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Bbc Transmissions (Reception)

Volume 463: debated on Monday 28 March 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Popplewell.]

11.27 p.m.

I am very glad, Mr. Speaker, of the opportunity to pursue a subject which I raised some months ago in a question to the Postmaster-General. I asked him if he was aware of the dissatisfaction which existed among listeners as a result of bad transmission in certain areas from the B.B.C., the reason for such bad transmission, the steps being taken to remedy it, and the date by which the trouble might be rectified. In a written answer, the Minister told me that the places concerned were on the fringes of the areas normally covered by the B.B.C. home transmission services and that, after sunset, fading occurred. Sets with good volume control and good outdoor aerials should be used. That, I think, can accurately be described as an idle reply, and, perhaps, in the true tradition of Marie Antoinette, on the basis that "If they have no bread, let them eat cake." It was an entirely inadequate answer, and its inadequacy has been reflected in the number of letters which I have received since that time, and in the adverse remarks which have been expressed in the local newspapers.

I propose to deal with the complaints of listeners in these areas, and. they fall under five main headings. First, there is the quality of the reception in these areas. After nearly 30 years of radio, it is wrong that these people, who pay the full licence rate, should have to listen to all three of the English home programmes through a medley of noises and fading-out. The Light Programme—the best available—is subject to fading out and occasional interference. The Third Programme is really inaudible either on the 203 or the 514 metres wave-length by the "jamming" of high-powered transmitters abroad, which are using the same wavelengths. The Home Service Programme on 342 metres between the hours of 6 and 9.30 at night is entirely inaudible—due to the same reason, interference from broadcasting stations abroad.

The second point of complaint lies in the suggestion which has been made both by the P.M.G. and by the B.B.C. that the sets are at fault and that all would be well if good sets were used with an automatic volume control with good outdoor aerials. Such measures might possibly reduce fading-out, but nevertheless such measures would also involve very heavy expenditure on people using their instruments. Furthermore, the view is held—and I share it—that the B.B.C. have a moral as well as a legal obligation to provide a service for which the licence fee is paid rather than look to licence holders to subsidise the inefficiency of the transmission. Interference which is the greatest menace both to the Third programme and on the Home Service, is a quite separate subject from fading-out. The most selective super-heterodyne receiving set ever made, using the most efficient outside aerial and a perfect aerial, cannot separate two stations operating on the same wave-length and it is nonsense to pretend that it can.

The third complaint that we have to make is that no adequate steps are being taken to close down the pirate station which is the cause of interference. I understand it is a Russian-controlled station which is causing this interference and which is making unauthorised use of our Home Service wavelength. I understand further that the Postmaster-General has made a protest to the Soviet Minister of Communications on this subject. I must say that I am not very optimistic about the results of the protest. I suggest that further protests should be made through the Foreign Secretary rather than that the right hon. Gentleman should continue to make protests through his own Department.

I think there must be, alternatively, some method of retaliation against this act of piracy. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether we must wait until the Copenhagen wavelength plan comes into force, I understand in March, 1950, before we can do away with this foreign interference? And after this plan comes into effect, what safeguards have we that the Russians will respect that agreement?

The fourth complaint is directed at the B.B.C. excuses against providing a special wavelength in this area. We are told that there are insufficient wavelengths available, but that it has been found possible to find one for foreign broadcasts. Surely no other European country uses one of these allotted medium-band wavelengths in this way? It has also been found possible to find a wavelength to start the Third Programme and a further one to provide a network of low-power stations to relay this programme, at a time when it was known by the B.B.C. that there were certain existing areas which were receiving very poor broadcasts.

