HC Deb 09 July 1984 vol 63 cc752-8

'.—(1) This section applies where —

  1. (a) the broadcasts in a television or sound broadcasting service are made from a place outside the United Kingdom for reception in the United Kingdom; and
  2. (b) programmes are proposed to be broadcast in that service by the reception and retransmission (whether immediately or after an interval) of material sent by means of a telecommunication system licensed under Part II of the 1984 Act.

(2) if it appears to the Secretary of State, after consultation with both broadcasting authorities, that it is requisite or expedient to do so in the interests of public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom, he may by a direction under this section prohibit any person from sending material either for programmes generally, for programmes of a particular description or for particular programmes.

(3) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (2) above, the Secretary of State may give a direction under this section if it appears to him, after such consultation as aforesaid, that any of the programmes—

  1. (a) would consist of or include the whole or any part of listed or protected events; or
  2. (b) would be such that they could not be included in a television or sound broadcasting service provided by the IBA.

(4) A direction under this section shall be published in such manner as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(5) A person who knowingly contravenes a direction under this section shall be liable—

  1. (a) on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum.;
  2. (b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine.

(6) Without prejudice to subsection (5) above, compliance with a direction under this section shall be enforceable by civil proceedings by the Crown for an injunction or interdict or for any other appropriate relief.

(7) So much of section 14(10) of the 1956 Act as relates to the place from which a broadcast is to be treated as made shall apply for the purposes of this section as it applies for the purposes of that Act.

(8) In this section— broadcasting authority" means the BBC or the IBA; listed event" has the same meaning as in section 14 above; material" means sounds or visual images or both; programme" includes teletext transmission; protected event" means a sporting or other event which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, is one of a series of similar events the whole or any part of which—

  1. (a) it was at the commencement of this section the practice of a broadcasting authority to broadcast; and
  2. (b) but for the acquisition of rights to include the whole or any part of events in that series in external broadcasting services, it would still be the practice of that authority to broadcast:
and for the purposes of this subsection anything broadcast by either of the broadcasting authorities shall be treated as broadcast by each of them.'.—[Mr. Hurd.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Hurd

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss Government amendment No. 140.

Mr. Hurd

This new clause stems directly from an anxiety felt by independent broadcasters as a result of the new and more liberal telecommunications regime recently approved by Parliament. It also stems from the Government's decision to allow Radio Luxembourg a landline by which material sent from the United Kingdom and broadcast back to the United Kingdom is subject only to the laws and regulations of Luxembourg rather than to the regulations and laws here. Those anxieties were strongly reflected in our discussions in Committee.

As quickly became clear, the anxieties expressed go beyond concern over the plans of one particular radio station which has been competing with British radio without restriction for many years. The fear was that the door would open through which others would push and that the competition which might result would be widespread, unfair and destructive.

These arguments for some protection found favour with the Committee, and I then outlined the steps which the Government were ready to take. No text of the Government proposals was ready for the Committee, and naturally it decided to pass a new clause, now clause 48, to mark its determination that effective action should be taken.

As I explained to the Committee, clause 48 contains some technical defects and would not work effectively to provide the protection that was sought. This new clause embodies the Government's proposals, which we believe are the sensible way of dealing with the problem. The Committee agreed that there should be a power to prevent abuse of this freedom in a way that would seriously damage public service broadcasting in this country. It would not be right to try to subject the activities of foreign broadcasters operating in this country to some sort of day-by-day supervision. Our own broadcasters are entrusted with the relatively limited resources of the spectrum, and are required to exercise their stewardship in the general public interest.

However, foreign broadcasters operating in this country normally simply seek to do business with one of our national telecommunications operators so that they can send material to their own foreign transmitters, where their broadcasters are subject to the framework of rules of the country in question. To license them in some way in this country would be hard to reconcile with the stand that Britain has always taken on the free flow of information. There would be major practical difficulties as well.

We would not want a situation in which the broadcasting organisations of one of our neighbours, each time they sent a live interview from London for inclusion in their own radio or television services, were subject to supervision by a United Kingdom authority because those services would be receivable here.

We came to the conclusion that to meet the anxieties that have been expressed we needed not a system that required everything to be supervised but a reserve power that could be invoked in particular circumstances where the interests of our own broadcasting services were clearly at stake. Thus, in the normal course of events there would be no regulation or bureacracy, but in an exceptional case the right steps could be taken.

7.15 pm

There was much discussion in Committee about who should be entrusted with this power. Different views were expressed. I entirely accept the points that were made about the dangers of ministerial involvement in programme content. That is not the sort of territory in which Ministers ought normally to have any place. The new clause is drafted with that in mind.

