fashion. It has, of course, been given a complete monopoly of broadcasting—of news, features, music and entertainment. It has enjoyed as much a monopoly in the island of Malta as the B.B.C. has enjoyed in sound broadcasting in this country. It broadcasts to about 50,000 subscribers.

This was the situation until, on 4th February last year, the Government of Malta issued a statement on the future of television and sound broadcasting, and said, in effect, these things. The first is that Malta should have its own television service, and soon—that is, as soon as it could be introduced. Secondly, this would mean a reorganisation of broadcasting arrangements generally. Thirdly, a statutory body—from what I have seen, much on the lines of our Independent Television Authority—should be set up. Finally, applications for a licence for a television service would be invited.

Accompanying the statement, from which I have taken these points, was a form of application and a list of specifications for the guidance of would-be contractors for the service. I draw the attention of the Under-Secretary of State to clause IV in the specifications, which states specifically that no sponsored programmes will be permitted.

On the same day—4th February, 1960—the Information Adviser to the Government broadcast a talk on the Government's intention and said, among other things: One thing the authority— that is, the new authority to be set up by the Malta Government— will not allow is sponsored programmes: that is to say, programmes financed and put on by a particular advertiser. So that the people of Malta knew exactly where they were. They knew that there was to be a television service, that despite the fact that sponsored programmes were permitted on sound radio they were not to be permitted on commercial television, and that the applications from programme companies for the licence to operate had to be in by 30th June.

On 2nd December, the Government published a draft Ordinance—that is, ten months after they had made the original statement of their intentions. The draft Ordinance was to make provision for sound and television broadcasting services and to set up a broadcasting authority". I studied the Ordinance carefully, but it was not clear when it was to come into effect. No doubt, the Governor had a view about what the date should be, but I cannot find any date set down when it should come into effect. It is clear, too, that the names of some members of the authority were announced. The Archbishop of Malta was one of the members appointed to the authority. I am not certain, but I thought that was so.

The Ordinance contained some contradictory phrases. I refer the Under-Secretary to Clause 6 (d), which in my view permits sponsored programmes, in contradiction to the statement made on 2nd February both by the Government and by the Information Adviser. Clause 9 of the Ordinance clearly permits sponsored programmes, and by definition the last paragraph on page C117 of the document mentions sponsored programmes specifically.

A declaration having been made in February that it is necessary to have television on the island, that it is to be provided soon and that no sponsored programme is to be permitted, why is it that ten months later, without reference to any of the people of Malta, it is suddenly made clear that sponsored programmes will be permitted and then, nineteen days after the publication of the draft Ordinance which was to set up the authority and before the authority was properly constituted or all of its members appointed, and without, as far as I can see, any consultation with the members who had been appointed, the Government of Malta made the following statement: The Governor of Malta has entered into discussions with Rediffusion Malta, Ltd., with a view to negotiating an agreement with them for the provision of a television service and the continuation of sound broadcasting in Malta and Gozo"? This means in effect, then, that what the Government decided was that the firm which had a monopoly of sound broadcasting was also to be given a monopoly for television broadcasting; that is to say, one company, Malta Rediffusion, is to have the sole right of presenting news, views, entertainment, either on sound radio or television to the people of Malta.

What was the hurry about all this? Why the rush? Why, within three weeks of the announcement that an authority was to be set up, did the Government make this announcement without giving the authority itself power to consider what was to be done? Why the retreat to sponsored programmes? Is it because Malta Rediffusion said in effect, "We are not interested unless you let us have sponsored programmes"?

I ask that because in the rate card which the company issues to would-be radio advertisers in this country it is quite specific about what it does now. It says: Rediffusion Malta has available for sponsorship a wide variety of transcribed programmes, featuring top-line stars, from the finest production houses in Britain, America, Canada, and Australia. They are available to British advertisers from approximately £2 15s. 0d. net per quarter hour and pro rata. They clearly enjoyed radio sponsorship and have made a lot of money out of it. Have they come along and said, "We must have sponsored television, too"? Is that what caused the Government to change their mind from the original intention which was clearly and expressly announced?

Why T.V. at all in Malta? Is there not something very wrong with our priorities when, in an island as poor as Malta, which does not make television sets, where they cost about £150, imported from this country, we are to encourage the importation of goods which really are not vitally necessary for the life of the people? There are only 50,000 radio sets in the country. There does not seem to be a passionate interest in what comes over the ether which would justify this.

Furthermore, are we not, by putting in commercial television, going to stimulate a demand for goods which the economy of Malta might well not be able to sustain? If the argument were that commercial television in Malta would create a lot of employment there would be some substance to the case, but I gather that it is anticipated that the institution of commercial television in Malta would employ about 100 people. It is not television that Malta wants. It is capital equipment that it wants. It wants investment to create work for its people, it wants industries to be set up to give opportunity to overcome unemployment there.

