HC Deb 15 November 2000 vol 356 cc234-40WH

1 pm

Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point)

I am grateful for the opportunity to outline some major concerns about independent local radio in advance of a communications Bill and the forthcoming White Paper. The concerns primarily focus on ownership rules, convergence and content regulation. Moves to consolidate ownership go back to the Conservatives' Broadcasting Act 1990 and the Broadcasting Act 1996, which accelerated the process and removed most of the ownership rules. The current situation shows that companies want more liberalisation and less regulation.

The 1990 Act removed most of the content controls on local radio, leaving the Radio Authority able to work only through the promises of performance, now called formats. In the past few days, I have received input from spokespersons acting for some of the giants in the commercial radio sector, but today I wish to speak for the wider public interest rather than for specific vested interests. Sound broadcasting is special and cannot be left to competition law and criminal law. Advertisers are the clients of commercial radio but listeners are also important to that commercial interest. Six groups—Capital Radio, GWR, Emap, Chrysalis, The Wireless Group and Scottish Radio Holdings—dominate the market, generating 80 per cent. of commercial radio revenues and owning more than 60 per cent. of the points that make up the radio ownership system. Should we continue with the trend towards more convergence with extensive networking and automation, we shall be in danger of losing the localness in local radio and having national radio in all but name.

As the summer recess began, so did a spate of letters from constituents horrified that they might lose a favourite local radio station, Breeze AM. Common to all the letters was the refrain, "Are you able to do anything to help—please?" The letters reflected the feelings of so many people throughout Essex who over the years had grown to love and, in many ways, depend on Breeze AM and Essex FM. In its early days, Essex Radio covered a wide range of music and phone-in programmes and there was a compelling interaction between broadcasters and listeners. The group started its own charity, Helping Hands, which was relaunched in 1998 as Cash for Causes. It had grown not because of a corporate decision but through a natural evolution that was supported by listener activity. Families, schools and individuals all contributed to community fundraising, benefiting, among others, the local Mencap, the Cot Death Society, Hearing Help Essex, Braintree Women's Aid, Homestart Harlow, Action for Kids, St. Claire's hospice—I could go on and on.

Local people decided to fight for Breeze AM when they became aware that it was to pass into new ownership. They feared losing the character and identity of a local radio station that thousands of people had regarded as run by and for locals—the chat between listeners and presenters, the immediate reporting on local situations such as school closures, neighbourhood events and the minutiae of road works that might affect local travel. As one doughty campaigner, my constituent Penny Pringle, said at the launch of the Essex Campaign to Save Local Radio: Above all, as an observer of one of Peter Holmes' brilliant talks to schoolchildren about the art of communication, remember to stress—as he did—that communication is a two-way process. Breeze speaks to us, we speak to Breeze. But at the moment we must speak for Breeze, because do we really want to lose all this? I pay tribute to the efforts of Penny, who lives on Canvey island, of Maxine Meadows from Maldon and of Geoff Bonser from Southend, who was a co-founder of the original Essex Radio. They came with me to the Radio Authority in September to argue the case about programming, licensing rules and, essentially, local radio. With the Daily Mail and General Trust as the owner of the Essex stations, there had not been swingeing changes to format and content had not been much affected, but with a new owner, GWR, it was beginning to look like goodbye to all that.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

Mr. Cook, I should like to point out that in Bristol, where GWR already has a significant presence as well as owning Orchard FM in neighbouring Somerset, it also has a stake in the most recent community radio station, Eagle FM. That was given, to my dismay, to the Bristol Press and Post, which is hardly a local community group, and was subsequently bought by the Daily Mail.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. Perhaps I should offer the gentlest of gentle admonishments on two counts. First, in a 30-minute Adjournment debate an intervention is unusual unless it has been pre-arranged with the presiding officer. Secondly, I should be failing in my duty were I not to remind hon. Members that when the decision was taken for parallel proceedings to take place in Westminster Hall it was agreed that they would be overseen by a Deputy Speaker, not by a Chairman. The exception is when a nameplate can be seen, in which case hon. Members may use the Chairman's name, but on other occasions it is Mr. Deputy Speaker. The intervention is unusual—quite extraordinary—so it must be the briefest of brief interventions.

Valerie Davey

Please accept my apology, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had arranged it with my hon. Friend but not with you. I add only that following the takeover of the Bristol Press and Post by the Daily Mail, or DMG, the latter's radio interests have been taken over by GWR, so we have come full circle and the enterprise is no longer local.

Mrs. Butler

I apologise for my earlier error, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I take my hon. Friend's point. In fact, GWR now cuts a swathe across the south of England from the west to the east coast and as far as Peterborough and the midlands. It is a major operator in those regions. That was one of the bells that rang for local people, who were determined to protect not just their own interest, but that of all those who love to listen to independent local radio stations. Indeed, as has been said, there was great consternation throughout Essex, and a campaign was started in the wake of GWR's takeover of Breeze and Essex FM, as well as other stations.

