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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Kurdish.

25 Mar 2003 : Column 762

Lord Eatwell: My Lords, what is a local music station to do, if there is no distinctive local music? What is the local station to do, if the local music is so bad that to broadcast it would result in everyone switching off?

That is not all. As we read on, we see that the micro-management becomes even more bizarre. Subsection (3)(b) includes in the definition of localness,


    "the extent to which . . . local advertisements are included in the services".

By "local advertisements" are meant advertisements for,


    "goods or services manufactured or supplied by a person whose business is carried on from premises in the area or locality",

or,


    "goods or services which are supplied primarily to persons living or working in that area or locality".

Does the clause apply, for instance, to the local branch of Sainsbury's or the local garage, run by BP? In both cases, they supply goods,


    "primarily to persons living . . . in that area".

Is the firm in Buckinghamshire that produces vellum primarily for use by this Parliament a firm that is local to Buckinghamshire or Westminster, or both? Will Ofcom have an army of advertisement wardens, armed with detailed Ordnance Survey maps, checking up on whether advertisers are truly local or are a few feet across Ofcom's imaginary boundary?

Clause 307 goes on to say that there must be local premises and local training programmes. It even specifies where local employees must live. They cannot live a few feet across the boundary; they must move house to get a job. It is all about inputs, and there is nothing about the quality of local programmes. Why? It is the programmes that matter. The Government should not tell companies how to run their business. They should aim to meet the needs of the local listener, not to create a lazy, box-ticking regulator.

Clause 307 represents a serious regression in government thinking away from the bold philosophy of light-touch, competition-led regulation that distinguishes the Bill. Such a clause could have been introduced only under cover of darkness, without any consultation. I am sure, now that it has seen the light of day, that it will be dropped, which will enhance the coherence and good sense of the Bill.

I would like to draw to your Lordships' attention one other aberration in the Bill. Clause 350 sets out the definition of "control" of the company—an important issue in economic regulation. The key element is paragraph (2) in which a person is assumed to have control if he or she is a participant with a 20 per cent interest in a company,


    "unless the contrary is shown".

In other words, the onus of proof is on the shareholder, not on Ofcom. A person is guilty unless he can prove himself innocent.

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Everyone knows how difficult it is to prove a negative, particularly in advance of even making an investment. The result will be that Ofcom will be flooded with requests for advice and "pre-judgments" and minority investments will be actively discouraged—just the type of investments that were crucial to getting Classic FM off the ground. Someone has clearly made a mistake here, and it needs to be put right.

The radio industry welcomes this Bill and the philosophy that informs its main measures. With the removal of a couple of aberrant clauses that betray the spirit of the Bill, it will provide a firm foundation for a prosperous industry providing a service to the listening public of which we can all be proud.

9.40 p.m.

Lord Colwyn: My Lords, first, I express my admiration of the Government's Front Bench team—namely, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh—and of my noble friend Lady Buscombe. To transfer from the Licensing Bill to the Communications Bill within one or two weeks is remarkable. The Communications Bill is far more complex, although it has had the advantages of starting in another place and the pre-legislative scrutiny of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. At Third Reading, there was agreement that the Bill had been improved during its passage through the Commons, but several speakers criticised the level of scrutiny—some even described it as grossly inadequate.

As in the Licensing Bill, I support the music creators and will comment on how the transition between the Radio Authority and Ofcom is causing difficulty for new commercial radio stations. I declare my interest as a part-time "music creator"—or is that musician? In the old days of quotas, when some live music was compulsory, I recorded for commercial radio stations, but never made a commercially available record. Recently, I became chairman of Banbury Local Radio—a company applying for a local radio licence at the end of the year.

The radio industry is valued at 500 million and the music industry at 4.6 billion annually. I know that the Musicians Union (MU) is deeply concerned that there is little or no consideration for music creators in this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who, sadly, has just left her place, made that point strongly. I wish that she had been here to speak in similar terms on the need for musicians and the abolition of the "two-in-the-bar" rule a couple of weeks ago. The MU believes that further consolidation in the commercial sector will mean less diversity of music on independent local radio and mainstream airwaves. The Bill gives Ofcom a general duty to promote and protect the local content and character of local radio, but it fails to provide a safeguard for music creativity and diversity.

