HC Deb 18 December 1995 vol 268 cc1210-2
7. Mr. Hain

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage if she will make a statement on the future of digital broadcasting. [4641]

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

The Broadcasting Bill covers digital terrestrial broadcasting. The framework is designed to stimulate the creation of a fair and competitive market. We want access for new entrants. We aim to safeguard public service broadcasting and the interests of viewers and listeners.

Mr. Hain

The people of Wales will be pleased that there is now an opportunity under the Bill to receive both Channel 4 and S4C. However, the Bill is extremely deficient in at least one other respect: the total failure to address the convergence of telecommunications and broadcasting, especially with digitalisation. Is there not now a very strong, if not unassailable, case for a single regulator for both broadcasting and telecommunications? When I put that point to the Secretary of State's predecessor on 23 May, he said that in principle he was interested in the idea. Seven months later, are not the Government in danger of being overtaken by the rapid growth in this area? For example, NewsCorp has taken a multi-media stake in MCI, 20 per cent. of which is, in turn, owned by British Telecom. Is not this whole area developing very quickly?

Mrs. Bottomley

It is a very exciting area, and I was pleased by the favourable response to the publication of the Bill from almost all the players in the industry. There are huge opportunities for industry, for jobs and for Britain. I am pleased by the hon. Gentleman's comments about Channel 4 and S4C in Wales, and the opportunities which now exist for them. In my view, it is not appropriate at present for Oftel and the Independent Television Commission to merge, as each has an important job to do. However, it is clearly of great importance that they co-operate and the hon. Gentleman will find that, on a number of issues—not only those in the Bill but other matters on which we are about to consult—there is a close and constructive relationship between the two bodies because, as the hon. Gentleman has said, of the importance of the increasingly converging areas.

Mr. Gale

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on seeking to ensure through the Bill that the existing terrestrial broadcasters have adequate digital capacity to ensure that they lead the way in the development of new services and new programmes. If my right hon. Friend believes—as she clearly does—that good programming will lead the digital television revolution, is it not time that we freed up Channel 4 from its funding formula and allowed that money to be invested in good new programmes?

Mrs. Bottomley

I believe that there is good news for Channel 4 in my announcement on Friday in that we intend to ensure that it retains more of the revenue. It must be remembered—I am sure that the House is well aware of this—that the independent television companies pay to the taxpayer about £400 million a year. When thinking about a future funding formula, therefore—which we do not anticipate deciding on before 1997—all the options and the realities of the situation will be reflected on.

Dr. Moonie

In welcoming the right hon. Lady's commitment to full and fair competition, may I ask her why there is nothing about conditional access in the Bill?

Mrs. Bottomley

We are shortly to consult on proposals on conditional access and the consultation will be conducted through the European Communities Act 1972. It is not necessary for it to take place through the Bill. This week, the hon. Gentleman will see the further proposals and the details involved.

Mr. Fabricant

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate the research and development directorate of the BBC at Kingswood Warren and the research department of NTL in Crawley Court, formerly the privatised arm of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, on their pioneering work in digital broadcasting—both digital audio broadcasting and digital terrestrial television? Will she please liaise with her right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to ensure, as we shall be one of the first broadcasters of digital radio and television in the world, that we make use of the opportunity to be the first exporters of digital television converters and digital audio radio sets?

Mrs. Bottomley

I strongly share my hon. Friend's wish to congratulate all those involved. He mentioned NTL, which bodes well for the privatisation of the BBC transmission services. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was not here to ask his question on that subject. My hon. Friend is right to say that digital technology provides great opportunities for British industry. The Guardian said in an editorial: If British companies rise to the challenge then it could provide lots of new business not just in Britain, but in the rest of the world, as the ripples of the digital revolution spread …But this time, at least, they can't say the Government didn't try to help.

Mr. Dafis

I welcome the proposals in the Bill for the funding arrangement for S4C and the commitment to link it to the retail prices index. However, does the Secretary of State recognise the need for the base level funding, from which the RPI link will follow, to be sufficiently high to enable the production of the additional programmes that will come through digitalisation and the arrangements now being made? May we also assume that when further frequencies become available as analogue is switched off, or at the first opportunity, S4C will be granted true parity with other service providers?

Mrs. Bottomley

It would be rash for me to make further commitments so far ahead. I believe that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that we have listened carefully to the concerns of S4C. We have sought to strike a balance between the interests of all those involved in this important industry. I note the hon. Gentleman's points about the basis on which the funding formula is established.

Mr. Stephen

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many hon. Members on both sides are concerned that digital broadcasters should observe the highest standards of taste and decency. Can my right hon. Gentleman explain why, if the existing codes of conduct are adequate, in April and again in June this year it was possible to screen a film called "Goodfellas", which included stabbings and shootings? In 146 minutes, it contained no fewer than 212 uses of the f-word and on four occasions the f-word was used in conjunction with the word "mother".

Mrs. Bottomley

I will come back to my hon. Friend with detailed comments about the programme that he described. He will know that the introduction of the Broadcasting Standards Council, which combines the strengths of its two predecessor bodies, is intended to ensure that with the greater freedoms that come out of the digital revolution there will also be an enhanced sense of responsibility in the interests of audiences and the public. I am determined that the BSC's work will be strengthened. There will be a requirement to keep a note of the steps that programme makers take as a result of complaints that have been upheld.

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