§ [Relevant document: The draft of the BBC's new Charter for the continuance of the British Broadcasting Corporation.]5.37 pm
§ The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)
I beg to move,That the Agreement between the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the British Broadcasting Corporation (Cm. 3152), dated 25th January 1996, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31st January, be approved.The BBC is a central part of our national life. Virtually all of us watch its television channels and listen to its radio services. None of us is indifferent to it. It is a unique repository of talent and expertise.
The BBC has remained dedicated to its core tradition of public service broadcasting, true to Lord Reith's original vision of 70 years ago. It still serves to inform, to educate and to entertain. It is a benchmark against which other broadcasters are measured. Michael Grade said that it is the BBC thatkeeps the rest of us honest".Since the present charter and agreement were debated, we have seen rapid change in the world of broadcasting, with cable, satellite and Channel 4, and Channel 5 will soon arrive. Three independent national radio stations have been introduced, as have a new BBC national radio station and nearly 200 independent local radio stations.
I pay tribute to the BBC's determination to stay at the forefront of technology. Over the years, it has adapted in line with changing circumstances and technological advance. Recently, it has played an important part in promoting digital broadcasting, and it introduced digital audio broadcasting last September. We shall discuss that when the Broadcasting Bill has completed its progress in another place.
Internationally, the BBC helps to define the United Kingdom's image and reputation. It was on the BBC that President Gorbachev relied for accurate and impartial news when he was under house arrest. It has the highest reputation as a broadcaster and programme maker at home and overseas.
Today's debate on a new charter and agreement marks the culmination of a three-year process of rigorous consultation and debate. The Government published their consultation paper on the future of the BBC in 1992. I pay warm tribute to my predecessors in office.
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) for the original consultation paper, in response to which many thousands of people let us know their views and concerns. I pay tribute to the National Heritage Select Committee, which made a valuable contribution through its 1993 report. The Government and the new Secretary of State responded to that in our White Paper, "The Future of the BBC", for which I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), in 1994. A year ago, with another Secretary of State, the House debated the issues arising from the White Paper.
1173 Perhaps it is a tribute to the BBC and to the concern that hon. Members feel for it that, for all the many issues on which views may change with successive Secretaries of State, there seems to have been great unanimity of view on this subject.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
In between offering those tributes, which I am sure have been richly earned, is the Secretary of State satisfied that the concerns and interests of BBC Scotland are being treated sympathetically by the hierarchy of the BBC in London?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I am extremely satisfied on that front. I shall say more about those matters later, but I have carefully considered that issue, as has the BBC governor from Scotland. I hope that, on this as on other matters, the scrutiny that has been undertaken will satisfy hon. Members.
§ Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)
Under present arrangements, Scotland has a national broadcasting council. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the value of the English National Forum and the local radio advisory councils, which are not specially recognised in the charter? I know that she is aware of the issue. Is she prepared to make a more positive statement about that, or even consider amending the charter?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) have reinforced the fact that it is right that the BBC should be answerable, accountable and involved in the various parts of the United Kingdom and the regions of England. I met members of the English National Forum earlier this week, and I hope that I was able to satisfy them, as I hope I will satisfy my hon. Friend, about our earnest intent that their concerns should be properly considered right at the heart of the BBC.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
Impartiality is important in the BBC and, in fairness, I shall take a question from the hon. Gentleman and then make progress.
§ Mr. Maclennan
It is important to establish the status of the documents that we are debating. The right hon. Lady may know that that autocrat of the breakfast table, Marmaduke Hussey, wrote to several bodies, including that to which the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) referred. On 24 January, he wrote:The Government, however, has indicated firmly that it does not wish to amend the documents.Does it not follow from that that this debate is an utter charade, and that the Government have no intention of amending the documents under discussion in the light of anything that may be said—for example, about the apparent oversight of the position of Gaelic in Scotland? That should be dealt with, either in the charter or in the agreement.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
The Government are well aware of the importance of the BBC and of the legitimate concerns of hon. Members in its affairs. The agreement must be 1174 debated in the House before it can be implemented. There have already been years of consideration of those issues and months of detailed deliberation. It has recently been debated in another place and careful consideration was given to the points raised there. In the same way, after this debate, we will carefully consider the points raised before finally implementing the agreement. It would be unfair not to inform the House of the inevitable concern of the BBC and others that the uncertainty there has been for many months should be brought to an end.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
Paragraph 2.2 of the agreement states that the BBC will providetwo television programme services available for general reception throughout the United Kingdom, which may include regional variations".Is the use of the word "may" a mistake, and if it is, could it be amended to "must" or "shall"?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
It is possible that there could be an amendment. I will consider the matter in more detail. I must make progress with the substance of my remarks, because it is clear that many hon. Members want to speak.
Overwhelmingly, the view that emerged from the consultation by the Government, from the Select Committee report and from all the other contributions was that the BBC should continue to be the United Kingdom's main public service broadcaster. That would not always have been the predictable outcome, and it is no small tribute to the advances that the BBC has made in recent years under the shrewd and effective chairmanship of Marmaduke Hussey. He has been chairman of the BBC for longer than any other chairman, and is the only one to have been reappointed. He was the 17th chairman of the BBC, and the House will wish to express its thanks for all that he has done.
Throughout this process, the Government have listened carefully to the views expressed and reflected on them. Our stance has been that of a supporter of the BBC, but not an uncritical one.
The documents before the House today reflect our conclusions. The draft royal charter is the instrument that will continue the existence of the BBC and regulate its constitution until 2006. The charter is granted under the royal prerogative, and is not subject to parliamentary approval. I welcome the opportunity for the House to consider the draft charter in conjunction with the associated agreement, for which, as I have made clear, I seek the approval of the House. It has been debated already in another place, and we have given careful consideration to the points raised there.
The agreement is a contract with the BBC, setting out how the corporation will meet its objects and obligations. We regard the BBC as a strong, independent organisation serving the public. The agreement contains, for the first time, a specific recognition of the BBC's editorial independence. That independence brings with it a responsibility to audiences. Under the agreement, the BBC will be required to produce a statement of pledges for its audiences. That will play a part in improving accountability. It reflects the principles of the citizens charter.
The outline before the House is a first indication of what it will contain. I want that statement to be developed to contain specific detailed promises. The BBC can be held accountable to the public at all levels—local, regional and national. That work is in hand.
1175 Central to the future of the BBC is the role of the board of governors. It will be for the governors to deliver the BBC that we all want. They are a strong team, with the expertise to oversee the BBC's public service and commercial activities. Under the chairmanship of the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, we look to them to promote high standards, to enhance the BBC's reputation, to build on its traditions, and to oversee its strategy for success in the future.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
The Secretary of State mentioned the new chairman-designate, Sir Christopher Bland. What sort of confidence can the Opposition have in the independence of Sir Christopher Bland as the chairman of the board of governors, as he is an ex-Tory councillor and has been an active member of the Conservative party? Where is the impartiality there? Is she not replacing one Tory millionaire with another?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
The new chairman of the BBC has been strongly commended by individuals such as Greg Dyke, Melvyn Bragg and many others, who I was under the impression were thought to be supporters of the Labour rather than the Conservative party.
The role of the BBC chairman is vital, and the greatest possible care was taken to find an individual who had the skill and expertise to lead the BBC forward into the next century. Above all, the governors are the trustees of the public interest. Their duties are clear in the new charter and agreement. They set the overall framework for the corporation, approve strategy, objectives and promises for its services and monitor the extent to which they are being met. They ensure that those who work for the corporation comply with the BBC's obligations. The governors are accountable to the public, and the BBC's management are accountable to them.
The House will be aware that the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, has experience both as a regulator and programme producer. He recognises the distinct role of the BBC chairman and governors, at the centre of the relationship between the BBC and the public. To discharge that role effectively, the governors need to draw on informed and specialist advice. The national broadcasting councils are the key to that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We have considerably strengthened and clarified the role of the national councils. They are to be responsible for assessing public opinion, developing the corporation's objectives in conjunction with the governors, and advising on the allocation of resources and on the contribution that programme makers throughout the United Kingdom could make to the BBC's programme output. That last duty is particularly important.
From the contributions that have already been made to the debate, hon. Members will be aware that it is our concern that the BBC is not a London, but a British, broadcasting corporation. We said in the White Paper that the BBC should continue to be a major provider of programmes, making and commissioning a reasonable proportion and range of its national output, as well as programmes for local audiences, in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions.
1176 The annual report should record progress against production targets in each area. We have included those as requirements in the new agreement. That will ensure that the economic and cultural benefits of the BBC's activities will be shared throughout the United Kingdom.
The English regions also need a direct voice, as I made clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson). The charter provides for the continuation of the BBC's regional advisory councils. That is underpinned by a new requirement for public consultation in advance of any material changes for home services. Services meeting the public interest should not be changed without reference to the public. While we have increased the governors' discretion about how they obtain regular advice, we fully recognise the essential contribution made by the BBC's advisory bodies.
Only this week, I met members of the English National Forum. It brings together the chairmen of all the 10 regional advisory councils. Marmaduke Hussey has told me of the tremendous start that has been made in bringing together the voices of the English regions. He has given the strongest public assurance of the governors' support for the forum and its work. Excellent work by the local radio advisory committees represents the views of listeners and viewers at grass roots. I look forward to hearing more about their work directly when I meet them individually later in the year. The chairman and the governors must continue to listen to local voices. The structure of the advisory bodies currently in place is invaluable in providing that input.
Direct accountability to the listening and viewing public will be underpinned by the new "Statement of Pledges". The full statement will detail what the BBC is promising to deliver. The pledges will be a contract between it and its audiences. The House will already be aware of a preliminary version, but the BBC will wish to make headway on those pledges in the light of debate in another place and, indeed, the comments made today.
I know from my postbag the sort of promises that people want—targets on subtitling for deaf viewers, commitments to Gaelic broadcasting for the community in Scotland, pledges on funding for the arts and new music. In developing the statement, the BBC will be taking into account those views and those of Parliament and its advisory bodies.
§ Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)
The Secretary of State will have received numerous representations praising the good work of the BBC in promoting Gaelic broadcasting in recent years. Does she agree with those representations? It is important for that work to be preserved in the pledges for the future.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I hope that I made it clear that the tradition of the BBC to promote diversity throughout the country is extremely important. I hope that it will be possible to develop precisely the concerns that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in the "Statement of Pledges".
As I made clear, it is vital that there is increased accountability to audiences and, as a citizens charter for the BBC as it were, the "Statement of Pledges" will play an important role.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
I tabled the amendments on impartiality to the Broadcasting Bill in 1990—they are 1177 included in section 6 of that 1990 Act—and I notice that a new requirement is being imposed on the BBC with respect to enhanced impartiality and a new mechanism. There is also reference to rules to be laid down in a code. My right hon. Friend referred to the fact that there should be accountability. How would that code be enforced? Is Parliament going to have an opportunity to see it in draft before it is brought into effect, bearing in mind the extreme importance of impartiality, which is what the consumer, listener and viewer are often primarily concerned about?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
As my hon. Friend will discover, I hope to say a little more on impartiality later. We make it an explicit requirement that the governors ensure that the elements are properly enforced. My hon. Friend might want to discuss that matter in more detail when the Broadcasting Bill reaches this place.
We have emphasised the BBC's independence. We have established its direct accountability to its audiences for its programming, but we have not lost sight of the need to reinforce high standards. That is an issue on which the House and I feel strongly. Some argue that violence and sex constitute only a small proportion of television output, but they have a disproportionately powerful effect on impressionable minds. We cannot become complacent on these issues. I discussed that with the chairmen of the BBC and the ITC, and they take it seriously.
To ensure that standards are maintained, we have brought into the heart of the corporation's charter and agreement its responsibilities for taste and decency. The BBC is under obligations equivalent to those on other broadcasters under the terms of the 1990 Act. Our proposals in the Broadcasting Bill for a new broadcasting standards commission will further underpin the work of the BBC governors and of the commercial regulators in maintaining standards of taste, decency and fairness.
One of the fundamental standards that we require of all broadcasters is impartiality, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) referred. As he rightly said, he made an important contribution in the 1990 Act. The BBC is a highly respected and trusted source of news and information. It has a special obligation to the public not to abuse that trust. We have introduced additional requirements that the governors establish an impartiality code giving programme makers clear guidance on the standards expected of them. The governors must ensure that the corporation, its employees and all programme makers engaged by them comply with the codes or guidelines covering programme standards. That is a clear legal requirement on the governors and corporation under the new charter.
§ Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)
While I greatly welcome what my right hon. Friend has just said, does she recognise—I am sure that she does—that the viewing public's main concern is that the standards being laid down should have teeth? Irresponsible journalists who carry out biased journalism—sadly, that happens in all branches of the media, including, occasionally, the BBC—should be able to be disciplined and held publicly to account.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I strongly endorse my hon. Friend's comments. He will have seen a copy of the producers' guidelines, and I refer him to the section on impartiality. 1178 There is a copy of the document in the Library of the House. The director general has made it quite clear that those seeking employment in the BBC should explicitly recognise those producers' guidelines, whether they are directly employed or independent producers. A number of other mechanisms have reinforced the seriousness with which the matter is regarded.
§ Mr. Cash
Now that my right hon. Friend has reached this part of her speech, will she be kind enough to give an assurance that the code—on which the issue of impartiality will ultimately turn—will be presented to the House in draft form, so that we can have the opportunity to consider it? The nuts and bolts will be sorted out in the code.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I am not able to give my hon. Friend that assurance, although I can discuss with the governors of the BBC what further steps they will take to ensure that there is absolute confidence in the code that they introduce.
The BBC is highly regarded around the world for its standards and expertise. The standard of its programmes and its independence from political control are very much the foundation of its domestic and international reputation. The reputation of the BBC name provides a great opportunity for the BBC and its independent producers to export programmes and take up other commercial opportunities.
The new charter and agreement implement our policy that the BBC should be able to develop its commercial services. They provide a proper framework. We expect the BBC to re-invest a large proportion of the profit that it makes in UK productions and public service activities to the benefit of the licence fee payers.
The BBC sets the pace. My hon. Friends will be aware of the success of the recent series, "Pride and Prejudice"—10 million viewers watched that programme at home. That has led to the opportunity to sell the programme to 14 different countries, earning £2.5 million. The oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit earned video sales of 500,000 for their first two films, and "Wallace and Gromit's Grand Day Out" was sold to 30 countries. The commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, has licensed Wallace and Gromit merchandising through 35 deals. The pair, via BBC Worldwide, are earning millions, which can be reinvested for the benefit of BBC public services. We want to see more of those successes for the BBC—this is only the beginning.
My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South called his White Paper "The Future of the BBC: Serving the nation, Competing world-wide" and we do indeed wish to see the BBC competing worldwide. In allowing this development, we are determined to ensure that the BBC's commercial activities are separate, and seen to be separate, from licence fee-funded services. The agreement requires the governors to put in place distinct and transparent accounting, and to ensure that the BBC trades fairly, without cross-subsidy from the licence fee. The Broadcasting Bill, which is not yet in this House, will make the corporation's commercial services subject to licence and regulation by the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority.
We have agreed with the BBC that it should focus on those activities that have to be retained in-house, for reasons of cost or to ensure continuing high quality. The 1179 BBC's transmission facilities are not essential to its public service obligations. We have agreed that, subject to appropriate safeguards, the BBC's transmission services should be allowed to develop in the private sector.
By introducing the new charter and agreement, we have made clear our commitment to the BBC as a public service broadcaster. Privatisation of transmission will bring clear benefits to the licence fee payer by bringing downward pressure on transmission costs and by allowing more resources to be invested in the high quality services for which the BBC is known. The independent broadcasting transmission service was privatised in 1991.
The House will be aware that National Trans-communications Ltd.—NTL—the privatised company, now competes successfully for transmission and telecommunications contracts worldwide. The BBC's transmission staff have built a superb service. It is now time to set it free from public sector constraints to enable it, too, to play a full part in the commercial developments that lie ahead.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
Notwithstanding the fact that NTL is a world-beater, particularly in terms of research and development and compression techniques with digital transmission, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the sale of transmission facilities from the BBC will not be open to purchase by NTL? If they were, my right hon. Friend would simply be creating another monopoly.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
Such matters are subject to normal competition law, and would be open to consideration by the competition authorities.
The charter and agreement set out the future of the BBC. I hope that I have made it clear that the Government's view is that the BBC is highly regarded for its quality, fairness, accuracy and artistic excellence. It is a respected institution here and around the world—that was evident from the responses to our consultation paper. It is not a perfect institution, and some hon. Members will have examples where they consider it to have fallen short of its own high standards. The new charter and agreement set out a clearer framework of accountability to ensure that the standards aimed for remain high. The board of governors is responsible for ensuring that those standards are met.
The BBC's prime function is to serve the nation. At the same time, we are setting the framework within which the BBC can compete worldwide. I expect it to compete vigorously but fairly, and to minimise the call on licence fee funding, while maximising its contribution to the United Kingdom's economy and extending the reach of British culture. The new agreement—with the draft charter—provides the right framework for the BBC's continuance and its development over the next decade. I commend it to the House.
§ 6.6 pm
§ Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy)
First, may I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who has had to return home and is therefore unable to open the debate on behalf of 1180 the Opposition? I also apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not informing you of that fact before you entered the Chamber.
I welcome this opportunity to debate the draft charter and agreement for the BBC, which plays a unique role in our national life and is rightly recognised and praised around the world for the standards that it sets in public service broadcasting. It is right that the House should have the opportunity to debate the service that the BBC provides to us all.
The charter is designed to take the BBC forward, through the turn of the century, to 2006. The broadcasting sector is changing rapidly, so we can expect to see a different broadcasting landscape by the time the charter is considered for renewal once again. We must therefore ensure that we know what we are doing and that we get it right. If we set the wrong framework for the BBC, it will suffer in the years ahead and broadcasting in the United Kingdom will be the poorer for it.
