§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. R. Thompson.]
§ 10.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)
It will be recollected that last week some of my hon. Friends and I raised in the House one of the grievances that the people in the North-East have against the Government. We raised then the question of the crossing of the River Tyne. Some years ago we were promised quite definitely by at least two Ministers of Transport that not only would we have a new crossing of the Tyne but that we would have a tunnel. We are now told that we can have a crossing of the Tyne but that we cannot have a tunnel. We can only have a bridge.
1000 The grievance I want to raise tonight is a very close parallel with that breach of promise. We share a broadcast wavelength with Northern Ireland. Some years ago we were promised that we should have our own separate wavelength, but now, as in the case of the crossing of the Tyne, we are put off with a makeshift and are expected to be satisfied with the V.H.F. transmissions. We feel that in both these cases of broken promises the north-east of England has had a very raw deal from the Government.
As I pointed out last week, and I am saying this because, although the Assistant-Postmaster General comes from the North, I am sure that many of his colleagues do not know anything about it, the North-East is a compact, perhaps the most clearly delineated industrial community in the country. We have one river in the north, one in the south, the sea in the east and the mountains in the west. In that big square there are from 4 million to 5 million hard-working, industrious people—a very closely knit community. I suggest that in this matter of broadcasting, just as much as in the question of the Tyne crossing, the Government, by breaking their promises to us. are not giving us fair play.
I want to explain the position briefly. In July, 1945. when the wartime broadcasting arrangements were endeil and we reverted to the new post-war pattern, the old pre-war Northern Ireland wavelength was given to the Western Region and the pre-war Western Region 1001 wavelength was given to the new Third Programme. That meant that Northern Ireland was left without its own wavelength. To get over that difficulty, the broadcast from Northern Ireland was synchronised with the broadcast from Stagshaw, which is in the North-East.
We were told by the B.B.C. at that time, and we have been told by the Minister on a number of occasions when this matter has been raised, that this was only a temporary measure. There are a great many references to it in the records, but I will quote only one or two. In July 1951, my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Grey) quoted a letter sent to another hon. Member by the B.B.C. That letter, describing the poor transmission, ended with these words:The remedy, of course, is for Stagshaw to have a wavelength of its own."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th July, 1951; Vol. 490, c. 1511.]That was one, and there are many others. I myself, in a Question to the then Assistant Postmaster-General in 1951, asked:Does he not agree that this very populous and very important and highly productive area of the country should have its own wavelength as soon as possible?The Minister replied:I agree about the hon. Member's … point."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1951; Vol. 494, c. 361.]The same thing is to be found in many places in the record. We were given to understand clearly that this was only a temporary measure, yet here we are, twelve years later, with the same arrangement. We still have Stagshaw and, I think, three stations in Northern Ireland and Scarborough broadcasting on the same wavelength.
The big difficulty is that the regional aspect of the programmes is necessarily halved because the Northern Ireland Region and the Northern Region are both put out over the Northern Ireland stations and Stagshaw. This means that a listener in the North-East has half of his Home Service devoted to Northern Ireland and half to the Northern Region. In other words, he can receive only half of the Northern Region programme and the other half of the time his set is receiving Northern Ireland programmes.
There is very little community of interest between Northern Ireland and the 1002 north-east of England. They are about 200 miles apart, there are 100 miles of sea between them, and as far as local affairs are concerned, therefore, there is very little between us. This has caused great resentment in the North-East throughout the past twelve years, and the matter has been raised over and over again in this House.