The expansion of the radio environment should promote cultural diversity. The music creators are concerned that if the access is controlled by too few players, choice and competition are endangered. I

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regret the remarks of Lowry Mays, chief executive of the Clear Channel in Sunday Business on 2nd March. He stated:


    "If anyone said that we were in the radio business, it wouldn't be someone from our company . . . We're not in the business of providing news and information. We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customer's products".

What he did not say is that commercial radio must attract listeners and that local input is essential for local stations.

The music creators fear that the Bill may increase the risk to diversity and say that there should be safeguards for music creativity as regulation evolves. There is a concern that radio operators can walk away from licence obligations relating to music programming when ownership is transferred. Given that the deregulatory nature of this legislation is likely to lead to further consolidation in the radio sector, it would seem sensible to specify the need to assess the impact of such changes upon music provision in the Bill itself.

Unpopular music does not sell well and does not help music radio. The job of the radio industry is to serve its listeners with a relevant and popular product. The fortunes of the UK local commercial radio industry and the UK music industry are closely entwined. Local radio stations reflect local choice of "national" pop music and the success of local bands where they exist. Given that local commercial radio in the UK is likely to come out at the end of this process with rather more content regulation, I am concerned that Ofcom should not be given still more powers to stipulate, for example, who should schedule the music on commercial stations. It was precisely that kind of over-intrusive regulation which statute forced the IBA to apply until the 1990 Act came to the rescue of UK independent radio.

Stations need to remain local in order to distinguish themselves from their better-funded BBC and national competitors, and format regulation that is already required under existing legislation—and will be under Clause 306—ensures that local content is broadcast.

Perhaps I may emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, about the concern of local commercial radio in regard to Clause 307. There was no consultation over this new approach which introduces an extra and unnecessary layer of regulation. Why should Ofcom be able to determine who a radio station employs, where its office is, where its managers work and how it generates its income? I support regulation to ensure that local listeners receive relevant local content, but there has been no indication that the present legislation is deficient in any way. The noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, made a very strong case for local content earlier.

The new rules proposed in Clause 307 have no relevance to listeners but allow Ofcom to interfere with the running of the business. These rules will stifle innovation rather than safeguard the product that listeners receive. There is no need to regulate the amount of local advertising on local radio and it is inappropriate to regulate how radio stations make

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their programmes and run their businesses. I will support any amendments that seek to change this at the Committee stage.

The Radio Authority has overseen a commercial radio industry that has grown beyond all recognition. When it took over from the IBA there was no national commercial radio and no regional commercial radio as we know it today. At the same time, local commercial stations were struggling against heavy losses. The industry was taking only 2 per cent of the advertising market. The position has now changed with, I thought, more than 260 stations—the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, says 250 stations—on air, with a 6 per cent share of the advertising market that is continuing to rise. New licences are being granted by the Radio Authority at the rate of one per month and the industry is expected to increase its advertising market share to 7 per cent or 8 per cent.

During recent years the Radio Authority has produced an annual "working list", identifying the areas that will soon be given their own local stations. The most recent list was published on 21st May 2002 and confirmed the intention to advertise new licences at a rate of up to one per month.

Based on this list, groups have formed throughout the UK and have spent considerable sums on research and trial broadcasts. I am aware of prospective stations that have worked towards specific dates for their licences being advertised and awarded, with trial broadcasts and promotions already planned. But the Radio Authority has now decided that the last licence it will advertise will be in April 2003. The remainder of the list will be handed over to Ofcom.

I appreciate that there has to be a point where the Radio Authority has to stop and Ofcom has to take over, but it is important that any delays are kept to a minimum. The Bill is legally too complex for me to suggest specific changes at this time, but I may take advice on whether it will be possible to ensure that the changeover does not slow down the new licence system. Any period of stagnation could limit the growth and expansion of an industry that is one of the success stories of the past 10 years.

9.49 p.m.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, having worked for about 20 years as a presenter and producer in documentary television, I welcome the introduction of the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on his pre-legislative scrutiny. I shall take the advice of my noble friend Lady Cohen and not repeat material which has already been covered in the debate. Your Lordships will be glad to hear that I have scrapped most of my speech. My noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, have covered most of the points that I wish to make so admirably that they do not need repetition. I shall therefore speak briefly.

My media career started in the early 1970s with a "World in Action" programme questioning whether the building of a segregated village in Holland for

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severely disabled people should be replicated in Britain. At the time I was about to start work at MIND with a politically-minded social worker called Tessa Jowell as my assistant director. How much has changed since then.

