HC Deb 11 April 1972 vol 834 cc1175-87


5 (1) Where the Authority enter into a contract with a programme contractor for the provision of local sound broadcasts to be transmitted from one or more stations, the Authority shall, on request made by any person and on payment by him of such sum (if any) as the Authority may reasonably require, furnish to that person such one or more of the following as may be specified in the request, that is to say—
(a) a copy of that contract;
10 (b) a statement of the number of applications (if any) received by the Authority for a programme contract for the provision of local sound broadcasts to be transmitted from that station or those stations, other than the application received from the 10 contractor with whom the contract is made; and
(c) subject to the next following subsection, a copy of so much of that contractor's application for such a contract as related to the character of the local sound broadcasts which he proposed to provide if his application were accepted by the Authority.
15 (2) The Authority shall not be required by virtue of the preceding subsection to furnish to any person such a copy as is mentioned in paragraph (c) of that subsection until after local sound broadcasts provided by the contractor under the contract in question have begun to be transmitted by the Authority.—[Mr. Chataway]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Gorst

Can my hon. Friend explain this? In considering the aggregated shareholdings, if a television company and a newspaper company were both shareholders, both possibly having an interest in watering down the competition from this new, third medium, would the newspaper and television interests be aggregated by the Authority under the Clause?

Mr. Chataway

Only if they were under common ownership. The new Clause is intent upon ensuring that no group, whether a newspaper group, a television group or whatever its nature, should have too large an interest in the system as a whole, an interest which would be likely to work against the best interests of the new service. In considering that the Authority has to look behind the organisation at the personalities involved.

I hope it will be clear that the new Clause spells out with accuracy and in some detail the undertaking I gave to the Committee upstairs which was welcomed on both sides.

Mr. Richard

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, this fulfils an undertaking he gave in Committee. Although the Clause is of almost Proustian complexity, it seems on the whole to fulfil at least the intent behind the assurance. Therefore, on behalf of the Opposition I welcome it and thank the Minister for it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Mr. Chataway

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

This Clause also gives effect to an undertaking I gave in Committee. The hon. and learned Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard), a number of his hon Friends and one or two of my hon. Friends were anxious that there should be the maximum publicity about the whole contract procedure and that people should be in a position to know after a contract had been awarded what kind of promises had been made by the contractors before they secured it.

It was understood and accepted in Committee that there must be a limit to what applicants are required to publicise and that there are reasonable grounds for them to wish to maintain secrets at the time of their application. It would be very unfair if those who form a consortium and who are perhaps now working for the B.B.C. or a commercial organisation were required to have their names pubilicised at the time of their application, before they even knew whether they would be accepted. It would be unfair if the plans which they laid before the Authority were made public months before they could go on the air, enabling their competitors to steal all their best ideas.

I hope that in the Clause I have gone as far as is reasonable in requiring the Authority to ensure that material is publicised. It will enable anyone to ascertain the total number of applicants, a point to which a number of hon. Members attached importance because they feared there might be a situation in which all the potential applicants were getting together in an area and only one application went in. If that happened it would be known.

Mr. Whitehead

The right hon. Gentleman is saying that we shall now know the number of applicants, but a number is a number. Surely it would be much better to know also the nature of the unsuccessful tenders so that after the successful contractor had begun transmission the public could judge the Authority's performance in deciding between one contract and others.

Mr. Chataway

I do not think it would be reasonable to require that the unsuccessful tenderers' application should be made public. They might have had some very good ideas which they wished to implement in another area. I do not believe it is possible for the public as a whole to check in detail in this way upon the decisions the Authority is making Probably the hon. Gentleman and I would have a difference of approach in the matter. I believe it is extremely important that the Authority should take the decision and that it has the responsibility. We should be under no illusion that any kind of public tribunal can do it for the Authority. It would not be reasonable to require all unsuccessful applicants to have their plans, which they might have the opportunity to implement elsewhere, publicised.

Anyone who wants to find out the details will be able to see the contract which defines the legal relationship between the programme contractor and the Authority. That was something which hon. Members in the Committee wanted to see published.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the Clause will enable members of the public to ascertain those parts of the application which relate to the character of the programmes. That, I think, was the main thing that was wanted by a number of hon. Members.

10.30 p.m.

