HC Deb 01 May 1968 vol 763 cc1243-54

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

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Rafton Pounder (Belfast, South)

I wish to raise the subject of the impending closure of the Ulster Television magazine, T.V. Post. This is a forced closure, as a direct consequence of the decision of the Independent Television Authority to replace regional programme journals with a national magazine.

The compulsory elimination of the six regional television magazines and their substitution with a national programme guide, in my view, comes within the broad terms of Section 22(5) of the 1964 Television Act, which allows the Postmaster-General to require the I.T.A. to give him …information…with respect to the financial transactions and engagements of the Authority. and therefore cannot be by-passed under the umbrella that the production of a programme journal lies within the scope of the day-to-day business of providing television services.

But, apart from this, there is also the employment aspect of the publication of a regional programme journal to be considered. The intention to eliminate regional television publications will clearly have serious consequences for the printers of the T.V. Post in Ulster, and arbitrarily to close down a profitable undertaking employing 40 people would seem to be wholly contrary to the aim of encouraging employment opportunities in the regions, which the Government have repeatedly stressed.

The centralisation envisaged in the new national programme journal will result in further redundancies in Belfast. It is tragic that at a time when strenuous efforts are being made to provide additional employment in the development areas, such as Northern Ireland, the jobs of 40 journalists, printers and distribution workers should be arbitrarily terminated.

Both the National Union of Journalists and the printing unions in Ulster are justifiably concerned about this possible turn of events——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that he must come to the question of Ministerial responsibility. I understand that the Minister's responsibility is that the report must include details of these activities.

Mr. Pounder

I was just coming to that, Mr. Speaker, but I was trying to outline the broad background to the present situation.

Alternative opportunties for the employment of these 40 people are very limited. Referring to Section 16 of the 1964 Act, those engaged in the publication of T.V. Post are employed by a publishing company which is jointly owned by Ulster Television and Century Newspapers. These 40 people are, in a sense, therefore, employed by the Northern Ireland programme contractor, in which case there is direct Ministerial responsibility under Section 16 of the 1964 Act regarding their conditions of employment.

It is worthy of note in this context that it has been a condition of the granting of licences to the new television companies that those employees who have been displaced by virtue of those new licences must be re-engaged. Such persons, though they may not have lost a day's work or salary, are entitled to redundancy payments, which could amount to as much as £1,200. Yet the employees of T.V. Post cannot be reabsorbed, neither is alternative employment either available or being offered.

I will explain the history of the magazine in coming to the question of Ministerial responsibility. The magazine was started from nothing in 1959 and it has consistently succeeded in securing in Northern Ireland a higher penetration per 1,000 television sets than any other regional television magazine has attained in any part of the Kingdom. While I could see sense in the elimination of an unprofitable enterprise, such a yardstick cannot be used for measuring T.V. Post, which has consistently maintained an impressive profitability record.

A few moments ago we were debating rising prices. Until the end of last year this magazine sold for 6d., whereupon its price was raised to 8d., not because of rising costs but at the instigation of its successor to be, so as to ease the way for the new regional edition of T.V. Times, which is due to come out in September and which will sell at 9d. While it may possibly be logical for there to be a national programme journal for Great Britain——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am in complete sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is trying to advocate, but the Minister has no power to intervene in the contracts which I.T.A. establishes. He has power to ask for a report on what it has done, and the hon. Gentleman must address his remarks to that.

Mr. Pounder

That point is in my notes, Mr. Speaker, and I was trying to equate the whole with the Ministerial responsibility involved.

In this context, the I.T.A. has already agreed to exclude the Channel Islands from the national programme journal on the specific grounds that there were special conditions pertaining there which would justify the continuance of Channel Television's local guide, the Channel Viewer. If it is feasible because of special conditions, to exclude the Channel Islands, I would have thought that the same argument could be used to exclude Northern Ireland.

From its inception, the I.T.A. has rightly proclaimed its desire to see that Ulster Television should be Northern Irish in ownership, character and direction, thus ensuring that Ulster's particular needs would be met and its problems understood. That being so, why should a different criterion be used to measure the programme journal which should serve the people of Ulster? Surely it, too, should be Northern Irish in ownership, character and direction.

The I.T.A.'s legal right to force the television companies to accept a common programme guide is somewhat dubious. The offer of new television contracts from the Authority last year was subject to the successful applicants agreeing to take a regional or local edition of a national programme guide. From my understanding of the 1952 and 1964 Acts, it is questionable whether the Authority has the right to interfere in that way in the field of programme guide publications.

