§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing rose to call attention to the Report of the Inquiry into Cable Expansion and Broadcasting Policy (Cmnd. 8679); and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very glad indeed to have the opportunity of starting this debate. Your Lordships' House is at its best on a subject of this calibre when it tries to see forward and uses the expertise on all Benches in all parts of the House to consider what we should do about a new development such as cable television. I think it is perhaps right at this juncture to say that although I am interested in all 798 technical subjects and interested in any new technology which will create jobs, as everyone who serves in this House must be, I have no financial interest in any cable company, existing or embryo, nor hold any shares, so far as I know, in any such organisation. I am grateful that as many as 18 Peers, many with great experience, are taking part in this debate. We perhaps owe an apology to the noble Viscount, Lord Rochdale, in asking him to bide his time for so long, and also to those who are speaking in the second debate. I shall try to be relatively brief.
§ It will be everyone's wish that I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. Most of us have read hundreds of reports in our day. I do not think I have read a better one. It has the great advantage of being short, lucid and highly realistic and that is a good recipe for a successful report. I am sorry in a way that his terms of reference did not take in the two-way services like electronic mail and other developments which cable makes possible. We may have to await Dr. Eden's Report for that.
Since the debate was announced Peers will probably have received a deluge of views and mail, as I have. I have brought about one-tenth into the Chamber. It would have been 10 centimetres thick if I had brought it all. Broadly, the broadcasting organisations tend to try to stay neutral and then point out every conceivable disadvantage which extra competition from cable might create to their present lives. That is natural. Anyone who has enjoyed a monopoly or duopoly for some years does not like to see further competition likely to be introduced. On the other hand, the CBI, the National Consumer Council and the Consumers Association have all come down very strongly in support of the Hunt recommendations. The broadcasting organisations in their criticism tend to ask for tighter control and for more regulation and also for delay. The Consumers Association put it very well. It said:
The task is to increase consumer choice in the provision of TV services whilst protecting what is usually described as public service brodcasting".
§ With over 20 or more programme choices available, one can cater for minorities and, above all, develop a local organisation and local communities and allow them to broadcast, appear on television, and create television programmes. This is not possible through the normal broadcasting channels.
§ Unfortunately, the quality of the programmes and the degree of choice must depend upon the financial success of the companies organising them. I think all are agreed that money cannot come either from the taxpayers or from the present radio and television licences. Therefore, it must come from advertising, from sponsors or—and I hope later, but not too much later—from "pay per view". People will pay—it is amazing to me, but even our children will do so—for video machines. They are not cheap either to buy or to hire. Indeed, the video tapes are not cheap. But the growth ofthat industry shows that there are very large numbers in our population who want and who are prepared to buy and to pay for more choice or different programmes which they wish to select. I believe that we must allow the cable operators the maximum freedom to attract advertisers and subscribers. I am not sure that the cable companies should always have, forever and aye, the liability that they "must carry" all 799 the four existing channels. It surely must be possible to allow a TV set to take those over the air and use other channels on the television set for the extra choices coming from cable.
§ Many critics say—and the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said so in his article in the Listener which is published by the BBC—that competition will lower standards. Some people say that competition will provide soft porn. I must say that one is bound to notice that there is a good deal of soft porn on our existing channels. I always feel that but for Mrs. Whitehouse and her gallant association, there might be even more. However, it is alleged that all programmes will probably have excesses imported along USA lines. Every one of those bogies was raised in the early 1950s. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and I faced each other across another place in those days, and we can remember vividly how Mr. Churchill's Government sought to break the then existing BBC monopoly. I was a very junior member of the team led by Lord Clitheroe, and later by Lord De La Warr, in which Sir David Gammans and others were leading figures. I was proud to be a member of that team. That is another reason why I declare an interest. I still have an interest in broadcasting, and particularly the technical development of it.
§ What has happened in the 30 years since then is that, despite all those fears and anxieties—and they were genuine anxieties that we were going to imitate America—we have found ways, and I suggest typically British ways, of organising our broadcasting. I believe that we can do the same now that cable offers greater freedom, more choice and can cater for minority views and, above all, for local views as well.
§ I take the view that now that the technical problems have been overcome there is no reason why any Government of this country, especially this Government, should deny people the right of risking their own money, their own experience and their own jobs in providing extra programmes to peoples' homes. I take this libertarian view especially at this time because the opportunity exists for creating new jobs for young technicians, for young programme creators and for the creative minds of young people. I believe that these jobs are urgently needed when so many of our youngsters are leaving school and are not able to find a worthwhile occupation.
§ Rediffusion, one of the oldest established cable companies predicts that an extra 20,000 jobs will be created in the next few years if we go ahead with cable television. In allowing cable to expand we should also be helping to create some of the business and commercial infrastructure of our country for the 1990s.
§ It is true to say that cable may be launched on the back of entertainment and education, but a modern fibre optic cable, with its interactive capability—which means that signals can go and return and that one can have question and answer along it—has great potential in the 1990s in business, in industry, in electronic mail and in a host of other applications.
§ Of course there must be some body, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, describes, to exercise oversight. He makes that point very firmly. He does not call it "control"; he calls it "oversight". I endorse Lord Hunt's view that we should have a cable authority. I think that many people in the House must praise the 800 work that is done by the IBA. and it has been suggested that they are the right people to do it. Despite the excellence of their performance and the way in which they have evolved in order to meet the challenges, I do not believe that it is right for an old-established authority to deal with a new and competitive system. Therefore, I think that it would be wiser to set up a cable authority as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggests.
§ People then question whether it will have any teeth in its oversight. Of course the ultimate bite is the deprivation of the franchise to the cable company, but that is a very severe action, not only for the company itself but on the homesteads which have bought the facilities. Generally I think that it is too extreme. I like the idea that if an operator continues to transgress the codes of conduct which have evolved, then the programme schedules and other matters should come under closer supervision by the cable authority. The IBA have done that admirably. I believe that the cable authority could do the same. Nor would I rule out—some people have in the criticisms that I have read—the question of fines coming from the profits of those companies if they transgress in minor ways, before one has to take the extreme action. So I recommend that it does have some teeth, but that we provide it with teeth which will not normally destroy the organisation which has transgressed.
§ I believe also that there should be some regulation concerning the amount of overseas programmes. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, looked at this point with his committee—I am sure he did so—because there is much demand that we should not provide the overspill for many American or Canadian programmes by our cable companies. But it is not nearly as easy as it seems at first sight, because if we had one cable doing only sport, then it would not be difficult for that cable to provide 100 per cent. British sport. If we had one cable doing only local affairs, it would not be difficult for it to do 100 per cent. local affairs. If we had another one doing only films, how could it possibly get even the majority of its films from British sources? Regrettably, our film industry is in such a powerless condition that there would not be enough films. So the general average rule—and the existing rule for the BBC and the IBA is that 14 per cent. of the programmes can come from overseas and 86 per cent. from home—could not apply in the case of cable. Because it is difficult to work out a formula, I am sure that it does not mean that it is impossible, and I think that we should leave it to the cable authority to do just that.
Other people are worried about advertising. I see no problem in setting up a code of advertising. It has been done already by the IBA. The Advertising Standards Association, which has done such an admirable job, believe that that is perfectly easy and that they could do it themselves without a special body to undertake it. There are other anxieties about obscenity and decency. In this connection I thought that the Consumer Association report did well. They said:
We feel that regulation on anything like the scale currently applied to off-air services would be inappropriate. A code with statutory backing, plus the laws of obscenity, defamation et cetera, would probably be adequate".
§ I earnestly hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Elton, comes to wind up we shall not be told that there are good reasons for delay, to put everything back, to reconsider it, to set up new committees which will sit for hours and produce minutes. I would not advocate delay and I hope that not too many of your Lordships will support delay. We have an opportunity which we should grab. There are 20,000 job opportunities waiting to be created. Moreover, I wish to draw attention to the progress made overseas. Sometimes, despite the comparative ease of air travel, I think that, sitting on this island, we are a little complacent in somehow not knowing just what is going on as regards developments overseas. In Canada, 60 per cent. of the homes are now wired for cable. Cable is widely distributed in Belgium and Holland. In Belgium you can choose from two alternative French programmes, two German programmes, two Belgian programmes and several other alternatives. That is today—and we have not started.
§ A few days after the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was published, West Germany and France published their reports, but in this instance France in particular said what it was planned to do to bring cable television into effect. Earlier this morning I telephoned the French Embassy to get the latest position and I was told that experimental cable television systems are now operating in Biarritz, Lyon, Grenoble and Metz; that the number of houses with cable TV by 1983 will be 100,000; that there will be another 100,000 by 1984; that 1.5 million houses will have it by 1986; and that 50 per cent. of France will be wired for television cable by 1990. The French Government are acquiring the cables and are undertaking the laying of those cables which, of course, initially may be of the coaxial type but later will be in optical fibres.
§ If the French Government are doing this, if the Canadian Government and the American Government have permitted this to be done, why must we continue to dally while the world walks past us? I would urge the Government to do some of these things now in Information Technology Year. First, I would urge them to set up a cable authority. If it cannot be statutory, then let it be advisory, and advisory to the Secretary of State at the Home Office. Secondly, I urge them to allow some of the established cable companies—like Rediffusion, Visionhire, Philips' and others—to relax the rule temporarily about "must carry" and to use those channels for the provision of experimental cable programmes. In short, to summarise, let us now start creating the facilities and let us now start creating the 20,000 extra jobs which will go with those facilities. I earnestly hope that that will be a view that will go out from this Chamber. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for putting down this Motion today, which has enabled your Lordships to have an early opportunity to discuss this important report and for the debate to take place today on a Motion without the time 802 restriction originally envisaged on the Order Paper. Let me say at the outset that we see cable television as a technological innovation which, if properly used, can be greatly to the benefit of the whole community. It could provide viewers with a greater variety of worthwhile programmes. It could make a major contribution to increased employment prospects in a wide variety of technologically-based industries.
But there must be debate and discussion on the machinery proposed in the Hunt Report. If we get the answers right, not only will viewers be able to live a more enriched life, but the dole queues will diminish. But if we get them wrong, the only people who are likely to benefit are the cable operators themselves.
I intend to cover much of the ground in my opening remarks, but I hope that my noble friends will fill in a number of the aspects which inevitably I shall have to skate over in my remarks in my endeavour to be short. At this point, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Rochdale, who has very generously agreed to make his Motion an Unstarred Question so that it will, in fact, come on later than he originally expected. For this reason I shall try to curtail my own remarks. I also note with interest that this particular debate has attracted three maiden speakers, and I shall look forward to hearing each of their speeches.
The report distinguishes four separate functions in the proposed cable industry: the cable provider, the cable operator, the programme provider and the programme maker. The conclusion of the Hunt Report is that the most important figure of these four will be the cable operator. The authors of the report do not see any reason why the cable provider and the cable operator should not be one and the same body. But I think it is clear that if they are one and the same body, the difficulty of dislodging a particular operator who does not meet the standard set down will be very much more difficult.
Although the report suggests that an operator should be compelled to sell at a predetermined figure his installed cable to a new operator, he will undoubtedly claim that he took the risk in the first place of laying the cable and, therefore, should be allowed sufficient time to recoup his investment. It has been suggested in certain quarters that it could take up to 25 years for this investment to be recouped. Therefore, I think that there would be much to be said for there being a national common carrier.
The Hunt Report saw this as inconsistent with Government policy. In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, told your Lordships that in France the Government themselves were laying the cable. I shall invite your Lordships to consider the advantages of a national carrier. It would enable the cable operators' constituencies to be adjusted from time to time as circumstances demand; it would facilitate a uniform national cable system; and it would enable the regulatory body to change operators more easily.
Another major question to which Parliament will have to address itself is whether it should prescribe the form of cable to be used. If there is no prescription as to the sort of cable, the inevitable outcome of this will be that the system will develop in the same sort of haphazard way as the railways developed in our country many years ago, with the possible necessity at 803 a later date for redundant cable to be uprooted and to be replaced by a more modern form of cable.
It is undoubtedly clear that a system based on the well-established medium of copper cable could be introduced more quickly. Copper cable has been around for years and is still significantly cheaper than fibre optic cable. But, if there was to be a decision to prescribe fibre optic cable, it is clear that, because of that decision, the cost of fibre optic cable would drop dramatically. Fibre optic cable is still an infant technology, but it offers far more development potential than a copper-based system and, as I have said, should be cheaper within a relatively short period of time.
What I think is important—indeed, it is of paramount importance—is that United Kingdom industry should have the chance of succeeding in this field in the international market place. Once large economies of scale have become possible for British companies, their cost effectiveness can be maximised and Britain will be able to compete effectively overseas. Indeed, following on what the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, said about France, I understand that the French have already agreed to link 1.4 million homes to a fibre optic system. This will be the sort of opposition which will be encountered. If we have a multiplicity of cable systems our chances of success in this particular international market will be considerably reduced.
I turn now to the question of the cable operator. The Hunt Report envisages a new cable authority responsible for awarding franchises and for monitoring performance. It would have very few powers, although the Hunt Report suggests that it would have a closer supervisory role if the authority became aware of consistent complaints about a particular operator. The authority would not set standards. It would just keep in touch and monitor what is going on rather than encourage the maintenance of standards.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, that we need a separate cable authority, but I see that authority having substantially the same sort of licensing powers as the IBA has today. The report suggests a licensing system for cable operators with the licence coming up for renewal every eight years, with an initial period of 10 years. This would seem to be about right, and follows the pattern of licensing for television and broadcasting operators.
The report sees each operator serving an area of about half a million homes. This may, or may not, be the right sort of area of operations for an operator. By choosing such a relatively small area the operation of the system will be local; on the other hand, the report does not make any stipulation about local ownership. I understand that this could be deliberate in that it would enable the licensing authority to give operators potentially profitable franchises and lump them together with potentially unprofitable ones. But I think that the question of whether there should be some form of local ownership ought to be looked at. Should it be stipulated that all operators should originate from the area in which they are based?
With regard to the question of the provision of programmes, the report envisages a free-for-all 804 through the cable itself with the single stipulation that the public service television channels should be carried. That is a wise stipulation, although I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, in his introductory remarks, queried whether there should always be that stipulation. I would have thought that this was a stipulation which should remain. There are no stipulations concerning the need for operators to cater for local needs, to cater for ethnic minorities, to cater for news programmes, or to put on artistically creative programmes. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, was worried about the number of foreign programmes to be used. I think that the way to tackle this question may be to stipulate minimum programme standards carried through any particular cable network, and that on top of that additional foreign programmes could be carried.
