§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
I wish to raise the subject of the BBC's local and overseas radio services. I appreciate that it may be inconvenient to some people—particularly to the Government Front Bench—because these two subjects fall within the scope of two different Departments, the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This administrative inconvenience could be got rid of by the restoration of the post of Minister for Broadcasting, which I am not advocating.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding the difficulties that could arise, I feel that it is right that local and overseas radio services should be debated simultaneously, because the three facets of sound broadcasting—local, national and overseas—emanate from the same source—the BBC. It is important to recognise that each of the three facets provides interconnection and technical and material support for the other two. Therefore, a debate on these two aspects—local and overseas radio services—is not entirely inappropriate.
First, I should like to express some views on the Annan Report in so far as it concerns local radio services. This matter was discussed in the House on 23rd May. The House will recall that the Annan Committee was forbidden by its terms of reference to deal with BBC external services. They were outside its scope of reference. All that the Committee could do was to take cognisance of that fact. Due to the shortage of time and because I was not fortunate in catching Mr. Speaker's eye, I did not take part in that debate.
BBC Radio Leicester was the first local BBC radio station to be established, and it has been the pioneer of local broadcasting. 596 Those of us who have been associated with local radio for nine or 10 years have built up a case history of its operation. We have formed our own judgments without having the benefit of a report such as that produced by Lord Annan and without being told what to think. We have lived with local radio in Leicester and we have formed our own opinions, as have our constituents.
A few months ago, hon. Members representing the City and County of Leicester and Rutland formed an all-party committee to consider the Annan Report and its implications for BBC Radio Leicester. Many letters were received and most praised the rôle that BBC Radio Leicester is playing, not only in entertainment value but in its valuable social work.
I remind the House that Leicester has a large immigrant population. This has been a problem, and it still is at times. Several of the letters that we received stressed the value of the work that BBC Radio Leicester is doing in community relations, which is a special and difficult area. Several letters stressed with real force what the radio station has been and is doing to unify the communities which comprise many thousands of people from different ethnic backgrounds.
I shall mention some of the most important letters. One came from the Leicester Diocesan Youth Committee, which expressed full support for local radio as it is at present constituted. It stressed the value of the work that BBC Radio Leicester is doing to provide important access to the air to the community and the youth services in Leicester city and county.
The Oadby and Wigston Borough Council unreservedly supported BBC Radio Leicester. It wished to see the continuation of community radio as it has been established by BBC Radio Leicester. The importance of community work was the theme and thread which went through all these letters.
The National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs of Great Britain and Northern Ireland wrote to me supporting the efforts of BBC Radio Leicester. It not only stressed the work of the radio station on community relations but said that BBC Radio Leicester was an essential part of contemporary society in Leicester today.
597 There were many other letters to which I shall not refer in detail. They included a significant letter expressing unanimous support from the Leicestershire Association of Parish Councils and others from the Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and the Harborough District Council.
Many criticisms—most of them unfounded—are made of local radio stations. These criticisms have been made in particular about BBC local stations and they refer to the content of the advisory boards which administer the stations. Each BBC local radio station has a local broadcasting council. Some critics say that these councils consist of middle-aged people with middle-class backgrounds who are out of touch with reality.
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
I thought it might be helpful for the House to know that the view expressed by the hon. Member who sits for a county seat and with whom it is a pleasure to disagree on many other matters, is a view that is universally held by those of us who represent Leicester city constituencies. The unanimous response of the public is that they feel the same way. We are grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for raising this matter. We feel exactly as he does. BBC Radio Leicester has avoided becoming a monopoly of the media and public comment. We should like to commend the hon. Member for Harborough.
§ Mr. Farr
I am grateful for that intervention, but I have only just begun my speech. The hon. and learned Member for Leciester, West (Mr. Janner) has committed himself to supporting me. I only hope that I can live up to his expectations. If I cannot, I hope that he has an opportunity to retract his support later.
Criticisms have been made about the format of local broadcasting councils. They have been said to comprise fuddy-duddies who are out of touch with reality. BBC Radio Leicester has a typical local broadcasting council consisting of 17 member. Some of them may be middle class but I thought that we lived in a classless society. Some of them are definitely middle-aged, but there is an enterprising blend of youth and occupations 598 from all walks of life. I find this refreshing.
A number of the members of the council are in their twenties. Mrs. Root is a housewife in her late twenties. She is married to a train driver, I hasten to add. Mrs. Burnside has two young boys and is a supervisor in the hosiery industry. She is a member of a co-operative young wives' group and is also in her late twenties. Mr. Ramon Patel is about 35 and married, with two children. He was born in India. Mr. Douglas Burton is aged 55 and is married, with two daughters and one son. He is a toolmaker and an active trade unionist. There are also a number of members of the council who own small businesses. Mrs. Cook is married, with two sons and she and her husband run a small knitted fabric firm in Sileby. The Council contains representatives of the Church, of education and of the local authorities. I should have thought that that was an admirable blend.
I stress that in Leicester the general opinion of ordinary people, not just of politicians, is that in BBC Radio Leicester we have a good thing. It is an institution that has served the community very well and has provided a service of news, information and entertainment which is popular with its audience. It makes a genuine contribution to democratic, social and cultural life. It is entirely independent. Its programme content is not influenced by considerations of advertisers. Because it does not rely on advertising revenue, it does not need to maximise its programmes in favour of pop music, and it can cater more for speech programmes and for minority interests. It is efficient, because it shares its service with the national network with mutual benefit to both branches of the Corporation.
BBC Radio Leicester uses the BBC for training, for financial processing and for legal advice. National radio in turn benefits from Radio Leicester's news-gathering operation. It is not an expensive service. It and the other 19 local BBC radio stations cost the licence payer about 38p a year. The local station benefits from the BBC's long tradition of independence from political manipulation and outside control. Both performers and staff benefit from opportunities offered by an organisation as wide and diverse as the BBC.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)
Before the hon. Member moves on from the virtues of Radio Leicester, will he accept that the reputation of that station has been greatly enhanced by the decision of its manager to advertise, with other people, his belief in the need for good community relations? Will he compare that with the apparently conflicting view of those who operate Radio Bristol in bringing about disciplinary action on one of their reporters, Mr. Julian Dunn, who sought recently to protest against the activities of the National Front and who now seems to be suffering the consequences of that at the hands of those who control Radio Bristol? Is that not in sharp contrast to the recent actions of those who control Radio Leicester?
§ Mr. Farr
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I cannot speak for Radio Bristol, but I can speak for Radio Leicester, since I am a regular listener. I believe that its conduct on this and other matters of social responsibility has been exemplary.
