HC Deb 29 March 1971 vol 814 cc1161-9
The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

I am presenting today a White Paper announcing the Government's proposals for establishing an alternative service of sound broadcasting. The Government proposes a service of local radio to be transmitted on very high frequencies and on medium frequencies, and to be financed from the sale of advertising time. Up to 60 stations attaining coverage of about 65 per cent, of the population on V.H.F. can ultimately be provided. On medium frequencies the daytime coverage will reach about 70 per cent.: by night it will be about 25 per cent.

The service will be entrusted to the Independent Television Authority, which will become the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The I.B.A.'s rights and duties in relation to its radio service will be similar to those of the present I.T.A. in relation to television. Rolling three-year contracts, renewable each year, are however proposed for the radio programme companies-a system that will combine strong powers of control for the Authority with prospects of greater security of tenure for the programme companies than can be obtained with fixed term contracts.

The Government's intention is that the stations should combine popular programming with a good service of local news and information. Another major objective of the new service will be to provide an alternative source of national and international news on radio. The White Paper identifies three ways in which this might be provided and will, I hope, promote discussion about the best means of securing a good central news service.

Following detailed consultations with newspaper interests, the White Paper contains proposals which will entitle the Press to participate in the companies awarded contracts.

The White Paper also announces the Government's conclusion that the B.B.C.'s 20-station service of local radio should continue, and that in due course it should be transmitted not only on V.H.F.—as at present—but also on M.F. Thus it has proved possible to plan the new service alongside the existing services of the B.B.C., and I should like to thank the Corporation and its engineers for the assistance we have received from them in overcoming the frequency problems involved.

The Government believe that competition will be as welcome in radio as it has been in television, and that our proposals will afford a significant extension of choice for the listener.

Mr. Proudfoot

On a point of order. I should like to ask your guidance on this matter, Mr. Speaker. The White Paper was available at 4 o'clock. I am led to understand that the Press has White Papers on any subject before that time in any case, but I am informed that the B.B.C., which at the moment has a monopoly in sound broadcasting, has had this White Paper since this morning. Could the House inquire into that?

Mr. Speaker

The matter could be inquired into, but it is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Richard

May I say at the outset that we are glad that the Minister has finally decided to make a statement, although we are astonished that it took the intervention of the Leader of the Opposition to make him do so.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

It was my fault.

Mr. Richard

I do not know whose decision it was, but we are glad that the statement has now been made.

The Opposition regard the proposal as nothing more than the establishment of another 60 pop stations. There is no demand for them. This is a piece of Conservative theology designed to satisfy an ill-considered and half-baked pre-election pledge. We quite well understand that the Minister has been leaking like a sieve up and down Whitehall for the last fortnight dissociating himself from these proposals; they are not his proposals; it is not his White Paper; he proposed originally a national network actually producing the programme.

Why has that proposal been omitted from the White Paper? Why has he gone back on the original proposal to set up a national structure, which it might have least been argued was a real alternative to the B.B.C? What happened to that proposal? Why was it axed in the Cabinet? Is it not because a Conservative Party has again put cash before standards?

May I ask three specific questions—I have had a chance to look at the White Paper for only a couple of minutes? First, how much cash does the Minister estimate it will take to establish this structure? Secondly, he says in his statement that the Independent Broadcasting Authority's rights and duties in relation to its radio service will be similar to those of the present I.T.A. in relation to television. Does that include such matters as the balance of the programmes? Does it include programme content? Does it include such things as protection of minority interests and the proportion of advertising time per hour of transmitting time? If it includes all those items, how does he think that individual local stations will be financially viable?

Finally, how are these standards to be enforced other than through a national system which he and the Cabinet have rejected?

Mr. Chataway

The somewhat feverish way in which the hon. Gentleman seizes on every bit of tittle-tattle that he can get hold of conceals, I suppose, the difficulty the Opposition are finding themselves in in deciding whether to go through a repeat performance of their opposition to commercial television. I know that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has urged his hon. Friends not to do that. If we are to have outright opposition from hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite over the introduction of competition in radio I am sure that many of us will probably store up some of the sayings of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen for use in the next election.