If cable is introduced on the lines of the Hunt Report, the likely effect will be to increase the number of viewing options for individual householders, but not the range of their viewing options. Without control the most profitable areas for cable will undoubtedly be the re-showing of popular films, and, as as been said, showing pornographic films of one sort and another could also prove popular.
It is also clear that to produce creative programmes will be costly. The experience of America suggests that without some form of regulation creative programmes and news programmes are likely to go to the wall. Yet it must be said at the same time that for many forms of programme cable is an ideal medium. An ideal medium, for example, to cater for ethnic minorities in particular cities in Britain. But again we are up against a particular problem. The London Business School survey, I understand, shows that if cable is to be financially successful it will have to operate as a home box office until the end of the century.
Then we must consider the effect that cable will have on public service broadcasting. Will it drain away the skills and advertising money from that area or not? The report claims that cable will supplement, and not rival, existing services. But the lack of adequate oversight will inevitably mean that rivalry will be there. One wonders whether it will drain the public service broadcasting of public events. One can imagine a situation in which cable operators will be able to muscle in on particular events. The report stipulates that certain traditional national events should not be available to the cable operators; but one can envisage that there will be many events that people generally would want to see but, because they do not have access, will be deprived from doing so. We must remember that in the foreseeable future it is likely that only 50 to 60 per cent. of the country will be able to be wired for cable, with the other 40 to 50 per cent. not being able to be wired because of the location of particular homes. We must ensure that those 40 to 50 per cent. are not to be deprived.
The other area on which I have not touched is the whole communications problem; the multiplicity of communications systems: how in fact cable will provide for interactive activities, such as shopping, banking, and so on. This is another wide-ranging possibility which must be looked at, and which, if we proceed without due thought, may not in fact take the 805 form we would hope. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, in his final remarks hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in his reply would not put forward various reasons for not proceeding. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, this is an important issue which we must get right. To proceed with all speed and to get it wrong would not be to the advantage of the country as a whole. I think it important that we make certain that we have the safeguards right, and that we have the whole method of operation right before this system goes ahead.
§ 3.40 p.m.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I must begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for giving the House an opportunity to discuss a matter of great importance. I must also thank the noble Viscount, Lord Rochdale, for his courtesy and kindness in giving us adequate time to do justice to a subject of great complexity and importance. Not that there has not been enough discussion already. It seems that for many months past some people have been discussing nothing but cable. Unfortunately, it seems that most of that discussion has been focused on the wrong areas—on technical questions regarding coaxial copper, fibre optics, tree and branch systems and the like—whereas what really matters are the actual television programmes transmitted via cable (who is to make them, where are they to be made and what standard are they to be?) and that has been largely overlooked in the earlier discussions.
The Government's decision to go ahead with cable—and it seems clear that they have decided to go ahead; indeed, the terms of reference of the Hunt Committee show that that decision has been taken in principle—seems to have been based on the economic and job-creating opportunities which, it is hoped, will be generated by the interactive services, which will become a real opportunity only when we have a comprehensive fibre optic cable network in Britain. In the meantime, early progress towards a communications cable network will have to be carried on the back of entertainment, of television programmes.
Some jobs have already been created. Indeed, it seems that a new profession has arisen, that of people who seem to earn their living by going round the country presenting papers on cable to symposia and study groups. But it is always the same people. The same people attend those symposia—many noble Lords have attended several of them—often at great expense, going on behalf of their companies, with the same people presenting the papers. You can perm any 10 from 100 and all the papers have been churned out already. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, said he had them all. So have I. They make a pile feet high. But they are all on technical matters and are not on the matters which I believe are fundamentally important; we should be talking about programmes, and it is that about which I shall talk in the main.
First, however, a brief comment about the Government's apparent assumptions about the benefits of a fibre optic cable communications network. If we are to believe what we are told-—I believe some of it—then, as we shall at some stage in the future be able to shop by cable, go to the bank by cable, place our bets by 806 cable and even attend meetings by cable, it seems that we shall have arrived at a time when nobody will have to meet anybody. There may be noble Lords who are delighted at that prospect. There are occasions when I feel a little like that myself. But we may some day come to realise that human contact has been socially vital. I do not think people all go to the launderette because they have a lot of washing; they go to talk and meet people. We may find that many people still want to go to the shops and banks, so let us be wary and proceed stage by stage and watch the developments carefully.
I come to the argument about creating two Britains, a part of Britain which will have a communications cable network and another part which will not. I suggest that we must get away from the notion that rural areas must somehow be made identical to urban areas. They are not identical and I hope nobody seeks to make the North Yorkshire Moors exactly the same as the Newcastle suburbs. They are different; they are often deprived of services and sometimes the people there welcome that. Many of those who are fortunate enough to live in a rural area—I now live mostly in Cumbria, where there are no services; no water, no refuse disposal, and I hope shortly to be able to arrange to have no telephone—welcome this apparent deprivation. So let us not be too put off by the fact that we cannot necessarily establish a cable communications network which can spread throughout the whole of Britain.
What matters, however, is if the development of that network in some way damages or deprives people in rural areas of something which they now have and value. That is something that we must watch very carefully. In other words, we must see to it that the development of television and entertainment by cable does not in any way deprive people who do not have cable of the high standard of service they now receive from BBC 1 and 2, ITV and perhaps Channel 4.
I leave those matters, which I do not really understand—those concerning coaxial copper, fibre optics and so on—and turn purely to broadcasting matters, and in that connection I ask noble Lords who are worrying about the issue—and I know that many of my noble friends are worried about it—to forget for a moment about America and to get away from the idea that what has developed in the United States must inevitably happen here. I do not think that is true. We should have some confidence in our own ability to do things better. I appreciate that there have been some awful things in the United States. For example, a programme called "Ugly George"—it was really horrible—went bankrupt in about seven months. So did a Parkinson-type discussion programme in which the various participants appeared nude. That lasted about five weeks. In the end, things right themselves, so let us have confidence in what we can do.
In that connection, I have been looking back at the debate in your Lordships' House in, 1954 on the Television Act, which brought in commercial and independent television. The most horrifying forecasts were made by noble Lords of the dire consequences of what we were doing. One noble Lord, whose son now sits on the Opposition Front Bench, said:If this Bill becomes law, future historians will deem it to be one of the most irresponsible measures of modern times".807 Some of those future historians are in your Lordships' House today. They deem it nothing of the kind. They think that the development, on the whole, has been socially advantageous.
Another noble Lord—I do not want to go through all the pages of the volume to find his words—said that, in introducing not independent television but commercial television—anything commercial was somehow deemed to be fatally improper—we were dropping a maggot in the British broadcasting apple. Where is the putrefaction? The apple is far from rotten; it is healthy and appetising. The forecasts which were made at that time have not been fulfilled. Indeed, we have shown that we are capable of doing things very much better than the Americans.
That does not mean that we can safely leave everything to develop on its own; and here I must comment on ways in which we can try to ensure that enough of the programmes which will ultimately appear via cable will have originated in the United Kingdom and been created by people in Britain. I shall then turn briefly to the present rules operated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in relation to commercial television. There is, I understand—there are noble Lords present who are very clear on the subject and are concerned about it—a requirement that 86 per cent. of the programmes on commercial television must be self-made in the United Kingdom; that 14 per cent. of the programmes can be imported material; and that there is a two-hour separation between imported items.
Let us consider for a moment the economics of the matter and look first at the 14 per cent. That represents programmes such as "Kojak", "Starsky and Hutch" and the like—some of them very good, some of them rotten—and the cost to the network of broadcasting material of that kind, imported from the United States, is about £17,000 per hour of transmission. If we turn to home-made programmes like "Brideshead Revisited" or "Smiley's People" (little matter that it is BBC because the costings are the same), my information is that those at present cost about £250,000 per hour.
At those figures, do noble Lords really think that uncontrolled cable operators, without quotas of any kind or any sort of enforcement, will inevitably buy British? If it is not too unparliamentary to quote George Bernard Shaw, I have to say, "Not bloody likely!" We really must take steps to see that much of the material which is transmitted via cable is made and created in Britain, and I think that we can do it.
It is interesting to note that perhaps the best of the cable television in the United States is what is known as PBS—the public broadcasting service, or public service broadcasting, always abbreviated to PBS. But in the profession, among broadcasters in the United States, PBS is known as purely British service. Why?—because our services are better, and because the public service broadcasting service consists mainly of British items. We must see to it that we get that British service on cable, and that we do not merely get cheaper stuff from abroad.
Indeed the Government have been right to lay on the fourth channel a burden and guidelines under which the channel is operated, to ensure that it 808 stimulates the growth of private production companies up and down the country, and preferably out of London. That seems to me to be absolutely admirable. But if we allow the fourth channel to do that for perhaps a year or two years, and then kill that off by permitting some other body wholly to import programmes, we should make a great mistake.
Here I must turn very briefly to the question: who is to be the controlling authority? I think—and I agree with others who have said it—that the IBA has a unique record. I honestly believe that in the material that it has sent to noble Lords—and we all have it—the IBA has sometimes, and in some ways, rather undersold itself. I think that the IBA has actually done more than it admits to doing. In its most recent papers it tends to concentrate in a rather negative kind of way on what it has been able to do to control programmes.
My experience of the matter, which is fairly considerable in a personal respect, is that the IBA has achieved very much more in a positive sense. On the negative side, I remember the very early days when there was a requirement that the content had to be balanced within the same programme. Back in 1957 and 1958, when I was presenting programmes on social questions and medical matters for Granada, I was prevented from doing a programme about the desirability, on grounds of public health benefits, of applying smokeless zones in certain areas which did not have such zones. I could not do the programme unless I could drag along a reluctant representative of a backward local authority who did not agree with smokeless zones. That was because there was a requirement to balance the content within an individual programme. The noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, changed all that, with a requirement that the balance should be overall in the programme output in general.
In my view the real achievements of the Independent Broadcasting Authority have been on the positive side. Because of its ability to withhold a franchise or withdraw it, it has been in a position of immense influence with the companies. I could reel out a long list of socially desirable, beneficial, cultured, and other programmes of that kind—a very long list—which in my honest view have been transmitted only because of the influence of the authority, exerted in a positive sense. The authority has let it be known that it will look favourably on programme companies that do work of this kind, that kind, or the other kind, and so the companies have then gone ahead and done programmes which I am sure they would not have done had it not been for the positive influence of the authority.
Therefore I say that, whatever authority we have—and we must have some authority in control of cable television—I hope that it will tend to act in a positive sense by stimulating good programmes in the kind of way that I have mentioned, rather than by purely thinking that it controls the programmes negatively by looking at everything and saying, "No, we don't like that, and we would like this to be a little different; and cut out that bit of that one", and so on. So in that sense perhaps the Government have got it about right in saying that we shall have a new cable authority, but I hope that when they do have a new cable authority it will act that way.
809 Perhaps it might have been better to leave control to the IBA. At one stage there was a suggestion that there could be a consortium, that a mixture between the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority could be set up as a new authority. But I think that the Hunt Committee took the view that such a body would inevitably be a little too protective of the existing services; and maybe that is true. So perhaps the Government have got it right in setting up a new authority.
I have spoken long enough. We shall have many bites at this cherry in the future—or, in view of my earlier remarks, perhaps I should say, at the apple. For the moment I would merely say that my noble friends and I are broadly in support of the development of cable. We think that it is inevitable, it must come. But we shall want to watch its development very carefully. We shall want to consider it all at each stage, and we hope, too, that there will be a controlling authority which will control in a positive, rather than a purely negative, sense.
I should like to conclude by mentioning one other matter of some importance. There is much worry by parents about how to stop their children watching undesirable programmes, and there is now all this talk about electronic locking devices. They are a farce. It is only the children who can work these things. My home is full of electronic devices that I cannot work at all. My seven-year-old grandson can work them admirably. Do not tell me, my Lords, that if I have an electronic locking device to stop him watching something, he will not be able to work it. I will not be able to work it, but he will.
The real way to tackle the problem is not to have devices, but to ensure that the programmes are good, and I hope that we can do that by having the right kind of authority, exerting the right kind of influence in the way in which over the years the Independent Broadcasting Authority has exerted its influence on all the different programme contractors here in Britain. It has exerted a positive influence which has had an immensely beneficial effect on the companies, and I hope that a new cable authority will do exactly the same. All I say is that for the moment, yes, we are in support, cautious support, but we shall watch with great vigilance future developments, and we shall reserve the right to comment on developments as and when they occur.
§ 3.56 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of Wakefield
My Lords, it is with considerable diffidence that I rise to make my maiden speech, not least when it is on a topic so complex as cable expansion and broadcasting policy. While it may be seemly for television cameras to chronicle the affairs of Barchester, it may not be immediately apparent why those in lawn sleeves should repay the compliment and busy themselves with cable television and the future of public service broadcasting. My pretext, if I need one, is that I am chairman of the Central Religious Advisory Committee. It is a fully ecumenical body, for it advises both the BBC and the IBA, and its members are drawn from the mainstream Churches of Britain and from some of the minority Churches, together with friends from the Jewish and Moslem communities.
We were one of the many bodies that submitted 810 evidence to the Hunt Committee, as did the British Council of Churches, and the Church of England. The common theme of these three groups included the need to uphold the high quality of public service broadcasting—which has already been emphasised in the debate—and to ensure that cable television should not undermine these standards; the need, also, to provide a regulatory body to which the cable operators and programme makers were publicly accountable; and the needs, too, of the local community which cable television might meet.
As I read the report, I do not find that there are various sufficient safeguards for public service broadcasting, and I do not think that they are truly adequate, though I very much welcome the safeguards that the Hunt Committee puts forward. In particular I think that the "must carry" rule, so that our existing radio and television services remain part of the total package, is a wise provision; so, too, is the protection of the great national sporting events, so that they are not limited to the 40 per cent. or so who can obtain cable television, or who can afford to pay for it. For the same reason I applaud the rejection of "pay-per-view" for individual programmes. I also very much welcome the assurance that the committee gives us that cable operators should be bound by existing standards of good taste and decency, that they should avoid material offensive to public feeling, and should pay special attention to programmes broadcast when large numbers of children and young people may be viewing.
