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Lord Barnett moved Amendment No. 195BB:


After Clause 66, insert the following new clause--

Provision of news programmes by Channel 3 licence holders

(" . For section 31 of the 1990 Act there is substituted--
"31. The Channel 3 licence holders shall appoint a single nominated news provider who shall be responsible for the broadcast on Channel 3 of news programmes which shall--
(a) be of high quality dealing with national and international matters; and
(b) be presented live at regular intervals; and
(c) be broadcast simultaneously in each region comprising the Channel 3 services.".").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 195BC. I recognise, as I am sure the Minister does, that when he has accepted these amendments, which I am sure he will do as I know he is a reasonable man, consequential amendments will be needed.

I support the Bill's continued commitment to the value of high quality broadcasting. I consider the news to be particularly important and I hope that other Members of the Committee agree with me about that. That philosophy was formalised by the Independent Television Commission in January 1991 when ITN was nominated as the news provider. The importance of ITN's role was highlighted in the Government's own White Paper with the proposal to impose a duty on the

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ITC to ensure at least one body would be effectively equipped and financed to provide news on its Channel 3 service.

The subsequent 1990 Act included those provisions in respect of news. The Act provides that, first, there shall be a requirement to broadcast news programmes of high quality national and international news; secondly, that each Channel 3 programme presenter in addition shall include conditions requiring news programmes to be provided by a nominated news provider to be presented live and simultaneously; and thirdly, the responsibility for nominating a news provider was conferred on the ITC by Section 32 of the 1990 Act. Under that Act, the ITC was required to conduct regular performance reviews. The first was completed last year and on 21st December it announced its review of the first three years. It concluded that ITN provided a well-resourced, authoritative and attractive news service meeting the requirements of the 1990 Act for high quality. In the review it confirmed ITN as the Channel 3 news provider nominated by the ITC.

ITN has delivered high quality programmes costing nearly £77 million below the levels predicted. That stems from ITN's drive for efficiency and increasingly multi-skilled staff which has enabled it to invest heavily in the latest digital news resources and news-gathering around the world.

The ITC was required to ensure that any further nominated news contractor to Channel 3 would not impair ITN's high quality service. The ITC itself, while welcoming ITN's efficiency and reduced costs to Channel 3 companies, attached great importance to not putting at risk the range and quality of service. That is crucial.

The present Bill may be interpreted as allowing two or more news services to operate within one ITV network. That could mean one part of the country having news services broadcast by one supplier at one time and other parts of the country having news from a different supplier at another time. In such circumstances it is impossible to see how Parliament's requirement for news on Channel 3 could be met. It seems to me that only by pooling the resources that Channel 3 has available for network news and investing them in a single news provider would Channel 3 be able to ensure the high quality that Parliament has always maintained it should have.

It is possible that the Bill as it stands could result in a fragmentation of ITV's national and international news services and that would have highly damaging consequences for quality news on ITV. Two or more Channel 3 news services, based on possible differing editorial standards and inadequate levels of resources, would not help to facilitate national understanding of news events.

It may seem strange that as a former vice-chairman of the BBC I should move such an amendment, but I care about the presentation of news, whether it comes from ITN, the ITV companies or, indeed, from the BBC. That is the important consideration. Apart from the fact that I have been got at by ITN--I should therefore declare an interest--I am also very fond of the people concerned.

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As the Bill stands, there could be one united audience for a programme like "Gladiators" which, I hasten to add, I have never seen, but splitting for major news programmes cannot be sensible. I thought for a moment that the Government Whip was nodding her head in agreement with me, but it appears not. That is a pity because the noble Baroness always agrees with me.

Baroness Trumpington: Yes.

Lord Barnett: As I was saying, such a split surely would not meet the wishes of Parliament for high quality news. I cannot believe that that is the Government's intention. It looks like a drafting oversight. I hope that the amendment tabled in my name and the names of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, who apologises through me for not being able to be present today, will be considered and that it will be acceptable to the Minister. As I said, he is a very reasonable man and I look forward to hearing his acceptance. I beg to move.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I am happy to support the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, in the amendment and to express my admiration of his selfless altruism, as a former vice-chairman of the BBC, in espousing the cause of ITN. I am only disappointed that as someone who has spent most of his life in one of the most gladiatorial situations in this country the noble Lord has actually never seen "Gladiators". He obviously does not have grandchildren; or, if he has, he has not been with them when the programme is transmitted.

I have a closer past link with ITN and the independent broadcasting system than the noble Lord. I must therefore try to be more detached. The issue before us is really one of principle as to whether the independent television system should have a single, nominated news provider. That is the significance of the proposed new Section 31. The origins go back to the rather ideological and doctrinaire way in which the Government in 1989-90 approached the Broadcasting Act. As happens so often, a sensible compromise emerged.

It was generally recognised, I believe, that ITN was a very notable, national news institution that should be preserved. Yet the competitive dogma indicated by Section 31 would allow the possibility, outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, of a fragmented news system. That would be disastrous. I am not speaking either from an anti-Sky News point of view or, indeed, from a pro-ITN point of view. I am speaking in support of the principle of independent television having a single, nominated high-quality news service.

Sky News has greatly enhanced television news over recent years with a 24-hour service that is not possible on any of the terrestrial channels. I keep saying that; and I shall continue to do so. Equally, ITN is a high-quality national news service. I am aware that a great national news service, whether it is provided by the BBC or ITN, is rather a special institution. It rather reminds me of a university or a very good school. It grows organically in terms of quality and is rather a precious commodity which one could destroy or undermine pretty easily. It needs defending and supporting. Certainly, the public

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interest depends on having a single, nominated national news service of quality. It is on the basis of that principle that I support the amendment.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Donoughue: I express my support for my noble friend Lord Barnett and his amendment. It is certainly not anti-Sky News. At the end of last week when covering the IRA atrocity and the court case of Joan Collins in New York at the same time Sky was quite brilliant. However, that is not the issue. The purpose of the amendment was outlined by the two previous speakers. We support it.

Lord McNally: I do not want to prolong the debate and I would not claim to bring the same expertise to it as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, or my noble friend Lord Thomson. We discussed a few days ago the triumph of regionalism in ITV. The other triumph is undoubtedly ITN. It is important to recall the impact of ITN on the quality of BBC news, its influence on how politics is covered and, indeed, the whole excitement and relevance it has brought to news gathering. I believe that the Minister should pause for thought when he receives advice from such sources.

If the BBC as a news service remained strong and yet somehow, because of changes, the ITV system became weaker, that would be a retrograde step. I do not have the experience of the noble Lords who have spoken but I do move in circles where I hear television executives talk. It is rather similar to what I said the other day about the regional commitment. The bean counters are within the walls and the talk is always of the pressure.

I am not suggesting that ITN should somehow be protected and therefore profligate. It must be a cost-effective organisation. But it is naive to suppose that within ITV there are not voices urging that it should get by on a cheap, make-do news service, pushed to either end of the schedules, so that the rest of the time can be packed with popular programme-making. That would be the death-knell of the ITV system. I say that because Sky News gives more to the Sky system than simply the service of news; indeed, it gives a credibility to the whole system. The same applies to ITN within ITV. That has won it immense political loyalty and support.

Again, without giving ITN a guarantee for ever, it is important that the warnings of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, are heeded. To encourage a weakening of the news service within ITV would have long-term implications for television news in this country, not just on ITV but also on the BBC.


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