As the Secretary of State said, the Government's proposals were contained in the White Paper published in 1994 and debated in the House a year ago. The drafts of the charter and of the agreement have been laid before us. The charter is to be noted and the agreement is to be approved. The problem is that we can neither add to them nor subtract from them—only approve or reject the whole.
The charter has already been debated in another place. Prior to the debate, peers had an opportunity to question the Minister in that House informally on the contents both of the charter and of the agreement. I know that many of them found that most useful, and it puzzles me that hon. Members here were not offered the same opportunity.
We have been approached by a number of organisations, such as Broadcasting for Scotland, that have made sensible, positive suggestions for minor amendments to the charter and agreement. Sadly, as Marmaduke Hussey, the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC, made clear in his letter of 24 January to the national councils:The Government, however, has indicated firmly that it does not wish to amend the documents. In the face of this, the Governors themselves wish to provide assurances about the way business will be conducted.It would have been a little more respectful of the views and wishes of the House if the Government had not made their intentions quite so blatantly obvious before deciding to debate the issue. It makes me wonder why we are all standing around debating it. Perhaps the Minister of State will refer to that point in his reply.
Although the Opposition have no intention of voting against either document tonight, we want to register our dissatisfaction with the fact that they are unamendable and that we cannot make any adjustment or fine tuning. We do not believe that this is the proper way for the House to consider such an important national institution as the BBC.
We must also consider the charter and agreement in the context of the Broadcasting Bill that is before another place. Changes in the broadcasting landscape proposed in that Bill, while largely welcome, will alter significantly the outlook for the BBC. Although it is likely that the BBC will remain the broadcaster with the widest reach, it will be in a much wider field with many more competitors.
1181 It is regrettable that we could not first determine the new structure of the broadcasting world and then produce a charter to promote the BBC within it, rather than consider the charter before the Bill.
Labour Members welcome the more explicit statement of the BBC's public service objectives that is to be found in the charter. Those objectives stand beside new freedoms to provide commercially orientated services and are essential at a time of widespread anxiety about broadcasting standards and scope in years to come.
The BBC must be able to expand its output in the digital age and provide a diverse range of services on its multiplex, but we must ensure that the formal public service requirements set down in the agreement are adhered to. The new chairman has already mentioned a subscription sport service on a BBC digital channel. That may be attractive, but it must not be developed at the cost of the exclusion or withdrawal of sport from the free-to-air service.
The Government, too, must reflect on the issue. As they learnt to their embarrassment in the other place last week, public service obligations arouse great strength of feeling in many quarters.
§ Mr. Hawkins
The hon. Gentleman will realise that I am among those who have expressed strong views on the issue. He will also recognise that the Government have always had an open mind on the matter and, as their consultation paper makes clear, they are prepared to listen to representations. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the thorough way in which he has entertained representations from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ Dr. Moonie
I would feel more confident if the Government had not voted against the proposal in the other place last week. Although I fully accept the good faith in which the Government entered into their proposals for consultation, perhaps there was some procrastination on their part in not wishing to be seen to make a decision too quickly. I fully accept that there may be faults with the amendment that was carried in another place last week and that the measure may require further amendment and certainly much greater discussion when we debate it, but there has been a clear expression of opinion and I am glad to say that the Government have suggested that they are prepared to accept the will of the other place.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that, if the Government have an open mind on the issue, they discovered it very recently? In June 1994, they rejected out of hand the Select Committee's proposal for listed events to be protected and, as recently as December 1995, Ministers repeatedly wrote to me and others saying that it was purely a matter for market forces and that it would be quite wrong for anyone to intervene.
§ Dr. Moonie
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nothing concentrates the Government's mind more quickly than a large number of what they thought were their hon. Friends turning out to be quite the opposite. Had our roles been reversed and the Bill had been considered here first, I suspect that the result would have been exactly the same.
The programme content requirements set out in the agreement are as important as the public service requirements. The requirements to inform, educate and 1182 entertain; to stimulate support and reflect the cultural diversity of the United Kingdom; to provide authoritative and impartial news and much more make the BBC unique in its breadth of coverage.
There are still concerns that, in some respects, the requirements are less onerous than those placed on other broadcasters. There is a long-running war of words between the BBC and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinema and Theatre Union about educational broadcasting. Most recently, BECTU stated:Neither the Agreement nor the Charter provide any requirement that the 'education' objective of the BBC should he maintained at any minimum standard. Whereas the ITV and Channel 4 television companies are monitored by the ITC, there is no adequate monitoring system to ensure that the BBC's Home Services' education output is adequately monitored, evaluated and fulfils proper education objectives.".That is a reasonable point and the Government should consider it seriously before they finalise the charter. It seems odd that Channel 4 has a minimum number of hours for schools programmes but that there is still no such requirement on the BBC.
To provide the diversity of viewing to which I have referred, the BBC must be able to develop its commercial activities freely. This is not an argument for the revenue from the licence fee to be reduced. The BBC accepts—and the Opposition agree—that, to expand and remain competitive in the broadcasting marketplace, it must generate its own income in addition to that from the licence fee.
It is right that the charter and agreement contain safeguards to provide public subsidy of private ventures, but the Government must not be over-restrictive—as they are with the Post Office at present—just to make a point about private ventures by public sector organisations. I understand that the Government are to review the BBC's capital structure and borrowing arrangements. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister clarify why that was not completed before the new charter was published?
The Labour party has long believed that the role of the governors of the BBC needs to be clarified. The charter is the first to recognise the existence of the director general, his deputy and the board of management. I cannot help thinking that the delineation of responsibility could be clearer.
The governors, by definition, are the "corporation" whose functions have been set out in article 7 of the draft charter, but some matters—such as industrial relations, which appear in article 15 of the charter—that are the clear responsibility of the board of management are still referred to as matters for the corporation. There should be a clearer divide, or I fear that many people will question whether the governors are sufficiently detached from the management of the corporation to play a proper regulatory and supervisory role.
The position of the chairman is particularly important. The recent appointment of Sir Christopher Bland raises a number of questions about independence and accountability. Sir Christopher has a great deal of experience in broadcasting, which I am sure will be of great value to the corporation, and we intend to watch his progress with interest, but it is easy to lose confidence in the Government's good intentions when consultation over the appointment, as requested by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, is refused. The appointment is 1183 made by the Queen in Council. It is of great national significance and it must be seen to be made in a scrupulously independent manner. I believe that the Government have failed yet another test of openness and accountability in respect of that appointment.
The BBC's accountability to its audience relies, in part, on its advisory structures—which have been referred to by the Secretary of State and by way of intervention. Those bodies should also be a source of advice and encouragement to programme makers. A number of concerns have been raised about the proposed new structures. In the present charter, the councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland control policy for the BBC in those parts of the United Kingdom. In the new charter, their role has been reduced to advising and assisting the governors in that task. I know that many of my colleagues do not welcome that downgrading.
The merger of the English regional advisory councils and the local radio councils has also caused concern, particularly among those with a keen interest in local radio. The BBC must recognise in its new structure that the interests of radio should not be subsumed in those of television.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the performance of the local radio advisory councils has been very patchy? While one or two radio stations believe that they have benefited from their input, other stations feel that the LRACs are an unwelcome intrusion. The vast majority of listeners are not even aware that they exist.
§ Dr. Moonie
I suspect that that is the case with many bodies that the Government appoint to represent our interests. I accept that there are great differences in radio councils' performance levels, but the fact that democratic accountability sometimes fails to meet the very high standards of some hon. Members does not mean that it should not occur. The hon. Gentleman should have regard to that fact: it is a good in its own right.
The BBC must acknowledge the very local interests of many small radio stations. We propose that there should be a council of the English regions matching the national broadcasting councils. Until now, the BBC has had an English regional forum. We agree with the point made by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer organisation that the new draft charterdoes not specify how many Regions or Advisory Councils there should be, nor does it refer to any form of English Regional Forum, or to any constitutional link with the Board of Governors. Should, therefore, the BBC decide to reduce the number of English Regional Councils or to abolish the English Forum it could do so tomorrow".If that requirement is not inserted in the charter, we shall seek the BBC's assurance that it will maintain such a body.
The BBC has a range of other advisory bodies—for example, on science and religious broadcasting—and the General Advisory Council. While I do not believe that we should lay down every aspect of the BBC's operations in the charter and agreement, we would welcome an early statement by the BBC as to what advisory structures it will continue to operate.
The BBC has a new requirement under the agreement to undertake public consultation about changes that it makes to programme services. Consultation implies that 1184 there is some willingness to accept the views of members of the public. I trust that the BBC now knows, to its cost, how much strength of feeling programming changes can arouse. For example, there is still great unease about "Test Match Special" replacing Radio 4 broadcasts on long wave. FM reception in my area is not very good and I can no longer receive Radio 4. The "Anderson Country" experience must also have proved a salutary lesson.
§ Mr. Hawkins
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that surveys have shown that the Radio 4 audience increases substantially when the cricket is broadcast on the normal transmission channel? For many millions of people, England's performance in the cricket World cup—which we hope will improve in future—is vital. That programme certainly offers more objective coverage than the "Today" programme.
§ Dr. Moonie
I also hope that England's performances in the World cup improve—they could scarcely be any worse than the performances over the winter.
§ Dr. Moonie
A true Scot who has played cricket for most of his adult life and who still takes an avid interest in the game. However, I find it difficult to find the broadcasts on long wave.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) has missed the point. Radio does not aim simply to attract the largest audience; it aims also to cater for specialist interests. I assure him that the BBC was inundated with complaints from regular listeners to Radio 4 about the changes to its programming. I believe that the views of those who have been loyal listeners for many years should be taken into account when programming decisions are made.
The BBC's accountability to the public and to Parliament depends also on the free flow of information. The introduction of a range of performance objectives to be included in the annual report is a useful step, but we must not risk allowing quantitative measures to overtake qualitative judgments. On occasion, the Government have woefully ignored issues of quality in broadcasting. As evidenced by the current Broadcasting Bill, the Government have not yet learnt from their mistakes. We must not allow that situation to prevail with the BBC.
As I said earlier, we are concerned about many aspects of the Broadcasting Bill, which is inextricably linked to the documents before us. Of particular concern is the proposed sale of the BBC's transmitter network—which has already been mentioned. We will make our feelings about that fully known when we debate the Bill in this place, but I believe that it is worth raising some general issues now as we debate the documents that are paving the way for the sale.
Nowhere in the documents or in the Bill is it stated explicitly that the BBC will be the sole beneficiary of the proceeds of the sale. We have received private reassurances that it will, but we would feel much happier about the Government's good intentions if that were made clear either through a statement or in legislation. We are seeking an assurance that the BBC will retain the money to pay for the development of new services. We are also 1185 concerned that this is possibly the first privatisation measure that does not refer to the employees of the body to be privatised.
In addition, the agreement refers to directions to the BBC to dispose of stations, while the charter's definition of "station" is so broad that many parts of the BBC could be sold at the whim of the Secretary of State. The BBC may be taking a fairly relaxed view of the privatisation proposal, but there are many more questions to be asked and answers to be given about that issue.
I want now to mention radio broadcasting in Scotland—I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me if I make one or two important parochial points. I am sure that hon. Members will have received the communication from Broadcasting for Scotland, which sets out a number of its concerns in detail. It mentions in particular the fact thatThe Governors have also gained the power to select the members of the National Broadcasting Council giving them the opportunity over time to pack the Councils with the timid and the faithful. Selections were previously made by panels formed by the BBC General Advisory Council, now itself abolished, in each country and acting independently of the Governors".It goes on to suggest the following:complete not partially independent selection panels maintained in each countrycouncil right to initiate a strategy and objectives for their countrya council duty to inform audiences in their country of relevant BBC policy effects".The document refers also to Gaelic broadcasting. That matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald), who appears to have left the Chamber—I did not say that.
Labour Members are concerned about the lack of status accorded to Gaelic broadcasting compared with the situation in Wales. We believe that, while the BBC is sympathetic to moving towards a national Gaelic radio service, that should be specifically recognised by a commitment in the charter. I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will wish to return to that issue.
Today, I was sent a long and comprehensive document by Wilf Stevenson of the British Film Institute about the archiving of BBC material. I quote the document in the hope that the Minister of State will be able to refer to it in his reply. I am very happy to let the Minister read it if he has not already done so. It states:We believe that it is important that the Charter's archival obligations on the Corporation be not only retained but strengthened, in order to ensure that the preservation and accessibility of the nation's broadcasting heritage is secured.The following points are suggested for improving the situation:(a) that the archiving obligations placed on the BBC should be no less onerous than those which apply in statute and licence to the ITV Companies and to Channel Four;(b) that the Charter should specify that the BBC has an obligation to maintain archives to the commonly accepted standards, and that it can either do this itself or make arrangements to fund the National Television Archive;(c) that if it is decided to maintain an internal Television Archive, there should be a formal requirement to co-operate with the relevant national bodies, such as the BFI in respect of television and related materials; and(d) that the BBC should not dispose of any of the contents of its libraries and archives without first freely offering such material for preservation in the appropriate national, regional or national regional collection.1186 Those are fair points and I hope that the Minister will refer to them when he is winding up.
It has been argued that, at a time of dramatic change in broadcasting, it would have been better to guarantee the licence for the full 10 years of the charter period. The Opposition have much sympathy for that point of view and we can see the logic of the argument, but I can also see the logic of reviewing the licence fee after five years. A decision has to be made to do one or the other. The licence fee is already the subject of widespread public debate due partly, no doubt, to the recent imprisonment case in "Coronation Street".
If the licence fee is to be changed in any way, it must be after a major public consultation in which all the options are explored and which is, if possible, free from the type of debate that can sometimes characterise more general taxation matters. In the past 17 years, the Conservative party has not been a friend to the BBC. Many Conservative Members have attacked and threatened it and expressed the desire that it be sold off. I believe that the BBC has won many of the arguments about its future and the Opposition have consistently supported it. The Government have drawn back and given the BBC a partial vote of confidence.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
Was not the hon. Gentleman in the House on a day in the spring of 1994 when my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), then the Secretary of State for National Heritage, announced that it was Government policy to have a new charter? My right hon. Friend said some very positive things about the BBC, which echoed the view of the Select Committee on National Heritage, of which I am proud to be a member.
§ Dr. Moonie
Absolutely, I must have been away playing cricket at the time.
I do not wish to suggest that nobody on the Conservative Benches has the future of the BBC at heart, or to suggest that Secretaries of State do not do their best to discharge their obligations. I referred to some of the comments that I have heard made over the years by Conservative Members, which certainly do not lead me to believe that the BBC would be safe in their hands in the long term. Fortunately, of course, that is not likely to happen.
The Labour party will continue to give its support to the BBC and to the work that it does at home and abroad. With the reservations that we have expressed tonight, we offer our support for the charter and agreement before the House.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate, because I was employed in broadcasting by both the BBC and ITV for many years before I came to the House. We have heard quite a bit about Scotland and it is high time that Wales was mentioned. Before I come to that subject, I shall refer to the situation generally.
1187 The BBC's charter renewal for a further 10 years comes at a time of enormous change in the broadcasting world. Not only do we have the development of cable, satellite and wire services—all of which will offer a wider variety of services to the home than have been available through the traditional house or set-top aerials—but we are approaching the period of digitisation of the analogue channels. That will open up the possibility of an amazingly wide spectrum of choice for viewers and listeners. There will be so much choice that the recipients will probably be very grateful for some guidance on the plethora of programmes and services available. I understand that the BBC is already considering providing that guidance. The Broadcasting Bill, which is currently in the other place, deals with the problems of digital services, but those matters cannot be far from our minds as we discuss the new charter because the shape of future services is likely to be moulded during the decade ahead.
In passing, I shall pay tribute to the work that the BBC has done on digital services. It has established the first digital audio broadcasting service and the sound quality is superior. The BBC has also shown that it can translate its existing analogue services to digital wide-screen receivers, but it has expressed the opinion to the Government thatanalogue terrestrial transmission is still likely to be the only distribution system offering universal coverage of all homes for at least the next ten years.The increasing multiplicity of services becoming available and the increasing competition for viewers, listeners and resources of all kinds is the cyclorama against which the BBC charter is being renewed. That it should be renewed is not a major issue. The days when some thought that the BBC had a too dominant and too pervasive position in British broadcasting and was insufficiently challenged are going, if not gone. Our major current concern is to conserve the best of the BBC and to ensure that it is in a sufficiently strong position to continue to provide the public services of the very highest standard that we have come to expect.
We are all fully aware of the important role that the BBC has in portraying Britain to the world and there is a new emphasis on that aspect in the charter and in the ancillary agreement.
In its worldwide operations, the BBC faces powerful competition backed by truly vast resources, and there is a very real fear that the BBC, in meeting that competition, will somehow be diverted and may reduce its efforts at home. That is why in the briefing for this debate—I am sure that we have all had a copy—there is a representation from the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union which highlights the BBC's proposals to reduce television programming for schools by 20 per cent. and radio broadcasts to primary and secondary schools by 37 per cent. However, that is simply evidence of the concern about the Home Services, and that concern is also expressed by the National Consumer Council. It would like the governors to havea clear and independent regulatory role, quite separate from the BBC's Board of Management.I am sure that the fear that the Home Services will be sacrificed by the BBC lies behind the worried comments that have reached us, especially from the national regions 1188 of Wales and Scotland—which have expressed grave doubts about the new description of the role of their national councils.