But when it comes to the subscription channel, showing so-called adult material, I believe that I am not alone in thinking that the committee's reliance on an electronic lock might be somewhat naive. So I hope that when it comes to consider these matters, the Home Office will insist on the same constraints on programme quality as are observed by the IBA and the BBC. I hope, too, that it will not countenance "open channels" for pornographic material, such as exist in the United States.
I find that the report says many brave things about cable as supplementary, and not as a rival or an alternative, to public service broadcasting. It says that cable is for widening the viewers' choice, for being innovative, experimental, and sensitive to local feeling. But I am not entirely persuaded by the arguments put forward. After all, the fundamental premise of the report is that,investment in cable television for entertainment purposes will be the necessary base".That is the foundation on which the later, interactive services of economic benefit to business and the individual will be built. But I find that by this reasoning cable requires a popular entertainment base in order to attract large audiences, extensive rental revenues and subscriptions and substantial money from advertising—for, after all, investors rightly need a return on their money. I believe there is a basic question as to how long public service broadcasting of present quality can continue to co-exist with entertainment-led cable with so few regulations as the Hunt Committee Report puts forward. Therefore, I support those speakers who wish to see the regulatory body looked at very carefully and with some vigilance. For in order to prosper, cable must be able to pay 811 popular entertainers and writers more than the going rate at the BBC and the ITV. It has in some way to lure them to its own services. It will also inevitably attract some advertising money away from the independent companies. So, either way, the cost of making programmes seems likely to rise, and this may well mean that the BBC and independent television will have less money available for programmes of the other kind that they do so well—programmes of drama, music, the arts and of minority interests—and the costs of those have already been spoken about and given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley. The quality and diversity of programmes, I think, may be at risk, and there could be the prospect, not of wider choice but really of narrower choice in terms of quality. We have already heard some anxieties expressed on the absence of a quota to restrict the import of cheap programmes from abroad, and there are fears being noised that the British television production industry may itself be put at risk unless it has a sounder financial base.
I therefore support those who believe that a stronger regulatory body for cable may very well be needed, and I think vigilance is required. It will be needed to ensure the continued viability of the British television production industry; to ensure that the performance and practice of cable operators really match the promises that they put forward; and to secure the necessary variety, quality and overall balance of programmes. I should like to see a much stronger provision than the report allows for local community programming, and for access by local groups to cable television. Simply to presume and to hope, as the report does, that this will happen is not really strong enough. Locally-based cable television could provide a community service complementary to the local press and local radio. It could help to increase the sense of identity of the local community; and it is in that setting that I see the local churches making their contribution in community programmes.
I am sure the report is right to exclude religious and political groups from ownership of the operating companies, and to debar such groups from buying their way into programme-making. Moreover, the model of the Electronic Church in the United States is to many of us really rather abhorrent. I hope that that will have no place as cable television develops in our country. The Churches' involvement should always be in the common public discourse of our community.
Without stronger regulation of cable television, the report's safeguards for public service broadcasting as they now stand are, I think, insufficient. I should like to see them strengthened, or else we may have to accept that the public service may begin to decline. Of course, the new technology has immense potential, and those who are going to operate it will have great influence and power in our society. As a society, are we content that that influence should so largely rest with those providing popular entertainment for commercial profit? In such hands, the new technology could well dictate, and possibly restrict, the quality and range of programmes in the overall reception on our screens.
Fundamentally, I think we have to ask ourselves: What are the moral, the cultural and the spiritual 812 qualities that we wish to uphold and project in our society? What values in the family, which receives the programmes on the screen, do we really cherish and foster? The Government are known to have expressed particular concern and interest in the wellbeing of the family, in the importance of strong family life. I think we need to answer these questions on the values of society and the family before we go on to decide precisely the kind and quality of cable television we want in our homes and the kind of people who should be entrusted to handle it. My Lords, I am very grateful to your Lordships for your courteous and patient hearing of my maiden speech, and I am looking forward immensely to listening to other noble Lords as they make their speeches in the course of the debate.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ Lord Aylestone
My Lords, it is my great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield. He comes to us with a great deal of knowledge of broadcasting, acting at one time as chairman of CRAC (which, if I may interpret, is the Central Religious Advisory Committee) and, earlier than that, as religious adviser to the BBC. He has shown by his maiden speech that his interests are not only in the religious section of broadcasting but in broadcasting generally, and we shall be delighted to hear from him on very many more occasions on this and other subjects.
The House is indeed grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for initiating the debate; and, of course, to the Leader of the House for making possible a debate of worthwhile length. I personally welcome the coming of the cable infrastructure into our homes and into village halls, or wherever it may come, and the many possibilities it offers—which, of course, are not covered by the remit of Lord Hunt's committee. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, briefly mentioned the other possibilities. I am sure of one thing—and I hope that perhaps he will agree with me. When cable comes in for broadcasting or for any other purpose, whether by copper, by co-axial cable or by fibre optics, by the time we have got it going those systems will have become obsolescent, if not obsolete, and we shall have moved on to something else. I think that from a technical point of view we should always have that in mind.
But today we are discussing the provision of additional television programmes by cable. In my view, in the early years it can do nothing much other than serve areas of large populations, unless, of course, the Government, when they reach a decision, decide to subsidise heavily the cable provider—and it will need heavy subsidising if anything like the area of the British Isles is to be covered. But what cable could do—and, here again, it may need to be subsidised—is to bring television into the very few areas and islands that are not yet in receipt of either BBC or IBA programmes.
I feel that we should not lose sight of the fact that at the moment the report in front of us is just a report to the Government, and that the Government's decision is to follow. The report and, I hope, this debate will be of help to them. I read, probably wrongly, that they are likely to reach some sort of decision before Christmas. I do not think that the particular newspaper specified 813 which Christmas. I hope that the decision will not be too long delayed.
The report proposes the setting up of a financing authority. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, called it a cable authority. Probably neither of us is correct, because the unborn child has not yet got a name, but I call it the franchising authority because it seems to be limited to very few powers indeed—the granting of franchises, yes; and just one more, a function to monitor programmes. And that is all. These are, indeed, very limited powers as I will endeavour to point out and as one or two other speakers have pointed out already. Maybe this limitation of power is supposed to grant greater freedom to the broadcasters by cable than they would at the moment get from the BBC or IBA. I ask: freedom from what or freedom for what? This is a problem that has not yet been sorted out; it is a problem that has not yet been answered; and neither does Hunt answer it.
Every time one criticises cable television one is told, "Ah! But this is freedom". Well, let us see what it means. First of all, how is it to be paid for? The report proposes that rental charges, subscription charges, should be collected from cable viewers by the franchising authority who themselves are to have no say in what charges are to be levied. There is one point to be made there. I agree with the Hunt Committee that rental and subscriptions will not be enough and I doubt very much if there is a great deal of advertising revenue for them to draw upon additional to what is already being collected by the broadcasters. There is no bottomless pit of advertising revenue.
Let us recall what we are doing at the moment. We sustain 15 independent television contractors, four programme makers and 38 independent local radio stations—all of them at the moment on the air, with some 30 more still to come—all financed and to be financed by advertising revenue. In addition, we finance the Fourth Channel, we finance the new Welsh channel and before very long we shall be financing breakfast television—all from advertising revenue.
I should declare a small interest in an independent local radio station, but it is a small interest. And I only do that to point out that in the rural areas independent local radio stations are struggling, struggling very hard, for national advertising revenue. The Government themselves very wisely have realised that there is a limit to advertising revenue; because they decided to reduce the levy which is paid by programme contractors to enable the Fourth Channel to get off the ground and on the air. There is a limit to what television advertising revenue can do and there will be a limit to what is available for cable.
I have just one or two words about programme content. First, the proposed franchising authority have no say whatever in programme content. According to the Hunt suggestion, they may just monitor programmes. What does that mean? It means no previewing of programmes, no control over programmes, no requests that a programme maker should take something out or, perhaps, put something in—no control whatsoever. But if a programme goes out that ought not to have been broadcast, then they have the authority, as monitors, of being able to slap somebody's wrist afterwards. Nor have the proposed authority any control over the scheduling of 814 programmes—that is, how the programmes work out within a particular day—or their content. And all this, presumably, in the name of freedom.
As has been mentioned two or three times already, there is to be no limit on foreign material broadcast by cable. There is such a control at the moment. I think that I am right in saying that there is a 14 per cent. limit on foreign material—which means that 86 per cent. of broadcast material is British. I say "British", but I think that may include Commonwealth material. If foreign material is to be used without any limit, as is suggested by the report, I am sure that British actors and producers will be interested and I am sure that the trade unions within the industry will have something to say.
There is to be no limit at all on the amount of advertising on cable television. At the moment, on independent television the limit is six minutes in the clock hour, and on independent radio nine minutes. The proposal of this report suggests no limit on cable. Also, it is suggested that both BBC and independent television programmes should be taken freely "off air". I do not object to that but I wonder if anything is to be paid for it, because it may not be known generally that actors and actresses and people who take part in programmes currently expect repeat fees when a programme is repeated from time to time.
Still on programme content, as the right reverend Prelate reminded us, we are told that cable television will be required, as the BBC and ITV are by statute required, to adhere to standards of good taste and decency. Having had some experience of this, I can assure your Lordships that those statutory requirements are not always easy to observe, but—and it is a big "but"—I understand that it is very doubtful whether the Obscene Publications Act 1959 or the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 will apply to cable television at all or even to video. Perhaps the noble Lord when he replies will tell us whether I am right or wrong in that respect. It is, of course, possible for both pieces of legislation to be amended.
Finally, the report suggests that foreign investors may invest in British cable television. Do we really want that? One knows the story of the piper who calls the tune. But, wearing a different hat, an old hat now—something like seven years old—I would only suggest to the Government, if I may, that in making their decision they should bear in mind that there is in existence an authority, the IBA, which has massive experience in all the programme controlling, the granting of franchises, scheduling, controlling of advertising content and everything else that it is hoped will be done but which the proposed franchising authority has no authority to do. May I add a final word to people like myself and, I should think, to many more of limited means? Think hard and think very long before you invest money in cable television.
§ 4.19 p.m.
§ Lord Pender
My Lords, speaking for the first time to your Lordships, I hope that you will extend the indulgence which is customary on these occasions. Having listened to several maiden speeches in your Lordships' House, I am at this moment dramatically aware of the divide between spectating and 815 participating. I would add that I have no interest to declare except an historical association with cable companies. In 1851, my great-great-grandfather founded the original cable companies which in due course became Cable and Wireless Limited in 1929, then experienced a period of nationalisation from 1947 to 1981, and were then privatised. Four successive generations of my family served those companies during their working lives.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for initiating this debate on a subject that engulfs such wide and far-reaching issues, some of which must inevitably be controversial. It seems astonishing that a report of such clarity could be produced within a six months' period. There are many issues to be considered as a result of recommendations from the report, ranging from the formation of an oversight authority, the basis and time schedule of franchise, to the questions of impartial presentation and decency standards—to name some of the major ones.
Since publication of the Hunt Report, perhaps too much attention has been focused on the entertainment aspects of cable television. As a result, we may be in danger of underestimating both the potential of cable and the complexity of the issues which need to be resolved in order to launch it successfully. It is vital in this Year of Information Technology that we recognise the long-term prospects of the interactive services which can be provided if two-way cable is installed. If we are to be serious about keeping Britain in the forefront of technological advance we must ensure that local cable operators make provision for these interactive services. No doubt these will take time to develop fully; but we should not regard burglar alarms, meter readings, even telebanking and teleshopping, as the limit of their potential.
Although local operators will clearly start in the cities and urban districts, we should not underestimate the great benefits and economies that will also accrue to rural dwellers. We should be planning a new era of communication between home and home or between home and office. The value of cable in the sphere of telecommunications is far greater than the significance of bringing in a few extra TV channels to the home. May I suggest that we do not lose this opportunity? It goes without saying how important it is to get the technological and institutional framework right.
We in this country had commercial television in the 1950s; a third channel in the 1960s; colour television in the 1970s; the fourth channel, breakfast television and television satellite channels in the 1980s. I hope that, after all the implications have been thought through, we shall be able to embrace cable television in the 1990s. My Lords, I thank you for listening to me.
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ Lord Beswick
My Lords, I have the privilege on behalf of the whole House of offering congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Pender, on his maiden contribution to our debates. With his forebears, he probably has a greater right to take part in a debate of this kind than any of us; and certainly in manner, tone and substance, his speech was wholly in keeping with the highest traditions of this House. I am quite certain 816 that the founder chairman of Cable and Wireless would have been pleased and proud at the speech which has just been made by his great-great-grandson. I have only one piece of advice to offer the noble Lord: I venture to suggest that he does not wait another 17 years before he comes and speaks in our House again.
Having referred to the caution displayed by the noble Lord, I am proposing to go on to say that I think that the Government may well exercise the greatest degree of caution before they go on to implement some of the possibilities that now lie before us. I should like to pay a tribute to those members of the inquiry who produced such a persuasive report with such expedition. I am bound to add, however, reservations about the terms of reference within which they worked.
The inquiry started off with the Government's apparent view that there were benefits to cable technology and there was expressed willingness in the terms of reference to consider an expansion of these cable systems. The report does not query in any way the underlying assumptions that Britain needs what is called this wider range of information. I think that it would not have been unreasonable to have had an inquiry with a much more fundamental basis looking much more deeply as to what is needed and what is possible with these great, new physical advances. Have we really got it right if we say that lack of resources requires the closure of geriatric wards in our hospitals and threatens children's hospitals like Tadworth, yet at the same time we can coolly contemplate spending these thousands of millions of pounds in our economy?
The report says in paragraph 9 that it is wholly a question of widening the viewers' choice. I beg leave to wonder about this. Of course it is said that these brave new developments can be self-supporting, that they will be or could be commercially viable. The inquiry took evidence which suggested that the new system could attract more advertising. We are told that in 1980 1.32 per cent, of our gross national product went on advertising and the practitioners claimed that by 1995 the money spent on this kind of advertising can go up to £2,900 million a year. The implication of this is that the new programmes could therefore be supported on this additional advertising. However, we have to recognise that it is not the advertiser who pays, it is the consumer. These new cable services are as much a charge on our national economic effort as the Tadworth Children's Hospital or the old folks' home at Tooting.
