HL Deb 07 March 1987 vol 487 cc221-38

9.30 p.m.

Viscount Torrington rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in accordance with the recommendation of the 4th Report of the European Communities Committee (HL 67) they will oppose the inclusion in the draft EC directive on broadcasting (6739/86 COR 1) of quotas for television broadcasting time to be reserved for EC productions and for independent productions.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am conscious that the hour is late, and in introducing this short debate I shall endeavour to be as brief as possible. I am encouraged in that endeavour in that I see on the list of speakers a number of fairly senior members of the television industry.

The Question is of course something of a Trojan horse since it serves to introduce to the House the report of the EC Committee on European broadcasting. Your Lordships may recall that last year the House debated a previous report entitled Television Without Frontiers. The starting point of that report was a Green Paper produced by the EC Commission which set out to examine the entire structure of television broadcasting in Europe and proceeded to arrive, by a process of navel contemplation, at the conclusion that legislative action was needed in five main areas to harmonise national regulations and to allow the free cross-frontier flow of television broadcasting within the member states. The five areas were: common advertising standards, the maximum content of advertising within a programming hour, the subject of copyright, the right of reply and the protection of minors.

Your Lordships may recall that the committee came. to the conclusion that Community competence in the broadcasting field, and the need for Community action therein, was far from clearly demonstrated. In fact, the committee stated in paragraph 39 of its earlier report: While there are aspects … to which the Treaty provisions clearly apply, there are other areas, for example, the composition of programmes, where the arguments against the application of the Treaty seem to the committee to be much stronger". That quotation brings me rather neatly to the essential difference between the recommendations of the Commission's Green Paper and the proposed directive.

The quotation to which I have referred could be translated into rather less parliamentary language by saying, "No EC interference in editorial freedom". To be fair to the Commission, the Green Paper contained no real attempt to suggest such interference, but the draft directive cannot escape that charge. To be exact, it introduces a totally new concept; namely, two types of quotas. The first requires broadcasters to use a certain minimum amount of works of Community origin and the second requires them to utilise a minimum quantity of works by independent producers within the Community. I do not for a moment suggest that these concepts are universally unwelcome, but they pose a number of problems and raise some serious points of principle.

The Commission's avowed aim is to remove restrictions which either have hindered or may in the future hinder the cross-frontier flow of television broadcasting; in other words, to take action in the name of liberalisation. It therefore seems somewhat regrettable that what is intended to be a piece of liberalising legislation should contain some fairly restrictive components. The other side of the coin is that a minimum quantity of EC-origin material means a maximum quantity of non-EC material; and a minimum amount of independent material means a maximum amount of non-independent material—whatever that may be. It creates a problem in itself because the BBC would probably describe itself as the world's largest independent producer.

Of course the dirigistes in Europe will shout, "Great, wunderbar, d'accord; of course we must ration American soap to the masses so that our own industry will not perish under a blanket of transatlantic suds". However, such protectionism is getting perilously close to editorial interference. As the committee's report implies in its conclusions, the aim may be laudable but a rigid framework could well be undesirable. It would apparently apply to all channels, even if under the same management, which in this country would perhaps require a fundamental rethinking of the relative roles of the two independent channels and indeed the two BBC channels.

In practice, the BBC uses some 85 per cent. of material defined to be of Community origin in its programming—far higher than the proposed quotas. The cynics might suggest that if the BBC did not have a self-imposed quota somebody would impose it on it. But this is all part of the principle of self-regulation and indeed self-discipline.

Where discipline might prove to be more lax is among the new commercial satellite channels aiming for market share by any means possible. It is here that the committee felt that the general provisions of the EC's draft directive might have more relevance than being applied primarily to national broadcasting channels such as the BBC and IBA.

There are several other changes of emphasis between the Green Paper and the draft directive on which the committee has commented in its report. I shall not detain your Lordships by going through the entire catalogue in turn. Those noble Lords who are interested in the subject will have read the report and the Government will no doubt have taken some note of its conclusions.

I shall therefore mention only one further aspect. The Commission has widened the scope of the directive to include sound broadcasting, which, except for a little man-made interference in the East, has so far as I know been crossing international frontiers in Europe for something like 80 years without any problems. I submit that no EC directive, or the absence of one, will alter the position very much. Is it therefore worth the legislative time to mess about in that area?

However, the Commission tries to come up with a new definition of broadcasting which tries to cover all transmissions ultimately intended for public consumption. I have a certain amount of sympathy with this aim, but the proposed definition conflicts with the accepted international telecommunications union definition. Low power satellites, for example, transmit primarily to cable companies. Accordingly what they transmit is at present defined as a telecommunication although what is actually "telecommunicated" is a broadcast by any other name. Clearly this is something of a nonsense and an area which in due course will have to be sorted out.