One of the most important changes for disabled people is that our full inclusion in all areas of life has become central to government policy. The Bill holds the potential to further or to threaten that full inclusion. In order to take part in this information society that grows faster and more complicated every day, we must all have access to and be able to afford the digital communications technology that is our future. It is a prerequisite for equal citizenship and full inclusion. But there is a widespread fear among disabled and older people that we face increased exclusion.

Digital technology provides a two-edged sword for disabled people. It holds the potential to do things undreamed of by former generations but, as my noble friend Lord Ashley showed so clearly, it can shut us out from even the most basic communications services when our needs are not taken into account. If disabled and elderly people are not to be made the second-class citizens of the information society, I believe that the Bill must lay down watertight regulation to ensure that the broadcasting and telecommunications industries do not exclude disabled people. Ofcom needs to be given powers on the face of the Bill to eliminate that risk of exclusion.

In addition to the amendments forewarned by my noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I should like to add one more. I seek a guarantee of continued access to a text-based teletext service. Teletext is a vital source of education, information and news to thousands of blind and deaf-blind people. It is accessible on analogue through equipment which turns the text into Braille or large print. But digital is based on pictures and no device can read a picture. It is essential that this vital lifeline for deaf-blind people to the world around them is not simply cut away, leaving them at the mercy of the market-place.

This threat to deaf-blind people exemplifies how essential it is that specific duties to ensure the full inclusion of disabled and older people are laid on the face of the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Currie, emphasised, Ofcom is a creature of statute. Therefore what the Bill does or does not make explicit really matters if issues such as these are not to be lost along the way. The future inclusion of disabled people in the information society is too important to leave to ad hoc arrangements, the discretion of officials or, most important, the whim of the market.

The Government have done much to meet the needs of disabled and older people in the Bill, but I am afraid that it is not enough. The Bill will set the standard for many years to come. It must ensure that disabled people are fully included if we are to take part in the information society as equal citizens.

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9.53 p.m.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, at this late hour I do not want to dwell on the broadcasting aspects of the Bill, but to focus on what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to as its "techie" side, and to join other noble Lords in commending the work of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and his joint committee on the pre-legislative scrutiny of this complicated piece of legislation.

At the outset I should declare an interest in my capacity as chairman of the trustees of Citizens Online, a charity committed to universal access to the Internet throughout the United Kingdom. I am also a consultant to a NASDAQ-listed Internet service provider.

As the Minister outlined in her introductory speech, the Bill aims to create in the United Kingdom the most dynamic and competitive communications industry in the world. I naturally applaud the objective, although to be frank I have one or two reservations as to whether it is achievable, and I certainly have reservations about cross-media ownership. While I have always opposed attempts to regulate the Internet and favour self-regulation of the industry, I wholeheartedly support the important role of Ofcom and the role it will play in encouraging competition, thereby promoting the long-term interests of consumers.

My particular interest lies in the promotion of affordable broadband services. Whereas these services were relatively expensive a year ago, the price of high-speed access to the Internet is now falling dramatically.

With that in mind, I had hoped that the Bill would incorporate new measures to support the roll-out of broadband access across the United Kingdom. While 63 per cent of UK households and businesses are able to receive ADSL services, my understanding is that there has been a comparatively low take-up of these services, largely as a result of the historically high cost of broadband. Fortunately, with the advent of WI-FI, broadband access has become far more affordable. Can the Minister provide the statistics relating to the current level of take-up of broadband services, as well as outlining exactly what is being done to ensure that rural communities also have affordable broadband?

Further, will the Minister elaborate on how the Government plan to spend the pledged 1 billion which has been committed to broadband connectivity in the public sector between 2003 and 2006?

I wholeheartedly support the work of the UK Broadband Task Force, created by the Government. With 30 per cent of UK households currently beyond the reach of terrestrial broadband services, satellite broadband could potentially accommodate those areas.

However, concern has been expressed that the proposals in the Bill for spectrum management will not help to encourage the business plans of emerging satellite broadcast companies, and the additional "tax" on satellite spectrum being sought through these measures risks undermining UK broadband initiatives as well as opportunities for the business sector.

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The new obligation for all "electronic communication companies" to pay for a licence and to comply with its conditions will result in a significant additional cost, particularly to the smaller Internet service providers.

There has been a great deal of commentary on digital television and analogue switch-off. I believe that this evolution—or perhaps I should say technological revolution—needs to run its course in tandem with broadband roll-out.

