HC Deb 13 July 1987 vol 119 cc756-76 7.16 pm
Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

It is an honour and a pleasure to introduce the debate upon the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill. Although I have done so once before, far more frequently during my parliamentary career I have laboured on during the watches of the night. Therefore, it is a fair reward for a "Consolidated Funder" that, on occasions, he gets to speak at 7.16 pm. I shall speak on a subject about which I care very much and in which I have absolutely no interest whatsoever to declare other than a strong belief in the British Broadcasting Corporation and—perhaps even more important—a strong belief in its capacity to play a formidable role in the British interest abroad. The importance of satellite television in general and satellite television news in particular is recognised in all parts of the House. In a few moments, I shall refer to certain early-day motions that were tabled only a few months ago during the final stages of the last Parliament.

Satellite television news is a fact of life. All concerned with it recognise it to be the way of the future. Various concerns in various countries are rapidly expanding into satellite television, whereas we are patiently waiting. We have to, because the BBC has no option but to approach the Government in the matter. It is not a matter of going cap in hand; it is an approach that has to be made. Although other countries are expanding satellite television, we are patiently waiting for a Government decision.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been considering the matter. I appreciate that it is complicated and that policy questions are involved. That is one of the reasons I raise the matter now. I hope that it will be an additional spur to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and his right hon. and hon. colleagues to consider matters that are important to the national interest with all due speed. My hon. Friend's Department has been aware of the matter since November 1986. As the months go by—one cannot help but think that a year will soon pass—matters get more and more difficult for BBC external services as others are beginning, continuing and developing satellite television. It is no excuse for Government to say—as my hon. Friend says, it is not for me to anticipate his contribution—that they want details on this or that. So far, since the submission of the matter in November 1986, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office having known of the matter for many months before that, there has been no reaction other than to ask for details.

The demand for a decision, as I have said, is within the knowledge, and I hope has the support, of the House. Two early-day motions were tabled—of course, I had a lot to do with them—in the last stages of the last Parliament in only April of this year. Both those motions were interlinked and together give a measure of Back-Bench support—not just Conservative Back-Bench support—for a decision on this matter.

Early-day motion 846 was tabled during the previous Parliament with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker), myself and others as principal signatories. It stressed the urgency of the overall situation. It made no mention of the BBC, but drew the Government's attention to the fast expansion that was taking place in satellite television. It urged the Government to declare support for a United Kingdom programme of satellite television news. I repeat that that motion made no mention of the BBC. It was a totall Conservative motion, put down on 3 April 1987, and by 15 May, when the House was already up and we were about to fight the general election, it had gathered 145 signatues. Those 145 Conservative signatures represented more than half of those on the Conservative Benches who can sign early-day motions. I ask the Minister to take note of that.

Early-day motion 852 was put down by me and was an all-party motion. It was tabled several days after the previous motion, but by 15 May it had gathered 224 signatories from all parts of the House. If we include an amendment, which was not unfriendly, that motion had 230 supporters in all. It was a BBC motion and it overtly urged the Government to allow the BBC to proceed with satellite television news as soon as possible. In other words, it urged the Government to make up their mind. Of the 224 signatories to that motion, it is perhaps educative for my hon. Friend if I put it on record that there were 118 Conservative signatures, 90 Labour signatures, 12 alliance signatures and four others.

If this matter is raised again, it is important for my hon. Friend to realise the support from all sides of the House for a decision on this matter. The 118 Conservative supporters represented almost all the 145 who had signed the motion that made no mention of the BBC. I sent out letters to exactly the same people who had signed the first motion, asking for their support for early-day motion 852, and only 27 declined overtly to support the BBC. There is a lesson for us from those early-day motions.

The present situation is that satellite television and satellite television news is a fact of life. Equally, it is also a fact that a formidable American lead has been built up. Such a lead is not automatically attractive to everybody, not least the Third world, that would, perhaps, like something a little different and a little more balanced. Let me run through those who are engaged in satellite television news. Cable News Network, CNN, is marketing its 24-hour news service all over the world. Columbia Broadcasting System is marketing its evening news in Europe. National Broadcasting Company is selling its "Today" programme to Australia and is marketing its news programme on European cable. Independent Television News—this debate is not, in any way, an occasion to criticise ITN—is in Europe via Superchannel.

Good luck to ITN, but my message to the Front Bench is to let the BBC in as well. It is wrong that the BBC should be kept out because of its structure and charter. However, I applaud ITN's efforts and the fact that it is marketing a European news programme on the Superchannel. That programme is directed for a commercial return. An important point to bear in mind is that ITN, in common with others, is not making much money at the moment. However, it is investing in the future and it is a commercial future. Indeed, for everyone concerned except for the BBC it is a commercial venture.

ITN has linked hands with the mighty American Broadcasting Corporation to form World Television News and is planning a 24-hour cable satellite news service. Again, that will be a commerical undertaking. Those are commercial undertakings, but another important category we should not forget is Government—offered free services. Among our European partners, the French are already seriously considering that option with regard to Francophone countries. Bearing in mind France's track record on cultural diplomacy and its expenditure on such matters, I have no doubt that the French will pursue that option. The United States Information Agency has a free service in operation on the Worldnet service for news on television via satellite. That news is available to anyone, anywhere, who can take satellite television. However, an important point to consider is that there is a third category, a unique category—the BBC.

Although the BBC may be dependent upon Government for its finances, the whole essence of the BBC is that it is independent of Government when it comes to its broadcasts. It is a unique category, so it should be treated with all due respect and consideration.

The importance of satellite television has been recognised. It is vital for international communication, commerce and information. In many respects, information equals influence. I happen to believe—I trust that it is not a jingoistic, nationalistic comment to make—that this country has an influence for good. That influence should be displayed across the world, if only the Minister and his Department would allow the BBC to exert that influence.

With regard to the development of satellite television there is a demand—it will become apparent—for the BBC to enter this area. Although the BBC is not in the game at the moment, and although it has not seriously marketed a project, there have already been many favourable approaches. ITN is already in the game, quite rightly so; it can go out and sell something. It has taken every opportunity, via the newspapers, to inform us of the progress it has made. However, the BBC has its hands firmly tied behind its back. The BBC could sign up 10 countries tomorrow. Indeed, 20 other countries have made it clear that they would want the service, but they would be unable to pay in whole or in part for the service.

