HC Deb 19 May 1981 vol 5 cc52-4W
Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he intends to publish a report of his Department's study of direct broadcasting by satellite.

Mr. Whitelaw

On 13 March last year I announced that I was initiating a study of the options for, and the implications of, direct broadcasting by satellite for the United Kingdom. I am publishing the report of this study today, and have placed copies in the Library and in the Vote Office.

In the forward to the report I have given an indication of the way in which the Government consider that this complex and important subject might be developed, and I have invited comments on the report by the end of July. I shall, with permission, circulate a copy of the foreword in the Official Report.

Following is the Foreword: Foreword by the Home Secretary This is the report of the study I commissioned last year into the options for, and implications of, direct broadcasting by satellite (DBS). It has been prepared in the light of comments received from a wide variety of organisations, for whose assistance I am most grateful. The report is not a blueprint for action; it is designed to focus attention on the issues which direct broadcasting by satellite raises. I believe that it will assist Parliament and the public in considering the question of direct broadcasting by satellite for the United Kingdom if I were to give an indication of the way in which the Government thinks this complex subject might be developed. There was disagreement among those who submitted comments to the Home Office about whether, and if so when, the United Kingdom should embark on DBS. This is not surprising. No other country has experience of an operational DBS system, though some, notably France and West Germany with their Government-backed projects, are actively preparing for or exploring this possibility. It is not, therefore, possible to make confident judgments about how direct broadcasting by satellite would operate in practice; whether viewers would be prepared to install the equipment needed to receive satellite broadcasts in their homes; or the extent to which the organisations concerned would wish to commit themselves to such a major investment for many years ahead. However, a number of organisations told the Home Office that there is a case for embarking on DBS, and that if this were to be done, there would be advantage in making a start as soon as possible. The study identifies five strategic options for DBS: Option A: a full and early start (for example, five new DBS services starting in, say, 1987); Option B: a full but later start (in, say, 1990); Option C: a modest but early start (one possibility would be two new DBS services starting perhaps in 1986); Option D: a modest later start (in, say, 1990); and Option E: no DBS at all, at any rate in the foreseeable future. Within Options A to D there are further options defined by reference to such questions as what kinds of services should be provided, who should provide them, and how should they be financed. On the industrial side, the aerospace and electronics industries in particular would welcome an early start, with a satellite with two operational DBS channels of a power sufficient to broadcast direct to homes, and with some scope for providing additional information services. This might provide useful opportunities for these industries to sell this type of technology and equipment abroad. It is suggested in the study that a DBS satellite system might be financed and operated by a separate satellite organisation which would lease channels, or time on a channel, to those wishing to use the system. The Government believes that the private sector may be interested in providing the necessary funds for such a proposition, subject to satisfactory market surveys of the likely public demand for DBS services and to long-term assurances concerning the use of the satellite system. It will be a measure of the real commercial and industrial interest in the project whether private sector finance is forthcoming for this purpose. Broadcasting considerations would suggest that if a start with DBS is made it should be modest that is, limited to one or two television channels; but they do not point conclusively to whether, and if so when, a start should be made. There are opportunities for providing new services, but also some risks to the range and quality of our existing broadcasting services, particularly at a time when broadcasting is expanding, with the fourth television channel, breakfast-time television, local radio and pilot schemes of subscription cable television. The Government believes that a positive approach to the challenge which direct broadcasting by satellite presents is the right one. We need to explore ways of seizing the opportunities and of avoiding the risks this study has identified. We are therefore prepared to give serious consideration to the option for as early a start as possible with satellite broadcasting, with perhaps one or two television channels and possibly other information services. This approach would need to be consistent with, and indeed build on, our existing broadcasting arrangements and institutions. In particular, any new DBS services would need to be subject to the supervision of a broadcasting authority, and to the same programme standards (for example, concerning taste and decency and impartiality) as apply to our existing broadcasting services. We should also have to look for solutions to the problems of financing any new broadcasting services otherwise than by means of Government expenditure and without undermining our existing services which, even with DBS, are likely for many years to remain the main broadcasting services for the majority of the population. Major changes in broadcasting are normally preceded by public consultation. The Government will therefore welcome any views on the study and on this indication of the Government's broad approach to satellite broadcasting by the end of July. Comments should be sent to the Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Room 669, Home Office, 50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT. Further progress with DBS will depend on the outcome of these various consultations and on whether the conditions outlined in this foreword regarding finance and the need to ensure that any plans are consistent with our framework of public service broadcasting can be fulfilled.