I want to stress how important are regional services to the people of the regions, and those provided by the BBC have a new premium attached because of the takeover threat posed to ITV regional companies by their larger brethren. In the regions, the public are not reassured by promises made by distant predators that they will maintain local programme output. They may observe the letter of their promises but the programmes will not be locally inspired.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was considerable fear in Staffordshire—in particular, in Lichfield—when it was announced that London Weekend Television would be acquiring Central Television? However, as there are in effect two independent licences with the Independent Television Commission, Central's coverage of local news and current affairs has not decreased but has been enhanced by that larger amalgamation.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I am glad to hear of that enhancement, but it cannot be guaranteed that such a thing will happen every time. There is considerable fear in some regions that although promises will be respected to the letter, nevertheless the regional character of programmes will be lost. The BBC and the Government have tried to combat that foreboding by writing into their agreement that the two television services that the BBC undertakes to provide may—as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) emphasised—include regional variations. To the House, the word "may" means that that undertaking is discretionary. Hon. Members who represent the regions would much prefer the word "shall" in that context.
We cannot believe that the Department of National Heritage did not mean to confer discretion. If it were otherwise, I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends would not have used the word "may". As the agreement is surely amendable, I hope that the word "shall" can be used instead. The use of "may" is sending out all the wrong signals to the public.
The BBC has committed itself to doubling the amount of drama made in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland by 1997–98, and to doubling music and arts productions in the regions within four years. That is all very fine and welcome, but it is not tantamount to providing regional services. Neither is the requirement in paragraph 3(2)(h) that Home Servicescontain a reasonable proportion and range of programmes for national audiences made in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and in the English regions outside London and the South East.That is merely a commitment to more network productions from the regions. Although such productions are welcome, they could be made anywhere and need not reflect the region's character.
It must be obvious to the House that I distrust the metropolitan outlook and the domination that it spells, the coterie that shares it and the dominance that it has over our press and media. Life in the United Kingdom is the poorer because of it.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley
The distinction is made between shall and may because the measure will also 1189 cover BBC2, and it is unlikely that it will be involved. As to BBC1, in effect the meaning is "shall", but "may" appears in the documentation because it covers a range of channels. I hope that that thoroughly reassures my right hon. Friend.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that assurance. I accept her explanation and commentary implicitly. It may be that members of Labour's Front-Bench team will not do so, but I trust my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Maxton
In the matter of the word "may", the right hon. Gentleman has to trust not the Secretary of State but the future governor of the BBC. He may not find that easy to do.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I find it easier to trust my right hon. Friend because I read in one of the BBC's commentaries that it interprets the word "may" as "shall". Nevertheless, we have an assurance from my right hon. Friend as to the meaning of the word. As she gave it on the Floor of the House, I am sure that others will respect her interpretation.
I was being critical of the metropolitan domination, which means that nothing that happens beyond Watford can possibly be of any consequence. That is a cardinal tenet of the pseudo-intellectual caucus that adheres tenaciously to the metropolitan view. No wonder the provinces feel deeply slighted. The BBC may lose out from the dilution of its regional identity. I hope that it does not allow that to happen. The regions are the nursery for future broadcasters and programme ideas.
That is the context in which the national broadcasting councils appointed by the governors of the BBC are to advise those governors on the attainment of objectives in their countries and on any significant change in the corporation's resources in a country, by making representations to the corporation. The councils' role does not seem significant. They will not have the power to control programme policy and content, as they do now. At the moment, in Wales, that function must be performedtaking into account the culture, language, interests and tastes of the people of Wales.It is a pity that those words are to disappear, because they are meaningful in the Welsh context. I hope that that obligation, and the spelling out of it in those terms, can be retained in the subsidiary documents.
The charter's dominant theme is centralist, which is understandable when one takes into account the challenges facing the BBC. However, those challenges are diffuse and hydra-headed in their profusion—and they are likely to become more so as digital services come on stream. Just as the main networks in the United States have been undermined to some extent by local, thematic and special interest services, the same thrust to achieve viewership in particular spheres may develop in the UK. I warn the BBC to be on its guard against any abandonment of its regional interests and audiences.
As one would expect, the BBC will have the power to run subscription, pay-per-view and other commercial channels. I hope that the Government will not shy away from granting similar powers to the Welsh S4C authority, subject to similar accounting safeguards, so that S4C may supplement its Welsh language programmes with English 1190 programmes—bought, produced or commissioned—to replace programmes lost from Channel 4 when it is separately available in Wales after digitisation. There is already the BBC example, where in special circumstances a similar statutory body is allowed to produce programmes commercially and to transmit them. That privilege should be granted to S4C.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
I am obliged to the Secretary of State for National Heritage for her tribute to the work of the Select Committee on National Heritage. The two bases of the documents that we are discussing—the new 10-year charter starting this year and that the BBC be funded in that period by the licence—were first recommended by the Select Committee in its report, published on 9 December 1993. As the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) said, since then, the whole television landscape has changed. The Select Committee warned that it would in its report, and its recommendations were made in the context of that anticipated change. I have consistently repeated that warning.
There are now—and there were not when the Select Committee reported—not four, but 39 television channels available in this country. Terrestrial Channel 5 is due to start on 1 January next year and eight new Granada satellite channels are due to come into operation in October this year. So soon we shall have 48 channels, and there are many more to come—this is just the beginning. Digital compression, referred to by the right hon. Gentleman, on-demand services and interactive services have not begun yet, but they will become increasingly dominant in the television scene.
Already the BBC's share of the television audience has fallen to 43 per cent. Cable and satellite now account for 10 per cent. of viewers. The country's streets are being dug up by cable companies. Satellite is expanding the whole time. There is no doubt that the audience for terrestrial television will fall and that the audience for the newer technologies will rise. Even Mr. Birt, Director-General of the BBC, has claimed that the BBC will have no more than 30 per cent. of the television audience by the end of this century, which may be an optimistic claim.
The new television scene is demonstrated by the fact that all attention in television competition is now focused on the rivalry not of the BBC with ITV, as was the case until recently, but of all terrestrial television—Channels 1 to 4—with satellite and cable. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) referred to last week's House of Lords vote on listed events. The controversy over such events and the discussion about the supply of news to Channels 3 and 4—whether it shall continue to be provided universally by ITN or whether BSkyB shall have an opportunity to make some, if not all, provision—demonstrate that the shadow of the newer technologies looms over the increasingly antiquated technology of terrestrial television.
After all, what recourse will terrestrial television have if, with reference to the argument about sporting events, satellite or cable television companies, with their large sums of money—cable companies are backed by immensely rich transatlantic conglomerates—decide to emulate Ted Turner in the United States of America, and 1191 buy a Premier League football club or a major rugger club and obtain exclusive rights to the televising of their games?
In that new environment, with choice proliferating and with the BBC audience share becoming ever smaller, as we discuss these documents, we must ask ourselves what claim the BBC has for the special consideration provided by this agreement, especially in relation to licence funding. The BBC is in no doubt. Its bosses claim that they are the custodians of public service broadcasting and that that is why the BBC is special.
There is no doubt that the BBC invented the concept of public service broadcasting. It was emulated by ITV and by reputable broadcasting organisations throughout the world. The concept of public service radio and television is a priceless legacy created by the BBC's founders and the people who were then in charge of the BBC over several decades. The question is whether the present-day BBC is worthy of the public service legacy that it created. I doubt it more day by day.
Although the BBC arrogates to itself the benefits of the public service broadcasting legacy, especially total access to licence funding, I fear that there is accumulating evidence that that legacy, which is precious in terms of standards, is being wantonly frittered away and that, more and more, the BBC is becoming just another broadcasting organisation, jeopardising quality standards in the quest of the fool's gold of audience ratings.
Let us consider some examples—for instance, the "Panorama" interview with the Princess of Wales. I am not among the people who criticise the BBC for obtaining and transmitting that interview—it was a legitimate broadcasting initiative. That interview, however, had nothing to do with public service broadcasting and had everything to do with seeking and obtaining an opportunistic scoop. It could just as appropriately have been broadcast on ITV or on the Sky One, Sky News or UK Living satellite channels.
That interview could just as appropriately have been printed in any of this country's tabloid newspapers, which would have loved to be able to print it exclusively. Tabloid journalism has never claimed to operate on public service criteria. It meets what it regards as popular demand. That is not what the BBC should be about.
Let us consider the transmission on Saturday evenings of the lottery results. That transmission could appropriately appear on any other television channel, terrestrial or otherwise. It would more appropriately appear on one of those channels because it is a huge commercial for Camelot—it provides millions of pounds' worth of free publicity for a commercial organisation.
§ Mr. Maxton
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is true of the BBC—that it is not only a public service broadcaster, but a broadcaster of entertainment? "EastEnders" could equally be shown on ITV or on Sky. So what? What point is my right hon. Friend is trying to make?
§ Mr. Kaufman
I am trying to make the point that entertainment of a high standard is also public service broadcasting. My hon. Friend's implication that only the solemn and boring programmes are public service 1192 broadcasting is inaccurate—high-quality, popular entertainment reaching large audiences is equally public service broadcasting, and "EastEnders" is a good example. Providing popular entertainment, watched by millions, is different from departing from the concept of public service broadcasting.
The BBC is becoming a vehicle for massive exploitation by commercial organisations. For example, it is providing free publicity to companies that sponsor sport. The Select Committee on National Heritage examined those issues and it made recommendations, which the Government unwisely rejected and about which they will have to think again. The Committee was told by corporate sponsors that they would prefer the events that they sponsor to be transmitted by the BBC because the audience—and, therefore, the free publicity that they obtain—was, for the time being, much greater than that provided by the BBC's non-terrestrial rivals.
There is no doubt that the recent deal that will enable the BBC to televise future series of Olympic games has nothing to do with public service broadcasting, but everything to do with the wish of the International Olympic Committee—an increasingly tawdry commercial body—to obtain the largest possible audience for its many sponsors. The BBC may reply that, in television, it is simply responding to the compulsions of current conditions—if that is so, it proves my point. The BBC might add that its public service ethos is safeguarded on its radio wavelengths. Last month Mr. Duke Hussey, the BBC's chairman, said the following in relation to BBC Radio:It is the most distinctive part of the BBC and the BBC must be distinctive to justify the licence fee.
§ Mr. Patrick Thompson
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly as I was not present for the earlier part of his speech. Does he include Radio 1 as part of the public service element of the BBC?
§ Mr. Kaufman
Yes, I do. Popular entertainment of a proper standard that is aimed, in particular, at young people—whether it is Radio 1 or Radio 2—can be a good example of public service broadcasting. However, that does not mean that it must necessarily be a good example.
I agree with Mr. Hussey that BBC radio must be distinctive in order to justify the licence fee. However, BBC radio is not as distinctive as it ought to be, and it is becoming less distinctive. Therefore, according to the criteria laid down by the chairman of the BBC, it is justifying the licence fee less and less.
Radio 4 still has many high standards—it has not yet been ruined—but constantly its standards are reduced or assailed. It has an exceptionally loyal audience. However, I know from correspondence that I receive that that audience is regularly affronted by what is being done to Radio 4.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I look for friends in the House wherever I can find them. I wish to complete this section of my speech before I give way. Paragraph 3.3 of the agreement states:The Corporation shall transmit an impartial account day by day prepared by professional reporters of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament.1193 That is a sine qua non of the agreement, yet an account of debates in the House is now only partly available: at night it is broadcast only on long-wave; the morning account, far from being an impartial account of the proceedings, has become the equivalent of a journalist's parliamentary sketch rather than a report; and it is not available on FM. That being so, I believe that the BBC is not maintaining the standards that are required by the document.
Many other changes are being made to reduce the standards of Radio 4. For example, the team at "Gardeners' Question Time" has had to seek refuge on Classic FM. There has been a huge reduction in the audience of "The Financial World Tonight", and it has been sent on to the trunk tundra of Radio 5. Other changes are being made, and are deeply resented by the loyal audience of Radio 4.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The right hon. Gentleman talked about how loyal audiences of Radio 4 have diminished and he made comparisons between popularism and public service broadcasting. Does he therefore welcome—as I do—the introduction of Paul Gambaccini on Radio 3, who is increasing the audience and widening its age group? The right hon. Gentleman's arguments are very interesting. Does he suggest that if the BBC is not a public service broadcaster, it ought to be privatised, given the financial and technological changes that are taking place?
§ Mr. Kaufman
I shall refer to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question later. With respect to the former part of his intervention, I can immediately respond to it. However, I have to dispel the false impression that the hon. Gentleman has given, that the programming to which he referred has increased the BBC's audience. Indeed, when the Select Committee asked the BBC about that, it claimed that it had no figures one way or the other. The hon. Gentleman is an apologist for facts that are not available.
What has happened to Radio 4 is nothing compared with what has been done to Radio 3—it was once the epitome of high standards, which were copied throughout the world. During the Christmas recess I visited Prague, which has a wavelength called Classic FM modelled on BBC Radio 3. I then went to Jerusalem, which has a wavelength called the Classic Voice, also modelled on Radio 3. Unfortunately, those stations are not modelled on Radio 3 as it is, but Radio 3 as it was.
Radio 3 was once the epitome of high standards, which were copied throughout the world, but is has been so debased and vandalised that it is scarcely worth transmitting. It has been turned into a famous composer's latest hits wavelength. For the first time ever, this year a majority of its hours will be devoted to commercial compact discs instead of live or in-house recorded music. Last year, 49 per cent. of Radio 3's output was on CD and 51 per cent. was in-house and live music. This year, 55 per cent. of the output of Radio 3 is commercial CDs. Mr. Nicholas Kenyon has sent a letter to Ms Gillian Reynolds, the radio correspondent of The Daily 1194 Telegraph, saying that the BBC's objective is to maintain a peak of 46 per cent. of live and in-house music—that is, there will be 54 per cent. commercial CDs. Radio 3's first six hours every weekday are now devoted to disc jockey music.
At the same time, the BBC's patronage of live British performance shrinks. Figures that the Select Committee had to force out of the BBC show that for the money spent on the hour-long weekday disc jockey programme introduced by Paul Gambaccini, the entire repertoire of Scottish Opera, Opera North and Welsh National Opera could be broadcast live each year. Would not that be a better way of dealing with the regional issues to which the right hon. Member for Conwy referred—fostering and assisting our great regional opera companies instead of putting on a disc jockey programme?
At present those excellent companies hardly get any broadcasts. Mr. Gambaccini gave the game away in an interview in last week's Radio Times:I had a specific mission to invite Today listeners to stay with the BBC rather than go to Classic FM".That is not what Radio 3 is about or what BBC radio ought to be about.
The BBC ought not to use Radio 3 as a marketing tool instead of as an entity of intrinsic worth. I am sorry to say that it is time for Nicholas Kenyon, the controller of Radio 3 and a very nice man, to be removed from a position in which he has done great damage. If it is not halted and reversed, that damage may prove irreparable.
The more one examines what is happening to the BBC, the more it is clear that what was once a unique and precious institution is now becoming just another broadcasting organisation—with a great past, certainly; still with a considerable number of high spots, indubitably. Partly the change is due to a deliberate abandonment and degeneration of standards; partly it is due to circumstances beyond anyone's control —the development of worldwide multi-channel communications. That is a trend that the BBC not only cannot resist but would be unwise to resist.
The BBC is changing fast and I am in favour of the changes that it is making in television. It already has two major satellite channels that broadcast to millions abroad. BBC Prime is a subscription service; BBC World is funded by advertising. In today's press it is reported that, on BBC World, the BBC has signed its first television sponsorship deal and is to put out a programme sponsored by Air Canada. That is the way broadcasting is moving. Those two BBC channels are no longer solely BBC channels; they are conducted in partnership with major commercial organisations, including Pearsons here in Britain, the huge conglomerate of Cox Communications in the United States, and Nissho Iwo in Japan.
There are further plans for satellite cable services to the USA. In a letter yesterday the BBC gushingly told me thatsubject to the successful conclusion of current negotiations with a substantial well known media player, we will be launching some very exciting new broadcast and multi-media developments before too long.They will be for the United States.
The BBC claims that those services are financially ring-fenced and not funded by the licence, but that is nonsense. On BBC Prime, as with the BBC's participation in the United Kingdom satellite channel UK Gold, many 1195 of the programmes transmitted are past or present successes funded by licence payers. On BBC World, the news material is provided by BBC's worldwide news staff, again funded by the licence.
I do not criticise the BBC for that development. Indeed, it is inevitable as the boundary between the BBC's licence-funded and commercially funded services begins to disappear. But those developments do raise questions about the BBC's future. On the one hand, its share of the domestic audience is falling and will continue to fall—the director-general admits as much. On the other hand, the BBC's commercial activities are increasing, will continue to increase and should continue to increase.
The BBC is no longer solely a publicly funded public service broadcasting organisation. It is an increasingly commercial organisation which, with decreasing justification, lays claim to public funding through a regressive tax which—as my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy pointed out—is increasingly the subject of public debate and controversy. Regardless of whether licence funding is appropriate, I do not see how Labour can indefinitely defend a regressive tax which has its greatest impact on the poorest and which results in a disproportionate number of women on low incomes being prosecuted, fined or sent to gaol.
The day must inevitably come when the payers of that tax will rebel and when the BBC's commercial activities will first erode and then remove its claim to be a publicly funded organisation.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I am following the right hon. Gentleman's line of thought with interest and attention. His vision of the decline of the quality of the BBC may be starkly realistic. Is he coming to the conclusion— I suppose he will tell me to wait for it—that the decline is irreversible? Does he believe that the mere removal of Mr. Nicholas Kenyon would stand against those ineluctable forces of history? Or does he think that something can be done by way of the language of the charter or the agreement, to sustain and support the standards of quality that he so realistically states are being eroded?
§ Mr. Kaufman
I believe that there are two parallel trends. The first, which I deplore, is the trend towards the deliberate degradation of some of the BBC's output. That could be stopped if the BBC had the will to stop it—it is an internal decision of the BBC. I fear that these documents of themselves can do nothing about the problem, because the BBC, unlike the ITV companies, is wholly unaccountable.
