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Broadcasting Bill Money

Volume 164: debated on Monday 18 December 1989

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Queen's Recommendation having been signified—Motion made, and Question proposed.

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Broadcasting Bill ("the Act"), it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—
  • (a) any expenses of the Secretary of State under the Act;
  • (b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other Act.—[Mr. Lilley.]
  • 10.29 pm

    I shall not detain the House for long. As I understand it, the resolution is fairly broad and, therefore, I can raise a number of issues based on the resolution and on the financial effects of the Bill which are outlined on pages ix and x.

    The Secretary of State is empowered to make out of money voted by Parliament—which we shall no doubt be agreeing to shortly, on the nod—a start-up loan not exceeding £5 million for the Independent Television Commission and £3 million for the Radio Authority. As to the money that is to be spent by the commission, under the terms of clause 26 it will examine the provision to be made for Channel 5. I have no doubt that a number of regions will make representations, but Yorkshire and Humberside, with a centre based in Bradford, should be given serious consideration.

    Clause 128 establishes the Broadcasting Standards Council, which will have annual running costs of approximately £1 million, and which will deal largely with a code of sex and violence. Hon. Members have already mentioned the very light hand with which the IBA has guided the running of commercial television stations. In fact, it has done so with an extremely light hand. I hope that the Broadcasting Standards Council will turn its attention not just to sex and violence on television, although I do not deny that control of those aspects is important.

    The IBA completely ignored the legislation affecting natural breaks. When feature films are given their theatrical release, great efforts are made to ensure that they suffer no interruptions. But when shown on television, they are arbitrarily chopped about, to allow for the insertion of advertising. The BSC should introduce some form of regulation covering the intrusion of advertising, so that it is kept separate and distinct from programmes. Several film makers have been appalled at the way in which their efforts have been mutilated by the arbitrary insertion of commercial breaks at intervals that are convenient not for the viewer but for advertisers. The powers of the Broadcasting Standards Council should be amended in Committee to cover that problem.

    Clause 5, dealing with the Bill's financial effects, is the Bill's most controversial section, because it provides for the auctioning of licences. It is suggested that the revenue thus yielded will total at least £210 million. I suspect that that is one of the main reasons for the legislation.

    There is one curious aspect of the bidding procedure, about which the Broadcasting Consortium has expressed reservations. I quote from that consortium's circular, which I imagine has been sent to a number of right hon. and hon. Members. The consortium comprises a number of concerned organisations at which one would be hard put to cavil. They include Age Concern, Alcohol Concern, the British Council of Churches, Community Service Volunteers, the Deaf Broadcasting Council, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the National Council of Women, Oxfam and Save the Children Fund.

    The consortium comments:
    "The auction process (Clause 17) whereby the licence goes to the highest bidder will give money to the Treasury but will therefore take out of the system finance, that could and should be spent on improving the range and quality of programmes. This bidding process encourages higher bids than may be affordable. The incentive for prospective licence holders is to put in a higher cash bid to the Treasury rather than invest their resources in more than just meeting the quality threshold. There must be a danger that the highest bidder will have overbidded and have insufficient finances left to fund the range and quality of programs received. If a price can be fixed for the franchise renewal, why can't it be fixed at the outset?"
    That comes from an organisation that does not have a financial vested interest, and has only the concerns of the consumer at heart. It is an important representation that goes to the heart of the Bill.

    There are also some curious side issues regarding the tendering procedure. The Minister can issue qualifications for the licence by order including those, for example, for what I am sure will come to be known as the 20 per cent. rule.

    Clause 163 empowers the Minister to issue orders, but it does not state whether they will be affirmative orders whether the negative procedure will be used.

