asked Her Majesty's Government:
What correspondence they have had with the Independent Television Commission or the chairman of Independent Television News about the proposed move of "News at Ten" to an early evening transmission time.
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to the chairman of the Independent Television Commission on 29th June, sending a copy of his letter to the chairman of ITN. The letter stressed the importance of ITV continuing to provide a high quality news service, competing effectively with the BBC.
My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that important Answer, is he aware that the "News at Ten" situation is only one of a number of instances, including questions of ownership and takeovers, where a number of ITV companies, in the pursuit of profit, are seeking to get out of the public service obligations laid on them under the Broadcasting Act which has been working for only about six months? Would it not be wise for the Government to resist these pressures, to encourage a period of stability, and then to review the workings of what is undoubtedly a deeply flawed Act with a view to making any changes in step with the renewal of the BBC's charter in 1996?
My Lords, I believe that it is premature to reach conclusions as to the quality of ITV services. The new arrangements came into effect only on 1st January this year. Monitoring the output of ITV is the responsibility of the ITC and not the Government. The ITC's assessment will he included in its annual report to Parliament. We have had a debate in your Lordships' House about the moratorium which was intended to provide a short period of stability at the start of the new licence period, not to offer long-term protection against the normal discipline of takeovers. Following the debate in your Lordships' House, that is one of the issues which we are considering.
My Lords, in declaring an interest in these matters as vice-chairman of the BBC, can the Minister explain, because I am somewhat puzzled, why the Government should have been surprised that commercial companies put profit first? Is that not what lay behind the Broadcasting Act? As to the main issue of "News at Ten" and its possible move, the Minister will be aware that the commercial companies have made it clear that they may have lost a battle but not the war and that they intend to return to the issue. If they do —or rather, when they do—will the Minister say whether the Government believe that they have appropriate powers to prevent moving "News at Ten" and, if so, what are those powers?
My Lords, ITV companies have always been profit-making entities. That has been the case since the ITV system came into being in this country. I understand that the ITC and the ITV companies will discuss the question at a meeting next week. It would be unwise to prejudge its outcome. The Government do not seek to intervene in programme content and the editorial judgment of broadcasters. But the Prime Minister thought that the ITC should be aware of the widespread concern as regards the proposal to move "News at Ten" to an earlier slot. It is for the ITC to enforce licence conditions under the provisions of the Act.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the timing of television news programmes should be decided by the preferences of TV viewers rather than by politicians?
My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. It is for the ITV companies to agree their scheduling and "News at Ten" has to be shown during a peak period. It also has to be broadcast simultaneously by all the ITV companies.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that under the present dispensation—
Is it not true that what we are experiencing now as regards "News at Ten" is the tip of an ugly iceberg which I, and my friends on these Benches, warned the Government would appear resulting from the combination of the priority of profit over programme quality and the enormous payment to the Treasury resulting from the horrendous auction? That leaves one with a certain amount of sympathy for the companies because of the sums of money they have to pay out. Although the Minister, in reply, I believe, to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said that it was premature to make a decision now to investigate the situation again, is it not the case that the strong reaction of the Government and the Opposition at the highest level, plus the damning report, recently published, of the all-party National Heritage Committee, show the need for a review either of this deeply flawed Act, as has been said, or of broadcasting generally, together with ITV and the BBC? In the meantime will the Government consider introducing legislation to oblige ITV companies to show a half-hour news bulletin starting at 10 o'clock'?
My Lords, I am sure that the ITV companies have taken note of the concern expressed not only by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in another place, but also by the Select Committee on National Heritage and, of course, by your Lordships' House. I must advise the noble Baroness that the ownership rules were extensively debated in your Lordships' House during the passage of the legislation. Many of the provisions have only just come into force and a very good case would have to be made for making changes at this stage. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State had a helpful meeting with the ITV companies on 14th June and is considering the views put to him at that meeting.