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Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

For decades, Border Television has successfully provided news and other regional services to thousands of communities across thousands of square miles north and south of the border. Will the Minister join MPs from different parties, north and south of the border, who oppose ITV’s plans to dismember the news and other services at Border Television? When he next gets the chance, will he impress on Ofcom that it must not be allowed to wriggle out of the very tight licence conditions originally imposed on ITV Border?

I am aware of the considerable concern about this proposal. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met Ofcom and Digital UK, and with others, including the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), directly lobbied Michael Grade. I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. He will know that it is not, of course, for Ministers to tell private companies where they should or should not have their bases, but it is for Ofcom to do so. As the independent regulator, it has a duty to look into these issues very seriously. It is undertaking a public service review of ITV, and I am pretty certain that this will figure very prominently in it.

I fully support the comments of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) and I would like to reinforce the strength of feeling among viewers on both sides of the border and among politicians of all parties for the retention of Border news, which provides a unique and fiercely local service to this primarily rural area. Anything that the Scotland Office can do to influence Ofcom and support local campaigners who oppose Michael Grade’s ill-thought-out merger with the Tyne Tees newsroom in Newcastle would be much appreciated. Does the Minister agree that Border TV is important not just as a local news provider, but as a demonstration that people in the south of Scotland and the north of England, who have common interests and common concerns, are best served by a cross-border United Kingdom approach to broadcasting rather than the separatist broadcasting agenda promoted by the Scottish Government?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I agree with much of what he says and cannot add much to what I said to the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) about the responsibility of Ofcom, which I hope it will take seriously. On the second point, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it makes no sense to take Scottish broadcasters out of a UK market and make them foreigners in the English and Welsh media market. It makes no sense to take Scottish regulation of broadcasting, telephony and the internet away from Ofcom at a time when they are converging everywhere else. It makes no sense to embark on a course of action that would inevitably lead to the break-up of the BBC, and to the balkanisation of Channel 4, to be replaced by a Scottish broadcasting corporation that would be parochial, inward-looking and not what the people of Scotland want.

With the absorption of Grampian TV into Scottish TV, I hope that the Minister will continue to make the case to Ofcom that the two separate licences covering the old Grampian and STV areas remain separate. As with the borders, the north-east of Scotland has its own news agenda and its own identity. There are certainly some fears that the separate identity of the old Grampian service could be lost in the bigger STV.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that Scotland is a nation of regions. What I believe the Scottish people want to see on the news is not the hoary old chestnut of the Scottish six, but more news that is truly local to where they live—whether it be in the north-east, the west or the south-west of Scotland. If there is money to be invested in news and current affairs—I sincerely hope that the BBC, and, indeed, ITV, will increase investment in news and current affairs in Scotland—it should be invested in local news gathering in the north-east, the south-west and the other regions of Scotland. That is preferable to pursuing some narrow agenda to break up British broadcasting, which would lower the quality of TV that our constituents get to watch.