§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]
§ [Relevant documents: The White Paper entitled 'The future of the BBC: serving the nation, competing world-wide' (Cm 2621) and the Second Report of Session 1993–94 from the National Heritage Committee on the Future of the BBC (HC 77).]4.10 pm
§ The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)
This Adjournment debate is an opportunity for the House to comment on the contents of the White Paper, "The Future of the BBC", which my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) brought forward in July last year.
The White Paper set out a very clear view about the future of the corporation. It announced the Government's intention to renew the BBC's charter for a 10-year period to the end of 2006. It set out how the Government intended the BBC to develop through that period and how the BBC's accountability mechanisms should evolve in the changed world in which the corporation would be operating.
I think that it is fair to say that the White Paper was well received, both in the House and outside, and this debate constitutes an opportunity for hon. Members—who have had a chance both to read the White Paper and to hear people's reactions to it—to set out their considered views about the contents of the document.
I have said that the White Paper contains a very clear view about the future of the BBC and that is, of course, summarised in its title and its two subtitles. The aims of the BBC through the next charter period are encapsulated by the subtitles, "Serving the nation" and "Competing world-wide". I shall examine both those themes because they are important to the future of the BBC and to the future opportunities of British broadcasting.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
The Minister referred to the subtitle "Serving the nation", and he will be aware of the arguments in Wales and Scotland about securing adequate services and the need to ensure that there is strategic input into decision making at the BBC. Does he accept that, since the White Paper was drawn up, technology has changed so quickly that the advent of more television channels is imminent? Wales needs another national English language television channel that is comparable to the existing Welsh language channel. Will he take that point on board in his considerations today and in the outcome of the debate?
§ Mr. Dorrell
Later in my speech, I shall deal with regional and United Kingdom national input into BBC scheduling and the BBC's programme-making capacities.
On the comments that the hon. Gentleman made about changing technology in broadcasting, it is important to begin by considering that aspect of the broadcasting market. Any plans for the future of the BBC have to be made against a background of recognition that the marketplace is changing quickly. Like all changes that are technology driven, their precise speed and direction are 472 difficult to predict. It is important that the future structure of the BBC is tailored to a reasonable projection of where those technology changes are likely to lead us.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
While I agree with the Minister in part, would not it be better if the Government were prepared to tailor technology to suit the future of the BBC rather than the other way round? Is not it time that the Government gave British Telecommunications plc—our biggest telecommunications company—the right to broadcast, link in and work with the BBC, rather than allowing a mass of American companies to broadcast in this country?
§ Mr. Dorrell
With respect, I am not sure that the regulation of BT reflects the Government moulding the future of technology. Certainly, the future of technology is not within the Government's gift, and nor should it be. What is, however, is to ensure that the cabling of Britain is undertaken by more than one company—
§ Mr. Dorrell
To provide the consumer with choice in a competitive marketplace, with the likelihood of consumer wishes being more effectively met. The reason why it has been the Government's policy from the beginning to restrict the development of the existing BT cable network into the cable television market has been made clear by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. He has also made clear the reasons why that policy will be sustained.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
If there is to be competition between companies to provide cable, how do the Government envisage that we avoid having our streets dug up more than once? Does not he think that there should be a statutory control to ensure that the same ducts are used?
§ Mr. Dorrell
With respect, the Government got to that question at least five years before the hon. Gentleman, because there is, of course, precisely such a statutory regulation. That is the precise purpose of the licensing system operated through the cable authority. The purpose of the regulatory system is to ensure that there is—as the hon. Gentleman put in the conditional—a competitive marketplace.
§ Mr. Dorrell
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Some 80 per cent. of households in Britain are covered by an issued cable television licence as a result of the technology changes that have taken place.
§ Mr. Skinner
But why does not the Minister understand that just because the cable companies said something in the House a few years ago about what they wanted to do, it does not follow that it is happening underground? They will continue to dig up the roads. The trouble with the Minister is that he does not know what is happening in the real world. He should see more films, then he might find out.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sure that you are 473 listening to the debate, but so far I have not heard, at least for the past five minutes, the word "BBC" or anything to do with the BBC.
§ Madam Speaker
The Minister is responsible for his own remarks. Perhaps if he was allowed to make some progress, we would hear about the BBC.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I am grateful for the opportunity to return to the subject of the BBC, but not, if I may, before observing that it might have been with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in mind that I went to see Buñuel's film "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie". I am not sure that it was precisely directed at the hon. Gentleman.
That exchange illustrates the extent and pace of technological change that is driving the broadcasting market. That is important as a context for the debate, because it demonstrates clearly that the BBC is operating in a fast-growing sector and one that contains within it major opportunities for all broadcasters in Britain, including the BBC. It is important that any plans for the future of the corporation are made against that background.
It is important to bear something else in mind when considering the future of the BBC: we are not starting, in the development of this fast-changing marketplace, with a clean sheet of paper. We are starting substantially better off than that, because, during its 70 years, the BBC has established an enviable reputation as a quality broadcaster and contributor to our national heritage and national life. That reputation is based on a broad-based expertise in the making and scheduling of programmes and the development of public esteem, both in this country and abroad.
Many hon. Members will have admired the BBC's drama, light entertainment and education programmes and its programmes for children. Earlier this week I was in Bristol, and was able to admire a specific example of the BBC's expertise—its natural history programmes.
Hon. Members occasionally comment on the BBC's skilful current affairs coverage, and its ability to maintain a balance in news and current affairs programmes. There will always be debate about how those programmes can be improved further, but that does not alter the fact that the BBC has established an enviable reputation in regard to news and current affairs broadcasting.
In planning the corporation's future, we must recognise the opportunities created by a changing marketplace. We must build on the enviable reputation that the BBC has established during its 70-year history.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Of course I agree with my right hon. Friend. I heard Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, describe the BBC as a national treasure; he was right.
My right hon. Friend mentioned news and current affairs, however. Will he join me in condemning a specific story in Friday's 6 pm and 9 pm news bulletins? The BBC's news and current affairs department went out of its way to mislead viewers about events in the Chamber earlier that day in connection with the veal debate.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I did not have the advantage of seeing those broadcasts. A characteristic of most politicians is their speed in commenting on programmes that they have not seen; I shall refrain from doing so myself.
474 Although we are all occasionally annoyed by material produced by the BBC, and indeed by all broadcasters, the unavoidable and welcome truth is that throughout its history the BBC has made a serious effort to maintain independence and has established a public reputation for doing so. We should build on that.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC has a more exceptional reputation than any other broadcasting organisation in the world? Does he accept that, while we must move with the times and the changing market, the Government should not do anything that might damage the BBC's opportunity to remain pre-eminent in broadcasting throughout the world?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I entirely agree; indeed, I shall go a step further. I do not content myself with merely not damaging the BBC's capacity to build on its reputation. The purpose of the debate surrounding the renewal of its charter was, rightly, to ensure not only that we did not damage that capacity, but that we could enhance it and give the BBC as many opportunities as possible.
Two themes are highlighted in the subtitles of the White Paper. First, there is the theme of serving the nation. Although the international exploitation of BBC material presents important opportunities, the BBC's primary role must be as a mainstream domestic broadcaster: that is its core activity, and that is where we should begin in considering its future evolution.
I have mentioned the fast-changing broadcasting marketplace, but the House should bear another element in mind. While we should take into account the technology-driven change that is affecting the marketplace, we should not overestimate the pace of that change or its implications. I sometimes hear people talk of technology-driven change in broadcasting as if they expected the broadcasting marketplace with which we have become familiar suddenly to crumble and disappear. That is not true. For the foreseeable future, the five terrestrial television channels will remain the main television market in Britain. The White Paper makes it clear that we intend that the BBC should continue to deliver two of them.
The radio market will also continue to change, but not at such a pace that it will be unrecognisable in 12 months' time. The BBC will remain a strong provider of broadcasting services in that changing, but not excessively fast-changing marketplace. It is important to remember that the BBC will, for the foreseeable future, remain a broad-based public service broadcaster which, at some time in the week or another, broadcasts to the great majority of the British population. That is likely to continue. I hope that it does continue. In the context of the White Paper, part of the Government's purpose is to ensure that it continues. That is important because it is the proper justification for the Government's decision, announced in the White Paper, to continue the licence fee as the financing mechanism for domestic broadcasting in Britain.
The White Paper makes it clear that the licence fee is an "oddity"—the word used in the White Paper. It is true that, if we were starting from scratch, we might not finance public service broadcasting in that way, but, as I emphasised to the House, we are not starting from scratch. 475 The BBC is a well-established and well-loved institution and the burden of proof lies firmly on those who want to change individual and important aspects of it.
It is important to establish where the burden of proof lies. The case for maintaining the licence fee is important. It rests on two principal legs. The first is that the BBC continues to have a large audience share and a very much larger reach in terms of domestic audience. At some time in the week or another, it is a main broadcasting provider to the great majority of the British listening and viewing public. The second key leg is, of course, that the licence fee gives the BBC an independent flow of revenue outside the direct political process. That was the basis on which the Government set out their continued commitment to the continuation of the licence fee for the first five years of the 10-year charter in the changing marketplace.
It is important not only to establish the reason why we remain, for the moment, committed to the licence fee, but to reflect that, if those fundamental circumstances change, the argument that delivers the licence fee as the main financing source starts to weaken.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
I acknowledge and agree with what my right hon. Friend has just said, but will he confirm that he agrees with the statement in the White Paper that there should be no cross-subsidy from licence fee payers to the BBC's commercial activities? How will we relate that proviso to the BBC's transmission services if they are privatised? What is the cost of those services? The figure of some £24 million is being bandied about, but does not that already include a considerable element of cross-subsidy and hidden cost covered by other sectors of the BBC? Is not that unfair?
§ Mr. Dorrell
My hon. Friend raises two related subjects. The first is the extent of cross-subsidy from the home broadcasting business to the external business. I shall come to that subject later. Transmission services are left as an open question in the White Paper. We are in discussion with the BBC on the matter. I cannot tell the House yet what result those discussions are likely to produce. I am told that the cost to the BBC of the transmission services is not separately identified. That is one of the issues around which the discussions are taking place.
§ Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)
I am worried about what the Secretary of State has said. He referred to the core activity of being the major broadcaster in Britain. The BBC is also a programme maker. I was glad to hear the Secretary of State's confidence in the licence fee as a source of revenue which, presumably, will apply at least to part of the function as programme maker.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that the entertainments industry, the televisual and radio industry, is one of the largest in the world? The Americans calculate that that industry will be their largest overseas earner by the turn of the century. The BBC's great role may relate to the fact that it makes programmes of great excellence and that it is as important as any other industry in this country.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. At the beginning of my comments, I tried to make it clear that I proposed to refer to the functions of the BBC under the two headings of serving the nation and exploiting the 476 wider international market opportunities. At this stage of my speech, I am addressing the issues that arise from serving the nation.
With regard to serving the nation, it is true that domestic programme content is one of the glories of the BBC and, it must be said, of ITV. The key objective is to consider the functioning and accountability of the BBC as a domestic broadcaster. I want now to consider accountability.
§ Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North)
With regard to one of the two premises on which my right hon. Friend is basing the continuation of the BBC, what proportion of the BBC's audience would have to be lost before the Government believed that circumstances had changed and things should be different?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I cannot attach a figure to that. The principle that I am describing is not unfamiliar to the House nor is it unwelcome to the BBC. It is important that it is understood that the basis on which the universal licence fee rests is the BBC's claim to be a mainstream broadcaster to every home in Britain. That is the basis on which the development of broadcasting policy within the BBC must rest if we are to continue to justify to the audience the proposition that paying for the BBC should be achieved through the licence fee.
I want now to consider the accountability of this public service broadcasting institution because that is at the heart of the issue of how we further improve—to take the theme of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—the performance of the BBC in the years ahead. The White Paper clearly sets out three tiers of accountability or documentation surrounding accountability. The first tier is the document that will be very familiar to the House—the BBC's charter. Much of last year's debate took place under the heading of the charter's renewal.
In terms of accountability, there is a sense in which the charter is not the most important document. In effect, it constitutes a constitution for the BBC. It sets out the responsibilities of the different elements within the BBC. However, it does not seek to define precisely the output purpose of the different elements of the BBC. That is contained in two other tiers of accountability—the agreement which we envisage the corporation will sign with me as Secretary of State and which will run for the 10-year period of the new charter, and the promises that the BBC will make to define, for its audience, its interpretation of the public service broadcasting obligation imposed on it.
I want to refer to those two documents and to concentrate in particular on "Promises to Audiences", because that is the more flexible key element in the enforcement of the accountability of that great public corporation. I shall refer to the agreement first. The agreement will set out the range of services that the Government and the BBC agree that the BBC will provide. It will set out the assurance of independence of management and programme editorial staff from political intervention, and the responsibility of the BBC's governors for the way in which that independence is used. The agreement will set out the undertakings of the BBC on the standards of programming material that it wil]I broadcast and it will also set out the principles that I have just described which surround the licence fee.
477 In "Promises to Audiences", as I said, the BBC will set out its clear understanding of the public service obligation placed on it. It is against the target set out in that document that not merely this House—although certainly this House—but the wider public, will want to test the delivery of the service for which the governors of the corporation will be responsible.
§ Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the constant diet, shown by the BBC and other television channels, of violence, pornography and bad language? Does he agree that the 9 o'clock watershed is a cop-out because children watch television after 9 o'clock and that in any event programmes of that kind coarsen and degrade everyone who watches them?
§ Mr. Dorrell
The White Paper, the agreement and the "Promises to Audiences" all make it clear that maintenance of standards of taste and decency must underlie any proper definition of the public service broadcasting obligation. However, all of us as individuals must recognise that when we are individually offended or angered by a programme, it does not necessarily mean that there has been a breach of the standards undertaken by the corporation. None the less, a serious commitment by the governors to deliver a proper, modern understanding of standards of taste and decency is expressed unambiguously in the White Paper, as it will be in the agreement between myself and the corporation.
§ Mr. Maxton
Does the Secretary of State appreciate that there is more than one audience in the United Kingdom? A variety of audiences is based largely around the regions and, especially, the nations that comprise the United Kingdom. How does he intend to ensure that the BBC is accountable to that diversity of audiences and not only to a single audience?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The accountability will be set out in the agreement and "Promises to Audiences", which I shall address precisely.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
Will my right hon. Friend comment on impartiality and emphasise that the charter does not concern political impartiality, but impartiality on matters of public policy? Does he therefore agree that it is absolutely essential that, in matters of national interest, due weight is given to both sides of the argument in respect of the amount of time provided and the content of the matters raised?
§ Mr. Dorrell
My hon. Friend is certainly right. Impartiality includes even—occasionally—accounting for the views of the hon. Member for Bolsover. We need to ensure that the responsibility for managing impartiality is clearly vested with the corporation and that there is an accountability mechanism by which we may test our collective view of its effectiveness in delivering that pledge. I shall describe that mechanism to the House.
I shall draw the attention of the House to what I think are the key passages in the White Paper, which set out clearly the contract that the BBC will offer as a public 478 service broadcaster to its audience, as contained in its "Promises to Audiences" document. Paragraph 6.36 of the White Paper says:The promises to audiences would include the BBC's objectives for its programmes and services as a whole … and would set out the role of each of the BBC's services in the United Kingdom funded from the licence fee.That is clear and unambiguous. That paragraph also refers to paragraphs 3.25 and 3.26, which further clarify that principle. Paragraph 3.25 states:the purpose of each of the main national television and radio network services should be clearly stated and there should be objectives for some of the main strands of BBC output, such as news and current affairs, education and drama.Paragraph 3.26 states:The availability of such objectives, approved by the Board of Governors, would provide a means of ensuring that the Governors and the BBC's senior managers, and ultimately Parliament and the public, would be able to assess how far the BBC had met the objectives, and so was fulfilling its role as a public service broadcaster. The Governors' assessment should be included in the BBC's Annual Report, which is presented to Parliament.That contains the kernel of the approach to accountability, which is set out in the White Paper and which will be contained in the documents that will be presented to the House at the end of the consultation process. In that context, I want to comment on three specific elements of accountability which I know have been of concern to hon. Members and which I expect to see contained in the "Promises to Audiences" document.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I hope that there is a strong commitment in the contract to the maintenance of high-quality British children's programming. So far, I have not heard that mentioned. If we consistently allow all our programmes to be bought-in cartoons, we shall not only underplay our commitment to the British culture and the British language, but sell our own children disastrously short.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I agree with the hon. Lady. If she checks the record, she will find that the development of expertise in children's programming was one of the points that I mentioned as a strength of the BBC. It is certainly contained within the BBC's wider commitment to the original commissioning of broadcasting, both within the corporation and from independent producers, for the United Kingdom domestic audience.
In terms of the key interests that will be covered by "Promises to Audiences", clearly the balance of different types of broadcasting material, as the quotations that I read out make clear, will be at the core of the promises that the BBC sets out in the document—that is, the balance between drama and children's programming and the balance between education programming and news and current affairs. That is part of the contractual document that the BBC will set out in "Promises to Audiences".
The second theme that the BBC will answer in the document is the subject that I debated with the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) this week—access for disabled people to different types of BBC broadcasting material. The third subject refers directly to regional balance within England, and national balance within the 479 United Kingdom. Paragraph 3.24—I assure the House that this is the last quotation from the White Paper—makes the point in unambiguous terms. It states:It is important that the BBC should make and commission a reasonable proportion and range of its national output, as. well as programmes for local audiences, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in the English regions. An undertaking to do this should be included in the new Agreement, and an analysis of hours and range of output made in different parts of the country for broadcasting locally and throughout the United Kingdom should be included in the BBC's Annual Report.I expect that the BBC will want to include some precision about the nature of that understanding in "Promises to Audiences", so that there are yardsticks against which the audience and Parliament can test its delivery of the general principle that will be set out in the agreement signed between the Government and the corporation.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Taking paragraphs 3.24 and 6.22 together, what is the Government's view of the phrase "cultural patron"? What does the right hon. Gentleman regard as the BBC's responsibilities, particularly in Scotland, but doubtless in Wales and elsewhere, as a cultural patron? What does it mean in terms of finance?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I am not sure whether I warm to the term "cultural patron", but I warm to the term "public service broadcasting". Public service broadcasting should include a concept of local content, of local production, and of talking to a local audience in a language that the local audience talks, and doing that with material that reflects the quality standards to which some of my hon. Friends referred.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and then I must make progress. I have already detained the:House for nearly 45 minutes.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
Despite the assurance of the declaration of intent contained in paragraph 3.24, there is widespread concern in Scotland about what is regarded as the over-centralisation of the BBC in London, particularly in respect of drama and the production of drama. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that he will keep a tight weather eye on that matter?
§ Mr. Dorrell
I am happy to give not only the hon. Gentleman but the House that assurance. It was to give a tangible form that I suggested that I expect that the BBC will want, in its statement of "Promises to Audiences", to seek to tie down the undertaking in the agreement in a form that allows us to check year by year the delivery of the undertakings that it has given.
§ Mr. Dalyell
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State said that he did not 'warm to the phrase "cultural patron". It was not my phrase; it was his phrase. It is in his own document, at line 5 of paragraph 3.24. It is—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. It might be a point of substance, but it is not a point of order.
§ Mr. Dorrell
I accept the hon. Gentleman's correction. I was seeking to suggest that part of the public service 480 obligation was to deliver the service that the hon. Gentleman was seeking to suggest should be—I agree—part of the core of the BBC's activity.
§ Mr. Dorrell
No. I want to move on. I am very grateful, as ever, for the hon. Gentleman's help.
I have spent a fair amount of time talking about my understanding and view of how the BBC should develop its serving the nation mission. I want now to deal with its role as a worldwide competitor in the changing broadcasting marketplace that I talked about. I regard it as a major opportunity for the BBC and I also regard it more generally as a major opportunity for Britain.
§ Mr. Dorrell
Let me develop the argument a little bit further.
That marketplace brings benefits to this country, because broadcasting and the consumption of broadcasting material are a fast-growing marketplace, for all the technological reasons that I quoted, not just in this country but all round the world. That this country is the home of the English language should give us a particular advantage and an opportunity to develop that marketplace. The BBC's strong presence in that marketplace already gives us a firm base on which to build. There is a clear opportunity for British broadcasting, and particularly for the BBC.
The other benefit in that context, of which we should also be aware and which we should welcome, is that the larger the audience who see a programme inside or outside the country, the greater the opportunity to defray the cost of making it over a larger base. It gives us a larger programme-making budget. In a like-for-like situation, it reduces the cost to a certain audience of seeing a certain programme. It is therefore strongly in the interests of the domestic audience and of Britain as a broadcasting base that that international marketplace is exploited.
If we are to do that through the BBC, it is important that the terms on which that opportunity is to be exploited are made clear. It is important that we safeguard the interests of domestic licence payers, who do not pay their licence fees as an investment in an international broadcasting business. They pay their licence fees to secure a domestic broadcasting service. That is one reason why it is important to be clear about the terms on which that exploitation takes place. The other reason is that there are other United Kingdom players in that international marketplace, and we should not use licence payers' money to give the BBC a distorted advantage in an international marketplace over other United Kingdom broadcast programme makers. That is why the Government set out in the White Paper clear proposals for ring-fencing the international competing function, and set terms requiring the partner in that function to take the commercial risk. That is the proper function of the private sector partner, not of the licence payer.
481 I hope that the framework set out in the White Paper will be accepted on both sides of the House as an example of the link between the public and the private sector that will allow us to deliver our objectives without prejudicing the interests of the licence payer.
§ Mr. Flynn
The whole House will rejoice over the sinner who repents. The Secretary of State is saying what many people in the House and elsewhere were saying a decade ago. If it were not for the stubbornness of the previous Prime Minister, who insisted that the BBC world television service should follow one pattern alone, that service could have built on the pre-eminent role of the BBC radio world service, and we could have been the No. 1 player instead of coming in late in the day, having allowed others to become pre-eminent. Will the Secretary of State say one word of remorse about that?
§ Mr. Dorrell
No I shall not, because the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the proposal made at that time. That was precisely that the licence payer should take the commercial risk. The argument in favour of the structure that we have now is that the commercial risk is borne by commercial interests. The licence payer benefits by defraying the cost over a larger audience, and therefore from the reduced price for individual programmes.
Finally, the process of renewing the BBC's charter will now continue and, having heard the views of the House today, the Government will produce draft documents. The agreement, in particular, will be for the House to approve and the other documents will be available, so the House will be able to see the total picture when it makes the decision on the agreement, and will have the opportunity to debate it before it comes into force.
The BBC has been through a time of substantial change and, as is always the case, change has been a bruising process. The BBC has changed and continues to change, and it now has a major opportunity to take advantage of the kind of marketplace that we have been discussing. I hope that the proposals in the White Paper will ensure that the BBC will be well placed to take advantage of that opportunity, and I commend them to the House.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The Opposition, like many other people throughout the country, greeted the White Paper with considerable relief. Compared with what might have been, and with what the Government at one stage actively suggested, much of the White Paper is warmly welcomed, especially the commitment to the BBC as the linchpin of public service broadcasting in this country. We wholeheartedly endorse that commitment.
Before I turn to the detail, perhaps I may be permitted to say a word or two about the director-general's speech in Dublin last Friday. There is a vital need for robust, sometimes acerbic probing of what politicians say and what they mean. That testing process is part of the role of Parliament, and some aspects of our work here are evidence that we can carry out that role well, although others show us carrying it out rather less well.
482 That testing process is also part of the role of the media. I hope that John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman will continue to lift a cynical eyebrow and ask adversarial questions. That process is an essential part of our democracy. If Mr. Birt was telling the "Today" programme in a not-very-coded fashion to be more gentle with the Secretary of State for Health, or indeed with me, I hope that it will take no notice whatever of him.