Hon. Members wanted, after the contractor had gone on the air, to be able to see what he had promised in the way of programmes when he won his contract. The arrangement will be that at some point after the contractor has gone on the air with his programmes he will be required to publish those parts of his application which described his programme plans. This will be of benefit to the public and may well also be of benefit to the Authority in that it will strengthen its hand in dealing with any contractor who is clearly not living up to the promises he made when he secured his contract. This, as I say, meets points put by hon. Members on both sides in Committee and I hope it will be acceptable to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

With new Clause 4, sub-Amendments (b), in line 7, leave out paragraph (b), and (c), in line 14, at end insert 'and similar details furnished to the Authority by all unsuccessful applicants for such a contract', standing in the name of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), may be discussed.

Mr. Golding

I wish to speak to the Amendments, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is very important in any publication of contracts that the entire contract be published. I do not think we should get ourselves into a situation whereby we have partial publication.

Mr. Chataway

I make it clear that the Authority must be prepared to provide an entire contract. The entire contract is to be provided.

Mr. Golding

If the whole contract must be provided and the whole contract can be published, that meets the criticism. It is important that we should insist that the contract should be published or provided as quickly as possible. This is not the case with the new Clause as it stands. It provides that it shall come into effect only after local sound broadcasts provided by the contractor under the contract in question have begun to be transmitted by the Authority. I would prefer discussion to take place at the earliest possible opportunity.

When contracts are awarded, we want two things: comparison of contracts, of promises made to the Authority, and publication of each and every bid. Unfortunately, it appears that the new Clause would prevent the Authority from publishing the unsuccessful bids at the time the contracts are being awarded. I would prefer each of the outline bids to be published at the time they are being considered.

There is a great case to be made not only for publication of the bids but also for establishment of a public inquiry into the bids themselves rather than having our present system whereby there is secret bidding for and awarding of contracts and afterwards an inquest, based on totally incomplete information. Such a situation is entirely unsatisfactory. It would be better in an open society if we had the stages suggested in our Amendments. If each group bidding for a contract were to publish its bid, and there was public discussion before the contract was awarded, that would be a preferable system.

Although the Clause goes part of the way to achieving a more rational inquest after the award of the contract when it is apparent that contractors are failing in some way, it does not go all the way. There is dissatisfaction with some contractors, particularly London Weekend, because they have failed to live up to their promises. It has been left to the Free Communications Group to publish the London Weekend bid. I am glad that in future it will be the responsibility of the I.B.A. to publish a contract after it has been awarded and the stations have started to operate.

Arguments can be made against the open contract system, the most important of which is the fear that competitors will steal one's ideas. Having seen how long it takes an idea in television to be realised, I wonder whether that is a real fear. I have often heard my hon. Friends pointing out that one contract in the last round was awarded partly on the basis that the Burtons would appear for the company. It is only in this year when there is talk of renewing contracts, that there is a positive move for the Burtons to appear on the company's programmes. The fear that other companies will steal ideas can be brushed aside.

The same applies to the argument against the disclosure of personnel, that their security would be put in jeopardy. This is the most usual argument in the industry, and I do not accept it. If entrepreneurs are trying to make much more money in one concern than they are making at present, this is one of the risks they should be prepared to take. If their bid is unsuccessful, it should have been disclosed to their employers or their companies that they were prepared to be disloyal and to transfer for more money.

I do not see that a contract in which a person seeks to sell out to the highest bidder and tries to make more money in the market place should be guaranteed secrecy of operation. The risk may be thought to be worth taking and may be handsomely compensated for if the person concerned is lucky enough to be in the group that wins the contract.

The new Clause goes some way to meet the objections which have been made against the London Weekend situation, and for that reason I shall not vote against it. However, the Clause does not go all the way, and I hope that when we reach the 1976 situation we shall have a more open discussion of the allocation of contracts than is the situation at present in television.

Mr. Proudfoot

There is one point I wish to take up with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding). He made an error when he spoke about the length of time it took for a new idea to get through. I am sure he must have been thinking of television experience rather than radio experience, because radio has shown itself to be very flexible. Indeed, it is the very flexibility of radio which makes this new Clause something of a nonsense.

I do not think this Clause will add much to the situation. The first five successful stations will find that as soon as their contracts are made they will be immediately copied by the next five stations, the five stations after that and so on through the years. We have only to look at the programmes on Radio London, Radio Humberside or Radio Stoke to find what a nonsense this Clause is.

In terms of local radio the programme details are fragmentary. The most important thing the local stations should be pushed to do—and since it is such good commercial sense they will not need much pushing—is to put on plenty of material with local content. I am thinking here of experience in Australia where checks are carried out to see what is produced in the course of the year. In Australia programmes contain 15 per cent. advertising, 48 per cent. light entertainment and, incredibly, 12 minutes of family information, current affairs and news services and in some cases sport.