We came to the conclusion that if there is to be such a reserve power it should rest with the Government and with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Successive Governments, rather than the broadcasters, have until recently operated the longstanding restrictions on the provision of landline facilities from this country for certain foreign broadcasters. Therefore, what we are proposing is not new. Having looked at the other possibilities, we are satisfied that they are not appealing for one reason of another.

We are talking about a reserve power which is to be exercised in the interests of public service broadcasting generally. That makes it difficult to give it to one of our broadcasting authorities rather than the other, even if it were prepared to exercise such a power. If national broadcasting policy is at stake, that should be a matter for the relevant Minister of the Crown who is accountable to this House for his actions.

A second consideration in our minds was that anyone exercising this power would need to take account of our international relations and obligations. I have already mentioned our commitment to the free flow of information.

Thirdly—and this is the strongest argument—any reserve power clearly needs to be backed up with the possibility of sanctions, and it would be wrong in principle if prosecutions in our courts arose as a result of a decision by one of our broadcasting authorities.

A particular interest has legitimately asked for some protection, which can be achieved only by Parliament granting the power which could lead to criminal and civil proceedings. We accept that this is a reasonable request, but we do not think that the Government can shuffle off that responsibility. If the power and responsibility are justified, the Government should carry them out themselves, and explain and defend at home and abroad what they are doing and why. That is the straightforward way of dealing with this matter.

New clause 6 provides for the Secretary of State to have a power to issue directions when it seems to him requisite or expedient to do so in the interests of public service broadcasting in this country. Before exercising the power he must consult both the BBC and IBA. We have inserted that provision since our disussion in Committee.

Subsection (3) cites two particular instances where it might be in the interests of public service broadcasting for the power to be invoked. The first is where there is a risk that our domestic services might be deprived of a sporting or other event which they have normally shown because it had been bought up by a foreign station for re-broadcasting here. The second instance is where the broadcaster sends material from here which would not be allowed over our own public service channels. Directions do not have to be confined to particular types of programmes. If an overseas broadcaster wanted to set up shop here and send out the whole of his service for immediate re-transmission back to this country, it might be that a general direction would be in order on the ground that the service as a whole was operated to the detriment of the more closely regulated domestic channels.

There must be a sanction, of course. We have proposed a dual approach. Subsection (5) creates a new offence.

Subsection (6) permits civil proceedings which would enable the courts to issue injunctions in advance of the damage being done. This is important. I believe that the sanctions are adequate, especially in view of the interest of the telecommunications operator in not being found to aid and abet anyone to send material unlawfully.

Once this power was seen to exist I hope that it would rarely, if ever, need to be used. We do not see a case for preventing organisations from having a landline to send news, current affairs items and interviews from this country. That is not the mischief that was feared. The fear is that the landline might enable a foreign organisation in effect to masquerade as a British broadcasting organisation but without the controls and regulations that apply to such British organisations.

We all agreed in Committee that some safeguard was needed against that possible mischief. We have made a major effort to find an answer to a genuine anxiety. I hope that the House will agree to it.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Those members of the Standing Committee who supported the new clause which has become clause 48 had very much in mind, for varying reasons, the protection of the quality and standards of our broadcasting. It was against that background that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I were prepared to subscribe to the clause. The Government have now introduced on Report new clause 6 and, whereas some of its contents will find favour with those of us who supported the original amendment, it leaves a number of others of us saddened that the Government did not have the courage to go all the way to protect regulated broadcasting. The Government have sought to keep a reserve power which in itself is a weaker form of regulation than regulation itself.

The question at the heart of this is whether we are moving steadily towards deregulated broadcasting. Many of us would view deregulation with some concern. I accept what the Minister said about outflow broadcasting—broadcasting to a foreign country of interviews and other material originating here—being subject to the rules and regulations of the country of receipt, but that does not affect the problem which many of us have in mind, which is the programme made here, broadcast or landlined out and then rebroadcast in by television or back through a cable system. In that case, it is the view of many of my hon. Friends that the standards and regulations which apply to public service broadcasting generally here must equally be applicable to that form of broadcasting.

The Government will find that we shall not oppose new clause 6 at the end of the debate, but we put it on record at this stage that we do do not think that the powers taken by the Government are adequate to deal with the potential mischief that can arise from the activities of those who seek to deregulate the whole of broadcasting. In deregulation will lie a diminution in the quality and standards of our broadcasting, which have become the envy of the world. Many of us would fear any step which sought to interfere with the high standards which we have enjoyed heretofore.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

I do not disagree with the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) about standards, but there is another aspect, which is the viability of the system that we enjoy, and its viability would be affected considerably if live advertisements left this country and were rebroadcast simultaneously.