The director-general has a point, however, when he talks about the need to include in the media's consideration of politics a more in-depth considered analysis of some of the real issues. The clash of sharp question and prepared soundbite is all very well, and perhaps it is inevitable in a fast-paced news programme, but there must be room for something more; otherwise the output becomes gesture politics, and the electorate deserve and will appreciate something better than that. While the media are thinking along those lines, perhaps the Government should do so, too. The need for a proper freedom of information Act has never been more obvious.
With regard to the future of the BBC, the Opposition welcome much of the White Paper. We welcome its commitment to the public service remit and to the licence fee as the primary source of funding. The licence fee is, of course, an imperfect method of funding, but nothing that I have ever heard proposed is any better.
Why must there be a review of the principle before the end of the year 2001? Why put us through all that uncertainty again by putting a limit on the certainty that the Government are prepared to offer? Surely they could have given a longer perspective for the future of the licence fee. In that context, I noted with great interest that the Secretary of State said earlier that the burden of proof would rest with those who argued for change. If that is indeed the Government's position, and if it represents a slightly clearer commitment to the future of the licence fee than exists in the White Paper, I certainly welcome it.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that technological change is setting the pace to a large extent? Digital terrestrial television is on the horizon, and there could be 12 channels tomorrow if the Government gave the go-ahead. Two years ago, the technology was not there. Surely it is right for the Government to say that the pace increases and technology moves on, so the BBC and other broadcasting organisations may have to be reviewed in the light of the changes—changes brought about by technology, not by the Government.
§ Mr. Smith
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that technology is moving on fast, but he would be a little pushed to provide digital terrestrial television tomorrow, because the transmission systems are not yet in place. He is certainly right that, within a couple of years, we could have 12 digital channels, and there are also the possibilities that open up with the provision of broad-band cable networks.
However, the key functions of the BBC as the public service broadcaster seem to me to be best guaranteed by the licence fee system, and I wish that the Government had been a little more forthright in saying that, rather than hedging their commitment with a time limit.
§ Sir John Gorst
I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary 483 of State earlier. Is one of his premises the need for the BBC to command a reasonably large audience to justify being financed by the licence fee? If his argument rests on that basis, will he tell the House at what level of audience he would find that the BBC had lost so much support that he would wish to revise his opinions? That possibility could be a justification for taking a second look—perhaps half way through the 10-year period.
§ Mr. Smith
The second part of the hon. Gentleman's question revealed the failings in the first. Although the maintenance of public support through a compulsory licence fee has to be justified by reaching a substantial audience, the precise definition of what qualifies as "substantial" will change in time. There is no evidence that the BBC is losing audience share—indeed, at Christmas it gained it. The two justifications for the licence fee are: first, audience reach, and secondly, equally and if not more importantly, the maintenance of quality standards. That must be taken into account.
The White Paper sounds an ominous note on transmission services. It shows that privatisation of BBC transmission is under active consideration. The Opposition totally oppose such a proposal.
§ Mr. Smith
I shall come to that in a moment. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my argument, he may get the answer to his question.
I oppose privatisation for two main reasons. First, in such circumstances, the BBC would be at the mercy of prices for transmission that were determined entirely by others, which would almost certainly put up BBC costs.
Secondly, privatisation would bring progress towards digitalisation to a shuddering halt. The BBC already has a substantial technological lead in developing digital transmission. Digitisation, with all the exciting possibilities that the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) identified, is a process in which the BBC must remain at the forefront. If one put the BBC through the exercise of transmission privatisation, with all the uncertainties that that would probably generate for about two years, it would put all progress on digitalisation at risk. Some people in independent television argue—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would follow their arguments—that the BBC transmission service needs to be privatised to provide competition for National Transcommunications Ltd. which, as a monopoly supplier, charges high prices to the ITV network. Problems arise because NTL is a monopoly supplier. Privatising the BBC, in the hope of providing competition, is not the answer. Why not free the BBC commercially to offer a competitive service? Then one would gain the benefits of competition without the uncertainties that would arise from privatisation.
While on the subject of digitalisation, when are the Government planning to produce the proposals set out in paragraphs 4.30 and 4.31 of the White Paper? Fundamental changes in the role of the regulators will be necessary as new digital channels become available, and how the new channels are made available will become 484 crucial. I do not want the same process to be used for awarding digital channels as was used when the franchises for Channel 3 were recently awarded.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. It is very generous. Does he accept that NTL is at the forefront of the development of digital systems? Is he saying that he wants it renationalised for the same reasons that he gave for not privatising the BBC's engineering department? Why does he not accept that the BBC might well find it cheaper to be able to go, not merely to the duopoly of the NTL and a privatised BBC engineering department, but to other companies—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Interventions are becoming too long. If hon. Members persist in making long interventions, they may find it difficult to catch my eye when they want to make a speech.
§ Mr. Smith
Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker, too long and not especially enlightening. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is, no, I would not advocate renationalising NTL, but I would advocate providing good public sector competition, by putting the BBC's transmission network into play.
The White Paper contains a clear commitment to enhance the BBC's regional character, as some of my hon. Friends have already said. It is important that the voice of the regions and nations of the United Kingdom should become clearer and be heard more frequently, to counteract what many see as the BBC's metropolitan bias, and it is right for that aim to be established. So far, the BBC's response has been inadequate. It makes 85 per cent. of its network programmes in London and 97 per cent. in England. Only 3 per cent. are made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where about 17 per cent. of its audience live.
The BBC's radio network broadcasts 35,000 hours of programming a year. BBC Radio Wales contributes just 385 hours.
§ Mr. Wigley
I am grateful, because the hon. Gentleman's argument is right and that matter is critical for the future. Is he aware that we have slipped back in recent years? Between 1985 and 1989, BBC Wales produced 67 hours a year of programmes for the television network, but by 1993–94 it was down to only 41. We therefore need an effective monitoring system to ensure that any commitments are carried out. Any ideas along those lines will be welcome.
§ Mr. Smith
The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall deal with the monitoring mechanism. He might have added that English language programming in Wales has suffered. Indeed, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr, Jessel) might note that, out of six regional outside broadcast facilities, the BBC has recently closed or 485 drastically reduced three—Bristol, Birmingham and Belfast—with a proportional loss of jobs and equipment. He might also like to note that the Belfast design department has closed completely, leaving BBC Northern Ireland—a supposedly significant source of drama—to use facilities in the Irish Republic.
§ Mr. Maxton
One of the dangers is that the BBC could fulfil its commitment simply by sending crews out from London to make programmes in the regions, rather than having them made by the BBC facilities in the nations and regions. I hope that the Minister who replies for the Government will deal with that.
§ Mr. Smith
My hon. Friend is right. It is crucial that programme making is centred on the region or nation and that programmes are not merely made about a region, but made drawing on the skills of people who originate from it.
In response to the White Paper, the BBC said that it would move £75 million of network programmes from London to the English and national regions. Of course that would help, although it would raise the contribution from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland only from 3 per cent. to 4.2 per cent. That, too, answers the point made by the hon. Member for Twickenham: fine words are all very well, but if the BBC programme production from those three nations amounts to only 4.2 per cent. of its total programme output, that is not good enough. Yet that is the aspiration put before us by the BBC in response to the White Paper. If it were fulfilled, it would move about six hours of television production a week out of London. The change proposed is minimal, but even that change has not yet been effected. We were told that an announcement was imminent in October, but it has still not been made.
The English regions are faring badly, as well. BBC Radio Cleveland recently announced that its chief engineer had been made redundant, along with 10 others in the northern region. Overall, BBC local radio reaches about 10 million listeners a week, yet Radio Cleveland will be left with only one engineer for the entire station. Such cuts damage the quality of service and fundamentally damage the local, regional and national character of programme making. We deserve better.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) asked about monitoring. A crucial monitoring function is performed by the broadcasting councils for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. They have an important role, but it is also important that they have a strategic, not just a day-by-day, monitoring function. It would help if those broadcasting councils made their minutes public so that we knew what they did on our behalf. Surely we also need an English regional council—not just the English forum which the BBC appears to want. That would be a much weakened body; we need a body to match, on behalf of the English regions, the work of the three national councils.
§ Mr. Smith
I have already given way generously and I want to make progress.
486 We also hear that the BBC wants to do away with the general advisory council. That must not be allowed to happen. It plays a vital role as a sounding board, offering advice—sometimes awkward advice—and identifying trends, not just responding to one-off events. The BBC appears to want an ad hoc arrangement, with consultation taking place only from time to time in respect of specific issues. That would not be good enough. We believe that there must be a continuing and consistent role for the general advisory council.
I come next to the role of the board of governors, who are of course the primary guardians of the public interest. Some have argued in recent days that the governors should be elected in some fashion. I suspect that that might be too cumbersome an arrangement, but there does need to be greater accountability.
The White Paper makes an astonishing statement on page 54, in response to the excellent report by the Select Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The Government say:the Government does not consider that the appointment process"—for governors—should be made public, nor that the names of prospective Governors should be submitted to the Select Committee for possible interview before the nomination is confirmed"—
§ Mr. Jessel
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a smell of food in the Chamber which I have never noticed before in all my years here. As some of us are trying, with considerable effort, to concentrate on the hon. Gentleman's speech and the smell of food is distracting, could you ask the Serjeant at Arms to make inquiries and to try to have it stopped?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
I know, from having sat in this Chair on many occasions, that this is not the first such instance. I shall, however, try to ensure that the matter is put right.
§ Mr. Smith
Whatever the BBC board of governors may be responsible for, it is not the preparation of food in the Palace of Westminster.
As I was saying, the Government, responding to the Select Committee, said that having the Select Committee interview candidates for governor before the nominations were confirmedrisks deterring some candidates, and might make appointments more political.I fail to understand the logic in that. If the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister make appointments, they are somehow non-political, but if the all-party Select Committee of the House interviews candidates and ratifies appointments, they become political. The very reverse is true. We would look sympathetically on a proposal to insist that candidates for governorship of the BBC be subject to interview and ratification by the Select Committee of the House of Commons.
Furthermore, as well as the BBC presenting its own report to Parliament each year I would argue that the governors should present a report on their work to the Select Committee, and that they should be subject to interview about it. That would at least introduce more accountability and transparency to all the important work of the governors.
487 The British Film Institute has raised a number of problems with the Department to do with the difficulties of film production at the BBC. I note from what the Secretary of State said today that he now appears to remember that the last film he went to see was "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie". Looking at those on the Government Front Bench, I am more reminded of that wonderful old film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"—although I do not think that the precise casting has yet been determined.
The BFI has pointed out that when a film produced by the BBC has a good run at the box office before being shown on television, the audience that it can attract on television is greatly enlarged, but that the financial rules governing the operations of the BBC make that difficult. I hope that the Secretary of State will examine those rules to see whether mechanisms for showing films at the cinema before they are shown on television can be explored as a way of raising interest in and increasing the audience for BBC-produced films.
The White Paper includes a proposal to merge the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. We welcome it: it makes sense. When, though, will it happen? Will the Secretary of State consider whether the new, merged body should also take on a proposal made by the National Consumer Council, for a broadcasting consumer council? Surely that much-needed function would provide a good fit with the work of the current two bodies, and it could be usefully folded into the work of the newly merged organisation.
We welcome the advent of BBC World and BBC Prime. They offer major opportunities around the world, some of which the right hon. Gentleman has identified. I share the chagrin of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) about the loss of such a wonderful opportunity to get ahead of the game some 12 years ago. Progress is now under way, which is welcome. However, there must be a one-way valve in relation to the funding of BBC World and BBC Prime. Funds from the licence fee must not be allowed to subsidise commercial operations abroad. Naturally, if those commercial operations are successful and, over time, profitable, those profits can usefully be used to enhance the BBC's domestic work and, perhaps even in the foreseeable future, to ensure a diminution in the licence fee.
The work of BBC World and BBC Prime is particularly important because, as far as I can establish, we have a trade deficit in television programmes. In 1983, Britain's television companies had an £8 million surplus with the rest of the world; in 1993, they had a £115 million deficit. We should take no pride in that, because we have creative skill and talent here and make some of the best programmes in the world. The BBC is a prime mover in that success. We must not allow the all-American import policy of others to take hold any more than it already has. The importance of protecting our British cultural identity and industries is part of that exercise. Successful world television activity from the BBC could, in time, help to put that deficit right.
I hope that the BBC will explore, as it is beginning to, opportunities opening up in education, linking up with the Open university and the British Council to provide English language teaching and education on a worldwide basis. Opportunities in that respect are substantial and I hope that the BBC will seize them.
488 I return to where I began and stress the extreme importance of ensuring that we maintain the quality of broadcasting. A strong BBC with a strong public service remit is our best possible guarantee of maintaining quality broadcasting. We must therefore cherish and nurture the BBC's work while acknowledging that there is scope for improvement. The history is admirable; the future can be even better.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, the arrangement for announcing the public sector pay award was discussed. At 4.10 pm the Vote Office had two written replies from the Prime Minister and two reports from the individual pay review bodies. I contacted the office of the Secretary of State for Education at 5 pm to be told by the person who answered the telephone that he had no knowledge of a teachers' pay award and no one was available to advise me about it. I was then referred to the press office, which told me that a press statement was to be made and should be available at 5.30 pm in the Lobby, but no assurances were given that that press release would be available in the Vote Office.
That is extraordinarily discourteous to hon. Members who are anxious to have guidance about increases in public pay awards, and an extraordinarily inefficient way for the Government to deal with those matters. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, are not responsible for the availability of papers, but I wondered whether some messages could be relayed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that any press releases issued this evening on those weighty documents are made easily available to hon. Members.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. It is the responsibility of the Minister concerned, not the Chair, although Madam Speaker always hopes that announcements that should be made to the House will be made there first. The hon. Gentleman's point will no doubt have been noted by hon. Members on the Treasury Bench.
§ Mr. David Mellor (Putney)
Although I understand that it is not necessary to do so in these diseased times I shall make doubly sure and declare an interest: these days, I present a few programmes on BBC radio, for which a modest remuneration is appropriate. In commenting on the BBC in a political capacity, I therefore feel rather like the horse in the opera conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. In a rather indifferent performance, the horse came on and, on arriving centre stage, lifted its tail and did what horses do—loudly and horribly all over the stage. At that point, Sir Thomas said, "Ah, gentlemen. Not just an artist but a critic as well." In the event that it is necessary to double up that role, may I say that there is little for us to criticise this afternoon.
The BBC is one of the successes of my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), whom I am delighted to see in his place. His White Paper has managed to make most people who look objectively at the BBC and recognise its fundamental importance in public service broadcasting in a free society accept that it is not a partisan document. It takes a commonsense view and recognises, chiefly, that the Government's role in reforming the BBC has been much diminished by the energy with which the BBC has 489 set about reforming itself. It is to be more Catholic than the Pope to endeavour to cap the extraordinary pace of change on which the present director-general has embarked.
It is a worthy sign of the learning curve, which even Ministers ascend, that the formulation of policy that led up to the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the reform of ITV pursued a different course. For a considerable time, a small group of Ministers pursued in private a range of proposals. They should have known that, the moment the proposals saw the light of day, they would have to beat a retreat from many of the points that had seemed so clear cut in a small room but would not appear so in the clear light of day before wider consultation.
I was asked with a few weeks' notice to pick up that Bill and take it through the House. The task of those presenting this White Paper to the House is considerably easier because lessons were learnt from that Bill. That is not to say that the Broadcasting Act 1990 was more flawed than one or two matters that have already been acknowledged. The ITV system needed reform, and many of those reforms are much better than their critics are prepared to admit.
Clearly, when dealing with a matter of such fundamental significance to a free society as the provision of information through the major medium of communication—the electronic media—it is crucial that it is done with substantial openness and a lively public debate. The provision of the Green Paper, the subsequent consideration of what was said, and the presentation of the White Paper entirely confirm the Government's wisdom in proceeding in that way.
I have a straightforward view about the BBC, which is that we need it now more than ever. I denigrate neither commercial radio nor commercial television and am delighted to see their expansion. I am pleased to see in their places a number of hon. Members who played a part in the last-minute alteration of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which permitted Classic FM to become a national radio station. They will be pleased to see that that has happened. The success of that station and many others proves that quality and commercialism are not inconsistent principles. An idea that seemed to be prevalent in certain quarters in the 1980s that, as commercial services developed, there would be less need for the BBC, has rightly died a death.
One of the benefits of reform of the BBC is that the BBC has regained its self-confidence. At one time, it seemed to want to compromise, first, by saying that it was minded to accept that as certain things were done by the commercial sector, it would be wise for the BBC to withdraw from them. It risked becoming a cultural ghetto for everything that other people did not want to do. That was an insecure basis on which to impose on everybody what, I suppose, was an early variant of the poll tax—the licence fee.
Secondly, there were agonised discussions about what should be rendered up to the enthusiasm of the privatisers—whether it should be Radio 1 only, or Radio 1 and Radio 2, and so on.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
It is good to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman say that 490 democracy needs the BBC; I have been reading some things in the newspaper about whether the BBC needs him. To save me phoning his estimable programme "606", which I never miss on a Saturday evening, will he tell us that he will remain firmly in that chair and continue to answer questions from Chelsea supporters, comme moi?
§ Mr. Mellor
I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, for want of anything better to do on a Saturday evening, that happy process will continue.
§ Mr. Mellor
To get back on track, as it were; in recent years we have managed to create a climate that is far more favourable to a sensible, objective discussion of those issues than it used to be. It is a recommendation, not a cause for criticism, that there is much common ground throughout the Chamber when we discuss them. In a free, pluralistic society such as ours, there is no merit in the fact that the future of major organisations such as the BBC should be the subject of deep and intense partisan debate.
If the BBC is to preserve its position as a broadcaster that is the recipient of a flow of public resources that no member of the public who owns a television set has any choice but to provide, and which bears harshly on certain members of the community who do not have a great deal of money, the BBC must not retreat into programmes that are thought to be unsuitable for commercial production. It must offer something to everyone; otherwise we are in the ridiculous position of the man in the Putney or Newham or Glasgow council house subsidising the cultural tastes of the dweller in Hampstead—or wherever else the literati and glitterati are supposed to live these days. That argument cannot be sustained.
It is not in the best interests of commercial radio and television that the BBC should privatise services, which then enter into competition for what remain, in radio at least, very limited funds. I am happy to note that the share of the pot taken by commercial radio from advertising is increasing, but the plain fact is that it remains a very limited pot. The last thing that commercial radio needs is a privatised Radio 1—even one with the somewhat decreasing audiences that have recently been contrived. That is the one station on which I do not feature, I am happy to say, so I cannot be blamed for that, irrespective of anything else.
I participated in debates about broadcasting in the House intermittently for the period of more than a decade when I was involved in broadcasting policy. There are always people searching for the holy grail, the alternative to the licence fee but, in my opinion, the alternative to the licence fee does not readily exist. All that talk about subscriptions ultimately founders on the rock of the recognition that often the people who are the most glued to the box are the least able to pay for it. We need not waste much energy on that.
I hope that the licence fee will continue, not least because it is indeed, as David Frost once memorably said, the great strength of British broadcasting that twin rivers of finance flow quite separately into it—from the licence fee and from advertising. One would throw that away at one's peril.
491 The case for the BBC, interestingly, has been extremely well argued in the Institute for Public Policy Research document that was published as recently as this week, which said—I hope that the House will agree that it sums up the argument very well—Through its output, the BBC provides an important benchmark of standards below which competitors' services sink at their own peril. In a multitude of ways, from technical standards to the development of innovative programme forms, the very existence of the BBC compels other broadcasters to maintain and improve the quality and character of their own services.One might add that the contrary is also the case. The fact that there is an active, vibrant and dynamic commercial sector forces the BBC to look to its laurels. From that creative tension, rivalry and competition comes, one hopes, genuine choice for the consumer.
One can go to New York, as I did not so long ago, push one's way through 30 channels on the television and find nothing that remotely engages one's attention. That is not choice; that is the absence of choice. It is,Little boxes, all the same".It is trash and rubbish from the archives, badly presented, thrown into a pot; it is not quality broadcasting of a type that we want to watch.
§ Mr. Maxton
Is not one of the great beauties of BBC programmes that they do not have any advertisements in them, and that therefore one's concentration is not interrupted by having to watch awful advertisements for awful products?
§ Mr. Mellor
I think that the advertisements are sometimes a blessed relief from the programme; but if one can fund a programme service without advertisements, why not? We should not find ourselves in a position of insisting that no programmes should have advertisements or that unless everything is commercial, it cannot be justified.
I unashamedly stand up for the things that the BBC stands for, which only the BBC can do. Mention was made of the phrase, "a cultural patron". That may sound emptily pompous, but it means that, for instance, millions of people in the country can go to the Royal Albert hall in the summer and, for next to nothing, become acquainted with the great works of symphonic literature. The BBC should be proud of doing that, and we should be proud that the BBC does so.
We should be proud of the fact that the BBC sustains the quality of musical life throughout the nation, notably in the regions. In Scotland and Wales, there are exceptional orchestras. In Manchester, the BBC Philharmonic is an orchestra of international class.
We should also be proud of the fact that, interestingly, 50 per cent. of Radio 3's production is of recordings, or live relays, of music that was produced specifically for Radio 3. There is a case for simply reaching out, taking down a compact disc and playing that—I do not knock that—but it would be awful if recorded music were played at the expense of live music. If music is not a living thing, it is merely a part of the heritage industry. That would be a bad thing.
I believe in the BBC as a cultural patron. However, obviously the BBC cannot be run in an inefficient, outmoded way merely because it receives the money from the licence fee. I do not suppose that anyone in the House would say seriously that they did not want a BBC. Nevertheless, if we all sat down today and tried to create 492 a BBC, we would not have created the BBC as it was found by the present management—the BBC that employed 28,000 people.
I take no pleasure in witnessing jobs being destroyed, but that was necessary for a radical reform to prune the bureaucracy. It has had enormous benefits, and it is time that I paid tribute to them—the flow of resources from tail to teeth and the fact that, in the past two years alone, about £225 million of additional resources has been liberated by those reforms, to be spent on new programming.
It used to be sickening when, as we sat upstairs in debates on broadcasting, people groped around in their minds for examples of quality broadcasting. We said "The Jewel in the Crown", however old and fuzzy people's memories of it—perhaps they thought that it was of more value the less they could remember the detail of it. Once again, such programmes are being produced, and it is good that the BBC is producing them.
Interestingly, there is an audience for such programmes. If one considers "Middlemarch" or "Martin Chuzzlewit", those productions, which cost many millions of pounds, were possible only because the BBC had liberated resources from the bureaucracy. The fact that "Martin Chuzzlewit"—shown on BBC1, repeated on BBC2—attracted an audience of more than 8 million people, shows that, to misquote Milton, "the hungry sheep look up and are being fed by the BBC".
The series "The Buccaneers"—the Edith Wharton novel—which is on television at the moment, managed to attract an audience of 9 million people the other evening, in competition with the film "Home Alone". That is a sign, not only that the BBC is producing a quality product, but that, contrary to the denigrating and condescending way that people often talk about audiences, the truth is that audiences—the public whom we deserve—are not morons. They are people who, if they are given a quality product, will watch it, and in great numbers.
The budget for "Four Weddings and a Funeral" was £4.25 million. The budget for the new "Pride and Prejudice" that is being filmed at the moment is £5 million—in other words, a scale of budget that might usually be employed on a cinema film. We should be pleased that those resources can go into the BBC. Those are the benefits of the reforms.