If experience there is any guide to what will happen here, that is the sort of material that will go out, and there is no reason to think that in a commercial system in this country it would be any different. Therefore, we are asking potential contractors to agree to write in a lot of nonsense. When I was involved in a radio station, the directors wanted at first to put on nonsense.

Mr. Gregor Mackenzie

How did the operation of the hon. Gentleman's radio station compare with the Australian broadcasting station, bearing in mind some of the interesting speeches he made on the subject some time ago?

Mr. Proudfoot

We had to face a few minor difficulties, such as three miles of sea between ourselves and dry land, which was a bit of a barrier. The Post Office would not let us telephone the ship and lack ofcommunication—which meant that we were unable to rap a disc jockey over the knuckles—was a great drawback. The local entrepreneurs who set up radio stations all tended to become carbon copies of the B.B.C. They were totally wrong in that attitude. If contractors are to be successful with commercial radio stations, they should not treat the sort of programmes put out on the B.B.C. as coming down to them on tablets of stone.

When one looks at it fragmentally, one sees that it will be only sport, local news and local information which will be able to be given. I do not think that we should push them more than that. If we did, we would not get as good a service from these commercial stations as we would otherwise hope. This new Clause may satisfy a lot of do-gooders but I do not think that in the end it will help the quality of local radio.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Whitehead

In rising for the first time to participate in the debate this evening, I should like to add my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion, if it is promotion, away from broadcasting.

I suppose he is participating tonight as one of the most remarkable examples of life after death since the boy king, Tutankhamen, except that unlike the Pharaoh, now on exhibition, who spent so many centuries among the whitening bones of his predecessors, the right hon. Gentleman has brought the warm quivering body of his successor from the Department of Trade and Industry to learn the hard way that the Bill appears first to be laming the duck and then sustaining it. We are not opposing this new Clause, which goes part of the way, and only part of the way, to meet proposals made from this side during Committee stage on the nature of contractural procedures.

I cannot follow the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot) in his offshore memoirs of what life was like on a pirate radio station.

It is true, and would be accepted on both sides, that radio is a desperately serious matter and that radio broadcasting is not an unimportant pigeon-hole to be left alone at the I.B.A. for a few people to make a killing, and for nobody to mind much about the content of programmes and who operators are to be.

It is crucially important who the operators should be, how promise can be matched against performance, how the Authority can judge one applicant against another and how the performance of a successful applicant can be judged against the promise of an unsuccessful applicant.

My hon. Friend the Member for New-castle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) has already touched on the extent to which procedures are similar in television. When we had the alleged clean sweep in 1967, many people were left at the end of the day in utter confusion as to who had been awarded what and why.

If I may quote from a recently published book by the distinguished television critic Peter Black, remarking on the effect on an unsuccessful contractor at that time, Lord Derby of T.W.W., he says: The only criticism Lord Hill had ever offered to explain his act, complained Derby, was when he asked why he had done it, 'Because you are a London-based company', Lord Hill muttered. A mutter from Lord Hill a few months later and a comment from Lord Derby at the same time is not satisfactory.

When we look at the submission by Harlech Television for the contract, afterwards pirated and published by the Free Communications Group, we can see how far from the high promises was the performance. That is why, in Committee, we said consistently that there should be as open a process of examination of contracts and of the way contracts were examined as possible, given the difficulties about some element of confidential disclosure.

In attempting to answer an intervention of mine earlier on my own Amendment to new Clause 4, the Minister said that it would not be a good idea to add the words and similar details furnished to the Authority by all unsuccessful applicants for such a contract. The right hon. Gentleman argued that the unsuccessful contractors might have good ideas. Presumably, therefore, we are trying to protect the unsuccessful contractors. But their first claim upon the attention of the public would be precisely that they might feel, after a year or two of the successful applicant's transmissions, that they had had a far better case to put to the Authority and that they would have done the job better. Because of that, they would be the first to favour publication of their applications as against that of the successful contractor.

Then the right hon. Gentleman said that a public tribunal should not be doing the job of the Authority. But this would not be a public tribunal. Very properly within the rules of order, we have not sought to go back to those proceedings in Committee where we demanded public hearings into the various submissions. Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme that this would be the best way of proceeding, all that we say now is that the public, which is ultimately the guarantor and master of the Authority, through Parliament, should have an opportunity to judge the way in which the Authority has carried out its duty in assessing rival bids for contracts. We feel this strongly, in view of the way in which the Authority has failed to carry out its function satisfactorily in the past.