I was dealing with some of the benefits that Radio Leicester has bestowed on the neighbourhood. Local radio is a form of devolution, and, whether or not we like it, devolution is in the air today in many forms. It could be said that local radio was a form of devolution which provided a service drawn from the grass roots for the benefit of local people, which is undoubtedly what the local people want.
These conclusions lead me totally to reject recommendation 20, on page 476 of the Annan Report. My personal experience tells me that the Annan Report has got it quite wrong. It advocates the establishment of a new local broadcasting authority which I and many other people believe would be a wasteful, unnecessary and undesirable duplication of services.
The other facet that I wish to raise concerns the BBC's overseas services. I am aware of the recent publication of the review of overseas representation. It is fortunate that we are having a debate on this subject tonight because this is the first opportunity that the House will have of expressing opinion on the CPRS Report as it affects overseas representation and external broadcasting.
The document is impressive in size and its recommendations, in paragraph 13.7, 600 on pages 226, 227 and 229, are most interesting. But the most important aspect to me are the tables on pages 226 and 227, giving total programme hours. It is interesting that since 1950 the BBC has declined in the external broadcasting league from first place, with 643 hours per week, to fifth place, now, with only 719 hours per week, a marginal increase for the BBC compared with massive increases by other countries. The top two nations in 1975 were the United States and Russia, each with over 2,000 hours per week, to fifth place now, with only formed since 1950. The other nations in the top 10 include Egypt and Albania, which have increased their external broadcasting from virtually nothing in 1950 to very close to our figure today. That trend indicates that by 1980 we shall have slipped further down the table.
Another point in the CPRS Report relates to audibility, which is dealt with on page 229, paragraph 13.17. The recommendations in paragraph 13.19 contain a list of projects which are described as essential or desirable to be put in hand at an early date. Paragraph 13.21 contains a number of alternatives, of which one is that the present coverage of BBC external broadcasting should be maintained. I cannot understand—here I disagree with the final recommendations in the document—why no consideration was given to expanding broadcasting time abroad. When it conducted the review the CPRS had four alternatives of possible action. None of these included the possibility that total external broadcasting hours should be increased.
I should have thought that with English becoming more and more the language of world discussion and with nearly all the nations of the world rapidly increasing their own external broadcasts, one of the options that should have been considered was the possibility of an increase, if only limited, in BBC external services.
I believe that the BBC World Service is generally valued and respected wherever it is heard abroad. It is the voice of Britain abroad, which many millions throughout the world are anxious to hear, either in English or in some other tongue. To millions—and by no means only those of British origin—it is the voice of common sense, moderation and impartiality, and they are anxious to hear it. It is 601 a universally respected voice, even by our competitors abroad. The content of the BBC World Service—I have listened to it abroad a good many times—is generally unrivalled. The trouble is that it is no longer a powerful voice which can be listened to without unreasonable difficulty abroad.
For the last two or three years, when travelling abroad, I have taken in my luggage a quite powerful British-made Hacker short-wave radio. It has often caused considerable difficulties with weight restrictions at airports. That radio should be able to get me the BBC World Service more or less wherever I am in the world. It is probably as good a radio as, or a better radio than, any which would be available in the country in which I am using it to listen to the BBC. Yet, even with this first-class radio, I have on many occasions had great difficulty in getting reasonable reception.
Last year, for example, I took my Hacker short-wave radio to the eastern coast of Canada, where I tuned in whenever I could to the BBC news broadcasts. They were not broadcasts that one could guarantee to receive and if one is unable to receive a news broadcast regularly at a certain hour there is a tendency to lose interest in the station transmitting it. In this instance the difficulty was not so much that of static but rather because it was crowded out by more powerful and closely adjacent foreign stations.
When I was in the Far East this year I kept a log of my efforts to listen to the World Service of the BBC in places such as Korea and Hong Kong. On quite a number of occasions I had to note in my log that on the three shortwave bands in which the BBC World Service was broadcasting to that part of the world, reception was either almost totally inaudible or of very poor quality. When those conditions arise, a listener, however devoted he may be to hearing the excellent quality of the BBC World Service, will not bother to try to get it, if, for reasons beyond the BBC's control, there are other foreign stations broadcasting on wavelengths very close to those of the BBC, causing reception to be bad.
602 Other countries in which reception should, I thought, have been better, are Iceland and Israel. I kept a log when I was in those countries.
Very often the BBC World Service is inaudible to listeners abroad, and we have to face the fact that radio transmissions throughout the world, whether local, national or overseas, are becoming more competitive. New nations with new radio stations are crowding the ether, and chaos is resulting. I hope that the Minister, will be able to tell us why we cannot strengthen the voice of the BBC World Service in its transmissions overseas and why we cannot broadcast on more frequencies instead of the two or three which operate at present. Those who, like myself, want to hear the BBC World Service, would then be able to switch to another wavelength which was free of interference in time of need.
In our national BBC services could we not strengthen our transmissions, particularly after dark? Why must we still have an early close-down of BBC national services? After quite an early hour, if one wants a transmission in English, it is necessary to tune in to Radio Luxembourg. Why is it that after dark in the Midlands foreign Continental transmissions can be received more clearly than those of the BBC?
Finally, why cannot greater use be made of VHF for local transmissions? Why is it that in Britain only 25 per cent. of the VHF band is used for radio transmissions and 75 per cent. for police and local authorities work, whereas in most other countries the reverse is the case?
I am well aware that in the debate on the Annan Report on 23rd May the Home Secretary said that the period for consultation in relation to the future of broadcasting was due to end at the beginning of July. I hope that the White Paper or the Green Paper, which the right hon. Gentleman is understood to be preparing, will take account of what is said in the debate tonight.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
I will not follow the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) to any great extent on the first part of his speech. Indeed, his speech was to some extent 603 a pantomime horse. The first part galloped across the stage in the measured tones of BBC local radio, documented carefully and precisely, and interrupted occasionally by shrill squeals of pleasure from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), who is obviously not aware of the fact that our debates are not yet being broadcast on the radio. Everything that the hon. Gentleman said in the first half of his speech may well be true of Radio Leicester, and I shall say a word or two about that in a moment. The latter half of the pantomime horse kicked out rather vigorously and, I thought, with some effect. I agreed with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman said.
I want to devote the burden of my few remarks largely to the report of the Central Policy Review Staff—the so-called Think Tank—and to the dangers that lie in this line of approach to our external services.