The public owe a huge debt of gratitude to two people. First, to "Duke" Hussey, who has often been criticised. If it had not been for his leadership of the governors, it would not have been possible to have initiated those reforms or to have developed the confidence, crucial in the early stages, to make the changes to the BBC. That confidence was essential at the crucial point when the reforms were first introduced. I congratulate Mike Checkland on his role at that time, which was then carried on by John Birt. John Birt is now being lauded to the skies by those who see from the White Paper the benefits of his work. It was not always so, but it needed firm control of the governors that it should be so.
John is, by his own decision, a controversial character. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his Dublin speech, he made it. How easy it is for someone in his position to be mealy-mouthed and say nothing by just filling the space. He said something; people found it controversial. That is the nature of the man. That is what leadership is all about. At a crucial time in the BBC's history, he has shown leadership. I know only too well from working in 493 the bowels of the BBC that that has caused problems—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) wish to intervene or is he trying to be a third-rate Caruso? Does the hon. Gentleman want me to give way?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I expect good standards of behaviour from all, but particularly from Front-Bench spokesmen.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am trying to make a serious speech about an issue I know something about; two things that the hon. Gentleman might like to bear in mind for his future contribution.
The problem for John Birt is keeping the confidence of BBC staff at a time when the changes, as they roll out, are seen merely to threaten their livelihood. Those changes have obviously been difficult and have totally transformed the environment in which the staff work. The key thing for the future management of the BBC is that the BBC should be able to show that those changes are not an end in themselves. The impression should not be given that the changes represent an empty Gradgrind approach to efficiency. The BBC must make sure that staff know that reforms are aimed at a purpose—to liberate resources, as they have already done, so that the BBC can produce the quality of programme that will itself win the BBC its audience and guarantee its future.
The BBC should not forget that it needs high morale among its staff. One of its crucial roles in British broadcasting is to produce and train quality personnel, who then become part of the rest of the broadcasting environment.
It is not entirely plain sailing ahead for the BBC. It must battle for audiences. Although I would deeply regret it if the question of the licence fee were to be reopened because of falls in audience, that is inevitable. The BBC knows that the challenge is to prove that it is worthy of that universal levy through the quality of what it produces.
People talk glibly about superhighways and digital transmissions of one kind or another without having any clear idea of how they will work out or their likely impact. We come back to the New York example. I am not excited by the idea of 10 or 12 television stations when we used to have one or two. The number of stations proves nothing unless quality material is produced to fill them up; otherwise they just offer the kind of nonsense to which I have already referred.
International communications represent another problem. The Government have rightly put the BBC and other British broadcasters under pressure to go out to show the world what they produce. We complacently tell ourselves that we have the best broadcasting in the world, but we must go out and prove that. In fact, the BBC does rather well, because it has a net credit balance of some £50 million a year on its sales overseas as against what it buys in. It accounts for an extraordinarily high proportion of European sales of television programmes to the United States.
494 I can understand why it was sad, as the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said, that for whatever reason, the BBC was slow—or perhaps the Government were slow to encourage it—to get into world service television. Cable News Network, CNN, is a success for one reason alone—it exists. Its success is not due to it offering a particularly good service, but because an American entrepreneur had the courage to go out and make it happen. If there is one thing that we stand for in this country, surely it is objective news values and the production of news that people believe and do not take as propaganda.
The challenge for the BBC in the future is to offer such news to the world. That may require it to embrace commercial partnerships, but provided that is done transparently and fairly, let it go ahead and do that. The increasingly dismal Balkanised world of today needs the free passage of news more than anything else. Surely that is something that the BBC is in an outstanding position to produce. That is the challenge of the future.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
The Order Paper makes the point that the second report of the Select Committee on National Heritage, "The Future of the BBC", is relevant to the debate. The Select Committee is gratified that the general framework for the future of the BBC contained in the White Paper is that which the Committee's report recommended.
The charter is to be renewed for another 10 years, and the licence is to be continued as a source of funding. Those at the BBC might well say, "So, that's that, then. We've got our charter; we've got the licence that we advocated and campaigned for; we've been given a vote of confidence, so we can carry on as before."
The BBC has certainly been given a vote of confidence in general. It does maintain high standards of public service broadcasting. It does act as a role model for ITV and Channel 4. It does have a beneficial influence on public service broadcasting throughout the world. It does have a reputation that is respected throughout the world, and a brand name that is recognised throughout the world. All those factors do not mean, however, that everything that the BBC does is good.
Many share my concern at the decline of nationally transmitted BBC radio. That is not a reflection on the contribution of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). Many are concerned about the reduction in the audience of BBC 1, and about the intermittent vulgarity of Radio 5. They are concerned about the reduction in standards of the BBC flagship, Radio 4. They are concerned about the trivialisation of too much of Radio 3. As I listen to the gibbering and twittering of the early morning programme from 7 to 9, I sometimes think that the intellectual level would be improved if commercials were included.
There is concern, too, about the imperviousness to criticism expressed by dedicated listeners about some of the things that are taking place on BBC radio. The wholly mistaken belief apparently held by Liz Forgan is that the way to retrieve lost radio audiences—the BBC's share of the radio audience is now less than half of it—is to chase competitors down market. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney referred to Classic FM. I do not 495 believe that the future for Radio 3 lies in trying to copy that station, although I fear that far too much of Radio 3 is doing exactly that.
The secure future of the BBC for another 12 years does not mean that the BBC has the right to be complacent. I say "12 years" because we have two years of the present charter still to run, followed by 10 years of the proposed new charter. That complacency is unjustified, not simply because the BBC has had for a long time consistently fewer television viewers than ITV and Channel 4 combined, but because all four terrestrial channels are now on a downward trend, as satellite and cable relentlessly increase their share of the market and as choice therefore increases.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the regulations about the amount of domestic content that govern commercial television should also be extended to satellite television, so that they all compete on a level playing field?
§ Mr. Kaufman
I do not believe that such a regulation would be enforceable. As the choices proliferate and the number of channels increase, the current regulation of terrestrial television will become less feasible and effective. Of course, the regulations of the European Union require to be observed, but, as the BBC's share of the television audience goes down, one can see the challenge it faces.
At the end of last month, the BBC had 42.7 per cent. of the television audience, compared with 48.6 per cent. at the same time in 1991. In 1991, satellite and cable did not reach audience figures worth counting. By 1992, they had attracted 3.9 per cent., by 1993 the figure was 5.2 per cent., and by 1994 it was 6.1 per cent. Last month, they had 7.5 per cent. of the television audience. The number of households with access to cable and satellite television has risen from 1.3 million in 1990 to 3.9 million by the end of 1994. This week, BSkyB announced in its reports on the latest successes that more than 4 million households now have access to cable and satellite.
The country's streets are being dug up relentlessly. I received a letter from Nynex about large sections of my constituency which are about to be excavated, and I have responded with a serious warning that it had better behave if it is to avoid trouble from me.
Soon, those who are watching satellite and cable will outnumber the audiences of BBC 2 or Channel 4, each of which now has around 10 per cent. Satellite and cable already have 7.5 per cent.
The number of hours being broadcast by terrestrial television is dwindling in proportion to the number of television hours overall. At present, the four terrestrial channels are transmitting 32,000 hours of television per year, whereas satellite and cable are transmitting 100,000 hours per year.
This is only the beginning. On-demand and interactive services have not even started. The interaction of computers, TV games and CD-ROM is not yet happening, but although we cannot forecast the time scale, it is clear that it is only just over the horizon.
The 10 years of the new BBC charter may also be the last 10 years of any BBC charter. By the time the new charter comes up for renewal, the BBC, if it is to survive, will have to he changed beyond all recognition. If it does not, it will dwindle into the British equivalent of the 496 American Public Broadcasting Service, with a small niche audience which responds fitfully to on-air appeals for funds to top up a meagre Government grant.
If that were to happen, the BBC would be providing public service broadcasting which, instead of being produced in-house or commissioned from independent producers as it is now, to our great advantage, would have to be bought in because the BBC would not have a reliable source of funds to finance its own programming.
A niche audience cannot expect the mass of the population to provide licence fees to fund its specialised minority tastes. It is essential for the BBC to transform itself if it is to survive, and if the ethos of public service broadcasting is to survive. The great contribution of the BBC and Britain to world communications is the ethos of public service broadcasting which pervades broadcasting in many parts of the world and would never have existed without the BBC.
The media world now is already much changed, not only from what it was when the present charter was instituted, but even from what it was when our Select Committee report was published and when the Government published their responding White Paper. Already, the boundaries between print, computers, telephones and television are breaking down into one visual continuum. Several newspapers, such as The Times, are available on-line. If one wants to read The Daily Telegraph, one can read it on computer as well as by going to a shop and buying it. Those changes are just beginning; they are relentless, and we cannot pretend that we or the BBC can ignore them.
We live in a world in which cross-media ownership is changing, a world in which the Daily Mirror and Associated Newspapers have their own television stations which are permitted under the cable regulations; we invest in overseas television and, as I shall be pointing out:in a moment, overseas television invests in us. It is a world in which the BBC grows, or, to all intents and purposes, the BBC will die.
§ Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)
An unstated assumption of the right hon. Gentleman's argument, which I have been trying to follow closely for the past few minutes, seems to be that there is a zero sum gain. In other words, as satellite and cable expand and all the new multi-media technologies expand, the BBC is doomed to lose. Is it not at least possible that one of the changes is precisely that people want a variety of media forms to be available, and that the BBC can survive if it does its known thing well?
§ Mr. Kaufman
Far from the BBC being doomed to lose, if it organises, structures and prepares itself properly, it can be stronger than it has ever been, and can play a major part in future developments. Only if it thinks small and constrictively will the BBC be doomed to lose.
Ten years ago, the BBC's competitors were ITV and Channel 4. Today, BSkyB and other satellite and cable services are biting into its audience, with already dozens of choices for the increasing number of subscribers to non-terrestrial services. Tomorrow—by "tomorrow" I mean a time scale that is impossible to specify, but which, nevertheless, is attenuating as we proceed1there will be hundreds of alternative choices.
497 In their White Paper following up the Select Committee report, the Government say that the BBC should be able to evolve into an "international multi-media enterprise".That sounds very nice. It is a good piece of phraseology, but what does it mean?
May I put to the House what an international multi-media enterprise really is? I quote from an article in the New Yorker of 16 January written by one of the most authoritative commentators on television, Mr. Ken Auletta. This is how he described the scope of Viacom in the United States:The company … has branches in almost every area of entertainment, including movie and television production (Paramount Pictures and Paramount Television); music programming (MTV and VH-I); children's television programming (Nickelodeon); pay TV (Showtime, the Movie Channel) books and CD-ROMs (Simon & Schuster).It owns the world's dominant video-store chain"—which has nearly 4,000 stores—and one of the world's busiest music retailers (Blockbuster), and five regional theme parks. It owns twelve television stations and fourteen radio stations. Its cable systems have a million one hundred thousand subscribers. It has a seventy-eight-per-cent interest in the Spelling Entertainment Group, whose head, Aaron Spelling, is the most prolific television producer in Hollywood. It owns fifty per cent. of the All News Channel and the USA Network and fifty per cent. of the Comedy Central channel. Viacom is the largest single customer of the Hollywood studios (through Blockbuster, Showtime, and the Movie Channel) and of the record companies (through MTV and Blockbuster). It has joint ventures with several other companies, and this month it is launching, with Chris-Craft, a new TV network. Through Viacom Interactive Media, it is also involved with the development and distribution of interactive-television programming, video games and on-line computer services. And it owns a library containing a total of fifty thousand hours of TV programs and feature films.That is the environment in which the BBC will have to operate; it cannot ignore that fact. If it is to be an international multi-media enterprise, as the Government rightly say it should be, that is the sort of competition it will be up against. Viacom is not the biggest media and entertainment company in the world; it is No. 2, behind the United States company Time Warner.
The White Paper is right when it says that the BBC is competing in a market which is increasingly dominated by aggressive, very large enterprises. How on earth can the BBC compete with leviathans like that? Happily, it has already started to, as it is constructing a global partnership with a British-owned media conglomerate,Pearsons.
I can say without undue complacency that that is exactly what I recommended 18 months ago—I even named Pearsons as the appropriate partner for the BBC. I said that when the director-general of the BBC was still saying that he had lots of time to consider his options. He has certainly learnt a lesson, and I am pleased about that.
With Pearsons—which is a publisher and a newspaper owner, as well as having an interest in television—the BBC has launched its first domestic United Kingdom satellite channel, UK Gold. As the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) pointed out, since last month the BBC has been transmitting a 24-hour international news channel, BBC World, which is funded by advertising. It reaches 1.2 million homes on the European mainland, and has a potential audience of 8.4 million homes.
498 The BBC's European entertainment satellite channel, BBC Prime, which is funded by subscriptions, already reaches 2.3 million homes. Two United States channels are to follow, which will be transmitted by satellite and funded by cable subscription.
Cox Communications, a huge American company, is a partner in the BBC-Pearsons European venture. It is also involved in UK Gold and in another satellite channel, UK Living, to which the BBC supplies programmes. That is, and must be, only the beginning. The BBC's new global partnership, though formidable, is incomplete.
§ Sir John Gorst
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the role that he describes for the BBC in the future will be compatible with the suggestions from both sides of the House that it should also be concerned with regionalisation? We have heard how the BBC has scaled down its production in various centres outside London. Is it possible for the BBC to maintain its production levels and, at the same time, compete in the world market which the right hon. Gentleman describes so correctly?
§ Mr. Kaufman
Yes, indeed. We are on the verge of implementing digital compression. When that comes along, we will be able to have not only regional programmes, but local, city and neighbourhood programmes. Advances in technology will allow the BBC to become a global operator and, at the same time, provide programmes of local interest in a way that has not been possible previously with broad-brush television channelling.
The BBC's partnership is incomplete. The BBC is a provider of what is now called "software"—that is, the programmes—and it is allied with the major and powerful publisher Pearsons. However, the BBC must have a guaranteed market at home for its public service entertainment, news and education programmes.
That guaranteed market is the infrastructure that is essential for providing the high-quality programmes which the BBC and its partners can market worldwide. I do not believe—I differ from the right hon. and learned Member for Putney on this point—that the BBC is marketing its programmes as effectively as it should. We refer to that point in our report. If the BBC is to be a strong competitor, it must have a non-terrestrial highway into UK homes which will enable it to provide on-demand and interactive services.
I was very disappointed by the Secretary of State's response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). I also regret the extremely short-sighted decision of the President of the Board of Trade about British Telecommunications plc as a potential broadcaster. BT is the most obvious partner for the BBC. It already has access to many millions of homes in this country, it has developed the necessary optical fibre technology, and it is probably the most cash-rich organisation in Britain.
I find it inexplicable that the Government have decided to maintain the ban on BT becoming a broadcaster until into the next century, when, within that time scale, the cable companies will become literally entrenched in this country. Those companies are permitted to compete with BT in offering telephone services, and many of them are owned or part-owned by American telephone companies.
For example, several of the cable companies which are now permitted to broadcast in this country are part-owned by Southwestern Bell, an American telephone company.
499 Telewest owns several other UK cable companies, and it is 74 per cent. owned by two enormous American companies. One company is TCI, a giant which challenges Viacom, and which is the world's largest cable systems operator. It owns 49 per cent. of the satellite Discovery channel and has a 12 per cent. voting interest in Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, TNT and the Cartoon channel.
The other company is US West, which is America's fourth largest provider of local telephone services, serving 25 million customers in 14 states. It is a partner with Warner Brothers Filmed Entertainment, which is part of Time Warner—a company even bigger than Viacom, whose scope I have described.
What possible sense does it make to have a regime under which an American telephone company is permitted to broadcast television programmes in this country, but under which the premier British telephone company is banned from doing so? That was an extraordinarily perverse decision for the Government to make, a Government who—I quarrelled with them for doing so—privatised BT, but now prevent it from being a competitor in a market in which advantages are given to enormous United States telephone companies.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
I have great sympathy with much of what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, but will he perhaps consider and recognise that, since its creation as a private company, BT has taken a dog-in-the-manger attitude to the use of its ducts for cable, not only through its own companies—by its investment in cable throughout the country—but through other companies? It is, in fact, BT that is denying the House and others who live in Westminster access through Westminster Cable to, for example, the new Channel One cable service in London. If BT took a more positive attitude, perhaps the House would.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I do not carry any particular flag for BT. I wish that it was still publicly owned. I wish that it had a greater sense of community responsibility, but that is not the argument that I am making. The localised problem in Westminster is nothing compared with the fact that that huge British company, which has the technology and facilities to provide broadcast programmes, is not permitted to do so, whereas American telephone companies are.
Whether the BBC is able to go into partnership with BT, it is clear—to me it is welcome—that the BBC is developing into a major commercial enterprise. It is transcending its original terms of reference by going into partnership with even bigger commercial enterprises here and abroad. Such changes in the BBC's character and structure are, in my opinion, essential if it is to survive and prosper, but further changes are necessary.
At some stage before too long, a new BBC chairman will be needed to succeed Mr. Marmaduke Hussey when he retires. I trust that, when the Government fill that vacancy—when it arises—they will not do so by dipping their hand into the bran tub and coming up with another venerable member of the great and the good.
In this new environment, the next chairman of the BBC should be a young man or woman who is dynamic, has a strong business sense and understands thoroughly the new 500 technology and the new market, who can provide leadership to take on Viacom and Time Warner and have a chance of coming out on top.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I am delighted that my hon. Friends were so enthusiastic about my speech that they were about to give me a standing ovation, but I have a moment or two more in which I seek to detain the House.
In the Select Committee's second report, we said:The British Broadcasting Corporation, which was among the world's pioneers in first radio and then television, will, if it is to survive in any form, have to find a role and a structure which enable its enormous strengths and unrivalled international reputation to prevail in this new and exciting environment.In the somewhat smug briefing note that the BBC sent around in connection with the debate, it repeats the nonsense that revenues from commercial enterprise will be no more than 15 per cent. of the corporation's total revenues. No effectively run commercial enterprise can sensibly place a limit on the business it gets. The BBC had better go for the maximum possible revenue, because, sooner or later, licence payers will revolt against paying a poll tax to maintain an organisation, which, even now, the majority—before long the predominant majority—do not watch as their primary source of entertainment, education and news.
Moreover, if the Government decide—by Government I mean any Government who are in power; my own preference is obvious—to limit or reduce the licence fee in the review scheduled for 2001, the BBC will have to get more commercial income. In any case, at some stage, that income may—I hope it will—exceed the licence income. Any future Government, including a Labour Government, may at that point need to consider whether it makes sense for the BBC to remain in the public sector. It is already a hybrid organisation—part public, part private. The waters on which the new BBC will sail will not be calm—they may be turbulent—but the voyage may be enjoyable as well as exciting, and the destination will be alluring.
For nearly three quarters of a century, the BBC has served the nation well. If it did not make those at Broadcasting house and the television centre even more complacent than some of them already are, I would echo Michael Grade's panegyric of the BBC as a "national treasure". If the whole concept of public service broadcasting is to survive, that treasure needs a new setting. I hope that those responsible for the BBC will have the enterprise and imagination to ensure the organisation's new role in the new and challenging century.
§ Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)
I agree with much that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, although I shall approach some of the points that he made from a different angle.
I congratulate the Government on producing a rather dull White Paper. Alas, not every Department has the courage to be boring when it needs to be, but this is certainly not the time for the Government to impose radical new departures on the BBC, not because it does not need some radical changes—it does—but because the 501 changes required can effectively come only from the BBC itself. It has made a very impressive start in that direction in recent years.
I am particularly glad that the White Paper recommends keeping the licence fee. It is not very much liked, as the right hon. Gentleman said so clearly, and it cuts very little ice to say, as the BBC so frequently does, that it costs less than the price of a daily newspaper. However, as the Select Committee made clear, for the present and the foreseeable future it is the least bad method of raising the necessary revenue.
Advertising is a very good way of paying for many television and radio channels, but certainly not for all of them. If the BBC went over to advertising, wholly or in part, it would undoubtedly diminish choice. Some struggling competitors would find that they did not get enough advertising to survive. The BBC would certainly become more like its rivals than it is now, further diminishing choice.
The BBC without advertising in the United Kingdom is rapidly becoming much more commercial: first with producer choice, and the internal market. In the early days, there were scarcely muffled cries of pain emerging from Broadcasting house, and stories circulated of idiotic time wasting, and straitjackets imposed by accountants who would not know how to organise a test card and a record of "Sailing By". I have no doubt that many of those stories were true, but it seems as though most of the initial crudities have been ironed out, and producer choice is yielding efficiencies and thus savings, which can be ploughed back into the making and the improving of programmes. If that is so—I believe that it is—it is a very necessary and impressive achievement.
Undoubtedly, producers with set budgets, freed to shop around inside and outside the corporation, become more cost conscious and more interested in the benefits that competition can bring, in economy, naturally, but in ideas as well. In such competition, there is, of course, no new temptation for the BBC to compete for ratings. That already comes from the BBC's knowledge that, the lower its ratings, the harder it is next time around to justify the licence fee, not least to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir J. Gorst).
Audience figures make a direct and immediate financial impact overseas, however. It is too early to say whether the new worldwide BBC satellite television channels in Europe, the middle east, Japan and the Indian sub-continent have all the potential that is hoped for, and whether the BBC and its partners will secure that potential if it is there; but, as the right hon. Member for Gorton suggested, the essential point is that success will depend on its winning and retaining overseas audiences for whom advertisers want to pay.
The more success the BBC has in that regard and the larger the profits that accrue, the more inevitable will be a shift away from the United Kingdom in the BBC's centre of gravity. That will change the corporation's attitude to commercial considerations, notwithstanding what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about keeping domestic services separate from foreign services and commercial broadcasting separate from broadcasting financed by the licence fee. That is possible in accounting terms, but it is not psychologically possible to maintain such a distinction in the organisation.
502 I imagine that the change will be increasingly visible at home as the BBC engages in private sector partnerships to exploit the opportunities offered by digital and cable broadcasting in education and a series of "niche" markets, as well as more general entertainment markets. It is clear that the BBC's future is increasingly and ineluctably commercial, but it should evolve naturally: the BBC should be encouraged to take advantage of the immense opportunities which it has overseas—thanks to satellite and cable television—and at home—thanks to technological developments such as digital broadcasting. That would be better than setting about the corporation with a legislative tin opener, as some have suggested that the Government should do. I am glad to say that those ideas seemed to disperse before the publication of the White Paper, but they were very much in the air a few years ago.
I am not unduly worried that BBC quality, whatever that is, will suffer; rather the reverse, as long as the BBC takes a hard and understanding look at its markets. It knows that its success overseas and in the domestic market will depend heavily on its brand name, and that in the long run its fortunes will rest on the protection and projection of its well-earned but easily lost reputation.
It would be pleasant to think that in due course the BBC's profits in the rest of the world will be so great that it will be able to dispense with the licence fee at home, but it is more likely that the question that has been referred to several times this afternoon will still be there in 10 years' time, and almost as intractable. It will have changed its form because by then digital technology will probably have made encryption and direct-subscription BBC a practical possibility. However, that bridge must be crossed in the next century rather than now.
Like the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), I do not want to return to the question of the licence fee too soon, because I feel that the certainty of the BBC's income in the next few years is vital. The present Government's job is to keep out of the way while the BBC makes its own progress according to where opportunities and audience needs beckon and what technology makes possible. If I read the White Paper correctly, that is essentially the Government's view as well. There is simply not enough money from the licence fee—certainly not enough from the general tax revenue that Governments of any flavour would be willing to invest—to expand BBC activities in any other way. The BBC's task will be to exploit commercial opportunities internationally without losing its public service ethos, as the right hon. Member for Gorton pointed out.