I finally return to the question of quotas. It is clearly desirable that we should have, as we do now in Britain, a strong television broadcasting sector catering to all tastes and shades of opinion and not dependent merely on ratings, which tend to require the lowest common denominator to produce the highest ratings. I recently heard a friend remarking—I have not watched this programme—that the French serial "Chateauvallon" was, in his words, jolly good in the original French but ludicrous in its dubbed version.

It is Europe's misfortune, at least in the broadcasting arena, that we are blessed with a diversity of languages which makes the mass marketing of audio-visual material more difficult on this continent than on the continent to the west of us. Both the linguistic and cultural diversity will long mean that production costs in relation to market size in Europe will be higher than in the United States, although we in Britain may have a small edge in having a common language with the United States. However, let us resist the urge for protectionism if we can, at least until it is proved that there is a need for it.

9.39 p.m.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Torrington for introducing this Unstarred Question and giving us the chance to make brief observations on the draft directive. I am happy on this occasion to be able to congratulate the Government. So often one finds that on a subject about which one is deeply concerned one is not supporting the Government of which I am a BackBencher. However, on this occasion they are doing very well in dealing with the problem of the draft directive and the quotas.

First, I must declare an interest, as I should when talking about anything connected with television. I am chairman of Anglia Television in the East of England.

The Minister, David Mellor, made it clear in a debate in the other place on 20th January that the Government are opposed to quotas being reserved for EC productions and for independent productions. He spoke very strongly, and provided he lives up to his robust professions of intent the Government should certainly be congratulated on the soundness of their arguments and their stance. He rightly talked (at col. 842 of the Official Report) about the dangers of the Commission: bringing to bear on sensitive issues like broadcasting the same skills used in the manufacture of pork sausages". For the Minister to clarify the issues so lucidly is certainly encouraging in view of the pre-eminence in the world of British television. He also made it clear (at col. 843) that whereas the Community may have competence to deal with: matters that pertain to economic and industrial aspects, [such competence] does not relate to the broader aspects of cultural and other matters in broadcasting". So far so good. That is fine and the Government are absolutely right to fight for these principles and to defend British standards. Although I admit the Minister in another place seemed somewhat less than confident of the outcome over the directive, we must applaud his endeavours and the fact that the Government have declared themselves against quotas in principle.

That being the case and the principle being vital in the national interest, one must trust that the Government will not weaken their position by continuing to talk and think about quotas for independent productions at home. That would simply pull the rug from under the British negotiating position in Brussels and make any Minister who seeks to oppose quotas there look extremely foolish and even two-faced.

In view of the robust position taken on quotas in Europe one must conclude that the Government's stance will be consistent and equally robust at home, otherwise the Minister may have given away the position in Europe almost before he starts. It would be wrong to argue that these two situations are different or that the second—that is to say, the quota question at home—is not a vital part of this debate. One cannot say that pork sausages are not pork sausages simply because you are standing in a different place.

The Minister in the debate on 20th January made the following observations, if I may quote them because they are extremely relevant to the debate that my noble friend has introduced. David Mellor said: There is certainly no case for fixed quotas imposed on everyone from Brussels". Secondly; we cannot agree to quotas being established directly by officials, for example, in the Commission who believe that this is just an extension of the regulations on the contents of some agricultural product". And finally he said: We are back in the sausage meat regime that I have already regretted".—[Official Report, Commons, 20/1/87; cols. 846–848.] This sound position, articulated with such clarity, would surely fall apart in Brussels if the Government tried to face in the opposite direction at home. Officials are the same sort of people where programme origination is concerned whether they are in Brussels or in Whitehall. We must assume that the Government will not be two-faced therefore and will not continue to talk about quotas at home in the same breath as opposing them in Europe. If unfortunately they did they would be implying that Ministers and Whitehall officials know better what the audience and the nation want and expect than the BBC, the IBA, the ITV companies or Channel 4.

The Government therefore will be in a weak position on quotas when arguing the case in Brussels unless they are consistent and honest with principles. If they lose this vital argument in Brussels it would or could be through lack of plausibility and credibility. Other countries will not accept that our Ministers believe what they say, especially when at one point the Home Office was pressing for a 25 per cent. quota at home for independents but resisting a 5 per cent. quota in Europe. The situation was grotesque. How can one possibly reconcile these two positions?

Of course the Government need not worry about the problem or their position on independent producers. Having swallowed the very successful independents' lobby hook, line and sinker, and having made up their mind on the independents issue before comprehending all the implications—in other words, the Home Office at that stage seemed to be asking "how?", long before it ever asked "why?"—the broadcasting services do not intend to embarrass the Government and prefer to massage their neck, sticking out though it may be.

