§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Viscount Falkland rose to call attention to the case for preserving the quality and diversity of public service broadcasting in the digital age against the background of increasing global competition; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, we are facing an upheaval in broadcasting in this country which allows us to take a completely new look at what the future 722 holds, not just for the BBC, for that is the main thrust of the debate which I have the pleasure to introduce today, but what is the function of broadcasting in society and how the demands of the public will be met in future with the new technologies that are available to us.
§ I would not be opening this debate today were my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth here; he is away. With his enormous experience, I would perhaps have looked forward to winding up the debate, would have picked the brains of other speakers who had preceded me and may have suggested one or two ideas. It is a much more difficult job for me to open up the debate to the speakers, to all of whom I am extremely grateful for their participation in today's debate. I very much look forward to their contributions, which I am sure will be wide-ranging and full of the expertise which one expects in your Lordships' House.
§ I also have to say that I have received a number of letters from other noble Lords who are well known in the field of broadcasting. They were courteous and kind enough to write to me to say that they would have liked to have spoken in this debate but that, unfortunately, pressing matters made it impossible for them to do so.
§ Public service broadcasting—for that is the origin of British broadcasting—and a very particular public broadcasting culture in the shape of the BBC, performed a role over many years which made it a national cultural institution with standards to which it adhered, sometimes viewed as rather pompous but always offering quality, truthfulness and often innovation. There were perhaps occasional moments of pomposity and a certain prurience, but we forgave it that as we would forgive a well loved relative at times when we disagreed.
§ By and large, the record of the BBC as the public service broadcaster in this country has been outstanding. It has given it a brand image which is probably second to none in the world of public service broadcasting. The advent of the new digital spectrum technologies now causes us to review the future of public service broadcasting in this country. These new technologies, which will create a great deal of choice and technical quality, perhaps represent as important a development (if not more important) as did colour and commercial television in this country in the 1950s.
§ The role of the BBC has now had to be examined. The corporation has been scrupulous in taking every kind of advice and seeking to help wherever it can, within the constraints of its funding, which of course is through the licence fee, in arriving at decisions which will allow it to compete—for that is what it seeks to do—in an increasingly competitive national and global market.
§ We have run into difficulties. The difficulties, of course, start with the funding. The BBC is funded by the licence fee. The licence fee puts many financial constraints on the breadth and variety of public service broadcasting in a way which never previously was the case. Nowadays, young people do not look upon the BBC in the same way as perhaps some of us who are in our 50s do. Most of us think about broadcasting in terms of the BBC. Young people now know what they want, 723 they go out, they seek it and, when they find it, they will more often than not stick with it, whether it is in the form of commercial, satellite or any other kind of broadcasting. The difficulty is therefore one of the BBC facing changing audiences and changing roles.
§ Gone are the days when we were able to go into our offices or the homes of family and friends and discuss a programme which we had seen the previous night. That was always the habit, it was a cosy habit, and that has now gone. Nowadays people more usually watch a sports or music programme on satellite television or listen to the radio or engage in other activities within the general area of broadcasting. To that extent, the BBC has lost its natural constituency.
§ It seems to me that the BBC has lacked the confidence to be able to make any clear decision about its future role in broadcasting in this country. I believe that the perceived pressure put upon it by Parliament and Government to achieve a share of the market has been unfortunate. After all, we have never judged the quality and breadth of programming of our public service broadcasters according to their share of the market.
§ Even with the advent of commercial television, it was more the continuing quality and the reach of the programming which was important, whether it be drama, documentaries or comedy. Now it is necessary for the BBC to look closely at the competition and decide where it should be competing, if it should be competing at all. It is interesting that in one's talks with the senior management of the BBC, it is always evident that the word "ratings" will occur within the first few minutes.
§ It is natural that the BBC should be concerned about its loss of share. It is put at about 30 per cent and it is said that sinking below that would be unacceptable. I do not know why the figure of 30 per cent should be deemed to be a reasonable level. So what if it drops temporarily below 30 per cent provided that it maintains its quality? It seems to me that if the BBC is forced, or encouraged, or chooses itself to chase after ratings and market share, it can only fail and will not justify its licence fee. If it sticks to its remit and continues to provide the quality by which we are accustomed to judge it, it seems likely that it will not fail to the extent that it will if it chases market share. Parliament's role is to give the BBC the confidence to see that new development and to encourage it to look more closely at where its natural constituency lies.
§ The new technology that we have is unusual in that nobody asked for the new developments in digital television. It is unlike, for example, the motor industry where there was always a demand for cleaner, higher performance and safer motor cars. Even though the new technologies—for example, engine control systems—were expensive, the motoring public were prepared to pay for them. In some ways, the advances in radio and television technology have gone ahead of the market, requiring extremely costly marketing and sales exercises.
§ We are still seeing those battles being fought in terms of dominating that market where huge investments have been made. Only today we have 724 seen in the war over top boxes that BSkyB has offered free top boxes and the benefit of reduced telephone bills for people who subscribe to their programmes. That is bad luck for anyone who bought a box last week. But that is the game we are in. That has certainly put pressure on its main competitor, ONdigital, which has entered into that battle as regards top boxes, even to the extent of acting in a rather restrictive way—and one must have sympathy for BSkyB—by not allowing its ITV programmes on the satellite platform, which is a cause of heated discussion between the two operations.
§ It seems to me also that there are the problems of replacing income, certainly for independent commercial companies which seem to be contracting more and more. We may end up with one commercial operator. One can see reasons for a large predatory operator trying to take over to achieve the economies of scale in order to compete, particularly in an area of limited advertising revenue.
§ There is now a great spread of advertising revenue over more and more channels. Therefore, one must market and sell successfully and that has not been done very successfully, by British television programme-makers in the world at large. Certainly we are no match for the Americans or Australians in that field. There is a need for a new sales and marketing imperative. Also, there will be a drive to make up for that loss of income through pay-per-view television and subscription channels.
§ It is difficult to engender the kind of income needed to replace the income from advertising. It seems to me that there is only a limited possibility offered by sports channels, movie channels and soft porn. Pornography is a problem with which I shall not deal this evening. I am sure that we shall deal with it in the months to come because we have not entered into the debate on what is or is not acceptable to the extent to which other countries in Europe have. It is a sombre reality but it is one which must be faced.
§ To conclude on the general aspect, I hope that noble Lords will agree with me that the BBC must not spread itself too thinly. It must not be seen to be everywhere. Why is it absolutely necessary for the BBC to compete in every possible area where there is broadcasting activity? One example which springs to mind is BBC News 24. That costs a lot of money. It competes almost directly with Sky News and does not do it so well. What is the point? As a satellite programme, it is seen by relatively few of the licence fee payers. One may say the same of children's broadcasting. Without intending at all to cause a disagreement between the right reverend Prelate and myself, that may be so also in relation to religious broadcasting. The BBC has a role to play in religious broadcasting. Is it not likely—and I hope that the right reverend Prelate may deal with this—that specialist religious channels will proliferate with the new spectrum? That will make it necessary for the BBC to know exactly what it is doing, to do it effectively and to be careful in watching costs.725
§ Radio is very important. If the BBC has a natural constituency, it is in radio, from where it sprang. It is culturally important. It is the natural successor in our literary tradition. Some of that tradition has gone into the quality of television, particularly in drama.
§ Local radio is now becoming a force. As the concept of nation becomes more difficult to define, more and more people are turning to their local communities. More and more people want to listen to local radio. Even with the restrictions of analogue, it is done extremely well. The new technologies will make it possible to improve the quality and service at great cost. The BBC has already invested a lot of money in the hardware but seems to be going cold on the programming, the software, if I may put it that way. It is necessary for the BBC to lead the way in local programming.
§ Commercial people want it because in that way more radio sets will be purchased. Manufacturers will have the confidence to make more radios and their unit price will go down. That can only be good for the country. I hope other noble Lords will address that issue. I shall be interested to hear what noble Lords say in what is a crucial period for broadcasting and a particularly crucial period for our well loved BBC. I hope that what noble Lords say now and later will give it the confidence to face the future and survive. If we succeed in that, we shall be doing a good job.
§ My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Lord Patten
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, on what he said and the way in which he said it. He expressed an extremely balanced view.
I follow him immediately by saying that I agree with everything that he said in the closing moments of his speech about local radio and the importance of local radio. I wish that the clock had not cut him off in full flood on that issue because I believe that localism and regionalism will be reflected more and more in the broadcast media, whether in radio or on television.
I should like to begin by saying that in this place of all places we should seek to avoid any sense of cultural elitism or any attempt to be patronising, trying to impose on people what we think they should see or what they should listen to. So far in the debate we have managed to avoid that, and I hope that others will avoid it as well or at least justify it if they feel that the general public should be told what they should watch and the way in which they should respond to radio programmes.
Secondly, by way of background, it is very important that we all recognise that there is only one rationale for public sector, public service, broadcasting, and that is to provide what the market cannot or will not provide. If we go beyond that and say that there is a duty for the state to inform or educate, we enter a dangerous zone: therein lies the slow march towards totalitarianism.
I am not known for being a raving radical or someone who stuffs free markets down the throat of anyone who wishes to listen. But I think that the test for public 726 service broadcasting is whether it can be provided at a high quality by anyone else. If it cannot be provided at a high quality by anyone else in the market, there is a very strong case for the state continuing to provide it. I hope that there at least the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and I will agree.
I have only three points to make briefly against that background. First, we need to cut through all the modern buzzwords: "digital", "global" and all the rest. I congratulate the noble Viscount on not having given us a torrent of buzzwords about the new technologies. Thank heavens the speech came from the Liberal Benches and not from the Government Benches, or we would have had the word "modern" every third or fourth sentence. We would also have had "joined up thinking", "joined up government", "joined up broadcasting" and all the rest.
The noble Viscount put his finger on the matter: the key issue is the BBC; that is what we are talking about. He set the tone for the debate, and I intend to follow him absolutely.