That problem brings us to the realm of public service broadcasting in the international context. The BBC will, if it is allowed, quickly expand. There is an enormous potential for the BBC within the Third world, where the news service is much wanted. I believe—I do not want to embarrass my hon. Friend; indeed, I am sure that he will smile—that there is considerable support for what I am saying within his Department. I trust that I am not being too optimistic about that.

There are difficulties—piracy, censorship and so on—but we must make a start. We must endeavour to create the demand. We already have examples to prove that that demand is there. I was amused by the German example. East Germany, and in particular East Berlin, can get West German television. When the East German Government considered their position, such was the demand from the rest of East Germany to receive West German television that the Government had to make arrangements to supply that service throughout East Germany. Therefore, virtually all that country receives the television broadcasts from the Federal Republic.

We have encouraging signs from the Soviet Union thanks to Mr. Gorbachev and what he is endeavouring to do under the policy of so-called openness. It is no accident that, as part of that policy, Western leaders have been allowed to appear on Soviet television. That development is extremely relevant when we discuss satellite television news. Those Western leaders have been allowed to say exactly what they want, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Before my right hon. Friend went to Moscow, the BBC Russian service was unjammed. Shortly after my right hon. Friend returned from Moscow, the Voice of America was unjammed. I am not attempting to suggest that the Voice of America is a blinding example of neutrality, but it is now being transmitted into the Soviet Union.

The possibilities are enormous. The future is beyond the satellite and the take-up of satellites by national networks and cable. The future will be the age of the dish. I have seen a few dishes and I appreciate what they are like. I have seen them sitting on top of the odd school. However, in general, such dishes are for the rich and the ingenious. It is surprising how many people, even now, are endeavouring to make them and the number who, within a short period and in various countries, will make them. It is no accident that the USIA, with its Worldnet publications that are associated with the service, is publicising how to "do it yourself" and make a dish. Of course, that body wants people in many different countries to have dishes and to listen in.

The impact of satellite for the future is being seriously considered in the Eastern bloc and in many Communist countries. I believe that there was an article in Pravda quite recently that went into this in some detail, so seriously does the Soviet Union take this matter.

A matter of vital concern are the qualifications that the BBC needs to participate. Hon. Members are aware of many of the arguments and I intend to run through them reasonably swiftly. Lord Reith began external broadcasting on the radio 55 years ago, so the BBC has 55 years' experience of external international broadcasting. Incidentally, as my hon. Friend knows, Lord Reith could not get the money either. However, he was able to raid his own funds to get the money, but that cannot be done now because of the structure. The licence fee cannot be raided.

I hesitate to say it, and I hope that it is not now true, but the Government then—I hope not now—did not have the imagination to appreciate what we now realise was one of the most remarkable feats of external broadcasting in the world. The external services give the BBC's efforts credibility and their audience has been built up to 125 million. When travelling, we have all encountered people hurrying out of rooms and from under the so-called palm tree to listen to it.

That credibility has been achieved at the price of discomfort from time to time. I give one relevant example, about which one or two people, inside and outside Government, have been concerned. Many people say that the Iran revolution was brought on by the BBC's external services. I think that I am entitled—with, as the Minister knows, an Iranian wife who had a considerable stake in the ancient regime there and whose family had to flee that country because of the revolution—to make it clear to the House that those accusations against the BBC are untrue. The BBC spoke the truth. Enormous pressure was put on it. In my humble way, I, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), was asked by the then Iranian embassy to go over the scripts at the BBC. We did that. However, my hon. Friend, with his previous journalistic experience, and I, with knowledge of Iran, could not find anything wrong. I might add that I did more than reading scripts, because I followed the matter in some detail for many months. It is wrong to think that, because the BBC speaks the truth, it should be accused of bringing somebody down. How much worse it would have been had the BBC not spoken the truth, but the Government in Iran had fallen anyway—as, I am sad to say, was probable.

As for the BBC's qualifications and readiness, it has the appropriate structure in place. It has the experience that it has gained in radio. It has more foreign correspondents than any other organisation engaged in this enterprise. As I have said, it also has tradition and credibility. It has the news resources and the backing of Television Centre, wit h all its expertise.

On cost and timing, I hope my hon. Friends will sympathise and agree that the sort of money that we are discussing will hardly break the bank. I advise my hon. Friend that it is not a question of the BBC coming cap in hand or demanding more and more money or saying that, because it is part of the public sector, we, the great strong Government, cannot give it the money for which it asks. Satellite television will involve considerable returns and considerable profits will increasingly be available. I dare say that from time to time one would have to sort out the balance between the BBC's public service element and the profitable activities that will be available to it. The capital costs will be £1.4 million, and £7.8 million per annum will be required to run it on the basis of a five-day service with all possible economies. Obviously, a seven-day service would be more expensive: indeed, one could spend more money on the whole thing if one wished.

We should remember that at the moment nobody is making money out of satellite television but at least the private sector is offering a loss leader and is considering the future. However, the hands of the BBC are tied firmly behind its back in its efforts to get in on the same thing. The income offset at the end of the second year is estimated to be about £2 million, which will increase as developments are made. Satellite television can be on the air in six months and fully operational in one year.

I refer now to the BBC's overall position and to the arguments against it. The BBC is different, if not unique—I have used that word before—because it is not a commercial operation. It is a public corporation and must conduct itself according to its charter, which does not permit it to put up venture capital or to do anything that its competitors in this area—rightly—can do.

As hon. Members know, the BBC's external services are funded somewhat differently from the BBC overall. They are funded by Her Majesty's Government through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There is no way in which the BBC's external services can touch the licence fee. Therefore, by their creation and existence, they become dependent on the Government. They need Government consent even to borrow. I do not suggest that they should borrow money for what I see as a public service broadcasting operation in the interests of the country.

