HC Deb 19 January 1972 vol 829 cc477-84
The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about allocation of frequency channels for a fourth television network and about control of the number of hours of television and radio broadcasting.

For many years to come, frequency channels will be available only for four television networks of near-national coverage. Channels for three of those networks are already being deployed, and therefore only one network remains to be allocated. The Independent Television Authority recently put to me a submission, "I.T.V. 2", published on 8th December, advocating that this network should now be allocated to a second service to be provided by I.T.V. The I.T.A.'s proposals have prompted the expression of a number of different views in Parliament and elsewhere concerning, for example, the possibility of reserving the fourth network for a specialised service or of organising a fourth general service on some different basis. I am not persuaded that the time has yet come to allocate the fourth network.

The Authority has also asked for an end to the restrictions at present imposed on the number of hours of television broadcasting. This would allow the fuller use of I.T.V.'s programme-making capacity. It would enable the Authority to meet more adequately the needs of certain minorities, such as shift workers, and to provide greater opportunities for experimental programmes. The Authority has made it clear that it would not allow any fall in the amount of time given to educational, Welsh-language and other programmes exempt from the present limits. I have therefore decided to end the restrictions on hours of television broadcasting. Similarly, I have decided to lift the present limits on the number of hours of radio broadcasting.

Mr. Richard

I think that this is the third time in the past five or six weeks that I have congratulated the right lion. Gentleman on a statement he has made. We on this side of the House regard his decision not to allot the fourth television channel to the Independent Television Authority as timely and right.

However, I should like to press the right hon. Gentleman on two further points in relation to that decision. First, does it mean that there will be no allocation of the fourth channel before 1976, when the charter of the B.B.C. and the Television Act come up for further consideration? Secondly, does he now accept the necessity for a major review of the whole of broadcasting before 1976? If he does. would not it be a good idea if he set it up in the relatively near future?

I welcome that part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement dealing with the end of the restriction on the hours of television broadcasting.

Mr. Chataway

I have made it clear I do not believe the case is made out for the allocation of this channel at this moment, but I would not wish to prescribe the number of years ahead for which the community should not have this service. As for the question of an inquiry dealing with the period after 1976 when the present B.B.C. Charter and I.T.V. licence run out, I have said on a number of occasions that clearly we shall need, nearer to the time, to take a comprehensive look at the options open to us. I do not believe that the interests of anyone, least of all those in broadcasting, would be served if we had six years of inquiry, as the Opposition were proposing when they set up a Commission in 1970.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the extension of the hours of television will be broadly welcomed but that there will be some disappointment about the decision not to proceed with a second independent channel? Is he aware that the very cogent arguments prepared by tile I.T.A. formed the one practical and realistic method of getting a second independent television channel? Will he confirm that in his continuing review process he will not close his mind to this idea?

Mr. Chataway

I would be the last to deny the attractions that my hon. Friend sees in the I.T.V.2 proposals. That was a case very well argued. I know that there are many differing views about the way in which the channel ought to be allocated, even if it goes to I.T.A. In those circumstances it is right in view of the other factors I have mentioned that the channel should not be allocated at this moment.

Mr. Mayhew

The Minister began by referring to the limited number of channels available. Is he aware of the growing recognition in many western countries of the advantages of transmission by cable which not only brings about much better reception but keeps down repair charges, means less disfigurement of rooftops and the skyline and, above all, gives an almost unlimited number of channels for different uses? May we be assured that the right hon. Gentleman is really studying this?

Mr. Chataway

It may well be that at a period in the future transmission by cable will play a big part and perhaps transform the broadcasting scene. In the meantime there is value in conducting a number of limited experiments in cable service, one of which I have announced earlier today.

Mr. Maude

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision to postpone the allocation of this channel and may I ask him to bear in mind that there is an increasing number of people who believe that what this country suffers from is not a lack but a surfeit of television and there should be no hurry to increase it?

Mr. Chataway

It was the divergency of views on this matter, among other things, which led the Government to this view.

Mr. Grimond

While welcoming the Minister's decision, may I ask him whether he is aware that many areas in the country do not yet receive a second or third channel? If there is not to be a fourth channel would he see whether the reception in these areas can be improved and coverage extended? Can he be a little more explicit about the inquiries? Is there a firm Government undertaking that there will be a major inquiry before renewal of the Charter and the I.T.A. arrangements in 1976?

Mr. Chataway

Dealing with the extended coverage. I am anxious that the I.T.A. and the B.B.C. should press on as fast as they can with that. There is no doubt that if there had been a second I.T.V. channel at this time it might have delayed that process. On the right hon. Gentleman's second question, clearly the Government will, nearer to the time when decisions have to be taken on the post-1976 situation, have to review all these questions in some way. There is no need at this time to take a view about the kind of review that might be most appropriate.