At the same time, I believe that the technological trend is irreversible. Nothing can be done about it; but I do not think that the technological trend inevitably involves a degradation of standards. Properly organised, the high public service broadcasting standards for which the BBC has stood for more than 70 years can be protected within the technological changes that are under way.
The day may come when the BBC's presence in the public sector will become anomalous and possibly difficult to justify. What is more, the BBC's loss of audience will mean that it has to struggle for its place in the communications market. That is why I have long 1196 advocated that the BBC should forge partnerships with major players in the national and international communications arena. With Pearsons, the BBC already has a worldwide partnership. I am conceited enough to point out that it is a partnership that I began advocating long before the BBC moved in that direction, so I am delighted about it. But I believe that the organisation should cultivate other partnerships too—with the ITV companies, for instance, because, as relatively small franchise holders on one terrestrial channel, they are increasingly vulnerable.
The BBC should consider partnership with BSkyB, with which it already shares coverage of, for example, Premier League football. Above all, the BBC should cultivate the possibility of a partnership with BT. Given that United States-owned cable companies are allowed to poach BT's telephone subscribers, the Government's failure to allow it to participate in television transmission is unacceptable. The Government's failure to remove legal restrictions on BT as a broadcaster is an act of purblind folly.
§ Mr. Maxton
Is it not an even greater disgrace that, in some areas, American cable companies are refusing to supply television channels unless the subscriber takes a telephone as well?
§ Mr. Kaufman
At the same time as imposing such a restrictive agreement, those cable companies are whining and wailing at the conditions that BSkyB imposes on them, because they want to broadcast the channels that BSkyB—risking huge losses—pioneered. Cable companies want the best of all worlds, whether in comparison with BSkyB or with our own British telephone company BT. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has therefore pledged that a Labour Government would remove the restrictions on BT.
The BBC as we have known it for more than 70 years is bound inexorably to change—probably beyond recognition. To maintain and to rescue the public service broadcasting standards for which the broadcasting world is indebted to the BBC, it must change and grow, but, at the same time, it must preserve the public service ethos created for it by its great founders.
The agreement is weak. As I said to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), unlike ITV, which is tightly regulated by broadcasting legislation and will be further regulated by the Broadcasting Bill when it is enacted, the BBC is subject to no real regulation at all. The agreement commits the BBC tothe maintenance of high general standards in all respects",but it contains no mechanism whatever to prevent those standards from being debased, as I regret in some respects they are. The Secretary of State talked about the pledges being a contract between the BBC and its listeners. I would be much more confident about a contract if it were between the BBC and the Government, who provide its funding with great largesse.
Once the agreement is passed by the House, those in charge of the BBC can do whatever they like with the organisation. They can treat it as their toy and plaything, as Mr. Kenyon of Radio 3 certainly does. We are approaching the end of a period that has generously assumed the BBC to possess a sense of responsibility, 1197 which it does not always show now as much as it should. Soon, the BBC will become subject to the much tighter control of the marketplace. I very much hope that the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, will be the right man to steer it safely into that marketplace.
Meanwhile, we need to examine the agreement and decide on it, taking into account the fact that it may be the last BBC charter that the House will be asked to approve.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)
I declare an interest as a member of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, the National Union of Journalists and the British Actors Equity Association.
I am saddened that the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is not present. I happen to know that there has recently been illness in his family. I hope that that is not why he is not here, but if it is, I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) would give him our good wishes.
Between now and 31 December 2006, when the charter will end, there will be enormous changes in the communications industry. There will be the change from analogue to digital picture transmission, changes in the installation of cable, changes from the delivery—I suspect—of programmes by satellite as programme services to delivery systems, the introduction of electronic newspapers into our homes that will give us fully interactive services, wider screens, and much more.
That process of change will be quite difficult to manage. I suspect that, between now and 2006, we will have to introduce a communications commission to take over the regulation of what is rapidly becoming an integrated industry. It is vital that, between now and 2006, British broadcasting has a firm cornerstone. That is why I am so pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell), together with—I acknowledge its contribution—the National Heritage Select Committee, have put together a package that goes a long way towards meeting the likely needs of the next 10 years of change.
The BBC is regarded as a benchmark for excellence worldwide, and notwithstanding some of the criticisms that have been levelled and some that I shall level myself, that reputation has justly been not only earned but maintained. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC provides universal coverage, which no other company in this country provides, and it provides it free-to-air. It provides two excellent television services and five radio services.
I rose to challenge the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), because I was sorry to hear him refer to the "tundra" of Radio 5 Live. I always understood him to be young at heart if not in body. His hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and I are engaged in a monitoring process as part of a monitoring panel for Radio 5 Live. I happen to be a regular listener, anyway. I criticised the introduction of Radio 5 Live, because I did not believe that it could work. I am not sure when the right hon. Gentleman last listened to it, but it offers a multitude of varied programming that is worthy of anything that the BBC has ever done. It is a very good service, and I commend it to him.
1198 One should not, of course, omit BBC local radio services and BBC Worldwide Television. The former BBC World Service established the BBC's worldwide reputation for honesty, integrity and editorial soundness. BBC Worldwide embraces BBC Radio—the former World Service—BBC publishing, BBC learning, BBC World television, which, as the right hon. Member for Gorton said, is the BBC's 24-hour international news service, and BBC Prime, carrying entertainment throughout Europe. That is a very impressive tranche of programming.
BBC World also transmits an Arabic television channel. Some of us were privileged a couple of weeks ago to go to the BBC and watch a simultaneous translation of BBC world news international television into Japanese—a quite extraordinary feat, which I am absolutely convinced will be of immense value not only to the reputation of the BBC in the far east but to UK Ltd. for the service it provides to many potential Japanese investors in this country. That whole world service generates about £72 million a year, of which £53 million goes back into programming and £19 million is invested in the further development of BBC Worldwide.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that the far eastern BBC service is no longer being broadcast by a satellite transponder to the People's Republic of China?
§ Mr. Gale
My hon. Friend knows me extremely well, and anticipates my next move in this chess game.
One of the reasons why the BBC has such a reputation is that it has never, like Mr. Murdoch, sold out editorial control. I happen to be a journalist, and I believe that all reputable journalists would, if necessary, probably die for editorial control. I find it despicable that Murdoch, to get Star Television into the far east, has effectively said to the Chinese, "You take my programmes and you edit them how you like. I don't care, as long as I make the money."
The BBC has never acted in that way, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) has rightly said, it has paid a price. For the moment, it is excluded from an area of the world. It is, however, our hope and the hope of the BBC that, before long, the company will be able to renew that service and to broadcast into China as it can broadcast to the rest of the world.
I have expressed a couple of times the importance of the BBC's editorial integrity. That is underscored in the agreement, and, to some extent, in the charter. The charter says that one of the duties of the BBC isTo collect news and information in any part of the world and in any manner that may be thought fit.I have some slight reservations about that. Given modern journalists' practices of electronic eavesdropping, telephoto lenses and the like, I seriously question whether we should say to any journalist—I am a journalist—that journalists should be able to use any manner that they think fit. That opens up a potential Pandora's box.
Far more significant is the reference to editorial control. Under the heading "Programme Content", the document says that the BBC shallkeep under review the Home Services with a view to the maintenance of high general standards in all respects and in particular in respect of their content, quality and editorial integrity".1199 I say with some sadness that I believe that Auntie's slip is showing. I fear that we are witnessing a gradual decline into fundamental editorial dishonesty within the BBC.
I say that with great sadness, because I believe that most journalists working within the BBC are people of considerable personal integrity. However, the pressures of modern journalism and the voracious appetite of the media to get the story on air—
§ Mr. Gale
Not at this point: I will in a moment.
The need to fill the programme, to get the story and to yank out the soundbite, is leading to the practice of taking what people say completely out of context. Not a single hon. Member present this evening has not experienced that personally. All qualifications are removed from what people say, and the material is broadcast in a manner that fits the pre-ordained nature of the story that the editor has determined. That is not honest journalism.
§ Mr. Thompson
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I quite understand why there was some delay in his giving way. I appreciate the fact that he has given way, because he is making an important point. Does he agree that the cause of what he describes is that the BBC has it in mind that, for some reason or another, it has to compete with commercial television? My opinion is that it should not have even to think about competition. Is that not the problem?
§ Mr. Gale
Journalists and programme makers are competitive by nature; never mind that they are competing with the commercial services: they are competing with each other. Journalists are as good as their last story, or as their last programme in radio or television. If journalists are not as good, there are a lot of keen young men and women coming right up behind them who want their jobs.
If one wants to make a name for oneself, one has to blaze a trail, and be sensational. That is part of the problem, and that is why I opposed televising the House. What we often have is "Match of the Day", with edited highlights. Almost everything is taken out, and we are just left with the sexy bits. It gets worse than that.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his criticism of the standards in BBC journalism and in broadcasting journalism generally? He will surely accept that, as a generalisation of the way in which BBC journalists work, what he has said is a gross distortion of standards. If he wishes to make that claim, which may occasionally be true, he should cite examples and be specific. He must recognise that what he said, which was a generalisation, was appalling, and an unjustifiable slur on the quality of radio and television journalists.
§ Mr. Gale
That is an excellent soundbite, and I am sure that it will be used on "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament", because the BBC will like it. Unfortunately, it is not the truth. The truth is—the 1200 hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) knows it—that he stands like a moth in front of a candle on College green, he has a television camera pointed at him, he records a three-minute interview, and eight seconds is used. That eight seconds is taken totally out of context and without qualification. It may or may not reflect what he said or intended to say, and he knows that as well as I do.
The hon. Gentleman wants chapter and verse; I will give him chapter and verse. Three weeks ago, I conducted an interview for the BBC with one of its own people. That interview was sanitised, criticisms of the BBC were taken out of it, and the last question and answer were hacked off completely. It was an interview recorded as live. The convention is that, if one records that way, the piece is broadcast in exactly the form in which it was recorded, without editing.
§ Mr. Gale
No, I will not.
The agreement was—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central asked for an example, and I am giving him one.
The agreement was that the piece was recorded as live and would be broadcast as such. Not only was the piece sanitised, and not only was the end cut off, the front cut off and a bit taken out of the middle, but my final question was removed from the end of the interview and inserted in front of a question to which it did not relate in the middle of the interview.
I respectfully suggest that that is dishonest broadcasting. It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I have made a complaint to the Director-General of the BBC; I made it immediately. What may surprise him—it surprises me—is that I am still waiting for a reply.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The hon. Gentleman declared his interest at the beginning, and said that he was an experienced broadcaster. Frankly, I am astonished that he was fool enough to submit himself to such treatment, which is habitual to the BBC which, if it records anything, has a great tendency never to broadcast it intact, but to chop it about to suit itself. That is why some of us will never do any recorded work for the BBC.
§ Mr. Gale
I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says. We all know that we do recorded interviews. Increasingly, people in industry, people in the trade unions and people in this House say exactly what the right hon. Gentleman has said—it is a sad comment. They say, "I dare not allow this to be recorded. I will only do it live."
We tend to find that programme makers—this is not a party political comment, for heaven's sake—are interested fundamentally in controversy, because that is what makes good broadcasting. The dishonesty creeps in when the fixer rings somebody up and says, "Will you take part in this?" One says yes, but one is not told the context in which one will be interviewed or details of the person or people who will suddenly be sprung on one.
What I say to the House—and, more particularly, to the BBC—is this. I have worked for the BBC; I spent many happy years working for an organisation for which I still 1201 have tremendous admiration. I have already said that the British Broadcasting Corporation is a benchmark for editorial integrity and quality throughout the world.
I want Auntie to remain that way, and that is why I believe that the editor-in-chief—the Director-General of the BBC, John Birt—must address his editorial standards now, before the cancer takes root too deeply to be rooted out. With the advent of digital editing, it is technically possible literally to make anybody say anything. We have to know that the public service broadcaster in the United Kingdom is above and beyond any form of possible reproach.
I touch fleetingly on the word in the charter that nobody has yet mentioned—"research". We should pay tribute to the immense research work that BBC technicians have done in the past, and are doing now. Way back in the mists of time, there was the radiophonic workshop and all that. Coming to the present day, the BBC was first with digital audio broadcasting. It is pursuing, and will pursue, the broadcast of digital terrestrial television. It is pursuing multi-media services, including educational CD-ROMs. I could go on, but I do not need to. We should not overlook the immense value, not just to the corporation, but to the country, of the BBC's research and research engineers.
Again, I touch fleetingly—not because I do not value it highly, but precisely for the reverse reason—on local radio. Somewhere in the documents, there is a reference to the BBC providing a number of "local sound services", and that is it—it is kicked into touch. However, for many people in this country, BBC local radio provides a genuine public service alternative to commercial radio stations.
Commercial radio stations do a first-rate job in the context for which they were created, but BBC speech-based local radio is undervalued and underfunded. It has always been, and still is, the training ground for many of the BBC's best reporters. It is where they cut their teeth and make their mistakes. We all know that from personal experience. That is where I cut my teeth and made my mistakes, and I was shouted at by people like me for doing so. I believe that we should all value that service highly. I say to the BBC management: "I do not believe that management values the service highly enough."
Radio 4 long wave has been mentioned in this debate. I understand the predilections of those who prefer normal programming to cricket, but I do not share them. The charter clearly separates the home service's broadcasts to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Channel islands and the Isle of Man, the territorial waters, ships and aircraft, and the World Service's broadcasting to the Commonwealth and to other countries.
Radio 4 long wave is a home service, and is intended for home consumption. There is no question about that. However, there is a large expatriate community and an increasingly large number of business travellers and tourists throughout the European Union who rely heavily on Radio 4's long wave broadcasts to keep in daily touch with home, with their bases and businesses. The BBC has fought that battle once and lost, and I hope that it will not fight it again. It would be very unwise to remove or tamper with that service.
Regional broadcasting has been mentioned in the debate. Some hon. Members here tonight have heard my views in the BBC General Advisory Council. I have 1202 nothing whatever against regional broadcasting. The BBC has excellent network production centres in Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, Belfast and north of the border, which have established reputations for specific services.
For example, I doubt whether there is a broadcasting organisation in the word that is capable of producing the type of natural history programmes that have come, and continue to come, out of Bristol. It makes eminent sense to keep that programming there. However, I cannot understand the burning desire to pick up a team of actors and take them from Shepherd's Bush—where they have probably been rehearsing anyway—up to Glasgow, Manchester or Birmingham, or down to Bristol, simply to make something in a studio there and pretend that it is a local production. That is not what regional broadcasting is about.
§ Mr. Maxton
I specifically asked John Birt, when he recently appeared before the Select Committee, whether that simply meant uprooting people from London and taking them into the regions. He assured me that it did not, and that regional production in Glasgow meant using actors and staff from Glasgow to make a production that would then be shown on the network television.
§ Mr. Gale
I have no quarrel with that at all; the hon. Gentleman and I are at one. I am saying that we need to be careful. We all want to avoid expensive tokenism. It is very costly to pick up a team of London-based actors and actresses and move them somewhere else simply to try to pretend that we are filling those studios, particularly if a local production company has been contracted by the BBC to make programmes. I can only say good luck, because regional broadcasting is not about the token shifting of people.
I am taking slightly longer than I had intended to, but I have given way several times. I should like to mention the licence fee, for which I have fought.
I am pleased that the BBC will continue to be funded by the licence fee, because it is the most sensible way to provide money for this peculiar animal. Paragraph 42 of the White Paper said, I think absolutely correctly:Few dispute that the licence fee is an oddity.One must have a licence to pay for all United Kingdom services, but in fact it pays only for the BBC. It goes on:Viewers must pay the same, irrespective of their means or whether they want to watch BBC programmes.I find nothing wrong with that, except that it is unsophisticated. As we move into the next generation of technology, it will be possible to pay the licence fee—not pay-per-view, please, or subscription—to watch television at home by smart card. That will prevent the nonsense of imprisoning people for the non-payment of licence fees. I am not suggesting that those people should have a free ride, and I have never believed that anyone should be able to watch free television at the expense of someone else. In those circumstances, that would be straightforward evasion.
Once we have smart cards, other things will become possible. I should like the Minister to consider that possibility for the future. It is time for the House seriously to consider, in the light of new technology, licensing every receiver. I do not mean licensing just every television, but also every video recorder.
1203 The licence fee, give or take a few pounds, is £90 a year, which is very cheap for the viewing and broadcasting enjoyed. On a unit cost of £30 per receiver, since the average modern household probably has two television sets and one video recorder, that would be £90 a year. The old-age pensioner who has only one television would pay only £30. The mugs in the House—I am one of them—who have more receivers of various types dotted around the place, would pay much more, as we should.
One would obviously have to create special provision for hotels, guest houses and other places that need multiple receivers. The basic principle of having a lower unit cost but charging per unit can and should be considered in the light of the potential for encryption.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I have some doubts, as does the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), whether the licence fee can be sustained indefinitely. I should like to ask my hon. Friend how his system of licensing every television set and video recorder would be enforced. A television detector van can detect one or possibly two television sets working in a house at any time, but it cannot easily—I would argue that it is physically impossible—detect a video recorder.
§ Mr. Gale
I did say, in the light of modern technology. In the next 10 years, every new television will have an encryption box built into it, with a common interface. It will be possible to plug a card into that common interface to provide any one of many services, one of which should permanently turn the television set on or off.
It is now possible individually to address every receiver by signal, and the receivers will know whether the licence—the pay-per-view, if one likes—has been paid. Also, people who cannot afford to pay a lump sum down payment might be able to pay their licence fee in weekly or monthly instalments. The BBC does not like that possibility, because it believes that it might create uncertainty about how much revenue it will receive. I do not believe that that would happen, but it is a possibility.
The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) asked why the Government voted against the sports proposals tabled by the Opposition in the other place. There are two answers to that, both of which are absolutely straightforward.