Wherever in the world we are situated—and I include the so-called free societies, the pluralist democracies, of Western Europe—broadcasters, because they are operating at the sharp end of the communications spectrum, are constantly under threat. What they do is a matter of controversy. Controversies within society, where the consensus is fractured, as well as controversies between States, inevitably tend to become also controversies and disputes within broadcasting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) referred to the producer who had been disciplined by Radio Bristol, and he may raise that matter later in the debate. It gave rise to serious concern, since few of us expect the broadcasting media in this country, the public authorities in particular, to take the posture that they are neutrals between the racialist and the anti-racialist. I shall not stray beyond the rules of order, but we have seen another example today in the vexed area of race relations. We have seen the great Tate and Lyle consortium going to the High Court to get an injunction to take off the air Mr. Anthony Thomas's documentary programme about South Africa. When a corporation can spend that kind of money on propaganda to discredit a programme and produce affidavits secured in the circumstances in which they were—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
Order. The hon. Gentleman will recall the rules governing sub judice.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not continue about this matter. But I remind the House that the broadcaster is always under threat and the injunction that has taken that programme off the air should remind us of that fact.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With respect, I feel that one ought to question the application of the general rule on sub judice merely because someone has applied for an injunction. That certainly would be a serious extension of the rule which is always applied by Mr. Speaker. I do not know whether my hon. Friend wants to pursue this matter, but I certainly would not accept that for the rest of this debate this case must be ruled out because someone has applied for an injunction.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
It may be that what the hon. Gentleman said is correct. But once the date of the hearing has been set, the case becomes sub judice.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall withdraw my remarks, because I understand that the injunction has been granted by the court. I shall not continue to discuss it today. I am sure that the House will have an opportunity on another occasion to do so.
I want to revert to the subject of this debate, namely, the BBC service. I want to say a brief word about the Annan Report in relation to local radio. What the Annan Report actually said about local radio and what it is supposed to have said in the mouths of some of its detractors are rather different matters. The report was particularly concerned with two problems of local radio, given that many excellent services have been initiated by the BBC.
The first was the problem of cost and of licensing—not necessarily being able to stretch in times of high inflation to cover all the services which the BBC was endeavouring to cover.
The second consideration before us was the need to allow the development within local radio—this cheap, exciting, 605 novel, flexible medium—of new methods of community radio. We thought that the great duopoly of the BBC and the commercial broadcasting organisation was not capable of doing that. That is why we wanted a new organisation to do it. That is why we thought and hoped that BBC local services would be absorbed in that and that non-profit-making trusts would be running the kind of station that we now have in Radio Leicester.
All those admirable people mentioned by the hon. Member for Harborough would then not be involved merely as a sort of advisory body brought in from time to time to give their view about programmes, but could be directly involved as a body running the station as a nonprofit-making trust. That was the idea that Annan floated, and I believe that it is worth considering and taking further. I hope that the BBC, locally and nationally, will also consider giving it a run and will consider the possibility of affiliate status for some of its existing programmes.
One thing that my hon. Friend should say to the House when replying to the debate relates to cost. This concerns the BBC licence fee. At the moment the BBC is in a position where the licence fee is effectively becoming a kind of annual subvention. If the BBC could plan triennially or quinquennially, it would have a measure of independence.
I started on the Annan Committee as an opponent of the licence fee. I believed that the time would probably come when it would be replaced by a grant in aid. I accepted that it was regarded by many people as unfair and that it was unpopular with many of our constituents. I believed that we should come clean about this.
But among many people there is the belief that the licence fee gives independence. Sometimes when something is believed to be of such importance it becomes a fact. But if the BBC is now on such short commons that it has to go from year to year with the Home Office setting the licence fee, where is the independence? Where is the possibility of the BBC continuing to run the whole range of services which it does at the moment? If it is probable, therefore, 606 that the BBC cannot run all these services in the future, it may be that local radio is one area that we should set free to be run by a different kind of authority and financed in other ways. That is all I wish to say about local radio.
I turn to the CPRS Report. I have probably been set up already as a member of the Annan Committee, and I am known to hon. Members here as someone who is not an uncritical admirer of the BBC, although I am a firm and passionate believer in public service broadcasting. I hope that it will come very strongly from me today to my hon. Friend and to officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when I say that I regard much of what is in the CPRS Report as mischievous in terms of the effect that it will have upon BBC coverage abroad.
This is where I come squarely to agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Harborough. The CPRS Report asked a number of questions, and I think that we should pose them back at the CPRS. Is it right that we should not broadcast to those who now have free societies—in other words, to the democracies of Western Europe? Is it right that we should be broadcasting news services rather than an impression of Britain and British culture? Is it right to broadcast to some of these areas for only a few hours each day and, more importantly to stop completely for eight hours at a time out of the 24?
All these matters are what the CPRS comes round to recommending, and it recommends them at a saving of about 10 per cent. in costs for the services but at a cost of about 40 per cent. of the overall services of the BBC externally.
I am sure that hon. Members will agree that a slashing of 40 pe cent. of the services of the BBC externally would be a serious blow to the country. It is not a matter of the BBC and its reputation, It is the fact that world-wide these services have a high reputation. They are listened to by audiences running into millions. They rely on round-the-clock reliability in terms of the presence of the service as well as the nature of the transmissions.
I accept the weaknesses referred to by the hon. Member for Harborough about short-wave transmissions. It is a factor which is built into them because shortwave 607 transmission is unreliable unless one is careful with it. But the presence of the service round the clock is greatly apprecited by millions of people. It is a very good national investment and one that we should keep. We should not think of cutting back on it in the way suggested in this report.
I want to deal with one or two sentences in the report. It says that too much of the output of the services is in English. We know something of the English services because many hon. Members tune in to them. They find the broadcasts of the external services of the BBC dispassionate, fair, detailed and, in some respects at least, competing with and possibly occasionally superior to the domestic services. So that we can speak as "domestic consumers" about the success of the English language service. But the CPRS says that there is too much of this.
The CPRS also says that we are broadcasting too much not only in English but in the vernacular to the developed free world and that, Heaven help us, 13 per cent. of the output of the BBC in the vernacular is transmitted to non-Communist countries in Europe. It suggests that we should scale that down a bit. It says:It has been put to us that not all countries in non-Communist Europe are completely stable politically and for that reason the BBC should continue to broadcast to some of these countries. We do not accept this argument. We doubt whether the BBC has any influence on the political development of these countries and that if they did fall prey to political extremism it would not be difficult for the BBC to resume broadcasting to them.I want to quarrel with that on at least three grounds. I take the example of just one country, Portugal. We know that broadcasts in Portuguese are important in Portugal because of the arguments which have been going on in the Portuguese service about the nature of what is being broadcast, and that reflects adequately the measure of the interest that there is in Portugal.
Portugal, acording to the CPRS recommendation, would be deprived, as would Spain, of the evening transmission. That transmission would be scrapped. The overall burden of the report is that services to Spain and Portugal should be greatly reduced.
Suppose that happens in the present state of Portugal; the Government have 608 fallen and there is a danger now—I do not want to exaggerate—of some kind of backlash by the extreme Right, whose forces are still active. Equally, there is a possibility of totalitarianism from the Left. It is possible that Portugal will dissolve into some kind of chaos in the near future.