Devotees shed tears when local presenters who had given such a distinct character to Breeze began to be given their marching orders. Surely some protection of listeners' interests is needed and we should not be taking a cold view of the matter. The current concentration of ownership allowed by Conservative legislation enables distant groups to do away with valued local services in the pursuit of short-term profit. There is a desperate need for a regulator to stand up for listeners so that they can enjoy a genuine local radio service.

Following meetings with the Radio Authority, and to allow GWR to come within ownership rules, some of the people on our local station, Breeze, were given a reprieve and although there were some changes the format was not immediately switched to Gold. Until now, we have retained a little localness, but that will soon go, because for some of the presenters the reprieve was to last for only a few months. We have lost some really good people, and I am afraid that the spirit has gone.

The licence that was held before the GWR takeover allowed live output for up to 16 hours a day, with automation in only off-peak, night-time and early morning periods, and although Essex was part-networked to Crawley, presenters made sure that the Southend-Crawley split worked well. The station was able to react immediately to any situation. For example, on the evening of the Stansted air crash, listeners to Breeze 1521 in Crawley continued to receive its regular output. Indeed, Ray Clark has, on occasion, presented two different programmes at the same time. Ray joined the station in 1989 and has won five world-class awards, yet he was made redundant. It is regrettable that he and other highly professional and experienced broadcasters were jettisoned. I am speaking for not only one station, but for the nation. The development is ominous in terms of the encouragement of rising stars.

When GWR took over further stations from the Daily Mail and General Trust for 146 million, it exceeded the 15-point limit. It therefore had to sell some of its assets to a third party that would be prepared to broadcast the classic gold format. By October, it had become known that Unique Broadcasting had become a major shareholder of several of GWR's former acquisitions, including Breeze. It was felt at the time that the situation had gone from critical to not quite so dire. However, GWR maintains a 20 per cent. interest, and many observers believe that these interests are being warehoused until ownership rules are relaxed even further.

Unless legislation prevents it, one or two companies will soon own all local independent radio stations. With cross-media ownership, and if members of one company board sit on other company boards, as at present, there is an inherent danger to the public interest. The Radio Authority has suggested ways to protect the public interest in regions and local areas in its submissions to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Trade and Industry, in advance of the White Paper and in response to the Green Paper consultations. However, independent local radio takes a different view.

I feel strongly about independent editorial content. Local radio cannot be considered merely as a product. The relationship between the producer—if I may use that term—and the consumer is different. Two important points must be emphasised. One is about quality, diversity and choice. The other is the potential for a monopoly of editorial view. If that were to happen, the situation could become very dangerous. During the recent campaign in Essex alone, one mid-Essex newspaper, owned by DMG, would not cover the activities of local people engaged in their fight to save the distinctiveness of Breeze. We should take the issue very seriously.

The Radio Authority also mentioned access radio. The campaign for access radio, which would be a nonprofit making body, was born out of the frustration of losing genuinely local radio. It has been suggested that it could be funded by a levy on the independent sector, but that sector says that it should be publicly funded. The idea for access radio is a symptom of present ills and not a cure. In my view, the project has only a slight chance of becoming viable. For instance, would the independent sector want to fund access radio until it became popular enough to decrease audience ratings for that sector? I think not. Would access radio, which would be mainly run by volunteers and would work on a shoestring budget, be able to deliver the range—I hesitate to use the word "quality"—of programming that listeners expect?

Some people might say that the internet could provide ready access for everyone, but I urge people to hesitate before concluding that it could cure all ills. Essentially, it is an unregulated medium. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will say more about that. I am speaking about traditional radio broadcasting. Whatever happens in technology, I am speaking for the listeners at home. They will be less interested in advanced technologies than they are in what they hear in their living rooms.

I am left wondering whether it might be a better idea to invest more in local BBC radio so that it can undertake more research and perhaps engage in more local documentary programming. We owe something to the listeners out there. I ask all those who lament the loss of truly locally inspired and produced independent radio to come to Essex and learn from us in our attempt to bring localness and plurality of ownership back.

1.18 pm
The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) for securing this debate. She has raised an important issue, about which, as she knows from our conversations, I too have strong feelings. I also thank also my Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) for pointing out the similar circumstances that affect her constituents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst). I have received a considerable amount of correspondence about local radio. In response to the remarks that have been made, I should like to speak about the Government's commitment to local radio and to outline how we see the future developing.

I visited Breeze FM—I think at the invitation of Eric Moonman, who I believe is its chairman and who was also once a colleague here. I was very excited by what I saw and by all the work done with local community groups, charities and so on. I was sorry to learn that some of the presenters who have now gone, including Ray Clark, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point cited as having received five world-class awards. Employment matters are for the broadcaster and we have no power under the Broadcasting Acts to intervene, but I hope that GWR will take note of local concern. I pay tribute to Penny Pringle, Maxine Meadows and Geoff Bonsor for their campaign to save local radio in Essex.