Provided the freedom of broadcasting and scheduling is maintained in the interests of merit and for the benefit of the national audience, and not for, some daft and rigid quota system". as it was described in a debate in another place, the independents will have a reasonable proportion of air time, provided their productions are good enough for the public. Will my noble friend please confirm that the Government are not saying that the public will have a quota of programmes imposed on them whether they like it or not and whatever the merit or quality of the productions? That is the danger of the quota. Will he be clear please on this vital point, because this is hardly the moment to be telling the electorate that Ministers or officials in Whitehall will in future be deciding what people should view and where the programmes should come from?

There is often the danger that the long-term implications of direct government interference in something like programme scheduling is not fully comprehended. That was certainly the case, or it seemed to me to be so, when the Home Office was arguing for quotas. In order to appreciate the implications one has only to picture a change of government, with thereafter perhaps an extreme Right-wing or an extreme Left-wing regime, and recognise what could be done by manipulation of the quota system. There would be a straightforward opportunity provided on a plate for every form of political skulduggery in the exposure of material—and not only in exposure of material but also in its suppression. There is a clear threat to the traditional independence from political control and I cannot believe that this Government would want to risk that. But that is the real threat in any quota system.

The independents can be satisfied, if they have merit, by being afforded across the services a fair proportion of air time. That is the appropriate phrase —"a fair proportion". That is surely reasonable and a statesmanlike position by the broadcasting services. Independents have suddenly, post-Peacock, emerged as crusading knights in shining armour, whereas in fact they are perfectly responsible and genuine people. Many independents and many independent companies are simply producers who have not fought for and won a television franchise.

Finally, will the Minister please tell us, if he can, what the Government will do if, regrettably, they fail to prevail upon the Commission over this draft directive and, for example, are outvoted on the quota question? Although the debate has been going on for months there has been no indication of what will happen in that unfortunate event.

I should like once again to thank my noble friend Lord Torrington and also to congratulate the Government on their strong stance on quotas in Europe. I merely implore them not to make their position more difficult, if not ridiculous, by blatant and unprincipled inconsistency at home.

9.48 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, with your permission and approval, I intend to make the shortest speech of this debate. I begin by declaring an interest of a direct association with the trade union ACTT, which I think the House will appreciate has something valuable to say in a debate of this kind.

I do not wish to go down the road of the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, whose position I respect and whose views I listened to with great attention. I believe that he painted a grotesque picture of consequences. The quota—the 86 per cent.—is the bedrock of the agreement on television with the IBA and the BBC. If what we are to argue about is deregulation or regulation, that would be a sad situation. What we are interested in is surely to assist the Government better to understand that some vital interests are at stake. One can take the view that there are other people —those who make money and who have goods to sell—whose interests are of prime concern.

At the conclusion of this short speech, I come to some of the consequences of the Government taking insufficient care to ensure that our home product is protected. There may be those in the House and outside who say there should be no protection. I remember when we debated the Cable Bill, as some other noble Lords present may remember. I remember when we debated the Films Bill, as some other noble Lords present may remember. The whole House was very concerned on those occasions. There were deep divisions and debate about protecting the quality and standard of what the whole world knows is the product —yes, of members of the ACTT, but of many others too, British craftsmen with British skills. It is no exaggeration to say that it is cheaper to import foreign products than to make one's own, not least in this respect.

Reference—one might say that it was a smear—has been made to the fear of being faced with the heavy use of American produce, particularly by satellite. We know the size of the American market. It is not an improper fear for trade union workers to say, "What about us?". They are not wholly protected. They say not that there should be massive quotas but that the Government should take on board that, unless they fight for some protection, there will be a dilemma.

The Minister's noble friend argues that the Government should stick to their guns. I understand the reference. This Government—and the next government, whether of the Minister's persuasion or of mine—will be able fully to protect what is precious, an industry, technicians and craftsmen with skills of which we are all proud. We must have an adequate regulatory structure and framework with a strong minimum EC quota and content. I am not prepared to leave it to what noble Lords may say is the will or whim of the market place. Let us judge by experience.

The Minister and his colleagues are going to another place to argue the case. I hope that they will look after the interests of Britain and of British workmen and the high achievements of the British film-making industry over the years.

I remind the House of a Question that I asked last week about the potential sale of the film library of Thorn-EMI, Movietone, involving Cannon. Twelve months ago, when this was a current issue, we advised the Minister to take care what happened to this element of our cultural heritage, the library. The Minister said that all such matters would be taken into account. We find now that an American interest is on the verge of buying, if it has not already bought, the library. How will it be used? How will it be abused? If it is taken away from British control the only considerations will be commerce or money, to the detriment of British interests.

I hope that the Minister will not be galvanised into taking the advice from those in the House who say that there is a stark choice between regulation and deregulation. I am prepared to leave the Government the advice that they are given from many sources, that the best interests of the British people, British industry and British craftsmen must be somewhere between the two.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, will the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, forgive me if I respond by saying that I said nothing against independent producers or their productions getting on to the services? I am simply against quotas being fixed by government. I think it should be left to bodies like the BBC and the IBA to settle.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful. If the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, is saying that he is in favour of quotas provided they are not fixed by the Government, that is a major change. I thought that the noble Lord was saying that he was against quotas, but if there is a mechanism which will fix quotas not by civil servants or by the Minister but by some other means, that to me is a major achievement.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, the offending word is "quotas". Arrangements can be made by the services.

