§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Government's plans for broadcasting legislation. I have laid a White Paper before the House today.
Our broadcasting system has a rich heritage, which is a tribute to the efforts and enterprise of the broadcasting authorities and all those professionally engaged in the broadcasting enterprise. Our proposals seek to build on those achievements in developing services of quality, range and popularity.
Broadcasting is changing fast and this change makes possible a much wider choice for the viewer and the listener. The viewer should not be denied this choice. That is our starting point. The Government should not seek to lay down a blueprint for the future by picking favoured technologies. Rather, we propose an enabling framework with increased opportunities for additional channels as the customer determines. Several dozen television channels and possibly several hundred radio services may be in prospect.
Subscription, which enables the viewer to signal his preference to the broadcaster directly, will have a greater role to play. There will he a greater separation of the different activities that make up broadcasting, including programme production, the assembly of individual programmes into channels and transmission and service delivery.
The ownership of commercial television and radio should be widely spread. The White Paper contains detailed proposals to ensure that the control of television and radio services is not concentrated in the hands of a few groups or individuals and to prevent excessive media cross-ownership. The Government are determined to keep the market open to newcomers and to prevent any tendency towards editorial uniformity.
Safeguards on minimum standards are needed to protect viewers and listeners from shoddy wares and exploitation. Subject to those, they should be able to exercise greater choice over what they hear and see. While some important positive programming obligations are retained, we envisage a substantial liberalisation, especially of the ITV system, and greater reliance on the viewer, rather than the regulator, to sustain range and quality.
Those are the principles that have guided us. Our thinking has been influenced at many points by the Peacock report and by the admirable report in June of the Home Affairs Committee of this House. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will find the time to read the White Paper in full, but I shall give a brief outline of the main practical proposals.
We propose that a new fifth channel, with 65 to 70 per cent. national coverage, should be authorised to begin broadcasting at the start of 1993. Different companies could provide the services at different times of the day, but the channel would be nationally based. A sixth channel will also be authorised if technical studies show it to be feasible.
We propose a new flexible framework for the development of multi-channel local services through both cable and microwave transmission, known as MVDS. 30 That will make possible a further extension of viewer choice. It will also provide new opportunities for local television in cities and for television services catering for minority interests.
British Satellite Broadcasting plans to start its three channel direct broadcasting by satellite—DBS—service next autumn. The Government gave BSB an undertaking last year that the United Kingdom's fourth and fifth DBS channels would not be allocated until BSB's service had been in operation for at least three years. BSB has recently said that it would be willing for that moratorium to be lifted. Accordingly, the United Kingdom's two remaining channels will be advertised early next year. Five high-quality DBS channels should soon be available to British viewers.
Viewers will continue to receive other satellite services directly, including those from proposed medium-powered satellites. We continue to work for international agreement for the supervision of programmes in such services and shall propose to Parliament sanctions against any unacceptable foreign satellite services received here.
The present ITV system will become a regionally based Channel 3. Licence holders will, for the first time, have a statutory obligation to provide regional programming, including programmes produced in the region.
The distinctive remit of Channel 4 will be retained and reinforced to sustain high quality programmes in the commercial sector. We consider that, after the necessary legislation, advertising on Channel 4 should be sold separately from that on Channel 3. Subject to those points, the White Paper sets out options on the future constitution of Channel 4. The Welsh Fourth Channel Authority will continue in essence unchanged.
All those commercial television services will be free to decide their own mix between advertising and subscription funding and will have greater freedom to raise money through sponsorship, subject to proper safeguards. All will be subject to consumer protection obligations on programme content. Most commercial television licences, including those for Channel 3 and Channel 5 services, will be allocated by competitive tender, subject to a quality threshold defined in the White Paper. Operators of Channels 3, 4 and 5 will be expected to show high-quality news and current affairs programmes dealing with national and international matters and to show the news, and possibly also current affairs, in main viewing periods. Channel 3 and Channel 5 will be expected to provide a diverse programme service appealing to a variety of tastes and interests to ensure that a minimum of 25 per cent. of original programming came from independent producers and that a proper proportion of programme material is of EC origin.
There will be one additional requirement affecting Channel 3 only. There will be continued provision, like that which brought ITN into existence, to ensure that there is at least one body effectively equipped and financed to provide news for Channel 3. There will be safeguards for the continued provision of a schools programmes service.
The Government agree with the Home Affairs Committee that a new agency, which might be called the Independent Television Commission, should be established, in place of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the Cable Authority, to license and supervise all parts of the commercial television sector. It will be able to operate with a lighter touch than the IBA and without the 31 IBA's detailed involvement in scheduling but, as the White Paper sets out, it will have strong sanctions against failure by its licensees to live up to their licence conditions.
The BBC will be expected to continue to provide high-quality programming across the full range of public tastes and interests. The Government look forward to the gradual introduction of subscription on the BBC's television services and to the eventual replacement of the licence fee—which will, however, continue at least for some time to come. We propose that the night hours from one of the BBC's channels should be assigned to the new ITC for allocation, like other licences by competitive tender. The BBC would keep the other set of night hours on the basis that it used it as fully as possible for making a start in developing subscription services.
