HC Deb 24 February 1959 vol 600 cc950-8

3.39 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Television Act, 1954, by prohibiting the interruption of programmes by commercial advertisements and to regulate the intervals between advertisements. The purpose of my proposed Bill is to stop interruptions by advertisements altogether, confining advertisements to the beginning and end of the programmes; and to stop programme controllers shortening the programmes by regulating the intervals between advertisements.

In itself, the unlawful interruption of a programme by a commercial advertisement is not perhaps a very serious matter, but when it goes on night after night in the homes of million of people it becomes a public nuisance which ought to be stopped. The present position is that the Television Act, 1954, lays down that advertisements shall not be inserted otherwise than at the beginning or the end of a programme or in natural breaks therein. The intention of that Act and the intention of Parliament was perfectly clear, that advertisements would be allowed only in intervals which would have taken place anyhow, that is to say, between acts of a play, at 'half-time in football matches, between races at race meetings, and so on.

A natural break is one that would occur in any case, and an unnatural one is a break that is specially created to enable advertisements to be inserted. Anybody who switches on to I.T.V. can see that the intention of Parliament and the intention of the Act is being violated over and over again, night after night.

Breaks are being specially made in programmes of almost every type: discussion programmes, science programmes, news programmes, children's programmes, half-hour plays, thrillers,"westerns"—all of them. Even in a film, often constructed purposely to create an atmosphere lasting from start to finish, artificial breaks may be made three, four, even five times. In quiz games, one actually gets interruptions between the introduction of the contestants and the asking of the first question.

it may be said that the only programmes not interrupted are religious programmes and the discussion programme entitled "Free Speech". One might say, I hope without irreverence, that television advertisers hold back only for the Lord God and for the Lord Boothby. I think that that just about sums it up.

These constant unnatural breaks are a source of great joy and profit to the programme contractors. To a large extent, they are the source of the totally abnormal—almost indecently high—profits now being made. Indeed, when, as must happen in the course of nature, the programme contractors die, and are buried, I expect them to have engraved on their costly marble tombstones, not "R.I.P.", but "End of Part I", because that term is just about the basis of their prosperity.

These four words are a little masterpiece of hypocrisy. Nine times out of ten they announce a break that is not natural. Nine times out of ten, they announce that a commercial advertisement is coming that is wholly incongruous with what has gone before. Suddenly, we may be switched from a death-bed scene in a play to a Butlin's holiday camp. The Daily Telegraph announced that last week, when a "western" was cut off at a stage when the Red Indians were expected to attack, it was cut off by a commercial for scalp lotion.

Hon. Members who saw the first "break-in plug" about two and a half years ago, on the first day of I.T.V. operations, may remember it. Characteristically, it occurred in a crime film set in the United States. The detective walked down the stairs, gun in hand, expecting trouble, and, as his foot touched the last step, we suddenly saw an obviously terrified man staring at us from behind a desk—it was the editor of the London Daily Mail, about to ask us to buy his newspaper. That was the first break-in plug. These break-in plugs are symbols of vandalism and profiteering, and are one of our nastiest cultural imports from the United States of America.

What is the defence of the Authority—

Mr. Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that hon. Members make themselves responsible for the statements they make in this House. Is it, therefore, in order for the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) to make these allegations if, in fact, he has not watched commercial television? Or are we to understand that he spends practically all his time watching it, because he thinks it much better?

Mr. Speaker

I have no means of checking the truth of the hon. Member's statements, but I always find him to have reason for what he says, and I have no reason to suppose that he is misleading the House now. I regret to say that my own experience of television is not wide enough to enable me to check the hon. Member's statements.

Mr. Mayhew

In some respects, Mr. Speaker, you are more fortunate than some of us. Perhaps I may now carry on, after a somewhat unnatural break—although it must be conceded that the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden) did speak about television. He did not intervene to discuss a detergent or a toothpaste.

A moment ago I asked: what is the defence of the Independent Television Authority in this matter? The Authority says that a natural break is not definable, and that Parliament's intentions were not clear. But even if we cannot define the natural break, why should it follow that we will permit all breaks of any kind? The Act lays down that a programme can be interrupted only in a natural break, and if one cannot define the word "natural" one might just as well argue that there should not be any interruptions of any kind. That, however, is not relevant at the moment, because my proposed Bill seeks to relieve the Authority of the burdensome task of deciding what is a natural, or what is an unnatural break, by prohibiting all interruptions of any kind by advertisements.