Mr. Deedes

Will my right hon. Friend review the mathematics about this inquiry and the answer that he has given to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond)? Will he bear in mind that, for example, Beveridge and Pilkington needed 18 months for an inquiry and there was the subsequent legislation? In view of that, would he not agree that this year will be none too soon to inaugurate the overall inquiry that will be needed into broadcasting?

Mr. Chataway

I certainly take note of the views of my right hon. Friend but I believe that there are serious disadvantages, if we are to have a 10- or 12-year Licence and Charter, for half of the period to be taken up with reviews and the inevitable paralysis that goes with them. I would not accept the implication of my right hon. Friend's question, that we need necessarily have any form of review which takes as long as previous reviews.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his decision in favour of round the clock television might have disastrous consequences for the finances of the B.B.C. and might very well bring about an increase in television licences?

Mr. Chataway

There is no obligation on either of the broadcasting authorities to extend their hours. No one would criticise the B.B.C., broadcasting as it does on two channels, if B.B.C. 1 were not on the air for all the hours when I.T.V. 1 was broadcasting.

Mr. Emery

While I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision which will allow equipment to be used for longer periods with greater economy and financial return, may I ask him if he will give an assurance, as there is bound to be pressure about the fourth channel, that he will hear in mind the arguments for regionalism in the presentation of such a channel? Will he consider not just regionalism based on programmes produced in London but really regional programmes which are often somewhat difficult to obtain and are not to be found in great numbers at present?

Mr. Chataway

I agree that these are important considerations and my hon. Friend will know that a number of regional companies were opposed to the proposals put forward in the I.T.A. plan.

Mr. John Morris

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is concern in some parts of Wales about the lack of choice in language and there being no Independent Television alternative? Has the Minister any proposals to make here? Is it not possible for Independent Tele- vision to come to some agreement with the B.B.C. so that there is some choice?

Mr. Chataway

There is a great deal to be said for I.T.V. and B.B.C. considering some of these problems together and I hope that they will do so.

Mr. John E. B. Hill

In view of the proposed derestriction of radio broadcasting hours, can the Minister say what are the prospects of having a longer programme of serious classical music, particularly late at night, as in America, for the benefit of those who are up late, cannot sleep or are driving? Is he aware that this is a serious shortcoming in our entertainment scene?

Mr. Chataway

It would be up to the B.B.C. to supply a service of that kind if it was felt that there was a need. This announcement means that we no longer have the situation in which the Government are rationing the hours that the broadcasting authorities may use. I believe the vast majority of people will feel that this was really a pettifogging restriction that we could well do away with.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Will the right hon. Gentleman take account of the view pressed upon him by the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) that there is not quite as much time for this inquiry as he seems to imagine? Does he appreciate that if things have to take place by 1976 we will need a report to this House early in 1975, preferably late in 1974? We are now in 1972 and it would not be too soon if the right hon. Gentleman were to begin considering the membership or nature of such an inquiry in the near future? Will he instead of generalising, consider the actual problems before him and think again about the necessity of beginning an inquiry pretty soon?

Mr. Chataway

I will bear the views of the hon. Gentleman in mind but he will accept that there is the problem that we do not want to see the broadcasting authorities for perhaps a third or a half of their lives subject to an inquiry.

Mr. Proudfoot

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations upon freeing television hours? Is he aware that it was always a stupid piece of nonsense designed to protect the B.B.C. monopoly? May I further ask him to pledge that the fourth television channel will never be B.B.C.3?

Mr. Chataway

I think it very unlikely that that proposal would be made. It has not been made. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said.

Mr. Pavitt

In the light of the right hon. Gentleman's constructive remarks about television and education will he do two things? First, will he persuade the Government to give the green light to my Bill on health education television which will come up later in the Session; and, secondly, will he attend the House on 18th February and lend his powerful voice in support of the effort to make preventive medicine instead of curative medicine part of the problems dealt with by the mass media?

Mr. Chataway

That would be a matter either for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services or the Governors of the B.B.C. But I will consider the invitation which the hon. Gentleman has extended to me.

Mr. Whitehead

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, while the first part of his statement will be generally welcomed, there is a ferment in the media and broadcasting generally which should be translated into a public inquiry as soon as possible? On the second part of his statement, does he accept that, while the general derestriction of hours will be welcomed, particularly by the smaller commercial companies which have a limited franchise, his Department should give an undertaking that the hours allocated to educational broadcasting will remain roughly the same as they are at the moment and that educational broadcasting will not be pushed to one side?

Mr. Chataway

The Independent Television Authority has already made it clear to me that it does not intend to reduce the quantity of schools broadcasting.

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