Likewise, democracy in Spain is in its infancy, and it faces severe provocations and problems. If the worst happens in those countries—and I pray that it will not—is the CPRS really serious in saying that it would not be difficult to resume broadcasting? Does it know what is involved in recruiting broadcasters to get the service together? It is not something that one can turn on and off like a tap. In a successful service there is a cadre of experienced broadcasters, and it takes years to train people to that standard.
The CPRS approach is too frivolous when one considers the influence of news broadcasts to these parts of the world. The BBC is widely and highly regarded in Spain and Portugal. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) has been to Spain for the Council of Europe and he will bear out my opinion.
§ Mr. Farr
As the hon. Member knows, there is a whole host of countries in Western Europe where democracy is balanced on a knife edge. Greece and Turkey are examples. I think that it is utterly deplorable to consider abandoning broadcasting services because there is a form of rapport that broadcasters establish with an audience, and that cannot be turned off like a tap and then switched on again the next day. The hon. Member knows that better than I do.
§ Mr. Whitehead
That is the point that I have been trying to make in my halting way.
The upheaval within Bush House when a service in the vernacular is to be stopped is extraordinary. I worked at Bush House in the early 1960s and we were told that the Thai service was to be stopped. A few months later Foreign Office decisions were taken and we were asked to start the service again. But one cannot just get it started the next day. When democracy is balanced on a knife edge and the Government may fall, it is the next morning that the service is wanted, and had it been available in the 609 previous six months, democracy might not have toppled fatally off that knife edge.
The report goes on to say that it is not merely Western European services that should be cut back in this way, but that vernacular services should be looked at and weeded out—a winnowing out of languages. I mentioned the Thai service of some years ago. The report says that Tamil and Nepali services should be dropped. It regards the Tamil service as "marginal", yet it is listened to by 50 million people in more than one country on the Indian sub-continent. This service serves people in both the functioning democracies of what was the British Commonwealth of Asia—Sri Lanka and India. In Sri Lanka democracy has been maintained without a break, as it has in India with just one interregnum. To suggest that this service should be discontinued is frivolous.
Another service that the CPRS wants to drop is the Somali service. This reveals extraordinary maladroitness of timing—a characteristic of the report. The Somali broadcasts are crucial at the moment because of the war between Somalia and Ethiopia, and this area is the cockpit of Africa. The great Powers are involved and the régime itself is wavering in its opinions between the forces of the Western democracies and those of Eastern Europe.
It is suggested in the report that this service is marginal. Yet it is listened to by the Somali President himself and people all over Somalia. I think that the House requires from the Government tonight an assurance that in matters like this we shall not follow the CPRS.
The BBC's external services should be maintained. The argument that they can be cut by eight hours a day betrays sublime indifference to the clock. People are listening while getting up, having breakfast, or in the quiet of the evening, often in countries with tropical climates, at different times of the day. If Bush House goes off the air at 8 o'clock Greenwich Mean Time and goes on again an hour later, that does not mean that people in countries where it may be blazing noon will alter their living patterns and tune in to the one service that may be left to them. The dawn service in Arabic would 610 be removed. The evening service to the Iberian Peninsula, and our service to East Africa, which is not strong on the transmission front, would be scaled down. The voice of the BBC in a country such as Uganda is of the essence.
I regard these proposals as wholly unacceptable. I do not believe that we can allow the impression to go abroad that the Government are maintaining this part of the CPRS Report. The hon. Member for Harborough stole a line from me by referring to Radio Albania. The report says that we shall fall from fifth to seventh place. The fact is that we shall fall below Albania and North Korea in the league table of external broadcasting.
To reduce the BBC external services to below the levels of Radio Tirana would be the final insult to the finest external broadcasting service in the world. The Minister should either say himself or guarantee that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will say very soon that there is no intention whatever of agreeing with the kind of cuts recommended in the CPRS Report.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)
I thank the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for providing the opportunity for this debate. I believe that I was the first Member to have an Adjournment debate concerning local radio, in the late 1960s, in relation to Radio Leeds, which covers Bradford, in my constituency. Although Radio Leeds remains perhaps the best of all local radio stations. I have no doubt that Radio Leicester is also very effective.
However, the main burden of my remarks is not about local radio. I wish to address myself principally to the external services of the BBC. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), I am conscious of a curiosity here. Whereas internal services come under the Home Secretary, external services come under the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. I do not entirely see the justification for this. The BBC itself is independent and, as far as I am aware, it does not take detailed instructions from the Foreign Office. In the Labour Party we have a Home Affairs Group, of which I have the honour to be chairman. By decree of the parliamentary party, all broadcasting and 611 communications come under the Home Affairs Group.
We have the irony today that we have a Home Office Minister to reply to the debate, and the Labour Party Home Affairs Group is interested in it because it is supposed to be a home affairs matter, but the central issue affecting broadcasting today relates to external broadcasting, which comes under the aegis of the Foreign Office, and no Foreign Office Minister is present. There is a case to be investigated for the removal of external affairs broadcasting from the Foreign Office to the Home Office, little as I normally favour adding to the empire that already exists in the Home Office.
The reason why I want to talk about external affairs broadcasting is that I believe that perhaps the greatest work for truth and freedom in the world today comes from the BBC's external services. That is a very bold claim. However, against the background that, according to the International Press Institute, only 30 of 144 member nations of the United Nations permit complete freedom of information, a country such as ours which boasts of its freedom of information ought to step into the gap and supply the truth, supplying detached and impartial information about what is going on in the world to the other 114 nations which are not allowed by their Governments to have uninhibited freedom of information and impartial news.
That is a challenge which the external services of the BBC have largely taken up in the past. It is a great tribute to our country that we have financed the service which is doing that remarkable job.
To bear that out I refer to a letter which I recently had from the assistant to the Bishop of Karachi in Pakistan, who used to be Provost of Bradford Cathedral. He wrote to the Bishop of Bradford about the BBC external services, and the Bishop of Bradford passed the letter on to me. He had just heard the dire news that the Central Policy Review Staff document, the Berrill Report, was advocating cuts in the BBC overseas service. He wrote as an Englishman who had recently gone to Pakistan to work, and, talking about the disturbances in Pakistan in the earlier part of this year, he said: 612the BBC was the only agency to report the facts and was listened to by the vast majority in English and in Urdu.He went on to say that Mark Tully, the BBC's reporter in Pakistan at that time,was spoken of by all. He became almost a national hero".That was at a time when political leaders were in prison and people were, no doubt, hungry for a detached voice on which they could rely. That voice was provided by the BBC.