We are grateful to my hon. Friend for the level of BBC external funding and I am sure that he will tell us how generous the Government have been to the BBC's external services. We are all looking forward to hearing the facts and figures. The level of external funding for the BBC is about £114 million. The overall increases, about which my hon. Friend will tell us, have been extremely welcome and, as he knows, much is capital expenditure for the audibility programme. However, my recent experiences suggest that the BBC's external services could be a little more audible still. Many things are more audible than the BBC's external services as anybody knows who has struggled to receive them. Similarly, anybody who has visited Bush House knows that it is not a plush operation, and nobody pretends that it is.

I remind my hon. Friend of something that happened in, I believe, November 1983. The increases in expenditure have become broadly acceptable—there have been no rebellions in the Chamber in the shape of votes—but they were achieved after one of the biggest Conservative Back-Bench revolts on foreign affairs, when no fewer than 60 of my hon. Friends, including every officer of the Back-Bench Foreign and Commonwealth Committee, either abstained or voted against the Government. It was miraculous to see the effect that that had. I warn my hon. Friend that there could be similar goings-on unless, with his usual sensitive responsiveness, he urges the Foreign Secretary to take action on this matter, in conjunction with the Prime Minister.

As I have mentioned, the BBC is not a Government information service. Unlike USIA, and Voice of America, the BBC is vigorously independent; that is why it is trusted. The BBC represents the concept of public service broadcasting. We accept the BBC nationally. Although it has had its critics from time to time, the nation does accept that it embodies the concept of public service broadcasting. Thus, the fundamental argument is that it is utterly wrong to prevent the BBC from doing what it is best created, suited and fitted to do internationally on a public service basis, provided that one can sustain its qualifications—which, in my view, are easy to sustain. There is also the fact that it has an obvious role internationally.

I said that I would mention a few of the general policy arguments against the BBC. Her Majesty's Government must consider these as part of their policy considerations. This is a vital area for the future status and role of the United Kingdom and will approximate what radio has achieved with the switching on of short-wave sets and so on. It is the Government's duty to act in our best interests. We would all agree with that. We have a unique international asset in the BBC. Moreover, any course of governmental action other than to allow the BBC to go ahead with what it has been created to do would throw that considerable national asset away. With that background to the decision, I shall deal with one or two of the policy options and considerations.

One argument, particularly from those who do not like the BBC, is: "Leave it all to the private sector and free enterprise. We do not like the BBC, so stuff it and let ITN proceed." The name ITN would be a bit of a mystery in the middle of some desert, for all the distinguished luminaries who broadcast on it. While such a course may save taxpayers' money, it would throw away our best national asset and limit the United Kingdom in this important area to an ultimately commercial approach.

The second argument, which is often raised by independent television companies, is, "It is unfair to create subsidised competition for ITN and the private sector." It is fair to say that the whole existence of the BBC has been and is subsidised. It already competes with ITV and ITN here and all over the world, subsidised or unsubsidised. Surely the overriding argument must be for the maximum use of available credibility in the national interest.

The third argument is, "If there is Government money going, let's have a jolly good tender. Everyone can come galloping along and tender, including the BBC, and then doubtless we in the private sector can outbid it and will have all this lovely Government money which otherwise would go to the BBC." That is somewhat unnecessary, because ITN is already proceeding with its allies in this area and has money to lose from the private sector. We can all clap at that and wish it good luck. That argument also ignores the concept of public service broadcasting for those who most need the news. We have a clear duty in both their and our national interests to transmit news to those who cannot always pay for it.

Some people say, "Let's have a joint effort with ITN and the BBC." That is wholly impracticable. They already compete all over the world, ITN is already proceeding with this and there is the whole question of editorial control and advertising. Such a suggestion is not on; it is a general nightmare.

The final position at the end of the day is that we need a decision soon. We have the BBC and we must use it. This matter is crying out for action and Ministers are placed by us to deliver action. That is why many of my hon. Friends and many hon. Members feel so strongly about this. I do not suggest for a moment that the motives behind Government decisions are anything but altruistic, but if any dogma were to creep into this decision the country would not forgive the Government and many people, rightly, would take a dim view.

Fundamentally, we accept public service broadcasting nationally and it is utterly wrong to prevent it from performing its obvious international role. The BBC has no option but to come to the Government for assistance and it is doing so. It needs to get started in a vital industry of the future. It is about time the Minister recognised the qualifications and arguments and let the BBC get on with it.

7.44 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The evidence of the BBC external services to the fourth Foreign Affairs Select Committee on cultural diplomacy included a complaint that in the past the external services had been in receipt of nothing more than avuncular pats-on-the-shoulder commendation during debates in this House. Nobody who reads the speech just made by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) can accuse him of that. I agree with much of what he said. He made a powerful case for the BBC fairly, properly, and in a forthright manner. He laid the question about the future of the BBC TV service fairly and squarely at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office door. I hope that the Minister will provide an answer.

Perhaps we are not addressing the question to the proper Minister, but I hope that we shall have an early decision from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, the Minister is sympathetic to the BBC case and has the same hopes and aspirations as the hon. Member for Leominster and that the real sticking point will in reality arrive when the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury and other Treasury Ministers consider the financial implications of the proposal. I hope that will not be the case in this urgent, important decision. If the Treasury uses its usual cost-benefit analysis procedures, it will follow the wrong path in assessing what the external services of the BBC can provide in terms of satellite televised news systems and the work that it already does on radio.

With the forbearance of the House I shall rehearse the arguments for the existing radio external services. I would hate to think that in these times of financial constraints—and I do not deny that they are real—the money that is required for the televised news service should be supplied at the expense of any existing radio programmes produced by the BBC external services. There is an argument for further development of the radio system already provided by the external services and the valuable monitoring services at Caversham and elsewhere.

There may well be 730 million television sets in the world, but there are 1,600 million transistor radio sets and we must not ignore that audience. The needs of the radio service are as urgent as ever, and there is plenty of potential for developing the technical services. I am worried that large parts of the eastern USSR, Latin America and North America still find it difficult to hear the existing radio services broadcast by the BBC. To increase the audibility of such broadcasts will cost money, but it would be money well spent if it was decided to devote resources in that direction.