If we come to advertising, then inevitably we are up against the problems of standards and of the issues of taste and decency—the issues which ought to have been considered much more deeply than they were by a Government inquiry. The report comments in paragraph 10 that:A high standard will not however necessarily be maintained of its own accord,I should have thought that that was an understatement of some distinction. In paragraph 72, very diffidently, almost apologetically—and they emphasise that they do not wish to appear prudish—the report suggests that we should ask that,traditional broadcasting requirements relating to taste and decency",will be observed. I am not quite sure which tradition 817 they had in mind. John Reith sought to establish a tradition. I recognise that there has been and there is an honourable attempt by some of those in present public broadcasting authorities to maintain a sense of decency; but we have fallen, and we do fall very often, below those standards of John Reith. It would be very difficult to say that some of the behaviour, which we all deprecate on the football field and in law and order, is not due in part to that deviation from John Reith's standards.
Of course, the deterioration of standards set in when there is a pressure to increase the number of viewers, listeners or readers. The report says in paragraph 64 that "the main potential threat" comes from securing large audiences by popular programming. The noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, from his very wide experience says that some of these estimates of available advertising revenue are probably optimistic and that there will be a greater struggle to get a share of the advertising revenue that is going. The struggle for a share of that limited sum will inevitably be a struggle for a wider audience, and the struggle for a wider audience will inevitably be a temptation to drift to a lower common standard—indeed, to the lowest common denominator.
I look back now, as I suppose we all do, over a period of years in public life. The other day I was thinking about what I like least about what has happened since some of us came back from, as we thought, the fight against Fascism in 1945. What is it that I like least? I would say that possibly the sickliest, the least healthy, the saddest feature has been the development of the old Daily Herald into the current Sun newspaper. It would be positively hateful to think that some of those same market forces which have driven down the standards of some of our popular newspapers could be exerted to widen audiences and bring down the standards in our broadcasting system.
I am quite certain that those who constituted the inquiry would support all this in principle. It is in keeping with their civilised expectations. I thought the tone which came through that report of the standards which they sought was absolutely fine; but the practical measures for ensuring that their hopes are realised are, I believe, insubstantial. Monitoring the present services, as the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, said, is difficult enough, but the problem presented if we have a multiplication of national and local channels and services needs much more serious consideration.
One positive recommendation is made in the report. I find, with the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and the right reverend Prelate, that the recommendation relating to the electronic lock is less than convincing. I read that there has been experience of its use in Tredegar and two other localities, but I should want much more evidence before I accepted that this was a satisfactory way of keeping children free from unsettling or unsavoury programmes. We have a law to prevent the sale of alcohol to children. We have the system of certification to keep children out of certain cinemas during the showing of certain films. But the idea that the son and daughter can be kept in the kitchen while mother and father look at these less reputable programmes is stretching credulity beyond reasonable limits. The very fact that this piece of 818 technology exists—this key to the forbidden—is going to be a challenge to every schoolboy. I can well imagine, going to school every morning, that there will be a boast as to who got hold of it the previous evening, and the lad who has not undone the electronic lock will be looked upon as something of a curiosity.
The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, acknowledged that there were genuine anxieties in this area. I am not sure that I agree with him or with the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, that experience since the early 1950s wholly justifies the optimism which he displays. I am not sure that the facts suggest that the experience has been wholly beneficial. Look at the statistics in the United States concerning robbery, rape and murder and ask yourselves whether standards of behaviour have improved since the beginning of the 1950s. It is very difficult to say that they have improved. It is also very difficult to say that some of the forms of entertainment available over radio and television have not contributed to what some would say is a decline.
I am ready to accept that those opportunities for good which obviously lie in this new technical possibility could be used for the greater happiness of society and of its individual members, but we must also accept—here I agree with my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede—that the opportunity can be misused. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, in winding up his speech, earnestly hoped that we should not allow any delay in operating these new channels. I hope, equally earnestly, that before we do give the go-ahead we shall make as sure as possible that the motivation is right and that the safeguards are there.
§ 4.36 p.m.
§ Lord Glanusk
My Lords, first may I thank my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing for starting this debate and congratulate the previous maiden speakers upon having successfully survived their ordeal. I hope I can do the same. I should also like, with your Lordships' usual indulgence, to offer an explanation, if not an apology, for my behaviour. I have been a member of your Lordships' House for 34 years, yet am only now making my maiden speech. After 17 years in the Royal Navy I have been endeavouring to earn my living and I retired at the beginning of the year as managing director of a small telecommunications company. Although I carried the title of managing director, a more accurate description of my function would have been chief telephonist and assistant packer. This meant that I did not have the time to attend your Lordships' House on anything like a regular basis. I felt it was better to apply for leave of absence rather than to appear to be using the facilities of the House as an exclusive and inexpensive club. I feel certain that other hereditary Peers, particularly the younger ones, find themselves in similar circumstances, possibly to the detriment of the composition of your Lordships' House.
I turn now to the matter under discussion. I have read with interest the Hunt report and am basically in agreement with it. If private enterprise is prepared to put up the capital and carry the undoubted risks involved, I do not believe that the Government should stand in their way—subject, of course, to the safeguards which the Hunt Committee has recommended. The report emphasises the high cost of 819 the initial cable installation, with the consequent increase in rental subscription if the operating company is to show a profit on its shareholders' investment in a reasonable period of time.
Since the report was written there have been suggestions that the national sewerage system should be used for the cable routes. At first this may sound unattractive to your Lordships, but I believe that on reflection the advantages will become apparent. I have checked with the research department of the water authority. They inform me that 96 per cent. of all houses in England, Wales and Scotland are now connected to main drains. This is a truly remarkable figure and is, I am assured, the highest for any country in the world. It is also not far short of the national coverage for broadcast television. In addition, there are frequent access points along the sewerage route for any repeater or switching circuits which may be required. The domestic manhole covers are seldom more than a few feet away from each home. This means that very expensive digging up of roads and pavements can be virtually eliminated and should result in a considerable saving in the initial capital costs, which are conventionally estimated at somewhere between £150 and £500 per installation. This cheaper method of access may not, I regret, be available to all the stately homes of your Lordships, some of which are rather remote from a main drain.
One difficulty about this scheme is that the atmosphere inside a sewer may not be the most suitable for conventional coaxial cable, which can have its insulation destroyed by damp and by the microbiological agencies which may exist therein. On the other hand, fibre optics could avoid such difficulties, being made of very pure glass, impervious to water and very unattractive to rats. At present a glass fibre cable is somewhat more expensive than coaxial cable, but once manufacturers can see the large volume required, with several schemes being started simultaneously in different areas of the country, the price of glass fibre cable will be rapidly reduced, probably below that of coaxial cable. From this point of view it would be important that several franchises be granted at very much the same time.
As mentioned already by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing, I would like to see more attention being given to other facilities which might be supplied over a multi-channel system over and above that of pure (and I use the word advisedly) entertainment. It is probable that at this moment there is insufficient demand to justify the cost, but in my opinion it is clear that within the next five years or so there will be a demand for such services as have been mentioned already—banking, shopping, job-hunting, small ads, advanced education, meter reading, burglar alarms and many others. These will require an interactive system; that is, one in which the viewer needs to respond over the cable as a result of promptings from a remote source, and vice versa.
Some companies are already running remote interactive offices, so that such people as area sales representatives with a mini-computer installed in their homes, can easily communicate with their head offices or central computers without the hassle and expense of travelling and parking. One can even imagine that if 820 the British Post Office continues to increase its charges, it will soon be economical to transmit letters by an advanced facsimile system. Even now it is possible to transmit an A4 sheet of typing in one minute over the switched telephone network, at the same price as a one minute telephone call, with instantaneous reception by the addressee. This latter point may be of enormous advantage to some businesses and even to some individuals.
Such services will, I believe, be beyond the capacity of a single coaxial cable and can only be achieved by a fibre optic one. If my surmises are correct, it would be foolish laying a near-nationwide coaxial system which will last only the lifetime of the first franchises and will then have to be completely replaced by a new system at similar costs. It would appear that urgent studies are required into the technical merits and comparative costs of the two types of cable and into the additional services other than entertainment which could be economically provided at a later date.
I am aware that some of the hardware and switching for a fibre optic system is still under development or on field trials, both in industry and in British Telecom, but, by the time that the cable authority is formed and functioning and franchises have been applied for, all the necessary hardware could be ready for production. Even now some companies are actively supplying British Telecom and Cable and Wireless—as has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Pender—with fully operational communication systems using fibre optic techniques. This shows that the know-how is, or soon will be, readily available.
These are only two points taken from the Hunt report. I am sure that other noble Lords are far more qualified than I to talk on such important matters as the composition of the central franchising authority and the control and monitoring of the quality of the entertainment supplied. May I summarise by saying, let us use the fastest and most advanced techniques available and, in these depressed times, give the British electronic and entertainment industries a firm and lasting boost in advance of our European competitors.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, I am quite sure the first thing that your Lordships will wish me to say is that it has been worth waiting 34 years to hear a speech of such expert knowledge and containing so many ingenious suggestions, which I am sure are going to be of great value to those who study this debate. I do congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Glanusk, very sincerely and I congratulate also the very notable maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Pender, and of my old friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, who managed as usual to blend both charm and wisdom in what he said. Indeed, congratulations go to other people, such as the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his report. I agree with everything that has been said about its being a model of what a report should be, and it is very much shorter than other reports to do with broadcasting that I can think of.
I should like to engage in the debate which has gone on about programme standards and the authority which is to be set up, but I will leave that to others. The noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, is entirely right when he 821 says that one is bound to have much less control over cable television than over public television because it is what people are prepared to pay for. One can, of course, make it impossible for any cable company to operate, if one insists on regulations so strict and so much in conformity with those for public television that one makes it impossible for companies to operate. That, I thought, was the thrust of the Hunt Report. In that report the noble Lord appears really to be saying, "Do please remember that this is a slightly different animal and the people here have opted to pay for this particular kind of television. Therefore, you need a different kind of regulation." I know that viewpoint has been challenged in your Lordships' House this evening but I am bound to say that I believe Lord Hunt understood this extremely well in his report and got it right.
We can of course argue that there is not going to be enough advertising to go round and that the advertising revenue which is drained and sucked away by cable television will have an adverse effect on commercial television under the IBA. But in the end these are matters on which the Government have to decide whether there is too great a risk or not. It seems to me perfectly clear that the Government have already decided that this addition to television is something that they would like to encourage as a means of investment and as a means of job production. It seems to me that these are the reasons—not a lack of television at this particular moment. We have just had a fourth channel and we are just about to get breakfast television—a great blessing, no doubt. Then in 1986 we are going to have two satellite channels. Therefore it cannot be a lack of provision which the Government have in mind. What they want is to create jobs.
Here again, I wonder how much the entertainment industry will get in spin-off. I believe that there will be some spin-off, but not much. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has been attacked for allowing completely free imports of foreign films or programmes, but one has to say that the restrictive practices of ACCT are such that one is almost bound to welcome anything which may get ACCT to loosen up. Nevertheless, we have to face the fact that it is going to be a major challenge to public broadcasting in this country.
I believe it is right to have lenient restrictions at the beginning of any new venture. That is what happened in practice with commercial television. In the early days, very wisely I think, the regulations on exactly the programme content, and so on, were of a lenient nature. The standards were not high but the programmes were very popular, and after a time it became possible to see how one could regulate and improve the quality of what was being offered. I have always believed that we have had a real genius in this country for the art of public regulation of our media, and that in fact the way it has been done, the timing of improving quality, is one of the things which I think we have every reason to be proud of.
I am much less happy in the way that the report has gone when the freedom, which is to be given apparently to cable companies and generally to providers of these services, is applied to the technology of cable. It seems to me that foreign companies are really almost being invited to capture our markets, and 822 that nothing is being done to help the British industry or to give this country the technology of tomorrow. I very much doubt, for instance, whether it is wise to allow foreign companies who want to invest in the cable industry to manufacture and install their own cable equipment.
If the Government are really in earnest about creating the beginnings of a national network, then they must insist that cable can carry from the start not only entertainment but also the interactive services; that is to say the transfer services which are of use to commerce and industry. This means setting up strict minimum standards for performance. It also means, so I am informed by electronic engineers, the installing of star networks rather than tree and branch networks, even if it takes two or three years to develop these systems and perhaps even a fourth year to perfect the fibre glass equipment which I believe will be needed for the system to work most efficiently. If we do this we shall then be able to develop a really strong home market for our own electronic industry, because without that home market there will be no hope whatsoever of capturing the European market, which I think is the only one which is really open to us.
Therefore I venture to suggest that the Government ought to insist on fibre optic technology, or, if that creates too great opposition, insist on cable being laid in the next five years of a kind which is capable of being adapted to this star network system. Then there will be a chance that our home industry will not be destroyed by foreign competition. If the Government do not do this, I think that any chance of obtaining overseas markets will be lost. I would therefore ask the Government to consider the technical aspects of this new industry with the greatest of care. If we go for quick profits and the quick creation of jobs we may lose in the long run; I do not say we shall but we may.
If we allow the technologies of other countries, with their inferior standards, to be imposed upon us, we shall sabotage the most profitable of all our industrial markets in the future. Britain must impose its own technical standards, and they must be those which are appropriate to the technology of tomorrow and not the technology of yesterday. So whatever we do we must not allow cable television, which is going to serve initially only a very few people, to jeopardise the communications network of the 21st century. The really important issue, so it seems to me, is not the advantage of optic fibres over coaxial cable; the really important thing is the design of the network. If Britain is to be wired for information in the 21st century, I am informed that you must have some sort of a star system with fairly sophisticated route switching and signalling, similar to that used in a telephonic international system. If you allow a tree and branch system to grow you will not be able to fit it on to a national broad band interactive network.
Perhaps I should explain that a star system resembles the spokes in a wheel. If the person at one end of a spoke wants to talk to another at the end of another spoke he can do so very easily by linking up through the centre. But the leaves on a tree and branch system, which grows haphazardly, means that someone on a leaf cannot communicate to another leaf with similar ease, because all the traffic has to be 823 received in the centre and then sorted out for the individual sender.
Although I know it is fashionable these days to sneer at British Telecom. I ask myself whether we should not recognise that there is great merit in having a common carrier. Who else should be the major provider and maintainer of the national grid but British Telecom? It has the most expertise. It already works as an existing broadband network. It controls the ducts already in the ground which will carry the cables.
