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Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with close interest, as one who used to report for the BBC and is keen to see the best news agenda delivered to all viewers, regardless of where they live. Is he saying that, in principle, if there were no technical objection and no financial impediment and if Ofcom and the BBC agreed that all bulletins could be produced with Scottish viewers in mind and with the right news order for Scottish viewers' interests, all bulletins in Scotland should be assembled in that way for both the ITV network and the BBC?

Mr. Joyce: That is a perfectly reasonable comment. In my view, such decisions are for professionals to take—the judgment is an editorial one. I am not hung up on the precise configuration. What I want is the right kind of service to be provided to my constituents. BBC Scotland's decision was essentially correct, but ultimately it was an editorial judgment made by the experts in the field, not a political judgment.

I shall not attempt a comprehensive definition of quality. Suffice it to say that it should cover the standards of news gathering and reporting, as well as some sense of perspective. If an unintelligent approach were taken to changing the configuration, some vested interests might, in particular political contexts, take advantage. Quality must be safeguarded; it sits at the heart of the issue.

As a commercial organisation, SMG must square its obligations to produce quality news programming with its obligations to its shareholders. It may well be that in discussions with Ofcom about licence renewal, SMG will seek to acquire additional resources or to recoup some of its losses—the costs will increase considerably—through negotiation of the price of the renewal. I do not know what position Ofcom will take in that respect. I have an open mind. I realise that Ofcom has to be even-handed across the network, but I believe that SMG should be given a chance to put its case. Public money—or, if the price is lowered, public money forgone—is involved, but if SMG makes creative proposals, which I believe are worth examination, albeit with some caution, there should be the possibility of Ofcom considering the price of renewal. I believe that there are other devices that could help to establish a new system, but it is technically possible for Ofcom to accept a lower price for the licence.
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My final point is not tangential—I am sure that you would call me to order if it were, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as it concerns output in Scotland. SMG faces a hostile bid for one of its important assets, and some people are concerned that a successful takeover of Virgin Radio by a single interest could precipitate the break-up of SMG. SMG stations deliver about five and a half hours of news output every week, which is well above the average. In England, it appears that news output will be reduced, which would be a pity. SMG, however, is committed to maintaining its output. It is not for politicians to make unnecessary interventions in the market, but I would like to be confident that if SMG were broken up—I do not think that that will happen soon—the new owner would maintain the obligation to produce a high news output in Scotland. There is great appetite in Scotland for news, not least because of devolution. That is a positive development, and I hope that whether or not the SMG empire stays together—conflicting views on the issue are expressed in the financial press every day—total news output across Scotland will remain the same.

Much of this is initially in the domain of Ofcom, but it is for the Minister for the Arts and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to watch what happens carefully to see if there are dysfunctions resulting in undesirable outcomes for people across Scotland and the country. Such things should be taken into account when legislation is introduced. I should therefore be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that notice will duly be taken of the matters that I have raised.

5.32 pm

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce). He was correct to say that initially these are matters for Ofcom. Having introduced the relevant legislation, the Government should leave the regulator to get on with it. I accept that it is the Government's responsibility to make sure that legislation is effective. It is early years for Ofcom, but that process will take place.

We should approach our debate as a message to Ofcom. It is entirely proper and welcome that we hold such debates in the House, but I am not in a position to reply on its behalf. To provide a context for the SMG proposals, I shall set out the legal strategy behind the Communications Act 2003 and Ofcom's guidelines. This is essentially a Scottish issue, as the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said. Both local and national politicians know that news is incredibly important, and all the evidence shows that news broadcast on television is more likely to be considered a straightforward and objective representation of events than news in the newspapers. I share that view.

Interestingly, every survey that has taken place shows that people rate local news services most highly. That is not to say that they do not want national coverage, but they rate local news services most highly. The BBC's regional news at 6.30 pm is the most watched news programme. Having said that, I accept what my hon. Friend said about the importance of national news. I do not want to go into what the Scottish electorate might think is more appropriate for them, but I will refer to the SMG proposals at the end.
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Because of the importance of news, both local and national, the Communications Act 2003 gave Ofcom the duty to ensure that all licensed public service channels include high quality news and current affairs programming, covering both national and international matters. That may be helpful to my hon. Friend, given his reflections during the debate on national news and the coverage of international matters, and, I suspect, the interface between local and regional news. Clearly, in some instances there will be news that is both local and national, depending on who is listening to the broadcast, so sometimes it may be difficult to draw the dividing lines. Almost in defence of democracy, we need high quality regional news, as local as it can be, but national news to give us that sense of national identity and to enable everyone to take part in democratic processes.

What my hon. Friend did not touch on, but a matter that is very much behind this debate and which was particularly relevant to yesterday's announcement, is that the debate about how news is broadcast and what news is broadcast, at which time of the day and for how long, is very much governed by the great changes that are taking place in broadcasting and will continue to take place during the next 10 years.

Ofcom has two responsibilities—first and foremost, to ensure that the duty to make sure that licensed public service channels include high quality news and current affairs programming is kept to, but at the same time not to fail to understand that that public service news broadcasting obligation takes place against the background of many more digital channels, and that without doubt people's increasing decision to access digital channels has an impact on the public service broadcasters.