    Clause 163(1) provides:
    "Any power of the Secretary of State to make regulations or an order under this Act shall be exercisable by statutory instrument."
    Clause 165 gives a number of definitions, but they do not include a definition of a statutory instrument. Therefore, it seems that the Secretary of State will be able to alter the various qualifications for licences, and the orders that he may issue are contained in schedule 2(2)(2), which provides:
    "The Secretary of State may, in the case of any category of relevant services not falling within sub-paragraph (1]), by order prescribe the maximum number of licences which may at any time be held by any one person to provide relevant services falling within that category."
    The House has debated ownership of the media tonight. Here is a snippet from the Bill, which shows that the Minister may change, by order, the degree of ownership. Schedule 2(2)(5), defines the category of 20 per cent., stating:—
    "The Secretary of State may by order—
  • (a) amend sub-paragraph (1), (3) or (4) by substituting a different percentage for the percentage for the time being specified there;"
  • Those sub-paragraphs (1), (3) and (4) relate to the proportion of ownership that may be held by the proprietors of national and local newspapers. They are quite important powers.

    I suspect that clause 163 means that the statutory instrument will not be subject to parliamentary procedure, and I realise that that is of academic interest to the House. The Minister can correct that if he chooses. If that is not the intention, he may say so.

    A Bill normally includes information about whether the affirmative procedure is required. That would be most desirable because under it, the matter comes before the House, is debated and there has to be a resolution of approval. Where the negative procedure is used there can be a prayer.

    Many statutory instruments do not go through the House and are not subject to any parliamentary procedure. If the Bill is passed, containing that facility for the Minister, an important part of the power of the Bill can be exercised by him. The power is given by the House without its ever seeing the instrument. We are considering an important part of the media, and that aspect of the Bill is less than satisfactory. I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance that he will alter that in Committee, to ensure that the relevant delegated legislation comes before the House.

    Clause 17 suggests another curious set of circumstances, because the commission will have powers to issue rules governing the circumstances where a person who has submitted a bid cannot take over the bid because of a breach of the commission's rules. Clause 17(8) provides:
    "Any such rules shall be published by the Commission in such manner as they consider appropriate, but shall not come into force unless they have been approved by the Secretary of State."
    That is not just delegating powers to the Secretary of State, it is delegating powers to the Secretary of State which he delegates to the commission; but the commission makes the rules that the Secretary of State can approve. The clause does not say that he has to approve a draft or that he has the right to refuse, although that might be implied by the fact that he has to approve them. Nevertheless, these rules, which govern an important part of the Bill—cash bids—will not come before the House. I see no requirement for the Secretary of State to bring such measures to the House by way of affirmative instrument or the negative procedure so that hon. Members have at least a slim chance of debating the issue for an hour and a half.

    The power in the Bill lies in clause 17 and the cash tender provisions. It is wrong that Parliament should hand over powers over which it can no longer exercise any scrutiny. Powers such as that to determine when an Act will come into effect are delegated all the time. The House hands over many such powers to Ministers. They are routine and technical and nobody would cavil at them. I suggest that these powers, however, are germane and central to the operation of the Bill and that we should make the alterations that I have suggested.

    I do not think that present arrangements for the control of delegated legislation are satisfactory. Even the minimal scrutiny that we have now is being sidestepped here. I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance. I regret that the Bill has been given a Second Reading. I voted against it. There is obviously plenty of room for improvement in its detail to allow the House some involvement in its application.

    10.42 pm

    The Bill is predominantly about money—perhaps a little too much so. My main anxiety follows that of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer)—it concerns the auctioning of franchises.

    One thing that nobody can say about the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is that it was well structured. He began by paying tribute to the best traditions of British public service broadcasting and ended by mocking the ghost of Lord Reith, who was the inspirer of those best traditions. I wonder whether that is a precedent—the first time a Conservative Home Secretary has mocked the ideals of Lord Reith. For my pains, I have been dubbed, with others, a Jeremiah. I tabled a motion, as have others, which together collected about 80 expressions of reservation about the Bill. That is an awful lot of Jeremiahs. It is perfectly reasonable to be pessimistic about the future of British broadcasting in view of the way in which the Government have handled not only the Bill but, much more importantly, the White Paper.

    Despite the arguments put by interested and non-interested people against the franchise option right from the start of the discussion when the White Paper was issued, the Government have gone ahead with it. One is entitled to ask why they have gone ahead, having so comprehensively lost the argument.