The Authority, however, goes further, and says that interruptions by advertisements actually improve the programme. When my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Chapman) and I went to discuss this subject with the Chairman and Director-General of I.T.A., I asked what positive gain there was in interrupting the Bronowski science programmes with advertisements for detergents, and so on. The Director-General replied that there was a positive gain. He said, and here I quote from the agreed report: A pause was an advantage in exposition, just as chapters were an advantage in a book. On that one must comment that it is very sad that scientists have written their books so often without the advice of the Director-General. For example, how much clearer would have been the "Origin of Species", or the "General Theory of Relativity" if the chapters had been interlarded with advertisements for detergents and toothpaste? Yet that is precisely the attitude adopted by the Director-General. It is, of course, nonsense. It is special pleading on behalf of the advertisers, and the programme contractors to whom the Director-General so often refers as the "partners" of the Authority.

The truth is that these breaches are profitable to the contractors, and that the Authority is too weak to stop them. The truth was said the other night. My wife rang up Associated Television after a film had been constantly interrupted, and the young lady who answered, with great honesty, told my wife the truth. She said, "Well, madam, if we had the commercials only at the beginning, and the end, few people would see them. "That is the truth. It is not that these unnatural breaks are legal or desirable, but that they are profitable, and that the Authority is too weak to stop the practice.

I am asking leave to introduce a simple, one-Clause amending Bill. I wish that I could continue to speak about it a little longer, but the conventions of the House prevent me. I ask the House, and hon. Members opposite, not to oppose it, or, if hon. Members opposite do oppose it. to do so today and not on a subsequent Friday when Private Members' Bills are before the House. That would be the courageous path. Indeed, were I a supporter of I.T.V. I am not sure that I would not look with considerable favour on a concession or compromise in this direction.

I.T.V. would gain more, I think, for their reputation if they accepted the suggestions in the proposed Bill than they do in that pompous and unconvincing newspaper advertising on which so much is being spent: at present. It might be wise, and in their own interest, to make a concession on this point. There is no reason why this should be a party matter. This is a practical Bill. It clarifies a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation, and I think that hon. Members opposite will find that a large number of their constituents of all parties support its aims. I therefore ask leave of the House to introduce the Bill.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman rise to oppose the Bill?

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

I should like, very briefly and in an impromptu manner, to oppose the Bill which my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) seeks leave to introduce on the ground that it does not go far enough. On this side of the House, at least, I think we all heard with the warmest sympathy everything he said about commercial television. The commercials are now interpolated into television programmes at what even the Postmaster-General must admit are the most unnatural, but the most profitable, breaks that the programme contractors can find.

There is growing evidence that the television viewing public is becoming extremely "fed up" with these commercials, not only with the timing of them, that is to say, the points at which they are inserted, but also, of course, with their content. I understand that there are now on the market mechanical devices which enable the viewer, by pressing a button, to suppress at least the sound of the commercial, being able to release it again when the programme resumes. It really is fantastic that the viewer should be obliged to go to the expense of acquiring a mechanical suppressor of this kind to achieve any sort of continuity in his television programmes.

My hon. Friend did not make clear whether he wanted to do away with all commercial advertising on Independent Television, or whether he wanted merely to relegate it to the beginning or end of each particular programme. I gather that he wishes to relegate it to the beginning or end of a programme. That would be a vast improvement on the present situation, but I urge my hon. Friend to consider whether this is not one of the many questions which really ought to be looked at by an independent inquiry into advertising in all its aspects.

The House will recall that, on 21st November last, I was successful in the Ballot for Private Members' Motions, and that I sought the introduction of a Royal Commission to investigate all aspects of the advertising industry, to recommend what safeguards might be necessary in the public interest and to suggest how they could be brought into force. The object of my brief remarks on that occasion was not to take any particular line about the advertising industry itself. I was very careful to say that, although I myself found certain aspects of it highly offensive, I went no further than that.