There is also another point which cannot be fairly discounted and I give this as an illustrative point. Ulster is the only part of the United Kingdom having a land frontier with an adjoining friendly, but foreign, country, which also has its own television network and its own television programme journal. From September, as the I.T.A.'s plans stand at present, Ulster television would have lost its own programme journal to act as a curtain raiser to programmes on its screens while the competing cross Border station would still have its own journal which circulates freely in Northern Ireland. This is a situation for which there is no parallel in England, Scotland or Wales. The substantial local content which is featured in the T.V. Post would be lost in a regional edition of the national magazine which is envisaged.

The Postmaster-General has the specific power under Section 22(4) of the 1964 Act to direct the I.T.A. to include matters in its Annual Report. I ask him to direct the I.T.A. to publish a full description of what happened in this case. Considerable anxiety has been expressed in many circles in recent months about the ever-growing concentration of the Press, newspapers and magazines, into ever fewer hands. To eliminate the T.V. Post would be a further step in this direction. I suggest that the forced eradication of the T.V. Post could have a serious adverse effect on the newspaper industry in Ulster.

I trust that even at this late stage it may be possible for some action to be taken to secure the exclusion of Ulster from the proposed national television programme journal. I realise that the Postmaster-General may seek to claim that this is a matter which comes wholly within the powers and responsibilities of the I.T.A. as delegated to the Authority by this House, but I am sure that when the powers of the Authority were drawn up it was never envisaged that they would be used to eradicate a successful and profitable programme journal like the T.V. Post.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) in the plea he has made. The effect on employment will be quite considerable. That 40 people will be put out of work may not sound very much, but I am sure that the Assistant Postmaster-General will regard this matter sympathetically in this context because it is quite serious in view of the heavy unemployment there already.

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? I understand that you said my hon. Friend was entitled to ask that the I.T.A. should be asked to furnish a report. Is he entitled further to ask what that report might contain? For instance, could he ask that the report should contain how far the employment situation was taken into account and how many people would be put out of work. I do not know whether that is in order or not.

Mr. Speaker

The I.T.A. has power to make certain contracts. The Minister cannot interfere with this. He can ask for a report. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) and the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) can ask for almost what they like in the report.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

In that case, I ask that that report should contain an account of the consideration taken of the unemployment situation in Northern Ireland and of the effect on the people concerned who have been working for this periodical. Otherwise, I strongly support my hon. Friend.

10.24 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I should like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) for raising the matter of the impending closure of the programme journal T.V. Post, published by Ulster Television. Next, I should like to enter a reservation. The hon. Member wrote in June of last year to my right hon. Friend the then Postmaster-General about the idea of replacing T.V. Post by a national programme journal. In replying, my right hon. Friend recalled that Parliament had, in the Television Act, vested in the Authority full responsibility for the day-to-day conduct of its affairs, and explained that the issue was therefore not one in which he could intervene. I mention this not in any spirit of com- plaint that the hon. Member has raised the matter again today, but simply to explain to the House the limitations which my reply must observe.

It is not for my right hon. Friend to answer for, or defend, the day-to-day conduct by the Authority of its affairs. Parliament has established the Authority to run television services. For reasons which, I am sure, do not need defending, it is none of Ministers' business to tell them how and how not to do it. I should have thought the purpose of Section 22(5) which the hon. Gentleman referred to was rather more of an auditing nature than he suggested.

Having said that, perhaps I should now recount the essential facts as I understand them. Ulster T.V. is the programme company which, under contract with the Independent Television Authority, provides the Authority's television service in Northern Ireland. It does so largely by transmitting programmes produced by other programme companies appointed by the Authority to provide a service in other areas. For the rest of its transmission time, Ulster T.V. produces its own programmes. From this, it follows that the programmes announced in its journal are, very largely, those broadcast by the I.T.A. throughout the country.

The next fact to get on record is the Authority's decision that, basically, a single journal should be provided throughout its regions. Here let me quote the statement made on 11th June, 1967, by Lord Hill when, as Chairman of the I.T.A. he announced the policy. He said: The Authority has not been satisfied with some of the programme journals. It has decided in principle that in the new contract period there should be a single national programme journal for independent television, with regional editions. The Authority's objective is that there should be a single publishing company formed by the programme companies, with the Authority represented on its Board. Details will be announced in due course after consultation with the companies. This was the Authority's statement of its policy. Since then, the decision in principle has moved towards realisation. On 3rd October last, in pursuance of the Authority's decision, the programme companies announced their intention to set up their own publishing company to publish the national journal, with regional variations.