    I was shocked by the sheer shoddiness of Ministers' arguments in defence of the Bill. First we heard the contention that we had encountered all this pessimism and all those Jeremiahs 20 or 30 years ago when commercial television was introduced. That is an extremely shoddy argument because, as the Government acknowledged with their next breath, we now face a technological revolution, which quite obviously and self-evidently poses far greater threats to the quality of broadcasting than were posed in the completely different circumstances of 30 years ago. That is a shoddy and shameful argument to come from Ministers.

    The Government then assure us that there is no threat to the BBC or to Channel 4, that the Bill is not concerned with them and that we are preserving the tradition of public sector broadcasting. That, too, is a shameful and misleading argument. Anyone who has spoken to people high up in the BBC and Channel 4 knows perfectly well that those people are aware that if the quality goes down in ITV—that fulcrum of British broadcasting in the centre ground—the BBC will be dragged down after it. That is what we should be debating. If we had not had such a disgracefully intellectually shallow White Paper, that issue would have been tackled right at the start. Of course the quality of the BBC and Channel 4—such as it is—is in danger. So it is quite shoddy for the Government to take the feeble line that somehow the BBC is safeguarded by not being mentioned in that context.

    ITV and the terrestrial and commercial channels as they now exist are and will be at the fulcrum of the broadcasting revolution. On the one hand there will be the public service channels and traditions as exemplified best by the BBC, and on the other hand there will be satellites and all the new forms of broadcasting made possible by the advance of technology. If that central fulcrum is tipped downwards —and that is what the Bill will do—the whole industry will slide. The process has already begun. Opposition Members were quite right to point out that some broadcasting companies are already spending less on programmes in anticipation of the Bill.

    We have faced a barrage of extremely cheap and shoddy arguments from the Government which, frankly, are totally unworthy of them, particularly relating to a Bill of such enormous social consequence. Why have the Government got themselves into this position? Here I stress that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is not responsible for the Bill. He is the victim of legislative inertia which has come about because the Government, for reasons best known to themselves, cannot face the prospect of admitting that they are wrong, even when they have been proved wrong by the overwhelming body of opinion.

    How did they get themselves into this corner? Let me offer three explanations. I regret to say that the first one obviously involves the animus against the broadcasting establishment. It is sad to say that, as it implies that the spirit of the Bill is affected by political pique against the duopoly—the broadcasting establishment—but that is the only conclusion that I can draw. The resentment against the present broadcasting establishment is, to some extent, reasonable because it has been complacent on quality, because it has shown gross efficiency—to be fair, that has now been corrected—and because there has been political bias on the BBC.

    One could argue, therefore, that the Government's evident resentment against the duopoly is reasonable. But —this is the main point—we must surely look wider than that. On such a major Bill, it would be wrong and irresponsible of the Government to be influenced to the slightest degree by political pique because they are setting the future standards of British broadcasting. If they are to be influenced by political pique, let them remember that they are taking it out on the public, not on the broadcasting duopoly, and it is the public who will suffer.

    The second thing that strikes me when considering the Government's motives is the sheer narrowness of their concept of broadcasting. There is a philosophical misunderstanding of how the cash nexus is applied. In the Bill, the doctrine is that the cash nexus must prevail above all—we are debating the money resolution—and considerations of public service are secondary.

    The Treasury wants to make as much money as possible from broadcasting. It is completely naked about that, but what does it mean? What will it do with the few grubby extra fivers that it will get from the debasement of the British broadcasting system? It may spend them on remedial lessons for the semi-literate. That is my humble suggestion as to how it might dispose of some of the money. The Treasury—I specifically stress "the Treasury" because I do not believe that this is a Home Office point—is cynically saying, "Why cannot everyone benefit from the debasement of public service broadcasting?" That is the kernel of its argument, which is why it is such a shallow and despicable argument for a Tory Government to put.