The number of hours that are broadcast by radio through the external services has decreased since the second world war from 850 to 732 hours per week and the number of countries to which we broadcast has decreased from 45 to 37. Since the war there has been a decrease both in the number of hours of broadcasting each week and in the languages covered. I regret that. The most recent cut, in 1981–82, which reduced the number of languages from 40 to 37, was regrettable and bad in terms of cost effectiveness as it saved only about £1.5 million.

There is a genuine case to be made for starting up a language service to Korea and for extending the Pashto and Tamil services, the Arabic service in north Africa and the Spanish service in Latin America. A real argument can be made on any kind of objective analysis for extending the present external services. Also, there is a real need to extend our present radio and TV communications to Third-world countries in the southern hemisphere.

The Minister will be aware that I have a particular interest in overseas development. Three billion of the world's population of 5 billion live in Third-world countries. By and large they are poor, a high proportion of them are young people, and most of them believe that they are exploited by the north. That amounts to a potentially explosive situation over the middle to longer term whether regarding international trade, the development of the world economy or in any other area of international relations. The World Service as presently constituted must be extended. We all have stories of the influence of the radio service. The World Service has a proven record, and the hon. Member for Leominster articulated that record eloquently and properly. He described the generous ways in which the BBC considers problems faced by Third-world countries. The news and information services in many of those countries are severely hobbled in many ways by their Governments or by technical constraints.

I know that the Minister is familiar with the arguments about UNESCO, as one of his first duties was to try to sort out the problems. I understand that there arc real problems, but I do not share the Government's views about UNESCO. However, the UNESCO ideas about the new world information order were a symptom of the fact that there is real and rooted prejudice in some of our sister western countries' broadcasting services which are monopolising the airwaves in the Third world. That is not generally a criticism made of the BBC external services which have a reputation for independence and a programming policy that is substantially and positively development oriented.

We must not ignore the work carried out by the external radio services in the Pacific basin, India, Brazil, or any of the other vastly important areas. I am wholeheartedly in favour of the arguments deployed by the hon. Member for Leominister, but I do not want that argument to proceed or that service to develop at the expense of the continuing development of the radio services provided by the BBC's external services.

I want now to consider the television proposal. I fully support the argument that has been deployed, but I do not want to reiterate what has been said. I believe that the proposal is no new development, although in technical terms the hardware and transmitters that will be necessary are new. I consider the argument more in terms of simply maintaining the BBC's position in international broadcasting. There is a great deal of expansion taking place in many different areas within transnational television and satellite broadcasting, as the hon. Member for Leominister has said. If the BBC does not enter and become fully involved in that area or make the most of the unique BBC qualities and experience it possesses, it will be substantially left behind. That would be deeply regrettable.

Rather than considering the television proposal as breaking new ground or as a new revolutionary proposal, I believe that the least the Government can do is to enable the BBC to continue to add its own to this new field and to thrive and prosper. We would expect the USA and USSR to devote resources to broadcasting. However, we must consider the resources that Japan, Germany and other competitors are spending in this area of broadcasting. The public service ethic which the BBC would bring to producing an international televised news service is of fundamental importance. Every day that the decision to proceed is delayed is lost time and that time will be difficult to recover.

I am obliged to say that, having studied the background, the Government give me the impression that they do not appreciate fully the value of the asset available to them in the BBC's external services. If they did, I do not believe that they would hesitate further, but would forthwith approve the scheme for the new BBC external services satellite television. At the estimated cost, in my opinion it is cheap at the price.

7.55 pm
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

One of the paradoxes of Parliament is that we spend so long debating trivia and so little time debating essentials. Tonight we are discussing the projection of our country throughout the world over the next 20 or 50 years. If we begin to consider all that can flow from that, we can sense how vital the issue is.

Lord Carrington, when he was Foreign Secretary, said: Let me begin on a note upon which there will be no disagreement in any quarter of the House: that is, the support and admiration of all of us—and of course I include Her Majesty's Government—for the work of the External Services of the BBC. There is nobody who does not recognise the excellence of what they do. Certainly so far as I am concerned. I believe them to be an important arm of Government foreign policy. Indeed, I think we have got to look at the whole of our defence and foreign policy as one, and external broadcasting has a most important part to play in the influence that Britain can exert throughout the world"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 July 1981; Vol. 423, c. 811.] As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I believe that the attitude of Government in recent years towards the BBC external services has been amateurish and appalling. Governments have been like the small boy who is used to going to a filling station and getting a free watch. When he is handed a valuable heirloom, he just does not appreciate the difference. If hon. Members think that that is a bit strong, we must remember what Lord Carrington said on television when he left the Government in 1983: When I was Foreign Secretary, I was told I had to save money on the overseas service of the BBC. I think that was really totally counter-productive and the money saved was trivial compared to the amount of damage done. I think the time has now come, really, when the Treasury and the Government ought to look at cutting out a function in Government rather than cheese-paring on the things that are essential and have to be done. It is my case, and it was the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), that the television services must be provided in the interests not simply of the best external broadcasting system in the world, but of our country.

Why is the BBC so good? It is so good partly because throughout the world vast numbers of people speak English, and perhaps even more want to speak English. Secondly, at the time of the second world war, the BBC established a superiority for telling the truth that it carries with it today. That is the difference. Our competitors in eastern Europe and the United States and Canada lack that essential history. That is why, although their broadcasting services are listened to, they are not considered to be in the same category as the BBC's external services.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)


Mr. Townsend

As my hon. Friend says, it has integrity. That is the key.

I had the privilege last Thursday of watching the ITN service go out from Wells street. That was a superb and very professional half hour and it does the company great credit. I do not believe for a moment that there is no role for the BBC external services as well as ITN.

We are like visitors to a new continent. We see a vast hinterland, the mountains, the rivers and the forests. We are just starting on a vast adventure. Who would like to forecast in 10 years' time, let alone in 100 years' time, the future of world television broadcasting? It would be a crying shame if the BBC, with all its expertise and use of languages, were not leading the way.