9.56 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, at this late hour I shall not keep your Lordships very long. There are one or two things that must be said about the report of the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, a name which rings a chord in my memory and for which I am grateful. I am also grateful for the labours that they undertook, and that the noble Viscount has taken this opportunity this evening to give us a further opportunity to discuss the report.

There are a variety of points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, and by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, which will come up in the course of what I have to say. I can only say at this stage that I read the report with great care and interest. I share the general view of the BBC and the IBA, and the evidence they gave under cross-examination, that the proposals by the European Community are, in general, undesirable, and I suspect will prove to be—and I shall come to this later—ineffective.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, that in particular the introduction of radio in the second of their reports was a somewhat gratuitous intervention, if I may put it in that way. There was no place in the previous paper on broadcasting across frontiers for radio. Radio is a different medium from television. It has a long and splendid history of broadcasting across frontiers. What indeed were the BBC's external services invented for? I may add, where would the world be had it not been for the BBC's external services? That reference seems to me to be a gratuitous and unnecessary irrelevancy in their report.

Then there is the matter of quotas, which the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, emphasised—and rightly emphasised. In response to the report, the IBA and the BBC sang the same tune in what I think used to be called close harmony. It was a cosy tune. They did not like quotas, although they both operate quotas. The figure in the report is 14 per cent. There is no question that there are quotas; but they are what are called informal quotas. Informal quotas are somehow more ethically respectable than formal quotas. That is a nice point and one that one could discuss with doctors of divinity.

Quotas were an interference with editorial freedom. Maybe, my Lords. They were not frightened by the 60 per cent. quota because they produced 86 per cent., or 85 per cent. of home-produced wares. Quotas would produce some problems in scheduling. They would not be insuperable problems, but there would be some problems. They might require legislation in the case of the BBC on the question of its promotion trailers. Why exclude news, sport, events and game shows? Why indeed, my Lords. I have no conceivable idea why this exclusion should have been included.

I must admit, having read all this material from the BBC and the IBA (for whom I have great affection and respect), that I felt that it was shadow boxing. After all, the European Community directive is aimed against the United States television industry. That is what it is talking about. The small countries, Norway, Austria, and so on, are frightened (and I do not blame them) of being overwhelmed by products from the United States which are in effect dumped by the United States in European markets. I should like to take this up with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I am sorry that the report did not pay more attention to what is dumping. The United States produce "Miami Vice", "Dallas", "Dynasty" or whatever it may be. The overheads are written off in the United States and any sale elsewhere is net profit. In effect we are faced with not so much cultural imperialism as simple dumping. That is something to which I think we ought to pay attention and to which we have a right to pay attention, as we have in dumping in any other area.

It must be accepted that the EC directive is a measure of protection designed to encourage the European TV industry. I admit that I regard this as an area where we should tread extremely carefully. Characteristically, and I think rightly, the BBC said that TV was a cultural rather than an economic activity. That is a very rare view to maintain, but at present—and God knows what it will be in the future! —it happens still to be true of it. However, if economic protectionism is dangerous, I believe that cultural protectionism is even more dangerous. I believe that the free flow of ideas, the free flow of programmes, the free flow of plays, drama and films across frontiers is something that we should protect, in a different sense of that word, with the utmost care. In this respect, quotas are in effect a kind of censorship. That is something we should watch carefully before we introduce it by the back door.

Is it not possibly the case that the EC directive has been overtaken by events? I do not pretend to be an expert in this matter and I think that in what I am about to say I am asking questions rather than giving replies. In reading the evidence in the Select Committee's report, it seemed to me that the crux of the matter was reached in the evidence of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, given on 13th November. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, is familiar with DBS—I believe that Anglia Television is part of BSB and is one of the consortia which has the BSB contract. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said that on DBS there is a real problem. The IBA were then advertising a DBS contract. The noble Lord went on to say: That will be an entirely private sector operation, unlike those in France, Germany and most other countries". I ask the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, whether he will address himself to this question: am I right in thinking that unlike France, Germany and elsewhere our Government will have no control, or very little, over what BSB broadcasts? That is a rather essential question in connection with this debate. I add that BSB, like most of the applicants, according to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, will have an almost all film channel. The noble Lord, Lord Kearton —who I regret is not present tonight—then put his finger on the crucial question, He said: if programmes do not exist to fill the DBS, except imports from the US, is it a prime necessity that we should have DBS? This put the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, in some difficulty—I have told him that I was going to speak about this. He said, and I quote from page 17, paragraph 34: It is not.…primarily a, decision for the IBA, it is a decision which has been taken by the Government, supported by Parliament. Having taken it, it would be better to make a success of it rather than a failure. This will be the third time the United Kingdom has sought to get into the DBS arena. There is going to be an added dimension of broadcasting in the decades which are ahead. Given the decision to do it we had better make sure it succeeds. That means the all-film channel in effect will be 80 per cent. American films, many of them presumably supplied by Fox, which is Sky, which is Mr. Rupert Murdoch—and so we go round and round. There is another DBS in France and another DBS in Germany. I think, although I may be wrong, that there is also one in Ireland.