The first is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage has made it plain that she wants to go out to consultation and to listen, not only to one vested interest—the viewer who wants his televised sport free—but to another interest, the sports providers. She wants to try to find a pathway through that maze before reaching a conclusion. The other place was therefore not the place to table the amendment. The second answer is that the amendment was badly drafted and misunderstood, which is why their Lordships voted against it.
I passionately believe that the solution is what the BBC has dubbed "unbundling". It is necessary to create four categories of auction: the first would be for live transmission; the second for full repeat coverage rights; the third for highlights; and the fourth—this is very important and has been overlooked—for radio. Radio 1204 rights are terribly important for those who are blind or sick, for travellers and for others who cannot physically watch television sets.
Once the live rights have been sold, what happens if they go to an encrypted channel? That does not necessarily mean Sky, because in a couple of years' time we could well find Carlton premium digital broadcasting terrestrially, so it means any subscription or pay-per-view service. The House has the right to say that, if the live rights go to one of those, the immediate full repeat rights shall be sold by auction to the highest bidder, which may be ITV or the BBC, but which must be a free-to-air, universal-coverage terrestrial station. The edited highlights could be sold to anyone else in precisely the same way.
The only criticism of that proposal that I regard as serious involves the question of how the technology is to be provided. The answer is that the physical coverage of the event, whatever it is, can be provided in precisely the same way as the European Broadcasting Union provides coverage of winter sports, skating, the Eurovision song contest and so on. The original owner of the rights—the Football Association, Aintree racecourse or whatever—contracts with a broadcaster—the BBC, ITV, Sky or an independent broadcasting company—to cover the match, and those who use the rights thereafter can put on their own commentary.
I am afraid that the listed events system has had its day. It has never seriously worked. One man's pleasure is another man's poison. What Labour Members want to watch I may not want to watch, and I may not even want to watch what people on the Government Front Bench want to watch, either. It is not possible to satisfy everybody. However, it is possible to create arrangements whereby everybody has the opportunity at some point to watch the event free to air. Surely that is what we seek to achieve.
I shall make three quick final points. First, the charter mentions violence, and it is right to do so. The BBC has said that it supports the idea of a 9 pm watershed, not a 9 pm waterfall. However, given the introduction of video recorders and time-shifting, the watershed is effectively no longer reliable, so it is much more incumbent upon the broadcasters to ensure that whatever they broadcast, at whatever time of the day or the night, does not offend standards of taste and decency, and is not violent.
I should like to put down a marker for the Minister. I hope that, when we are dealing with the Broadcasting Bill, he will seriously consider the perpetuation of the "must carry" regulations for terrestrial broadcasting on cable. As more and more people acquire cable, they will increasingly receive their programming by cable alone, without an aerial or satellite dish of any kind. At that point, it will be vital that the public service channels—certainly the BBC; we can argue later about whether "must carry" should apply to independent television too—be perpetuated on a free-to-view basis on cable television.
Finally, concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about the lack in the pledges of a definition of the provision for children's programming on television and radio, and for education, especially schools services. The charter says that the BBC must providea high standard of original programmes for children and young people".Such programming is most important, on two counts. Both schools and people at home have relied heavily, and will continue to do so, on a high standard of public service 1205 broadcasting specifically created for children and young people. Those young people will be the viewers and radio listeners for the BBC of tomorrow. We need to look after them.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. Before I call the next Member to speak, I must point out that, although I have no power to limit speeches, unless Members are willing to limit their speeches voluntarily there will be many disappointed Members left at the end of the debate.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) cares a great deal about broadcasting, so it is understandable that, on one of the rare occasions—it may also be a formative occasion—on which we can discuss the BBC, he wants to adopt a somewhat encyclopaedic approach. Although I speak for my party as its sole contributor to the debate, I shall try to be a little more brief. That is partly because, although we are debating what is called a draft agreement, I believe that the die has already been cast. I understand that the motion before us is to approve the agreement, and if the House does so, it appears to me that that will be the end of the matter. If the Minister wishes to intervene to clear up that question now, I shall be happy for him to do so.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that this could be the last occasion on which we debate a charter and an agreement. I hope that that is true. In the world into which we are moving, I do not believe that that will be an appropriate way in which to legislate for the BBC.
The present mode of legislation grew up in an age in which there were great concerns about the impartiality of television. It was felt that the power of the BBC was such that it was appropriate, and constituted a safeguard of its independence, to adopt the solemn procedure of the charter. That is inappropriate now. We need the opportunity to make provision for a much more detailed framework for public service broadcasting, which will provide much closer control and accountability than the present three tiers of accountability—the charter, the agreement and the pledges.
When an independent television or radio station breaks the terms of its agreement or the programming code, the Independent Television Commission can take punitive action against it, ranging from a formal warning, through the imposition of fines to, in the most extreme cases, the revocation of the company's licence. Those powers have been used—for example, in December 1994, the ITC fined Granada Television £500,000. The radio authority has similar powers, and has fined several radio stations for breaking the programme code. No such sanctions, however, can be applied against the BBC. Although the rules have the status of a legal agreement, the BBC cannot be fined because in effect that would be to fine the licence payer.
If the BBC's qualities, which are evidently, and almost universally, recognised to be in decline, are to be sustained in the face of the competition that is growing at 1206 an exponential rate—digital broadcasting, multi-channel choice and new information technology—the frail framework now provided will not do.
I find the failure to define the role of the governors adequately, and to recognise the primacy of their role as public trustees of the BBC's impartiality as set out in the charter, one of the most disappointing of the many disappointing aspects of the process of re-establishing the BBC with a new charter. There was an opportunity to distinguish clearly between the role of the governors as regulators and trustees of the public interest, and the responsibility for strategy and management, which should properly fall to the aptly named board of management, in close collaboration with the national broadcasting councils. Clear thought should be given to the role and powers of the board of governors, acting as regulator, to deal with matters such as one of the more disgraceful episodes over which Marmaduke Hussey presided.
It is hail and farewell time, and I say farewell to Marmaduke Hussey with scarcely a tear in the een. I refer to the "Panorama" programme—not the one with Princess Diana but the one in which the BBC, three days before the local elections in Scotland, decided to interview the Prime Minister. That showed a notable absence of sensitivity not only to Scottish general opinion but to the opinion of its own broadcasting council in Scotland. The governors should have intervened, but they did nothing about it.
In collaboration with colleagues in the Labour party, we had to take the BBC to court because the governors had so failed in their duty to sustain impartiality. We took them to court and, of course, we won. That shows the need for greater clarification of the regulatory role of the governors. It is highly undesirable that something as fundamental as the impartiality of the BBC should have to be challenged in court to sustain it.
The new structure of BBC broadcasting described in the draft agreement sets out some provisions on programming that are far from going in the direction pointed out by the former Secretary of State for National Heritage in the previous debate on the matter. He, understandably, advocated that there should be much greater precision about duties and that performance should be measurable. That framework has scarcely been provided for in the agreement.
Attention has been drawn by more than one hon. Member to the inadequate statement in the agreement about regional broadcasting and the not wholly convincing response from the Secretary of State. When she speaks of paragraph 2.2 of the draft agreement providing for two television serviceswhich may include regional variations",she really means that one service "must" or "shall"; the other does not need to. It is a distortion of the plain meaning of the language. I hope that that will be attended to by the BBC, but if the matter were ever to be tested in a court, I cannot see that there is any ambiguity about it. The Secretary of State's reluctance to accept amendments to the charter and agreement is an inappropriate inflexibility.
When these matters were discussed in another place, it was said that the views of the upper House would be considered and weight would be given to what was said. Are we to understand that what is said in this House is not to be given any weight?
1207 There is a plain error in paragraph 2.2(c), which refers toan additional sound programme service for general reception in each of Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively and two additional sound programmes for general reception in Wales".Scotland has two services for general reception, Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidheal, which is the same allocation as for Wales. The BBC has pledged, in this rather ephemeral document, to retain those services and their frequencies but there should be a requirement that they be protected against any future change in commitment.
It seems almost impossible to get the issue of programme making clear in the minds of those responsible at the BBC. The statement of pledges goes no way towards meeting the general feeling in the House the last time that we debated BBC matters that it was appropriate that all parts of the United Kingdom should make programmes for viewing by the rest of the country. In fact, the whole approach of the BBC has been to treat regionalism as being about the provision of core local programmes covering such matters as local news and local parliamentary affairs. It does not recognise that it is important that drama made in all parts of the country should be seen on the network or that sport in all parts of the country should be available on all parts of the network. Comedy and other programmes made in different parts of the country on many other aspects of our multi-cultural society should be carried on the network. At present, not even lip service is paid to that. It should have been inherent in the new structure.
In the debate on 9 February last year, the then Secretary of State quoted this passage from the White Paper:It is important that the BBC should make and commission a reasonable proportion and range of its national output, as well as programmes for local audiences, in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and in the English regions. An undertaking to do this should be included in the new Agreement, and an analysis of hours and range of output made in different parts of the country for broadcasting locally and throughout the United Kingdom should be included in the BBC's Annual Report.He then commented:I expect that the BBC will want to include some precision about the nature of that understanding in 'Promises to Audiences', so that there are yardsticks against which the audience and Parliament can test its delivery of the general principle that will be set out in the agreement signed between the Government and the corporation. "—[Official Report, 9 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 479.]Since that aspiration, which I endorsed and strongly supported, was expressed, we have had the BBC's response in its illustrative statement of pledges of November 1995. There was nothing quantitative about it. It said virtually nothing about those matters, although it referred to dedicated programmes of regional journalism, regional television news summaries, weekly current affairs programmes and so forth. I do not know whether the BBC is disingenuous or whether it has a strong centralist impulse—it is probably the latter—but it falls far short of what the House would regard as an appropriate part of public service broadcasting. It will be to the great detriment of broadcasting in Scotland if that is not recognised.
The role under the charter of the national broadcasting councils of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been to control policy in their countries. That power is 1208 felt by many to be the foundation of their authority. It is not granted to them under the charter that we are considering; instead, they are required to advise and assist. That is a significant change and powers similar to those missing from the national broadcasting councils turn up in article 7(1)(d) of the new charter, which requires the governors to consult the national broadcasting councils on any issue concerning funding, programming and resources and to take due account of any representations that they receive.
That transfer of a power to the governors establishes for the first time a direct constitutional link between them and the national councils and relieves the problem of conflict of interest for the national governors—they no longer have to represent the board of governors and their council. It places the initiative firmly in the lap of the governors and does not require them to incorporate any representation from the national council. The draft charter requires amendment to give national councils the power to initiate a strategy and objectives for their country.
On the question of advice and consumer input, under the current charter, the General Advisory Council forms panels to select members of the national broadcasting councils. The draft charter abolishes the General Advisory Council and transfers the power to select members of the national broadcasting councils to the governors. Once again, that would seem to enable the governors to fill the councils with compliant appointees and to take away from consumers, the regions and the nations a truly representative nominated membership. That is another area in which the charter ought to be amended before it reaches its final form.
The Minister of State, who is to reply to the debate, told the House on 9 January 1995 that England would have 10 regional councils and that, together with their chairmen, they would constitute the English Regional Forum. Many people understood him to be saying that that organisation would effectively become the national broadcasting council for England and be given constitutional status within the charter, but that is apparently not the case. Clause 13.1 of the draft charter states:The Corporation shall appoint in each area of regional television output in England a council to be known as the Regional Advisory Council.It does not mention the English National Forum, which has already been established by the BBC. With no constitutional status, the forum is powerless and England is bereft of a national body within the structure of the BBC. That is not fair to England and can only encourage the continuing centralisation and the metropolitan character of the BBC. That ought to be attended to before the charter is given effect. The draft charter, rather than strengthening the regional voice of the BBC, seems carefully constructed to draw power to the centre. If it continues in its current format, it will prevent the BBC from achieving the goal of effective regional and national decision making and programme producing.
The structural weaknesses are probably the single most serious feature of the complex documents that we are considering. There is still time to change them and, for that reason, I have concentrated on that issue. Although a general debate on the BBC could encourage one to embark on many other matters, I shall mention only a couple more.
1209 At this time, the question of the independence of the BBC is important. I was not pleased by the manner in which the Secretary of State appointed the new chairman of the governors, Sir Christopher Bland. I understand that she looked into the precedents and decided that it was appropriate for her to make the appointment without consultation. Undoubtedly, she appointed someone who has great qualities and experience of commercial broadcasting, which will be of great service to the BBC. I also believe that there is no reason to fear that Sir Christopher will not be entirely objective—in a political sense—in the way in which he conducts himself in his new role. In a position of that kind, however, it would have been sensible to have reached some agreement, and consultation should have been held before the appointment. It would have strengthened the position of the governor from the beginning.
A second matter is the position of the arts and the BBC's role as a sponsor. The corporation spends about £300 million per annum and there are huge pressures on it to reduce its funding of orchestras, for example. I profoundly hope that those pressures will be resisted. I would have liked the fundamental documents to have done much more to spell out the BBC's commitment to the live arts and to new art. That commitment has played a distinguished role in the past and been a major contributory factor to the BBC's worldwide reputation.
I share the views of the hon. Member for North Thanet about the inadequate provision of production targets for the BBC in education. If Channel 4 can operate against targets on quality and duration, I see no reason why the BBC should not similarly be prepared to do so.
This is a significant turning point in the history of the BBC. Its control of the airwaves is slipping away from it, its hold on the licence fee is loosening and it is clearly torn between broadcasting to a mass audience and broadcasting quality programmes to a small audience. It does not always satisfy those conflicting challenges. Sometimes, I do not even think that it knows where it is going when dealing with those questions. In spite of all that, the BBC still commands the support of many people in this country and is admired in other countries, as it develops its image through commercial collaboration abroad. I wish it well and hope that, in the time that is left, the Secretary of State will strengthen the accountability structures and provide much more precise measurement yardsticks to ensure that the quality that we have valued is retained—I think that the Minister hoped for that when he last spoke on the subject.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) kept his word. His speech was briefer than that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who took half an hour. The hon. Gentleman took only 23 or 24 minutes. He and I were in the same college 40 years ago. He was serious then; he is still serious 40 years later. I could not cheer him up then and I do not think that I can do so now. Why on earth cannot he be a little more full of zest and enthusiasm?
There are some wonderful things going on. The Secretary of State mentioned the brilliant BBC series, "Pride and Prejudice". With it I would bracket the brilliant "Middlemarch" production two years ago, which related 1210 to a similar period. The producer, who is my near neighbour—he lives about 300 yds away—Dr. Louis Marks, is chairman of the Hampton Court Green residents association. The BBC produces a plethora of superb travel programmes, features of all sorts, music, plays and more. By and large, it continues to uphold its very high standards.
I do not share the pessimism of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the condition of Radio 3. He talked as though it had come out of some golden age and was getting worse. I agree with him in that I, too, do not like to hear an announcer with a transatlantic accent, an oily voice and a mental age of 12 introducing Beethoven. I prefer a more dignified announcer on Radio 3, but that just happens to be my taste. I greatly resent the removal of "Composer of the Week" from 9 am, when I was able to listen to it in my bath, to 12 o'clock, when I can hardly ever hear it, which I deplore. The BBC promenade concerts constitute a marvellous festival of first-class music which is second to none in the world. They are broadcast live on Radio 3 every night in the summer season.
I wish that we could have more live broadcasts of orchestral concerts at other times of the year, as we used to. They have gone out of fashion. They have been largely replaced by discs. No doubt cost has something to do with that, but live concerts, with the audience clapping and coughing, have an electric feel about them that one cannot quite get from a recording.
We should be enormously proud of the BBC's achievements. However, I share the view expressed in the Select Committee on National Heritage's report of November 1995, in which I took an active part, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton)— I hope that he might catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that this will be the last 10-year charter.
The right hon. Member for Gorton mentioned that there are now 38 channels, that there will be 49 by the end of the year, and that the share of the four—to become five—terrestrial channels is diminishing with the arrival of the large number of cable and satellite channels, but he did not mention that, in five or 10 years, or perhaps even sooner, people will be able to dial their telephone, receive any video on cable and have the cost put on their telephone bill. The notion of a daily menu of four or five fixed channels provided by the authority and from which the viewer chooses one, will wither away. People will choose what to have, much as they do now with videos through the possession or borrowing of a cassette, but in future the video will be able to come along a wire.
I do not see how the BBC will be able to retain its present audience share, however good it is. Its share is bound to diminish and, when it does, the public will not wear paying a licence fee of the order of £100 when most of them are not watching it. That change is bound to occur, and so I believe that this will be the last 10-year licence.
I welcome the reference in the document to the BBC's impartiality, which is important. I know that the BBC is enormously proud of it and that it tries hard at election time to treat the political parties fairly. The "Today" programme falls short of that aim, which is due to the BBC's tendency—to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet referred—to try to keep up its audience ratings. One way to do that is to create artificial 1211 personalities for the interviewers, question masters or programme introducers. They are almost encouraged to try to build up their own public. The interviewer then begins to think that he is nearly as important, or even as important, as the person being interviewed. The "Today" programme employs the appalling practice of fading out whoever is being interviewed whenever the interviewer wants to ask another question. That is extremely annoying, it is bad behaviour, and it shows bad taste on the part of the BBC. It should be stopped forthwith.
While I am on the subject of impartiality, Opposition Members have mentioned the appointment of Sir Christopher Bland as chairman. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred to it. Opposition Members have gone a little over the top on the subject. We should not forget that the deputy chairman of the BBC is Lord Cocks who, for many years, was a distinguished Labour Chief Whip and much respected in all parts of the House. That was his life—he is far more of a political animal than is Sir Christopher Bland.