Therefore, finally, I suggest that we ought to keep the cable network provider quite separate from the programe providers. If you do so, you will be able to have more than one provider of programmes in a particular area, or at any rate you will have a range of services. Furthermore, the programme provider should lease the network from the cable provider. The subscribers should not be charged, as they would be if the programme provider were to buy and install the system. So all I am asking this evening from the Government is this: will they please keep as their primary objectives the long-term benefits of a national communications network; and, secondly, will they see to it that so far as possible British industry benefits, because that is the way to create jobs?
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Annan, whose expertise in this area is so well known as to need no support from me. May I say that I found myself in a very great deal of agreement with what the noble Lord had to say. I also should like, if I may, to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for introducing the debate. I think he has benefited not only our House but in the end the Government which he supports, because this is a subject which I believe has been insufficiently examined so far and in starting that examination the noble Lord has performed a service. May I also add my commendation to the three maiden speeches which have added to this occasion?
We live in a time of a communications explosion and it has been happening throughout our lifetime. This is the latest stage in the proceedings, and this is not the only or the most important part of that stage. We live in this period, and the whole process is accelerating. There is, however, one disquieting aspect to this explosion, and that is that by and large there seems to have been, with the increase in volume, a decrease in quality. I think that anybody who looks at our national press, for example, and compares what we have available over its whole range today with what was available 20, 30 or more years ago could hardly fail to say that in terms of quality the national press today does not match the press that we enjoyed some time ago.
That decrease in quality has been arrested and prevented in the radio and television media in this country by a process of regulation. This process of regulation has not taken place elsewhere; and in other countries we have seen excesses and the same decrease in quality which has taken place in other media. So the example that we have to follow here is the creation of a measure of control over the spread of communications. We have charged the authorities which we have established with the duty of sustaining 824 quality and of not allowing radio or television in this country to decline to the level of the equivalent of page 3 of the Sun newspaper.
Therefore, I am a little disquieted that the report does not seem to recognise that necessity of control which has existed elsewhere in this area. I listened last night, as I believe other noble Lords may have done, to some advocates of cable in Committee Room 10 in another place. They were honest and able men, but none of them seemed to be concerned with the quality of the product. They were for the most part technicians, and well-informed, but I did not get the impression from the presentation that the benefit was exactly apparent. I have also listened to the debate we are enjoying today and still I do not understand quite what it is. What is the urgency? Why do the Government want to go ahead so quickly? What will the benefit be? It does not seem to me that the listener or the viewer will obtain any great advantage. As far as advertising is concerned I suspect cable may spread the advertisements. The trouble with that is that, since a major part of our present television and radio network—and, indeed, the press as well—depends upon advertising, the consequence of spreading advertising may still further decrease the revenue available to, for example, the IBA and the press, with the result that further newspapers will disappear. Will the quality of commercial television programmes seriously decline because they simply will not have the money having to spread it over a much wider area?
There is already some concern about that in relation to Channel 4. This explosion could have grave consequences which we ought to look at rather carefully. The report states:Our terms of reference told us to assume the Government's willingness to consider an expansion of cable systems for entertainment and other services, but in a way which would safeguard public service broadcasting".It does not seem to me that the report has laid sufficient emphasis on that latter part of the terms of reference. I do not see in the report a sufficient degree of safeguard for public service broadcasting. Neither do I see that the new development would itself have the characteristic of public service broadcasting which both our existing channels have, financed as they are in very different ways—one by licence and the other by advertising. Nevertheless, the existence of the degree of control to which I referred, exercised fundamentally through Acts of Parliament but secondarily through the boards and corporations created under them, has sustained the quality element. I do not see sufficient concern about that aspect in the report.
Yesterday we had another report on another part of the communications explosion. The report comes from an advisory panel presided over by Sir Antony Part. It is about direct broadcasting by satellite. Sir Antony Part's report states that direct broadcasting by satellite is due to start in the autumn of 1986, with two extra broadcasting channels provided by the BBC. The Government have three further channels at their disposal and at least one of them is likely to be applied for by the IBA as soon as the law is changed to allow it to do so. My own view is that the Government would do well, in the interests of all concerned in this matter, to drag their feet a little. It would be desirable from technical and other points of view that, as Mr. Whitelaw said in another place, the satellite proposal 825 which, as Sir Antony Part's report indicates, is due to start in the autumn of 1986 should run parallel with cable. When satellite broadcasting begins, there is very likely to be a necessity for an extension, to say the least of it, of cable distribution. By that time the fibre method of distribution is more likely to be technically available than it is now. If we go ahead with this quickly we shall probably find ourselves with a coaxial system which will be difficult to convert to the other more satisfactory system.
Therefore, our message to the Government is that they should be careful. They may be making the sort of mistake which in another area of communications was made by those who chose the airship instead of the internal combustion engine as a means of getting about the world. I suspect that, although cable is going to expand, that expansion is one which should be timed for two or three years hence rather than immediately.
The experts who spoke last night on this question were not people who were over-optimistic. Some of them took the view that much money could be lost in this area, and possibly some gained. Others said that the more extravagant notions of shopping by television, and so on, were something which they did not expect to see in their lifetime, although they are long-term possibilities. In other words, it should not be expected that all the extraordinary things which may ultimately become possible as a result of the extension of cable will happen in a year or two. Many of them are 10- or 20-year possibilities rather than immediate practicalities. Therefore, we should not delude ourselves too much about that.
I have two other points to make, and I shall try to be brief. First, it seems to me that this project is designed to make profits for those who operate it. There is no harm in that. Contrary to public supposition, I am not opposed to profit as such. However, if it is to make that profit, it must be inexpensive and, in practice, I am afraid, of low quality. It will have to rely—and this is the grave danger—on imported material for the major part of its programming. I believe that this ought to be stopped. To allow the importation into this country of majority programming which comes from a culture which has much to commend it, but which is different from our own, would be a very great mistake.
I do not take the view that because cable may be paid for by the individual the Government and the rest of us can divorce ourselves from responsibility for what it is like. Since much of it will be paid for by advertising in exactly the same way as the IBA is financed, we have the same sort of responsibility for programming as we have for the IBA, although fewer people will receive it and will do so by cable rather than by broadcasting.
I therefore believe that there should be a strong recommendation—in fact, I would make it rather more than a recommendation. I should like inserted in any Act of Parliament on this development an absolute rule that the 86 per cent. which operates for the IBA should operate for cable as well, so that the bulk of the material received through the cable would be British made. If it is not British made and if it cannot give our own film industry a boost instead of a smack in the eye from the point of view of those who 826 are in the business of producing the material, this will do more harm than good.
There is also the problem of the cinema people, who are extremely anxious. Recently they have been going through a pretty bad time—and I am, of course, referring particularly to the exhibitors. They are extremely anxious for a measure of protection against the consequences of cable. They feel that the report does not give them the degree of protection to which they think they are entitled and which they must have if the cinema, as an exhibition industry in this country, is to survive.
I am most grateful to your Lordships for listening to me this afternoon and I am sorry that I had to bring you a message which is not one that is full of enthusiasm and drive saying, "Go ahead and get on with it". But, if I were to give your Lordships that message and if we found that we were launched upon a path which at a later time we had reason to regret, that would be no good service. We should think again before we support something which, in my view, must be watched very carefully indeed.
§ 5.11 p.m.
The Earl of Bessborough
My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for moving this Motion. He has just expressed his regrets to me that he has been obliged to leave the Chamber for a short while. But I think he has, as other noble Lords have said, provided a useful service. I, too, shoud like to congratulate the three maiden speakers, all three of whom made a valuable contribution to this debate and, in their different ways, showed wisdom in the remarks which they made. I also consider that Lord Hunt's report is first class and, as other noble Lords have said, commendably brief.
I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Thompson, sitting on the Cross Benches and I regret that he is not taking part in this debate. However, as I said at a seminar over which he presided most admirably over the weekend, I feel in a sense that I have been here before. It is, indeed, 30 years since a group of friends—whom my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing knew well, too—who included the late Lord Renwick, the chairmen of Pye and EMI, Sir Alexander Korda, and my old friend Norman Collins, who, tragically, passed away quite recently, and your humble servant, formed a group to put on alternative programmes to the BBC. That group formed a company called the Associated Broadcasting Development Company—perhaps we should now revive it—which was known as ABDC. It was formed in 1952 and there were many qualms among members of the then Conservative Government, virtually the whole of the Labour Party, nearly all leading academics and church leaders, the film industry and of course the BBC, that the less reputable aspects of American commercial television would penetrate into British homes. Although I suppose one might now say that this has been partially true, it is also true to say that it was independent television which started the first educational and religious television programmes in Britain—as the right reverend Prelate will remember—and that broadcasting in this country, whether on television or on radio is of a higher quality than anywhere else in the world.
827 But before all that happened there were fairly acrimonious debates in both Houses and in the country at large, and it was only three years later, in 1955, that independent television first came on the air and another two years, in 1957, before ITV became economically viable. In those two years my own company was ATV. I withdrew my interest in it when I joined the Government in 1963 and I no longer have any interest in the media except, like the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, in a small radio station appropriately named "Radio Victory". However, during those two years, that company, ATV lost £2 million, while the only other company, Associated Rediffusion, lost £4 million and Associated Newspapers pulled out of its London ITV company altogether.
I feel that that experience may well be instructive in examining the noble Lord, Lord Hunt's proposals, for now, 30 years later, there are other prospects concerning the expansion of television and communications generally, and a good many doubts are now being expressed, such as those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that perhaps the worst kind of cable programmes which can be seen in the United States will penetrate Europe. But, in my view, Lord Hunt's report answers these fears effectively. As, indeed, I think other noble Lords, including my noble kinsman Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, have said, the development of information technologies in this way will help reduce unemployment by creating many new jobs in the electronic industry and the cable business and by providing new programmes.
For some years now I have thought it curious that at any one time we only had three or four television programmes from which to choose. It seemed rather like having only three or four books on the shelves in your library. Now it is true that video tapes are beginning to take up some space, but still this remarkable medium is not in my view being used as fully and as effectively as it should be used for the best purposes. And I see no reason why, given the reasonably modest controls suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we in Britain and in Europe might not lead the world in cable and satellite television with programmes of higher quality than those in the United States. I agree above all that we must preserve our own cultural traditions and not allow them to lapse.
Certainly, independent television in this country has shown that its standards are higher in substance and in quality than, by and large, those of the American networks. I see no reason why we in Europe should slavishly follow American patterns. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, on this point. Like, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Annan, I have looked at cable television in the United States and I cannot say that, of the very many programmes available in my hotel room in Los Angeles, there was much that I wanted to continue looking at, apart perhaps from the 24-hour cable news network. But, as I say, I think that we should create, as we have done previously, our own standards in Europe which could well be higher than those across the Atlantic.
I admit that I think it will take time before the many facilities which people may want, or are ultimately likely to want, will become available. I personally should like to have access to all present data banks on 828 my own television screen—not merely Ceefax, Oracle and Prestel, which I do use—and I should like to be able to do my own banking and shopping on my own screen. Ultimately, I agree that I do not think that this is an immediate prospect. But I should certainly like to have access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and even Larousse, as I told the noble Lord, Lord Thompson, and the delegates who attended this high-powered and very interesting Franco-British seminar last weekend. But at present there is not a very lively demand for the facilities to which I have referred.
If it took some years for independent television to get going in Britain, in the view of some it may take longer to achieve 30 or more alternative cable television channels. But, like my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing, I hope that the Government will not delay in taking decisions. Satellite television is coming soon, but at present satellites alone sending programmes to dish aerials on home roofs would not be capable of supplying anything like the number of signals and programmes which cables could transmit, and especially, of course, fibre optic cables, which might well run into thousands of two-way channels. At all events, cable and satellites are, in my view, complementary and in no sense rivals. I understand, incidentally, that British Telecom is expected to announce shortly that an optical fibre telephone cable is to be laid under the English Channel. I assume that this will also be able to carry televised material and that within the foreseeable future such cables will traverse the oceans too.
Looking beyond the confines of our own islands, I should like to say a few words about the proposals of the European Commission on new information technologies. Some of your Lordships may have seen the report of your Lordships' own European Communities Committee on this subject. It concluded that it was essential to have a strong, thrusting and competitive information technology industry in the European Community and to improve the present fragmented structure.
Our Sub-Committee, over which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, presided, thought that the European Commission was well-placed to take initiatives in this field. The Lords Committee was also of the opinion that the Community could not afford to be dependent for financial, strategic and social reasons, on imported technology.
I was also most interested in the European Commission's latest programme called the European Strategic Research Programme in Information Technology—ESPRIT. The acronym is perhaps an appropriate one. I hope that the Government will support the proposals of the Commission in regard to ESPRIT. Certainly I know that British, French and German firms are already working together. Common objectives have been identified for long-term research and development in information technology within Europe. I know from what my honourable friend Mr. Kenneth Baker, the Minister for Information Technology, has said that Her Majesty's Government welcome this European initiative and support the principle of international collaborative research.
If time had been available, I should have liked to speak for a moment on the Alvey Committee's report, the threat posed by the Japanese fifth generation 829 computer programme, and the American very highspeed, as well as very large-scale, integrated circuits. The Alvey Committee recommends a five-year £350 million collaborative research and development programme for advanced information technology between industry, the academic sector and industrial research facilities. This would be complementary to the European ESPRIT programme. I think that, in these matters and especially on the manufacturing side—after all, it begins with equipment—we should be European-minded and, indeed, internationally-minded, for, as I have said, I believe that two-way fibre optic cables may within the foreseeable future cross not only the Channel but also the ocean.
In coming to the end of my remarks there are just one or two further points that I should like to make. First—and I think that this subject has not been fully discussed this afternoon—there is pay-as-you-view or, as it is now called, pay-per-view. Recommendation 21 urges that this should not be permitted "for the time being". I believe that, if this were accepted, it would reduce private operators' revenue and slow the growth of cable systems. The measure reflects fears that cable operators will use pay-per-view income to outbid conventional broadcasters. However, I understand that the members of the British Cable Television Association have made it an "article of faith" that they will not bid for exclusive rights to these events. I believe that pay-per-view would be desirable for certain specialised, minority programmes and religious programmes. There are other points, but I see that I have exceeded the time which I have set myself.
