Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome that has been given to the White Paper by the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson of Monifieth. In welcoming it, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said that it was rather good. I am grateful for that. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said that the department is known as the "Department of Nothing Happening". The noble Lord now knows what we have been up to for the past few months.

Both noble Lords asked a number of questions with which I shall try to deal. I turn first to the importance of the regulator. Obviously, that is an extremely important point. In the short term, the regulators will remain the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority. However, the document makes clear that we

23 May 1995 : Column 938

shall consider whether we need an ITC or something more similar to the regulator for the competition authorities. We shall look at that point in the future, but in the short term that role will be fulfilled by the two regulatory authorities that exist at the moment.

Both noble Lords asked about regional policy. Again, that is an extremely important issue. We must not forget the advertisers out there and that they must have a choice. Our proposals are that no newspaper owner whose regional titles account for more than 30 per cent. of any regional market would be allowed to buy or control the Channel 3 licence for that region. However, it is important to remember that the ITC's programming requirements for those ITV licences ensures that there is regional programming. It will be up to the ITC to ensure that regional programming still exists.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asked about foreign ownership. There is no change to the position on foreign ownership that is set out in the Broadcasting Act 1990. The existing rules will stay. They prohibit non-EU ownership of terrestrial licences whether by an individual or a corporate body. That remains the position.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, asked about encryption. That is an important area. We believe that competition law is the first line of defence and that this is a matter which the competition authorities will consider if they wish to do so. It is extremely important that the markets are operated properly.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, also asked about ITN. We have had some debates on ITN in your Lordships' House and I am glad to say that the Government listened carefully to all the views that were expressed by noble Lords on all sides of the House, including those on my own Benches. We took those views seriously and have brought forward proposals which I trust that your Lordships will find acceptable.

The noble Lord also asked about the legislation that we are bringing forward. It will be by affirmative resolution and will therefore be brought before your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, asked about the quotas for independent production. We want to increase investment in independent production and hope that our proposals will achieve that. With regard to EC quotas, obviously that is not part of this review and our work on that is being taken forward separately. I remind your Lordships that we have said in the Statement that this summer we shall be issuing a further document on digital broadcasting.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, will my noble friend say a bit more about the position of the regulator? First, is there to be one regulator covering the whole area or, as he seemed at one stage to be suggesting, different regulatory authorities? Secondly, when is it proposed to appoint the regulator or regulators? Have the Government in mind the desirability of getting, first, the right man for this immensely difficult job; and, secondly, getting him into authority early so that he has time to look at the situation before the whole impact of

23 May 1995 : Column 939

the matter falls upon him? In other words, will my noble friend expand a good deal on what he said about the position of the regulator or regulators?

I did not follow my noble friend's reference to foreign ownership. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, seemed to think that foreign owners would have certain advantages in certain areas. Is that so? If it is so, what are those advantages? I rather hoped from what he was saying that he was disputing what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, had said. Perhaps he will make it clear whether foreign owners are in the same position as British owners. Finally, will he say when your Lordships will have an opportunity to debate this matter?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about the regulator in reply to the questions asked by my noble friend. We have two regulatory bodies at the moment—the ITC and the Radio Authority. We intend to use those two bodies.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, both?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, both those bodies. We do not necessarily intend to create a new long-term regulator in the future. We suggest that the existing competition authorities might be given media-specific guidelines from which they can act. That would leave the ITC and the Radio Authority free to concentrate upon broadcasting issues, but that is very much for consultation and we shall be listening carefully to the views of your Lordships, the industry and the two existing regulators.

With regard to foreign ownership, we do not propose any change to the current rules. Under the Broadcasting Act 1990, an individual or a body corporate which is not resident in the EEC cannot be a Channel 3 licence holder. As I am sure my noble friend will know, there have never been ownership restrictions on newspapers in this country, and we have no intention of changing that. We must emphasise that we share the majority view that because of the media's ability to influence opinion and engender political debate, the industry cannot be treated as just any other industry; for example, manufacturing industry. For the foreseeable future, special rules are required to ensure diversity of opinion and plurality of ownership.

My noble friend asked me when we would be able to debate these changes. That is a matter for my noble friend the Chief Whip. When we debate the instruments will depend on how quickly they come from another place.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, will the Minister help the House about timing? He said that for the purpose of consultation the Government were proposing a 10 per cent. threshold. Does he think that that 10 per cent. will be in force by the time the licence for Channel 5 is granted? If it is not, will they delay the granting of the Channel 5 licence?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the Channel 5 licence is being granted according to the existing rules and regulations under the Broadcasting Act 1990. The Channel 5 licence will be granted upon the basis of those rules. That must be the case. We have proposals

23 May 1995 : Column 940

for the future, but those proposals will not come into force until a Bill goes through both Houses of Parliament and becomes an Act.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, it is a little difficult to absorb everything straightaway, but does this affect the BBC in any way? Will it be limited in joining forces with private enterprise companies—something upon which it has already started? Does this proposal control the BBC? Perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend on saying that flexibility is of considerable importance. The one thing we can be certain about is that ways around the regulations, whatever they are, will be found. It will be difficult, and so we must be flexible and stop some of the rat holes, which will clearly appear, before they damage the whole structure and we find ourselves with a monopoly. Flexibility and some time to think this out are needed. I hope that we shall have a considerable debate in the House because a great deal depends on how we structure all the competition which will exist with the new technologies.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. This is an extremely complicated area. The document we published is long and difficult to take in at first glance. My noble friend asked about the BBC. Of course the BBC is not the subject, as such, of the paper because this is a cross-media ownership paper, and of course ownership of the BBC does not come in to the matter. The ownership of the BBC is based upon its Royal Charter. No one owns it. My noble friend made the important point that where the BBC goes into business or partnership in some form of joint venture with a private or public corporation in the media world, that joint venture would of course be subject to regulations under our cross-media proposals.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me for expressing some anxiety over the Statement. I tend always to be a little anxious when there is complete cross-party agreement on such matters because I have had experience in a different context, upon which I do not propose to enlarge this afternoon, of what at the moment I conceive to be the disastrous results of unanimity in that field.

My difficulty is that the degree of unanimity in your Lordships' House today to some extent corresponds with wide areas of agreement in the political and economic field about which one reads now from day to day between the leaders of my own party and the leaders of other parties. That may be symptomatic of an altogether different relationship between the parties than that to which we in this House have become accustomed over the centuries. We are all agreed on one thing: that the media are very, very powerful indeed, taken as a collective. Therefore, one has to ensure that the arrangements that are apparently in train now will cover eventualities in which the inherent antagonisms within society can be expressed in a less passive form than they are today.

What I am a little troubled about is the existence of a large underclass in our country; the large social differences that exist within our society; and the potential for conflict if the existence of the underclass goes on for a long time or is accentuated in the future.

23 May 1995 : Column 941

Within the comparatively placid political atmosphere of the times, in which there is such a large measure of agreement, how can we be sure that that will be sufficient to carry us into the future? I have the greatest doubts about that. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page