Office of Communications Bill [Lords]

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Glenda Jackson: The hon. Gentleman and his colleague the hon. Member for Vale of York have argued for the amendment on the basis that independent television regional companies are not only losing revenue from advertising, but losing audiences. Would it be Conservative party policy to subsidise such regional broadcasting?

Michael Fabricant: I do not speak on behalf of the Government or of the Opposition—but, equally, the hon. Lady, who sneers at me from a sedentary position, is not in a position to commit the Government, given that she was clearly unable to maintain her position on the Government Front Bench. She knows the rules. I cannot commit my party. Personally, I do not think that we should subsidise commercial broadcasters; however, the Committee should establish a framework that demonstrates that there is to be a continued commitment. I am not asking for any more than that Ofcom continues the existing commitment provided by the ITC.

Miss McIntosh: We are not here to discuss Conservative party policy, but the current Government's proposals.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend, as ever, hits the nail firmly on the head.

The Independent Television Companies Association also argues for the continuance of regional television. My hon. Friend mentioned ''Coronation Street'', although I am not sure whether that can be regarded as regional television. I think—in a way I look to you on this, Mr. Gale—that

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in the United Kingdom there are something like four or five major television production centres owned by ITV companies. We have also seen growth in independent television production houses. As I mentioned earlier, just as there have been technological changes in newsgathering, there have been many changes in television programme production. Although successful programmes such as ''Inspector Morse'' have used traditional filming on Super–16 and 35 mm, programmes such as ''The Bill'' use videotape production. It does that on a regional basis, because it is based in London.

The Government must say that Ofcom should have a responsibility to promote regional broadcasting, or to use the terms of amendment No. 12:

    OFCOM shall take into account the need to ensure continued effective ITV regional programming and news editions.

Without that commitment, I am not sure that the new organisation with the light regulatory touch—and 1,111 employees in a building that does not exist but might be the millennium dome—will ensure that programmes such as ''The Bill'', ''Inspector Morse'' and ITV news bulletins continue.

Hon. Members will recall the debate when Carlton Television acquired Central Television, and when Granada acquired Meridian Television. Lord Hollick lost Meridian when he pulled out of ITV. After that takeover, many in the Meridian region feared that regional news programming would end. It has not: it has burgeoned. When the original ITV franchise began in 1958, the first franchisee was Southern Television, which later became TVS and then Meridian. Originally, it had two regional centres, one based in Northam in Southampton and the other in Maidstone. Today, there are more regional centres, including Brighton, because of new technology. It is cheaper and easier to present regional news programming in smaller areas. The ITC and NTL, which provide ITV transmission facilities, have co-operated in localising the transmission of ITV news. Programmes originate in smaller regions and transmit from them, too.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): Does my hon. Friend agree that regional broadcasting could be enhanced by a commitment to more local transmissions? I refer particularly to the London borough of Havering, which has a schizophrenic attitude about the region to which it belongs. Some elements in the community believe that they belong to London, whereas others believe that they ought to belong to Essex. That would be fertile ground for local programming.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. There is currently only one regional news service for London; it is based not far from here, on the other side of the Thames. That is because there is only one London transmitter, which is in Croydon. Because transmission technology is also changing, ITV companies could have regional news for north, south, east or west London—or, indeed, for Havering. Will they be encouraged to do so, or will Ofcom take a neutral stance? Will it be such a light regulator that it is content to allow consolidation in both ownership and programming?

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I will not be too upset if instead of reading his script the Minister responds with some original thought and disagrees with the clause because it is redundant. However, he might want to assure us that Ofcom's commitment to regional broadcasting will be as strong as the ITC's existing commitment.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Will the hon. Gentleman please let the Minister do exactly that?

Michael Fabricant: I shall invite him to do so. The amendment refers to the continuation of effective ITV regional programming and news editions. We are not asking for anything more than the ITC currently enforces, but a clear steer is needed not only for the Committee, but for ITV companies, for those who will might work for Ofcom, for those who are currently working for the ITC, and for those who might join Ofcom from the ITC—even though, as I said earlier, some individual regulators are saying that the process is taking so long they would rather retire now and not join Ofcom.

Although a steering group of regulators is currently meeting, they are disturbed that, yet again, this ''dysfunctional'' Department—that was said a couple of months ago by a former Culture, Media and Sport Minister—does not appear, even at this late stage in the game, to know precisely what Ofcom will do. The regulators are saying that about the Department and its Ministers—the Minister is right to look down with furrowed brow. I hope that he will respond, otherwise we shall witness another wholesale slaughter of the innocents by the Prime Minister, as happened a few months ago.