    The third motive is the most depressing. I detect in the attacks on Lord Reith, which I suspect mark a new and very sad stage in the development of the Tory party, what I call a "bread and circuses" philosophy. I do not believe that the Government care much about the quality of television that people watch. The unspoken philosophy is, "They watch trash, they like trash, so we shall give them more trash." That is what is behind the Bill, because no one who had thought about it in historical or social terms or who had read a book about popular culture, of the kind that people have been writing for hundreds of years from Dr. Johnson onwards, could put their name or subscribe to this cheap and shoddy Bill.

    The Government are at a stage from which they cannot retreat, and that is sad. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister made noises about possible compromises, which I considered carefully, but they do not go to the heart of the matter. If they had any imagination or sense of responsibility—that is what it amounts to—they would study hard the alternatives put forward, particularly by the Campaign for Quality Broadcasting. I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister has courteously received and talked to those people. All that the Government would have to do is show a modicum of political courage and say, "No, we haven't got it right; this time we aren't right just because everyone else is taking the opposite view." This time the Government should have the courage to stand their proposal on its head.

    Perhaps the Government do not understand what I am making such a fuss about, or even what I am talking about. In that case, I have no means of conveying my meaning to them, but if they do not make a fundamental change in their attitude on this auction of franchises, not just a mealy-mouthed compromise, and if they want to know what I am going on and on about, let them imagine how the history books in 10 years' time, at the turn of the millennium, will look back at the present Administration. The history books will say, "They did well in the Falklands, they raised the standard of living and they gave Britain back a bit of self-confidence", but then they will say, "but they also made it a cheaper and nastier country" —because that is what this Bill is all about.

    In conclusion, I want to explain why I voted against the Bill, bearing in mind that we are discussing the money resolution. I do not find the talk about compromise at all reassuring, because the Government in their despicably shallow White Paper started from such an extreme position on the cash nexus alone that even if they move to the middle ground they will not have moved very far towards sanity. I do not hold out much hope to my hon. Friends who, like me, are disturbed by the Bill, in terms of what will happen in Committee. I am sorry to say that I suspect that the Government will not show sufficient political courage to say, "Look we've got it wrong, so we're going to turn the proposal on its head and take a lead."

    I leave the Government with one bit of advice about their future speechwriting if they do not take that course. To start with, they will have to take out all the stuff about "family values" because people will laugh in their faces if they go ahead with the Bill and continue to preach about family values. The sort of people who are interested in these franchises are not very interested in family values.

    Secondly, the Government can stop suggesting that the Church of England is falling down on its spiritual duties to the nation. That sort of high-sounding stuff will have to go out of their speeches, too, because one cannot sell the most powerful cultural medium in the country for a few bits of silver and then blame it all on the bishops.

    Finally, the Government's speechwriters will have to stop all the stuff about how the teachers must do a better job in the classroom. One cannot take that line if one is simultaneously dishing the dirt on the selfsame children in their homes.

    One way and another, we can look forward to some pretty thin speeches on political subjects from the Tory Front Bench. Rather than get themselves into the absurd and hypocritical position of going on about moral and spiritual values and the rest while selling out to the cheapjacks in broadcasting, I suggest that the Government think again.

    10.58 pm

    The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) made a brave and courageous speech. I hope that his hon. Friends who disagreed fundamentally with what he said will at least admire his courage in saying it. His speech clearly came from someone who believes strongly in the subject which he was debating. I am glad that I stayed long enough to hear him. Knowing how the Conservative party is intolerant of opposition, especially in its own ranks, I hope that nothing untoward happens to the hon. Gentleman on the way home this evening. When the ancient cry of "Who goes home?" goes up, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will select a couple of stalwart friends to accompany him across the park or wherever else he is going.

