Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to support the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. In speaking to them I do so as someone who carries within the Church a particular responsibility for the regulation of the broadcast media, chairing as I do the Central Religious Advisory Committee.

The quality of provision of our public service channels is world renowned. The networks produce programmes such as "Cracker", "Prime Suspect", "The People's Century" and "Pride and Prejudice"--award winners which, in addition to securing huge audiences at home, are in demand throughout the world. Whereas every other advanced European broadcasting economy

5 Mar 1996 : Column 196

has a "must carry" rule, and whereas so many other countries cherish public service broadcasting, here we threaten its role.

What is that role? I wish to highlight but two crucial functions. First, the provision of important programming that is not viable in a commercial, profit-oriented environment. That applies especially, but not solely, to the BBC and, most importantly, to programmes that address religious and moral issues from a mainstream perspective. The public service broadcasters in this country have an excellent record of meeting the spiritual needs of the population in their programming. Indeed, it is part of the BBC's Charter which has just been renewed for the next 10 years.

At the same time, and not dissociated from this work, are those challenging and excellently produced programmes which examine life from a moral standpoint; programmes such as "Everyman" and "Heart of the Matter" to name only two. They constantly seek to address issues of the day from a perspective that values ethics in a modern society.

These programmes do not draw the largest of audiences, but they draw substantial audiences; not perhaps large enough to make them into attractive money-making possibilities, but large enough for them to be sadly missed if no longer available to the vast majority of the population. I believe that if there is no obligation to carry and offer public service channels, the effectiveness of mainstream religious and ethical broadcasting will be seriously damaged.

The second function of public service broadcasting is to provide a national focus. That is especially important at critical times in the life of the nation. Royal and national events receive outstanding coverage in this country. The BBC has long played a role in providing dignified, thoughtful and commanding coverage of those occasions that draw the nation together and contribute to a sense of belonging and social cohesion. To lose that would be a very damaging step in an already fragmented society. Despite changes in society over recent years, there was still a huge audience for the VE and VJ Day celebrations last year. There remains a great need for this kind and standard of broadcasting.

I shall be voting for the amendments which propose that the providers must offer; that they must carry and that the programmes must be easy to find because I believe strongly that this is important for the nation. I hope that your Lordships will agree with me that we must not destroy a great tradition of public service broadcasting which is the envy of the world, but must ensure that it is there and freely available for all the people of this country in the years to come.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I hope that the Government are able to support these amendments. I am encouraged by the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, in Committee as regards Amendments Nos. 6 and 7. He said that the Government were in full agreement with the aims behind them. This amendment is seeking to secure something of very great value for all viewers in the next century. We have comprehensive,

5 Mar 1996 : Column 197

first-class television programmes providing for all sections of the community in our society. The BBC and ITV are now the core of our television provision, with some additional extras that have to be paid for. But those who do not want or cannot afford to pay extra are getting as much excellent television as they want just for the price of the licence fee. That fee is like a season ticket to television.

We all know that the future of television will be profoundly different. There will be a plethora of channels and an abundance of programmes. That point has been made repeatedly in this House. Of course, these will all be wonderful programmes--perhaps! I am sure that they will not all be free and that is what matters. People who want season tickets for any service are those who use it often. That applies to rail travellers, health club enthusiasts and equally to television viewers.

The people who watch television a great deal are those who, for one reason or another, spend a lot of time at home. They are the elderly people, those who are ill or disabled, the carers, people with children, the unemployed and those on low incomes. Those are the people who will suffer if they are unable to watch what I would call "season ticket television" and if they are left increasingly with merely subscription or pay-per-view programmes. That would be for the minority.

The Minister seems to think that there is no risk of that happening. He also seems to think that if it does happen there will be time to change the system. That was the clear impression that he gave in Committee. I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong. I happen to disagree with the Minister's view on that because it is true that the cable companies so far have willingly transmitted the main television channels. They have done so to attract customers. However, I think that we should anticipate, and be prepared for, the new television world. Commercial interests will feel no affection for our current broadcasters. That is realism. That is the truth of the matter. They can and will be competitors for each others' offerings. If it suits their commercial interests--I believe that it will--they will obviously not hesitate to squeeze out the old favourites. In their terms, that makes commercial common sense.

I was particularly concerned by the Minister's comment that the public service channels,


    "have an important role to play in generating demand for new programming services and that consequently cable and satellite companies will wish to carry them".
That is a remarkable statement.

Our television is praised all over the world, yet the Minister damns it with such faint praise. The BBC and ITV have a far greater role to play in our society than merely being generators of demand for new programme services. If ever their role as generators of demand diminishes and if the gateways are allowed gradually to close, that would hit the people to whom I referred earlier--those who simply want to enjoy their television for free after paying the licence fee. I am certain that it is our present structure which has given us such high quality television. Of course, the BBC and ITV watch both pounds and pennies, but the certainty of their

5 Mar 1996 : Column 198

respective incomes has given them the assurance to provide what is undoubtedly the best television in the world. If the amendments are accepted, that will continue well into the next century. That is why I regard Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 as being particularly important.

I should like to say a brief word about the electronic guides, to which the noble Baroness referred. I support the amendment, as I did in Committee, because it gives a cast-iron guarantee of a prominent place for BBC and ITV programmes on the electronic guides. This is an issue of growing importance because, over time, the electronic programme guides will become the main shop window, displaying the programmes available.

I know now that I was too critical of Videotron when I accused it in Committee of manipulation, which I regarded as dirty tactics. Mr. Phil Kirby of Videotron has explained the situation in a letter to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, with a copy to me. It seems that Videotron's action in relocating Channel 4 on its cable television network was necessary. There was, I believe, no manipulation intended to dissuade viewers from watching the channel. However, that episode illustrates the difficulties that non-technical people like myself find with procedures that are transparently clear to the scientifically minded.

I hope that the Government will be able to give a more constructive and more sympathetic response to this amendment than they gave in Committee. Although I welcome the Minister's awareness of the importance of the amendment, I really do not think that it is an adequate response for him to say that we should rely on European and domestic competition law and the review. We need visibility for our traditional channels and protection against anti-competitive behaviour and potential abuse. Those basic principles should be written into the Bill. That can be done most effectively by the Government accepting the amendment.

Viscount Chelmsford: My Lords, not for the first time we have heard some stirring words, but they do not altogether seem to tie up with the wording of the amendment. I should like to make three points. The first is technical and can easily be changed. We are dealing now with digital terrestrial broadcasting and the amendments are wide enough to include satellite.

Subsection (1) of Amendment No. 5 states that any person who operates a conditional access system requires a licence. The licence can apparently tell him that he "may", if the regulatory authority chooses, not be able to use his own conditional access system. I cannot see why he should bother to apply for a licence in the first place. I do not think that that is what was intended.

Turning to Clause 6, we find that it is the duty of the regulatory authority, under paragraph (b), to ensure that the broadcaster is not paid other than through a television licence. If he is a satellite broadcaster, he is hardly going to broadcast if he does not have any revenue coming in. It seems to me that there are some curious drafting errors in the amendments.

5 Mar 1996 : Column 199


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page