I was a member of the Greater London council from 1967—the year that Sir Christopher Bland was elected to it. In 1967, there was a political landslide. A Labour Government had been elected with an increased majority in the spring of 1966, but by the spring of 1967, when the Greater London council election took place, one of the periodical and sudden sea changes that take place in British public opinion had occurred and there was an enormous swing to the Conservatives. The GLC was elected to consist of about 80 Tory and 20 Labour members. The swing was so unexpected that, about two months before, in February or March 1967, Ladbroke had offered odds of 500 to one against a Tory majority on the GLC of more than 20. Two months later, the actual Tory majority was 60.
Christopher Bland was a young man aged about 28 or 29 who stood in Lewisham and Deptford, which was a multi-member constituency. He could not have expected to be elected, but there was a totally surprising massive landslide and he was elected for three years. He took his position seriously and became chairman of an education sub-committee of the Inner London education authority. I believe that, since ceasing to be a member of the GLC in 1970, he has taken no active part in the politics of any political party. One would hardly expect intelligent people in their 20s not to have some sort of political opinion. The combination of Sir Christopher Bland and Lord Cocks will be politically impartial.
§ Dr. Moonie
We are not questioning the impartiality or otherwise of Sir Christopher Bland. We are questioning the wisdom of the Government making such an appointment without consulting the Opposition parties. Were we to do the same thing in a few years' time and, hypothetically, appoint Lord Banks of Newham, a former Labour councillor, to the head of the BBC, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman might rant and rave about it.
§ Mr. Jessel
I do not think that that will happen. I respect the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for his intelligence and wit. He was a colourful chairman of the GLC about 15 years ago, but I do not think that he would expect to become the chairman of the BBC. He is a totally different sort of personality from either Lord Cocks or Sir Christopher Bland.
1212 I welcome the Secretary of State's reference to the "taste and decency" provision in the document. I do not mind a bit of vulgarity on television or radio programmes as long as it is funny, but the vicious violence that has become so common in the news and other programmes is bad for children. I am glad that the charter and the associated document are likely to curtail that.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your patience and I shall now sit down to give others the chance to speak.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
I much enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), but it would have been even more enjoyable to hear him perform, with all his customary brilliance, as a musician. As he knows, I hold his skills and achievements as a musician in high admiration.
As a member for many years of the BBC's General Advisory Council, it may be thought by some that I have an interest to declare in this debate. But there is no payment for membership of the GAC. Indeed it could be argued that to give that form of public service is to incur costs, not to inflict them. Nevertheless, the experience is seen as eminently worthwhile by those, from all walks of life, who have had the honour of serving on a council set up to advise the best public broadcaster in the world. So the only interest I need declare today is the public interest.
In intervening in the debate, my purpose is to assert the public interest in common access to sport. Majorities have rights as well as minorities and love of money must not be allowed to take precedence over the love of sport. Over 30 million people cannot see Sky, but they ought not for that reason to be excluded from access to sporting events that are an undoubted and unquestionably important part of our national heritage.
In particular today, I want to move the debate on access to sport forward from the victory achieved in another place on 6 February by my noble Friend, Lord Howell, in protecting access for mainstream broadcasters to such major sporting events as the FA Cup final, the Wimbledon finals, the Grand National, the Derby and the rest of the "Crown jewels" of British sport, as they have become known.
While none of us wants to understate the importance of that victory in the Lords, which I am sure this House will soon confirm, all of us must accept that the future of the "Crown jewels" is not the only issue of importance in protecting common access to sport. There is also the critical issue of "unbundling" and the question of what is loosely called, 'Must Carry'/'Must Offer'/'EasyFind'. The new charter establishes the BBC as a licence fee funded universal service. In future, however, cable or other delivery systems could start excluding BBC services if they wished to give more weight to commercial cable broadcasting. This would damage the BBC's position as a universal broadcaster and undermine its new charter.
To avoid that happening, we must now ensure that, where a subscription channel such as Sky Sports holds all rights to a sporting event that is not among those listed in the Lords' "Crown jewels" amendment of 6 February, the right to TV or radio highlights are not hoarded by that channel. All of us know that sports bodies want to maximise their revenue, but that need not mean excluding sporting events that substantial numbers of people want 1213 to see from being shown live on mainstream channels or in highlight programmes like "Match of the Day", or perhaps from being heard on live radio.
As of now, where there is a strong media player in the field, with bottomless pockets and a virtual monopoly, they are in a strong position to say to the sports bodies what they will and will not offer and to insist on all rights for that amount. That is why we need regulatory adjustments to open up sport to all viewers and listeners. The BBC suggests—and I agree—that where a subscription channel has live rights, the rights for highlights or for radio transmission will have to be sold on to other channels with a universal audience.
The ITC should have responsibility for regulating this and it could be done in the conditions it imposes by the terms of its licences on subscription broadcasters. Moreover, the ITC could be made responsible under the Broadcasting Bill also for regulating the BBC, should it come to have a minority subscription channel in the future, as much as BSkyB. So it will not be a case of preferring one channel to another. Similarly, the Radio Authority could regulate the radio channels while the Director General of Fair Trading would have the ultimate sanctions. I am not suggesting that these changes should be retrospective. Thus there will be no question of existing contracts being hit.
What I propose would help sports bodies by creating a new set of secondary sporting rights. There would be live rights on TV; there would be recorded rights and rights to highlights; and there would be live radio rights. No large media owner would any longer be able to tell the sports rights holders that he would negotiate only if all rights were sold to him. Sports bodies would be able to negotiate in different markets and achieve the best price in each.
As well as working in the interests of sports bodies, the revised system would be more viewer/listener friendly and take away from all broadcasters rights to claim exclusivity in transmitting events of national interest. That is the best long-term bet to stop monopolies emerging. While it would be nice to believe the market would protect sports bodies and viewers and listeners alike, sadly we already have cases where satellite channels refuse to sell rights on to more mainstream broadcasting like, for example, the Ryder cup.
Lord Howell in the Lords debate on 6 February exhibited the exclusive contract agreed between Sky Sports and the golfing authorities for last year's Ryder cup in which are written the words:For the avoidance of doubt, there shall be no BBC broadcast of this event",thus excluding tens of millions of people. That is the writing on the wall in terms that could hardly be more stark or more serious. It says it all.
The arrival of sports channels on satellite and cable television widens opportunities for viewers of sports events. Increasingly, however, major sporting events are no longer available to be shown on terrestrial television, which the viewers who are excluded see as abuse of power by a fortunate minority. Excluding the majority has clear implications for the future of British sport. If sporting events are available only to a small minority of viewers, fewer people will be motivated to become actively involved in sporting activities and, as every Member of this House knows, there will always be a 1214 significant minority of people who will not be able to afford subscription services. That minority includes young people who will be increasingly denied access to the role that sport can play in the encouragement and development of skills.
I turn now to the issue of 'Must Carry'/'Must Offer'/'Easy Find'. The new charter establishes the BBC as a licence fee funded universal service. In future, however, cable or other delivery systems could start excluding BBC services if they wished to give more weight to commercial cable broadcasters. This would damage the BBC's standing as an universal broadcasters.
Over the next 10 years, as new distribution stems fragment the audience, the BBC's future as an universally available public service broadcaster will become increasingly dependent on its ability to reach audiences through all available distribution systems. This issue is not dealt with in the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will address it in winding up today's debate.
If all audiences are to be guaranteed access to core, licence-funded BBC services over the life of the corporation's new charter, the digital world will need to guarantee 'Must Carry' status to those channels on wire-based systems and 'Must Offer' status through satellite conditional access boxes. 'Must Carry' and 'Must Offer' regulations would ensure that, in the multi-channel environment, publicly funded channels were available as a matter of course via all delivery systems, and without the need for viewers to buy additional equipment. It is important for the Government also to recognise, just as the United States Government have now done, that public service networks must be given a prominent placing on any future electronic "programme navigation" system.
Much more will have to be said about these issues when the Broadcasting Bill comes to the House, but today's debate must not conclude without a clear response from the Government to the concerns they arouse, not only on both sides of the House, for happily this is not a party issue, but all across this country.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). He was right to say that many such issues are not party political. That is clear in the National Heritage Select Committee, where divisions of opinion are never on party lines.
We have the opportunity today to discuss the BBC agreement. Let us take a brief opportunity to look at the BBC as it exists at present. Some 95 per cent. of United Kingdom households watch or listen to the BBC for at least two hours a week. The average United Kingdom household watches or listens to BBC programmes for 48 hours a week. The BBC is the biggest producer of programmes in Europe, with half a million hours per year of home grown programmes on television and radio. BBC television broadcasts more than 13,000 hours of programmes in the United Kingdom every year.
However, nothing stands still. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) who said that technological advances ought to lead to the establishment of some form of communications commission—rather like the Federal Communications Commission in the United States—to examine all forms of electronic communication. In future there will be a 1215 greater overlap than exists at present between text, picture and other information which travels downline to computers, and what we know today as broadcast television. The two will become indistinguishable.
For that reason, I disagreed with my hon. Friend when he said that modern technology would lead to a licensing system for each television set and video recorder in the home. I argue that, by the time televisions and video recorders are fitted with such a device, it will become irrelevant. I am drawn more to the argument put by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman may refer to him in that way. The right hon. Gentleman said that the licensing position will become unsustainable—and it will. The BBC maintains that it will be able to hold on to about 30 per cent. of its audience in 10 years' time. I do not agree—not because of any fault on the part of the BBC, but because technology is changing and there will be a plethora of other broadcast as well as narrowcast media. In those circumstances, the BBC—or any other organisation—will be unable to retain a large chunk of the audience. For that reason, the right hon. Member for Gorton is correct: the licence fee will be unsustainable.
That fact was reflected in the report of the National Heritage Select Committee, which said that, although some hon. Members view privatising the BBC as a very attractive proposition, it would be impossible at present. The Committee heard evidence from representatives of Independent Television, Channel 4 and independent local radio stations. They said that, if the BBC were to try to raise even part of its £1.8 billion income from advertising, it would destroy existing commercial radio and television stations. That is absolutely correct.
With regard to transmission facilities, I am pleased to see that site sharing will continue—whether the BBC operates its transmitters or whether it is done through another privatised authority. That is tremendously important. One of the great advantages of terrestrial broadcasting in this country is that our transmission is broadcast on 625 lines and in PAL. That is far superior to the American system, which is broadcast on 525 lines in accordance with the National Television Standards Committee. The joke in the broadcasting industry is that NTSC stands for "never twice the same colour".
The French system is called SECAM and, apart from the French, it has been adopted only by the Algerians and the Russians. I am not sure what SECAM stands for in French, but in the broadcasting industry it is said to stand for "something essentially contrary to the American method". In this country we have the PAL system, which means not only "phase alternate line" but "peace at last". The point is that PAL and 625-line television is the best form of non-high-definition terrestrial transmission. It is made even better by the fact that, because of site sharing, one needs only one small UHF aerial directed at a single point to pick up all transmissions. I am pleased that site sharing will be maintained.
I flag the point that I made by way of intervention to the Secretary of State earlier today. I should be very disturbed if BBC television transmitters were sold lock, 1216 stock and barrel to National Transcommunications Ltd. There is nothing wrong with NTL—as I said earlier, it is a world leader in research and development in digital terrestrial and digital satellite transmission. I like to think that I was possibly the person who transformed the Independent Broadcasting Authority's engineering division—before it was privatised and became NTL—into a commercial operation.
At that time, I was running a company called MBI Broadcast Systems, which was based in Brighton. We had a factory in Cornwall and an assembly plant at a lovely village called Small Dole in Sussex. We tendered to build and design radio studios in Uganda, Indonesia and other countries. For the information of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), BBC radio stations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Stornoway were equipped by my company before I sold it. That reminds me that I should declare an interest in the debate, as I have an ad hoc relationship with the BBC through a technical and marketing consultancy.
Although we supplied that equipment, we did not have expertise in studio-to-transmitter links. I approached the engineering division of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which decided to enter into an arrangement with my company. It was decided that, if the company won the contract, the IBA would get a fee. We won the contract and the IBA received a fee—which I think was its first commercial venture before it was later privatised and became the NTL.
Rightly or wrongly, some ITV and independent local radio contractors argue that NTL's prices are a little high. They would be bound to say that. If there is to be competition, there must be at least a duopoly—the privatised BBC organisation competing against the NTL. As I said to the Secretary of State, whether or not there is a Monopolies and Mergers Commission, there should be an amendment to say that when the BBC transmission facilities are privatised they cannot be acquired by NTL.
§ Dr. Moonie
How does the hon. Gentleman propose to get a duopoly operating when the two organisations share 75 per cent. of the transmitters?
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. They do not share the transmitters: they share the transmitter sites. That is very different. They are two separate organisations and they rent from each other. I shall not bore the House with the mechanism by which the system operates at the moment. It is irrelevant whether the BBC transmission engineering department, which is based in Warwick, is owned by the BBC or whether it is a privatised organisation as it would continue to operate in the same way. However, it would be in competition when leasing out transmitter facilities at the transmitter sites.
The agreement is very brave in the way that it approaches the BBC digital multiplex. It would have been easy—and rather facile—to say that the digital multiplex could provide six, eight, 10 or 12 channels. There have been developments in the past few months and we know that as many as 16 or even 32 channels can be provided on one multiplex. It is good that the issue remains open.
It is also encouraging that the BBC is obliged to carry its existing terrestrial services on the digital satellite multiplex. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) referred to the difficulty of receiving Radio 4 on long 1217 wave. We should not forget that some parts of the country have difficulty receiving terrestrial BBC or ITV. That is a particular problem in Scotland and in Wales, where it is difficult to get universal coverage—although about 98 per cent. of the population is covered by terrestrial television.
I am also pleased that there is a commitment in the agreement to continue the BBC research and development department. I visited its headquarters at Kingswood Warren in Surrey only recently. The BBC is a world leader in television and radio research. I especially wish to commend the team who are working on a system called dynamic chromakey. If you thought "Jurassic Park" was good, Mr. Deputy Speaker, watch this space. Incidentally, the television and computer equipment which generated the graphics for "Jurassic Park" was made in Reading. Although Spielberg is based in the United States, much of the hardware for film, radio and television is manufactured in the United Kingdom and shipped out to the United States.
Many hon. Members have spoken about sporting facilities and listed events. The Labour party was rather cynical when it brought forward its recommendations in the House of Lords. The Labour party brought the question of sport into the debate very early, when the debate was really about developing digital technologies and other opportunities. A vote was forced even while there was consultation under way.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I shall not give way as I have been told to hurry up. I am sure that hon. Members will be heartened by the fact that I am dropping a lot of the pages of my speech on to the Bench.
The right hon. Member for Gorton was the only Member to mention another important point. The agreement is a fine document, but in my opinion much of it is unenforceable. It leaves many of the powers to the governors of the BBC. The governors are fine, decent, upstanding men and women, but I do not believe that that is enough. As with the Scott report, if I may mention that, justice must not only be done—it must be seen to be done.
I know, because I have friends in the corporation, that when people make complaints to the BBC they are treated very seriously, but the complainants do not always know that. We now have a golden opportunity. The National Heritage Select Committee has recommended that the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission be merged, and that will now be done. I am pleased that the Broadcasting Standards Commission will be formed, but it must also be made ultimately responsible for controlling the BBC. I know that no serious argument against that has been proposed in the Department of National Heritage, either by officials or by Ministers. One argument put forward concerns symmetry because the BBC already has a board of governors. That is nonsense because the Independent Television Commission supervises ITV and the Radio Authority supervises independent radio. Yet we still say that the Broadcasting Standards Commission should be a last resort for complaints. The same should apply to the BBC.
At the moment, the Broadcasting Standards Council considers matters of taste and any viewer can make a complaint. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission 1218 deals with unfairness, but a particular viewer must make a complaint. The situation should be widened so that the Broadcasting Standards Commission not only considers both areas but anybody can make a complaint. The tired old argument from the civil service that the new body will be flooded with complaints is fatuous and non-philosophical. The body that deals with newspapers was not flooded with complaints, although newspapers are far greater offenders than the BBC or ITV or independent local radio.
I shall sit down now—red in the face, but confident that my hon. Friend the Minister is not like the Labour party which, like the Trustees Savings Bank, likes to say yes, but like the Midland Bank, which likes to listen.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
I wish to make some quick points about the Scottish situation. I found the Secretary of State's response on regional television extremely unconvincing. If she intends that one BBC channel should have a regional element and the other not, that is how the clause should be written.
I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) and for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) about Radio Nan Gaidheal. I also agree with what has been said about the Scottish Broadcasting Council and the need to revise and make the council's powers much clearer. I am not happy about the governors appointing the council. Although it has been said that they will consult various organisations, the charter does not actually state that—and I believe that it should.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy will agree that once we have a Scottish Parliament, after the next general election, we shall expect the Scottish Parliament to have a say in the appointment of the council. I also expect it to have a major say in the appointment of the national governor for Scotland. It is totally wrong to have a national governor for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland, but not for England. There should be a governor appointed as the national governor for England in addition to the other governors. Otherwise, the implication is that all the governors are English governors and the national governors are tagged on at the end. That is not right.
On the question of sport, there is an argument which says that sporting bodies have an absolute right to market their sport for the maximum price that they can get from television. That is a perfectly valid argument. However, if that happens, the sporting bodies cannot turn round and say to Parliament and the Government that they want money from the taxpayers to fund their sports. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot take enormous sums from BSkyB and show their sports to only a tiny section of the community and then expect the rest of the community to fund their sports through the lottery or the tax system. If the taxpayers fund sport, they are entitled to a say in how that sport is shown on television. The solution is as simple as that, and we must endorse it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made an important point. It is extremely sad that Members on both sides of the House have talked about the next 10 years being the last 10 years of the BBC and, however good we think it is, we are looking at its end. The BBC is the best broadcasting company in the world. I have 60 channels on my cable at 1219 home and I spend 95 per cent. of my watching time, which may be limited, watching BBC. I very rarely watch cable; if I do, I watch old films, sport or, of course, old BBC programmes which are regurgitated by the cable companies.