As I approach my conclusion I emphasise that Ofcom is to deal with changes in ownership rules for the media in general, which will be exciting. If I can attract the attention of the Whips, I look forward to being on the Committee that considers the main communications Bill—I hope that you will be its Chairman, Mr. Gale—because ownership of the media, including print media, is an interesting subject. It goes hand in hand with the individual contracts that broadcasting providers—the ITV companies with which we are specifically dealing in amendment No. 12—will have with the regulator.

ITV must plan ahead, Carlton Television must plan ahead, Granada Television must plan ahead and even—it is no longer Harlech Television; I cannot remember what it is called now—

Dr. Howells: HTV.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the Minister for his helpful remark. Those companies must plan ahead—they must have a business plan. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate has never run a business, but I tell her that people must plan ahead. Indeed, Government Departments must plan ahead. There must be certainty.

If there is to be certainty, ITV companies need to know whether Ofcom will make the same demands of them as the ITC makes. I hope that it will. The companies are not getting a steer from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and its joint steering

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group, so I hope that the Minister will stand up and say whether the Government will commit themselves to regional television in this country. If he simply spouts the standard line from his officials and says that the provision need not apply in this instance because the Bill creates only a shell organisation, he will be doing a grave disservice to broadcasting in this country in general and independent television in particular.

I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss whether the British Broadcasting Corporation comes under the Bill and under tier 3, in which case it will need a similar steer from the Government. Now, there is nothing but vacuum.

Mr. Taylor: I am delighted to participate in this enthralling debate, and, as always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York for explaining what the amendment means. It would be helpful if the Committee understood what is intended for the embryonic Ofcom committee that is being set up for regional television.

I shall put a slightly different twist on the amendment. The emerging Ofcom should consider not only regional television's concerns, but how it might safeguard national programming. In a multi-platform, multi-network environment, we shall not expect or want to see a particular national programme at any given moment.

3.45 pm

Indeed, digital television does not need a particular schedule, and that will transform the pattern of television. The Minister should ask the emerging Ofcom whether the extended public service concept is relevant to the way in which it establishes itself. The details will come in the communications Bill when it is brought forward for consideration. I have been struck for some years by the thought that a traditional understanding of television—for example, that there is national news followed by regional news—is no longer the order of the day, and that television will not necessarily be the distribution mechanism.

If that is the case, will Ofcom be charged with responsibilities relating to regional television? The amendment urges that it should, but I shall ask the question in reverse; what do the Government think Ofcom's likely responsibility will be, subject to the substantive Bill, in extending the public service concept to demanding that a multiplicity of channels should have a regional content? How would Ofcom deliver that? It would be easy to do, and localised—the word ''regional'' is too large—television and internet distribution would be an effective way in which to increase audience interest.

For example, in the cable industry, it is already possible—and not technologically difficult—to split advertising so that it relates to a particular street. That might not be a good basis for a particular advertisement, but the local fish and chip shop might decide to advertise within one square mile of its premises. With satellite, which seems to have a big footprint, it is possible, through the access system, to take a particular stream that is not necessarily the stream that is taken by everyone else. The signal will

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give one a breakout advertisement because of where one lives or because of one's choice of programmes to which one wants to be alerted. The same is true of push technology on the internet. I raised those technical questions because they go to the heart of some things that we should consider when we are setting up Ofcom. I am confident that the Minister has those things at the forefront of his mind in the drafting of the substantive Bill.

The remit of the embryonic Ofcom must be thought through carefully. If it is to be light regulation, does that mean that the public service concepts of a certain number of hours of a particular type of programming should be maintained? In this context, we cannot discuss the BBC, but it is not irrelevant. If that programming is to be set out, is it to be on any particular channel? For example, ITV Digital is now taking programmes that may not be available on ITV1. Is that an acceptable matter for the consideration of Ofcom and the current ITC as it turns itself into Ofcom as part of the regulatory process?

The amendment is timely and was well put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, and I seek to look at it from a different angle. What are the technological implications of what Ofcom will deal with in a multiplatform-convergent environment? And how can what has traditionally been seen as a Government interest in encouraging regional broadcasting and programming be maintained in that context, where the public have a multiplicity of choice not only of channels, but of delivery mechanisms: cable; cellphones, as we move to third generation video streaming; satellite; and digital terrestrial television, on the assumption that analogue will be switched off sooner rather than later.

 
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