Orders of the Day — Broadcasting in the Seventies (B.B.C. Plan)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd July 1969.

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Photo of Mr William Hannan Mr William Hannan , Glasgow Maryhill 12:00 am, 22nd July 1969

We all have great sympathy with any body like the B.B.C. in dealing with problems such as those outlined in its publication. But I am disappointed that the various facets and alternatives to remedy the situation in which it touches and then seems to run away from are not put more starkly and clearly. There seems to be a lack of candour and clarity, and it is very much a matter of inference and implication. Only two issues seem to be emphasised, and they are made to appear to be the only issues worth troubling about. One is that there is an economic crisis for radio, and the other is that the regional orchestras are at risk. It is with the threatened abandonment of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra that I wish particularly to deal. However, before doing so, I owe it to the House, like other hon. Members, to state a view as to how the B.B.C. might try to find the necessary money either within its present allocation and resources or by increasing its income.

There seem to be three assumptions in the publication which we are asked to accept and which are implicit. One is that local radio systems should continue to be developed. The second is that pop music should continue to be provided for 21 out of 24 hours as a public service. The third is that we should continue to pay what is generally accepted to be the lowest radio fee in the world for what is undoubtedly the best service. I do not accept one of those three assumptions.

I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Boston) about whether local radio has all the advantages claimed for it. However, if it is suggested that local radio stations should be developed at the expense of the orchestras and their musicians, I do not accept it. The B.B.C.s answer to the pirate stations was to provide Radio One, which stopped the pirates, but ruined the B.B.C.'s finances. It was at that point that the B.B.C. should have dug itself in and asked who was to pay for it. I leave that argument to pass on to the next point.

Much more to the point of this debate—and here I agree heartily with the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes)—is whether Radio One is to be allowed to ruin other well-established standards, too. Socially, it seems inappropriate to me that a public corporation operating under Royal Charter should be trafficking in the modern opium of the people called pop. I should like to qualify that by saying that I am not against a reasonable provision of it, but 21 out of 24 hours is just too much.

What really is at stake is nothing else than the whole purpose and future of the B.B.C. I agree with Patrick Huther, who wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of 13th July, when he referred to Radio One. This point is stressed by the Musicians Union, of which at one time I had the honour of being a member. He said of Radio One that Its main hearers are teenagers who (a) are in general affluent and (b) pay nothing for the privilege of listening since their transistor sets do not require separate licensing if their parents hold a licence. Simple economic judgment might suggest charging them something. There, too, is a source of cutting back and getting revenue.

The third point, however, is that which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) when he drew attention—this is a point for my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General—to the need for firm action to deal with the thieves and cheats who are indulging in licence evasion to the extent of £10 million a year. This is done by the same type of irresponsible citizen who hides behind his newspaper on the top of a bus in an effort to avoid paying his fare. My right hon. Friend must deal with this abuse urgently and effectively on behalf of the vast majority of citizens who are responsible and are called upon to carry the can either by the loss of valuable orchestras such as we are threatened with or by increased licence fees.

The B.B.C. admits that disbanding the Scottish Symphony Orchestra would be disastrous and it implies that some other body should take the responsibility. Why is it not frank about it? If the B.B.C. means to abandon its patronage of the arts, let it say so. That would mean an amendment of its Charter. If, on the other hand, as I suspect, the corporation is saying that it needs an extra subvention to continue its patronage, this is a matter for the House. Together with my hon. Friends, I would be prepared to say that if the radio fee has to be increased to do this, the people get such value for the fee which they pay that this is a reasonable suggestion.

The B.B.C. Controller in Scotland has already said that the dropping of the orchestra would be disastrous. He said: It is high time anyway that the people of Scotland and the Arts Council carried a greater burden than they do at present. What he did not say, however—and this is important—was whether, in that event, the B.B.C. would continue to engage the orchestra on a similar number of occasions as hitherto.

That impression was strengthened in my assessment of the talks which took place last week at Broadcasting House between Lord Hill and Scottish Members, from both sides of the House, when the term "only minimum use" was used. Nor does the B.B.C., apparently, desire to suggest an increase in the licence fee. It avoids that odium, presumably, because it wants the Government to do it. It was much more encouraging to hear my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General, in opening the debate, say what he did about the orchestras, and we are very much encouraged by that.