The writer of this letter makes a further plea for British expatriates living abroad, who, he says, if they were to be deprived of the BBC overseas service would beat the mercy of whoever controls the local radio in their countries".He says that in Pakistan, for example, there is no difficulty in receiving broadcasts from Radio Peking, from Russia and from other countries, but in PakistanWe listen to them for amusement and sometimes for serious comparison with reports from the BBC.Further, as an expatriate, he emphasises how British communities abroad enjoy such things as sports reports, cultural programmes, talks and so on. Plainly, he speaks for a large number of people abroad when he expresses the hope that Members of Parliament will stand up and object strenuously to any suggestion of cuts in the overseas services.
Recently, there was in this building a man who had just arrived from the Soviet Union, the distinguished Russian astrophysicist, Kronid Lubarsky. He and his wife had emerged from the Soviet Union, he was a dissident, and he had served time in prison. He came to this Palace as the guest of the parliamentary committee on human rights. When talking to us last month, he said that the great informer in the Soviet Union was the BBC. He told us how many people listened to it, and how important it was that that work should continue. That is an absolutely clear example given by a man who ought to know of the importance, to seekers after truth and to those who hold the lamp of freedom high, of the external services of the BBC.
We hear arguments in the House about military and air forces expenditure and so on, but the external service staff of the BBC is an army of a different kind. It is an army providing freedom of information with an air of detachment, seeking 613 simply to make people think and to tell them as even-handedly as possible what is happening in the world. That is the kind of army which we can all support and which requires extra expenditure. What is the sub stratum of the report of the CPRS? It is based on an assumption that no British Government will spend more but will want only to spend less, and given that cardinal assumption the committee looked around for cuts.
However, it will be a disgrace to the British Government and people if this extremely worthwhile job ceases. If people are denigrating British services more than ever now, in Britain and abroad,. there is one service that Britain provides abroad—the external service broadcast—that keeps Britain's name and reputation high. Dictator's apart, nobody says derogatory things about the BBC external service. It gives Britain a high reputation all over the world at a time when our reputation has crumbled or stands less high than it used to stand in certain areas. This is an area in which the Government should be prepared to spend money.
The extra sums of money involved are not great. However, it is no use having a splendid BBC external service broadcast if people cannot hear it and, as the report makes clear, fewer people can now hear what the BBC puts out—excellent though it may be—because our transmission equipment is no longer what it was. What will it cost to put it all into order and to modernise it in all the desirable ways? The answer is a once-and-for-all expenditure of £52 million. Whether one regards that as a lot or a little depends on the importance that one attaches to the external service broadcasts. In my view, a £52 million once-and-for-all expenditure to put our transmission equipment into first-class repair and to give it enormous extra power for the next 10 years is worth while.
What else is involved? The report says that it will involve a 79 per cent. annual increase in transmission costs. That sounds enormous, but when we investigate and find that the cost in 1975–76 was £3.9 million, we find that we are talking about approximately another £3 million a year being required to refurbish and repower the entire machine in terms of getting people to hear it.
614 The service does so crucially important a job for freedom, tolerance and truth that the Government should find the money. We do not need reports working on the basis that the Government and Parliament are so narrow in their view and so short-sighted that they must be looking for cuts. There must be no cuts in this area.
It is interesting that in Saudi Arabia 73 per cent. of the population listen to the BBC. In Thailand, which is close to China, the audience for the BBC external service is 50 per cent. higher than that for Radio Peking. Where else does a Western European Power have that kind of access and influence? What sort of impression does the service make on the Saudi Arabians, the Thais, and even people in this country? It affects the products that they buy because they say that we are honest people and trying to be fair, and so must be a good country—and that not only the country but the products must be good. They believe that our institutions are worth copying because this is the sort of radio service that we produce Accordingly, if we are interested in human rights and in spreading honest information, we have to support the external services of the BBC.
§ Mr. Madden
Apart from the reasons that my hon. and learned Friend has put forward, even in crude commercial terms the costs which he has postulated are peanuts compared with the cost of advertising which would presumably be necessary if the external services were abandoned in the way that my hon. and learned Friend fears and many of us would strongly resist.
§ Mr. Lyons
I agree. In view of the poor effect and quality of the advertising of British commerce, when we have a ready-made weapon of this kind we should use it. Furthermore, the report concedes that an increasing amount of air time is used to spread the word about British products. The BBC is consciously seeking to arouse interest overseas, through its radio programmes, in British products, and this is a very good thing.
The report says that we should slash the number of hours of broadcasting and manage with eight instead of 24. We do not have the times of foreign radio stations. The Radio Times does not give their times of broadcasting. Consequently, one takes a chance. If I turn 615 on the radio and that station is not broadcasting, I get fed up, and when it is broadcasting two hours later I am either listening to something else or not listening at all. I accept what the report does not accept, namely, that we have to have 24-hour broadcasting or broadcasting for a very long period. If the broadcasting time is cut by two-thirds, the BBC will lose not two-thirds of its audience, but seven-eighths. It would be interesting to have figures on what happens when such a situation occurs.
The burden of my argument is that the tradition and high quality of BBC broadcasts must be maintained at all costs. Even to those who see the world in terms of a cold war this must make sense. The sort of honest broadcasting done by the BBC is worth a division of soldiers in propagating the cause of freedom and parliamentary institutions such as those that we have.
I do not believe that we have an obligation to broadcast the truth solely to Communist countries. This is another underlying characteristic of the report. If we believe in democracy, we should spread the truth and the habit of thinking independently to dictatorships of any kind. The idea in the report that we have to broadcast only to Communist dictatorships is ridiculous. I agree that we should broadcast to these dictatorships, but we should also broadcast to dictatorships of all stripes and teach them the habit of critical thinking.
I am sorry that I have gone on for so long. There are other matters that I should like to touch on, for example, the timidity of the BBC in relation to the Labour Party's National Front broadcast. I agree with the News of the World that the BBC could have taken its courage in its hands and allowed references to the previous criminal convictions of people who put themselves before the public as important political figures asking for public support.
I am not saying that the BBC domestically is free from complaint. I remember a programme called "Open Door" when the BBC gave a party political platform to a front organisation for the National Front for half an hour of unadulterated National Front propaganda
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
Order. I have to draw the hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to the fact that what he is now discussing is out of order, because he is now dealing with the National Front and what we are dealing with is BBC local and overseas radio services.
§ Mr. Lyons
I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall depart from that point.
None the less, having made those points about the BBC, perhaps I may say that for all its services it requires more money. I believe that it is difficult for the BBC to manage on the licence fee, some of which goes to local radio. External broadcasting, I ought to say, is not financed out of the licence fee, to the best of my knowledge, but comes from a Foreign Office allocation, so it is rather a different matter. But certainly the BBC needs more money.