It is extremely easy to criticise the BBC and score cheap points off it. That is wrong. The BBC has done an excellent job over the years, but times are changing, as they are changing in this Chamber. I am a great admirer of Sir Christopher Bland and many of his colleagues who are doing a very great deal.
On the other hand, it is also too easy to exalt the BBC and to stick it on a pedestal, saying that it is beyond all criticism, with the attitude that to criticise the BBC is like criticising the purposes of Her Majesty the Queen Mother or to doubt the integrity of the National Trust, or something else that is just too far-fetched for anyone even to think in the dead of night. It is possible to criticise the BBC without being anti-BBC. It is also possible to suggest that the BBC needs to go through a period of radical and carefully thought through change, without being thought to be against public service broadcasting. I am not against public service broadcasting in any way.
That leads me to my second point, which is that the BBC needs to focus on those things that no one else can provide. Therefore, I see absolutely no reason why the BBC seeks to provide the services of Radio 1. I see no reason why the BBC seeks to provide the services of Radio 2, and I see no reason why it seeks to provide the services of Radio 5. I am concentrating, if I may, on the radio channels.
It is clear that the market can provide the services that I have mentioned. To attempt to integrate those things that the market can provide within a public service framework is, frankly, wrong. We see in the present shape of the BBC an attempt to maintain a radio-visual welfare state, providing everything and sometimes, alas, not providing it very well. We do not and should not seek to have the BBC provide a radio-visual or televisual welfare state harking back to the days of the 1940s or when Lord Reith rightly ensured that BBC newscasters read the news in evening dress. There is an opportunity for a reformed BBC.
727 That leads me on, I am afraid, to my third and last point, which is the need for more radical action in relation to the BBC. I cannot imagine that BBC Radio 3 could be provided by anything other than the public service. It is of an extremely high standard, and I cannot imagine that if it were floated off, with all sorts of provisos and cultural golden shares and all the rest, it would not be dumbed down before one could say "Rachmaninov". It should be preserved in the public sector.
I have doubts about Radio 4, though not about the news service, which is extremely important, and a very important component part of our attitude to the English language. English culture and to world affairs. But I worry quite a lot about much of the rest of the output on Radio 4—quiz shows, chat shows and all the rest, which could easily be provided by market stations.
I should like to enter a note of caution, not over BBC news programmes, but over BBC news magazine programmes, where we have seen a reduction in the standards of politeness in interviewing politicians. I hasten to add that this is not a party political point. It often strikes me that interviewers on the "Today" programme are rude to people impartially. I sometimes listen to the "Today" programme because it is the only programme to which Ministers will go in the morning. Therefore, if one wants some political comment one must listen to the "Today" programme; it is a kind of monopoly.
But it is very sad when highly intelligent and motivated Ministers of the present Government are in the middle of saying something, are just pausing on the word "and" and then the interviewer suddenly says "Briefly" or asks another question. We are beginning to see the germ of the growth of yob radio on the BBC "Today" programme. It would be very good if it were possible for senior Government Ministers to go on a variety of programmes in the morning.
There are doubtless some people who like to hear Ministers being harassed, abused and irritated. There is nothing wrong with that. I sometimes enjoy it myself, secretly. But there may be some who would prefer the American interviewing style rather more, where people are allowed to talk for two or three minutes to explain themselves, and sometimes hang themselves on their own political arguments. Mr. Jimmy Young is a master of that sometimes on BBC Radio 2.
So I do not welcome the fact that the BBC seems to have a monopoly on our politicians and Ministers. I should like to see and listen to them on other programmes being interviewed in different ways.
We have been told from the Government Benches that things must change in this place, that the hereditary Peers must go. In the end, as things change, in due course probably much of the BBC will go, in our lifetimes or certainly in the lifetime of many of us. For I do not see why to provide public service broadcasting one has to have a BBC. If there is a licence fee for reception, which raises funds, why cannot it be distributed to any station which wishes to provide a public service element in what it is seeking to do, under strong safeguards and under tight regulatory control? To 728 take an example at random, why should not Talk Radio have an early morning programme on which politicians are asked to be interviewed and tortured in a different way from the way in which they are tortured on the "Today" programme? Why should there not be that opportunity for Sky or anyone else to say, "We are going to provide a public service element to what we are doing"?
There is nothing outrageous or wrong in asking that sometimes the public sector should subsidise the private sector. We do this all the time in the way in which, for example, we subsidise otherwise loss-making railway lines to provide railway services for people to get around in country areas.
The BBC has done an excellent job. Many parts of it continue to do an excellent job. But I think that the end of the BBC is on the horizon. It is perhaps not so close an end as the end that the Government plan for the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and other hereditary Peers, bat it is looming on the horizon. I shall be sorry if the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, is not here to address us in future years because I believe that he has done the House a great service in the way in which he has addressed us this evening.
§ 6 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Wakefield
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, on initiating this further debate on public service broadcasting and for so valuably placing within a digital and global context his concern to preserve its quality and diversity. Perhaps I may declare an interest. The subject of the debate is a concern I share as chairman of the Sandford St. Martin Trust. The trust exists to encourage quality and diversity in religious broadcasting. Our awards this year for outstanding religious programmes on radio and television will be presented, I am delighted to say, by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. invited my comments on religious broadcasting. Religious broadcasting is an integral part of the public service remit. Its quality and range, together with its scheduling, are a significant litmus test of the way that remit is discharged.
I recognise that public service broadcasting evolves. It has, understandably—as the noble Lord, Lord Patten noted—moved far from its once Reithian mode. The manner in which, for the most part, public service broadcasters now treat religion causes me dismay—a dismay I know to be shared in your Lorclships' House beyond these Benches. One would have expected that in the most widely distributed form of its seemingly visionary document entitled The BBC beyond 2000, the doyen of public service broadcasting would have made at least some specific reference to religion. But not a bit of it. There is no specific mention of religion for general consumption as the BBC looks into the third Christian millennium. That is disheartening to those of us who know from our personal visiting, from the care of our parishes and from our important and growing links with other faith communities, which, especially in a diocese, 729 like mine, are very important, that religion, especially Christianity, is a deeply significant factor in the life of our nation.
Even more disturbing is the incontrovertible fact that on the mainstream channels, religious programmes have, for the most part, been pushed from prime time to the margins of the broadcast schedules, making them potentially less accessible to audiences, thereby diminishing the status of religious programmes and endangering their quality. That is such a tragedy because some of the best examples of public service broadcasting have been religious programmes. Without them the ability of public service broadcasting to maintain its standards of creative and imaginative programmes, which inspire and enlighten, and to provide a range of broadcasts, which not only reflect, but also challenge, will be seriously undermined.
In talking about religion in this debate, I am addressing an area of broadcasting history of proven quality and engaging diversity that was in no small way responsible for the previously high reputation that public service broadcasting enjoyed in this country and for which it was admired abroad. The unwelcome trends I have noted have been increasingly evident over the past two decades. However, technological and regulatory developments now permit religious organisations to "narrowcast" on dedicated or satellite TV services.
There is a fundamental issue to be teased out. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for putting the point so directly to me. That point is whether religion will continue, for the most part, to be broadcast mainstream as part of a rich and varied diet accessible to everyone, or whether it will be moved to what eventually becomes a "pay ghetto". I do not believe that a move to the ghetto would be to the benefit of religion or of broadcasting. Dire warnings about manipulative tele-evangelists are probably overstated, but channels on which religion would become the raison d'être could be detrimental to the spirit of tolerant inquiry and balance which has long characterised religious programmes in public service broadcasting. Nor would consigning religion to dedicated channels reflect our current culture, and reflecting our current culture is an aim much vaunted by public service broadcasters. It is an indisputable fact that for millions of people of many faiths in this country religion is central to their lives. The BBC knows that from its own surveys and from the many occasions it mentions religion in its news bulletins. It knows it too from its own religious education programmes, which, in common with other mainstream channels, are done extremely well, covering in an effective and sensitive style all the main religions.
It is therefore all the more extraordinary that religion should so often be relegated from mainstream viewing and trivialised. The importance of religion to the viewing and listening public—I declare a further interest as president of the Churches Advisory Council for Local Broadcasting—is evident from the huge audiences which are increasingly attracted to the unprecedented number of religious programmes on regional and local television and radio. I welcome the points made by the noble Viscount and the noble Lord on the importance 730 of local broadcasting. There are 63 local radio stations currently providing programmes of daily or weekly worship.
Technologies may change, but human nature does not. That is why religion offers some of the greatest challenges and opportunities to programme makers. The best religious programmes offer insights into the complex and varied nature of religious belief, demonstrating its uncertainties and not giving easy answers or glib solutions. In those ways. we in this country have been, and continue to be, very well served.
The major series of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, "Two Thousand Years", will be complemented later this year by the BBC's 12-week history of the Bible. Indeed, there are welcome signs that the BBC has accepted that chasing relentlessly down-market is not the way forward. However, the BBC continues to have the key responsibility of keeping religion alive in the mainstream media. No one doubts its ability to make good religious programmes. It does it so well. No dedicated channel and no imported programming could do better.
It is therefore tragic that the BBC should be marginalising what it is uniquely best at doing. I disagree with the suggestion, hinted at by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, that the BBC should leave religion to dedicated channels. It is a question of commitment by the BBC, not of skill or ability. Those noble Lords who visited the Dome today will have been reminded that important tests of that commitment will come at the end of the year. I hope that there will be no repeat of last Christmas Day when not even one act of televised worship was shown.
The millennium celebrations offer an important opportunity for public service broadcasters. How they deal with it in terms of religious programming will be seen by these Benches and many other people as a yardstick, not least because of the recent and widely publicised opinion poll indicating that two-thirds of those who expect to be watching the celebrations at the Dome on New Year's Eve favour a specifically Christian element.
The noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said in an article for the Sandford St. Martin Trust that the main building blocks of our British culture should be seen on the main channels. He has said that religion should fight to be on the main channels. For that we will fight. And if, as I pray, we win, then the quality and diversity of public broadcasting as a whole will be enhanced. If we lose, faith will not fail. But I have to say that without religious programmes, the quality and diversity of public service broadcasting will be the poorer.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate, not least because he dealt so ably with the religious issues that he spares me trying to do so rather inadequately. The House will be in his debt for his remarks. I should declare an interest as deputy chairman of the commercial TV regulator, the ITC, and in a sense 731 therefore someone who operates from the no-man's land where technology, commercial competition and public service meet.
There is an implicit assumption in my noble friend's Motion—I, like others, am grateful to him for procuring this debate—that globalisation, competition and the technological proliferation which digitalisation makes possible are, by definition, the enemies of quality and diversity. We should be careful not to confuse quality with elitism—a point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Patten. There is a danger that they are the enemies of quality and diversity, but it ain't necessarily so.
Perhaps I can take three scenarios which point in an alternative direction. First, the interactivity which will be made possible by digital could transfer television, in close relation with the Internet, computer technology and IT, so that it becomes a more effective medium of public information and education.
The second scenario is that a world which now trades and increasingly communicates in English is hungry for media output—a point made by my noble friend—in English. It wants alternatives to the products of the Los Angeles dream factories. We are in pole position to supply them from this country. Points were made in a debate two weeks ago about the need for better marketing, and I am sure that is right, both for the BBC and independent companies. But we are in a position to take great advantage of world demand for good quality English broadcasting of programmes of one sort or another.
The third scenario—a counter-indicator perhaps—is that in this world of greater proliferation with more channels, we can all picture the people surfing their way nimbly up and down the repertoire of a much larger offering. But sooner or later our fingers have to stop. A friend of mine who is lucky enough to be the son of a very rich man, said that the best piece of advice his father gave him was that he could only wear one suit at a time. It is rather like that on television. We can surf to our heart's content. But sooner or later we have to alight on a channel and watch something. When we actually choose what we want to watch, then it could be that diversity, niche marketing and producing programmes specifically tailored to specific interests will fully come into their own when we move out of the duopoly of two very broad-scale broadcasters trying to compete totally across the range.
I merely say this by way of qualification to the rather easy assumption that all change is for the worst. That is not necessarily the case. On the other hand, there is a legitimate concern that the quantity that is made possible by digitalisation will not necessarily mean quality.
So, as we go into the digitalisation age, which was so well explored in your Lordships' House on 21st April in a debate procured by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, public service broadcasting is alive and kicking in the UK. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Patten, whose presentation perhaps elided this, that public service broadcasting is not confined to the BBC. Public service requirements are made on Channels 3 and 4, and up to a point Channel 5. As we look around, 30 per cent of homes have multi-channel pay channels. But 732 interestingly, though 30 per cent of homes can watch other than free-to-air programmes, 87 per cent of the actual viewing is of the traditional Channels 3, 4 and BBC channels. So they still have a crucial role in informing, educating and entertaining viewers.
Perhaps at this stage it will be helpful for me to attempt a definition of "public service". It means more than one thing. In this country it is made up of a whole web of legislation, statutory requirements, charters, codes, licence and other public obligations. But I identify the following elements in varying degrees, which both the BBC and main commercial channels share. They all have some requirement for impartiality and a balanced fairness of some sort, particularly in their reporting of contentious issues. I am sure they all accept that there is some need for authority, responsibility, verisimilitude in what they do. Interestingly, some of the cases on which the ITC had to regulate recently had to do with the simulation or faking of scenes. The concept that it is important to know that what we watch is the real thing is part of the notion of authority and responsibility.
The question of catering for a diversity of interests arises; the notion that, taking broadcasting as a whole, there should be something for everyone somewhere in the repertoire. The same phenomenon applies at the other end; that is, that minorities should be catered for and minority interests, particularly those of disadvantaged minorities, should not be neglected. There is the crucial concept of regionalism or community; that is, that television in this country should be connected to the geographic areas of the country. Licences awarded by ITV are still essentially awarded on a regional or, in the case of Scotland and Wales, a national basis, whatever the ownership of the company. Incidentally, the gloomy assumption that we may end up with one mega-company is certainly precluded at the moment by the ownership regulations that exist
There are fewer companies than there were, but even if those companies straddle two or three regions, they have to honour their obligations. That is how should be and, after tomorrow, when we have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and, we hope, arrive at a working Parliament in Northern Ireland, it will be crucial that that concept of being rooted in the nation or region of the United Kingdom is reflected in our definition of public service.
Finally, and crucially—and perhaps the point of my noble friend asking for this debate—we have the issue of quality. This is where confusion sometimes comes in. Quality does not necessarily mean highbrow; it means that it should be good of its kind. If it is a quiz show it should be well done; if it is a soap opera it should be well done. Anybody who has had to suffer in hotel rooms over the years snips of American soap operas as I have, knows how good British soap operas are of their kind. I do not expect that to find ready assent in your Lordships' House; I doubt many of your Lordships find time to watch them. But we produce good soap operas in Britain. I am trying to say that public service broadcasting should continue to set under the leadership 733 of the BBC and the independent companies, a general benchmarking which raises the game for all and provides substantial overseas revenue.
On public service channels, it is important that the regulator works with the grain of commercial pressures. Most people who work in free-to-air channels are happy and often keen to be seen as public service broadcasters in the wider sense. That important ethos, made up partly of culture and tradition in Britain and not merely regulation, could be destroyed by excessive and silly regulation of an intrusive and interfering kind, whether in respect of content or economic matters. It is important to see the regulator as coach rather than the nanny of the public service culture.
It is not for me to lay down the law for the BBC, but it and the independent free-to-air channels are both, in different ways, pillars of the public service ethos. The BBC, owing to the wisdom of licence financing, does not have to respond directly to commercial pressures. I draw two conclusions. First, I do not believe that the BBC necessarily has to lead on digitisation, although it should certainly not lag far behind. I am uneasy with the idea that there should be a special extra licence fee levied for the BBC to digitise. Secondly, in the more pluralistic world that broadcasting will have, the BBC should look at the balance between the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit of viewer numbers. Of course too small an audience would be a disaster but, by the same token, a reduction in quality would be an even greater disaster.
Money does not necessarily mean quality. If we look at the effective work of Channel 4 and Film on 4, we realise that there is in this country a great reservoir of creativity, originality and imagination that can be and should be mobilised by good creative management. It is not just a matter of big bucks.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, this debate follows relatively shortly after that of the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, on public service broadcasting in early March. Some might argue that it would have been better for a longer period to elapse between the two debates, but I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing this debate because I want to use it to take forward some of the ideas that I raised on the earlier occasion.
We are moving into an era when there will not be spectrum scarcity and broadcasting, and telecommunications and on-line services will merge seamlessly. I do not know exactly when that will happen and cannot tell how it will occur. Neither can I precisely predict the effect that it may have on the viewer and user. But it will happen.
Of all parliamentary chambers, your Lordships' House is perhaps the most patrician and Reithian in its view of itself and the world. That is our strength—and our weakness. It is neither surprising nor misconceived for us to debate the concepts of quality and diversity. Having spent many a happy hour at the Dispatch Box when I had the privilege to be the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting, I know the importance that the House attaches to that subject.
734 There is an argument in favour of quality and diversity that stands alone. It is axiomatic and self-evident to a civilised society and I will not argue it further. A second argument also applies when there is spectrum scarcity. It is the basis on which the current rules are formulated, be they general or contained in the remits of various public service broadcasters—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, pointed out, cover not only the BBC but a number of other enterprises.
If we are to move into a world of spectrum abundance, the second argument loses a great deal of force. If we are in a world in which there is enough spectrum for all, why in a free society should specific rules about quality and diversity pertain? They do not exist in the world of books and newspapers. While there are plenty of bad books and newspapers, there are also good ones. There has always been more junk than quality. Great literature is rarely self-conscious.
Until recently, radio or television broadcasting has been special because a small number of point-to-multipoint broadcasts have provided entertainment and information to much of the population in their own homes, and from that arises the concept of the development of public service broadcasting. In the new era that will soon be on us, the advent of emerging digital technologies will change that. We shall live in a world in which almost limitless audio or visual material—and, if visual, still and moving—will be easily available in every household as and when it wants. The concept of a broadcaster as we know it will cease to exist. There will be no need for any point-to-multipoint broadcasting, as all information and material will be available on a point-to-point basis, with no constraint of spectrum shortage to limit reception.
In such a world, in which technology does not recognise the boundaries of separate jurisdictions—as experience of the Internet already shows—content regulation is extremely difficult. I welcome various voluntary efforts to curtail the anti-social consequences of untrammelled libertarianism in Internet material, and there should be a basic legal framework as far as our own jurisdiction is concerned against obscenity, racism and so on—as in the case with the written word. Equally, mandatory quality criteria will come to be seen as irrelevant. The real issue is whether there should be a supplier or suppliers of material on the new converged digital systems with a specific public service purpose, either exclusively or in addition to a wider commercial function.
In March 1997, only days before the last general election, I delivered a speech to the United Kingdom Association of European Law's Media Conference. I explained:Our view is that universally available free-to-air public service broadcasting still has an important role at the centre of broadcasting for two main reasons. First, it will act as a benchmark against which all other services will stand. It is not necessary to mandate 'high quality' everywhere across the spectrum. The major free-to-air channels, with universal coverage and their privileged place in analogue broadcasting and on the digital multiplexes, act as the datum point against which others will be judged. Given that such services remain universally available there seems no reason why people should not also choose to receive and pay for whatever TV735services they want—subject to taste and decency rules and other general legal criteria. Secondly, the free-to-air public service channels are part of the information infrastructure of contemporary society. Access to them is as much part of the citizen's right as access to the water main or telephone line—nobody need have either service but each must be generally accessible".The world has moved on dramatically. In this case, it has much more to do with technology than politics. But those remarks of mine made in March 1997 were a diffident and groping realisation on my part of the need to change definitions and aspirations. In the comments that 1 shared with your Lordships on 3rd March in the context of the Davies Committee deliberations on the BBC licence fee, I said:Against that background, I believe there is a need for a re-definition of public service broadcasting for the next millennium because only then can one identify, for example, what the BBC might do, how it might do it and how in turn that will be paid for. What is true for the BBC is also true of Channels 3, 4, S4C and Channel 5 because a change on one part of the public service broadcasting waterfront reads across to, and has implications for, all the others". —[Official Report, 3/3/99; col.1670]I am increasingly clarifying my own thoughts because broadcasting as we know it will become a dead or certainly a changed concept. We must think in terms of public service information provision without being hamstrung by the shadow of the technologies of the past. My initial and tentative conclusions are moving towards the development of the concept of a free-to-air information infrastructure within society.