The B.B.C. is getting into an imbalance. If the B.B.C. intends, as it says, not only to maintain but to develop these responsibilities, it is proceeding in a peculiar way by proposing to disband an orchestra of the quality of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The B.B.C. refuses to follow the logic of its case, and if further evidence of its logic is needed, hon. Members have already been referred to the terms of the White Paper.

I hope that I can convey to my right hon. Friend, to Ministers and to the Governors of the B.B.C. adequately and in measured terms the strong feelings of resentment and opposition to the proposal about the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The services which this orchestra gives to the community, not only in the provision of music but as by-products of its presence in Scotland, have not been adequately stated.

There is dismay and apprehension for the future of musical education, the appreciation of music and the quality of listening in Scotland should this grievous prospect become a reality. It comes at a time when there is an increasing demand for orchestral music, and increasing interest among our young people and virtually a renaissance in Scotland, much of which, ironically enough, is due to the public patronage of music in the past by the B.B.C. The B.B.C. has been badly and sadly advised on this matter and must be urged to reconsider it.

The Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council has protested to the B.B.C. The Council does not accept the grounds and principles on which this proposal is based, and regrets that the B.B.C. did not seek the views of any representative body in Scotland, other than the Corporation's own Broadcasting Council for Scotland, before taking the decision.

One of the strongest criticisms is that Mr. John Noble, the Chairman of the Music Committee of the B.B.C.'s Scottish Broadcasting Council was not even consulted. Mr. John Noble is known to many hon. Members, and particularly to the right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Michael Noble). Mr. Noble has been one of the letter-writers to Press editors who has complained bitterly at the prospective loss of the orchestra. On Friday of last week in the Glasgow Herald Mr. Noble wrote this: So far as I can discover, no one in Scotland with real knowledge of the state of affairs was consulted, either in the preliminary or in the concluding stages of the enquiry, about the effect on our musical life. The Press in Scotland has unanimously condemned this proposal, so-called responsible and popular papers alike. One of the more forthright letters appeared in a so-called popular paper, and, if I shock the House by quoting, the House will appreciate that the letter was printed. This letter to the Evening Times of 6th July contains this passage: It goes without saying that … the B.B.C. will go on handing out fantastic fees to the never-ending string of long haired gyrating gits who pass themselves off as guitarists. Few of them would know the treble clef from the bass, but they earn as much in a night as would maintain a decent sized orchestra of legitimate musicians for a week. This may not be elegant language, but, by God, it is accurate and true.

The Trades Council of Glasgow and other working class organisations are expressing themselves strongly. The protests are coming not only from certain select sections of the community. The elevation of the mediocre and the encouragement of pop programmes are doing great damage. The impression is abroad that the B.B.C. is more concerned with counting heads than with the pursuit of ideals and that it has abandoned the previous rôle and purpose of its predecessors.

Some 500 young people from school orchestras meet together every year at Toward Castle and members of the S.S.O. become their instructors and conductors. Members of the orchestra teach in the Royal Academy of Music, and the conductor of the orchestra has undertaken the onerous job of agreeing to conduct the Royal Academy Orchestra in Glasgow. These are some of the facts.

The third aspect is that the Scottish National Orchestra will itself suffer if S.S.O. goes since both are complementary. If left on the scene on its own, the Scottish National Orchestra will not be able to carry out its job as well as it undertakes it at the moment. Employment opportunities for young graduates of the academy will go and they will be forced to come south to England instead of remaining in Scotland. The orchestra has rendered wonderful service in accompanying choral and amateur operatic societies who are placed in a critical situation owing to a shortage of professional accompaniment and advice.

Scottish opera, which is such a recent and valuable acquisition to the musical life of Scotland, and to which so many worthy people have devoted time, money and energy will be dealt a body blow if the orchestra is lost. Visiting ballet companies at the Edinburgh Festival and the Theatre Ballet Company, which has also recently come to Scotland, will suffer greatly. The Scottish Symphony Orchestra, almost alone, plays new works by Scottish composers, of whom there are now 12 in Scotland, whereas 30 years ago there were only two or three.

The policies of successive controllers, supported in the last 15 years by the National Broadcasting Council for Scotland, have been to give two-year engagements to young assistant conductors rather than to have a visiting conductor each week, I apologise to the House for speaking so strongly, but the B.B.C. Governors must be under no misapprehension. If the orchestra goes it will be a disaster for the future educational prospects of young people in Scotland.