Draft Community Radio Order 2004

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Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has hit on an important point and I hope that he will get clear answers from the Minister. However, being the diligent fellow that he is, I am sure that he will have thoroughly read the explanatory memorandum, the last page of which clearly states:

    ''Costs to the public or the Exchequer. None''.

Mr. Johnson: Those are exactly the words I had in mind when I sought clarification from the Minister. If only 50 per cent. of funding will be attracted by advertising and sponsorship, it must logically follow that public money will be available. Therefore, as the Minister was candid enough to admit, we have the prospect of a great number of community radio stations, which will be pump primed by taxpayers' cash, being able to compete for advertisers' limited budgets. Because of their favoured position, they will be able to offer more attractive rates to the advertisers than commercial stations. That would be unfair and wrong. As Juice FM said in its submission to Ofcom, that could severely impact its commercial position. What we do not want is community radio to be a replication of commercial radio. We all agree that it should be qualitatively different and offer a service that commercial radio cannot.

I want to repeat the point made by Fresh Radio from the Yorkshire dales. I do not listen to it myself, but I believe that it was an important focal point during the foot and mouth outbreak. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) intervened from a sedentary position, but I missed what he said. However, people in Yorkshire tuned in to Fresh Radio a lot during the foot and mouth outbreak to find out what was going on: where the epidemic had reached, exactly which farms had been affected and what the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was saying in detail on the ground. It would be hard to think of a more perfect definition of a community radio, in the sense that local services were being advertised and a particular community—in this case, a farming community—was being assisted.

Whatever the Government mean by the oracular phrase ''social gain'', which has been imperfectly defined, it was surely achieved by Fresh Radio. That is why it should be taken seriously when it says:

    ''We cannot overemphasise the potentially dramatic negative effect, on our own future viability, of the creation of even a single community station within our area, if that station was allowed to draw on commercial revenue from what is already a difficult market place''.

I am sure that everyone agrees that it would be wrong if such a radio station, which I am sure has an independent editorial line, were crowded out of the market by a radio half-funded by the emanations of the state, with all the consequences for editorial independence that that might have.

There will also be a lot of competition over bandwidth, and unless I have misunderstood it, the BBC is not to be plundered of its bandwidth for the establishment of community radio. I see no particular reason why that should be the case and why the BBC's large share of the bandwidth should not be made available to community radio. Incidentally, I also do

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not see any reason why the Pentagon, which has a large share of the bandwidth in this country, should not also be prevailed on to hand over to community radio some of the large quantity of our vital national infrastructure that it uses. [Interruption.] Again, I cannot hear the interjection from a sedentary position. [Hon. Members: ''Bush radio.''] Oh, Bush radio. I hope that the Minister agrees with me on that, as I am sure that she does, given her political convictions and origins.

Notwithstanding my support for the order, I have a general concern about how it is set out, the language that is used and the definitions that we are bringing to bear. It says that to qualify for a licence, someone has to show that they are able to deliver social gain to the relevant community. I am not sure what is meant by social gain. Indeed, what is a community and how is it properly defined? It is a sketchy concept, but it is of considerable political importance that we agree on what a community is before we agree to the order.

The order defines a community as either

    ''persons who live . . . or undergo education or training in a particular area . . . or persons who . . . have one or more interests or characteristics in common''.

That seems a broad definition of a community. A leper colony is obviously a community under that definition, and one could imagine that ethnic minorities or groups of one kind or another could make a community. There may be plenty of communities that the Government and Ofcom would naturally be inclined to look on favourably. However, does the Minister also agree that there may be plenty of other communities, properly so-called under the definition, that would not normally commend themselves to people of a politically correct disposition?

Irrespective of political correctness, there might be communities that the Minister and Ofcom have simply not thought of, but which might nevertheless be very important. Such groups could be classified as communities. For example, there is the community of fat people—or obese people, as we are increasingly asked to call them—of which I am proud to be an honorary member. Obese people have their own representative interest groups, magazines and lobby groups, and the obese community has every right to know what advantages may be available to it from local authorities.

I hope that the Minister agrees that, if ''Fat FM'' wanted to inform people of what was going on in the fat community and wanted to make them aware of important things that might be relevant to their lives, it would be difficult for Ofcom to turn down its application for a licence. I hope that she agrees that those people represent a community under the definition. Under the statutory instrument, communities are emphatically not created according to geographical area.

Another community minority that is emphatically out of favour with the Government, although by no means illegal, consists of those who practice country pursuits, or what others call fox hunting. As long as fox hunting is still legal, people might want to set up a community radio station called ''Hound FM''.