Of what should that infrastructure comprise? First, there should be impartial and universally available news and information with appropriate comment. Secondly, somewhat similar to public libraries, there should be an educational and quasi-educational service. When we were in government, we were thinking about such things. The present Government have taken a number of those concepts forward in, for example, the National Grid for Learning. Finally, there could well be a case for some kind of what I might describe as an "arts and culture package", which would be the digital equivalent of those things in the museum and cultural area which are funded by the DCMS.
At first sight that might sound a trifle apocalyptic. After all, it is only one man's look into the future; but the future is not all that far away from here.
The existing BBC Charter and Agreement is due to expire at the end of the year 2006. By then a number of issues which are part of the story that I have been telling will, I believe, become commonplace reality. They will have to be addressed. If they are not, the existing structure of public service broadcasting may well be completely anachronistic and irrelevant to the needs of Britain's citizens as we approach the end of the first decade of the next millennium.
Taking their time, but in time to deliver their conclusions to coincide with the debate that will take place about charter and licence renewal, I believe that the Government should establish a Royal Commission—the latest in the succession of those which have set the course of United Kingdom broadcasting since the Second World War—to advise both Parliament and the Government. After all, let us not forget that it is we, the legislators, and government 736 who write the rules and not the broadcasters. We take the decisions. I believe that we need to know the form of the likely media landscape at that time and the place where what I quite deliberately call "public service information providers" ought to be, in what will be a very different media terrain from the one that we are in now.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Baroness Flather
My Lords, perhaps I may also thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing this debate. Like many others, I believe that it has given us an opportunity to speak about issues which we were not able to fit in on the last occasion when the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, tabled such a debate. First, I need to declare an interest. I am a non-executive director of Meridian broadcasting which is a regional ITV station, and a non-executive director of the Cable Corporation, which is also a regional cable provider.
Despite the vision of the future of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, with which I was not able to identify with during his speech—but perhaps, given time, we might all catch up with him—I feel that we are very fortunate in this country. In effect, we have four different types of television and radio broadcasting. This is because they are slightly differently, and, in some cases, very differently funded. We have the BBC, which we fund ourselves through the licence fee. It does not have to go to the market place to seek its funding. We have ITV, which is funded through sponsorship and advertising, and we have Channel 4, which has no shareholders. Therefore, its position is slightly different from the other ITV companies. It is able to invest all its revenue in its programme making. Further, we have cable and satellite, which is funded by subscription.
In my case, I believe that the latter is what leads to diversity in broadcasting in this country. The BBC's remit is, quite clearly, to set the bench-marks and to be the leader in quality and public service broadcasting. Because ITV has to provide for consumers—if they do not watch its programmes, there will be no income for the ITV companies—it has to provide populist programmes. However, it does much more than that. In its own words, it tries to achieve "quality, accessibility, popularity and regionality".
Speaking of regionality, I believe that ITV covers that very well. Being a non-executive director of a regional television company, I realise how important it is to meet the needs of the region in which the company is situated. Otherwise the company will not pay. It is very simple: if you do not provide what the local people want, you do not exist; as, indeed, the predecessor to Meridian found out.
Then there is Channel 4, which is unique. It is a strange combination of sponsorship and advertising. However, it has no shareholders. In its own words, it describes itself as being in the vanguard of creative industry in Britain; in other words, as the catalyst for its development.
So there we have it. As long as we have these different sources of funding, I hope that we will continue to receive the kind of diverse broadcasting that 737 we have become used to. We are spoilt in this country. Indeed, we all know that. When we visit other countries, we all realise how much better served we are here.
However, I should like to spend a few minutes talking about a different kind of diversity in broadcasting. I should like to talk about inclusive broadcasting, not a permeation of issues which are seen as separate and exclusive. There are television and radio stations which provide for the needs of, say, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities or the over-60s, but they provide it in programmes which are specifically aimed at those people. I have nothing against such programmes being specifically aimed at minorities and, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said, at disadvantaged minorities. I no longer like to think of us as being disadvantaged. The noble Lord will find that even people with disabilities are not so keen to think of themselves as disadvantaged. We all like to think of ourselves as being part of the society in which we live.
Although we like programmes that focus on specific issues which might be of concern only to us, we would also like to see ourselves as part of the mainstream programming. This can be done in many different ways; for example, it can be done through integrated casting. When a drama is being cast, why should it not have people with disabilities in it? Why should it not have people of different shades in it? After all, that is what society in Britain is today. This is not a sin of commission; indeed, I believe that it is only a sin of omission. I am not sure that the programme makers are as aware of the issue as they should be. I am not sure that they keep it as much in the forefront of their minds as they should. The time has now come to have overlap and not to see people as separate units in the community. People must be seen as being part of the total. To my way of thinking, that is a very important facet of broadcasting. It is also very important in educating all of us into being part of a whole rather than separate units.
There is also something else that I have noticed. When programmes are produced for minorities, they often do not have the production values which are applied to mainstream programming. They are poorly produced and the money that is spent on mainstream programming is not spent on them. There are two very good examples from the BBC about which I have been very excited. I have in mind the "Windrush" series, which went out last year, and the comedy series "Goodness Gracious Me". Both of those programmes have been scheduled at times when people would watch television. They have also been of the quality which has proved to be popular with the mainstream.
I should like to make a few comments about radio, because it seems to get wiped out by some noble Lords in one or two sentences. I have in mind commercial radio in particular. There is no one to monitor the performance of BBC radio; indeed, that is entirely in the hands of the BBC. Despite such major criticism as has been taking place recently, there has been no response from the BBC.
738 Programmers used to be told: "you will provide so many hours of this kind of programming, so many hours of the other kind of programming and six hours of minority programming". I am very pleased to see that the Radio Authority has decided to be more flexible now and it is a general promise that will be required and not "ticking the boxes" as to what has been provided. That does not make for quality: that simply makes for quantity.
It is very important to remember that commercial radio, like commercial television, is not funded by a licence fee. It must appeal to local people, because local independent radio belongs to local people. They pay for it by advertising on it and it is very, very close to them. Perhaps I may say to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, who both wrote off local commercial radio, it is supposed to fill a particular niche in local radio and it does that by providing for local needs: otherwise local commercial radio stations will not get the advertising and they will not exist. Also, they are much closer to the community than the noble Lords imagine.
On Radio 4 there are two programmes which are designed for people with disabilities. One is "Does he take sugar?" and the other is "In Touch". They were meant to be mainstream but they have come to be really quite separate. That is wrong.
Finally, we have an ageing population in this country but we have no specific radio programmes for older people. There is a generation of radio listeners now growing older and they need to feel valued. They need radio and television which includes them as well.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, I speak purely as a consumer of the broadcasting media. When we consider quality and diversity in the media. I initially think of the BBC and then I think of the other free-to-air services: definitely in that order. The last time I referred to this subject I concentrated on radio, and particularly on Radio 4. I believe it is so valuable because it has diversity, it informs and educates as well as entertains.
It can inform and educate because it is entertaining. I would certainly find myself at odds here with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, because if you are not entertaining you cannot do the other things. People, even if they do not switch off physically, switch off mentally. You have to be able to hold attention.
Another theme which has run through this debate is the fact that if we have specialist channels the world is lovely. It is not, because if you do not know it is there you cannot listen to it. The great strength of the BBC and the other free-to-air broadcasters is that they have a variety of subjects being broadcast on the same day. How many of your Lordships might perhaps switch on to some broadcast medium and switch on a little early, keep the channel open and find yourself listening to something else? That is the great strength of the diversity of programming.
We are in grave danger of surrendering to the anoraks at every single level if we say, "There is one thing we shall watch or listen to, and that's it". If he will allow 739 me, I would like to challenge the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on something that concerns Radio 1. It was probably about 1986 when I last knew what was in the charts, but at that time I was forming musical tastes in popular music. At that time the BBC, and in particular Radio 1, were the people who helped to form those tastes because they had little programmes at the edge containing things like world music, rhythm and blues, jazz and so on—an introductory service which allowed you to sample everything. If you suddenly say, "Here is something" and you know nothing about it, you will not touch it. How many people would consider watching a natural history channel on Cable if they had not seen David Attenborough playing catch with a bunch of gorillas at one point or watching a lion chase a zebra at another point? They just would not be interested: it would not appeal to them.
If you give people a diet which consists purely of gameshows, no matter how well made, then they will only watch gameshows. That is the only thing that they will understand. The same is true of other channels and of sport. The armchair athlete who sits back and watches nothing but sport—and usually only one or two sports—might be encouraged to watch other things. Possibly you can capture the news while you are waiting for a final score to come up.
We have to try to keep this function of public broadcasting going. The BBC is uniquely placed to do this because it should not have to worry too much about the watchers. It should become something which people go into and out of. They may be able to form tastes as a result of this, because they do not have to respond to commercial pressures.
I am totally in support of my noble friend Lord Falkland when he says that they should not continue to worry about market share. They should simply be worrying about making sure that quality comes across, and also that diversity comes with the quality. If we do this we will continue to justify having these programmes and these processes. If we decide that everything can be dealt with by a specialist channel eventually we shall end up making a broadcast media a great irrelevance. We might as well go out and buy whatever the equivalent is of a pile of CDs, tapes or other things and put them in whatever viewing or music generating machines there are at home and just listen to them: you would not need anything else. Unless we concentrate on diversity and trying to inform people we shall fail future generations.