All these will have to fill their programmes and all of them will probably turn to the same kind of sources. What therefore will be the control of the EC directive on DBS programming? It seems to me that the EC directive is a kind of Maginot Line which has already been outflanked by a Schlieffen plan of modern tehnology.

I comprehend the response of the British broadcasting authorities, the IBA and the BBC. I agree with the Question of the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, but I would ask: is it relevant, given that DBS represents broadcasting across frontiers which is absolutely beyond the control of the European Community?

10.8 p.m.

Viscount Chilston

My Lords, the first of these two new proposals to impose a minimum quota for European programming should, on the face of it, benefit Europe and arguably Britain in particular; while the second, to impose a minimum quota for independently-produced programmes, should be of huge financial benefit to the rapidly growing numbers of independent production houses in Europe and in this case particularly in Britain. At this stage I should declare an interest. Apart from being British and a committed European I am, as it happens, an independent producer—or perhaps, as my noble friend Lord Buxton suggested, a crusading knight in shining armour.

A 30 per cent. content of European material in our television programming is very much a minimum requirement and even when it is doubled to the proposed 60 per cent. in three years' time it will be substantially less than the 86 per cent. currently broadcast by the ITV companies. In the case of the BBC, as my noble friend Lord Torrington pointed out, 85 per cent. of their material is European but it is not just European: it is British and nearly all of it is produced almost entirely in-house by the corporation.

If we accept that the current mix of United Kingdom broadcasting is about right, do we then suggest that the EC should impose an even higher quota, or do we simply regard it as yet another piece of unnecessary European legislation and ignore it? If we were simply to regard it as superfluous legislation having no effect on British broadcasting, we should not be altogether correct. British law would need amending and an Act would need to be passed through Parliament which would erode that special, politically-independent status of British broadcasters, and no immediate positive effect would be achieved.

However, it should be considered that while existing national broadcasters in Europe generally provide a healthy ration of home-grown product, the new breed of DBS broadcasters are likely to rely upon a very much higher proportion of cheap American imports. It was, I think, the concern of the French and the Italians in particular that prompted the late inclusion of these two quota clauses after the Green Paper had been issued.

I must agree with my noble friend Lord Torrington that if there is any possible way of establishing these criteria they must be the right criteria to guarantee the minimum amounts of European input into broadcasting. Much as I detest legislation when it replaces effective voluntary agreements like this, no one has yet suggested a viable alternative that might well be workable in the wider context of Europe. As it stands, the directive excludes from those which are to be subject to quota certain categories of programme such as sport, news and—I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord BonhamCarter—very surprisingly, games shows. Why games shows?

Specialist channels transmitting solid news or continuous sport would automatically be excluded, but what about non-stop music channels or a channel transmitting an exclusive diet of feature films? Some form of relief would have to be found, and presumably could be found, to limit any organisation broadcasting an exclusive diet of one thing or another. Presumably complicated exceptions could be made.

To wait until the new broadcasters pose a threat to the established networks responsible for broadcasting seems to beg the question whether the problem is not easier to prevent rather than to cure. European legislation now will inevitably cause minor irritations to existing broadcasters, maybe some particular heavier irritations, but in five or 10 years' time when the child has been fed with the sweets how are we to get it back on to a balanced diet? At that stage any attempt to regulate by law or even by voluntary agreement the content of broadcasting could prove extremely difficult.

This and the other quota which calls for a minimum content of independently produced programmes have both been widely criticised for being inappropriate in an instrument primarily designed to promote cross-frontier broadcasting in Europe. Is it really inappropriate to remove barriers and yet establish minimum criteria for broadcasting in one piece of legislation?

Professor Peacock's report suggested that a figure of 40 per cent. of the BBC's output should be provided by the independents with 10 years. In turn, the independent producers' associations have been campaigning for a more realistic figure of around 25 per cent. Both the BBC and the IBA companies are critical of quotas. Numerical quotas are too inflexible, they claim, and tamper with the broadcasters' freedom. Any sudden or significant increase in independent production, they argue, could cause redundancies in the broadcasting industry.

As the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, pointed out, the draft directive called for a figure of 5 per cent. growing to 10 per cent. in three years. That is hardly enough to tamper seriously with a broadcaster's freedom, and, certainly when the BBC already admits to a current figure of one and a bit per cent., it is not enough to qualify as a sudden or even a significant increase.