On the three points to which the hon. Gentleman referred, if there is no demand then these stations will not survive, just as if there had been no demand for commercial television that would not have survived. The duties of the I.B.A. will be similar in all respects that he mentioned to the duties that it performs in relation to television at the moment. I believe that in broadcasting as in any other sphere of activity competition benefits the consumer.

Sir G. Nabarro

While congratulating my right hon. Friend most warmly upon honouring precisely a Conservative pledge at the last General Election, may I ask him to satisfy the House on two points? First, will he say that commercial radio will not entail any support with Government funds and that all commercial radio stations will be financially self-supporting? Secondly, as he has drawn the analogy between commercial television and commercial radio, will he give an undertaking that the advertising of cigarettes on commercial radio will not be permitted, as it is not permitted on commercial or any other form of television?

Mr. Chataway

I can confirm that there will be no public subsidy whatever for commercial radio, any more than there has been for commercial television. While specific regulations about advertising would be for the Authority, it is practically inconceivable that the advertising of cigarettes would be allowed on radio, since it is not allowed on television.

Mr. Grimond

I should declare an interest in that I was in the past a member of a consortium which made a bid for a television station—thank God, unsuccessfully. I am also a trustee and a director of a newspaper group. May I ask the Minister whether it is intended to choose these new contractors for radio in the same way as the television contractors have been chosen, because it is a most extraordinary method, not seen in this country since the 18th century? It ought to be looked at again. Apart from the question of subsidising them, will they be subject to a levy, the levy or any payment to the Government? Secondly, is he aware that there is widespread dissatisfaction in certain parts of the country with the present coverage of radio and television? Can we have an assurance that this new service, which will no doubt operate in the populous and paying areas, will not mean that the B.B.C. will be discouraged, financially or otherwise, not only from maintaining but from extending its present services? I want an assurance that that will not be placed in jeopardy.

Mr. Chataway

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I am sure that the Authority will bear in mind what he says about the allocation of contracts. I believe that the proposal in relation to a rolling three-year contract will be thought to have considerable merit in this context.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Will my right hon. Friend make certain in the interests of full competition that the local B.B.C. stations have access to the medium wave in the same way as the commercial stations?

Mr. Chataway

I am glad to say that this has proved possible.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

May I commiserate with the right hon. Gentleman for having lost the main battle against the commercial radio lobby? May I congratulate him for having saved something from the wreck and in so doing for having moved slightly in the direction that I was pressing upon him some time ago? Will he recognise that unless the advertising revenue goes to the Authority and not to the commercial companies, the commercial companies will exploit this situation unmercifully and will not provide a radio service capable of competing on artistically level terms with the B.B.C.? Secondly, will he recognise that if he further involves the Press in the communications industry, a situation which is even now disquieting many people—the lack of a wide variety of information sources—will be worsened? Will he look into this question seriously before he agrees to the proposition of the involvement of local newspapers in commercial local radio stations?

Mr. Chataway

As to the hon. Gentleman's first question, I am afraid that there is a considerable misconception on his part and on the part of the hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) in relation to the proposals for a national channel. It was suggested from a number of sources, and was very seriously considered whether in addition to the structure I have proposed today there should also be a national channel. There were arguments in favour of that. The principal argument against it was that it could have unacceptable implications for the national Press. It is for that reason that I come forward with a proposal for local stations only, of course, in a national network as they would be.

As to the involvement of the Press, the White Paper circumscribes the situation in which local papers may have a controlling interest in local radio stations and would, I think, therefore prevent the spread of any undesirable monopoly. I hope the hon. Gentleman will realise that this White Paper is diversifying the sources of information and I believe it is as important that there should be alternative sources of news in radio as it is that there should be alternative sources in the Press and television.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer

Will my right hon. Friend be good enough to see that the local radio gives truly local representation to the Lincolnshire area, which does not presently happen with I.T.V.?

Mr. Chataway

I will bear my hon. Friend's request in mind.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what consultations he has had in preparing these proposals with the Newspaper Society, the N.U.J. and working journalists? Would he also accept that the admirable standards set by the B.B.C. in its new local radio stations are standards upon which we must insist now and in the future?

Mr. Chataway

I have had full consultations with the National Union of Journalists and the Newspaper Society. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is much in the B.B.C. local stations which is worthy of support and development.