We must accept the fact that we cannot say simply that because it is broadcast you have access to it. If you have a channel guide in front of you it is no more informative to you than if it was written in a language you do not understand, because you do not understand the point of reference. I could go on ad infinitum on this subject, but that is the only real point that I wanted to make.
Unless we are prepared to accept that public service broadcasting has an obligation to take risks, to try new things and to make available in an easy format to the general public a diversity of watching and listening experiences, we shall fundamentally let down our 740 population. We shall cut down their reference points to virtually all issues—news, current affairs and everything else—unless there is a framework to put it in.
For instance, how many times has the dramatisation on television of a book encouraged the sales of the book? For one thing, we do not always catch all the episodes. We might think, "Oh, that was good: I wonder what else this author has written". That is a well known phenomenon. The reason why people are interested is that the programme has caught their interest; it has been well produced or at least well enough produced to make them think about it.
Also, we must accept the fact that failure is guaranteed within a process of experimentation, so that the BBC and the other free-to-air broadcasting media must have something which says to them, "You are obliged to take risks and if you have one or two failures don't worry about them: that will always happen". Unless we manage to keep this in sight we are in danger of having 400 channels. I believe that my noble friend Lord McNally said to the House last year that they will all have repeats of "I Love Lucy". No, they will not: only about half of them. The rest of them will have solid repeats of a thousand-and-one chat shows made 20 years ago, with new follow-ups to them—and nobody will ever be aware of what is on the next channel.
§ 6.49 p.m.
My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing the debate. I should first declare an interest in that I am a director of ONdigital.
I intend to concentrate on issues related to the debate today and issues that derive from the Minister's reply on 21st April to my Unstarred Question on digital coverage. I shall try to move the debate forward rather than just repeat the previous performance and also deal with some of the technical issues.
The first issue that I should like to address is analogue switchover. Responsibility for digital coverage rests with the ITC, the BBC and the transmission providers. There will be a considerable increase in coverage when analogue switchover occurs. Prior to the switchover, there are a number of steps that could be taken to improve coverage for the BBC and ITV through the ITC: more relay transmitter sites and increasing the power of transmission. There were initial worries about interference but there seems to be less interference in practice than was originally feared.
When I pressed the Minister last month that the most important step was the setting of a target date for the switchover, he replied in his first point that we do not have much to learn from other countries. He then proceeded to list a series of other countries, the USA, Germany and Japan, all of which have target dates. We are the only country that has successfully launched digital terrestrial television and we do not have a target date. I suggest that perhaps we do have something to learn. We are leading the world in developing digital terrestrial television. If the Government do not set a target date, even if that date has strict conditions attached to it, we risk doing what has been done so 741 many times before in this country—leading the world with the introduction of new technology, then falling behind, losing the advantage and being overtaken by other countries.
The Minister also seemed to reject the concept of a rolling switch-over and then went on to say:We still have not really had field tests for switch-over in a small area to establish how to do it".It is for the Government to encourage and for the ITC to implement. It is not that difficult, as some 100 relay sites have coverage of fewer than 100 homes in this country. The ball is in the court of the department and the ITC to go ahead and start field tests.
The Minister also said that a rolling switch-over would be very attractive to manufacturers, as if that was the only reason in its favour. Yes, of course it would be attractive to manufacturers, but the real benefit would be for the consumer and the industry as a whole. If digital television prices come down the industry itself can subsidise switch-over.
The Minister made one point with which I seriously disagree. He said:One of the real faults with the implementation of the 1996 Act was that insufficient pressure was put on the providers who obtained multiplexes to produce new and better quality programmes…we will not receive from digital significantly better quality of programming than we receive from analogue". —[Official Report, 21/4/99; col.1227.]The Minister in another place, Janet Anderson, does not agree. Indeed, writing in the Parliamentary Monitor this month she stated:The advent of new channels will not lead to a reduction in the quality of programmes and not simply because the current regulatory regime places requirements on the broadcasters".I should ask the Minister whether he has watched digital television. I fear he has not. If he had, he would have seen a wide range of programmes. One can watch free on digital television now BBC1, BBC2, ITV, ITV 2, Channel 4 and Channel 5; and also BBC 24-Hour News, an exceptionally good news service, and BBC Choice; and, shortly to be launched, BBC Knowledge and BBC Text. On subscription television one can watch Film 4, Carlton Cinema, UK Horizon, two Sky Movie Channels, Sky Sports 1 and 2, Sky 1 and 10 other channels. Those channels are not just repeats; many of them are new channels which are commissioning new programming.
I have taken the Minister to task for not watching digital television, but perhaps it is not his fault. Perhaps it is our fault on this side of the House for keeping him here, in his role as Deputy Chief Whip, from afternoon to late evening, guarding his flock against the possibility of a voting ambush. Less voting and more viewing is needed, I think. I can assure the Minister that I shall try to prevail upon my noble friends to give him more evenings off. If he has not seen digital television and does not have a set-top box, I shall be happy to lend him mine so that he can see for himself the quality and diversity of the programmes. I am glad that he is looking forward to that.
742 As the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said, it is not only the BBC which has a public service remit; ITV companies also have a public service remit enshrined in their licence conditions and enforced by the ITC.
Perhaps I may say a few words about interoperability. I apologise for being technical, but it is an important point that has caused much debate both inside and outside the industry and, indeed, in Parliament. Oftel and the ITC will ensure that set-top boxes will be interoperable with the addition of a "sidecar box", as it is known. Digital televisions will also be interoperable. The adoption of "open systems" by all the digital terrestrial broadcasters, including the BBC, will ensure that all receivers of whatever type will be able to receive the full range of free-to-air and subscription services.
There is a certain lack of understanding of the Internet and e-mail and how exactly they will work in broadcasting. The main Internet access will not operate via a satellite or terrestrial transmission system for the transmission of data; it will be through a telephone line connected to the set-top box or digital television. If, today one buys a BSkyB satellite system, one has to plug the system into a telephone line, even though that link via the telephone system is not yet in use by the broadcaster. ONdigital boxes can also be plugged into a telephone line. For example, the e-mail service shortly to be launched works via a signal being sent via the transmission system to the set-top box, so that when one switches on the television it tells one that one has an e-mail. But access to that e-mail will be through the box, through a modem, via the telephone line for the collection of that e-mail. Terrestrial digital will offer the possibility of full Internet access, as will BSkyB, but with one difference: it will be a proprietary system and, therefore, subject to conditional access.
Perhaps I may briefly turn to the BBC and the idea of raising the licence fee to cover the implementation of digital television. That could kill the goose that has laid the golden egg. The BBC has more than £400 million available for digital. It asked for the money from the sale of transmitters; it got that money. The BBC then launched its digital services with a great fanfare. They are very good services and I would encourage all of your Lordships to watch them. But the BBC did not say that more money would be required. It must explain why £400 million is not enough; it must explain what has changed. Otherwise it will be seen as an unjustifiable back-door licence fee increase. I hope that the Government will reject the proposal or, at the very least, examine carefully why the extra money is needed.
Digital is very new; it is a success. The announcement today by BSkyB is good for the industry and good for the consumer. It is a step that shows confidence in digital television, whether it be satellite or terrestrial. Digital television was born out of the Broadcasting Act 1996 introduced by a Conservative government. The present Government have conducted their role as midwife well—I congratulate them on bringing in digital television. I am sure that the Government and the Minister's department will do everything they can to 743 support digital television—in the public interest and for the benefit of consumers—whether it be BBC, Channel 4 or any of the commercial operators.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, as the debate revolves principally around the BBC, I should say that I am still contributing to a Radio 2 programme to which I have contributed for the past 24 years. It was gratifying to hear the noble Lord, Lord Patten, give a pat on the back to my old broadcasting partner, Jimmy Young—or "Sir" Jimmy Young, as I used to call him. If Margaret Thatcher had had a scintilla of gratitude, that is what he would be for all the interviews he so ably afforded her.
My proposition, shared by many noble Lords, is that public service broadcasting is an essential part of broadcasting as a whole; and the standard bearer is, and must remain, the BBC. I say that in full knowledge of the explosion referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, in the media world, including broadcasting. Spectrum scarcity is about to become a thing of the past. There has been an enormous increase in the number of programmes being made. The right reverend Prelate referred to "narrow casting". That is probably right. The question is: are there dangers in all this, as well as wonderful opportunities? Most would agree that there are particular dangers and that they relate to the quality and standards of broadcasting, particularly vis-à-vis current affairs.
One striking effect of the revolution of the past 10 or more years has been the commercialisation of broadcasting. I refer not merely to the growth of commercial companies, but to the growth of huge, immensely powerful global corporations with no fixed loyalty, run by individuals who, without ascribing to them either ill will or malice, are interested in dominance and profit and precious little else. It behoves us to look that reality fairly and squarely in the eye. Maintenance of quality and standards in broadcasting against a background of overweening preoccupation with capital and income profit is extremely difficult to achieve.
I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, as have other noble Lords, that the BBC has no monopoly on public service virtue. Indeed, in introducing the debate in this House on 3rd March, the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, gave some vivid examples of how the BBC has in some respects fallen behind the mainstream commercial companies in the public service element of its programmes. This debate provides an opportunity to express a certain anxiety as to the degree to which the BBC is today maintaining the best traditions of its inheritance. For example, reverting to current affairs, to remove "The Week in Westminster" and "Yesterday in Parliament" to what might be termed the margins of broadcasting may reflect ill upon the quality of the debates both here and in another place, but this is still the centre and focus of the democratic life of our nation. I, for one, believe that it was a bad sign, not merely that the BBC did that, but that it pretended that there would be no deterioration in the listening figures. It has taken only a short time to disprove those reassurances.
744 On the other hand, there is the "Today" programme and "Newsnight", although the noble Lord, Lord Patten, was apt to be somewhat critical of the performance of some of the "Today" presenters. But if journalists are prepared fiercely and rigorously to cross-examine experienced Ministers and politicians and men and women of affairs who are determined to give as little away as possible, inevitably there will be a degree of aggression and overstepping of the mark. The noble Lord referred to the near monopoly that the "Today" programme enjoys. We may ask why that is. The answer is simple. It is so good. It reaches the parts that other programmes do not reach.