Britain, boosted by Channel 4's appetite for independent productions, had the most sophisticated independent production facilities in Europe, to say nothing of the talent that supports and uses it. Any increase in independent production in Europe will draw upon that expertise. English is the most widely spoken language in Europe. Programmes made by European independents for home consumption will have to rely on overseas sales to supplement their production budgets. Sixty per cent. of the world's audiences are in the United States, so I would suggest that no country is better placed than Britain to provide the production and post-production facilities for a mass of high quality European broadcast material for the American market in English at a competitive price. But perhaps by then the United States will have introduced quotas of its own to limit the dumping of European programming.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, like the other speakers in this short debate I too am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, for giving us a stab at this subject tonight. I found it rather ironic that the moment it was announced that the debate would he televised, the covers were immediately put on the cameras, though I think that it was the lateness of the hour rather than any particular prejudice that led to that.

Personally I am very concerned about the directive itself. It seems to me regrettable that the directive has over-reached its stated goals of enhancing the free circulation of television programmes within the European Community and that the good points that it has—and there are some dealing with harmonisation of rules for advertising—have been swamped by a premature and unsophisticated attempt to solve wide-ranging problems of copyright, into which there is no time to go at the moment, as well as to protect European broadcasters from overreliance on buying programmes from the United States.

Ideally the articles on independent production, European quotas and copyright should have been uncoupled from those on advertising and dealt with in separate directives. Although all these issues are concerned with television and to a certain extent are interconnected, each one requires detailed working out and extensive consultation. When they are made part of a package, they engender confusion rather than clarity. Amid the details of whether to adopt statutory or voluntary copyright, or whether to ban all tobacco advertising or just advertisements for cigarettes, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the directive points to the need for some radical thinking concerning the regulation of cross-frontier broadcasting. That has been pointed out by nearly all speakers tonight, including my noble friends Lord Graham and Lord Bonham-Carter.

A directive that is solely concerned with European quotas and separated from quotas for independent production might have alerted us to some crucial problems in broadcasting that national governments as well as the European Parliament will have to face. As it is, the debate on the directive has ranged over too many issues to focus on the question of international regulation. However, as other noble Lords have pointed out, we have quotas at the moment whether we call them informal or voluntary quotas. If we are looking to the future—and quite frankly it is certainly the legislature's policy and obligation to do so—at some point over the next 10 years we shall have to consider whether statutory quotas are essential if the countries of Europe are to preserve their television heritage.

So it is doubly sad that the directive lacks coherence in addressing these problems. It is a measure of that confusion that game shows, news and sports programmes are excluded from the quotas on the grounds that those categories of programmes require little or no creative work, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, pointed out.

If the authors of the directive had consulted broadcasters, they would have discovered the difficulties and challenges produced by good sports and news coverage. If they had discussed it with British broadcasters they would have seen the enormous pride that broadcasters take in portraying sport as part of our national heritage. Coverage of the Derby, the FA cup final or Wimbledon by American networks does not and cannot convey the tradition of those events or their place in British life. It is a tribute to British broadcasting that it does that, and it would be quite wrong to suggest that such programmes are not creative. Without going into the matter deeply, there is similarly a world of difference between the presentation of news on "News at Ten", for example, and the American cable news channel.

There may be a case to be made out for exempting news from quotas concerned with the production of drama and light entertainment, but the criteria that are adopted in the directive are unnecessarily contentious and would result in an endless debate on definitions of creativity. Furthermore, if the aim of quotas is to ensure a predominantly European presence in the schedules of all television channels, the more exemptions that there are the fewer European programmes will be needed.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out tonight that the quota is not sufficiently flexible to deal with specialist television channels. There are simply not enough British produced feature films to fill a 60 per cent. quota on the new British DBS film channel. Besides, many films ostensibly produced in Britain are made with American money, by American producers and with the American market in mind. They have as much to do with British culture as the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Although it is easy to criticise the directive, it has the merit of bringing to our attention an extremely important issue: namely, the regulation of new television channels. One of the great fears of everyone involved with broadcasting is the downturn in standards associated with deregulation. That was one of the main themes in the debate on the Peacock Committee report.

Until now we have been able to rely on the professional pride of British broadcasters to prevent an overreliance on cheap United States imports. When that professional pride has not been enough, we have been able to rely on the BBC Board of Governors and the members of the IBA to protect the public interest. However, in his evidence to the committee, the chairman of IBA, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, argued that its objection to the draft directive was based on the, principle that these matters which the national bureaucracy has never aspired to administer should be administered by the European bureaucracy". He went on to say: it would be wiser to leave it to public broadcasters". In its evidence to the committee the BBC claimed that: a fundamental principle is at stake … Under the directive the BBC, for the first time in 63 years, would be ordered by statutory provision to allocate its resources according to externally imposed criteria". The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we will be able to rely on the British system of self-regulation if, for example, this Government are returned and decide that the ITV franchises are sold off to the highest bidder, Channel 4 is privatised and independent producers are guaranteed 25 per cent. of air time.