The fact that I have just criticised the BBC does not mean that overall I do not think that it does a good job. I think that it does a good job, that it ought to be encouraged and that we ought to see that it has the money to do the job.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
I should like, first, to put on record my gratitude to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for initiating the debate. I am sure that other hon. Members appreciate his action in doing so. He has just left the Chamber for a moment, but he has listened to all of it up to just now. He opened the debate with a most interesting survey of his two subjects. It is fortunate, and a matter of good luck for all of us, that this should have been the first subject in the Ballot, because we are, indeed, dealing with a most important subject.
Secondly, although I am normally very quick to request the presence of a Foreign Office Minister, I am not the least bit disappointed that the Minister of State, Home Office is representing the Government on the Treasury Bench this evening. 617 Although I intend to address my contribution mainly to the subject of the overseas services of the BBC, I profoundly believe that this matter does not affect the Foreign Office alone; it concerns the whole Government. Where the interests of the whole Government are concerned, I am perfectly satisfied that the Minister of State is well capable of looking after those general interests, so everything that we say to him on this subject is directed to the proper source.
I also think that the Home Office, being in a crucial position in respect of our broadcasting services, must be interested in some of the aspects of the work that the BBC does, even though the funds for the external services are supplied by the Foreign Office.
Before I come to the part that I want to concentrate on, I should like to follow the hon. Member for Harborough in his own sequence of events in saying something about local radio services. The excellence of the Leicester radio station is known well beyond the confines of the city of Leicester and its environs. I listened with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman had to say about his own local radio station, but it is well known that Sheffield also has a local radio station. Indeed, it is one of good quality. As far as I am able to follow the London services, I think that the variety introduced into London broadcasting by the BBC local radio station has been of great value in recent years and has made a very important contribution.
Although the hon. Gentleman naturally concentrated a great deal of what he had to say on the excellence of the station in Leicester, I think that perhaps in various degrees what he said can be applied to many of the other stations. I particularly stress one point made by the hon. Gentleman when he said that as the Leicester BBC station was not dependent upon advertising revenue, it did not have to spend so many long hours broadcasting merely popular music; it could concentrate more on the spoken word.
We should not accept from the BBC—indeed, it is not guilty of this fault—or from the commercial radio stations the easy, facile argument that because many people want to listen to pop records 24 hours a day that justifies a public body 618 being given power to broadcast those pop programmes under licence approved by the Government and this House, because that is the easiest way of making money or attracting listeners.
Together with a number of other hon. Members I recently attended a meeting organised by commercial radio owners. The meeting was held under a propaganda slogan "A public service without having to pay for it". When we asked questions after seeing a propaganda film, we were asked "Who are you to argue if people want to listen to pop music all the time? If they want it, we shall give it to them". That argument would justify almost anything being put out on the radio.
It is important that local radio stations emanating from the BBC should be sufficiently well-equipped and financed not to have to compete with any other station either to provide the cheapest possible service—because in this case cheapest is not best—or to have to show enormous listening figures to achieve their ends. The kind of policy that I should like to see the Government applying to these stations would give precedence to the representation of local culture and interests. Local interests are important, because they express local culture. For example, I think that we have a right to expect, on local radio in Sheffield, special broadcasts dealing with the major economic interests of the region. I should like to see the appointment of a specialist on the steel industry to broadcast on Radio Sheffield. Therefore, on a Monday morning we would hear not only snippets of local news but information from somebody well-versed in the steel industry. Furthermore, a similar expert could be provided in a coal area or a textile area—a man who was familiar with the local industry.
The general question "Do you want to have more and more people on the radio talking about local literature and local songs?" is designed to belittle the demand for broadcasts of local importance. I believe that people want to hear about local matters which are of cultural interest to them, and activities connected with local cultural events. The change would not happen overnight, but as time went on we would be able to build up local broadcasting services that would 619 reflect the great industrial traditions of the United Kingdom.
I need not labour the point, because I know that it will commend itself to the Minister. I believe that these matters should be developed and that the BBC should be entitled to call for additional funds to support them. I do not go along with the complaint by the BBC that the Government are unreasonably restricting services because of agreements about licence fees for a limited period.
I have a certain understanding for the Government's attitude. I think it can be justified. Of course, it is natural that the BBC should want to have a five-year or 10-year programme. In the longer run that would be desirable. On the other hand, we must consider the timetable that is ahead of us. I can see the Government properly justifying this temporary decision. I expect that the Minister will tell us that there were practical time reasons for the decision. I should not be especially upset to go along with that. However, I do not think that I should be satisfied if the Government advanced temporary reasons and did not at the same time tell us that they had a long-term policy that would enable the BBC to feel secure to develop services over a longer period. The Director-General is right to say that such extensions and general policies cannot be planned on a 12-month period alone.
I turn to the external services. I must begin with a confession. The chairman of the body that produced the report, Sir Kenneth Berrill, was with me at college. I have known him all my life, but I hasten to add that I had no influence on him at any time when we were together. He was a year ahead of me. He was extremely brilliant. He was the outstanding scholar in his year. Far from my influencing him, if anything he influenced me. However, I am surprised at some of the conclusions in the report.
I hope that the impression will not be created that the chairman of the inquiry is a narrow-minded man. He is anything but that. As is well known, he is a man of the widest possible culture and knowledge. He is one of the most brilliant men in our public life. He has a great many interests that would shut out any narrowness in his concepts. There must be special reasons within the recesses of the inquiry and the team with whom he 620 worked that produced some of the conclusions that I think are astonishing.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am profoundly dissatisfied with some of the report's conclusions. I do not want to add very much to the details that we have heard already as they have been so excellently introduced. They were introduced by the hon. Member for Harborough and taken up by my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), who is a considerable specialist on these matters.
I point out to my hon. Friend the Minister of State some of the considerations that must apply. I fear that on occasions it might be possible for the Government to be somewhat misled by mere audience research. In dealing with the effect of the external services, I commend to my hon. Friend the proposition that absolute figures should not be decisive. In many cases it is not merely a matter of numbers—it is not a simple transfer of an audience figure in this country for domestic services to an audience figure somewhere else.
I have often found that whatever the total number of listeners in a foreign country to the external services of the BBC, the composition of those who listen regularly includes a large percentage of the opinion-makers in that country. That has been my invariable experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North referred to the visit that I made to Spain earlier this year to write a report on the Spanish political situation. I do not know the total number who listen to the BBC services in Spain—the Government probably have the figure—but among the listeners are a number who occupy significant positions. As I was about to write a political report I met a great many of them in all political parties and in many sections of the local population.
I found that the percentage of listeners in significant opinion-making positions in Spain was extremely high among those who listen to the BBC services. That is the first point—that mere figures cannot be decisive.