Perhaps I may refer briefly to the importance to the commercial stations in terms of public service broadcasting of the standards that the BBC should, arid on the whole does, set. Some noble Lords may remember a notable speech by Sir Denis Forman at the Edinburgh Festival four or five years ago on this very issue. No one is more experienced in the ways of the world of commercial television than Sir Denis. He made it plain, and others have echoed him, as did speakers in the debate on 3rd March, that the commercial channels look to the BBC to maintain and enhance standards of public service broadcasting. Although the ITC is there to ensure that under their licences companies must maintain a balance and quality which serve public service interests, nonetheless the exemplar that the BBC should be, and is, is critical to the success of that whole programme.
I turn briefly to the BBC World Service. It exemplifies the standards of public service which most of us wish to see the BBC as a whole maintain. I should like to think that this debate is not confined to the public in this country. The importance of the BBC World Service to the public in other countries cannot be underestimated. The esteem in which this country is held in other parts of the world is critically affected by the work of the BBC World Service. Some noble Lords may not be aware that during the recent Kosovo crisis the BBC has penetrated through to all the communities within Serbia, Kosovo and the neighbouring countries by shortwave and also, importantly, for the first time via the Internet. Although I do not understand the technicalities, I am told that its Internet pages have been turned to in over 11 million on-line cases—the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, informs me that the word is "hits".
Access is crucial. There are so many other influences in our national life that are pulling us apart. The Government must do everything that needs to he done to ensure that the great changes that are coming upon us in broadcasting are not such as to rule out access by the less well-off. I commend the debate introduced in another place by Dr. George Turner dealing with precisely that point. I hope that the Government will heed the sentiment behind it.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. made some interesting comments on the ITC, as deputy chair of that institution. He was rather kind in saying that it should be "coach" rather than "nanny". Now and then, it needs to be "policeman". It needs to ensure that the extremely powerful institutions over which it is 745 supposed to preside do what their licences say they will do. I was extremely displeased when it allowed the removal of "News at Ten" and replaced it with a quarter of an hour of news at 11 o'clock. It will be interesting to see the consequences of that in terms of public access to a crucial news programme.
Finally, that trinity of letters, "BBC", still receives unparalleled universal recognition and respect. Although it is an immensely difficult job for the Director-General and Governors of the BBC to maintain the balancing act between appeal to a mass audience on the one hand and appeal to minorities and elites on the other, I believe that they can do it. Although there are aspects of their performance which give one less than total confidence, I believe that they have the mind and will to ensure that the integrity, independence, balance and quality for which the BBC is renowned will be maintained in the difficult era that lies ahead.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lord Colwyn
My Lords, when I saw the title of this evening's debate I believed that it would concentrate largely on television broadcasting. Therefore, it is appropriate that at this stage, given the excellent contributions on radio, I declare an interest. I am currently chairing a bid to the Radio Authority for a short area local licence in north west London aimed at students and young people aged between 15 and their mid-twenties.
The debate comes at a very interesting time. The headlines in today's papers made an admirable trail for the noble Viscount's debate. I am only sorry that I bought my Sky box a couple of months ago. Within the past year digital technology has given us dozens of new channels all receivable through existing aerials. Cable and satellite offer us even further choice. But still at the heart of television viewing remain the services provided by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
When we talk of public service television we are wrong to think only of the BBC. Several noble Lords have reminded us that ITV, under regulation by the ITC, also has specific public service responsibilities, and both ITV and Channel 4 make very substantial investments in quality domestic production.
The existing commercial companies have, along with the newcomers ONdigital, invested heavily in building the new digital terrestrial transmission network and producing new programme services. With the increase in channels, the broadcasting landscape has altered dramatically. The BBC provides only a minority of available television channels. The viewer has never had such a great choice of channels or ways to pay for them.
The BBC has also invested in the new digital transmission network. A reported £240 million raised from the sale of former BBC transmission facilities was specifically earmarked for investment in the new platform. To gain the benefits of more efficient use of the available broadcast spectrum, it is essential that BBC1 and 2 be available to the public as we migrate from analogue to digital and eventually close down the analogue system. I and, I suspect, many other noble 746 Lords, would applaud the use of public funds to guarantee the continuation of traditional BBC services in the new digital age.
However, before the benefits for the viewer and the nation can be enjoyed we must complete the coverage of the digital network so that it mirrors that of the existing analogue system. That will allow those who have invested in this new technology to promote its benefits to the whole nation and ensure widespread take-up of the set top boxes and the new generation of digital television sets. Ultimate success will, however, depend on the new content on offer to the viewer. New free-to-air services like ITV2 and subscription channels provided by Carlton, Granada, Channel 4, Sky and others are already attracting new digital customers at a rate that bodes well for the future. In the first few months since the launch of the ONdigital service, over 100,000 customers have signed up for a variety of new channels and Sky has also been successful in converting many of its customers to its new digital satellite services.
However, the role of the BBC is less clear. Not only has the BBC embarked on a number of commercial joint venture channels and services aimed at the overseas market; it has also launched two new domestic digital channels: "News 24" and BBC Choice. The current advertisement by the BBC to promote the fact that these new services are absolutely free is reassuring. They appear good value for anyone who wants to watch them. But the reality can be a little different. This debate comes at a time when the funding of the BBC is under review. My noble friend Lord Astor referred to one proposal backed, I believe, by the BBC which is very worrying. I understand that consideration is being given to a surcharge of up to £35 to be added to the licence fee for anyone who receives digital services. I hope that that does not happen for two important reasons.
First, a tax on the new digital technology would be a disincentive to consumers at the very time that television companies are trying to stimulate take-up of digital services. Recent research carried out by NOP suggests that as many as two-thirds of those likely to get digital television in the next 12 months are less likely to do so if a surcharge is imposed. This echoes previous findings by NERA and others that digital take-up could be seriously damaged by such a price penalty.
Secondly, one of the great benefits of the growth in the number of digital channels is the choice that viewers now enjoy, not only as to what they want to watch but also as to what they do and do not pay for. To impose a surcharge on the licence fee without giving viewers a choice as to whether or not they want the new BBC digital services flies in the face of the whole concept of multi-choice television. It cannot be right that viewers who wish to take up the many new services offered by the commercial broadcasters face prosecution if they do not wish to pay a universal licence fee surcharge to view just two new BBC channels. I urge those looking into the future funding of the BBC to ask searching questions about how the BBC has been able to launch its new digital channels without a clear idea about how they will be financed. To force the public to pay extra for services 747 it neither asks for nor may want to watch is both potentially damaging to the future of digital television and unfair to viewers.
The new world of digital television must have at its heart strong, creative and efficiently run public service television as offered by BBC1 and BBC2. However, I believe that the quality of these services can best be upheld if the BBC focuses on maintaining the standards of existing channels. We should be very careful before we ask the British public, under threat of prosecution, to give more money to the BBC to support its digital adventures. We need to understand much more how the BBC has got into its current predicament and how we can best secure its contribution to the future of quality digital television. I look forward very much to hearing the Minister. I only hope that the empty Benches behind him do not reflect the Government's interest in this subject.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ Lord Newby
My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. As is often the case, this debate has been extremely thought-provoking. Clearly, there are many areas of agreement. For example, we can all agree on the rapidly changing nature of broadcasting and what it means. We can also agree that the quality and diversity of public service broadcasting remains high, and we all wish it to continue.
I do not want to embark on a lengthy description of the strengths of public service broadcasting, but it is worth pausing briefly to look at the way in which the conflict in Kosovo has been covered to demonstrate the current situation. I take three examples: first, straightforward news broadcasting. Night after night journalists such as Bill Neely, Fergal Keene and John Simpson have reported events as they see them with a tremendous degree of integrity and commitment to get across the news agenda.
Secondly, there is the question of the ability to put across alternative views. It is probable that many noble Lords did not see "Counterblast" yesterday evening on BBC2 in which Harold Pinter launched a tirade—with which I profoundly disagreed—against the Government's current policy. Nonetheless, in a democracy, particularly one in which there is such an accomplished team to promote the government message, it is crucially important that free-to-air broadcasting puts across the opposition view as potently as possible.
Thirdly, I follow the comments of my noble friend Lord Phillips about the importance of the World Service in dealing with the current situation on the ground in a flexible way and helping to increase coverage through its vernacular services and short wave link to the areas of the conflict. Another area where it has proved its worth in the conflict is the Internet. While I cannot enlighten my noble friend as to how the Internet works, one thing I do know is that it is a lot less easy to jam than radio. That is important in situations like the conflict in Kosovo. The BBC has received from the war 748 zone some extraordinary testimonials. I hope that your Lordships will not mind if I quote briefly from a recent e-mail emanating from a man in Belgrade. He said,Every night I'm listening to your News on Serbian … and during the day I'm on your site checking the news. It is funny feeling to listening news on Serbian, broadcasting by some country that is dropping bombs around you. … do you think it would be normal … that I send some 'words of greetings' or anything positively to News company from 'invader' country? I think not. But, in this case I must be insane, because I think that you are doing great job in trying to show thing in right way. I'm not sure anymore where or which is a right way, but I'm sure that you are not pointing it to your listeners/readers, like other agencies here".What better testimonial could one have as to the value of the World Service and on its on-line facilities?
I do not propose to go into detail about the raft of very specific points which have been raised by noble Lords this evening. However, I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield to the extent that anyone in the BBC who believes that enthusiastic listeners to religious broadcasting want a double Sunday service on Radio 4 at eight o'clock on Sunday morning neither understands the pattern of worship in this country nor indeed the audience for that particular service.
However, I would like to look at some of the key questions as to how we preserve public sector broadcasting in the digital age and with the ever-increasing competition that has been referred to. Before returning to the BBC, I say to my noble friend Lord Holme that I believe that there will be particularly difficult pressures over the coming years as regards the ITC. The ITC companies will inevitably press for a looser regulatory regime to allow them to generate flexibility and to compete with pay-to-view channels. While I understand that pressure, I am sure that the ITC will bear in mind that for many, for the foreseeable future, analogue free-to-air television is all that they will have the resources to watch.