The fifth complaint refers to the Western Region. Why, it is asked, has the Western Region been extended to cover as far westward as the Channel Islands and yet not permitted to go any further than the Hampshire—Sussex borders towards the east? After the war —I think the Assistant Postmaster-General will recollect this—there was a plan to divide the country into north, south and medium regions. I should like to know something of what has happened to that plan. I believe it was shelved owing to the pressure brought to bear by the Western Region listeners, who feared that the station might be transferred to a spot on the South Coast and the staff dispersed. I am quite sure that all that thought was entirely groundless. I shall be glad to hear that the Minister is prepared to reconsider this plan. The scope of the Western Region programme could be widened to include Sussex and East Kent in its features. I think there is a great deal to be said for the plan which' the B.B.C. had in mind two years ago.

I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General, when he replies, will not seek to put the blame for bad wireless reception on to the sets in the areas. I hope he will give some assurance that the interference from the foreign broadcasting stations will be stopped, and an indication of his own personal determination that listeners in the so-called fringe areas will have at least a square deal from the B.B.C., and that it will once more be worth while turning on the radio in those areas. Certainly it is not at the present time.

11.38 p.m.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) has done a real service in raising the question of the difficulty of B.B.C. reception, and I hope the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to expand a little in his reply and say something about the intention of the B.B.C. to provide additional transmitters throughout the country to increase facilities for reception. I cannot say that I have received any large volume of correspondence complaining against the quality of reception of the B.B.C. programmes or of the nature of the programmes, but it does seem to me, as a listener, that progress has rather come to a halt in the B.B.C. during the last year. Since the restrictions on fuel were imposed, Home Service transmitters have ceased to operate at 11 o'clock. That restriction has not been relaxed by the Government, and it seems to me that the quality of the programmes, while high, is not pursuing a higher aim. I would say in general that the public are now justified in looking for some further advance on the part of the B.B.C., not only in the content of the programmes, but also in the matter of building additional transmitters to increase the quality of reception.

I find the Third Programme on both stations at both ends of the scale extremely difficult to tune in to in all parts of the country. That is particularly annoying, because the Third Programme specialises in high-quality transmission, and particularly in music. While it might be possible to put up with indifferent reception of the Light Programme, which is devoted principally to jazz and light music, for serious listening on the Third Programme it is absolutely essential that the quality should be pure.

I should like to know what the B.B.C. intend to do in order to provide sufficient transmitters to cope with this interference on both wavelengths; whether it is a question of home transmitters or overseas transmitters, or whether it is something to do with the waveband at either end of the scale, I do not know, but it is about time that the Government gave additional facilities to the B.B.C. for building transmitters and raising the standard of transmission.

11.41 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Cooper-Key) for raising this question. I think it is a problem far better dealt with on the Adjournment than by Question and answer. I feel constrained, however, to say that the reply my right hon. Friend gave to the hon. Member was far from being an idle reply. It was a statement of fact, which, during his remarks, the hon. Gentleman has failed to disprove.

The problem for the B.B.C. is purely one of the allocation of wavelengths. As the House is aware there has to be international allocation—otherwise there would be chaos on the ether. At Lucerne we were allocated one long wave and 10 medium waves. That was in 1933. At Copenhagen last year, we were allocated one long wavelength and 13 medium wavelengths, a definite improvement on the Lucerne Agreement; but it is impossible for the new agreement to come into operation until 1950. Then the position, as far as the B.B.C. is concerned, will obviously be eased. The fading that takes place on the South Coast is due to the fact that we have not sufficient wavelengths for this area. It is true that interference takes place. There was interference from a Russian station.

Yes, we will accept the present tense. We made representations to the Russians, and they have done everything they can to mitigate the interference from that particular station. But that is not the main cause of the trouble. It is just that the wavelengths being used on the Home Programme and the Third Programme are not sufficient to carry with full audibility to those areas. The immediate problem is what can be done by the B.B.C. to improve the position. The first suggestion the hon. Gentleman made was that we should allocate a wavelength used for overseas. That, I am afraid, is a policy question and not one for my right hon. Friend.