Sir J. Rodgers

While welcoming this statement, may I ask my right hon. Friend to clarify one point? Under this new system of the 60 local stations, will there be opportunities for a national hook-up among these stations at peak listening periods?

Mr. Chataway

They will be in a network, but I do not envisage that local stations would for any significant period of time switch over to a national sustaining service. I think it will be found that the local stations will not in their own self-interest wish to do so.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Since presumably this will entail legislation, could the right hon. Gentleman give any indication to the House when he expects the legislation to be forthcoming, this Session, next Session, or whenever it may be? Like the rest of the House, I have had only minutes to look at this White Paper, which we will all wish to study. Does it not appear that local newspapers with a substantial circulation in an area of coverage will have the right to participate? Can that not mean in certain areas with a population of, say, half a million to a million, which I suppose will be the target or the average, the local evening papers, already reasonably prosperous, will have the right to participate whereas the local weekly newspaper with a circulation of 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000, which will be most prejudiced by the local advertisements, will have no such right? Might there not be wholesale slaughter of weekly local newspapers as a result? I do not ask the right hon. Gentleman to give a final view but perhaps he will look at this and make a statement to the House.

Mr. Chataway

I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for his measured reaction to these proposals. The legislation will not be introduced in this Session. It is not for me to say whether it will be introduced in the next Session. The right hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point on the right of the Press to be involved in local stations. It must depend upon the definition one gives to "circulation which is significant" in relation to the transmission area of the station. But the intention would be to ensure that any newspaper which could be significantly affected by the introduction of commercial radio should have the opportunity of participating. I shall bear the right hon. Gentleman's points in mind.

Mr. Wilson

Lest the right hon. Gentleman's opening words in reply to me become a legend, may I point out to him that I did not give a measured reaction to his proposals. The measured reaction was given on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends by my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) in very careful, cautious and measured terms.

On the last point referred to by the right hon. Gentleman which he has undertaken to look into more closely, is he aware that the two concepts he has used may not come to the same thing? He has just said, if newspapers are "significantly affected", whereas the White Paper says, if they have a significant circulation in the area. They are two different things. Newspapers could be "significantly affected" and destroyed without having a significant part of the circulation in the area.

Mr. Chataway

I do not accept that the impact of commercial radio on the local Press is likely to be as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence pointing in the other direction. The point which the right hon. Gentleman raises has to do with the definition given by the Authority to "significant". We shall think about that further. If I wrongly detected a difference between the somewhat hysterical reaction of the hon. Member for Barons Court and the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, I apologise to him.

Mr. Haselhurst

How local will be the stations which emerge from my right hon. Friend's proposals in the White Paper? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the system which will emerge from the arrangements which he has outlined will be more nearly local than metropolitan?

Mr. Chataway

My proposals give the Independent Broadcasting Authority the opportunity of developing really local stations. The extent to which they are able to serve small communities will depend upon their ability to attract audiences. But with the possibility of up to 60 stations being set up it is conceivable that cities with populations of between 100,000 and 150,000 will be served.

Mr. Whitehead

Bearing in mind the Minister's remark to my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard), may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the debate in the Conservative Party about commercial television in 1953 contained many serious reservations and their absence today is, we think, a sad commentary on the Conservative Party? There are no objections by right hon. and hon. Members opposite to many of the proposals in the White Paper.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman three short, inter-related questions? Is the new I.B.A. to be financed wholly by contributions from the companies? There is nothing about that matter in paragraph 4 of the White Paper. Secondly, are the franchises for the rolling contracts to be made as a result of public tenders in view of the I.T.A.'s bad record in making people live up to their promises? Thirdly, did the right hon. Gentleman's Department carry out any surveys about the possible effect of transfers of advertising, particularly local newspaper classified and display advertising, to commercial radio?

Mr. Chataway

The Authority will be financed by contributions from the companies, with no subsidy from the Government. We shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's suggestion concerning public tenders. We made exhaustive investigations in many quarters concerning advertising revenue and looked at such precedents as there were which certainly did not suggest that commercial radio was always a disadvantage to local newspapers. There were many instances in which the evidence seemed to point in the other direction.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot proceed further with this matter today.