Secondly, I want to make a special plea for services in the English language. The considerations in favour of using the English language have not been properly 621 stressed in the report. It must be realised that we are talking not about propaganda for English. But France has a budget to advance the French language. That budget is higher than the total budget of the BBC's external services and is much higher than the £52 million mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North. By the decision of the French Cabinet, often under the personal leadership of the President of the Republic of France, large sums are spent on furthering interest in the French language. I am talking not about that kind of policy, although it could be justified, but about something more indirect but at the same time enormously important.
Large numbers of people in practically every country, no matter what its internal régime, look to broadcasts in English not only as a guide to news, which is the main purpose of the BBC's external services, but as a means of acquiring proficiency in the English language. We are therefore achieving two purposes. I am referring not to the quarter-of-an-hour English by radio on the BBC's external services but to the total output in English that is used consciously by people in all walks of life to acquire proficiency in the English language. It need not be argued that that is to the good. Indeed, it goes beyond that.
My third proposition, which I commend to the Minister, should gain support from the Secretary of State for Trade. Business men often find it easier to conduct business in a language that they understand. That is a matter of fact. Many British firms—in many cases somewhat belatedly—are now employing people who can speak foreign languages. In years past many firms were not keen on doing that. We now see the process in reverse. People who have acquired proficiency in the English language, partly by English by radio and partly by listening to the BBC's external programmes, supplemented perhaps by a local course in English, often find it easier to do business in the English language.
This matter is imponderable in many ways. It cannot be measured directly. There are no facts and figures at the end of each year. But, taking one year with another, I am convinced that it is an important factor and that it will repay further expenditure.
622 I could add to those practical reasons other reasons of equal importance why the BBC's external services ought to be extended.
§ Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)
I am sure that my hon. Friend would also wish to stress that, following the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, some countries, particularly the USSR, ceased jamming the BBC's overseas broadcasts. Therefore, the number of people who listen to this service will increase in years to come. That is another reason why we must strengthen that aspect of the BBC's work.
§ Mr. Mendelson
I fully agree with my hon. Friend, I have not adduced any particular foreign policy reasons—although they are tremendously important and directly relevant to the Foreign Secretary's budget—because I wanted to concentrate on aspects which are not often mentioned, and those aspects go beyond departmental interest. However, I am pleased that my hon. Friend made that intervention. Anyone looking at the international scene will know that a great deal of the work that has been done in the post-Helsinki period has been in English. People have been listening to the broadcasts on the decision of the Final Act and its interpretation. Many fruitful developments which have taken place and been encouraged by the Government and the people of this country are due largely to their having become known in the first place by English language broadcasts.
I turn to the question of broadcasting in other languages. The report has serious shortcomings. It is far too rigid to say that we should broadcast only to Communist countries and to developing countries, with certain exceptions. The report says that it does not make much sense to broadcast to countries with a properly developed democratic régime. That is a short-sighted and narrow view.
As a constant visitor to France, I found it astonishing that during the early years of the Gaullist régime, over a period of about 12 years, all radio and television opinion that was not approved by the Gaullists in France hardly got a look in. There was a major strike by French television and radio reporters which lasted over three weeks and which had a lot to do with the censorship of those who did not agree with the régime. During that period, people were very interested 623 in BBC broadcasting. I did not believe the situation at first, so I checked it. It was not as if there was no informed opinion in France. Of course there was—one heard it on the boulevards. Everyone knew what was going on, and there was nothing that the BBC could tell the French that they did not know already. People knew what was going on, but they could not broadcast because the authorities would not let them.
It is short-sighted to say that because a country has a democratic system there should be no BBC broadcasts. When I visited the Federal German Republic during the recent terrorist incidents, I found that people were quoting to each other the opinion of the BBC on the situation. That was less astonishing but it was interesting and worth while.
We know that this country has its financial problems and that choices have to be made, but I hope, in view of the arguments that have been advanced tonight and that are being advanced in the country and abroad by many well-informed people, that we shall find in the Home Office a firm friend of the BBC's external services. I hope that we can count on the support of the Home Office, in co-operation with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in persuading the Cabinet not only to retain these services but to extend them.
§ 9.29 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)
The Consolidated Fund Bill traditionally is the way in which hon. Members draw attention to particular problems. It is customary and almost unvarying for the Minister to start with a phrase expressing how glad he is that the matter has been raised and what a great service the hon. Member concerned has done. My trouble tonight is to convey by nuances that I am not taking a conventional attitude. The debate has been most valuable and interesting.
I regret that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) is not in the Chamber to hear the beginning of my reply. No other Opposition Member is in the Chamber. That creates a difficulty because if I turn to face my hon. Friends behind me I shall be in trouble with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But 624 the aspect would be less wooden, or less leather, than it is because I have to face the front.
The debate has divided itself into two very distinct facets of the problems of the services provided by the BBC. I believe that the balance could have tilted the other way in consideration of this problem. But I do not disagree with, and nor do I quarrel with, the emphasis put on the world services of the BBC, and I start my speech by dealing with that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) says, though the responsibility is that of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, this is a matter of complete Government responsibility and it is of concern to the whole Government. Since we are dealing with our subjective impressions of the external services, may I say that the thing I like about those services when I hear them is the way in which they put British news and the place of Britain in the world into proper perspective? When one listens all the time to domestic news one sometimes gets a false impression of what is happening in the world, and not the least benefit of these services is that they put that into perspective by drawing the world into the framework.
Therefore, there can be and should be no doubt by hon. Members of the high esteem in which the Government hold the external services, and of their high reputation. If there were any doubt about that high reputation, the speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House tonight have underlined the fact that it exists.
The arguments in the debate have divided into two categories, yet the one category shades into the other. The first question is that of the CPRS Report. The purpose of these reports is to challenge conventional wisdom and draw reactions. If that is the yardstick, the report we are considering certainly succeeded admirably in its purpose this evening. It has drawn a very sharp rejoinder, but a very interesting and well-informed rejoinder, to many of its points. When the CPRS reports we are of course obliged—and it would be utterly wrong if we were not—to consider what it says. I must emphasise, however, that there has been no acceptance by the Government of the 625 report. We are considering the matter and the Foreign Secretary will announce the decision to the House in due course.
Clearly, however, the Foreign Office has been listening to the debate both this evening and in the House and country generally since the report was issued. I can, therefore, assure hon. Members that no decision will be taken by my right hon. Friend without the most careful study of all points that have been adduced here and in editorials and articles in newspapers and magazines about this problem.
The report has done a service to us in the sense that it has pointed out that one can provide the best theoretical broadcasting service in the world but if it is inaudible or is audible only with the sort of sophisticated equipment which is beyond the budget of those who are listening in the countries to which the broadcasts are directed, the effect will be largely nugatory.