The BBC is best. If one wants to watch good television in the United States, one tunes to the public service channels, which broadcast BBC programmes. They show ITV as well, but those programmes are good because of the quality of the BBC. Our job is not to destroy a national asset over the next 10 years, but to preserve it. That is the job of any responsible person who believes in the future of broadcasting.
Everyone accepts that there will be major technological change. My wife, children and friends would say that I am a techno-nut. I am the person in our house who knows how to work the computer and video—it is not the kids. I go for every gimmick and gizmo that comes out: I love them—I think that they are wonderful. However, people confuse the development of technology with its accessibility and use, which are on a much longer time scale. There are people in this country who, because they cannot afford anything else, still watch the black and white television that they bought 30 years ago. Some parts of the country cannot receive NICAM transmissions. Other rapid technological developments will take time to be taken up. The consumer will say, "I can see that the picture is a bit better, and I accept that I could receive 200 channels—but that will cost me £300 or £400 a year; I may also have to pay monthly for the channels that I want, and I am not prepared to pay that much." The time scale will be longer even than 10 years before terrestrial television as we know it disappears completely. Many people, particularly poorer members of society, will continue to require it.
I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton about the licence fee, when he questions why poor people should pay it. It will be poorer people who will continue to watch BBC terrestrial channels. I disagree also with my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy because I do not think that it is right to impose a five-year limit on the fee: it should last 10 years—for the full period of the charter—and be renewable thereafter. One thinks of the quality of the BBC in terms of its public service commitment and of the entertainment and drama that it produces—not just series such as "Pride and Prejudice", but "A Mug's Game", "All Creatures Great and Small" and "Last of the Summer Wine".
§ Mr. Maxton
I would rather not. I have only two minutes left.
One cannot separate the BBC's high quality programming from the licence fee. The two are inseparable. Independent funding that has nothing to do with the marketplace allows the BBC to concentrate on quality programming, rather than on selling itself in the marketplace—as it would have to do, if it relied on the market for funding. Get rid of the licence fee and you get rid of the BBC and the high quality entertainment to which not only this country has become accustomed but which increasingly perceptive audiences in the 1220 United States, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries want. The BBC must retain a funding system, such as a licence fee, in one form or another, although there may be different methods, as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) suggested.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton that it was a mistake not to allow BT to be a broadcaster, and that we ought to combine the BBC and BT into a broadcasting company. The difference between us is that my right hon. Friend sees such a venture as being in the private sector, whereas I see it in the public sector.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Mr. Thompson
Then I shall have to impose an eight-minute rule. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly.
Earlier, it was said that the subject of the debate does not appear to follow party lines. I found myself agreeing with part of almost every speech. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) will be astonished to know that I was able to agree with him and, at the same time, with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), although I am not sure how that was achieved. It makes the point, however, that this debate has not been conducted along party lines. As time has gone on, I have realised that the key word is the "agreement"—on which we are voting tonight, if I understand it correctly—between the Government and the BBC, but we are allowed also to comment on the draft charter.
One thing has disturbed me—I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure me on this. I will support the motion with a little reluctance because I have the feeling that there will be no change in the draft as a result of the debate. If we have open government—if that is not an issue today, what is—it is important that the Government listen to such debates.
Irrespective of the time that I have to make any points, hon. Members have made many good points, with many of which I, as a non-expert, agree. My first plea to my hon. Friend the Minister, and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that they assure the House that it will be possible to amend the charter as a result of those good points, even though, in statutory terms, that does not have to happen.
I want to refer to two issues. One was raised indirectly by the hon. Member for Cathcart when he referred to the Scottish Broadcasting Council. As I made clear in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am concerned about local consultation.
One of the reasons why I wanted to speak in the debate even though I am not a member of the Select Committee on National Heritage is that, in the longer term, the media and communications are the issues confronting the country. All hon. Members have strong views about the 1221 media because we deal with or run away from them so much—we either confront them or not, but they are the issue. Therefore, although we are discussing only the BBC, the question of the media is vital to Parliament. That is my other excuse for wanting to participate in the debate.
In my early years, I was brought up in Writtle in Essex and I therefore have a link with the BBC. It may be in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale).
§ Mr. Thompson
Very close. I was born in Writtle, which has a link with Marconi, with the BBC and with Freddie Grisewood. I am old enough to remember him. I am not sure how many other hon. Members do. I get enthusiastic about such characters. I was brought up with the great BBC tradition and the fantastic reputation that it had over the years, and still has. If I make some critical comments, as some of my colleagues have done, that should not override the BBC's good reputation down the years. That shows the wisdom of the people involved in it from 1926, when it all began.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke about local radio and television. I support his remarks. More resources should go into that. We have our own local station, BBC Radio Norfolk, which does a good job with its talk shows and with interacting with the public. I pay tribute to local radio and television stations.
We are debating the draft charter and the agreement. Listen though I might, it has been difficult to tie the debate to those agreements. I have read them. I am not a lawyer and, after 12 years in Parliament, I am as baffled by the language of these things as I was 12 years ago. I agree with the comment on that subject. I have no idea whether all this is enforceable.
The charter and, I think, the agreement talk about the BBC being an independent public service. I support hon. Members who have said that the BBC must maintain its independence. That is important.
I support those who say that the public service element is vital to any debate about the BBC—that is where I found myself sympathising with a great deal that was said by the right hon. Member for Gorton. It is all very well to write the public service into the charter, or into the agreement, but we are not debating that element of the BBC. Until the 1970s, we all knew what was meant by public service. We then had the Annan report, which was the beginning of liberal pluralism. I do not have time to develop that theme. However, for those hon. Members who are interested, I recommend a book written by James Curran and Jean Seaton entitled "Power without Responsibility". Liberal pluralism is still with us, and it means that broadcasting should cater for a full range of groups and interests in society, rather than offer moral leadership. That debate has not yet been resolved.
Because of the time constraints, I shall not embark on the section of my speech that deals with moral leadership. If I had, I might have been tempted to talk about the Church of England, the family, politicians and the Nolan report. We must continue the debate about public service. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet has 1222 pointed out, these days high standards do not always prevail in journalism. I support everything that he said in that regard. It is a problem and we shall have to talk about it—I note that no one is sitting in the Press Gallery—until people sit up and take notice.
I refer briefly to the issue that I raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the beginning of my speech: the local consultation process. I support the concerns that have been expressed by various speakers, but we seem to have national councils for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and regional advisory committees for England. I do not think any work has been done on this: someone has forgotten to get it right. It is deliberate Government policy—I hope that my hon. Friend can give a good explanation for it. We currently have a perfectly good English Regional Forum, but it is not in the charter or in the agreement. The local radio advisory councils—perhaps they should include television, but that is a pedantic point—should be in the charter because they are doing magnificently good work. I know of people who serve on those bodies.
My hon. Friend will know the arguments because they have been debated in the other place and they have been referred to tonight. I have not been reassured by the debate. The Government are doing a good job in relation to the media generally—I am happy about the Broadcasting Bill and about a great deal else that they are doing. However, the charter and the agreement are not being done properly.
I hope my hon. Friend will reassure me on the question of local accountability and local consultation, because I am not satisfied on that point. I also hope that he will reassure us that the points that we have made will be considered and, if necessary, the charter will be redrafted.
§ Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)
A number of hon. Members have mentioned Scotland in passing. I shall address the extent to which the BBC is currently meeting—or not meeting—the needs of Scottish listeners and viewers. A number of obvious fundamental truths emerge when we look at it from this perspective. I shall start with centralism in the BBC, which has been mentioned. The BBC is essentially a deeply centralist organisation. For example, before the White Paper was published, the BBC centralised control of its technical resources in a London-based resources department. That took no account of the different circumstances facing Scotland and Northern Ireland, where access to resources outside those of the BBC is somewhat different from that of London. The result of that exercise was the closure of BBC Scotland's design, wardrobe and make-up departments, with a loss of more than 80 jobs—and, equally importantly, the loss of a significant resource base.
Most of my criticisms tonight will be directed more at the central body of the BBC than at its outlying organisations. At present, the BBC makes only 3 per cent. of its programmes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—areas inhabited by 17 per cent. of the United Kingdom population. I know that the Government have recognised that as a problem, but thus far nothing concrete has been done to redress the balance. The BBC has promised that broadly one third of its programmes will be made outside London. That is a shallow promise, since various categories of programming—news, parliamentary reports and sport—are excluded.
1223 The net result is that only an extra six hours a week of television programmes will be made outside London, taking the network contribution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from 3 to 4.2 per cent.—not a remarkable improvement.
When attempts at decentralisation are made, they often fall foul of the deeply ingrained southern-centred management. The Derek Jameson show on Radio 2 relocated to Glasgow, but only in so far as the principals of production and presentation commute by shuttle. That is not what most people would regard as real decentralisation.
At this point I should remind the House, in case anyone is unaware of it, that the BBC raises more in licence fees in Scotland than it spends there—dare I say it, a form of tartan tax. I note that clause 2.2(a), already mentioned several times this evening, of the BBC agreement says that the two television services may include regional variations. I would certainly echo the view of others that the word "may" should be altered to "must" or "shall".
Notwithstanding the Secretary of State's assurances given in the House, she must know that what will be held in law to be binding will be what is in the agreement, not what has been said here. Ultimately, what is said here is regarded as fairly irrelevant in any court. If that is not true of the English courts, it is certainly true in the Scottish courts.
The centralisation of the BBC gives serious cause for concern in the important sphere of news and current affairs. At present, 97 per cent. of news and current affairs seen on the BBC in Scotland comes from London, where there is clearly a great struggle to come to terms with the four-party system that has operated in Scotland for almost 30 years. That is not to mention the apparent ignorance of—or possibly deliberate indifference to—the fact that in Scotland local elections frequently take place at different times from English ones—hence the debacle of the "Panorama" row last year, which resulted in the BBC being interdicted by a Scottish court. In London, it has probably been forgotten that Scotland has a different legal system too.
While I am on the subject of ignorance, I might also point out that clause 2.2(c) says that the BBC will provide one sound service in Scotland. Which service will that be—Radio Scotland or Radio nan Gaidheal? Or did someone forget that there are two services in Scotland? Perhaps, on the other hand, this is laying the ground for a future change of policy at the BBC. The difficulty for the Secretary of State is that what is actually said in the agreement is what will be relied on in future.
Under the current charter, the national broadcasting councils have a policy control function, but under the new charter their powers are redefined as "to advise and assist". This is yet another centralising move that effectively takes power out of the hands of broadcasting councils and gives it to the governors. As the governors also have the power to appoint the broadcasting councils, I am afraid that the suspicion arises that this move is intended to remove the possibility of any radical voice being raised. It also confirms the governors' power over those councils.
I support the recommendation of the Broadcasting for Scotland campaign that three things should be included in the charter. First, a completely independent selection 1224 panel for appointments should be established in Scotland, and, indeed, there should be panels for Wales and for Northern Ireland. Secondly, broadcasting councils should be given the right to initiate a strategy and determine policy and objectives within each of their countries. Thirdly, broadcasting councils should have a duty to inform audiences in their country of BBC policy and it effects. England should have its own broadcasting council as well.
In the slightly longer term, no successful broadcasting company can operate without the control of its own schedule and finances. Until that happens, BBC Scotland will struggle to represent honestly the Scottish viewer and listener—not only in Scotland but in the wider world. Speaking as one listener of Radio Scotland who rates it very highly, I feel that some of the doom and gloom of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the radio services in the United Kingdom might be moderated if he were lucky enough to live within transmission range of Radio Scotland, which clearly he is not.
I understand that the BBC's motto is that nation should speak unto nation. The UK is not one nation but several. I want the voice of Scotland to be truly heard.
§ Mr. Maxton
The hon. Lady represents the Scottish National party, which believes in Scotland becoming an independent nation. Does she therefore believe that Scotland should have a separate broadcasting corporation from the BBC?
§ Ms Cunningham
Frankly, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should doubt that that is what we want. Of course we do. I see that some hon. Members are smiling. I wonder whether they would smile at or mock so much other small countries with their own broadcasting capabilities such as Ireland and Denmark.
BBC Scotland has excellent staff and it retains the vestiges of audience loyalty, which may, for all I know, be disappearing in other parts of the United Kingdom. I insist that it needs management, financial and scheduling autonomy. Those demands for autonomy are shared by a wide range of groups in Scotland, which is by no means confined to those of my political persuasion.
Three immediate changes would assist that desired autonomy. First, the BBC news and current affairs could agree to BBC Scotland having its own 6 o'clock news, taking only what it wants, and indeed only what is relevant or of interest, from the London-based service, and ignoring what is irrelevant. It is not parochial to say that much of what we see on the 6 o'clock news is news for south of England viewers.
Secondly, BBC Scotland could empower the controller of Scotland to schedule and finance his own operation from licence fees. Thirdly, the Scottish national governor could be given power to have an effective governing body, nominated from Scotland and with effective control of BBC Scotland's policy. BBC Scotland should be allowed to serve those whom it understands best in the way that best suits them.
Obviously, from my point of view, only independence can provide the ultimate and best solution. In the interim, profound change is needed, but there is no sign of it in the flawed charter and agreement, which seem only to be attempting to reassert London's control.
§ Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)
I have listened carefully to the debate and I thank those who spoke immediately before me for shortening their remarks in order to give me an opportunity to participate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), I found something in almost every speech with which I could agree, but I did not expect that the speech with which I would most agree would be that of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).
I suspect that there is almost universal agreement among hon. Members that we are fortunate because our television companies produce some of the finest programmes in the world. The standard by which they are judged was set by the BBC and it remains the case that the quality of television around the world is judged against the benchmark set by the BBC. That is not to say that the BBC is beyond criticism—and I intend to say one or two critical words. Nor is it automatically true, as the BBC sometimes appears to think, that the licence fee is a bargain no matter what level it is set at, but it would not be right if I did not make it clear that I am an admirer, and regular viewer and listener, of the BBC.
Some have argued in the past that the BBC should be forced to earn its living in the private sector in the same way as many other state-owned companies have been forced to do. My support for the principle of privatisation is second to none. I strongly believe that it is not the business of government to own and attempt to run commercial enterprises engaged in the supply of products for consumers, be they television programmes, motor cars or telecommunications, but the BBC is primarily not a commercial body. Its remit is not to make a profit come what may, but to broadcast public service programmes. The yardstick by which it should be judged should not be popularity, but quality. Its objective should be to expand the choice available to the viewer and listener beyond that which has mass popular appeal. That can be the only justification for a state-owned and publicly subsidised broadcasting company.
The company should concentrate on providing programmes that would not be available on commercial channels; it must genuinely be a public service broadcaster. Some might think that that is not an especially controversial view—indeed, some might regard it as a statement of the obvious. It is not. Many in the BBC regard it as absolutely heresy. They have been brought up in the belief that the BBC has to offer something for everybody and that it can justify the licence fee only by ensuring that all those who own a television set find something in the BBC schedules that they want to watch or listen to.
The result is that award-winning dramas and documentaries are interspersed with soaps and game shows. "Panorama" and "Middlemarch" share a channel with "Neighbours" and "Pets Win Prizes". I believe that the view of many in the BBC is deeply flawed. Public subsidy is legitimate if it is used to broaden choice through the purchase and production of programmes that are not obviously popular. Public subsidy should not be used to finance a ratings war with ITV.
I am not, of course, saying that the BBC should set out deliberately to broadcast programmes that the majority will not wish to watch, but its focus should be on its 1226 public service obligation and not on beating the competition. Sadly, all too often, the reverse has been the case. Every year, we have seen the BBC and ITV trying to outbid each other for the Hollywood blockbuster that will enable one of them to win the battle for Christmas day. Perhaps the best example was the competition for the right to screen the result of the national lottery. Using licence fee payers' money, the BBC was determined to secure the rights, no matter what the cost. It is difficult to see how that fits the description of public service broadcasting, especially as there can be no doubt of ITV's willingness to screen the result if it had not been outbid.
The schizophrenia is not confined to BBC television; it is just as great in BBC radio. When Radio 3 was the only national classical musical station, it was right to concentrate on the more popular classical pieces, but Classic FM has proved that a station offering Beethoven and Elgar rather than Tippett and Schoenberg can operate commercially without public subsidy. As a result, Radio 3 should not try to compete with Classic FM, but concentrate on lesser-known works and more difficult composers who would otherwise never be heard.
The same point applies equally strongly to Radio 1. In London and the south-east, commercial channels offering popular music now include Capital, Capital Gold, Heart, Virgin, Country, Kiss FM, Jazz FM and many more. Outside London, there are numerous local stations. As each one came on air, it was inevitable that Radio 1 ' s audience would decline, but, despite the editorials in The Sun, that should not be a cause of criticism or concern. Instead, it allows Radio 1 to offer a platform for new bands and other forms of popular music, such as acid house, rap and heavy metal. [Laughter.] I am not declaring an interest.
In both radio and television, spectrum scarcity and the consequent limitation on the number of channels have meant that the BBC has had to take account of mass popular taste and audience demands but, with the advent of satellite and cable, with a fifth terrestrial channel in sight and with the prospect of an explosion of choice, the BBC must concentrate more and more on its prime responsibility—public service broadcasting. If it does not, but wants to compete for ratings like everyone else, it should do so on an equal basis with the private sector.
The second issue that I should like to mention is that of political bias. I welcome the fact that the new agreement incorporates the section on impartiality in the Broadcasting Act 1990. It is clearly sensible that the BBC should be bound by the same provisions as Channel 4 and the ITV companies, but I am still concerned about how that provision can be enforced.