We envisage that the part played by independent producers in programme making in the United Kingdom will continue to grow, as future licensees will be free to operate as publishers, without programme production capacity of their own. We believe that the transmission infrastructure should be separated from the programmes services.
The Government propose to proceed with the plans that I announced to the House on 19 January for the deregulation and expansion of independent radio, under the light touch regulation of a new Radio Authority. There will be scope for three new national commercial stations and as many as several hundred local services, including community radio stations.
The Broadcasting Standards Council, already established to reinforce standards on sex, violence, taste and decency, will be placed on a statutory footing. We propose that the exemption of broadcasting from the obscenity legislation should be removed at the earliest opportunity.
That is a brief summary of the main proposals set out in the White Paper. We aim to ensure that viewers and listeners have greater freedom of choice from a more varied output of programmes, including programmes of high quality. British television has a deservedly high reputation in the world and we expect that reputation to grow with the new opportunities that are now in sight.
The House will have an opportunity to debate the proposals before they are put into legislative form. We shall also take careful note of views expressed outside the House. We shall then bring forward legislation.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
Is the Home Secretary aware that his White Paper announces a number of aspirations for broadcasting with which the Opposition are in wholehearted agreement? We welcome the expansion in broadcasting and recognise the consequent need for changes in organisation. However, we at least know that expansion can bring diversity and high quality only if it is carefully regulated. The Home Secretary, having proclaimed the virtues of choice and quality, makes proposals that will result in a reduction in both.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that, while competition has undoubted benefits in some areas of economic activity, the doctrinal obsession with markets revealed in his White Paper is bound to have an adverse effect on broadcasting? It is just not possible to pretend that viewers are given more choice if what they are offered is, in truth, just a number of extra channels that show 32 programmes that are increasingly indistinguishable from each other and of a steadily deteriorating quality. That is the prospect which the White Paper holds out.
Will the Home Secretary consider the consequences of auctioning Channel 3 franchises to the highest bidder? It can result only in a deterioration in programme quality, which the minimum standards, laid down in paragraphs 6.10 and 6.11, will do little or nothing to arrest. Programme companies that obtain franchises from the highest bids will be forced into sacrificing new investments and the production of high-cost programmes. The Home Secretary has already conceded that some deterioration is already inevitable, by apparently removing from Channel 3 companies the specific obligation to broadcast high-cost drama, documentary and religious programmes. As a result, the new ITC powers that he announced today—that is, formal warning, right to revoke a franchise, and perhaps even the imposition of fines—are no more than window dressing. They are sanctions that reinforce regulations that are not in themselves strong enough to ensure high quality.
Does the Home Secretary not realise that standards will deteriorate even further when the competition that he claims to seek is reduced by the concentration of ownership? Will he confirm that, in paragraph 6.48, he asserts the need for ownership to be widespread, then announces the abandonment of present controls, and finally confesses that the Government do not have the slightest idea what regulation to put in their place? I make a prediction: they will not be regulations to which Mr. Rupert Murdoch takes exception.
The likelihood of increased uniformity has been heightened by the Home Secretary's decision to require Chanel 4 to sell its own advertising. In paragraph 6.23 of the White Paper, he reaffirms the importance of Channel 4 catering for tastes and interests not served by other independent channels. By forcing it into direct competition for advertising, he reduces the chances of Channel 4 providing such essential programmes. Does not the opinion of the Peacock report, which is quoted and endorsed in paragraph 32, illustrate the Home Secretary's basic error? That quotation asserts that the BBC must continue the production of high-quality broadcasts, because, even in a fully developed broadcasting market, independent companies will neglect such broadcasts. The White Paper makes that neglect more likely, and it does not help the BBC to perform its proper function.
The BBC is to be subject to what the White Paper elegantly calls—although the Home Secretary wisely did not refer to the phrase in his statement this afternoon—a "double squeeze". The value of the licence fee is likely to fall, and there can be absolutely no assurance that the necessary additional funds can be raised by subscription television; nor is subscription television a suitable way for the BBC to raise a major part of its revenue.
Paragraph 24 of the White Paper refers to subscription making it easier for high-quality programmes to be aimed profitably at particular sections of the market. The clear implication of that statement is that those who cannot afford high quality—the old and the poor in particular—will not get it. Clearly, the BBC will not be able, nor should it be prepared, to rely on subscriptions for a large part of its income. The result of the double squeeze is certain to do desperate damage to radio in particular, a subject to which the White Paper devotes an insulting page and three quarters.
33 Paragraph 8.7 includes the ominous message that BBC radio will rely on licence fees for some time to come, but there is no suggestion of how BBC radio will be financed when, as the Home Secretary intends, the licence fee is abolished. We have no doubt that the Government mean that, sooner or later, all radio will be commercial radio, and that will be a disaster. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]
I conclude by asking the Home Secretary three specific questions. The statement says that Channel 3 companies will be free to decide their own mix between advertising and subscription. Does that mean that a company will be free to move to financing, predominantly based on the limited subscription system, or will a minimum figure be specified by the Home Secretary?
Secondly, will the Home Secretary explain the real meaning of his restrictions on control—the word in the White Paper—by non-EC companies? Am I right to fear that it will still be possible for an American conglomerate to own, either directly or through a subsidiary, companies broadcasting in Great Britain?
Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the powers of the Broadcasting Standards Council, the "other things" that the White Paper coyly says are to be discussed with Lord Rees-Mogg, will not include the right to preview specific broadcasts?
This White Paper reflects commercial values rather than broadcasting values, as is to be expected from a policy that owes more to the Department of Trade and Industry than it does to the Home Office. It pretends to offer choice. In fact, many of the new channels will do no more than offer vast profits to the tycoons of international television. It is a giant retreat from the concept of public service broadcasting. Its result will be less diversity and lower standards.
§ Mr. Hurd
I think that the right hon. Gentleman must have written the last bit of his speech before he read the White Paper. As usual, his preliminary demonstrations bear little relation to what is actually proposed. This has not been a doctrinal exercise; it is something that we have worked at for a long time now to achieve the right balance between wider choice and the insistence on quality. I do not disagree with the original points that the right hon. Gentleman made and which he put in his lecture at Hexham last week. That is our aim, and I believe that we have found a sensible, practical way of doing that.
I refer to the right hon. Gentleman's specific points. On competitive tender, he has fixed on one point of what is essentially a three-part exercise. Somebody bidding for a franchise will first have to pass a quality threshold. That is not just consumer protection against pornography, excessive partisan politics, and so on. There are some specific things in the White Paper about diversity, about regionality—the regional content of programmes—about schools, and about news and current affairs. When that test is passed—it will be a stiff test—there will be the competitive tender, and then there will be the monitoring and enforcement by the new ITC of the quality threshold in operation.
If the right hon. Gentleman reads the White Paper and sees what is said about the yellow card, the red card, and the possible renewal of franchises, he will see that the business of enforcement is actually more specific that it is under the present arrangement. If he looks at those three stages all together, he will see that this is a serious balance between quality and wider choice.
34 Again, I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said in his speech about ownership on Friday. It is important, as the White Paper states, and as the right hon. Gentleman thought we were not going to say, that there should not be a concentration of ownership. Paragraph 6.48 states:
But clear rules will also be needed which impose limits on concentration of ownership and on excessive cross-media ownership.In paragraph 6.53 of the White Paper, we set out various stringent rules on which we invite comments. If the right hon. Gentleman reads the White Paper, he will see that they includeno licence holder for a particular area should control other broadcast media for that area".Then there is the relationship between United Kingdom satellites and franchises and international franchises. There is also the relationship between newspaper interests and the media. It is all there; it is just that the right hon. Gentleman has not got quite as far as that in his reading of the White Paper. If he looks at paragraph 6.50, he will see the answer to one of his specific questions about the control of franchises by non-EC companies.
We invite precise comments on possible ideas, but the principle of choice between various severe forms of regulation—that is surely what the right hon. Gentleman would expect of us—is there, and it is severe.
We are entirely clear that preserving the remit of Channel 4, with which the right hon. Gentleman also agrees, is an important part of getting the balance right. We set out different ways in which Channel 4 might be organised to preserve the remit while selling its own advertising. When the House looks in detail at those three options, we shall be interested to have a choice between them. I believe that we can all agree on the presentation of the remit, and that there can be a reasoned argument about how best to achieve it.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the BBC and the licence fee. I think that the BBC can be—I am trying to choose my words carefully—reasonably satisfied with the position. Between now and 1991, the licence fee will be indexed and increased in line with inflation as it was a week or so ago. After 1991, we shall discuss with the BBC the extent to which it would be reasonable to limit indexing to take account of what may have been earned by subscription. Subscription is an attractive idea, as I told the House when reporting on the Peacock report. We shall have to see how far it will go and in what form, but the BBC is being given a nudge in that direction, which I consider entirely reasonable.
When he talked about radio, the right hon. Gentleman neglected the fact that we have discussed it, and that Government publications on it have been produced. I am sorry that there is not legislative time in the immediate future for a radio Bill. I am keen to get on with the proposals for radio, which were well received at the time and which are rehearsed in summary form in the White Paper. But there is no neglect there; it is simply a matter of finding legislative time.
Having answered one of the right hon. Gentleman's specific questions, I shall now answer the other two. There will be no tilt in the balance between advertising and subscription: it will be open to the successful franchise holder to achieve a balance that he considers sensible. As for previewing, the White Paper does not add to what I have already told the House about the Broadcasting 35 Standards Council. It will be put on a statutory basis. Lord Rees-Mogg, the chairman, is now discussing with the broadcasting authorities how he would operate, and he is making some progress in working out agreement on standards. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman should be interested and approving, because this fits absolutely into his general approach—at least, I hope it does. Lord Rees-Mogg will let us know what he believes, in the light of the discussions, to be the right statutory basis for his authority, and we shall make proposals accordingly.
Having listened to the right hon. Gentleman, I believe that the difference between us is that he believes that the only way to sustain quality successfully is by restricting choice. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is the thrust of what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying. But we consider it a negative approach, which puts too much faith in the virtues of detailed bureaucratic regulation—which we have at present and which the IBA has been conscientiously discharging, but which we believe becomes otiose as wider choice is made available. We believe that our proposals offer the right balance between giving wider choice to the viewer and sustaining quality.
§ Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that today's statement and the remarks that he has just made will be warmly welcomed not only in the House but outside it? He is balancing carefully the era of change that is about to enter the broadcasting industry, and permitting the public the widest possible choice. His statement will be warmly received by members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, many of whose key recommendations he has included in the White Paper.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the main aspects of today's proposals is that the new "light touch" arrangements for the regulation of commercial television will be essential to maintaining the quality and standards of British television in the commercial sector, for which this country is rightly famous?
Let me conclude by saying that I would rather that the new authority was called the Commercial Television Authority.
§ Mr. Hurd
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and his colleagues on both sides of the House certainly did a sterling job in producing their report, which undoubtedly influenced us at several points, including the proposal that the IBA and the Cable Authority should be merged into a single new body. As long as it smells sweet, I am not too passionate about its name, and we shall have plenty of opportunities to discuss that.
I agree with my hon. Friend that much will turn on the arrangements for the quality threshold, which I described in answer to the right hon. Gentleman and of which he neglected to take account. The arrangements for sustaining quality involve doing away with the detailed processes of scheduling and regulation of the ITV sector. They involve the BBC, which he called the cornerstone, the Channel 4 remit, the consumer protection provision for Channel 3, positive requirements for Channel 3, including news, schools and diversity, and the more rigorous proposals—the yellow card, the red card and the renewal of franchise arrangements. Taken together, I think that those proposals are an important part of the package.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Does the Home Secretary recognise that my right hon. and hon. Friends greatly welcome the extension of consumer choice implicit in the new broadcasting technologies and in increasing competition? Does he also recognise, however, our extreme concern that he has not realised that the increasing multiplicity of channels will not of itself ensure that the public enjoy the quality and variety that we have experienced in this country, which is the envy of the world?
Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the arrangements for competitive tendering for Channel 3 in particular will take money out of independent television, which could result in inferior programming, a narrowing of choice or a combination of both? Does he not recognise that the pace of technological change is not so fast that it requires us to abandon a regulatory regime that has uniquely secured for this country its rich, balanced mixture of entertainment, information and education, and of popular and minority programmes for everyone? Does he not recognise that the public are as interested in quality as in diversity? Channel 4 has been a brilliant achievement. Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that it has succeeded because it has had a secure source of finance, and that that has not been secured in the White Paper?
Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that some ambivalence has appeared in his statement, and indeed in the White Paper, between his commitment to what he calls a "light regulatory touch" and his emphasis on the significance of positive programme requirements? In which does he believe?
§ Mr. Hurd
I must say that the fizz seems to be going out of the attack. Let me say with the greatest courtesy that I have always regarded the hon. Gentleman as one of nature's regulators. He would naturally put emphasis on a detailed system of regulation to remedy every ill, but I feel that television is moving out of that system.
Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman's main point, that wider choice might not automatically mean diversity. But our proposal is that it should—that it must. There should not simply be a wider choice between quiz shows on different channels. If he reads the White Paper, the hon. Gentleman will see that the thrust of its proposals is to ensure that wider choice for the viewer is real choice, and not simply a choice between identikit shows. He believes that the right way to achieve that is to bring all new opportunities such as the satellite and Channel 5 under the same detailed control, with numerous officials sitting down and regulating exactly what [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is a consequence of the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric. I do not believe it. I believe that television in this country is fast growing out of that framework. We need a new framework ensuring diversity, as the hon. Gentleman mentions, but not relying for that diversity on this kind of nit-picking.
§ Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)
Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about cable, in which he knows that I have an interest? Is it still the policy of Her Majesty's Government to maintain conditions in which, given entrepreneurship on the part of cable television companies, the urban areas of the United Kingdom will have the prospect of being cabled within a reasonable time, with the opportunities that that will bring of interactive services and more competitive telecommunications?
§ Mr. Hurd
Yes, indeed. For various reasons cable has made a slowish start, but it is beginning to pick up. That is both good news and important. We now have the new technology, MVDS, and it was consideration of that which held us up for several weeks. The question is how that new technology should be used. Should it be used simply and solely to help cable forward, or should it be possible for people to use that technology independently of cable? Cable will want to use that technology, and that is entirely legitimate. My right hon. Friend will see from the White Paper the rather complicated balance that we are trying to strike, safeguarding the interests of the existing cable franchise holders and perhaps of those applying now, while not harnessing MVDS technology absolutely to cable. I believe that there is room for both, and certainly, as I know my right hon. Friend hopes, for cable to use MVDS to facilitate its growth.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Will the Home Secretary accept that, if there is to be choice, the choice must be for all, and that for choice for all, all modes of communication must be available to each and every person? For those in rural areas, that means cable and satellite as well as the five terrestrial channels proposed. Does the Home Secretary agree that the track record of cable in the past few years has been more than a little disappointing? Does he further agree that the White Paper does little to encourage the companies to increase cabling across the country and that without cable and other modes being available to rural and other areas, there cannot possibly be choice for all?