As for the BBC's transmission service, surely the main question is not whether it should be sold off but how and when it can be freed to compete fairly in the market. In that regard, I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. National Transcommunications Ltd. has had a useful period in which to establish itself; it is a fine company, which I was delighted to privatise when I was the Minister responsible for broadcasting. There should be more competition in the market now, however. I should like to see the transmission service at arm's length from the BBC, with a substantial private sector shareholding. I should like the BBC to benefit from the one-off capital receipt from a partial sale, and from a continuing share of the profit that I hope will be earned from the winning of non-BBC contracts by the new, separate transmission company.
503 I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will not be able to give an idea of the Government's thinking when he winds up the debate, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear; but I hope that a decision will not be long delayed, because it is already overdue.
I am glad that the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council are to be merged. The reduction by one in the number of regulatory bodies is welcome, and there should be some saving in overheads. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will make it clear that the Treasury will not take all the savings, and that he will ensure that the new body has enough resources to sustain an effective research programme.
No one else will carry out regular, original, fundamental research on the changing impact of television. The industry will seldom produce more than viewing statistics and audience reaction to different programmes. In a rapidly changing broadcasting environment, programme makers, public bodies and the public at large need a better understanding of the evolving impact of television and radio on attitudes and perceptions, not least those of children. If my hon. Friend feels that he cannot prevail on the Treasury, I hope that he will ensure that appropriate funds are obtained from fees levied on the broadcasters themselves.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Let me repeat the apology that I made to the Under-Secretary for State earlier for my inability to be present for his reply to the debate. I am grateful to him for his understanding of the reasons.
In the BBC we have a national institution of the greatest cultural and economic significance, to which every speech that we have heard so far has paid due tribute. The debate has featured a consensus that is remarkable in view of broadcasting debates that took place as recently as four years ago. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I touch on matters that were controversial then but appear rather less so today; I suspect that not only the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) but one or two less vociferous hon. Members still have those arguments at the back of their minds.
For some three quarters of a century, broadcasting on radio and subsequently on television, the BBC has entertained, provoked, educated and inspired the nation. It has been rarely silent, occasionally isolated, but never insignificant. Even in wartime—when the BBC was both weapon, through its broadcasts overseas, and defence, through the uniting power of the home service—it never wavered from its aim of providing, in Lord Reith's words,the best of everything, to everyone".A mass observation diary kept in 1941, in the depths of the war, records:Favourite topic on Mondays seems to be the previous day's Brains Trust session. Hardly anyone ever confesses that he didn't hear it, or if they do, take care to give adequate reasons for so doing.More recently, letters to the Home Secretary calling for an amnesty for a character in "The Archers" showed how deeply entwined in the national consciousness the BBC and its service still are.
504 Our general-felt fondness for "Aunty" should not alone guide Government policy towards the BBC in the 1990s and beyond, for "Aunty" is also a business with an annual income approaching £2 billion a year, over 90 per cent. of which comes from the licence fee imposed on every television owner in the United Kingdom. It employs some 20,000 people full time, and draws on the services of thousands more in producing and distributing more than 17,000 hours of programming on radio and television each year. It broadcasts daily to more than 100 countries worldwide, and gathers news and information by the hour from many more. Its 1994 accounts reveal its assets to be worth some £1.5 billion.
The House has many times presided over the fates of corporations with comparable balance sheets and great social significance. In the past decade and a half, it has approved every proposal that the Government have introduced for the sale of our major public utilities. Today, however, the Government are not proposing the sale of the BBC, or even some half-measure towards privatisation. We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), whose White Paper this is, that that is so.
Against the trend, we are debating a White Paper that proposes to preserve the BBC as a public institution, funded by the licence fee, constituted under a royal charter, and with its assets held in trust for the nation. Such an approach is all the more remarkable when, for most of the 1980s, Conservative Ministers were regularly to be heard fulminating about the left-wing bias, depravity and unpatriotic tone of the BBC. In her memoirs, the former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, commented that those broadcasters disguised their own interests ashigh minded commitment to some greater good".During that decade, it was not beyond imagination that the BBC would be broken up, its constituent parts privatised and the licence fee abandoned. The White Paper is all the more welcome for that reason. Almost the first phrase in the White Paper is "public service"; it is not "efficiency", or even "commercial freedom".
In the general thrust of its proposals, the White Paper seeks to preserve the strengths of the BBC. As the director-general, John Birt, has said, that can be achieved not by placing the institution in aspic but by enabling the corporation to adapt to the new and fast-developing demands and expectations of a changing world.
The Government have recognised—late, but not too late—that the public service broadcaster need be, not the enemy of competition in television and radio, but a friend and rival. For 40 years, that has been the nature of competition in British broadcasting. For more than half its lifetime, the BBC has had to compete with commercial television. Although heavily regulated, the independent companies have been able not only to compete in quality and choice but to make substantial profits from advertising. Throughout the last decade, however, competition has increased dramatically. It is natural to question the necessity for a public broadcaster in that new expanding marketplace.
In 1983, there were but three channels, but today there are more than 50. The growth has been largely in local and regional cable services, and in the proliferation of satellite broadcasting under the effective monopoly of Rupert Murdoch. The Select Committee on National Heritage nearly fell over itself with enthusiasm for that 505 technological change. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) gave a flavour of that in his remarks earlier in the debate. The Committee declared:The Media Revolution is Nigh!as its first statement in the report on the BBC's future.
From almost nothing a decade ago, cable television lines now pass 2.7 million homes. Fourteen per cent. of households not passed by cable have satellite dishes. Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, once said that the effect of the BBC on the commercial channels was that it kept them all honest, but if the BBC does its job properly, it can do more than that: it can keep them all on their toes, and it can challenge other broadcasters to compete in the quality, range and inventiveness of their programmes. It does that already.
Research conducted by the Independent Television Commission last year revealed that, in homes that have chosen to invest in cable and satellite services, 70 per cent. of viewing time is still spent with the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. That is the context in which the remarks of the right hon. Member for Gorton should be borne in mind. We have not yet arrived at that revolutionary state to which he drew our attention. Overall, the two BBC television channels account for 1.7 hours of daily television viewing—44 per cent. of the total. Therefore, the role of the BBC in the new marketplace is more, not less, important in raising standards and in forcing other broadcasters to compete in quality and choice. It is our wish to ensure that the BBC will still be able to keep them on their toes in 2005, when as many as 200 broadcasters may be jostling for viewers' attention.
No one, except the BBC, can guarantee the success of the BBC; nor can we know the ultimate shape and scale of the media revolution that is in its early stages. To second-guess those changes and to restructure the BBC according to one favoured projection or another of markets a decade, or more, into the future all but guarantees disaster. Our only prudent course is to provide the BBC and British broadcasting in general with a solid platform on which to evolve in the multi-media age. That is achievable under certain provisions, not all of which the White Paper appears to be prepared to secure.
The first of those provisions is the continuation in public ownership and the retention of the licence fee as the major portion of BBC income. That is assured by the White Paper. The licence fee is a crude form of taxation. It is regressive, expensive to collect and administer, difficult and disproportionately expensive to enforce, and it distances the BBC from the demands of audiences. Because it is set by the Government, it provides Ministers with a means of putting pressure on the BBC by threatening its future income. Furthermore, some people have argued that, as the BBC accounts for an ever smaller proportion of viewing time, the licence fee will increasingly be seen as an onerous requirement on viewers, who may not desire to watch or listen to any of the services for which they pay.
Ian Hargreaves, in his DEMOS pamphlet "Sharper Vision", considers such arguments almost sufficient to justify privatisation of the corporation. He believes that continued state ownership will prevent the BBC from adapting to and exploiting new markets. I do not believe that. The licence fee has certain advantages for the BBC 506 and for broadcasting in general, which could not be sustained under any other funding regime. It expands choice overall by providing a source of income for production which does not come directly from the pockets of other broadcasters or media.
The licence fee is predictable, allowing for investment by the BBC in new programmes and in expensive genres such as drama, against which others must compete in kind. It is secure, providing the safety needed for risk taking, which others have to match.
Of all the problems associated with the licence fee, most are due to its structure rather than to its principle. One, however, consumer sovereignty, is likely to be of increasing importance, and it arises from the mandatory nature of the licence. The 1986 report of the Peacock committee into the funding of the BBC notes that viewers have sovereignty over cable and satellite channels, for they can vote for those services with their wallets; that they have indirect influence over the content of ITV and Channel 4 schedules, for unpopular programmes cannot attract premium advertising revenues; but that the BBC could, if it so wished, ignore that, at least in the short term, and its revenue would remain the same.
The most commonly proposed solution is to introduce an element of advertising into the BBC. Experience abroad has shown, however, that even the injection of a small amount of commercial revenue into the mainstream activities of a public service broadcaster can have a disproportionate effect on the range and quality of programmes.
The only bankable equation for a commercial broadcaster is the ratio of viewers to pounds spent on programming. The more viewers who can be attracted for each pound spent on programming, the greater the broadcaster's profits are likely to be. If an hour of "LA Law" costs only £30,000, but an hour of home-produced drama costs up to £400,000 and attracts half the audience, "LA Law" will win every time. The programmes that will come naturally to dominate schedules will be popular, but predictable, repeated and imported.
The French learnt that lesson to their cost in the 1980s. Within two years of introducing advertising to their public service channels, not only had the range of programming on those stations suffered but the balance had tipped towards a greater concentration on populist programming, such as music, games, and sport, more repeats and more imports. I therefore support the consensus approaching unanimity in our debate this afternoon—although perhaps not in the country as a whole—that we should put the issue of the licence fee well and truly on ice. Alternative mechanisms need to be found to inject sufficient consumer power into BBC programming.
The most appropriate candidates for accountability who are available are the board of governors and the national councils. The board of governors has the duty of ensuring that the public interest is protected in the BBC, that the money from the licence fee is efficiently spent and that BBC programming reflects the needs of audiences.
Those 12 men and women are, like police officers, appointed by the Crown. In theory, their duty is not to the Government of the day but to the public. However, like quango members everywhere, they owe their selection for appointment directly to ministerial patronage. There is a fundamental conflict between those two elements. The 507 whiff of patronage cannot be entirely eradicated from a board that owes its appointment to favour. That is not good for the BBC or for the public.
I note the Select Committee's view thatthe Board is at present seriously unrepresentative of the various sectors of society".The Select Committee recommended that it—the Select Committee—should approve the appointments. The White Paper, which in so many areas has adopted the Select Committee's views and arguments, disposed of that recommendation by simply confirming that the Government intend to carry on as before.
From paragraph 6.15 of the White Paper, it appears that the Government believe that if members of one party appoint the governors, that will avoid accusations of partisanship in the selection. Perhaps some other hon. Member better schooled than I am in formal logic may be able to explain the reasoning behind that patent piece of nonsense. The only way to secure an independent, unbiased and representative board of governors is to adopt a selection procedure, which, in itself, is independent, unbiased and representative. I am disappointed that the Government rejected all alternatives to the present system without giving their grounds for doing so.
I suggest that approval of proposed appointments by, say, two thirds of the House, could present a workable alternative. The proposals for appointments could still be drawn up by Ministers, but they would do that knowing that cross-party consensus would eventually be required. That mechanism would create an incentive for more open consideration and the extension of the pool of possible candidates to create a more representative board.
§ Mr. Maxton
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the appointment of the national governor from Scotland should be made from Scotland and not by the Department of National Heritage? Certainly, once we have a Scottish Parliament up and running, that Scottish Parliament would make such an appointment.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
In the circumstances, the governors must be protected more than they are at the moment from the unacceptable pressures from the Government. The White Paper proposes that the governors' duties be laid out in the new charter, but there is no suggestion of what those duties may be. I suggest that they include a specific reference to securing the BBC's editorial independence from the Government.
Independence is the cornerstone of press and broadcasting freedom. Even the slightest sign of meddling by Ministers, for their private or political interests, in editorial decisions can undermine public faith in the media. As a public service, the BBC must be above that suspicion.
No guarantee of independence exists at present, but it is a general principle of law that that which is not specifically forbidden is permissable. There have been too many incidents in the history of the BBC, and in broadcasting in general, where the lack of a specific prohibition of that nature has created sufficient uncertainty for the corporation or other broadcasters to submit to the political demands of Ministers.
When the BBC was founded, it was so constrained by the Government that if one had tuned into the Derby in 1926, one would have heard only the shuffle of hooves 508 on wet earth as the horses ran past the microphone. All commentary was banned by the Postmaster-General, as was the announcement of the result, on the ground that it would damage the newspapers—a rich source of revenue for the Post Office. Even the King's Speech at the state opening of Parliament in 1923 was considered unfit for the wireless because it contained controversial material—an area which the Postmaster-General felt should be left again to the press barons.
Perhaps more relevant to this debate, in more recent times there have been several actual and alleged instances of intervention which are hardly less subtle. The famous Zircon episode in Glasgow, which Scottish Members will remember, and "Slide into Slump", the "Panorama" programme on the economy which was pulled from its scheduled appearance just before the last general election, were arrested in the full glare of public scrutiny. Even an apparent intervention, if it gains currency, can be as damaging to all concerned as an intervention itself.
If the Government are truly committed, in the words of the White Paper, to the "chain of accountability", they will consider seriously the proposal of a specific duty on the governors to protect the BBC from political interference in editorial decisions. Conservative Members may trust their own Ministers not to interfere with the BBC, but I do not know whether they would trust a future Government of a different political view who may be formed during the lifetime of the next charter.
I wonder whether Conservative Members have considered the likely consequences of the White Paper proposal affecting the BBC's regional policy. I heard what the Secretary of State said about that earlier, but I am not entirely convinced that the required degree of commitment exists.
Most of us represent constituencies that are outside London. Our constituents, who form the majority of the population and therefore provide the BBC with its keep, have every right to hear and see something of their own lives and regional interests reported and reflected on television and radio locally and nationally.
The White Paper nods that way. It states that the national councils could "make an input" into the BBC's strategic decisions and policies. For BBC controllers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the White Paper recommendsa budget for the programmes produced specifically for audiences in each country.That is not enough. The BBC's motto isLet nation speak unto nation".Something else must have been thought of when that motto was dreamt up. Ours is a country of several nations. In that context, the motto should not mean, as the White Paper portends, a little more of Scotland speaking to Scotland, and of Wales conversing with itself. It should mean, "Let Scotland speak to Wales and Wales to Scotland, and both to England." Today the conversation is all one way.
English voices, outlook and opinion drown out all others in almost every circumstance. Eighty-five per cent. of BBC output originates in London; 97 per cent. in England and the remaining 3 per cent. in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I do not believe that the public are impressed by that distribution. The BBC conducted a corporate image survey in 1991 and 1992 which investigated perceptions of that metropolitan bias. In 509 every region of the United Kingdom outside London, the east and south-east of England, between 35 per cent. and 70 per cent. of viewers thought that the BBC looked to London too much. In every one of those areas, less than half those people felt the same way about their local ITV company. The White Paper says only that the BBC shouldheed these criticisms and respond to them".The BBC's response to date has been inadequate. The Hatch report, published in April 1994, promised a £75 million boost for BBC regional services. The money, however, will be spent largely on what are called "centres of excellence"—a Manchester bi-media production base, a music production centre in Cardiff and more schools programmes in Bristol. Merely moving money about in that way will not meet the demands of the public to see and hear less of London and more of the rest of Britain.
A genuine regional policy would ensure that a greater proportion of networked production originated outside London, especially in news and current affairs. That would require an effective decentralisation of decision making and management from London to the nations and regions of Britain. We need more of a regional BBC, not a BBC with a regional policy.
The national councils will not provide the impetus. The budgets of the national directors will, by implication, be determined by the centre and they will have only an advisory role—not an executive role—in national BBC policy making. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to reconsider his specific recommendations. He may wish to consider, for example, the proposal of the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign, to establish specific requirements for monitoring management progress in regional coverage.
A great many opportunities lie ahead for British broadcasters, especially for the BBC. Globalisation and digital technology, new means of delivering large volumes of high-quality signals, interactive and on-demand services, the convergence of diverse media into common formats and increasing sophistication among viewers and listeners are combining to invert or make redundant almost every understanding and assumption about mass media that we have developed over 70 years.
Despite those opportunities, in 1991—the point may already have been made—Britain ran a deficit of £100 million with the rest of world in broadcasting services and material. On current trends, that deficit is projected to rise to £640 million by the turn of the century. We are falling behind and we would be foolish to let ourselves miss the opportunity to shape and profit from developments. The BBC, our largest publisher and broadcaster, with a base of skills across every media form, is a natural vehicle for the fulfilment of ambitions.
As the BBC knows, its name is—perhaps—second only to Coca-Cola in being recognised in almost every country. I see no reason whatever to deny the BBC the benefit of fully exploiting overseas markets. I also welcome the possibility of the BBC's entering into secondary domestic markets, through, for example, subscription cable services which provide repeats of programmes.
The future expansion of terrestrial services will almost inevitably occur through the commercialisation of digital compression technology. The BBC has as much a role to 510 play in those services as it did in, for example, the change from 405 to 653-line television screens, which took many years to accomplish. However, it is unlikely that digital television will replace traditional analogue broadcasting for many years. A smooth and managed transition to digital, which balances the need of the market to expand with the interests of audiences in ensuring wider choice, continuity and programming, is essential.
Essential to the debate is the regulation, or otherwise, of the systems in which consumers must invest if they are to receive digital services. That involves set-top converters—proprietary technology for converting digital signals into images and sounds. If one company were to control access of broadcasters to consumers through control of conversion technology, there would be a considerable danger that, without regulation, a monopoly would develop in digital services, similar to that in satellite services at present.
The BBC argues—I am inclined to agree—that further progress towards digital transmission should not take place without firm guarantees that no such monopoly will be allowed to develop, which may include the BBC controlling its own transmission network, for which privatisation is an option.
Ambitions for a global, digital BBC will be for nothing if it cannot also succeed at home. Strength in Britain is the only basis on which the BBC will be able to build. The White Paper goes some way towards ensuring that. It suggests by no means the best of all possible worlds, but it certainly does not suggest the worst.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy)
I declare what I would call an old interest, as I was once employed by the BBC in the early 1950s as an all-purpose Welsh and English news man. Since then, I have always been indebted to the BBC for that very educative and valuable experience. Although I did most of my work in Wales, I had the privilege of contributing to national news programmes, such as "Eyewitness" on the home service and "Radio Newsreel" on the light programme.
I deserted the BBC to establish independent television in Wales in 1957, but I have always kept a close, professional eye on the corporation. I have sometimes been highly critical of the BBC when it has, in my view, overplayed its independence of government and of the state, especially in news and current affairs programmes. Occasionally, the BBC has tended to act rather like the Church in the middle ages and become, as the Church was then known, imperium in imperio.
Nevertheless, I am among the first to appreciate the excellence of the BBC, which is why I want to begin by commending the critique of current affairs broadcasting set out by the director-general John Birt in his Dublin speech and reported in The Times on Saturday. It highlighted the concerns of many of us about the relationship between the media and politics; the tendency of the media to disputation and to pressurise excessively; and the media's attempt to dictate policies by seeking instant reactions, leaving no time for reflection and measured judgment. That report in The Times should be compulsory reading for every interviewer and every politician. The thinking behind it is very sound.
At one time, I would have used this debate to consider the arguments for and against privatisation of the BBC or parts of it. Although such a discussion is not appropriate 511 on any scale in this debate, I am not convinced that we should rule out that possibility at some future date. We may have to consider the possibility again in the next decade, such is the pace of change in the media and such is the pressure for resources under which the BBC will come.
I agree with the scenario painted by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who, as Chairman of the Select Committee on National Heritage, certainly knows precisely what multi-media entails. The new multi-media world has changed one's perspective of the BBC and its future is not quite as assured as it used to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir. J. Gorst)—alas, he is not in the Chamber—put his finger on the issue when he asked whether the BBC was capable of carrying out a dual role.
There was a time, too, when I would have argued strongly for the break-up of the BBC, primarily on the ground that it was so large in organisational terms and so extensive in its programming that the contents of the programmes were virtually beyond control. There is still some truth in that. There are fresh arguments, which we have heard, for more regional control. One way to such regional control is virtually to break up the BBC. At the same time, the role of the governors has changed for the better, as the White Paper notes, and it is to be more clearly defined in future, on the lines thatThe Governors' role is to look after the public's interest in the BBC, not to manage it.That happened frequently in the past.
The proposed merger between the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council and the new council's briefto carry out research into both the content and scheduling of programmesshould also help in monitoring and control. At the end of the day, the BBC and its public are very dependent on the individual producers' sense of responsibility and their accountability to professional superiors. Therefore, the ethos of the BBC is important and it will become increasingly so as competition for viewers and listeners becomes ever more acute, with the advent of more choice—seemingly infinite choice—in our multi-media world.
The conclusion of an early chapter in the White Paper on the future role of the BBC strikes the right balance. It states that the primary focus of the BBC's activities must be programming for United Kingdom audiences, but thatit should develop its role as an international broadcaster, building on its present service for audiences overseas.All hon. Members are aware of the high standing of the BBC abroad, and it is right that its achievements should be built upon—that is in British national interest. The problem, of course, with the dual role of "Serving the nation" and "Competing world-wide", as the White Paper has it, is, I suspect, that the international role will require much more resources. With finite resources from the licence fee, are we to see more resources devoted to programmes primarily for consumption abroad, and possibly at the expense of programmes which, by their very nature, are suitable only for the home market? That fear appears to be fairly widespread, as indeed is the fear that the regions will be the first casualties in the battle for resources.
512 The BBC is a highly centralised concern—some people think that it is too centralised—in spite of its regional and local services. It tends to be dominated by the metropolis, as we have heard, as indeed are the national newspapers, and it has to be reminded constantly that it is not the London broadcasting corporation but the British Broadcasting Corporation. It has excellent facilities in the regions, and it should make full use of them. After all, the regions are the training ground for much of its talent, both technical and cultural, and they are capable of producing programmes of high quality and originality, too.
The BBC has much to gain from the strong regional presence if it is properly used. I am talking about not only Wales and Scotland but the English regions. If only the BBC could overcome its centripetal tendency, and the belief that little of quality or interest can come from beyond the perimeter of the M25. Of course, some programmes from the cultural peripheries of the metropolis are quite interesting, but much of that programming is filler material. One wonders why the regions do not fill in obvious gaps and give the all-Britain dimension to BBC programming that I find missing from time to time.
The hon. Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) gave us some figures. I am told that only 3 per cent. of network programmes are made in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which have 17 per cent. of the audience. The BBC, in the Hatch report, recognised the need for change, but, as I understand from the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign and the Broadcasting Campaign for Wales, it has not fulfilled the promises that have been made.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Wales specifically. I welcome the White Paper's section on the role of the national governors and national councils and the statement that theyshould make an input into setting the annual objectives for the BBC management as a whole".
§ Mr. Jessel
That matter is important, and it was raised earlier. Will my right hon. Friend enlarge a little on what he said? Does he say that guidance was given to the BBC that it should have a much larger proportion from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than the 3 per cent. that was mentioned?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
It is true that, as soon as the White Paper was published, the BBC announced plans. The situation is summed up by the Broadcasting Campaign for Wales, which states:The White Paper does accept the force of the argument for a less centralist BBC and reaffirms the importance of fairer representation of the nations and regions of the UK across all its services. In response to these criticisms, the BBC pledged to implement a new funding commitment to the regions"—that is the £75 million that we have heard about—however, this plan is clearly limited as it still confirms central control of programming and resources and could lead to undermining the regional programming service itself.I have a similar statement from the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign. 513 I was talking about the appointment of national governors and the role that is to be given to them. There is no doubt that that role will enable them to assess whether the BBC is ensuring that a reasonable proportion of the United Kingdom output is made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some people, including those in the Broadcasting Campaign for Wales, would like the governors' responsibility for regional policy to be stated in the charter. I see no great difficulty with that, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage will deal with the point. Such people then go on to talk about what is basically a quota system of production and resources.