If that happens it will be compounded by the growth of satellite broadcasting, as has been pointed out. In 1988 the Luxembourg satellite Astra will be beaming down over a dozen television stations which will he receivable on 60 centimetre dishes. By 1990 we are led to believe that British DBS will come on stream, adding four new channels. On top of that the French, the German and possibly the Irish DBS operations should be up and running.

In those circumstances a new breed of TV entrepreneur will have a profound influence on the nature of broadcasting. They will control channels beamed from other countries, they will be outside the control of the IBA and as profits rather than public service is highly likely to be the prime motivation they will not really worry where the programmes come from.

This intensification of competition must affect the present balance. In the difficult days ahead the IBA and the BBC might be glad of a quota system which ensures that anything which is uplinked from an EC country has to take a substantial proportion of its programmes from Europe. Here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that a great deal of the evidence which was presented to the committee and which was fascinating to read gave one the awful feeling that those people were still living in the past and were not looking towards an entirely new future situation.

In my view quotas should be regarded as a failsafe mechanism if the British system starts to melt down. Ideally the IBA and the BBC should continue to insist on 80 to 90 per cent. home production. But if that cannot be held there should be a line below which the proportion of home production in the schedules will not fall.

However, the trouble with quotas is that they are not quality control mechanisms. Indeed, in Canada where they have had Canadian content quotas for many years broadcasters have made cheap and highly uninteresting programmes to fill the quotas. So Canadian broadcasting has become associated with low production values and was seen as second-rate when compared to the United States. It may well be that statutory quotas will not work, but they should not be rejected simply because they have not been used in the past.

Ken Collins, the European Member of Parliament and the British rapporteur at the European Parliament on the directive, put the issue clearly when he told the European Sub-Committee B that the problem is whether to legislate now and run the risk that perhaps the dust would settle in a pattern not anticipated, or whether to wait until the dust had settled and then legislate. As he rightly pointed out, by the time we come round to legislating, ownership of the broadcasting companies might have passed into hands which are not readily controllable.

In this country we have been fortunate that our broadcasting has been committed to high standards and we have had the financial and cultural resources to maintain those standards. Some of our European neighbours have been less fortunate. Perhaps then measures should be adopted which will help other members of the EC to achieve higher broadcasting standards. Quotas may well not be the answer. However, the issue of American penetration of European television and the maintenance of quality programmes will have to be dealt with at a European level.

As the Peacock Committee's report shows—and although the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, said that the debate has been going on for months and months, the debate, in fact, has really only just begun—we still have a long way to go and a lot of talking has to be done. All I would say in conclusion is that we have to look to the future and not live in the past.

10.26 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, we have had this evening another most interesting debate on the many sided question of how the new transfrontier television services in Europe should be regulated. I should like, first of all, to thank my noble friend Lord Torrington for initiating this debate and for providing us once again—along with the other members of his committee—with another excellent and comprehensive report on the EC draft directive on broadcasting, which is in every respect a useful supplement to the committee's earlier report on the Green Paper Television Without Frontiers. That report was, I know, widely read in Europe and had a significant influence on the debate which led to the production of the draft directive. I feel sure that this late report will have a similar influence.

Our position on the draft directive has been set out very fully in the past, not least in the debate in your Lordships' House in March last year and in the evidence we submitted to the Select Committee in the course of its current review. In brief, we very much share the objectives of the European Commission in seeking to facilitate transfrontier broadcasting by getting rid of any unnecessary obstacles that may result from a lack of harmonisation between countries' broadcasting regulations.

We do not rule out the need for some pan-European regulatory structure. That would give us the assurance that incoming services receivable in the United Kingdom would meet certain fundamental standards, particularly as concerns questions of taste and decency and the like. It would also confer a benefit on our satellite programme providers who, both in the past and today, have led the development of the European market in such services. I know they would welcome a common agreement on a set of rules that would give their services the assurance of entry into other European countries, without regulatory or other obstacles being placed in their path.

But we do not want European agreement on a common set of rules to be overcomplex, legalistic and inflexible. We are looking for regulation in Europe with a rather lighter touch than some of the proposals that the Commission has put forward in the draft directive and the Green Paper has threatened to bring forward at a later date. We still maintain our view that a case has not been made out for Community legislation.

We agree with the Select Committee in doubting whether the Community is the right forum within which to reach a lasting European agreement on these matters. In our view, the concentration in the Commission's proposals on economic objectives presented in a narrow and legalistic manner does not give sufficient weight to the wider cultural considerations that attach to broadcasting policy. By contrast, the Council of Europe has much wider experience of dealing with social and cultural issues and has a good track record in the field of international broadcasting regulation. Just as important, it covers a much wider grouping of countries. For these reasons, your Lordships will know that the Government believe that a Council of Europe convention would be a more appropriate vehicle for dealing with these matters, and are playing a full part in the drafting of such a convention that is proceeding in Strasbourg at the present time.