The rapid expansion of broadband services will inevitably lead to massive changes in the way the Internet is used. We have already seen rapid changes and advances in webcasting.

Finally, I am aware that concerns have been expressed by the British Internet Publishers Alliance (BIPA) regarding the lack of effective regulation of the BBC's activities on the Internet. While accepting that the BBC's Internet services are of high quality, BIPA is concerned that the lack of effective regulation of the BBC's activities on the Internet has distorted and inhibited the market for commercial publishers and has crowded out potential competitors.

It is currently the role of the BBC governors to adjudicate on how the BBC's Internet activities impact on commercial markets, but BIPA feels that this body lacks the impartiality and the specialist commercial skills required. It has been recommended that Ofcom, being the overarching regulator of the converging media sectors, is best equipped to take on the task of providing an informed and impartial overview of all the interests involved in Internet publishing.

I certainly have sympathy with the view that Ofcom will have the expertise and authority to guarantee the free and fair environment in which both the BBC and its commercial competitors will be able to deliver a wide range of choice to the British public.

Will the Minister, in replying, explain how Her Majesty's Government will ensure that Ofcom exercises its competition powers with regard to the BBC, and what role the new regulator will play in ensuring that the BBC's Internet interests do not distort growing media markets?

10 p.m.

Lord Bernstein of Craigweil: My Lords, I should declare an interest. I used to be chairman of Granada Group, which is the parent company of Granada Television. I receive a pension from Granada and still hold shares in the company.

This is a good Bill which has benefited from wide consultation and from the work of the joint scrutiny committee under my noble friend Lord Puttnam. However, I have two matters of concern—the role of the BBC and the issue of cross-media ownership. Both those matters are vital to the success of television in this country.

The BBC will be subject to some regulation by Ofcom, but its governance and public service role will remain with the governors. That is recognition of the fact that it is one of Britain's most important and

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successful institutions, which is why successive governments have agreed to maintain the licence fee system and, no doubt, why the present Government agreed a licence fee annual increase in excess of inflation. The BBC is doubly privileged. It has been permitted to maintain its method of governance and has been guaranteed a large and growing income, which is the impossible dream of any public institution. Even Lord Reith, who was notoriously difficult to please, must be rejoicing in whatever region of the afterworld is reserved for ex-director generals of the BBC.

With that privilege comes responsibility, however. Does the BBC fulfil those responsibilities as it should? The answer, sadly, is not as much as it used to. I recognise that the corporation's essential problem is that, to justify its licence fee, it must gain high ratings. If it does not, the public can question why they should finance a service that is not attracting an audience. Equally, however, the BBC must maintain a public service ethos. If it does not, why should it be treated any differently from a purely commercial organisation? That is a narrow line to follow, and I have some sympathy for the BBC's dilemma—but not a lot.

What has happened to current affairs on BBC 1? "Panorama" is shown only very late on Sundays and, more importantly, there are only about 25 programmes a year. That does not represent a serious commitment to current affairs. What has happened to arts programming? There have been no regular series of arts programmes on BBC 1 for the past couple of years. I was glad to read that Alan Yentob will be presenting a new arts series, but, even so, it will be a series of only 10 programmes, compared with the 22 programmes of the "South Bank Show" on ITV.

Why is the BBC not honouring the agreement to commission 25 per cent of its programming from independent companies? The BBC has missed that target two years running, while ITV, with all its difficulties, has met the target. Is that a responsible position for a publicly funded service?

What is the BBC's vision? It used to see itself as providing creative leadership, nurturing new talent and as a powerhouse for new writing. Does it still believe in that? Can it show that its role is to be distinctive rather than merely popular? Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the governors, accepts that the governors need to set strategy and regulate output. In his most recent annual report, he states that he does not,


    "have any desire simply to replicate services which can be provided equally well by the private sector".

That is obviously right. Unless the BBC can show that it has a unique role, why should it be treated any differently from its commercial competitors, which fall under the full remit of Ofcom?

On balance, I do not believe that the BBC should come under Ofcom, but I am glad that Tessa Jowell has announced a comprehensive review of the BBC and its funding as part of the charter review. If it is to

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retain its independence, the BBC needs to state its vision, provide transparency into the way it works and show us in its programmes that it means what it says.