I have enough experience of broadcasting to know that there are dangers in being too specific about programme hours. I do not wish to see quality sacrificed for quantity or anything else. Nevertheless, I hope that everything that can reasonably be done will be done to reassure the regions that they can play their full role. They are very concerned, as anyone who has read the representations of the campaigns for broadcasting in Wales and Scotland will know. There is deep distrust of the BBC's centralising tendency.
The BBC has made a substantial contribution to the success of the Welsh language fourth channel, S4C, in Wales, and long may it continue to do so. A specific commitment to that effect would be most welcome, although I believe that one is already incorporated in the legislation, so it is probably too much to expect it to be doubled up in the charter. But the idea could be considered.
The quality of the BBC's Welsh language output serves to highlight the need for more English programmes produced in Wales—although not, I hasten to add, at the expense of Welsh language programmes. No light entertainment in English, for instance, is made in Wales, and there are no soap operas or children's programmes for non-Welsh speakers. But there is a new policy in the making as a result of the White Paper, and it is to be hoped that that will remedy some of the defects in the regions.
§ Mr. Wigley
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although there is a paucity or even a total lack of some programmes in the English language in Wales, other programmes are doubled up—sometimes sport, for example, local coverage or even politics? We need a more coherent approach, as has been achieved in the Welsh language through S4C. Can he foresee an organisation growing in the future that would enable programmes from Wales to be brought together to ensure a proper balance, at least, so that the English speakers in Wales could have the sort of balanced service that the Welsh speakers have now?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We want a more balanced English output in Wales, corresponding to the scheduling style of S4C, the Welsh programme channel. If the new policy of increasing production in the regions envisaged in the White Paper is vigorously and successfully pursued, the deficiencies may be removed. I believe that if more were produced in the 514 regions, that would pay the BBC handsomely, because it would secure audience loyalty in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
§ Mr. Flynn
A remarkable unanimity seems to be emerging on that issue among all the parties in Wales. We all agree with every word that the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) is saying. We are all keen to ensure that the English language communities, with their distinctive characteristics, are represented as well as the Welsh language communities. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the unique problem in Wales—that of the language communities—could be best tackled if the sums for each language were not the subject of dispute but were separately ring-fenced?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I am always wary of ring-fencing. Clearly, a view has been taken that the commercial joint venture—the international dimension—should be ring-fenced and the public service element should be open to negotiation. There are dangers in ring-fencing within the public service broadcasting system that the BBC currently runs. I do not want to pursue the point, but it is clear that in Wales, for example, we should like to produce not only for our own consumption, but for the network.
There is a deeply felt need for good quality home-produced British programmes. As more channels become available, those programmes will stand out as different from the mass of international offerings, which I find boringly similar in style and content. Nevertheless I admit that those probably achieve the largest audiences now. But although the BBC's audiences may relish the foreign product today, I believe that in time the novelty will wear off and future audiences will want the home-grown product. Perhaps that belief is a matter of faith on my part; it is certainly the result of my great faith in the people who work in the broadcasting industry.
The Select Committee has produced a comprehensive report backed by a mass of useful evidence, and the White Paper is a well-considered document that provides a sound basis for the BBC's future. In my experience the BBC is a sensible organisation, and my plea is that it should be really sensitive to the critical voices, especially those in the regions, and should enlist the co-operation of the regions to fulfil its primary role—that of producing programmes for United Kingdom audiences.
§ Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)
I listened with great care, and much agreement, to the speech by the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts). I only wish that he, as a Welsh Tory, would use the same logic that he applies to the centralised BBC when he talks about the centralised British state, and would argue for the devolution of power from Westminster to the nations of Scotland and Wales and to the other regions of England. If he applied the same logic to that subject as he does to the BBC, he would be forced to that conclusion.
I shall return later to what the right hon. Gentleman said about privatisation and the role of the BBC in the international arena, because I believe that both he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) got it wrong about where the long-term future of the BBC lies.
515 Last September I had cable television installed in my house, and I shall start by asking a rather odd technical question. When I am at home I spend most of my viewing time watching BBC1 and BBC2, and my wife does the same when I am not at home, but we now receive those channels down the cable, not through the aerial. When my right hon. Friend cites figures about the penetration of cable, I wonder whether when I am watching BBC1 and BBC2 via the cable I am listed as a cable watcher or a BBC watcher. If I am not listed as a BBC watcher, all the figures for BBC viewing are being distorted—
§ Mr. Maxton
Perhaps; anyway the figures would certainly be distorted, and that may make a big difference to the way in which we think about the future of the BBC over the next few years.
Being able to switch between 45 different channels has reinforced my view that the BBC is the best broadcasting company in the world. My trips to the United States, where I have also been able to watch innumerable channels in hotel rooms, and to other parts of the world where I have had the same experience, have done the same. Every time I come back with the reinforced view that the BBC is the best broadcaster in the world—not only the best public service broadcaster in the world but the best broadcaster across the whole range of entertainment.
Not only did the BBC pioneer the televising of sport but still, in terms of the commentary, the camera work and the programmes later in the evening showing highlights, the BBC coverage is better than anything else. I can now see golf from America every weekend on some channel or other, but the American programmes do not match up in any way to the BBC coverage of the British Open.
The BBC does the best comedy too. What better comedy programmes are there anywhere than those made by the BBC? The programme with the highest rating over Christmas was not a film or anything else but "One Foot in the Grave", a programme with which most people of my age, and yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, identify. Certainly, our children recognise many of the characteristics of the leading character. Over 75 years, the BBC has built up a big reputation.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
I may be anticipating the hon Gentleman's argument, but does he not also agree that many people do not have the choice of cable or satellite, because they cannot afford it, and that the BBC offers quality and range at an equivalent cost of less than £8 a month, which ensures that people can have access to such programmes throughout their lifetime, no matter what their wealth?
§ Mr. Maxton
I agree. The licence is not merely the way in which we pay for the BBC; it is integral to BBC programming. It is part and parcel of it and not just something that we put up with. Without the licence, the nature of the BBC would have been very different during the past 75 years and its future would be different.
The BBC creates a range of high-quality programmes. All of us criticise it at some time or another because we think that it is being unfair to us politically. Perhaps I can 516 add to the complaints that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton listed about BBC radio. Sometimes, BBC Radio Scotland is over-nationalistic.
§ Mr. Maxton
That proves my point. The BBC achieves balance because the hon. Gentleman, who represents the Scottish National party, believes that BBC Radio Scotland is over-weighted towards the Labour party—no one believes that it is over-weighted to the Tory party, but that is another matter.
The BBC achieves balance and an in-depth analysis of current affairs that very few other organisations in the broadcasting world achieve. It is innovative—much of what has happened in television and radio broadcasting throughout the world has stemmed from the BBC. That is evident not merely from dramas, such as "The Singing Detective" but from comedy programmes such as "Steptoe and Son" and "Some Mothers do 'ave 'em"—a range of comedy programmes demonstrates that the BBC has been very innovative—to current affairs programmes such as "Newsnight" and "Panorama" and the sports coverage.
It is a matter of quality and not merely of being innovative. Even the fairly standard drama series, such as "Lovejoy" and "All Creatures Great and Small" are better produced, acted and directed than their equivalents on other terrestrial channels and those equivalents are better than the series that one sees on satellite or abroad.
Those comments show that I have a strong commitment to the BBC and I believe that the licence fee is integral to its quality. The BBC has been financed, both independently of Government—it has not been financed through taxation—and independently of commercial pressures, which has allowed it to develop its expertise and skills. Conservative Members claim that the market can solve all problems, but the BBC is an organisation that proves that, in certain circumstances, the market is best left well out of it. If the BBC had been forced to live in the marketplace, it would be a very different organisation and would not have created such high-quality and innovative programming.
Everyone has accepted that the licence fee is the way in which the BBC should be, and will be, funded during its next period. I am a little worried that no one has pointed out that we ought to consider how those of us who can afford to pay more for the licence fee can do so, so that the BBC has a bigger income. Also, those who cannot afford to pay a full licence fee should be able to pay less. I do not know how we can do it, but we should think about it.
We also ought to consider how to extend the licence—we tend to forget that it is a broadcasting and not a television licence. We have not got the balance right for hotels and should reconsider the amount that hotel chains pay for their televisions, if every room has a set and people are using them all the time.
I listen to radio only when I am in my car and yet I do not have to pay for a licence to have a radio in my car or in my wife's or my son's car—I have three radios, people are listening to them and I pay nothing for that, which is wrong. We must study licensing, but it should remain the basic way in which the service is funded.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should have adopted the recommendation 517 in the Select Committee on National Heritage report, that there should be a higher licence fee for homes with two or more television sets?
§ Mr. Maxton
Yes, they should. I admitted in that Committee that we have four televisions in our house and pay for only one licence—the same as any pensioner. The Government and the licensing authority have said that it is not technologically possible to tell how many televisions are in one house, but it ought to be possible in the near future, and we should consider whether we should pay more for a licence if we have more than one television set. That would help to fund the BBC.
The BBC is not perfect. I am one of its strongest supporters, but I have one major criticism, which has already been voiced. By the way, I congratulate the Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign on the way in which it managed to get its brief to every hon. Member that it thought might speak tonight and on the fact that it has been so widely used. For my constituents in Scotland, however, the BBC often seems very London-based. To put it in the most simple terms, if it were raining and blowing a gale in London, one would think from watching the weather forecast after the main news that the whole of the United Kingdom was suffering bad weather, although we might be having a heat-wave in Glasgow—I admit that it is often the other way round. The weather forecast leaves the impression that all Britain is having an awful day, so people everywhere should wear their raincoats.
All surveys of the BBC show that the further away from London one gets, the lower the regard for its services, and the more its popularity declines. In Scotland, the BBC is nothing like as popular as it is in the south-east. The Broadcasting for Scotland Campaign has made it clear that it is not some form of Scottish independence movement—far from it. We are arguing for a strong British Broadcasting Corporation, but for the devolution of some of its functions to other parts of the United Kingdom. That case matches the case that I would argue for devolution for Westminster. Devolving some of the BBC's functions and powers from its headquarters in London to the regions would strengthen the BBC, just as it would strengthen the United Kingdom if this place gave some of its powers to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
More importantly from our point of view, too much of the talent in Scotland, Wales and the regions of England is sucked to London because the BBC over-centralises its production here. We have a great deal of talent in Scotland and the fact that the BBC's income in Scotland has been cut has meant that we are losing that talent in a flow to London. Some people will go anyway because they want to work in London as they think that it is the centre. Others do not. They want to stay and work in Scotland, but find that they cannot do so.
The idea that the BBC provides a cultural subsidy in the regions—I cannot remember the exact term—has proved very true in Scotland. It allows musicians to work in an orchestra in Glasgow, provides work for other musicians and for actors, which keeps the theatre alive in Scotland, and provides work for technicians, who sometimes work for STV, for private companies and for the BBC. None of them would be there but for the BBC's presence in Scotland.
518 If the money available to BBC Scotland is reduced below a certain critical amount, it will become no more than a local news station, but BBC Scotland is much more than that; it already has a proud record of producing high-quality programmes. It may interest hon. Members to know that the most popular BBC2 comedy over Christmas was "Rab C. Nesbitt", with its Glaswegian language and humour. I confess that I do not like it much—it represents a type of Glaswegian to whom I do not readily relate. Still, in the south of England it was the most popular comedy.
It is most important that the BBC continues to expand its output of such high-quality projects, which sustain the cultural life of Scotland. More importantly, they allow people in the south of England to see that there are other parts of the United Kingdom beyond their own little areas. When they go on holiday, they go to France or Spain—not to Scotland, or certainly not in sufficient numbers.
As for the BBC's future after the next 10 years of the charter, I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton tried to look too far down the road, given the speed of technological change. I disagreed with the right hon. Member for Conwy about the BBC's international role. What the BBC can best sell abroad, to the United States and countries such as India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, are programmes that it has already made for the domestic market. It is not a matter of making new programmes to sell. What makes the BBC so different from the public service broadcasters in the United States is its library of material—newsreels, old programmes and so on—which is ready to be sold to feed the voracious appetite which the cable channels will have for programmes, thereby making enormous sums of money—
§ Sir Peter Lloyd
There seems to a small contradiction in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is not happy that programmes should be made for Scotland in the south of England, but he thinks that the same programmes will be received with enormous enthusiasm even further away in India. I do not entirely disagree—although there will be pressure, if the BBC succeeds, to make at least some of the programmes broadcast to Asia in Asia. However, there is a definite conflict between what he said about Scotland and the need for local production and his ensuing remarks.
§ Mr. Maxton
That may be so, but I believe that the largest English-speaking country in the world is India, so there is an enormous audience there. Throughout the world there will be a huge viewing audience for BBC programmes. That perceptive audience is going to want high-quality programmes. English is spoken in a great many countries, and the BBC, more than any other company, provides those countries with programmes. There is a huge market to be tapped.
§ Mr. Fabricant
While I agree with the hon. Gentleman's general sentiments, I just wonder whether "Rab C. Nesbitt" would be understood in Bombay.
§ Mr. Maxton
Perhaps not, but as the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) will confirm, there are millions of people of Scottish origin, forced out of Scotland by 519 economic circumstances, living in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and they will look forward to seeing the programme on cable television.
§ Mr. Welsh
The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) has misinterpreted the hon. Gentleman. What the hon. Gentleman really means is that we in Scotland want to go beyond Rab C. Nesbitt", good though it is. Scotland has much more potential and talent to offer the wider world. That is the positive note to strike.
§ Mr. Maxton
It is certainly right that Scottish talent should be used to make programmes—even films of Shakespeare's plays, for instance. When the Scottish national orchestra puts on a concert in Glasgow it does not necessarily play Scottish music, so why should BBC Scotland be limited to making programmes about Scotland?
I also differ from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton in that I have no objection to a publicly owned company making money which can then be used for the benefit of those who truly own public companies: the British public. Just because the BBC can make money abroad selling programmes does not mean that it has to be privatised. Let us keep it in the public sector and use the money that it makes abroad to make better programmes and to keep making high-quality programmes—without undue commercial pressure arising from the fact that it can make and sell good programmes abroad. With a bit of luck, making money in that way might enable the BBC to reduce the licence fee. Surely that is the right way forward.
I hope that the Government will pay heed to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said about BT. It is enormously inconvenient for our constituents when their pavements are dug up unnecessarily; certainly, they want cable, but they do not want the streets dug up to lay down more cable when BT already has cables in place. They resent that—they would rather not have it done.
More particularly, it should be noted that BT is the biggest British technological company. Almost every other cable company is either directly American-owned or a wholly owned subsidiary of an American company. Do we really want to hand over our telephone, television and computer interactive systems to American companies when we have a British company that could do the job?
I disagree, however, with my right hon. Friend's argument that the BBC should work with BT as joint private companies. There is an alternative, although it is not always popular to state it in the Labour party these days. Instead of privatising the BBC and joining it to the privatised BT, perhaps, because it is so important to the future of the nation, the Labour party should seriously consider taking BT back into some form of public ownership. That would give us a publicly owned BBC working with a publicly owned BT with a monopoly of broadcasting cable. The resulting company should be allowed to operate in the world markets as a private company.
§ Mr. Maxton
After the attacks that the hon. Gentleman made on my late friend John Smith, I shall never give way to him in this House, because his conduct in that regard was disgraceful. Anyway, I had finished my speech.
§ Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
Until the end of the speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), I found quite a lot with which I could agree. Then the mask slipped and the real Labour party revealed itself. Conservative central office, with which I used to have some connection, will doubtless be taking down the hon. Gentleman's words at this moment.
§ Mr. Maxton
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will note that I am speaking from the Back Benches.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will stay exactly where he is, probably in all circumstances. On a more serious note, I agreed with much of what he said about the quality of the BBC.
I shall be brief because many hon. Friends still wish to speak and one or two speeches have been delivered at a leisurely pace. Matters are not made easier when those who make such speeches, particularly the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, then disappear.
First, I declare an interest. I have been a member of the National Union of Journalists for more than 30 years. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House who act as freelance writers are also members of that union. I am also the non-executive chairman of Midland Independent Newspapers, but I am one of the few ex-members of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet who do not have their own BBC programme. I make no complaint about that and it is certainly not a job application.
Almost 30 years ago, as a journalist I covered the middle east war on the Arab side of the conflict. I remember the beginning of that war in Beirut. Authoritative news was hard to come by. Censors and phone taps prevented news from getting in or out, and propaganda was all-pervasive. The scene that sticks in my memory is that of two American journalists outside our hotel trying to tune in their radio so that they could hear what was happening outside the country. Of course, the service that they were trying to pick up was the BBC world service.
The position has changed since then. We saw the great advances that a channel like CNN made during the Gulf war. For all that, one thing has remained constant: the BBC still maintains an international and national reputation for the quality and objectivity of its news. I emphasise that I am talking about news, not the so-called prestige programmes like "Today" and "Panorama", or the prestige interviewers like the brothers Dimbleby or even Mr. Paxman, who, I see today, has been voted the most offensive interviewer in the country; personally, I think that that is just a public relations attempt on his part. I am certainly not talking about high-class chat shows where small groups of like-minded souls sit around a microphone filling in that awkward hour between 9 and 10 o'clock on a Monday morning. What I am really talking about is the serious business of gathering, evaluating and broadcasting news so that it is put to the public, who can then be properly informed. The work is done by reporters and correspondents on the ground, not interviewers safely anchored in their studios.
We are constantly told, and have been constantly told in this debate, about the media revolution through which we are living, the vast new horizons that stretch before us, and all those other analogies and metaphors that are 521 used. Hon. Members on the Front Benches have used those terms this afternoon and the Select Committee said succinctly that the media revolution was nigh. The Government put the point more prosaically, although it was the same point, in their White Paper.
The irony is that, although the opportunity to deliver more programmes obviously exists, it by no means follows that we shall see more news organisations or, for that matter, better news. We may have television, cable and programmes transmitted down the phone line, but that could simply lead to the prospect of more soaps, old films, game shows and talk shows. The media revolution alone does not guarantee good news programmes. It does not guarantee well-reported news that is objectively presented either on television or by any other medium.
The man in the street or on the train—some of us on the Conservative side still like travelling by train—may not see the benefits of those policies. The reasons for that are clear. First and foremost, news gathering is an expensive undertaking and the media revolution does not alter that. It is cheaper to slap someone in front of a microphone and take questions than to keep a staff of reporters ready to dig into issues of concern. Views are free, whereas gathering news costs money. The danger is that, if television is viewed purely as a balance sheet operation, news is relegated so that it does not interrupt the films or series.
The position might be easier to bear if trends in the national press were more encouraging. I shall leave others to speak about the regional press, where, as one would expect, I would argue that standards are different and better; but in the national press there has been an unmistakeable trend towards the ideological. I refer here to the so-called "quality papers", the broadsheets, rather than the so-called "tabloid press". As those papers pursue their causes, the divisions between the editorial leader columns of views and the columns of news become increasingly blurred. Some papers take strident views on issues such as Europe, which spill over into their news columns. Their leaders, articles, columnists and news reports all point the same way. The reporter gets to know the story that is required and the story that is not. He knows what will lead the paper and what will appear on page 7.
For those reasons, I applaud the news coverage of the BBC. The extent of its news service is unsurpassed and the standards at which its reporters aim are right. Its reporting is good and lively but fair. The BBC stars—I choose people with whom I rarely have professional dealings—are reporters like Martin Bell, Kate Adie and John Simpson. They are the standard bearers of the BBC. I am a strong admirer of BBC news reporting standards.
The House may recall that I was a Cabinet Minister for 11 years and at Conservative central office for another two. I am quick on the uptake and recognise that my view is not necessarily held by all my colleagues. As a close observer of two Prime Ministers, I cannot remember the cry, "God bless the BBC" coming too often to their lips; indeed, I cannot remember it ever coming to their lips. My recollections of the Wilson years are exactly the same: I do not remember Harold Wilson having a better view of the BBC in action when he was Prime Minister. I am afraid that the trouble with Ministers—shadow Ministers are just as guilty—is that they want their views to be 522 publicly related, not reported. No self-respecting media organisation will do that; nor should it. Such organisations should make a judgment on the true position. What politicians can rightly expect is that reports should be balanced and fair, and the BBC comes closer to achieving that aim than any other media organisation that I know.
Of course, mistakes are made. The hour-by-hour demand for news makes a reporter's job more difficult than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Organisations like the BBC should have the maturity to correct stories when they are wrong. In my experience, it most often does that and is much better at doing so than my old newspaper, The Times, which used to have a reputation for pursuing that kind of correctness. I remember the famous—or perhaps infamous—story in 1992 about the Prime Minister entitled,Can Major take the strain?in which The Times tried to examine the state of his mind and said:Sarah Hogg, the … head of the … policy unit … has two young children and likes to get home to see them.The children were aged 19 and 22, so I imagine that they would have been surprised if their mother went back to see them. The report also said:Mr. Major leads a surprisingly solitary life at Downing Street. His temporary flat in Admiralty Arch was small and poky.Having visited that small and poky flat in Admiralty house, I must say that I know that income standards under Mr. Murdoch have undoubtedly improved on The Times since my day, but I did not realise that it regarded that rather palatial accommodation as a small and poky flat.
In spite of the complete absurdity of that story, The Times refused to correct it, although it was self-evidently wrong. What has been good about the BBC is that, when it has got it wrong, it has tried to put those things right. I wish that other parts of the media would follow its example.
That brings me to my second and last argument about the BBC and the media. There is an enticing theory about the media—that the great technological revolution means that national boundaries no longer exist, that we are an international marketplace. Michael Green of Carlton Television says it most directly:The present system of regulating media ownership in Britain serves only one useful purpose: to encourage an international vision of our independent broadcasting industry as a cottage concern—charming little English thatched villages in a worldwide industry that is today dominated by skyscrapers. I want some of those skyscrapers to be ours".It is all moving stuff.
I am in favour of British media organisations seeking international markets—I support the BBC in the efforts that it will obviously make—but I am in favour of it, provided we recognise where the first duty of a media company in this country lies.
In a democracy, broadcasting organisations and newspapers have a specific importance and a specific influence. They are not like simple consumer products; the media have a power for good or for evil. Therefore I assert that a media company's first duty is to its own audience, be that audience national or local. The person who comes first is the domestic customer—the listener, the viewer.
Different countries have different traditions and different strengths. That, after all, is what much of the European debate is about. We do not want British 523 television to be turned into ever more mid-Atlantic flaff. That is not in the interests of this country. We do not want BBC programme making to be dominated by the type of market that those programmes may obtain overseas.
§ Mr. Maxton
In support of that, I do not think that the audience that it will sell to abroad want it either. They want the British-based, British programme.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
Michael Grade of Channel 4 will probably be alarmed to hear that I agree with him, but I agree with a great deal that he said in his article in the Evening Standard last night. What matters is what is being done for the consumer here. So, in pressing their case, people such as Michael Green must answer questions for themselves. They must answer the question, has Carlton improved television in London? They must answer the question, has Carlton, by taking over Central Television, a commitment to a city such as Birmingham? To phrase it as gently as I can, I would say that the jury is still out on both those questions.