Frankly, given the complexity which was in a sense demonstrated by the speech of the noble Viscount. Lord Astor, there is a real problem in my view as regards the confusion which arises in the minds of certainly the elderly and many others concerning the great plethora of new services. They need reassurance that they will continue to be able to watch familiar programmes on familiar channels. That is significant for the foreseeable future. It is part of their citizens' rights as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, put it.
However, for the BBC the greatest challenge is how to maintain and fund the quality and diversity of the BBC's output in the light of the technological developments about which we have heard. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, in his suggestion that the BBC should attempt only to do those things which no one else can do. That would lead to an odd and unsatisfactory animal.
There has been some considerable criticism in a debate about the BBC for spreading itself too thinly and to a certain extent in investing on BBC OnLine and perhaps more so for investing in digital broadcasting. In general terms I disagree with that analysis. The BBC is a tremendous national asset, but if it is to retain its position it must remain at the cutting edge of the 749 technology to which consumers are increasingly turning to get news and factual programmes. It must be at the core of the free-to-air information structure of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. It must also be prepared to take risks, as my noble friend Lord Addington pointed out.
I have already referred to the value of the Internet. It is a Reithian addition to the output of the BBC. It has many new educative functions to perform which cannot be performed by straightforward radio or television. Interestingly, it enables people to see and hear what is happening in Parliament with somewhat greater ease than is now the case on mainstream radio, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, but I do not believe that it is an adequate substitute for the BBC returning parliamentary broadcasting to greater prominence.
Taken as a whole, the Internet, with the BBC playing a major part in it, is absolutely core to what it should be doing, not least in its role as guardian of the English language and as its promoter internationally. The Internet is indeed becoming the third arm of broadcasting.
Digital television is clearly the more controversial area. There is no doubt in my mind that the BBC should be investing in digital TV. I believe that the BBC has still to answer satisfactorily the question as to whether it has gone in too soon and over too broad a front. I believe that the jury is still out on those questions, not least in relation to its 24-hours news service. One's view on that depends in part on how one believes the BBC should be funded in future. There have been some references to that in the debate.
I understand the criticism which has been made, not so much in the Chamber but generally, about the overtly commercial deals that the BBC has entered into, not least with Flextech. But equally, I believe we would agree that the BBC must look to new sources of funding to supplement the licence fee if it is to respond adequately to the new challenges it faces. I realise that this is an area that is being investigated by the Davies Committee. We look forward to seeing its proposals. For my part I hope that it looks at the widest possible range of possible partnership options and other funding mechanisms even if in the end it decides to reject quite a number of them. Here I share a significant number of the misgivings expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, about a digital surcharge.
I do not have time to say much about commercial radio other than that anyone who listens to it knows of its value in promoting community life. One hopes that as it adds digital stations to its local and analogue stations that tradition will be maintained. The world of broadcasting is changing at a tremendous rate. There is no reason why that change should not strengthen the public service component of broadcasting in the United Kingdom. But that will require innovative thinking from the broadcasters, regulators and Parliament alike. None of these bodies is blessed with perfect foresight and judgment, but on the evidence to date there is no reason to believe that we cannot all rise to that challenge.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Baroness Anelay of St Johns
My Lords, I too thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for introducing this debate. It feels as though we are here tonight as friends continuing a half-finished conversation. Several noble Lords referred to the fact that this is our third debate on broadcasting in the digital age within a mere nine weeks. As I understand it, the question posed today by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, is whether quantity has to be the deathknell for quality and diversity, especially if consumer choice is only within a range of programmes supplied by one or two mega-media firms.
The noble Viscount naturally pitched his speech very much on the remit of the BBC, which is the main but, as noble Lords have said, by no means the only provider of public service broadcasting. I believe that my noble friends Lord Inglewood and Lord Patten both made valuable contributions to what could be the future pattern of public service broadcasting.
Several noble Lords referred to the first of our three debates—our trio—proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. I believe that the fundamental issues that I addressed during that debate are still relevant today. Is public service broadcasting sustainable in the multichannel digital future? Is it merely an anachronism? Will markets on their own give us the media and the society we want? Is public service broadcasting an optional add-on or is it essential to the health of all broadcasting? Without such broadcasting, does the global media market risk homogenisation—the "Murdoch" world, perhaps?
Like my noble friend Lord Astor I do not want merely to repeat my previous two speeches so I shall stop there on that particular thread. I, too, today would like to take the debate one stage further. I shall concentrate on a theme to which I have referred briefly in previous debates but not so far developed. One question that I believe should underpin all our debates on digital broadcasting is the usefulness of fighting to retain quality and diversity of public service broadcasting if one does not at the same time ensure access to it for all, whether they want it or not.
Today I wish to highlight some of the current issues regarding access that we must overcome if public service broadcasting in the digital age is to be of value to our society. What if changes in society and technology mean that people either will not or cannot watch public service broadcasting, even if it is there?
Social changes could threaten the future of such broadcasting because they mean that viewers will not necessarily watch TV in the usual ways, at the traditional times, for the traditional reasons. I seek to please my noble friend Lord Patten by avoiding the word "modern". I think that I may have just managed to do so.
Whether we like it or not, we are becoming a 24-hour society in which daily routines are being eroded. Our approach to watching TV could be like the eating habits of the young today. We will snack, we will graze, rather than sitting down to watch a full length programme and absorb its finer points.
751 As other noble Lords have mentioned, the Internet is already establishing itself as the third broadcast medium world-wide. Soon the integrated content covering interactive TV, video on demand, the Internet, banking, shopping and a video phone will be available via the TV, the set-top box and the PCTV. Already Web television—television offering pictures and Internet text—has nearly half a million subscribers in the United States.
Experience in America shows that teenage boys are two to one more likely to use their television as a personal computer for games and the Internet. They are not watching traditional programming. If society continues to develop in that fashion, we are likely to see the use of the television as a personal computer dominated by the Internet, blocking access to public service broadcasting programmes—access which other family members may wish to obtain. That could happen even in a multi-set household. Other members will not necessarily be able to access different digital channels from the one showing on the main monitor. It will depend on the type of platform used and its level of technical development. How can we ensure that viewers of all ages continue to be able to watch public service broadcasting?
What are the implications of social changes for the way in which the Internet operates? How can or should public service broadcasting be part of it?
The second obstacle to overcome before public service broadcasting in the digital age can reach its audience is one which my noble friend Lord Colwyn covered so well. It is the problem of the patchy coverage by various forms of digital broadcasting. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Astor for his clear explanation of the intricacies of digital broadcasting not only today but previously in his Unstarred Question.
We are aware that for various reasons 30 per cent of households cannot have a satellite dish. Fifty-three per cent of all homes in England now have cable available to them, but transmission of digital TV by cable is not now likely to start until next year. We have heard of digital terrestrial TV. At present only 70 per cent of the population can receive it. Coverage will improve—but when and by how much? At the moment it is a muddle from the consumer's point of view which needs to be resolved before we have analogue switch-off.
Can the Minister tell the House what consideration the Government have given to the kind of public service commitments which should be built into future commercial TV licences when digital takes over from analogue? Bearing in mind the words of my noble friend Lord Inglewood, should there be such commitments?
Finally, I come to a group of people who face a triple whammy in their attempt to enjoy public service broadcasting in the digital age. Those people have control of the gateway; they have a television capable of receiving the digital signal and they actively want to watch the broadcasting, but they still cannot enjoy the programmes. Why, my Lords? I refer to the 20 million people who use subtitles. Five million people rely on them. A further 15 million use them occasionally. That is a significant proportion of the total viewing population.
752 I welcome comments made recently by the. Minister for Film outside the House that digital needs to be inclusive of all members of society and that we should ensure that we maximise the potential for digital to increase its accessibility. That is true. But how do we do it? There are no subtitling regulations for satellite and cable programme providers, so the majority provide no subtitling. BBC Choice, BBC News 24 and the new, about-to-be-launched BBC Knowledge currently subtitle 5 per cent of their programmes. That will take 10 years to rise to 50 per cent. The RNID is concerned that the BBC is not maximising the effective re-use of existing subtitles on its archive programming. I understand that previously subtitled programmes are too often broadcast without their subtitles on the free-to-air digital channels like BBC Choice.
Last week I visited the BBC and saw at first hand the public service digital transmission area. It was most impressive. It also made me appreciate the significant costs of adding in subtitles. But surely those are costs worth bearing.
What policies are the Government pursuing to ensure that hearing-impaired people are not excluded from the digital revolution in TV? Will they consider looking again at the question of subtitling targets? I am delighted that when we were in government those targets were put into legislation. It was an excellent first step. But I am aware that changes in technology mean that the issue should be kept under review.
In conclusion, I am fascinated but by no means mesmerised by the new technology. I recognise that the digital age brings with it risks as well as opportunities. It brings the risk that the globalisation of culture will threaten national identities. It brings the risk that the powerful gateway controllers will restrain rather than promote diversity. It brings the risk of a two-class society: the information rich, ready and able to pay for their increasingly expensive media, and the information poor who cannot. But if I am persuaded in favour of the merits of public service broadcasting by any argument, it remains quite simply this: that without it we could lose the opportunity of being surprised by programmes that we did not know we wanted.
I believe that we must do all we can to overcome the barriers to access to public service broadcasting and the threats posed by the development of global competition. It is a difficult challenge, but I think that it is worth the candle.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, reminds us that this is the third debate on these issues within the past nine weeks. On 3rd March we had the debate introduced by ray noble friend Lord Bragg. On 21st April the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, asked an Unstarred Question. The noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, teases me about empty Benches. Some of my noble friends feel that they made full contributions to those debates and have no more to say. I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, even more on having succeeded in teasing out a number of most interesting speeches to which I feel a duty to reply 753 on behalf of the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, is wrong. We are profoundly interested in the issues under debate today.