I end with another quotation, this time from, of all people, Colonel Gaddafi. He said: All the Arab radios rave from dawn till noon but nobody listens to them because everyone switches on London. I want them not only to switch on London and listen, but to switch on London and look.

8 pm

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker—I think that is the correct term——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Just call me Madam.

Mr. Buchan

I was trying to avoid that.

I came into the Chamber by accident. One of the problems of this House is that things can go on in the Chamber and we who are working diligently elsewhere hardly know that it is happening. I missed the announcement of this opening debate, but I have come here to congratulate the hon. Member for Leominister (Mr. Temple-Morris) on raising it.

It is an important matter, not least because it occurs at a time when much of the future of broadcasting in general—quite apart from the external services aspect—has been brought into question by the Peacock report, the Green Paper on radio and things that, regrettably, are being said by the Government. That puts into jeopardy much of the best kind of broadcasting that the hon. Member for Leominster described. I am delighted that at least Conservative Back Benchers still use the phrase "public service broadcasting". On that there will be no dispute between us, at any rate in relation to external services.

That is my first reason for supporting the hon. Gentleman. Given the rush to follow the misguided view of the Peacock report, it would be criminal to strip away any other areas of broadcasting that should be undertaken by public service broadcasting, should be undertaken only by such broadcasting and would be best undertaken only by such broadcasting.

Secondly, we are now entering a phase in which diplomacy is not merely of the old-fashioned kind. Among other things, it now consists of trying to have an understanding of our own country best known abroad. However, along with cuts in broadcasting there have been cuts in relation to the British Council. We have never understood the importance of the British Council or the fact that it matters that Ian McKellan and others perform "Coriolanus" on the steps of Acropolis in Athens. That sometimes means more than the diplomacy that is carried out formally.

I question the quotations from Lord Carrington to which the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) referred. As I see it, the function of the external services is not necessarily to project the views of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is to do what the BBC has been famous for doing for the past 50 years: to give a reasonably objective—it cannot be any more than that because none of us is totally objective—picture of world events emanating from London.

I remember the horror that occurred two years ago when the Government intervened in the "Real Lives" programme. There was interference by the Government to prevent a programme from being shown. That had a shattering effect in various parts of the world, which had accepted the freedom and independence of the BBC. It was because of that recognition of its freedom and independence that, paradoxically, most of its valuable work was done for Britain. Therefore, I do not accept the argument that it is a projection of the diplomacy of foreign affairs.

The "Real Lives" incident had that serious effect and some of us have had to fight back to restore the position, which was not helped by the Government's intervention over Zircon. Nevertheless, for the past 50 years, of all world broadcasting organisations the BBC has been the most acceptable and recognised throughout the world. It has done a major job on behalf of this country precisely because of its relative objectivity.

My third reason for supporting the BBC is that it is proper that it should have the imprimatur of public service broadcasting, because if anything is in doubt it is the question of over-commercialised, so-called independent, satellite broadcasting. I have seen some of it emanating from America. If one goes to any of the poorer West Indian islands and sees what comes from the American independent broadcasters in the form of news—I think particularly of the all-day news stations—one will get an idea of the cultural shock that it is to those poorer West Indian islands, because it is seen as the normal interpretation of world events as observed through American eyes.

The Government will have to he persuaded. They do not like public service. They think that public expenditure is a bad thing, unless it is for frigates and so on. But in relation to other things, we must deal with a deep, ideological malaise on the Government Front Bench.

I have no doubt that we shall get good words from the Minister. He can do little else but give what I call a "lying in state ceremonial" type of speech and tell us how excellent our external services have been. However, we might not get the final commitment. Normal lying in state ceremonial ends with a commitment when the poor guy goes into a hole, but rarely do we get any commitment or action in respect of public expenditure from the Government Front Bench.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is no part of my job tonight to bury the external services.

Mr. Buchan

I was making a complicated metaphor in relation to any commitment that might be made. Perhaps it was too subtle for the Government Front Bench. At any rate, we would welcome that commitment. I think that my own Front Bench will oppose the report. It had better. We wish the hon. Member for Leominster well and hope that this is the beginning of a successful campaign to have this brought about.

8.6 pm

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I wish to add a few quick words in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). One point that he did not make was that he has had many years of experience in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. He knows the effect of British broadcasting overseas, and he speaks with that sort of knowledge when supporting the spread of the BBC's established performance in radio broadcasting to satellite broadcasting.

My hon. Friend said that the BBC had experience in broadcasting. That statement of fact is unarguable. But equally important is the fact that the BBC has built up a constituency of overseas listeners who are waiting to become BBC overseas viewers. If we do not grab that opportunity, we shall be missing an opportunity for the BBC.

As for budgets, in spite of the increases to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster drew attention, and which I am sure the Under-Secretary will cite, the BBC overseas service has been badly done by in recent years, and it is just as well that that point is made. The small increase in budget for the added influence that we could have had in terms of listenership, audibility and reach throughout the world would have been as nothing compared with, for example, the cost of running embassies in some parts of the world where the presence of the BBC is even more important——

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Or buying a tank.

Mr. Rathbone

Or buying a tank, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) says.

The BBC makes a marvellous contribution to the world in terms of information which is unbiased and trustworthy, and in terms of entertainment which spreads British culture throughout the world. It also does so in terms of learning, not only direct learning—I hope that there will be room for that in a televised BBC overseas service—but indirect learning. I hope that we shall hear the most positive speech that the Under-Secretary has ever given, or is ever likely to give, in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster.

8.10 pm
Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

I am glad to have a brief opportunity of joining the debate in order to congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), who raised the subject, and also to say again something that I have been saying for a number of years. I think that it deserves to be considered in the context of the proposal to put the BBC overseas services, or at any rate the news services, on to television.

I do not think it would be sufficient for the BBC simply to put out a daily news programme. The news should be seen in the broader context of regular, informed television programmes on the historical, political, commercial and cultural trends that explain the significance of the news. The BBC has already firmly established that practice on the sound wavelengths, and the move to television would be a natural extension of all the excellent work that has been done over many years.