I am aware that some of the developments in television in the past years that I would at least question have taken place under the current Government. I draw attention to the fact that we all have skeletons in our media cupboard. The Labour party has the skeleton of being opposed to the introduction of commercial television and leaving the BBC as a monopoly. If the truth is known, all Governments have a great deal to be modest about in their handling of the media, and it would be wise for us all to accept that.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State now has an opportunity. We have, I believe, reached a satisfactory conclusion on the BBC. We have come off the idea of pay-as-you-watch television as the way of financing the corporation, and not a moment too soon. We are committed to the licence fee. I have to say to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that that licence fee provides more than £1.5 billion a year for the corporation. That is not a bad financial base, by most commercial standards, for any organisation to be based on. Doubtless, improvements can be made, but I hope that, above all, the structure will now be allowed to settle.
I must remind my hon. Friend the Minister—I should like him to discuss the subject when he replies to the debate—that in other areas of the media the position is anything other than settled. The review of the rules governing cross-media ownership appears likely to rival "The Mousetrap" for its length of run, yet no one can be remotely happy with the present position. I do not pretend that the decisions for the Government are easy, but I would be very cautious about some of the opinions that have been expressed, which are aimed simply at making the bigger media organisations even bigger and more powerful. I would be especially cautious about that, given the lack of performance so far, with some of those organisations wishing to grow.
It is beyond dispute that some conclusion from the Government on the cross-media ownership debate needs to be reached. It was described as an urgent matter for discussion and decision in the House about 12 months ago. I believe that nothing has happened since then. I wait to hear my hon. Friend the Minister's reply; I know that he will guide us on what the Government have in mind.
524 I welcome the fact that, if nothing else, we appear to be settling the process of the BBC debate. I believe that the BBC has high standards, and that those standards are recognised throughout the world. I expect nothing more from it than that it seek to maintain those high standards, and I look forward to resuming the normal political hostilities with the BBC at the earliest opportunity.
§ Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton)
I was interested when the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), quoted from Milton. It nudged a memory bank. One of my earliest memories is of listening, as a little boy, to a radio programme about the life and work of Milton. I became an immediate fan of Milton, and also of the BBC. I therefore declare an interest—I am a fan.
I congratulate the present Secretary of State for National Heritage on his report. It is superb. I welcome it, as I am sure Labour Front-Bench Members do, with minor reservations here and there. I did not expect it, and I congratulate the Minister. I was surprised by the parallels between the Government report and the report of the Select Committee on National Heritage. Both are entitled, "The Future of the BBC". As a member of that Select Committee, I declare an interest.
If I may crave the indulgence of the House, I wish to show the parallels between the two reports. As the BBC's present royal charter, granted in 1981, expires at the end of 1996, the Government and the Select Committee on National Heritage regarded that event as a rare opportunity to consider the role, objects, organisation and funding of the BBC in the years ahead, and both the Government and the Select Committee published consultation documents and reports entitled "The Future of the BBC".
The National Heritage Select Committee's inquiry noted that the Broadcasting Act 1990 created a new statutory framework for commercial television and radio, for local cable and satellite services, with the aim of increasing the number of services and choices for audiences. In its report it said that, against that background, the role, functions and organisation of the BBC were bound to change too in the near future.
In its inquiry, the Committee invited interested organisations to submit their opinions, and received 170 such submissions. It also held 14 sessions, taking oral evidence from 40 separate groups of witnesses. It noted that in the BBC 1981 royal charter there were three terrestrial channels, with a fourth due to transmit in November 1982.
Our Committee also noted that the Cable and Broadcasting Act 1984 was passed in anticipation of developments in cable and satellite broadcasting. The speed of change in that medium necessitated further legislation in 1990. There is no doubt that those rapid changes transformed the broadcasting scene from that which had existed in 1981.
The nature of broadcasting has been significantly changed by the development of cable and satellite. By the end of 1993, the Independent Television Commission had issued licences for more than 120 cable and satellite programme channels. Our Committee was told by the director general of Cable TV Associations that the system was currently capable of carrying 50 television channels 525 and 30 radio channels. It is a rapidly changing scene. The industry had licence obligations to feed 14 million homes—70 per cent. of the population—by 1998.
Four years ago, the satellite channel, BSkyB, doubled the number of television channels for the United Kingdom audience. According to BSkyB, in July 1993 nearly one in five homes had a dish or was connected to cable, which meant that nearly 10 million people were able to watch cable-satellite programmes. The BBC forecasts that by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of the population will have access to satellite and cable services.
With all that new technology, the BBC, too, must change and adapt. For all its good work, the BBC can never expect or hope to be in the same position in the future as it is now, as viewing share will force it to come under increasing pressure because of the huge potential expansion of choice. The BBC could become a minority service provider along the lines of public service television in the USA. I hope that it does not, but if it did, it would then be difficult to justify the retention of a licence fee, paid by the overwhelming majority of viewers who would not be watching a great deal of BBC television.
As regards the licence fee, the Committee gave a great deal of thought as to the best way of funding the BBC. It did not consider that the licence fee was an attractive method of funding. It is a regressive tax that bears heavily on those least able to pay. Collection is expensive and, in addition, the amount of evasion is considerable. The BBC estimated that 1.7 million people evaded payment in 1991–92, with the resultant loss of £130 million of income. A further £35 million was lost from those in households with colour televisions who buy the cheaper black and white licence. That meant that, in 1991–92, the BBC had to forgo £257.5 million of potential income.
The Committee therefore considered alternative ways of funding the BBC. It considered allowing advertising on the BBC, but the ITC thought that that would imperil the future independence of Channel 4 and severely restrict the continuing development of the satellite and cable industry. Giving the BBC access to advertising revenue would take at least between £300 million and £400 million from the ITV channels. Channel 4 stated that the introduction of advertising on the BBC would mean the end of the channel. Granada said that it would have a disastrous effect on it.
In the light of the evidence, the Committee rejected the idea of making the BBC rely on direct advertising. The second option considered by the Committee was sponsorship, but it came to the conclusion that that could do no more than supplement the BBC's main source of revenue. The Committee was concerned, however, about the transmission of tobacco-sponsored events. It noted with satisfaction the BBC's decision not to broadcast future events that were sponsored by tobacco companies.
After considering all the options for funding the BBC, the Committee came to the conclusion, with great reluctance, that the present flat-rate licence system met with the least number of objections. The Committee also believed that the BBC should be permitted to maintain its radio services and that those services should not contain advertising. It also considered, however, that if the BBC 526 wished to advertise under its new charter, it should have a right to make an application to Parliament for the appropriate changes.
The BBC has also experienced an unprecedented growth in and success of programmes provided by world service radio. The service has a regular audience of 124 million people, who listen at least once a week, and it provides truth to those living under dictatorships.
The Committee published its findings on 2 December 1993 and came to the conclusion that the BBC's charter should be renewed for 10 years. No doubt after studying the Select Committee's recommendations, the Secretary of State published his White Paper on the future of the BBC in July 1994. I welcome the general thrust of that paper and I believe that the Secretary of State has taken note of a good proportion of the Select Committee's report.
I welcome most of the conclusions in the White Paper. I shall mention some of them to highlight the parallels between that paper and the Select Committee's report. The Government believe that the BBC should continue to be the United Kingdom's main public broadcaster. I completely agree. They believe that the BBC should be able to evolve into an international, multi-media enterprise, building on its present commercial services for audiences in this country and overseas. The Government believe that the BBC should continue to broadcast a wide range of radio and television programmes for people with different tastes and of all ages. They also believe that world service radio should continue and that the BBC should develop further world service television.
The Government believe that the BBC should extend its commercial activities at home and abroad and that it should exploit its assets and generate income from its programmes as well as publishing magazines, books, videos and audio cassettes. They believe that it should plan for joint ventures with commercial companies around the world. Finally, the Government believe that the BBC should keep its licence fee as the main source of income for public services for at least five years.
I welcome the aims and objectives of the Government's White Paper. In the next 10 to 15 years, the number of broadcasting services of all kinds will increase and evolve into multi-media services, using different means of distributing a wide range of materials. Through the choices that they make in selecting services, it will be the British public who ultimately determine the standards of audio-visual material available in the United Kingdom in the next century.
I believe that the Secretary of State has listened to the arguments put forward by the Select Committee—incidentally, it is an all-party Committee and the report was agreed unanimously by it. The Government have put forward proposals to assist the BBC to survive and compete as a public broadcasting authority in the next century. I welcome their report.
§ 8.6 pm
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan), who makes a most notable contribution to the work of the Select Committee on National Heritage.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we worked together on our report on the BBC, which was completed in December 1993. As he and others have said, a large part of what we 527 recommended was accepted and adopted by the Government in the White Paper published in May last year.
As BT has been mentioned several times, I declare a quasi interest as it has sponsored charity concerts in which I have performed on the piano in aid of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Although I was unpaid, what took place was sufficient to give me a favourable bias towards BT.
Tonight we are considering the BBC. The first thing that must be said about it is the absolutely outstanding quality of a large proportion of what it produces. It has high standards of excellence in its output of news, features and drama, among other things. I am particularly proud that "Middlemarch", which was mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), was produced by Dr. Louis Marks, my constituent and my near neighbour at Hampton Court Green. A great many other people too took part in that magnificent production, which continues to redound enormously to the credit of the BBC.
The BBC's achievements in the arts are generally superb. Last night, on Radio 3, I heard the live relay of "Cosi fan tutte" from Covent Garden. It was beautifully done and beautifully broadcast.
Reference has been made already to the several BBC symphony orchestras. The Proms are a tremendous national asset; they are a great cultural festival and a great British festival and represent something that the BBC does for Britain of which we should all be enormously proud.
Britain is one of the most musical nations in the world and I believe that we should build on our strengths. It is not for nothing that it is called the British Broadcasting Corporation. It ought constantly to project what is British and what is best about Britain. I agree with an hon. Member who said earlier that the growth in the use of the English language worldwide is now unstoppable. Hardly anyone mentions Esperanto any more, and there is enormous export potential for film and other BBC products in future all over the world where the English language is increasingly used.
We should have more Gilbert and Sullivan, particularly the Lord High Executioner's song from the Mikado that is called,I've got a little list—I've got a little listwith its verse which refers to
the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this one, and all countries but his own.The White Paper says that the BBC should promote the British side. The Secretary of State, who has just come in, is sitting not on the Front Bench but below the Gangway. I remind him that paragraph 2.6 of the White Paper says that the objectives of the BBC should includereflecting the national identity of the United Kingdom. The BBC should broadcast events of national importance. It should ensure that the rich cultural heritage of all parts of the United Kingdom is represented in its programmes and is available throughout the nation.There have been many interventions about the proportion of Scottish broadcasts produced in Scotland and Welsh broadcasts produced in Wales, but it seems to me that there is something slightly synthetic about how those interventions and interruptions have been organised.
528 I received a paper from the BBC this week, that, in a passage headed,More Money for the Regionsstates:The BBC has been increasing the programming output of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. Under its new regional policy, launched in spring 1994— that was between the Select Committee report and the publication of the White Paper—it plans to double the amount of drama made in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in 1997; double light entertainment output from the regions within four years; more than double music and arts production in the regions over the same period; triple the amount of Continuing Education and Schools programmes produced in the regions by 1996–1997; and quadruple the proportion of children's programming made outside London.As the complaint was that only 3 per cent. of programmes were produced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to go on the national network, if one multiplied that by three or four, the percentage would be not far short of the proportion of the population of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland to that of the United Kingdom.
It cannot be done all at once. The BBC will have to make sure that it has staff who are living in the right place. Some of them will not want to move house. Their children will be at a particular local school or their wives will be used to having their hair done at a particular place. Not everyone moves quickly and easily, but the BBC is clearly taking a big step in that direction. Those who go on and on about it seem to be asking for something that is being done already.
I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) would do me the courtesy of ceasing to distract my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's attention from my speech, because my remarks are addressed to my right hon. Friend through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The White Paper provides for the charter being renewed for 10 years from 1996 to 2006. That has been welcomed enthusiastically by the whole House. I agree with those who have said that the 10 years from 1996 to 2006 might possibly produce the last charter for the BBC in its present form. Deep changes are taking place and it will be difficult to sustain the charter after 2006, despite the tremendously high standard of much of the output.
Those changes include a falling share of the market. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to a fall from 48 per cent. to 42 per cent. in the past three and a quarter years. There have been numerous technical changes. In about 10 to 15 years' time it will be possible for people to dial on their telephones to get just about any video programme that they want, and have the costs put on their telephone bill. People will get used to that and it will influence their attitude to the payment of a licence fee of £80, £100, or £120 a year. They will be used to paying as they go along and will not want to pay a set amount as they have been willing to do in the past.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton said that the licence fee tends to fall most heavily on those least able to pay. The BBC has a bee in its bonnet about the concept of the licence fee. The concept of a licence fee is almost a traditional sacred cow within the BBC. One can understand the historic reasons for that. It is partly that the BBC wants a direct relationship with its 529 viewers and listeners and believes that that buttresses its independence and neutrality, but I do not believe that the system can survive the next 10 or 15 years.
It is not just that after that time people will have got used to paying as they go for other programmes and wonder why that does not apply to BBC programmes, nor is it just that, on present trends, some 80 per cent. of the listening public will be listening to other channels. There is also a serious problem with licence evasion.
The Select Committee was told that the evasion rate was about 7.5 per cent. in 1993, despite the strenuous use of detector vans to catch television licence evaders. The proportion has oscillated since then, but has not changed substantially. In 1993, about 1 per cent. of those 7.5 per cent. were caught and brought to justice. The detector vans went round by day, which is cheaper than by night because the people in the vans do not have to be paid overtime.
Of the 1 per cent. who were caught watching their television sets without a licence, almost three quarters were women, including a large proportion of young mothers—largely single-parent families—or women pensioners. It is a demographic fact that women live for six years longer than men, so far more female pensioners than male pensioners will be home in the daytime.
Many of those women live alone. Some are at home all day and are not well off financially, whether they are pensioners or young mothers. Some, but not all, are in poverty. People in that position are likely to pay first for those services which might be cut off, whether it is their electricity bill, their gas bill, their telephone bill or their water bill. Those bills are civil debt. They are likely to leave payment of their television licences until last, perhaps intending to pay later and hoping that they will not get caught in the meantime.
Anyone who gets caught not paying the licence fee—which is not a civil debt—has committed a criminal offence and can then be surprised to find that he or she has a criminal record. The only parallel is the annual car tax, which it is also a criminal offence not to pay. If we decriminalised the licence system, the evasion rate could leap from 7 or 8 per cent. to anything between 10 or 20 per cent. That would make the licence system completely unworkable from the BBC's point of view as it would be impossible to convince the public to accept such a high evasion rate. The Select Committee recommended that it should not be decriminalised. However, it is not an ideal system and we were not happy about it.
I am rather surprised that so many right hon. and hon. Members have sounded positive about the licence system. The Committee recommended—it is endorsed in the White Paper—that the licence system should continue until it becomes technically possible to disconnect licence evaders in the same way as it is now technically possible to disconnect services when people do not pay their telephone, gas, electricity or water bills. However, it will be quite a few years before that is technically feasible. It is a race against time as to whether the licence system can survive until then. I do not believe that the licence system makes the BBC quite as impartial as it thinks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is a former party chairman, said that the BBC was balanced and fair. I am quite satisfied that the BBC tries to be fair 530 in presenting the views of the political parties, especially during general election campaigns. That is a BBC tradition and it is scrupulous in adopting a non-biased approach to the political parties.
However, I do not think that the BBC is completely impartial on contentious issues in other respects. For example, BBC programmers tend to invite on to quiz programmes—especially radio quiz programmes—a disproportionate number of extremists from both of the main parties because it makes for a more exciting broadcast. Those with more moderate views in either main political party tend to be left out. I will not mention any names; we can all think of the types of people I mean. In doing that, the BBC is effectively creating a bias towards the Liberal party because it is depicting both of the main parties in a way that is unlikely to appeal to floating voters. I think that we must watch that trend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) intervened earlier in the debate and, although he did not actually mention Europe, I could tell that that was what he meant as I sympathise with his views. There is a politically correct point of view on the subject of Europe, and the hierarchies within all three political parties and the nationalist parties tend to have a positive attitude about the European Union. However, that politically correct standpoint is not shared by half the people of the country and that proportion is tending to increase. On this question the BBC must be careful to be more impartial.
I turn to the arts. I praised BBC Radio 3 fulsomely at the outset of my speech. However, under the regime of Sir William Glock, Hans Keller and others in the 1960s and 1970s, the BBC music department was allowed to let rip virtually uncontrolled. Sir William and Mr. Keller surrounded themselves with staff in the BBC music department who shared their bias towards the inter-war Vienna 12-tone school of music and composers such as Berg, Schoenberg and Webern. As a result, there were appalling ping-pong noises on Radio 3 for years on end and an entire generation of young British listeners were put off contemporary music. We are still suffering the consequences of that.
That was a terrible thing for the governors to do. I shall send a copy of this extract of my speech to the chairman of governors and I shall seek his assurance that he will establish a mechanism within the BBC to ensure that no such disaster ever occurs again.
I end where I began by praising the BBC. We believe in the set-up and we have endorsed and encouraged it. However, I do not believe that the charter will be renewed in 2006 and it will certainly not be renewed in 2016. We must be conscious of the decisions which were made last year and this year which will be applied next year. However, we must also look to the BBC's long-term future. That is what the White Paper and the Secretary of State have begun to do.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
All hon. Members, at least on Opposition Benches listened with rapt attention to that very interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel). I was struck by what he said about music. It is interesting to read the BBC report of 1922—which I am sure that all hon. Members refer to regularly—in which Lord Reith said that if the country was exposed to chamber music everyone would enjoy it and it would become a popular musical form.
531 Outrageous as that claim seemed at the time, it came close to being realised during the war. There was a limited range of broadcasts on the radio and people from all sections of society developed a deep appreciation, understanding and knowledge of music. It is sad that our children now hear a much more limited range of music and that that rich experience is denied to them.
You will be delighted to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as will the House—that I have abandoned my carefully prepared speech because the points that I wanted to make about BBC regional broadcasting have been made far more eloquently by the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) and other hon. Members. I agree with all of the points that they have made on that subject. It may have something to do with the fact that certain briefings came into our hands at the same time.
However, I claim the right to make a few more points. I have the rare distinction, which I prize immensely, of having once chaired the Broadcasting Council for Wales for a record period—it was a record then and I am sure that it will remain for all time. I chaired the Broadcasting Council for Wales for 15 minutes, having served on it for five years.
I resigned after 15 minutes because my appointment coincided with the Conservative Government's announcement that they would not go ahead with the establishment of a separate Welsh language channel. That announcement was contrary to all that I had worked for in broadcasting in Wales for the previous decade within my party. Happily, the Government reversed that decision—not because I resigned, but due to events involving other parties.
I am happy to look back at that period and to record that the S4C Welsh language channel has been a sumptuous success and has exceeded all of our expectations. It has been successful not just in broadcasting terms or in its important contribution to the Welsh language, but it has contributed enormously to the Welsh economy and the creativity of our young people. Young people have had the opportunity to learn skills both in front of and behind the camera and the microphone. Their talents, skills and creativity have been allowed to blossom. The channel has proved an enormous asset to Wales and long may it continue to serve Wales in its current form.
There have always been difficulties with Welsh broadcasting. They date back to the 1920s when Wales had to compete with the west of England for broadcasting time and allocation of money. I am sad to say that that is still happening today. There is no clear distinction between the moneys for English language and Welsh language broadcasting. There should be some ring fencing to get rid of some of the tension and the futile waste of energy between those two groups.
I make a plea, too, for English language broadcasting, because the constituency that I represent, like many other areas in Wales, has a robust, distinctive and unique community—a very tough one. Although I live in the heart of my constituency, within two miles of my home, the accent and the culture changes. Risca is a valley community. If one moves throughout Wales, one finds an infinite variety of groups of people who find it difficult to express their personality through broadcasting.
On the BBC world service, sadly there was not the mea culpa that I had asked for from Ministers. It is a sad story. Twelve years ago, in the House and outside, many voices 532 were clamouring that we must build on the world reputation of BBC world radio. At that time, if a BBC world television service had been launched, the cost, I am informed, would have been half the price that we paid to clean Victoria Tower. It was a minute amount. We could have gained. It was a vacuum out there. We could have gained the world reputation that has been stolen from us by lesser terrestrial stations.
We must fight every inch of the way to restore that now. We might never reach the pre-eminent position that really was ours for the taking and which was denied to this country by ideology, by the belief that it had to be a commercial channel, and that it had to be on the one basis only. It would have been a magnificent investment for our countries and for the languages of our nations. The prized people on whom I look back—from the days when I had something to do with the BBC—are people like Charles Curran, a gifted-director general who, I believe, spoke Irish, and Alasdair Milne, a man in a lesser position but who also spoke a Celtic language—Gaelic. We can look with some pride at the achievements of broadcasters in the nations of Britain in promoting and giving us an opportunity to use all the beautiful languages of this island—English and others as well.
The BBC has a unique role for all of us. It has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House that we must keep it out of the hands of the idealogues. There have been threats from all sides. Everyone will want to move in and control and run it. I believe that the BBC is unique to all our lives. It has made a great contribution to all of us. In the war, the radio was our channel for information. It was our friend, our companion, our teacher, until television arrived as well. Other channels are coming in and producing programmes of great quality, but the BBC has a special place within the heart of the nation.
A Hungarian writer talked about language and said that the nation lives within her language. It is a striking image of a nation living in a place, and the place was the language. We can all say—the people who live in these islands—that, to us, the nation resides not in the great institutions of state, not in the Church or royalty, but within the BBC. All the languages of these islands of ours owe a great debt of gratitude to the BBC. The nations of Britain live within the BBC. We hold that in trust. They must never betray that trust.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
In the 47 minutes available before the winding-up speeches, four hon. Members hope to catch my eye. I hope that they will be able to do so.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
I shall do my best to be brief.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the debate takes place against a background of a fast-changing marketplace. He is correct. I took the opportunity a few moments ago to talk to him, knowing that, unfortunately, he had to leave the Chamber. I wanted to make the point to him that I now wish to make to the House.
Those who sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill which became the Broadcasting Act 1990 made a fundamental mistake in permitting one 533 broadcaster, one publisher, to have an undue influence in the marketplace. I was one of those—I fully concede this—who was instrumental in stating that I believed that the Murdoch organisation should be allowed to have the control it had over satellite television and newspapers. I believe that I was profoundly wrong. I have said so publicly in the past, and I take no particular pleasure in placing that fact on the record tonight.
The fact is that we cannot put that jack back in the box. That being so, I want to say, through my hon. Friend the Minister, to my right hon. Friend that I believe that he can and should move swiftly to free other participants from the shackles of restricting cross-media ownership regulations, so that UK-owned television, newspaper, telephony and data companies can create alliances to compete in the development of world markets. We heard from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) of the impressive array of holdings of Viacom. Hon. Members know only too well of the impressive array of holdings of the Murdoch corporation. Others are equally large.
If UK Ltd. is to have a major stake not only in the domestic but in the European and world marketplace, the time has come to take the brakes off and let competitors to Mr. Murdoch form alliances and move into the field. I say that with this proviso: the obligations of franchise agreements entered into by existing commercial television companies should and must for the foreseeable future be for ever and beyond. It is in that context, that kind of commercial, international broadcasting, that the debate takes place. My right hon. Friend was right to draw attention to that at the start of his remarks.