I turn to the issue of cross-media ownership, particularly as regards Channel 5. I know that several previous speakers have referred to this issue, and it is getting late, but it is important. I hope that noble Lords will not mind my spending a few minutes on it.

The Bill maintains the current position whereby newspaper companies that have more than 20 per cent of the national market are forbidden from holding more than 20 per cent of any Channel 3 company. It concludes, quite rightly, that it would be wrong for a newspaper group to own what Tessa Jowell calls "a mature universal broadcaster". There is no similar provision for Channel 5, on the basis that it is "a much smaller enterprise". So any major newspaper group could acquire it.

I see no possible justification for that. Why reduce the diversity of media control? Newspapers already have considerable political power which they do not hesitate to use. Why should they be granted more political power and a stronger commercial base? It is true that Channel 5 has less than a 7 per cent share of the market. But that is not set in stone. What would happen if it doubled, even trebled its share? Obviously what would happen is that it would become a mature broadcaster. It seems to me that the Government have got themselves into a completely untenable position. In principle they assert that a newspaper group should not own a mature broadcaster. In practice, they are giving it the means to do so.

It is true, of course, that Ofcom will have the power to impose certain conditions if the Channel 5 audience grows substantially, but that is just tinkering. It will still leave a newspaper group with substantial cross-media control. If the purchaser of Channel 5 were to be News Corp, it will then control the largest newspaper stable in the UK, the country's dominant digital platform and supplier of premium pay TV content and, with Channel 5, the country's lightest regulated national commercial terrestrial channel. That cannot be right.

This is not an attack on Mr Murdoch, who is a courageous and outstandingly successful businessman. If he is able to dominate the media scene, "Then good luck to him", you may say, "Why should he not benefit from his investment and hard work?" But that is not the point. The point is whether it is right for one company—and not one man, for even Mr Murdoch is not immortal—to have so much power. It cannot make sense for a democracy to permit that. What other country would allow this amount of media control to rest in the hands of one owner?

With News Corp's enormous financial strength and its ability to market its services across the media, it is likely that it could greatly increase the ratings for Channel 5 and therefore its advertising revenue. That could have a disastrous effect on two of the elements which the Government hold most dear. First, they have stated their firm belief in a strong regional broadcasting base. Independent television has a

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commitment to the regions and in fact produces vastly more regional broadcasting than the BBC. If ITV were to become beleaguered by a cross-media giant, finance for regional broadcasting would certainly become a casualty of a media war, as would some of its other public service obligations.

Secondly, the Government are committed to an independent Channel 4, with its brief for distinctive programming. Pressure on its advertising revenue from Channel 5 would inevitably force Channel 4 to respond by dropping distinctiveness in favour of popularity. Do we want to put regional broadcasting and Channel 4 under threat? I cannot believe that we do.

Finally, I believe that the future success of television in this country rests mainly on two pillars. One is the ability of the BBC to take its leading role in presenting quality popular programming and supporting public service broadcasting. The second is the ability of the independent sector to support the distinctiveness of Channel 4 and the quality of regional broadcasting.

For all its good points, the Communications Bill will be judged severely if it undermines these two pillars and lets the edifice of a vibrant and diverse television industry collapse.

10.10 p.m.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, despite the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bernstein, about certain aspects of the BBC, I believe that it is the most important cultural institution in the country. So many speakers have praised public service broadcasting, and it is the BBC which has created such respect for it. Because of its very existence, it has been operating as a benchmark which has set so many of the standards throughout the broadcasting media. Kofi Annan has said that the BBC World Service was Britain's greatest gift to the world in the 20th century. This is the great legacy from 80 years ago which we must cherish and defend against those who see the BBC as a privileged organisation in the fiercely competitive trade of media businesses.

The BBC is at the heart of our broadcasting system and the licence fee is inseparable from its success. In the 1980s, the then government were determined to open up the BBC to their uncompromising glorification of market forces. The description given was that the BBC succeeded only by means of a compulsory levy with criminal sanctions. That is what they called it. That was how the then government described the way in which the BBC occupied its world-wide eminence.

Fortunately, at the BBC at that time were Joel Barnett and Duke Hussey—now my noble friend Lord Barnett and the noble Lord, Lord Hussey of North Bradley. Duke Hussey was the chairman and Joel Barnett was the vice-chairman. In meeting after meeting, they played the role of Scheherezade. The House will recall that Princess Scheherezade was to entertain the sultan and at the end of evening was to lose her life. By rolling the discussion along until the following evening, she saved herself night after night from the execution that was to be her end.