I should just like to add that I think that the licence period proposed is not sufficient in the circumstances to attract investment, and that a licence period of, say, 15 years, would more justly recognise the immense commitment required. Otherwise and overall—apart from a few minor points—I think that there is a great deal of sense in the strategic approach of the Hunt Report. I hope that the Government will support it and that they will act swiftly in this new technology if we are to retain a lead and keep up with the others, for I know that both France and Germany have important programmes in mind. The French one has already been referred to by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing. I hope that the Government will act promptly in this matter.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord Hill of Luton
My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in expressing the warmest thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for opening this debate, and congratulations to the maiden speakers who have contributed today. I propose to confine my remarks to the effect of the proposed cable development upon the existing broadcasting services. First, I take leave to doubt whether anybody can calculate—even the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues—what will be the advertising income five, 10 or 15 years ahead. One of the elements in their calculation is the size of the gross national product in 1995. How in Heaven's name can they engage in a calculation of that kind? Of course, they have the report, the advice and the estimates of the advertisers' own organisation, who say that there will be adequate money available in the future for all services. But then they would, would they not? After all, they want this 830 great development of advertising opportunities.
Therefore, my first question is: to what extent, if any, will these proposals affect the income of independent television? Let us face it, if there is a substantial effect, it will result in a degradation of their programmes. What is the evidence? None can be sure, but when one bears in mind not only the £100 million as the target of Channel 4 and Breakfast Television (and who knows what the effect of the satellite development will be?), I suppose it might mean the intrusion of advertisements in programmes from Continental countries, probably in English. We do not know what the position is likely to be in the future in this matter of income for independent television. But this must be faced: if there is a substantial fall in that income, then there will be a substantial fall in the range and quality of the television they offer.
I am not going to comment on the cable technique. I do not understand it. I am not going to comment on the great happiness it is going to bring to the people of this county in its various domestic and other expressions. I have grown a little cynical about the developments which take place which are alleged to add greatly to human happiness and human efficiency. I am not so keen on the computerisation of bank statements. There was a time when I understood the incomings and the outgoings. But not now. It is only the young, as the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said, who can understand this sort of thing.
Let me continue on the subject of programmes. Lower income means lower quality. I start from that position. Let us consider what the Hunt Committee proposes to be the regulation, or absence of regulation, for cable television. No limit to the amount of advertising in the early stages, which may well become the later stages. The sponsoring of programmes by advertisers. Not to be subject to the requirements of range and balance. No restriction on films now reserved for the later hours. No prohibition on their earlier showing because of their unsuitability for children. I agree with the two noble Lords. I have a grandchild who will rumble this electronic device in no time, and I expect that we are all pretty well in the same position.
News is to be impartial. The rest does not need to be impartial. I know that when an assertion expresses our point of view we think of it as divinely impartial, and when the opposite point of view is expressed then we are indignant. But, really, can we accept a situation in which one of the competitors in television has no requirement for impartiality except in the news programmes? Is that a step forward? No constant supervision of programmes? No minimum requirement of British material, and no scrutiny in advance of advertisements?
What is going to be the result? I have no doubt in my mind that the result is going to be an enormous accession of viewers to this kind of television, subject of course to the fact that it will only be available to those who live in urban areas and can afford it. Let us recall what happened in the early days of independent television. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, said—and he was quite right—that there was a leniency in those days when they were striving to achieve solvency. There was a leniency. The authority looked the other way. What happened? They acquired 76 per cent. of 831 the audience, leaving the BBC with 24 per cent.
No doubt American programmes, for example, good, bad and indifferent, will attract people, with emphasis on entertainment. Bless my soul, the Guardian cannot compete with the Sun newspaper for circulation, and the position here will be that this free service—free in the intellectual sense; free from the inhibitions and regulations on other services—will have great success in its early days. But why not give the same freedoms to independent television? The same freedoms to the BBC? Why pick this particular development to have these freedoms?
Of course, we know the reason. This development, it is hoped, will be financed not by Government but by the investors. They are unlikely to come forward unless they can see a speedy development of large viewing publics, and they are to get this freedom—I use the word "freedom" without seeking to define it in this respect—to do all these things. They are things which of themselves will for the most part lead to the degradation of programmes, and to the trivial rather than the serious. One thing that is lost in that that is present today is how often people who believe that they like the trivial in their viewing find themselves, maybe by accident, watching a programme which is serious in content and find themselves interested, attracted, and are so led to what is now called minority-programming.
It seems to me that cable television, despite the blessings that are said to come from this kind of development, if it is to be free, if it can lack impartiality, if it can do all these things, will scoop the pool of viewers. You may think, let the people have what they want. The Independent Television Authority over the years, by its regulation, by its supervision, has converted a service which was trivial at the outset into one of equal esteem with the BBC today. It was done by previewing, not of programmes but of advertisements, and in 101 ways it has by regulation raised the standard of British broadcasting. It is proposed here to throw it away by permitting in cable television freedom from the restrictions that have served to raise the standard of our television.
I know, it is all too easy, we are apt to say that we have the best of everything from policemen onwards, but it is true that British broadcasting, both sound and television, occupies a very high place in the estimation of the world. Do not let us deny that, and do not let us give these liberties, these freedoms considered inappropriate for the two existing services, to this new development simply because it is desired to attract the investment to build the cable service rather than to use Government money. I really think that this business—not the project of cable—of the competitive conditions between the three services (as it will then be) needs to be examined. For the moment they are an invitation to a deterioration in British television as a whole.
§ 5.39 p.m.
My Lords, I found myself in a great deal of agreement with the notable speech from the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, to which we have just listened, not only on the major questions of principle with which he dealt so effectively but on his horror, which I share, of modern electronic devices. Indeed, 832 when my noble friend Lord Beswick was casting doubt on the electronic lock as a means of protecting children from undesirable programmes I thought of my own experience with a recently acquired video. I thought I should need to ask my 15-year old son to lock the thing up in the first place; and my 14-year old son, I am sure, would have managed to get the secret as soon as I had left the house.
I, too, wish to begin by congratulating the three maiden speakers, to whom we listened with great benefit, and I am sure we hope to hear all three of them in subsequent debates. I particularly noted what the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Wakefield, said about the need to ensure that there is an adequate provision of local and community programmes. It is on that one theme that I wish to comment tonight, and I fear that in doing so I must start by being somewhat blatantly personal. It is not that I have any financial interest in these matters to declare—far from it—but I have a number of personal and family interests which are relevant to the main point I wish to make; namely, the great importance I attach to ensuring that all broadcasting systems (be they television or radio, BBC or ITV, cable or direct via satellite) should serve, rather than neglect, local community life.
It may be that my personal background and thinking on the matter explains that attitude. I live in Sussex and have been honoured to be asked to be president of the Society of Sussex Downsmen. I take a keen interest in local sporting activities. For some years I headed the large consumer-controlled Cooperative Society in that area. Recently, on the subject of broadcasting, I was glad to receive an invitation to be a trustee of the local independent radio station. I accepted that because the group of people who had been successful in getting the franchise for that station have, in my judgment, imaginative ideas for serving the local public, and it is that which attracts me. Not only do they hope, of course, to be financially viable, but they are hoping to raise additional funds which will be devoted to local good causes.
Therefore, when I came to read the Hunt Report I judged it, or at least parts of it, against that very background of my local interest, and in particular I noticed paragraph 44, where it is reported that local radio contractors are concerned that cable television will do independent local radio considerable harm. The Hunt Committee dealt with that point but, in my judgment, they dismissed far too easily the danger that was called to their attention.
A similar point is made by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in the pamphlet which they have sent to me and, no doubt, most other noble Lords. They stress in that that they have developed programme-making centres across the whole of the United Kingdom, with advantage, as they put it, to regional life and local job opportunities. They apparently see those activities of theirs as likely to be harmed by a cable television system which is too little controlled. My fear is that if the proposals of the Hunt Committee form the basis of the introduction of cable TV, those local interests and that regional life of which I have spoken will be at risk of being neglected. I say that because in paragraph 66 the Hunt Report says that it would be,artificial and unnecessary to place an obligation as to diversity on the totality of a cable system's output".833 That means, I believe, that cable TV would be fundamentally different from the present BBC and ITV channels, and under the impetus of uncontrolled advertising we should, despite protestations to the contrary, have merely mass entertainment to make maximum short-term profits, and the kind of programme I have in mind, serving local interests, would be squeezed out.
I am by no means comforted by the wording of paragraph 71, in which the Hunt Committee claim to deal with the question of local access. They start off by acknowledging the importance of local coverage, and when I read that my hopes were raised, but they go on, weakly in my view, to say that that is something which,could be left to be taken into account in the franchising process".That is much too vague, much too general and, frankly, I do not believe it. It is my view that those political and commercial groups with the most money will be able to purchase the most programming time, and I have no doubt that local interests will be low in their list of priorities.
As I mentioned, the IBA have sent us a pamphlet in which, understandably, they praise their own work to the skies. I see the noble Lord, Lord Thompson, in his place and I hope he will not take that judgment amiss. I rather feel that their self-praise is a little overdone. Nevertheless—and this is my final point—I very much agree with their warning that unless we are careful, cable TV will provide the country with programmes distinctly inferior to those at present received from the IBA and BBC. For that reason I echo the words of a number of noble Lords in the debate that while, of course, we welcome the development of cable TV as a new and promising technique and facility, we must be very careful about how it is brought in, about the safeguards, and for that reason I do not think we are in a hurry.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, I wish to begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing for initiating this interesting debate and by adding my congratulations to those of others to the three maiden speakers, who each made a speech of great interest, so much so that we look forward with great pleasure to hearing them often again.
I also wish to mention, on a note of sadness, my old friend John Redcliff-Maud, from whose wife I received a note just before he died saying how much he had hoped to come and take part in this debate, because he was very interested in the subject. I would only say in passing, what I know everybody feels, and that is a feeling of great sorrow at losing a man whose brilliant personality was exceeded only by his generosity of heart and who leaves this a much poorer place.
I pay my tribute to the Hunt Report and Lord Hunt, who did the best he could with his terms of reference, which were very narrow. The way the debate has gone is in the fashion of the technical, technological and commercial advantages which can come from cable TV, on the one hand, and the dangers which can come, on the other, in the risk to the public broadcasting services, the BBC and ITV, and the general risk to the moral standards of taste and decency, which were effectively dealt with by the noble 834 Lord, Lord Beswick. I agreed with every word he said. So my speech will be very short; and in saying my words of thanks I thank also my noble friend Lord Rochdale, sitting behind me, who has kindly allowed us to speak at the length at which we have spoken.
I want to speak about only one point—and I certainly could not agree with my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing that the message should be that the Government should go ahead with all speed. In fact, to my mind, to carry out the suggestion in the Hunt Report that the Government should use their existing powers to allow cable firms to start work immediately would be the gravest possible mistake when there are such major considerations still at risk. As I know from my own town, the cable companies are already around, looking for the most favourable sites, and they are ready to go just as soon as they can. But here I feel that there is a major conflict of interest. In most eloquent language there were developed by my old friend Lord Hill of Luton (who is not present at the moment, but who I hope will read what I have to say), and many other noble Lords, details of what is at risk in terms of the public broadcasting service, and how good it is. Well, I would say, how good most of it is, because I am not satisfied with some of it, since it is already suffering from a deteriorating trend. I have down for next week an Unstarred Question, and noble Lords and I intend then to develop that theme.
If, with all the moral force of the governors of the BBC and the IBA, we have not been able to check the downward trend, to maintain moral standards with regard to taste and decency, what hope shall we have with cable television? Really we should be turning our minds to the question of how we can devise new and adequate safeguards, on the one hand to preserve all that is good in the BBC and the IBA—and there is much that is; and heaven knows! we want to preserve it—and on the other hand to try to preserve the moral standards of the nation. Those standards are inevitably threatened by the medium of television which, after all, it the greatest influence in our lives. What are we getting from it? Increasingly we are getting material in the form of violence and pornography which is depraving and corrupting and is really upsetting to the young. When we look around our society we already see far too much that distresses and worries us; and there is a connection. I do not intend to develop it tonight, but next week I shall say about it a few more words to which I hope my noble friend and other noble Lords will listen. But I just roundly make the point to my noble friend that there really is here a major conflict of interest.
The noble Lord, Lord Annan, developed lucidly and vividly a brilliant analysis of the technological advantages, as did other noble Lords, too. Those advantages form a prize that we all want to win, but we could pay too high a price for it in the loss of moral standards and the loss of the splendid services that we already have, which undoubtedly would be threatened. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Hill is right there—that in the end the development would be bound to affect both the IBA and the BBC.
Therefore there is here much to be thought about very hard. We should not go into it until these matters have really been thought out, until we have found the right balance between the technological advantages 835 that can be won and the need to maintain the moral safeguards of the nation. That is the issue, and we have not yet worked it out. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was not asked to do so, and he has not done so. He has given us a way in which to go ahead, in accordance with the terms of reference that he was given. But I ask my noble friend to tell us tonight what safeguards he is considering in the Home Office—safeguards which will preserve these two major assets in our national life. If he can answer that question satisfactorily, then I am sure that all noble Lords will be prepared to say, "Go ahead"; but if he cannot, I think we should all say to him, "You must wait until you have resolved this major conflict".
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord Auckland
My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing not only on enabling us to have this very important debate but on using his own considerable technological experience in introducing it in such a lucid manner. I also wish to pay tribute to the three excellent maiden speakers. In some ways we are this afternoon and this evening rather delving into the unknown, as indeed I suppose we were in the days of Marconi, when broadcasting first started, and in the days when television first began in this country. As has been made clear, anxieties were then expressed as to what television would bring to the nation, what people would see, let alone hear.
Now we have something which is admittedly very far-reaching, and for people such as myself, with a non-technical brain, it is very difficult to understand its technical and scientific ramifications. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is to be congratulated on producing an eminently readable report, a brief report. Some noble Lords say that it is too brief, that it was produced too quickly. Well, that is an arguable point. Obviously it is a report that needs very careful study, and arguably it is a report from which there have been omissions. It is questionable whether there should have been those omissions; and perhaps there should have been more safeguards. But there can be built into a society or an organisation too many safeguards, and the great test here is, if the safeguards are brought in, will it be possible to apply them?