So what has happened, presumably with the approval of the Colonial Secretary, is that a complete monopoly is to be set up over sound and television broadcasting in Malta, in absolute contradiction to the attitude of the party opposite on television in this country. I sat for days and days here hearing from the benches opposite, in the debate we had on the establishment of commercial television in this country, how wicked it was to leave monopoly in the hands of the B.B.C., how utterly essential it was to end it, how the people were panting to have a rival television service. Indeed, we know quite well that on the benches opposite there are influences demanding that there should now be competition in sound radio in this country, so that sound radio is threatened with commercial competitors. Yet, in Malta, there is to be only one authoritative voice, only one control over television and broadcasting.

The Government here have rejected sponsored programmes wholeheartedly. I remember the late Sir David Gammans telling us, with a sob in his voice, how we would never, never stoop to having the American practice of sponsored programmes, but they are to be foisted upon the people of Malta without any consent from them.

I understand that the talks with Malta Rediffusion are not going very well. [Interruption.] I thought that I would have the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies but presumably he thinks it not important enough to listen to what I have to say. I understand that the talks are not going very well and that Malta Rediffusion is having second thoughts about the desirability of proceeding with it. It is clear that within the proposed Constitution for Malta broadcasting is a reserved subject. We have decided that quite clearly this is one of the services in Malta that must be reserved to this Parliament and this Government. I urge the hon. Gentleman to speak to his right hon. Friend and say that there is time for reflection on this.

I see that the Under-Secretary has now returned to the Chamber. When he was out for a moment I was trying to address myself to him and therefore I shall have to repeat what I was saying. There is time for reflection because I understand that negotiations with Malta Rediffusion are not going as happily as it was expected. The White Paper on the new Malta Constitution made it clear that broadcasting is a reserved subject to Her Majesty's Government. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to talk to his right hon. Friend and have a look at this matter all over again.

The monopoly that is being set up is obnoxious to hon. Members opposite. The proposal for sponsored programmes is obnoxious to hon. Members opposite. The Maltese people have not been consulted in the matter. Even Miss Mabel Strickland, that staunch supporter of Conservatism in Malta, is against it. I can find no expression of public opinion that is in favour of it. On these grounds I hope very much that the Colonial Office will see to it that it works in conformity with the orignal statement and that this monopoly is not established.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) has asked some extremely important and penetrating questions of the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. Is it true that no consultation has taken place with the Maltese people on this point? It seems to me to be a most extraordinary situation if a commercial monopoly of television, with sponsorship, is being dictated to Malta without consultation on the subject with the Maltese people.

I was particularly struck by the point my hon. Friend made about priorities in Malta. He will probably agree with me that television can have a tremendous role to play in very poor and underdeveloped areas provided that it is aware of its responsibilities. In education it can do a tremendous job, and Her Majesty's Government are falling behind very seriously in the production of educational television programmes in the Colonies. But if, far from having a sense of responsibility, it is merely a commercial, monopolistic system of sponsorship, it is, as my hon. Friend says, a ludicrous reversal of what should be proper priorities in a situation such as we have in Malta.

I hope that the Under-Secretary takes my hon. Friend's speech extremely seriously.

4.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

The hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) has chosen to raise this subject on the Adjournment at an appropriate moment. I am always delighted to see him intervene in these debates. Several questions have been asked, and if he will bear with me for a few moments I think that many of them can be answered.

One of the main questions raised by the hon. Gentleman was why there should be television in Malta at all. The hon. Member may not know that there are already 10,000 television sets in Malta receiving Italian programmes. We thought it only proper that Malta should be able to preserve its own special identity, Maltese culture and the special Maltese situation of which the people are so rightly proud, and that for this reason the Maltese should originate their own programmes. The hon. Member for Deptford seemed greatly knowledgable about certain contract provisions but entirely ignorant of this main reason for our attempting to establish television in Malta.

The hon. Gentleman said that broadcasting was a reserved subject in the Blood Report. I do not think that it is so. It is recommended that any Bill over-riding existing Ordinances should be reserved for signification of Her Majesty's pleasure—which is, of course, different from a reserved subject.

Sir L. Plummer

Is this not really a matter of semantics? On page 28, in paragraph R (b), it is stated: There are certain existing Ordinances which we consider to be of such basic importance to Malta's orderly development, or so necessary to ensure the functioning of a sound democracy, that any bill repealing or amending, or otherwise appearing to affect the same, should also be reserved for the signification of Her Majesty's pleasure. It goes on to include the broadcasting Ordinance.

Mr. Fraser

Perhaps what we both say is correct, but the actual technical words which I have used are the correct ones.

In relation to broadcasting, the hon. Gentleman also said that it was a question of whether one had sponsored programmes or merely commercial programmes. The broadcasting Ordinance does not permit sponsored programmes, but it does permit sponsored advertisements. If sound and television broadcasting are united, as I believe they should be, then it is probable that the television arrangements will apply over the whole field of broadcasting.