The matter was brought to a head recently by a very regrettable and unfortunate incident. We have on Tyneside the famous Felling Male Voice Choir, and recently they were broadcasting a memorial service to their late conductor, the highly respected, indeed almost revered, Tom Mearis. The choir were in the middle of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" when they were cut off in the middle to make way for a short story from Northern Ireland. "Crossing the Bar", of course, had tremendous meaning for the people in the choir and for music-lovers throughout the North-East. It consists of only a few lines, and I shall read it. This is the piece that was decapitated to make way for a Northern Ireland short story:Sunset and evening star,And one clear call for me!And may there be no moaning of the bar,When I put out to sea,But such a tide as moving seems asleep,Too full for sound and foam,When that which drew from out theboundless deepTurns again home.Twilight and evening bell,And after that the dark!And may there be no sadness of farewell,When I embark;For tho' from out our bourne of Time and PlaceThe flood may bear me far,I hope to see my Pilot face to faceWhen I have crost the bar.I have read that because I hope that the fact that it is now on the record of this House, and will be for evermore, will be some meagre recompense to the people who knew and loved and respected Tom Mearis in the North-East, and will perhaps make up in some small degree for the unfortunate way in which the B.B.C. handled this affair.
The grave difficulty is that the two regional programmes have to go out from the same broadcasting station. The headquarters of the B.B.C. in Northern Ireland decides what is to go out in spite of the 1003 fact that there are more than twice as many licensed listeners in the two counties of Northumberland and Durham as there are in the whole of Northern Ireland.
A few years ago when the matter was raised in the House we had V.H.F. dangled in front of us as a way out, as a means of divorcing this unhappy marriage. We do not think this is good enough. At the moment we have the V.H.F. transmitter at Pontop Pike broadcasting on 92.9 megacycles, and, of course, it broadcasts the Northern Region programme the whole time, but, obviously, the only people who can listen to V.H.F. are those who have a set which will receive V.H.F.
I have here the B.B.C. handbook which gives the number of licence holders. In Northumberland and Durham there are 583,502 wireless licence holders, and to suggest that they should all buy a new set is a bit thick, for such wireless sets are very expensive. The Government are not being quite fair in suggesting that V.H.F. should be a way out of the difficulty.
The Newcastle Evening Chronicle, the evening paper for the whole of Tyneside, had an article on this a week or two ago. It said:What a cynical evasion of responsibility the V.H.F. gesture has turned out to be.I might say that this newspaper is one of the hon. Gentleman's staunchest supporters in the provinces. It went on:The B.B.C. and the Postmaster-General must be left in no doubt of the anger and frustration that persist in this part of the country. Our subservience to Belfast is illogical, irritating and insulting. No compromise is thinkable. It must end.What the Government are really doing is putting the onus for escaping from the Northern Ireland programmes on the listeners. These people can escape from those programmes only if they are prepared to purchase new wireless sets.
Last week we noticed in the Press a report that the holder of the post of B.B.C. Controller of Programmes was being moved from the Home Service to a post in the Scottish Region. In a statement on the change the B.B.C. said:Because of the reorganisation of our sound services, we do not know whether the board of governors are considering a replacement.That indicates that later this year some reorganisation is to take place. All I ask 1004 is that the hon. Gentleman will ensure that when the reorganisation takes place the north-east of England shall once again have its own wavelength as it did before the war. We are a community of nearly 5 million people, and we form a compact area with its own characteristics, and it is wrong to expect us any longer to share a programme with Northern Ireland.
I want to make one thing clear before I sit down. I am not suggesting—I am sorry to say that some of my hon. Friends have suggested it—that we should lay a claim to the wavelength at present used by the Third Programme. There is much to be said for a country which is prepared to devote a wavelength to that sort of programme. Consequently, I do not for one moment suggest that we should lay any claim to that wavelength, in spite of the fact that it was the setting up of the Third Programme—
§ Mr. Charles Grey (Durham)
Will my hon. Friend say whether anyone in this House has said that the Third Programme should be done away with?
§ Mr. Short
I did not say that. I said that some of my hon. Friends had suggested it, but I did not say where. In spite of the fact that the setting up of the Third Programme was the real cause of our difficulties, I do not for one moment suggest that it should be abandoned. I ask the hon. Member to use his good offices—I know that he is a Northerner and has a great deal of good sense in these matters—in the coming reorganisation, so that in the North-East we once more have our own wavelength.
§ 10.35 p.m.
§ Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
I want to add just a few words to what has been said by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short). We have had a most difficult and unfortunate period in the Northern Region with this wavelength. I do not want to take up the time of the House, because I know that other hon. Members want to make their contributions. The Northern Region rose over the unfortunate incident involving the Felling Male Voice Choir, and we all feel that we should like an absolutely straightforward statement about what the position is.
My recollection of our position in the North-East differs slightly from that of 1005 the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central. I was in the House during the war, and I understand that our wavelength was taken for war purposes, which is quite understandable. At the time, the Coalition Government gave a pledge that when the war was over our wavelength would be returned. I further understand that when the position of the B.B.C. and the wavelengths was discussed after the war, when, of course, there was a Socialist Government, there was an international conference on the allocation of wavelengths and somehow this country lost a wavelength entirely and, for that reason, it was decided that Northern Ireland and the Northern Region should share a wavelength.
I do not know exactly what happened about the shifting round of wavelengths. but there is not the slightest doubt that the Third Programme was accommodated—I am not sure whether it does not have moire than one wavelength—with our wavelength. The sum total, to the great consternation and annoyance of the North-East, was that we have always since been in the unfortunate position of having no wavelength of our own.
I understand that since we have signed an international convention it is quite impossible to get back our wavelength unless we extract it from one of the other parties to the convention which, presumably, now has that wavelength. At any rate, I ask my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General to make it plain that he expresses his regret to the North for what happened with the Felling Male Voice Choir in the incident which has been mentioned.
It has always been understood that we should have V.H.F. That was stated by my hon. Friend's predecessor and by his predecessor. However, I am bound to say that it never occurred to any of us that it would take such a long time before we had a proper broadcasting system of our own. I hope that my hon. Friend will clearly explain what happened to our wavelength and will say whether there is any chance of the pledge given by the Coalition Government being now made good. We are always having pledges—in the tunnel-bridge controversy we have not yet decided whether we want a tunnel or a bridge—
§ Dame Irene Ward
I want a communication.
I want to know what has happened to our wavelength and whether there is any chance of getting it back. I want a full apology on behalf of the B.B.C. for the recent distressing incident in the Northern Region.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)
It will be evident from what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House that this is not a very easy problem. I hope that nothing which has been said so far will lead those who have heard the discussion to imagine that either the B.B.C. or the Post Office, out of some wickedness of its own, has decided to inflict this hardship unnecessarily upon the people in the north-east of England.
As has been said, I am a provincial, and whilst it is not for me to distribute my sympathies in any direction, at least I hope that I can claim to understand how the provincial mind works in matters like this. It cannot have been very pleasant for the people of Newcastle to have heard the programme in memory of Mr. Mearis interrupted in the way it was. I think that the House will be very readily assured that the B.B.C. did not do that through carelessness or lack of thought. It arose, as much of the matter about which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) spoke arose, out of the fact that we are engaged in a national broadcasting enterprise.
The interruption of the programme itself had nothing to do with the sharing of a wavelength; it arose entirely because the programmes for the day were thrown out of order by the Pilgrims Dinner over-running from its scheduled time of 10 p.m. until 10.10 p.m. Taking the nation as a whole, the programmes for the day required that by 10.45 p.m. the various Regions should have come into line again to take "Today in Parliament". It was in the period from 10.10 to 10.45 p.m. that the B.B.C. had to make an adjustment. It chose to make it by revising the time for the programme relating to Mr. Mearis in the Northern Region and cutting the programme of the Midland Light Orchestra in the Midland Region.
1007 Views may be expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House as to whether it was a right and wise adjustment, but we must leave matters of programming entirely to the B.B.C. We are entitled to express opinions and to hear what the B.B.C. has to say about those opinions, but the drawing up and carrying through of programmes day by day must properly be a matter for the B.B.C. If the House becomes engaged in discussion of the merits and demerits of various programmes of the B.B.C. the mail with which hon. Members have to deal will assume proportions which will frighten them—if it has not already reached that stage.