On 3rd March I set out my stand on the implications for broadcasting and in particular public service broadcasting of the changes in technology which will be brought about by digital television. I refer to cols.1712 to 1718 of Hansard of that day. Clearly, I cannot take up my time by doing so again. Perhaps the best contribution I can make is to race through the fundamental argument, relating it so far as I can to the debate this evening. Undoubtedly, the changing nature of broadcasting is bringing about changes in the way in which public policy can address these issues. Public policy, as we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, was based on regulation which in turn was based on spectrum scarcity. With the end of spectrum scarcity in sight, there is indeed the prospect, I think, of product famine. It will be difficult to find people who will produce high quality product for unlimited spectrum on radio and television. Clearly, the power which Government had in the past to regulate has disappeared. The noble Lord, Holme of Cheltenham, made the same point. However, my argument then and today is that that increases the need for a public service broadcasting obligation rather than decreasing it. As I said on 3rd March, I think there are three elements of public service broadcasting that we have to consider: first, who produces the structure of the broadcast industry; secondly, the programmes themselves, the product; and, thirdly, the issues of access, that is, marketing and distribution.
Turning back to who produces it, unfortunately it is not the case that new technology necessarily brings into play new sources of good programming. The fundamental economics are the same. Good programming is expensive. It may be that there will in future be cheaper dissemination. I am sure that there will be below marginal costs but the fundamental original cost is the same, or perhaps even greater, with a shortage of first class producers and performers.
Therefore, it is not by any means evident that the digital revolution is going to bring into existence new players, new smaller broadcasters who, I would like to argue, are the kind we need to achieve greater diversity and greater pluralism. The key, coming back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, is pluralism in the production of television and radio. A feature of convergence of prints, telecommunications, broadcasting, information and communications technology will be greater diversity but not necessarily greater quality. And there may indeed not be greater diversity.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, seems to think that the 1996 Broadcasting Act created the digital revolution. All that the 1996 Act did was allocate the digital spectrum. It did indeed—and I pay tribute to the Act—say that those with a public service remit would get space on the spectrum and that those who got space would have public service obligations. However, it did not secure the objectives so widely demanded in the debate today.
754 I turn to the issue of the programmes themselves which has, as on the last occasion, dominated a considerable part of the debate. I must start by profoundly disagreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Patten. I do not consider that public service broadcasting should be defined as a safety net, as being what commercial broadcasting does not do. I certainly do not think that it should be the negative definition of niche programming, which is what the noble Lord implied. I believe that the public service obligation should cover the whole spectrum of quality programming. As the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said, the definition should be whether it is good of its kind. In other words, it is an approach to broadcasting, not a special type of broadcasting.
The obligations on public service broadcasters to entertain, inform, educate and challenge the audience into new thinking—as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, to take risks—are fundamental to the public service broadcasting concept and apply not only to the BBC but to all broadcasters, commercial, free-to-air and, in so far as it can be achieved, to satellite, cable and the other converging technologies.
The third element of the definition is access. I have quoted Lady Plowden as saying, "Broadcasting is democratic, there are no reserved seats." There probably now are reserved seats; it is probably not democratic. We now have the existence on a large scale of subscription and pay-per-view, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, drew attention to the problem of the information rich and the information poor. As a number of noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said, we have whole new services with a much narrower geographical coverage. Indeed, there was a debate in the House of Commons on that issue.
We also have the issue to which the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Holme, referred: how do we find what we want? I have not time to go into the issue of the electronic programme guide. However, the Government are intensely conscious of these problems of access. I draw to your Lordships' attention the speech which Janet Anderson, the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, made to the Media Trust on Tuesday last week. She said:Digital needs to be inclusive to all members of society and we should ensure that we maximise the potential for digital to increase accessibility".She went on to refer specifically to services for those with sensory disabilities and the need to have audio description and signing in order to ensure that digital broadcasting is made available to every part of our society.
She also said—and I give her remarks in full in response to those who urge an early decision on the switch-over to analogue broadcasting:The Government wants to move to as early an announcement as possible of a switch-over date. We need to announce a date with sufficient certainty to give industry and consumers confidence in making their investment and purchasing decisions. However, this can only be done on the basis of a properly considered strategy set against the background of actual digital services winning public acceptance—a strategy which protects those consumers who only755wish to receive free-to-air services as well as those who are potentially excluded from this new technology. We expect to say more about the switch-over before summer".I cannot go further than that. My honourable friend's remarks make clear that there is a profound obligation on those who are entering into the provision of digital services, and presumably doing so in order to make money from it, to play their part in helping us to come to a decision which they so urgently want.
I cannot leave the issue of access without saying a few words about the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. She is right to say that habits may change, that there could be conflict in the home between broadcasting and narrow-casting, the use of PCs, the Internet and indeed telephones.
I am rather pleased that we may have reached a peak of daily viewing. I am rather pleased to think that a broadcasting viewership may be a zero sum gain, but what is gained by one channel will he lost by another. I do not like the thought of particularly young people spending four hours or more a day in front of a television set. However, the point that must be made is that households will behave as they wish. It is not the role of government or any other outside body to try and dictate to them.
I shall use the rest of the limited time I have available to try to refer to specific points raised in the debate. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, talked about specific obligations on the BBC. I believe he was implying that the BBC should not be involved in a fight for ratings. I think we covered that fairly fully in the last debate. We certainly agree that we should be encouraging the BBC to identify its natural constituency, but that does not mean that it should not be concerned with ensuring that the good programmes it produces are viewed by as many people as possible. That, of course, will be part of the Charter debate.
I have referred to my disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Patten. He foresees the end of the BBC and, more urgently, the end of Radio 1, 2 and 5, although I was pleased to have his tribute to Radio 3. I was pleased to hear him say that there should also be a public service obligation for Sky. I was interested in the analogy as regards the public service obligation for the railways when they were in public ownership. From what I have said, it must be clear that we believe that there is a public service obligation for all broadcasters and that it should not be crowded into the ghetto of those programmes which the commercial sector cannot produce.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield complained about the lack of religious broadcasting. in particular by the BBC. He was very firm on the point. He said, and I agree with him, that religious broadcasting is an integral part of the public service broadcasting obligation. That is so under the BBC Charter. The Statement of Promise for this year refers to the need to cater for the diversity of religious and spiritual life of the United Kingdom.
The religious broadcasting department of the BBC in Manchester produces two hours a week of network television and 10 hours a week for radio. The governors 756 receive regular reports from independent advisory panels which have urged, in particular, religious programmes addressed to young people. I understand the right reverend Prelate's point about not confining religious broadcasting to the ghetto of purely religious channels.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, was concerned that digital may fail to produce the required range of quality and diversity. That is right. I hope that I have confirmed that I agree with him. The noble Lord was right to refer to opportunities for exports and right also to refer to the regional emphasis on ITV and the BBC.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for building on his thoughtful speech in the debate introduced by my noble friend Lord Bragg in which he referred to the end of spectrum scarcity. I thought his observations about the nature of public service information provision for impartial news and information, for educational provision and for an arts and culture package extremely wise. He was right to say that ideas produced by the previous government were being carried on by the present Government. I am pleased to find that continuity taking place.
I cannot refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, because she is not here. I have some difficulty with the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. He quite properly declared his interest as a director of On-Digital. Perhaps I may say with all respect to him that he must be careful not. to speak on behalf of On-Digital. He must speak independently, having declared that interest. Almost everything that he said was in the interests of On-Digital.
My Lords, my speech was about digital television as a whole. On-Digital is only one company. I emphasised that the BBC is a major player. One reason that I am a director of On-Digital is because it is a requirement of the company's licence, granted by the ITC, that it must have two independent directors.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I would never have doubted that. I still believe that we must all be extremely careful about the way in which the interests we have or have had are reflected in what we say in this Chamber.
My quotation from Janet Anderson's speech last week answers the fundamental points which the noble Viscount makes about the switch-over from analogue to digital. I shall be glad to write to him on any further points that I may have missed. I was interested in what he said about my own lack of experience of digital television. I am pleased to have his motto—less voting and more viewing. If he can persuade his noble friends to say that we can go home in the evenings, nothing would please me or my colleagues more. Everything he described as being available on digital is available in my home on cable. I do not believe that I am losing very much other than through being confined to the Palace of Westminster.
I was grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Phillips and Lord Newby, for their tributes to the World Service and in particular what it can do and is doing in Kosovo. I 757 thought the extract which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, read from a response to an Internet message from Belgrade was particularly effective.
A number of noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, but also the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to the consideration being given by Gavyn Davies's committee to various alternatives for the funding of the BBC. They referred in particular to the prospect, which has been reported in the press, of a digital surcharge. All I can say is that Gavyn Davies and his colleagues will report in July and before the Government make up their mind there will be a very full consultation. I agree profoundly with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that Gavyn Davies should consider the widest possible range of options. I am sure that he is doing so.
I hope that I have addressed as many as possible of the issues which have been raised in the debate. I confirm that the Government believe profoundly, along with so many noble Lords, that public service broadcasting is an essential element in informed citizenship, like public safety or health education. It has a particular role to play in combating social exclusion and in bringing in those with various disadvantages, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said. We shall continue with our championship of public service broadcasting whatever the technology and whatever the commercial implications.
§ 7.58 p.m.
My Lords, it only remains for me to thank all noble Lords who have spoken. It has been a debate in which each speaker has made an outstanding contribution. All the contributions have been well-informed and have raised important points.
Perhaps I may thank in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield because I asked him a fairly direct question about religious broadcasting. He gave a robust and very full reply which I am sure will be read widely with interest.
Perhaps I may refer also to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, who is not in her place. She understood me to dismiss, in a cavalier way, the contribution of commercial local radio. I intended to do just the opposite. I am a great admirer of the contribution it has made. There is a great future for commercial radio and also for the BBC. I hope that the BBC will take up the challenge because that will be welcomed by commercial radio and it will greatly strengthen the power of the BBC if it takes up that challenge. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.