I shall touch briefly on a number of matters raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
There is no doubt in my mind that we need a public service broadcasting organisation in the United Kingdom. Every western democracy that has started from the position of having only commercial radio and/or television has had to invent a public service system, and none that has been created has been anything like a match for the services offered by the BBC. In my view, the BBC has provided the benchmark for domestic radio and television services throughout the world—certainly throughout the former Commonwealth. The BBC's services have been and are respected worldwide. We should, perhaps, contrast that with what I know as "Murdochvision" throughout the world.
Rupert Murdoch is a man who exchanges nationality for a few United States newspapers. He has now revealed himself in his true colours—in my view, as a born again collaborator. Mr. Murdoch and his organisation have done what no journalist who calls himself a journalist could possibly do: surrendered editorial control of a section of his broadcasting to the Chinese, in exchange for a censored market share.
Can one imagine the BBC doing that? The BBC's world service is pre-eminent among international broadcasters because of its integrity. If anything demonstrates the need for BBC world service television, for the European service and the European entertainment services, it is the standards—or lack of them—of the BBC's competitors. It has been said that it is a shame that the BBC did not enter the marketplace sooner. I agree. On the other hand, the BBC has had the opportunity to 534 learn, perhaps, from other people's mistakes, and it is entering the marketplace with a clear vision of where it needs to go.
We do not normally feel privileged to serve on Standing Committees dealing with statutory instruments, but I felt very privileged indeed the other day to serve on the Committee on a statutory instrument that gave the legal go-ahead to the BBC's co-operative venture into European television. I wish it well: I think that it will be a tremendous success. It is the need for a respected and reliable news service first and foremost, internationally and of course nationally, that the BBC satisfies.
It was, I believe, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Carthcart (Mr. Maxton) who said that the BBC was the best broadcaster in the world. I wonder whether some of us would have said that even three years ago. One of my hon. Friends said earlier that he had changed his view, and I have changed mine. I have changed my view of what I used to regard as a monolithic organisation, over-bureaucratic and militating against the programme makers, largely as a result of the work of one man. Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), I pay tribute to the director-general of the BBC, John Birt.
As far as I am aware, the director-general does not speak Irish like Charles Curran—although he may, come to think of it—and I am fairly certain that, unlike Alasdair Milne, he does not speak Gaelic. What he does speak is common sense. It is because of his efforts—largely and for a long time unpopular, and prompting vitriolic criticism that was a source of personal grief to him—that the BBC is now able to invest money at the sharp end to make good programmes. More money is now going into programmes and less into administration than at probably any time in the past, and certainly at the time when I worked for the BBC.
I also pay tribute to the speech that the director-general made in Dublin on 3 February. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) marred an otherwise excellent speech by criticising what the director-general said. I wonder whether he read the speech in context; certainly most of the journalists who reported it had not.
Among other things, John Birt said:But if we journalists are to play our part in building a better world, it can only be built on a firm foundation of truth … on a sense of the sacred and solemn nature of fact; on a political foundation which is calmer, less frenzied—more restrained, composed and considered; on an acceptance that people and institutions have strengths and virtues as well as shortcomings; on a recognition that scepticism and rigour, insight and detachment, fairness and integrity, must be the prime journalistic virtues.I doubt that any journalist in the House or outside it could disagree with that.
What caused offence was the observation:Reporters who pretend that answers and remedies are obvious; that everyone in the world but them is an incompetent fool; overbearing interviewers who sneer disdainfully at their interviewees; the sub who composes a crass and unfair headline; the columnist at his or her desk pontificating arrogantly—all exhibit attitudes which are unattractive in a journalist, and rarely appropriate … For journalism is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end.I agree with that. I think that John Birt was right and courageous to say it, and I think that it needed to be said. I think that he was trying to make the point that the media are powerful, that television is extremely powerful and 535 that that power must be exercised with responsibility. Surely he was trying to say that that was the rock of self-control on which the BBC and its reputation for integrity had been founded. If we lose that, we shall lose a great deal, and it behoves us to pay attention to what the director-general said.
On regional quotas, I am a dissenting voice—not because I believe that the regions do not deserve their fair share of production or that they do not have perhaps more than their fair share of talent to contribute, but because—as I have told the general advisory council of the BBC—I do not want production to be moved out of London, where the basic production facilities, the majority of actors and actresses and a great number of writers can be found, simply for reasons of tokenism. That would only waste money that could otherwise be invested in an area of broadcasting that has been mentioned far too little today: truly local broadcasting.
I entirely approve of funding the BBC with the licence fee, but if we are to continue to do so, we must examine the corporation's functions carefully. I do not want to cut those functions, but we must ensure that they are directed properly. Given all the broadcasting services that are becoming available, we must ask whether we can sustain two national public service television channels and four national public service radio stations.
Might it not be better to ask the BBC to consolidate some of its broadcasting services, and to make room for the creation and release of resources, not for the regional tokenism that I fear might result if production were simply transferred out of London, but for genuine bi-media radio-television stations throughout the country? They would be truly local, serving truly local needs.
I believe that the BBC is neglecting and underfunding a public service requirement. It is removing resources from local broadcasting when it should be strengthened: more money should be provided to beef up not only local radio but local television. That money does not grow on trees. I do not believe that the BBC can fulfil all those functions and expand into world broadcasting, as we all appear to agree it should, without making cuts somewhere; I do not want an elitist channel to be created, but I question whether some of the programmes on BBC1 and BBC2 are worth the making, given the BBC's reputation.
The BBC's transmission service has been mentioned. It is an important subject that bears further consideration. National Transcommunications Ltd. is a good company, set up on wholly commercial lines, but is it right to subsidise a competitor that is allowed to sell its spare capacity in the marketplace in the knowledge that, with the advent of digital transmission, that spare capacity will increase and the BBC will therefore have a larger market?
I think that the best proposal we have heard tonight is that the transmission service should be an arm's-length operation. The BBC should be able to hive it off, gain the benefit of an injection of finance, and release a commercial organisation to compete with NTL on equal terms in the open market in the provision of services, not only for the BBC but for other commercial organisations. Undoubtedly we shall return to that debate.
The licence fee has also been mentioned, not only in connection with the way which the BBC should be paid for, but, in particular, in connection with the way in which it is applied. I was very interested by what the hon. 536 Member for Cathcart said about wanting a fairer system: I share his feelings, and have been advocating such an improvement for some time.
I hope that Ministers will think again—despite the White Paper's rejection of the idea—about the possibility of a basic-rate fee of £1 a week for a single television set, an enhanced fee of around £120 for a domestic unit of two television sets and a video recorder—a video recorder is, of course, a receiver—and a third tranche of around £200 for anything more than that.
Such an arrangement would provide a bedrock public service system for pensioners, single-parent households and others who cannot afford, or do not want, more than one television set. It would provide a fair service at a fair price—slightly more than double—for households that use and can afford what are effectively free receivers, and a service at a further enhanced price for those who can afford, and therefore use, even more than that.
That would be an interim measure, to operate between now and the day when the technology is introduced to allow us to collect the licence fee by encryption. I am not talking about pay-per-view. At that point, the arguments about how many sets a household has and how the number can be checked will go out of the window. We should return to that matter and consider it seriously.
I am delighted that my hon. Friends have decided to merge the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council. I wish only that we could move further towards the recommendation in the Select Committee's excellent report, and consolidate all the complaints commissions and standards councils into one body for both independent and BBC television. If we did that, we would cut much bureaucracy and create a much better reference point for complaints.
I welcome the White Paper, and I hope that it will lead to the perpetuation of the BBC as one of the best broadcasting services in the world, as it has been already described.
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall follow your request to be brief.
On the speech of the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), I do not want tokenism in programme production replacement, but I do not support his preference for the self-fulfilling prophecy of concentration in London. If carried out in full, the BBC's commitment to moving the production of £75 million-worth of network programmes from London would mean that the total contribution from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would rise from 3 per cent. to only 4.2 per cent. That becomes even less impressive in view of the fact that, in recent years, control of £55 million-worth of network programming from elsewhere was centralised in London, and £40 million was taken out of the regional programming budget.
It cannot be healthy or acceptable that 97 per cent. of network output comes from one source, but guess who take the decisions, and guess where they are based? I ask Conservative Members to look on this not as a girn or a whine, but as a problem to be solved. Scotland in particular has a great deal to contribute, but the reality of tightly controlled centralisation in London prevents that from happening.
537 I wish in general to compliment the BBC on its massive range of output. We recognise how good the quality of its output is if we compare it with that in the United States of America. We then realise the quality, depth and range of the product offered. Quality is the key word, and should be the overall aim in broadcasting output. Quantity is no problem. Technology makes quantity easier and easier to achieve. Now that communication is easy, the content of that communication becomes all-important. As we have heard this evening, technology is making the problem very much a moving target, where old certainties no longer exist.
My criticisms are specific, and are basically a plea for opportunity. The debate on the future of the BBC has been pursued with much energy in Scotland. When the Government invited responses to the Green Paper, a large number of Scottish organisations commenced a programme of discussion and debate, which resulted in a number of important statements. What was most impressive was the general consensus that arose—an agreement that, although the staff and management of the BBC were of high calibre, the way in which BBC structures operated weakened the BBC north of the border.
Many of the organisations that wanted change are closely allied to the television and radio world. The Celtic Film and Television Association, a professional body that has a membership of people who work in television and film in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany, and that holds a highly successful annual festival, attracting the cream of Scottish broadcasting talent, argued especially well for a new structure for the BBC, which would allow management control to be vested in Glasgow, rather than in London.
Those views, which are also held by a wider consortium of groups under the title Broadcasting for Scotland, were made known to the BBC, not just through the Green Paper exercise, but in many informal meetings both in London and in Scotland.
§ Mr. Welsh
It is a measure of the arrogance and the insensitivity of the BBC in London that it has substantially ignored those views, but the most public response to date has been the appointment as the national governor for Scotland of someone whose everyday qualifications are the headship of one of the few Scottish private schools, and who is married to the daughter of a peer. He is hardly a "lad o'pairts". He is the voice of the very British BBC in Scotland; he is not the voice of the Scottish viewer of the BBC.
Similarly, the dispersal of management power and programme-making autonomy has been treated with disdain by John Birt and his centralist colleagues, including the BBC chairman. Lip service is paid in the White Paper to decentralisation, but actions, as ever, speak louder than words.
In the past six months, the largest independent radio commission ever granted in Scotland was decided on in London and given to a London company, which, on a grace and favour basis, may or may not spend some of its revenue gains in Scotland. The contract for the United Kingdom-wide helpline that will be established by the 538 BBC, and that will be based in Glasgow was also decided on in London and given to a London-based charity which had never operated north of the border.
On the board that made that decision sits an individual who had only recently ceased to be a director of that charity. The Scottish bidder for that contract described the selection interview astaking part in a charade".I hope that the Minister will deal with those problems, because they are strongly felt in Scotland and in other parts of the UK.
In the past month, BBC drama in London has cancelled a major Scottish project by a respected Scottish writer in a casual and cavalier fashion. There will be an expansion in children's programmes to be made in Scotland, but that single success does not make up for the rest of the dismal draining of power from BBC Scotland. I am not talking just about an ordinary work. It was a winner of the Whitbread award, and it has been described by some people as the best Scottish novel of the 20th century, yet it has been dismissed in that way.
I am convinced that, in the BBC, fury exists at many of those decisions, but BBC staff are unable to speak, so I shall try to speak for them tonight. The BBC is weakening the loyalty and effectiveness of its Scottish staff and the impact of its Scottish output by holding tightly to the reins of London control. An independent and autonomous Scottish broadcasting company is required, free of outside control.
Scotland deserves the best in broadcasting, and it can have it, if it spends the licence fee it collects on Scottish output. The people of Scotland export their money to pay for a service that is poorer than it would be if they kept that money at home. Until that independent corporation is established, I want the BBC in Scotland to manage its own affairs, taking the best from London as it wishes, but making the best programmes for Scotland—not just in Scotland, but wherever such programmes need to be made. I commend the initiative of "Europa", a Gaelic language current affairs programme series which reports on Europe from Europe. Such an initiative could be followed by a range of other programmes. The talent, ability and technology are there, but they must be unleashed and allowed to flourish.
When BBC Scotland is allowed to be its own master, it performs well. Indeed, it out-performs many other broadcasting companies. However, the trend in the BBC is to crush initiative and independence with an iron fist of management control and accountants' double-speak. The people of Scotland are watching John Birt. However, if he goes on as he is now, very few people will be watching his programmes in Scotland. That situation is wasteful and completely unacceptable.
Some Conservative Members may dismiss my plea. My plea is not artificial. The plea is heartfelt, from Scotland and from Wales. The problem cannot be dismissed; it must be dealt with. The output and talent are ready to be unleashed, and they can be shared with a wider world. However, that decision must be taken at management level, and so far the BBC has failed to take it. I regret that, and I make an earnest plea to the Minister to turn that around for everyone's benefit.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
It is a great privilege to take part in this debate. However, as tail-end Charlie on the Conservative Benches, I feel that my colleagues and Opposition Members have already said much of what I intended to say. I shall not repeal those points. It is also, my privilege to be a member of the National Heritage Select Committee. Many of the issues in the White Paper have been taken directly from the Select Committee's report, which is most gratifying.
Hon. Members have rightly stated that the BBC occupies a unique place in world broadcasting. Michael Grade's phrase, "a national treasure", has been quoted many times. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said that the BBC is the best broadcasting company in the world. Whether it is or not, it is interesting to note that BBC television won 256 awards in 1994, more than in any other previous year, and what a range of awards for such a range of programmes.
I shall name just a few of the award winners from what is a very long list. They ranged from "Absolutely Fabulous", which won an Emmy for the best popular entertainment, to "File on Four", which won a One World Broadcasting Trust premier award. "One Foot in the Grave" received an award from the Royal Television Society for its brilliant construction. "Red Dwarf', a personal favourite of mine, won an Emmy. "The Bullion Boys" also won an Emmy and "The Snapper" won a BAFTA production award and the Prix Italia.
"Sport on 5" and "Radio 5 Live" have become a tremendous success under Jennifer Abramsky. She has raised "Radio 5 Live" like a phoenix from the grave of Radio 5 which was dying a death. "Radio 5 Live" is a very successful radio network in its own particular niche. "The Wrong Trousers", a marvellous cartoon, won a BAFTA and an Oscar for best animation. It is worth noting that BBC television won an unprecedented five international Emmy awards. That was the largest number won by a broadcaster since the awards began.
It is not simply a case of quality within the BBC:, it is also a matter of efficiency. Before I became a Member of this House, I was involved in the construction, financing and management of radio and television stations. My company set up radio and television stations in 52 countries. I saw for myself how the BBC operated, as it was a client of mine. I also saw how broadcasters very close to the United Kingdom, such as the Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, the Dutch state broadcasting service, and Rikisut Varpid in Iceland, operated. I also saw how broadcasters operated further afield in Jakarta, Zimbabwe, south America and the United States.
It is interesting to note how efficient the BBC is in the use of its studios. When I entered radio stations and television studios in Hilversun, I saw empty studios. The BBC has come top in the European Broadcasting Union in utilising its resources. Its television studios have a 68 per cent. resource rate. That applies to the number of days in production and preparation excluding refurbishment and statutory maintenance. That is a tremendously high percentage when compared with that of other broadcasters. No one can accuse the BBC of wasting licence payers' money.
As time is short, I want briefly to raise several specific points, some of which may not have been raised so far. With regard to the White Paper's main recommendations, 540 I support the licence fee. It is not my natural inclination to have organisations funded in that way. My natural inclination would be to say, "Come on, let's privatise the BBC." However, that is simplistic, for the reasons that hon. Members have set out today with regard to programming thresholds and financing. It would also be a little simplistic to say that the BBC is exclusively the public service broadcaster. I heard one Labour Member say that "The Jewel in the Crown" was produced marvellously by the BBC. As I recall—
§ Mr. Fabricant
I am told by the hon. Gentleman that the mistake was made by a Conservative Member. Of course, "The Jewel in the Crown" and "Brideshead Revisited", both often credited to the BBC, were excellent, quality programmes made by Granada Television. However, that does not decry the point that the BBC is the major public service broadcaster not only in the United Kingdom but in the world.
§ Mr. Maxton
Is not, in fact, the reverse true? The fact that everybody thinks that such high-quality programmes are made by the BBC reinforces the point that it makes high-quality programmes.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman, as ever, sums it up completely accurately.
As I said in an earlier intervention, I am slightly disappointed that—the hon. Member for Cathcart, whom I am tempted to call my hon. Friend, also raised this point—the Government will not raise the licence fee for those people who have two or more television sets. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been advised by his officials that, technically, one cannot measure whether a house has one or two television sets operating at any one time, but they are wrong. I speak as—possibly—the only fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers who happens to be a member of the House. Without modification, a detector van may detect the operation of two television sets in a house. The Government should think about whether it may be worth charging homes with more than two television sets a slightly higher licence fee.
The Government are right to accept the White Paper's recommendation that the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission should be merged. That makes clear sense.
I also had the privilege of sitting on the Statutory Instruments Committee—as did the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—which enabled the BBC to branch out into international television broadcasting.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I do not condone that view. The subject produced an interesting debate in the Standing Committee, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out at the time. In all my two and a half years' experience in the House, it was unique to witness a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments having a decent debate and a thorough discussion. I am delighted that that SI has enabled the BBC to produce BBC World and BBC Prime.
541 There is no question but that the BBC has a unique reputation not only in the United Kingdom but overseas. In 1940, the BBC had the courage to broadcast the bad news. So, in 1943 and 1944 when the war began to turn in our favour and the BBC reported it, people believed that that was so. The voice of the United Kingdom was the BBC.
The BBC's reputation is still strong. I was working in Moscow, as Radio Moscow was my client a few years ago, when there was a movement of troops in the streets of Moscow. We did not know what was going on. It was just prior to the coup that occurred a month later. Everybody on Radio Moscow, the national state broadcaster, was concerned about what would happen. People feared that they might have to return to the bad old days of Stalin and lose their ability to operate without a great deal of censorship.
In the main newsroom, nobody knew what was going on. The TASS feed told us nothing. Then, a friend of mine called Valentin Khlebnikov, the director of engineering at Radio Moscow at that time, took me into his office. He locked his door, pulled out the drawer of his desk, took out a shortwave radio and stuck it on his window sill. I remember that, behind the radio on the window sill, I could see the golden domes of the Kremlin. Yet, where was he getting his news? It was from the BBC world service, broadcasting in Russian, despite the fact that the news was being made within 200 or 300 m of the very building on Pyatnikaya Ulitsa in which I was standing. That is a sign of how important the BBC still is as a world broadcaster. In fact, I believe that the BBC has more listeners world wide than Radio Moscow, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and Radio Beijing combined.
I wish to cover some further brief points. I have already dealt with BBC engineering in an intervention, so I shall not speak now at length. The BBC transmission department cannot operate as a commercial entity while it is still part of the BBC. Despite the fact that the BBC has produced an excellent document about fair trading, in practice, it is not possible for such an organisation to trade fairly. Although revenue costs may be isolated from BBC mainstream operations, it would be impossible to separate out the infrastructure and the BBC's capital assets. This is unfair on National Transcommunications Ltd. and other companies that might want to come into the market.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seriously to consider breaking the NTL monopoly and producing a real alternative by privatising Transmission Engineering. In any event, it is based in a separate building in Warwick, it is encapsulated, and that could easily be done.
I pay tribute to John Birt. He has had to make some very difficult decisions. I pay tribute also to Marmaduke Hussey, whom I met for the first time, some 15 years ago in Brighton, before he worked for the BBC. He and I were trying to set up a radio station in Cornwall. He could not carry on because he was then made chairman of the BBC. We should never underestimate the difficulties that Marmaduke Hussey has endured as chairman of the board of governors in getting it to support some of the initiatives and changes that John Birt has instituted.
I briefly acknowledge John Birt's statement in Ireland and his excellent article in Saturday's edition of The Times. I shall not quote huge chunks of his article, 542 because I shall run out of time—indeed, it has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). All that I can say to John Birt is, "Fine. Many of us agree with your sentiments, but you are the director-general, so now do something about it."
On the whole—99 per cent.—I support the White Paper, and I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East)
I thank hon. Members who curtailed their remarks so that others might have a few minutes in which to speak.
By and large, the reaction to the White Paper has been relief—relief that the Government have not surrendered to the Conservative Back-Bench free market ultra-enthusiasts and have abandoned the doctrinaire solutions to the corporation's future that some have proposed. I wish to sound a more critical note about the White Paper than has been expressed so far. Although there is relief at what the Government have not done in the White Paper, it could hardly be said that there has been great enthusiasm for what they propose to do in the White Paper. The reason is that the Government propose to do remarkably little in the White Paper.
The Government have rightly rejected the way forward which was advocated by some in terms of privatisation, but they have not been able to propose a convincing mission of their own for public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. There is a sense that there is a holding operation that is designed to place the BBC on an uncontroversial back-burner and avoid damaging public rows about its future while the Government fight for their survival on other fronts. That is made clear at several points in the White Paper. I was particularly interested in the paragraphs about the future of the BBC's transmission services, to which several hon. Members have referred, including the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant).
One paragraph of the White Paper tells us about the current position with the transmission services. The next paragraph tells us that, in 1989, the Government wanted to privatise the transmission network. A later paragraph tells us that, after five years of careful deliberation, the Government now do not know what they want to do. There is no conclusion on that subject in the White Paper. Although I am pleased that the Government are moving back from privatisation, contrary to Conservative Members' views, I believe that there has been a flagrant loss of nerve on their part. That is a telling pointer to the vacuum that exists at the heart of what ought to be the Government's policy.
The BBC's transmission network could, and should, be an important element in the development of the United Kingdom information super-highway. The fact that, after years of deliberation, the Government clearly do not know what to do about it is symptomatic of the wider inertia gripping them in that context, to the deep detriment of the national interest.
That vacuum is most damagingly apparent in section 2 of the White Paper, which contains the discussion of theBBC's role in the United Kingdom".543 Paragraph 2.6 rightly states:it will be necessary for the BBC to have clear objectives as a public service broadcaster after 1996.That is undoubtedly true, but what should those objectives be? What exactly is the BBC for?
Here the Government's difficulties are greatest. Ideology presses, for privatisation, but pragmatism has rightly ruled that out. That leaves the Government unable to produce a convincing answer to the question: what should the key objective of our main public service broadcaster be? Their ideological hostility to the public sector has prevented them from formulating a convincing statement of that mission.
The White Paper presents a bland list of desirable somewhat bureaucratic attributes that the corporation should exhibit, and it is hard to argue with any of them. For example, the first of the 10 objectives isgiving priority to the interests of audiences".That should indeed be an objective, but it will hardly be one whose pursuit will engage the passions and energies of the people whom we shall need to drive forward Britain's key player in the coming multi-media revolution.
The other nine objectives listed for the BBC are no more helpful than the one that I have quoted. At the heart of the White Paper, where there should be clarity and vision, there is a void. I suggest that the primary objective for the BBC should be to provide the United Kingdom benchmark for quality in the multi-media era that we are entering.
We are all aware that the danger attached to the coming explosion in broadcasting quantity is that it will be accompanied by a collapse in quality. The continued operation of the BBC independently within the public sector, financed by the licence fee, is our guarantee that that need not happen. That is a vital mission, worthy of the talents and skills of the corporation. Quality of service to the whole nation must be built on a BBC that remains in the public sector.
The BBC's public service role is not an outdated relic of a bygone age that will eventually subside into extinction, as several Conservative Members, while supporting the White Paper for now, have suggested. I do not accept that idea. The public service role is the key to ensuring that broadcasting in the information age will be stamped through with the hallmark of quality.