So much for the facts. The criticisms made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South of the Authority's decision seem to me to relate rather to what the critics see as its general implications, than to its implications for the service of television provided by the Authority. Thus, criticism has focussed on representing that the decision would put printers and journalists out of jobs. The hon. Member emphasised that. He mentioned a loss in Northern Ireland of at least 40 jobs.

Then again it has been represented that the decision is contrary to the policy of encouraging regional development. A third argument was that another effect of the disappearance of the T.V. Post, and its replacement by a national journal produced by one of the major publishing concerns, would be to concentrate still further the control of the Press into fewer hands. Obviously, there is much force in these arguments. But we have to recognise that, important though these arguments are, the Authority is bound to start by considering what is best for the service of television. This is the task which by statute has been laid upon it. In saying this, I do not imply that the Authority ignores all other considerations. As a public corporation it would, I am sure, want to weigh the wider considerations. The fact remains, however, that its first concern is with the public service for which it is responsible.

Another criticism has been the effect of the Authority's decision on the service in Northern Ireland. It is said that the decentralised, regional structure of independent television is an important part of its form of organisation; and that its value lies in the impulse it gives to regional variation in its programmes. The publication, in Ulster, of its own programme journal strengthens this impulse. The journal provides a medium for the expression of Ulster's particular interests and aspirations, and serves to reinforce its distinctive character and sense of identity. More than that, so the argument goes, through its editorial material and articles, the journal promotes and supports the television programmes produced by Ulster TV, which in themselves help to promote Ulster.

These, then, are the representations, as they have been put to me, against the Authority's decision, and the considerations which, the Authority tell me, led it to make the decision. But, as I said earlier in my speech, the decision is statutorily the Authority's, and my right hon. Friend has no powers to intervene in it.

That being so, the hon. Member for Belfast, South will not, I trust, expect me to offer a view upon it. The expression of Parliamentary opinion on the performance of the broadcasting authorities is of course another matter. As the most important way in which public opinion is made to play upon them, and to keep them sensitive to it, Parliamentary opinion is one of the continuing checks on the performance of the Authority in this, as in other aspects of its functions. The chairman and members of the Authority pay the closest attention to what is said here about the service for which they are answerable.

The Authority go on to tell me that it had these various arguments well in mind when it was considering its policy. Against it, it had to balance the advantages, as it judged them to be, to independent television's viewers, of a national programme journal, with regional variations. The Authority's announcement of last June states that it had not been satisfied with some of the journals. It tells me that it regards the journals as part and parcel of the television service for which it is answerable. This seems to me to be a view which the Authority is perfectly entitled to hold and consistent with the statutory requirement to provide its service as a public service. On the merits of the view, as I have said, I have no opinion to express, but my right hon. Friend has no doubt it is a perfectly proper decision for the Authority to take.

What are the advantages, as the I.T.A. sees them, of a single programme journal? The Authority's view is, I understand, that a fully national journal representing independent television as a whole would seek and achieve higher standards of production and of content. Against the criticism stemming from the fact of Northern Ireland's separate identity and distinctive problems, the Authority would set these considerations.

First, given the I.T.A.'s intention to provide, in the interest of viewers generally, a national journal, the exclusion of so large and integral a part of the United Kingdom as is Northern Ireland would not have been right. The Authority's view is that this is not in anything like the same degree true for the Channel Islands. Secondly, the differing identities of the various regions of independent television should find their expression primarily in the content of the programme material produced by each company in order to meet the particular tastes and interests of the region for which it holds the Authority's franchise.

Mr. Pounder

Before the Minister leaves that point, could he tell us——

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the Minister is in order in defending the contract, everything the hon. Member says is in order.

Mr. Pounder

Could the Postmaster-General tell us what motivated his decision on the Channel Islands. What were the special considerations?

Mr. Slater

I am not in a position to answer that interjection. I have given the information about the Channel Islands which has been passed on to me.

The ownership of programme journals is of lesser importance.

This, then, was the broad balance of argument before the Authority. As I have said, the Authority's decisions are its own and are not for me to defend. But the House will, I believe, have found it helpful to have heard what the various considerations were.

One of the formal ways in which the Authority gives public account for the discharge of its duties is, of course, through it annual report. As the hon. Member for Belfast, South has pointed out the Authority is under a statutory duty to prepare, as soon as may be practicable after the end of every financial year, a general report of its proceedings for that year. This report is published and presented to Parliament by the Postmaster-General. The requirement is contained in Section 22 of the Television Act, 1964. Hon. Members who interest themselves in these annual reports will be aware that they customarily contain a comprehensive account of the Authority's activities over the year.