If the facility to provide news programmes were expanded so that there was a full daily service of supporting programmes, the cost could be considered as being spread over 24 hours. We could include other matter that would also attract the very willing support of the taxpayer. We ought to make a full programme that builds on what we already have, and what the country already does extremely well. The BBC already provides a world language tuition service, which I believe is followed extensively in the far east, Latin America and elsewhere. The BBC is expert in providing that service, which is a well understood and accepted part of what the BBC does. At the same time, in this country we have established the technique of a broadcast university through the Open University. That is a most important extension of the use of television into the educational and higher educational spheres.

What a very good thing it would be if the BBC now proceeded to establish a world university of the air as part of Britain's service to the world. That would only be building on what we are already doing. The cost would be small, but the influence could be of tremendous benefit to mankind. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider the idea seriously at last: I have been recommending it for many years. In the meantime, other countries have been getting the idea and catching up with the BBC. Possibly they will pass it before long in providing that type of service and Britain will once again be left behind.

We owe it to the Third world to carry on the colonial tradition of helping people to understand our civilisation in Britain by giving regular historical, technological, constitutional and other programmes to supplement the sometimes very meagre resources in Third world countries for higher education. Many of our ex-colonial territories, for instance, have educational establishments which we may have founded in the past, or which other colonial countries may have founded in their colonial territories but which are not able to provide a sufficient stimulus in those countries now because they have not the teachers or the facilities to keep up to date with the subjects that they are trying to impart. What a bonus it would provide if the BBC were able to supplement the local facilities by means of a regular, establshed television service to bring all those subjects up to date.

The proposal would, if implemented, be supported by British publishers, who already have a worldwide market for technical books which are widely used in education and are influential in producing engineers, doctors, chemists and others who look to Britain for the ideas that they have already begun to absorb in the course of their education. That is a lifelong influence, which we should not throw away. British publishers of technical books would welcome the opportunity to follow up television courses, regularly given free to humanity, with printed supporting tuition, which would be an extension of the educational service that they are already seeking to provide.

We should not make this service merely an English language service. It should be a European Community project. Films of an educational character, once made, could easily be dubbed into French and Spanish. That would enormously extend the range and utility of the satellites which would continuously transmit news programmes all over the world. How easy it should be, surely, for us to collaborate with other European Community countries and make the concept part of our contribution to the Lome convention. I have often thought that we should be prouder than we are of the Loe convention, which is one of the most substantial contributions that the European Community has made to the external world since the Treaty of Rome.

Our own former colonial dependencies and associated territories are not the only ones that we have to consider. As members of the European Community, we should consider our responsibilites to the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese speaking territories, who have looked to Europe for education and inspiration in the past. We should be willing to give them 20th and 21st century technical assistance by the modern method of regular television broadcasting.

I was encouraged by the written answer to a question that I tabled recently. On 29 June my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said: We are aware of the potential opportunities offered by satellite broadcasting. We are considering these carefully. There is currently no provision in the grants in aid of the BBC external services for a world university of the air project. We shall consider whether this could be pursued under EC sponsorship."—[Official Report, 29 June 1987: Vol. 118, c. 38.] I was encouraged by that reply. Although I should like to think that money was beginning to flow in this direction, at least in an exploratory way, it seems to me that the idea has planted itself in the Foreign Office, and I hope that it will grow into something of great importance.

As a Member of the European Parliament for many years, I have discussed this idea with parliamentary colleagues in Strasbourg. I believe that it would be enthusiastically supported by other EEC countries and that that support would assist the BBC to reach the widest possible audience. I am glad that the Foreign Office is already aware of the matter, but I hope that this debate will stimulate a surge of activity, and will also enable my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to get money from the Treasury to follow this important initiative. I should like it to be carried forward, not just for the sake of Britain's honour, but in the national interest. As a great exporting power, we cannot simply sink out of sight and let the Japanese. the Americans or any others take our place.

8.17 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominister (Mr. Temple-Morris) for initiating this debate. Until a few weeks ago, I worked for BBC television news. During my time there, I worked on one of the pilot programmes for the television news project, which hon. Members may have seen. Although I worked for the BBC, that does not necessarily mean that I always agree with what it is seeking to push, as the BBC will discover in the future. On this occasion, however, I do agree.

In the brief time available, I want to try to answer a couple of questions. First, do we need a world television news service? I believe that we do. Television will supplant radio more and more throughout the world, largely because of fast-moving technology that will bring satellite television to homes not only in the West, but in the East and the Third world, because of the cost savings brought to national television systems. It will be easier for people to receive television programmes in their homes, beamed from anywhere else in the world.

The reputation of the BBC is paramount throughout the world. In many countries to which I have travelled on behalf of the BBC it is trusted as an organisation that tells the truth. The BBC is relied on by all other journalists. They listen to the BBC World Service on their short wave radios. Its name is already established. We need to use that name to put forward our views throughout the world.

The name "ITN" can be a bit of a mystery. It is no criticism of ITN to say that occasionally it hijacks the name "BBC" to gain entry to other parts of the world by mumbling, "We're from British television." When the BBC then goes along it is told, "You're already here." I am not surprised that ITN tries that trick. Whatever people may choose to believe, only the BBC could provide a television equivalent to the World Service.

If we were discussing only a new service on television, I should not say that the BBC ought to run it, but running a world service is different. A world service implies reputation. It involves the use of the BBC's resources throughout the world—its correspondents and its contacts with other television broadcasting organisations. That service could be run most cost effectively by the BBC. It has the capacity, and already it has most of the capital equipment. National television stations in other parts of the world will buy BBC products, but they will not buy the products of other organisations.

If the BBC were given the small amount of money that is needed to start up the service, it would be prepared to beam its services to those parts of the world where a profit could not be guaranteed. We need a useful world service. That is why I distinguish it from an ordinary news service. In the foreseeable future, usefulness will be in inverse proportion to the profitability that is likely to be achieved. Usefulness will not be achieved by Superchannel, WTN, CNN, Worldnet or any of the other organisations.