§ Mr. Popplewell
In view of the intense feeling there has been in the North-East at the cutting out of this memorial programme, one would have thought that the Minister might have tendered an apology on behalf of the B.B.C. to those interested in the matter.
§ Mr. Thompson
I had hoped that my reference to the way in which the B.B.C. tackles these matters would have stood for an expression of regret for people's feelings being hurt. I am sure that the B.B.C. would wish me to do that, and also that what has been said this evening will be recorded and read with interest by the B.B.C. I do not think that it would be going too far to say that at no time would the B.B.C. light-heartedly inflict this treatment upon any one of the Regions.
I now come to the main question: why is it that the Northern Region has to share a wavelength with Northern Ireland? I am not sure whether the point of community of interest is really so narrow as the hon. Gentleman suggested. We are all the same people in most respects, but in the matter of local news and items of local interest, of course, we all tend to fracture all over the country, one region against another.
Before the war there were plenty of wavelengths for us to be able to assign a wavelength to each Region. During the war the wavelengths were shuffled and redealt in order to accommodate the special requirements of wartime broadcasting. At the end of the war the overcrowded radio spectrum was brought into some kind of international order. An 1008 international conference was held at Copenhagen in 1948 to apportion the wavelengths for different countries. As a result of the agreement reached at Copenhagen, this country was allotted one long and 13 medium wavelengths. and we had to decide how best to use them.
Of course, there is room for varying opinions about how that should be done. but I think that I am entitled to assure the House that careful consideration was given by the best qualified people both in the B.B.C. and the Post Office to ensure that the greatest possible advantage was taken by the broadcasting authorities of the facilities available. We could quarrel on the fine points about how much importance should be attached to one part of the country as against another. But someone somewhere had to sit down and make an objective calculation about where the great majority of interests lay, and, having done so, pursue a policy designed to serve those interests.
§ Mr. Thompson
I have no reason to believe that it could ever have been regarded as temporary. I have no record that it was intended to be a temporary arrangement. It was an agreement reached after an international conference and, so far as my information goes, it was designed to be a lasting agreement. The agreement was reached at the conference in 1948 and came into effect in 1950.
Various suggestions have been made about how we should have used these wavelengths, and I will tell the House what we have done. We have used eight of them for broadcasting regional programmes. Two are used for broadcasting the Third Programme, two for the External Services and one for the Light Programme. I am not arguing about whether that is a right division, but we will concentrate on the eight wavelengths reserved for regional broadcasting. The B.B.C. divided the country into seven regions, and wavelengths were allocated to them in a way which has 1009 resulted in the Northern Region sharing a wavelength with Northern Ireland. It is the only region which shares a wavelength.
§ Mr. Thompson
I wonder whether it has occurred to hon. Gentlemen opposite to consider why that was.
§ Mr. Thompson
This arrangement operates today, with what we recognise to be difficulty and sometimes embarrassment to people living in the Northern Region, because it is the only way in which the country can be covered by regional services with the limited number of wavelengths available. Hon. Members will not wish me to enter into detailed technical arguments, but they will all know that where two stations are broadcasting a programme on the same wavelengths, and the broadcasts reach and overlap, there is a "mush" area created where generally reception is bad, if not always impossible. The B.B.C. had to decide whether it was better to create an area where radio services were generally always had for a lot of people or where 1010 they were pretty good most of the time for a lot of people such as results from the sharing of the wavelength between the Northern Region and Northern Ireland where the "mush" area falls mainly in the Irish Sea. It is because of that fact that this sharing device, having to be adopted somewhere, is adopted in connection with these two broadcasting Regions.
I promise the House that the B.B.C. and the Post Office are very well aware that this is not the most perfect of arrangements. If any better device, looking at the problem from the point of view of the country as a whole, can be found and if any rearrangement can be made from that standpoint, then the B.B.C. and the Post Office would be only too willing to consider it. I can assure the House further that everything that has been said tonight will be borne in mind by us all in considering the matter in the future.
§ The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.