May I emphasise that the reports are not a mere piece of procedure. They put on record for critical consideration the major decisions and actions taken by the Authority in discharge of its duties in the provision of a public service of great importance. More than that, the fact that one has to go on record in this way serves as a discipline—if discipline be needed. It is always a salutary thought that one has to give account of one's activities.

The hon. Member has drawn attention to Section 22(4) of the Television Act which provides that the report shall include such information as to the plans, and the past and present activities, of the Authority, as the Postmaster-General may direct. He has suggested that my right hon. Friend's power to make such a direction should be brought into play now, with a view to ensuring that the Authority's annual report for the year 1967–68 deals with the matter that we have been discussing: the matter of the decision to publish a national programme journal.

But it would not, I am sure, be necessary for my right hon. Friend to do so. The Chairman and members of the Authority can surely be relied upon to know, without being told, that all matters of real importance in the development of their policies should be dealt with in their report, and that hon. Members will expect them to be dealt with. If notice were needed that the subject of this debate were one such matter, then surely the fact that the hon. Member for Belfast, South has raised it today is enough to bring the matter to the Authority's attention.

May I, in conclusion, again thank the hon. Member for the service he has done us by raising this subject for discussion. I have no doubt that the I.T.A. will take note of what has been said in the course of the debate.

10.37 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

The Assistant Postmaster-General has given what might be described as a "fobbing-off" reply to the very forceful points made by my hon. Friend. I have not come here equipped with the terms of the Statute or the Instructions to the Authority, because I had not realised the points that my hon. Friend would be making. But, since the hon. Gentleman has given a clear defence of what the I.T.A. has done, I would have thought that that broadened the comments that one could make in criticising what it has done.

Whether or not it is working clearly within the terms of the Statute, it can be said categorically that, in closing down this publication, it is not working within the terms of the Instruction given by Parliament. I sat through the whole of the last Committee dealing with the Instruction to be given, and the then Postmaster-General made it clear that he wanted future programmes to be regional and not centralised. He thought that the strength of a television system lay in its ability to reflect the character and atmosphere of the various regions represented.

It cannot be said that no account was taken of the part played by the programme publications which came out in the regions, because it is within my recollection that, in fixing what the levy should be from the various programme companies, account was taken of the income that they derived from journals such as that published in Ulster.

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, instead of just waiting for the report to which he has referred, his Department has the power to indicate that it feels that the I.T.A. is not carrying out the wishes of Parliament and appears to be weakening the regional content of television programmes in Ulster and the other regions if these publications are to be brought to an end.

The Assistant Postmaster-General tried to give a balanced argument, and he added that he hoped that my hon. Friend's comments would be taken into account by the Chairman of the I.T.A. and others in authority there. There is an onus on his Department to indicate its feelings about this, and, recalling speeches made by the then Postmaster-General, the only possible indication can be that it deplores the ending of these publications.

The view has been expressed that television programmes should reflect the atmosphere of the regions. There is the special argument put forward by my hon. Friend that the decision affects the liveli- hoods of about 40 people in Ulster. Then there is the fact that it is adjoined by a friendly but foreign power which will use its television coverage to go over the border and effect the general type of programme to be seen there. All those matters must be taken into account.

I wonder whether even at this late hour we could persuade the Assistant Postmaster-General to discuss this matter further with his right hon. Friend and with the Department to see if they can bring influence to bear with I.T.A. headquarters to reconsider this decision before they actually terminate this publication. We all know that after a publication is terminated it is so much more difficult to sustain, and one can hardly sustain, an argument for reviving it.

I would go further and point to the powers which the Postmaster-General has. We all know that the franchise given to the various programme companies, including Ulster, is to run five years. At the end of the five years it is still within the power of the Postmaster-General to renew it or not, and to decide what to do about it. I should have thought that at this early stage he might sustain what Parliament wanted—the regional atmosphere. Certainly in the case of Ulster the regional atmosphere is more likely to be preserved by a separate publication which describes the regional programmes, which has separate editorials, which has separate reports, and reviews of what is coming on.

I believe that my hon. Friend has made a strong case, agreeing with what Parliament itself wished when we passed the Statute which affects television programmes. I feel that the Assistant Postmaster-General himself seemed to come down on the side of the case which my hon. Friend made, but I thought he showed a tiny bit of cowardice—I say it in the most friendly way—in not expressing the opinion of his own Department. I believe it has the power and the right to express the will of Parliament as shown when we discussed the last Act. I think the hon. Gentleman should say further consideration ought to be given to it before this journal comes to an end.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.