HC Deb 08 May 1990 vol 172 cc149-54

`(1) Without prejudice to the provisions of section 13, if any person provides a non-domestic satellite service without a licence or continues to provide such a service when a licence has been revoked, the provisions of sections 165 and 166 shall apply to such services as if they were foreign satellite services.'.—[Mr. Buchan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Buchan

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

I shall endeavour to be brief in dealing with what is a complicated matter. Since I have been raising the issue, a number of amendments have been tabled, including amendment No. 8 which stands in the names of Conservative Members.

I have talked of the introduction of repressive measures of censorship, but another type of censorship occurs when we have too tight a monopoly on ownership, a problem that has been envisaged almost since the commencement of commercial television. As far back as 1955, the Pilkington committee, to which I gave evidence, began to appreciate the problem that would arise as a result of what we now call cross-media ownership, a concept which now exists to a high degree. Pilkington said: The threat is thought to reside in the fact that, because two of the media of mass communication are owned in some measure by the same people, there is an excessive concentration of power to influence and persuade public opinion". That was said partly because of the evidence that I gave more than 30 years ago—in relation to control by a press monopolist, Roy Thomson, over Scottish Television. He discarded the criticism in the Pilkington report on the ground that it had come from two folk lorists from Glasgow, of whom I was one and my wife was the other.

That was the beginnings of an understanding of the problem of mass media which we are now witnessing to a greater degree. Pilkington was concerned that it might have two results. One was that when issues were covered by broadcasting or the press, being in the same hands, they might be subjected to undue and uniform editorial influence. The second was that the choice of issues to be reported—the setting of the agenda, as it were—could become distorted. There was a third reason, and Pilkington might have been prophetic, for it said: Newspapers might unduly publicise and praise, or avoid adverse criticism of, the television service provided by companies in which they had an interest, and might disregard or criticise unfairly any exercise by the authority of its powers against these companies. In other words, one section of the media could be used to denigrate or support another element of the media—press and television—which is exactly what has been happening with the development of Sky Television, being under the ownership of a major press owner. [Interruption.] The monopoly element involved is enormous. Indeed, it is such that the Government have taken steps in the Bill to deal with cross-media ownership, because they recognise the problem, a problem that we have seen in practice—in the Sunday Times, The Times and The Sun—with the over-pushing of Sky Television and the praising of programmes in articles about the pick of the week and so on, so that even within itself it is unhealthy, not to mention the political control that can be exercised.

There is a huge hole—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) or any of his hon. Friends want to interrupt—if they want to defend Rupert Murdoch—perhaps they will get to their feet and do so. Let them say where they stand. If not, perhaps they will allow me to proceed.

Later, the Broadcasting Act 1981 included some measures to deal with the matter. It does not explicitly preclude control of a television franchise by newspaper interests, but the IBA and the Home Secretary have power to suspend or end a franchise if it appears that the existence of the shareholding has led or is leading to results that are contrary to the public interest. That is the position at which we have now arrived. While the legislation has no explicit prohibitions on cross-media ownership, the underlying philosophy is clear. Restrictions have been thoroughly entrenched through an enabling statutory framework and by the IBA through its own regulations.

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We have seen the experience in other countries such as America where the problem led to a decision in the Supreme Court against cross-media ownership. Who was involved? It was Rupert Murdoch. He had to divest himself of some of his holdings as a result. We have seen the problem in Australia—which I have just visited for a week to see the broadcasting system. Who was involved? It was Rupert Murdoch. What we face in Britain has had to be dealt with by at least two other countries.

If the Government had mentioned Rupert Murdoch, News International or Sky Television, the Bill would have been hybrid and would have had to be dealt with in an entirely different way. That is why I raised the matter. I was given a ruling that was constitutionally inevitable— that the Bill was not hybrid because it did not mention a particular company. It exempts from the monopoly ownership rule what is called broadcasting by non-domestic satellite television stations. There is only one such station. All of us here could own our own stations and call it non-domestic broadcasting by satellite. The only problem is that we cannot afford to do it. It is like saying that everyone is entitled to eat in the Ritz every day.

Almost the worst aspect of the Bill is that, according to The Guardian, the Minister has said that he will not pull the plug on News International. He can deny it later if he wishes. The Government intend to exclude from the Bill the operation of News International. We should remember that every other television company will be subject to the restrictions imposed by the Bill on holding. They are also restricted in terms of nationality. Proprietors must be either British or members of an EEC country. That is deliberate. Sky Television and any others which broadcast via the Astra satellite are excluded from the restrictions in the Bill.

Mr. Mellor

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's arguments will sound even more exciting when they are made in the debate that we are due to have, and which no one can avoid, on the subject of whether it is right that there should be cross-media ownership restrictions on Sky Television and others. The hon. Gentleman's remarks would be relevant to the amendment only if Sky continued to broadcast without a licence. He is dealing with a relatively limited regulatory point. Perhaps after the number of hours of debate that we have had, what he is saying about Sky might be better placed in the debate on that specific point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I am grateful to the Minister for confirming what had been lurking in my mind for several minutes. I was shielding my ignorance about the complexities of the Bill. My suspicions are now confirmed that what the hon. Gentleman has been saying does not have an awful lot to do with the new clause before the House.

