HL Deb 22 May 1990 vol 519 cc747-888

2.47 p.m.

Lord St. John of Fawsley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their general policy on satellite broadcasting.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the Broadcasting Bill establishes an enabling framework which will allow the development of satellite television while maintaining proper programme standards. The extent to which satellite television develops will be a matter for the market and not government regulations.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. But can I ask him to go further than the Broadcasting Bill? In view of the great potential satellite television has for the future, should not the Government positively encourage new entrants into this field, which would create a market and by competition raise standards?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, yes. The United Kingdom is limited by international agreement to five domestic channels all of which have been allocated to British Satellite Broadcasting. By contrast there is no such limit on the development of non-domestic satellite services which do not use scarce UK broadcasting frequencies. There is virtually open-ended scope for a diversity of different channels in different hands from other satellites such as Astra. I agree with my noble friend that competition and diversity should ensure high standards in order to survive.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, on a point of order, a Bill is in the Printed Paper office. Anyone can get it by trotting down the corridor. Is it not a misuse of Question Time to anticipate the Second Reading of a Bill set down for 5th June by raising the subject at Question Time? It seems to be a misuse of Questions.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think that the generally accepted rule in this House is that any noble Lord is entitled to ask any Question and it is up to the noble Lord concerned to decide whether the Question is a proper one to ask. It is always up to the Minister who is replying to decide whether it is a proper Question to answer, but I think that the House usually makes its own rules of order and you cannot lay down any hard and fast rules. You just take each case as it comes.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, is it not true that the most contentious issue with regard to satellite broadcasting is multi-media ownership? Does not the Minister therefore think it right that all satellite stations whose programmes are transmitted to and within the UK should be subject to the same cross-media ownership rules which apply to all TV stations?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the Bill provides that no non-domestic satellite operator should be allowed to have more than a 20 per cent. stake in a domestic satellite service, UHF television, including regional Channel 3, or national radio licences. That limit will be reciprocal. The Bill also leaves open the possibility of limiting the number of non-domestic satellite licences which any one group could control.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I am sorry to come back, but, with great respect, the Minister cannot give that as a complete answer when it is well known that Sky Television and Mr. Murdoch own about 30 per cent. of the national daily papers and even more of the Sunday papers, which blatantly breaks that rule.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I did not say that. A non-domestic satellite service may be owned by a newspaper interest. I said that a non-domestic satellite service was not able to own more than 20 per cent. of the domestic satellite or national television channels.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, will the Minister explain how the Government intend to exercise their jurisdiction over non-domestic satellites?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, services such as Sky, which has been mentioned, will be licensed as non-domestic satellite services. They will be bound by the consumer protection requirements set out in Clause 6 of the Bill which go beyond matters of taste and decency. They will be required not to editorialise on political and controversial matters, to preserve due impartiality in dealing with such matters and to present news accurately and impartially.

Lord Parry

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, despite the quality of his Answer, the House is concerned by what is known as the alien footprint on our culture and that the previous questioner has laid his finger on the point? What control do the Government intend to exercise over influences on our culture that come from outside, despite ownership of those services?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, under the Bill all UK-based satellite services will be subject to consumer protection regulation. The Council of Europe convention and EC directive both prohibit such things as pornographic broadcasts from states which are parties to them. As a long stop, the Bill also includes powers to prosecute anyone in the UK who advertises on or otherwise supports a foreign satellite service identified as unacceptable.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, has the Minister seen an American programme entitled "God Power" in which a weight-lifting champion in a bathing suit asks for money in order to give power to the deity? Does he not consider that such commercial exploitation of religion is a desecration of it?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I regret that I have not seer the programme to which my noble friend alludes, but it is certainly an interesting point. As the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, told us, the Broadcasting Bill will be with us before long and I am sure that we shall debate the subject then.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, can the Minister anticipate when we shall reach saturation point in TV channels?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords. I do not think I can.

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