I hope very much that my right hon. Friend will be able to assure the House that the words in subsection (2), material either for programmes generally, for programmes of a particular description or for particular programmes, mean not only ordinary programme material for information or entertainment purposes, but advertising material.

It is important that the finances upon which our system depends are not eroded or undermined as a result of people broadcasting a much higher percentage of advertising per hour than is allowed to out stations. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to reassure the House about that.

What bothers me about the way that my right hon. Friend has chosen to handle the problem is that he has decided to have what he calls a reserve power. I wonder who will take the initiative to trigger off the exercise of that power, especially when the judgment will be that, "1 am going bust," says director A, or, "I might go bust in six weeks or six months," and the Home Secretary of the day decides, on the advice of his officials, that he would prefer to wait and see because of all the international implications of using his reserve power. By that time it will be too late.

Had my right hon. Friend taken the line which I recommended in Committee that one of the broadasting authorities—either the Cable Authority or IBA—should be monitoring this, we could have expected a more sensitive approach to seeing whether the viability of our public service broadcasting, commercial or otherwise, was genuinely affected. I should like an assurance from my right hon. Friend on this sensitive score of whether the power here as a reserve power will be used soon enough should the situation arise.

I still have the objection that I voiced in Committee. The Home Secretary is the arbiter in these matters. However, I concede that the new clause is obviously more comprehensive than clause 48. For that reason, if for no other, I do not propose to cross swords with my right hon Friend, but I hope that he can give the House an assurance about the worry that I have expressed.

Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)

At the outset of this debate I ought perhaps to declare my interests. I am a consultant to the British Videograms Association and Communications Strategy. I am a director of Airtime Publicity (Newsflash) Ltd. and of East and Mid-Kent community radio stations. I should perhaps add that none of these institutions has any direct interest in the matters arising in the Bill—nor has any of them approached me —but, as they are media-related companies, it is right to put it on the record straight away. My interest primarily is having been a broadcaster on film and television since 1951, so it is rather all-embracing.

Mr. Gorst

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I also do what I should have done at the outset? I declared my interest in Committee, but I should also declare now an interest in both Capital Radio and Ladbrokes.

Mr. Brinton

I intervene briefly to welcome my right hon. Friend's attempt to push a temporary cork into a very fizzy bottle. I do not anticipate the cork staying in place for too long, but it will at least give considerable comfort to those who faced, and continue to face until the Bill is passed, the threat of what they regard as totally unfair competition.

I, too, query the word "programme" in subsection (2). It seems to me that that does not necessarily cover the broadcasting of commercial advertisements.

I also worry about the word "broadcasts" in subsection (1)(a). Where does a broadcast begin? The system, as my right hon. Friend knows as a result of the Telecommunications Bill, is that stations such as Radio Luxembourg can initiate the sound of a broadcast in Britain through a microphone or mechanical contrivance down a land line to a foreign country and then transmit it back to Britain. If the word "broadcasts" in legal terms covers the act of transmission, I am happy with that little piece of drafting. If the broadcast is the noise that emits from a studio or some other location, that is probably not apt.

Concern has been expressed, as my right hon. Friend has recognised, that the Home Secretary should deal with matters of good taste and judgment of material to be broadcast. I suppose that we have to accept that this is the way chosen and I hope that it will work without too much intrusion.

I started by referring to a temporary cork in a fizzy bottle. If one considers the advance of technology these days, it is hard to understand how we can prevent a huge growth of little community radio stations and big stations in space, firing off broadcasts to us, both radio and television, in about 10 or 15 years' time. I, like everyone in the House, want to protect the British standards of broadcasting, but we will have to move towards some form of deregulation for some parts of it, and possibly radio will be the first customer.

7.30 pm
Mr. Hurd

I agree that there has been a good deal of fizz in this bottle. Sometimes, listening to some of the things that have been said, although not in the House or in Committee, I felt that we were being accused of inventing Radio Luxembourg. Nevertheless, we have accepted the need for a power. I can reassure my hon. Friends about advertising. The word "programme" includes advertisement throughout the Bill and indeed in the Broadcasting Act 1981, except when specifically indicated otherwise. For example, new clause 5, which we have just approved, says: 'programme', in relation to a cable programme service, includes any item included in that service". That is straightforward. Certainly advertising would be included within the scope of the power.

I imagine that the procedure would be that any person or organisation which felt aggrieved by a development would inform my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, either through the IBA or directly, and my right hon. and learned Friend would then have to consult the IBA and the BBC under the Bill before he used the power.

I take the point that there may be occasions when, if the power is to be effective, it has to be promptly used and we must clearly organise ourselves to that end. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) about "broadcasting" is similarly covered. It has the wider interpretation that he prefers.

Question put and agreed to.

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

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