Angus Robertson: That is exactly why SMG's idea is so interesting. Anyone watching STV or Grampian on one channel in Scotland would be able to watch main news bulletins from a Scottish perspective covering Scottish, UK and international affairs, and at the same time, if one wanted to watch the network UK-produced programme, one could do so on another digital channel. No one would lose anything; everyone would gain something through being able to make a choice.

Estelle Morris: I see the point in that. There is then the issue on a commercial station such as SMG, as opposed to the BBC, of the point at which the number of people buying into digital channels are not choosing to watch news programmes on SMG, for example, making them financially unviable, or the price that is being paid for a bit of the channel not being worth the money. Then we might get to the situation where the only people with such a public service obligation would be the BBC. Certainly one of the obligations of Ofcom is to ensure that there is a competitor with the BBC for regional news programmes. It is an interesting debate as to whether in this week of all weeks one could say of the BBC, "That is our public service broadcaster; the others need not be bothered with that." At the moment, we want that competition, and Ofcom must ensure that there is that competition between the BBC and ITV. ITV has a duty to provide a high quality nationwide news service capable of competing with the BBC.
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To some extent, during the next five to 10 years, we will have to work out those three matters—the role of the BBC as a public sector broadcaster; the role of commercial television as a competitor in terms of its public service broadcasting obligations; and at the same time the digital channels coming in will give members of the public that very choice with which the hon. Member for Moray is concerned. No doubt the debate will continue.

I should like to comment on the review that Ofcom has recently conducted, although I shall not go into too much detail. As hon. Members will know, the review is in three parts, and looks at how public service channels honour their public service obligations and speculates on how that might change with the digital outcome. Last week the third part was published, on how we ought to move forward in the evolving the digital market.

One of the major conclusions was that our targets—the quota on allocation of time for local news—should remain. That is an incredibly important part of the infrastructure for Ofcom. The obligation of five and a half hours of local news a week should remain. If we consider the issue historically—and we do not have to consider it too historically—we see that the amount of time has actually fallen, which has always concerned me. That is why the bottom line of five and a half hours is incredibly important as we work out the challenges and how to respond to broadcasting over the next few years.

ITV spends more than £100 million a year on news provision, which includes more than five and a half hours of local news a week. That equates to more than 3,000 hours a year, across 15 ITV regions and 27 sub-regions. Many in the industry wonder whether that is financially sustainable in a digital multi-channel market.

The amount of local and national news broadcast is one issue, but my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West also talked about quality. We must do two things: monitor the amount broadcast, but also consider the quality of what is broadcast. The SMG's proposals address the latter part of that analysis—the quality of what is broadcast.

SMG, the operator of both Grampian and Scottish Television, suggests that the requirement to broadcast a half-hour lunchtime bulletin in the Scottish Television region should be removed. The evidence on who watches what shows that the lunchtime bulletin receives only an 11 per cent. share of the audience, whereas the evening local news bulletin receives a 24 per cent. share. Just as an observation, the issue is something for SMG to work out and put to Ofcom. The decision to cut one bulletin and put resources into the other is a response to what the evidence shows. In the SMG's view, the issue is about quality and it is saying that it can fulfil its public service obligation, but at the same time if it moves the resources about, it might be able to put more resources into the news broadcasts that people watch more. In the debate about how SMG fulfils its obligation, it is important to remember that the question is not only whether, but how.

As my hon. Friend said, SMG submitted two proposals to Ofcom. The first proposal, which he addressed for most of his time and in which he has a particular interest, is for SMG to explore a micro-regional news service, using the latest technology to
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provide opt-out services across its coverage areas. That would provide a more local service to a specific area, instead of the one currently provided by a regional service.

The second proposal is to work with ITN to develop what SMG calls—these were the words that my hon. Friend used also—a tailored Scottish version of the 10.30 pm UK and international news. There are no plans at this stage to opt out of the 6 pm bulletin. That service would feature largely the same material as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, although it could be re-edited or omit stories of less relevance to Scotland.

The agenda that SMG has outlined—I welcome the tone with which my hon. Friend introduced the debate—is an interesting proposal for the way ahead which secures the minimum number of hours of local and national news and responds to what the evidence says about what people want to watch. However, the proposals also extend into the debate about what is national news and what is regional news under devolved Government, where there is both a strong Scottish national identity and a strong United Kingdom identity. I am pleased that SMG has made this proposal, as it is exactly the sort of thing that we need to discuss. We cannot say that there will be no change, but we do need
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a bottom line that is non-negotiable. As a Minister, I welcome the SMG proposals, in that they open up consultation and a wider debate.

Although I do not want to say that I approve the content of the proposals, I believe that it is entirely proper for Ofcom to offer them for consideration. I come from Birmingham, which is situated in the west midlands—that is, in the middle of the UK. Strangely enough, the debate there about national news as opposed to regional news is the same as the debate being held in the other nations of the UK.

The comments made in this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West and the hon. Member for Moray are relevant to the consultation process, which ends on 19 April. I suspect that this is not the last that we shall hear of this matter, but I end by confirming that this House has a responsibility to ensure that all our constituents, wherever they live, have access to high-quality national, international and regional news. How that news is delivered will change over the next 10 years as the technology develops, but that is also a good thing.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to reply to this short debate this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

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