Technically, it is easier to receive pictures in this country from eastern Europe, because of the method of broadcasting and the use of satellites. Were it to be beamed to them by satellite, it would be easier for people in parts of eastern Europe to receive the World Service. That idea could be pursued with profit by the BBC technical experts. The other organisations in this market will never provide a world service that gives the British view, and that advances, through the strength of their advocacy not through what they say, British interests. A very small amount of money, compared with the amount that is already provided for the World Service, would enable the Government and the country to ensure that the money is well spent. If no money is provided, we shall never know whether we made the wrong decision. If we make the wrong decision, we shall pay for it in later years when radio becomes obsolescent or even obsolete.

8.23 pm
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to see you in the Chair.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) on raising this issue on the Consolidated Fund Bill and on having come first in the ballot. Usually I have to get up in the early hours of the morning to reply to Consolidated Fund debates. I congratulate him also on his continuing campaign and his persistence on this issue. It has been noticed and commended by many Opposition Members as well as by Conservative Members.

The hon. Gentleman did not know whether he should declare an interest. Nor do I know whether I should do so. As a spokesman on foreign affairs, I have broadcast from time to time on the World Service and I hope to do so again, particularly if there are pictures.

I have just returned from Washington where I observed and tried to influence a little the Iran-Contra hearings. If any proof were needed of the power of television, the way in which Colonel Oliver North, by his acting ability, coupled with his being somewhat elastic with the truth, has manipulated a relatively pliant and uncritical media shows once again how powerful that media is. It is astonishing that a self-confessed liar, who admits to law breaking, who shares the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds and the misery of thousands in central America, can manipulate the media in America in such a way as to make him into a hero. It was sad and worrying to witness that. It says a good deal about the lack of critical coverage and analysis by the media in the United States. Mr. Rupert Murdoch also understands the power of the visual media. He is now avidly buying up local stations in the United States so as to ensure that a fourth United States network comes under his control.

The kind of service that we are debating is already operating in America. With pictures, Voice of America is powerful. However, it is organised on the basis of cultural imperialism rather than cultural diplomacy. France and other Governments are considering such a service. Hon. Members have already referred to the fact that Britain is being left behind. ITN is already said to be providing such a service on behalf of Britain, through Superchannel news. I am not against that—quite the reverse. I welcome it. A plurality of British output is surely good. However, without being unduly critical of the ITN coverage, it is not tailor made. Its distribution around the world is limited. It does not provide special material and there is only one contact outside Europe, which I understand is Japan.

The BBC service is vital for a number of reasons. I shall refer to three of them. First, I refer to its experience with the World Service. It has experience of 55 years of sound broadcasting; it has 120 million listeners around the world; it still has a worldwide reputation for accuracy and impartiality, despite the efforts of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit).

Secondly, I refer to the wide coverage of BBC news. Ten networks around the world have already agreed to take BBC programmes, and 20 more will possibly do so. BBC will have a much wider distribution than ITN.

Thirdly, I refer to the BBC's unrivalled foreign news-gathering service. It has 26 full-time correspondents around the world and 100 overseas stringers. Furthermore, the Foreign Office makes great use of the BBC's well respected monitoring service. The BBC will provide special programmes. It will not just recycle existing material.

Those are three strong reasons—but there are many others—why the Opposition believe that the go-ahead should be given as quickly as possible. The BBC has conducted market research and has established that there is a demand. That demand should be satisfied.

Unlike commercial television, the BBC is unable to put up the risk capital. Therefore, it has asked the Foreign Office for the money that is needed to set up this service. It requires £1.4 million of capital, and the running cost will be £7 million or £8 million. That is not a lot, as Conservative Members have said. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) will know only too well that that figure is equivalent to the cost of two or three days of fortress Falklands. The Foreign Office is dragging its feet while our competitors are marching on. Will the Minister tell us what is delaying his decision? On 15 January 1987 in an article in The Times the political reporter said: The Foreign Office …is considering these proposals, but has said that there will be no rapid answer. We are used to that sort of reply from the Foreign Office. However, that was January and it is now July. Time is marching on and we are losing out further. Conservative Members have asked whether it is dogma that is holding this matter up or whether the Government have an aversion towards public service broadcasting. Is it cost-cutting or vindictiveness against the BBC? I hope that those are not the case.

The excellent report of the Select Committee points out how little as a country we spend on cultural diplomacy. That does not merely relate to the BBC, but to the British Council, which is doing an excellent job and which has had its budget cut by 21 per cent. in real terms. Germany spends twice as much as us on cultural diplomacy and France spends three times as much.

The paradox, dilemma and peculiarity of the comparison was pointed out well in an editorial on Friday by Martin Jackson, in "Broadcast". He said: Curious isn't it, that a Prime Minister so wedded to the trappings of national virility—both in her Common Market and defence policies"— I shall not comment on either of those policies— should acquiesce in muting Britain's influence in the world. That is curious because this is the sort of positive influence that we should be encouraging. Britain's values, which are shared by all hon. Members, of freedom and democracy should be encouraged and spread around the world. We should allow the BBC, with its high reputation, to continue its tradition of independent broadcasting into television. Television news from the BBC that is relayed around the world will be a vital and important part of our cultural diplomacy.

The Opposition wholeheartedly and enthusiastically support the hon. Member for Leominster and every hon. Member who has spoken in this debate. We hope that the Government will agree to give the BBC the necessary funding and we hope that they will do so sooner rather than later.

8.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)

It is a great pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be speaking in front of you. I hope that I shall not be misunderstood if I say that we will be meeting later during the night, because I have some six debates to answer during the next few hours.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) for raising this important topic. I was aware, before I came to the debate, of the high regard that the House has for the BBC external services, and if I did not know I can be under no illusion now. It is right that the future development of such a valuable national asset should be a matter of national interest and national debate.

I listened extremely carefully to the detailed points that have been made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) made his latest salvo in what has been a long, hard-fought campaign by him in his true tradition. I am delighted that he found my answer to his question encouraging.

We currently face some important challenges and decisions with regard to external broadcasting. Most of the debate has concentrated on the proposal for a world television service, but that is one of a number of new avenues that have been opened by the rapid advance of broadcasting technology. We have already invested heavily in modern technology to improve the audibility of the BBC's external radio services. All the evidence that we have—this is an important point—suggests that short wave radio will continue for the foreseeable future to be the major international broadcasting medium, which is a point that was made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). Currently there are some 1,600 million receivers worldwide, and that number is likely to continue to grow.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Eggar

I shall not give way, because I have a lot to get through.