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In a less glamorous but very effective way, my noble friend Lord Barnett and the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, managed to keep the discussion going until the anticipated weakening of the corporation was lost in the more immediate problems facing that government. While accepting other valuable contributions that my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, have made to our national life, I believe that this was their greatest service. Their greatest achievement has been the essential task of saving the BBC as we know it and as we have been fortunate in receiving it—the civilising, broadcasting medium which would have been most seriously damaged if the government then had had their way and the events of 20 years ago had worked out differently.

The BBC does not fit into the usual pattern of non-governmental organisations. When the World Service was examined by the Public Accounts Committee in 1987, I was the chairman, and concluded that it should be examined by the National Audit Office—it is financed largely by the Foreign Office—but it also took no action to change the arrangements for the examination of the BBC. Section 6(3)(d) of the National Audit Act 1983 enables the National Audit Office to undertake value-for-money reviews with the agreement of the BBC and the Minister. It already has that power; it is there to be used if it wishes. That would be a safeguard for the future. Sir John Bourn was the NAO's outstanding Comptroller and Auditor-General. We must beware future situations about which we have no knowledge.

I always thought that the power of examination by the Minister and the Comptroller and Auditor-General was sufficient. I would have wished to see that position maintained and used. After all, what has gone wrong? Many other aspects of the press, radio and television could easily be improved. That would be no problem, and attention should rightly be focused there. But the BBC remains one of the outstanding successes in public service. That has been achieved over a period of 80 years, during the many changes that we have witnessed in our national life. In peace, war, prosperity and recession, in all our national successes and failures, it has survived them all with its reputation intact. Survived? I would say triumphed. It has been the outstanding feature of our national life and we should be most careful when we play around with such a body. It has done extraordinary well. We have heard people condemning it, but some of them may not have the most obvious of motives.

I turn to cross-media ownership about which we need to be careful, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, reminded us. Currying political favour with media owners is not unknown in the relationship between politicians and the media. As Chris Mullin said on 3rd December at col. 806 of Commons Hansard, the Bill allows the United States companies to own ITV and other commercial broadcasters; a company with four national newspapers and a TV channel may purchase Channel Five and subvert ITV and Channel 4 in the same way as much of Fleet Street has been subverted.

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Some of us have long memories and remember when the Sun newspaper was sold off because it had a small circulation. We saw what happened to that. The whole of Fleet Street's standards were reduced and the Sun was the benchmark of all those that tried to compete with it.

One contrast between newspapers and the broadcast media is that many people buy only one newspaper, but with the different television channels and the different radio stations, different viewpoints are set out. Viewers see more than one outlet. Added to that, it is the BBC which over the years has set the standard for impartial sources of ormation. The BBC, after all these years, still sets the benchmark for impartiality, quality and innovation.

I want to deal with one further aspect of the Bill: the removal of the restrictions on religious bodies. I am concerned about this. There are many ways in which the religions of our country can get their messages across. There are also many ways in which the religions can come into conflict with one another. There is the serious risk that television will exacerbate the religious and cultural differences which are now playing a more dangerous part in the life of our country, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has mentioned. As the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said, not all religions are middle-of-the-road religions—as she rather delicately put it. I feel that at a sensitive time, this development should not proceed.

In conclusion, the BBC is one of our very greatest national institutions. It is also one of our greatest national successes. Nothing we should do in this Bill should imperil it in any way. This should be our dominant concern.

10.18 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, when I helpfully told the usual channels that I would not mind speaking fairly late on in the debate, I did not expect to be the 46th and last speaker. With that in mind, it is inevitable that many of the points which I would have made had I spoken earlier have been made by others. However, one subject has not been covered by previous speakers and I want to concentrate on that. It is my concern about the provision of sports coverage and the need to match the understandable desire of sports bodies to maximise income with the legitimate expectation of enthusiasts to obtain as much free television and radio coverage of their favourite sports as they can.

Clauses 294 to 297 of the Bill relate to listed sporting events and provide for the continuation of the present arrangements whereby listed events are divided into two groups; group A and group B. The group A events are sometimes described as the Crown jewels and include the Olympic Games, the FA Cup Final, the Grand National and the Wimbledon tennis finals. Three further events were added to that list in 1998. Group B events include cricket Test matches played in England, the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup.

