Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th May 1965.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East 12:00 am, 13th May 1965

Today's debate is the first covering the whole range of broadcasting policy which has been held in the House of Commons since the Pilkington Report was debated in 1962. There have been other debates more recently on specialised aspects of broadcasting, like the television levy and other subjects, but none has covered the whole range, as can be done today. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) that when one considers the influence and power of broadcasting on the lives of all of us, it is surprising that the House of Commons, at any rate, should devote so little time to it. I should like to thank the Opposition for having given us the opportunity to hold the debate today and to say how much the Government welcome it.

There are many controversial issues to be argued out. Some have been already mentioned by the right hon. and learned Gentleman and others will, no doubt, emerge in the course of the debate. Not all of them follow strict party lines. There are many differences and different streams in broadcasting views.

However, I think that the Committee is united on two things: first, in the enjoyment which it gets out of broadcasting and its gratitude to the B.B.C., the I.T.A., the programme companies and the people who make the programmes for the skill and ability which they show in preparing the programmes which we see and hear; and, secondly, in our desire to develop the best possible system, although we may not always agree about what that system should be. In so far as I am utterly convinced that my children are better educated than I was, I would attribute half of that to the development of education in our schools and half to the development of television, and I think that most parents of my generation would agree.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I told the Committee the way in which I propose to deal with the subjects which are relevant today. I should like, first, to describe the broadcasting problems which were awaiting decision when we took office and why we have thought it necessary to undertake a major review; secondly, I should like to deal with the problems of B.B.C. finance; and, thirdly, to indicate the principles which will guide the Government in the reviews which they are now undertaking.

It is inevitable that while the reviews are in progress debates or statements of Government opinion will be tentative, but this is a positive advantage for the Committee, since it is often argued that subjects are debated only when the Government have made up their mind. On this occasion, all the views expressed in the debate will come in good time to be fully considered. It would be helpful in dealing with some of the controversial issues if I aired alternative possibilities without commitment specifically in order to invite comment upon them. On the clear understanding that what I say would be taken on that basis, I should like to focus attention on the factors which should weigh with us in reaching our decisions.

I come, first, to the broadcasting problems which were awaiting decision when we came to power. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred, as I did in the debate in March, to my Department as a sort of Ministry of Communications. Certainly, the responsibility of the Post Office is very natural in this respect, not in the day-to-day management or content of the programmes, but in the structure and development of broadcasting. The job of the Government is to create the conditions in which broadcasting can flourish. This places responsibility for broadcasting policy upon my office and upon the Government as a whole.

When I came to office in October I discovered that there were many problems which had to be decided. Probably the most urgent was the financial crisis as it affected the B.B.C., to which I shall return later. The other man issues were the allocation of the fourth channel, educational broadcasting, colour television, pay television, the pirate radio issue and sound broadcasting, particularly local sound broadcasting. It seemed to me that as many of these issues were linked together it would be foolish to try to tackle them separately and even more foolish to rush a decision until the full implications and alternative policies had been fully explored.

May I deal, first, with the allocation of the fourth channel? The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom posed the technical problem absolutely correctly—that the decision to move into U.H.F. and 625 lines, taken by his colleagues, makes four channels available. One of these is already in use for the B.B.C., two are earmarked against the possibility of duplication of B.B.C.1 and I.T.A.—we do not want a double line standard for ever—and that leaves only one unallocated channel, the so-called fourth channel. The question which confronts us: who should have it?

The last Government foreshadowed the allocation of this channel to the commercial companies and the I.T.A. We are not committed to this view, although naturally, we have noted what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said—that he and his party are committed to it. The disposition of scarce and valuable wavelengths is a matter of high policy, and the decision must also take account of the effect on physical resources. It seems to me absolutely essential that before we reach a decision of this kind we must be clear in our own minds as to what purposes the fourth channel should be required to meet.

It is not any good simply saying that television is primarily entertainment without considering alternative possibilities. I believe that the debate would justify itself if it did no more than provide a forum for the House of Commons to consider this one point. We have to decide whether the fourth channel is to be built principally upon public entertainment in a general service or whether it should be reserved for education or for community programmes developed regionally and networked together. Views may differ about this, but no one, I think, would deny the importance of the decision that we would be taking one way or the other.

I must say—and the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom was a little naïve in not mentioning this—that broadcasting policy is a jungle of special interests and we must not forget that the fourth channel is a very valuable piece of public property, the disposition of which can easily make fortunes for those to whom it is granted. Although I do not want to reopen the controversies of 1954, the plain fact is that by their decision to institute commercial television in the way in which it was done, the last Government made possible, as one contract holder said, a licence to print money which has been utilised very fully.