    During the previous debate—I am now speaking on the money resolution—it was interesting that Conservative and Opposition Members agreed on several issues. At one stage, I felt sensitive about being considered to be unadventurous and something of a conservative. It put me in mind of a poem that Christopher Logue wrote in 1966. In a debate on the money resolution I shall not go through it, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it is exceedingly long. It gives a serious of reasons why people should vote Labour. It said, for example:
    "I shall vote Labour because God votes Labour.
    I shall vote Labour because my husband looks like Anthony Wedgwood Benn."
    That rather dates it.
    "I shall vote Labour because I want to shop in a covered precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.
    I shall vote Labour because if I don't vote Labour my balls will drop off;
    I shall vote Labour because the Queen's stamp collection is the best in the world."
    It concludes by saying:
    "I shall vote Labour because deep in my heart I am really a Conservative
    The standard of public sector broadcasting in Britain is genuinely admired not only here but around the world. In attempting to conserve it and move away from the ludicrous idea of auctioning franchises, Opposition Members are conservatives on the grounds that we recognise that certain standards and institutions are worth conserving. That is the whole point; that is why I welcome the words of the hon. Member for Buckingham, and associate myself closely with them.

    I do not intend to cover all the points made in the Second Reading debate. Opposition Members are worried because, if we are wrong, we may be embarrassed in a few years, but no damage will have been done. But if the Government are wrong, enormous damage will have been done to something important. It is not for us to disprove the Government's position. It is for the Government to prove their position because they propose such a fundamental change in the structure of broadcasting.

    The hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) said that television was better in the United States. I have seen television in the United States, and I cannot say that I thought that it was better than British television. No Conservative Member has pointed to a country where the standards, choice and variety on television is better than in this country.

    I am fortunate to spend a good deal of time in southern California. The range and intellectual content of programmes and the choice available to the public is vastly greater than anything in Britain.

    I had been wondering where the hon. Gentleman had been in recent months. I have now discovered that he was in southern California. I hope that he was serving the interests of his constituents well. The United States is an enormous country, and television in southern California might be better than that—

    No, in Washington and New York. My experience is based not on frequent visits but on several visits on parliamentary business such as fact-finding tours. I watched television in New York and Washington, and I did not find that the standard or variety was better than here. The hon. Gentleman will not find support for his view among members of the population who have seen American television.

    We oppose the Bill because more channels do not necessarily mean more variety. More television does not even mean better television. If there are to be 57 varieties of the same and more chewing gum for the eyes, we shall not be any closer to obtaining the standards of excellence and variety that we expect.

    We want to conserve what is good, but we are not reactionary and just resisting the idea of change. Many things could be done to the structure of television and broadcasting to improve it immeasurably. So far, nothing in the Bill or in the money resolution offers us such improvements.

    We will resist the Bill in Committee. In view of my modest contribution tonight, I hope that the Committee of Selection might even contemplate putting me on that Committee. I should like to cross swords with the Minister. For the moment, however, we are united in grief as Chelsea supporters. I am sure that that small common point will be lost when we get down to discussing the Bill.

    We believe that the Government's proposal will undermine standards that are accepted in this country as being among the finest in the world. On this occasion I am proud to say that I am a conservative with a small "c".

    11.5 pm

    I share the hesitations of those who are pausing for thought before they vote the moneys for the Secretary of State to operate under the Bill now it has received its Second Reading. I share some of the anxieties encapsulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and by other earlier speakers.

    As Conservatives we are rightly proud of the system that we set up about 30 years ago, which combined the BBC services with those of the new ITV companies. That system was approved despite ferocious opposition from the Labour party, and by luck as well as by judgment the mixture has worked extremely well. I share the dismay about the encomia expressed for American television, as I think that, apart from Australia, its television is the worst in the world. I allow myself to be chauvinistic about our television, which is unusual for me, as I am a true internationalist and a keen European. By luck and by judgment, we have the best television in the world and we are rightly proud of it.

    When the Minister replied to the debate, he had the opportunity to refer to the possibility of giving serious reconsideration to the tender, auction, maximum-bid, sealed-envelope system proposed in the Bill. That is an obnoxious system if ever I heard one and it is a pity that my hon. and learned Friend did not offer the House the concession that, in Committee, profound amendments would be made to the proposal, including the augmentation and reinforcement of quality considerations and criteria. With his usual adroitness, all that my hon. and learned Friend referred to was the possibility of rewording some of the threshold descriptions. That is inadequate to those of my hon. Friends who share my genuine hesitations.