The public sector commitment is a guarantee of quality of service in a rapidly changing environment. It will ensure long-term investment in talent, skills, and research and development, and will provide the stability and freedom in which creativity and, above all, quality and universality of service can thrive within broadcasting. We cannot afford to allow quality to be reduced to being the preserve of an exclusive market niche. It must be maintained as the consistent hallmark of United Kingdom broadcasting, available to everyone.
There are several unresolved issues within the White Paper. It suggests two distinct roles for the BBC but does not explain how those are to be reconciled. If the advertising revenues of the commercial operations of the BBC began to fall, what would be the implications? How far would the quality of broadcasting be preserved under such commercial pressures? Would the BBC's reputation for impartiality and quality be compromised and undermined?
544 The White Paper makes it clear that the aim of the commercial arm is to generate money to supplement income from the licence fee. One would assume that that would enable the licence fee to be reduced, as some hon. Members have suggested, but the implication of that trend is made clear in the Select Committee report, which states:it might be very difficult, if not impossible, to justify the existence of a licence fee at all.The more successful the commercial arm, the greater the threat to a publicly funded broadcasting service enjoying the benefits that freedom from commercial pressures allows.
The Government may claim that the licence fee will never be replaced, but will such a claim survive when a future Minister assesses the request from a profit-making BBC to increase the licence fee?
We can choose. Are we going to embrace the opportunities of the new communications technologies, which are presenting themselves to us, and make them work for us, or are we going to sit back and watch the future unfold? The White Paper is welcome, as far as it goes, but it leaves many important issues unresolved and we cannot allow many of them to remain so for much longer.
§ Mr. Fabricant
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In my rush to allow the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) to speak, I did not remember to declare an interest. From time to time, I advise the BBC on certain technical matters.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I suppose that that is as near a genuine point of order as we ever get in this place.
§ Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)
I am delighted that this White Paper has finally been brought before the House for debate. I am equally delighted to be making my first speech in the Chamber in my new capacity as a spokesperson in the shadow Heritage team of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith).
While we welcome the White Paper, we have some criticisms of it. None the less, it is far better balanced than we could possibly have hoped for at one time. I do not want to be too much of a party pooper—there seems to have been a cosy consensus across the Floor of the House—but some of us remember the way in which the BBC has been browbeaten, cowed and intimidated during the past 16 years by an orchestrated campaign by the Conservative party and Conservative Members. We also remember when the attack on the media was compounded by the dog's breakfast of the Broadcasting Act 1990. Some of the eulogies that we have heard, especially from Conservative Members, must be taken with a relatively large pinch of salt.
Those who care about the quality and independence of television in the United Kingdom, regardless of party, can breathe a sigh of relief that the BBC has thankfully been regarded as a privatisation too far. The BBC is a public service broadcaster. As we have heard from all parties tonight, it is an institution in which the people take great pride, and I welcome the decision to spell out that public service role in the new royal charter—a charter that we in this House will not be able to debate directly.
545 There is much to value in the BBC's traditions and yet the BBC must always be open to change. The new technology that is driving the changes is exciting and we welcome the prospect of a new generation of interactive citizens, in addition to today's passive viewers. We must always remember, however, that the increase in channels, which digital, cable and satellite will undoubtedly open up, is meaningful only if it represents a choice of high-quality, watchable programmes—the sort of programmes to which the British public are used—rather than an excuse for channel surfing through trash and trivia. Replication should never be confused with choice. The next Labour Government will continue to look to the BBC to set the quality benchmarks by which we shall judge all television output.
The four, core terrestrial channels are still the only services for 80 per cent. of households and will continue to be for some years; hence there must be a balance in our judgments today between preparing the BBC for its future in cyberspace and ensuring that it plays to its traditional strengths. Equally, it must continue to earn its reputation, not least in news. A BBC that took its lead from the tabloid pack, that regurgitated No. 10 briefings undigested, and that collaborated in soundbite-ism would be a BBC less worth defending.
Modern public service broadcasting, in John Birt's words on Friday,must put reflection as high as disputation.He of course knew that most of us would hear those words before today's debate. His challenge, and ours, is to do something about them.
In the absence of an effective Parliament, it is often the BBC which bears the added burden of being the nation's political health service; and public understanding of the issues is the BBC's most effective immunisation campaign. The BBC and journalists everywhere will be helped in this task by an incoming Labour Government introducing a freedom of information Act—strongly promoted and fought for not least by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher)—and enshrining the freedom of the press for the first time in British law by incorporating in it the European convention on human rights.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman will know that I support the idea of a freedom of information Act. However, if we had such an Act to enable journalists to explore matters that should be in the public domain—Robert Maxwell when he was alive, for instance—should there not also be privacy legislation to protect people against intrusions into their privacy which have nothing to do with the public interest?
§ Mr. Allen
One of the articles in the European convention on human rights confers on all British citizens, for the first time ever, a right to privacy which would need to be balanced against the freedom of speech that is also to be found in the convention.
Hon. Members from all parties have agreed that the media world is changing rapidly and that, to continue its role as the United Kingdom's public service broadcaster, the BBC will have to change too. In recent years, it has tried to prepare itself for the road ahead, but we should 546 not forget that the toll exacted to avoid privatisation and to retain the licence fee as its main source of income has been a human one. The words spoken today by the Secretary of State in support of the licence fee did not come easily; they were won by the jobs of 6,000 people who no longer work for the BBC. It has been a painful process, but it has allowed the BBC to survive in a hostile political climate. In effect, it was out to compulsory competitive tendering, and, at a cost, it won back its own job. History may judge that to have been a brilliant political operation, but we should never forget that it was achieved at a very high price.
The White Paper represents a fundamental contradiction that the Government have posed for the BBC: that of maintaining its values while accommodating the demands of commercialisation. That is a contradiction which will haunt the broadcasting industry for the duration of the BBC's new charter. We see that already, with advertising appearing on the two new channels, BBC World and BBC Prime, and with links between BBC1's "Big Break" and the Daily Mirror and between "Antiques Roadshow" and The Sunday Times. Already, the ITV companies are getting anxious about the possibility of unfair competition.
§ Mr. Jessel
Yes. Given what the hon. Gentleman has said about commercialisation and the position of the Government, may I ask him whether he is aware of the fact that the National Heritage Select Committee, whose report in a sense helped to pave the way for the White Paper and which is chaired by a distinguished member of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), argued—as the right hon. Gentleman has also personally argued—that the survival of the BBC will depend in future on commercialisation? Will the hon. Gentleman read the views of his right hon. Friend on that point carefully?
§ Mr. Allen
As I shall explain later, it is clear that the Labour party fully supports how the BBC is making the most of its assets. We agree that those assets should be utilised 100 per cent. abroad as well as domestically. But that is, in essence, to preserve the BBC as we see it: fundamentally, a public service broadcaster—that is certainly our priority. It is in no sense to give it schizophrenia, whereby one day it is a commercial broadcaster and the next a public service broadcaster. That is certainly our priority.
As well as the implications for the service provided by the BBC, serious political implications must be considered. The BBC's independence and integrity are its most valuable assets and must not be compromised. Yet by entering into deals with satellite and cable companies as well as other terrestrial broadcasters, the BBC may be drawn into conflict over issues of ownership, control, fair competition and autonomy. It is a danger, and we and the BBC must guard against it.
Many hon. Members have referred to the funding of the BBC and the licence fee. The Labour party's position is crystal clear: while the licence fee is far from perfect, it remains the best means of raising the bulk of the BBC's revenue, both today and for the foreseeable future. The stability of income which the licence fee represents 547 safeguards the BBC's most important assets: the ability to make long-term plans and commitments, and to promote the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
§ Dr. Howells
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are special problems in the relationship between BBC Wales and S4C, the Welsh Channel 4? BBC Wales has spent a considerable part of its funding on making Welsh language programmes for S4C, with the result that precious few funds remain for making English language programmes for the 80 per cent. of us in Wales who do not speak Welsh and, moreover, programmes that could help BBC Wales to break into nationally networked programming in a much bigger way.
§ Mr. Allen
My hon. Friend makes eloquently the point made by several other hon. Members tonight. The Labour party would press the BBC to ensure that adequate sums of money are allocated to Wales and Scotland, but specifically to Wales, so that English language programming can be developed as my hon. Friend suggests is appropriate. I would go so far as to say that, under an incoming Labour Government, a Welsh Assembly would wish to deal with that issue rapidly.
The BBC's dependence on the licence fee allows it to take such steps, provided that pressure from my hon. Friend and other colleagues is made clear. It also allows the funding of minority programmes and allows the BBC to retain its editorial independence. Sadly, all that may be undermined by the Government's failure to guarantee the licence fee beyond 2001. It is an unnecessary uncertainty, which is rapidly becoming the trade mark of the National Heritage Department.
We accept the logic behind encouraging the BBC to become a more commercial entity but we want to ensure, as do all interested parties, including the BBC itself, that that is done fairly and in a way that does not risk the BBC's strict public service obligations. The ITV companies are understandably concerned that the BBC will compete with them and, if it used the licence fee to subsidise sales of programme rights, the BBC could obtain an unfair advantage. We want a healthy, competitive BBC but, equally, we want to ensure that it is not at the expense of ITV and Channel 4.
The Broadcasting Act 1990 is not a good precedent for the Conservatives' stewardship of television's finances. Farcically low bids for the ITV franchises and the dog's breakfast of the Channel 4 funding formula proved that. For the sake of broadcasting, let us hope that the commercialisation of the BBC does not produce such unintended consequences.
As we would expect, the Conservative White Paper does not adequately discuss democracy and accountability. Opposition Members feel that the BBC is too important an institution to be the mere creature of the Executive. It should be established legitimately by Parliament in statute law. An Act of Parliament would allow open public debate about the role of the BBC and its future.
The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) mentioned the statutory instrument. It was amazing to realise that something as significant as BBC World or BBC Prime would have been established without the official knowledge of the House—let alone a debate—had not the procedural device of praying against the order been used in this place.
548 Constitutional safeguards would be necessary, were the BBC to be established by Act of Parliament. I believe that the tyranny of a passing elected majority could be almost as unhealthy as the tyranny of the Secretary of State, but it is not beyond the wit of Parliament to devise safeguards, especially with the new Government committed to reinventing our democracy. It is an undemocratic outrage that the House is prohibited by the Executive from examining or amending the royal charter when it deals with such important matters as the public service obligation and the strength of our commitment to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
The board of governors also needs to be reviewed. Even the governors do not claim to be representative, and they are accountable only to the Government of the day. The National Heritage Select Committee recommended that the process by which the governors are appointed should be made "more extensive and public". We agree, and we would suggest that, as a minimum, that must mean the ratification of any proposed appointments by the National Heritage Select Committee.
Equally, in addition to the annual report and accounts, the Government should ensure that Parliament is given a full day on the Floor of the House each year to debate media matters, and the BBC specifically. If we can do it for the armed forces—next week, we shall do it for the Royal Navy—we should do it for the BBC. An institution as important as the BBC requires equal treatment.
We are also worried about the handling of viewers' complaints and regulations, a subject mentioned in the White Paper. The Broadcasting Standards Council, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, the ITC and the separate regulatory bodies for radio and telecommunications appear a confused and confusing arrangement to the consumer wishing to complain or to find something out.
We welcome the proposal to merge the BSC and the BCC. However, as the ITC will now have regulatory responsibility for BBC World and BBC Prime, we need to consider whether it would make sense to take the merger one step further. In an age of convergence of media and communications, we could have a unified organisation for all broadcasting organisations, possibly an umbrella organisation, which could have the ability to monitor issues of ownership and output throughout the range of electronic communications.
Whatever the framework, we must master the new technological environment, not be mastered by it. The information super-highways should not become the conduit for second-hand, second-rate imports. We must match every technological leap with enhanced British programming. We must develop our own cultural agenda and, where necessary, fight for it as fiercely as the French have done for their cultural agenda. That must include fighting to sustain parts of the BBC service that could be threatened by increased commercial competition.
For instance, the coverage of important sporting events should remain a priority of the BBC. The list of key sporting events such as the cup final, Wimbledon and the grand national is part of our cultural heritage and, as such, those events should be available on terrestrial television.
The BBC should not fear the growth of cable and satellite. On the contrary, the potential for new developments is immense. An active Government will in future encourage the cable companies to continue to develop sub-regional, or even city, channels, perhaps 549 building on the work of the Channel 5-to-be. Their demand for high-quality, locally made programming could dramatically boost the BBC in co-operation with ITV, the independents and local authorities. We need to ask the BBC directly what it is doing to capitalise on those opportunities, for there are tremendous opportunities in education, health and local services.
Many cable companies are already cabling schools for free and are crying out for high-quality television and services to offer with that cabling. Much as we support BBC and ITV regional television, it, too, must change and exploit new challenges. It must increasingly be a resource to nourish the localities and less an outpost for the centre. It will be encouraged in that role by the regional and national assemblies that an incoming Labour Government will create. Those assemblies will want to see a bouquet of audio-visual industries grow locally. The development of that local skills base will be the seedcorn of, and underpin, our global position in the next century.
The White Paper records the BBC's intention to launch digital services, which will allow for a large number of new channels by the end of 1997. We await a Government who have the vision to encourage and promote those initiatives in partnership with the private sector. The information super-highway is, however, the latest example of how the Government have missed the opportunity to help the private sector to work in partnership with the public sector. The Department of National Heritage is silent, I am afraid, on that matter, as it is on so many others—the interactive are being led by the inactive.
The Department has offered no super-highway initiatives, no ideas on Channel 4 funding, no proposals on privacy and freedom of the press and no White Paper on cross-media ownership and restrictions. As his answer to the question posed the other day by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made clear, the last film seen by the Secretary of State was "Doctor Dolittle". Little has been done either to promote the digital revolution that will open up the possibility of dozens of niche channels. That will require conditional access mechanisms that can scramble signals and allow them to be decoded only by recognised subscribers. The Government should be acting now to prevent consumers being forced to buy a number of different decoders.
It would also be unacceptable if a de facto standard which conferred monopoly power on the owner and offered the danger of unfair price increases were to emerge. The Government should start working now, perhaps for a common European interface, enabling a choice of conditional access systems, to ensure fair competition and consumer choice in the digital broadcasting market.
The final issue raised in the debate was transmission. The change there is basically a sop to the rabid right which feels cheated that the whole of the BBC has not been privatised. There is no guarantee, however, that if the BBC's transmitter network was privatised the result would be lower transmission costs across the board. Indeed, the privately owned NTL has a monopoly of transmission services to the ITV companies, which complain continually that their transmission costs are higher than they need be. With all the opportunities of 550 digitalisation about to come on stream, it would be nonsense were the BBC transmission services to be diverted into a privatisation battle. That would mean delay and contracts governing which managing director got which salary cut and which share option. The privatisation tail would be wagging the digital dog.
In conclusion, the White Paper is to be welcomed, if only as a disaster avoided. The result of a Government running out of steam, allied to nimble political footwork, has been the survival—at a cost—of the BBC as one of Britain's key assets. The next Labour Government will ensure that the BBC spends its energy not on survival or on confusing commercialism with efficiency but on seizing the opportunities for growth presented by new technology and on continuing to set a standard for public service broadcasting both here and abroad.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. lain Sproat)
It is an unusual pleasure to be asked to reply to a debate in which there has been such a large measure of cross-party agreement. It has also been an exceptionally well-informed debate. I should like to take the various speakers chronologically and answer the points that they raised.
I start with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). I was very grateful for the general welcome that he gave the White Paper and that was echoed by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) from the Front Bench. However, he raised a number of points where there was at least a shade of criticism of what we had done. For example, he welcomed the retention of the licence fee as a means of providing the BBC with £1.6 billion a year, but wondered why we had to have a review in five years' time.
The Government decided on a continuation of the licence fee, but, as a number of hon. Members said, the extraordinary speed and complexity of the change in technology means that we do not want to set ourselves into a straitjacket on any matters on which we can help the BBC.
One or two hon. Members—including my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon, North (Sir J. Gorst) and for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), in his extremely good speech—mentioned that not everybody was happy with the idea of a licence fee.
Many people outside the Chamber do not like having to pay for their licences when they can get ITV for free because of the advertisements. It is proper that the House of Commons should say that it is a vexed question. The majority of those who have spoken have been in favour of the licence fee, but the Government thought that it would be right to review it in five years' time and I am sure that that is correct.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury asked when we would bring forward proposals for digitalisation. That is a good question. It is also a complicated question, and trying to work out what the regulations should be when we have to multiply by six or 10 the number of frequencies that can operate on digitalisation as opposed to analogue is extremely complex. However, later this year we intend to bring before the House our proposals on that extremely important matter, particularly the regulatory framework to deal with it.
551 The hon. Gentleman—and many others—raised the important issue of the regionalisation of the BBC. Perhaps it would be helpful if I gave a few facts for hon. Members to ponder now and later when they read Hansard. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) speaks from a Labour point of view about what should happen in Scotland. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) speaks from a rather different point of view. I certainly have no doubts about the seriousness with which the matter is regarded in Scotland, although I would differ from him as to the solution that I would impose.
As the House will know, in 1993, the director-general asked his adviser, Mr. David Hatch, a senior manager at the BBC, to perform a wide-ranging review of regional network production and the representation of the entire United Kingdom on the network. The BBC's new regional policy resulted directly from the recommendations of the Hatch report.
The BBC's aim is that by 1997 the proportion of network production—that is, television and radio programmes for broadcasting throughout the UK—made outside London and the south-east will increase from one fifth to one third—an increase of 67 per cent. That amounts to a shift of £75 million out of the south-east of England—£65 million in television and £10 million in radio-increasing expenditure on network programming outside London from £188 million to over £250 million a year, an increase of 33 per cent. The amount of drama made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be doubled by 1997, to nearly 20 per cent. of all BBC drama. At present, each year the BBC spends about one third of its total income—some £496 million—in the regions, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That covers the cost of local, regional and network services.
The House will have a chance to debate the matter, probably after Easter this year, when we lay before the House the royal charter and the agreement that the BBC will make with the Department of National Heritage. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that we would not be able to debate the subject, meaning that hon. Members would not be able to change details of the royal charter through debate in the House. However, hon. Members will have the opportunity to debate the matter extremely fully.
§ Mr. Sproat
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Cathcart, but I shall go on to reply to what hon. Members have said during the debate.
§ Mr. Maxton
I reiterate the point that I made earlier. The BBC can fulfil its regional programming commitment simply by sending crews from London to Scotland to film a series of plays. They stay for a couple of months and then return to London. That is not giving production back to the regions; that is simply retaining it in London and making films outside London. I hope that that is not what the BBC means in making its commitment.
§ Mr. Sproat
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I understand that the BBC does not just want to make films or programmes in Scotland about Scotland for the Scots; it wants to make films and programmes in Scotland that will be screened throughout the United Kingdom network. We are not talking about the Jameson syndrome, where someone from London travels to Scotland to make a programme with no Scottish character or flavour.
552 I come to a question that is perhaps rather difficult to explain convincingly. It concerns whether the governors of the BBC should be elected or whether, as the National Heritage Select Committee recommended, they should be selected by that Committee—not an unusual proposition. When the Government of the day select the governors of the BBC, they do not do so with party political issues in mind.
I have no idea how most of the present governors of the BBC vote. They comprise a former Chief Whip of the Labour party and a prominent member of the trade unions. I do not believe that asking the House to choose—whether on the Floor of the House or in a Select Committee—the governors of the BBC will do anything other than polarise the issue and make it more political. I think that that would also be true of a Labour Government. Although allowing the Government to select the governors may seem to be politicising the issue, in my experience that is not so and it is proven by the present membership of that group.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury referred to the deteriorating balance of trade in television programming. It is a worrying matter. However, any balance of trade deterioration in programming is not due to a deterioration within the BBC. In fact, the BBC's import and export of television programmes is in credit. The programming balance has shifted throughout television because there are so many satellite and cable stations using American films. Of course, that does not mean that it is not sad that we do not have a balance of British films on television, including on cable and satellite. The hon. Gentleman did not suggest that, but as this is a debate about the BBC, I think that the House should know that the BBC's balance of trade in programming favours British programmes.
The hon. Gentleman said that we should not have recommended that the general advisory council be abolished and that there should be an English regional council. As far as the general advisory council is concerned, the BBC takes advice from many bodies. The Government believe that the BBC should increasingly seek specialist advice and also directly consult its own audience. In that context, we do not believe that the charter should continue to require the BBC to maintain a general advisory council. The BBC has set up 10 English regional councils, the chairmen of which meet in the English regional forum, and the BBC board of governors is advised by the forum on policy in the regions.
A matter that was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, although the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury raised it first, was the merger of the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The hon. Gentleman said that he welcomed the merger, and, obviously, we are grateful for that support. But my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) went further and said that, although he welcomed it, he hoped that the new body would have the opportunity to research matters such as the effect of television programmes on children, and so on. That was not something that I had originally thought that the new body would do, but it is an interesting idea and we shall certainly look at it closely.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) raised a point regarding Mr. John Birt: although Mr. Birt has had to put up with much criticism about the number of jobs lost and other changes 553 in the BBC—the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that the loss of some 6,000 jobs has been a heavy price to pay—it is the pruning of the bureaucracy in the BBC that has enabled it to put an additional £100 million a year into programme making. It has been a price to pay, but it has not been frittered away. It has gone right to the heart of what we all want to see the BBC doing.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who courteously told me that he would not be able to stay to hear the end of the debate, made a rather dazzling speech. Those who sat on the Select Committee are no doubt used to that dazzle, but I found it very effective. He said that, too often, the BBC is, or appears to be, impervious to listeners' views. I do not know what it used to be like, but from now on it will not be a case of being impervious, because it has as well structured a programme as one could ask for in the circumstances. It will be conducting a series of local seminars throughout the United Kingdom, to hear what listeners and viewers have to say about what it does.
Information about what the BBC intends to do will be set out in its statement of "Promises to Audiences"—a slightly creepy title, so perhaps we can find a better one. The promises made in that statement will be sent to all viewers with their reminder to pay their television licence. The viewers will be told, "Here is what the BBC said it would do. If you do not think that it has done it, write in and say so, and the BBC will, in all reasonable circumstances, take action on what you say."
A rather more careful consideration of complaints made to the BBC will in future be made by the BBC itself. It has set up a new complaints unit. In the first eight months of operation, the unit received some 590 554 complaints, of which it upheld 102, which is quite a serious number for a body that investigates complaints about itself to justify.
No doubt the package of the statement of promises and the complaints unit is not perfect—no doubt there is more that the BBC can do and it will not stop the BBC making mistakes—but it is certainly a refutation of any charge that the BBC is impervious to the criticisms that listeners and viewers might make.
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has been extremely ill, and I thank him very much for rising from his sick bed and coming to the Chamber today. He gave the White Paper a slightly back-handed welcome and said that it was not the best of all worlds, but that at least it was not the worst of all worlds. He asked about the Government naming the Scottish governor. I should make it clear to the House, particularly to the hon. Member for Angus, East, that although it might be the Government who make the decision, the appointment of the governor of the Scottish BBC is made on the recommendation of the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is, perhaps, not quite as far as the hon. Gentleman would like to go, but at least it is not, as he was saying in another context, a decision made in London on a London basis.
This has been an impressive and exceptionally valuable debate. It is a rather melancholy thought that the further we move from automatic party lines, the better debate we have. We shall have a chance to return to the subject when the royal charter and the agreement are laid before the House; we hope that that will happen at Easter or thereabouts.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.