I turn to existing regulation, which is under review. The Radio Authority was established under the Broadcasting Act 1990 to license and regulate independent radio in the United Kingdom. The Act provides that the authority should ensure that the local character of a radio service is maintained during the period of the licence while allowing individual stations the flexibility to make commercial and programming decisions. The authority sets out to meet that statutory obligation to maintain the essential character of a service by requiring output to be within a programme format. I understand that, as of this morning, it has not received any application from GWR to change that format.

The 1990 Act enables a local radio station to change its format, but the Radio Authority may consent to a change only if it would not narrow the range of programmes available by way of independent radio services to people living in the area for which the service is licensed to be provided, or would not substantially alter the character of the service.

Mrs. Butler

It is difficult for the regulator to deal with ownership rules in the local independent radio sector because there is a perceived weakness in what it can and cannot do, notwithstanding section 106(1) of the 1990 Act. Further strengthening is necessary because the drafting of the provision is too loose and open to interpretation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I repeat that interventions must be brief.

Janet Anderson

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting those concerns and we shall take them on board in our deliberations on the White Paper.

The Broadcasting Act 1996 promotes plurality and, therefore, consumer interests through restrictions on media ownership, including radio. Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's concern, it is important to say a little about this. As well as the provisions that apply nationally—for example, those preventing any one person from holding radio licences accounting for more than 15 per cent. of the total number of points available, with such points being attributed to licences depending on audience size—a number of restrictions will prevent the concentration of ownership of local radio. A person is allowed to own one FM and one AM licence that share a potential audience. However, a person may hold a second licence on the same waveband with the same potential audience only if the Radio Authority is satisfied that the holding of that licence could not be expected to operate against the public interest. A person wishing to control three radio licences that share a potential audience must have one service on each of the AM and FM wavebands. In considering the public interest, the Radio Authority must consider the effect of the proposal on the range of independent radio programmes in the area and, in particular, the impact on diversity in the sources of information available and opinions expressed.

My hon. Friend referred to the need to maintain quality, diversity and choice, and I can reassure her that that is one of the Government's priorities. The authority takes a firm and objective stance in support of the development and growth of a successful UK independent radio network that offers a wide listening choice.

A key point in today's debate is the future for local radio in the context of the communications White Paper. The available spectrum for new radio services is extremely scarce and there is strong competition for new analogue licences, which continue to be advertised by the Radio Authority. Demand for new licences outstrips supply. The Radio Authority, in deciding licence awards, has to strike a difficult balance between the demand from large and small organisations.

Digital radio has now commenced and the Radio Authority is advertising new local multiplex licences at the rate of one per month. Although digital technology enables the available spectrum to be used more efficiently than the equivalent analogue spectrum by increasing the number of services available, the spectrum continues to be limited at present. Digital technology is also enabling broadcast and communications to converge.

The Government are, therefore, concerned that an appropriate system of regulation should be in place that will allow the radio industry to grow, but which will also protect consumers' interests. Last February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced, jointly with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that we would publish a White Paper later this year. My hon. Friend has obviously been studying the progress made on that. The White Paper will set out the Government's proposals for the reform of broadcasting and telecommunications regulation. A joint communications team from my Department and the Department of Trade and Industry has been set up to examine how the broadcasting and telecommunications industries will develop over the next 10 years, and what regulation will be appropriate in this converging digital environment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West and I have exchanged correspondence about the review of spectrum. The Government commissioned a review of the use of FM frequencies earlier this year to determine the likelihood of FM frequencies being found in the United Kingdom for new radio services. The conclusions of that review will help to inform our deliberations on the White Paper.

We consulted widely while drawing up the White Paper and, earlier this year, the team carrying out those consultations invited comments on a range of issues. They included the pace and direction of change in the communications markets; the needs and demands of consumers; the objectives, principles and systems for content regulation; and the implications of conclusions on those issues for the organisational structure of regulation. We received a number of responses to this consultation from both larger and smaller radio stations. I assure hon. Members that those responses will be given careful consideration. I cannot, of course, discuss the Government's proposals in detail before the publication of the White Paper.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Radio Authority's proposal for access radio. We are looking closely at that issue, and I note her concerns about how it might or might not work. I assure her that we are considering that very carefully. It might be possible to establish a fund to assist small-scale, non-commercial radio. Such a fund could maintain, at a low cost, a richly innovative range of services with significant public support, some of which could play a major social role in addressing problems in difficult neighbourhoods. That would fit in with the Government's agenda on social exclusion.

I would like to emphasise once more that the Government appreciate the concern expressed over the sale of local radio licences. We want all participants in the radio industry—large and small, and including, as my hon. Friend said, the BBC—to succeed, as they all have an important role to play in its continuing development. I thank her for bringing the matter to my attention, and I hope that she will give us her views on the White Paper when it is published.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We come now to the final topic for our consideration.