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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Fox FM.

Mr. Johnson: There is already a radio station called Fox FM. I was going to mention the name, but I would get in trouble with the station if I associated it with hunting. One can imagine a community radio station that wanted to broadcast news about hunting to the country sports community. I do not want the Minister to declare whether she would be in favour of such a community radio station. She does not have to commit herself about whether she personally wants such a body to exist, because I have no doubt that she will say that that is a matter for Ofcom and that it would be up to it to decide whether ''Hound FM'' or ''Fat FM'' led to some kind of social gain, as the phrase goes.

The question then becomes what happens if Ofcom decides that either of those two putative stations does not deserve a licence. What if Ofcom decides, ''In this particular climate, we are not going to license a station called Hound FM, which speaks expressly for the hunting community''? What happens if it decides not to license ''Hound FM'' despite all the information that it provides to the hunting community, all the good that it does in terms of telling huntsmen where to pick up fallen stock, any other social function that it fulfils, and all the claims that it can make to satisfy Ofcom's criteria for social gain?

Who ultimately decides? Where is the ultimate locus of authority? Does Ofcom have final arbitration over what constitutes social gain? Does it ultimately decide what a community is and therefore what group is entitled to a community radio? Or does a democratically elected politician decide? Where does Minister believe that authority ultimately resides? If ''Hound FM'' were turned down for a licence and it came to the Minister, would she be able to overturn Ofcom's verdict? That is what interests me. I do not know what she thinks but, in the end, I would rather see a democratically elected politician having ultimate accountability for such a serious political decision.

I conclude by repeating my broad welcome for the proposals, but I remind the Minister of the central problem, which she was good enough to address: we do not want community radio stations to compete unfairly—rather like the BBC's downstream commercial activities compete unfairly with private sector operations—with local commercial radio stations, and, as she set out very well, unfairly take from the small advertising cake. I should like it to be made a little clearer that if Ofcom decides that a community radio station is competing unfairly, it will be able to say to it, ''I'm sorry, that's it. You're taking too much of a share of a commercial market, so your time's up and your licence is revoked.'' I hope that she will reassure me on that point.

Other than that, my colleagues and I are happy to welcome the proposals.

10.20 am

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): Like everyone else, I have been allocated to the Committee. However, I was particularly interested to come along to this sitting. In a previous existence, I was deeply involved in trying to set up a community radio in the

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central region, and eventually a commercial station, Central FM, was established. It took on some of these roles, but we never managed to get a proper community radio station.

I have some concerns. One is that this matter is always seen, and described by the Opposition, in terms of competition. In reality, there is a possibility for co-operation. I imagine that a community radio station could be established in the central region that would address a different community, so would not necessarily be plugged into the Forth and Clyde networks, which are the larger combine of which this region is part. It might look for a different source of income from that which commercial radio used, and might not attempt to keep afloat by poaching Central FM's commercial sponsors but would look for smaller interest groups with less money that wanted to advertise different services and could not currently afford to pay the fees charged by commercial radio stations. I can think of a number of organisations based in the central region that come into that category.

Would it be possible for a body defined in article 6(3) as a ''body corporate'', which could not hold a community radio station licence, to co-operate and work with a community radio station? For example, Central FM might want to co-operate with a radio station based in Stirling or one of the more far-flung communities in my constituency such as Bo'ness—the town of Borrowstounness—on the fringe of its area. There is tremendous potential for that, and it would involve co-operation, not competition. Commercial radio admits that it cannot reach out to all the small groups in a community that would like their wares and their ideas put over on the radio.

The question that the Opposition raised is important. I would be worried that a particular religious group, such as the creationists who might want to push their ideas on ''Vardy FM'', or a group such as the one establishing ''Hound FM'', as suggested by the Opposition, might call themselves a community because they have a particular preference or prejudice and claim the right to have a community licence. I should not want to see that happen, and although the Opposition made a trivial, light-hearted comment on it, we must guard against it. What protection is there against the proliferation of religious-based stations?

Licensing is very important. How do we protect the territory of a community radio? If a station starts to draw a big audience, the temptation is for some commercial enterprise to come along and suck it up in the next round of licensing. In a sense, although it was done in co-operation with Central FM, that is really what happened to community radio in central Scotland. Community radio could not make a go of it, and the commercial radio station saw that there was an audience, and a niche that it could move into, and it moved into it. Good luck to it; it provided us with a service.

 
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Prepared 13 July 2004