§ Mr. Hurd
The hon. Gentleman has gone a little astray. A whole series of technologies are moving forward. We have terrestrial television which can reach more people and use more of the spectrum than previously; we have cable, MVDS, satellite and, most important, radio. All are poised for further development. I do not know, and the White Paper does not pretend to guess, which will turn out to be acceptable more quickly than others. That is why I say that we must enable development rather than declare a blueprint. The White Paper takes each to see how we can create a framework into which it can be fitted. The hon. Gentleman may be right about cable and I do not deny what he said. It is now progressing fast after some disappointing years. But I do not think that he is arguing that we should put taxpayers' money into it, as other countries have. Let it be enabled together with the other technologies and we shall see what viewers and entrepreneurs make of it and whether it is the preferred technology.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's recognition that the television industry must adapt and that the changes proposed in the White Paper offer an exciting challenge to the industry and a wider choice to viewers. Anyone who has been to the lightly regulated market of New York will know that our choice is extremely restricted. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that, even among those who welcome his proposals, some are worried about some of them—for example, the tax on turnover? If that is not sensitively handled, it could undermine the ability of independent television companies to cope successfully with the increased competition and to provide a greater quality of 38 programming under the new regime. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will listen to those anxieties?
§ Mr. Hurd
I entirely accept that, as the dust settles, hon. Members like my hon. Friend, who knows the industry well, will want to raise a large number of specific and practical points. There is an immediate problem about the nature of the levy in this transitional period, and I owe the industry a decision and statement about that soon.My hon. Friend asked about the permanent arrangements. We believe that there is a strong case on the grounds of encouraging efficiency to move from a profits-based to a revenue-based levy. That principle is set out in the White Paper. Obviously, we shall listen to representations about how that should be worked out and applied.
§ Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)
I welcome the diversity and the choice inherent in these proposals, but does the Home Secretary accept that concentration of ownership is a crucial issue? Unless the House can be satisfied on that issue, it would be unwise to deregulate to the extent which he asks the House to accept. Having long argued for an auctioning of licences on Channel 3 and Channel 5, may I ask whether the sum of money that comes in, which could be considerable, will be earmarked for public service broadcasting, particularly on Radio 4 and BBC 2? The Home Secretary asked for views about Channel 4. I hope that he will retain it as a non-profit-making company, although taking advertisements.
§ Mr. Hurd
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his first point, and I agree with it. Measures against the concentration of ownership are crucial, and I would not come before the House with a Bill for deregulation which did not also include measures against the concentration of ownership. That is set out in the White Paper—
§ Mr. Hurd
—when the right hon. Gentleman has read that far. I agree with the general point made by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen).The proceeds of the competitive tender will be earmarked for the Treasury as the public's receipt from franchises of leases of a public asset. I am sorry, but I have forgotten the right hon. Gentleman's last point—
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, may I say that it is the most culturally literate development in broadcasting in the 33 years since the BBC lost its monopoly? Will he bear in mind the fact that, during the past 33 years, the Opposition have continuously said that improvements in broadcasting can take place only as a result of the iron grip of regulation and control? At this point, would my right hon. Friend summarise the criteria and principles which have guided the 20 or so new developments contained in this White Paper?
§ Mr. Hurd
I hope that it breathes through the White Paper that quality and a wider choice for viewers and listeners go hand in hand at the top of the list. 39 Independence, meaning a proper place for independent producers and independence against the concentration of ownership, probably comes third. Although the Government would not enforce this, reality will: that viability is the fourth. In other words, the proposals must make sense in terms of what viewers are prepared to accept and finance. Those four—quality, choice, independence and viability—are the criteria.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)
Does the Home Secretary accept that this is not only a bad day for Britain, but for the reputation of Britain in the world? Our broadcasting system has been the great jewel of our reputation both culturally and educationally. He has never understood that its excellence depends on regulation, that regulation ensures diversity of programme and opinion, and that more channels of themselves do not ensure more kinds of programmes. Does the Home Secretary agree that the majority viewing that has been built up for apparently specialist programmes, such as the Attenborough and Bellamy programmes, will not happen under a wholly commercial structure?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that he is proposing a minor ghetto for public service broadcasting and commercial freedom for cash for media entrepreneurs? Does he agree that the so-called "light touch" is a means of ensuring that the only competition that will take place will be between different kinds of pap? Is it not time that the Home Secretary took the whole damn lot—Peacock, the Green Paper and himself—out of this Chamber? Is it not time that we took broadcasting away from the Home Office and gave it to a proper Ministry that was interested in standards and programmes?
§ Mr. Hurd
I know that the hon. Gentleman has always been in favour of a Ministry of Broadcasting, and indeed a shadow Ministry of Broadcasting, and I do not object to those perfectly legitimate ambitions. I remember him posing away the other night in the Sinn Fein debate about the White Paper making the world safe for Murdoch and Maxwell. At least he has not repeated that today. Unlike the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, perhaps he has read paragraph 6.48, which deals with the concentration of ownership. Those who run BBC 1, BBC 2 and Channel 4—three of the four existing terrestrial channels—would be a little surprised to hear themselves described by the hon. Gentleman as a "minor ghetto" in British broadcasting. They are not. Those three channels will sustain exactly the responsibilities that they have now and which the hon. Gentleman wishes to preserve. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. He speaks with the genuine voice of the old-fashioned regulator, whom time has passed by.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the House that the Home Secretary said that there will be a debate later on the White Paper. I request hon. Members to ask single questions, not to go into the matter in great detail, because they will have other opportunities. On that basis, I shall allow questions to continue for 15 minutes.
§ Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on political television advertising in the American presidential elections, which are 40 mercifully coming to an end. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the new broadcasting arrangements will prevent direct or indirect political advertising on the air?
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
I shall obey your strictures, Mr. Speaker. I should tell the Home Secretary that no Opposition Member has seen the White Paper because it has only just come in. The Home Secretary talked about quality control, but who will carry out that control? Who will determine it? Can we ensure that in future, instead of the trivia that we increasingly get on television, with all these game shows, we shall have programmes such as "Brideshead Revisited", the Miss Marple series and "Fortunes of War"? How can he guarantee that we will get such quality programmes if the interests of profit come first?
§ Mr. Hurd
The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is, the BBC and the ITC. Those who run the BBC will continue to supply the hon. Gentleman with Miss Marple to his and their hearts' content: there will be no change in that respect. The ITC will require variety and diversity from the applicants for franchises. It will be impossible for someone successfully to bid for a franchise, however long his purse, if he is proposing to broadcast only a series of quiz shows.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
As to radio, does my right hon. Friend accept that the high standard of British music, which is a national asset, owes a great deal to the BBC's Radio 3? Will he enlarge on what action the Government intend to take in the long run to uphold the high musical standards of Radio 3?
§ Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
Will the Secretary of State accept that I and my hon. Friends are impressed by the stand that he is taking against the concentration of ownership in television? What steps will he and his hon. Friends take to guard against the concentration of ownership in the print media? Will he assure us that there will be no exceptions to such concentrations of ownership, even if the companies involved are the most fervent supporters of the Government?
§ Mr. Hurd
I gladly swallow the hon. Lady's compliment, but I shall not answer her second question. Because of the breakdown of restrictive practices in the press it is becoming increasingly possible, locally and nationally, to produce newspapers at lower prices—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Paisley, South will be calling The Independent a poor ghetto in a minute.
That is what is happening, and it is a healthy development.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his proposals to abolish the IBA and to establish an Independent Television Commission to take broadcasting into the 21st century. Will he consider an expansion of that to include telecommunications? May I express the hope that the excellent IBA engineering division will be invited to tender for the new privatised transmission systems? What plans does my right hon. 41 Friend have to encourage investment in cable television and to relax the regulations governing overseas investment in cable?
§ Mr. Hurd
We are considering the matter raised in my hon. Friend's second point, although it is not defined in the White Paper. On the first point, important transitional arrangements will have to be made for the IBA. We have begun to discuss that with the authority, and this morning I had a word with the chairman and director general, who stressed the importance of the matter. I entirely understand that. They have a staff—a skilled staff—to consider. None of the changes can take place before Parliament has approved the necessary legislation. That will give us time to formulate transitional arrangements to deal with the points made by my hon. Friend.
Neither I nor the White Paper join in any denunciation of the IBA. Although I criticise the bureaucratic niggling, I recognise that that is the job which Parliament laid upon the authority in the 1981 Act and which the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) continues to glorify. Time has moved on and passed that by, and the detailed regulation that the authority has carried out, as Parliament wished, is unnecessary. But that does not mean that those who have carried it out should be condemned.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)
We can all sympathise with the Home Secretary in his humiliation at having to introduce this glossy distillation of the prejudices of Lord Young of Graffham, Saatchi and Saatchi and the Prime Minister. But the grubby changes in the ITV franchises and the abolition of the IBA pose a direct threat to serious programming, especially to current affairs, which is likely to undermine the basis of "World in Action", "First Tuesday" and "This Week" and to cause them to go the way that "Weekend World" has gone. What became of the old Conservative maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"?
§ Mr. Hurd
I do not blame the hon. Gentleman, who unlike the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, has not had time to read the White Paper. Had he read it, he would have seen that standing out among the positive requirements of any applicant for a Channel 3 franchise will be the provision of news and current affairs programmes at times when people are viewing or listening. Moreover, section 22 of the Broadcasting Act 1981 provides that there should be at least one organisation providing high-quality news and international news that is sustained by the franchise holders. That is the basis of Independent Television News and that will be preserved. The hon. Gentleman's fears are unfounded.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)
Will my right hon. Friend clarify precisely what the White Paper means when it says that the new Independent Television Commission will have a lighter regulatory touch to encourage lighter programme requirements? Does my right hon. Friend agree that ITV programming has not always been noted for its gravity and that the IBA has not always been noted for its severity? How does he answer the fear that a lighter regulatory touch may mean television stations with the editorial standards of the lower tabloids?
§ Mr. Hurd
I do not think that my hon. Friend's conclusion follows from his premise. The fact that he disagrees with some decisions made by the IBA does not justify the existence of much detailed bureaucratic 42 scheduling, most of which never reaches the light of day but is carried out conscientiously by the IBA as part of its present duties. It is not tenable to continue that. That is what we mean by the "lighter touch".
