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

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Photo of Mr David Gibson-Watt Mr David Gibson-Watt , Hereford 12:00 am, 13th May 1965

This has been a good debate, and a very worth-while one, on a subject rightly chosen by the Opposition, because it is a long time since we discussed this all-important question. That view has been supported by both sides of the Committee.

During the debate we have listened to the accumulated wisdom of a number of hon. Members on a number of subjects. We have listened to those who have experience of the B.B.C., both on the technical side and on the programme side, and, indeed, those who have been on the Advisory Council. We have also listened to the hon. Member for Refrew, West (Mr. Buchan) who, I believe, has a particular knowledge of the problems of the Musicians' Union.

We introduced this subject for debate for one very good reason. The Government made some fairly strong remarks during the election, but they have now been in office for six months and we have not heard very much from them. When we are considering the two major participants in telecommunications, the B.B.C. and the I.T.A., although it is the undoubted right of every hon. Member to voice disagreement and criticism where it is necessary, no one should be in any doubt that the standards of the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. are far higher than any other standards in the telecommunications world. Later in my speech I shall discuss some of the programmes and some of the criticisms which have been made about them.

The Postmaster-General, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir Ian Orr-Ewing), who has a long experience of television matters, and others, referred to the possibility of having an overall broadcasting authority. I believe there is a possibility that we may evolve to this eventually. This question of overseeing—control is too strong a word—is one which is probably going to change over the years.

Throughout the debate there has been one great difference between the two sides of the House, as one can well understand. Time and again hon. Gentlemen opposite referred to, and ran down, the profit motive in commercial television. Let us be in no doubt about the fact that on this matter there is a fundamental difference between Conservatives and Socialists. There is nothing wrong in an interest being commercial. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have commercial interests in their private lives. But let us be honest about this. Profit is not a bad thing. If this country had a few more profits, and larger profits, it would be a good deal better off today.

The reason for raising this debate is that we feel that the Government should be franker with the people on this subject. The first Secretary used the expression "We, the nation", the other night. If the Government are so close to the nation let them tell it what they are thinking about these all-important matters concerning telecommunications.

Many subjects have been touched upon this afternoon. I hope that the Lord President of the Council will be able to give us some of the fruit of the workings of his Committee and the thinking of the Government on this matter. I hope that he will not say that this is a situation that the Government inherited. We all inherited the situation. The fact remains that the Government have now been in for six months. We hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to say a little more than the Postmaster-General said earlier.

When we consider the question of telecommunications we are aware that Britain first produced television. We led in the field, although it is difficult to convince any American that it was Britain which took the first step. [An HON. MEMBER: "A Scotsman."] I am told that it was a Scotsman. The Scots were responsible for many things, including the invention of the steam engine. [Interruption.] I would not wish to get into an argument, Sir Ronald, on the question who discovered the steam engine—but since the gentleman concerned happened to be my great-great-grandfather, on this subject at least I think that this is a matter on which I would be right for once.

The experimentation and work that has to go into the discovery of new avenues of invention in this important field must be carried out by Government and free enterprise together. Nothing could be a better example of this than the launching of the Early Bird project in the United States of America. Only last week we were able to see the American President talking about his ideas of an Atlantic Community, and Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery at it again—and a very enjoyable programme it was. It came to us as a result of the launching of the Early Bird satellite at Andover, Maine, by a corporation called Comsat, in which government money provided some of the backing, although many private citizens have a stake in the satellite.

That is a factor which ought to be considered, especially by those hon. Members opposite who continually harp on the question of profits. Do not let us be in any doubt that a British project of the Early Bird type would require money from many people. I hope that it will be possible for the Government to see that free enterprise plays its part in any experimentation of this kind that may take place. A good example is to be found in pay television. I must disclose an interest in this matter. I was once associated with pay television in a small way, although I am not now. This was an avenue which needed exploring, but the Conservative Government of the day did not wish to see public money put at risk in order to discover what was the answer. Therefore, the last Government gave permission for five separate companies to make experiments to find out whether it would be successful. The Postmaster-General did not say very much about it this afternoon, perhaps advisedly, for I know it is a difficult problem. When the previous Government gave their permission they had no idea whether the experiment would be successful. Equally, when they gave permission to the regional commercial companies they had no idea whether the companies would make money. As we know, for the first years they made considerable losses.

We do not yet know the result of the pay television experiment, but we have no regrets and no apologies to make to the country for allowing the experiments to take place. I am sure that there will be many occasions when this type of free enterprise should be encouraged by the Government of the day. I hope it will be possible for right hon. Gentlemen opposite to say that this will happen whatever may be the view of their party.

We have today discussed whether a fourth channel should go to the Independent Television. This is a difficult question. The Conservative Party had agreed that in this year, 1965, commercial interests would be allowed to take the fourth channel. Arguments have been advanced from this side of the Committee about why the fourth channel should go to commercial television. I shall not repeat the excellent technical exposition given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) on how the various wavelengths and channels could be suited so that we might have a fourth television programme. I reinforce the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Sir I. Orr-Ewing). The party on this side of the Committee broke the monopoly of the B.B.C. We believe, and have done for some time, that it would be right to break the monopoly of commercial television. The more companies we have in this sphere—it would certainly be possible to have two more companies—the more competition there would be. I say this knowing only too well that many hon. Members opposite do not share my view.

In this country we have two different forms of creature which produce television programmes. There is the B.B.C., the national organisation, and the I.T.A., a number of commercial companies competing one with another, and therefore, for reasons which have already been given, I hope that the fourth channel will come.

I referred earlier to an interest in pay television, and I should also admit an interest in the B.B.C., as I was once a member of the General Advisory Council. A number of rather hard things have been said about the B.B.C. during this debate. Having worked fairly continuously and closely with the Corporation over a period of two or three years, although, admittedly, the G.A.C. does not meet very often, one gets a shrewd idea of how things are going. The B.B.C. does not do everything which I should wish it to do, but I believe that the amount of good done by those who work in the B.B.C. and administer it definitely counteracts the mistakes which any human men are bound to make. May I comment on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance)? It is something on which a Member of Parliament gets a good deal of correspondence from his constituents. I believe that it is something which those responsible for television and broadcasting programmes must continually keep in mind.

I should like to say something about the religious programme, "Lift Up Your Hearts". On two or three occasions in the House I have criticised the B.B.C. over religious programmes. It would not be out of place, possibly, if on this occasion I supported them. The new Director of Religious Programmes is fairly new to the job. He has not been there long, but those who know him have a very high opinion of him. This programme appeared, I believe, at 7.50 in the morning. I will not pretend that I always saw it—[HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Gentleman never saw it."]—I am grateful to hon. Members opposite for saying that, because it is obvious that some of them do not see it—[An HON. MEMBER: "One would hear it."]—exactly, hear it. They were not about to hear it on Wednesday morning last.

The reason that this programme has now been taken off and another programme put in its place called "Ten to Eight" is that those responsible for religious programmes have not only to consider the minority—an unfortunate word to have to use—of Christians. They have also to consider the other great number of People who do not believe in the Christian religion. Therefore, we must give some latitude—I say this with all sincerity to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove—particularly to a new man trying to do a new job and to bring a new look to this programme.