Mr. Mayhew

What is the difference between an advertisement and a sponsored advertisement?

Mr. Fraser

Surely the hon. Gentleman, as an expert in these matters, must know that there is a great difference between a sponsored programme and an advertisement. As I understand, there are to be advertisements which are sponsored, but the programmes will not be sponsored.

Sir L. Plummer

The hon. Gentleman has accused me of the wickedness of knowing something about this matter. I do not throw that accusation at him. I would refer him to the "Objects and Reasons" in the draft Ordinance. The last sentence, on page 117, reads: The inclusion of advertisements and sponsored programmes in the services broadcast by the Authority or on its behalf will be regulated by the provisions of clause 9 of the draft Ordinance and of the Third Schedule thereto. Here is a specific sponsored programme—not advertisements.

Mr. Fraser

I think that, here again, we can rely on the people who carry out this Ordinance to see that it is operated in such a way as not to be harmful.

Mr. Mayhew

It will be sponsored.

Mr. Fraser

No; I say that these will be sponsored advertisements——

Sir L. Plummer

And programmes.

Mr. Fraser

—which, I gather, is the objective of the authority. I should like——

Mr. Mayhew

We cannot leave this as it is. Is the hon. Gentleman saying, quite clearly, that there are to be no sponsored programmes?

Mr. Fraser

As I read the provision, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the clause to which he has drawn my attention states: The inclusion of advertisements and sponsored programmes in the services broadcast by the Authority … will be regulated by the provisions of clause 9 of the draft Ordinance and of the Third Schedule thereto. That is how they propose to proceed.

I understand from Malta that there will not be sponsored programmes but, as I have said, sponsored advertisements. This is a quite different point from the idea of sponsored programmes. If the hon. Member for Deptford will look at Clauses 6 and 9, he will see that they make no provision for sponsored programmes.

The hon. Gentleman went through the history of broadcasting in Malta, and the first point I should make is that broadcasting has become a controversial matter since 1955 because of the attitude of the Malta Labour Party. His other point was that this is setting up a monopoly in Malta. If these negotiations go through, there will be one company which will control both sound and television broadcasting in Malta.

In principle, I am opposed to the idea of monopoly, but it would be foolish to enter into polemics of this kind when the population is so small and when, from the point of view of efficiency and efficacy, there is such a strong argument in favour of it. As the hon. Gentleman himself pointed out, it would be foolish to burden the economy of Malta with greater expenditure which cannot be met by satisfactory commercial arrangements. Quite a considerable number of firms have looked into this matter.

I am sorry that the hon. Member put doubt on the present negotiations. I cannot discuss them now, but Rediffusion's contract, which it has held since 1935, expires in 1965, and it is not certain that it will get the new contract. If there is to be a monopoly, it is most important that we set up an authority which will ensure proper control of the programmes, both on the air and on television. The authority will be of great strength. It will supervise the operations of the licence and be given the powers necessary to enable it to carry out the following functions: first, to maintain in the public interest the highest standard of broadcasting; secondly, to ensure that broadcasting can operate without fear or favour or improper influence from any quarter in Malta; thirdly, to see that the services provided maintain a genuine Maltese character.

There will be a chairman appointed by the Governor, and up to six other members. One of these members will be nominated by the Archbishop, and one by the Vice-Chancellor of the Royal University. There will be a chief executive with special knowledge and experience of broadcasting, and he will be responsible for carrying out the day-to-day business of the authority.

Here again, the Governor of Malta is much indebted to the B.B.C., as he was at the original inquiry, for making a member of its staff available. I see, as the hon. Member clearly knows, that there is a careful safeguard to make certain that persons belonging to the authority shall not have vested interests either in the firm's involved or in a political party.

In the circumstances, faced as they are with a strong, efficient and powerful Italian service of considerable quality and with 10,000 television sets already on the island, it is only proper that the people of Malta should be given their own broadcasting and television system. Perhaps the hon. Member for Deptford is opposed to it. I believe it to be a step forward. The hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) talked about education, which, I agree, is most important, and certain hours will be set aside for the provision of education through this medium. I know that the hon. Member for Deptford admitted in the opening part of his speech that he had some connection with one of the other companies concerned and I know it——

Sir L. Plummer

I was very careful. I made a personal statement and I was careful to say that I had no connection with a commercial television company. I did say I had a connection with the chairman of one of the companies.

Mr. Fraser

I accept that, but, obviously, the hon. Member feels that what we are doing is wrong. I believe it to be entirely right, and the way to pursue this matter is by making use of funds from outside the island and permitting people to invest privately, if they wish to do so, in the new company which is to be set up to bring to the people of Malta a service of their own controlled by an authority in which we could have full confidence.

As I have said, not only will the character of Maltese life be preserved, but there will, in addition, be set aside time for educational programmes and for other purposes. On the whole, I am sure that this is the best way to proceed and to give to the people of Malta something which they need and deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.