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
How does the Home Secretary expect the House to take seriously his assurances about preserving standards in broadcasting when he is to abolish the IBA and is announcing his intention to move towards privatising the BBC? How moveable is he in this consultative document? If there is much protest about, for example, the abolition of the IBA, will he come to the House and say, "I accept what has been said"?
May I congratulate the Home Secretary on being the first Minister who has not succumbed to the temptation of putting his own grinning face on the front page of a glossy White Paper? That self-denying ordinance should be referred to all members of the Cabinet.
§ Mr. Hurd
I am obliged for the hon. Gentleman's second point. I believe that the IBA should be moved together with the Cable Authority. To be honest, that was not a view that we had firmly reached before we received the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which recommended it. It is common sense to bring together those regulatory authorities and give them a common framework in which to operate. That is what we are proposing and that is something to which we will hold.
§ Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if one listened to the Opposition, one might think my right hon. Friend had introduced reform for reform's sake rather than reform being forced on the Government by changing technology? Has not the White Paper been a rational, sensible and practical way forward for the future of broadcasting? What effect does my right hon. Friend expect there to be on the BBC when the BBC and the IBA are separated from the licence fee regime? The IBA is currently received in conjunction with the BBC, and only if the BBC licence fee is paid. Secondly, at what level does he believe the subscription would be for IBA viewers—who, after all, currently receive that service free?
§ Mr. Hurd
I am not entirely following my hon. Friend's point, but we believe that subscription is attractive in principle. The BBC is beginning to experiment with it on one of its night channels; so, too, is the satellite DBS. There is scope for further experimentation, and we propose to nudge the BBC in that direction, without being dogmatic at present as to how far that could go.
If my hon. Friend was talking about the point raised by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, of course, BBC radio is a problem. BBC radio is financed out of the licence fee and there is no question of doing away with it, because I regard it as essential to the general structure of broadcasting. As we move towards subscription, that will be a problem which will clearly come on to the agenda fairly soon. I accept that, but we are not at that stage yet. We are at the stage of indexing the licence fee and taking account after 1991 of the extent to which the BBC might reasonably benefit from subscription income. I hope that that meets my hon. Friend's point.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I have not read paragraph 6.48, which the right hon. Gentleman constantly referred to, which is about the concentration of 43 ownership. However, is the concentration of ownerhsip specific to television or does it cover also the concentration of ownership within the media? Frankly, with the amount of media and press publishing controlled by Murdoch and Maxwell—I do not mean "the Murdochs" and "the Maxwells"; I mean Murdoch and Maxwell—they should not have even a finger in the pie of any television company. Does the concentration of ownership cross over from television to the press, or is the paragraph exclusive to television? If so, it does not go far enough.
§ Mr. Hurd
Yes, that is why, in paragraph 6.53, one of the principles that we lay down is:national newspaper interests in national services using United Kingdom broadcasting frequencies (and vice versa) should be limited; and a similar principle should apply in the case of local services and the local press. One possibility"—not going as far as the hon. Gentleman would like—would be to follow the reciprocal 20 per cent. limit already proposed in the case of radio".However, we go further than that, because another conceivable mischief is that people who own a lot of international television would move in and take franchises; that, too, is covered in this part of the White Paper. We would have to ensure that they did not get the franchises.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that regional television companies will greatly welcome the Government's continuing commitment to the regional structure of ITV. I note in paragraph 2 of the annex to the report that the function of the ITC will be to decide with the Government on that regional structure. Can my right hon. Friend tell us how he sees that structure regionally compared with the present structure? Does he accept that the important role of the ITC means that it is essential that a chairman for the new authority is appointed at the earliest possible opportunity?
§ Mr. Hurd
As my hon. Friend knows, what we need in the near future is a successor to Lord Thomson of Monifieth as chairman of the IBA. What follows for the ITC is something that can be settled a bit later, because the ITC is so far just a proposal in a White Paper which Parliament will want to debate and reach conclusions on.
My hon. Friend mentioned an important point about the regions. We do not think it would be sensible for the Government to lay down in a White Paper the exact frontiers of the regions. My hon. Friend comes from a part of the world where that is a live issue from time to time. I believe that that is something that Governments should have at arm's length and which the new ITC should settle. However, we are emphatic that the regional principle should not only be kept, but should be strengthened when we are dealing with Channel 3 and the ITV franchises.
§ Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, even if the Government were to succeed in preventing a concentration of ownership, the danger is that an increase in competition for advertisers, together with the so-called "light touch" regime, will mean that the overwhelming influence will be in the hands of the advertisers? That will lead to restrictions in choice and the lowering of standards. That has been the experience of every country that relies on competition rather than regulation.
§ Mr. Hurd
I do not believe that is entirely right. Channel 4 is doing well. It is paying for itself and has carved out for itself a particular form of advertising market that obviously works. There is a strong argument that Channel 4 could be completely privatised and still retain that rather special advertising finance which would enable it to keep the remit. There are counter-arguments, which are set out in the White Paper. I do not agree that it has been the experience up to now that keeping a certain number of channels financed by advertisers has the effect to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)
As the Minister of State has been defending the United Kingdom's commercial interest so well over the Council of Europe draft convention, can my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary tell us that there are no proposals in the White Paper that will fall foul of that convention? Additionally, will the proposals on the BBC mean a change in the BBC's charter?