What are the other remedies? We might persuade the B.B.C. to put in booster stations and use the two international wavelengths for that purpose. They would have to be of small power because international agreement limits them to one-quarter of a kilowatt, and the distance over which they would be effective would be about one mile. Another remedy is an extension of wired re-diffusion, but this whole problem is going to be sent to the committee of inquiry which the Government are setting up. As far as the licences required for wireless re-diffusion are concerned, they are granted by the Postmaster-General, and in reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Captain Hewitson), my right hon. Friend did state that the existing licences for wireless re-diffusion would continue until 1951.

The third remedy, and probably the solution to the problem, is the development of very high-frequency broadcasting on either frequency modulation or amplitude modulation, and the B.B.C. are at present constructing an experimental station at Wrotham in Kent. I understand it is likely to be finished by the end of this year, and in the light of experiments which will take place there, future development will be decided. Whether frequency modulation or amplitude is used, it will involve special receiving sets, but this is probably where the solution to the shortage of wavelengths will be found.

I am not quite satisfied on the question of interference. Surely it is more a question of interference from which we are suffering than anything else, and that from these Russian stations.

No. There is interference from one Russian station on the Home Service, and as a result of our representations we are convinced that the Russians are doing everything possible to reduce the interference. But it does not all take place from the Russian station. There is interference from other stations operating on the Continent. It is not deliberate, but it happens because of the proximity of the wavelengths. From French stations, for instance, there is side band splash, and we get interference, but it is not deliberate. It is one of the problems arising from the shortage of wavelengths. What we have got to do is to look to scientific development on the very high frequencies with either frequency modulation or amplitude modulation and the B.B.C. are experimenting to that end.

As to the point raised by the noble Lord the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) on the limitations on broadcasting instituted as a result of the shortage of coal in 1947, they have been removed. There are no such limitations at all. We are back to 1947.

Is it not the case that before the war the Home Service closed down at midnight?

The point I am making is that the limitations imposed as a result of the fuel cut have been removed, and that is the point upon which the noble Lord sought assurance.

We are convinced that the B.B.C. are doing everything they can to deal with the problem. I admit that the situation is irritating to the people on the South Coast, but it is due solely to the shortage of wavelengths and not to the interference from foreign stations. That is a contributory factor and not the prime factor, and until we get the development of very high frequency broadcasting there are bound to be certain areas where audibility is not as good as it should be. Everything we can do from the Post Office and B.B.C. point of view is being done to give the people on the Sussex coast the best possible reception they can have in the circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the suggestion about the Western Region?

I fail to see what specific interest there is in the Western Region programmes of the B.B.C. for the people of Sussex. It seems a rather incongruous suggestion. I do not think it can be done unless amplifying stations are installed. As far as the B.B.C. Western Region programmes are concerned, it is entirely a question for the B.B.C. My right hon. Friend would have no power to order them to make that programme available. It forms part of the day-to-day management. I have no doubt that the suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman will receive the attention it deserves. Both the B.B.C. and the Post Office are determined to do everything they can to remove this difficult situation which exists on the South Coast, but until there is a development of very high frequency broadcasting, I repeat, the problem is bound to remain to some degree.

Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question about the Third Programme? It is my experience in different parts of the country that both Third Programme transmitters suffer from interference worse than that on the Home Service or Light Programme. Would it be possible to change over the wavelengths so that one of the Third Programme transmitters was absolutely clear of interference?

I am afraid I cannot give that assurance. Due attention will be paid to what the noble Lord has said, but I cannot give him that assurance. The whole motive behind the B.B.C. is to give the people of Britain the best wireless service possible, not only from the point of view of programmes, but also technically. I think this Debate has served the purpose of drawing attention to the fact that there are certain areas of the South Coast where the programmes are imperfectly received. I have gone into this matter very thoroughly, and I am convinced that the B.B.C. are up against a real problem in the shortage of wavelengths. I think the very fact that the experimental station at Wrotham is being established shows that the B.B.C. are alive to the problem, especially with regard to the scientific development taking place, which may prove to' be the solution of this world-wide problem.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.