The great advantage of open bidding is that the element of secrecy which so poisoned the atmosphere between the rival applicants for the various contracts in 1967 can be avoided.

It has been said by the right hon. Gentleman that it would be unfair if the names of individuals, perhaps now working for the B.B.C., ware mentioned, and that is why he has drawn the new Clause as narrowly as he has, so that all we shall get is the submission, which the underground Press probably will give us rather faster than the Authority, and the sacred number of those applications which have been put forward.

Surely the only reason for withholding the names and the nature of the consortia which have been unsuccessful is, perhaps as the Minister has said, to protect given individuals. But the House must weigh two relative disadvantages. There is the disadvantage to some individuals of their names being known to be associated with a bid which might not be successful or to have been associated with a bid which failed. Clearly, there would not be a case for linking some distinguished B.B.C. executive with the failed tender of an unsuccessful consortium, although the programme ideas of that consortium some time later might be weighed by the public against the successful contractor.

However, in the case of the successful contractor there is everything to be said, because of the relative disadvantages concerned, for publishing the names of all those involved in the consortium. I am very sorry that the Clause says nothing about that, though I presume that it would be possible to allow the public to see when it scrutinises the successful contract at a later stage precisely who were the people involved with it at the moment of application and, even more important, at the moment of success.

Again, in the application for franchise by London Weekend Television, some of those connected with the organisation at the moment of the application like Mr. John Freeman were not there on the day transmission began.

I submit that the great danger of withholding the names of individuals and of not letting the public know who are the individuals concerned is that we know from bitter experience that a very devious game is played by the rival consortia before the moment of choice at the Authority.

For example, when the various rival combines came forward for their interviews at Brompton Road in 1967, in several cases the same individuals appeared in different guises. One individual appeared in the morning as the senior programme executive on the board of Rediffusion Television. At that moment Rediffusion Television, in its innocence, thought he was the main card it had to play. He was the first programme man it had ever had on its board, full of ideas and associated with the new programmes that it was putting forward. What Rediffusion did not know, what the public did not know and what no one except Lord Hill and the members of his interviewing board knew—they discovered it to their surprise—was that that same individual turned up in the afternoon wearing a quite different hat as a member of the consortium for London Weekend Television.

It is this kind of secrecy and behaviour which regrettably leads the public to suppose afterwards that the rival consortia themselves ought to be exposed to the public gaze much more than in the past and much more than has been the case under the Bill, as amended.

I regret that new Clause 4 does no more than allow us at a later stage to see the successful applicant's tender and to know the number of other unsuccessful tenders which have been put forward. Since, as I said earlier, we shall get the one from the underground Press far more quickly than the presses of Brompton Road—and the number is supremely relevant—I ask the Minister to think again on new Clause 4.

Mr. Richard

I have considerable sympathy with the points which my hon. Friend has just made, particularly about the naming of the unsuccessful applicants for a contract. I should have thought this was the point the Minister could understand, seriously consider and, if necessary, insert in another place. It would be somewhat churlish if we on this side of the House were not to recognise that the Minister has in new Clause 4 gone a considerable distance towards meeting some of the points which we made in Committee. This whole sphere has caused a great deal of public concern, particularly in relation to television. Although the provisions of this new Clause are at the moment confined to the provision of local sound broadcasts, I trust that at some future date when the whole of the Television Act comes to be considered—it is bound to be considered at some stage—the principle which has been accepted by the Government in new Clause 4 in relation to radio can be extended to television. The Minister half hinted in Committee that he favoured that general approach although he could not write it into the Bill for obvious technical reasons.

Therefore, on behalf of the Opposition, I give qualified approval to what the Minister has done. We do not think he has gone far enough. Nevertheless, we are grateful for the small mercy which he has given us in this respect.

Mr. Chataway

As the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) asked me to reply, perhaps I should say that, for the reasons which I have already spelt out, it would not be fair to go any further than I have gone in the new Clause. If we included the provision which the hon. Gentleman would like to see in the Bill, it would have the effect of deterring fairly good applicants from applying.

I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) that it would be right to consider in any post-1976 legislation whether there should be a similar provision relating to television. That would give us an opportunity of looking again at the points which the hon. Member for Derby, North wishes to have considered, though I appreciate mainly relating to television.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

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