Studies have therefore, been made through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and with the co-operation of its posts overseas, into the question of the audibility of BBC reception. Clearly there are certain factors that we shall never be able to change. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) pointed out that there is some inherent disadvantage in short wave reception, and that weather conditions play a large part in radio reception. But it is true that the main reason for problems is that some old equipment and equipment of insufficient power is being used by the BBC for its external services.
I followed with care the globe-trotting odyssey of the hon Member for Harborough. He mentioned two countries in particular in which he thought that reception of the BBC World Service was bad. Questions have been asked in the last 10 days about Iceland, and our embassy reports that there are good audibility levels there. In fact, it reports that the reception is very good. In Israel the reception is said to be more variable but frequently good. The power is adequate, and the chief cause of any interference with reception is atmospheric conditions.
As to the question of insufficient power, to which the hon. Member for Harborough 626 referred, it is not, as he suggests, merely a matter of having more powerful transmitters, because the strength of generation is the subject of international agreement. It would therefore be against the conventions which Britain has signed merely to elevate unilaterally the output of the transmitters. But there are, obviously, measures that we can take to improve audibility. Work has started in Cyprus, Masirah, Singapore and in the United Kingdom in order to improve audibility.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) asked about comparative costs. We accept the figures which are contained in the report. He put a very powerful case for saying that those figures are completely acceptable as a measure of Government expenditure when we come to weigh against them the benefits we derive in so many ways. These were added to by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone. I repeat that the Government are considering this and the other recommendations. There is no acceptance of the CPRS Report and no disposition on the part of the Government to do other than come to the House to announce their decision in the light of the fullest appreciation of what has been said both here and elsewhere.
The hon. Member for Harborough also mentioned the problem of inaudibility in Korea and other parts of the Far East. As he will know, until comparatively recently the main Far East site for transmission for the BBC external services was in Malaysia. That site has recently been denied to us by the Malaysian Government and we have had to move elsewhere. We have found a smaller site in Singapore, which is one of the places where new transmitters are being developed. That may well improve service to the Far East. I cannot guarantee that it will cover Korea, because that is a had area for reception of BBC radio, and we acknowledge that. But I hope it may be helpful to reception in the Far East generally. Masirah, which will now have new transmitters, will be taking on the broadcasting to the Indian subcontinent.
There is a desire to improve the audibility of the service. That is being carried out in the full knowledge that many people in many countries follow 627 the external services regularly and set great store by their ability to receive those broadcasts.
I repeat that it will largely nullify the effect that we hope to make if the broadcasts can be heard only by the comparatively few people who can afford highly sophisticated equipment. We are trying to aim at the sort of general audience that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone mentioned, rather than at any narrow socio-economic class.
With regard to local radio, I point out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North has said, that there are many more people who quote what someone has said about the Annan Report than who quote the report itself. We would do less than justice to a committee which sat for two-and-a-half years if we dismissed out of hand its consideration of local radio. There is a problem here. After publication of the report we allowed some three months in which representations could be received, as the hon. Member for Harborough said. We hope to introduce the White Paper in the New Year. That White Paper will make the Government's proposals for local radio clear.
I believe that at present there are 20 BBC local radio stations and 19 commercial stations under the aegis of the IBA. What Annan suggested was that it would not be possible—in the present climate both of economics and the congestion of the air waves—for both to develop simultaneously.
The Committee therefore suggested a new local broadcasting authority which would take on local radio among other duties. It said that it should be financed by advertising or that it should be operated by non-profit-making trusts. We would be wrong to ignore that aspect of the Committee's recommendations.
Since the Annan Report was published, we have received about 2,000 letters on the subject, of which 1,300 have been about local radio and have largely been in support of BBC. These letters, along with a petition of about 60,000 signatories which was organised by BBC local radio in favour of the local stations, have been fully read and understood. The Home Secretary, for one, expressed himself as being impressed 628 with the loyalty which these stations have generated.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) had the opportunity during a previous Question Time of putting this to my right hon. Friend who in turn put in his plug—if I can use that lather crude joke in this case—for Radio Leeds. But where some people outside the House—I do not accuse any hon. Gentleman of doing this—have gone wrong is that they appear to suggest that it is BBC local radio or nothing and that this was the alternative that was posed by Annan. It was not.
Two problems immediately suggest themselves when we are considering whether the BBC or, indeed, the present independent network should carry on with its expansion. In order to expand drastically its local radio services, the BBC would either have to divert its resources from other developments within the national network or obtain more money through licences. On the other hand, with regard to independent broadcasting, there may be some problem of coverage, such as we experience with some of the independent television companies, where the notion of commercial viability contradicted, or appeared to contradict, the needs of community broadcasting in some of the more sparsely populated regions in the country.
I have clearly in mind the experience of Wales, West and North, a television company that could not attract the advertising revenue and went out of existence. That is clearly a problem if independent broadcasting were to extend itself.
Clearly, I cannot anticipate the White Paper. I do not think that hon. Gentlemen would expect me to do so. What I do say is that the Government's proposals are not so far advanced that they can ignore what has been said tonight. They will not ignore what has been said.
§ Mr. Whitehead
One point which my hon. Friend has not touched on is the financing of the BBC fees. Is it to have an annual licence fee—which is effectively what it has got—or are the Government thinking in terms of a longer period of phasing with regard to financing?
§ Mr. John
If I may propound John's Law, it is that an intervention almost 629 immediately precedes the point that was to be dealt with next. I wish to deal next with the question of the licence fee.
I have in mind what my hon. Friend said, and I see the problem which arises with only an annual extension of a licence. But I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone that there are certain economic objectives and imperatives which in the short run militate against a more desirable factor which is, obviously, to guarantee revenue to a public service over a longer period so that it may have more assurance in undertaking ventures.
The decision on the annual renewal of the licence and the level of the licence fee was taken in the light of present economic conditions, and I expect that the White Paper, when it is published, will deal with the longer-term financing.
The hon. Member for Harborough referred also to the early close-down of services on local radio. Clearly that is a matter for the BBC and its management of its programmes. It has to match its expenditure with its income, although I take the point made by my hon. Friend 630 the Member for Penistone that, above all, broadcasting should not be reduced to the highest common audience factor and that it should cater for local interests and minority tastes if it is to maintain the high level of which it is capable.
In a very restricted financial position, the BBC has to consider how many people are up after midnight or two o'clock in the morning. I suggest that an audience of 635, which is the number of hon. Members of this House who regularly seem to be up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., is probably no justification for extending the hours of broadcasting. However, the BBC must judge that in the light of its experience.
I have listened with great interest to all the suggestions which have been made on both legs of this broadcasting subject. If I have failed to answer any of the questions which have been raised, I undertake to do so by letter to the hon. Members concerned. We have understood the points which have been made and we sympathise with many of them. They will be taken into account in the decisions on broadcasting which we shall have to make on both counts in the coming year.