§ Mr. Hurd
My hon. Friend's first point is quite right. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) has been doing noble work in trying to reach an international agreement in the Council of Europe, which is dealt with in the White Paper. We are keen that that should be concluded. My hon. Friend has made a good deal of progress in resolving the difficulty about advertising breaks. Other member states of the Council of Europe have raised difficulties, but we hope to have a further meeting in Stockholm later this month, which my hon. Friend will attend, and it is possible that decisive progress will then be made.
The BBC charter expires at the end of 1996 and there are no proposals to seek to alter it before then. I suppose that those people who are around in 1994 will begin a new debate about what the revised charter should contain. At that stage, some of the points mentioned today and contained in the White Paper will come to the fore, and by then we shall know more about the way subscription has gone.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
Does the Home Secretary accept that many of us are deeply concerned about the regional implications due to the failure of the White Paper to bring forward a clear framework on the takeover procedures, because it seems likely that powerful predators will be able to put profit before variety, standards and quality? Can he tell us why there is no specific reference to SC4 and the provision for Gaelic, as there is for the Welsh channel and the Welsh language?
§ Mr. Hurd
There is provision, because my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland insisted that there should be. If we cannot find the reference in the next few seconds, I will inform the hon. Lady later. The provision is there, it is very specific and it will fully satisfy.
I have been informed that it is paragraph 6.37. It says:The Government recognises the importance of broadcasting to the Gaelic language and its future development and, while no change is implied in present policies towards Gaelic broadcasting at national or regional level, new local services could be an important means of meeting Gaelic needs.It is better news for the hon. Lady.
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the main barrier to the effective exercise of popular choice on television is the continued 45 existence of the BBC licence fee? If the evidence is that subscription will not lead to an early demise of the licence fee after 1991, will my right hon. Friend be ready to consider alternative forms of funding for the BBC that will lead to an early abolition of the licence?
§ Mr. Hurd
I have got into trouble in the past for saying that, as choice multiplies, the rationale behind the BBC licence fee—which is paid whether one does or does not watch the BBC—becomes weak. I believe that that is true; that is why I do not believe that the licence fee should be regarded as immortal. We have set out carefully in the White Paper the steps that we propose to take to nudge the BBC towards looking at subscription, but it is too early to answer my hon. Friend's point. The Peacock report's advice, which we accepted, was against having advertising on the BBC. The White Paper does not reopen that question.
§ Mr. Hattersley
The Home Secretary has said some 10 or 12 times that the White Paper is explicit and specific in its proposal to avoid concentration. If that is the case, why does the paragraph dealing with that subject conclude, after several sentences of platitudes:
the Government would welcome comments on the scope and formulation of such rules"?Do the Government know what they intend or not? The Home Secretary should face the fact that, if the argument between us is to be about "choice", he must try to concentrate on what that word means. For viewers to have a real choice there must be real alternatives between which they can choose. Does he not worry to the slightest degree that he will reduce variety by placing so much power in the hands of the producers in the market that he will attempt to create?
§ Mr. Hurd
On the first point—I think that the right hon. Gentleman is on a false point—we state quite clearly in paragraph 6.48:clear rules will also be needed which impose limits on concentration of ownership".In paragraph 6.53, we sketch the ground that those rules will need to cover, which I have already outlined in answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). The general principles include newspapers, concentration of ownership within the television industry and the possible concentration among foreign holders of television interests and our own. Those are possible proposals set out to consider the concentration of ownership.
46 Since we are a democratic and listening Government—[Interruption.]—particularly in this sphere, we have asked for views on precisely how those principles, which are absolutely clear and firm, should be applied. The right hon. Gentleman would have been furious if, almost a year before we introduced legislation, we said that, on this important issue, our minds were entirely closed. The principles are there, they are firm and they meet the points which the right hon. Gentleman has raised. After he has finished his rhetoric, should he favour us with precise ideas on how the principles should be implemented, we shall add them to our own and those expressed by other hon. Members who have raised this issue.
As I told the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), when we come next year, to produce a detailed plan for this House to consider, he is right to say that side by side with the proposals for deregulation must be proposals against a concentration of ownership.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am sorry that I have not been able to call all the hon. Members who wished to participate, but as usual, I shall keep a list and give them precedence when this matter comes before the House again.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the Home Secretary began his statement the White Paper was available in the Vote Office. As you will appreciate, Mr. Speaker, it is extremely difficult within two or three minutes, to examine that document. There is a summary, in the Home Secretary's statement, and as soon as he began that statement, copies were distributed in the Press Gallery. That statement is not available in the Vote Office, but I believe that it should be because it gives a more comprehensive summary of the position rather than having I o go through the entire White Paper. If you, Mr. Speaker, could deprecate the omission of a statement from the Vote Office when a White Paper is placed there, it would help all of us.
§ Mr. Speaker
It is normal practice for embargoed copies of a ministerial statement to be issued to the press, but they are embargoed until the Secretary of State gets up —[Interruption] I really do not see why the press should have those statements before Members. It is not for me to impose the practice, but I believe that it would be helpful to the House if summaries could be put in the Vote Office with the White Paper.