Mr. Buchan

I usually agree with your suspicions and sometimes even with your rulings, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but neither your suspicion nor a consequent ruling on it would be correct in this case. If someone behaves in such a way that the ITA has to intervene, the application of the clauses applying to foreign satellite stations should apply to the non-domestic broadcasting station.

It is late at night. I welcome the Minister's intervention to discuss the topic in the amendments to be debated tomorrow. An element of the matter can be dealt with then and I shall take great joy in repeating my arguments, hopefully at an earlier time of night. I thank the Minister for his intervention.

The amendment proposes that if News International is to be exempted from the nationality rule that applies to everyone else and the control on the amount of monopoly holding, it should be treated as a non-British or foreign satellite television. If the ITC object to it, it can not only proscribe it, but take action on the advertisers and people who make the programme from Britain. It is a draconian measure, but we have been dealt a draconian measure in reverse by the Minister, and that is why I advocate this provision.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I am a little puzzled by the new clause's consequences. I am not here to praise Rupert Murdoch, but I want to know whether my hon. Friend intends to bury him because I would object to that. The amendment makes Sky Television subject to licensing, as I take it. What is the effect of that licensing? I presume, since the cross-media ownership factor does not apply to satellite, that it would not have any effect.

Mr. Buchan

It says that, without prejudice to clause 13, if a non-domestic satellite service is operating and its operator does not choose to seek a licence or continues to provide such a service after a licence has been applied for and the ITC has decided to revoke it, the legislation referring to a foreign satellite shall apply.

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again; it is good of him. What consequences and restrictions are placed on the operator if he applies for a licence?

Mr. Buchan

If he applies for a licence within the normal regulations there would be enormous consequences with regard to holding. If he does not apply for such a licence, but continues to have a satellite broadcast from abroad, different provisions prevail. I am asking for that to happen if he continues to provide such a service when a licence has been revoked. If he does not have a licence, there is nothing we can do about it, except to treat his satellite as foreign-based. That is how Mr. Murdoch would be treated because he broadcasts from Luxembourg. If he applies for a licence and what he broadcasts is not liked by the ITC it can be discontinued and the licence revoked. It can be treated in the same way as a foreign satellite. I agree that it is a most draconian measure and good, quiet resolutions will come in tomorrow in the form of amendments, to which I shall give verbal support and my vote.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not suppose that in your position as Deputy Speaker you have had a chance to look at today's edition of The Guardian which has just come out and has a headline, Parliament 'misled' on Rover deal". I wonder whether you have been informed about whether a statement is to be made by the appropriate Trade and Industry Minister about the Select Committee report, which reveals that there has been a gigantic fiddle by the Government over the Rover sweeteners of £38 million, as revealed in this morning's paper. Surely we are discussing the Broadcasting Bill——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have not received any request for a statement. Mr. David Mellor——

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Since we are discussing the Broadcasting Bill and people outside want to know what is happening in Parliament, surely it would be right and proper for a Minister to come and tell us about this gigantic fiddle.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows the form, and that I am not responsible for the attendance or otherwise of Ministers in the House.

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) referred to clauses 165 and 166, which are draconian clauses intended to catch satellite services which do not originate in the United Kingdom and which thus cannot be regulated by the ITC. The clauses are backstop provisions designed to deal with such a service. It is not necessary for the non-domestic satellite services with which the hon. Gentleman is mainly concerned to come within the ambit of clauses 165 and 166, because they will be regulated by the Independent Television Commission on matters such as taste, decency, balanced news reporting and so on.

Where a licensee was providing an unacceptable service, the ITC would have substantial powers to enforce licence conditions, including ultimately the possibility of withdrawing the licence. If the operator continued to provide a service after his licence had been removed, he would be guilty of an offence, under clause 13, of providing a licensable service without a licence. He would therefore be liable to prosecution. With respect to the hon. Member, I think that that is a sufficient deterrent.

The point about clauses 165 and 166 is that this apparatus is not available in the case of services originating outside the jurisdiction. It is for those services that they are needed. In the light of that, and knowing that the hon. Gentleman has just been warming up his tonsils for his assault on the substantive issue of satellite cross-media ownership tomorrow, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Buchan

I thank the Minister for his generous invitation. That is twice that I have been invited to talk tomorrow, once by the Minister and once by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With the kindness that is about, I will make a long speech tomorrow.

If it were not so late, and if all the troops had been on duty, I would sadly have pushed this to a vote. I will not do so. I will resume the argument tomorrow. Of course, there will be yet another stage—before their Lordships.

Listening to the reactionary nature of the Conservative party, we sometimes have to look to their Lordships for a liberal attitude. I look forward to that.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I do not recall any words of mine that were an open invitation to the hon. Gentleman to speak, at length or briefly, on any future occasion. We must wait until that occasion.

Motion, and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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