It is not only the technology that changes, because the needs of the BBC's international audience develop in tune with sociological and political changes in the countries in which the people live and to which the programmes are broadcast. A particular case in point is our broadcasts to the Soviet Union. We welcome the decision to cease jamming the BBC's broadcasts, and we hope and expect that this decision will be implemented consistently, although it is a pity that it has not been extended to the BBC's Polish service. Unhindered access to a large Soviet audience is a new and qualitatively different challenge for the external services, with far-reaching implications for the kind of programmes and the hours and times at which they are broadcast. It is true that in the developing world audiences' needs change rapidly as education and development progresses. The activities of other broadcasters must be taken into account. I am thinking, for example, of the massive increase in commercial broadcasting in some parts of the world.

The Government are in no doubt that the BBC external services are a precious resource that brings great benefits to Britain. They enjoy a high international reputation for the quality, accuracy and impartiality of their broadcasting. That can only enhance Britain's image. In their news coverage it is the task of the external services to broadcast a balanced British view of national and international developments, including an accurate and effective representation of British life. In that they enjoy editorial independence.

It is the Government's task, in close co-operation with the BBC, to ensure that the funds that we invest in external broadcasting are used to maximum effect. We must ensure value for money in the technology that we employ. We must discuss how to respond with the necessary flexibility to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. We therefore maintain a close and continuing dialogue with the BBC external services to set the geographical priorities for broadcasting and the hours broadcast in each language. In doing this we must consider the requirements of the BBC external services within the framework of the total Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget and to assess them against overall foreign policy priorities. We bear the responsibility for ensuring that the taxpayer's money is spent economically, efficiently and effectively. That is why we believe that it is right for the National Audit Office to have access to the external services to carry out its examinations. Following the Perry report, we attach considerable importance to securing agreement on the revised financial memorandum, which had been proposed by that report.

A glance at the figures for the funding of the BBC external services shows why we take this responsibility so seriously. The BBC's present broadcasting output stands at over 732 hours per week, which is the highest level since the 1950s. To achieve this level we have increased grants-in-aid in real terms by over 50 per cent. in the past eight years. About half of this has gone to support increases in running costs. The remainder has funded a programme of capital expenditure, which was begun in 1981, to improve audibility. In 1979–80 the BBC external services accounted for 12 per cent. of the total Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomatic wing expenditure. The figure is now 17 per cent.

I hope that that figure, when put in context, gives an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) who cast aspersions on the way in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office spends money on the BBC in contra-distinction to our true diplomatic effort and our embassies. We must take an overall view, and it is fair to say that the BBC external services have done well over the past five years, in what has been a time of constrained spending.

Mr. Buchan

Why was that policy necessary?

Mr. Eggar

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I am trying to discuss world television news. We are studying the whole matter of Government involvement. It is a deceptively simply proposition which raises a number of extremely difficult issues. Broadcasting by satellite is neither simple nor inexpensive. It is estimated to be 10 times as expensive as broadcasting by traditional means.

The broadcasting of television programmes is not merely a logical extension of radio broadcasting. We need, for instance, in the context of television broadcasting, to examine again the audiences whom we are trying to reach and how we shall reach them. In many areas of the developing world radio is likely to remain the sole means of communication for the foreseeable future. I need hardly say, in addition, that in closed societies, especially in the Eastern bloc, which are a priority for external broadcasting, it is no simple matter for them to acquire, erect and use a satellite television receiving dish. It is, of course, far easier for authorities to spot a dish than to spot a short-wave radio receiver.

Furthermore, the technology is changing almost from day to day. We must be sure that any investment will be a sound use of taxpayers' money. That is why we are conducting a thorough analysis of all the issues raised by satellite broadcasting. We hope to consider the whole proposal and the Government's role in it from production of a programme to delivery to the potential audience.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

When will we know?

Mr. Eggar

We are already engaged in exploratory discussions with the BBC and others interested in this idea. Partly as a result of those discussions the BBC is, I understand, renewing and changing its original proposals. I hope to be able to study its revised plan shortly. I have a feeling, from listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster, that he may know rather more about the proposal that will soon land on my desk than I do.

We should not, of course, ignore the fact that British broadcasters are already present on the international scene. Many hon. Members have referred to the ITN's World News, which is transmitted by Superchannel and is available to a potential audience of more than 8 million homes in 15 European countries. It is available also in hotels and by individual satellite receiving dishes in a number of other countries. Furthermore, I understand that, since the beginning of this month, it is available in Japan. I am told that there are other possible opportunities.

Mr. Foulkes

Will the Minister answer one question? He said in a fairly waffly comment that the plan would be considered "shortly"—that famous ministerial word. Both sides of the House are anxious to know when he expects to announce a decision about the request, whether it is revised or not, by the BBC for financial assistance. When does the hon. Gentleman expect that announcement to be made?

Mr. Eggar

Discussions have been continuing since we received the first BBC proposal in November 1986. I understand that the BBC is shortly to send me a further revised proposal. I do not know when it will arrive. I assure hon. Members that as soon as it arrives we will be able to continue our evaluation of the various options open. I am not in a position to give a definite time for announcing a decision, because I am not even aware of the precise proposal that the BBC, and other interested bodies—that is an important addition—will put forward.

The Government are faced with an important and extremely complex decision. It involves a number of separate issues, especially the need to identify audiences and to ensure that any product that is in any way assisted by public money can reach the appropriate audience, otherwise it simply is not justifiable to put in public money at the first stage. For instance, we must consider how people can receive a product which is in any way financed by British taxpayers' money if they do not have access to a satellite dish. We must know exactly what the markets are and decide whether we can justify any kind of public subsidy to transmit that product into the homes in those areas. I am unwilling to be pinned down to a time, but I assure hon. Members that this issue is receiving considerable attention and priority. It will continue to do so. I look forward to receiving the BBC's further proposals.