Looking at the present television channels, I think it fair to say that, generally speaking, television in this country is of a high standard. The recently launched Channel 4 has not so far done very well on the public ratings, but it is a new infant. Certainly, such programmes as I have seen on Channel 4—which are not very many—could, in the terms of the old school report, have applied to them the phrase, "Could do better"; and no doubt in time they will. But, my Lords, just look at the matter from the viewpoint of the consumer. Cable television has, I believe, a great opportunity, if it can take it, to offset some of the shortcomings of the existing television channels. I know that there are those who say that that cannot be done, that there are problems regarding advertising, problems of not enough safeguards against indecency, pornography, and so on. But we have not yet had in this country the experience of cable television so as to know the answer to the question; and while I would be hesitant to have a whole host of cable television networks thrust upon this country, or any other 836 country, all at once, I believe that we should perhaps start with a limited number of franchises.
In my view there is no reason why that should not begin fairly soon. It is always easy to put off something that is tentative and that has its problems. We all do it in our daily lives. It is a little like going to the doctor. If one can avoid going to the doctor, fair enough. That might not be a perfect analogy, but if we are to say that kind of thing in regard to cable television, notwithstanding the fact that the Hunt Report might have its deficiencies, we shall be saddled with what at the moment is something of a monopoly. I say that because, really, at the moment television in this country, good as it is, is largely a monopoly. I believe that with cable television there is the opportunity to branch out into so many more walks of life. I am glad to see, in paragraph 76 of the Hunt Report, that political impartiality will be maintained. This, I think, is important.
As regards the content of the programmes, particularly those which might be of doubtful moral value, I think the important question—and, of course, this is not dealt with in the Hunt Report so far as I can establish—is what is to be the position when these channels are operating. It is certainly to be hoped that the same exigencies which rightly exist in the case of the BBC and independent television so far as concerns not broadcasting what I might call adult plays without a warning that they might offend sensitive tastes because they are medical programmes or because they contain profane language, will apply to cable television. I have every confidence that they will, because if they do not then presumably—and I hope my noble friend the Minister will give your Lordships an answer to this question—they will be subject to the law on libel, the law on slander and the laws as they apply to indecency, particularly some of the recent legislation.
I do not think it is always right to compare cable television with American programmes. I have been to America only twice and I have seen only a very few American television programmes. The last I saw was in San Francisco, and was of a church service in San Diego with a parson who was really going hell for leather at his congregation, saying that they were all evil and that the Day of Judgment was at hand. It was fascinating to watch, but I hope that we are not going to get that in this country—and I am quite sure that we are not. I believe that cable television will and ought to have a lot to offer, not only by way of what one might call the popular programmes, which presumably include comedies and "popular music", as it is called, but also by way of cultural programmes. I believe there is a great opportunity here for some of our finest orchestras and some of our finest playwrights. They admittedly appear on BBC 1, BBC 2 and independent television, but there must be room in this sphere as well.
My Lords, I end by saying this. Certainly the contents of the Hunt Report deserve very much closer study; and certainly we do not want to rush into a surfeit of cable television. I believe that the BBC and the Independent Television Authority will be able to keep their own schedules without any real problem. It is going to be a long time before cable television reaches the greater part of the country, and this may be 837 one of the problems of the present time, because, paradoxically, probably many of the people who would wish to see cable television are those living in the outlying areas where at the present time it is not always possible to get programmes like BBC 2, and certainly Channel 4, so easily.
So, my Lords, I think we ought to give at least a guarded welcome to cable television. It is too easy to be ultra-pessimistic. Whatever shortcomings there are in this report, and whatever vigilance the Government and other bodies have to extend, I believe this should be welcomed as a major technological breakthrough.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Lord Torphichen
My Lords, other noble Lords have most expertly described how cable television may be organised and should be controlled. I cannot follow that; and I should like briefly to describe one or two ways in which it may be specified. I presume the Home Office will in due course produce a set of ground rules, and inevitably the interested parties will attempt to ensure that their requirements and interests are catered for.
My first comment is that the network providers, the cable operators, will attempt to control the apparatus that the customer uses or attaches to the home end of it. I hope that the regulations will reflect customer choice rather than the operator's convenience. My second comment is the same request but made in relation to the other end of the cable, at the provider's base station. Other noble Lords have described the possible range of services which might be connected to a broad-band cable. The obvious ones such as British Telecom's network, Telex and the X25 network, may not have immediate application, but, if every possible interconnection and application has to get over the various hurdles of approval before it can even have a trial run, I feel that only the most obvious or possibly the most trivial applications will succeed in surmounting all the hurdles and be available to the public. To clear the way, I feel that the Government should ensure that the necessary permissions for such interconnections are available from the start, maybe in outline form, in order that they may be taken up as they are required, and implemented.
My third comment is as to the choice of the system itself. Lord Annan very rightly pointed out the advantages of a star network, at possibly slightly greater cost, over a tree and branch network. He then spoiled it by suggesting that British Telecom should supply the network. I think it would be fair to say that British Telecom, if it has not had quite a hundred years to supply a broad-band cable network, could, at any time in the last 30 or 40 years, if it had chosen to do so, have supplied such a network, and it has not. If British Telecom wish to tender for parts of the cable network, they are very well placed to do so and they should have no difficulty. But I do not think that they require any special help or extension of their own monopoly.
Finally, I seem to have heard some confusion between the merits or possibilities of coaxial cable and glass-fibre transmission. There really is no competition between the two. There is no need for either one to be specified in the regulations as laid down by the Home Office or whoever it may be. They 838 are rather more like interchangeable components of whatever system is defined, either as interchangeable components of the same part of the system where one may have a slightly greater performance than the other, or as different components doing different jobs in different parts of the system. There is no need to specify that any network built in this country should be glass-fibre from the start or for that matter should use any other particular method of transmission. I think that the opportunities are there and the Government intend to make them available. I trust that they will not be curtailed at the edges by the small print.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, first I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, for introducing this debate and for doing so in terms of such moderation and persuasion. Then I must congratulate the three maiden speakers who were extremely interesting in the content of what they had to say but were also very clear and extremely brief. All these are virtues but may I whisper to them that when they address us again, which we hope they will and often, they could be just a bit longer—not very much, just a bit longer—and we should hear them with pleasure.
A lot of people have made the point that when independent television or commercial television—and I should like to call it commercial television without any feelings of opprobrium—was first introduced, many were apprehensive. I was one of the fearful. My fears were disproved for a number of reasons. First, it soon became extremely prosperous. The late Lord Thomson of Fleet described it at the time as a licence to print money. But then the BBC, of course, had great influence. The BBC had given us a model of what public service broadcasting should be and what excellence in broadcasting should be; and it had given aspirations to ITV producers. When you add the very wise, firm and gentle guidance of the authority, you find all this has created a very fine system of which we are all proud. And I may say that I am particularly delighted with its latest enrichment which is Channel Four. I think that Mr. Isaacs is achieving the impossible in making something of a fresh approach to television.
I believe that we should welcome the arrival of cable television, although our welcome must be a cautious one. Everyone has been cautious; I do not think that anybody has given the Hunt Report totally uninhibited support. As the Hunt Committee have said, cable television could give us an increased and enriched source of home entertainment. They do not spell out exactly what that enrichment should be—and I should like to know. One of the things it is suggested that we might have is news around the clock imported from the United States. Ted Turner's "Cable News Network" goes on for 24 hours a day and I am assured by no less an authority than Mr. Alistair Cooke that it is compulsive viewing for him and would be for me. But whether the general public will share our déformation profesionelle I very much doubt, because in a newspaper foreign affairs has the lowest readership rating.
The Hunt Committee say that the advent of cable television might alternatively lower the standards of our programmes. The question is how we ensure the 839 enrichment and how avoid the impoverishment. All of us who have read the report of the Hunt Committee will be aware that the problem is complex, that the crucial decisions should not be made until there has been a pretty long national debate. The noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, suggested that there was a case for haste but he did not make it out. A lot of people have said that the Government should hurry but they did not say why.
The report itself has most of the intellectual virtues. It is clearly written, concise and logical, and comes to firm conclusions. Just in one or two parts it is self-contradictory. For all that, the report is somewhat naive. The committee were exploring what was for them a new world. The committee consisted of a high civil servant, a top industrial chemist and an academic physicist. They had only six months to study and report, six months in which to examine 189 written submissions and also to visit the United States and Canada. They say that they had enough time. But this, I think, illustrates their shortcomings; they simply did not have time to grow the antennae which would register the pecuniary ambitions of "showbiz" and the wayward tastes of viewers.
They seem to have accepted the optimistic estimate of the advertising world about the growth of advertising and point to the fact that advertising grew fastest in the last years of the 1950s when commercial television was taking root. But there were reasons for that other than the advent of commercial television, reasons which the committee do not explore. One of them was that real, personal, disposable income, which had risen by about 6 per cent. in the first five years of the 1950s, rose by 9 per cent. in the next five years. Those were the years in which Mr. Macmillan assured us that we had "never had it so good". I do not think that the advent of cable television will increase the amout of advertising.
If cable television is to be supported by advertising as well as by subscriptions it will both diminish the audience for commercial television, causing it to lower its advertising rates and have to live on a smaller share of the total advertising expenditure. The noble Lord, Lord Hill, has made very clear what the effect will be on the quality of the programmes. Certainly the newspaper industry—and here I must plead a faint and diminishing interest—are showing a lively awareness of the danger that they would run of losing advertising and are demanding, and I think rightly demanding, the right to participate in cable.
The strongest demand of all comes from the local and regional papers where cable television will have a local base and will take some local advertising away from them and perhaps take some readers also. Indeed, provincial newspapers, like some potential entrepreneurs, are demanding that cable television should be as free as are the newspapers themselves from regulation and supervision. One can see the reason for that. The provision of cable is going to be a costly business and more people would like to have the facility than are willing to pay for it. The profits of the pioneers may be slow in coming, and may not come at all to some, unless they put out mostly those programmes which will maximise their audience and which have been bought in the cheapest market, which 840 is, of course, the United States.
That is one of the ways that could impoverish our national television without enriching our home entertainment. Cable television would be carrying largely the kind of items which attract most viewers in off-the-air television and in time it would not only be commercial television that was endangered. The BBC would have difficulty in retaining general consent for its licence fee.
The analogy of cable television with the press is, however, one of most limited validity. Even if it was complete, I do not think that it would impress your Lordships. For long they have been unhappy about the press and many have pursed their lips, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, did tonight, at the current standards of the highly regulated BBC and ITV. Some 16 years ago, before I came to this House, I served on a committee under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Shawcross, which recommended a relaxation of the laws of libel and official secrets. When our report was debated here The Times reporter, sitting up there in the Press Gallery, wrote that from the Benches below came,a wave of criticism, a barrage of contempt, a fusillade of unconcealed dislike".This was the way in which your Lordships regarded the press 16 years ago, and I am not sure—alas!—that the opinions are very much different today.
Today, few journalists—though they would die in the last ditch to defend the freedom of the press—are wholly happy about the newspaper concentrations or the kind of journalism made necessary to ensure survival. The law seems to be that cut-throat competition for a mass audience leads to a lower content of serious items and a higher one of sensational items. That could happen in television too unless there is adequate across-the-board regulation.
There is another reason to reject the analogy with the press. Throughout the length and breadth of Britain there is only one group, the Mirror Group, which has consistently supported the party that sits on these Benches. There may be an odd local paper which is pro-Labour, although I do not know of one. But, by and large, the provincial press is traditionally centre or centre right for good historical reasons. Often because it enjoys a monopoly, it takes care to be fair to the Opposition parties. The days when a Liberal paper and a Tory paper could battle flat out in a contest of ideas in a locality are gone forever. We are in the days of the single newspaper town. If cable television had the freedom of the press, the freedom to advocate political causes, that pattern would be repeated, and it is one which is surely socially undesirable.
The noble Lord, Lord Hill, suggested that it is only in the provision of news that the cable companies are required by the report to be balanced. However, I call his attention to Chapter 4, paragraph 25:We believe that the ownership of cable operating companies providing monopoly services into the home should be free from any kind of political or ideological bias. We would exclude both central and local government, and also any political party or organisation, from direct participation in the ownership of the companies operating cable systems. We think the same rule should apply to religious bodies".The commitment to balance the programmes politically which has been imposed on the BBC and ITV has done a great deal to redress the imbalance of the press, 841 and it has been all the more important since television became so highly politicised. The commitee propose that a balance should be kept by the cable operators. But this is a most difficult art, as we all know. Nobody knows it better than the noble Lord, Lord Hill, and other noble Lords who have been directors-general of the BBC or of Independent Television. The cable operators surely will require the guidance and the protection of a nationally respected authority if they are to escape perpetual political complaint.
This is the weakness of the report. This is where the committee showed its lack of awareness of the realities. It was carried away by its desire to make cable television compulsively attractive to entrepreneurs. So it proposed the absence of restraints which the noble Lord, Lord Hill, described in detail. I should be happy if the IBA, with their vast experience and fine track record, were to become the supervisory authority. Perhaps it may be possible for some kind of compromise to be adopted whereby it takes the new cable under its wing for a period and then hives it off as a separate authority. The commitee do not, however, think that it would be the best solution to have the IBA in. There would be at least a conflict of interest which could be real if cable made serious inroads into advertising revenue. This is the point at which they lose their conviction about the maintenance of the increase in advertising revenue. They say:There would be suspicion that the IBA might have an over-protective attitude to public service broadcasting and this could deter potential investors in cable.Exactly! It is the potential investors in cable for whom these provisions are made.
The committee want a new authority which would not—I repeat "not"—approve programme schedules, would not "pre-vet" advertisements or even constantly scrutinise output—that is, unless a company persistently offended against the undertakings it gave when it was awarded the franchise. Then it could be threatened with closer supervision. I do not think that this is nearly good enough. I do not think you can have two systems side by side, one subject to restraint and the other virtually free. I do not say that cable television has to have anything like the restraints that the national television companies have, but it certainly requires a good deal more supervision than is proposed. To leave it to be as free as this report suggests is a way to reduce standards of excellence and standards of taste.
The Government should think of the long-term interests of the viewer. They should think particularly of the protection of the standards, of the excellence, of the two existing off-the-air services. I also wish to repeat what my noble friend said and what was said by one or two other noble Lords, that it would be a very good idea if we had a national cable system and one presumably which would be financed by the Government. After all, they can always privatise it in 20 years' time when it has proved to be successful.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)
My Lords, this is the first opportunity which this House has had to consider the relationship between new technology and broadcasting policy since the Government invited the 842 noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, to undertake his inquiry. I am sure that the House would wish to join me, on behalf of the Government, in expressing congratulations and thanks to the noble Lord, and his colleagues, Sir Maurice Hodgson and Professor Ring, for carrying out their task so thoroughly and so expeditiously, whatever the riders your Lordships have attached individually to that message.