Many different sections of the community and important representative bodies in the country find some parts of the advertising industry not only offensive but dangerous. Toothpaste advertising, for instance, has aroused the strongest comments from dentists and the British Dental Association. Some aspects of medical advertising, about tranquillisers, for instance—drugs such as Persomnia and P.R.—have aroused widespread anxiety among doctors and the British Medical Association. [An HON. MEMBER: "Camay."] One of my hon. Friends reminds me of the existence of a soap called"Camay", which is supposed to contain an ingredient which costs £9 an ounce. Probably, my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East has seen it advertised on television. This dangerous soap, in fact, contains a chemical which gives many people dermatitis. We have tried to find an occasion for raising the matter in the House, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has given us the opportunity today.

Many people and organisations in this country take a very close and apprehensive interest in advertising. They include such organisations as the National Trust, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the journalists' trade unions, the N.U.J. and the Institute of Journalists, the Consumer Advisory Council of the British Standards Institution, and the Consumer Association, the new body which publishes Which? In addition to those bodies, the British Medical Association, the British Dental Association and the Pharma- ceutical Association take an anxious interest in what is going on.

It may interest the Postmaster-General to know that each one of those bodies proposes to send representatives to a meeting to be held in a Committee Room in the precincts of this Palace in about ten days to consider how we can press on with a campaign to promote the establishment of an independent inquiry into advertising. I beg the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends, particularly those hon. Gentlemen concerned with the advertising interests which are so heavily over-represented on the benches opposite, to see the advisability of their agreeing to an independent inquiry before they are driven into it by mounting public opinion.

As my hon. Friend said, this is not a party issue. He was very anxious to have some support, or even, perhaps, some opposition of the kind I am providing, from the other side of the House. Certainly, we are happy that, in our wider campaign for an inquiry into advertising, we have support from all quarters, not only from the broad range of bodies to which I have already referred but from members of all political parties, including the Conservative Party. Therefore, in opposing my hon. Friend's Motion, because I do not think that it goes far enough, I beg him and the Government to give a little more serious attention to the advisability of urging the advertising interests to take a less negative attitude towards the widespread desire for an inquiry into advertising, and I beg the Government themselves to take steps to ensure that such an inquiry is set on foot.

Question put and agreed to.

Sir Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have we not been witnessing what is practically an abuse of the rules of the House? Surely an hon. Member who opposes a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill, or professes to oppose it, should do it sincerely and genuinely, carrying his opposition to a Division, if he can find someone else to appoint as a Teller. Is it not a pity that the rules of the House should be so abused?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot impute insincerity to an hon. Member who advances as a reason for opposing a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill that it does not go far enough and that he would rather have an inquiry into the whole position than the Bill which it is proposed to put before the House. Hon. Members may think what they like about the merits of that, but it does not enable me to impute any insincerity to the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker), and I see nothing in the rules obliging me to do anything in the matter.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not usual for an hon. Member who formally opposes a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill in the House, certainly under this rule where only an hon. Member opposing is allowed to be heard after the mover, to follow his opposition with his voice? Even if he does not challenge it to a Division, should he not at least shout "No"? Since the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) has not done so, are we to take it that, in the elaboration of his own arguments, he succeeded in persuading himself that he was mistaken?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that there is a point of order here at all. It is usual, of course, if an hon. Member rises to oppose a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill that he should, at least with his voice, signify that. I did not hear the hon. Gentleman shout "No." I understand that he did not, because I put the Question clearly enough and nobody that I heard shouted "No." That being so, the Motion for leave to bring in the Bill has been agreed to by the House.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that, very often, speeches are made against Motions for leave to introduce Bills in the House, and nobody, at the end, shouts "No," the matter being carried nem. con.?

Mr. Speaker

I was asked to consider a point of Order about the special procedure with regard to these so-called Ten Minutes Rule Bills. I said that, in my experience, it was usual for an hon. Member who rose to oppose a Motion for leave to introduce a Bill for any reason at all—there are many reasons for which a Bill may be opposed, and we have had some advanced today—to follow his opposition, when the Question was nut, with his voice against the Motion, That leave be given to bring in the Bill. However, I heard no "Noes" to the Question which I put, so I now put the next Question which it is proper for me to put, namely. Who will prepare and 'bring in the Bill?

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mayhew, Mr. Ness Edwards, Mr. Ernest Davies, Mr. George Darling, and Mr. Wedgwood Benn.