It is easy for politicians to complain when they feel that a story on the "Today" programme has been unfair or unbalanced. News and current affairs must remain balanced and impartial because broadcasters know that Central Office and Walworth road will be timing politicians, to the very second, to ensure that coverage is fair. I am concerned that bias is present in other spheres of programming that is more insidious and, therefore, more damaging.
I had intended to give examples but, unfortunately, time does not permit me to do so. I shall just say that I welcome the provision in the new agreement to extend the requirement of impartiality, but I have some cause for concern because the agreement states:The Corporation shall:— 1227 (a) draw up, and from time to time review, a code giving guidance as to the rules".I had hoped that the rules would be clear, but we have instead an agreement that talks about a code giving guidance as to the rules. That sounds far too imprecise to me. My first hope is that, as soon as a code is drawn up, it will be placed in the Library so that we can scrutinise it, preferably in good time before the House debates the Broadcasting Bill.
I have had one or two words of criticism of the BBC, but I shall end by repeating that I believe that it is one of the finest broadcasting organisations in the world and that its strengths are many. My aim is to ensure that its present high standards are maintained.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
This has been a welcome and interesting, if short, debate on which there has been considerable agreement among hon. Members about some aspects of the BBC. The BBC is an extremely important part of our national life and our media, and it is crucial to the quality and the range of public debate. According to an Independent Television Commission survey, probably more than 70 per cent. of people use it as their main source of international information. It is important to our cultural life and as our voice abroad. The BBC is also present in an expanding area of the world's economy, and it is important to the economy of this country.
There is general agreement on those aspects of the BBC, and the Secretary of State made many of those points. We welcome that, but in the past few years the Government have had a funny way of showing the support and enthusiasm for the BBC that the Secretary of State mentioned. I welcome what I took to be her conversion, because every year in the past few years the Government have cut funding to the BBC and to the World Service, and it has happened again this year.
The Government have squeezed the editorial staff of the BBC and raided the offices of BBC Scotland to seize the Zircon tapes. There has been a general hostility, if not scepticism, from the Government and from many Conservative Members. If the Secretary of State has had a conversion and has a new attitude towards the BBC, we welcome that. This debate is a good test of the quality of the new charter and of the genuineness of the Government's avowed enthusiasm for the BBC.
The Government must accept some of the dissatisfaction that hon. Members have expressed about the status of this debate. The Secretary of State said outside the House that she will take hon. Members' views on the charter into account. Some hon. Members have also quoted the letter of the chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey, in which he made it clear that the Government have said that the charter is unamendable.
The two statements cannot be reconciled. If the charter is unamendable, the views expressed by hon. Members in this debate will not be taken into account, which tends to reduce its significance and importance. The Minister may say—he may give an assurance—that at least the BBC, in its ability to amend its statement of pledges and contract with the public, will take into account the views of hon. Members. That would be welcome, but the Government 1228 have made it clear that they will not take into account those views in the wording of the charter, and they have not put themselves in a position to do so.
As hon. Members of all parties have said, these are important matters because we are entering an important period—one of new competitors, cable television and, from next year, Channel 5. Alongside new technologies there will be changes in society. They will be very important years for broadcasting, and we must get things right. Unless we have the right structure, the right charter and, especially, the right quality of programmes, we shall not be able to respond to those changes.
Much has been said about the quality of programmes. In view of the debate in another place a few weeks ago, there has inevitably been much reference to the significance of listed events. This may be a small issue, but it is a resonant one and it reveals the balance between the involvement of the BBC, the market and the pricing of programmes that have to be bought in.
I hope that the Minister of State will tell the House whether the Government intend to accept the will and intention of the other place, if not the exact wording of the relevant amendment. Most of us agree that the amendment was not perfectly drafted—my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) said that—but I hope that the Minister will say that the Government intend to find a way to amend the Broadcasting Bill themselves. Will they withdraw their previous statements, given to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) and others, that this is simply a matter for market forces? It clearly is not, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the Government recognise that fact.
When the Government draft a better amendment, perhaps they will consider the experience of a country such as Australia, which has handled the matter much more successfully, wittily and constructively. There are other ways to reconcile the market and the public interest. The Government still have a little time—but not much—to come up with an Australian-type model or some other solution.
Behind much of today's debate lay the question of public service broadcasting and what we mean by it. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) discussed it. What we mean by public broadcasting is a difficult topic and it changes over time. There are tensions between the size of audience, the size of public investment and the quality and popularity of programmes.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton is right to say that a public broadcaster, receiving money from taxpayers and licence payers, must be a generalist broadcaster and be as concerned with high quality in popular entertainment, comedy, soaps or game shows—there is a big difference between the best of those and the lazy, sloppy and unthinking ones—as it is with high quality in the specialist programmes.
The hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) made an interesting speech. It was good to hear from the Conservative Benches an intelligent speaker making a clear statement in favour of what the BBC can contribute to specialist broadcasting. I believe, however, that he was wrong to push it so far and to say that that was to the exclusion of a more populist and generalist approach. The two can be reconciled. There is 1229 room in an organisation such as the BBC—in its national, regional and local programming—to supply the specialist needs, which the hon. Gentleman rightly said are important, and to show a wide range of the highest quality popular entertainment programmes. That is not a contradiction, and it cannot afford to be. I believe that the BBC now understands that, and it is important that it should.
There are other ways of testing public service broadcasting. We have not yet dealt thoroughly with the BBC's contribution to education. Most of us think that we are lagging behind our competitors. There will be an enormous premium on skills for the next generation, and the contribution of the BBC, as the universal broadcaster, will be crucial. The right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) rightly alluded to that fact.
The Government must acknowledge the fact that education investment for the BBC is going down. Next year, new television education programmes are to be cut by 20 per cent., from 113 hours to 90 hours, and new radio education programmes are to be cut by 37 per cent., from 144 hours to 88. For night-time schools transmissions, new programmes are to be cut from 37 hours to a ridiculous five hours.
Can the Government and the BBC be serious about our universal national broadcaster contributing to skills and quality? They are missing something if we are to cut the hours of educational broadcasting. That is wrong. Will the Minister answer my questions tonight, and respond to the education debate? He must realise that there is something seriously wrong.
The Minister must also realise that serious reservations have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about regionalism. The right hon. Member for Conwy rightly drew the distinction between the words "may" and "shall". Although he raised the issue, he was rather easily satisfied on the point, and backed off rather quickly.
The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), in a different way, raised other real problems concerning the genuineness of regionalism, which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) also questioned. It is no good taking a broadcaster to Manchester from London to do a programme. That is not regional broadcasting.
The figures cited by the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) were stark and correct, and they bear repetition—85 per cent. of network programmes are still made in London. The BBC says that it is serious about regionalism and about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but that figure shows that something is wrong.
It is ridiculous that, although 17 per cent. of the population live and pay their licence fees in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, only 3 per cent. of programmes are made there. There may not have to be an exact correlation between the two, but that is too great a discrepancy. The people of our islands who live in those nations have a right to be aggrieved.
The extremely imprecise commitment that the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross mentioned—that broadly one third of programmes are to be made in the regions—is not good enough for a universal national service. What do the Government intend to do about it? Will the Minister of State make a note, and respond to 1230 that question? Is he satisfied with the speed, the commitment and the genuineness of the BBC's move towards regionalism?
Something else that we have not talked about tonight, which constitutes an equally good test of the quality of public service broadcasting, is the World Service. Everybody agrees that it is a jewel, and a huge international influence, but if that is so, why have the Government cut its funding? The Voice of America and Radio Moscow are our competitors. If the Government are serious about getting our voice across in the developing world, cutting the funding makes no sense.
That is not simply a cultural matter but has economic repercussions. We get contracts where our voice is clear and strong and our influence is felt. The Government are fools to themselves to cut investment in the voice of Britain abroad, and a service for which we are trusted and known throughout the world. What they are doing is crazy.
The universal service is also reflected in the quality and range of public involvement in the charter and in the actions of the BBC. We have not paid enough attention to that. The present situation is far from satisfactory, so I hope that the Minister will answer a few of the following questions.
Why has the BBC abolished the General Advisory Council? Why is it merging the regional advisory councils with the radio councils? We do not yet know how many regions there will be. The Minister of State said a year ago in the House that there would be 10, but that has not yet been confirmed. Is that the right figure? If not, how many will there be? What will their role be, and what is to be the role of the English National Forum?
I repeat the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy asked: why are the members of the national broadcasting councils to be chosen by the governors and not, as in the past, by the General Advisory Council? As the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross rightly said, that is a different form of centralisation, and is undesirable and unwelcome. The BBC is a public corporation, and it should be seen to be involving and responding to the public. One way of doing that is through the advisory structures, but the tentacles through which the BBC can listen formally to the public are being slimmed down. That cannot be right. The structural changes mean that it will listen less. Hon. Members, regardless of their political persuasion, will not consider that satisfactory or desirable.
Hon. Members agree that broadcasting is entering a new age and that society is changing. In both respects, the charter, though welcome, is modest or even timid. It is fine as far as it goes, but it is not likely to last. Is it really the framework for the broadcasting future? How will it respond to change when we are settling the agreement before we have settled other broadcasting structures in the Broadcasting Bill? It is being done the wrong way around. How will the agreement respond to new commercial structures when there is no review of the capital structures? If the BBC is to be expected to live in a more commercial world, that makes so sense. It is ridiculous that we should not even discuss the restrictions on borrowing, which will remain as they are.
Why, if the BBC is going into a new broadcasting world, will it do so with fewer skills? It is reducing, and has reduced dramatically, its investment in training. What 1231 other employer entering a new technological world would slash its training as the Government have forced it to do over the past few years?
Will the charter be responsive to a changing society? Our society is changing its views on our nations, the regions and our identity. We are more multi-cultural than we were when the previous charter was written. We are falling behind on education and training. Those are big social changes and none is reflected positively in the charter.
We welcome the charter because, at times, it has seemed that it might have been a lot worse, but the Government must demonstrate tonight and over the next few months that they are not complacent and that they will take an intelligent and imaginative view. There are questions to answer and the Government must demonstrate the commitment and support that they have said that they will give. If they do not, the BBC is not, as it should be, safe in their hands.
§ The Minister of State, Department of National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat)
I welcome the support that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) gave in the midst of the qualifications with which he rounded off his speech. I appreciate the general support, and some qualifications and criticisms, from both sides of the House. In the short time left, I shall answer as many points I can. I do not object to having only a short time to answer, because it is important that as many hon. Members as possible should contribute to such an important debate.
I shall start with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who made a point that was also raised by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie)—that is the fifth different pronunciation of the name of his constituency that he has had to suffer. They asked about the status of the documents that we are considering.
The first, the royal charter, is not amendable by either House of Parliament, but had any criticism of deep substance or a proposal for change emerged in the other place or from tonight's debate, it would have been possible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to include it in the charter. We shall consider what has been said about the charter—I shall come to the agreement in a second—and decide whether any changes should be made.
As regards the agreement, there is a most extraordinary parliamentary convention, which I must admit makes sense to me thanks only to the good offices of the House. When the agreement was debated in the other place, it was a draft agreement, but it could not have come back to this House under Standing Order No. 55 as a draft agreement. It had to come back as an agreement or contract and a contract has to be signed. It was therefore signed a week after the debate in the other place. It came back to this House in a state where an amendment could have been put down, but it would have been up to my right hon. Friend and me to take it away again and bring it back to the House. It is a peculiar status. We shall consider that and decide whether there is anything that would justify the House being asked again to run through 1232 this interesting debate, which is itself the end of many other debates such as those on the White Paper. Anyway, that was really just to help the House.
I thank the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy for the real courtesy with which he always puts his points. It is much appreciated on Government Benches. He rightly discussed the changing landscape of broadcasting. That is what is behind everything that we are debating and discussing tonight. It is indeed changing. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, we are not having the licence fee for the full 10 years of the charter, but merely for five years because things may change so much that it would not make sense.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) mentioned the tremendous changes in technology—in a technological passage of which I could not understand the detail, although the strategy was very clear—saying that, within a few years, one could find out whether anyone was using a video recorder or a television set.
The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy mentioned the important matter of television sporting rights. The House will understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put forward the document "Informing the Debate" precisely because we want a debate, we want it to be informed, and we want to discuss the matter when the Broadcasting Bill returns to the House.
I heard the arguments with no surprise, because they have been aired many times, not least between the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and myself. I told him on 20 November that I wanted the matter to be discussed during the passage of the Broadcasting Bill, which is the proper place to discuss it. That is what I said and that is what will happen. As everyone who has the interests of sport at heart will realise, there are important arguments. People who have been used to watching sport "free-to-air" want to go on doing so. On the other hand, the sports governing bodies get a tremendous amount of money from television—90 per cent. of funding for cricket, I think. Of the 32 rugby league clubs, 26 are pretty well insolvent. If it were not for the money that comes from television, they would be in a serious position. A difficult series of arguments have to be balanced.
§ Mr. Sproat
No, if my hon. Friend will excuse me. He is as knowledgeable as anyone in the House on the matter, but I have only nine minutes in which to wind up the debate. I pay tribute, however, to the assiduousness with which he has pursued his views on the matter.
A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy, mentioned the English regions and the English National Forum. We are suggesting this to the BBC: we believe that it should be independent and independence means that one does not tell it what to do all the time. As far as the English regions are concerned, we believe that it is right to go that far down the road of saying, "Here is the way in which we think you ought to structure it." There is an English National Forum, and if the BBC in its wisdom decides that it wants to keep it as a kind of equivalent to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland national councils, it 1233 may do so. If it wants to keep the radio councils, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North wishes to do—
§ Mr. Sproat
If my hon. Friend will excuse me, I have only a few minutes and he has made his argument powerfully. The BBC can keep the radio councils if it wants. That is what independence means and that is why we did it.
On the appointment of the new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, I fully understand that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy did not impeach or impugn his neutrality. I am sure that most hon. Members understand perfectly well that Sir Christopher will be absolutely apolitical as chairman of the BBC. A number of hon. Members made the criticism that we should somehow have consulted the Labour or the Liberal Democrat parties and that it was discourteous of us not to do so. The fact of the matter is—I checked this out—that the appointment of the chairman of the BBC has never been the subject of consultation. I do not necessarily rest my argument on that as a matter of principle, but it is certainly a matter of practice.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), who probably has more experience in these matters than anyone else in the House, spoke from that deep experience; he spoke powerfully of the importance of regionalism. All that I can say without going into details is that we entirely agree and there is nothing in the agreement or the charter to prevent the BBC from doing exactly what my right hon. Friend wants. When the statement of pledges is finally produced, I hope that there will be pledges covering many of his points.
We already have an outline statement of pledges—I totted them up and there are currently about 88. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I do not regard those as sufficiently specific—they are not yet good enough—but we expect the BBC to come forward with specific pledges. One of the most important duties of the governors, which has been made specific for the first time in the charter and the agreement, will be to monitor the situation—and I do not mean monitor and then do nothing. In the annual report or another similar document, they will say, "Here is what we promised last year; here is what has happened over the previous 12 months. We have succeeded or we have failed—if we have failed, here is how we shall put matters right." There will be an increase in accountability—we must see how it works. I hope that all hon. Members will accept that it is a powerful new way of pinning down the BBC.
I know that many hon. Members in the debate have said that many splendid promises are being made and there are good intentions and aspirations, but they have questioned whether they can be guaranteed to happen. They cannot be guaranteed, but if the BBC says, "Here is what we intend to do," at the beginning of the year and "Here is what we have done," at the end of the year, viewers and listeners, as well as Members of the House, will be able to see exactly what the BBC has achieved.
1234 The right hon. Member for Gorton said that he feared that the BBC was becoming just another broadcasting company without much distinction from any other commercial broadcasting company. I agree with him to the extent that that must not be allowed to happen. The BBC's first duty is to be a public service broadcaster. I accept entirely the right hon. Gentleman's slightly visionary—I use the word in an admiring sense—and accurate view of the future. I remember that that view appeared, valuably, in the first paragraphs of the Select Committee report. We are entering into a new world of commercialisation and the BBC can benefit greatly from commercialisation. From memory, I recall that it currently generates £300 million a year from its videos, books, magazines, merchandising and cassettes. With BBC World, BBC Prime and the joint ventures that are to come, much more money can be invested in the public service broadcasting side of the BBC.
I agree that in any such accountancy transactions, there will always be matters of transparency, which must be rigorously audited—they will be. For the first time, a strict requirement has been placed on the BBC governors to ensure that that auditing is right, transparent and accurate—they have the legal responsibility for it. Hon. Members may say that the governors have always had that responsibility in one sense. Yes, in one sense they have, but we are nailing it down for the first time. Incidentally, it is the first time that the independence of the BBC has appeared in the charter; we have always assumed it, but now we are going to make it an imperative.
In an extremely powerful and well-informed speech, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) criticised some of the BBC's editorial practices. He gave the absolutely shocking example of when one of his questions was transposed in a programme, so that it became the question to another answer. In the latest 1993 issue of the BBC's "Producer's Guidelines", every producer is specifically required to have regard to what the BBC calls "straight dealing". If my hon. Friend can prove that what he said happened, it is entirely contrary to the "Producer's Guidelines".
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) asked about the rules. "Rules" is a slightly misleading description of the "Producer's Guidelines". Mr. Birt says in his introduction that there are not many rules in the "Producer's Guidelines". However, a copy of the present guidelines is in the Library of the House of Commons and as soon as the new code is produced—which I do not expect before the Broadcasting Bill—I shall place a copy in the Library. My hon. Friend and all those who mentioned taste, decency and impartiality should know that we shall have the opportunity to discuss those issues in the Bill when we discuss the new Broadcasting Standards Commission.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Agreement between the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the British Broadcasting Corporation (Cm. 3152), dated 25th January 1996, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31st January, be approved.