    I am not one of those Conservatives who would attack the Archbishop of Canterbury—I do not need to create a macho image by doing so—because I support him. He said that broadcasting is not just like an ordinary business and that there is a big difference between making programmes to make money and making money to make programmes. Mostly by luck rather than by judgment, we have achieved that unique combination contained in the latter phrase. That has benefited the public interest and has provided the essential balance in the duopoly system produced by the right kind of competition. Channel 4 is living proof of what can be done by mixing intelligent commercialism with the necessary subvention.

    Most of my colleagues were keen to criticise Channel 4 when it started, claiming that it was subversive and that it would be inimical to the political opinions that we might represent. Now I find that, virtually without exception, most of my colleagues praise Channel 4 and regard it as a great success. It has contributed to the general average quality of television.

    What a shame that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister was unable to give those necessary concessions. That is why we should hesitate before we vote on the money resolution, and why I urge colleagues with my feelings of hesitation to vote against the motion or to abstain on it, as on Second Reading.

    11.12 pm

    Before voting on the money resolution, the House should consider a few matters. When the previous Home Secretary spoke on the original White Paper, one theme of his speech was the notion of regulation with a light touch. As one who has worked for two ITV companies, I find that notion one that fills me with horror.

    I have experienced regulation with a heavy touch. I worked for an existing ITV station, TV-am, which was regulated with a heavy touch. I remember the day when the man from the London electricity board came round to cut off our electricity because the company had not paid the bill, and the month when nobody received their salary on time because the money was not in the bank.

    I remember, after we had had perhaps possibly our third change of ownership, sitting at my VDU when the new chairman, Lord Marsh, came round. We fell to talking about the previous chairman, Peter Jay. Lord Marsh said to me, "Funny thing about Peter Jay—we" meaning the board members—"knew he knew nothing about business but thought that he knew all about journalism." I said, "Funny you should say that. The journalists knew he knew nothing about journalism but thought that he knew all about business."

    Those were the kind of people that the old, unregulated system allowed to run ITV companies. Within months of TV-am getting the franchise, it was able to dump virtually all the proposals with which it won the franchise. If that was heavy regulation, Opposition Members look forward with trepidation to light regulation.

    The other issue that we should consider before voting on the resolution is the concentration of ownership, which was raised on 7 November. The then Home Secretary said that there should not be a concentration of ownership. Mr. Ruper Murdoch owns four national daily papers and one satellite television company and is widely rumoured to be in the running to bid for LWT when the auction takes place. If that is not a concentration of ownership, I do not know what is.

    If the Bill will not address the position as regards Rupertt Murdoch, it is idle to talk of its ensuring that there is not a concentration of ownership. It will not do for the Minister to mouth "Robert Maxwell" over the Dispatch Box to my hon. Friends. We do not care who has the concentration of ownership. The sort of concentration of ownership that people like Rupert Murdoch currently have in British broadcasting and media is inimical to the interests of a free press and democracy. We want the Government to come forward with serious proposals against it.

    Many Conservative Members do not understand how regulation works. It is not enough to say that the companies will be obliged to do something about children's programmes and regional programmes. The reason why regulation has worked in the past is that it is quite specific about when those programmes go out and about their quality. Under the Bill, companies will be allowed to get away with their obligation to children's television by putting out dirt-cheap, ages-old Popeye cartoons in the middle of the night. The Bill contains nothing to stop a company getting away with that.

    It seems that, in the headlong pursuit of market values, Conservative Members are willing to throw away all that is good about British television. Having worked for an ITV company, I would not go overboard pontificating about standards—

    It being three-quarters of an hour after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted Business).

    Question put and agreed to.


    That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Broadcasting Bill ("the Act"), it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—
  • (a) any expenses of the Secretary of State under the Act;
  • (b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other Act.