I am also indebted to my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing for the way in which he introduced this interesting debate. When he tabled it I think that we all thought he was planting a nasturtium seed. What eventually sprang up was a cross between a sunflower and a beanstalk which burst through the greenhouse roof. That is a measure of the interest and the importance which your Lordships attach to the subject. May I also take this opportunity of congratulating the maiden speakers, the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Wakefield, and my noble friends, Lord Pender and Lord Glanusk, on a most commendable and propitious embarkation upon your Lordships' House. I shall return to them later in terms which will be no less complimentary. Indeed it is agreeable to do so with all honesty and not simply because I am called to do so by the conventions of the House.
Your Lordships are already aware that I am not in a position to announce today the Government's conclusions on the recommendations of Lord Hunt's inquiry. We are in the process of considering the whole of our future policy towards cable. This embraces both the broadcasting aspects which the inquiry examined and also the important questions of technology and telecommunications policy which have been the subject of separate and detailed study within the relevant Government departments. We intend to announce the broad lines of our policy by Christmas and I am most grateful to all those noble Lords who have expressed their views in this debate on the way in which they would like to see our thinking develop.
It is a fact that over the past few months many people have become aware of cable and its potential for the first time. This has resulted from the publication in March of the report of the Prime Minister's Information Technology Advisory Panel and the setting up of the Hunt Committee, of which the admirably forthright and concise report is the subject of today's discussion. There has been a lot of media interest. Those who were willing to sit up late last Tuesday were able to see a very thorough and informative two-hour television programme prepared by Granada on the whole question of cable and every week articles appear in the Press about the technology, the programmes or the cost of cable.
But cable is not, of course, entirely new. There are nearly 120 million households in Western Europe. It has been estimated that nearly a quarter of them already receive their television services by means other than individual aerials. The great majority of them are connected to simple communal aerials, often installed on blocks of flats and run entirely on a noncommercial basis. About 7 per cent. of homes in Western Europe are linked to more substantial cable television systems. In this country, by contrast, only about 6 per cent. of households get their television signals from community aerial systems. Just over 7 per cent. are connected to the larger commercial systems.
843 In this country, as elsewhere in Europe, cable has up to now been allowed to develop almost exclusively as an additional means of getting broadcast signals to the home. When television first became popular in the 1950s and again when the 625-line colour services were introduced in the 1960s, companies such as Rediffusion were able to find a market for relay networks in areas where reception was poor or nonexistent. By installing larger aerial systems they were able to bring in signals from distant transmitters beyond the reach of individual receiving equipment. The signals could then be distributed by wire to those prepared to pay for the facility.
Up to 1974 the number of subscribers to commercial relay systems in this country got bigger every year. But then the tide turned. Since 1974 there has been a steady annual erosion of the market. Today there are just over 1.4 million commercial relay customers. That is some 15 per cent. fewer than eight years ago. The proportion of households served by individual aerials has, however, remained fairly constant, at about 86 per cent. This is because, simultaneously with the decline in the number served by the commercial relay systems, there has been an increase in the number of small, non-commercial, communal aerial systems run by district councils and housing associations.
The reason for the decline in commercial relay systems is that the need which they originally met no longer exists. Encouraged by successive governments, the BBC and the IBA have now brought good off-air reception to about 99 per cent. of the population. They have been right to do so because one of the most important features of public service broadcasting is universal availability. Cable companies can no longer sell along the wire what nearly everybody can get free out of the air.
The Government accepted from the start that there could be a role for cable of fundamental importance, none the less. It was for that reason that we decided two years ago to authorise a number of pilot schemes of subscription television. This has enabled companies in 13 different areas to use one channel on their systems to provide an additional premium service for which customers have to pay a monthly subscription. It is too early yet to draw any firm conclusions. It is only a year since the first of the channels came into operation. What seems already to be clear, however, is that at the right price there is a market for more entertainment services. This is particularly the case for feature films, which account for almost the whole of the channels' output. The latest figures submitted to the Home Office show that in the 12 areas offering the new service at the end of July, of the 300,000 homes passed by the cable systems about 100,000 were connected to them. Of those 100,000, about 18,000 were taking the pay channel.
Price clearly plays an important part in determining the level of take-up of the service. Some companies have in fact reduced their monthly charge in order to try to increase the number of subscribers. The most expensive of the areas has come down from £ 12 to £ 10 and the cheapest from £8 to £6.50. What has now become clear, however, is that the future of cable has to be seen in a much broader perspective. The 844 challenge is not simply to see whether there is some way of reviving the existing relay operations and of offering a limited number of additional entertainment channels. In the long run, cable is unlikely to be restricted to leisure or entertainment. It looks much more like developing as an information latticework for a whole variety of functions, a great many of which have not yet been perfected and a few of which may not even be invented for some years to come.
The immediate prospect is that of a new wideband cable technology which could multiply the number of channels on conventional systems many times over. At the same time it will open the door, as my noble friend Lord Pender reminded us in his very constructive speech, to a range of interactive and information services. The ancestry of my noble friend Lord Pender made his contribution of particular interest. My noble friend Lord Glenusk, in another very interesting maiden speech on the technological implications, referred to the possibility of using sewers as the means of bringing programmes into the home. This is a technical matter and I am not qualified to comment upon its mechanical suitability. However, it is very important that we should make absolutely certain that their aesthetic suitability is zero. Regarding the other technical issues, I can best refer my noble friend's valuable comments and those of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and others to the experts who advise us so that I can view them in a properly intelligent context.
We have been accustomed in the past to think of leisure as a kind of spin-off from work. By an agreeable irony it now appears that, for once, work may prove to be a spin-off from leisure. The filigree paths beaten out today by those such as Mr. Humphries in "Are you Being Served?", of Messrs. Corbett and Barker in "The Two Ronnies" and even, I suggest, by my right honourable and imaginary friend Mr. Hacker in "Yes Minister" may well provide the trunk lines down which, the day after tomorrow, switched packages or coded messages will carry a heavy traffic of commercial and industrial business. We are talking about what is, at least potentially, a technological revolution which could bring enormous economic and industrial benefit and which could have a profound social and cultural impact on our country. This was a matter which gave a number of your Lordships grave concern. This prospect, highlighted by the ITAP Report, has obvious and major implications for broadcasting. We have to assess these implications and the opportunities which they can represent. That is why we asked the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues to examine how we might secure the benefits of cable technology by means consistent with the wider public interest and, in particular, with safeguarding public service broadcasting.
A number of the ways in which the expansion of cable could affect public service broadcasting have been identified this afternoon and this evening. The multiplication of channels tends inevitably to fragment the audience. This trend began with ITV in the 1950s. It has recently taken a step further with the inauguration of Channel 4. Fragmentation of an audience can mean splitting existing finance for programme production into a large number of smaller slices. But this is not necessarily an inescapable result. The hope must be that it will generate additional 845 resources which will reinforce the programme production industry which is one of this country's strengths.
We are ready enough to consider the position of those who will benefit from additional cable services, but we have an obligation also to consider the position of those who will not: those, for example, who live in areas which will not be economically attractive to cable or who are unable or unwilling to meet the additional costs of it where it is available. A new system of cable services which resulted in a diminished range or quality of off-air services provided by the BBC and ITV would not be acceptable. This point was one of the first made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, and it bears inevitably on such issues as the "must carry" services and the establishment of pay-per-view.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield cited the risk that the quality end of the range of programmes produced by existing producers might be starved if the popular end was to become more expensive to make. These and other aspects of the impact of cable on public service broadcasting have been carefully weighed by the Hunt inquiry. They concluded that cable and the public service broadcasting could exist side by side provided there were certain safeguards. Some regulation would be necessary, both for the sake of the services on which large sections of the community will for many years yet continue to remain dependent, and also because of the particular nature of cable as a medium in its own right.
My noble friend rightly reminded us that we shall need to consider the proportion of foreign material admitted to this country. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, suggested that it could be any amount beyond a mandatory minimum of home products. That brought us to the cultural impact of cable and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, rightly reminded us that it is necessary to human life, if it is to retain its humanity, that some of our encounters with other people at least should be conducted "live". He would expect, as would the right reverend Prelate, and many others would insist, that the material available should in any case be wholesome. A number of noble Lords have referred to the possibility that cable might encourage the spread of pornography. Since the Hunt Report was published a lot of attention has been focussed on the recommendation that "X" films be allowed without restriction on electronically-lockable channels. Some of your Lordships fear that whether the key is electronic or mechanical, small and hopefully innocent eyes will too often find ways of watching through the keyhole. I share the doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, as to whether existing legislation would in fact suffice to control what those young eyes then saw, and this is a question to which the Government will be giving their attention.
Rumbling like thunder behind that consideration will be the trenchant comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Luton, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, and my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford on any weakening of protection of standards of published material or of the defence of national standards of quality and propriety. What I believe may have received rather less recognition is the 846 general conclusion that this was not an area that could be simply left to the law of the land. Because of the place of television in the home and legitimate concern about the impact of pornography and violence, the inquiry doubted whether—and I quote,the mass of public opinion here would find acceptable some of the programmes receivable without restriction on cable channels in the United States".As a result they recommended that, except on lockable channels, cable operators should be subject to the same taste and decency obligations as are the existing broadcasting authorities. In particular they would need to take account of the impact of programmes shown at times when large numbers of children were likely to be watching; and children stay up late these days. The cable authority would have power to take action against operators who disregarded their franchise obligations.
My noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing was anxious that the teeth of the authority should not be too draconian and certainly, if my noble friend Lord Bessborough has his way with a 15-year franchise, there will be a pretty rare opportunity to exercise refusal to renew. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, would impose great responsibility on this authority, as would the noble Lord, Lord Beswick. I am grateful to those noble Lords who have spoken on this aspect of the subject today and have noted the reservations which have been expressed. The Government will certainly take account of the points which have been made and I can assure the House that we take that issue very seriously indeed.
Whenever science and technology throw up some new development we have to ask ourselves where it will lead us before we avail ourselves of it. But a thorough and responsible examination of the issues must be a preparation for action and not a substitute for action. Already with satellite broadcasting we have moved ahead in a way that will give both our manufacturing industry and our broadcasters the opportunity to be in our proper place among the world leaders. Yesterday my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Industry together published the report of the advisory panel on transmission standards to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, referred. The panel was chaired by Sir Antony Part, and it recommended that a new picture and sound system should be adopted for the first two BBC channels in 1986. We shall be announcing our conclusions on that report very shortly.
If we want to make the most of new technology we have to be prepared to move both quickly and cautiously. In the United States, cable has spread rapidly since many of the restrictions on it were lifted in the mid-1970s. France and Germany have both announced recently a cable development programme. Both countries are at an early stage in their thinking on what sort of services their systems will eventually deliver. Without knowing that, any estimate of the size of the receiving market must be fairly speculative and I cannot help thinking that by addressing ourselves and asking the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues to address themselves to this question we may have put ourselves a little ahead of the French and Germans and not so far behind them as my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing suggests.
847 The dependence of expansion on consumer uptake also puts a question mark over any estimate of job creation. America, with four times our population, and with a very different culture, is no certain guide. But the issue is very important and my noble friend was right to direct our attention to where it is already concentrated. There can be little doubt that many sectors of industry stand to gain considerably. Among these are cable manufacturers, the consumer electronics sector (we are now a net exporter of colour television sets and that is a turnround), the electronics components sector and telecommunications equipment suppliers. The United Kingdom is strongest in all these sectors as it is in programme production, which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was careful to mention.
A number of countries also have plans to introduce direct broadcasting satellite services in the middle of this decade. How rapidly the pattern and extent of our existing broadcasting system will be significantly altered by new services it is difficult to say because, as my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has pointed out, that programme depends on finance and it will be the consumer who decides. The pilot schemes of subscription television tell us the same as the study published recently by Communications and Information Technology Research Limited; namely, that there is a market for additional entertainment but that people do insist on value for money. The high quality and wide range of programmes which consumers can at present obtain at relatively modest cost have set the standards by which new services will be judged.
The Government cannot guarantee that cable, DBS or indeed any other new services will be a success. Our responsibility is to create the right framework within which the market can do its work. Our task is made the more difficult by the dramatic pace at which each technological advance is overtaken by the next. The only thing of which we can be sure, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, says in his report, is that we cannot accurately foresee the future. Our response therefore needs to be both positive and flexible.
There are many other issues into which I would have liked to follow your Lordships. Notably, the need to prescribe the type of cable or not, the issue of the common verses the multiple carrier, the question of who is to supply the cable, and the interactive and information systems are all matters which could occupy your Lordships for many hours. I would have liked also to go into the question of the involvement of local bodies. The right reverend Prelate thought that it would be increased—especially, under his guidance no doubt, with the churches. The noble Lord, Lord Oram, thought that on the whole local interests would suffer; and the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said that the papers at least had an interest in increasing it. But I must deny myself that pleasure because your Lordships will be impatient—and I want to pay a tribute of gratitude to the noble Viscount, Lord Rochdale, for his immense patience in allowing us to speak at such length.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues have shown us how they believe we could go forward. Throughout this debate he has restrained himself commendably, but your Lordships have not. Your Lordships have today offered your views on those 848 recommendations very fully. It is now for the Government to reach their conclusions in the light of all the comment available to them. This debate will form a valuable part of that resource, and I am most grateful both to your Lordships and to my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing for ensuring that it took place.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to every noble Lord who has spoken and particularly to the maiden speakers, and for the patience of the noble Viscount, Lord Rochdale. I think one noble Lord I should have liked to hear, but it is customary not to, is the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, himself. I think that, had he spoken, he might have said that there had been criticism in most parts of the House because people seemed to think that cable was going to imitate and compete against the BBC and ITV. That is not so. The whole point of cable television is that it should be totally different; it should cater for minority tastes, local groups, a totally different approach from that of the BBC or ITV.
The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, asked why I felt there was any urgency. I felt there was urgency because our competitor countries are walking past us in this direction, and I felt there was urgency because I think that anything which provides 20,000 extra jobs, mainly for young people, is highly desirable in this country today.
I should like particularly to thank my noble friend Lord Elton for the very thorough way in which he replied to the debate. He referred to almost every speech, and that is exactly the way we like it to be done in this House. Thank you very much, my Lords. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.