On the detail of the draft directive, your Lordships will know that we do not accept the approach the Commission has followed in relation to copyright. We have serious doubts about the proposals for a system of statutory licensing and we continue to seek to maintain the existing system of voluntary agreements freely negotiated.

The proposals on advertising are, in principle, less difficult, as the Select Committee has itself pointed out. A lot of work has been done to bring these proposals more into line with the system that we operate in this country under the IBA Code; and accordingly the match with our own regulations is much better than it was before. There still remains the question, however, whether some broadly acceptable proposals of this kind would form the basis for future regulation or whether they would merely be the springboard for the development of further regulations, perhaps extending, as the Commission has hinted, into the regulation of programmes themselves.

That brings me to the specific set of issues that my noble friend has chosen for the subject of today's debate: the proposals to set fixed quotas from Brussels for the amount of European Community material and independently produced programmes that should appear in television services throughout Europe. In this, as in some other aspects of the Commission's proposals, we are not opposed either to the objective or to the principle, but to the inflexible manner with which the principles are to be implemented.

Let us take first of all the question of independent production. In the past, where we have legislated in this area, as in the case of Channel 4, we have relied upon a general formulation. The Broadcasting Act of 1981 refers to a substantial proportion of programmes to be supplied from outside the ITV system. Last November, my right honourable friend, the Home Secretary, set out a general target for independent production on the broadcast channels of 25 per cent., and your Lordships will know that discussions on the best manner of implementing that target are now going forward with the broadcasters and the independent producers.

The fundamental issue here, however, is that these matters are purely domestic ones for decision in each Community country. They do not have anything to do with obstacles to transfrontier broadcasting, and the appropriate policy can only reasonably be decided in the light of the prevailing circumstances in the television industry, which differ markedly from country to country. We are against fixed quotas set in Brussels which assume that these issues can be treated in the UK in the same way as in Italy, Portugal or Germany.

I cannot accept the assertion of my noble friend Lord Buxton that the Government are speaking with two tongues on this subject. As regards quotas on independent production, it is important to recognise that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has not set precise quotas in the domestic field; he has set a broad target towards which the broadcasters have agreed to work over a period of years. The two concepts are not the same. Our approach on this issue is far more flexible than that followed by the Commission in its draft directive.

Similar considerations apply to the question of European Community programming. We recognise that there should be a special place for European programmes in our television schedules. Here again, in the Broadcasting Act we have operated for many years a general formula which talks of proper proportions of domestic and other EC material, leaving it to the IBA to decide what the appropriate percentage might be. For 30 years, the proportion has been fixed at roughly 86 per cent., and the BBC has followed suit with a voluntary undertaking.

During the passage of the Cable and Broadcasting Act in 1984, your Lordships will recall that we in this House rejected the setting of fixed percentages in this area for cable programme services, but that the Act applies the same general formula of proper proportions. The proportions of course vary from one programme channel to another, according to the kind of programmes they contain; but we agreed in 1984 that it was inevitable that in the early days of their services, the new programme providers could not possibly live up to the high percentages that were current on the broadcast channels. Nevertheless, the figures published by the cable authority in its recent annual report show clearly that the record in this respect is already better than many had expected.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, asked me about regulating the DBS service. The planned DBS service will be regulated by the IBA. The provisions in the Broadcasting Act concerning proper proportions of European programming will apply, and it will be for the IBA to decide what the proportion will be.

We believe that a general formula rather than a fixed percentage will be the way forward for international instruments in this field, leaving it to the individual broadcasting authorities to interpret in the light of their particular circumstances. In this way, the independence of the broadcasters will be maintained, and there will be no danger that programme schedules are distorted purely to meet the quota rather than to provide quality programmes that the viewer wishes to watch. On that issue therefore the Government are, as ever, in firm agreement with the Select Committee's views. A formula referring to reasonable proportions of European programmes was adopted by the Council of Europe last year in its recommendations on audiovisual production. It seems likely that a similar formula will be included in the proposed draft convention.

While the process of drafting the convention goes on, we shall of course continue to play our full part in Brussels in the continuing discussions on the draft directive. I should say to my noble friend Lord Buxton that it is far too early to talk about the failure of our attempts to resist the draft directive. The majority of countries in the Community see many of the objections that we see.

We shall study very closely the detail of this second report from the Select Committee and the useful contributions that have been made in the debate today, both of which will serve to inform those further deliberations in Brussels. In closing, I should like to repeat my thanks to my noble friend for the contribution he and his committee have made to this important debate in Europe and express my satisfaction that on most of the issues concerned the views of the committee and the Government are as one.