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It was unfortunate that there was no live TV coverage, or even proper highlights, of the recent cricket World Cup in South Africa on anything other than Sky's subscription only channels. It meant good business for pubs with large screens but a pretty rotten deal for other cricket fans who did not have Sky. Had England progressed beyond the first stage, there would still have been no live coverage on a free-to-air channel as the cricket World Cup is a Group B event, unless the Secretary of State had chosen to move the England matches into group A.

It will be important that the listed events are kept under constant review. The Government must be prepared to resist pressure from sports governing bodies which want to sell their events to the highest bidder rather than make them universally available to broadcasters on a free-to-air basis.

I should make it clear that I am a big fan of the BBC's sports coverage. I think that the quality of its football and rugby commentaries leaves its competitors in the shade. Like millions of football supporters, I mourned the departure of Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen from Saturday night's "Match of the Day", and I even miss John Motson's commentaries.

As a relatively new digital TV customer, I am also impressed with the way the BBC uses new technologies to provide an integrated and improved service in its sports coverage. I mention that in the context of the Bill because it shows what we need to safeguard in regulating our public service broadcasters, and why the regulatory framework must recognise the differences between purely commercial broadcasters, the commercial public service broadcasters and the BBC. Here I disagree totally with my noble friend Lord Bernstein but agree completely with my noble friend Lord Sheldon in the views of the BBC they expressed just a few moments ago.

The Government want to ensure that all broadcasters are subject to common external regulation at its tier 1, covering basic requirements such as standards of taste and decency under Ofcom. At tier 2 all public service television broadcasters—the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5—should be subject to quotas to ensure a proper amount of original UK programming, programmes for audiences in different parts of the UK, and so forth. At tier 3, broadcasters will effectively self-regulate with Ofcom having back-stop powers over the commercial public service broadcasters and the BBC Board of Governors, subject to the Secretary of State, ensuring that the BBC meets the public interest. Have the Government struck the right balance in establishing the three tiers? I believe that they have. There needs to be a common framework over competition policy where all broadcasters are subject to Ofcom. But at the same time the BBC, as Britain's principal public service broadcaster, must continue to have the headroom to innovate, and the income to bid for events which the public wish to watch.

I share the view that others have expressed that the board of governors acts as a buffer between the BBC's programming and the outside pressures of politicians

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and commercial interests. Like other speakers I am also unpersuaded that anything would be gained by subjecting the BBC to the National Audit Office. That could undermine both the governors' independence and the BBC's ability to innovate and take creative risks. The reasons the BBC should stay subject to its governors rather than to the Public Accounts Committee remain: the BBC works because its independence allows it to develop a strategy and implement it free from changing political priorities and short-term political irritations.

More than a few Members of your Lordships' House who have held high office when Members of another place have complained in their time long, hard and bitterly about the political bias of the BBC. What is remarkable about those allegations is that they come successively—and occasionally simultaneously—from members of all three political parties. Sometimes they are genuine complaints about things that the BBC could have done better. Sometimes—and I certainly name no names tonight—the charges are brought in an attempt to intimidate or silence the broadcasters.

I hope that the BBC continues to resist the interfering politician and continues to develop its role as a world-class broadcaster, competent, accurate and efficient—yes, all those three—but also objective, fair and authoritative.

My noble friend Lord Sheldon referred to the comments of Kofi Annan about the BBC World Service. Similar comments are made by Nelson Mandela in his autobiography. The role of the BBC World Service is of immense importance, and it is vital that nothing is done to affect the coverage that it provides and the respect in which it is held all over the globe.

If we are to change the relationship between the BBC and its audiences, or between the governors and the Government, we should do so through the charter renewal process, and not in the context of the Bill. The Government have got the balance in the Bill between regulation and innovation about right, and I wish the Bill well.

10.25 p.m.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, does well as the 46th speaker to introduce a new topic. Most of the other topics have been covered, but I congratulate him on that.

I cannot follow my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who had a long list of qualifications to speak about broadcasting. I have been interested in the subject ever since I was a small boy when my mother bought a house just after the war in which a Belgian refugee was a tenant. He took kindly to me, and left me a zither and a crystal set. The zither was a bit beyond me and I shelved it very quickly, but I went on to use the crystal set. I regretted that later on due to "The Third Man", a film that many noble Lords will recall,

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which had a background of zither music. I wished then that I had thrown away the crystal set and taken up the zither.


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